On one hand, you’ve got The Beatles. And The Stones. The Kinks. Led Zeppelin. The Clash. The Who. The Sex Pistols. U2. Pink Floyd. Radiohead. Thin Lizzy. Oasis. Muse.
On the other hand, you’ve got Elvis Presley. Howlin’ Wolf. Chuck Berry. Muddy Waters. Roy Orbison. James Brown. Bob Dylan. Otis Redding. Bruce Springsteen. Prince. Michael Jackson. Beck.
What’s the difference? You don’t have to be Lester Bangs to ascertain that the first category consists of all bands; the second, all individuals. But look a little closer, and think geographically: the first category consists of all British or Irish rock icons. And the second category is as American as Apple Pie. Or Daniel Boone. Or Davy Crockett.
Why are many (if not most) of the greatest bands in the rock canon all British, while most of the individual icons are American?
What does it say about the respective characters of those two nations? Is that frontier brand of rugged individualism so innate within the American spirit that it manifests itself even in our music? From Louis Armstrong to Robert Johnson to Janis Joplin, the history of American music has largely been that of the individual. Even when individuals are paired with great bands, it’s often the name of the individual that proceeds the ampersand (Buddy Holly & The Crickets. James Brown & The Famous Flames. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. Bruce & The E Street Band. Sly & The Family Stone).
And that got the Editorial Board here at Weeping Elvis thinking about the exceptions to the “all the great rock bands are British” rule… in other words, who exactly are the greatest American bands?
The result of this anthropological inquiry is the list that follows– Weeping Elvis’ Top 25 list of the greatest American rock and roll bands:
During this band’s all-too-brief but influential career, Alex Chilton and Chris Bell wrote some of the most tender and indelible hooks in the rock canon, including “Thirteen,” perhaps the most perfect encapsulation of adolescent innocence and yearning ever committed to tape. They basically invented the genre of Power Pop, paving the way for everyone from Cheap Trick to the Posies to Matthew Sweet.
(The) Eagles took the Gram Parsons cosmic cowboy oeuvre and rode it to superstardom. Their country-rock high lonesome harmonies not only embodied the Laurel Canyon Sound, they shaped the sound of the entire 1970s. Although 35 years of nonstop classic rock airplay has diminished their output into aural wallpaper, their deep catalog bears revisiting.
They are Southern Rock, personified. If you asked any musician or music fan in the South in the late 70s “who is the greatest band in America?,” Leonard Skynyrd was the only logical answer. But Skynyrd wasn’t just a “Southern thing.” Indeed, they did more to bridge the North-South divide than the completion of the Interstate Highway system.
If you are a white, college-educated American male between the ages of 25 and 45, statistics indicate that you own at least one Wilco album. And although they epitomize the Americana/alt-country genre, they’ve always been so much more, incorporating dissonant feedback and obtuse song structure into a cohesive, spellbinding whole. From their inspired debut A.M. through Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (one of the finest American albums of all time) and beyond, they continue to keep us guessing… and dancing (or at least standing in place and nodding along to the beat). People often get lost in the Cult of Tweedy, but it’s essential to remember how many incredible musicians are a part (and were a part) of this band…which is why they are here and Pavement is not.
22. Pearl Jam
It’s easy to blame Pearl Jam for the legion of crappy knockoff grunge acts that record labels pushed upon American eardrums because, well, their lightning-in-a-bottle was both inspiring and impossible to replicate. Their hits are many and are well-known, but their true greatness might stem from the intense poignancy found even in deeper tracks like “Go,” “Garden,” and “Whipping.” Fans never had reason to doubt the authenticity of Vedder’s politically conscious voice (they took on Ticketmaster for crying out loud!), McCready’s / Gossard’s grungy riffs, Ament’s thumping bass, and whomever was hitting the skins at any given time. It was always clear that they were coiled and ready to rock, as their legendary live shows made cathartically clear. Hell, their 1993 collaboration with Neil Young on “Keep On Rockin’ in the Free World” might — alone — have been enough to land them on a spot on this list.
