When you’re talking about the Greatest of All Time in music, the same names tend to come up — The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Elvis, James Brown, The Rolling Stones, etc.
Those artists, for the most part, crafted different styles of music. But what if you separated them. We chose to major music genres and debated who was the best of the best in each. Sub-genres did not count. So, no best grunge, heavy metal or funk. And we decided not to pretend we know all that much about classical music.
Instead, we broke down the genres of rock, soul, reggae, country, folk, pop, jazz, blues, hip hop, and electronic music. The results of our G.O.A.T. for each genre may surprise you or (gasp) drive you mad. But what else is new?
Blues: Muddy Waters
Let’s start with the blues, the genre probably most responsible for influencing the genre the world would come to know as rock and roll. There’s B.B. King, the artist who, perhaps, comes to mind first when you think of the blues. Bessie Smith opened the doors for every female blues artist who came after her. Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan kept the genre popular when it began to fade. And of course, Robert Johnson is the most mythological figure maybe in all of music history. That’s not to mention, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, Son House, W.C. Handly, Willie Dixon, Albert King, Freddie King, so on and so on. But we’re going with Muddy Waters, who turned amplified electric blues into an art form and, thanks to a trip overseas during the 1950s, inspired the artists who would spark the British Invasion.
Runners-up: Robert Johnson, B.B. King, Bessie Smith, Howlin’ Wolf
Country: Merle Haggard
If we were going with the country artist who had the biggest impact on music as a whole, we’d go with Johnny Cash. If we wanted the most beloved, it might be Dolly Parton. The one with the most hits, then George Strait. The most influential would have to be Hank Williams or Jimmie Rodgers. But if we’re looking for the artist who best defines the history of country music and influenced the genre’s future the most? It’s Haggard, who remains the best songwriter the genre has ever seen, inspiring a countless number of country singers who followed.
Runners-up: Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Hank Williams, Garth Brooks
We get it. Kraftwerk isn’t the sexy choice. Daft Punk, The Prodigy, and The Chemical Brothers are way cooler. And artists such as the Pet Shop Boys, Giorgio Moroder, and Brian Eno did exceptional things with electronic music. But none of it would have happened without Kraftwerk. It can be hard sometimes to pinpoint a single pioneer of a genre. But that’s Kraftwerk, a band that influenced EVERYTHING that came after.
Runners-up: Daft Punk, Donna Summer, Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys
Folk: Bob Dylan
We were tempted to be different here. It wouldn’t have been too hard given the tremendous influence of Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie, There’s also Joni Mitchell’s groundbreaking arrival as a confessional singer-songwriter and Paul Simon’s unrivaled ability as a lyricist. But how do you go against Bob Dylan? He’s not just the greatest folk artist of all-time, but probably the greatest single American music artist of all time.
Runners-up: Leadbelly, Joni Mitchell, Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez
It’s a debate that can randomly heat up any street corner in urban American. Who is the greatest rapper of all time? If technical skills speak loudest, perhaps you go with Biggie or Eminem. Cultural impact suggests Tupac Shakur is it. But perhaps few changed the lyrical storytelling game like Rakim or KRS-One. In the end, you’re looking for the total package — skills, a body of work, impact, and influence. In that sense, it’s a two-horse race between Jay-Z and Nas. You can’t go wrong with either. Jay wins out in the “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately” category. But Nas is still responsible for the greatest rap album of all time. It’s hard to overlook that.
Runners-up: Jay-Z, 2pac, The Notorious B.I.G., Rakim
Jazz: Miles Davis
There are three clear names on the Mount Rushmore of jazz — Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington. The fourth is up for grabs between names like Coltrane, Parker, Holiday, Gillespie and Monk. No one did more in the development of the genre than Armstrong. And from a composing standpoint, Ellington is unmatched. But Miles Davis most defines the genre, becoming a pop culture icon whose legend still looms large.
Runners-up: Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane
Time to upset a lot of people. First, let’s define what we mean by pop. We’re not simply talking about music that’s popular. We’re looking at the genre, defined by short, simple songs built around a melodic (and often catchy) hook. And we get it, Prince is probably the greatest pop genius of all time and Michael Jackson is likely the genre’s biggest pop star. But we’re going with Madonna, maybe the greatest female music artist not named Aretha Franklin who made great music while also becoming an icon in the fashion, dance and gay communities.
Runners-up: Michael Jackson, Prince, Taylor Swift, Frank Sinatra
R&B/Soul: Stevie Wonder
A genre with several of its greatest figures ranking among the most important musicians of all time. Few would argue against James Brown, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, The Supremes or Otis Redding. But no one really embodies the term musical genius quite like Stevie Wonder. At his peak (pretty much the entire decade of the 1970s), Wonder’s work is without rival.
Runners-up: James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye
Reggae: Bob Marley
The easiest choice to make, as Bob Marley is as important as any musician in history to his respective genre. But we should also praise other artists responsible for spreading reggae’s popularity around the world like Jimmy Cliff and Toots and the Maytals. The other two founding members of The Wailers — Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston — also deserve mention, as the group set the standard for reggae music. Still, it’s Marley who remains reggae’s biggest icon by a wide margin.
Runners-up: Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff, Toots and the Maytals, Bunny Wailer
Rock: Chuck Berry
We’ll close things out by getting a little crazy. How can we justify not choosing The Beatles or Elvis as the greatest rock artist of all time? That’s because Chuck Berry gave the genre everything it needed to become the ultimate musical art form. Berry didn’t necessarily invent rock and roll. But he’s the guy who put it all together, giving everyone from The Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix to Led Zeppelin and, yes, The Beatles the blueprint moving forward.
Runners-up: The Beatles, Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix