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A quick history of contemporary music, from the 50's to today

Updated on May 21, 2009

Class Video #1: You, me & this course

Class Video #2: first musical assignment!

Dozens of top artists PLUS links to many songs & videos below!

Understanding music of the times provides a unique mirror of current events, trends and movements in the USA.

Beginning with this article, I'll be pointing you to some of the most successful and popular musical acts of all time. In future articles, I'll point out the musical characteristics and performance styles of various artists, and you will get plenty of opportunities to identify and compare the artists to their peers and among artists from various styles and eras, including... 

pop, rock, R&B, country, alternative, dance/disco, jazz, soul, and hiphop music.

In the left column below, you'll find just some of the most successful artists in their genres throughout the past fifty years, some of those artists have clickable links to let you view a specific song or video from that artist.

In the right column below, you'll find my two class videos providing course orientation. Further below are video links to even more of the artists from various genres and eras.

As you browse through the list and the videos, make a note of any artists you may already be somewhat familiar with...those may be the ones you'll use in the assignment.

CLASS VIDEO #1 on this page contains important class information. It's only 10 minutes.

CLASS VIDEO #2 on this page contains the actual assignment due next week. That's also just 10 minutes.

PS: for those not in my class who may have just stumbled upon this HubPage article or found my video on YouTube, you're welcome to listen to these lecture videos too. If you'd like to learn more about popular music, stick around.

MAKE SURE your computer can display the videos on this page, and that you can hear the audio through your speakers or a headset. Being able to see video and listen to audio are required parts of this course. If the videos seems choppy or broken up, or if the audio sounds distorted, slow or choppy, you will need to find another computer.

Remember, don't start watching & listening to these songs & videos until you find out your assignment, which you'll know after watching the first two class videos above!

Pop / 1958 - Bill Haley and The Comets

Pop / 1968 to 1972 - The Jackson 5 "I Want You Back"

POP artists

POP ARTISTS from the 1950s

Dion & The Belmonts



Del Shannon

Neil Sedaka

Freddie Cannon

POP ARTISTS from the 1960s

Beach Boys



Four Seasons

The Fifth Dimension


Strawberry Alarm Clock

POP ARTISTS from the 1970s

Jackson 5

Billy Joel

Carole King

Donna Summer

POP ARTISTS from the 1980s

Michael Jackson


Lionel Richie

Hall & Oates


Culture Club

POP ARTISTS from the 1990s

Mariah Carey

Janet Jackson: "Again" music video

Sinead O'Connor

Gloria Estefan

Sheryl Crow

POP ARTISTS from the 2000s

Maroon 5

Britney Spears

Janet Jackson

Kelly Clarkson: "Walk Away" video


Gwen Stefani

Justin Timberlake

Mariah Carey

Rihanna: "Don't Stop The Music" video

Lady GaGa "Poker Face" original song and live performance

Rock / 1969 - The Rolling Stones "Honky Tonk Women"

Rock / 1977 - Heart "Barracuda" (Ann & Nancy Wilson)

ROCK artists

ROCK ARTISTS from the 1950s

Elvis Presley

Buddy Holly

Roy Orbison

Bill Haley & The Comets

ROCK ARTISTS from the 1960s


Rolling Stones


Janis Joplin



Crosby, Stills & Nash

ROCK ARTISTS from the 1970s

Led Zeppelin: "Black Dog" original audio

Pink Floyd




Eric Clapton or Cream

Bruce Springsteen

David Bowie

Elton John

Fleetwood Mac

Neil Young

Steely Dan

ZZ Top

ROCK ARTISTS from the 1980s

Genesis/Phil Collins

Duran Duran

Tears for Fears

Motley Crue

ROCK ARTISTS from the 1990s


R. E. M.


ROCK ARTISTS from the 2000s

Finger Eleven

Fall Out Boy

Red Hot Chili Peppers


"Ain't Too Proud To Beg" (1969) - The Temptations

"Ain't No Mountain High Enough" (1967) - Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell

R&B / SOUL music

SOUL AND R&B ARTISTS from the 1950s

Chuck Berry

Jerry Lee Lewis

Fats Domino

Isley Brothers

Ray Charles


SOUL AND R&B ARTISTS from the 1960s

Aretha Franklin

Marvin Gaye


B. B. King

SOUL AND R&B ARTISTS from the 1970s

Stevie Wonder

Earth, Wind & Fire

SOUL AND R&B ARTISTS from the 1980s


George Benson

SOUL AND R&B ARTISTS from the 1990s

Black Box

C+C Music Factory

SOUL AND R&B ARTISTS from the 2000s

Alicia Keys


Country / 1983 - Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton

Country / 1987 - Alabama "Mountain Music"

