Ten Greatest Pop Stars Since 1950
These illustrious ones have few peers
What is a pop star? Well, pop stars perform popular music, commonly known as pop, which is mainstream, commercial and somewhat more respectable than say, rock and roll. You could play pop in church, for instance, but rock and roll might not fit, depending on the church, of course. Remarkably, though, rockers often consider it an insult to be called pop stars! (And possibly vice versa.)
By the way, this list only includes pop stars that began their recording careers after 1950 and before 1990.
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10. Mariah Carey
Few women on the planet have sold more records than Mariah Carey (about 200 million). Perhaps this is to be expected, since her voice has a five-octave range and she’s certainly a gorgeous woman. Beginning her singing career in 1988, Carey soon became one of the best pop singers in the 1990s; in fact, she was the best-selling artist of the decade. Carey’s career slipped a little in the early 2000s, but then she sprang back into prominence in 2005 with the release of The Emancipation of Mimi, which became the best-selling album by a solo artist that year. The album features the hit song “We Belong Together,” perhaps the best of her career to date and voted as the song of the decade by Billboard. Over the years, Carey has produced numerous number one singles and won scores of awards.
9. Billy Joel
Billy Joel’s musical career began in the 1960s when he became inspired by watching the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. Soon, at 14, Joel played piano in a band called The Echoes, which specialized in playing covers from the British Invasion. Then, in the early 1970s, Joel became a solo act, releasing the hit album Piano Man in 1973. Throughout the succeeding decades Joel produced numerous Top 40 hits, all of which he wrote himself, by the way. Appropriately, in 1992, Joel was inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. Joel also writes music, including classical compositions and numbers for Broadway musicals. Joel’s list of hit singles is very impressive too: “Only the Good Die Young,” “She’s Always a Woman,” “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” and “Just the Way You Are.” Now in his sixties, Billy Joel continues to record and tour.
8. Tony Bennett
Tony Bennett’s singing career began in 1951 with the release of the single “Because of You.” Bennett grew up listening to an “older” crowd of pop celebrities such as Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Louis Armstrong, Pearl Bailey and Al Jolson. Bennett’s style of singing encompasses traditional American popular music, show tunes and jazz. Perhaps Bennett’s greatest hit is “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” released in 1962. Bennett’s career took a downturn in the middle 1950s and lasted through the 1970s, as rock ‘n’ roll dominated. But Bennett made a rebound in the 1980s, when his style of debonair Sinatra-esque ballads found resurgence. Since then Bennett’s albums have sold again and many pop singers, including K. D. Lang and Lady Gaga, have been lining up to record or perform duets with him. It seems Tony Bennett may one day pass on, but his elegant style will never go out of fashion.
7. Barbra Streisand
Barbra Streisand’s career as a pop singer began like a meteor streaking across the sky and, after six decades in the business, she still astounds with a voice that defies the challenges of advancing age. Released in 1963, her first album was The Barbra Streisand Album, which won three Grammy Awards. Soon, Barbra was considered the most exciting new personality since Elvis Presley. Streisand isn’t just a pop singer either; she’s starred in Broadway shows, major motion pictures and TV specials. In Funny Girl, for which she played the lead in both the stage play and the movie, she won an Academy Award for Best Actress. Incredibly, Streisand has produced 50 albums and has been nominated for 40 Grammy Awards. Still a recording artist of note, Streisand produced the album, Partners, in 2014.
6. Stevie Wonder
The prodigy that he was, Stevie Wonder signed a Motown recording contract at the age of 11! And, while still 11, he produced his first single, “I Call It Pretty Music, but the Old People Call It the Blues.” Then in 1962 Wonder released two albums. Yes, indeed, little Stevie was truly a wonder, hence his name, “Little Stevie Wonder.” In the middle 1960s, Wonder began churning out R&B hits such as “Uptight (Everything’s All Right).” Wonder’s classic period was the early 1970s, when he was given total creative control by his recording company. His greatest hit from that period could be “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.” Thereafter, Wonder continued pumping out a seemingly endless stream of hits, such as “Go Home” in 1986. In the realm of pop music there are few if any better than Stevie Wonder; however, in R&B, he is almost certainly the best. And he ain’t finished yet!
