The list is definitive.
Wholly and completely.
This was called for.
It was long overdue.
The 50 Greatest Bands of All Time in popular music. Our choices, but our choices are inpenetrable – not able to be penetrated. There is no room for argument. We have not forgotten anything, or anyone. Each band in the annals of history has been considered for this list. We have forgotten no one.
Bands were selected for this list based on a few simple criteria. The first criterion was simply that artists would have to be in a band and in a band that plays its own instruments and music. The second criterion is that a band must have released two studio albums. However, there are times when we (those who made the list) have made specific additions or concessions with the selection of the list. These concessions were made in the name of the greater good of the list. It was our decision and we stand by it. Firmly.
This list, like other lists, should serve to incite discussion over a coffee table or some other piece of household furniture. It is nothing to get upset over. It is to enjoy.
— The Michigan Daily Arts Editors
1The Beatles – Would any other artist truly belong atop this list? The answer is a resounding, “No.” The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, The Velvet Underground – all these bands find themselves leagues behind the Beatles’ songcrafting and influence. The Liverpudlians created the traditional concept of the album, and through that creation, inspired every musician who has picked up an instrument afterwards. Thirty-five years later, each Beatles song retains both relevance and greatness.
2 The Rolling Stones – Pepsi or Coke, boxers or briefs, “Empire” or “Jedi”? Some debates are never settled. Southern England’s answer to The Beatles is dirtier, more dangerous, and definitely more drugged out. They made being ugly into a fashion statement, and their more heavily blues influenced rock ‘n’ roll is still as relevant today as it was when the foot-stomping chords of “Satisfaction” blared out of every teenager’s radio in 1965, angering parents everywhere and hooking kids for life.
3 The Beach Boys – Not all Beach Boys songs are about girls, cars or surfing. While the image of the southern California group conjures up simplistic songs with beautiful harmonies, the later efforts of the group provided some of the most interesting and complex music of the era. When Brian Wilson stopped touring with the group to concentrate on producing and dropping acid, The Beach Boys created their most accomplished work, none more impressive than 1966’s Pet Sounds, quite possibly the best album ever crafted.
4 The Jimi Hendrix Experience – With only three amazing albums in four short years, Jimi Hendrix re-invented electric guitar and managed to create heavy metal in the process. His (literally) fiery entrance on to the American scene at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 let people know that rock was inexorably changed. Although he was actually painfully self-conscious about his singing voice, Hendrix had a exciting and dynamic stage presence that just made music look damn fun.
5 The Velvet Underground – The Velvets charted only one of their four legitimate albums on the Billboard 200 (the fifth album involved none of the original Velvets) Velvet Underground & Nico charted at 199. Despite near non-existent album sales during their time as a band, the Velvet Underground garnered a small fan-base which continued to expand after the group’s demise. If traced through time the Velvet Underground’s harsh, brooding and sometimes menacing brand of proto-punk mainlined itself into today’s indie rock.
6. Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention – There is no mistaking Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention. Avant-garde at its finest, Zappa and his entourage of musical misfits entwined social commentary, satirical lyrics, experimentation and jazz-influenced jam sessions into their vast catalogue of material. More than thirty years later, their music is as fresh and inventive as it was when originally released. After landmark albums such as Absolutely Free and We’re Only in It for the Money, Zappa went on to do equally gratifying solo work, including a guest appearance on “Ren & Stimpy” as The Pope.
7. Nirvana – Thankfully, Kurt Cobain died before he blew it. If you consider Bleach to be a demo recorded by a mostly different band, then Nirvana released two great albums. Sure, Butch Vig’s plastic production of Nevermind slightly hinders an otherwise stellar “debut” (see above) record, and Steve Albini’s trademark treatment of In Utero grates against some people, but the band’s energy and anger tear through regardless. William Burroughs, who once worked with Kurt Cobain, said that Kerouac’s “On the Road,” “sold a trillion Levis and a million espresso machines.” Kurt Cobain sold a billion cardigans and ten million slacker kids on the idea of working those espresso machines while living in their parents’ basements. At least he apologized.
8. Led Zeppelin – These rowdy boys from Britain didn’t invent blues-driven rock or drugs-and-groupie-fueled excess; they just made them big enough to fill arenas and VH1 specials for years to come. Unfortunately, even these larger than life rock “gods” couldn’t rule over that runaway train and it all came to a close, after five super solid albums and a few subsequent shitty ones, with one of rock’s greatest drummers lying dead in his own vomit.
9. Bob Marley and the Wailers – Contrary to the widespread belief that Legend is the only album with Marley’s songs on it, there are actually close to a dozen that were released between 1973 and 1980, all of which are nearly flawless. Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, Marley’s original crew from The Wailers, left after Catch a Fire and Burnin’, but with the Barretts and Al Anderson backing him up, Marley maintained his level of excellence on his other albums. Bob Marley became a political inspiration, and he was one of the most charismatic live performers ever.
