As the popularity of different genres has become more widespread, listeners have been blessed with a huge explosion of diverse talents and bold originality, as the most influential musicians have blazed their own trail across the pop culture landscape. We’ve picked 30 artists who have changed the course of music history forever.
30: The Stooges
Garage-rock pioneers The Stooges – particularly their singer and wild-eyed provocateur, Iggy Pop – were the very antithesis of hippie utopianism, singing songs of brutal indignation and world-weary nihilism. Forged in the steely streets of Detroit, the pairing of Ron Asheton’s raucous hard-rock guitar riffs and Iggy Pop’s banshee howl caused a stir with the underground rock fraternity. The Stooges’ initial trio of albums – The Stooges (1969), Fun House (1970) and the David Bowie-helmed Raw Power (1973) – are proto-punk classics which would go on to influence everyone from Ramones to Sex Pistols. If any band was punk before its time, it was The Stooges.
Must hear: 1969
29: The Notorious B.I.G.
Evoking the streets of New York City through his deep-toned rhymes, larger-than-life gangsta rapper Biggie Smalls was hard to beat. Slamming his schoolteachers for failing to recognise his talent (Juicy) and taunting his West Coast rivals with a G-Funk player’s anthem (Big Poppa), the rapper’s death came far too soon. Musically, what he left us was golden – Biggie’s classic albums Ready To Die and Life After Death still offer aspiring MCs a lyrical masterclass in visceral storytelling.
Must hear: Hypnotize
28: Lou Reed
From a seminal stint in the Andy Warhol-sponsored art rock group The Velvet Underground to the deviant rock aesthetic of his solo years, Lou Reed was for many years a transgressive pariah (ask David Bowie – he produced 1972’s Transformer album and frequently celebrated Reed’s controversial lyrical subject matter). However, it was the 1989 album New York that saw Reed’s strengths coalesce into a series of novelistic depictions of urban alienation and social decay. A literary rock hero among the world’s most influential musicians.
Must hear: Walk On The Wild Side
27: Otis Redding
Until his death in 1967, Otis Redding took soul music in new directions. With his Monterey Pop Festival performance channelling rock’n’roll fervour, the possibilities seemed boundless – the Georgia-born singer was poised to fuse soul with folk influences and even psychedelia (see his final recording, the timeless (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay, so it’s a real tragedy he was taken from us so early, in a plane crash at the age of 26. The musical inroads Redding made would later be re-explored by Sly Stone and Marvin Gaye. Without Otis, however, we’d never have discovered what’s going on.
Must hear: (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay
26: The Doors
If there’s one man who popularised the notion of the doomed rock’n’roll poet, it’s Jim Morrison. Frontman of The Doors, Morrison’s ever-rebellious spirit, along with his sensual baritone and shamanistic stage antics, saw him evangelise a poetic philosophy never seen before in rock music. Whereas Bob Dylan built worlds out of surrealistic wordplay, Morrison brought a darker vision to life through characters such as The Lizard King, supported by the jazz-influenced psychedelic blues of Ray Manzarek (keyboards), Robby Krieger (guitar) and John Densmore (drums). More than just an icon, Jim Morrison’s early death robbed us of one of the most acclaimed musicians of his era, an inspiration for acts as diverse as Joy Division and INXS.
Must hear: Break On Through (To The Other Side)
25: Sex Pistols
There’s little to say about Sex Pistols that hasn’t already been said. So let’s cut to the chase: the Pistols were hugely influential in 70s Britain, without whom the punk revolution would not exist. After Johnny Rotten’s clarion call (Anarchy In The UK), the whole musical landscape of the late 70s and early 80s was re-drawn, with the band’s mix of noisy distortion and political satire (God Save The Queen) setting the blueprint for all to follow. From politicised post-punk to intelligent synth-pop, it all started with Sex Pistols.
Must hear: Pretty Vacant
24: Daft Punk
The helmeted French house DJs Daft Punk were a futuristic hurricane that blew away the tacky Eurodance dominating the early 90s club scene. Appearing like sci-fi B-movie overlords, their hook-heavy dance beats (Da Funk) and use of vocoder (Around The World) elevated disco-tinged influences and reprogrammed pop music with game-changing albums such as 2001’s Discovery and 2013’s Random Access Memories. Appealing to club-goers, rock fans and hip-hop heads alike, the best Daft Punk songs taught a whole generation to fall in love with house music all over again.
