11. David Byrne – New Wave
David Byrne is the thinking man’s rocker. The idiosyncratic singer, songwriter, and ambient composer may well be the single greatest influence coursing through today’s rock radio consciousness. While groups like R.E.M., the Pixies, and the Cure all deserve mention in this category, The Taking Heads best represent the nervy arthouse ethos of new wave, the lyrical obscurity of alternative, and the addictive hookiness of today’s beardly hipster bands. All owe a debt to David Byrne for their right to be weird and successful all at once.
Born in Dumbarton, Scotland, Byrne’s family relocated several times during his youth before ultimately settling in Baltimore when he was nine. By this time, Byrne was already adept at the guitar, accordion, harmonica, and violin. Studying music first at the Rhode Island School of Design and thereafter the Maryland Institute College of Art, Byrne ultimately dropped out of school to pursue music in New York. His arrival there could not have come at a better time. His off-kilter vocals, quirky songwriting, and staccato time signatures were perfectly at home in the burgeoning punk scene.
Forming the Talking Heads in 1975, Byrne rose to recognition as part of the wild CBGB scene that give birth to punk legends like the Ramones, Television, and Blondie. Among them, the Talking Heads stood out for their intelligence and conscious artiness. In 1977, their breakthrough hit, “Psycho Killer,” burned up the charts while the Son of Sam terrorized New York.
Over the course of eight albums, David Byrne was responsible for the lion’s share of writing, as well as for his band’s musical eclecticism. Albums like Fear of Music (1979) and Speaking in Tongues (1985) produced substantial charting hits while incorporating elements of Brazilian music, African polyrhythms, and the synthesizers that would define new wave. As to the latter, the Talking Heads were the most essential trailblazer in a genre that shot the Police, Duran Duran, and the Cars to megastardom. Byrne’s contributions to the MTV era may best be captured in the band’s groundbreaking Stop Making Sense (1984), an ingenious concert documentary (not to mention album) directed by Jonathan Demme. Its imagery and performance aesthetics make it a template-setting document in the music video medium.
Though the Talking Heads disbanded at the end of the ‘80s, Byrne’s solo career continues to distinguish him. Starting with 1981’s highly influential ambient record, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981), Byrne has lent his name to a series of solo works that touch on all manner of world, electronic, and even dance music. David Byrne was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the Talking Heads in 2002 and is the owner of a Grammy, Oscar, and Golden Globe.
12. Ron Carter – Jazz
Ron Carter is, bar none, the single most recorded bassist in music history. With more than 2000 (not a typo!!) album appearances under his belt, it is pretty difficult to imagine anybody ever touching Carter for prolificacy. Of course, in order to be invited to that many sessions, it goes without saying that his fluid, elegant, and perceptive bass lines have been virtually unequaled in the past 50 years.
Born in Ferndale, Michigan, Carter began his musical development on the cello at the age of 10. Due to the barriers preventing African Americans from penetrating the world of classical music, he switched to the bass. Carter earned a bachelor’s degree from the Eastman School of Music and a master’s from the Manhattan School of Music, performing in their respective Philharmonic Orchestras. However, his extracurricular jazz activities thrust Carter into the middle of a burgeoning post-bop scene. Before he was even out of grad school, he was performing and recording with other future legends like Eric Dolphy (alto sax), Mal Waldron (piano), and Roy Haynes (drums).
His next move would set the course of his career at a lightning pace. Joining with Miles Davis’s Second Great Quintet in the early ’60s, he spent the next decade redefining jazz alongside Herbie Hancock (piano), Wayne Shorter (sax), and Tony Williams (drums). His association with Davis pushed Carter into wildly experimental territory and led to a period of flirtation with the electric bass. Typically a stand-up player, he helped to define the fusion genre with his bandmates by grounding their space-funk exploration with his slippery-but-thick walking bass lines.
