Warning: you are not going to agree with this list. That’s because all lists like this are subjective and therefore flawed.
Some, however, are more flawed than others. Here’s one that ranks the Foo Fighters higher than Nirvana, a sign that the writer needs a good ear exam or a great therapist.
Hopefully this list is, if not less contentious, somewhat less ridiculous. Unranked except for the obvious first two entries, the only rules are that the group must be rock (so no The Cure) and must be a band (so no Bruce Springsteen). Without further ado, let the comment thread cyber-shouting begin.
20 The Beatles
Let’s get the obvious ones out of the way: no list of top rock bands would be viable without the Beatles and the next band, the Rolling Stones. From 1963 until their breakup in 1970, the Fab Four enjoyed the most condensed run of brilliance in history, bar none. In the process they became bigger than Jesus and had their own mania named after them.
The numbers are just otherworldly. Over an eight-year run the Beatles had an astounding 27 #1 hits, and dozens others nearly adding to that total. They’ve sold 183 million records, the most ever. Perhaps most tellingly, no reliable figure exists for concert attendance… because fans were so rabid that the Beatles stopped touring in 1966.
Equally impressive is the band’s maturation. In less than a decade, they went from suited pop stars strumming simplistic ditties like “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” to serve as soundtrack to the fast-changing times. They went from “Hard Day’s Night” to “Revolution” to Abbey Road’s “Come Together” and, along the way, tripped out with “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”
Any band in which the infinitely talented George Harrison is only the third most influential member is going to rank among the greatest ever.
19 The Rolling Stones
I was in high school in 1994 as the rock world mourned the death of Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain. That summer, a band that had been going strong for three decades dropped its 22nd studio album. The album was “Voodoo Lounge,” and the band was the irrepressible Rolling Stones.
The breakout single, “Love is Strong,” was testament to the fact that, even in the heart of the grunge era, a good rock song is a good rock song, period. Several years later, Sopranos creator David Chase chose the lulling, haunting “Thru and Thru” to close the show’s second season, cementing the record’s legacy.
This anecdote is a microcosm: The Stones are a refreshingly stubborn counterpoint to the Beatles; while the latter quickly adapted to reflect the tumultuous 1960s, the Stones catalogue is defiantly unaffected by its surroundings.
1971’s “Brown Sugar,” a song about sleeping with a black girl, seems out of place amid the Civil Rights movement, while 1966’s “Under My Thumb” is antagonistically misogynistic, flying in the face of the simmering women’s lib movement. Meanwhile, songs like “Wild Horses” and “Angie” reflect neither their times nor the band’s remaining catalogue; their commonality is that they are, quite simply, damn good songs. When a band has two of the greatest songwriters of all time, timing and even consistency mean nothing.
18 The Ramones
From this point forward, the list is in no particular order, except for this writer’s opinion that the greatest American rock band ever is and always will be The Ramones.
For starters, the Ramones were genre pioneers – a distinction that should elevate a band on any list (SEE: REM, Nirvana). Along with the Sex Pistols, the Ramones are generally credited with birthing punk rock. Emerging from the depressing early 1970s, their music, appearance and attitude were an amplified middle finger to everything from the societal status quo to conventional rock music.
Their music was never meant for the airwaves. If you’re listening to “Blitzkrieg Bop” on the radio, slowed down to less than half measure, you’re doing it wrong. No, the Ramones are the type of band whose music is meant to be played at warp speed and ear-splitting volume. We can and should enjoy “Rockaway Beach,” “Sedated” and “Sheena is a Punk Rocker” in their natural habitat: live, loud and at machine-gun pace.
I leave you with this: The Ramones Greatest Hits Live is the greatest (and at 37 minutes, the fastest) “best of” album ever. Mic drop.
Nirvana was the best rock band in one of its best decades: the 1990s. It is hard to overestimate Nirvana’s influence on both the music scene and pop culture. They were a transformative force despite fewer than five years in the limelight—a phenomenon abruptly ended with front man Kurt Cobain’s suicide in April 1994.
For starters, Nirvana launched grunge music with its 1991 breakout album, “Nevermind,” and a music video, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” that juggernauted the band to superstardom and has since become only the decade’s second to reach one billion YouTube views. Almost overnight, flannel and ripped jeans were in style and 80s power ballads outdated.
