Wednesday, January 11, 2017


I have thought long and hard.

And by that, I mean, I spent an afternoon a week ago on this.

Many a time I have distilled / compared / listed / compiled American music. The problem, of course, is that I'm always learning more, and with new discoveries I come up with reshufflings of the deck.

So there's a mixed metaphor blown to hell.

A little while ago, for example, I came up with a 300-song playlist of American music. But that's rather daunting.

This, then, is a sort of shortened version of 100 Essential American Musicians, with an overly-simplified quick description, and a YouTube link for each (except, you know, Prince.) Yay!

(Note - no classical composers included, 'cause that gets too complicated too fast.)

These are not hierarchical, nor chronological, but instead alphabetical, to be sufficiently randomized for your enjoyment. Here goes!

Marian Anderson - With her operatic voice Anderson elevated the spiritual to new heights.
Louis Armstrong - The riff at the start? That's the birth of jazz where soloists improvise.
Clarence Ashley - One of the most influential folk musicians of the early recording era.
Gene Autry - The transition of country music out of Appalachia is largely due to Autry.
Burt Bacharach - He wrote hits that made others famous, developing a unique pop sound.
Joan Baez - Released her first folk album before Dylan, and stuck with the genre as well.
Count Basie - Brought Harlem swing to Kansas City, and outlasted everyone.
The Beach Boys - Transformed the nascent pop sound of the 60s with studio wizardry.
Lead Belly - Weirdly uncategorizable blues / country / folk pioneer from Texas.
Tony Bennett - His longevity makes him second only to Sintra in the class of crooners.
Irving Berlin - Astonishingly prolific, he brought American music to the world.
Chuck Berry - It's thanks to Berry that rock and roll deals with hot rods, teens, and guitars.
Eubie Blake - From popular rags to co-writing the first African American Broadway show.
James Brown - Brown defined R&B and in the process laid the groundwork for funk.
The Byrds - The American answer to the British Invasion.
Hoagy Carmichael - Besides his prolific output, 'Stardust' alone should cement his place.
The Carter Family - Brought spirituals and gospel to the early days of folk and bluegrass.
Johnny Cash - Another genre-defier, Cash is claimed by both rock and country fans.
Ray Charles - By mixing R&B with gospel Charles created soul music that moves.
Patsy Cline - Country songs made for the Vegas showroom, thereby transforming it.
Nat King Cole - During the 40s Cole turned jazz from big bands to small combos.
John Coltrane - After bop Coltrane perfected modal jazz' wondrous sheets of sounds.
Sam Cooke - Cooke was the greatest songwriter of soul and R&B.
Miles Davis - Late Miles fused two of America's defining musical styles: rock and jazz.
Fats Domino - Strings back him up - typical today - but then unprecedented.
Bob Dylan - America's Nobel Laureate songwriter.
DukeEllington - One of America's composer-geniuses, and the most-covered jazz artist.
Jose Feliciano - Helped bring Puerto Rico's mellow side mainstream. And 'Feliz Navidad'.
Ella Fitzgerald - Her golden voice brought the songs of the 30s to the Boomers.
Foggy Mountain Boys - Led by Flatt and Scruggs they brought bluegrass mainstream.
Aretha Franklin - Franklin's soul music made her both a civil rights and feminist icon.
Marvin Gaye - Making R&B politically conscious opened the doors for followers.
George Gershwin - Elevated jazz to the level of classical, and folk to the level of opera.
Dizzy Gillespie - After popularizing bebop he brought Afro-Caribbean rhythms to jazz.
Benny Goodman - An integrated band went to Carnegie Hall and got white folks to swing.
Grateful Dead - And, lo, the 15+ minute improvisational jam rock band was born.
Woody Guthrie - I mean, his populist songs are taught to schoolchildren across the nation.
WC Handy - The first significant jazz recording artist of the century, emulated by many.
Jimi Hendrix - One of the most gifted guitarists of any genre, and psychedelic rock's king.
Billie Holiday - Played a significant role in blending blues and jazz now taken for granted.
Holland Dozier Holland - Motown's unstoppable songwriting trio wrote nearly all the hits.
Burl Ives - Before he became 'Holly Jolly' he popularized many American folk standards.
Mahalia Jackson - Jackson ushered gospel music through the civil rights era.
Michael Jackson - King of pop music, and the world's best selling solo artist.