The ‘60s also earned Carter his reputation as among the most sought-after session players in circulation. During this decade, he lent his sonorous tone to records by Hancock, Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), Lee Morgan (trumpet), Horace Silver (piano), George Benson (guitar), Chico Hamilton (drums), and countless others. In the ‘70s, he emerged as a respected bandleader in his own right, fronting various combos comprised of the scene’s greatest musicians. He would become an important exponent of the Third Stream movement, which blurs the lines between jazz and classical music, as well.
Through the next two decades, Carter was essentially the house bassist for the great CTI Records. During the label’s period of maximum importance, Carter sat in on innumerable sessions for jazzers like Stanley Turrentine (sax), Kenny Burrell (guitar), Paul Desmond (alto sax), Milt Jackson (vibes), Herbie Mann (flute), and pretty much everybody else of any importance to recorded jazz at the time.
In the ’90s and ’00s, Carter showed no signs of slowing, even basking in the appreciation of musicians outside the jazz bubble. Hip hop pioneers, A Tribe Called Quest, tapped Carter for a guest appearance on their now-classic The Low End Theory (1991), even as Carter continued to release his own work at a pace of roughly an album a year. Ron Carter is a member of the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame, a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the City College of New York, and (unless anybody out there can think of another candidate) likely the most-recorded musician alive today.
13. Jimmy Cliff – Reggae
Jimmy Cliff wasn’t reggae’s biggest star, but he was its first. Though he spent the better part of his career in the all-eclipsing shadow of Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff is the man who paved the way out of Kingston for all who followed. And while so many of the genre’s key architects are sadly no longer with us, Jimmy Cliff remains a vibrant artist, giving us a direct line of sight into the birth of reggae. There is nobody alive today who was more instrumental to the proliferation of Jamaican music on a global scale.
Born and raised in the small town of Somerton, St. James Parish, southeast of Montego Bay, Cliff was inspired to take up songwriting by the American R&B that blasted out of sound systems in the neighborhood around him. He relocated to the capital to attend Kingston Technical School, but spent the better part of his time outside the classroom passing his homemade recordings off to area producers. He had little success until he convinced the proprietor of an area record store, Leslie Kong, to become his producer. Kong agreed and helped Cliff score his first hit at age 14.
“Hurricane Hattie” made Cliff a local sensation in 1962, its mellow vibe, sunny disposition, and uniquely accented backbeat representing an inflection point in Jamaica’s music. Its incorporation of mento, calypso, and American R&B makes it among the earliest examples of reggae music. His subsequent releases enjoyed the same level of success—so much so that he was selected to represent his country at the 1964 World’s Fair, an appearance which earned him a deal with Island Records.
His true break into global stardom came in 1972, when Cliff starred in the classic Jamaican blaxploitation film, The Harder They Come. In addition to his compelling performance, Cliff provided the soundtrack with a few of his most dramatic performances (“Many Rivers to Cross,” “The Harder They Come”). He was joined by a collection of artists and songs that would define the genre for international audiences.
It would also help to bridge the gap between Jamaica and record hounds in America and the U.K. Bob Marley would ultimately walk across this bridge. But as Marley’s star grew, Cliff steadily persevered as one of the genre’s most consistent and independent artists, exploring rock, pop, African music, punk, and electronica. A member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a Grammy winner just two years ago, Cliff is also the only musician, living or otherwise, ever to be awarded Jamaica’s Order of Merit.
14. George Clinton – Funk
The wonderfully strange man featured next is George Clinton. Though Clinton was born in Kannapolis, North Carolina, he truly began his musical development when his family moved to Central Jersey. This was where Clinton formed the Parliaments in the early ‘60s. Performing out of the back of his Plainfield Barbershop, the Parliaments dabbled mostly in Motown and doo-wop fare, hinting in no way at the radical path that would make George Clinton the Godfather of Funk.
In 1969, the Parliaments disbanded, leaving the name under record company ownership. It was at this point that Clinton was presumably abducted by aliens, intravenously fed LSD, and returned to Earth in rainbow dreadlocks and a diaper. Naturally, these factors would make Clinton the preeminent influence (alongside James Brown, of course) on the future history of funk, rap, hip hop, and rock.
