It is said that art (and therefore music) is subjective. You may enjoy a piece of art that your best friend may not. You may find a statue intriguing that another in this world thinks nothing of. People in this world like Nickelback.
But sports are not given that luxury. They are broken down, analyzed bit by bit, in an attempt to be understood. What if the same happened for music? What if art was subjected to the same level of scrutiny as sports? Who would the analytics community find to be the greatest band of all time?
To find this legendary group, these rock gods of statistics, we must first define what analytics mean in the music world. For the purposes of this experiment, let us begin with a few categories.
Number One Singles
In order to be the best, you have to be able to top the charts. Having the most number one singles is impressive, but it’s not the end all and be all. Yes, those bands that topped the charts the most must be considered higher. But at the same time, Rihanna has 14 number one singles. Is this a product of her era, or is she truly better than Stevie Wonder, who has 10? I think the first is more likely. So Number One Singles cannot be the only consideration.
Yes, they’re outdated and out of place. They’re the worst awards show, and the performances are the only thing to watch for. Yet, the Grammys have been around for 57 years. Surely, they stand for something. And as a measurable stat, they are invaluable for this article. Grammys will play an important part in deciding not only groups but artists, and their placement on this list.
To be number one, you have to be able to sell. Yes, number one singles are about selling, as well. But imagine singles as field goals, and albums as the larger and more important touchdowns. Selling albums takes the ability to be important, and the ability to remain relevant. While this may not favor older artists who have fallen out of favor, or newer artists yet to establish themselves, this article is being written in 2017. Let’s say that this list is as of 2017. Albums sold will also play an important part in this article.
The ability for artists to be relevant in today’s world also plays an important part. For this, I will use the measuring tool of Spotify. Their listens marker will help decide further, when groups like U2 and The Beatles have emerged, and help break ties.
Subjective: Best Song
Yes, in the end, music will remain a subjective art. In case two bands make it through four categories tied, which is highly unlikely, it will be my job to choose between them. In that case, I will listen to what I consider their best songs – winner takes it. Their best song, in my opinion, will be included in their summaries.
#1: The Beatles
To say that the Beatles are the most popular band of all time is simply stating a fact. With 20 #1 Hit songs, 9 Grammys, and 270.1 million certified albums sold, nobody even approaches the popularity of the Beatles.
I have termed the Beatles as the first boy band. Much in the same way that boy bands in the 1990s and 2000s rose to popularity, the Beatles found their footing with teenage girls. The young British boys took the world by storm through their female fandom, who went into hysteria. Beatles fever was a real thing.
I also don’t mind the Beatles being top here, cause they’re my favorite band. You cannot beat “Hey Jude” as a song. You can’t. That song had 9 weeks at #1 by the way, so at least some people agree with me.
#2: Elvis Presley
The King of swinging hips, Elvis also capitalized on an adoring female audience. He became an insane person in his older days, perhaps as a side-effect of his popularity. But his 18 number one hits, and 211.5 certified albums sold go with 3 Grammys.
Presley is the most popular musical artist. Only topped by the Beatles, he’s another with a collection of hits and albums. He also turned his popularity into a string of movies and a long Vegas career. Presley played in a lot of genres, borrowing a lot from prior artists.
Elvis’s “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel” both lasted for eleven weeks at number one. Presley was a king of the charts in his time, but he couldn’t survive the coming of the most popular music group of all-time.
Rihanna is the third-most popular artist of all-time. Whether it’s because of an era or not, it’s a fact. It’s proven by her 14 number one hits and 214.7 million certified albums sold. She also has 8 Grammys, including 5 for rap collaborations with Jay-Z, Kanye, and Eminem.
Her single with Calvin Harris – “We Found Love” – maintained 10 weeks at number one. She’s also found success with critically successful albums like Anti and Unapologetic.
Rihanna is the most popular of the new era of musicians, who spread their music through social media and YouTube. She’s realized how to do that successfully, and it’s worked to help make her one of the most popular artists of all-time.
#4: Michael Jackson
Jackson had 13 number one hits, including two – “Billie Jean” and “Black or White” – that lasted seven weeks. He also sold 183.9 million certified sold albums and won 13 Grammys. He’s one of the most popular artists of all time for a reason – he was also quality, with songs like Billie Jean and “Man In The Mirror”.
Jackson was famous for his Elvis-like moves and gestures, as well as for his talent and voice. He was always a great singer, and the work he put out displayed that. Jackson made a lot of great albums, including Thriller and Bad.
Madonna has earned 12 number one hits and sold 170 million certified albums sold. Her song “Like A Virgin” spent six weeks as number one. She’s also collected 7 Grammy wins.
Her best song though is “Vogue”. That’s an unarguable fact. She’s perhaps best known for her 80’s career, but Vogue came out in the 90s and Madonna experienced a bit of a career renaissance in the 2000s.
