This is a list of 50 great American Bands with some occasional pot-shots at The Eagles just for fun.
Years active: 7…Albums: 3…Platinum+ albums: 2…Diamond Albums: 1…Best Album Chart Position: 1…Top 40 Songs: 2
That Nirvana unseated Michael Jackson for the number one Billboard spot sounds like a stupid legend that could only survive in the pre-Google 1990s. Instead, a quick search verifies it. For one moment, Nirvana made the most misanthropic, most angsty, most iconoclastic brand of rock and roll the most popular music in America. They did it by capturing a moment in a way that rarely happens so perfectly. The first 25 seconds of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” sound exactly like a Gen-Xer turning 18 and spitting on the decimated legacy of the hippies.
But more than simply speak for a generation, Nirvana was such a force they managed to become the face of grunge without sounding much like the rest of their Seattle cohorts. Grunge changed music and Nirvana changed grunge. Cobain’s vision proved to be unrepeatable as we soon saw with a glut of vapid copycats from the ’90s and ’00s. We never got to find out how far he could take that vision. What we did find out is that his band mate, Dave Grohl, had some songwriting skills of his own. The possibilities of melding the two are tantalizing, but we’ll never know. Really and truly, Cobain’s death was just a tragic, fucking shame.
Years active: 34…Albums: 14…Platinum+ albums: 11…Best Album Chart Position: 1…Top 40 Songs: 21
Aerosmith were a precisely tuned factory, churning out timeless compositions based on some secret songsmithing algorithm. They made their hay being the most agile band in rock and roll. They could be brash (“Walk This Way,” “Back in the Saddle”), campy (“Love in an Elevator,” “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)”), epic (“Dream On,” “Livin’ on the Edge”) and downright sappy (“Angel,” “Cryin'”, “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”). All told, it amounted to 21 Top 40 singles – matching Kool & the Gang for most on this list – across four decades. Aerosmith was a hit machine and the hits weren’t half bad.
8: Van Halen
Years active: 24…Albums: 10…Platinum+ albums: 8…Diamond Albums: 2…Best Album Chart Position: 1…Top 40 Songs: 16
Yes, Eddie and Alex were born in the Netherlands, but they moved over when they were kids and settled in Pasadena. They are a bonafide American band. They may be most well-known for their goofy jukebox fodder, but Van Halen’s greatest achievement was Eddie’s guitar tone ex nihilo, the perfection of electric guitar. In Back to the Future, Marty McFly uses Van Halen’s guitar sound to bolster his claim of being an extra-terrestrial. That’s about as good an illustration as one could find of Van Halen. When their self-titled debut landed in 1978, they must’ve sounded like they were from outer space. Offset by David Lee Roth’s lounge-singer-turned-Rock-star act, Van Halen charted a course that led to tens of millions in album sales. They are one of only 9 American bands to have all their albums go platinum or better and the only American band to claim two diamond-certified albums (Van Halen and 1984).
7: The Kingsmen
Years active: 7…Albums: 6…Platinum+ albums: 0…Best Album Chart Position: 15…Top 40 Songs: 3
Between the years of about 1958 and 1963, rock and roll seemed stuck on dead-center. In 1963, the country was over the “scandal” of Elvis. Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens were dead. And we were a full year away from Beatlemania. No one was sure where American pop music would go. Then, the Kingsmen walked into a $50 recording session and changed history. They took just one take to record a version of a calypso song by Richard Berry. The conditions in the studio were less than ideal. The microphone was hung so high singer Jack Ely had to scream up at it. Ely later botched the lyrics. And drummer Lynn Easton sounds like he’s playing inside a trash dumpster. The result was a divine mess that sounded absolutely Providential. In a moment where rock and roll was still, the Kingsmen were an earthquake. The Kingsmen are my favorite entry on this list (not favorite band; favorite entry) because this moment was so singular, transient and vitally important. It became the jab to The Kink’s right hook of “You Really Got Me.” The Kingsmen didn’t do much after “Louie Louie.” Just walked into the scene like the Angel of the Lord to set it right and walked away.
Years active: 31…Albums: 15…Platinum+ albums: 6…Best Album Chart Position: 1…Top 40 Songs: 11
R.E.M. represents the triumph of alternative music. The term is meaningless now, but R.E.M.’s rise in the 1990s was a victory for seeing pop music through different lenses. The enigmatic Michael Stipe represented a new, queer kind of rock star, in almost every variety of that adjective. And the music took the entire career of The Byrd’s and minor-chorded it. The result was stunningly beautiful. R.E.M. earned their spot, existing for the better part of the ’80s as a truly underground band. Then, they ripped off six straight platinum albums beginning with 1987’s Document. (I would argue their true artistic peak began one album earlier with Lifes Rich Pageant). They started to sputter with Monster, but they had long since made their mark.
A Word About the Top Five
I reordered these five bands dozens of different times. One of them even used to be as far down as #7. Truthfully, I would be fine if you shuffled them in any order you chose, but I truly believe these are America’s five greatest bands to date. I invite your hatred; I feed upon it.
