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The 411 Music Top Five 11.06.12: The Top 5 Solo Rockers

November 6, 2012 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas


5. Billy Joel

This spot came down to Eric Clapton and Billy Joel. While I can see why anyone would put Clapton on their list, I had to go with Joel just because he was always one of my favorite artists as a kid. I loved just about everything he did, from “Piano Man” to “Uptown Girl” and “Piano Man” to “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” As a matter of fact, I was flipping channels on my car stereo the other day and “We Didn’t Start the Fire” was on and I just freaking jammed out. I don’t care, Billy Joel was, and is, the man.

4. Bruce Springsteen

It is hard to think of a solo rocker who has enjoyed the overwhelming success of Bruce Springsteen. The guy just came out of nowhere, and reached the height of popularity, and I still can’t figure out exactly how he did it. He was not what you would expect a rock star to sound like, but his lyrics, his guitar and his soulful delivery seemed to connect with an entire generation.

3. Alice Cooper

I am an 80s metal kid at heart, and while some of Alice Cooper’s best stuff is from the ’70s, I fell in love with him about the time he released Trash. After that, I fell in love with his style, his sound and his ability to collaborate with just about anyone and make it sound right. The ’80s stuff still has a place in my heart, from “Poison” and “House of Fire” to “Feed my Frankenstein” and “Hey Stoopid.” I think The Last Temptation is a brilliant album and “Stolen Prayer” is one of my favorite songs. Then I went back and fell in love with his old stuff, from “I’m Eighteen” and “School’s Out” to “No More Mr. Nice Guy” and “Only Women Bleed.” The guy is just incredibly talented.

2. Ozzy Osbourne

I don’t think anyone left a band and more success on their own than Ozzy Osbourne. Black Sabbath was really good, but Ozzy was legendary. Hell, his first solo album had “Crazy Train,” “Goodbye to Romance,” “Suicide Solution” and “Mr. Crowley.” The guy set out to make a point and did it in style. From there, it was hit after hit, from ‘Flying High Again” and “Bark at the Moon” to “No More Tears” and “Close My Eyes Forever.” If not for the icon that is my No. 1 pick, Ozzy would easily top this list.

1. Elvis Presley

Is there really anyone that can be No. 1 on this list other than the King of Rock and Roll? Sure, Elvis Presley wore many hats, but at the end of the day he was the heart and soul of rock and roll in the ’70s and almost everyone who followed owes something to the King. There is no other choice.

I’ve not yet met a 411 Top 5 topic I didn’t like. That admission made, I must every so often constrain myself within a rule or two that locks me out of complacent, cop-out rankings that make for droll, unremarkable lists with no challenging, horizon-broadening perspectives.

That’s not to say that my selections here have been exactly Earth-shattering. One restriction did immediately become imperative, though: no selections from rock and roll’s “Golden Age.” There’s simply no contesting the iconic music, singular presences and resonating, innovative impact of Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly and others upon rock and roll’s arrival to stay in the American consciousness and cultural lexicon.

Owing as much to the luck of chronology as exceptional talent and charisma, no music made since the 1950s has stood time’s test as sturdily as performers such as those. Still, even setting that generation above the others in their own lofty, exclusive class makes for no less an interesting debate ranking the relevance of the many ornate, distinctive rooms others have constructed on the foundation they poured.

Besides, how insulting can it ever be to tell these five artists, “You’re no Elvis?” I’d personally suppose I’d be greeting with an enthusiastic “No shit!” even from the best of them.

5. Ronnie James Dio

I wavered considerably when deciding this one ranking. I nearly awarded Sting this bottom slot. Allow me to explain.

Sting is a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, not to mention induction in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Dio can claim neither, despite a celebrated, prolific career that spanned more than 50 years right up to his May 16, 2010 succumbing to stomach cancer. Sting is a virtuoso singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist whose resume boasts 16 total Grammy Awards, three Brit Awards, a Golden Globe, an Emmy and multiple Best Original Song Academy Award nominations.

Despite a career that Mr. Gordon Sumner could look back on with pride and fulfillment in every facet if he decided this instant that he’d never record or play live another note again…there was a certain fairly strict definition of “rocker” to which I tried my damnedest to adhere throughout.

True, as bassist of The Police, Sting co-wrote and performed jazz, punk and reggae-blended New-Wave rock that helped bring New Wave to pop’s forefront in the 80’s. Then again, I considered the gentler, more ethereal tones and compositions of his solo work. I was left to ask myself, “Could I credibly call Billy Joel or Elton John ‘rockers’?”

Highly as they’d all place on some pound-for-pound, genre-for-genre chart of the most influential, gifted songwriters of any generation, I can’t look at Sting’s solo work and call him a “solo rocker” because that label directly implies a devotion to making “rock” music. Though some adult-contemporary bands and soloists make what could loosely be considered a kinder, gentler style of rock and roll, Sting, as a solo artist, doesn’t.

