This is a list of 50 great American Bands with some occasional pot-shots at The Eagles for fun. I should mention it’s not the first list of it’s kind. The great Steven Hyden took his own shot with the concept of the American band championship belt, which I highly recommend over this stupid, if 100% correct, attempt. But let’s get on with it and take it right up to the edge of the top 20.
Years active: 7…Albums: 5…Platinum+ albums: 0…Best Album Chart Position: 70…Top 40 Songs: 0
The Pixies are rock and roll’s version of Office Space, a movie that bombed it’s theatrical run, but has since become culturally appreciated and ubiquitously quoted. The Pixies’ reputation is well-earned. We have not seen another Mad Hatter act like Black Francis, who shifted between demonic banshee screams, Spanish babble and cryptic, evocative poetry. The band’s signature sound was equally dynamic, shifting rapidly between a maximum decibel jack hammer and a lulling trance.
And yet, manic as they were, they produced songs that were tight, catchy and engaging, from “Where is My Mind” to “Gigantic” to “Velouria.” Overlooked by much of the country at the time, they got a boost in popularity when Kurt Cobain credited them for inspiring “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” They didn’t get to capitalize on the compliment for long, acrimoniously ending their primary run in 1993. But Cobain confirmed then what would eventually become obvious: their influence is immeasurable.
29: Talking Heads
Years active: 16…Albums: 8…Platinum+ albums: 2…Best Album Chart Position: 15…Top 40 Songs: 3
Membership in most bands is fluid. But Talking Heads managed to hang onto the same four members throughout the entire deacade-and-a-half lifespan of the group. That unbreakable quadruplet rose to popularity on the heals of punk and, much like Fugazi did for hardcore, evolved punk into a kaleidoscope of sound. They wrote great songs like “Psycho Killer” and mid-life crisis anthem “Once in a Lifetime.” Experimenting with afrobeat, pop and lo-fi funk, Talking Heads created groundbreaking albums that pushed popular music forward. Like someone handed Salvidor Dali a Fender strat and a pair of bongos and let him go wild.
28: Grand Funk Railroad
Years active: 14…Albums: 13…Platinum+ albums: 5…Best Album Chart Position: 2…Top 40 Songs: 9
Who is the American corollary to Led Zeppelin? It’s an honest question without a clear answer. Big Brother and the Holding Company or Jefferson Airplane would be acceptable guesses, but they weren’t really operating in the same space as Zeppelin. Maybe Hendrix, but he was backed by British musicians. I submit Grand Funk Railroad for discussion. Both bands released their debut albums in 1969 and were active during the same period. Both were guitar-heavy bands with virtuoso bassists rooted in the American blues. Both had harmonica-loving singers.
Don’t get me wrong. Grand Funk was operating on about 30% of the talent of Led Zeppelin, but that’s still better than 90% of music. And Grand Funk is one of the most prolific rock bands in American history, releasing 11 albums over a period of nine years. They don’t have many widely known singles beyond the admittedly corny “We’re an American Band.” Grand Funk were more known for being a great live band that won over audiences if not critics.
27: Cheap Trick
Years active: 35…Albums: 16…Platinum+ albums: 4…Best Album Chart Position: 6…Top 40 Songs: 8
Cheap Trick were wizards of the hook. There was nothing terribly sophisticated about what they did. Most of it was three-chord, guitar forward pop with a touch of bubblegum. It was fundamental rock and roll. Cheap Trick are your 1987 Boston Celtics of rock. Yet no one else could pull all this off with nearly as much aplomb as Cheap Trick, which is what makes them wizards. And they had a drummer in Bun E Carlos who looked like a chain-smoking claims adjuster with a night gig. “Surrender” and “I Want You to Want Me” are all time greats and cement Cheap Trick as an all-time great hook factory.
26: Smashing Pumpkins
Years active: 12…Albums: 6…Platinum+ albums: 3…Diamond Albums: 1…Best Album Chart Position: 1…Top 40 Songs: 4
The Smashing Pumpkins and I have a complicated history. They are the butt of a lot of jokes. But they have a diamond-certified album to their name and occupy a unique place in American music. Smashing Pumpkins made an immediate impact with their debut album, Gish, and upped the ante with the quadruple-platinum Siamese Dream. Yeah, some people couldn’t get past Corgan’s tornado-siren of a voice, but that album, which featured “Cherub Rock” and “Today,” earned the band begrudging respect from most corners of the music world.
The leap that the Pumpkins made from Siamese Dream is underappreciated. Corgan had already bought into the “loser” aesthetic of ’90s Gen X rock, but he took the milieu a step further with the diamond-certified double-album Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. He wore a shirt that read “zero,” he shaved his head, retreating into an almost asexual anti-personality. He became an un-hero to millions of dour, angsty teenagers, this blogger included. It was all belied by a substantial work in Melon Collie. The album comprises 28 songs and every single one is vital. There’s no fat on that album and it represents unprecedented range for a rock band. Listen to tracks 5-7 on the second disc to get a sense of what I mean.
