The Best Artists of the 20th Century

The considerably more ambitious task of sorting artists from an entire century necessitates the use of a somewhat different rating system. Why many critics would use “most influential” as the primary gauge for an artist’s importance, I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about that. While genre-defining innovation does help, it’s difficult to define originality. Even the earliest artists on this list, King Oliver and Fats Waller, borrowed from other influences. I am more concerned with the amount of music the artists have created that we can enjoy. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Of course I’m not talking about sheer volume. If that were the case, then the 5,000+ self-indulgent hours of sheer crap generated by the Grateful Dead would have placed them at the top of the list when in fact, they didn’t even make it (I reckon they only made about two cohesively enjoyable albums, and even those weren’t that great). The best artists get in a “zone” when they create a string of classic albums that unmistakably define their essence. I did my best to include some of the artists from the first half of the century who relied on the significantly shorter 78 RPM records, and the prolific songwriters whose works are scattered all over the place, like Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer and Kurt Weill. Some artists are ranked below others who have released fewer albums. For example, Prince has released more albums than the Beatles, and four times as many albums as Jimi Hendrix, but is ranked well below them because while most of his albums contain some brilliant songs, they’re mostly spotty. It’s interesting to note that the top ten are all people of color. This suggests that either white boys are lazy, or they’re too busy ripping off non-white people for inspiration. Speaking of boys, there is the obvious lack of women near the top. While the male-centric culture of most of the century explains most of it, the glaring lull of great albums by women artists this year is alarming. Let’s hope that the 21st century will be a different story. Others have managed to crank out so much consistently great music that they seem superhuman. It’s not surprising then, that many of the artists claim to have otherworldly connections, such as Sun Ra (who created over 100 albums), Lee Perry, George Clinton and Hendrix. Others, like John Coltrane and Fela Anikulapo Kuti, were fueled by a remarkably intense spiritual fervor. It’s easy to see that whatever metaphysical, spiritual, creative or political motivations they had, these are without a doubt the most passionate, heaviest cats of the 20th century.


