After lots of cussing and discussing amongst myself and others, I’m putting out the most personal (and all-consuming) list I’ve ever made: the Top 100 Rock Bands of All Time. Here’s who made the list and why. If you’d prefer to see the list WITHOUT all my commentary, click here.
(1973 – ) The perfect group to start off a list of Top 100 as AC/DC are quintessential rockers. They are a bit formulaic but it is a hell of a formula with some of the most propulsive rock songs and catchy hooks in existence. AC/DC is a guilty pleasure, one that is even more enjoyable live. Plus, what can you say about a band whose “inimitable” lead singer (Bon Scott) dies and they replace him with a guy sounding a lot like him (Brian Johnson)? Their next album – Back in Black – was the second best-selling album of all time. Now, 30+ years later, Brian and Angus and the boys are still belting it out and the group is still putting out their very classic rock albums. For those about to rock, we salute them…
2. Allman Brothers
(1969 – ) What once was Duane Allman’s band became brother Gregg’s for – oh – the past forty-five years or so. They were a southern boogie band, a blues band, a jam band, a little country, a lot of improv and even balladeers. Famous while being alive and famous dead, they hit all the high points or rock legend. Double drummers, double lead guitars and an evolving cast of great musicians that continue cranking it out to this day. Despite the early departures, the band plays on with a roving cast and great guitarists from Duane to Dickie Betts to Derek Trucks.
(1997 – ) They don’t have the renown of the Top 100 crowd but these guys just put out great songs and great albums. A little of Offspring and maybe Green Day with an unshakable punk-but-poppy vibe. Alkaline Trio started great and are getting better.
(2001 – ) Husband and wife duo somehow synthesizes and orchestrates multiple instrumentation to sound original and fresh. Both indie and theatrical, they bridge a gap from bombastic rock to newer wave.
(1964-1966) Think of British invasion and you think of Eric Burdon and the Animals. Organist (Allan Price) and bass player (Chas Chandler) were under-appreciated. Their “House of the Rising Sun” is an all-time classic. But that’s just one of many great R&B hits they created in a brief run – with a few revivals.
(2000 – ) After leaving Whiskeytown, Ryan Adams carved a “solo” career under his own name and with The Cardinals. A little Y’alternative, he plays and he sings and he records and he produces – prolifically. A mélange of influences, he still has an indi-garage rocker presence and keeps pumping out great music.
Others the mainstream would consider: ABBA – 100 million albums later and the bubblegum still sticks in your ears; a good reason for the Rock Hall to “disband”… Aerosmith – Always a poor-man’s Rolling Stones, America’s light-metal band… Alice Cooper – The ultimate guilty pleasure group that cleverly marketed good hooks and a great shtick.
Artists not fully appreciated: Bryan Adams – An indie hit-maker in the 80’s and 90’s with some of the most popular tunes ever (“Everything I Do”)… Arctic Monkeys – 13 years of being a great “new” group and one of the first to spread the word via the internet; a combo of Clash and Strokes… Brian Auger – made keyboards seem cool and made Julie Driscoll a hot item; original group included Long John Baldry and Rod Stewart as well.
3. The Band
(1964-1976) Starting as Dylan’s back-up guys (the band) and morphing quickly into one of the foundational groups in early rock (The Band), this talented bunch of mostly-Canadians wrote “roots” music before there was such a thing and added unique harmonies to masterful instrumentation. Despite being darlings of the critics (!), they wrote and performed great songs of yearning and songs of power that stood the tests of time.
4. Beach Boys
(1961 and on and on…) An amazing amalgam of work for a sound that seems pretty fundamentally homogenous. They didn’t rock but they surf-rocked and wrote and sang some of the great songs from America’s songbook. One of the original high-production bands, they rivaled the Beatles for pop supremacy in the mid-sixties.
5. The Beatles
(1960-1970) A category unto themselves. Individually and collectively, they changed music for 100 years – 50 down and 50 to go. Is that not enough? They brought lyrics and writer’s-cred and concept production and even humor more into mainstream music. The Beatles virtually created pop music. They had their inspirations (skiffle bands and Buddy Holly), but they inspired thousands of other musicians and bands and millions and millions of listeners. Over half a billion records sold. Yes, that’s enough…
6. Jeff Beck
(1963 – ) A startling rock guitar talent who created sounds that had/have never been heard from any others. Mostly a solo instrumentalist with a rotating cast of band-members (Rod Stewart for one); along with Clapton and Page – he pioneered the group-rock guitar sounds with the Yardbirds back in 1964-1965). He went on to blaze his own trail as a “guitarist’s guitarist”…
7. Belle and Sebastian
(1996 – ) Rock and pop have very few “new sounds” when they debut and this cast of minstrels certainly comes to mind. Described as “wistful pop”, they crafted great delicate melodies and often surrealistic lyrics. The whole is greater than the parts and the whole band continues to thrive and surprise.
8. David Bowie
(1960 – ) He pioneered a sound and then he created a fashion and theater behind it. And when he tired of one personae (Ziggy Stardust and glam) he simply created another (The Thin White Duke and rock crooning). He is the inspiration and mentor to too many acts to name and his own act is a strict one-off. Described by biographer as having “created perhaps the biggest cult in popular culture” at the time, that rests comfortably with his other myriad of achievements.
9. Frank Black/Pixies
(1987 – ) Frank Black was also Black Francis and the propulsion behind the ground-breaking music of The Pixies. He was mostly a solo act with new group names popping up to “support” him (The Catholics ). He wrote rough tunes and he wrote beautiful melodies and he played them all like an actor taking to roles. He was strident with the Pixies and more melodious on his own. Kurt Cobain once said that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was his attempt to “rip off the Pixies”, giving additional cred. Frank Black Francis created his own.
10. Black Keys
Must be something in the water in Akron OH to produce talents like Dan Auerbach, Chrissie Hynde and Devo. Writer/producer/singer/lead guitarist, Auerbach, along with long-time buddy and drummer Patrick Carney, are the Keys. The body of work Auerbach created in a relatively short time is truly astounding. Great songs and great musicianship and zero gimmicks, with an admirable “purist streak”.
11. Booker T and the MG’s
(1962 – ) Booker T. was a creator of the Memphis soul sound that influenced (and he produced) a generation of rockers. Along with icons such as Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn, they formed a hose band for Stax that served as the music for such luminaries as Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Eddie Floyd, and Albert King. Possibly the first integrated rock group, the MG’s turned R&B and funk into southern soul and rock.
12. Buffalo Springfield
(1966-1968) Stephen Stills could never get into this pantheon on his own because of the taint of his friendship with David Crosby (!). But Neil Young pulls him out of both funks with an early super-group that also had Richie Furay (later of Poco) and Jim Messina (logins and Messina). The Springfield had a few hits and helped kick off the Laurel Canyon ethos but they also were key to creating a crossover of rock and country and folk and drugs and in-fighting that became the hallmark of future combinations.
(1970-1975) One of the great tragedies and misfortunes in the history of rock, Badfinger sounded so much like the Beatles that some fans thought (and some still do…) that they were one and the same. A Paul McCartney-penned hit (“Come and Get It”) will do that. But they had great song after great song and bad luck and crappy karma and a few more hits and massive frustration that ended as two of the fur band members committed suicide.…
(1964-1973) My concession here to David Crosby (enough already!). Pioneering folk rock, they had great taste in song writers (Dylan, Pete Seeger) and – with some originals – created a string of hits with a jangly guitar sound that bordered on psychedelic.
Others the mainstream would consider: Bee Gees – If disco were rock, maybe the greatest group of them all; still catchy tunes and great brotherly harmonies and a huge batch of hits… Boston – Not Boston’s fault that their high-polished production music has been played to death; not my fault that they have worn me out with their “classic rock”… Jackson Browne – Better songwriter than performer and a lot of good material done by him and others to back it up…Bon Jovi – Good guy, great looks, some terrific songs and, well, 100 million records sold… Blood Sweat and Tears – Rock and roll plus horns; who woulda thunk it? Al Kooper did, and a new genre was created…
Artists not fully appreciated: Joe Bonamassa – Maybe the best and most versatile guitarist ever; also blessed with a unique voice and great taste in writing and selecting material… Paul Butterfield – The bandleader of the band that proved you had chops if you were asked in (Elvin Bishop, Mike Bllomfield, Mark Naftalin) Mike Bloomfield – Almost a musical idiot savant in his time, Clapton said about Bloomfield: “He is music on two legs”… Blue Oyster Cult – The great giddy/guilty pleasure band with bombast and coolness and lots of cowbell… Bachman Turner Overdrive – Likely WERE fully appreciated but just a goodtime band that evolved from The Guess Who… Bad Company – Better songs and better performances than you might remember; and Paul Rogers to boot!; a super-group with members of Free, Mott the Hoople and King Crimson… Blur – Helped to create Brit-pop, upgrading shoe-gazer music with guitar-pop and competing with Oasis…Roy Buchanan – Guitar maestro, once invited to join the Stones; powerhouse Hendrix-esque blues rocker once called “the best unknown guitarist in the world”… Pat Benatar – Cute and leather-lunged and playing to both; some insanely catchy stuff for a couple years – 15 Top Forty singles… Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – Retro and edgy and tuneful all at the same time; an angrier Stones or The Verve…
(1968 – ) They took the Blood Sweat and Tears idea of horns and a great rock band and made it, well, better. This critique applies only to the early Chicago, before they became crooners with treacly stuff. One of the great guitarists ever (Terry Kath) added an unexpected element. They sold the most singles of any group in the 1970’s but once Kath departed (died) in 1978, they went soft.
14. Alex Chilton
(1966-2010) A legend’s legend who almost single-handedly created alternative music. Starting from age 16 with the Box Tops (“The Letter”) and then founder of Big Star Chilton had enough solo concerts and songwriter credits that he could be on this list 2-3 times. And how many stars get songs written about them while still alive and then go play on-stage with the group that made the tribute? “Alex Chilton” the song (Rplacements) described the inspiration the Alex Chilton the musician was. Enough said…
15. Eric Clapton
(1962 – ) Clapton could be on the list for The Yardbirds or for Cream or for Derek and the Dominoes or as a guitarist or as a songwriter; take your pick. Still the standard by which tasty guitar licks are measured. He was a purist blues guitar god who developed a “voice” and continues to surprise and please fifty years on.
16. Dave Clark Five
(1964-1970) Challenged the Beatles for early British pop supremacy and was even more popular early on in the US. Those first DC5 songs STILL sound good and there were a bunch of them. They had huge impact on British invasion groups and all members of the group wrote songs (17 top forty hits).…
17. Gary Clark Jr.
(2004 – ) A true savant who channels Jimi Hendrix right along with Cat Stevens. He is acoustic, he is startlingly electric, he plays old and new. A unique combination of howling guitar and smooth vocals and a sound or act best appreciated live…
18. The Clash
(1976-1986) The most important band in the world – at the time. They opened up vistas of punk that elevated that particular “art form” to something grander. Politics and rebellion and musical experimentation – plus commercial success – all “Clashed” and that’s where it ended…
19. Leonard Cohen
A Canadian singer–songwriter, Cohen got serious about music when he couldn’t make money as a writer. He was even a fringe member in Andy Warhol’s “Factory Crowd.” The critic Bruce Eder assessed Cohen’s overall career in popular music by asserting that “[he is] one of the most fascinating and enigmatic … singer/songwriters of the late ’60s … [and] has retained an audience across four decades of music-making…. Second only to Bob Dylan (and perhaps Paul Simon) [in terms of influence], he commands the attention of critics and younger musicians more firmly than any other musical figure from the 1960s who is still working at the outset of the 21st century.”
(1998 – ) A brand new sound that probably hasn’t aged as well as we hoped but have sold 80 million records along the way and made Chris Martin a star. A unique musical combination of introspection and anthemic Brit pop/rock.