21. The Replacements
America’s clown princes of drunken, rollicking rock. Their epic sets, epic drinking, melodic hooks, and heart-wrenching lyrics influenced many a young band in the 80s and 90s and continue to do so today. Part punk, part blues, all rock-n-roll, they embody the twin American impulses of self-grandiosity and self-sabotage. We like to think they’re still out there in the van somewhere, roaming the American underground landscape, looking for for a club to load into, and get loaded in.
20. The Byrds
If you go to heaven when you die, the sound you’ll hear as you enter the pearly gates is Roger McGuinn’s 12-string Rickenbacker. Plus, without The Byrds, R.E.M. doesn’t exist and Bob Dylan doesn’t have one of his signature tracks re-imagined… for the better.
19. Van Halen
When David Lee Roth was in his prime and Eddie Van Halen was playing the guitar like no one ever had, these hard yet accessible rockers took the world by storm and practically invented the classic stadium rock show experience. Whether it was Roth preening and high-kicking his way around the stage or Eddie jumping on top of his massive Marshall stacks while playing blistering, testosterone-laden solos, it was the rock show experience that set the stage for every arena tour thereafter. It’s best just to forget about the hair metal bands they inspired and those Van Hagar years, and concentrate on an early catalog of albums that brought hard rock to popular radio.
18. Grateful Dead
Their legion of fans and commensurate influence cannot be denied. Too bad they were so poorly copied by so many. Despite their legend and the their seemingly never-ending tour, the songwriting is what sets them apart from their Haight-Ashbury colleagues. From “Ripple” to Friend of the Devil” to “Scarlet Bagonias,” they tapped into a long lineage of American cultural, musical and literary forms. Would The Dead have been so influential without the culture of drugs that surrounded their music? Would the culture of drugs have been so pervasive without their music? Something to ponder next time you’re surrounded by haze and craving a kind veggie burrito.
17. Sonic Youth
The most artistic band of the last thirty years, and one of the most influential in American rock history. Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo stretched the capability of their guitars past what anyone else could have conceived (let alone executed), and Kim Gordon’s punk integrity and driving bass helped launch the Riot Grrrrl movement (not to mention thousands of adolescent fantasies). All this set above Steve Shelley’s superb, straight-up drumming that laid down the foundation upon which their improvisations danced. If you doubt their influence, then you don’t know as much about Nirvana or Wilco as you think you do.
Metallica represents the bridge between the riff-based “New Wave of British Heavy Metal” (Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Dio-era Black Sabbath) and the thrash metal and speed metal of bands like Slayer and Pantera. Sure, other metal bands had played fast before, but Metallica fused blinding speed and technical virtuosity with the ear for melody that was so critical to their forbears–and as such did more than any American band to take metal mainstream.
It may be impossible to measure the influence of what George Clinton, Bootsy Collins and the rest of the boys from The Mothership had on the popular music world. Taking the funkiness of James Brown and slowing it down then combining that with the psychedelic jam of Hendrix and throwing in a little jazz and fusion to boot, Parliament taught us about “the big one,” gettin’ “Up on the Down Stroke,” and let us in on “the funk.” George would probably tell you that “the funk” has always been and he didn’t invent it; he merely taught us about it.
14. Public Enemy
If you don’t think Public Enemy is a punk band, we strongly urge you to listen to Fear of a Black Planet again. Iconoclastic, revolutionary, incendiary, dangerous. Plus, Chuck D is the greatest hip-hop vocalist of all time.
They were not just a rap group; they were a movement. And they simultaneously revolutionized and popularized a nascent genre while bulldozing racial barriers across suburban America. They deconstructed the disparate elements of the inner city American experience, sampling them into a postmodern primordial stew, then laid them down over the thickest, most urgent beat known to man. “Bring the Noise!”