  1. Sun Ra
  2. John Coltrane
  3. Fela Kuti
  4. Tito Puente
  5. Duke Ellington
  6. Charles Mingus
  7. Lee “Scratch” Perry
  8. Miles Davis
  9. James Brown
  10. Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band
  11. Bob Dylan
  12. David Bowie
  13. Bob Marley & the Wailers
  14. Funkadelic/Parliament
  15. The Rolling Stones
  16. Iggy Pop & The Stooges
  17. The Velvet Underground
  18. King Sunny Ade
  19. Dizzy Gillespie
  20. John Lennon & The Beatles
  21. Charlie Parker
  22. Tom Waits
  23. Otis Redding
  24. Ornette Coleman
  25. Louis Armstrong
  26. Jimi Hendrix
  27. Al Green
  28. Aretha Franklin
  29. Nick Cave (The Birthday Party, The Bad Seeds)
  30. Thelonius Monk
  31. Curtis Mayfield
  32. Brian Eno
  33. Can
  34. Toots & The Maytals
  35. Billie Holiday
  36. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
  37. The Fall
  38. Sonny Rollins
  39. Ella Fitzgerald
  40. Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys
  41. John McLaughlin (Mahavishnu Orchestra, Shakti)
  42. Arsenio Rodriguez
  43. Archie Shepp
  44. Herbie Hancock
  45. Hoagy Carmichael
  46. Count Basie
  47. Jerry Lee Lewis
  48. Cole Porter
  49. George Gershwin
  50. Irving Berlin
  51. Johnny Mercer
  52. Kurt Weill
  53. T. Rex
  54. The Who
  55. Sonic Youth
  56. Peter Murphy & Bauhaus
  57. Eric Dolphy
  58. Stevie Wonder
  59. Sarah Vaughan
  60. Tom Ze
  61. Tim Buckley
  62. The Kinks
  63. Jimmie Rodgers
  64. Ry Cooder
  65. Chrome
  66. Van Morrison
  67. Caetano Veloso
  68. African Head Charge
  69. Elvis Costello & the Attractions
  70. Neil Young
  71. Tom Verlaine & Television
  72. Yo La Tengo
  73. Khaled
  74. Led Zeppelin
  75. Talking Heads
  76. Woody Guthrie
  77. Prince
  78. Marvin Gaye
  79. PJ Harvey
  80. Beck
  81. The Flaming Lips
  82. Arto Lindsay & the Ambitious Lovers
  83. James Blood Ulmer
  84. Fugazi
  85. Santana
  86. Howlin’ Wolf
  87. The Residents
  88. Celia Cruz
  89. Patti Smith
  90. The Meters
  91. Mongo Santamaria
  92. Sly And the Family Stone
  93. Muddy Waters
  94. Nina Simone
  95. Johnny Cash
  96. Bessie Smith
  97. Royal Trux
  98. Stereolab
  99. Amon Tobin
  100. Husker Du
  101. Amon Duul II
  102. King Tubby
  103. Professor Longhair
  104. The Clash
  105. Public Enemy
  106. Afrika Bambaataa
  107. Patsy Cline
  108. Moby
  109. Pavement
  110. Horace Andy
  111. Hawkwind
  112. XTC
  113. Black Sabbath
  114. AC/DC
  115. Gram Parsons & The Flying Burrito Brothers
  116. R.E.M.
  117. The Ramones
  118. Fats Waller
  119. Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
  120. Solomon Burke
  121. Harry Partch
  122. Burning Spear
  123. Kraftwerk
  124. Benny Goodman
  125. This Heat
  126. The Beastie Boys
  127. Ray Charles
  128. Bjork
  129. Sam Cooke
  130. The Go-Betweens
  131. Ernest Ranglin
  132. Ravi Shankar
  133. Robert Wyatt
  134. Serge Gainsbourg
  135. Pere Ubu
  136. Joy Division
  137. Roy Orbison
  138. Nick Drake
  139. Roy Harper
  140. Tricky
  141. Buena Vista Social Club (Afro-Cuban A.S., Ibrahim Ferrer, et al)
  142. Robert Fripp & King Crimson
  143. Dinah Washington
  144. Roxy Music
  145. Siouxsie & the Banshees
  146. Joni Mitchell
  147. Harry Nilsson
  148. Rod Stewart
  149. Syd Barrett & Pink Floyd
  150. George Jones
  151. Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention
  152. Steve Reich
  153. Baaba Maal
  154. Hank Williams
  155. Tangerine Dream
  156. Grandmaster Flash
  157. Os Mutantes
  158. The Master Musicians Of Jajouka
  159. Will Oldham (Palace Brothers/Music/Songs)
  160. The Skatalites
  161. The Buzzcocks
  162. Bill Monroe
  163. Lee Dorsey
  164. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins
  165. Esquivel
  166. The Raincoats
  167. Wire
  168. Singers & Players
  169. New Age Steppers
  170. X
  171. Madness
  172. Etta James
  173. Lucinda Williams
  174. Cornershop/Clinton
  175. Mercury Rev
  176. Philip Glass
  177. Transglobal Underground
  178. The Jesus Lizard
  179. Dr. John
  180. De La Soul
  181. The Yardbirds
  182. Massive Attack
  183. Fats Domino
  184. Nat King Cole
  185. Bix Beiderbecke
  186. Minutemen
  187. Los Fabulosos Cadillacs
  188. Nirvana
  189. Steve Albini (Big Black, Rapeman, Shellac)
  190. Kid Creole & the Coconuts
  191. Butthole Surfers
  192. The Jam
  193. The Magnetic Fields
  194. Tortoise
  195. The Replacements
  196. The Swans
  197. The Blue Aeroplanes
  198. Robert Johnson
  199. Wilson Pickett
  200. Big Star
  201. Neu!
  202. Merle Haggard
  203. Gang Of Four
  204. John Fahey
  205. Public Image Ltd.
  206. MC5
  207. Bo Diddley
  208. The Feelies
  209. Van Dyke Parks
  210. John Cale
  211. Trouble Funk
  212. A Tribe Called Quest
  213. Elmore James
  214. Pram
  215. Cesaria Evora
  216. Fred Frith
  217. Randy Newman
  218. Art Tatum
  219. The Legendary Pink Dots
  220. Motorhead
  221. Roy Acuff
  222. George Russell
  223. Social Distortion
  224. Elvis Presley
  225. Irma Thomas
  226. Camper Van Beethoven
  227. Kool Keith (& Ultramagnetic MCs, Dr. Octagon, Dr. Doom)
  228. Blondie
  229. Radiohead
  230. The Doors
  231. Uncle Tupelo
  232. The Young Gods
  233. Sheila Chandra
  234. Seam
  235. The Pretty Things
  236. The Police
  237. John Zorn
  238. The Small Faces
  239. Frank Sinatra
  240. Afghan Whigs
  241. Built To Spill
  242. Carl Perkins
  243. Tim Hardin
  244. Low
  245. Lefty Frizzell
  246. Blur
  247. Felt
  248. Jim O’Rourke/Gastr Del Sol
  249. James White (The Blacks, The Contortions)
  250. The Selecter
  251. The Specials
  252. Richard Hell
  253. The Slits
  254. DJ Krush
  255. The Isley Brothers
  256. The Soft Boys
  257. The Soft Machine
  258. Peter Gabriel
  259. Jefferson Airplane
  260. Scott Walker
  261. Lou Reed
  262. Run DMC
  263. Bunny Wailer
  264. Einsturzende Neubauten
  265. Jackie Wilson
  266. Chuck Berry
  267. Isaac Hayes
  268. Willie Nelson
  269. Killing Joke
  270. The Byrds
  271. Hank Snow
  272. Joe Jackson
  273. Throbbing Gristle
  274. The Orb
  275. Super Furry Animals
  276. Buffalo Tom
  277. Cul De Sac
  278. Ash Ra Tempel
  279. Faust
  280. The Grifters
  281. Unwound
  282. Chick Corea & Return To Forever
  283. Mark Lanegan & Screaming Trees
  284. Stiff Little Fingers
  285. God
  286. Spiritualized
  287. Popol Vuh
  288. The Cramps
  289. Ernest Tubb
  290. Devo
  291. The Wedding Present
  292. Kate Bush
  293. Little Richard
  294. Ruth Brown
  295. Mott The Hoople
  296. Orbital
  297. Leonard Cohen
  298. Sonny Sharrock
  299. Laika
  300. The Pixies
  301. EPMD
  302. Buddy Holly
  303. The Pogues
  304. Augustus Pablo
  305. The Sea And Cake
  306. Dinosaur Jr.
  307. Dog Faced Hermans
  308. Mouse On Mars
  309. Bobby Bland
  310. Charles Brown
  311. Bruce Springsteen
  312. Townes Van Zandt
  313. Barry White
  314. The Cure
  315. Ennio Morricone
  316. LL Cool J
  317. Wilco
  318. Jungle Brothers