Over the course of the ’70s, Clinton presided over not one but two units, each of which helped to define funk at its most schizophrenic. Funkadelic’s gritty psychedelic soul served as a blueprint both for the conceptual approach to record-making and the sharp-tongued street journalism that would eventually shape hip hop at its most innovative. If Funkadelic’s legacy wasn’t enough on its own, Clinton began to also focus his attention on Parliament in the mid-‘70s. Even as Funkadelic was writing the book on psychedelic soul, Parliament set the mold for grimy, horn-heavy funk. Taken together, Parliament-Funkadelic created a mind-blowing live experience in which as many as 50 musicians might crowd the stage with glorious color and noise.
With 1978’s Funkadelic release, One Nation Under a Groove, Clinton achieved a masterpiece of confluence, the moment of greatest mainstream visibility for Funkadelic and the record on which all the moving parts in the Clinton kingdom came together. One Nation emerged on the back side of the funk movement, the front side of disco, and as a prelude to hip hop. This is Clinton’s greatest commercial and political manifesto, calling for global unity around the impulse to boogie. Clinton solidified his status as a patron saint of hip hop through his much-celebrated early ‘90s collaborations with Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. Both cite Clinton as a seminal influence.
Today, Clinton continues to tour off and on with various members of his P-Funk All-Stars and is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
15. Ry Cooder – World
There’s a good chance you own an album containing contributions from this journeyman multi-instrumentalist. And yet, you could easily walk by him on the street without knowing you just brushed shoulders with a legend. In addition to his countless contributions as one of rock’s top hired guns, he has lent his own name to the proliferation of countless international folk forms.
Ry Cooder was a musical prodigy, learning to play the guitar almost as soon as he could walk. Cooder graduated from Santa Monica High School and studied at Reed College before ultimately departing to pursue music. This was a fortuitous time to be a gifted slide guitarist in L.A. The scene was bursting with art, music, and creativity. Many a future legend was cultivated under the warm Southern California sun, beginning with Taj Mahal. Cooder formed a prescient blues-rock combo called The Rising Sons with the future bluesmaster in 1966.
His next collaboration came when he joined the outlandish Captain Beefheart (formerly of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention) for his 1967 debut. Safe As Milk is a landmark recording of the gonzo subgenre, an album whose guttural eccentricities are made palatable by Cooder’s slippery tone. Over the next several years, Cooder proved himself the right man in the right place at nearly every turn, contributing his guitar work to classic records including Randy Newman’s 12 Songs (1970), Little Feat’s self-titled debut (1971) and, most importantly, the Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed (1969) and Sticky Fingers (1971).
As a solo artist, Cooder produced 10 studio albums and four film soundtracks between 1970 and 1982, nearly every one manifesting as its own hybrid genre study. Touching on blues, country, folk, Tex-Mex, vaudeville, gospel, calypso—and just about any genre domestic or international that you can name—Cooder eschewed pop stardom in favor of a life in musical pilgrimage.
By the late ‘80s, this notion of pilgrimage transformed Cooder into one of the foremost champions of what is commonly called World Music. Though we concede that “World” is a fairly ethnocentric catch-all for non-Western music, it truly qualifies in Cooder’s case. Beginning with 1993’s Indian-inflected Meeting by the River, Cooder initiated a series of collaborations with leading world musicians, routinely helping to bring global exposure to regional phenomena.
Most famously, Cooder opted to violate America’s travel ban to Cuba in order to record with local legends like Compay Segundo, Rubén González, and Ibrahim Ferrer (all now deceased). Cooder helped bring Cuba’s musical tradition, obscured by political isolation, to international attention. The collaboration also resulted in 1997’s most surprising hit record, with Buena Vista Social Club, which became an Academy Award–nominated documentary two years later.
