Winter Jazzfest 2011
Winter Jazzfest 2011 - Friday

My Top 20

RadioheadOh Lordy.

These days, The Times seems keen on lobbing up fungos to hit out of the park of musical debate. First, there was the ill-advised critics roundtable/gripe session surrounding this past fall's White Light Festival. Now, Tony Tommasini has taken it upon himself to rank the Top 10 Composers of all time. Why? Because he thought it would be "fun."

Predictably, Tony's purview is limited to the world of western classical music: his first (obvious) choice is Bach. Even so, he seems overwhelmed by the task at hand, fumbling about for just what criteria he should use.  Should influence matter, or just the works themselves? Do you include Chopin, even though he only wrote for the piano? (Nope.) What about living composers? (Out.) 

To his credit, Tony has asked readers to submit their own Top 10, along with suggestions and criticisms of his own selections. As of Friday night, nearly 400 readers have seen fit to share their own variously informed musings.  

Well, as you might imagine, I find Tony's exercise a bit limiting. So, in an even more ridiculous venture, I've decided to put together my own list, including not only classical composers, but musicians from all the other genres found in these pages: jazz, rock, pop, soul, etc. Stupid, I know. 

In order to incorporate all of this music, I'm doubling the size of my list to 20. As for criteria, I'm evaluating based on the following key qualities, in no particular order:

  • Emotion
  • Invention
  • Clarity
  • Legacy
  • Visceral power

No doubt, this criteria is completely arbitrary and eliminates entire genres of music that I love: bluegrass, indie rock, new/experimental music. It also removes from consideration anyone who doesn't write/improvise their own music, so goodbye Ella, Frank, and all the great classical soloists. It is also, to be sure, a highly personal list, informed solely by my own unique and limited experience.

As it happens, more than half of my selections still land within the realm of "classical" music, which I honestly believe is less a result of my personal bias than a legitimate side-by-side comparison according to the above criteria. That debate could fill it's own lengthy post.

Anyway, here goes:

Beethoven - The Alpha and the Omega. Peerless in the realms of symphony, sonata, concerto and string quartet. And the Missa Solemnis is simply the greatest work of sacred music ever written.

Brahms - Second only to Beethoven in both symphonic and chamber music. Not to mention the German Requiem.

Bach - Quiet majesty; drafted the template for classical music as we know it. Wrote more music than most people can carry.

Wagner - Love him or hate him, Wagner invented modernism. Belongs here for The Ring alone.

Bruckner - Nine gargantuan symphonies that soar like cathedrals.

Mahler - Last of the Romantics. Nine (or ten) immortal symphonies that are only now getting their due.

Bartok - The greatest string quartets since Beethoven. The Concerto for Orchestra is the darling of the concert hall. And, he's one of the great champions of folk music. 

Stravinsky - Rite, Firebird, Petruscka, Rake's Progress: there's no getting around him.

Messiaen - The most ecstatic composer of all time. Genius of orchestra, opera - and, of course, his own instrument: the organ.

Puccini - Boheme. Butterfly. Tosca. Say what you will: the music is astonishing, by any measure. 

John Adams - Greatest classical composer of our time. Equally at home in the operatic and symphonic worlds.

Stockhausen - Eccentric and undigestable, prolific and thrilling. Responsible for what we now know as electronic music. 

Charlie Parker - Inventor of be-bop; essentially gave birth to jazz as we know it.

Miles Davis - From Kind of Blue to Bitches Brew, Miles could do it all.

John Coltrane - Giant Steps, Love Supreme - 'Trane was The Messenger.

James Brown - The Godfather of Soul. Greatest showman of the 20th Century.

Jimi Hendrix - Greatest rock guitarist of all time, even if his career was cut stupidly short.

Prince - The most dynamic rock composer and performer of our time.

Michael Jackson - The King of Pop, 'nuff said

Radiohead - Took a huge risk incorporating jazz and electronica into their music, and became the greatest band of our time. 

Of course, there are many, many more musicians I could have included. Some (Britten, Janáček, Ligeti, Reich) were regrettable casualties of space. Others (Mozart, Schubert, Verdi) were more prolific than inspiring. Still others (Schoenberg, Cage, Elliott Carter) earn respect more for their intellectual contributions than the actual music that they wrote. And those are just the classical peeps. 

Anyway, there you have it. Comments, corrections and criticisms are all encouraged. Especially from you, Tony.