Must hear: Around The World
23: Neil Young
With his down-at-heel folk-rock and his skin-crawlingly scratchy guitar solos, Neil Young was in fine form throughout the 70s with an impressive run of albums that included everything from untouchable country-tinged ballads (Heart Of Gold) to punk-inspired odes to oblivion (Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)). A prickly but much-needed presence on the music scene, the Canadian singer-songwriter’s vocal delivery and lo-fi, swampy production proved hugely influential on the likes of Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder, leading Young to be christened “The Godfather Of Grunge” – one of many garlands that have long cemented his place among the most influential musicians of all time.
Must hear: Heart Of Gold
22: The Smiths
Beating Britpop to the punch by a decade, The Smiths were arguably the most influential British guitar band of the 80s. Thanks to Morrissey’s cynical humour (Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now) and Johnny Marr’s jangling riffs (What Difference Does It Make?), the Manchester foursome expressly captured the world-weariness of Thatcher’s Britain and evoked a melancholia that went on to influence emo punk acts such as Fall Out Boy. Just like peeking into a misfit’s diary, Morrissey’s lyrics still resonate today.
Must hear: There Is A Light That Never Goes Out
21: Aretha Franklin
The best Aretha Franklin songs brought the power of gospel singing to soul music and 60s R&B. Undoubtedly The Queen Of Soul, Franklin’s uplifting covers of Otis Redding’s Respect and the Burt Bacharach and Hal David-penned I Say A Little Prayer instantly became the definitive versions. Meanwhile, her celebration of womanhood (You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman continue to inspire female singers to this day. No Aretha, no Tina, no Whitney, no Beyoncé. It’s as simple as that.
Must hear: I Say A Little Prayer
20: Pet Shop Boys
When lyricist Neil Tennant and keyboardist Chris Lowe hit No.1 in the UK in 1986 with West End Girls, it kick-started a synth-pop dominance that culminated in the duo squaring off against rival producers Stock Aitken Waterman. Through hits such as the satirical Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots Of Money) and the danceable Latin pop of Domino Dancing, the best Pet Shop Boys songs brought intelligence and wit to pop music. Among the most influential musicians of the 80s, they remain treasured today for giving a voice to LGBTQ+ communities and becoming a national institution.
Must hear: West End Girls
The disco-era sound of Chic– a blend of Nile Rodgers’ hook-laden guitar riffs and Bernard Edwards’ fluid bass – proved inspirational to many musicians. You can hear their influence on such artists as Duran Duran’s new wave pop (The Wild Boys) and on David Bowie’s early 80s volte-face (Let’s Dance). Later, the sampling era meant echoes of Nile Rodgers’ riffs reverberated in genres such as French house (Modjo’s Lady) and hip-hop (Fatman Scoop’s Be Faithful). In many ways, Chic proved that disco never dies.
Must hear: Le Freak
18: Joni Mitchell
Across her expansive body of work, folk singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell has given poetic expression to themes of romanticism and longing. From environmentally conscious protest songs (Big Yellow Taxi) to dreamy meditations on the coming of age (Both Sides, Now), the Canadian musician emerged from the late 60s hippie scene to inspire countless female musicians across the years, most notably Laura Marling and Taylor Swift. Paving the way for women to express their innermost emotions, Joni Mitchell’s place among most influential musicians of all time is assured.
Must Hear: A Case Of You
Radiohead’s evolution from post-grunge upstarts (Creep) to electronic innovators (Idioteque) easily marks them out as one of the most influential British bands since The Beatles. Regarded today as doomer icons, the band’s near-apocalyptic soundscapes and Thom Yorke’s anguished falsetto on albums such as The Bends and OK Computer went on to inspire the likes of Muse and Coldplay. From Kid A onwards, however, Radiohead set the bar for any band who wants to push the sonic barriers of music, and they continue to soundtrack our times better than anyone else.
Must hear: Paranoid Android
16: Joy Division/New Order
Joy Division’s short-lived reign saw the Manchester icons inspire a wave of cerebral post-punk musicians, from maudlin goth-rockers to introspective dream-poppers. Shortly after frontman Ian Curtis’ death, the band’s remaining musicians regrouped as New Order and did as much to define the 80s as they had the late 70s. Whereas Joy Division evoked the dystopic realities of urban life (Disorder) the Chicago house-infused experimentation of New Order was equally revolutionary (Blue Monday).
