The Top 40 Pop Artists of All Time

The Essential Recording Artists to Know

 

Any serious pop music collection begins here, with the 40 most essential pop music artists to know. The list is based on commercial success as well as quality and timelessness of the artist's music. Suggested tracks are included to get you started. These performers are the bedrock of popular music.

It’s important to note an omission from this list. Records sales during the 1930s were not as closely publicly monitored as they are today, so it’s not possible to confirm how many records Bing Crosby has sold. Some estimates have put the crooner’s worldwide record sales as high as 1 billion, on par with Elvis Presley. At least 29 of his single recordings reached No. 1 on the Billboard charts (which began in their modern form in 1940), and his rendition of “White Christmas” still ranks as the top-selling single of all time. The original recording was No. 1 for 11 weeks in 1942, and rereleases occupied the No. 1 spot during the Christmas season in 1945 and 1946. Crosby’s records, including “White Christmas,” continue to sell today, more than 100 years after his birth.

The Everly Brothers, Don and Phil, are one of the most successful duos ever on the pop charts. They demonstrated a connection between country music and rock 'n' roll. Their vocal harmonies had a very strong influence on pop and rock music to come, particularly the Beach Boys, Beatles, and Simon and Garfunkel.

Essential Songs

  • "Wake Up Little Susie"
  • "Bye Bye Love"
  • "Cathy's Clown"
  • "All I Have to Do Is Dream"
  • "Bird Dog"

Barry Manilow is perhaps the ultimate pop music showman. It is no surprise that he has now become one of the top Las Vegas entertainers of all time. Those who look for pop music to be high art frequently deride the simple melody and musical drama of Barry Manilow's top hits. However, he has earned a strong, hardcore following of fans and vocal respect from his entertainment peers.

Essential Songs

  • "I Write the Songs"
  • "Weekend in New England"
  • "Mandy"
  • "Copacabana (At the Copa)"
  • "Can't Smile Without You"

Although he died tragically at the age of 33, Sam Cooke left a tremendous legacy from his few years as a top pop and soul performer. Many give credit to Cooke for being a pioneer and founder of what became known as soul music when he moved from the gospel world to focus on popular music. Sam Cooke was also a pioneer among black performers on the business end of music. He formed his own record label and music publishing company. He also became a music leader in the American civil rights movement, lending it one of his most stirring songs, "A Change Is Gonna Come," as an anthem.

Essential Songs

  • "You Send Me"
  • "Wonderful World"
  • "A Change Is Gonna Come"
  • "Chain Gang"
  • "Twistin' the Night Away"

The Pet Shop Boys wrap erudite irony and romance in lush electronic keyboard textures topped by often deadpan vocals to create their corner of the pop music world. They are one of the top five dance-pop artists of all time and are electro-pop pioneers. Vocalist and songwriter Neil Tennant has come out publicly, and the Pet Shop Boys' music regularly addresses and celebrates gay culture.

Essential Songs

  • "West End Girls"
  • "Being Boring"
  • "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" with Dusty Springfield
  • "It's a Sin"
  • "Left to My Own Devices"

Beyonce Knowles first made her appearance on the pop music scene as part of the trio Destiny's Child. They landed nine top 3 singles, including four that went all the way to No. 1. Since venturing out on her own as a solo artist, Beyonce has landed in the top 3 seven more times, including six more No. 1s. Beyonce has established herself firmly as a top level singer, dancer, and actor.

Essential Songs

  • "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)"
  • "Irreplaceable"
  • "Crazy in Love"
  • "If I Were a Boy"
  • "Naughty Girl"

Songwriting, vocal harmonies, and the sometimes otherworldly clarity of Art Garfunkel's upper registers are hallmarks of one of the top pop duos of all time. There is a sense that pop-folk reaches its epitome in the lyrically complex songs Simon and Garfunkel recorded in the late '60s. Personal difficulties pulled this duo apart far too early, but the recorded legacy is a rich one.

Essential Songs

  • "The Sounds of Silence"
  • "Mrs. Robinson"
  • "Scarborough Fair"
  • "The Boxer"
  • "I Am a Rock"

Dusty Springfield is arguably the greatest blue-eyed soul singer of all time. She brought the sounds of American R&B to the United Kingdom and influenced a generation of singers there. Her album "Dusty in Memphis" is legendary. Dusty Springfield died in 1999 at the age of 59 from breast cancer.

