This is a list of 50 great American Bands with some occasional pot-shots at The Eagles just for fun.
Rules and criteria – 41-50 – 31-40 – 21-30
20: Velvet Underground
Years active: 6…Albums: 4…Platinum+ albums: 0…Best Album Chart Position: 129…Top 40 Songs: 0
There are bands of the influencer class and bands of the patristic class. The former impacts a specific genre or generation. The latter fathers multiple generations of artistic expression. The Velvet Underground, both audibly and thematically, ventured into disquieting territory that would affect the next three decades of music. They belong to the patristic class. They created the way for rock and roll to escape from the corner into which it would back itself in the excessive ’70s. Artists like David Bowie, The Stooges all the way to Nirvana would go back to Velvet Underground for inspiration on how to shake popular music out of stylistic logjams.
19: The Ramones
Years active: 22…Albums: 14…Platinum+ albums: 0…Best Album Chart Position: 44…Top 40 Songs: 0
Punk rock ownership has been up for grabs ever since the band Television weaseled their way onto the stage of CBGB’s. There’s debate about which bands are punk and which are proto-punk. And there’s a whole confused generation that thinks it started in England. The confusion is largely due to classic punk’s lack of a signature sound. With bands as disparate as Television, New York Dolls, Jayne County, Blondie and the Dead Boys all sharing the moniker, it’s hard to chart the movement’s beginning. Until the Ramones came along. They weren’t the first punk band, but the Ramones, through shear force, defined the punk rock sound: three-chorded, distorted, loud and fast.
By the 1980s, the word “punk” meant a band that sounded more-or-less like The Ramones. Without the Ramones, you would not have the Misfits, Minor Threat or the Dead Kennedys. You would not have the Offspring or the Descendants. You certainly wouldn’t have Green Day or Blink 182. The Ramones had such a singular vision and dogged commitment to it, largely due to the notoriously punctilious Johnny Ramone, that they grabbed the punk standard and ran away with it.
18: The Grateful Dead
Years active: 30…Albums: 13…Platinum+ albums: 3…Best Album Chart Position: 6…Top 40 Songs: 1
The Grateful Dead, for good or ill, are America’s jam band. But they didn’t just noodle their way into notoriety. Their particular style and presentation and imagination created an earnest and steadfast following unrivaled in American music. Fans claim one-in-three shows is a life-changing experience, which detractors fail to see as a compelling argument. I don’t get it myself, couldn’t tell you a single Grateful Dead song. But here’s what I do know. They endured for three decades. While fans of most bands consider themselves devoted if they make 10 shows in a lifetime, Dead Heads routinely log over 100. And their tours turned into roaming micro-economies, nomadic villages with groceries, clothiers and, yes, pharmacies. How many bands can boast a GDP? I may never understand what inspired that kind of devotion, but I also can’t ignore it.
17: The Runaways
Years active: 4…Albums: 4…Platinum+ albums: 0…Best Album Chart Position: 172…Top 40 Songs: 0
Every empowered female rock and roll act owes some debt to The Runaways. There were powerful female influences in American music before them. Aretha. Janis Joplin. Jefferson Airplane. Heart. But we’ve all forgotten just how revolutionary an all female band was in 1975. Joan Jett and Lita Ford thrashing on guitar, Sandy West abusing the drum kit. They occupied spaces previously reserved for men, indeed, to the exclusion of men. No noise being made on that stage was being made by a man, and that was pretty stunning in 1976. Without the Runaways, there would be no Go-Go’s, no L7, no Sleater-Kinney, no Bikin Kill, no Donnas. Possibly not even Madonna or Pink. The band fired into and out of the scene like a comet, a clean four albums in four years. But the band launched the successful solo careers of Jett and Ford and influenced multiple generations of female and male bands alike.
16: The Meters
Years active: 12…Albums: 8…Platinum+ albums: 0…Top 40 Songs: 0
It is not embarrassing to suggest that neither funk nor hip hop would exist without The Meters. A product of the New Orleans gumbo of musical styles, The Meters were a mostly instrumental group. They authored raw, rhythm-focused grooves, the building blocks of funk and later hip hop. They’ve been sampled by just about every notable hip hop act. I believe they’re the second most influential band in American history.
