I haven’t done too many lists on my blog yet. I love lists! Let’s try one: who are the best composers or musicians, irrespective of genre or style?
My definition of best here is highly idiosyncratic–partially who most influenced the music we hear today, partially my semi-objective consideration of who made the highest quality music, with a dollop of personal taste and bias thrown in. Feel free to disagree in the comments!
1) Beethoven–Kicked off the Romantic Era of classical music, a huge influence on everything that followed, the composer of the most powerful music ever written. The Seventh and the Violin Concerto are my favorites.
2) Miles Davis–A pioneer in several jazz revolutions–bop, post bop, modal, and fusion. The last two he almost single-handedly created. Perhaps as importantly, a scout of jazz talent who presonally discovered or gave a chance to dozens of young artists, including John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, etc. Plus, his own recordings are among the best and most listenable of jazz albums. Everybody knows Kind of Blue, and rightfully so, but I think I prefer Miles Smiles.
3) Robert Johnson–The most influential bluesman of the 1930s, when the form first reached a mass audience. The electric Chicago blues of the 1950s and much of rock history wouldn’t have been possible without him. Only a couple dozen singles exist, collected on the Complete Recordings. Crossroad Blues is perhaps the most famous and best-covered song, but I find Hellhound on My Trail almost unbearably intense. Drunken-Hearted Man, Last Fair Deal Gone Down, and Me and the Devil Blues also have huge emotional impact.
4) Hank Williams–I’m not as familiar with him as some of the others on the list, but what I’ve heard fully justifies his reputation as the first great star of country music. My Son Calls Another Man Daddy and the gospel song I Saw the Light are the highlights, in my mind.
5) Duke Ellington–Not sure he was actually all that influential, as his music was too complete on its own for others to add much to. Still, I think his stuff was the highlight of the 20th century with Take the A Train the best single song of the century. Anything of his is worth listening to, and the Ken Burns Jazz compilation does a credible job of covering his career. Ellington at Newport is undeniably classic, Blues in Orbit is the best of his late 50s revival work, and I find his late suites to be quite underrated, with the Latin America Suite the best of a top-notch bunch.
Maybe on another day I’ll do 6-10. Mozart, certainly. Ella Fitzgerald, likely. The Supremes? James Brown? Dvorak? Howlin’ Wolf? Rachmaninoff? Louis Armstrong? Horace Silver?