13. The Stooges
Iggy Pop is arguably the greatest front man of all time. And the Asheton brothers took raw American noise to transcendent heights. The Stooges are the Detroit Muscle car of rock-n-roll, and they changed everything that came after them.
Raw Power is the perfect description for their sonic impact and ability to survive against all odds (Detroit, drugs, flower power, etc.). They applied the paddles to the inert chest of rock-n-roll, yelled “clear!,” and invented an urgent, supercharged musical genre that would later be called punk rock.
12. The Pixies
Quiet, meet loud. Loud, meet quiet. Straight outta Boston, The Pixies’ gave the musical world of the late 80s a much-needed sonic reduction. Their unique blend of intensity and playfulness continues to pack the clubs on their never-ending reunion tour, and continues to inspire new generations of bands trying to be as effortlessly outsider cool (and impossibly loud) as Blackie Francis and company.
11. Red Hot Chili Peppers
Punk meets funk in an unlikely collision, they are the soundtrack to “Californication.” If you don’t think the Peppers belong on this list, you can go ahead and suck my (kiss).
10. Credence Clearwater Revival
Perhaps the most underrated band in rock history, they are the Mississippi River of the American rock canon. If Huck Finn grew up and formed a band, it would’ve sounded like Creedence.
9. Beastie Boys
Fusing genres as effortlessly as they threw down beats, and putting out great records that morphed as they matured until MCA’s unfortunate end. They shifted popular music in America in ways no one could have predicted of three skinny Jewish kids from Brooklyn whose career started with them barking out songs of selfish entitlement. Very few bands this side of The Beatles evolved as completely as the Beasties, as evidenced by the musical, emotional and aspirational gap between License to Ill and the postmodern masterpiece that followed it, Paul’s Boutique.
8. The Doors
Incredibly productive in a short amount of time, they put out music that remains fresh and intensely vital while arguably featuring the most mesmerizing frontman of all-time (he was like Iggy Pop on weapons-grade downers). We can’t blame them for all these crappy knockoff bluesy jam bands… blame The Allman Brothers Band and The Dead, in that order.
Sure, Jim Morrison is the most over-exposed dead rock star this side of Elvis Presley. And, he was a bit of a self-absorbed douchebag. But you can’t argue with “Peace Frog” and “Waiting for the Sun.” Plus, “Riders on the Storm” is the only song that has ever scared us, and that’s gotta count for something. Plus, leather pants never looked better on any rocker… not even Iggy.
7. The Allman Brothers
The Allmans were some of the original American rock rebels and their stories from the road are the stuff of legend. These good ole’ boys fused the blues, rock and country they were hearing in their native Macon, Georgia and in essence created a new genre. OK, two new genres. Not only did they lay down the blueprint for Southern rock, but their mix of extended blues and jazz jams created the template for the “jam band” sound, style and concert experience (for better and worse). And there may not be a band that’s lost as many key members to death (Duane Allman, bassists Berry Oakley and Allen Woody) or dismissal (Dickey Betts) and continued to persevere (adding two of the best guitarists in a generation, Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks, will do that). Their legacy is still heard everywhere, from established jam bands like Widespread Panic to new acts such as Zac Brown Band and Canada’s The Sheepdogs. It all boils down to a simple statement…No Allman Brothers, no southern rock.
6. Talking Heads
The CBGBs Era is the third golden age of American rock history (after Sun Studios and Motown/Stax), and Talking Heads were at its epicenter. Simultaneously tribal and angular, the Talking Heads virtually invented the sub-genre of art rock.
You don’t have to be a fan of their work to appreciate their incredible sway within the musical community. Embracing contemporary technology and understanding the changes it brought to the landscape was intrinsic to their genius. Plus, the first song they ever wrote was “Psycho Killer.” Top that!
5. Beach Boys
America’s answer to The Beatles. They invented a whole new sound, genre, and approach to recording, and their harmonies, reverb and lyrics gave everyone in the world a taste of the sun and surf.
