The author of this post, who usually writes about national security and nuclear deproliferation, has decided that, for one day, he’d fiddle while Rome burns. No more immune to the passion for lists than any other American, he presents you, after a brief meditation on the phenomenon, with one of his own.
“Listmania” rules on Amazon. David Letterman’s Top Ten List is a long-time fixture on TV. Rolling Stone magazine has devoted issue after issue to best songs and greatest albums and guitarists. About.com has even posted Top 10 Pop Artists for the Terminally Uncool.
But, on Earvolution, David Schultz scoffs at the whole concept in a preface to his piece about the ten best bands — that never existed (such as Spinal Tap and the Rutles):
“Some of the longstanding ‘who’s the best musician’ arguments are so old they’ve grown tiresome. Who’s the best guitarist that ever lived? . . . Best band ever to ever play live? . . . To this day, we have no conclusive proof as to whether The Beatles were better than The Rolling Stones.”
Besides the impossibility of presenting actual evidence that one musician or group is better than another, a best-of list suffers from other drawbacks. Say you’re rating the greatest American female singers ever.
Out of a desire to speak with the voice of authority, you choose Billie Holiday, despite not having listened to her for years, or Jessye Norman, although you’ve only heard her once or twice. You not only ring a false note, but come off looking pompous.
Rolling Stone, especially, is guilty of this. Sure, choosing by committee is fraught with hazards. But it’s all too apparent that, for the most part, the selectors pick who they objectively think should be on the list. Some of the choices are from left field, though, as if the list’s editor throws a bone to individual selectors with their quirks.
Second, the rater may choose Billie Holiday or Jessye Norman because he honestly thinks she’s the best. But his tastes run to Beyonce and Mariah Carey. What does it benefit us for him to contort himself like that?
To infuse your choices with passion, the list that was created below and to which we ask you to respond with yours, is not necessarily the greatest musicians, but personal favorites. Naturally the two will coincide from time to time, even while the list strays into eccentricity.
In the end it may prove not only more fun but more accurate than, say, Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.” On that list, rock icons like the Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour and Phish’s Trey Anastacio settled below the top 70, while marginal musicians like Johnny Ramone and Steven Stills were rated 16 and 28, respectively.
An astonishing guitarist like Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis didn’t even make the list. (Not to mention personal faves Allan Holdsworth, Reeves Gabrel, who played with David Bowie, and Eddie Martinez, who played on Run-D.M.C.’s groundbreaking early albums, as well as Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love.”) This only serves to undermine Rolling Stone’s credibility.
Why, you ask, just the best in America? Since it’s so close, why not the Caribbean, too? Puerto Rico and Jamaica, for instance, are home to some of the world’s greatest musicians. And what about Central and South America? Not to mention Canada.
If this list generates sufficient interest, we’ll move on to the entire Western Hemisphere. After that, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand. Later, Europe and the rest of the world.
Rules are few. A band can count as one musician, or, should you prefer, you may choose just one person in a band. If much of her success was achieved in the US, a musician from another country, such as Joni Mitchell or Shakira, is eligible. All music, from pop to classical to ethnic, is fair game. Your list can be either hierarchical or democratic; in other words, in order of preference or not.
Finally, you’ll soon find out how hard it is to confine yourself to ten. Feel free to add a paragraph at the end with up to five spillover choices.
Below is this poster’s seed list (more or less in order):
1. Eric Dolphy
2. Jimi Hendrix
3. Robert Nighthawk Johnson (not blues legend Robert Johnson)
4. John Lee Hooker
5. John Coltrane
6. Thelonius Monk
7. John Fahey
8. Miles Davis
9. Phil Lesh (the Grateful Dead)
Extras: Elmore James, Jasyn Bangert (leader of the industrial electronica group God Module), Lightning Hopkins.
Now kindly respond in the comments section below with your personal ten favorites.
Categories: Music/Popular Culture