Thursday, November 13, 2008

40 singers inexplicably omitted from Rolling Stone’s 100 ‘greatest of all time’

Rolling Stone has just published their list of the “100 greatest singers of all time,” but like most of the magazine’s rankings, it basically covers 1955 to 1975, with some token others. You have to go to No. 30 (Prince) before you hit a singer whose career began after the Nixon administration, and No. 45 (Kurt Cobain) No. 39 (Jeff Buckley) for somebody post-Reagan. Rolling Stone gives every birthdate, and if I had time I would calculate the average age. Anyone?

But the omissions truly surprised me. Even restricting this “all time” list to the 20th century (surely Farinelli, the great castrato celebrity of the 1700s — he once blew Handel off — was better than No. 99, right?), and to non-classical singers (Maria Callas vs. No. 69), the choices are bizarre. Here, off the top of my head, are 40 highly notable omissions; these are always judgment calls, of course, but I’d argue that at least the top 10 are absolute essentials.

  1. Frank Sinatra
  2. Nat King Cole
  3. Billie Holiday
  4. Ella Fitzgerald
  5. Bing Crosby
  6. Mahalia Jackson
  7. Leadbelly
  8. Bessie Smith
  9. Miriam Makeba
  10. João Gilberto
  11. Dionne Warwick
  12. Sandy Denny
  13. Natalie Merchant
  14. Linda Thompson
  15. Blind Willie Johnson
  16. Marion Williams
  17. Nancy Wilson (jazz)
  18. Harry Belafonte
  19. Jimmie Rogers
  20. Carly Simon
  21. Joan Baez
  22. Barry Gibb
  23. Caetano Veloso
  24. Cab Calloway
  25. Blind Lemon Jefferson
  26. Ron Isley
  27. Salif Keita
  28. Sade
  29. Louis Armstrong
  30. Ian Curtis
  31. Sarah Vaughan
  32. Asha Bhosle
  33. Louis Jordan
  34. Serge Gainsbourg
  35. Amália Rodrigues
  36. Robert Johnson
  37. Woody Guthrie
  38. Youssou N’Dour
  39. Bobby McFerrin
  40. Baaba Maal

And that’s without Latin music (Hector Lavoe? Vicente Fernandez?) or almost anything Asian, which are not my specialties. Just for good measure, here are 10 more that I wouldn’t call essentials, but one could argue have major significance:

  1. Marianne Faithfull
  2. Carmen Miranda
  3. Gilberto Gil
  4. Beth Orton
  5. Pete Seeger
  6. Sting
  7. Daryl Hall
  8. Arthur Lee
  9. Barry White
  10. Madonna


Unknown said...

Save the occasional anomaly (e.g., Tony Bennett courting the irony crowd in the early 90's), RS tends to limit itself to English-speaking rock/pop/soul, rock hybrids, and roots music to the extent that it's been trendy to rock fans. No jazz, no world, and no easy listening. So that narrows your list of inexplicables down to:

Leadbelly, Bessie Smith, Sandy Denny, Natalie Merchant, Linda Thompson, Blind Willie Johnson, Jimmie Rogers, Carly Simon, Joan Baez, Barry Gibb, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Ron Isley, Sade, Ian Curtis, Robert Johnson, Woody Guthrie, and Bobby McFerrin.

And y'know, these lists are a bunch of bullshit anyway. Cobain shouldn't be on there, nor should he have been on the "100 Greatest Guitarists" list 5 years ago.

B. said...

The genre argument doesn't hold up -- Aretha Franklin tops the list and it's filled with a lot of non-rock singers. Why is Willie Nelson more relevant than Frank Sinatra? Why is Whitney Houston more important than fucking Billie Holiday?

If Pygmies who don't own radios or records made a list of the greatest singers ever, it would include Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday.

rudylandsam said...

Jim Dandy?

Unknown said...

My point is: "Rolling Stone" never made a habit of covering Frank Sinatra or reviewing Billie Holiday, no matter how popular they were. It has devolved into a (post-)baby boom lifestyle rag with a narrow genre focus. Aretha Franklin and Willie Nelson were popular among rock fans. Frank, Billie, and Nat? Not so much.

The day I see Wynton Marsalis on the cover of RS, I will concede. Until then, we should all look elsewhere for more responsible surveys of popular culture.

I think the fact that we're so flummoxed about RS's choices shows that we've truly grown up and out of the habit of reading it.

B. said...

Few more nits:

Elton John? Buddy Holly? Paul Rodgers? Dion? Gregg Allman? Toots? (I love him too, but he's ain't no greatest singer of anything.) John Lee Hooker? Don Henley? Patti LaBelle? (And is Gladys Knight really all that?) And for God's sake, Steven parody-of-himself Tyler? Why don't they just put fucking Paul Stanley in there? Surely Sammy Hagar and Bret Michaels are better singers than Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Dionne Warwick, right?

B. said...

I lied. One more major omission:

Donna Summer.

Anonymous said...

Sorry I didn't get on this faster. I, of course, have nothing but time on my hands.
Average Date of Birth of Singer on Rolling Stone's Top 100 list: 1943.
Average Date of Birth of Singer on Ben Sisario's 40 Omitted Singers list: 1928.

What is more telling: 54% of the singers listed on the Rolling Stone's list have dates of birth that fall within 5 years of their average, i.e. 1938-1948. That's a high concentration considering how many other years they have of recorded music and careers to deal with.

Obviously the list name should be amended to "100 Greatest English Language Singers" since no non-English singers were included.

Now that I've done that calculating for you, I can go back to watching House re-runs.

B. said...

Jesse, are you making this up? Did you seriously calculate the standard deviation?

Unknown said...

The issue seems to be where the line is drawn regarding genre and geography. As long as we're talking about Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday, why not include Pavarotti or Callas? Lara Fabian? Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan? The Tuvan Throat Singers?

And Jesse, that's some spooky shit right there...

B. said...

I would like to read a list that fairly accounts for the time period it covers. RS says "of the rock era" in the fine print, a lame bait-and-switch. But even accepting that, you've got half a century to divide more equitably. There should be rough quotas by decade; a good chunk of the names, for example, should come from the last decade.

So Elliott Smith should be on there. And Joey Ramone. And Nick Drake. And Jim James. And PJ Harvey. And Justin Timberlake.

And if it included people from outside rock, and beyond the United States the British Isles — as it already does — then Miriam Makeba absolutely has to be on there; she's possibly the most famous African singer ever, revered around the world. I'd also like to see Nusrat and Asha Bhosle on there, who are also cultural heroes. Gimme some Brazilians, too.

Any way you do it, it shouldn't rest on phony Sixties exceptionalism.

Unknown said...

No argument with you there. RS has managed to stay crusty *and* sell out at the same time... no small feat, that.

Unknown said...

I'm amazed at how so many of these people sang with terrible tone qualities, you couldn't understand them and they had average to bad pitch but they are considered "GREAT".

Also, if it didn't happen after 1955 it's like it never happened. Sinatra and Streisand are the greatest male and female pop singers in my opinion. And Streisand hasn't even been mentioned??