21. Sam Cooke
(1957-1964) I tried to keep him off the list but he wouldn’t “go away”, just like his songs. Because Cooke’s earliest stuff was pre-sixties, an argument could be made that he doesn’t fit the qualifiers here. But he had hits in the sixties (30 top forty singles overall) and influenced countless groups. Kinda like Buddy Holly. And like Buddy Holly, it is obvious that he would have thrived and made an even bigger name for himself if he hadn’t died so young (justifiable homicide!).
22. Elvis Costello
(1977 – ) Also tried to keep Elvis off the list but I was told you can’t deny the talent just because he is racist and anti-Semitic and probably a misogynist to boot. The songs are great, though, and he created a look and a sound that still reverberates. Costello merged punk and new wave and penned a string of original hit songs and albums, creating The Attractions to back him.
You don’t have to sell millions to be a great group and Cracker is the understated proof of that. Evolved from Camper van Beethoven. Look up their influences and it reads: rock, punk, post-grunge, psychedelia, country, blues and folk. Yeah, that’s it exactly! Irreverent lyrically, they have a unique roots-rock appeal.
24. Robert Cray
(1986 – ) Sublime R&B talent that crosses over to rock without you realizing it. Terrifically tasteful guitarist with a smooth soulful voice, Cray has seamlessly merged rock with the blues and modernized the idiom. Influences are everywhere and his unique style has influenced countless others now.
25. Nick Cave
(1984 – ) If there wasn’t a real Nick Cave, the world would have had to invent one. Part Jim Morrison, part Leonard Cohen and part Lou Reed, Cave is a rocker poet with tastes for the macabre and brazenly sexual. Shock rock? Occasionally – check out “Murder Ballads”, for instance. Described creatively as “blues plus gospel plus rock with a dark literary style and baritone voice”, he seems to have a lot of obsessions – fortunately playing themselves out as great rock music.
(1977-1988) Synth pop meets new wave with insanely catchy tunes with deadpan vocals and a remarkable string of commercially successful singles.
(1977- ) The prototypical posings of gloom rock and post-punk with layers of sound and a goth overtone, The Cure still put together pop- songs disguised as something heavier. Huge cast changes but lots of music between then and now…
Others the mainstream would consider: Crosby Stills Nash and Young – You know the drill by now: you lose two stars if associated with David Crosby; you get a half back because of Stephen Stills and a full star because of Neil Young. Lots of star power here but… Counting Crows – One song done in one style a number of times, but done well with good story-telling to boot; a little angst and a little Van Morrison…Joe Cocker – Was he great? Probably. Was he a “covers” singer with great taste? Likely. Does he belong in consideration here? Absolutely…
Artists Not Fully Appreciated: Cheap Trick – Hugely influential power pop band…Captain Beefheart – To describe this Zappa protégé as “indescribable” is a start; free jazz meets rock to make new forms… Marshall Crenshaw – One critic said: “Quintessential rock craftsman” and I would add “a joy to listen to and sparks of greatness”…Lloyd Cole – With the Commotions, a great Scottish band; on his own, another string of terrific songs…Jim Croce – A rocker? Maybe not. An iconic music legend? I give him his due…
26. Deep Purple
(1967 – ) Hard rock just doesn’t get any better than this. The perfect marriage of great instrumental inter-play (and riffing jams) and silly lyrics (that still rocked). The band that has thundered on for nearly fifty years – with eight years off, starting in the mid-seventies – was created as a super group of session players back in the 1960’s lead then by keyboard wizard Jon Lord and guitar maestro Ritchie Blackmore. They created their own brand of hard rock blues and brought on leather-lunged Ian Gillan to fulfill their all-star group fantasy. They had a few hit singles and loads of albums and legions of fans. They were named by Guinness Book of World Records as “The globes loudest band”. Respected by rockers everywhere except for the Hall of Fame – their loss of credibility, I say. Steve Morse took over guitar-god duties twenty years ago and The Purple rocks on.
27. Dire Straits/Mark Knopfler
(1977 – ) This was all Knopfler’s doing with clever songs and great arrangements and ethereal lead guitar. The Straits combined a jazzy-rock approach that sounded refreshingly different and groove-driven and still sparkles today. Knopfler continues to release music and film scores. Could you call the whole mélange a commercial success? Yes. Dire Straits spent over 1,100 weeks on the UK albums chart, ranking fifth all-time.
28. (Dixie) Dregs/Steve Morse
(1973 – ) Rock plus jazz plus classical plus bluegrass. How could it miss? Wait. Then you have to subtract all vocals and add the – arguably – greatest pure guitarist of them all and you have something special: first the Dixie Dregs then just the Dregs and finally just Steve Morse in all his instrumental finery. He was voted “Best Overall Guitarist” by Guitar Player magazine for five years in a row, as just one credible tout. Morse was famous for throwing in casual licks of the most iconic and difficult rock guitar solos in the middle of extended Dregs’ jams, which ironically ended up with his becoming the lead axe-man in – first – Kansas and then Deep Purple.
(1965 – ) When folk and rock went both commercial and psychedelic, Donovan was there to help create the “niche” and wrote a few of the better songs. Described as “He developed an eclectic and distinctive style that blended folk, jazz, pop, psychedelia, and world music.” Still that doesn’t give him adequate credit for his own brand of songs that including hits like “Hurdy Gurdy Man”, “Mellow Yellow”, “Atlantis”, and “Season of the Witch”. Under-rated in his time as both a composer and an influence, Donovan was initially seen as “Britain’s answer to Bob Dylan” but that didn’t adequately describe his ethos then or now.
30. The Doors
(1965-1971) What to say about my original muse of a band with their opaque mystical blues lyrics and the uber-shaman, Jim Morrison, to belt them out in his boozy bawdy way? Ray Manzarek wrote unusually catchy tunes and organ licks that forced a bunch of us to realize keyboards were cool. The power and the mysticism of The Doors were almost unnatural; just what our parents feared. The music could be divided into epochs, even though the band lasted only about five years. There was the original Doors introduction that maybe never got topped. There was the soft pop with horns. There was back-to-blues. And then there was the faded farewell mélange. Four epochs but all epochal We don’t know if Morrison really died but part of music died when he left…..
31. Bob Dylan
(1961 – ) Which Dylan to describe here? The legendary folk singer, the legendary lyricist, the electric rocker, the legendary country dabbler or, well…you get the idea. Dylan has been as much a cultural icon as he has been a legendary musician and influencer of at least two generations of musical tastes and scenes. Impossible to categorize and famous for being counter-intuitive, the critics have come and gone (while generally lauding him) and the music plays on. Of the phenomena we know as “Dylan”, the most impressive facet might be that he impacted music of his time in all six of the decades in which he has played. Although usually inscrutable and unpredictable (covers of Sinatra?), he turned literature into great songs and that is deification enough…
(1976-2006) More a concept than a group and more an irreverent send-up even than a concept. Yet…The band somehow went from a novelty act to an unlikely new wave version of, uh, Kiss? Devo played on for 30 years and the members became known for original videos for big name rockers (David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Neil Young are examples). Describing the Devo “vibe”? Here’s one attempt: “Their often discordant pop songs feature unusual synthetic instrumentation and time signatures that have proven influential on subsequent popular music, particularly new wave, industrial and alternative rock artists.” Close enough…
Others the mainstream would consider: Dinosaur Jr – JMascis’ great fuzzed out tune machine; OK, the songs sound like a one-trick formula but it is a terrific formula…Neil Diamond – Every rocker seems to have covered him so I’m a believer, too…Doobie Brothers – Old rockin’ Doobies would have likely made the big list; “new” blue-eyed soul wimp rocker Doobies? Not so much…
Artists not fully appreciated: Drive-By Truckers – Song after song, album after album – packed with stories; alt-country alt-concept rockers and hard-driving insistent roots music…Dropkick Murphys – Pub-punk Irish music with anthemic hardcore lyrics and tunes; too playfully incorrect to not be considered here…
32. Eagles (Don Henley)
(1971 and on and on) From their first covers to their iconic songs that everyone else covers, Don Henley’s Eagles were probably better than Glen Frey’s Eagles but both were tuneful and craftsman-like. Damned with faint praise, you say? Henley then went on to craft even better and “rockier” stuff on his own. The Eagles were fabulously successful commercially with more than 150 million records sold. They have always been interesting, which is further testament to the staying power of their southern California rock and constant group tension. Finally, the fact that Joe Walsh plays with them gets the group extra consideration…
(1995 – ) “e” (Mark Oliver Everett) is just the best; clever and original with enough post-grunge low-fi sensibility to make good songs great. Everett has been a production machine of those great songs that sound wondrous and simplistic when electrified but may be even better in acoustic versions (heresy!) to enjoy all the little subtleties of his songs. He IS the Eels as the cast of characters change around him. Great simple songs of heartbreak plus nursery tunes describing the weight of the world of daily problems. He is one of a kind…
34. Emerson, Lake and Palmer
(1970-1978+) Way overdone pomp rock that is really classical music disguised with drums and bass and designed to be a gigantic forum for Keith Emerson to show off his Faustian skills and incredible keyboard chops. ELP specialized in fantastic production flourishes and uber-clever arrangements that somehow worked despite the weight of the pretension. Ironically, the soft rock stuff created and played by Greg Lake (“Lucky Man” and “From the Beginning) were their big charting single but they also sold 40 million+ albums and put on a show that never ends…
Others the mainstream would consider: Dave Edmunds – Rocks and rocks and just rolls along for the past forty years now; sometimes with partner-in-crime Nick Lowe, sometimes strutting rockabilly and sometimes in his own room of fun/clever music…Electric Light Orchestra – See: Jeff Lynne; ELO started a run on classical pop and they just couldn’t turn it off with occasional spasms of creative highlights…Melissa Etheridge – Singer-songwriter and guitarist with the most disturbing relationship yet involving David Crosby!
Artists not fully appreciated: Eurythmics – The tunes were too good to ignore and Annie Lenox has a showstopper voice; British synth-pop that was just a little precious and soft to make it to the main list…Echo and the Bunnymen – Jim Morrison with a drum machine and less oedipal lyrics; yet the band kept turning out good tunes and good albums…Roky Erickson – Whew, an acid casualty that never really came back; insanely different – literally… Everclear – One monumental early group of songs that couldn’t be maintained after Art Alexakis ran out of therapeutic musings about his dad; still, they scored three platinum albums with those ruminations…
35. Fleetwood Mac
(1967-1970; 1970 – ) The Peter Green late-sixties Mac was magic – maybe black magic – on par with Cream as the ultimate power trio of rock, although they did end up featuring dueling lead guitars. Once drugs claimed Green, Mick and John went for commercial sounds and success and found that but lost all us purists in their pursuit. The band became a moveable feast of musicians revolving in and out and enormous commercial success seemed to vindicate their strategy. But take a listen to the Mac’s “Live in Boston” from 1970 and you will see what all the excitement was about. This was great live rock at its finest…
36. John Fogerty/CCR
(1968 – ) Hit machine or merely genius? Fogerty overcame his anti-social leanings to spew out massive hits that spanned almost fifty years – and counting. Great singer, good guitarist and better song-writer, Fogerty created a “swamp rock” persona despite his northern California roots. He fought with everyone from then on – his brother, other band-mates, record companies and some wives. But the dormant periods were few and far between and the modernized rockabilly music was magical, as if coming from and endless reservoir of unique tunes and incisive lyrics. Hopefully, that’s what he’ll be remembered for…
(1966 – ) Frampton started with The Herd in the mid-sixties, caught on with Humble Pie, played big-time sessions (Nilsson, Jerry Lee Lewis, George Harrison, John Entwistle) and then really kicked it in as a solo guy with – at the time – the biggest selling live album ever. He created unique guitar effects and brought the “talk box” to prominence. The continuous touring honed great chops. But his real contributions were a string of great tunes that get stuck in your head – in a good way.