Essential Songs

  • "Son-of-a Preacher Man"
  • "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me"
  • "I Only Want to Be With You"
  • "Wishin' and Hopin'"
  • "Silver Threads and Golden Needles"

The Carpenters bucked the popularity of rock, heavy metal, and glam in the early 1970s to present a seemingly light, gentle style of pop music that became exceedingly successful. Karen Carpenter's voice stands out as one of the more unique instruments in the history of pop music. There is an undercurrent of melancholy present even in the happiest of songs. Karen Carpenter passed away as a victim of anorexia nervosa in 1983 at the age of 32.

Essential Songs

  • "(They Long to Be) Close to You"
  • "We've Only Just Begun"
  • "Superstar"
  • "Top of the World"
  • "For All We Know"

Donna Summer earned the title of undisputed queen of disco when the genre was at its dizzying peak on the pop charts. Partnering with Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, she also created some of the most forward-looking dance music in classics such as "I Feel Love" and "Hot Stuff." Her classic hits remain highly influential to this day. Although her impact on the pop music charts has faded, Donna Summer most recently hit No. 1 on the dance chart in 2008.

Essential Songs

  • "Hot Stuff"
  • "I Feel Love"
  • "Love to Love You Baby"
  • "MacArthur Park"
  • "Last Dance"

Robbie Williams is perhaps the most successful international pop superstar to never reach the pop top 40 in the United States. As a member of the boy band Take That he took part in recording 12 top 10 UK pop singles, including seven No. 1s. As a solo artist Robbie Williams has gone back to the top 10 an astounding 26 more times, including six more No. 1s. At the 2005 Brit Awards his song "Angels" was named as the top song in British music over the past 25 years.

Essential Songs

  • "Angels"
  • "Millennium"
  • "Feel"
  • "Rock DJ"
  • "Let Me Entertain You"

Fleetwood Mac were a well-respected British blues band until the American folk-pop duo Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks were asked to join in 1975. This was the catalyst that soon turned Fleetwood Mac into pop-rock icons. Their album "Rumours" is one of the most commercially and critically acclaimed albums of all time and is in the top 10 best selling. It spent 31 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart.

Essential Songs

  • "Dreams"
  • "Go Your Own Way"
  • "Don't Stop"
  • "Rhiannon (Will You Ever Win)"
  • "Big Love"

Sly and the Family Stone are one of the most influential soul and funk artists of all time. In the late '60s they led uplifting, positive soul music that encouraged a vision of a world lacking prejudice. In the early 1970s, with the groundbreaking album "There's a Riot Goin' On," they introduced a dark, militant brand of funk that was just as influential as their earlier music.

Essential Songs

  • "Everyday People"
  • "Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin"
  • "Family Affair"
  • "I Want to Take You Higher"
  • "Dance to the Music"

The Eagles entered the pop music world with a laid-back, easy country-rock sound. However, by the time of the albums "Hotel California" and "The Long Run" they were exploring something significantly darker and more complex. Their "Greatest Hits 1971–1975" album is the best-selling album of all time.

Essential Songs

  • "Hotel California"
  • "Heartache Tonight"
  • "Take It Easy"
  • "One of These Nights"
  • "Take It to the Limit"

Throughout the many images and styles he has adopted in more than 40 years, David Bowie has remained one of the most influential musicians in popular music. He proved himself equally adept at mainstream pop, glam rock, new wave, and disco. Bowie is considered an essential artist for anyone interested in the evolution of alternative pop music both in the United States and the United Kingdom. He passed away on January 10, 2016, just two days after his 69th birthday. 

Essential Songs

  • "Fame"
  • "Golden Years"
  • "Let's Dance"
  • "Space Oddity"
  • "Changes"

Queen emerged in the early 1970s with influence from glam and heavy metal bands such as Led Zeppelin. They soon developed their own style of grand, operatic pop and rock that reached its pinnacle with the six-minute pop opera "Bohemian Rhapsody." The band later proved adept at creating major hit singles in styles ranging from rockabilly to disco. Through all of it, leader Freddie Mercury remained one of the most flamboyantly entertaining lead vocalists of all time. Mercury died a victim of AIDS in 1991 at age 45.

