BEFORE WE MAKE with the good stuff, a few quick notes: As with the 50 Greatest Literary Character Names of All Time, this is an impossible list to make. For one thing, there are way more than 50 names deserving of top spots, especially when you consider the various genres and sub-genres of music: jazz and hip hop, classical and classic rock, big band and punk, Gregorian chant and sea shanty. For another, the process is entirely subjective, subject to my cultural biases and musical tastes.
But just because something is impossible doesn’t mean it can’t be attempted—or, for that matter, that it can’t be achieved. We put a man on the moon, dammit; we can settle on 50 kickass music names!
I have but two criteria. First, the name has to be superlative in every way. This rules out Sting, three of the four Beatles, Steve Miller, Glenn Miller, Dave Matthews, Michael Jackson, Phil Collins, Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills, Young, the entire hair metal subgenre, Sean Puff Daddy P-Diddy Diddy Sean Jean Combs, every Beach Boy, and, most of all, The Edge.
Second, it has to belong to a well-known musician. Stiv Bators is a pretty great music name, as my friend and co-editor Sean Beaudoin has insisted; all well and good, but I have no idea who Stiv Bators is, and therefore he has no place on my list. He does have a place on Sean’s though, which will run tomorrow (more on this below). For now, here’s my list, presented in reverse order of awesometasticness:
Honorable Mention: Chantal Claret, Danbert Nobacon [tie]
We first acknowledge the fantastically-appellated contributors to The Weeklings. “Chantal” is a perfect singer name, as it suggests chanteuse. And Danbert Nobacon is perhaps the gutsiest stage name ever selected, although he could have stuck with Nigel Hunter, his also-awesome given name, and still gotten up again after being knocked down.
50. Barry Gibb
Not quite excellent enough to lead the pack, but in terms of inclusion on the list, more than enough to stay alive.
49. Chaka Khan
You remember how she repeated her name a bunch of times at the beginning of “I Feel for You”? If her name was, say, Tina Yothers, that would maybe not have been as effective.
48. Dolly Parton
I-ee-I will always love her.
47. Mark Sandman
The late, great frontman from Morphine had the dreamiest surname, which inspired the name of his band and perfectly captured his mesmerizing voice.
46. Sufjan Stevens
Back in 2012, I wrote a piece for my “Song Beneath the Song” series analyzing the lyrics of “Casimir Pulaski Day.” This entry is the most-read of any of my many dispatches on these pages. Would that still be the case if the enigmatic singer-songwriter’s first name were, say, Doug? Probably. But the Sufjan sure helps.
45. Gustav Holst
Could just as easily be the lead guitarist of one of those Norwegian death metal bands Weeklings Music Editor Joe Daly is always raving about as the composer of “The Planets.”
44. John Bonham, John Coltrane [tie]
I deduct points for the prosaic first names, but can you come up with better surnames for these two Johns? “Bonham” sounds like rhythmic tom-tomming, while “Coltrane” suggests straight-up cool.
43. Hector Berlioz
The last name looks like a bad collection of Scrabble tiles, the unusual first name complements it perfectly, and the combination has its own poetical cadence I’m too lazy to Google the name of: BUMP-buh-BUMP-buh-BUMP.
42. Dizzy Gillespie
Pretty much any name that ends in “Z-Z-Y” is a great musician name. In this case, he’s Dizzy from so much blowing on that horn.
41. Sid Vicious
As I’ve written before, I totally understand and appreciate and applaud punk rock on an abstract level—the beautiful rebellion, against both society and harmony—but generally, I find the music an unlistenable blow to my senses. Sid is perhaps the least talented of all punk rock musicians, which, since many of them aren’t terribly good to begin with, is saying something. He is famous because of his name. There would not be a film called John Simon Ritchie & Nancy.
40. Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love [tie]
The ultimate Gen X power couple. It would have been fascinating to know what Kurt would have made of social media. It will be fascinating to see if Nirvana’s legacy will endure after my generation is dead and gone. Do Millennials dig Cobain? As for Court, she’s still around, and I still have a soft spot in my heart for her, even if she did help usher in the Botox’d lips thing.
39. Alanis Morissette
The best of the Morrissey/Jim Morrison/Van Morrison cluster is the sick but pretty, young but wise, brave but chickenshit Canadienne. Isn’t it ironic? Don’t you think?
