The 50 Best British Artists of All Time

Music Lists Britain

A wise man once said—okay, Johnny Rotten once said — “There is no future in England’s dreaming,” and while some of the monarchy’s stale traditions leave us Yanks scratching our heads, we beg to differ.

For the past five decades or so, our former oppressors (hey, that whole Revolutionary War thing’s water under the bridge, right?) have been living in a musical goldmine. The U.S. and the UK have a long history of swapping sounds, and it’s hard to imagine what the state of popular culture would be today without some good, old-fashioned trans-Atlantic cross-pollination. While all eyes are on the throne, we pay tribute to our 50 favorite British artists—a rock ‘n roll royal family of sorts. Some are relatively new, some are old, and they come from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But they’ve all managed to leave their mark on both sides of the pond.

50. Happy Mondays
Why: These staples of the “Madchester” scene taught us all how to rave in the ‘90s. You’re twisting my melon, man!
Hometown: Manchester
Essential track: “Step On”

49. Dizzee Rascal
Why: The grime pioneer seamlessly blends hip hop and dancehall elements to create a sound that demands to be grooved to.
Essential track: “Bonkers”

48. Mumford & Sons
Why: The Brits have a history of borrowing American sounds, and only one album in, these banjo-toting lads managed to craft one of our favorite albums in a while.
Essential track: “Little Lion Man”

47. Pulp
Why: There are only a handful of frontmen who can truly speak to the class divisions that exist within the UK, and Jarvis Cocker can stick it to the aristocracy with the best of them.
Essential track: “Common People”

46. Richard Thompson (Fairport Convention)
Why: One of the best acoustic guitar players of all time, Thompson was also one of the first to blend English folk with electric elements in Fairport Convention.
Essential track: “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”

45. Gomez
Why: The band won a Mercury Prize for its debut album, Bring It On, in 1998 and has continued mixing experimental sounds with accessible melodies since then.
Essential track: “Airstream Driver”

44. Small Faces/The Faces
Why: It’s impossible to choose which incarnation of this mod group we prefer. Most bands would curl up and die after a talent like Steve Marriott walked, but instead the Faces brought on Rod Stewart and Ron Wood and kept on rolling.
Essential track: “Lazy Sunday”

43. Gruff Rhys/Super Furry Animals
Why: The pride of Wales, this experimental group has managed to stay relevant for nearly two decades. They’re sometimes soulful, sometimes psychedelic, always super.
Essential track: “Juxtapozed With U”

42. The Waterboys
Why: Before Polyphonic Spree and I’m From Barcelona, Mike Scott’s Waterboys were overflowing stages around the world. No less than 56 people have been able to call themselves members of the Scottish band since it began mixing Celtic music with rock ‘n’ roll 28 years ago.
Essential track: “Fisherman’s Blues”

41. The Buzzcocks
Why: They’re pop-punk pioneers who brought a little polish to the early anti-establishment scene.
Essential track: “Orgasm Addict”

40. Amy Winehouse
Why: The troubled neo-soul songstress’ hard-living ways echo throughout her music. There have been dozens of copycats since she burst onto the scene, but so far none have matched our beehived heroine.
Essential track: “Rehab”

39. The Zombies
Why: Colin Blunstone’s airy vocals were a Summer of Love staple, and The Zombies’ dreamy psych-rock could turn even the squarest of square into groovy flower children.
Essential track: “She’s Not There”

38. Echo & The Bunnymen
Why: Post-punk icons that appeal to the angsty teens in all of us. “Fate, up against your will” ranks among the best opening lines you’ll ever hear.
Essential track: “The Killing Moon”

37. Nick Drake
Why: A legendary singer-songwriter who, before ultimately succumbing to his own demons, managed to craft some truly striking songs in his all-too-short career.
Essential track: “Day is Done”

36. M.I.A.
Why: Mathangi Arulpragasam, or Maya as she’s known to the world, was born in London from Sri Lankan Tamil parents, and is as much the symbol of multi-cultural globalism as anyone, creating a sound and persona all her own.
Essential track: “Paper Planes”

35. Gang of Four
Why: Always political but never insufferable, this group’ll get you thinking and dancing at the same time.
Essential track: “Damaged Goods”

34. New Order
Why: After Ian Curtis’ tragic suicide, everyone assumed Joy Division was over, but the remaining members bounced back to become an equally-stellar band.
Essential track: “Blue Monday”

33. The Slits
Why: One of punk’s first leading ladies, Ari Up proved she could hang with the boys at the ripe old age of 14, incorporating reggae and ska influences into a sound that remains unique to this day.
Essential track: “Typical Girls”

32. Nick Lowe
Why: His material features some pop mastery of its own, but perhaps most impressive is the production work he did on Elvis Costello’s first five albums.
Essential track: “Cruel to be Kind”

31. PJ Harvey
Why: Polly Jean’s never been one to rest on her laurels. She’s constantly reinvented her sound, adding new instruments and styles along the way.
Essential track: “Dress”

30. Duran Duran
Why: These New Romantics from Birmingham helped lead the Second British Invasion in the ‘80s. Hey, good enough for Princess Diana, good enough for us, right?
Essential track: “Rio”

29. Damon Albarn (Blur/Gorillaz)
Why: Long before he was the mastermind behind the world’s greatest cartoon band, Damon Albarn fronted Britpop heavyweights Blur. Ladies and gentlemen, we give you Cool Britannia.
Essential track: “Girls and Boys”

28. Fleetwood Mac
Why: Okay, so they’re not completely from the UK or they’d be higher on this list, but before basking in the California sunshine, Lindsay Buckingham and company came out of the London blues scene. Besides, anyone who spells it “Rumours” has to be considered British, right?
Essential track: “Go Your Own Way”