(1994 – ) You can’t have Ben Folds on the big list because of the amount of snark in his body of work; but you couldn’t have an all-timer list without considering that he is one of the unique talents in music history. His “punk rock for wussies” is a piano-based extravaganza of bombastic songcraft, talent, creativity and often a parody of the punk or alternative scene. Folds is a great showman and power-pop eccentric who formed the three-member Ben Folds Five. That little in-joke sums it up nicely as a Ben Folds statement…
Others the mainstream would consider: Four Tops – Pure Motown, of course, but too good to leave completely off a list like this…The Four Seasons…Hugely successful (100 million records sold) vocal group that popped more than they rocked…Free – Paul Rogers first touring band with a song (“All Right Now”) that is played every twenty minutes now on classic rock stations …The Faces – Ronnie Lane, Ron Wood and Rod Stewart all together before they went on to bigger and better recognized stuff…
Artists not fully appreciated: Fountains of Wayne – Another guilty pleasure and a group whose songbook is under-rated (because of the name?); terrific power pop based on truly original and catchy songs…Flaming Lips – Speaking of “non-commercial names”, Wayne Coyne drove his psychedelic grunge band to great indie success…Foghat – Lonesome Dave and the guys were boogie-blues masters that captivated for a time and toured all the time…Bryan Ferry – Also for your consideration as many adherents to this fashionable sound were captivated by Roxy Music, an art-rock band playing “lush rock” and bolstered by Ferry and the unique talents of Brian Eno…
37. Grateful Dead
(1965-1995) The great “noodlers” pretty much created the jam band concept plus the on-going drug parties that followed the band around and eventually settled in California to be near them. What other group can ever make a claim to that kind of power? That said, the inventive amalgam of blues and bluegrass, rock and folk, with some jazz and psychedelia was a potent mix in both live performances and – to a lesser degree – on their recordings. They were the original free-form improv rock band. There are far more bootlegs of Dead music than there are authorized recordings. As much a counter-culture phenomena as a music group, the Dead were a lifestyle to many but they created popular music at a cult level. A long strange trip, indeed…
38. Green Day
(1989 – ) Despite all the adulation, awards and money, we probably still don’t give enough credit to Green Day (and Billie Joe Armstrong) for the true talent they exhibit – particularly the quality of a huge library of great power pop songs that somehow got a punk reputation. Multi-platinum rocker revivalists, their huge energy and anthem-oriented three-chord mini-masterpieces breathed a new musical life into their era. And Green Day’s break from the fierce punk rock of The Clash and the Sex Pistols created the germ of a new genre.
39. Dave Grohl/Foo Fighters
(1986 – ) If Billie Joe is “underappreciated”, what can one say about Dave Grohl – one of the nice guys and true rock savants we’ve been privileged to watch grow and evolve and – yes – to entertain us. That’s right, he was just the drummer for Nirvana. Then he switched to lead guitar and lead singer and songwriter for Foo Fighters, in addition to side roles in Them Crooked Vultures and Queens of the Stone Age. That barely left him time to do studio gigs with the likes of Nine Inch Nails, David Bowie, Paul McCartney and Tom Petty. Just to show his versatility, the first Foo album had Grohl playing every instrument on songs he had shelved while working for Nirvana. But his music is even more impressive than his resume and the older he gets, the better the music gets.
Guided By Voices
(1983-2014 and beyond) Which of the first 5000 Robert Pollard songs should we focus on here? Pollard seems to have a compulsion to write and record, a compulsion that exceeds the term “prolific”. GBV were the kings of lo-fi indie rock; they then “matured” in to a big rock kind of sound. Pollard’s little simplistic new-wave/punky masterpieces make eyes roll and smiles flash. What will he do next?
(1961 -) Two of the great rocking songs of all time (“Radar Love” and “Twilight Zone” ) almost got Golden Earring into the Top 100 but I wasn’t brave enough to pull the trigger, so the bullet never hit the bone for this straight-forward rocking Dutch group. They ask the ultimate existential rock question: Where we gonna go now that we’ve gone too far? Definitely the Netherland’s greatest contribution to rock.
Others the mainstream would consider: Al Green – A voice too good not to get mentioned; a style too gospel to be on the list…Peter Gabriel – Theatrical and adventurous but not always successful stuff, in the dramatic-story-song sub-genre…Guns N’ Roses – They rocked, and rolled across two decades with diverse songs and obnoxious personalities. Enough already. GNR did have the largest selling debut album in history, as a footnote…Genesis – We covered this with Peter Gabriel, no? No. There was a distinctive second life with Phil Collins leading this prog-art band…The J. Geils Band – Dirty blues and rock-rap that left them as a surprisingly attractive live band with a number of hits, fronted by charismatic Peter Wolf…Guess Who – Mostly pop sounds with singer Burton Cummings and unique guitar licks from Randy Bachman; a long string of singles that worked out well for them…
Artists Not Fully Appreciated: Green Pajamas – My favorite band that didn’t make it higher on The List; undeservedly obscure to many, their majestic psychedelic pop sounds like Tom Petty mixed with the Beatles; fabulous stuff… Buddy Guy – The flash of Chicago blues blended with the fire of rock and roll; one of the truly greats. Clapton called him the best guitar player alive and who are we to argue?…Goo Goo Dolls – Evolving from punk to alternative and sounding like a “smoother” version of The Replacements, the Dolls sold in the millions without some fans’ appreciation of their roots…The Go-Betweens – One critic’s description: “Their literate pop songs and sparkling guitars evoked influences from Bob Dylan to Velvet Underground”. Nice…Grand Funk Railroad – Despite the critical assault, they overcame their instrumental deficiencies to create a huge following for their 70’s straight-ahead hard rock sound and string of tunes before the formula came off the tracks…
40. Ben Harper
(1992 – ) He can sound smooth like Cat Stevens and rough like Led Zeppelin and even funky like Bob Marley. Harper plays an eclectic mix of blues, folk, soul, reggae and rock, having first established his guitar chops, then his unique vocals, before going on to excite crowds with his live performances and avowed social activism. He worked early on with Taj Mahal and John Lee Hooker to generate his later deep-cred sound. Whatever – it all sounds good…
41. Jimi Hendrix
(1967-1970) The very original and perhaps ultimate guitar god who was equal parts showman, technician, writer and cultural superstar. He played with Little Richard and the Isley Brothers before staking his claim to guitar genius and opening a Pandora’s Box of possibilities for an instrument that seemed relatively tame before Jimi took over. A true original who introduced so many new sounds from his guitar that he created new genres for others to explore; with controlled feedback and distortion, he produced beautiful music. The prototype showman, Hendrix had an amazing impact for such a short career.
42. Buddy Holly
(1955 – ) OK, he never actually made it to the 1960’s (my loose and arbitrary boundary) but he influenced everyone that did. From the Beatles to the Stones to even Eric Clapton, Buddy Holly changed pop and rock forever and the music truly died in a sense when he did. From his goofy look (think Weezer and Elvis Costello) to the clucking and hiccupping and popping sounds. Buddy and his band (The Crickets) created a sound that became the first real wave of 1960’s rock and roll. Holly was one of the first rock “stars” to actually write his own material. He had a string of hits that are still being covered and despite his enormous impact and success, he was still only 22 when he died in a plane crash.
43. Husker Du
(1980 – ) Bob Mould’s playpen started off as hardcore punk before “mellowing” out to alternative, still with the ubiquitous wall of fuzz behind many of the (very many) songs. Mould had a creative mix of melodic edge-rock that often disguised the great hooks in the songs. Bandmate Grant Hart shared writing duties and seemed to add a poppier side despite Mould’s instrumental denseness. Loud and raucous with a kick-ass rhythm section, this was music that couldn’t be turned away. On some of the solo outings, he played all the instruments. The Du was one of the first indie bands to land a major label deal, setting the stage for a seismic shift in the music scene at the time…
(1976 – ) There are lovable eccentrics in the music idiom and then there is Robyn Hitchcock, someone who could stretch that definition to the breaking point. Sounding unerringly like John Lennon at times, then demonstrating a channeling of Syd Barrett at others, Hitchcock had an elastic vocal quality that belied many of his relatively simple songs. He is a stylist who is at home with pop ballads as he is with dark psychedelia. Starting with the Soft Boys, he made a “name” with such quirky tunes as such as “My Wife and My Dead Wife” and “The Man with the Lightbulb Head”. In addition to reunions with the Soft Boys and side projects with famous guys, Hitchcock produced terrific solo projects and continues to soldier on in his, uh, own way…
Others the mainstream would consider: Hollies – Rock’s great harmony group in the early 1960’s, they got more of a rock/blues feel when Graham Nash left; more than 30 charting singles over their career…Heart – Great lungs and great looks and surprisingly good guitar…Hall and Oats – Playing a bunch of instruments to a bunch of people, they made a bunch of money with their “mainstream” and inoffensive rock…Sammy Hagar – The Red Rocker achieved notoriety as a partier and musician, first with Montrose and then solo and then taking over lead belting duties for a while with Van Halen.
Artists not fully appreciated: John Hiatt – The great story-teller songwriter who sounds like a rock troubadour, this man just can’t create a bad song or a bad sound. The covers of Hiatt’s songs charted more successfully than his originals…The Hold Steady – Craig Finn talks his way through some great background songs and occasionally breaks into a chorus in this unique outfit…
(1977-1997) Michael Hutchence wanted to be new wave’s Jagger and promoted that personae while the group – the core of which was the three Farriss brothers – slowly grew into a pub-rock style that more suited their commercial ambitions. Initially, the band became one of the first white groups to explore hip hop beats. All those disparate ambitions screeched to a halt when Hutchence made the ultimate bad career move by hanging himself. Although the band played on, it really ended there in 1997 with Hutchence.
Others the mainstream would consider: Chris Isaac – A great set of pipes and the successor to the warbles of Roy Orbison, Isaak toured and singled his way through the nineties without a career-enhancing home run…Billy Idol – Starting with Generation X and melding into an MTV pop-punk scene-ster, Idol sneered a path through a batch of hit singles and albums from the 80’s on…
Artists not fully appreciated: Iggy Pop – A disheveled spectacle who wanted to one-up Jim Morrison’s personae while channeling James Brown. Iggy was legendary for his dangerous stage antics. “Lust for Life” and “I Wanna Be Your Dog” pretty well sums up his themes but that certainly doesn’t do justice to Iggy, who somehow went seamlessly from mental institution to iconic proto-punk rocker…
45. Jefferson Airplane
(1965-1972) The Airplane was an amalgam of early styles and multiple lead performers including three vocalists and became staples of the early Bay Area psychedelic scene. Grace Slick was the putative front “man” for the group but Marty Balin and Paul Kantner were actually the formative leaders and strongest writers. Jorma Kaukonen carried the vibe and later went on to create Hot Tuna, a longer-lived group. Only the Airplane is considered here as once they morphed in The Starship, they lost their cult power although they picked up more dollars. The stages of the Starship never matched the rocket trajectory and influence of the Airplane, though.
46. Elton John
(1967 – ) Sir Elton could rock when he wasn’t vamping and occasionally he did both at the same time back in the “early years”. He has released over 30 albums to date and is a pop icon if not a rock star. Lost in his fluff and posings is the fact that the man can bang a mean piano. A great musician all-around, he utilized lyricists (mostly Bernie Taupin) to create a new American songbook.