To top it off, the Smashing Pumpkins were great musicians. Distracted by his voice, most people forget that Billy Corgan is one of rock’s great guitarists. And your top five rock and roll drummers, in no particular order, are John Bonham, Keith Moon, Neil Peart, Stewart Copeland and Smashing Pumpkins’ Jimmy Chamberlin. The Pumpkins had visionary albums, great songs and live chops.
Years active: 8…Albums: 6…Platinum+ albums: 3…Best Album Chart Position: 6…Top 40 Songs: 8
Let’s get one thing out of the way: Blondie’s punk cred is unassailable. They were there from the beginning, members of the scrappy, bohemian New York art scene that nurtured punk into widespread popularity. And they were fronted by the striking Debbie Harry, a strong female presence in a scene dominated by men. Blondie evolved from a punk band into a top 40 act with some notable contributions. “Rip Her to Shreds,” “Dreamin'” and “Heart of Glass” are all-time great songs. They were also one of the first acts to feature rapping, however clumsily. They may not have been the most important punk act, but became the most successful by a mile.
24: Pearl Jam
Years active: 28…Albums: 10…Platinum+ albums: 4…Diamond Albums: 1…Best Album Chart Position: 1…Top 40 Songs: 4
I never entirely got it. As progenitors of the “how-mau” vocal style, they’re responsible for terrible bands like Creed, but I can’t be a selective practitioner of the Martin Sheen Principle. I may not be a fan, but Pearl Jam are an undeniably important American act with a diamond-certified album to boot. Like Blondie, I would not call them the best grunge act, or most important grunge act, but they are easily the most successful grunge act. More, they are major boosters of popular music, taking on Ticket Master and constantly shining the spotlight on lesser-known acts that they respect. Pearl Jam is closing in on three decades as an important American rock act. They deserve to have the spotlight turned back to them.
23: Guns N’ Roses
Years active: 11…Albums: 4…Platinum+ albums: 3…Diamond Albums: 1…Best Album Chart Position: 1…Top 40 Songs: 8
Boy did this one go sideways quickly. Let’s start at the end. Their tank of ideas was so empty that they released a platinum-certified cover album I don’t even count. That was preceded by the bloated, two-part Use Your Illusion. Before that, they released the half-assed G N’ R Lies. But before that, my heavens. Their debut album, Appetite for Destruction, was a breathtaking supernova. The 30-million-unit-selling album is a cover-to-cover rock and roll masterpiece. “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Paradise City,” and “Sweet Child o’ Mine” are all top-shelf. They reformed in 2008 to release Chinese Democracy and inspired the name of my for-the-love-please-stop-making-music-already rule. But Appetite will be how they’re remembered.
22: The Commodores
Years active: 21…Albums: 13…Platinum+ albums: 3…Best Album Chart Position: 3…Top 40 Songs: 17
The Commodores are one of this country’s many spectacular funk acts. Funk is, to date, the height of American music and the fullest realization of rock and roll we’ve seen. It got knocked out of frame by the anemic, artless travesty known as disco, but its legacy endures. As an early funk act, The Commodores released albums at a blistering pace, nine in seven years. But they dovetailed in a bad, bad way at the end. It’s a long way down from “Slippery When Wet,” their second Top 40 hit at #19, to “Three Times a Lady,” which held the top spot for two weeks. It just goes to show you that, in terms of real music quality, up is down. Poptimism is, and has always been, an empty proposition.
Years active: 37…Albums: 10…Platinum+ albums: 8…Diamond Albums: 1…Best Album Chart Position: 1…Top 40 Songs: 1
If you were wondering whether I knew Lars Ulrich was born in Denmark, the answer is yes. But Metallica just meets the requirements of the The Band Rule.
Metallica is heavy metal. They aren’t the only well-spring of that genre. Megadeth, Slayer, Pantera, Iron Maiden and others could assert the same claim. But as far as pure thrash-metal goes, Metallica is 24-karat. Because I’m a contrarian, I wanted for so long to claim I was a “Megadeth guy” instead. But just listen to the first four albums from both acts and the conclusion is inevitable. If those were boxing matches, Metallica would score four consecutive early-round knockouts. Kill ‘Em All was a revelation. The diamond-certified Metallica, aka “The Black Album,” was a kingmaker, if not their best work. Yes, they would go on to star in the unintentionally hilarious therapy-comedy Some Kind of Monster, but they will always be the headbanger’s Mecca. Face West to Los Angeles and bow to your metal demi-gods.