I have enjoyed hating The Eagles for many years, but probably no more intensely than the first and last time they duped me. It was when I tuned in for “History of the Eagles,” parts I and II, a 2013 documentary that, at the time, generated a modest amount of buzz. Enough buzz for me to think, “Maybe I’ve been wrong all along. Maybe there’s so much more to The Eagles mythos than I ever appreciated.” And I’ll admit, I was wrong, very wrong. There is much less to The Eagles than I ever thought possible.
Watching the documentary was like reading a VH1 Behind the Music mad lib where no one bothered to use any funny adjectives. Feel free to use the template to make your own band documentary:
“When we were doing the photo shoot for <Album Title>, we took some <Recreational Drug> and that was the photo that ended up on the cover.”
“<Band Member> got mad at <Different Band Member> and threw a <Noun> against the wall and that was the last straw.”
The documentary was packed with cliches. Worse, it was packed with Eagles music.
The Eagles represent the worst of antiseptic American music. They epitomized milquetoast, radio-ready, inoffensive American soft rock. From “Take It Easy” to “Peaceful Easy Feeling” to “Take it to the Limit,” they specialized in a breezy style of ankle-deep reverie. Their career was a hackneyed attempt at rock and roll and they insulted all of us by peddling that forgery for millions of dollars.
But the most egregious thing The Eagles ever did is not take their opportunity as America’s biggest act to move American music even a micron forward. They never saw a boundary that they didn’t like to politely nudge. They never made a breakthrough, never pushed the art to a new place. They played it safe and cashed checks. They were a soulless A&R rep’s wet dream.
Around the same time I viewed the Eagles documentary, one of my favorite Twitter follows, Curtis Harris, posited that the Isley Brothers were a much greater American Band than The Eagles but are never recognized as such. “No argument here,” I thought. “Hell, I bet I could come up with 50.” Challenge accepted, self.
And so I aim to give you 50 American bands that are, unarguably*, greater than The Eagles. But first let’s set some parameters for this list.
*Honestly, if you don’t argue with me, there’s no point in any of this
The Helmet Criterion
This criterion is randomly named. I picked Helmet out of a hat filled with bands that I like more than The Eagles. There are thousands of those and 99% of them are irrelevant to 99% of America. Sure I’d rather listen to a single track off Helmet’s Betty for the rest of my life than the entire Eagles’ catalog, but Helmet is simply not in the same league. This is not a better-than list, it is a greater-than list, which means popularity has to be a factor. I think if you can convince a million people to buy your album, you are popular enough to be in the conversation. You don’t get extra credit for multi-platinum unless one of your albums went diamond, which will definitely get you a bump in the standings. But for basic consideration, let’s say a band has to have at least one platinum album, unless…
The Significant Contributor Criterion
This is the same criterion the Basketball Hall of Fame uses for nomination. You may not have the stats or the rings, but if basketball is significantly better because you existed, the Hall gives you a look. The case is similar here, but even more vital. American music is an evolving art form with several critical points of inflection in its history. Without certain bands kicking it up a notch, American music would not be where it is, traveled where it has been. This gets tricky since multiple artists contributed to these lynch pin moments, but often only one or two get the credit. That’s just how it is and you’ll see a few of those faces-of-a-movement in this list. If you are an American band that made a significant and defensible contribution to the American canon, you are under consideration.
The The Band Rule
This is the most difficult rule for me. Because without this rule, The Band is indisputably the greatest American band of all time. I mean Vince Carter dunk, it’s over, we can all go home, end of argument indisputable. But even though they embodied the ineffable soul of a great American band and even though they perfected their craft under the tutelage of two Arkansans, the fact remains that The Band were four-fifths Canadian. I’d love to forget this one, call Toronto “North Buffalo,” hand over the championship belt and walk away. But I’m afraid a key prerequisite of a great American band is being American. That means not only a band formed in America, but whose members also spent their formative years in America, if not necessarily natives by birth. This will become relevant later.
The Tom Petty Rule
Quick quiz: who gave us the song “American Girl”? How about “Free Fallin”? If you said Tom Petty, you are half right and, I assume, in the vast majority of music listeners. The truth is that “Free Fallin” is a Tom Petty song and “American Girl” is a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers song, but both are typically identified with Petty. My brother hates this rule the most, but it is the smell test this list needs. If you identify a musical catalog primarily with a single person, even if that catalog was a group effort, that group cannot be America’s greatest band. That means no Heartbreakers, no Revolution, no Family Stone and, yes, no Funky Bunch.
The Temptations Rule
Let’s get one thing out of the way: the voice is an instrument. It’s maybe the best instrument, because it delivers both melody and verse simultaneously. But I am of the opinion that there are vocal groups and there are bands. A vocal group can have a regular cast of session musicians, but if the name of that group is associated only with the singers, then you’re back in a Tom Petty Rule scenario. For the sake of definition, let’s agree that a band comprises a plurality of instruments. That means no Four Tops, no O’Jays and no Platters. This also applies to rap groups. No Wu Tang, Public Enemy or Tribe Called Quest. I love them, but can’t, in good conscience, call them bands. This rule becomes very tricky for a very important American act and I may bend it to the point of shattering.
The Chinese Democracy Rule
This could also be named the “Enough Already Rule.” All bands fizzle out, but some of them form zombie careers as a reunion act, sometimes excreting a new, uninspired album, but often just playing their hits on the Carnival Cruise circuit. So when you see the “Years Active” stat, know that I and I alone as sole member of this blog’s magisterium have set that number. Sometimes I stop the clock when a founding member leaves/dies, sometimes before a band entered a long drought, sometimes just because. Your objections will fall on deaf ears, Axl. Guns N’ Roses ended in 1996. Also, enough already, Corgan.
The apocrypha rule
The last and most important rule is that my opinion is not authoritative. This is not the definitive list of great American bands, though I’m about to spend several weeks pretending like it is. I have left several notable American bands off for no other reason than that I simply hate listening to them. My algorithm is broken, my methods are bullshit. Writing about music is stupid and unnecessary and incredibly fun.
Next time: bands 50 to 41.