47. Janis Joplin
(1966-1970) The greatest rock sound ever to come out of a human throat, Janis had it all including that ethereal voice, the master (mistress?) of the hard blues idiom and the angst that propelled her to stardom and then doom. If you hear “Piece of My Heart” or “Down on Me” or “Ball and Chain” and aren’t moved a bit, you should check for a pulse. Her initial band, Big Brother and The Holding Company was highly under-rated and fit her raw style much better than the later polished efforts to have her lead a “big band” sound. And what a sound she was. She was a blues heroine before the other heroin (and drinking and speed and…) did her in.
The Jam/Paul Weller
(1972-1982; 1982 +) The Jam were “upscale” punkers sounding like punk rock but feeling like power pop. Paul Weller blended sounds of the 60’s, soul, R&B and psychedelia for a surging pastiche of terrific music. Weller kept the line-up changing as he put out solo records and engineered The Style Council with a completely different vibe in mind. He didn’t stop there as he recorded ambitiously on his own and has recorded numerous albums solo in the past 25 years; more to British acclaim than American…
(1976-1980) Moody new wave and mope-punk masters, they grinded their message with synthesizers and the tortured stylings of front man Ian Curtis. With arresting melodies and dreary backing, the world awaited Joy Divisions’ next moves but Curtis killed himself in 1980 at age 23, after being plagued with depression and epilepsy. The band remained together as New Order but the music changed and didn’t have the impact of the Curtis-inspired Joy Division.
Others the mainstream would consider: Billy Joel – Uber-talented piano-man and composer who veered off on poppy roads more than rock solid; sold 19 gazillion records over four+ decades and always seemed to emanate the image that he was above the whole rock ethos… Journey – Really, just a session band looking to make it big, these ex-Santana players found Steve Perry and became an AOR commercial juggernaut, abandoning their modest back-up mission to become headliners.
Artists not fully appreciated: Jo Jo Gunne – Jay Ferguson plied his considerable piano-pounding and vocal skills to exceed the earlier Spirit confines and come up with this killer group, whose single “Run Run Run” puts them into the highest orbit all on its own…
48. BB King
(1925 – ) Does he rock? He does. The King took “30 years to become an overnight success”, bending blues notes to a new audience each decade but never changing his rocking-soulful approach to the idiom. His signature vibrato and pioneering sound of smooth riffing bursts make him one of the greatest guitarists ever with a body of blues work that can rock. At his “peak” in the 1950’s (!), he was playing more than 350 shows a year. Now, as he approaches ninety, he has reduced that to just 50-100 shows, in his form of gradual retirement. But Lucille lives on…
49. Kinks/Ray Davies
(1964 – ) Ray Davies is rock, of a sort. He is also power-pop, a balladeer, a peculiarly clever composer, a social observer and a writer that brought introspection and a theatrical element to elementary rock structure. The Kinks started as a hit singles machine, producing top hits throughout the sixties before Ray’s bent for theater created more concept albums and more sophisticated themes in his singular observational style. His songs have been revered (and covered) by a who’s who of rockers (Pretenders, The Knack, The Jam, and Van Halen to name a few) and the Kinks’ influence – from creating the first “hard rock” song with “You Really Got Me” to long-lived melodies and themes (“Lola” and “Celluloid Heroes”) puts Ray and the Kinks at the front of any legacy rock discussion.
Others the mainstream would consider: King Crimson – Prog rock merged into art rock with all the pomp and pretension that went alongside; the changing line-up introduced us to guitarists Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew as well as singer/songwriter Greg Lake…Albert King – One of the “Three Kings” of guitar (BB, Albert and Freddie), Albert was a Chicago bluesman who influenced Clapton, Hendrix, Robbie Robertson and Stevie Ray Vaughn…Kansas – A bit overblown and a bit under-appreciated, they have eight gold albums to evidence fan support; big pop hooks in a riff-rock setting.
Artists not fully appreciated: Kooks – Brit-pop punk by way of an indie feel, The Kooks are everything fresh and right in the world of “new rock”. Feeling like a cleaned up melodic “Libertines”, The Kooks are an ever-evolving sound…Killers – Fronted by the versatile and engaging Brandon Flowers, the band has sold over 22 million records in its first decade and is becoming a mainstream rock and pop fixture…
50. Led Zeppelin
(1968-1980) As the Beatles were to popular music, Led Zep might have been to rock, or at least to hard rock. It is hard to imagine one without the other. Even though they weren’t the earliest progenitors of the species, Jimmie Page’s fabulous guitar work and equally fabulous production skills brought Zep to the front of the class. Robert Plant supplied the image-making as a multi-octave singer/sex god, John Bonham thundered drums in a heavier Keith Moon mode and John Paul Jones played everything else. The songs included smugly “sampled” blues standards and their unique adrenalized versions of mainstream rock with pyrotechnics. Absolute staples on any list of the best of rock, Led Zeppelin set the bar high and it remains the same.…
(2000-2004) Wasted and drug-fueled and more of a cultural aggregator at times than “simple” musicians in a band, it was their simple approach that cleaned up rock during a murky music era and subsequently spawned dozens of like-minded groups and artists. Named after “a person devoid of moral restraints”, they lived that image to the fullest with a focus on intoxication binges and paparazzi-followed lifestyles. Oh, the music? Brit-pop-punk in the sloppiest/most pleasing rendering possible. Because of the fighting and inebriation excesses of founder Pete Doherty, it is hard to track when the band was together or even when it ended.
52. Lynyrd Skynyrd
(1972-1977) None of the sub-genres of southern rock or boogie rock or guitar rock has ever been the same since Skynyrd entered the picture in the late 1960’s. While the band played on – in some odd and related assortments, I chose the end-date for Skynyrd as 1977 when the plane crashed and front man and image-maker, Ronnie Van Zant died with two other bandmates. Discovered by Al Kooper, the band hit big in 1973 with their Allman-similar twin-guitar attack sound and the classic single, Freebird, ironically an homage to Duane Allman. Many classics later (“Gimme Three Steps”, “Simple Man”, “Sweet Home Alabama” amongst others), they had established their legacy long before the band diminished.
(1969-1978) Funky country rock that passed gracefully into the coolest kind of catchy mainstream rock. Throw in a little jazz and gospel and boogie and you’ve got the idea. Lowell George was the foundation of Little Feat after leaving Zappa’s Mothers of Invention and Billy Payne played some of the greatest roadhouse piano you will ever hear. Their music was covered by some of the biggest names ever (Dylan, The Byrds, Robert Palmer and Joe Walsh to name a few). Their signature sound of bluesy vocals, absurdist lyrics and stout musicianship made them into a cult favorite. I note that the band “ends” once George left in 1978.
(1980 – ) A Tex-Mex “barrio band” with heavy blues and rock influences, Los Lobos has been the great chameleons of rock and likely the forerunner (sole practitioner?) of “eclectic Latino rock”. Through a series of musical progressions that included acoustic, jazz, country and blues, Los Lobos – self-described as “just another band from East LA”, forced rock to expand its boundaries to include them. They have also guested for more commercially known artists such as Paul Simon, Elvis Costello and The Fabulous Thunderbirds.
Others the mainstream would consider: Huey Lewis – An all-American guy fronting an all-American/Californian good-time party band, Huey (and his News) popped and rocked their way through numerous million-selling albums and charting singles. Little known fact: the News went on without Huey to be Elvis Costello’s backing band on his debut album.
Artists not fully appreciated: Nick Lowe – Coincidentally – and alphabetically for this list – Nick Lowe produced that first Elvis Costello album and seemingly hundreds more; great eccentric pop songwriter, his edgy solo recording sense of humor (“Jesus of Cool” and “Labour of Lust” springs to mind…), he played with Graham Parker and became part of Dave Edmund’s Rockpile… Lemonheads – Evan Dando’s clever-cute and infectiously tune-worthy group helped lead the way in alternative music because of/despite both grunge and country-rock foundations… Jeff Lynne – An undeniable talent not to everyone’s tastes, Lynne is a guitarist/singer/producer extraordinaire whose career spans The Move, Electric Light Orchestra and Traveling Wilburys plus massive session work…
53. Mamas and Papas
(1965-1968) From folk to folk-rock, they created a huge harmonic footprint that belied the fact that they played together for less than four years. Basically a folk group with lavish production, the Mama and Papa songbook was so good that they overcame that limiting framework, with six top ten singles and 40 million records sold. The great voice of Mama Cass (and John Philips) and the sultry presence of Michelle Phillips created a new image in music back in 1965. The fresh originals and subsequent creative cover songs set up a cultural paradigm that help beget the hippie music subset of the later sixties.
54. Meat Puppets
(1980 – ) Perhaps the only purveyors of “cowboy psychedilia”, the Puppets were a heavy inspiration for Kurt Cobain who later played with them on their combined acoustic set, revealing Curt Kirkwood’s versatile fret work. These guys were the ultimate indies who thought that even rehearsal was a sellout of their ethos. The Puppets played indie and they played roots and they often seemed to be playing together in a parallel universe. The usual issues of “brothers in the band” emerged (two of the three were Kirkwoods) and they missed a chunk of time when Cris went to rehab (jail?) a few years back. But when they played – oh, my: blues meets folk meets acid rock in a very loud and pleasing and lasting way.
(1981- ) Metallica will have to represent the majority of heavy metal on this list as they have outlasted most of their colleagues in that genre and set standards by which the others paled. Big and loud and fast and aggressive, they are linked to the “founding fathers” of the genre: Anthrax, Megadeth and Slayer. But Metallica was always more tuneful and seemed to have a consistent – if wicked – sense of humor about them. In its on-going trail of production, Metallica has released nine studio albums, four live albums, five EP’s, 26 music videos, and 37 singles. Five of its albums consecutively debuted at number one; something to say for a metal band. This was James’ Hetfield’s band, really, and many other guitar slingers came and went in the beginning including the redoubtable Dave Mustaine, soon-to-be of Megadeth. Metallica has left its own indelible mark…
56. Van Morrison
(1966 – ) As much an institution as a musician, a classy but shy showman who couldn’t stay away from his jazz/scat preferences, Van Morrison puts forward a cafeteria of styles including blues and rock and folk. Morrison set fashions rather than followed them and it paid off both artistically and commercially. Sometimes his style was referred to as “Celtic soul” and it was appreciated to the tune of 34 studio albums, multiple live albums and charting singles and a body of work virtually unmatched in music history. Soulful and mystical with an inimitable set of pipes, he is rock’s easy-listening cool cat…
(1966 – ) He just wanted to be a blues guy, from his early days in Chicago to later becoming a superstar pop singer. Miller’s father was pals with legends Les Paul and T-Bone Walker. Steve, himself, was an early band mate of Boz Skaggs and jammed with Paul Butterfield, Buddy Guy and Howlin’ Wolf. Despite all that high-tone exposure (!), he developed a straight-ahead rocker sound that started slowly but took off with the release of “The Joker” in 1973. The rest was record sales history with dozens of hit songs and millions sold…
(2001 – ) I tried hard to keep John Mayer off the list but his guitar virtuosity, his silky voice and his straight clean good songs made me default to my second nature. More folk and pop than rock, he is still a blues-oriented guitar wunderkind. He also is a controversial “occasional” misogynist and perhaps an occasional racist, to boot. He has had a subsequently (and avowed) catharsis and wants to focus solely on his music and not his aberrant personae, thus so will we…
Others the mainstream would consider: The McCoys – My ultimate guilty pleasure as these are hometown heroes “made good” and Rick Derringer went on to “making great” as an axe man and solo artist…Mountain – If one riff could get you on the list, Leslie West’s “Mississippi Queen” did just that for Mountain; but Mountain had other great tunes and Felix Papalardi as well… Moody Blues – These guys were a real blues band with a Beatles sensibility way back when; they got Moody (and famous) later and all went on to even bigger/better things after that…John Mellencamp – John Cougar hit with a vengeance with his straight-ahead Midwest rock and good story-telling put to great music…Joni Mitchell – Not a rocker? Well, she certainly influenced a bunch of them and had a passel of great songs that will never be duplicated…John Mayall – If you were a British blues aspirant back in the day, you had to play with Mayall to establish your chops; names like Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Jack Bruce, John McVie, Mick Fleetwood, and Mick Taylor, did just that…Meat Loaf – A theatrical performer with even more theatrical songs, he had some big hits and solid tunes and sold a ton of vinyl…
Artists not fully appreciated: Eddie Money – Like The McCoys, Eddie Money is another personal fave because I actually knew the guy; but this is also well-deserved as Eddie created hits and an outsized rocker’s life. No less of an icon that Bill Graham once said: “Eddie Money has it all: not only can he sing, write, and play, but he is a natural performer.”… Myracle Brah – The Brah represents all the power pop guys from the late-lamented Not Lame Records; and despite the lame name (and the whimsically-named leader, Andy Bopp from Lovenut), these guys put out loads of hooky material…Don McLean – Barely a rock guy but with a couple of story songs to his credit that gained him consideration; his folk rock covered a lot of territory…Minutemen – A basic, influential and original punk trio that wrote, toured, lived and played at breakneck speed…Mott the Hoople – They could have been great and were pretty good in their own rights as cynical glam metal guys whose career got a huge boost when Bowie wrote them “All the Young Dudes”…Taj Mahal – He “revived rural blues” but went much farther, reprising rock standards as well, with an encyclopedic knowledge and understanding of a multitude of musical idioms…Moby Grape – One of the original power rock bands, the Grape cut a phenomenal first album and then just diddled away; they also played great live jams, more of a rarity back in the day…Mountain Goats – John Darnielle’s laboratory of wry lyrics and traditional music that rocks just enough to make it (and the Goats) truly interesting…
(1987-1994) Kurt Cobain created a seismic shift in rock tastes with his angst-driven howling vocals and roaring guitar in the co-founding of grunge. He had it all: impeccable songwriting talent, the rock and roll wife, a sense of anti-fashion and the requisite demons to drive that whole train. Unfortunately, the demons won out early on and the great outpouring of music stopped abruptly when Cobain committed suicide at age 27. Ironically, the guy sitting at the drum set, not singing or writing or playing any other instruments was the force that would take the music farther and faster – Dave Grohl. Cobain was painstaking in acknowledging his influences: Black Sabbath, The Vaselines, Devo and The Meat Puppets. But in its time, Nirvana influenced many many more bands and gave more than it got. The music was angry and nihilistic and frustrated and it turned on a thrilled audience to new possibilities that Cobain and Nirvana never got to realize themselves.
