For my subjective rules and criteria, go here. There’s no crying in listicles.
50: Tenacious D
Years active: 13…Albums: 3…Platinum+ albums: 1…Best Album Chart Position: 4…Top 40 Songs: 0
Here is a band with something The Eagles never had: a sense of humor. I know what you’re thinking. This isn’t a real band, more like the side-gig of two actors. My rebuttal would be their eponymous, platinum-certified debut album. It’s is a glorious chaos of folk, metal and comedy, built on a foundation laid by semi-fictional, semi-American band Spinal Tap. By playing a dysfunctional folk duo with delusions of an arena-filling heavy metal behemoth, Kyle Gass and Jack Black became a band that actually filled arenas. Their hallmark was mocking the self-importance that The Eagles treated as virtue. Tenacious D also wrote the greatest song the world has ever known; now if they could only remember it.
49: James Gang
Years active: 11…Albums: 9…Platinum+ albums: 0…Best Album Chart Position: 51…Top 40 Songs: 0
Here is the greatest unanswerable mystery in rock and roll history: just what the hell was Joe Walsh doing in The Eagles? Watching Walsh trade licks with Don Felder on “Hotel California” is one of the clearer examples of Stockholm syndrome you will ever see. Walsh’s smile says he’s enjoying it, but his eyes say “help me.” The song was never about the pitfalls of California celebrity life. It’s about Joe Walsh. You can never leave, Joe. You can never leave!
Obviously, the answer to that question is simple. Joe Walsh had been spinning his wheels in smaller acts for the previous eight years and, in 1975, the band that just put out four platinum albums in a row wanted to hire him. No one faults Joe for the decision that set him up for the rest of his life. But it’s a fact that he moved from a better, harder rocking act in the James Gang to a completely vanilla band. The riff on “Funk #49” is better than any riff in The Eagles’ six album catalog. But they stuffed his pockets with cash and pumped him with enough Haldol to play at Eagles’ speed. No judgment, Joe. Take it to the bank.
48: King’s X
Years active: 31…Albums: 12…Platinum+ albums: 0…Best Album Chart Position: 58…Top 40 Songs: 0
This is me stretching the Helmet Criterion to its limit. King’s X is not widely known. But they’re more than random nobodies. They are one of the most tenured rock bands in America, enduring for 31 years with the same three members. They made a showstopping appearance at Woodstock ’94. And the jury is out on whether King’s X or Soundgarden should be credited with popularizing drop-D tuning at the beginning of the alternative rock era. That’s enough clout for me.
It does still bother me that more people don’t know about King’s X. If a three-decade power trio from Springfield, Missouri, with a mohawked, black, gay front-man can’t gain any profile, who can? What’s more, that front-man is one of the best and most inventive bassists in rock history with equally incredible pipes. King’s X played prog-rock with the soul of a funk band and the harmonies of The Beatles. They could be paired with Rush as easily as with Prince or Sly Stone. There has never been and will never be anyone like them.
Years active: 11…Albums: 9…Platinum+ albums: 3…Best Album Chart Position: 4…Top 40 Songs: 5
Kansas deserves their spot here if, for nothing else, having the gall to simply name themselves the state they happened to be in. It’s the band version of nabbing the gmail account of your first and last name. I won’t go to great lengths to defend Kansas’ sound. It’s not my favorite. But they have three notable things going for them: 1) The guitar lick from “Carry on Wayward Son” is legend, 2) they committed to being annoyingly baroque about everything they created, 3) Kerry Livgren’s existential crises and search for spiritual truth were completely ingenuous and belied that same standoffish baroque-ness. That’s tension and, sometimes, that’s enough.
46: Faith No More
Years active: 19…Albums: 6…Platinum+ albums: 1…Best Album Chart Position: 10…Top 40 Songs: 1
Martin Sheen is a celebrated actor with multiple Emmy nominations. He is also the father of Charlie Sheen. Faith No More are the first of two Martin Sheen acts on this list. These are bands with a sterling record of quality music who spawn acts that commit the musical equivalent of spreading STDs. Both Faith No More and Papa Roach have recorded material. You are free to peruse all of it and decide just how “inspired” the latter was by the former. My point: don’t blame Martin for Charlie. It’s the Martin Sheen Principle.
