Short paths to the canon: 22 influential artists with tiny bodies (of work)
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1. Sex Pistols
Ask the average Joe to name the first punk band that comes to mind, and he’ll most likely say “Sex Pistols,” possibly with an aggro, faux-Cockney accent. There’s no question as to whether the band has been massively influential: Rock historians can even name-check a specific gig—Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall, June 4, 1976—that launched an entire genre. Perhaps even more than one. The band absolutely shook the music world, and managed to do it while releasing exactly one proper studio album: 1977’s classic Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols. Sure, there are compilations and collections and bootlegs, but the band’s grand statement and lasting monument is a mere 12 songs.
2. Joy Division
Joy Division—whose members attended that famed Sex Pistols gig—lasted just one studio album longer than the Pistols. The band existed for four short years, releasing Unknown Pleasures in 1979 and Closer in 1980—the latter coming out after singer Ian Curtis hanged himself. But those two albums—along with the odds-and-ends/live collection Still—are spoken of in hushed tones to this day. Any band with slightly dark undertones will claim Joy Division as an influence, and there’s no denying that the one band it influenced most of all—New Order—has had a huge impact of its own, though with a much larger catalog.
3. Robert Johnson
In some respects the first rock star, Robert Johnson set a template that inspired countless other musicians. From his rambling, rootless lifestyle to his tragically early death at age 27 to, most importantly, his songs, which have been covered by The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, and The White Stripes, among many others—Johnson established such a clear template that without him, much of what transpired musically in the 20th century seems difficult to imagine. Johnson’s body of work looms so large in modern music that how little of it there is often gets overlooked. Johnson recorded only 29 songs in his short career, over the course of only five (non-consecutive) days. He didn’t create much music, but he’s virtually unmatched in terms of quality. In less than a week’s time, he lay down songs that continue to shake people to this day.
4. Ralph Ellison
Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is considered one of the great American novels of the 20th century, a work that embodies the African-American experience in a time of great social change and broaches topics that were previously taboo. Ellison was also an accomplished essayist; besides Invisible Man, he published two full collections of essays, Shadow And Act (1964) and Going To The Territory (1986). Ellison’s catalog has almost doubled since his death in 1994: his incomplete second novel, Juneteenth, was posthumously published, as was a collection of short stories. He produced 2,000 pages of material for Juneteenth by the time of his death (an unedited collection of which has also been published), but claimed to have lost several hundred pages in a 1967 fire. Because of this, some don’t view Juneteenth as an official entrant into Ellison’s bibliography, and still hold Invisible Man as the lone completed long-form work of his career.
5. James Dean
James Dean starred in just three movies—East Of Eden, Rebel Without A Cause, and Giant—before dying in a car accident, but he looms large over movie history. Particularly in Rebel, he created a portrayal of disaffected youth that stands to this day as the prime example of how to play a young man caught between childhood and adulthood, with no real path forward. Stories about teenagers, told from the point of view of teenagers, were just starting to become a profitable form in the 1950s, when adolescents finally had enough disposable income and free time to truly embrace their adolescence, and Dean exemplified the raw emotion of being a teenager better than anyone else had to that point: It was all about tortured longing and feeling things more intensely than anyone else ever had before. Where many actors made that seem ridiculous, Dean made it seem primal.
6. The Stone Roses
The Stone Roses’ 1989 self-titled debut album is influential enough to be considered seminal in two British genres: the psychedelic, ecstasy-fueled Madchester scene of the late ’80s/early ’90s, and the more straightforward, guitar-driven Britpop that followed in its wake. The album was a decent-sized hit even in America, but in the UK, it enjoyed Thriller-like status, with half its songs released as singles. An enduring part of the album’s mythic quality, though, is drawn from the fact that the band ran into major second-album problems, taking five years to release a follow-up, Second Coming, which flopped in a transformed music climate dominated by Blur and Oasis—both of whom acknowledged the debt they owed The Stone Roses. The band slowly disintegrated over the next two years. The New Musical Express voted Stone Roses the best British album of all time in 2006; perhaps an exaggeration, but its generational impact as the apex of one scene and the seed of another is clear.
