Music for the ages? Depends on age of the listener

Greatest-pop polls show that voters are talkin' about their generations

Pop Music

April 18, 2004|By Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn,LOS ANGELES TIMES

For years, rock fans old enough to have been at Woodstock in 1969 have rolled their eyes at reader polls by youth-oriented pop publications that name the best artists or albums of the last half century.

That's because their readers tend to vote for their favorites of the moment rather than bring a sense of historical perspective to the process.

In Britain's Q magazine in 1998, readers asked to choose the "100 greatest albums in the universe" named Radiohead's 1997 O.K. Computer No. 1 (the runner-up was the Beatles' Revolver) and included such other '90s works as Radiohead's The Bends, Oasis' (What's the Story) Morning Glory and the Verve's Urban Hymns in the Top 20.

Two albums by Manic Street Preachers and one by soon-forgotten Kula Shaker finished ahead of any Bob Dylan collection (Blood on the Tracks, No. 45).

Now young readers have a chance to roll their eyes.

To salute rock's 50th anniversary, Rolling Stone magazine asked 55 musicians, critics and industry insiders (myself included) to name the 50 greatest artists of all time. The results, published in the April 15 issue, are predictable and frustrating.

Only one act to emerge after the start of the '90s, Nirvana at No. 27, made the list, and every artist in the Top 10 came to prominence in the '50s or '60s. They are in order: the Beatles, Dylan, Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Little Richard, Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles.

Although Bob Marley, No. 11, didn't become a star here until the '70s, he was active in his native Jamaica in the '60s.

The rest of the Top 20 is also aligned with the '50s and '60s: the Beach Boys, Buddy Holly, Led Zeppelin, Stevie Wonder, Sam Cooke, Muddy Waters, Marvin Gaye, the Velvet Underground and Bo Diddley.

Respect and affection for your elders are normally good things, but those qualities apparently interfered with the judgment of the panel members, most of whom are over 50.

You could argue that artists from the '50s are the foundation of rock and should be honored for helping to define the music.

But that's not the question posed by the poll. The assignment was to name the 50 greatest - and that implies criteria ranging from sheer craft to originality and influence.

It's difficult to compare artists from different decades, but one way is to look at which were the most dominant, from a creative and cultural standpoint, during each era.

That helps us build a case for ranking the best of today's artists above some good but second-level artists of the past. I'd suggest that Eminem, the brilliant if volatile rapper, has had far more impact on pop culture than Buddy Holly did in his day. Thus, I'd maintain, Eminem is more worthy of being named No. 12 on the list.

Holly was a wonderful songwriter who might have become one of the all-time greats if he hadn't been killed in a plane crash at 22, but he was in the shadow of the real giants of the '50s, including Presley, Berry and Little Richard.

Eminem stands in no one's shadow today. His "Stan," the story of a crazed fan, is one of the most complex and affecting pop singles ever.

Similarly, Dr. Dre, whose recordings and production work have brought a marvelous richness to rap, deserves to be ranked higher than Fats Domino, a likable figure who finished No. 25.

You could also make cases somewhere in the Top 50 for OutKast, a hip-hop duo of unusual imagination and range; Radiohead, one of the most cerebral bands ever in rock, and the White Stripes, whose vision over just four albums is little short of thrilling.

Put them over, say, the Everly Brothers, No. 33; Madonna, No. 36; and the Byrds, No. 45.

Yes, there were more quality artists associated with the '50s and '60s than any other decades. But the great artists who followed them - including those of the '90s and this young decade - deserve a place on the Rolling Stone list more than some of their merely outstanding predecessors.

Ultimately, I think the tastemakers will get it. When Rolling Stone asks musicians and critics 50 years from now to name the greatest artists, I'm betting Eminem and Radiohead will be high on the list. After all, they'll be the elders themselves.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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