10. The Zombies – One of the lesser-known gems from the British Invasion, The Zombies found success in 1965 with top 10 hits “She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No.” Their rough garage band sound on their debut album Being Here evolved into a harmony-heavy-psychedelic-rock synthesis for what would be their second and final album, 1969’s Odyssey & Oracle. “What’s your name/Who’s your daddy,” timeless lyrics from “Time of the Season,” are perhaps the most recognizable of The Zombies’ work, only to be marred by sexual innuendos.
11. Love – The best band you’ve never heard of. The Los Angeles group fronted by Arthur Lee was the first band on Elektra, only to be shoved aside for future label-mates The Doors. Guitarist Bryan MacLean and lead singer Lee composed most of the band’s work, but their first hit was a rendition of Burt Bacharach’s “My Little Red Book.” Never attaining the popularity of fellow West Coast band The Doors, Love was more of a cult phenomenon than a mainstream success. With its soothing melodies and witty lyrics, their 1967 album Forever Changes remains one of the best rock albums ever made.
12. Sly and the Family Stone – In addition to helping to bring funk to the mainstream and being the first racially and sexually integrated groups in popular music, Sly and the Family Stone attacked politics and social issues in their horn and bass filled songs. Sly Stone’s drug problem and the end of the idealistic ’60s took their music away from “Dance to the Music” and down a darker path, but 1973’s Fresh remains a funk classic, with incredible tracks like “If you want me to stay.”
13. Ramones – Bands before them outlined what could be punk, but the Ramones were the first true punk band. Their songs were minimally complex, but incredibly catchy. Four chords would be mixed together behind catchy melodies and lyrics that at times, truly meant nothing. But the Ramones’ contribution to music as a whole meant more than anything. The Ramones self-titled debut set the standard, and created the genre. The Ramones’ vitality is felt to this day with the ridiculous amounts of all-too-prevalent pop-punk artists who shamelessly rip them at every chord change.
14. The Pixies – A respectable career in rock and roll comes down to knowing when to get out. The Pixies released five albums in four years and were just reaching their biggest audiences when frontman Black Francis (now Frank Black) ended the band. Nirvana acknowledged them as the inspiration for the quiet verse/loud chorus dynamic that made Nevermind a hit and spread grunge across the country. Bassist Kim Deal went on to moderatesuccess with the Breeders and Frank Black released a string of initially stellar and later unremarkable solo records. Though the band themselves were never cool, knowing about the Pixies will make you think that you are.
15. Parliament Funkadelic – With a sound from outer space and a name history too confusing to even get into, Parliament ruled ’70s funk. Lead singer and founder George Clinton and bass player Bootsy Collins took a cue from James Brown and Sly Stone, adding outrageous costumes and freaky science fiction to their infectious brand of funk. Despite a lull in popularity in the ’80s, P-Funk, sometimes going by The P-Funk All-Stars, have stayed on the scene.
16. The Kinks – Early hits from this popular British import, such as “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night,” sounded nearly identical. It wasn’t until 1966 with the album Face to Face when The Kinks went from concentrating on hit singles into making strong, cohesive albums. Post “Lola,” Ray Davies and company fell apart musically and never reached the plateau they attained in the late 60s.
17. The Yardbirds – The term “Super-group” is thrown around lightly these days, but this ever-morphing London group featured, over its six year run, three of the greatest guitarists of all time: Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and the under-appreciated Jeff Beck. Depending on the line-up, their music ranged from the poppy melody of “For Your Love” to traditional blues.
18. The Who – Hypocrites. In 1965 Roger Daltrey in “My Generation” declared, “I hope I die before I get old.” Save for drummer Keith Moon, the band failed to commit to their own decree. Smashing instruments and trampled fans made The Who rock legends, if only someone had told them to stop making music after Quadrophenia the band may have landed a better position on the list.
19. Buddy Holly and the Crickets – Only 22 years old at the time of his death, Buddy Holly wrote the best rock songs of the late ’50s, which are still heavily influencing bands today (e.g. The Strokes). While many of his songs were released as solo projects (“Peggy Sue” and “Rave On” for starters), Holly released classics like “That’ll be the Day” and “Maybe Baby” with the one-time garage band. Less well known is the fact that Holly pioneered studio sound techniques that, although standard today, were revolutionary in 1957.
20. Guns N’ Roses – In 1987 Guns N’ Roses slit the wrist of everything that the lighthearted ’80s pop scene with their now legendary debut Appetite for Destruction. Guns captured all the greed, grit and excess that was L.A. in the 1980s. The band brought an element of danger and controversy to the rock world not felt since Led Zeppelin ruled the roost. Axl with his inimitable yowl and rattlesnake-shake coupled with toxic twin Slash’s top-hat, dangling cigarette and low slung Les Paul made a duo that matched every ounce of talent with a pound of style.
21. NWA – The world’s most dangerous group came straight outta Compton and straight into the hearts and minds of millions of Americans sick of the bubblegum rap of the Fat Boys and their ilk. Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Yella, MC Ren and drug-dealer turned producer turned rapper Easy E created gangsta rap by rhyming their life stories and ghetto-fantasies of shooting 8 balls, slapping bitches and fucking the police. The FBI turned out to be the better than any ad agency, selling millions of NWA units by coming out against the bands quiet protestation of the LAPD.