Essential Songs

  • "Bohemian Rhapsody"
  • "Somebody to Love"
  • "We Will Rock You / We Are the Champions"
  • "Another One Bites the Dust"
  • "Radio Ga-Ga"

Jay-Z is perhaps the most successful hip-hop artist of all time both critically and commercially. As a former CEO of Def Jam, he is also seen as one of the most influential businessmen in the history of the genre. Jay-Z has released 14 No. 1 albums in the United States, more than any other artist except the Beatles. He wins as far as the most from a solo artist, with Bruce Springsteen and Barbra Streisand both having 11 No. 1 albums on the Billboard Top 200.

Essential Songs

  • "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)"
  • "Empire State of Mind"
  • "Big Pimpin'"
  • "'03 Bonnie and Clyde"
  • "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)"

As a Motown recording artist, Marvin Gaye was one of the most popular soul singers in the United States. In the early '70s, he fought to have artistic control over his music and laid the groundwork for Stevie Wonder to follow in his footsteps. Marvin Gaye brought stunning social commentary to the pop mainstream with the 1971 album "What's Going On."

Essential Songs

  • "What's Going On"
  • "Let's Get It On"
  • "I Heard It Through the Grapevine"
  • "Got to Give It Up (Pt. 1)"
  • "Sexual Healing"

Duran Duran were originally derided as simply a disposable pop band more concerned with image than music. However, they are the most enduring of groups that emerged in the early 1980s "second" British invasion of new wave and post-punk. Duran Duran topped the U.S. dance chart and reached the UK pop top 5 as recently as 2004.

Essential Songs

  • "The Reflex"
  • "Hungry Like the Wolf"
  • "New Moon on Monday"
  • "Rio"
  • "Come Undone"

Bono was 16 when U2 formed in 1976 as a group of eager teenagers. Decades later, the lineup has remained intact, and U2 are one of the top rock bands of all time. Rolling Stone notably said the 1987 album "The Joshua Tree" elevated U2 "from heroes to superstars," where they have remained since.

Essential Songs

  • "Beautiful Day"
  • "With or Without You"
  • "One"
  • "Pride (In the Name of Love)"
  • "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For"

Rod Stewart's voice is one of the most instantly recognizable instruments in pop music. His musical career has spanned many decades, in which he has gone from heavy rock vocalist to pop and disco superstar to a champion of pop standards. Rod Stewart is also respected as a top confessional pop songwriter, although his most recent recorded work has primarily been engaged in interpreting the songs of others.

Essential Songs

  • "Maggie May"
  • "Reason to Believe"
  • "Downtown Train"
  • "Tonight's the Night (Gonna Be Alright)"
  • "You Wear It Well"

Aretha Franklin holds the title of queen of soul. She is one of the most celebrated singers of all time, earning 18 Grammy Awards, and she became the first woman to enter the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame. In addition to singing, Aretha Franklin was a very accomplished pianist. Many of her songs stand as anthems for women everywhere.

Essential Songs

  • "Respect"
  • "Chain of Fools"
  • "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)"
  • "Spanish Harlem"
  • "Think"

Whitney Houston is sometimes referred to simply as "the Voice." Her powerful vocals led to massive pop success in the 1980s and 1990s. She was born into music, as her mother, Cissy Houston, had a career as a top studio singer. She also counts Dionne Warwick as a cousin and Aretha Franklin her godmother. She became the first artist to have seven consecutive No. 1 pop singles in the United States, surpassing the record of six by the Beatles and the Bee Gees.

Essential Songs

  • "I Will Always Love You"
  • "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)"
  • "It's Not Right But It's Okay"
  • "Saving All My Love for You"
  • "Greatest Love of All"

Known as "the Boss," Bruce Springsteen is often considered one of the most distinctively American of rock songwriters. He is a winner of 20 Grammy Awards and even an Academy Award for his powerful "Streets of Philadelphia" from the film "Philadelphia." With the release of his album "Born to Run" in 1975, Bruce Springsteen was featured simultaneously on the covers of "Time" and "Newsweek." It took five years for his commercial success to catch up to the critical acclaim.

Essential Songs

  • "Born to Run"
  • "Dancing in the Dark"
  • "Streets of Philadelphia"
  • "Hungry Heart"
  • "I'm on Fire"

Billy Joel is one of the most successful singer-songwriters in history. He is a member of both the Songwriters Hall of Fame and Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. He has been a very popular concert act performing with another of the top piano-playing pop stars of all time, Elton John, and has had a successful series of more than 100 concerts at Madison Square Garden, which is still ongoing.