(1993 – ) My favorite indie/alternative band and one of my favorite songs, “Hi-Speed Soul”, which by itself doesn’t do full justice to the creative typical Nada songs with their unique feel encompassing Matthew Caws’ plaintive vocals and lyrics. Nada actually had a hit single (“Popular”) back in the 90’s but they were fated to have a great run of albums that sometimes got – unfairly – lumped into the “nerd rock” category with other luminaries such as Weezer or Cake – one better than the other. Peculiarly melodic and with elastic vocals that feel like Caw could make a single note into anything he wanted. The cult status endures and Nada fans eagerly await each new release …
Bill Nelson/Be Bop Deluxe
(1972 – ) Another relatively obscure guy/group with enormous talent and technical chops to match. The more you listen to Bill Nelson from his prime, the more you realize that his trip from art rock and glam to straight-ahead great guitar rock (more like Jeff Beck than a prog guy…) yielded huge musical impact despite a, well…constrained audience. He now produces and records sporadically (reminds me of the prolific output of Mark Knopfler and just as experimental) and all of it feels/hears admirable. A prodigy on many levels other than out-and-out commercial success.
Others the mainstream would consider: Ted Nugent – The clean/hard-living axe-master with the giant guitar sound harkens back to mid-sixties fame with the Amboy Dukes before he became the harder-core “Motor City Madman”. There’s a lot of great licks in there somewhere. Always counter-intuitive in the face of the counter-culture, the defiant vocals and maniacal guitar spoke volumes…
Artists not fully appreciated: Nilsson – What do you do with a guy like Harry Nilsson, who was a musician’s musician but always seemed to be messing with you (“I’d Rather Be Dead (Than Wet My Bed)”?). Well, you recognize him for the talent he was, as evidenced by his own success, great songs and better covers and all the adulation he got from big-name stars who were his pals like John Lennon, Ringo and Phil Spector. Harry was a one-off and his songs were as unique as the bigger-than-life guy he was…
58. Ozzy Osbourne
(1969 – ) Beyond the cartoon Black Sabbath character, there is a serious rocker lurking who got better and tastier as the years wore on – and those years wore on Ozzie hard. “Crazy Train” is a great example of a “later years” song that shows big production, appropriate bombast and – incidentally – has one of the great guitar riff-fests (thanks to Randy Rhodes) in rock. Ozzie became more of a cult personality although he is sometimes referenced as “The Godfather of Heavy Metal” on his way to selling more than 100 million records. The dramatic flair, the tasteful tunes, and a psychotic demonic countenance have all served Ozzie’s career well…
Others the mainstream would consider: Oasis – Beatle melodies and affects with a dour attitude and fighting siblings as part of the Brit-pop generation; in relative competition with Blur and Suede at the time.
Artists not fully appreciated: Roy Orbison – Rockabilly-country mega-voice who found a new lease on life (and career) as the sage singer in the Travelling Wilburys alongside Bob Dylan and Tom Petty and George Harrison; prime Roy time was between 1960-1964 with twenty Top 40 singles charting…Offspring – Punk-pop singles machine with a wry sense of humor and occasionally topical goofy lyrics; sounding heavy metal but with sing-along crowd songs built to please…
59. Tom Petty
(1976 – ) Abundantly versatile and a consistently great, Petty is a musical tastemaker of the highest order. The Heartbreakers are a superb band, featuring guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench. Petty and the boys made sounds and songs that were instantly recognizable and justifiably popular. Lumped in at the time as “heartland rock” musicians – along with other greats such as Bruce Springsteen and perhaps Bob Seger, Petty created statements that only those two other band leaders could match. Consistently creative and bending lyrics and delivery to his unique style, there are few rockers that can craft better songs – and few that ever did. Along with three solo albums – sounding remarkably similarly to The Heartbreakers – Petty has never stopped touring and has never stopped picking up new fans in new venues. His side project with the Willbury’s was similarly fruitful…
60. Pink Floyd
(1965 to whatever) Rock was tweaked and changed with Syd Barrett and when acid changed him, rock moved on again with the new Floyd. Archetypally great rock lyrics mixed with David Gilmour’s stunning guitar and Roger Waters songs of deep and unique introspection, it all worked in the grandest sense. For a certain tranche of rock fans – and for a certain era – Pink Floyd was the greatest band in the world and their work reflected and justified all the accolades. Themes of madness and ego were woven into a tapestry of their successive concept albums that became the biggest selling albums in music history. The band has sold an unimaginable 250 million+ records, an achievement only exceeded by their elaborate stage shows. Waters acrimoniously broke with the group and they have made snide remarks and been basically uncooperative for almost thirty years now, exposing all the Pink Floyd fans to their true dark side…
(1977-1984) Was it all Sting? It was not. The shimmery guitars of Andy Summers and the jazz drum licks of Stewart Copeland added to the glamorous fusion reggae band, undertaken with visions of world dominance. More international celebrities than simply musicians, they introduced a lot of listeners to both soft reggae and to a form of soft jazz. Some described them as punk but – especially, in retrospect – they were catchy pop with great hooky melodies and compressed songs that you thought you had heard before, even the first time around.
(1978-2008 to ?) What a voice! And what a pretty great “backing” group to go along with it. The Pretenders lived through two bandmates succumbing to drugs but Ohio-tough Chrissie Hynde is still working the mike and strutting her stuff with a recent solo effort. Hynde is my kind of do-everything female, uh, role model. She emigrated from Ohio to England, worked as a music journalist and then at the infamous Malcolm McLaren’s store – the SEX boutique. She formed The Pretenders, writing semi-autobiographical material and became the long time live-in with the Kinks’ Ray Davies. With a trail of millions of albums sold behind her/them, she moved back to Akron despite the attempted exorcism of her song: “My City Was Gone”.
63. Procol Harum
(1967 – ) What greater accolade can I give other than calling Procol the best group of all time? For those that got hung up on “Whiter Shade of Pale” or the heavier early songs, well…get over it already. Here’s a band that has never had a bad album and – despite only a few hit singles – has the best combination of lyrics (Keith Reid), tunes (largely Gary Brooker), vocals (same), guitar (Robin Trower) and drums (BJ Wilson) in the history of rock. That’s right, I said it. The songs are masterpieces, the lyrics are rock poetry and the band alternates styles to fit their moods. The amount of material in the Procol archives is not nearly as impressive as the amount of truly great songs, which you could play forever…
(1979 – ) A big range of material, theatrics, song-writing talent and vocal abilities, Prince is almost his own category and some of his songs do, indeed, rock. After 100 million records have been sold worldwide, it is assumed that his “cult status” must have changed to something more commercially acceptable. He played funk, he played pop and he played music that didn’t fit comfortably into any category. He even had a name for a while that had no pronunciation. But one of the biggest compliments that can be bestowed is that his music evolved and got better as he went – a great challenge met.
Others the mainstream would consider: Pearl Jam – The more commercial grunge follow-up to Nirvana with Eddie Vedder being an acquired taste; they led the second surge of grunge into the mainstream…Phish – Supplanted The Dead (no one could replace them) as hip music fans’ pre-eminent jam band with endless technically proficient noodling and parties that followed; the albums got better over time but the live shows have always been the way to go…
Artists not fully appreciated: Pavement – Influential low-fi indie outfit that served as taste-magnets to a huge swath of similarly bent musicians in the 1990’s…Robert Palmer – Very stylish pop-rocker whose sexy videos made him more famous than his songs; a couple of huge suave hits (“Addicted to Love” and “Simply Irresistible”) became signature calling cards…Graham Parker – A scene-ster that defined “music cool” for a number of years; known for his pub rock, high energy and searing sarcasm…
Love them or hate them, Queen was rock spectacle. Lead singer Freddie Mercury used to say he wanted to create “rock ballet”; and like some of Zappa’s quotes, that’s too much for me to comprehend. A lot of what Queen produced was simply, well…“too much”; hence the ample and often venomous criticism they endured. But to criticize them for being “too good” or “too popular”? They were simply great at what they did with other-worldly guitar work from Brian May, Mercury’s unique vocal stylings, heavy and pounding-yet-often-lovely songs and a new level of anthemic rock that the world had not quite been prepared to assimilate. Extraordinarily polished productions – for both their records and their shows. In the beginning, Queen was brilliant hard rock – almost metal – and transitioned over time to “arena rock” and more of a pop and mainstream sheen. Eighteen number one albums and eighteen number one singles later lead to sales of as many as 300 million records before Freddie could no longer keep himself alive…
Others the mainstream would consider: None
Artists not fully appreciated: Quicksilver Messenger Service – They were there from the beginning (1965) when psychedelic rock in San Francisco was just finding its groove; two catchy tunes (“Fresh Air” and “What About Me”) established their legitimacy and underscored their next two decades of work…
(1974 – 1996) What would punk rock be without the Ramones? A lot less fun, for one thing. They somehow spun punk into “mainstream” with hooky 2-minute blasts of straight-ahead three-chord (at most) rock songs. Never designed for commercial success, they were really a live act that played close to 2500 shows in their 20 years together. Truly “disbanding” in 1996, all of the band’s original four members—lead singer Joey Ramone, guitarist Johnny Ramone, bassist Dee Dee Ramone and drummer Tommy Ramone – had died by then. But the music and the Ramones live on…
(1965-1972) How can I be sure…that The Rascals deserved to be on this list? I couldn’t see them here in the beginning and couldn’t imagine them left off in the end. This was rocking blue-eyed soul before there was a name for it. They had a string of enviable #1 hits, classics like “Good Lovin'” (1966), “Groovin'” (1967), and “People Got to Be Free” (1968), as well as big radio hits such as the revered “How Can I Be Sure?” (#4 in 1967). The Rascals created a new hit formula that might have been closer to soul than pop at the time. They wrote most of their own material and were early on in using the Hammond organ as a backbone to their blended sound. As they got away from their roots, their later stuff became more MOR meh and they truly blended in, then, before ultimately checking out…
67. Otis Redding
(1962-1967) A soul rocker? Perhaps. Otis Redding’s voice and impact was so strong that he just had to be included on the list. And as with Buddy Holly and Sam Cooke amongst others, his untimely death cheated us out of a huge body of work that assuredly would have followed. Otis was an American singer-songwriter, record producer, arranger and even talent scout. Long considered one of the greatest singers in the history of American popular music with roots in soul and rhythm and blues, he expanded existing forms to write and belt out new pure melodies. He became a huge fan favorite after appearing at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival and then Redding wrote and recorded his iconic “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” with Steve Cropper. That song became the first posthumous number-one record on both the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B charts after his death in a plane crash.
