After the recent loss of Prince, I noticed a friend’s post about expressing appreciation for music we love while the musicians are still around. It was somewhat jarring to realize how many of my all-time favorites are already gone, so I felt even more inspired to say something while I still could. Thus last month’s post about 1-5 of my all-time favorite top ten musical artists.
We had a few weeks of technical delays, but I’m back now with Part II, covering 6-9, and a sneaky tie for 10th place.
Johnny Cash Johnny Cash is a fascinating bundle of contrasts- social activist in a genre that was often less progressive, personification of Country who was also a Sun Records first generation Rocker, rebellious sinner who unashamedly preached the Gospel. One could go on, but the real thing that gets me about him every time I listen is the stripped down basic power of his music and the unmistakable sound of his voice. Is it Country? Rock? Heaven? Hell? All of those at once, in one unforgettable Man in Black.
Prince I could easily re-purpose a lot of the above to describe Prince as well. Today’s music scene is so segregated by genre that it’s even more amazing now than it was in the 80s how he straddled the divide between Soul and Rock like it was nothing. Not to mention that he was a genuine goddamn virtuoso- he liked to perform with big bands, but on his first two albums he not only wrote and produced the whole thing, he played every instrument himself. Buried at the heart of his music is a fusion of the sacred and the sexual that’s always uneasy and dynamic. How many people before, since, or ever, could make something with a funky beat, a guitar solo that Eric Clapton envied, a complex religious philosophy and hilarious sexual entendre all in the same album? Sometimes even in the same song… I was hooked when I first listened to 1999 at age 12, and I still am today.
Kristin Hersh You might think by the next two entries that I started off as a big Throwing Muses fan in the 80s. I was an 80s alt kid, so it would be reasonable to think that, but it’s not actually true. I ran in to Kristin Hersh’s solo work in the early 2000s, when her searing voice, surging chords, and willingness to not hold anything back got me through a lot of desolate-feeling post-divorce evenings. Then I back-filled to her 80s and 90s work with Throwing Muses (realizing along the way that I had favorite songs by them without knowing it was them), and forward filled to her mid-2000s band 50FOOTWAVE. Over three decades, in everything she’s done, she remains a powerhouse who can go acoustic or hard, throws out fiercely intelligent lyrics, and can sing the hell out of a song.
Tanya Donelly Pretty much everything I said above goes Ditto for Hersh’s step-sister and Throwing Muses co-founder Tanya Donelly. Her early 2000s solo albums were more like shimmering lullabies, but were similarly key to midwifing my emergence from a wrecked marriage and hollow way of life, toward reclaiming my true self. And damned if I didn’t then discover her Throwing Muses pedigree, and that she had been the driving force behind Belly, who I adored in the 90s. She tends to be both lusher and more subtle than Hersh, but is no less capable of rocking it out and producing haunting musical creations.
Bruce Springsteen When I was first putting together my top ten list, I hit a bit of a stumbling block. My 1-5 were clear as a bell to me. Without too much more thought, I came up with 6-9. But then I kept going back and forth on #10 between the Boss and the Clash. After a while, I realized they actually were flip sides of the same thing that was befuddling me, and decided to put them both in as tie for 10th. The issue was that I’m not always in a Clash mood, but when I am, I like almost everything they’ve done. On the other hand, I only like some of Springsteen, but I’m always in the mood for the version of Bruce that I like. For me, it’s his dark albums and songs that really get me. So, you can have your Born to Run, Born in the USA, and the Rising. Heck, you should have them. I like them too. Sometimes. But I’ll take Darkness on the Edge of Town, Nebraska, Tunnel of Love, Ghost of Tom Joad, and Magic anytime. There’s something about the spooky underbelly of America that nobody gets like Springsteen does.
The Clash Which leaves us with the other side of my tie for 10th. I like some of Joe Strummer’s solo stuff, and Mick Jones has made a lot of interesting music post-Clash- Big Audio Dynamite’s first album was one of my favorite things in the 80s. But there was something about the synergy of them together that was on a whole other level. Political without being polemical, rocking as hard as anything that the first generation of Punk came out with, and yet bringing in ska and dub, they continue to do what art should do at its best- inspire, entertain, and disquiet at the same time.