11. Buddy Holly / the Crickets, 20 Golden Greats
’50s rock’s shock and power is a restless rebel roar divorced from precedent, but the youthful innocence for which it’s best remembered has but one artistic genius on the level of its other firestarters. Hollyrock required no fight and no irony – the rejoice of trickle-down post-war freedom was a golden glow beyond cynicism, especially for teens who knew how naughty it got, and Buddy had a keen eye for it. But he was a friendly craftsman rather than rock. Physically incapable of Elvis’ full-bodied, butterfly-bee swagger and a bit beneath Chuck’s dizzying intellect and surreal energy, he’s no less punky or intuitive than either, using the crude and cute to burst boundaries of communication with the scientific precision of any great pop writer. Where he diverges from tradition is in a populism that extends to his personality and sound – what hits you is how connected you feel to him no matter how far he transcends his dorky reality, and how rivetingly raggedy his music is no matter how thought-through. Despite plenty of style and a surplus of legend (threesome with Little Richard, banned from Ed Sullivan for disrespect, plane crash at 22), he’s a fan foremost, an excited and gifted traditionalist feeling around inside a blissful, life-swallowing tradition. In his unprepossessing looseygoositude, the original rock ‘n’ roll star as architect/auteur stumbled upon a whole new way to ‘n’ roll – a more playful, relatable, human way, a sound winking and hiccupping across sweet little masterpieces for everybody.
12. Jerry Lee Lewis, Original Golden Hits – Volume 1
As befits a piano player, his music is almost entirely percussive, bashing and crashing and whomping against barn walls like a victim of possession. He’s goofy, unhinged, even affable, but at times exhibits an eerie manifestation of that oft-invoked devil’s music component, something wicked and unstable and disruptive in his each elastic jerk. He’s not a friend or a lover, not master or slave or maestro or slouch, pointless to try and pin down but fun to watch tear things up. His instrument is an odd anchor, tonally rumbly and low in the mix, gumbo in a cauldron under fireworks and a railing snake handler. His sound is straight from the south, beautifully and naturally so, yet he feels less terrestrial than showbiz cipher Fats Domino, who at least kept composure and proudly referenced roots. A night with JLL is a disorienting sonic carnival, a wild caterwaul, a careen toward a crash into dawn. He’s got his own special angle on rock ‘n’ roll aural anarchy – when he takes his personal boogie to the warmly historic “land of dreams,” he doesn’t sound like some fabled, untamed street-corner jass combo so much as an opium-induced cubist nightmare of a sac-o-rill-ee-yak shaker. But he’s got an Appalachian-atmospheric timelessness about him, too, for it could just as well be the shaking of that fringey religious sect goin’ on. If Buddy stands for the American everyman, Jerry Lee flaps a tattered obsolete flag for all the American freaks.
13. Little Richard, Little Richard’s Grooviest 17 Original Hits!
I caught one in-person glimpse of Little Richard in my life, between age 10 and 13, on an epic hustle out of a return-trip airport gate. A cartoon flash through disorienting bustle, the king/queen half-sped by, weaving through the opposite stream of traffic perched atop an airport buggy, suit hugging an imposing mass of charisma and atomic soul. “COME on, baby – sit on my lap!!” he bellowed shouted bleated cried (all those verbs at once) to an even blurrier memory of an old woman, who could only stop, startled. The crowd gave out in strobe-light pockets of pleasure, kicks, oohs/awe. “He really is larger than life,” glowed Dad, a torcher-on for pop since kidhood like his dad and son, and I blinked as if struck by a Kodak sneak-attack, instantly conscious of a bummer of a destiny to forever recall that moment by my seconds-after reconstruction. More than a decade later, Little Richard wooooooooooos on, wide-eyed and oddball as ever, wonky and watchful from the leery porch all crazy old rock stars flock to to slowly decay. R ‘n’ r arson may not exactly have started with his flame; he was but one molecule of a crystal-faceted spasm of liberated mass expression. But if anybody earned a place as its chief example, it was grace-abjuring, frantically jubilant Little Richard, the untrammeled living embodiment of that spark in every runaway backbeat and rabid sax explosion. His unholy howl grinds in your ear, sputtering greasy scalding specks of ecstasy as his drums come mushroom clouds and his horns and guys drone or stab, a remote control zombie chorus. But he can two-step too, swoop and dive, slide right into different moves unbound by influence or expectation. Eons before relaxation over gender and sexuality issues, Little Richard frolicked and fucked around in the fields of both sexes, coming to know the joy of both roles in performance and life like he’d strain to come to know the Lord in the long bookends of his galvanizing artistic burst. The big mystery isn’t how LR got away with whatever you’d call this – how in heaven did s/he even occur?
14. Ricky Nelson, Legendary Masters
Undervalued because everybody including him knows he’s fucking lucky (though he can be lonesome) – bypassed some serious dues being in a position for America to attend him adorably and prepubescently dreaming his dreams of this career. Yet the soft-earned products of his ambitions are skillful, natural and invigorating: out of a young punk still in his pipsqueak phase and god-gifted a more selfserious fixed face than Taylor Lautner comes a sense of totally effortless cool, a basic and unassuming superior awareness that catapults every one of these tiny tunes countries past cute from the get-go. Like that million dollar mug of his, he never breaks, chugging and crackling through the unlikeliest reign in rock herodom and only winning. He can sound sleepy, though all those wondrous James Burton solos are there to jostle him awake, and his cool occasionally sticks out like a frostbitten thumb – he’s one of those rockers that can’t hope to electrify “Trying to Get to You”, for instance. But he somehow subtly sultrifies it, and what he pulls off in “If You Can’t Rock Me” Elvis is too friendly for. He was an actor (sort of) after all, but for the most part what’s convincing about him lies in what he doesn’t have to feign: his age means he’s living the life these songs and this genre aim to evoke. When he shivers his praise at a galpal “still in her teens” he’s bragging from the small window in which you can guiltlessly act on such lust. Fucking lucky.
15. Carl Perkins, Original Golden Hits
The rock + roll hero pantheon’s resident good old boy may look like Dracula, but he’s more neighborly than you’d expect, even shaded by an on-sleeve entrenchment in the culture of a certain region in an ideologically tricky era. Still, you can’t say Carl wasn’t restless – no southern soul who stumbled into Sam Philips’ sound factory was looking to respect the past. He’s countrier than most post-schism (country; blues) rockers, and older in a way you can’t forget once you’ve caught glimpses of his album covers, but otherwise he’s like all the other young dudes running rock – boisterous and libidinous, on a full tank of high spirits and fun hunger. And he’s just as killer: note, as one casual exhibit, how no Beatles cover of his work (though they’re usually spearheaded by the two less brilliant ones) matches his for reckless energy, for sheer smiling ferocity. Note the recurring theme of how much better than anything else having a hair-down great time is, from the enlivening mischief of “Dixie Fried” to the rational misery rejection “Boppin’ the Blues” to the righteous consumerist hit. He even seems to really dig breaking up. Note detours into diversity – astride the corny but charming Nashville dicklick “Tennessee” is a gleeful coil around the slow commercial syllables of “Only You”. Neither of those two reflect his true sound, the hot bristle of a country punk who could rock it on home with the best singers or guitarists in the game.