Top Ten lists. I know, they suck. Regardless of the subject, whether it’s sports, music, movies, books, whatever. People like what they like. That said, they’re still fun to talk about, and sometimes they’re fun to write about.
The distinction that makes this list interesting is the word “American.” Ask any knowledgeable Rock fan to name the best British Rock bands of all time, and in an instant they’ll rattle off The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Cream, Pink Floyd…..you get the idea. Over half the list without even having to think about it.
Now insert the word “American” and ask those knowledgeable Rock fans the same question…..then brace for the strained look of concentration on their faces. It’s not that there haven’t been many, many great American Rock bands over the decades, it’s just much harder to identify the best.
In an attempt to comprise my own Top Ten American Rock band list, I only found one other website whose Top Ten featured nearly the same bands as mine. Not surprising, it was ultimateclassicrock.com. (a site I’d love to work for) Eight of my ten bands were in the top 11 spots on their Top 50 List.
One important detail to point out is this is NOT a list of my Top 10 “favorite” American Rock bands of all time. In fact, I’m not that big a fan of nearly half the bands on the list. That said, I think these ten bands were a combination of the most important, influential, original, talented, or popular-for-their-time American bands of all time. With that said, here we go…..
#10: R.E.M. (1980-2011)
R.E.M. eventually became a headlining, superstar act, but it took time. It wasn’t until their 5th album, 1987’s “Document,” that they broke onto the mainstream radar. The song, “The One I Love” was the album’s standout hit, and is still one of my favorite R.E.M. tracks. This launched a successful run that led to the albums “Green” and “Out of Time,” and eventually culminated with their 1992 masterpiece, “Automatic For The People.” By the early ‘90s R.E.M. was one of America’s biggest bands. The popularity and hit songs flamed out just a few short years later. They’d soldier on in near obscurity for another decade or so before hanging it up in 2011.
What’s most impressive about R.E.M. in my opinion is how they carved out a path for themselves during a decade when rock music was dominated by the hard rock and heavy metal sound. R.E.M. neither looked or sounded like that. They simply put in the work, and slowly gained fans from one college town to another until they finally broke through. They were original. They had a sound of their own. I was never a huge fan per se, but they were undoubtedly the real thing. As the years go by I find my respect for this band continues to grow.
#9: Talking Heads (1977-1991)
If you know your rock history even a little, you know Talking Heads. Burning Down the House. Psycho Killer. Once in A Lifetime. Wild, Wild Life. Performances at the legendary CBGB’s. David Byrne’s oversized suits. Iconic. What most don’t realize about Talking Heads is the quality of their body of work. Starting with their self-titled debut in 1977, they banged out eight studio albums in 11 years. The first five albums, up through 1983, were all equally excellent. I own every one of them. They were their own band. Entirely original. A beautiful blend of varying musical influences. There was nothing similar before them, and there’s no band I’d compare them to since.
Though they didn’t officially break up until the release of their greatest hits album in the early ‘90’s, their final studio effort came in 1988. I owned a few David Byrne solo albums over the years and enjoyed them on some level, but they never came close to capturing the magic of Talking Heads. I once heard David Byrne speak about the band’s break up. I’ll always remember it. He said, and I paraphrase, that they didn’t end because of musical or creative differences. He said he liked making music with the band. He simply didn’t like them anymore, and didn’t want to be around them. I always found that to be brutally honest.
#8: Pearl Jam (1991-Present)
From the ashes of the band, “Mother Love Bone,” came Seattle’s Best….Pearl Jam. In 1991 their sound was fresh, good, and very much needed. Their popularity was immediate. Within a few years they were on the cusp of being the biggest rock band in America. They never became the biggest band in the land. Yet 30-plus years and 11 studio albums later, they are still together and going strong. It’s no coincidence. It was by design. Just three years into their existence, Pearl Jam (or at least Eddie Vedder) chose to throttle the band back from media attention, interviews, etc. They stopped making music videos even before MTV stopped showing music videos. They chose the slow and steady path instead of blowing up and flaming out as so many huge bands do. I’d say the plan has worked.
Critics will say their best work came in those first 3 or 4 years and the past 25 or so have been average at best. Though I’d agree the overall quality of their albums were better in the ‘90s than they’ve been the past two decades, I’d contend they are yet to release a bad album. Their most recent offering, 2020’s “Gigaton,” came 29 years into their run. Though not their best album overall, I don’t know of any other band or artist who’s put out an album that good, that many years into their existence. It’s not just longevity with Pearl Jam. It’s quality. They’ve always been good. Really good.
