23 Artists

Here are the 23 artists that I rate the highest as far as their musical output. The first list I did was a rough one, but I then tried a more scientific method of counting the number of songs from each artist that I thought were really great (based on my ITunes playlists) and then ranked them that way. In October 2007, I updated the list using the same method -a few changes based on some new music I was getting into.

1) Brian Wilson (Beach Boys)
I regard Brian Wilson as the single most gifted individual in modern pop music era. Of course, he had his major personal problems, but he proved at his best (Pet Sounds and belately, SMiLE) that he had complete mastery of the studio and the pop song. Many of his other great songs (The Warmth Of The Sun, 'Til I Die, This Whole World to name just three) show that he was more than just the two seminal albums. In addition, his contribution to popular culture through the surf and car songs should also be noted.
What about the other Beach Boys? I am sometimes torn between the Brianistas (those who say Brian was the Beach Boys) and the Beach Boys fans who punt the contribution of Mike, Al, Dennis and Carl. I do think Brian was the major force behind the Beach Boys success and am very pleased with his current higher profile, but also acknowledge the importance of the others, and the talent that they did have- Mike's lyrics and showmanship, Dennis's songs, Carl's voice, Al's folk roots. The early passing of Dennis and Carl was a major rock and roll tragedy.

2) Beatles
It's hard to believe how much great music the Beatles made in seven years of record-making. It's also hard to believe two of them are no longer with us.
I became a Beatles fan in the early 80s, in high school, when everyone else was becoming a new romantic or hanging on to the dying days of punk. There was a glamor and a power to the music which the current music just didn't match. Over ten years later, the Beatles were one of my first fascinations of the internet, with all the publicity around the Anthology series.
I enjoy some of the solo material, but this was one group where the whole was much greater than the parts, and nothing quite rose to the standard of the group albums, although I do have a special spot for All Things Must Pass (the song and the album).

3) Burt Bacharach
The master of the pop song...of course, best known as a writer for other singers, but his soundtracks and solo albums are worth seeking out for some interesting arrangements. There's a glamour when hearing a Bacharach song that suggests that, just maybe, things might be alright after all.

4) Jimmy Webb
Jimmy Webb is another who is gifted in both music and lyrics (like Paddy Mc Aloon), but who is also better known as a songwriter (like Bacharach). Just about all solo albums, as well as the many albums dominated by his songs are worth seeking out. Webb's music is often gritty and realistic, but there is a lot of beauty beneath the surface. Someone who I have got into more and more in recent years.

5) Prefab Sprout
Paddy McAloon is one of the very few people gifted in writing both music and lyrics, and there is ample evidence of this on the seven Prefab Sprout and one solo album (plus all the singles, B-sides...). I find just about all Paddy's work consistently brilliant, especially his musings on life and love. Yes, I've teased for liking a group called Prefab Sprout but it's worth it....

6) Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan was my route into 60s music and for that alone, he is worth a place in my top 23. As a pre-teen in the late 70s who didn't fit in with the rest of the class, this nasal-voiced revolutionary seemed to be the perfect escape. At his very best, the combination of voice, lyric and music takes Dylan's work to a level of majesty and mastery of the art of writing and performing a great song.

7) Scott Walker
An American who moved to England, became almost as popular as the Beatles as the lead man of the Walker Brothers (who were not brothers), hit #1 on the album charts as a solo artist when only the Beatles,Dylan and the Stones were doing so, and then basically eschewed all that fame for a series of solo albums that challenged and provoked. Then in 1995, he released possibly the most difficult album of all time, Tilt. (and the even more difficult The Drift has just come out in 2006). This is the Scott Walker enigma, but beneath it all is some truly fantastic music. Just a bit frustrating that there still doesn't seem to be a fully comprehensive site about him on the 'net!

8) REM
Yes, I was a fan before they became really big! REM are known for melodic and challenging rock and I enjoy much of their music, especially their more understated material. Out Of Time and Reveal are my favorite albums of theirs...and thanks for coming to Cape Town, guys!

9) Saint Etienne
Another group who have preserved the tradition of good pop music into the barren wastelands of the naughties. This trio have been very prolific since the early 90s with many albums, singles, compilations and even great collections of other music. Occassionally a little bit too techno, but usually great!