Must hear: Blue Monday
From its choppy guitar riff and explosive drum break, it was obvious Smells Like Teen Spirit would change music forever. Spearheading the alternative rock explosion of the 90s, Nirvana kicked open the door not just to grunge but also to pop-punk, third-wave ska and even nu metal. Their legacy is still ongoing: the power of Kurt Cobain’s cathartic songwriting continues to appeal to younger generations, as Post Malone’s 2020 Nirvana livestream tribute proved. A truly historic band.
Must hear: Smells Like Teen Spirit
14: Stevie Wonder
Motown legend Stevie Wonder went from 60s boy wonder to pioneering sonic innovator in the 70s. From Music Of My Mind to Songs In The Key Of Life, the legendary songwriter used synthesisers to diversify the sound of soul music, dabbling in Pet Sounds/Sgt Pepper-esque studio experimentation and throwing in funk, jazz, gospel and even reggae along the way. That Wonder overcame his visual impairment to become a musical genius is one of the greatest triumphs over adversity in the history of pop.
Must hear: Superstition
13: Fleetwood Mac
From Peter Green-led blues-rock to stadium-ready pop-rock, Fleetwood Mac’s rise had them soaring to astonishing heights. The band’s mid-70s line-up was arguably their most famous – with Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie sharing vocals, John McVie on bass and Mick Fleetwood on drums – and, despite multiple relationship breakdowns, all collaborated to produce their 1977 masterpiece, Rumours. Bewitching audiences with quasi-spiritual live experiences, it was Stevie Nicks’ gypsy-queen persona that helped carve out a new path for women in rock’n’roll, marking her out as one of the most influential musicians among a group full of them.
Must hear: Dreams
12: Michael Jackson
A singer, dancer and showbiz legend, Michael Jackson was the ultimate pop icon. With Motown DNA in his blood, he emerged from a childhood fronting Jackson 5 to establish himself as one of the most influential musicians of all time, starting with his debut solo album, Off The Wall. Jackson’s star rose exponentially with 1982’s Thriller – a global bestseller full of instantly classic hit singles – that saw him cross genres and redefine the pop template for a whole new era. Oft-imitated, never bettered.
Must hear: Billie Jean
11: Bob Dylan
Vaunted as the voice of a generation, Bob Dylan opened the floodgates for the counterculture to come streaming through. From his Woody Guthrie-inspired folk poetry (Blowin’ In The Wind) to his hyper-literate take on roots rock (Visions Of Johanna), Dylan influenced rivals such The Beatles to be more lyrically ambitious and socially attuned. Without his penmanship or his ballsiness to “go electric”, we arguably wouldn’t have had the folk-rock boom or even the Laurel Canyon songwriting explosion of the early 70s. A true giant.
Must hear: Like A Rolling Stone
Arguably the biggest of all female megastars, Madonna – The Queen Of Pop – set the bar for women in music to aspire to. With hits ranging from the dance-pop Into The Groove to the gospel-tinged Like A Prayer, Madonna constantly reinvented herself to meet new styles and trends. Never afraid of courting controversy, she also consolidated the importance of fashion in defining mainstream pop. Madonna’s enduring influence on both the look and the sound of female pop artists can be seen in the work of Lady Gaga and Dua Lipa.
Must hear: Like A Prayer
German electro voyagers Kraftwerk pioneered the use of synthesisers and electronic beats from the mid-70s onwards. The band’s innovations – such as on the single The Model – set new sonic boundaries for music, inspiring a slew of New Wave-era synth-pop groups who followed in their wake. Most importantly, Kraftwerk remain one of the most important artists in electronic music, their sound leaving an indelible mark on the evolution of later genres, particularly on hip-hop, techno and house music. Without Kraftwerk, the club scene as we know it today would not exist.
Must hear: The Robots
8: Bob Marley
After his breakthrough in 1973, Jamaican-born singer Bob Marley became a household name, imbuing reggae with rock-star allure and a magnetic stage presence. Proving that reggae was about more than a series of novelty hits, Marley ensured his place as one of the most influential musicians of all time by elevating the genre to a space where it received both critical and commercial acclaim. His Rastafarian-inspired lyrics espoused a humanitarian, easy-going worldview that made him a global icon for peace. Upon his death, in 1981, the dreadlocked superstar had become part of reggae’s wider role in the rise of hip-hop, and remains an idol for those seeking to overcome racial barriers through the power of music.