Essential Songs

  • "Just the Way You Are"
  • "My Life"
  • "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me"
  • "The River of Dreams"
  • "Tell Her About It"

Prince spearheaded the "Minneapolis" sound in the early 1980s that was an arresting blend of pop, rock, funk, and new wave. He continued to pull together diverse influences from pop and rock history into a sound that is distinctively Prince. He generated controversy throughout his career for sexually explicit material, his opinions on ownership of the copyright to his works, and ongoing battles with the Warner Bros. record label. Prince's last four studio albums were quietly top 3 hits on the U.S. albums chart. Grieving fans following his death in April 2016 put seven of his albums in the top 50 by late May, two hitting No. 1.

Essential Songs

  • "When Doves Cry"
  • "Kiss"
  • "Raspberry Beret"
  • "Diamonds and Pearls"
  • "Let's Go Crazy"

Through the massive runaway success of "Saturday Night Fever" and its accompanying soundtrack, the Bee Gees became disco icons, although it doesn't seem that was their aim. Their career has given the world a significant number of additional hits in a sort of baroque pop style and later R&B-influenced material. Barry Gibb, one of the three brothers who made up the group, has also been a very successful producer of pop hits by other artists, ranging from brother Andy to Barbra Streisand. Maurice Gibb passed away in 2003 at the age of 53.

Essential Songs

  • "Stayin' Alive"
  • "You Should Be Dancing"
  • "Jive Talkin'"
  • "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart"
  • "Tragedy"

From 1974 through 1982 ABBA were the best-selling pop music act in the world. Although their success was a bit more muted in the United States, they were international superstars, and some consider their highly melodic, catchy songs to be the gold standard in pop music. The musical "Mamma Mia," based on ABBA songs, has returned the group to massive sales around the world in recent years.

Essential Songs

  • "Dancing Queen"
  • "Take a Chance on Me"
  • "Mamma Mia"
  • "Fernando"
  • "SOS"

The Beach Boys were the top group recording early 1960s surf music, with big hits such as "Surfin' USA." Later in the decade under the leadership of the band's songwriter and producer Brian Wilson, the group explored innovative approaches to studio pop with the landmark album "Pet Sounds" and pop masterpiece "Good Vibrations." Unfortunately, Brian Wilson's battles with mental illness and drugs hampered the group's ability to reach its creative ambitions. However, the Beach Boys remain one of the most successful and influential pop groups of all time.

Essential Songs

  • "Good Vibrations"
  • "I Get Around"
  • "Wouldn't It Be Nice"
  • "Surfin' USA"
  • "Help Me, Rhonda"

Britney Spears was the biggest of the teen pop stars to emerge in the late 1990s. However, by the middle of the following decade, it seemed her musical career might have drowned in a mass of bad publicity and personal difficulties. Spears then put together one of the most phenomenal comebacks in pop music history and was more commercially and critically successful than ever before. She has achieved the status of a pop icon.

Essential Songs

  • "...Baby One More Time"
  • "Toxic"
  • "Womanizer"
  • "Oops!...I Did It Again"
  • "Piece of Me"

At a number of points in her career, Janet Jackson has threatened to surpass the achievements of her brother Michael Jackson in chart and sales success. Few artists have been more influential than Janet Jackson in the dance choreography that has accompanied many of her biggest hits. In addition to her music, Janet Jackson is also an accomplished actor.

Essential Songs

  • "Escapade"
  • "Miss You Much"
  • "Doesn't Really Matter"
  • "Nasty"
  • "Rhythm Nation"

Mariah Carey is the only current recording artist in striking distance of reaching the Beatles' all-time record of 20 No. 1 pop singles in the United States, though some contend that several of her No. 1-sellers come from distribution manipulation. Her collaboration with Boyz II Men on "One Sweet Day" spent 16 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 which remains a record—though it was tied in 2017 by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee's "Despacito," featuring Justin Bieber. Mariah Carey's vocal range and melismatic approach are trademarks that have influenced countless other female vocalists in the past two decades.

Essential Songs

  • "Fantasy"
  • "Vision of Love"
  • "Dreamlover"
  • "We Belong Together"
  • "Hero"

Stevie Wonder emerged in the early 1960s as a precocious child star with one of the most infectious live hits ever recorded, "Fingertips - Pt. 2." Through the rest of the decade and the early 1970s, he matured as an artist until he took full artistic control as singer, musician, producer, and songwriter. His music ranged across styles but usually remained rooted in highly rhythmic textures. The songs are noted for their positive outlook even when dealing with difficult social issues. Many decades later, Stevie Wonder continues to record for his original label, Motown.

