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These are the moments that rocked the musical world. Welcome to WatchMojo.com and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 Moments in Music History.
For this list, we’re looking at the most memorable and electrifying moments that impacted music as an art form and the public that consumes it. We’re not counting the deaths of any musicians, as they all prove equally sad, and we’re also not including infamous moments like Kanye West’s interruption of Taylor Swift’s VMA acceptance speech, as they deserve a list of their own.
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#10: Sugarhill Gang Reaches the Top 40
We’re sure you've jammed out to “Rapper’s Delight” once or twice, but did you know it was recorded in a single take? Didn’t think so. That single take, recorded by Englewood natives “Wonder Mike,” “Big Bank Hank,” and “Master Gee,” rocked the musical world when in January, 1980, it cracked the Billboard Top 40, landing the number 36 spot. It was the first time a hip-hop track had ever accomplished such a feat, as it legitimized the hip-hop genre as a force to be reckoned with. This moment paved the way for all future hip-hop acts, from Biggie to Kendrick Lamar who can all thank The Sugarhill Gang.
#9: Ludwig van Beethoven premieres the 9th Symphony
Considered among his best work, Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 9” premiered on May 7th, 1824 at Vienna’s Theater am Kärntnertor to a packed audience. Matching the crowd, Beethoven packed the stage with the largest orchestra he had ever convened, including many of Vienna’s elite musicians. The premiere marked the first time Beethoven had taken the stage in 12 years. During that time he lost his hearing, and as a result wrote the symphony off musical intuition alone. All of this added to the crowd’s anticipation. Sharing the stage with the theater’s kapellmeister, Michael Umlauf, Beethoven’s symphony stunned the audience, earning five standing ovations. The 9th proved to be Beethoven’s last completed symphony, but it lives on as a masterpiece.
#8: Nirvana on MTV Unplugged
The music industry owes a lot to MTV given the game changing impact of its arrival, but the channel should also be recognized for some incredible music moments. Perhaps the most powerful performance ever aired on the channel was Nirvana's 1993 appearance on “MTV Unplugged.” Recorded in November of that year and aired a month later, it was one of the last televised performances by Kurt Cobain, before his death in April of 1994. In the wake of his death, the performance inherited immense weight, where the funeral like set dressings and melancholic song choices brought Cobain's declining mental state into focus.
#7: Johnny Cash Walks the Line
Johnny Cash was never one to play by the rules, and that’s why the public loved the Man in Black. An outlaw spirit who had fair share of brushes with the law, Cash sympathized with prison inmates. He advocated for prison reform, and as early as the late 50s started to visit and perform in prisons. The real moment of magic came on February 24th, 1969, when Cash performed live at California’s San Quentin Prison. Fueled in part by his annoyance with the British film crew filming the concert, Cash led a rowdy crowd of inmates with a rebellious, energetic, and career defining set.
#6: Michael Jackson’s Moonwalk
He didn’t create the move, but MJ sure as hell popularized it. The moonwalk has cropped up throughout pop culture since the 1930s, such as James Brown in The Blues Brothers for example, but there’s only one name synonymous with the move: Michael Jackson. He lit up the world when he first rocked the moonwalk at Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, and Forever in March 1983. Jackson added his signature flair and gravitas to the move by spinning and posing in his sequins, black jacket, and white glove, stopping the world for a moment, and then dropping the moonwalk bomb. In modern times it would have broken the internet but in the 1980s Jackson had to just settle for blowing minds.
#5: Queen at Live Aid
On July 13th, 1985 the biggest bands in the world of rock and roll came together for Live Aid to support relief efforts for the Ethiopian Famine. On a day featuring a reunited Led Zeppelin, The Who, Black Sabbath, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and U2's epic 14 minute rendition of “Bad,” it was Queen that stole the show. In a mere 21 minute set, they crammed in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Radio Ga Ga, ”Hammer to Fall,” “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” and a finale of “We Will Rock You” and “We are the Champions.” The performance was incredible, as Freddie Mercury commanded the stage and the 72,000 person crowd in what proved to be one of his last major performances.
#4: Bob Dylan Goes Electric at Newport
A fan favourite of the Newport Folk Festival thanks to his appearances in 1963 and 64, Bob Dylan rattled the cage a little to hard in 1965. By '65 Dylan had been labeled the “spokesman of a generation,” and had earned Newport’s headlining bill. Taking the stage with members from the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and armed with a Fender Stratocaster electric guitar, Mr Zimmerman parted ways with his folk brethren. As boos and jeers erupted from the purists of the festival, including its organizers, Dylan let loose with electric guitars and the energy of rock and roll. It was a major turning point, signalling the decline of folk, and the rise of rock and roll.
#3: Elvis on the Milton Berle Show
By the time he performed on the Milton Berle show on June 5th, 1956, Elvis had already appeared on television plenty of times, including a previous appearance on Berle's show. This time around, however, things were different. Guitar-less and free to move around the stage, Presley became a quivering mass of windmilling arms and gyrating hips while performing an overcharged version of "Hound Dog." He may have been chastised by the press and conservative America, but Elvis won over America’s youth who very promptly crowned him the King of Rock and Roll.
#2: Jimi Hendrix Plays the Star-Spangled Banner at Woodstock
Woodstock – four days of peace and love—rocked the world with many incredible performances from groups as diverse as The Who to Jefferson Airplane. None, however, had the cultural impact of Jimi Hendrix. Due the festival being horribly off schedule, and following Sha-Na-Na, Hendrix finally took the stage early Monday morning, with a mere 30,000 of the 400,000 plus audience still in attendance. The remaining few were stunned when Hendrix broke out a passionate rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner with the full Jimi Hendrix treatment. It was a performance that both channelled counterculture rebellion and anger towards the Vietnam War, but also Hendrix's unbridled love for America.
Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.
- Gangnam Style
- Madonna, “Like a Virgin” on MTV Awards
- Invention of the Electric Guitar
- The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert
- The Who on the Smothers Brothers
#1: The Beatles on Ed Sullivan Show
The Ed Sullivan Show gave the world a collection of incredible and controversial music moments, like the censored hip swinging of Elvis Presley, but no moment compares to the debut performance of The Beatles. On February 9th, 1964, to an estimated U.S. television record of 73 million viewers, The Beatles took the stage and kicked off the British Invasion. On that night, John, Paul, George, and Ringo bridged the gap between British and American music, globalizing the industry with a forged bond that would forever link the two. The performance launched America into a craze unlike anything before it. Beatlemania had arrived, and music would never be the same again.
Do you agree with our list? What do you think is the most important moment in music history? For more entertaining Top 10s published daily, be sure to subscribe to WatchMojo.com.