5: Earth, Wind and Fire
Years active: 35…Albums: 19…Platinum+ albums: 7…Best Album Chart Position: 1…Top 40 Songs: 16
Earth, Wind and Fire spans more territory than any American band in history, reaching deep into a repertoire of blues, soul, horns, pop, funk and ingeniously plying those tools across four decades to great commercial success. They could be as syrupy (“After the Love has Gone”) as they could be awesome (“Shining Star”). They were at their best as a from-the-gut funk band boasting a rock-solid horn section. But they could also write a pop song. That dual ability gave them staying power. Their hits “September” and “Let’s Groove” seem to be as popular in 2018 as they were almost 40 years ago.
Years active: 14…Albums: 21…Platinum+ albums: 3…Best Album Chart Position: 13…Top 40 Songs: 3
Parliament-Funkadelic is the greatest musical collective in history; greater than the Eagles, greater than the New York Philharmonic, greater than whatever sad-sack assemblage first croaked out Beethoven’s Fifth. I initially thought of listing the two bands separately, but the two monikers are inextricable and represent the same crew of brilliant musicians. Of the nearly 200 members that recorded and performed under the Parliament-Funkadelic umbrella, only sixteen were inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, among them George Clinton, Eddie Hazel and Bootsy Collins. To me, this group represents the greatest achievement of rock and roll. They were weird and visionary and gutteral, sexual and spiritual and hopeful.
The band not only flexed the full, elastic muscle of funk, they explored afroturism, an deft artistic coping mechanism for the horror of racism in this country. You could party down with Parliament’s Up for the Down Stroke and Mothership Connection or dive deeper into the meditative work of Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain and Cosmic Slop. They were just two sides of the same, priceless coin.
3: The Doors
Years active: 6…Albums: 6…Platinum+ albums: 6…Best Album Chart Position: 1…Top 40 Songs: 7
Of all the eras, I wish I would have been alive during the late ’60s/early ’70s in America. We talk of the political and social divisions today, but I can’t help but feel that they pale in comparison to that volatile span. It brought us both this country’s greatest music and most volatile acrimony. And no band fit that moment more appropriately than The Doors. The Doors successfully melded psychedelia with pop and thus seized the standard during American music’s most pivotal era to date. The brooding Jim Morrison became a legend. Drunken bufoon or poet, it’s up to you to decide. But consider that they batted a thousand during their brief career, seeing all their albums go platinum and still found the leash to release songs that stretched past 11 minutes. Pretentious? Sure. Pedantic? Sometimes. But go listen to that debut album in case you forgot just how great The Doors were.
2: The Isley Brothers
Years active: 20…Albums: 21…Platinum+ albums: 9…Best Album Chart Position: 1…Top 40 Songs: 5
The Isley Brothers have had the most fundamentally American career of any band in history. They played gospel, doo-wop, early rock and roll and evolved to funk. They wrote “Twist and Shout,” if that gives you any idea of their pedigree. The Isley Brothers had the inverse career of the Beach Boys, beginning as a vocal group and finally, blessedly, becoming a band with It’s Our Thing in 1969 when brothers Ernie and Marvin manned the guitars. When the band recorded The Heat Is On, Ron Isley sang “bullshit” on “Fight the Power” because, according to him, “it needed to be said.” The anecdote is important because it illustrates that The Isley Brothers seized every opportunity they had to advance their craft, advance American music, make a stand, make a statement. As a band, their career can only be considered from 1969 to 1989, else they might actually grab the top spot on this list for everything they’ve contributed to American music in their totality. They’ll have to live with the silver, albeit on a technicality.
1: Creedence Clearwater Revival
Years active: 5…Albums: 7…Platinum+ albums: 6…Best Album Chart Position: 1…Top 40 Songs: 11
I can hear all of you let out a sigh of disappointment that this is where we ended up. I hear you. I get you. Creedence Clearwater Revival is not the earth-shattering reveal for which you hoped. But I would submit that’s because we’ve all grown far too comfortable with CCR. Make no mistake, that is part of their notoriety. I submit that you could start playing Creedence in any room of any occupancy and the very worst reaction you’ll get is a shrug. Everybody loves CCR; that’s the first part of what makes them great.
But CCR also occupied a particularly rough patch for our country, virtually the same stretch as The Doors. And they issued some stunners during that very short span. “Proud Mary,” “Bad Moon Rising,” “Down on the Corner,” “Who’ll Stop the Rain.” And the California-based band managed to vividly evoke the environment of the American South (“Born on the Bayou,” “Run Through the Jungle”). And CCR’s best song, “Fortunate Son,” was also the best Vietnam protest song because it bangs, it’s poetically perfect, and it’s accessible.
Yes, CCR sits atop this list because I heavily weighted efficiency. All but one of their albums went platinum and they managed 11 Top 40 hits across such a short span. But I think they also, even in just a paltry half-decade, managed to put America’s soul in amber for us to examine. Creedence Clearwater Revival was America’s greatest band.