The 8 Ball 03.16.13: The Top 8 Male Pop Artists
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 03.16.2013
From Michael Jackson and Frank Sinatra to Phil Collins, Justin Timberlake and more, 411's Jeremy Thomas counts down the top 8 male pop artists of all time!
Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Music Zone! I'm your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, I will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You're free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is "wrong" is just silly. With that in mind, let's get right in to it!
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Justin Timberlake makes his long-awaited pop return next week with The 20/20 Experience. The album, his third and the first since 2006, is being anticipated as a potentially-welcome return to the pop field in an era dominated by lackluster dance-pop where the genre is more focused on the offstage antics and low-cut outfits of the new pop queens than anything of substance. Male pop artists have been a relatively rare thing these days where once they ruled the charts. This week I thought we would take a look at the best male solo pop artists and look back to a time when guys stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the ladies of the genre.
Caveat: Just a couple things here. First off, I only considered an artist's solo work because I'm looking specifically at their status as artists on their own, as opposed to a member of a group. Also, we should define exactly what "pop" is, because it can be a very difficult category to quantify. Pop is more than just "music that is popular"; there is a lot of variation within the sound but there are some common characteristics. Pop music generally consists of shorter songs on average, running between three to four minutes as a rule (with variation, obviously) and tends to rely on a traditional verse-chorus-verse structure. Pop music tends to be more melodic in both music and voice and relies on repeated choruses, hooks in order to up the ante on its catchiness. Obviously there is some bleedthrough with rock, R&B and even soul, but I tried to cut it down to pure pop and discounted most of an artist's non-pop contributions. This is why you won't see, for example, Stevie Wonder in the list as most of his best stuff was soul and R&B, leaving his pop music to be more of the "I Just Called to Say I Love You" or "Ebony and Ivory" variety. Obviously there will be some debate on what was and wasn't pop; that's just how it goes.
Just Missing The Cut
#8: Rod Stewart
First up on our list is one of a few guys who started out as rock-oriented but took on a much more pop-flavored style soon after they went solo. As a member of The Jeff Beck Group and Faces in the 1960s and 1970s, Rod Stewart was part of a very rock style that would go on to provide influences to much harder aspects of the genre. And truth be told, his early '70s solo work maintained a rock edge to it; it wasn't until 1975's Atlantic Crossing that Stewart embraced more of a pop sound; it was also the moment when he became a full-on solo artist and split away from Faces for good. Stewart would continue veering back and forth until the early 1980s when he came fully around to the pop genre. Stewart is an icon in the music industry and there are only two things keeping him from going higher; his early wobbling in and out of the genre and the fact that while his pop career is fairly legendary, it is eclipsed quality-wise by his rock work. Still, that's not particularly a statement against his pop artistry; it may underwhelm compared to his edgier efforts but it's still some killer music in its own right.
#7: Billy Joel
Coming in at #7 is the Piano Man. Billy Joel created and recorded some of the greatest pop numbers of the '70s, '80s and '90s. While you rarely hear anything about him today--he almost entirely stopped recording music in 1993--there was a time when Joel was omnipresent in the pop music scene. A six-time Grammy Award winner with over 150 million albums sold, Joel broke out in the '70s with songs that are still amazing to this day like "Piano Man," "Only the Good Die Young" and "Big Shot" before the 1980s drove him to his greatest success. His most successful album, 1983's An Innocent Man, gave us the seminal '80s pop hits "Tell Her About It," "Uptown Girl," "The Longest Time" and "Keeping The Faith" and remains one of my favorite pop albums. Joel wasn't done yet however, and he continued to produce great pop LPs including The Bridge, Storm Front and what is essentially his swan song LP with River of Dreams. Joel brought a barber shop-like quality to pop music as well as an incredible talent for lyrics and composition. The influence of his music can still be felt to this day and to be frank, if he ever comes out of retirement I'll be happy to see what he still has to bring to the table.
#6: Justin Timberlake
Justin Timberlake is the newest artist on this list, which may be a sad state on male pop artists when you consider that it's been over ten years since he released his first solo album. Timberlake was a part of the boy band craze of the mid-to-late 1990s that was spurred by Lou Pearlman and as a member of 'NSync he was on top of the world. The former Mouseketeer's star was destined for much higher things however, and after 'NSync went on their permanent hiatus he struck out on his own. Timberlake has the complete package when it comes to music; he has the voice, the business acumen, the songwriting skills, the ability to mix substantive content with radio-friendly pop-hooks and the undeniable stage presence. Timberlake would very likely be ranked higher if he hadn't taken nearly a decade off to conquer the rest of the entertainment world but as it stands he only has two albums, plus the third that releases next week. Justified established Timberlake's solo credentials and then FutureSex/LoveSounds blew critics and audiences away. Timberlake is the kind of artist who can, without hyperbole, change the game in terms of pop music if he so desires. I expect him to remain an important and vital part of pop for quite some time.