10) Paul Weller (The Jam/Style Council)
The Jam were everything good about punk..raw, concise but also melodic and meaningful. After breaking them up at the height of their success, Paul Weller formed the Style Council, who were at times pretentious and politically naive, but were also very brilliant on many songs, especially when they focussed on the personal. Paul Weller then went onto an honorable solo career and has thus produced much great work over a time period of almost 30 years.

11) The Association
A group who weren't on my original list- I loved Cherish and their other big hits, but didn't know their other music. However, last year I got their 2 CD anthology Just The Right Sound and found a whole lot of other harmonic greats. Certainly, just the right sound for me.

12) Simon And Garfunkel
More than just folkies who hit it big, this group's work features quite a wide variety of styles and some intricate arrangements. They are important, because they made 60s pop accessible to the parents as well. I still think the duo's work together was the pinnacle of both of their careers, but enjoy much of Simon's solo work too, and Art did some good things with Jimmy Webb (see above).

13=) Belle And Sebastian
Voted Scotland's finest, they make melodic, introspective music with intricate arrangements, so I must like them, right. Sometimes they seem to put their best work on their single/EP B-sides, but they have done a lot of really nice songs.

13=) October Project
They only released two albums in the 90s, but they contained some really moving songs with nice arrangements. However, there is fortunately a bit more, including solo work from Marina Belica (including a really nice instumental album), Mary Fahl as well as a revival with vocalist Mary Anne Marino called the November Project. Finally, the October Project have partially re-formed with lead vocals done by Marina Belica, and have released two very promising EPs.

15=) Swan Dive
Swan Dive have kept alive the tradition of great and meaningful pop music. Although for many they are an obscure duo based in Nashville, they have had significant and well-deserved success in Japan and Korea.

15=) Pernice Brothers
New England group that I have been collecting over the last year -heartbreaking pop with a great guitar sound that I am really enjoying.

17) Dexy's Midnight Runners
Soul..passion...power...belief....Dexy's only did three proper albums, plus a few odds and ends, but they did it well. Kevin Rowland may be a perverse soul, but he created some real magic in the studio.

18=) Housemartins (Beautiful South)
The Housemartins came onto the not-so-great 80s music scene with simple, catchy pop and released two good albums plus some nice single/B-sides work. After splitting, Paul Heaton, their leader, formed the Beautiful South that continued with some great pop albums, although they have faded a bit in recent years.

18=) Free Design
Beautiful harmony sunshine pop with some jazz influences -got an honorary mention last year but based on collecting most of their music, now firmly in the top section.

20=) High Llamas
Hawaii is their masterwork, paying a significant homage to Brian Wilson but also treading its own path. The rest of their work is a bit more patchy, but there are still enough great songs there to ensure the Llamas make my magic 23.

20=) Innocence Mission
Have been creeping up in the past year, but now make the big list. Beautiful, mostly acoustic songs with a strong spiritual slant but also celebrating the simple things in life. A tonic for the times.

20=) Orpheus
Another sunshine pop band from Boston -first album is fantastic, and their other three have some great moments.

23) Wondermints
Deserve to be here for three reasons -one, they make good music; two, what they have done for Brian Wilson and three, their role in Lisa Mychol's wonderful Christmas album Lost Winter's Dream.

A few honorary mentions -first of all some acts on original lists who didn't quite make it, but could well be back if I hear their new work or more of their back catalogue
A Girl Called Eddy
She has done one album plus a few other odds and ends, but it is all that good. Plus she likes many of the artists listed above so I'm expecting much from what is to come...

Elvis Costello
I must admit that I haven't kept up with all of Elvis's vast output that started in the days of punk and has extended to just about any genre imaginable. However, there are enough bits that I really like to ensure this Elvis gets a listing here (not that I dislike the "other" Elvis).

I actually got into the Byrds quite late compared to other 60s bands, but have enjoyed much of their music, and also acknowledge their influence on 60s and later rock and pop. Also have enjoyed some of the offshoots such as Flying Burritos and Gram Parsons.

A Scot called Mike Scott, the Waterboys have made some passionate music over the years, especially in the late 80s.

Lloyd Cole
Also with a Scottish theme (although born in England and now living in the US), Lloyd Cole stepped onto the scene in 1985 with his album Rattlesnakes that combined great songs with witty, literate lyrics. Since then, he has hardly ever been in the limelight but has continued to release good, challenging music. And thanks also for coming to Cape Town!

Other honorary mentions- Everything But The Girl, Deacon Blue, David Bowie and especially Lucky Soul who almost made the top 23 in their first year of making music.

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