7. The Notorious B.I.G.
Tupac Shakur’s work ethic and posthumous prolificacy are the stuff of legend, but his biggest rival, literally and metaphorically, favored quality over quantity. The Notorious B.I.G. only released one album before dying at age 24 in 1997. 1994’s Ready To Die qualifies as the Citizen Kane of hip-hop, a masterful concept album that powerfully explores all the seasons of a man’s life, from birth to death. 1997’s Life After Death was released two weeks after B.I.G.’s shooting. Though brilliant in its own right, it’s a messy, overreaching follow-up from a man who said all he had to say the first time around.
Schooly D and Ice-T both released gangsta-rap singles before N.W.A. exploded out of the West Coast underground, but it was N.W.A. that transformed gangsta into a major cultural and commercial force. N.W.A. made such an indelible impact on pop culture that it can be easy to overlook how little the group actually released: two proper studio albums, 1988’s Straight Outta Compton and 1991’s Niggaz4Life. Of those two studio albums, only Compton featured Ice Cube, the group’s primary lyrical force; by the time Niggaz4Life rolled around, Cube had parted ways with the group acrimoniously, becoming the subject of the group’s most vitriolic disses. But it only took two albums for N.W.A. to change the look, sound, and face of pop music.
9. Black Star
The formidable legacies of Mos Def and Talib Kweli are so inextricably intertwined, and they’ve performed and recorded together so extensively, that it can be easy to forget that the duo’s recorded output consists of a single album (1998’s Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star) and collaborations on compilations, soundtracks, and each other’s solo projects. But Black Star is no mere hip-hop album; it’s a righteous manifesto, a statement of purpose from two idealists fighting for hip-hop’s soul. Mos Def and Talib Kweli went on to fight the good fight separately, but talk of reunions and follow-up albums have never amounted to anything more than idle chatter. There’s a follow-up slated for 2012—tentatively titled BlackStar 2—but who knows whether it will ever materialize.
10. Amy Winehouse
This selection might seem a little premature, since Winehouse died only this past July at age 27. But even without having completed a third album, Winehouse played a major role shaping pop music over the past five years. The recent slew of successful female British soul singers is largely due to Winehouse’s success, with the most popular, Adele, citing Winehouse as her primary inspiration. The throwback sound of Winehouse’s 2006 album Back To Black—old-school R&B rooted in the ’60s rather than the ’70s, à la the neo-soul of Erykah Badu and D’Angelo—was bubbling around for a few years already via the Brooklyn label Daptone Records, whose house band, the Dap-Kings, play on Winehouse’s album. But Back To Black’s popularity sparked a vogue among modern R&B acts to do some throwing back of their own, from Raphael Saadiq’s The Way I See It to Cee-Lo’s “Fuck You” to R. Kelly’s Love Letter.
11. Minor Threat
You know a band wasn’t around long when it can release a collection called Complete Discography on one CD. Formed in Washington D.C. in 1980, Ian MacKaye’s pre-Fugazi outfit helped define the hardcore punk sound of the time, and its contributions weren’t limited to music. In addition to inspiring a generation to battle against the evils of inebriation and promiscuity with the song “Straight Edge,” Minor Threat also served as a DIY torchbearer, eschewing the major-label promotional machine by releasing records through its own label, Dischord.
12. Rites Of Spring
Generally credited with the dubious distinction of inventing emo in the mid-’80s, Rites Of Spring actually influenced a far deeper and wider group of musicians. The DC group’s self-titled album from 1985 was its only full-length, yet it cracked open a fissure in hardcore’s monolithic hide through which thousands of post-hardcore bands followed. As raw and blistering as any hardcore record of the era, Rites Of Spring mutated itself with passages of melody, complexity, vulnerability, and sheer noise. By the time Rites Of Spring released its swansong, 1987’s All Through A Life EP, it had already broken up, and the group’s subsequent offshoots, One Last Wish and Happy Go Licky, failed to make as much of an impact. But when singer-guitarist Guy Picciotto and drummer Brendan Canty started a new band called Fugazi with former Minor Threat frontman Ian MacKaye, their prior band wound up becoming just as vastly influential. Born Against, Refused, At The Drive-In, and young revivalists like Touché Amoré are just a handful of the many bands that wouldn’t have existed as such without Rites Of Spring.