Essential Songs

  • "Superstition"
  • "Sir Duke"
  • "Fingertips - Pt. 2"
  • "If You Really Love Me"
  • "Living for the City"

Michael Jackson, with the possible exception of Elvis Presley, was the epitome of larger-than-life pop music figures. He hit the pop spotlight as a child of 11 in 1969 with his brothers in the group Jackson 5. At the end of the next decade, he emerged as a young adult recording artist. Michael Jackson recorded "Thriller," still the second best-selling album of all time in the United States (and the top one around the world), and was the world's biggest pop star in the late 1980s. His career became mired in tabloid rumors and criminal investigations. However, his star still shone brightly when he died suddenly at age 50 in 2009.

Essential Songs

  • "Billie Jean"
  • "Black or White"
  • "Man in the Mirror"
  • "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough"
  • "You Are Not Alone"

Originally many saw the Rolling Stones as sort of a scruffy, explicit anti-Beatles. However, through the decades to come the group developed their distinctive status as "the world's greatest rock and roll band." They have been responsible for bringing strong influences of American blues into the pop mainstream and remain one of the world's top live bands.

Essential Songs

  • "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction"
  • "Brown Sugar"
  • "Miss You"
  • "Honky Tonk Women"
  • "Paint It, Black"

Barbra Streisand is the best-selling female album artist of all time in the United States. She is also a pioneer among women in filmmaking having become a successful director as well as actor. Her success is particularly notable, because her primary vocal style remains outside of the pop mainstream, yet she has released five No. 1 pop singles.

Essential Songs

  • "The Way We Were"
  • "Woman in Love"
  • "People"
  • "Love Theme From 'A Star Is Born' (Evergreen)"
  • "Stoney End"

Frank Sinatra is the most successful pop artist at transcending the era of swing and pop standards to remain a recording star after the advent of rock 'n' roll. He first hit the Billboard singles chart in 1939. His last significant chart hit, "Theme From New York, New York," appeared more than 40 years later in 1980 when he was 64. Frank Sinatra is the recipient of 11 Grammy Awards as well as an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in "From Here to Eternity." He died in 1998 at the age of 82.

Essential Songs

  • "Strangers in the Night"
  • "Theme From New York, New York"
  • "My Way"
  • "Love and Marriage"
  • "Somethin' Stupid" with Nancy Sinatra

Madonna has released 37 top 10 pop hits in the United States, more than any other artist. She also ranks as the top dance artist of all time. Seven of her albums have debuted at No. 1 in the United States, and she is a member of the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame.

Essential Songs

  • "Like a Prayer"
  • "Vogue"
  • "Music"
  • "Like a Virgin"
  • "Ray of Light"

Elton John is the foremost piano player in pop music history. He has released more than 50 top 40 singles, including a phenomenal 38 consecutive top 40 singles from 1972 through 1986. His music could be considered definitive of mainstream pop in the 1970s. In recent years Elton John has toured frequently with a fellow successful piano-playing pop musician, Billy Joel.

Essential Songs

  • "Your Song"
  • "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road"
  • "Bennie and the Jets"
  • "Daniel"
  • "Philadelphia Freedom"

Without Elvis Presley, its hard to imagine how much of what came after in pop and rock music could have happened. He brought rock 'n' roll into American living rooms and became a larger-than-life cultural icon. He recorded more than 100 pop top 40 hits and died young in 1977 at the age of 42.

Essential Songs

  • "Jailhouse Rock"
  • "Suspicious Minds"
  • "Are You Lonesome Tonight"
  • "Heartbreak Hotel"
  • "Don't Be Cruel"

The Beatles are the band by which nearly everything else in pop music is matched and measured. Their influence on artists who followed their phenomenal career, from 1960 to 1970, is unmeasurable. They continue to hold the record for the most No. 1 pop singles in the United States at 20 and are widely considered to be the best-selling album artist of all time. Their influence is still felt so strongly that they ranked as the top-selling album recording act of the decade of the 2000s because of the album 1, a compilation of their No. 1 hits. It was still selling 1,000 copies per week as of 2015, a string of more than 700 weeks of selling at least that many copies. 

Essential Songs

  • "Hey Jude"
  • "Help!"
  • "Get Back"
  • "Come Together"
  • "A Hard Day's Night"