  319. Nitin Sawhney
  320. Rick James
  321. Eddy Grant
  322. Grace Jones
  323. The Ruts
  324. Eric B & Rakim
  325. Boogie Down Productions
  326. Portishead
  327. The Eels
  328. The Pop Group
  329. Mission Of Burma
  330. Ketama
  331. The Dirty Three
  332. Au Pairs
  333. The Saints
  334. Babes In Toyland
  335. The Stranglers
  336. The Jesus And Mary Chain
  337. Trans Am
  338. Swervedriver
  339. The Heptones
  340. Alan Vega & Suicide
  341. Walt Mink
  342. Richard Thompson
  343. Cafe Tacuba
  344. Red Red Meat
  345. Sonny Boy Williamson
  346. Black Uhuru
  347. The Roots
  348. Creation Rebel
  349. Dub Syndicate
  350. Eleventh Dream Day
  351. Soul Asylum
  352. Cabaret Voltaire
  353. Cluster
  354. Meat Puppets
  355. Rocket From the Crypt
  356. Warren Storm
  357. Half Japanese
  358. Henry Cow
  359. Jessamine
  360. Aphex Twin
  361. Coleman Hawkins
  362. Lester Young
  363. Naked Raygun
  364. Mavis Staples & the Staples Singers
  365. Graham Parker
  366. Paul Schutze
  367. The Animals
  368. Mu-Ziq
  369. Art Bears
  370. The Carter Family
  371. Huun-Huur-Tu
  372. Natacha Atlas
  373. Asian Dub Foundation
  374. Squarepusher
  375. Oval
  376. The Only Ones
  377. Long Fin Killie
  378. Little Walter
  379. Slayer
  380. Radio Tarifa
  381. Neutral Milk Hotel
  382. Jeremy Enigk & Sunny Day Real Estate
  383. Billy Riley