68. Lou Reed
(1965-2013) To many of us, Lou Reed was rock as he changed it from something safe to something edgy and dark – the way it could be. Should be? He presaged punk and glam and even forms of hard rock. He introduced a new sexual energy and element to rock and roll. The bisexual Reed received electroconvulsive therapy as a teenager, intended to cure this “perversity”. Famously, it didn’t work and – instead – it became the font of much of his music and personae (“Walk on the Wild Side” and “Kill Your Sons”, as examples). Velvet Underground was an act more than it was a band and Reed stated that he wanted to use music to write the great American novel. The Velvet Underground could be called a commercial failure in the late 1960s, but the group gained a considerable cult following in the years since its demise and has gone on to become one of the most widely cited and influential bands of the era. Brian Eno said that while the Velvet Underground’s debut album only sold 30,000 copies, “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.” Reed was solo for 40 years after that but never alone when it came to an appreciation of his influences…
(1980 – ) For many of their legion of fans, R.E.M was simply the greatest band in the world. And there is an argument to be made there; with their topical yet typically opaque songs, a cultural icon lead singer (Michael Stipe), a great guitar slinger (Peter Buck) and tunes that were stickier than what you thought at first hearing. Social and political issues formed the backbones of their strategic lyrics but the propulsive music drove the tunes. Popular? Over 70 million records sold. Kurt Cobain once said, “I don’t know how that band does what they do. God, they’re the greatest. They’ve dealt with their success like saints, and they keep delivering great music.” Sounds like just another one of the R.E.M faithful.
(1979 – ) Could rock have evolved without The Replacements? Sure – but would it have kept its whimsy and sense of humor and garage feel? Likely not. While “The Placemats” have been considered the founders of alternative music, their influences ran even deeper. Front man Paul Westerberg’s “raw-throated adolescent howl,” with his self-deprecating lyrics, became a new anti-icon that other singers aspired to become. The Replacements were a notoriously wayward live act, often performing under the influence of alcohol and playing (fragments of) covers instead of their own material. It all sounded good and it lasted as long as they could stand it and each other.
71. Rolling Stones
(1962 – ) The prototype rock band, still sneering and swaggering more than a half-century later. You might be able to start and end this rock list of influence and power with the Rolling Stones. Those that influenced them and those that they influenced pretty well cover the spectrum of our favorite idiom. They were instrumental in making blues a structural part of rock and roll, and of changing the focus of blues culture to the simpler form as typified by artists such as Muddy Waters, writer of “Rollin’ Stone”, the song after which the band is named. Musicologist Robert Palmer attributed the remarkable endurance of the Rolling Stones to being “rooted in traditional verities, in rhythm-and-blues and soul music” while “more ephemeral pop fashions have come and gone”. There’s not much play in going into deep analysis or descriptions of the Stones here as rock fans have their own deep-set feelings about the boys and have had for six decades now. And if you don’t know Mick and Keith and the rest of the band, you probably don’t care about such things as a Top 100 list anyway…
72. Todd Rundgren
(1972 – ) Those who knew the work of “Runt” from his catchy commercial jingle singles (“Hello It’s Me” and “I Saw the Light” and “Bang the Drum All Day”) still only glimpsed part of the picture. Todd wrote and sang and played and produced across the entire frontier of rock. He was an under-stated multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and record producer. Hailed in the early stages of his career as a new pop star, Rundgren engineered and/or produced many notable albums for other acts, including Badfinger, The Band, Grand Funk Railroad, Meat Loaf, New York Dolls, and XTC. He formed synthesizer-based rock groups (Utopia) and experimented with heavier sounds and remarkably middle-of-the-road stuff. He did it all and made it all work.
Others the mainstream would consider: Smokey Robinson – Smokey is considered here more for his writing chops than his rocking chops; he helped create the Motown sound, though, which spilled over into soft-rock territory…Righteous Brothers – Like the Rascals, early devotees of blue-eyed soul – without the funk; great harmonies and classic melodies written by others with Phil Spector’s extravagant wall-of-sound behind it all… Rush – Something also of an “acquired” taste, perhaps rock’s first blues/science fiction trio and famously unloved by music critics, which only added to their allure, of course…REO Speedwagon – High on the list of rock’s guilty pleasures, if these power pop guys weren’t so successful, they would have been an archetype great cult group, what with their rocking ballads…Radiohead – Started as a hugely popular alt-band and morphed into a peculiarly acceptable experimental ambient noise group about whom critics continue to rave…Red Hot Chili Peppers – An updated good-time post-everything band big on rock-funk and personality(ies)….
Artists not fully appreciated: Bonny Raitt – The great blues and slide guitar woman (there are not many…), with a seductive voice and clear-chiming guitar licks…Leon Russell – Having covered the entire spectrum of rock music from composer to piano maestro to group leader to aged veteran and icon, Russell might have hit the ultimate rock cool with his Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour…Rancid – “Platinum punks” with an unusually pleasing fusion of funky reggae and low-key politicking and a big bass sound…
(1966 – ) Timbales and congas added to rock ended up distinguishing one of the savants of our list; no one ever played a more creatively melodic guitar than has Carlos Santana. The music itself was a pastiche of Latin-infused rock, jazz, blues, salsa and African rhythms. The initial band of Santana was a personal favorite/project of event producer Bill Graham and he arranged to have the as-yet-unreleased group play a set at Woodstock in 1969. That catapulted them into the rock stratosphere. For a group that de-emphasized vocals (not their strong suit) and didn’t prize lyrics (some almost ludicrous), the arrangements and Santana’s power with lead guitar made them an almost mystical experience. Drugs and a further infusion of spirituality caused a rift in the band and Carlos Santana went his own to many new experiential projects…
74. Boz Scaggs
(1965 – ) He’s still pumping out the tunes some fifty years into a career that has seen him perform straight-up rock and roll with Steve Miller, croon with heart-rending ballads, play a form of soft jazz with veteran sessions players, create his own mellow rock and even become the reference for a prototypical rocker in “Basic Instinct”. Boz had a fertile creative period from 1976-1981 that was also fruitful for him commercially as his massively popular “Silk Degrees” album spawned four top hits. After two similar efforts, he took almost a decade off, running a San Francisco nightclub before climbing back into the musical saddle. With recent releases being new songs and covers of his unique preferences, he’s not done yet…
75. John Sebastian/Lovin’ Spoonful
(1965 – ) John Sebastian’s best music was the early stuff with the Spoonful, including his soft skiffle-rock hits leading up to “Summer in the City”. Skiffle and jug band music tells you how basic this stuff was but he also crafted classic simple songs, appealingly sung. Lovin’ Spoonful were only together about three years but dropped the best of Sebastian’s folk-jug-rock hits on an American audience. Sebastian grew up around music, including his family friendship with Woody Guthrie and he was a masterful harmonica player (as was his father). That “roots” approach was inflected in his tuneful craftsmanship and joy that emanated from his career songbook.
76. Bob Seger
(1961 – ) Bob Seger always seemed to be on the verge of becoming a big star and then you look around and – voila – he really was a big star. Up on the stage – playing star again; a seemingly humble guy who just played straight-over-tackle rock without a lot of garnishment. Not many artists on this list have been around (or have been as successful) as Bob Seger with his no-holds-barred rock sounds and singular raspy “shouting” voice that mellowed a bit over time. He was proud to show off his Detroit roots and the Silver Bullet Band was his backing group (from there) for decades. Seger never seemed to be in it just for the money as he won’t license his music to streaming services or even put out “greatest hits” packages. But he was the total rocker package all along.
77. Simon and Garfunkle/Paul Simon
(1963 – ) There’s an argument to be made that Paul Simon is as good a composer as we have heard over the last fifty years. And another argument that he played and sang as many good songs – both with Art Garfunkle and without – as any other artist in the biz. Rhymin’ Simon had an uncanny ability to write meaningful songs with lifelong impact and tunes that seemed to have a life of their own. Impact? He was named by Time Magazine as “100 people who shaped the world”. Better than your average rocker, there. He had numerous #1 hits and #1 albums both with and without Artie, wrote a really bad Broadway musical (“The Capeman”) and followed up his most hallowed album with Graceland, an album inspired by South African township music. He set trends rather than followed them. His huge and evolving body of work (including acting) created an event whenever he performed or recorded.
78. Sly and the Family Stone
(1967-1983) Before Sylvester Stone hit the drug/mental incapacitation wall, he was the formative master of funk-rock. And before even that, he was unparalleled in creating funk/rock masterpieces. And before he was creating and playing and funking up the place, he first was an ace producer for other early rockers. Sly Stone (Sylvester Stewart) began his career as a prodigal multi-instrumentalist and record producer for Autumn Records, producing for San Francisco-area bands such as The Beau Brummels, The Mojo Men, Bobby Freeman, and Grace Slick’s first band, the Great Society. His integrated soul-based fusion rock group, the Family Stone set the music scene on its ear in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s and implied a limitless creative talent. That was not to be; the music got darker and so did Sly as he slipped into an all-too-familiar trend of drugs and abuse. He became as famous for not showing up to live gigs (or leaving before they were complete) as for the music itself. And, as for his music, and the balance of his years, we have been listening to tributes and tribute bands do the stuff he created.
(1982 – ) The Smiths stand in here to represent all the Brit/indie/alt acts of the 1980’s. And Morrissey stands in to represent all the angst-driven front guys in those bands. Critics have called The Smiths the most important alternative rock band to emerge from the independent music scene. Q magazine’s Simon Goddard argued in 2007 that The Smiths were “the one truly vital voice of the ’80s; the most influential British guitar group of the decade” and the “first indie outsiders to achieve mainstream success on their own terms”. Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr wrote the tunes and then Morrissey decided to write them alone, demarking his awkward transition with a first album “Viva Hate” that was meant as much for the other Smiths. And on and on he went…
80. Social Distortion
(1978 – ) Mike Ness is a hero of honest rock; maybe with a snarl and maybe as a woeful cynic and with an exaggerated beaten-down personae of a world-weary guy. He got those chops the hard way, being influenced by Sex Pistols’ type punk yet writing such catchy songs that his “style” almost seemed a dichotomy. After slipping into (and then kicking) a violent drug habit, Ness either recorded on his own or with a revolving cast of Social Distortion lineups. He is more of a roots music guy, as comfortable covering Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” as creating fuzzed out post-punk rock. The titles of his songs give an insight into his muse: “Mommy’s Little Monster”, “Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell”, “Prison Bound”, “I Was Wrong”, and “White Light, White Heat, White Trash”. Ness elevated the Los Angeles hardcore scene into something more creative and lasting.
