The Top 10 Music Artists of the 1920s
The 1920s are where modern music begins. Nevertheless, the trends and tropes that we know today were still in their infantile stages. Jazz and country were in the process of being invented, blues and folk were still relatively unknown, and “popular” music was barely its own genre. It’s no surprise that the Top 10 Music Artists of the 1920s featured below were largely responsible for shaping the sounds of the world to come.
Of course, this list isn’t without its “snubs.” King Oliver was the hardest omission to make, and definitely was one that I wish I could somehow include. Maybe I can sneak him in as an Honorable Mention? Likewise, Fats Waller deserves to be here as well, yet I’m also inclined to say that his best work came in the 1930s. On the other hand, you might expect to see names like Paul Whiteman and Al Jolson, who were two of the most popular artists of the decade. Personally, I’ve always found the music of the so-called “King of Jazz” to be quite bland. And Jolson, whose “Swanee” was the biggest single of all time upon its release in 1920, would probably be better suited for a 1910s list.
And so, without further ado, here are the Colin’s Review Top 10 Music Artists of the 1920s.
10. Bix Beiderbecke
Bix Beiderbecke, who died in 1931 at the age of 28, was jazz music’s first Romantic hero: an unappreciated innovator who was decades ahead of his time, a starving artist who possessed extraordinary musical talent, and a tortured genius who struggled with alcohol and drug addiction. “The Young Man with the Horn” was also responsible for the second-best song of the decade (more precisely, one of the greatest songs ever), a lush piano solo that points the way toward modernism.
9. Ma Rainey
Vaudeville blues (or “female classic blues”) was one of the most popular genres of the early 1920s, and Ma Rainey was the genre’s first star. Her signature style included elements of folk and jazz, which established a new sound that appealed to a wide range of audiences. Rainey’s “See See Rider Blues” (the 25th-best song of the ’20s) is a perfect example of her oft-imitated sound.
8. Mississippi John Hurt
Mississippi John Hurt’s relaxed brand of country blues is forever immortalized on the Avalon Blues compilation (the Best Album of the Decade runner-up). Although the recordings didn’t sell particularly well upon release, they made a lasting impact throughout music history. Thankfully, Hurt was one of the only original blues musicians lucky enough to make an artistic comeback in the 1960s.
7. Blind Willie Johnson
Blind Willie Johnson was a God-fearing evangelist who used the power of music to relay his spiritual message. And powerful it was — Johnson’s apocalyptic sound, which consisted of abrasive vocals and astonishing slide guitar, defined Texas blues throughout the 1920s. His seminal recording of “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” (the third-best song of the decade) was featured on the Voyager Gold Record and just might be the best blues song of all time.
6. Jimmie Rodgers
A railroad worker from Mississippi, Jimmie Rodgers was the first country music superstar. That’s because he basically invented the genre. Rodgers has three selections in the 50 Best Songs of the 1920s, a rare feat that he repeated in the next decade.
5. Charley Patton
Charley Patton is more myth than man. Not many details are known about his life, only one photograph is known to exist and his songs are often hampered by poor recording quality. Yet the fact remains that Patton is one of the greatest (and possibly one of the first) blues musicians to ever emerge from the Mississippi Delta. Along with W.C Handy, he’s largely responsible for inventing the genre.
4. Blind Willie McTell
Blind Willie McTell is probably my favorite blues musician of all time. His melodic, ragtime-influenced style stood in direct contrast to the rough Delta blues of his contemporaries, while his smooth tenor vocals and stream-of-consciousness lyrics made for an Appalachian style that was completely unique. He has four songs in the Colin’s Review 50 Best Songs of the 1920s, including two in the Top 10.
3. Bessie Smith
With her powerful voice and dynamic stage presence, Bessie Smith set the standard for all female pop stars to follow. In fact, Smith still remains one of the greatest entertainers of all time. She has three songs in the ’20s Top 50, while her posthumous compilation LP, Bessie Smith Album, is one of the best albums of the ‘30s.
2. Duke Ellington
Although Ellington will appear on several more Best Artists of the Decade lists (more than any other musician in Colin’s Review history), his greatest individual decade remains the 1920s. Bubber Miley-era Ellington placed a special emphasis on mood and atmosphere, which provided a sophisticated counterpoint to the “hot” jazz styles that everyone else was playing at the time. From a composing standpoint, he was more influential than (see below) himself.
1. Louis Armstrong
Dixieland jazz dominated the decade, and Louis Armstrong was the genre’s greatest and most popular export. His Hot Five and Hot Seven Sessions are legendary (#1 album of the 1920s), and he also accounts for 10% of the decade’s 50 best songs. Music wouldn’t be what it is today without the innovations of Armstrong. Even if he’s not the “official” inventor of jazz, he was the one who developed and popularized the new genre across the nation. He’ll forever be the genre’s biggest star.