This is a list of 50 great American Bands with some occasional pot-shots at The Eagles for fun.
40: Foo Fighters
Years active: 24…Albums: 9…Platinum+ albums: 7…Best Album Chart Position: 1…Top 40 Songs: 3
My mental image of Foo Fighters’ genesis is of a frantic Grohl running from instrument to instrument, racing to finish an album. He didn’t know who he was making it for. He didn’t know what it was called. He was just drumming and screaming and strumming, whatever he had to do to keep from pausing long enough to consider the suicide of his best friend, Kurt Cobain. That furious energy on the Foo Fighters’ eponymous debut makes it one of the most stunning works in rock and roll history.
It turns out Grohl and Co. only had about 2.5 albums of top shelf material. They’ve been musically coasting since, but still pushing out chart-toppers. They also have a notoriously strong and, I believe, sincere connection to their fans. Like the time Grohl’s decided to return to the stage in Sweden after he busted his leg to play for two more hours. Foo Fighters’ respect for American music runs deep, evinced by their 2014 miniseries Sonic Highways. They themselves may well contribute something golden to American music yet again, but they had done enough by 1997 to satisfy me.
39: Jane’s Addiction
Years active: 6…Albums: 2…Platinum+ albums: 2…Best Album Chart Position: 19…Top 40 Songs: 0
Jane’s Addiction almost had the perfect career. They made noise in the Los Angeles scene with a live album, released two platinum albums in two years and split over drug use. Of course they had to ruin it with a sad reunion attempt a decade later. But thanks to the Chinese Democracy Rule, their record shows them going two-for-two.
Jane’s Addiction had one of the biggest sounds of the ’90s. Perkins was mercurial on drums. Perry Farrell had alien pipes. And Navarro, who is often remembered as the Chili Peppers’ guitarist that didn’t work, was a giant shredding on those two albums. They were brash. They were talented. Farrell was constantly naked. They were too unstable to last long, but Nothing’s Shocking and Ritual de lo Habitual thankfully preserved those mad years for posterity.
Years active: 13…Albums: 5…Platinum+ albums: 3…Best Album Chart Position: 1…Top 40 Songs: 0
What happened with the advent of grunge in the early ’90s is the exact kind of thing that makes music great. Anybody can cover ongoing music trends and popular bands, bloviating about the intricacies of the moment. But every once and a while something happens that no one could expect, like Bilbo finding the One Ring. The sudden worldwide popularity of an insular Seattle music scene is one of those Bilbo moments. And while I wanted to limit representation of movements like grunge to a single band, Soundgarden is just the first of those Seattle acts on this list.
Soundgarden was like a grunge Thomas Jefferson. They were there from the beginning and most of the sound that became grunge’s calling card – sludgy, heavy, drop-D riffs – were Soundgarden patents. They transcended the fray by experimenting with multiple time signatures, angular compositions, layers of complexity, all while maintaining a through-line of uncompromising heaviness. It got better with every album. And Chris Cornell’s voice was once-in-a-generation. We will never hear anything like it or Soundgarden ever again.
37: White Stripes
Years active: 14…Albums: 6…Platinum+ albums: 2…Best Album Chart Position: 2…Top 40 Songs: 1
Here we are with back-to-back Bilbo moments. Maybe someone can point me to the article that predicted big things for the White Stripes, but in the early 2000s, most people were focused on the “The” bands (not to be confused with the The Band Rule). White Stripes were the throw out of left field that no one expects to make home plate. But there they were six years into it with a pair of platinum albums.
Two persons. Three instruments. Red, white and black. The Blues. White Stripes were rock and roll ad fontes. Jack and Meg White conjured more music out of that minimalist setup than anyone thought possible. They were playing chess with two knights and a king, and cleaning up.
Years active: 14…Albums: 3…Platinum+ albums: 2…Diamond albums: 1…Best Album Chart Position: 1…Top 40 Songs: 8
Boston was like the muscle car version of The Eagles. The lines a little cleaner. The interior a little more striking. The engine a lot louder with more horsepower. More chrome. More maneuverability. More moxie.
Like the Eagles, Boston had excellent the vocal harmonies, but they also perfected the greatest rock and roll weapon known to man: the guitar harmony. Iron Maiden accelerated the arms race. Thank God it didn’t end in nuclear war. Boston had elements of both progressive rock and hook-laden pop, all hitching a ride, Atreyu-like, on the back of Brad Delp’s soaring voice.