#7: Steely Dan (1972-1980, 1993-2017)
How many people do you need in a band for it to be a “band?” Steely Dan started off as a band with five guys, but shortly into their run they ceased touring and became a band of two: Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. They’d spend the majority of the ’70s dedicating all their musical attention to the studio. That process led to seven albums in less than a decade. Their song-writing ability, coupled with their use of session musicians, delivered an array of sound that seemingly spanned the entire spectrum of music. Blues. Jazz. 70’s Rock. Reggae. Funk. Traditional rhythm & blues. Steely Dan would wind up #1 on any list for most eclectic, obsessive-compulsive, and intelligent band.
Their uniqueness wasn’t the only thing that separated them from many other bands. They also had many hit songs which you’ll still hear playing on radio stations to this day. Do it Again, Reelin’ In the Years, My Old School, Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, Black Friday, Bad Sneakers, F.M. Deacon Blues, Peg, Josie, Hey Nineteen……..and on and on. Ironically, Steely Dan would spend their last 20 years doing the very thing Fagen and Becker dreaded in the 1970s: touring. Walter Becker passed away in 2017, bringing an end to this tremendously successful duo. At the behest of his management team, when Donald Fagen went back on the road in 2019 he toured under the Steely Dan banner, and likely will do so in the future as well. It is, however, merely a Donald Fagen solo act.
#6: The Doors (1966-1972, 1976)
The Doors are kind of hard to write about. On one hand, I don’t need to make any case for why this iconic American Rock band should be in the top ten. However, that’s exactly what makes them difficult to write about. Just what does one say about this famous Los Angeles band? Like many bands of the time, their musical output was rigorous. While Jim Morrison was alive they released six studio albums in five years between 1967-1971. Though his band members would soldier on for a few years and a couple more albums, the real lifespan of The Doors was obviously cut short by Morrison’s untimely death. The work they produced in that short time was highly impressive. Break on Through, Light My Fire, The End, Love Me Two Times, People Are Strange, When the Music’s Over, Hello I Love You, Roadhouse Blues, Love Her Madly, L.A. Woman, Riders On The Storm.
Admittedly, I’ve never been a big Doors fan. I always respected their musical talent and songwriting, but fair or not, something about Morrison always rubbed me wrong. I guess I’ve always been a bit turned off by people who either take themselves too seriously, or at people who are taken too seriously by others. He was a great singer, but I never got the whole poetic genius bullshit about him that gets bandied about in too many music circles over the years. Nonetheless, I can’t think of any other band in this top ten that’s had a major Hollywood film made about them. I suppose you’ve really got to leave a mark to receive that sort of recognition. The Doors certainly made their mark on Rock history.
#5: Creedence Clearwater Revival (1968-1972)
So just what was CCR? Well let’s see….how many words can one attach to rock? Swamp Rock. Blues Rock. Southern Rock. Country Rock. Oh, and don’t forget the ever-cool genre of Roots Rock, for whatever the hell that is. No, I’ll tell you what CCR was: A bonafide freakin’ hit machine. Seven albums that produced at least 20 excellent, memorable songs. Their output of great tracks would take other bands decades to compile. Creedence did it in FIVE years. What’s more impressive, nearly all those classic songs were written by one guy…John Fogerty. His songwriting prowess during that period is damn near without rival. Yet for whatever reason, I feel Fogerty never gets the credit he deserves. Sole songwriter. Lead singer. Lead guitarist. I suppose I understand why people don’t speak more often of CCR as one of America’s greatest Rock bands. After all, I imagine it’s fair to assume Fogerty could have switched out his bandmates with anyone else and CCR would have been just as good. In other words, it was all him.
Point is, it doesn’t matter. The band sounded great and the songs were amazing. Here’s another label for CCR: ultimate road trip band. What possibly sounds better than Creedence when you’re clicking off the highway miles? Seems like many people often forget about Creedence Clearwater Revival, but I’ve never honestly met anyone who didn’t appreciate their greatness. I’ve always loved their sound. I’ve never gotten sick of listening to them. I don’t expect I ever will. In my opinion there are very few if any American Rock ‘n Roll bands better than CCR.