Must hear: Get Up, Stand Up
7: Kate Bush
With a sweep of her famous white dress, the High Priestess Of Progressive Pop, Kate Bush, ushered in a new dawn for female musicians. Floating onto the music scene like an otherworldly apparition in 1978 with her No.1 hit, Wuthering Heights, Bush’s unusual vocal range meant her pixie-like presence was felt throughout much of the next decade. Leaving a legacy of experimental art-pop records, Kate Bush’s beguiling femininity and naked emotion conjures ethereal beauty like a Celtic mother goddess, inspiring countless female artists to this day.
Must hear: Wuthering Heights
A genre-defyingly eccentric talent, Prince’s role as the MTV generation’s most unpredictable pop star cannot be ignored. Unlike most other artists, Prince can claim to have been one of the most influential musicians in almost any genre: from Beatles-esque psychedelia (Raspberry Beret) to sweeping power balladry (Purple Rain), the Minneapolis genius fused everything from rock’n’roll, soul, gospel, R&B, synth-funk and New Wave to flamboyant extremes, redefining attitudes to fashion and sexuality along the way. With a flair for eclecticism and embodying a Hendrixian virtuosity on guitar, Prince had, before his death in 2016, influenced everyone from rock fans and aspiring MCs, to the neo-soul sisters of the 90s.
Must hear: 1999
5: Pink Floyd
In the 70s, progressive rock giants Pink Floyd broke the mould with albums like The Dark Side Of The Moon and Wish You Were Here, which saw them engineer a state-of-the-art sound of grandeur. Not only did their albums sell in vast quantities, but Pink Floyd’s inventive marriage of socially conscious lyricism (Money) with studio-based artistry and aural ambience (Shine On You Crazy Diamond) significantly broadened music’s sonic horizons. Masters of the concept album, Pink Floyd’s musical prowess had a far-reaching impact and inspired musicians with the new possibilities of sound production.
Must hear: Shine On You Crazy Diamond
4: Led Zeppelin
In their respective fields, each Led Zeppelin member sits in the pantheon of most influential musicians of all time; together, as the greatest rock band of all time, their majestic hard rock sound is unlikely to be dethroned any time soon. Mixing blues-rock with old English magic, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant’s songwriting ran the full gamut from epic balladry (Stairway To Heaven) to worldly exoticism (Kashmir). Meanwhile, the stentorian rhythm section of John Bonham on drums and John Paul Jones on bass propelled rock’n’roll into heavier pastures. Laying the foundations for what would later evolve into heavy metal, every guitar band worth their salt owes their career to Led Zeppelin.
Must hear: Immigrant Song
3: Jimi Hendrix
When Jimi Hendrix arrived in the UK in 1966, no one could have predicted the earth-scorching impact he would have. Leaving other virtuosos like Eric Clapton in the dust, Hendrix’s bluesy proficiency on guitar and his exemplary use of riffs and shredding (Voodoo Child) was truly jaw-dropping. Seemingly overnight, Hendrix transformed into a rock icon who rewrote the rulebook through his formidable use of distortion, and he remains one of the most influential musicians ever to pick up a guitar. The fact that the instrument never sounded the same after Hendrix plugged in his amp is a testament to his talent.
Must hear: Voodoo Child
2: The Beatles
The Beatles have always been, and remain, a phenomenon. The timeless songwriting of Lennon-McCartney (Strawberry Fields Forever, A Day In The Life) and impeccable musicianship of George Harrison and Ringo Starr continues to inspire millions. With an eye for cultural relevance, The Beatles’ exploration of multiple genres – moving beyond rock’n’roll to encompass Indian music and psychedelia – opened doors for pop music which have never been closed. And that’s without mentioning their artistic daring and fearless studio experimentation. What The Beatles achieved in their ten years together remains unprecedented and awe-inspiring.
Must hear: Strawberry Fields Forever
1: David Bowie
Nobody changed music as much as art rock chameleon David Bowie. A master provocateur confronting sexual conformity with his androgynous looks, Bowie’s ingenious personas (glam rock alien Ziggy Stardust, the steely nobility of the Thin White Duke) led the way in inspiring others to meld fashion, theatre and performance art with popular music. Even in death, Bowie composed his own elegy, with his final album, ★, immortalising him forevermore as the world’s definitive artist. Turning his hand to every genre in vogue, Bowie easily tops our list of the most influential musicians of all time. His influence will be felt for generations to come.
Must hear: “Heroes”
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