27. The Specials
Why: These TwoTone titans were one of the first major multiracial acts in England, and they spearheaded the ska movement by melding together reggae and punk sounds.
Essential track: “A Message to You Rudy”

26. Kate Bush
Why: Her unique voice made this delightful weirdo the most successful British female artist of all time.
Essential track: “Wuthering Heights”

25. Roxy Music
Why: Sometimes we have to pinch ourselves to double-check that two legends like Bryan Ferry and Brian Eno were actually in the same band.
Essential track: “Love is the Drug”

24. Belle & Sebastian
Why: Contrary to what you’ve heard in High Fidelity, these Scots are far from “old sad bastard music.”
Essential track: “The Blues Are Still Blue”

23. Arctic Monkeys
Why: Sheffield’s finest exploded onto the scene in 2006 with the fastest-selling debut album in UK history, and their brand of garage-fueled indie rock has been ringing in our ears ever since.
Essential track: “I Bet That You Look Good on the Dancefloor”

22. The Stone Roses
Why: Combining the trippiness of some of their Manchester contemporaries with a pop sensibility, Ian Brown, John Squire, Mani and Reni perfected the alt-rock output of their day.
Essential track: “I Am the Resurrection”

21. The Libertines
Why: They only released two albums before disbanding, but both managed to rank among the best of the past decade. They played in front of a backdrop declaring themselves the “future of rock & roll,” and we believed them. Now every time we hear Pete Doherty’s wail, we can only imagine what might have been had he been able to keep himself together.
Essential track: “Don’t Look Back Into the Sun”

20. Oasis
Why: Sure, Dig Out Your Soul was a disaster. That doesn’t change the fact that the Gallagher brothers managed to craft two of the most important albums of the ‘90s.
Essential track: “Wonderwall”

19. Elton John
Why: Sometimes all you need for magic to happen is a man and a piano. Oh, and the world’s greatest collection of sunglasses.
Essential track: “Your Song”

18. The Cure
Why: Robert Smith and company are goth greats who made sitting in your room pining over that certain someone who doesn’t know you exist sound like the coolest thing in the world.
Essential track: “Just Like Heaven”

17. Joy Division
Why: A group that manages to sound both industrial and pastoral. It’s one of pop culture’s greatest tragedies that Ian Curtis never made it to the States.
Essential track: “Love Will Tear Us Apart”

16. T-Rex
Why: Marc Bolan’s fuzzy guitars and all-around glittery goodness are unparalleled. Next time you find yourself enjoying the latest Smith Westerns album, say a little thank you to the man who started it all.
Essential track: “Bang a Gong (Get It On)”

15. Pink Floyd
Why: Psychedlia wouldn’t be the same without seminal works like Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall.
Essential track: “Time”

14. Van Morrison
Why: This Northern Irish soul man can do it all, whether it’s belting out big numbers like “Gloria” or “Brown Eyed Girl,” or serenading us with understated beauty on Astral Weeks.
Essential track: “Sweet Thing”

13. Eric Clapton
Why: A guitar god if ever there was one, Clapton’s lent his talents to more legendary bands than we can rattle off in this space.
Essential track: “Tears in Heaven”

12. Queen
Why: Brian May’s soaring guitar and Freddie Mercury’s undeniable voice combined for the greatest glam rock the world has ever heard.
Essential track: “Bohemian Rhapsody”

11. The Smiths
Why: We’ll give you 10 reasons. The DJ may say nothing to you about your life, Morrissey, but you’re sure talking to us about ours.
Essential track: “Panic”

10. Led Zeppelin
Why: His Band of Joy may have his full attention now, but back in the day Robert Plant was busy inspiring future generations of metalheads with his trademark shriek.
Essential track: “Whole Lotta Love”

9. Elvis Costello
Why: One of our 100 greatest living songwriters, Costello is a New Wave wordsmith of the highest order. His songs are witty, political and romantic—and he was rocking wide-framed glasses before all you hipsters were even born.
Essential track: “Pump it Up”

8. David Bowie>
Why: No one does space-rock androgyny quite like Bowie.
Essential track: “Life On Mars?”

7. The Sex Pistols
Why: Many have come before them, but no band shook the United Kingdom to its core quite like the Sex Pistols. We may not fully understand it here in the States, but singing that the Queen “ain’t no human being” are fightin’ words. A threat to the monarchy if ever there was one.
Essential track: “Anarchy in the UK”

6. The Kinks
Why: Whether it’s through the satire of “Victoria” or the beauty of “Waterloo Sunset,” few can speak directly to the English soul like Ray Davies. His words and brother Dave’s unforgettable guitar riffs make these lads one of the most influential bands of the 20th century.
Essential track: “Waterloo Sunset”

5. The Clash
Why: London Calling is a masterpiece, and the group ranks among the all-time greats — punk or otherwise.
Essential track: “London Calling”

4. The Who
Why: There’s more to The Who than smashed-up guitars and Roger Daltrey’s scream (although those are certainly reasons to love them). They’re behind two of the most well-executed concept albums of all time, and while they’re known for blowing out drumkits and eardrums alike, they can also do quiet and introspective with the best of them.
Essential track: “My Generation”

3. Radiohead
Why: Thom Yorke and friends always seem to have something new up their sleeves, whether it’s penning a ‘90s classic like “Creep,” producing one of the finest albums of the past decade (Kid A), or redefining the music industry with their “pay-what-you-will” stunt.
Essential track: “Fake Plastic Trees”

2. The Rolling Stones
Why: Rock ‘n’ roll’s original bad boys, the Stones started off as an unlikely blues band and wound up laying the groundwork for generations to follow. Their sound is drenched in Americana, but it never feels inauthentic.
Essential track: “Satisfaction”

1. The Beatles
Why: They changed everything.
Essential track: “A Hard Day’s Night”

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