#5: Phil Collins
Phil Collins got his start in the prog rock band Genesis, but his solo career was by and large pure pop music. And when he was at the top of his game (as he often was), there were few who could hold a candle to him. Collins officially transitioned into full-fledged pop in 1984 with "Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)," which served as the theme song for the film of the same name and earned him his first Grammy Award. Collins followed that up with No Jacket Required, a pop behemoth that remains one of the best-selling albums of all time. That album was one of those rare LPs where every single song was potentially single-worthy and it remains a landmark of the genre. Collins would continue to pump out great song after song, with ...But Seriously providing him another #1 single in the socially-conscious "Another Day in Paradise" not to mention the greatness of "Something Happened on the Way to Heaven" and "I Wish It Would Rain Down." While ...But Seriously was the last sales juggernaut for Collins he would continue producing great pop through 2002 and in 2010 he brought his voice to covers of 60s Motown and soul songs with Going Back. Collins has since retired but his legacy within the genre is absolutely undeniable.
#4: Frank Sinatra
You almost want to hesitate when referring to Frank Sinatra as a pop artist. Certainly Ol' Blue-Eyes' style of music seems to have very little in common with today's pop hits. But at its core, Sinatra's songs have the same background as the pop we know today in terms of the length, the song structure, the hooks and the melodic style. Sinatra is traditional pop to be sure, but he's pop all the same. Sinatra was one of the crossover stars of the Golden age, able to sing and act with equal skill and charm. He had a stage presence that just radiated and while a lot of people think of him as an actor first, I've always thought of his singing ahead of his acting; that was where he got his start after all and in his legendary career he recorded just shy of sixty albums. The man worked with an unbelievably diverse group of people including his Rat Pack compatriots, Luther Vandross, Gloria Estefan, Liza Minnelli, Neil Diamond, Stevie Wonder and many more. While many pop artists find themselves left behind when the fickle listening public starts to change their tastes, Sinatra was able to revive his career again and again. He was an absolute legend of pop and you can see his influence in every person on this or any other list of pop artists.
#3: Elton John
Elton John is a legend among songwriters and pop artists. The UK-born music star has a career that is fifty years and going; in that time he has released thirty studio albums that have sold over 250 million copies. John and his longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin are responsible for some of the most well-known modern pop standards bar none; "Candle in the Wind," which has been written and recorded twice to honor both Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana, is the best-selling single of all-time in any genre. But it is hardly even his best song and a list of his best musical works would be nearly impossible to boil down no matter how big you made it. "Your Song," "Tiny Dancer," "The Bitch is Back," "Crocodile Rock," "I'm Still Standing," "Don't Go Breaking My Heart"...that's just a tiny selection of the amazing songs in John's career. He has six Grammy Awards, and is just one Emmy Award shy of the legendary "GOTE" status that comes from winning a Grammy, Emmy, Tony and Oscar; the last of those was accompanied with a Golden Globe for "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" from The Lion King. Elton is an essential part of pop music and you quite simply can't discuss the genre without including him.
Prince is often known these days more for his antics, his anti-Internet stance and his idiosyncrasies. However, none of that takes away even a hint of his legacy as one of the greatest pop artists of all time. Born Prince Rogers Nelson, he developed an interest in music at an early age and found success in 1979 with his self-titled LP. Prince has often crossed into other genres; he has brought elements of funk, rock and R&B to pop music and his influence in the genre is almost impossible to quantify. The soundtrack to Purple Rain remains one of the greatest albums of all-time and has sold 20 million copies by itself. While his film endeavors may not be great, there is nary a work in his established discography that isn't great or at least very good. He helped bring pop solo acts to the forefront in the 1980s and despite constantly making moves that would be death to lesser artists (see: changing his name to a symbol and declaring the internet to be "over" in 2010) he remains one of the most respected pop stars of all-time and deservedly so. If you don't believe me just look at the reaction across the very internet that he loves to slam when he appeared at the Grammy Awards this year. There is no doubt in my mind that he belongs right near the top of this list.
#1: Michael Jackson
This should have been a foregone conclusion from the moment people saw this week's topic. Michael Jackson's music is just about the epitome of pop music. People can talk about his downfall due to the sex abuse allegations and his increasingly bizarre behavior before his death or the constantly shameful actions of his family, but as I have discussed before I have always been very adamant about separating an artist's work from their personal lives. Setting the Jackson 5 era aside (remember, I'm only looking at solo work), Jackson was an amazing pop artist whether you talk about his early solo career, the revolutionary era in the 1980s with Thriller and Bad all the way through to Dangerous in the early '90s or the new content on HIStory and even his relatively lesser work on Invincible. Even his posthumous album of unreleased works in Michael, while not very good for Jackson's work, is better than 99% of the pop music that came out in 2010. Jackson had an unbelievable stage presence and was every bit the consummate showman and performer. When discussing male pop artists, the discussion pretty much begins and ends with the King of Pop.
MUSIC VIDEO A-GO-GO
This week's music video has nothing to do with the topic; I just think it's hilarious. Well, I suppose it's comedy-pop so there you go. Check out the always-amazing comedy duo of Garfunkel and Oates and their ode to how women end relationships, "The Fadeaway." It's funny because it's true!
And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don't forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.