Boston is also the first of only three bands on this list to have all their albums go platinum AND see one notch a diamond certification. That would be their eponymous debut, which has sold 17 million units and was recorded almost entirely in Tom Scholz’s Watertown basement. That place ought to be a bigger Boston landmark than Paul Revere’s house.
Years active: 16…Albums: 7…Best Album Chart Position: 126…Top 40 Songs: 0
Fugazi could have been the biggest band of the ’90s if it hadn’t been for principles. They had their eyes fixed on some plane that transcends ordinary musical success. They lived by strict codes. They only charged five dollars for their shows. They only played free shows in DC. They established their own label to release their music. They refused to sell any merchandise beyond their music. They were relentless performers, averaging over a show a week for 16 years. Show me another band that pulled off that strict a DIY ethic for 16 years.
But Fugazi’s real achievement was what they accomplished musically. All veterans of the DC hardcore scene, Fugazi was faced with a herculean task: take hardcore punk and elevate it to an art form. It seemed preposterous. What do you do; bark louder? Play songs shorter than 60 seconds? But they did it. They created a sound and worked hard with every single album to evolve that sound. They made a lot of famous fans along the way. And they quietly influenced a generation. What they did not do was get on radio outside of college towns. But they still made a decent living being uncompromising visionaries.
34: The Stooges
Years active: 7…Albums: 3…Best Album Chart Position: 138…Top 40 Songs: 0
The origins of punk are an eternal debate, because there’s no exact definition of what constituted punk’s beginning or continuance. Some say Television was the first punk, others say New York Dolls, most people agree it started in New York City. But you could make a very strong case that punk rock really began in Ann Arbor Michigan with The Stooges.
When you hear “I Wanna Be Your Dog” on their self-titled debut, you are hearing the first earnest deconstruction of rock and roll. That’s punk. Then you pause to consider that that song was released the same year as Abbey Road, Let it Bleed and Tommy. Just imagine it’s 1969 and you think rock music is getting stale so you start ripping it up. The Stooges were years ahead of their time and would go on to influence every punk rock band that followed.
Years active: 12…Albums: 11…Platinum+ albums: 5…Best Album Chart Position: 1…Top 40 Songs: 16
Styx were straight up dorks that became rock stars. Their first two albums were among the most pretentious in rock history. Their very first song is 13 minutes long and comprises four movements. That was our introduction to Styx. But they found their stride in the late ’70s with The Grand Illusion, which began a run of five straight platinum albums. The late-career “Renegade” is a surprising jammer. And I don’t know what song you would sing if made to sing for your life, but I’m picking “Come Sail Away.” The Styx finished as Dorks with “Mr. Roboto,” forming a perfect career arc.
32: The Doobie Brothers
Years active: 12…Albums: 11…Platinum+ albums: 6…Best Album Chart Position: 1…Top 40 Songs: 15
No disrespect to Michael McDonald, but the Doobies were Tom Johnston’s band. Under his leadership, the group was a hybrid of country, rock and the blues. They just sounded like American terra. Their #1 hit, “Black Water” made you think of a backwoods hillbilly act. In truth, they formed in Northern California’s Bay Area and were about as hippy dippy as band’s came. If their Jesus Christ Superstar aesthetic didn’t drive that home, certainly the bongos did. They were never better than “Long Train Runnin'” and their anthem is the guileless “Listen to the Music.” They batted over 500 on platinum albums, had a handful of hits, and managed to maintain their Slater ethos.
31: Lynyrd Skynyrd
Years active: 13…Albums: 5…Platinum+ albums: 4…Best Album Chart Position: 1…Top 40 Songs: 15
Lynyrd Skynyrd is the most successful Southern band. The Allman Brothers are close, but Skynyrd has them by one platinum certification and 13 additional top 40 hits. They also penned the epic “Free Bird,” an accelerating nine minute odyssey that has been turned into an unfortunate punch line. The Allman’s may have had the talent to noodle for hours, but Skynyrd had the soul.
Still, one cannot ignore the band’s troubling employment of the Confederate Flag in its shows and on merchandise. I thought of banishing them for that alone. But lead singer-songwriter Ronnie Van Zant had a complicated relationship with the South. He was its fierce defender against smug outsiders who considered him and his peers dumb while also hinting at a moral distance from it in “Sweet Home Alabama”.
But being a fierce defender of the South puts you on shaky ground no matter your spin. I would like to think a modern day Van Zant would lead a repentantly Southern band in the vein of Drive By Truckers, but I think I’m naive. He perished in the 1977 place crash that claimed other band and crew members, so we will never know for sure.