Robert Johnson - Delta blues legend who was widely copied and covered into the rock era.
Blind Willie Johnson - This recording may be the purest blues ever captured.
Janis Joplin - America's great songwriter of the hippy movement.
Scott Joplin - The great-grandfather of jazz with his piano roll rags.
Louis Jordan - His jump blues paved the way for the uptempo rock and roll that followed.
John Kander and Fred Ebb - Shows like "Chicago" and "Cabaret" remade the Broadway.
BB King - Hailed as one of the great guitarists, King updated the blues for new audiences.
Carole King - Songwriter par excellence, her work created an upheaval in the early 70s.
Hector Lavoe - Puerto Rico's salsa icon was instrumental to every major act of the era.
Henry Mancini - And the definitive sound of the American movie soundtrack is born.
Johnny Mercer - Four Academy Award wins - nineteen nominations. Song-writing legacy.
Metallica - Punk had died - something had to pick up the torch.
CharlesMingus - The top of the hard bop and post-bop composers.
Thelonious Monk - Monk's slight output is one of the most revered and covered in jazz.
Bill Monroe - Split bluegrass off as its own distinct genre from country.
Jelly Roll Morton - Morton is the exemplar of the early New Orleans style of jazz.
Billy Murray - Murray was America's first hugely popular first recording star.
Willie Nelson - Outlaw Nelson moved country away from symphonies back to roots.
Nirvana - Grunge helped define the 90s, and made rock do a 180 away from the 80s.
NWA - The hiphop equivalent of punk - an angry, powerful voice that shaped a decade.
Charlie Parker - Bebop's icon, and the form's foremost practitioner.
Les Paul and Mary Ford - Paul made the guitar, Ford displayed his multi-track recording.
Cole Porter - America's cleverest lyricist who dominated Broadway and popular song.
Elvis Presley - Mixed in his country boy roots to give rock and roll its missing ingredient.
Prince - Multi-instrumentalist and songwriter who redefined R&B and rock through fusion.
Public Enemy - The first politically and socially conscious rap group.
Tito Puente - His popularity made him the main proponent of Caribbean music's influence.
The Ramones - Arguably perfected in England, punk began in America.
Little Richard - "[S]omething could be louder than that... And I found out it was me."
Eck Robertson - The first country recordings were made by Robertson in the 1920s.
Paul Robeson - Robeson's operatic voice for civil rights later had him blacklisted.  
Smokey Robinson and The Miracles - Helped define the Motown sound with tons of hits.
Jimmie Rodgers - Yodeling didn't have to be a part of country music.
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein - "Oklahoma". "The Sound of Music". Legacy.
Run DMC - Run DMC broke the barriers and records - the last hiphop group to rock.
Carlos Santana - After Ritchie Valens, Latin rock remained dormant until Santana.
Pete Seeger - In 1947 he changed "I Will Overcome" to "We Shall Overcome" and...
The Shirelles - The original girl group, creating songs that became standards.
Nina Simone - Sometimes a louder, angrier voice is needed to sing truth to power.
Frank Sinatra - King of the crooners, the smooth vocals of jazz, the pop standards...
Bessie Smith - The first great blues singer. Her songs brought those pleading tones.
Patti Smith - The great-godmother of punk also ushered in spoken-word poetry to rock.
Stephen Sondheim - Broadway legend: "West Side Story", "Sweeney Todd", "Company".
Roy Rogers - Roy Rogers' was the face of Western music - in film, and later television. 
Bruce Springsteen - After the 60s introspection he brought rock back to teens in cars.
Barbara Streisand - Icon vocalist of stage and screen.
The Supremes - Record-breaking #1 hit machine, The Supremes became essential.
Talking Heads - No New Wave group captured the existential feel of the era quite so well.
James Taylor - His work led to a host of imitators in the 70s and beyond.
The Temptations - The Temptations were able to adapt and innovate through the 60s.
The Velvet Underground - Defiantly wrote about sex, drugs, and violence before anyone.
Muddy Waters - Electrified blues, made it relevant to a generation, brought it to Chicago.
Kanye West - The first significant rapper of the post-NWA (post-gangsta) period.
Hank Williams - Williams wrote original tunes, whose style was quickly copied.
Howlin Wolf - Influential blues singer of his time, and composer of many a standard.
Stevie Wonder - Talented multi-instrumentalist and songwriter who defined a decade.

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