5. Paul McCartney
Guinness World Records lists Paul McCartney as the most successful musician and composer in the history of popular music. As just about everyone knows, McCartney started with the Fab Four in 1960, and if his career had stopped right there, it would have been very impressive indeed. But in 1970 McCartney embarked on a solo career that, well, almost topped the Beatles. (Nobody tops them, right?) He began by recording the solo album McCartney in 1970, a work for which he played all the instruments! From then on, in the genres of rock and pop (and even classical) McCartney has written songs and musical compositions that have sold millions of records and won numerous awards. He even does a little painting, you know. Certainly under the rubric of popular music, Sir Paul McCartney is considered royalty.
4. Elvis Presley
Compared to McCartney and the others, Elvis Presley is considered the best selling solo artist in the history of popular music and is often called the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Elvis was one of the originators of the rockabilly sound in the middle 1950s and became a sensation by 1956 with the release of “Heartbreak Hotel,” his first hit single and also appeared in the movie, Love Me Tender. By 1960, after a two-year stint in the military, Elvis did little but star in movies and record soundtrack albums. Maybe he wasn’t working hard enough because his sound became passé by the middle 1960s, so he made a comeback in 1968, releasing the live concert performance, Aloha from Hawaii. Then, by the 1970s, Elvis performed almost exclusively in Las Vegas, his music now decidedly “poppy.” Unfortunately, like many pop artists, Elvis succumbed to prescription drug use and died at 42 in 1977. Long live the King!
In a recent interview which included her daughter Lola, Madonna said she is not the Material Girl. Madonna explained that the nickname was always meant to be ironic. She said she is not superficial; she likes horses and flowers, but not hydrangeas. Well, superficial or not, Madonna has become the best. Guinness World Records recognizes her as the best-selling female recording artist of all time, having sold some 300 million records! Only the Beatles top her as recording artists, according to the Billboard Hot 100 All-Time Top Artists, a list compiled in 2008. In 1979, Madonna began her musical career in the rock group The Breakfast Club; she sang, played guitar and drums. Then in the early 1980s she began recording, soon appearing on MTV, her edgy, imaginative videos becoming a mainstay on the fledging channel. It’s been pop history since then, as Madonna’s stardom has rocketed to the moon and back to earth, where she can frolic among the horses and flowers – but not hydrangeas.
2. Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson wasn’t just the King of Pop; he was an entertainer, perhaps the greatest of all time, according to Guinness World Records. At any rate, it could be said that Jackson was the greatest dancer among all pop stars. Who can forget his moonwalk and robot? Jackson started as a six-year-old prodigy, singing with his brothers in the Jackson 5. By 1971, Jackson, just 13, was already a solo artist. Perhaps Jackson’ tour de force was the creation of Thriller, the greatest selling album of all time worldwide. Thriller includes numerous hits such as “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” and maybe the best romantic pop tune of all time, “The Lady in My Life.” Michael’s career kept soaring for decades – but it took its toll on him. Perhaps his greatest medical problem was chronic insomnia, for which he began injecting the powerful anesthetic propofol, an overdose of which killed him in June 2009. But let’s be upbeat. For the memory of Michael, we never can say goodbye.
Sting is an artist in every sense of the word. He started as a punk rocker in the 1970s, playing bass and singing in The Police, one of the best rock bands of the 1980s. Then he transitioned to New Wave, reggae, jazz and even classical, whatever style he thought he needed to pursue at any particular time. Sting has always had great passion for trying something new, and in the process has appeared as versatile as any pop artist ever. As for Sting’s magnum opus, in 1999 he produced “Brand New Day,” perhaps the greatest pop song of all time. Who isn’t in love with this song? Sting’s list of awards is lengthy as well. He’s won 16 Grammy Awards and garnered several Oscar nominations for Best Original Song. Also, as an aside, Sting’s career hasn’t suffered from scandals or drug addiction. Musician, actor and activist, Sting is one of the classiest dudes around and almost certainly the greatest pop star of all time!
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© 2011 Kelley Marks