13. Jeff Buckley
Every music snob knows that “Hallelujah” was first written and recorded by Leonard Cohen, but those 16-year-old kids playing acoustic guitar on YouTube only know one version: Jeff Buckley’s. For better or for worse, Buckley’s heartfelt warble influenced an entire generation of singer-songwriters, from Scarlett Johansson to the “In Memoriam” singers from the 2011 Emmys. Though he put out just one proper album before he died in 1997—1994’s Grace—in addition to a mostly unfinished posthumous release in 1998, Buckley had an impact that was felt even beyond the music world, especially given the recent gossip about a potential biopic. While the praise of Buckley’s catalog might seem a little excessive at times, it’s unsurprising that his myth lives on, given his disheveled movie-star looks and the tragic circumstances of his death.
14. J.D. Salinger
The collected works of the late J.D. Salinger are limited not only in span, but in scope: Save for his sole novel, the epochal bestseller The Catcher In The Rye, Salinger’s published legacy deals almost exclusively with the fictional Glass family. Salinger’s short stories nevertheless wove an astounding (though incomplete) history of the preternaturally talented brood in the pages of The New Yorker—and the subsequent compilations Nine Stories, Franny And Zooey, and Raise High The Roof Beam, Carpenters And Seymour: An Introduction. He obviously related to the Glasses, who each shirked the limelight, favoring private quests for personal nirvana. Years of silence fueled speculation that “the Garbo of letters” kept shelves of Glass narratives squirreled away in his New Hampshire home, but the last word from Seymour, et al. was published in The New Yorker’s June 19, 1965 issue. Salinger lived the next 45 years of his life without publishing a single sentence; his most famous work was marked by notorious candor, but his career was ultimately defined by extreme suppression.
15. Harper Lee
Known to generations of high-school students as “that book that had Gregory Peck in it,” Harper Lee’s only novel, To Kill A Mockingbird (1960), remains one of the undisputed classics of American literature. Loosely based on Lee’s childhood experiences growing up in the South, Mockingbird tells the story of a young girl’s gradual social awakening, as her father, a small-town lawyer, defends a black man put on trial for the supposed rape of a white woman. The novel won Lee a Pulitzer Prize, and was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film, giving Peck arguably the most memorable role of his career. But Mockingbird is the only novel Lee ever published, and the only substantial piece of writing she’s ever made public; since 1964, Lee has resisted all requests for interviews, and has made few public appearances. Given her reticence to speak with the press, it’s difficult to know exactly why she chose not to produce more work, but a quote attributed to her by Rev. Dr. Thomas Lane Butts in an interview in the Australian Daily Telegraph seems to explain the situation well enough: “Two reasons: one, I wouldn’t go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill A Mockingbird for any amount of money. Second, I have said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again.” Given the impact her book has had in the decades since it was published, and the way her themes of injustice, courage, and tolerance still resonate, it’s hard to argue with her.
Before taking his own life in 1980, Darby Crash managed to harness his suicidal impulses long enough to record a single album, (GI), with his band Germs. The Joan Jett-produced record became one of the most influential albums of its time; released in 1979, (GI) bridged the gap between mid-paced, relatively tuneful punk rock and the emerging blitzkrieg of hardcore. But the Germs’ accelerating tempos, off-kilter gutter-poetry, and levels of violence—both on tape and on stage—weren’t all Crash’s doing. Guitarist Pat Smear carves some of the cruelest hooks a block of distortion has ever yielded, and the entire band’s sly subversion of just about every rock convention felt more like youthful impudence than calculated deconstruction. In addition to the massive, immediate influence the album had on punk and hardcore, echoes of (GI) eventually surfaced in everything from the Melvins to Pavement to Jay Reatard. And then there’s Smear’s association with a couple of outfits that have had a bit of an impact over the past 20 years: Nirvana and Foo Fighters. The less said about Smear’s recent Crash-less Germs reunion, though, the better.
17. John Kennedy Toole
John Kennedy Toole’s tiny catalog (which sounds like the name of an insufferably twee indie rock band) would be nonexistent if his mother hadn’t famously decided to show the manuscript of A Confederacy Of Dunces to author Walker Percy years after Toole committed suicide at 31, unpublished and anonymous. Percy was understandably initially reluctant to read the manuscript, but was blown away by its quality and uniqueness. Toole’s character study about a morbidly obese misanthrope and the curious world he inhabits was published in 1980, 11 years after the author’s death, and won the Pulitzer Prize a year later. Toole’s bibliography expanded further when a second novel, a coming-of-age tale called The Neon Bible, was released in 1989 and made into a movie six years later. The film was a commercial and critical failure, and Confederacy has spent decades in development hell with everyone from John Belushi to John Waters to David Gordon Green and Will Ferrell being attached, then unattached to it.