Madonna’s peak was astounding, but the fact that she’s stayed relevant for so long also highlights her abilities as a performer and songwriter. There aren’t many from the 80s as popular as Madonna remains.
#6: Mariah Carey
Carey is one of the best vocalists, period. Her range, her voice, it’s all really quite good. It’s why so many of her songs have become and remain popular. Carey has collected 5 Grammys, 18 number one hits, and 134.7 million certified albums sold. That includes her collaboration with Boyz II Men, “One Sweet Day”, which spent a record 16 weeks at number one.
It also includes her Christmas song, “All I Want For Christmas Is You”, the most recently written Christmas classic. It both highlights her voice and her songwriting ability, and it remains eternally relevant in the holiday season.
Carey is tied for second-longest number one single on her own, with “We Belong Together”. That was written in 2005. Mariah transitioned from the 90’s to the 2000’s really well. In the current decade, Mariah has earned a reality show, “Mariah’s World”. Apparently that’s good.
#7: Elton John
Elton has been a large figure in three seperate decades – the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s. Even in the new millennium, Elton has done well for himself. He’s a huge figure in music, whether he’s producing, singing, or writing. John’s important not only for his musical legacy but for his social and political standings.
Elton has certifiably sold 167.4 million albums. He’s got 9 number one hits and 5 Grammys to his name. He remains a critical success, and one of the most popular artists of all-time. Partially that’s because of songs like “Candle in the Wind” and “Something About the Way You Look Tonight”. Another part is his singing and creating the entire Lion King soundtrack (the score was done by Hans Zimmer), which has passed John on to the next generation.
I know Elton for “Can You Feel The Love Tonight”, “Rocket Man”, and “Tiny Dancer”. That’s been his success in maintaining a presence. Also, he’s just a pretty entertaining guy, and he’s had some great songs. Both “Candle in the Wind” and “Something in the Way You Look Tonight” lasted 14 weeks at number one.
#8: Stevie Wonder
Stevie and Elton have had much the same careers. Both have had 40-year plus careers, and remain quite popular. In fact, I’d venture to say that if Elton and Stevie were really good friends, not that many people would be surprised.
Stevie’s got 10 number one hits and 22 Grammys. That’s a lot for any artist, and it’s the most of any male artist. He’s also got 10 number one hits and 29.5 million certified sold albums. That’s not a lot, but some of that comes from his selling albums in the 70s and 80s before there were certified sold albums. It’s also from him not having a new album since 2005.
Wonder’s success has come from songs like “Ebony And Ivory” and “Superstition”. Ebony and Ivory had 7 weeks at number one.
#9: Whitney Houston
Whitney was a legend, her voice was astounding. She has perhaps the greatest National Anthem performance in her legacy. She has 11 number one hits, and 112 million certified albums sold. She’s added 7 Grammys to that legacy. She was a voice of a generation, sheerly because she had the best voice in a generation.
Houston’s song “I Will Always Love You” peaked at number one for 14 weeks. Houston’s songs are legendary, and her voice accentuated the messages of love and heartbreak.
#10: Paul McCartney
McCartney’s the only person to appear on this list twice. He’s there with the Beatles, perhaps the frontman of that group. He’s also here on his own, one of the most famous male artists of all time. It’s debatable at this point whether McCartney or someone like Bach has a better legacy.
McCartney has gone through several groups, all legendary, including the Beatles and Wings. He’s found success on his own, even getting to the point of writing and performing a Bond theme. Paul’s peak number one hit was his collaboration with Stevie Wonder, “Ebony and Ivory” which topped the charts for seven weeks. On his own, “Silly Love Songs” lasted for five. “Say, Say, Say” with Michael Jackson lasted six.
Also, Paul McCartney is one of the artists who just seems to enjoy being famous. He just seems to be enjoying life, and at this point, why wouldn’t he be? He’ll go down as not only one of the greatest musicians of all time, but one of the most popular.
Really the only one I’m surprised by here is Rihanna. It isn’t just the era – if that was true, there would be more current artists on this list, including perhaps Beyonce and Adele. Rihanna is actually incredibly popular, incredibly successful, and incredibly talented. She deserves to be on this list, but #3, while earned, just seems… high.
There are some artists I’m surprised didn’t make this list. Bruce Springsteen, for instance, has less than 100 million certified sold albums. With the number of albums he’s put out, it just seems strange that he’s so low. His music doesn’t seem to have the same broad appeal, I guess, of a McCartney or an Elton or a Mariah. That’s not a good nor bad thing, I just would have expected to see his name in the top 10.
This is actually a pretty diverse list. The Beatles (with Paul counted twice) and Elvis are the only straight white men on this list. Then you get Mariah and Whitney and Rihanna, and Stevie and Michael. Popular music seems not to have a defined physical type of artist it sticks to – popular music just wants good voices. That in itself is special.