Top 5 Greatest American Bands: Our Writers Tackle Three Big Questions
The United States is, quite frankly, a nation of arguers – and this isn't a result of the modern-day rise of the internet troll, either. The country was borne out of one big disagreement, and her citizens have been steadfastly disagreeing their way through things ever since. No great legislation, no great economic or scientific break through and certainly no great war has been fought without titanic disputes, angry exchanges and, finally, some kind of shaky detente. It's our nature.
Which brings us to the on-going differences of opinion on the greatest American band. Consensus here, as in so many things surrounding life in these United States, can be difficult to achieve. Maybe impossible. So, we set some ground rules: No individual artists like Bruce Springsteen, who doesn't credit the E Street Band on any of his studio releases, or blended groups like Fleetwood Mac or the Band. We also expanded the conversation to include thoughts on influential bands (since sometimes those are very different ideas), then added a wish-list of which group from elsewhere we'd most like to poach.
What are the five best American bands?
Van Halen were the first American band to fully and undeniably take the lead in terms of deciding where rock music was heading.
The Beach Boys may have played Joe Frazier to the Beatles’ Ali, but the ensuing competition pushed music as a whole to new heights.
Aerosmith did very impressive work in territory carved out by the Rolling Stones and others, and then adapted to the ‘80s and ‘90s much more successfully than their predecessors.
Parliament-Funkadelic fused James Brown with Jimi Hendrix and turned out to be an important pillar of hip-hop as well.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers get the nod over Creedence Clearwater Revival largely because of longevity, and we’ll be singing both of their songs for as long as our civilization survives – which who knows, could be weeks or months.
For my Scottish purposes, I’m going to define “best U.S. band” as “band exhibiting characteristics that best appear to define ‘American’ from an outsider’s view,” combined with “a level of achievement that includes mainstream popularity.” Then I’m going to filter it by “bands I like."
Aerosmith: Excess, big attitude, relentlessly self-convinced – and great songs.
Pearl Jam: Thoughtful, responsible, engaging – and great songs.
Eagles: Artful, deliberate, confident – and great songs.
The Beach Boys: Wildly creative, surprisingly easy to consume, moreish – and great songs.
Frank Zappa: Surprising, unpredictable, thought-provoking – and great songs.
The Beach Boys: Look beyond the surfing songs you probably think this group is all about and you'll discover one of the most adventurous and exciting American bands of the '60s. They recorded so much cultural-shifting music during the decade that even the Beatles copied them. Plus, Pet Sounds is the most immaculate record ever made.
R.E.M.: They pretty much spearheaded the American indie-rock movement throughout the '80s. That gave birth to college rock and then modern rock and alt-rock and whatever it's called these days. Like only a handful of bands before them, R.E.M. almost single-handedly shaped the course of an entire genre of music.
The Velvet Underground: Nobody else sounded like them in the mid '60s. Hell, not too many bands sound like them today. They were abrasive, artsy, groundbreaking, scary and way cooler than most of the bands that were selling rings around them back in the day. Their debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, is ground zero for at least a half-dozen genres, and it rocks harder than you think.
Nirvana: Rock music was in a sad, sad state when Nirvana's 1991 album Nevermind changed the course of music history. They came around at just the right time, saving us from the hairspray-rock and gutless pop that dominated airwaves at the top of the '90s. Within a couple of years of Nevermind's release, every major record label had signed a band that sounded like Nirvana.
Talking Heads: They came out during punk's first wave, but they were artsier and more flexible than all of those other bands they were lumped in with. Soon after the '80s started, they were experimenting with New Wave and post-punk sounds, African rhythms, pre-hip-hop loops and contemporary funk, reinventing themselves along the way. For a short, brilliant time, they were one of the best bands on the planet.
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers had the perfect blend of influences, talent, longevity and – most of all – songs. Regardless of where your tastes otherwise lie, you can probably name five Petty songs that you love.
The Allman Brothers Band encompassed the entire range of American music; they could do sweet country-folk like "Melissa" or go off on a searing bebop-inspired jam to equal effect. If the songwriting had been more consistent, they'd far-and-away top the list.