“Kokomo” and “Barbara Ann” nearly disqualify them from this list, but “God Only Knows,” “Hang Onto Your Ego,” “Good Vibrations” and “In My Room” are unimpeachable, as are the following two words: Pet Sounds. Over 40 years later, Pet Sounds has yet to be equaled in its inventiveness, sheer perfection, or impact upon sales of high-end audio equipment (and weed to Baby Boomers).
4. Velvet Underground
Probably the most influential band in American history. As the adage goes, they only sold about a thousand albums. But everyone who bought one formed a band.
Plus, can a band be cooler than the one that served as Andy Warhol’s house band at The Factory? There’s no Sonic Youth without Lou Reed, Nico and John Cale. Hell, half the bands on this list (and most of those that nearly made the cut) couldn’t exist without The Velvets’ incredible body of work.
The great Jonathan Richman (whose own band, The Modern Lovers, are in contention for this list) said it best:
“They were wild like the USA
/ A mystery band in a New York way
Rock and roll, but not like the rest / And to me, America at it’s best
How in the world were they making that sound? / Velvet Underground”
They were really just a Phil Spector girl group sped up to ridiculous levels and played on cheap instruments with buzz saw urgency. They remain a guiding light to hook-driven punk kids everywhere.
No guitar solos, and no song over three-and-a-half minutes. They were so influential that members of The Clash and the Sex Pistols climbed in the back window to see them in London on July 4, 1976 — the day that the Americans brought the revolution to England’s shores. And popular music was never the same again.
Raw, unstable, urgent, innocent, cynical, and excruciatingly loud. Nirvana ended the prominence of the cock-rock guitar solo, changed radio forever in America, and it could be argued was ultimately responsible for MTV moving away from music programming. All this while putting out one of the best albums in rock history, and a bevy of lyrics that defined not just their own generation, but those that followed. To wit: “I found it hard/it’s hard to find/Oh well, whatever/Nevermind.”
More mystical and nuanced than their Muscle Shoals Southern predecessors, R.E.M. took the Byrds jangle pop formula, added molasses, kudzu, and mystery, and rode it all the way to the promised land. They put college rock and indie music, not to mention Athens, GA, on the map, and continually expanded on their their hypnotically quirky formula of marrying lilting melodies with obtuse (yet strangely moving) lyrics to improbably pack stadiums worldwide.
We all remember our first R.E.M. album: they’re the band we grew up with… and will grow old with.
As you can imagine, the list inspired a considerable amount of debate among us, so we enlisted the help of twenty other voters, including Weeping Elvis contributors, entertainment executives, and music industry professionals across a range of different demographics (methodology is explained at the end of the article). Each voter was given forty-eight hours and the following criteria to come up with their individual Top 20 list, with the highest vote getting 20 points, the second highest 19, all the way down to 1 point for the 20th place finisher.
Each voter was asked to judge according to the following criteria:
1. The band must be a true band: a GROUP of musicians that created a body of work, not a backing band for a solo artist. Hence, The Supremes (who were a successful group before they were rechristened “Diana Ross & The Supremes”) are eligible; any band with an “ampersand” that was really a backing band for a solo artist (Prince & The Revolution, for instance) was largely considered ineligible. (You’ll recall that Bruce Springsteen famously petitioned the Rock Hall of Fame that he should enter the Hall as a solo artist, independent of the E Street band, who he hoped would be considered later on their merits separately.)
2. Longevity. Note that this could be a double-edged sword—bands that held on too long and put out music that detracted from their genius were penalized. This criteria provoked perhaps the most strenuous debate among voters—many didn’t penalize Nirvana for its relatively brief career, but numerous voters took off points for The Beach Boys, who soldiered on embarrassingly after Brian Wilson called it quits.
3. Influence on other artists.
4. Breaking new musical ground; creating a unique sound, genre or movement.