#4: Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers (1976-2017)
If this was a list of my favorite American Rock bands, these guys would be number one. TP & the Heartbreakers checked all the boxes. They wrote hit songs. They were great musicians and performers. They had good albums. They were cool without taking themselves too seriously. They also had longevity. They rocked for over 40 years and would still be around to this day if not for Tom Petty’s unexpected passing in 2017. I previously offered my thoughts on Tom and this band.
I know there are people who view Tom Petty as a solo artist. I couldn’t disagree more. Yes, Tom was the lead singer and primary songwriter, but this was a band. In addition to being his right-hand songwriting man, Mike Campbell drove one of the most distinctive lead guitars you’ll find in rock ‘n roll. I’d never attempt a top list of guitarists, but trust me, Campbell would be on the short list if I did. Keyboardist Benmont Tench was as good or better than anyone you could find at his craft. When drummer Stan Lynch quit in 1994, they asked noted session-drummer Steve Ferrone to step in for an album. He’d stay with the band their remaining 23 years. When original bassist Ron Blair decided to quit the band in 1982, they replaced him with Howie Epstein. When they let Howie go in 2002 due to his personal problems, they actually asked Ron Blair to come back. He accepted, and stayed on for the band’s remaining 15 years. They weren’t just Petty’s backing band. They weren’t just a band. They were a brotherhood. Of course there’d be no Heartbreakers without Tom Petty, but Tom’s career wouldn’t have been as good without the Heartbreakers either. Together, they were one of the greatest American Rock bands in history.
#3: The Eagles (1971-1980, 1994-present)
Well let’s just start by running through the list: Take It Easy, Witchy Woman, Peaceful Easy Feeling, Tequila Sunrise, Desperado, Already Gone, Best Of My Love, One Of These Nights, Lyin’ Eyes, Take It To The Limit, Hotel California, New Kid In Town, Life In The Fast Lane, Victim Of Love, The Long Run, I Can’t Tell You Why, In The City, Heartache Tonight.
Now here’s the dirty truth….I only like about four of those songs and I generally can’t stand the rest of them. Fortunately for The Eagles, the vast majority of the Rock-listening world would disagree with me. Just five years into their existence, they released their first greatest hits compilation. How did it do? Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975) is the biggest selling album in the history of the United States of America. Number One. How many copies? Well it’s currently certified at 38 times platinum. An album has to sell a million copies to be certified platinum, so yeah, 38 million is pretty good.
The formative years of The Eagles were the 1970s. That’s where their music came from. Members have come and gone over the years, and sadly, Glenn Frey passed away in 2016. They’ve been semi-active as performers for nearly the past 30 years now. Don Henley is the only original member remaining, though Joe Walsh and Timothy B. Schmit have been around since ‘75 and ‘77 respectively. I never really had anything against The Eagles. Admittedly, I much prefer the Henley songs over the Frey songs. Just sort of seemed like the Henley songs rocked a bit more. The Frey songs were a bit more folksy, country rock to me. When you think about the 1970s, Zeppelin was probably the biggest draw. Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours was the biggest album. But in terms of American Rock, The Eagles were the biggest band. No band sold more records or produced as many hits. They owned the decade. I gotta give credit where credit is due.
#2: Aerosmith (1970-present)
I labored back and forth with whether to put Aerosmith ahead or behind The Eagles. After all, The Eagles sold nearly twice as many records in their career as Aerosmith. As big as Aerosmith was in the ‘70s, The Eagles were bigger. If this list was only about album sales, then sure, they’d be behind The Eagles. There are however, other factors that lead me to ranking Aerosmith #2 on this list. For one, they had the strongest frontman of any band on this list. Steven Tyler, love ‘em or hate ‘em, is one of the all-time great frontmen in the history of Rock, American or otherwise. In my opinion he’s in a class the likes of Jagger, Mercury, Plant, et. al. For two, though not solely responsible, Aerosmith was widely responsible for influencing an entire genre/generation/decade of Rock. However you feel about the brand of American rock music the 1980s produced, what’s undeniable is how many of those bands were heavily influenced by Aerosmith. For three, their success was not confined to one decade or period of their existence.