Faith No More is sometimes credited with inspiring a generation of terrible nu-metal acts. The truth is that Faith No More is more an alchemy of pop and avant-garde, with a clever, sardonic twist. If you don’t buy that, take a listen to Imperial Teen or Mr. Bungle or Fantomas or any of the other side-acts by members of the band. They were an assemblage of artistic visionaries with impeccable rhythms and the best singer on this list.
45: Big Star
Years active: 3…Albums: 3…Platinum+ albums: 0…Top 40 Songs: 0
Martin Luther had Jan Hus, Jay Z had Big Daddy Kane, Medal of Honor had Wolfenstein 3D. Every great thing owes its success to a forerunner. One of my favorite butterfly effect questions is what would ’90s alternative rock have looked like if some piddling band from Memphis named Big Star hadn’t put out three albums in the early ’70s? You might not be a fan of Big Star (yet), but your favorite band is. You can sense their brilliance from the opening bars of “Feel,” the side one, track one on their first album, #1 Album. Just go listen to the first 20 seconds; I’ll wait…am I right or am I right?
44: Green Day
Years active: 32…Albums: 10…Platinum+ albums: 6…Diamond Albums: 1…Best Album Chart Position: 1…Top 40 Songs: 5
Only 17 American bands, by my narrow definition, have a diamond certified album. Eight of them are on this list. And, no, those numbers don’t include greatest hits albums.
(I need to rant a minute about The Eagles padding their resume with that stupid Greatest Hits album. They already have a diamond-certified album in Hotel California. I don’t know why they or their fans feel the need to run up the score with sales of an anthology piece. Nobody’s impressed about the success of your cherry-picked exhibit. George Costanza even made a joke about that kind of pretense. End rant.)
Green Day is the first of the eight on this list with a diamond-certified album in Dookie. The album fit well in the exploding alternative rock menagerie and represented the most success pop-punk will ever see. Their post-success career took a sanctimonious nosedive, but that’s far from atypical. Great drumming, solid harmonies and wall-to-wall hooks. Green Day deserves a spot in the top 50.
43: Red Hot Chili Peppers
Years active: 35…Albums: 11…Platinum+ albums: 6…Best Album Chart Position: 1…Top 40 Songs: 8
The Anthony Kiedis cameo in Point Break is exactly how I think of the Red Hot Chili Peppers: petulant Californians who would provoke a fight with Keanu Reeves. At once reckless and carefree, they exemplify Southern California. They invented funk-thrash and were at their best – Uplift Mofo Party Plan, Blood Sugar Sex Magik – when they stayed in that lane. Kiedis can’t sing all that well and their stilted ballad songs are all hilarious on second listen. But when Flea was poised over his bass like a coiled rattlesnake and Kiedis had his hair in full tilt-a-whirl mode, it made you forget the glaring shortcomings.
Years active: 25…Albums: 10…Platinum+ albums: 7…Best Album Chart Position: 1…Top 40 Songs: 17
I am tired of “Don’t Stop Believin’.” We are all tired of “Don’t Stop Believin’.” But the fact remains that Journey has sold close to 50 million albums in the U.S. alone. They are one of the best selling American acts of all time. I’ll grant you, a lot of that is sentimental crap. But in the late ’70s on into the early ’80s, the band had soul and the chops to go with it. And when Steve Perry joined the group in 1977, his skyscraper of a voice took them to another level. All seven albums during the Perry era went platinum. If you happen to find yourself in one of the roller rinks still left standing, this is your go-to act.
41: Rage Against the Machine
Years active: 9…Albums: 3…Platinum+ albums: 3…Best Album Chart Position: 1…Top 40 Songs: 0
Rage Against the Machine wouldn’t be this high except they’re the first on this list to bat a thousand, meaning all of their albums went platinum or better. (Renegades did as well, but it’s a cover album and I don’t count it.) How an angry, Marxist, screaming, rapping, eardrum-busting band like Rage had even one platinum album, I’ll never know. The ’90s were bananas. There’s also that funny thing about being a platinum-selling Marxist band. I’ve never quite figured that out and I don’t really care.
They are also the second band to require employment of the Martin Sheen Principle. I don’t know who the second-best rap-rock band is, but I don’t like them. It is a trick only Rage Against the Machine pulled off well. I don’t know if it’s because their furor came off as genuine or because mad scientist Tom Morello was a uniquely inventive guitarist. I think it’s much simpler. I don’t care which genre you’re operating under, you have to write well. Rage Against the Machine had tunes and they were damn good compositions. That rap-rock is now a purely pejorative term is all the more evidence that Rage Against the Machine were singularly great.