British artists have always held a special place in the world.
We’re regularly invading the US (although we haven’t burned down the White House in a while) and the music that’s come out of this tiny island has been responsible for some of the most dramatic shifts in what is considered popular music.
Let’s take a look at 20 British artists who changed the music world forever.
We’ve done our best to make this list as chronological as possible, but were not getting too hung up when they appeared on the scene.
Does anything more really need to be said?
The Beatles were the first big ‘pop stars’ and ensured the legacy of the guitar for decades to come (and the popularity of this instrument – contrary to lots of ramblings about its demise – doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon).
The Beatles story is as fascinating as it was short – they were only together for 10 years (from 1960 to 1970) and stopped touring after 1966, choosing to spend time in the studio.
In a relatively short timeframe, The Beatles laid a path for the next half decade of music. There wouldn’t have been Brit Pop thirty years later without The Beatles, that’s for sure.
The Who’s contributions to rock music are numerous. Firstly, they developed what’s known as the Marshall stack – a collection of amps stacked together to make a massive sound.
Bass guitarist John Entwistle (who many think was the best rock bass guitarist to ever live) and flamboyant guitarist Pete Townshend were instrumental in the use of these amps, and that in turn spawned the sound of Jimi Hendrix. The Who also championed the use of the synthesizer, and the development of the (love them or hate them) rock opera with Tommy.
Their live performances were also legendary and had a massive influence on the performing style of later artists for years.
The Rolling Stones
They were the British rock band.
When it comes to albums, The Stones were in a league of their own. No other band has consistently produced so many great albums.
Their golden period was 1968 – 1972 were they released a string of absolute gems starting with Beggar’s Banquet (’68), Let it Bleed (’69), Sticky Fingers (’70) and the murky, double album Exile On Main Street (’71) recorded in the French Riviera while they were exiled for tax reasons.
Who said a musician needs to have a niche, when you can just constantly grow and change and get better with every new iteration?
David Bowie is one of the pillars of music, not just in the UK but across the world.
No other musician has been so chameleon-like, reinventing himself through his career.
His persona included rock demigod Ziggy Stardust, soul crooner The Thin White Duke (which brought us the magnificent album Young Americans), the Berlin era (bringing us the Berlin Trio of albums Low, Heroes, and Lodger) and to the New Romantic and pop era (Let’s Dance) to his Tin Machine and Electronic period, he never stopped changing.
Dark Side of the Moon is one of the most instantly recognised album covers on the planet.
The overwhelming drug use and mental illness experienced by Syd Barrett cut his career short, but the band endured without him, although it was never quite the same.
Songwriter and bassist Roger Waters and guitarist Dave Gilmour each went on to do different things, but like many partnerships (Jagger / Richards, Lennon / McCartney, etc.) the magic appeared when they wrote and played together.
Unfortunately for us, Roger Water’s tumultuous relationship with the rest of the band led to him leaving the band.
The chart success of Dark Side Of The Moon has never actually been rivalled since.
Who can argue with Queen?
Freddie Mercury’s fantastic, four-octave vocal ability and their power to entrance a crowd with some of the biggest rock anthems ever written (culminating in an electrifying performance at 1985’s Live Aid) is enough to put them on our list of top Brit bands.
But the huge impact Freddie Mercury had on the attitudes towards the HIV virus are enough to earn him a place in any hall of fame too.
It was never cool to like Queen, like it was The Stones, or Led Zeppelin. But who cares about cool, really. Their music speaks for itself.
Probably one of Britain’s biggest exports.
Not only were ‘Led Zep’ known as being one of the loudest band in the 1970s, they also held the record for the biggest one band gig – 56,000 people. It seems small by today’s standards, but was huge back in the 70s.
Basically all of the 70’s that wasn’t ridiculous, almost childish music was Fleetwood Mac.Most celebrated for their ’77 album, ‘Rumours’, which has sold more than 40 million copies(!), Fleetwood Mac were a band who turned cocaine-fuelled lunacy and inter-band affairs into something beautiful and legendary.Many of the songs on ‘Rumours‘ were written by band members, to each other, some even at times when they weren’t speaking to one another.
If you take a look at any live performance of one of their most well-known tracks, ‘The Chain’, you will feel the tension from your seat.The soap opera-esque drama present within this band, combined with the quality of their tunes made their performances wonderfully gritty, tension-filled and moving.
Dark, gothic and incredibly British.
If it hadn’t been for these pioneers we probably never would have had the Goth aesthetic – or at least not as widespread as it became.
Anybody who dyed their hair black and got a skull ring owes at least a little to this group.
The Smith’s were the arch-typical student protest band – though it was never completely clear what Morrissey‘s clever lyrics were a protest against.
That said, the song Meat Is Murder is responsible for converting more people to vegetarianism than any other song in history.
Student life in Britain would have been very different in the 80’s without them, that’s for sure.
As well as filling the halls and dormitories of students across the land, The Smiths were a commercial success to boot.
All of their albums were in the top 2 of the UK charts on release and they came in at number 1 on NME’s top 50 music icons from the last 50 years.
“The Smiths arrived, changed music overnight, then months later imploded but never left NME or music fans the same”.
– Ben Knowles, NME editor
They had their heyday in the 80’s with synth driven pop music, but have never gone quiet.
In fact, they’re undergoing something of a resurgence.
They’ve been picked up by both the alt-right political group as a soundtrack of sorts – a fanbase they have rapidly distanced themselves from.