38. Eminem/Marshall Mathers
A rare case where the given name and the stage name are both pitch perfect.
37. Miley Cyrus
Her birth certificate reads DESTINY HOPE CYRUS, which sounds like something the Anagram machine would burp out. Her parents nicknamed her Smiley, on account of her toothy grin; the name stuck, but the “S” was dropped, and the rest is history. Dig how “my” and “sigh” rhyme. And get used to the name, because she’s here for the long haul.
36. Dr. Dre
I’m going to appropriate a joke my Paulie Shore, of all people, although his was about Cap’n Crunch: in what discipline did Mr. Dre receive his doctorate? Is he really a medical doctor? If so, he must prescribe a lot of marijuana.
35. David Lee Roth
So magical is the inclusion of the middle name that it took me 30 years to realize we’re dealing with a bald guy named David Roth, which sounds more like a novelist or an accountant than a dude who once upstaged the equally-well-named Van Halen brothers. Even “Diamond Dave” sounds more like a Gilded Age robber baron than a guy so hot for teacher.
34. Ozzy Osbourne
Oz manages to make the very plain “John Osbourne” into something worth Sharpie-ing onto denim three-ring-binder covers and tattooing on your fingers, just by adding two Zs and biting the head off a bat. Crazy…but that’s how it goes.
33. Cole Porter
We can argue whether he is the best songwriter the United States has ever produced. That his name is greater than Stephen Foster’s, Richard Rodgers’s, Bob Dylan’s, Neil Diamond’s, and Diane Warren’s is above debate. 1
32. Beyoncé Knowles
Full disclosure: I have never understood all the fuss about her. She strikes me as pleasantly mediocre in every way, if almost certainly a very nice person (I’m basing this on how she reacted the time she was Punk’d). But Destiny obviously believes in primogeniture, because she is the only Child to have inherited her father’s strange kingdom. Why is that? Her name, of course! It’s also apt that the diva singing about putting a ring on it has a name that rhymes with “fiancee.”
31. Flava Flav
One of the finest names in all of hip hop—and all of reality TV, Kardashians be damned.
30. Nigel Tufnel
Resisting the urge to put him at eleven. Or to put him at ten and make ten louder. Isn’t it remarkable how Spinal Tap has outlasted most of the bands it was making fun of? Weird Al has done the same thing. Remember when Coolio got all up in Al’s grill because of “Amish Paradise”? Me neither. I had to Google Coolio.
29. Nuno Bettencourt
“More Than Words” guitarist, classical violinist…or Bond villain?
28. Yves Montand
The French Sinatra has a much sexier name than Ol’ Blue Eyes.
27. Stevie Wonder
His name, like his music, is out of sight.
26. Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo [tie]
If you’re one of the greatest tenors, you have to have a heavy name. Two of the three make the cut. Suck it, Jose Carreras.
25. Ringo Starr
Probably the only criterion in which the Fab Four can be ranked in which Richard Starkey would come out on top. That includes “Best Drummer.”
24. Amy Winehouse
The softness of “Amy” contrasts the bleak gravity of “Winehouse.” If a Brick Shithouse is a sturdy place you go to take a dump, then an Amy Winehouse is a pretty place you go to get loaded. After which you go to rehab.
23. Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake [tie]
Two names that perfectly capture the era in which they were first introduced to the world, and also the confectionary nature of the music they made, and make. There is an alternate universe in which there is no Kevin Federline 2, and no Jessica Biehl, and no photo of bald Brit flailing at paparazzo with an umbrella, and maybe even no dick in a box, and these two are happily married. They are the Miss Piggy and Kermit of pop music. Their connection is rainbow. They belong together.
I’m pretty sure he’s named for the J/Z subway line, a train he probably has not boarded himself in quite some time.
21. Regina Spektor
All hail the phantasmagorical monarch, the regal ghost, the Queen of the astral plane!
20. Duke Ellington
His real name is Edward Kennedy Ellington, but he more than earned his regal moniker. John Wayne’s got nothing on this Duke.
19. Trent Reznor
Trent hints at trenchant, Reznor at razor. There’s a sharp edge to him, plainly. Sharper than nine-inch nails.