16. James Cotton – Blues
James Cotton is one of the very last of a dying breed—the Delta Bluesman. Of the genres represented on this list, perhaps none is so ravaged by time. We have precious few living links to the world they inhabited. That James Cotton is still alive is a fact to be cherished. Born in Tunica, Mississippi, Cotton’s first exposure to music was through his mother Hattie’s harmonica playing. Though she was not particularly adept at the instrument, her playing fascinated James. He received his first harp for Christmas one year and quickly surpassed his first mentor.
Like many of the black families living in the segregated Delta, Cotton’s family worked as sharecroppers. Because he was too young to cut cotton, he sat in the shade and played music for his parents and siblings as they worked the fields. He took his first great leap as a musician when he first heard Sonny Boy Williamson on the radio. The legendary Williamson had gained widespread fame through his King Biscuit Time broadcasts and Cotton became one of his most avid admirers.
At the age of nine, Cotton suddenly lost both of his parents. His uncle, showing a remarkable prescience, took the boy to nearby Helena, Arkansas, to meet his idol. Williamson informally adopted the recently orphaned Cotton and made him his opening act. Cotton was far too young to enter the juke joints they played, but earned his tips by blowing harmonica on the front stoops.
When Williamson’s band unraveled, Cotton journeyed to Memphis and earned his way through his teenage years as a street performer and shoeshiner. One night, Cotton caught wind of a Howlin’ Wolf performance in town. He rushed over with his harp, introduced himself, and before the age of 15, found himself on tour with another blues legend.
In 1954, when Cotton joined yet a third blues legend—Muddy Waters—he began an association that would last more than a decade, during which he would help cut some of Waters’s most iconic recordings. In the ‘60s, Cotton struck out on his own with the James Cotton Band, exploring similar psychedelic blues terrain as artists like Jimi Hendrix and Canned Heat. He doubled down on this transition by opening for Janis Joplin in 1967.
Over the course of the next several decades, James Cotton accompanied a mighty list of musicians, live and in studio, including Santana, B.B. King, the Grateful Dead, and Taj Mahal. Cotton was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2006 and remains a flesh-and-blood connection to the ghosts of blues lore. James Cotton is the greatest living blues harpist, a title he defends by performing live even to this day.
17. Danger Mouse – Trip Hop
White Plains, New York, native Brian Burton may well be the finest pop-smith of the post-rock era. Nearly every production that he touches turns to gold. The producer, DJ, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist seems almost compulsively driven to forge one felicitous musical partnership after another, leaving a litany of perfect pop gems in his wake.
A child of the ’90s, Burton’s tastes reflect the eclectic utopianism of the decade, with his most important work often deconstructing the already-thin lines between hip hop, trip hop, dub, soul, indie rock, electronica, and psychedelia. The result is almost always a delectable chunk of ear candy.
Burton scored his first DJ gigs while at the University of Georgia. Shy about performing in public, Burton took to wearing a mouse suit while spinning his first parties. It was thus that he adopted the Danger Mouse tag. By the early 2000s, Danger Mouse had relocated to the musically fertile New Cross ward of South London. In 2004, Danger Mouse created what may be the most famous “mash-up” of all time. Collaging a series of remixes merging songs from Jay-Z’s The Black Album and the Beatles’ The White Album, Danger Mouse began distributing his The Grey Album CD to friends and supporters.
The mash-up rapidly gained cult status as online copies of the record spread like wildfire. Indeed, so successful was this bootleg project that EMI ordered a cease and desist—this in spite of the fact that Ringo, Macca, and Hova all offered their artistic praise for the project.
Thanks to EMI’s lawsuit, even the square entertainment business caught wind of the bootleg, with no less mainstream a publication than Entertainment Weekly naming it 2004’s Album of the Year. With his next project, Danger Mouse would produce a strong contender for Album of the Decade. In 2005, Danger sat at the controls for Demon Days, the sophomore masterpiece by Damon Albarn’s future funk, trip hop collective Gorillaz. A concept record foretelling the apocalypse against the backdrop of the War on Terror, Demon Days owed its deeply evocative textures, brilliantly foraged samples, and paradoxically radio-friendly tenor to Burton’s ear.
