Robert Johnson (1911-1938) You know that song about the guy who traded his soul to the devil in order to become the greatest guitarist that ever lived? Well, that was Johnson. The story's true. Every rock song ever made owes a debt to his "King of the Delta Blues Singers" duality.
Ian Curtis (1956-1980) Joy Division was arguably the most important band of the post-punk movement, while Curtis was its most influential and enduring frontman. Dead by his own hand at 23, his dark, painful, and enigmatic lyrics are a tragic document of a life transformed into art.
Freddie Mercury (1946-1991) There has been no greater rock 'n' roll frontman before or since Mercury. Period. Many have tried to emulate him, and even more are trying to emulate his work with Queen these days, but none has managed to capture a fraction of his glamtastic, larger-than-life persona, on- or offstage.
Hank Williams (1923-1953) Robert Johnson is often called the "grandfather of rock 'n' roll," but he'd probably wind up with a hung jury if country-music pioneer Williams took him to court over the title.
Nina Simone (1933-2003) It's only now, after her death, that we know Simone suffered from bipolar disorder. How much of her intensely emotional performance style and trademark see-saw stage persona grew out of her condition? Modern R&B owes her a debt of gratitude that it's yet to pay.
The Notorious B.I.G. (1972-1997) Gangsta rap was a West Coast thang until Biggie Smalls released Ready to Die in 1994. The ensuing East Coast-West Coast feud devolved into a largely nebulous event open to historical parody, while the rank-and-file the genre now recruits has largely forgotten why Biggie's street-inspired work was so powerful.
Patsy Cline (1932-1963) Probably the most important female country vocalist ever, Cline's name is often invoked by lesser talents whose reverence for her — considering how Wal-Mart-bad their music is — seems more like ignorant mockery.
John Lennon (1940-1980) If we have to explain this one to you, then you're probably too damn stupid to even be reading these words.
Miles Davis (1926-1991) As much as jazz is about improvised experimentation, Davis' jazz was about experimental growth. In other words, the genre knew no limits during his almost 50-year reign as its undisputed leader.
Michael Jackson (1958-1992) It might look like Michael Jackson is still kicking around, but the guy Thriller and Bad made the "king of pop" vanished from this plane of existence during the year that followed the release of Dangerous. Think about it: everything after '92 is what you make fun of, while everything before is what you mourn the loss of.