81. Bruce Springsteen
(1972 – ) Was it Elvis, was it Buddy Holley, was it the Stones or was it The Boss that ascended to the throne of rock and roll? If I had to pick one, I would pick Bruce, who brought a new literate style of song writing to muscular rock and roll. The only thing that exceeds the pleasures of a Springsteen album is a Springsteen live show and those of you (a diminishing number…) that haven’t borne witness had better get there in this incarnation. He came out to over-blown adulation as “the new Dylan” (see what literary chops can get you?) but was so different and so much more, with his powerhouse E-Street band. His poetic working class songs are revered like church hymns and he continues on a path that he set himself. Too many great traits to innumerate here…
(1994 – ) And now for something, well…a little different; we have Spoon. Early comparisons when the band broke mid-nineties were to Wire and The Pixies (I would listen to any group that came packaged as such). Not only was that analysis initially inaccurate, but Spoon evolved quickly into a band whose influences grew murkier and their influencing grew profound. No one quite has the sound of this Britt Daniel fronted outfit. The name Spoon was chosen to honor the 1970s German avant-garde band Can, whose hit song “Spoon” was the theme song to a 1985 movie. The band itself describes Spoon’s music as “psychedelic.” But with a thumping twist. It would be more accurate to call it “indie art rock” but it’s structured and stripped down melodies grab you along with great bottom punkish feel. They continue to experiment with rock and pop and almost all their experiments bear fruit.
83. Steely Dan
(1972 – ) This top 100 list would certainly have less credibility without the jazz and fusion and often outright tuneful rock licks of the inimitable Steely Dan. And if Spoon is described above as “something different”, Steely Dan has been fitting that description – in a great way – for more than four decades now. I can’t say which of the two (Walter Becker and Donald Fagan) had more musical influence on the unique stylings of Steely Dan but if you listen to a Donald Fagan’s “solo” album (I am thinking “Morph the Cat” here…), it sounds like a prototypical Steely Dan album. Great session musicians came and went over the year as the painstaking duo hired at least 42 studio musicians and 11 engineers to make just two of their albums. The group only toured from 1972 to 1974 before retiring to their first love – the studio. The “band” became a “disband” for long stretches and Becker and Fagen followed diverse muses that always included intricate production, flashes of jazz, a straight rock feel and clever lyrics.
(1967 – ) I tried to put Yusef/Cat into the upper deck of the list but in searching for two great songs to use as examples of his rocking cred, I came up well short. That is, they are great songs – and a lot of them – they just aren’t rock. Cat Steven’s version of folk rock was so entertaining that we forgive him the fact that his nursery rhymes and little stories belong on here in this category…
Others the mainstream would consider: Supertramp – My love affair with Supertramp was brief but intense. Art-prog rock in the beginning, they were simply just tuneful and fun by the end…Strokes – Indie rock forerunners, their musical chops became glossier production as they evolved into an arena sound…Patti Smith – More of an icon than a star, she turned poetry into punk rock and became a counter-culture symbol of cool…Sex Pistols – Would there be punk without The Pistols? Would we have missed an entire generation of amateur musicianship? The answer to both is “yes” but the diversion and racket they caused at the time are worth noting here…Rod Stewart – Which Rod? The rocker or the crooner or the cover specialist or…sounding like he always needs to clear his throat, he turned that sound into selling a whole bunch of records while also seeming like he sold out to that form of popularity…Scorpions – Guilty pleasures of the sort that heavy metal and anthemic rock can also be fun to listen to with hooks and melodies and everything you could want in a rock group…
Artists not fully appreciated: Sloan – If I can have a favorite non-commercially successful group, it is likely Sloan They remind me of the Beatles in sound, scope and honesty if not in overall talent (natch)…Smithereens – Even with just one song (“Blood and Roses”), they were shoe-ins for this list…SemiSonic – One great song here, too: “Closing Time” – the fact that Dan Wilson wrote hundreds more (some of them treacly goop) just tarnished the star a bit…Solipsistics – The most obscure of my most-loved groups; check out “Jesus of the Apes” for melodic and inspiring indie music…Henry Lee Summer – The only rocker who can scream in tune, Henry Lee was a massive natural talent and performer that just sort of disappeared on the scene; think of an even friendlier rockier John Cougar…Savoy Brown – Boogie band that begat Lonesome Dave and Foghat and played pleasure music without any seeming ulterior motives…Steppenwolf – If you like hard rock/metal, it all feels like it goes back at some point to Steppenwolf and “Born to Be Wild”; probably made the film “Easy Rider” popular, too. John Kay still rocks it 40 years later…Sleater-Kinney – Truly rockin’ “girl group” without any pretenses of playing to a demographic other than fans that like it loud and musical…Spooky Tooth – Imaginative early 70’s rock from an imaginatively named band that also went edgy with “You Broke My Heart So I Busted Your Jaw”; the group introduced us to Gary Wright, later of “Dreamweaver” fame…Strawbs – Talented and creative with a unique folk rock sound that preceded prog; wonderfully long-lived and unjustly not rewarded for their long-term quality and vision…Matthew Sweet – What a talent! In his own group or playing with others, a power pop giant that evoked Big Star, Badfinger and even the Beatles at times…
84. Talking Heads
(1975-1991) A whole new kind of music (at the time), David Byrne always sounded refreshingly original. Were they new wave? Were they faux punk? Or avant-garde or even art rock? It didn’t matter. In what seemed a little like a gimmick in the beginning – a la Devo – the band evolved instead and grew into something profoundly musical. David Byrne’s stylish whelps and guttural funk noises often obscured lyrics that were both neurotic and whimsical but always fit to a beat. Producer Brian Eno added his own unique aesthetic and bandmates Jerry Harrison (from Modern Lovers), Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth (from design school!) made as much of a cultural statement as a musical one. Ever-innovative, they funked it up, too, and played powerhouse R&B disguised as art rock for 16 glorious years.
85. Richard Thompson
(1968 – ) One of music’s great songwriters and perhaps its most under-appreciated guitarists, Thompson’s unique Irish baritone has been heard for six decades now, first as a founder of Fairport Convention (something of a folk rock super group), then with songstress/wife Linda) and finally – and triumphantly – on his own for the past twenty years. He lights up both electric and acoustic guitars with an inimitable style and uncanny runs of counter-pointal slew of notes. The urbane and clever lyrics mix with a traditional folk blend to create a richness of songs that have few comparable artists. A sneaky wit belied his massive chops – a guy who can so it all and can do it all well…
86. Jethro Tull
(1967 – ?) You couldn’t get through the seventies without being a Tull fan, it seemed. How cool was Ian Anderson, standing on one foot and playing a – what? – rock flute solo!? Charismatic, courtly and seemingly in a parallel rock universe with a pronounced pomp-religiosity almost rooted in passion plays; that was Anderson and Tull. The a minstrel vibe that they produced stayed consistent even though Tull became a rotating band of talents and influences around Anderson that – nonetheless – that changed the face of rock. The songs? One biographer proclaimed: “A mix of hard rock; folk melodies; blues licks; surreal, impossibly dense lyrics; and overall profundity defied easy analysis”. The critics frequently derided Anderson’s often tongue-in-cheek efforts but with sparkling live shows, their legions of fans adored them.
Others the mainstream would consider: T. Rex – Marc Bolan was flamboyant glam rock until he became an alt-metal demi-god…Thin Lizzy – Two more songs like “The Boys Are Back in Town” and “Jailbreak” and they would have been higher on this list… Temptations – “Papa was A Rolling Stone” almost got them included but, seriously now, they will just have to be remembered as great voices doing other people’s stuff…George Thorogood – He called it “high energy blues boogie” in which every song sounded like it was live arena rock; known for “I Drink Alone”, “Move It On Over” and “Who Do You Love”…
Artists not fully appreciated: The Tubes – Confession here: I love “The Tubes” and their outrageous theatrical approach to rock music; I even joined their fan club in San Francisco. The Tubes were the Cirque du Soleil of rock with an added dash of sexual energy…Ten cc – Clever and tuneful almost to ad agency smoothness, the group still put out great and creative songs (“I’m Not in Love” and “Rubber Bullets”) before dissolving to concentrate on videos and other people’s tunes…The Turtles – Flo and Eddie were happy together as the alter ego vocalists that once played with Zappa and then titillated American ears with a string of Top Forty hits…Television – Considered avant-garde punk, Television had three now-legendary musicians in the band: Richard Hell, Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, adding a lot of ideas to a batch of edgy New York music…Tool – Art rock metal? Sometimes easier to admire than to enjoy, Tool’s aggressive assault was dark, bleak and frequently intense…
(1976 – ) Arena rock with pomp, and earnest adherents groveling at their feet and anthems and instant classics and, well…that’s where we are to-date with U2. Deservedly paid for their immense talents – including songwriting and instrumental skills – U2 is determined to keep on proselytizing their political bent and dominating the world musically. They are off to a great start. Actually, their start was as alternative Irish rockers (a new concept at the time) and they then went all post-punk with soaring guitar sounds courtesy of lead guitarist, The Edge, and radicalized/glamorized vocals from band leader, Bono. The sound got bigger, they added more lavish production and Bono became a political rocker/celebrity as they evolved. Massively popular still, if not as ground-breaking as they once were…
(1969 – and on and on) Far more than just a guilty pleasure, the Heep had their time – up there in the pantheon with Deep Purple and Black Sabbath and even Led Zeppelin. They just weren’t as good of musicians and the songs weren’t as solid and David Byron had trouble staying in key and…you know! They were a metal-fusion group driven by keyboards and a few glibly pleasing songs. “Easy Living” is likely not a true standard-bearer for these guys as their broader tunes were a more grandiose and not quite as catchy. Still, Ken Hensley’s massive keyboard sound, some strong vocal harmonies in the formative years and David Byron’s quasi-operatic vocals drove fans to their shows and to almost 50 million album sales.