18. John Cazale
Of all the major participants in the American movie renaissance of the 1970s, none left behind a better batting average than John Cazale. When Cazale died at age 42, six years after his film debut in The Godfather, he had acted in just four pictures, and he played the same character in two of them. Yet each of those films was already well on its way to being recognized as an established classic, and his final, posthumously released film, The Deer Hunter, went on to win that year’s Academy Award for Best Picture. Always remarkable, he looms largest as Fredo, the brother who was born to be passed over, in his two Godfather films; he took a thinly written role with virtually no admirable characteristics and realized it so fully that, by the end of Part II, he had become the suffering soul of the Corleone saga. It may be the least of Cazale’s accomplishments that he made the character so iconic that his name has since become shorthand for “hapless loser.”
19. Jean Vigo
Jean Vigo’s first narrative film, the 40-minute “Zero De Conduite” (1933), is both pure visual poetry and an angry punk’s feverish attack on the figures of adult authority who would stifle the natural anarchistic impulses of children. His first full-length feature, L’Atalante, made the next year, is equally rich in surrealism and visual lyricism, but it mixes likeable earthiness with a romantic feeling as deep as the ocean. The same year it came out, Vigo, who was 29, died of tuberculosis. In other words, he crammed a whole career’s worth of creative innovation, fruitful experimentation, and range of feeling into a career that ended at about the same point in life where most filmmakers are toying with the idea of buying up all the available prints of their early work and burning the negatives. For decades, it was hard to find his films in anything like pristine condition (and “Zero” was banned by the French government for years), but as of about a month ago, the Criterion Collection will sell you his complete life’s work—the two masterpieces, plus a couple of documentary shorts—squeezed onto two DVDs or one Blu-ray disc, including extras.
20. Cap’n Jazz
Burritos, Inspiration Point, Fork Balloon Sports, Cards In The Spokes, Automatic Biographies, Kites, Kung Fu, Trophies, Banana Peels We’ve Slipped On, And Egg Shells We’ve Tippy Toed Over: The title of Cap’n Jazz’s only full-length is almost longer then the band’s collective recorded output. Released in 1994 as the group was gearing up to implode, the album—more commonly known as Shmap’n Shmazz—was more whispered about than heard, at least until it was reissued as part of a complete compilation, 1998’s Analphabetapolothology. By then, Cap’n Jazz had already spawned a legion of imitators, not counting its two immediate offshoots, The Promise Ring and Joan Of Arc—each of which stretched an element of Cap’n Jazz’s jittery, emotive energy to its logical terminus. Melodic and anthemic on one hand, screechy and arty on the other, Shmap’n Shmazz formed the template for thousands of arty, wordy, heart-on-sleeve emo and indie-rock bands to follow; it’s hard to imagine spiritual offspring like Dirty Projectors or direct descendants like Algernon Cadwallader existing without Cap’n Jazz.
Surely Slint had no idea what it was getting itself into when it recorded its pair of full-lengths, 1989’s Tweez and 1991’s Spiderland. But the Louisville group’s two albums—especially the latter—almost single-handedly spawned post-rock, a subgenre most of its practitioners have since run screaming from. It’s easy to see why: Post-rock is about as pretentious as a tag can get. And while most of the sundry bands that rose in Slint’s wake (among them Tortoise, Mogwai, and Battles) strive to somehow undermine rock’s structure and default settings, Slint actually embraced those things: The group’s fearless elongation of post-punk artiness, prog convolution, and minimalist thunder feels as indebted to Crazy Horse as it does This Heat. But Slint synthesized these elements in a seamless way that still resonates and inspires.
22. Operation Ivy
The idea of combining hardcore punk with ska wouldn’t seem on the surface to be so revolutionary, but no one really attempted to mesh the two sounds until a bunch of guys in Berkeley, California took a shot at it in the late 1980s. After releasing a debut EP, Hectic, on Lookout! Records in 1988, Operation Ivy found its popularity growing at a rapid clip, but the pressure to take it to the next level proved too much: OpIvy broke up in May 1989, the same month it released a lone full-length album, Energy. Although Operation Ivy only released a total of 28 songs, the band’s sonic template nonetheless helped provide substantial commercial success for artists like Reel Big Fish, Sublime, and No Doubt, not to mention Tim Armstrong and Matt Freeman’s subsequent band, Rancid.