Nirvana’s music lived up to its stardom, driven by a generational genius with unparalleled songwriting talent and the uncanny ability to scream on key; “Lithium,” a song whose refrain is simply the word “Yeah” yelled rhythmically, is a prime example of Cobain’s rare vocal gift.
“Nevermind” and the band’s final full album, “In Utero,” might be the two best consecutive albums in rock history, and its incredible November 1993 MTV Unplugged performance leaves a haunting chill given Cobain’s tragic end just a few months later.
16 Pearl Jam
But what about the other Seattle-based grunge band with a heroin-addicted lead singer?
With lead singer Eddie Vedder, Pearl Jam was less grungy than Nirvana but more diverse in its range of songs. Sampling the band’s first three albums – “Ten,” “Versus” and “Vitalogy” – fans were presented with tracks that, despite certainly fitting into the burgeoning alternative music genre, were essentially a spaghetti-at-the-wall smattering of random, terrific songs. And as evidenced by their breakout song “Jeremy” and subsequent hit “Daughter,” rhyming lyrics were optional.
The majority of those seemingly arbitrary songs were, simply, great. “Animal,” “Corduroy,” “Black,” “Alive,” “Evenflow.” Pearl Jam’s bench of hits was so deep that, in the early to mid-1990s, it seemed like a month couldn’t pass without a new one breaking onto the airwaves and ascending the Billboard charts.
Pearl Jam is an uncomplicated recipe: Eddie Vedder is on a short list of the greatest singer/songwriters of all time, and the band’s legend lives on his broad shoulders.
15 The Clash
The Clash is the most aptly named band on this list, because they’re what happens when punk rockers write what is essentially pop music. They were bad-asses with good rhythm.
Most of The Clash’s catalogue was written by some combination of front man Joe Strummer and guitarist Mick Jones. Wherever the source, one can see the hand of impromptu providence in such catchy hits as “Rock the Casbah” and “I Fought the Law,” as if a gritty, gutty punk rocker sat down to write a gritty, gutty punk song… but what popped into his head were epiphanies that, regardless of subgenre, are simply good rock songs.
The Clash, then, are punk rockers in their hearts but more traditional rock stars in practice; they couldn’t write non-catchy music if they tried. Ironically, on 1979’s “London Calling,” Strummer croons that “phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust.” It wasn’t true. The torch had simply passed to another set of geniuses whose image and attitude belied the immovable fact that a rock hit is a rock hit however it is packaged and presented.
No, Hole didn’t make the cut to add some gender diversity to an inevitably male-dominated list. They’re included because they absolutely wailed, both because of and despite lead singer Courtney Love’s electric volatility.
Calling them a chick band counterpoint to contemporaries like Nirvana – an obvious comparison given Love’s marriage to Kurt Cobain – sells them far short. They embodied a feminine heroin chic that resonated with disenchanted young Gen X women, a “Meh Generation” gender symbol giving the middle finger not just to men but everything else, including themselves. Hole captured female angst, fear and depressed self-loathing better than any rock band ever.
Their music reflected this mix of external rage and internal inferiority-complex wounds. On the 1994 album “Live Through This,” the refrain of “Violet” screams “Go on, take everything,” leaving listeners to wonder whether Love is confronting a male tormentor or declaring herself deserving of his torment. The lulling yet haunting “Doll Parts” has a similarly ambiguously placed hurt.
It was 1998’s “Celebrity Skin,” however, that cemented Hole’s legacy. A handful of hits, including the title track’s graphic depiction of a girl headed to Hollywood, headlined an entire track list worthy of a “best of” compilation. To this day hits like “Awful” and the addiction-addled “Malibu” are both catchy and gripping—meaningful melodies that stick inside our heads.
Metallica holds the mantel of most influential metal band. The band grabbed an underground head-banging movement and took it mainstream… then were criticized for being too mainstream. Ah, the perils of success.
And successful they were. Even as the grunge/alternative music revolution simmered, 1991’s self-titled album, also called the “Black Album,” showed heavier stuff still had a place with hits like “Sad But True,” “Don’t Tread on Me,” and “Enter Sandman,” whose intimidating riffs and lyrics became both soundtrack and nickname for the greatest relief pitcher in baseball history. Meanwhile, power ballads like “Unforgiven” and “Nothing Else Matters” displayed their lingering 80s roots and timeless songwriting bona fides.