22. Black Sabbath – Despite the nonsensical cover featuring a blurred warrior with a plastic shield and sword, Black Sabbath’s second album Paranoid is the definition of a heavy metal masterpiece. Tony Iommi’s skilled guitar and Ozzy Osbourne’s eerie vocals resulted in the darkest rock music of the early 70s. The group produced several classic albums and songs, but their legendary single “Iron Man” is perhaps the most well known guitar riff in rock history.
23. The Talking Heads – Long before it was cool to be geeky or to incorporate African rhythms into stripped down pop rock, David Byrne headed this group of art school punks from 1977 to 1988. Most people think of Byrne in the big white suit from the concert film “Stop Making Sense,” but Byrne’s and the Heads’ influence goes beyond their contemporaries, reaching into the ’80s and ’90s. Music isn’t always an art-form, but for The Talking Heads, it was inseparable.
24. Radiohead – Sans Pablo Honey, the Oxford quintet has a library of albums stronger than any current group in music today. While Radiohead has continued to release impressive albums, their best work in the last year has been guest starring on South Park in the lauded episode “Scott Tenorman Must Die.” Fun Radiohead fact: Their single “Paranoid Android” from 1997’s Grammy-winner OK Computer, with its three songs for the price of one format, is based on The Beatles’ “Happiness is a Warm Gun.”
25. The Clash – Forget the anarchism of The Sex Pistols and the “save the world” malarkey of U2; The Clash were left-wing, passionate rockers who infused their punk with reggae and dub, and although their U.S. success was fleeting, the finely crafted songs of Mick Jones and Joe Strummer, especially on their ’77 self-titled debut and ’79’s London Calling, have given them deity status both here and abroad.
26. Elvis Costello and The Attractions – Remember what we said about discretion and knowing when to stop the rock? Case in point: Elvis Costello and The Attractions were never stellar, but what they lacked musically they made up for in youthful attitude and delinquent angst. Witness the snarling Costello spitting out the words to “Radio, Radio” on Saturday Night Live in 1977 against his record company’s wishes – the song is good, the posturing was great. If only it was just guys named Elvis who didn’t know when to quit.
27. Pavement – Pavement’s disjointed lo-fi junk culture’d music found a quasi-large audience in a group of mainstream jaded indie scenesters in the early 90s. Their sporadic songs sucked the apathy out of “alternative” and replaced it with lethargy. Pavement’s early albums were marked by their stop-start guitars, blasts of feedback and white noise, off-kilter tempo and the laconic sustained speech delivery of Stephen Malkmus. Pavement was the “McSweeney’s Quarterly Attempt” of ’90s rock.
28. Cream – The intoxicating guitar of Eric Clapton, the syncopated drumming of Ginger Baker and the intriguing, quasi-lounge singer vocals of Jack Bruce were a strange combination, but their flashy, psychedelic, blues based rock rises above the retroactive criticism it has received. Songs like “Sunshine of Your Love,” “White Room” and “Crossroads” helped bring Eric Clapton into the U.S. mainstream, for his previous work
with The Yardbirds and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers went largely unnoticed.
29. The Police – They wanted to be punk so bad they could taste it, but they just plain weren’t. A mixture of reggae, pop rock and jazz, mixed with Sting’s yowling lead vocals and the superb backing of Stewart Copeland on drums and Andy Summers on guitar, carved The Police their place in music history. Internal strife, mostly between Sting and Copeland, broke the band up after their multi-platinum 1983 album Synchronicty.
30. The Beastie Boys – Brooklyn natives Adam Yauch, Adam Horovitz and Mike Diamond proved white men could rap with their White Castle inspired lyrics. The trio demonstrated they were more than clever lyricists when they began to play their own instruments on 1992’s Check Your Head.
The pairing of The Beastie Boys with up and coming producers The Dust Brothers culminated with 1989’s Paul’s Boutique, their finest effort.
31. The Stooges – Hostile as hell. Not nearly as intelligent, but undoubtedly dirtier than the Velvet Underground, both bands addressed similarly subversive topics, but in dissimilar fashions. Where the Velvets were coy, the Stooges slapped audiences around with grime and sweat. When David Bowie mixed Raw Power people panned it for sounding too thin, but what the record revealed was Iggy Pop for the raving lunatic genius that he is.
32. Simon and Garfunkel – Sure, Paul Simon and his faux-afro loving partner Art where no better than a couple of pretentious English majors playing the guitar for their prude girlfriends on a hilly brush, but their lyrics and harmony remain unmatched. Their five albums together, from 1964’s Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. through1970’s Bridge Over Troubled Water produced pop classics that became standard, timeless ballad (“The Sound of Silence,” the first time they used an electric guitar) and comfortably dated time-capsule fare (Mrs. Robinson).
33. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young – While they’re all right on their own, the addition of Neil Young’s oily high-pitched drawl takes Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and David Crosby’s vocals and forces them into tightly packed harmony. On D