For his next collaboration, Danger Mouse stepped out from behind the controls to form the duo Gnarls Barkley with Dirty South legend CeeLo Green. Gnarls Barkley’s first single, “Crazy,” owns the distinction of being the first to reach #1 on the U.K. charts through online downloads only. Their debut album, St. Elsewhere, earned the pair a Grammy for Best Alternative Record of the year.
It also made Burton one of the most sought-after producers in the business and, consequently, one of the most consistent. Collaborations with MF Doom (The Mouse and the Mask), Norah Jones (Little Broken Hearts), and Beck (Modern Guilt) helped to strengthen Burton’s production résumé. His production work for the Black Keys helped transform the relatively nondescript blues rock duo into one of the biggest touring acts in the world.
In 2009, Esquire magazine named Danger Mouse on its list of “The 75 Most Influential People of the 21st Century.”
18. Dr. Dre – Hip Hop
Dr. Dre is the most important purveyor of Gangsta Rap and the key architect of its most musically compelling subgenre, West Coast G-Funk. At the height of Dre’s musical influence, gangsta was the defining oeuvre of a hip hop industry on its way from the underground to the top of the Billboard charts. In many ways, his contributions both as a rapper and a producer helped to usher hip hop into a new and bigger phase, pushing the genre from the spare beats and predictable R&B breaks of old school into a dense, laid-back style that draws from a far deeper well of funk, fusion, blaxploitation, and jazz samples. As a talent scout, impresario, and businessman, Dr. Dre’s influence over the music business is all encompassing today.
Andre Young was born in the black L.A. barrio called Compton. Young struggled in school and transferred several times to escape the permeating influence of gang violence. Following a brief tenure at the Chester Adult School, Andre dropped out and, joining with Ice Cube and Eazy-E in 1986, changed the face of popular music.
With N.W.A., Dre helped rap some of the starkest, frankest, and most frightening street poetry ever recorded. With their debut, Straight Outta Compton, N.W.A. opened a window into black life in the L.A. ghettos, detailing a violent world in ways that had never been outlined so bluntly, in music or elsewhere. So evocative was their message that their label, Ruthless Records, even earned itself a cautionary letter from the FBI.
At the height of its success, Dr. Dre departed N.W.A. to become the flagship artist at Death Row Records, subsequently releasing 1992’s The Chronic, which stands today as a strong contender for the greatest hip hop record ever pressed. Smoothing out N.W.A.’s rough edges, Dre innovated a slow, drawling, groove-heavy production style fueled by Funkadelic and Ohio Players samples. He also introduced a shy, lanky stoner named Snoop Dogg, who instantly emerged as rap’s most charismatic young talent. With consequently inescapable MTV and radio smash hits “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang,” and “Let Me Ride,” The Chronic went triple platinum, earned Dre a Grammy, and segued directly into Snoop’s ’93 debut, Doggystyle.
Over the course of the next decade, Dr. Dre had the Midas touch, launching some of the most successful careers in rap history through discovery, musical collaboration, and production, including Tupac Shakur, Eminem, 50 Cent, and—the current king of West Coast rap—Kendrick Lamaar. All this and Dr. Dre was ranked by Forbes in 2014 as the highest-paid musician alive. The six-time Grammy Winner recently completed a deal which sent his Beats by Dre line of audiophile headphones to Apple, Inc., for a reported $3 billion, making him hip hop’s top-ranking millionaire.
19. Dr. John – New Orleans Blues
Mac Rebennack proved that funk truly is the best medicine. Known better by his medical moniker, Dr. John is the greatest living musical ambassador of the Crescent City. The buoyant, eccentric, oddball singer embodies the boundary-breaking, genre-bending, foot-stomping, voodoo stew that is New Orleans music.
In spite of his self-appointed title, the good Dr. was never much of a student. He attended a Jesuit high school, but fared poorly because he spent his nights playing guitar in the city’s booming after-hours scene. That—and the fact that he was usually stoned out of his gourd—did not help his grades. When the Jesuit fathers offered him a choice between his studies and his music, he ended his formal relationship with school and gleaned much of his education from the pimps, prostitutes, and hustlers that surrounded him.