Metal traditionalists will point to a softening of Metallica’s sound over the years, particularly on the underrated 1996 album “Load.” But earlier efforts like 1986’s “Master of Puppets” and the follow-up “And Justice for All” were sufficiently hard to place them atop the all-time metal music mountain.
Like any groundbreaking band, the mainstream music world’s first reaction to R.E.M. was probably “What the hell is this?”
That was 1987, and an obscure band with a cryptic name (it stands for “Rapid Eye Movement”) had just answered hair metal and cheesy pop music with “Document,” whose two smash hits, “The One I Love” and “It’s the End of the World,” were unlike anything before them.
In the process, R.E.M. made alternative music far less, well, alternative. Like Pearl Jam, the band has an “anything goes” approach whose signature sound is noticeable only by the distinct voice of its lead singer, Michael Stipe.
Starting in the late 80s and continuing through the 90s, R.E.M. put together a string of hits rivaling any band over any stretch, with the exception of the Beatles. “Losing My Religion,” “Everybody Hurts,” “Stand,” What’s the Frequency Kenneth,” “Orange Crush,” “Shiny Happy People.”
Their songs became so ingrained in pop culture that the 1999 biopic “Man on the Moon,” about the life of legendary alt-comedian Andy Kaufman, is named after the band’s hit single of the same name – an acknowledgement that everyone not only knew the song but that it chronicled Kaufman. That level of societal saturation is rare indeed.
11 The Heartbreakers
The Heartbreakers hold the title of “best band no one knows by name.” Hint: It’s Tom Petty’s group.
The Heartbreakers make the cut despite several obstacles. First, they’re a traditional rock band whose peak success came when traditional rock really wasn’t too big; starting with their 1976 self-titled breakout album, which featured “American Girl,” through 1991’s “Into the Great Wide Open” (the last to gain significant mainstream airplay), the band persevered through disco, punk, 80s pop, metal, alternative and grunge despite having exactly nothing to do with any of them.
The second hurdle was Tom Petty. Not Tom Petty the extraordinarily talented songwriter; Tom Petty the below-average lead vocalist.
I’ll go ahead and say it: Tom Petty’s voice is annoying. It’s nasally and weird. But like Bob Dylan before him, the songs are so good it doesn’t matter. From “Free Fallin’” to “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” to “Learning to Fly,” the Heartbreakers flew through headwinds into music immortality.
The only downside of Petty’s genius? Politicians using “I Won’t Back Down” as their campaign theme song.
10 Led Zeppelin
All “best of” lists are subjective – in the eyes (or in this case, the ears) of the beholder. But sometimes certain items make a list simply because the writer would look silly otherwise.
I do not like Led Zeppelin; they simply aren’t my cup of tea. But unlike other huge bands that didn’t make this list – Kiss, the Eagles, Radiohead – I feel compelled to include Led Zeppelin. They are beloved and critically praised enough that I must recognize their genius regardless of my personal taste. For God’s sake, Rolling Stone literally has an article called “The 40 Greatest Led Zeppelin Songs of All Time”. In the face or such rarified air, who am I to omit them?
Their playlist is undeniable – albeit, in my opinion, a bit played out. “Stairway to Heaven,” “Whole Lotta Love,” “Ramble On,” and “Gallows Pole” are all objectively terrific songs even if I subjectively never need to hear any of them again, ever. Oh, and naming your albums Roman Numerals is unoriginal and arrogant – there, I said it.
9 Guns N’ Roses
In justifying GNR’s appearance on this list, we need look no further than the band’s Greatest Hits album, which stacks up against any in rock history. In order: Welcome to the Jungle, Sweet Child O’ Mine, Patience, Paradise City, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, Civil War, You Could Be Mine, Don’t You Cry, November Rain, Live and Let Die, Yesterdays, Ain’t It Fun, Since I Don’t Have You, Sympathy for the Devil.
Those songs alone let Guns N’ Roses snake dance onto the list, but let’s dig deeper. Despite its distinctly metal vibe, GNR’s legacy is driven by a lead singer with nearly unlimited range and a collective songwriting with completely unlimited range. Seamlessly, GNR pivoted from speed metal to power ballad to songs so soft that Cheryl Crow can cover them.
