Thursday, July 29, 2010


34. The Everly Brothers

The Everly Brothers did two things: they helped meld country and rock into 'skiffle' and they established how harmonies are supposed to sound.

Paul Simon easily acknowledges the debt Simon and Garfunkel had to the Brothers, as have the Beatles and Beach Boys. Considering that is probably the harmonizing line-up that's saying something. As duos go they are amongst the most successful.

The Everly Brothers haven't, it doesn't seem, shared the same long-term popularity as some of the others from the late '50s. That's a shame because, based solely on talent, the Everlys were around the top of the pack. They didn't stay at the top of the charts back then for nothing.

Key tracks: Bye Bye Love (1957) and All I Have to Do Is Dream (1958), which showcase their harmonies.

Bye Bye Love

All I Have to Do Is Dream

33. Count Basie

Scott McCloud pointed out that Basie understood the importance of negative space. Albeit, it in sonic, rather than visual, terms.

Considering Basie lead band for 50 years this may seem like an odd assessment. But the assessment isn't of the band, but the man. The band works their tails off, Basie solos for a few simple bars, and the crowd goes nuts. Basie balanced his band with small flourishes and solos.

He recorded with just about everyone (except Armstrong). He heaped on large helpings of blues into his jump style, and helped blur those distinctions. He stayed pertinent past the jump and jitterbug, through swing, and well into bop. Basie retained, and grew, his popularity as years went on. No Goodman or Miller could make such claims for their careers.

Key tracks: One O' Clock Jump (1937) and April in Paris (1955), which show off Basie and his band.

One O' Clock Jump

April in Paris

32. Johnny Cash

Cash defies categorization. Rock n rollers and country types both want to claim him as their own.

But Cash's roots are of Sun Records stuff: pure rockabilly, like Perkins et al. Cash started to be more of a pure country act, perhaps, when he began touring prisons. To his credit At Folsom Prison remains one of the best live albums ever laid down in any genre.

Cash tried many sounds while cyclically returning to roots and rockabilly. Finally, in the 1990s Cash, like Dylan, benefited from a resurgence in popularity and proved that nothing was taboo for recording: a later cover of Trent Reznor's 'Hurt' sounds like a bizarre joke, but is a beautiful execution.

Key tracks: I Walk the Line (1956) and Folsom Prison Blues (1968 ver.), which are typically Cash.

I Walk the Line

Folsom Prison Blues

31. Nat King Cole

Before Cole was a crooner, and one the best, he was a jazz pianist. And one of the best.

Jazz can be pictured a number of ways: big bands in full swing, divas in cocktail lounges, and all degrees in between. Cole created what first comes to my mind: the jazz trio: guitar, bass and piano. With some tweaking you have the basis of most small jazz groups that have flourished ever since. This development was when big bands were still popular: Cole stuck it out and insisted a small set would sell big.

Then, of course, you have the man's baritone. As a singer Cole is head and shoulders above most of the competition. He recorded voluminously when he learned he was dying: and people ate it up. He is still considered one of the most popular entertainers of the last hundred years, and that honor shows no sign of disappearing.

Key tracks: Just You, Just Me (1957) and Unforgettable (1951), which represent both the trio and the voice.

Just You, Just Me


30. Michael Jackson

It's funny: the two most obvious pop icons both came out the 1980s. But, unlike Madonna, Michael Jackson was straightforward from the start.

With the Jackson Five people fell for his pleading vocals in songs like 'I Want You Back'. By the time he was an adult he made the one musically ambitious piece of disco recording: Off the Wall. And, of course, his follow-up is the most popular album ever made.

Thriller changed everything, and I've spoken about it previously on the site. Part of what is so impressive is how much is now taken for granted. To me, at least, it is more timeless than much of that decade. Jackson may be the king of pop, but what is so important is how much R&B he tried to infuse into it, and how successful he was at it.

Key tracks: Rock With You (1979) and Billie Jean (1982), which show off his peaks stylistically and as a performer.

Rock With You

Billie Jean

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