  384. Black Heart Procession
  385. Latin Playboys
  386. Vinicius Cantuaria
  387. Son House
  388. Cat Power
  389. The Teardrop Explodes
  390. Yungchen Lhamo
  391. Mule
  392. Art Blakey
  393. Rancid
  394. Cibo Matto
  395. Mazzy Star
  396. Black Flag
  397. The Damned
  398. The Pretenders
  399. Love
  400. Emmylou Harris
  401. Harmonia
  402. Talvin Singh
  403. Louis Jordon
  404. Ui
  405. Steely Dan
  406. Waylon Jennings
  407. Jimmie Dale Gilmore
  408. Squeeze
  409. Sleater-Kinney
  410. Teenage Fanclub
  411. Cab Calloway
  412. Sparklehorse
  413. Oliver Nelson
  414. Los Lobos
  415. Flying Saucer Attack
  416. Chico O’Farrill
  417. Dead Kennedys
  418. Bad Brains
  419. Gary Numan & Tubeway Army
  420. Cream
  421. The Dictators
  422. Shaggy
  423. Primal Scream
  424. Howie B
  425. Alice Cooper
  426. Conjunto Cespedes
  427. Sierra Maestra
  428. Saxon
  429. Rip Rig + Panic
  430. Comsat Angels
  431. Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci
  432. Ultravox
  433. Monster Magnet
  434. Cocteau Twins
  435. Godflesh
  436. Cheap Trick
  437. Metallica
  438. The Jayhawks
  439. Helium
  440. Polvo
  441. Iron Maiden
  442. The Chameleons
  443. The Undertones
  444. Labradford
  445. Walkabouts
  446. Souled American
  447. Th’ Faith Healers
  448. The Wipers
  449. Guided By Voices
  450. Yellow Magic Orchestra
  451. Pulp
  452. Yello
  453. Aerosmith
  454. Van Halen
  455. The Gun Club
  456. Judas Priest
  457. Loop
  458. Woody Herman
  459. Luna
  460. Giant Sand
  461. Outkast
  462. Goodie Mob
  463. Run Westy Run
  464. T.S.O.L.
  465. Kiss
  466. Booker T & the MGs



Due to untimely death, bad luck, or maybe an artist was only inspired for one album’s worth of material and never lived up to their promise, there are a significant number of artists who released single albums or collections that are essential classics that deserve honorable mention. Only a couple 90s artists are mentioned, because they still have the next century to prove themselves.



  1. X-Ray Spex
  2. The Sex Pistols
  3. The Modern Lovers
  4. King Oliver
  5. DJ Shadow
  6. Young Marble Giants
  7. Junior Murvin
  8. Minor Threat
  9. Alexander “Skip” Spence
  10. The Creation
  11. The Shocking Blue
  12. Little Willie John
  13. Percy Sledge
  14. James Carr
  15. King Curtis
  16. Warren Smith
  17. Johnny Burnett Trio
  18. Sonny Burgess
  19. The Vaselines
  20. Clarence Carter
  21. Gene Vincent
  22. Don Covay
  23. Otis Clay
  24. Jean Knight
  25. Johnny Taylor
  26. Syl Johnson
  27. Ritchie Valens
  28. Ann Peebles
  29. Jeff Buckley
  30. Sidney Bechet
  31. NWA
  32. Arthur Conley
  33. Eddie Floyd
  34. O.V. Wright
  35. Larry Williams
  36. Joe Tex
  37. Scratch Acid
  38. Hank Ballard
  39. Throwing Muses
  40. Violent Femmes
  41. Suicidal Tendencies
  42. The Flatlanders
  43. Laura Lee
  44. Eddie Cochran
  45. Dead Boys

The Best Artists of the 90s