The band also holds an interesting distinction: At nearly nine minutes long, 1991’s “November Rain” is the longest song ever to break into the Billboard Top 10. The lilting, rolling piano ballad, interspersed with classic solos from lead guitarist Slash, became an airwaves mainstay for months.
8 The Go-Gos
The Go-Gos are the best all-female rock group of all time. They check a bunch of firsts and stand with some of the best.
When they burst onto the punk/new wave scene in the early 1980s, the Go-Gos were, unfortunately, somewhat of a novelty. The idea that an all-female rock band was both writing its own songs and playing its own instruments was new to mainstream music.
Novelty or no, the band’s debut album, “Beauty and the Beat,” became the first from an all-female group to top the Billboard charts on the strength of two smash hits, “We Got the Beat,” which peaked at #2 on US singles charts, and “Our Lips Are Sealed.”
Though the music stood for itself, the nascent music video business – pioneered by the then-fledgling MTV – played a significant role in catapulting the Go-Gos from hitmakers to superstars. As well as having the beat, the fivesome obviously had a look that young women emulated and young men salivated over. With “Vacation,” the title track and lead single of their second album, the Go-Gos proved they were no fluke, and their success continued with 1984’s “Talk Show,” featuring a trifecta of hits: Head over Heels,” “Turn to You” and “Yes or No.”
7 Marilyn Manson
When considering Marilyn Manson’s place in rock legend, close your eyes. Don’t look at the intentionally provocative, arguably Satanic imagery. Set aside the antagonistically gender-bending of its lead singer. Just listen.
Marilyn Manson is the N.W.A. of rock: people were too busy disparaging their look and their lyrics to fully appreciate their immense talent. A contemporary of theirs, Eminem, fell into the same overshadowing trap – and acknowledged that by featuring Manson in his video for The Way I Am. (“And they blame it on Marliyn/and the heroin/where were the parents at?)”
The group, of course, also brought vitriol upon themselves. In the aptly named “Irresponsible Hate Anthem,” Manson admits he “wasn’t born with enough middle fingers” on an album whose title, “Antichrist Superstar,” was a “f*ck you” unto itself.
But the music was fierce, unique and altogether outstanding. Despite going mainstream with, of all things, a cover of the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams,” the band had hit-worthy tracks on albums throughout the 1990s, starting with 1991’s “Portrait of an American Family” (“Get Your Gunn,” “Cake and Sodomy”) through 1998’s Mechanical Animal (“Dope Show”).
Adding to the talent-muted-by-noise factor, 1996’s Antichrist Superstar was both Manson’s most controversial album and its best – the rare album where every track is “best hits” caliber.
6 The White Stripes
The White Stripes are the only band on this list from the 2000s. Along with contemporary acts like the Strokes, Arctic Monkeys and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the band inhabits a rock subgenre called “garage rock revival” – basically a yearning for a back-to-basics approach in a post-alternative environment dominated by boy bands and hip hop.
It didn’t work. Rock died. But not before Jack and Meg White had something to say about it.
After two solid albums that failed to break through, “White Blood Cells” skyrocketed the band to stardom with “Fell in Love With a Girl.” Fans buying the album quickly realized that the remaining tracks, including oddball anthems like the twangy “Hotel Yorba” and mellow “We’re Going to Be Friends,” bore little resemblance to the breakout hit. It wasn’t what we expected, but it was… well, incredible.
That’s what the White Stripes are: a weird, nerdgasmic band who could also write mainstream megahits. “Seven Nation Army” and “Icky Thump” blended with “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” and “My Doorbell” for a run of unpredictably perfect albums.
If an absolutely awful biopic could disqualify a band from this list, Queen would not be on it. Luckily it can’t. because Queen’s combination of cultural influence, societal impact and songwriting ability rival any band in rock history.
That “bum bum-BUM!” sound you hear at every sporting event from the World Cup Finals to Little League baseball? That’s a Queen riff. And when one team is ultimately crowned the best, they play… a Queen song, “We Are the Champions.”