There was one teacher who had an impact on Mac. New Orleans boogie woogie pianist Professor Longhair attracted the young guitarist’s attention with his joyful bounce and his flashy attire. Like Mac, Professor Longhair did not come by his title through formal schooling, but few in New Orleans would question the man’s authority. Mac cut his teeth backing the Professor and other local legends in his early teens.
Though his career was just getting started, Mac’s guitar-playing days came to an end early. While coming to the defense of a bandmate in a bar brawl during a Jackson, Mississippi, gig, Mac’s finger was blown off by a gunshot. It was then that he adopted the piano. After moving to L.A. and adopting his stage name, Dr. John became a member of the famed Wrecking Crew, a roster of L.A.’s most sought-after studio musicians.
Dr. John backed artists as diverse as Sonny & Cher, Canned Heat, and Frank Zappa, while forging his own identity as “The Night Tripper,” a shamanic, psychedelic, hoodoo man whose live performances drew equally on bayou country medicine shows of the 19th century and the monster-movie performance-art of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. On his 1968 debut, Gris Gris, Dr. John stirred up a hallucinogenic potion of psychedelic smoke, Santería chanting, and Frenchman’s Street bounce.
In spite of a lifelong struggle with addiction, Dr. John was compulsively prolific, producing a raft of critically embraced and alluringly strange records through the 1970s. With the end the psychedelic era, albums like Dr. John’s Gumbo (1972) and In the Right Place (1973) represented a concerted shift in direction. Both would become Big Easy standards. It was along this path that Dr. John would ultimately stride for much of his career, incorporating the jazz, rock, blues, funk, and zydeco around him and ultimately authoring a style that can only be described as his. Often imitated but never equaled, this Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, winner of six Grammy Awards, and honorary Doctor (finally) of Fine Arts courtesy of Tulane University, is New Orleans music.
20. Bob Dylan – Rock
There is no songwriter who exerted a greater influence on popular music in the 20th Century than Bob Dylan. Born Robert Zimmerman in Duluth and raised in the small city of Hibbing in Minnesota’s desolate Mesabi Iron Range, the singer picked up his first guitar after hearing Elvis Presley and Little Richard on the radio. He wouldn’t discover folk music until enrolling in the University of Minnesota. Zimmerman was drawn to the beatnik coffee house scene in the big city. He changed his name to Dylan (in honor of the great Welsh poet Dylan Thomas) and began performing around town.
After one year in college, Dylan dropped out and moved to Greenwich Village. Here, he rose to fame as the leading figure in a major folk revival. Taking cues from his idol, Woody Guthrie, Dylan inserted himself into the heart of a burgeoning anti-war and Civil Rights movements, writing and performing socially conscious and ingeniously literate original compositions.
In 1963, his Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan would become the artistic high-water mark of the Greenwich movement. In the ensuing years, Dylan would prove mercurial and resistant to categorization, though all the more innovative for his work. As the Vietnam conflict boiled over into war, Dylan shocked his folkie supporters by departing the protest movement. In rock circles, the moment that he “plugged in” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival remains a watershed event, marking Dylan’s transformation into a fast-talking, surrealist hipster.
It was during this contentious time that he also produced his very best and most important work in Bringing It All Back Home (1965), Highway 61 Revisited (1965), and Blonde on Blonde (1966). Indeed, it could be argued that with every movement of great importance in the history of rock, from psychedelia in the mid-60s to country-rock in the late ’60s, from singer-songwriter confessional in the early-70s to slick stadium rock by the start of the ‘80s, Dylan has been a catalyst.
All told, Bob Dylan has moved more than 100 million records, earned a Grammy, an Oscar, a Golden Globe, a Pulitzer Prize, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom. He is also a member of the Rock and Roll, Nashville Songwriters, and Songwriters Halls of Fame.