Since shedding the alt-country tag, Wilco have continually challenged themselves without losing sight of good songwriting.
The Replacements and Big Star are the best shoulda-been-huge bands.
The Beach Boys: Better than you’ve been told – even the stuff immediately after Pet Sounds, and even the stuff by Wilsons not named Brian.
The Allman Brothers Band: They would have been great if they’d only boasted one of soul music’s very best voices. Or one of rock’s very best guitarists. But they had both.
The Ramones: In a way, I love that they never really made the big time. That meant they always felt personal.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: I grew up with Tom Petty, and Tom Petty grew up with me.
Creedence Clearwater Revival: Back in my Louisiana youth, you never could have convinced me that this wasn’t some local band. You almost still can’t.
R.E.M.: I’m fond of saying that R.E.M. were my Beatles. The Beatles were my Beatles, too, but I was fortunate enough to grow up at a time when every year brought a new R.E.M. record, and every R.E.M. record was beguiling and unceasingly cool. I grew up with those sounds in my head, from the day I bought Murmur at 15 to the day they announced their breakup, when I was 41.
War: Just a meaty stew of American sounds — funk, soul, jazz, and stuff you can’t quite put your finger on. They were never not cool.
The Beach Boys: The quintessential vocal harmony group of the early ‘60s went from pining over girls and racing their hopped-up street machines, to more adult concerns and a deeper concern over record making in the ‘70s. Pet Sounds might be my favorite album of all time (though tomorrow I might tell you it’s Astral Weeks, or What’s Going On or Songs in the Key of Life)
The Grateful Dead: I cannot explain why I love them so much. There are times, though — and I’m talking, like, weeks or a month at a shot — when my head and heart are only soothed by listening to their music. Always live stuff; bum notes, 30-minute jams and all.
Cheap Trick: Because sometimes, you just need to rock out, and Cheap Trick have never not rocked out, 40-some years on. And they continue to make really good, really vital new music, which is why I chose them over Van Halen to represent the rocking-out contingent. And Robin Zander sings better than just about any other amphitheater-haunting vocalist on the planet.
What are the five most influential American bands?
Drop Aerosmith and Petty. Add the Grateful Dead for their huge impact on many of today’s most popular live acts, and the Velvet Underground. As Brian Eno said, VU may have initially only sold 30,000 copies of their debut album, but it sure seems like “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.”
For a start, I don’t have to like them to accept their influential status – but I do have to respect their achievement. That’s not to say I don’t like any of the below (I do), but in some instances I can take or leave their work. I’ve got to be in the mood. At the same time, I respect that, all over the world, many, many people at any given moment are indeed in that mood, and they’ve inspired people to try expressing themselves via music.
The Beach Boys: For the reasons given above.
Nirvana: Icons of a generation who defined its pros and cons.
Metallica: Sheer scale combined with a self-determination and a hometown boys attitude.
Guns N’ Roses: Sheer scale, screaming-level arrogance and excess.
Jimi Hendrix Experience: Boundary-breaking, head in the stars, living fast and dying young …and, of course, great songs.
The Velvet Underground: To paraphrase Brian Eno, the Velvet Underground's first album didn't sell too many copies, but everyone who bought it started a band. No American band has been so influential on so much great music over the years.
Nirvana: They toppled everything American rock radio stood for in the early '90s, paving the way for a new breed of artists with more underground influences to infiltrate the airwaves ... for better or worse. They led an entire music revolution with one classic album. Not too many bands can claim that.
R.E.M.: Like the Velvet Underground, R.E.M. were a cult band at first. And like the Underground, almost everyone who bought those first couple of R.E.M. records ended up starting their own band. Nearly everything heard left of the dial since the early '80s owes some sort of debt to R.E.M.
The Byrds: They pretty much paved the way for country-rock with their 1968 album Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Without them, there would probably be no Eagles, Wilco or the Grateful Dead's best records. Plus, they helped make Bob Dylan a household name.
Pixies: They more or less defined that whole loud-quiet-loud thing you hear in everything from '90s alt-rock onward. They're grunge pioneers, influencing giants like Nirvana. And they're still below the radar enough to be considered cool.