Queen is one of those bands good enough to outshine themselves, meaning their greatest hits were so great that the rest of their catalogue gets overlooked. When you bring the world “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Another One Bites the Dust” “Somebody to Love” and “I Want it All,” the songs that were just a little less remarkable – yet fantastic nonetheless – tend to stall in the background. Googling “Queen hit songs,” one inevitably comes across several terrific tracks that you either forgot Queen performed or forgot, period.
Aerosmith is another band that checks too many boxes to be omitted from this list. A trippy, funky rock edge, versatile songwriting chops and a lead singer in Stephen Tyler with a distinct voice are all factors in them making the cut.
It is their staying power, however, that puts them over the edge. Aerosmith had big hits in three decades, and while having a few lull periods never really went away. Oddly considering the eventual smash hit “Dream On,” their eponymous debut album was recorded in 1973 but not widely received until 1975; in the interim, they released a second album, “Get Your Wings,” that received an equally lukewarm reception.
That all changed with 1975’s “Toys in the Attic.” The album’s breakout hits, “Walk This Way” and “Sweet Emotion,” led to its earlier work being discovered and propelled Aerosmith to superstardom. Hits like “Rag Doll,” “Love in an Elevator,” “Janie’s Got a Gun,” and “Cryin’” kept Aerosmith relevant for decades, and the band even helped Run DMC go mainstream with a hip-hop remake of “Walk This Way.”
3 The Kinks
In 1964, while the Beatles were asking young ladies to hold their hands, the Kinks had higher aspirations. On the heels of their breakthrough hit “You Really Got Me,” from their self-titled debut album, “All Day and All of the Night” pushed the envelope of radio-permissible sexuality. And like Elvis before them, the reason the Kinks could push the envelope was because they were, quite simply, immensely talented.
Ahead of their time in both music and message, to this day the Kinks are one of the few bands that can get me to dance (poorly); they have a foot-tapping irresistibility that makes their double-album best hits compilation, “Come Dancing with the Kinks,” aptly named.
At the same time, many of their tracks exhibit a seething mockery of idyllic post-World War II Western life, with tracks like “Sunny Afternoon,” and my personal favorite, “A Well Respected Man,” dripping with sarcastic cultural critique. Other tracks, like “Tired of Waiting for You,” fall into a more traditional, “that’s just an incredible song” category indicative of rock legends.
2 Smashing Pumpkins
When considering the final 90s band on this list, it was between Smashing Pumpkins and Radiohead. Billy Corgan’s group got the nod because, for all Radiohead’s hits, too much of their catalogue is filler that sounds similar to everything else they’ve done. The Pumpkins were decidedly more diverse and less risk-averse.
Cases in point: After breaking through with their second album – 1993’s “Siamese Dream,” featuring hits like “Cherub Rock,” Today” and the lulling “Disarm,” – most bands would be content to cement their stardom and avoid any accusation of flash-in-the-pan sophomoritis. The Pumpkins responded with a wildly ambitious 28-song double feature, “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness,” widely considered among the best rock albums in a decade loaded with them.
Mellon Collie displayed the bands unsurpassed range – a dichotomy spanning hard rock hits like “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” to the mesmerizing, violin-laden “Tonight, Tonight” (LINK 25) and the loopy, new wave-ish “1979.”
And then? Something entirely different. “Adore,” coldly received as an abrupt departure from the Pumpkin’s successful recipe, was a dark, slow library of absolutely brilliant songs, proving that the group would and could do pretty much anything they wanted.
As we’re running long on word count, it’s tempting to just write “they made ‘Joshua Tree’” and cease typing immediately. But U2 was and is so much more than that, even if I don’t want their worst album free with my apple device, thank you very much.
All digital disasters aside, it’s hard to find something inventive to say about U2. They’re simply a great traditional rock band that recorded some of the best rock music ever. Even before “Joshua Tree,” 1984’s “The Unforgettable Fire” featured “Pride (In the Name of Love)”; after it, “Achtung Baby” brought “One” and “Mysterious Ways,” and 1993’s “Zooropa” successfully changed up the pace with “Lemon” and the rappy “Numb.”
And all that was before 2000’s “Beautiful Day,” a blockbuster hit even as the band entered its third decade and N’ Sync poisoned the airwaves. U2 wrote classic rock songs that would have been hits in any decade – a calling card of rock immortality.