Like The Eagles and Steely Dan, Aerosmith found fame and fortune in the 1970s. Though The Eagles and The Dan stepped away in the 1980s, one could argue Aerosmith did too. Or at least most of it. By the end of the ‘70s, the Rock ‘n Roll lifestyle, which Aerosmith lived to the fullest, had taken its toll. In short, they were washed. Like the aforementioned bands, Aerosmith would eventually make a big comeback. Here’s the difference though; When The Eagles and Steely Dan reconvened in the 1990s, they spent their remaining years primarily as live acts. Sure The Dan made two more studio albums and The Eagles made one, but neither ever again enjoyed the commercial success anywhere close to what they experienced in the 1970s.
That’s what separates Aerosmith from anyone else on this list, if not any other Rock band in history. The commercial run of success they had starting in the late ‘80s with the album, Permanent Vacation, followed by Pump, and 1993’s Get A Grip was every bit as fruitful and popular as what they produced between their 1973 debut right through 1977’s Draw The Line. This second act, if you will, featured a more focused and sober quintet that also drew upon the aid of outside songwriters for the first time in their career. I personally found their ‘70’s work far superior in quality to the songs on those latter albums. Nonetheless, there’s no denying the popularity and chart success they enjoyed from those late-’80s, and ‘90s hits. Nowadays, about the only band in Rock that’s been around this long without taking sizable breaks in between is The Rolling Stones. Their longevity is nearly unparalleled. Whether one likes their songs or not, I think their musical ability is unquestioned. Nobody in this band is the best at what they do, but they’re all pretty darn good. There are many bands I like better than Aerosmith. If this was a list of my 10 favorites, they’d be lucky to sneak in around 9 or 10. That said, when I look at ability, influence, and success, let alone success in two completely different periods, I can’t deny Aerosmith’s place in American Rock history.
#1: The Beach Boys (1961-“present”)
To claim The Beach Boys are still an active band is a major misrepresentation of the truth in my opinion. Since 1998, the band that’s been touring as “The Beach Boys” is nothing more than the Wilson brothers’ talentless cousin Mike Love and his assemblage of musicians. Sure, Bruce Johnston’s been along for most of the ride, and he’s been with the band since ‘65, but of the other four original members, Brian Wilson, the mastermind behind the band, basically stopped touring in 1964. Dennis Wilson died in 1983. Carl Wilson passed away in 1998, and Al Jardine stopped touring with The Beach Boys in 1999. So yeah, what’s been billed as a “Beach Boys” show the better part of the past 25 years ain’t exactly “The Beach Boys.”
All that said, it simply doesn’t affect the legacy. To be frank, though I know The Beach Boys deserve to be #1 on this list, I’m not the guy to properly articulate why. I really should have asked my college friend Chris to contribute this part to the post. He’s the biggest BB fan I know. That said, I guess I just look at history, culture, and innovation. History: when we think back to the first great/successful American rock ‘n roll band, the first and only one that comes to mind is The Beach Boys. Everytime. Granted, there were other American artists and bands playing rock ‘n roll in this country prior to them, but they were guys of a darker skin tone who didn’t get the recognition they deserved at the time. (another topic for another post one day) Culture: Though there were others, such as Dick Dale and Jan & Dean to name a couple, the early years of The Beach Boys will always be remembered for that California surf sound. Just think about how many songs these guys had about surfing, cars, and girls. Innovation: In 1966 Brian Wilson created the album, Pet Sounds. If you’re unfamiliar with it, click here and let our friends at Wikipedia educate you on it. Long story short, it’s considered one of the most innovative, progressive albums of its time. Many consider it to be one of the greatest albums ever made, anywhere.
Whether it be the early years of surf rock, or the progressive turns of Pet Sounds and the Smile sessions, the music has held up. It’s held up for 60 years and counting. No, they’re not one of my favorites. For whatever reason I never really got into their music. That said, I can’t deny the legacy. The Beach Boys are the great American Rock ‘n Roll band.
“The 11th Entry”: The Grateful Dead
My wife was disappointed I didn’t put The Dead in my Top Ten. I struggled with the decision myself. My lack of familiarity with their overall body of work likely affected my decision. I know they made a ton of albums, and had some hits. Their cultural influence alone probably merited inclusion in the top ten. What gave me pause was that I’ve just never viewed The Grateful Dead as being mainstream popular enough at any time in their existence. Tune in to any terrestrial FM rock radio station and within a few hours you’ll hear a song from every band listed above. I can’t say the same for The Dead.
-Allman Brothers Band
Thanks for reading,