Wednesday, July 28, 2010


39. Bing Crosby

"Bing Crosby was the first hip white person in America." He definitely helped close the gap.

It's a little difficult to think of someone so white as being hip so early. I mean, 'White Christmas' and 'Pennies From Heaven'? But Crosby was the best-selling artist until rock was well underway. Let's not overlook, too, that back in the 1930s he became one of the first cross-over acts. Nowadays it seems every singer wants to be an actor. But Crosby was the biggest star of the 1940s, and the biggest radio personality of all time.

Crosby can be seen as directly responsible for Sinatra, Como and company. He could sing any genre he liked: jazzy, pop, country, show tunes, whatever. The American musical story would be very different without Bing. He brought swinging sensibilities into fashion. Miles Davis claimed to be responsible for The Birth of Cool, but really, Crosby was way ahead of the game. At his peak he was declared "the most admired man alive".

Key tracks: White Christmas (1940?) and Pennies From Heaven (1936), which cannot be avoided, really.
White Christmas
Pennies From Heaven

38. Dr. Dre

If it weren't for Dre hiphop would've stayed in the territory of Public Enemy and A Tribe Called Quest. Dre brought it to the forefront of American music.

Dre's legacy is a mixed bag. Before he and his crew came through hiphop was on the sidelines and now it gets equal time, or more time in the mainstream than anything else. The difficulty comes in his message and values, which were instantly criticized. Dre produced 'Fuck tha Police' for N.W.A. at the start of his career: and he was just getting started.

Few artists have the dubious distinction that their music lead to actual bloodshed. Gangsta rap, with it's trio of guns, bling and bitches, definitely woke up the public to the power of hiphop and made itself relevant, albeit in a destructive capacity. That age is, thankfully, over. Pausing to reflect on all the rappers launched by Dre (Snoop, Eminem, 50 Cent and the Tupac-Biggie rivalry's relevance) it helps to balance the equation of careers with chaos. Whether that balance is equally weighted doesn't matter: Dre's legacy is omnipresent on tv and radio.

Key tracks: Express Yourself (1988) and Nuthin But a 'G' Thang (1993), which show Dre solo with NWA and behind the scenes with his protege.
Express Yourself
Nuthin But a 'G' Thang

37. Willie Nelson

Nelson has become a distinctly American icon. He took the cowboy with heart, updated him, and made him an outlaw.

Outlaw country was the predominately Texan response to the Nashville scene of Gram Parsons. It wanted to bring country back to its roots (listen to Waylon Jennings' Honky Tonk Heroes for an example of how stripped down that could be). Of the members of this roots movement Nelson has enjoyed the longevity.

As a songwriter many popular and country standards were from his pen. He pulled off a country concept album, Red Headed Stranger, and then kept the hits coming for two decades. Nelson's voice is immediately recognizable: for many it probably is the voice of country. Perhaps what made him so liked was that, through Farm Aid and a fondness for weed that endeared him to Ben and Jerry's types Nelson is indisputably a hippy, and a bit of a rugged softy. As he said, 'Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys'.

Key tracks: Time of the Preacher (1975) and On the Road Again (1980), which show off his songwriting, and popularity.
Time of the Preacher
On the Road Again

36. BB King

King did not invent the electric guitar solo, which has become so crucial to understanding American music. He just came up with the type of solo everyone else copied.

Many of the best are based in blues: Clapton, Page, Richards and company. Electric blues didn't originate with King either. His technique, however, was the inspiration for many. He is generally recognized as one of the all-time best guitarists whose ever played. Live at the Regal remains the definitive live electric blues performance.

King found success not only in the blues, but crossed into R&B and pop. With this type of crossover ability he helped show the importance and influence of blues in other genres. While his career peaked probably in the 1960s, he enjoyed three decades of success and, incredibly, as of this writing, is still playing.

Key tracks: The Thrill is Gone (1969) and Help the Poor (1965), which allow King to show off in studio and live.
The Thrill is Gone
Help the Poor

35. Madonna

Madonna is pop. If asked to name a pop star Madonna would certainly be the first name to come to my mind.

This isn't a bad thing. Pop is a valid genre alongside all the rest, with it's icons and failures, flash-in-the-pans and musicians of merit. Madonna is certainly in the latter category, and certainly an icon. She took pop and bent it to subjects it would never have dealt with before. There were those who were shocked, and many more who listened.

She was initially a sex icon, the first major musical one, I dare venture, since Marilyn Monroe. 'Like a Virgin' was her starting point, and she then upset everyone again with 'Like a Prayer'. She kept herself in the 'Vogue', and closed out the century with Ray of Light showing her actual personal and serious side. The fact that she had such a huge impact in such a short space of time speaks to her genius at making herself a key piece of American music.

Key tracks: Like a Prayer (1989) and Drowned World/Substitute for Love (1998), which shows her being irreverent and popular and atoning for her earlier career.
Like a Prayer
Drowned World/Substitute for Love

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