18. Axl Rose
The Bobby Fischer of rock ‘n roll. Never mind that GNR only has a handful of good songs, or that his oft-imitated vocal phrasing—the mi-yi-yine—is lifted from Frankie Valli, or that his prickdom is legend even in an industry in which prickdom is not exactly rare. Like it or not, “Sweet Child O’Mine” is still the best rock song of its era, and Axl its greatest rock star.
17. Oscar Hammerstein II
Let’s start at the very beginning. A very good place to start. The sound of music may well be “Richard Rodgers,” but the sound of lyrics is this guy. He makes the list just by eschewing the “Jr.” for the more kingly “II.”
16. Bo Diddley
“Bo” almost always works: Bo Jackson, Bo Derrick, Bo Duke, Bo Schembechler, Bo Bice…okay, maybe not always. But it sure does here.
15. Chrétien de Troyes
Original troubadour, author of the Lancelot legend, and perhaps the first musical act to attempt a world tour. There’s a medieval epic poem about the time he trashed his room in an inn in Lyons after spending the night drinking honey mead with les groupies.
14. Dwight Yoakam
I saw Yoakam at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City 15 years or so ago, mostly because I was curious who in the Big Apple would turn up for a country act. Smart people, was the answer. I was treated to one of the best live performances I’ve ever seen, in which highly attractive women ambushed the stage during the encore, and he switched guitars while seguing from song one to song two in a single impossible-to-replicate motion. Bonus: he dumped Sharon Stone.
13. Mick Jagger
When I was a kid, and I’d hear the radioheads talk about him, I thought his last name was McJagger. I kept wanting to know what his first name was. It’s really the perfect rock star name. As Maroon 5 and Ke$ha have pointed out, the surname rhymes with swagger.
12. Frank Zappa
Mother of invention, facial hair pioneer, Tipper antagonist, and utterer of this observation: “Most rock journalism is people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read.” Bonus: it’s his real name.
11. Johnny Cash
Simple, real, iconic. In a word: money.
10. Lady Gaga
Gaga is a) babytalk, b) a Babylonian god, c) the shit playing on the radio, d) one of the nine planets in ancient Sumerian. She is somehow all of these things, and a lady besides. She reminds me of a comic book character who suddenly discovers she has super powers. Here she is before the radioactive spider bit her:
9. Jimi Hendrix
His name sounds like an electric guitar/amp combo.
8. Billie Holiday
Neither heroin nor stormy weather can leave Lady Day off the list.
7. Merle Haggard
How do you explain the fact that this gentleman was given the greatest country music name that could ever be by the woman who bore him? Simple: his mama tried.
6. Loretta Lynn
Coal miner’s daughter, Jack White’s collaborator, Lurlene Lumpkin’s inspiration, country music’s queen.
5. Freddie Mercury
Farrokh Bulsara named himself after a god. He sure sang like one.
4. Tupac Shakur
There are plenty of excellent hip hop names, but then hip hop encourages its artists to make up their own. Jay-Z is really Shawn Carter, Diddy is Sean Combs, L’il Wayne is Wayne Carter, Jr., and Biggie is Christopher Wallace. But Tupac Shakur’s real name is Tupac Shakur! He’s named for the Peruvian revolutionary Tupac Amiru, who appears on this banknote.
3. Thelonious Monk
Is this a jazz pianist? A fleet ship on Battlestar Galactica? The new running back for the Oakland Raiders? The colloquial name of the best position in the Kama Sutra? The new hybrid from GM? Anything is made better by this name. A dog, an elementary school, a tonsured holy man, a sex toy, anything.
Hail Mary! Love that it’s her real name, love that she goes by “Madge,” love that they still call her The Material Girl even though she’s well on the other side of 50, love the sly interplay with “Madonna” and “Like a Virgin,” and love love love the VMAs when she slithered around in that white lingerie and pushed my 11-year-old libido to the borderline.
1. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Exemplar of the Classical music era, composer of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” subject of one of the all-time greatest biopics, and genius of almost mythical proportions, he gave us not one, not two, but three superb names. Falco would not have had a hit if he just repeated “Johann Sebastian” over and over.
What’s that, you say? You think my list is bullshit, full of obvious choices and lacking in cooler, lesser known musicians? So does my fellow Weekling Sean Beaudoin. In fact, he hates my list so much that he made one of his own. CLICK HERE to read.