Because of the way the industry has changed, I'm excluding the blues-based classic rock bands in favor of what's influential right now. As much as I love Petty and the Allman Brothers, for better or worse, their musical ideas haven't really been heard on the radio over the past 20-25 years. All of the alternative bands of the '90s talked about how R.E.M. came up out of the underground while maintaining their integrity as how they wanted to manage their own careers. But sonically, they – starting with Nirvana – took the Pixies' loud-quiet-loud approach, and that's still being used by indie bands today. As R.E.M. faded in the '00s, Wilco picked up their mantle as that signpost. And the Velvet Underground have been the de facto band to cite for credibility for about 40 years now.
I think the Beach Boys and Allmans might easily transfer to this list, to be completed by other classic-era innovators like the Velvet Underground. If my original best-band rankings had gone to No. 10, it most certainly would have included the Byrds. Their influence on Tom Petty was, of course, incalculable – so they helped form the foundation of my first five. The next generation produced R.E.M. and Talking Heads, a pair of bands who helped chart rock's course in the '80s, and they most certainly would have been there, too.
The Byrds, the Velvet Underground, R.E.M., Ramones and Metallica.
The list is different because the first question was more about taste, and the second question is more about objective impact. The Byrds sound — their harmonies, country and British influences and the jangle of Roger McGuinn’s 12-string guitar — influenced artists as diverse as Tom Petty, Big Star, Beck, and the whole Paisley Underground thing back in the ‘80s. Those artists’ music would be inconceivable without the Byrds. The Velvet Underground invented art-rock as we know it, and their influence on generations of bands is incalculable. Every freshman college art major should be given a care package containing the first four V.U. records. The V.U. begat R.E.M., and R.E.M. begat college radio and “alternative” rock in the ‘80s and ‘90s. There would be no punk rock without the Ramones’ debut in 1976. Thrash metal would still be relegated to the fringes without Metallica; they made it okay for disaffected suburban kids to think they, too, could one day play stadiums, and they’re still making terrific records today. Not many of them, but still …
Which band from overseas would you like to claim as your own?
My first thought was Led Zeppelin, but it wouldn’t have worked because we don’t have enough history or the proper geography -- specifically, castles and bogs. I wish our fury and wit was as righteous and sharp as AC/DC’s.
Coldplay. You can damn well have ‘em. But seriously: Despite so very many rock bands from beyond the U.S. always having wanted to be American, and despite so many bands I’ve interacted with having believed from the start that making it in America was truly making it (not a perspective I subscribe to, incidentally), I’d argue that “wanting to be American” has made many bands greater than they’d have been if they’d just been American anyway. For example, Aerosmith are often called the American Rolling Stones, while the Stones’ take on “American” is completely different. So, I nominate Def Leppard. They’ve got the songs, they’ve got the scale, and while they’re proud of their northern English working-class roots, you could have a very similar attitude if you came out of Cleveland. Added to that is their well-publicized determination to be the biggest band in the world (“and we were, for a while”) which is a distinctly un-English working class attitude. If you shut your eyes, they’re incredibly American, and I’m not sure they’d be offended by that.
The Beatles, because no band – or artist, for that matter – changed music and pop culture as much as they did during their brief time together. Not even Elvis.
The Beatles, because they're the greatest band ever and I wish they were formed in my hometown.
It’s easy to argue that the Beatles are the best group not on my Top 5 list, but they simply couldn’t have been an American band. Their influences, while including some notable U.S. names, were often too far removed. The Rolling Stones, on the other hand, had the music of the Deep South coursing through their veins. As with Def Leppard, if you squint hard enough, you could almost see them as an American band.
The Beatles, Stones, Who, Kinks and Zeppelin are the obvious choices. Today, I’ll say the Police. They were expert musicians who made engaging music that still sounds crisp and modern today. They also ran the gamut of the rock star experience, from playing grimy clubs for a handful of people to playing stadiums, to breaking up in a hail of fisticuffs and drama. We got five records from them — just five! — and you can chart their development and the evolution of their unique sound over the course of those five records.