Others the mainstream would consider: N/A
Artists Not Fully Appreciated: N/A
88. Vanilla Fudge
(1966-1970+) You either loved the Fudge or detested them; they never met a great song they felt they couldn’t improve on and make it rock, no matter how unlikely the initial concept. Their selection of those “great songs” (Sonny Bono’s “The Beat Goes On”, for instance) was often either startling or off-putting but their pre-hard rock sound presaged a lot of the groups they then influenced. According to Ritchie Blackmore and Jon Lord, Vanilla Fudge’s organ-heavy sound was even a large influence on the UK band Deep Purple, with Blackmore even stating that his band wanted to be a “Vanilla Fudge clone” in its early years. The Fudge got stuck revving high in first gear and their masterful instrumental abilities couldn’t overcome a lack of original material and they first quit hanging on in 1970. But they are back out of the shadows again, with a new onslaught of re-made sixties tunes just out…
89. Stevie Ray Vaughn
(1977-1990) Ardent admirer Bonnie Raitt once described Stevie Ray as “burning a hole right through the sun”. If Robert Johnson legendarily sold his soul to the devil at the cross roads, that act served as a template for guitar god Stevie Ray Vaughan. They both died young, leaving a huge legacy; and both reinvigorated the blues of their times. Stevie played with other legends such as Albert King, Buddy Guy, David Bowie, Eric Clapton and Robert Cray. His mainstay band, though, was Double Trouble alongside brother Jimmie. He is widely and rightfully considered one of the most influential electric guitarists in the history of blues music, and one of the most important figures in the revival of blues during the 1980s
(1964-1973) This entry was basically covered under “Lou Reed”, the heart of the group back in the early-mid-sixties. The Velvets were as much a cultural statement as they were a band, under the tutelage of culture vulture Andy Warhol who turned them into a “thing” and “a happening”. Lead poseur/singer/fixation Niko was the look of the group but the sexual energy of Reed and the rocking chops of John Cale with Sterling Morrison formed the music of the band. While other groups at the time were writing sweet melodies and straight 4/4 chord structures, VU was writing six minutes of melodic droning about the scene and strange people and nuanced drug songs. Never commercially viable, they set the stage for the next hundred or so bands that went dark…
Others the mainstream would consider: Van Halen – Gotta give the boy his due: Eddie Van Halen has some of the great guitar chops in rock history. And between David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar, they (together) made one good lead singer and two compelling front guys. They put on a show and sold a lot of records…
Artists not fully appreciated: Violent Femmes – One of the best – and most successful alt bands of the 1980’s, they had their decade with songs like “Blister in the Sun” and “Gone Daddy Gone”…Vaccines – More infectious and stripped down than The Strokes but sounding similar. Great simple songs and the creative power to make a big move, hopefully, in the next years…
90. Joe Walsh/James Gang
(1968 – ) Has anyone had more fun with his life or his music than long-time rocker, Joe Walsh? From the relative obscurity of The James Gang to solo gigging to an extended run with The Eagles and Ringo Starr’s bands, Walsh is a world-class rhythm guitarist with unrelentingly creative songs, vocal stylings and now-classic lead guitar licks. His spacey antics on stage and in the press are continuously amusing. But the music he created and abetted stands first. The distinctive Walsh thin reedy vocals and powerhouse guitar rode alongside terrifically clever – and some irreverent – songs he created along the way. The analog man has adjusted well over the past 4-5 decades…
(1992 – ) Really – you’ve got to take these guys seriously! Rivers Cuomo is a massive talent whose self-deprecating visage disguises his muscular clever songs and terrific band. The Buddy Holly geek visage is simply a cover for powerful guitar driven and hook-laden songs with a cutting sense of humor about the culture in which he finds himself. Big melodic power-pop and metal push along his songs of awkwardness and sounds of arena rock without any semblance of taking themselves too seriously. And while no one else seemed to take them seriously either, they carved out a giant career of hits and albums and videos announcing that, truly, everything will be alright in the end…
92. Jack White/White Stripes
(1997 – ) I fought to keep Jack White from creeping onto my list because the world seems tired of his trip but there’s too much good music with too big a following to let my pettiness (see: “David Crosby”) keep him unfairly excluded . Jack White IS White Stripes, despite the bizarre conceit of playing with Meg White as the drummer/wife/sister. Jack is a garage-rock guitar hero of the highest, uh, stripe and his omnipresent riffs are evidence enough of his writing skills (“Seven Nation Army” perhaps being the most omnipresent). He is a post-punk blues guy who created a raw lo-fi sound that goes well with minimal instrumentation. It is probably not his fault that the public personae he created repelled a number of hopeful fans (see: John Mayer) but he is here on talent alone…
93. The Who
(1964 – ) Rock is dead, they say? The Who said that! The Who almost invented power-pop and “rhythm rock” through the persistent genius of Pete Townsend. They did invent the rock opera (okay, okay…) and created a career of music that spans six decades and counting. Townsend is so much of their music and legacy (writes the songs, plays huge guitar, is an inveterate showman, and sings a bunch of parts) that John Entwistle often didn’t get the recognition he deserved as one of the best bass players – ever. Roger Daltry was out front singing, but this was Townsend’s band – although occasionally taken on ferocious rides by drummer extraordinaire, Keith Moon. When Moon did die, the rock lived on but in a muted form. Looking backwards, The Who practically created progressive and arena rock and lived through fantastic sales and inimitable live shows.
94. Stevie Winwood
(1962 – ) Winwood started as a fourteen year-old with a great set of pipes, improbably fronting The Spencer Davis Group (what did Spencer actually do?). Winwood took his abundant singing and writing and keyboard talents then to Traffic and to Blind Faith and then the solo route for about thirty years, turning out soulful jazz and tuneful rock. An under-rated instrumentalist, Winwood’s real instrument is his ethereal and inimitable voice, perfect for both jazzy ballads and ballsy rock. He’s done sessions and he has succeeded commercially but his legacy will surely remain the songs and the blue-eyed soul inflected distinctive vocals that he gifted us with.
(1994 – ) The guy (Jeff Tweedy) just drips with talent. The first time you hear Wilco, they sound like an “instant icon”, like when you first hear Tom Petty. And just like Petty (where The Heartbreakers are great but it is Petty you come for), Wilco is Tweedy. He started as a neo-country y’alternative player with Jay Farrar in Uncle Tupelo and then took an experimental pop-rock turn in fronting and founding a completely different sound: Wilco. With music that has been described as both “lush” and “laid back”, Tweedy kept exploring and is fully in stride now with each album seeming to reach a new higher ground for him…
96. Stevie Wonder
(1961 – ) Dog me if you must because I included Little/Stevie Wonder on my list but the man rocks and he sings and he exudes soul and the blues and he has been around since he signed with Motown at age eleven! That’s a pretty good 55 year run so far. Exuberantly played music, Wonder is a benchmark of positive, joyous and spiritual renditions of hit songs in much the same way as was his inspiration, Ray Charles. He has played an eclectic stew of soul, funk, rock & roll, sophisticated Broadway/Tin Pan Alley-style pop, jazz, and reggae. He would be in the top 100 in all of those genres, logically. Hard to pigeonhole, Wonder will have to take solace in his legions of admiring fans and dozens of high-end musicians that he played with and influenced. Also, he did sell more than 100 million records…
Others the mainstream would consider: Johnny Winter – A truly white man playing dirty blues guitar and playing the hell out of it; he also did a lot of production and retrospective work featuring other blues music…Edgar Winter – Edgar differed from his brother in that he played more hard rock (almost pop) and always had that kind of band with which to surround himself; Edgar also was a multi-instrumentalist, not relying solely on guitar-driven songs. He had two big mainstream hits with “Free Ride” and “Frankenstein”…
Artists not fully appreciated: Bill Withers – Extraordinary soft rock/blues songwriter with staple hits such as “Ain’t No Sunshine”, “Lean On Me” and “Use Me” to his everlasting credit…The Waterboys – A little Celtic, a little folk, a little rock and a little introspection, The Waterboys were refreshing alternative music based around the literate leanings of leader Mike Scott…Lucinda Williams – She sounded like the gravel road she sang about, but with as expressive a voice and deeply felt passion as any roots-rock or country rock singer has ever exhibited…Wire – Nihilistic and dissonant and so alternative that it almost isn’t rock, but Wire pulled it all together to become a cult band in a fairly narrow niche…
Others the mainstream would consider: X – LA’s original punkers, introducing us to the raw celebrity talents of John Doe and Exene Cervenka and their unusual harmonies; produced and aided by Ray Manzarek of The Doors…XTC – Most of their career was as a studio band of “advanced” new wave music penned by Andy Partridge to their own eager niche of fans…
Artists not fully appreciated: None
(1968 – depends on who you talk to) Yes took their highly polished art rock sounds and added cosmic lyrics and meandering melodies to become one of the premier prog groups of their time (mostly the 1970’s). For some (like me), the inclusion of Rick Wakeman on keyboards became their signature sound although Steve Howe’s brilliant guitar pieces were certainly, uh, noteworthy. The Roger Dean album covers were as big a part of the group for many years as the music those albums contained. Twenty-one of the albums later, many band changes (they had as many as eight playing live at one point) and sounding like a tribute band of itself, the original fabulist sounds and lyrics don’t imbue new fans with the excitement of the original band…
98. Neil Young
(1966 – ) Young is in the pantheon of the greatest singers/players/composers of all time, up there with Dylan and Lennon and McCartney and the rare-air pantheon. He has played almost every style of rock (country and metal and noise and synth-pop and some genres that defy easy description…) and done each as well as any other. The fountain of creativity continues to flow with great live stuff and new tunes that often seem endless as he jams on, oblivious to musical conventions and arbitrary borders. He started as an electric folk guy, penned a batch of hits for Buffalo Springfield, hit superstardom through his intermittent bandings together with Crosby Stills and Nash and became justifiably bigger yet on his own. Great reedy high vocals, bizarrely satisfying lead guitar and folky piano are all signature sounds of the Young musical juggernaut. He is a wanderer, never satisfied and his musical idiosyncrasies (with and without Crazy Horse, his “house band”…) left the rest of us more sated than him, it seems.
(1963-1968) More famous for having Eric Clapton then Jeff Beck and then Jimmy Page as their successive lead guitarists, the group should also rightfully be known for Keith Relf’s terrific 1960’s vocals and songs. The Yardbirds originally started with big hits from covers (“For Your Love” caused Clapton to leave to go back to the blues…) that also included “The Train Kept A-Rollin” and “Heart Full of Soul”. They then composed their own paean to psychedilia that ushered in an era: “Shapes of Things”, which ironically also ushered in the era of Jeff Beck solo-ing and Jimmy Page going on to form Led Zeppelin. Pretty good pedigree, in all. The Yardbirds were forerunners of paramount musical forms (including the long instrumental jams) of the sixties…
Others the mainstream would consider: None
Artists not fully appreciated: Yo La Tengo – They started as music critics and then became critics’ darlings as musicians, following their indie interpretation of the Velvet Underground vibe and whatever pop music they decided to reinterpret. The husband/wife team of Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley has an encyclopedic musical background and gets off on performing pop-up concerts of entire albums of other groups’ material. Their own stuff tends to be indie and a little derivative (Soft Boys, Kinks, etc.) but always with a Yo La Tengo flair…
99. Warren Zevon
(1969-2003) Zevon blessed us with great rock and pop with his world-weary irony and a bent sense of humor. He wrote songs for many others before he established his own live and recording presence; that included The Turtles, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, and etcetera. He then went on a rampage of success and lived the “hard” rocker’s life which led to the typical issues of rehab, reformation and an early death. But before his ride was here, Zevon bestowed upon his fans a waterfall of great original tunes and original ways of playing that tune-age live. He loved to sing about his hometown (LA) and to show a sensitive poetic side. One critic summed him up with: “Few of rock & roll’s great misanthropes were as talented, as charming, or as committed to their cynicism as Warren Zevon.” The fact that he could put those great wry thoughts into such catchy tunes is something that will certainly be missed…
100. Zombies (Rod Argent)
(1961 – 1968; 1969 – ) The Zombies were far greater than the minimal adulation they received in their time and Rod Argent was one of the original masters of his instrument (keyboards). Argent wrote the big hits (“She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No”) and added a jazzy vibe with organ and electric piano (Mellotron) that was unique in the day – the early 60’s. He went on to form the group (Argent) which had later success and a harder rock sound (“Hold Your Head Up” and “God Gave Rock and Roll To You”) that was more progressive than his early stuff. He was his own British invasion, one that got heavier as it went.
(1966-1992) The mother of all eccentric rock, along with Captain Beefheart, who – amazingly – went to high school with Frank. Zappa was a prodigal talent who could conduct an orchestra or write songs like “We’re Only In It For the Money” and “Uncle Meat”. A little irreverent (!), he was also a purist who liked to dabble in record engineering production and film direction on an equally large ambitious scale. Frank lost a few of us when he veered off into jazz rock and then purely classical music, conducting his own orchestras with original compositions. His early highly satirical and “hybrid rock” style left some gasping for breath but the schtick was enormously musical and creative. Zappa died young leaving a massive archive of songs and compositions.
Others the mainstream would consider: ZZ Top – The ultimate juggernaut of boogie blues and roots rock, no one seemed to have more fun playing music than ZZ Top unless it was their fans listening to it. Billy Gibbons and the band have been together now for forty years in a visual musical feast that seems perfectly built for music videos, an idiom in which they excelled.
Artists not fully appreciated: None