COUNTRY artists

COUNTRY ARTISTS from the 1950s

Hank Williams

George Jones

COUNTRY ARTISTS from the 1960s

Ray Charles

COUNTRY ARTISTS from the 1970s

Kenny Rogers

Anne Murray


Dolly Parton

COUNTRY ARTISTS from the 1980s

Randy Travis


George Strait

COUNTRY ARTISTS from the 1990s

Garth Brooks


Faith Hill

Tim McGraw

COUNTRY ARTISTS from the 2000s

Garth Brooks

Carrie Underwood

Taylor Swift:  "Our Song" music video

Alternative / 1990 - Nirvana "Smells Like Teen Spirit"



A Flock Of Seagulls



Stone Temple Pilots

Guns N' Roses


The Killers:  "Mr. Brightside" live in concert

Dashboard Confessional

Dance - Disco / 1979 - Donna Summer "Last Dance"

DANCE / DISCO artists

DANCE / DISCO from the 1970s

Donna Summer

Bee Gees

Chic: "Good Times" live in concert

Barry White

Gloria Gaynor

Van McCoy

DANCE / DISCO from the 1980s



Paula Abdul: "Straight Up" music video

DANCE / CLUB music from the 1990s

Usher: "You Make Me Wanna..." music video


DANCE / CLUB music from the 2000s

Kanye West:  "Love Lockdown" music video

Jazz / 2002 - Diana Krall "Fly Me To The Moon"

JAZZ artists

JAZZ ARTISTS from the 1950s

Miles Davis

Dave Brubeck

JAZZ ARTISTS from the 1960s

JAZZ ARTISTS from the 1970s

Spyro Gyra

George Benson

JAZZ ARTISTS from the 1980s

Kenny G

JAZZ ARTISTS from the 1990s

JAZZ ARTISTS from the 2000s

Diana Krall


Hiphop / 1979 - Sugarhill Gang

HIPHOP / RAP artists

HIPHOP / RAP ARTISTS from the 1970s

Sugarhill Gang

Kurtis Blow

HIPHOP / RAP ARTISTS from the 1980s

Grandmaster Flash

Run D.M.C.

HIPHOP / RAP ARTISTS from the 1990s

Tone Loc

MC Hammer

Young MC

Puff Daddy, Faith Evans and 112: "I'll Be Missing You" music video

Snoop Dogg

HIPHOP / RAP ARTISTS from the 2000s

Kanye West



50 Cent

Your first musical assignment!

1. email me the info requested in Class Video #2 above (send to me at either or including your email and phone number, and a bit about your musical knowledge & background, including the specific questions I asked in the video.

2. Pick ANY TWO artists from this page and tell me why you like them or what you find interesting about their style, in your own words. Just one paragraph (4 or 5 sentences) on each one will be fine.  You do not have to compare the two artists. 

If you can't find two artists you already know, just pick two at random where I provide links to the song or the video, or browse for some of their music on YouTube (  Use the two you picked to tell me what you find good or interesting about their music using your own words and feelings about each artist.

Not required: If you want to learn more about any of the artists on this page for your own knowledge, go to Wikipedia ( and type the artist's name in their search box. They have detailed info on the success stories of thousands of popular performers.

NOTE: Remember, the library on campus has additional computers with headsets (but I recommend you bring your own headset or ear buds) you can use for these assignments, if your computer is too slow or if you'd rather listen to these in the library.

That's it. If you have any problems watching the video on this page or hearing the audio, let me know immediately. Each week will be very different in terms of what types of music we're talking about and what you will be learning.

Thanks, and enjoy the semester!

Tom Z (Tom Zarecki)


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    • profile image

      annanya 6 years ago

      they are good , i ntresting .....

    • profile image

      Annie 6 years ago

      The video links are no longer active... sad...

    • profile image

      Robert Croft 7 years ago

      Hey I am A music teacher in Australia thanks for the list of artist has saved me so much time thank you

    • Krystal Paige profile image

      Krystal Paige 8 years ago from Midwest, America

      I never get tired of listening to "Barracuda" by Heart one of the greates Rock bands ever! Next to Led Zeppelin!

    • tom z profile image

      Tom Zarecki 9 years ago from Danbury, CT USA

      Great comment, thanks Josh. The artists list on this page is only a tiny snapshot of contemporary music. I could have added about 20 or 30 more artists to this list, that's why this page is only a brief representation of all those years.

      And, sure, Jimi Hendrix was absolutely pivotal in pushing guitar solos to a new level in both the rock and blues genres, plus Hendrix was one of the first to regularly integrate guitar distortion as well as electronic fedback to his act.

      Speaking of great guitarists, if/when we do such a list (and that's not a bad idea), we'd need to add Eric Clapton and B.B.King to that list as well, plus a bunch more.

    • profile image

      Josh Williamson 9 years ago

      Mr.Z, I was looking at your list, but i didn't see Jimi Hendrix on it. I feel that he was pretty improtant in blues/rock history, plus wasn't he one of the first to use distortion as a guitar affect.