Then there’s Dio. He’s been balls-to-bones a rock artist from inception. His solo songwriting and performance, in all its intensity and stage presence, holds up in iconic hard-rock glory and perhaps even exceeds his 1979-1982 run fronting the legendary Black Sabbath. He sported a gale-force voice and a fervor for the music he made that was especially phenomenal considering that he also lived one of the cleanest lives – absent of so many fatal rock excesses – of any of his peers while rocking harder clean and sober than most could ever hope to on every drug in existence.

He was an icon who defied conventional iconography.

4. Patti Smith

Once more, I found myself quite torn between two artists, though in this case, the two were in competition for the same pinnacle of relevance.

To overstate the obvious, Joan Jett is an icon of the rise of women in punk. From her time fronting The Runaways and The Blackhearts all the way through her ongoing solo career, she’s been more mainstream-ready and radio-accessible than the more confrontational, revolutionary and iconic riot grrrl acts like L7, Bikini Kill, or even Sleater-Kinney. Think of it in the framework of The Dark Knight: riot-grrrl acts were Batman; Jett is Harvey Dent, able to be the more acceptable, fun face of women in rock.

That’s to be celebrated, for certain.

This is a tribute to rogue rockers, though. Frankly, Patti Smith massively impacted the entire New York City punk movement and did it solo, and continued to do it her way and her way only throughout the decades that followed. While Jett has displayed considerable staying power striking out on her own after the demise of her two best-known fronted bands, Smith didn’t spend long fronting a group (the 1974-1979 Patti Smith Group excepted.) And through it all, she’s been a rare breed of punk intellectual.

She’s been so much so, that one could almost sense Mick Jagger’s intimidation by her when he famously said of her to Sounds Magazine in 1977, “I think it’s crap! I think she’s so awful…she’s full of rubbish, she’s full of words and crap. I mean, she’s a poseur of the worst kind, intellectual bullshit, trying to be a street girl when she doesn’t seem to me to be one, I mean, everything…a useless guitar player, a bad singer, not attractive. She’s got her heart in the right place but she’s such a POSER! She’s not really together musically, she’s…all right.”

Vitriol like that is quite something, coming from an ugly Brit with a great voice who’s never exactly been known for burning up a six-string himself.

Through Smith’s music, she’s remained an activist through the years that’s championed AIDS research, stood with many past and present punks against George W. Bush’s military campaign in Iraq, protested U.S. support of Israel’s military actions against Palestinians, and championed women’s suffrage in Iran. She wrote a preface to Turkish citizen and Guantanamo Bay detainee Murat Kurnaz’s 2008 book Five Years of My Life, at his family’s personal request.

No less than REM’s Michael Stipe and Garbage’s Shirley Manson, among others, have cited Smith’s poetic, introspective, sometimes volatile lyricism as a punk singer-songwriter as direct influences in their own celebrated works – particularly her album Horses. Smith is celebrated, if for no other reason, then for having a gritty grain to her music but a mind sharp as a razor and passion for her convictions that burns like a flamethrower.

3. Ozzy Osbourne

There is no list of the great solo performers of all time without the Blizzard of Oz.

It’s my personal opinion that Ozzy made his best music not with Randy Rhoads, et al, but fronting the solid trio of Bill Ward, Geezer Butler and Tommy Iommi in Black Sabbath. As a quartet, they revolutionized hard rock with a sound that wasn’t just fast and heavy, but unlike much else anybody else was producing around that time. Especially in the band’s earliest years, few acts were making music quite so intimidating and oppressive.

As sound goes, Ozzy was never better, in my opinion.

Once he went solo, Ozzy became a showman to end all showmen. It may be my opinion that Ozzy’s singing was never better than when he was fronting Sabbath, but with all due respect to the late, great Dio, Sabbath was never better than the Ozzy years. Once The Oz Man and Sabbath parted ways, though, Ozzy’s theatricality made him a metal icon. He was one of the earliest targets of parents against hard rock to prove that controversy that didn’t kill him only fueled the fascination with him.

Even into the cartoonish, self-parody years, he spent years making the Ozzfest tour a pinnacle booking for every metal band on Earth.

Unfortunately, I value musicianship above almost all else – even being a commercial colossus….

2. Eric Clapton

Clapton is God.

No, no. Perhaps you didn’t hear me: CLAPTON. IS. GOD.

So he was anointed not as he was celebrated for Slowhand or 461 Ocean Boulevard or Behind The Sun, but very first when he was the inimitable heart, soul and fire of groups like The Yardbirds, Cream, Blind Faith and Derek and The Dominos. But sometime after those early, revelatory years with The Yardbirds, John Mayall and The Bluesbreakers and Cream, Clapton came into his own not just as one of the earliest true “guitar gods” but as a singer and songwriter who tapped deeply – whether as the distinguished country gentleman of Slowhand or the Phil Collins-produced, sun-drenched pop guitarist of Behind The Sun — into the soulful well of the blues.