15: The Beach Boys
Years active: 17…Albums: 22…Platinum+ albums: 2…Best Album Chart Position: 2…Top 40 Songs: 36
This was the hardest band on this list to place. Because while they undoubtedly a marquee act in American music, their greatest contribution, Pet Sounds, was largely the effort of visionary Brian Wilson and session band The Wrecking Crew. Mike Love is credited as a songwriter throughout, but the rest of the Boys were effectively turned into a vocal group for the groundbreaking album. Yet though the Beach Boys present a complicated case, they set the standard of expectation for an American band and contributed more timeless pieces of American song-craft than any other band on this list.
Also consider this, let’s strip the Beach Boys of any statistics post Pet Sounds, inclusive, otherwise known as the “surf era” Beach Boys. Here’s what that looks like:
Years active: 4…Albums: 10…Platinum+ albums: 1…Best Album Chart Position: 2…Top 40 Songs: 16
First, that’s an incredibly prolific run. Second, it accounts for nearly half of the band’s Top 40 hits. No doubt I placed the Beach Boys this low because of the complication Pet Sounds creates. But they were creating supernatural harmonies and laying down solid riffs both before and after that supernova of an album.
Years active: 14…Albums: 16…Platinum+ albums: 0…Best Album Chart Position: 1…Top 40 Songs: 11
One of my favorite nuggets regarding War is that their summer-cruising anthem “Low Rider” was often misidentified by the iTunes algorithm as a ZZ Top song. That speaks both to 1) how tragically unacclaimed War is and 2) just how expansive their musical talent was. No band successfully navigated the full scope of popular American music as effortlessly as War. They obviously excelled at funk, but penned classic ’70s tunes – “Low Rider,” “Spill the Wine,” “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” – that defy classification. Throw in the vital cultural importance of The World Is a Ghetto, and their argument as a top 15 American band is a cinch.
13: Kool & the Gang
Years active: 37…Albums: 21…Platinum+ albums: 4…Best Album Chart Position: 1…Top 40 Songs: 21
Kool & the Gang are a longer-lasting, more successful version of the the next band on this list and contributed an all-time great tune in “Jungle Boogie” to the pantheon of American songs. But there is possibly no bigger insult to their own legacy than “Celebration,” so I’m docking them one spot. Kool & the Gang’s Wild and Peaceful is a desert-island disc and the breadth of their catalog is a frequent target of Hip Hop sampling. They had a consistent and jamming horn section across several decades. Their corniest work became their most successful, but they laid the groundwork for that success in the ’70s with some mesmerizing funk.
12: Ohio Players
Years active: 23…Albums: 16…Platinum+ albums: 3…Best Album Chart Position: 1…Top 40 Songs: 8
There are more successful and more influential funk bands, but Ohio Players are the best. The essence of funk is that it doesn’t come from the head or the heart, but straight from the guts, what translated Hebrew Scripture dubs the “inmost being.” It’s the ugliest and most vital part of us that cries out in need. The Ohio Players are the best musical representation of that cry. They hailed from the funk capitol of America, Dayton, Ohio. Their albums were deft and fierce. They had the chops, the look and the attitude to which every band should aspire. Their artwork, too, buttressed that reputation. The album covers were provocative and unsettling. In this way, they were the polar opposite of the Eagles, who sat at dead center of tepid. There was no way to feel medium about the Ohio Players. You were either revolted or entranced.
11: ZZ Top
Years active: 49…Albums: 15…Platinum+ albums: 4…Diamond albums: 1…Best Album Chart Position: 4…Top 40 Songs: 8
ZZ Top is and always will be the national band of Texas and they were perfect through 1979. They went sideways from there with El Loco and started to sound like the aural manifestation of an ’80s cocaine party, but that first run of six albums made them legends. As a non-native Texas resident, my primary tutors in Texas livin’ were King of the Hill and ZZ Top. The hirsute trio from Port Arthur took the slide guitar of Muddy Waters, strapped it to a South Texas rocket and rode it helter-skelter into rock and roll infamy. They are one of 17 American bands (eight on this list) with a Diamond album to their credit and easily have the longest tenure of any of them. I wanted to arbitrarily “end” ZZ Top’s career as I did for so many bands on this list, but I could never find a clean break like a key member quitting or a long period of inactivity. They are playing a show tomorrow night if you want to catch them live. As far as I know, ZZ Top is immortal.
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