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The Current's 'essential artists' – are any of 'em any fun?

The Beatles, having fun.

The Beatles, having fun. Photo courtesy Janus Films and Bruce and Martha Karsh.

I don't know what “essential” means and neither do you, and if you'd like to debate it I will run from the internet screaming.

I do know, from scanning the Current's recent listener-selected ranking of 893 “essential artists,” that for a certain kind of music fan “essential” is more likely to overlap with the very grand and self-serious category “important” than with the simpler, less pretentious “fun.” (Also, black people and women apparently need to get a lot better at making music according to Current listeners, but let's let that white male fish swim happily in his privileged barrel for today.)

Pop music doesn't fulfill just one need in our lives. But one big -- you might even say essential – reason we listen is to remind ourselves that life is to be enjoyed and that we deserve to enjoy it. Fun is the kind of thing that can sometimes get overlooked when the serious list-making commences.

With that in mind, I reordered the Current's top ten essential artists, ranking them from most fun to least fun. That doesn't mean best to worst. But you'll notice that the most fun band here also happens to be the greatest rock group of all time and the least fun band here is -- well, let's just say I'm glad so many of you get something out of listening to them.

1. The Beatles
Most fun song – 'She Loves You'

The Beatles began by dedicating themselves to the indisputable proposition that making loud noises with your mates so you can try to be heard over the girls making louder noises is the most fun imaginable. Then they learned that making less loud but equally playful sounds together in the studio could be just as much fun. (No matter what some snobs'll say, the Beatles never “got better” – they just started Beatling differently.) Having a good time is an art form, and no artists working within any medium ever understood this better than the Beatles. 

2. The Rolling Stones
Most fun song – '(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction'

If no one could have more of a certain kind of fun than the Beatles, their competitors dedicated themselves to celebrate a whole 'nother, nastier kind of enjoyment, proving that “no no no” could get your rocks off as surely as “yeah yeah yeah.” Grumbling about radio ads and parking tickets, being mean to pretty girls, fighting in the street – this is fun? Yep. In fact it's a gas.

3. Prince
Most fun song – A whole bunch, none of which are on YouTube of course

I know it was necessary, but we've all spent way too much time standing in crowds over the past year respectfully singing “Purple Rain” like it's “Amazing Grace” and far too little grooving and grinding to the most playful sexual invitations, excursions, and explications of all time. Prince wanted to party while nuclear bombs were dropping from the sky, so I'm pretty sure he'd be ok with us having fun even though he's dead. The funeral's over. Let's dance.

4. Nirvana
Most fun song: – 'Lithium'

Funner than you think. Some degree of misery is inescapable in life, and a high degree of misery is inescapable in some lives, and you can't always soar above it like the Beatles or snarl your way past it like the Stones or hump your way through it like Prince. But you can make a big, bright, messy sound out of “I AM SO FUCKING MISERABLARRGHH!” The yeahs Kurt Cobain bleated on “Lithium” may have been “ironic,” as we used to say in the '90s (about everything), but that doesn't mean that isn't enjoyable. The not-fun stuff, needless to say, is committedly not-fun.

5. David Bowie
Most fun song – 'Suffragette City'

Bowie's records can be less fun than his wardrobe would lead you to believe. Nobody blasts side two of Low at parties, and “Let's Dance” is maybe the least ecstatic jam to ever somehow get feet shuffling. Beneath that swish in his stride and commitment to reinvention lay some grim preoccupations. But the joy is there, in the all-together-now music-hall chorus of “Changes,” in the tarted up retro-rock of the Ziggy Stardust era, in the sexy doomsaying of “Diamond Dogs,” in the Elvis-delivering-sociopolitical-commentary-from-the-pulpit free-for-all of “Young Americans,” and in the saxophones on “Modern Love.”

6. Led Zeppelin
Most fun song – 'Rock and Roll'

Zep is less fun than fantastic, the ideal soundtrack for stoned brooding about the fate of Middle Earth or for those moments when you insist on imagining your entire body transforming into the world's largest and most fearsome penis. They could cut loose with a throwback like “Rock and Roll,” and there's a warrior's delight to their tales of pillage and conquest, but though Ragnarök sounds pretty exciting it's not always my idea of a party.

7. Bob Dylan
Most fun song – 'Subterranean Homesick Blues'

More fun than most of his detractors admit, and way more fun than most of his admirers (the leading cause of his detractors) seem to understand. Then, again, full disclosure: I liked “Wiggle Wiggle.” Funny Dylan is every bit the artist that somber Dylan is, and I often prize his absurdist quips more than his prophetic pronouncements. But funny ain't always fun, and neither is “Rainy Day Women # 12 & 15,” no matter how hard Bob tried.

8. Johnny Cash
Most fun song – 'One Piece at a Time'

Johnny Cash is all Sunday morning and no Saturday night. You turn to this imposing country great for stolid conviction and monumental brooding, not honky-tonkin' escape. Sure, John could get frisky, especially on the early Sun sides. But not so's you'd ever mistake him for Bob Wills.

9. Pink Floyd
Most fun song – 'Bike'

Acid casualty Syd Barrett could be a real hoot before he checked out in more ways than one, and the burnished cynicism of Floyd's '70s years can be impressive in a pristine, belabored way. But then Roger Waters indulged in one of the most tedious spoiled rock-star double-album tantrums of all time. Not fun. Very not fun. I can't even imagine what could possibly be less –

10. Radiohead
Must fun song – uh, 'Creep?' I guess?

 Oh, ha, right. These guys.