Top 20 Musicians of All Time, in Any Genre: The Complete List

Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven
Joseph Karl Stieler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Yeah, yeah, we know. The top 20 greatest musicians of all time, in any genre. Where do we get off? Well, we'll tell you where we get off — at Accuracy Station. Our team of writers listened to thousands and thousands of hours of music for this list, digging deep into the annals of history and exploring the sounds of the entire globe. We painstakingly researched the shit out of practically all music ever made, modern and classical, popular and experimental, chart-topping and obscure. You may not agree with every artist on this list, but one thing is for certain: You're going to respect the hell out of it. -Ben Westhoff

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Top 20 Musicians of All Time, in Any Genre: The Complete List

20. Johannes Sebastian Bach

Bach was a total badass. His name is practically synonymous with Baroque music, and by the turn of the 18th century he had become its master composer. His choir, instrument, and orchestral arrangements are painstakingly technical and well-organized, and he was a compositional powerhouse. Over his lifetime, he produced over 200 cantatas, concertos, and suites, which are still considered among the most beautifully arranged pieces of all time. Not exactly a lightweight. -Chris Walker

Top 20 Musicians of All Time, in Any Genre: The Complete List

19. The Rolling Stones

They may have claimed "It's only rock n' roll," but the music of the Rolling Stones helped define a generation. Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and the crew came to represent the edgier side of the British Invasion, serving as countercultural symbols of youthful rebellion and sexual liberation during a time of sweeping social change. By 1965 the Stones were dominating charts around the world. We owe much of today's pop-rock structures to the music they pioneered. -Chris Walker

Top 20 Musicians of All Time, in Any Genre: The Complete List

18. Xian Xinghai

Chinese composer Xian Xinghai's 1939 epic Yellow River Cantata was written as a protest against the Japanese occupation of Manchuria. His seminal composition, it is a moving and patriotic call for solidarity. But Xinghai's legacy also includes over 300 other works, and his unique perspective on western classical traditions challenged his contemporaries to move beyond imitating European composers. In the process, he gave form to a distinctive Chinese art form that has guided generations of Eastern musicians. -Chris Walker

Top 20 Musicians of All Time, in Any Genre: The Complete List

17. Notorious B.I.G.

The man born Christopher Wallace brought a swagger to hip-hop that other rappers today — fifteen years after his death — still can't touch. Considered by many to be the greatest MC ever, Biggie told complex and emotional stories through intricate rhymes that sounded effortless. Never contrived and never soft, he remains beloved by underground and mainstream fans alike. Just as his career was taking off, he was killed in a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles, the details of which are still disputed. -Chris Walker

Top 20 Musicians of All Time, in Any Genre: The Complete List

16. Bob Marley

Reggae singer-songwriter Bob Marley has become a college-stoner icon, but in his embrace of the Rastafari movement he was as much a fighter as a lover. His political and social calls to action, which urged repatriation to Africa, are as galvanizing today as they were 40 years ago. Though he hailed from Jamaica, he remains perhaps the cultural icon of island countries and the African diaspora around the world.

-Rebecca Haithcoat

Top 20 Musicians of All Time, in Any Genre: The Complete List

15. Madonna

When asked by Dick Clark on American Bandstand in 1983 what her dreams were, a young Madonna replied, "To rule the world." She proceeded to do just that, releasing eleven blockbuster studio albums to date and becoming the world's top-selling female recording artist ever. The mother of reinvention, she has endlessly reworked her image and style, affecting our culture in myriad, rippling ways. Though she's sometimes criticized for following fads in her personal life, when it comes to her music the culture usually mirrors her. -Rebecca Haithcoat

Top 20 Musicians of All Time, in Any Genre: The Complete List

14. Caetano Veloso

Branded the Bob Dylan of Brazil, Caetano Veloso co-founded Tropicalia, the progressive poetry, theater and music movement that helped define Latin America's psychedelic '60s. Alongside his fellow conspirator, Gilberto Gil, Veloso fused Bossa Nova, African rhythms, and acid-drenched acoustic guitar with a political consciousness that found him censored, banned, incarcerated and eventually exiled by the country's military dictatorship. The recipe was complex but simple: melodies as gorgeous as a Copacabana beach layered atop of a philosophical wit exposing his homeland's most gross imbalances. -Jeff Weiss

Top 20 Musicians of All Time, in Any Genre: The Complete List

13. Fela Kuti

Raised in Lagos, schooled in London, and radicalized in L.A. at the height of the Black Panther movement, Fela Kuti pioneered Afro-Beat — a blend of James Brown, Nigerian highlife, and pan-African ideals. A decade and a half after his death, he's the subject of a Tony-nominated Broadway musical, two sons are gifted heirs to his sound, and he's a sub-Saharan icon almost on par with Mandela. Yet beyond the myth are the songs: jazzy 12-minute sagas with a timeless sense of rebellion, fearlessness, and funk. -Jeff Weiss

Top 20 Musicians of All Time, in Any Genre: The Complete List

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12. Miles Davis

Somehow in his more than forty years of recording, Miles Davis never drifted into irrelevancy. He was an intense and spiritual figure who refused to be pigeon-holed by any single style of expression. Through his trumpet playing and band leadership, he constantly sought new ways to manifest improvised performance. This rejection of the status quo put him at the forefront of major developments in jazz and rock last century - including bebop, cool jazz, fusion, and even jazz hip-hop. No one else in music can claim such a long reign as the King of Cool. -Chris Walker

Top 20 Musicians of All Time, in Any Genre: The Complete List

11. Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday didn't write that many of her songs, but her gift, like that of an inspired classical musician, was in the interpretation. Her voice summoned that which was dramatic, urgent and necessary as if from the center of the earth. Today's politically minded performers could take inspiration from her protest music; she knew that imagery and real soul impact listeners more strongly than corny, overly-dogmatic messages. -Ben Westhoff



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