Few artists bond so deeply with rock and roll as those who touch its roots in the blues. It’s those roots that tap so deeply into every facet of Clapton’s playing and singing, right through albums such as his B.B. King collaboration Riding With The King and his modern practically-no-overdubs blues classic From The Cradle.

Still, there’s one man who may actually be better now than he’s ever been – and he’s a man the mainstream had once all but written off.

1. Bruce Springsteen

The Boss.

Whatever his backing band, few are still going as strong this deep into a career as Springsteen.

He may very well be one of rock and roll’s most underrated guitarists, to be perfectly honest. Give plenty of credit Little Steven Van Zandt, but Springsteen can hold his own lick-for-lick with almost anybody. The passion, anger, contemplation, and even desperate, unbridled jubilation in his voice is unparalleled. It doesn’t matter if you came to him through The River, Born To Run, Nebraska or perhaps what many called his triumphant “comeback” album infused with all of the fear, anger, confusion and at last hope of September 11, 2001, The Rising.

Whatever the words, whatever the moment…if you’ve heard him, then chances are he’s left an indelible impression as an every-man’s social conscience.

Through the years, times have changed and injustices and struggles have come and gone – Springsteen hasn’t. And perhaps more so than the four artists ranked beneath him, it’s hard to point out where he’s lost a step.

Finally, a quick note on why I disqualified a few people – just to head off those who haven’t extolled their daily Internet allowance of pedantic nitpicking.

Initially, I was going to rank John Lennon and Paul McCartney as #2 and #1, respectively – after all, they’re arguably the most celebrated, prolific songwriting pair in rock and roll history, and I’d have granted McCartney the number-one spot because he’s the only Beatle that ever learned to read sheet music.

Plus, Lennon just didn’t have a long enough solo career for me to consider him, though what he produced will always stand up as enduring social commentary on par with Springsteen and Dylan’s respective finest moments.

However, I ruled out McCartney for the same reason I ruled out Sting: his solo stuff is often really hard to call “rock.” As for Lennon – well, see above. It’s hard to know what would’ve become of his solo career in the decades that followed because he was tragically assassinated. Sad, but true. And to me, longevity counts.

Plus, as it stands, both were at their best with The Beatles.

I had to rule out artists like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix because while usually regarded as solo performers, they spent the majority of their careers with set, identifiable bands (Double Trouble and The Jimi Hendrix Experience, respectively.)

Honorable Mention: Honorable Mention: Joan Jett, Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails is a band name for essentially a solo act), Jerry Lee Lewis

5. Ozzy Osbourne

Ozzy Osbourne began his career in Black Sabbath, but he carved out one of the greatest solo careers ever once he left. What makes that even more amazing than it otherwise would be is the fact that no one really expected it. He was so erratic and drug-hazed at the time that it was largely believed he was finished. Quite the contrary, as he would come out swinging with Blizzard of Ozz and never looked back. Osbourne helped redefine hard rock and while these days he is almost self-parody, he’s still able to turn it on and rock like no one’s business once he gets up on stage.

4. David Bowie

David Bowie gets the end over Ozzy simply because he doesn’t have to split his solo legacy with the legacy of his time in a band. Bowie had a few bands but he is almost entirely recognized as a solo act and his incredible lyricism, stage presence, singing voice and theatricality combine to create an almost unmatched persona. Bowie’s career has fun almost sixty years at this point and, terrifyingly, he looks barely forty. How is that possible? His talent and his looks have to be a product of an infernal pact; there is no other explanation.

3. Bruce Springsteen

He’s the Boss, what do you really need to know? I honestly don’t know how much I can add that the other guys haven’t said. He’s blazed a path for solo rock artists that many have followed, though they all remain in his shadow. He’s the complete package; singing, guitar work, songwriting. And he’s so multi-faceted as an artist, which is not as common as you might think. He’s stayed relevant throughout the years by virtue of his talent and impact on the rock scene and will remain so for years to come.

2. Elvis Presley

The King of Rock n’ Roll has that title for a reason, and it wasn’t JUST to sell records. He earned it by completely changing the musical scene. People make jokes about fat Elvis vs. young Elvis and it sometimes seems as if he doesn’t get the same credit that the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the like do. I can’t explain why nor, I doubt, can most other people because he deserves to stand as high (probably higher) than about anyone else.

1. Bob Dylan

I’ve spoken at great length about my love for Dylan, so I won’t repeat myself too much here. He is probably the greatest songwriter of all time and a man who, like many on this list, forever changed the music scene. He’s forged a career by constantly going against the grain and he has a legacy and influence that can’t even begin to be properly quantified. It my eyes, he’s the clear #1.

The Final Word
As always, the last thoughts come from you, the reader. We’re merely unpaid monkeys with typewriters and Wikipedia. Here’s what you need to do: List your Top Five for this week’s topic on the comment section using the following format:

5. Artist – “Song”: Why you chose it
4. Artist – “Song”: Why you chose it
3. Artist – “Song”: Why you chose it
2. Artist – “Song”: Why you chose it
1. Artist – “Song”: Why you chose it


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Jeremy Thomas
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