Their influence has also been felt in a new breed of electronic music called synthwave, and their influence in earlier years along with New Order, the Human League and Kraftwerk helped pave the way for a lot of today’s electronic music.
Kate Bush is a national treasure of Britain.
Although her career has had some rather long gaps between album releases and even performances, her first gig in over a decade sold out within hours.
She may be one of the driving forces behind the idea of ‘concept albums’, wherein the singer takes on a the perspective of a character rather than their own.
Her crown jewel is 1985 album Hounds Of Love.
An album of two sides: side A with ‘the singles’ with side B (subtitled “The Ninth Wave”), a conceptual suite of songs which is breathtaking and slightly disturbing at the same time (‘Waking the Witch‘).
The split concept album is possibly a nod to Bowie’s album Heroes which came 10 years before, where he did the same.
Before bands like Blur and Oasis came along, there was Suede.
Without this slightly overlooked group, there would never have been any Britpop.
They lost out to a subtle cultural shift, with the effeminate look of their lineup falling by the wayside as ‘Lad culture’ took over, fuelled by the antics of Liam and Noel Gallagher.
Despite what turned out to be a lack of longevity, this band did have a number 1 self titled album, Suede, which also happened to be the fastest selling debut in nearly 10 years.This is a band for the DJs who are cool enough to be into the other brit-pop bands: Blur, Oasis and Pulp, but too cool to include them in their mildly obscure set.
Starting out as one of the members of Take That, the boy band before boy bands were even a thing, Robbie Williams went on to have one of the single most successful solo careers of all time.
Every release he has ever made has been a chart hit, which must at least partially be thanks to his extremely talented songwriting partner: Guy Chambers.
This duo have written a ton of tunes including X-factor favourite ‘Angels’, but let’s not talk about X-factor…
Even besides his music, Robbie is loved by middle-aged women across the globe for his mischievous persona, ‘laddish’ looks and down-to-Earthness. Aww, look at that cheeky grin!
If you like your music mellow and your musicians crazy, Oasis is the one for you.
Between the two brothers they’ve caused more media frenzy than any other British artist for a long time with their often violent antics.
By now there probably isn’t a soul who hasn’t heard of them, and their relentlessly popular hit, ‘Wonderwall‘.Still, popular as their music is, it doesn’t seem to be enough to bring brothers Liam and Noel together.
The songwriting brothers famously enter feud after feud, the most recent of which involved Liam getting somebody to peel a potato on stage, as a dig at one of Noel’s projects involving a scissor-player… (Did somebody say, “Too much cocaine!”?)
Well known as being ‘dull’, but like Nickleback it seems that although everybody bashes them they somehow have a huge fanbase.
Their music has been featured in numerous popular festivals and commercially they have always been successful.Although they have a reputation for being depressing, a listen to Coldplay will reveal uplifting lyrics, instantly memorable melodies and some wonderful piano hooks.And, of course, they officially own the colour yellow!
Combining all the vocal talents of any good soul singer with the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle made Amy Winehouse a giant in the UK music landscape.
Her tragic death brought the country together, and cast a stark look on the dangers of drug addiction in a way no government sponsored scheme could achieve.
Amy’s music also continues to bring together women who have been messed around by men.
Her album, ‘Back to Black‘ contains touching songs about heartbreak, with astoundingly uninhibited and detailed lyrics which bear the patina of authenticity. A true artist.
A newcomer to the British music scene, yet he has helped to popularise Grime, an underground rap genre and take it mainstream despite having an extremely brief career to date.He dove into the charts in 2015, remained through 2016 then, despite being very young (24!), went on hiatus for a year.
He is back now, though, and released an album called ‘Gang Signs and Prayer‘ in 2017, and, after a hashtag advertising campaign, he leapt straight to number 1 in the UK charts.A truly innovative artist, moving with the times and helping to shape the future.
Like Amy Winehouse, Adele’s music touches women worldwide who have been hurt by men.Her albums, which she names after her age during the time of songwriting, have been openly autobiographical and her followers are interested in more than just her music.21 was perhaps the most painful, with songs including ‘Someone like you’ and ‘Rolling in the Deep’, and Adele has the wonderful ability to create music that is easy on the ear and heavy on the heart.Never before has an artist made being in utter heartbroken pain so popular, whilst also maintaining a reputation as being funny and good company! Kudos, Adele!
Ed Sheeran has, arguably, taken over the world at the moment. Enter any open mic night and you will see a clone of his: an artist with an acoustic guitar, perhaps a looper, playing their own material.
Maybe even playing Ed Sheeran’s material. Either way, he’s had a huge influence!He leapt into our collective consciousness in 2010 with ‘A Team’: a sad song about prostitution, and has since gained a reputation as a prolific songwriter and popular performer.The girls love him, the boys want to be him, the boys try to be him, everyone who is ginger is compared to him…
It could be his unconventional looks (for a pop star), it could be his seemingly bottomless tank of creativity, but whatever it is, Ed Sheeran is – in the 2010s – it.
So that’s your lot…
Some of these groups have had a more local impact than others, some lasted for decades whilst others only had a peak of popularity that lasted a few short years.
Regardless, they’ve all been highly influential on musicians that came after and those that worked alongside them.
If you think we’ve got our collection wrong, feel free to add your own!
Featured image source: X / CC BY 2.0
Ged is Founder and Editor-in-chief at Zing Instruments. He’s a guitarist for London based gypsy jazz band ‘Django Mango’ and a lover of all things music. When he’s not ripping up and down the fretboard, he’s tinkering with his ’79 Campervan.