Rock’s top ten

Okay, so just for grins and giggles, I posed this question on Facebook: since there seems to be a kind of consensus regarding the four greatest rock bands in history–Beatles, Stones, Who, Zep–who would you put as number five?  (It’s surprisingly hard to pose the question without using the word ‘who’!) 

Now, this was obviously a silly question.  What do we mean by ‘the best’ rock band?  What do we mean by ‘rock band’?  Do we include solo artists?  If you do, do you count, say, Bob Dylan, Janice Joplin, Tupac Shakur?  Do you count albums sold, do you measure it that way?  How much should innovation play a part in our consideration?  This about preference, it’s about the heart and gut, not those pesky ‘facts.’  And it’s entirely, completely, absolutely subjective.

And I say that, and yet and yet. . . . When we ask ‘who’s the greatest,’ we’re asking something unanswerable and unobjective and foolish, but is it also without some truth?  I think Hamlet is a ‘better’ play than Henry VI Part 2.  I think Ibsen was a ‘better’ playwright than his contemporary, Victorien Sardou.  I think Willie Mays was a ‘better’ baseball player than Hal Lanier.  I think Degas was a ‘better’ painter than Thomas Kinkaid, and that Monet was ‘better’ than LeRoy Neiman.  I think Ben and Jerry’s makes ‘better’ ice cream than Western Family (a local, very generic brand).  And I don’t think most folks would argue with any of those propositions. ‘Better’ may be meaningless, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t mean anything. 

And we love it, we human beings, we love talking about (arguing about) this kind of thing.  Every Oscar season we do it.  We even get kind of passionate about it.  We say “how can you say The Artist was the best picture last year?  Are you kidding me?  It maybe made the top fifty.  Obviously, the best movie last year was The Tree of Life!” (I’d say that.  I have friends who disagree, uh, passionately.  I have friends who thought watching The Tree of Life was like watching paint dry.  These people are misguided).  For many many years, the national championship in college football was decided by a vote, by an opinion poll.  If you don’t follow college football, you probably think I’m kidding.  If you do follow college football, you’re nodding your head sadly. 

Anyway, what’s better, who’s worse, that’s number one, no it isn’t, it barely makes the cut, you guys are all wrong, that one sucked.  We do that. It’s something people do.

So the four best rock bands of all time are the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and Led Zeppelin.  They just are.  They’re the best, in that order.  ‘Cause I say so. Some people argued that they each had long lacunae in their careers, periods where they kind of sucked.  You can absolutely say that for the Stones, for example.  So what?  “Gimme Shelter”.  “Sympathy for the Devil”.  “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”  Song after song after song.  They’re number two.  They just are.  And then the Who and then Zep.  So who’s fifth?

In my completely objective, scientific, on-line Facebook poll, a consensus emerged. The fifth best rock band of all time is, apparently, Pink Floyd.  

I strenuously disagree with this assessment, but will defer, reluctantly, to the judges.  To me, Pink Floyd is a two album band.  I think The Dark Side of the Moon is a genuinely great album (though I don’t think it syncs up all that well with The Wizard of Oz.  I mean, I’ve done that, and it’s cool about three times).  I think Wish You Were Here is a half of a great album.  I think The Wall is great. And that’s it.  Two (and a half) great albums doesn’t get you to number five in my book. 

But I got out-voted. 

So who comes sixth?

My poll arrived at what was to me a surprising consensus.  Queen.  I like Queen a lot, and I might even put them in the top twenty.  To me, though, they were more theatrical than substantive.  To me, a band has to have something more to say, something more going on.

My son Tucker made a strong case for Radiohead, and I think he’s right.  This starts to get generational, and I don’t want to have the entire list dominated by the 1970’s.  Radiohead is a band I admire more than love, but then I’m probably too old to completely get them.  But I do get Arcade Fire just fine, and would put them on my top ten list.  I think they’re amazing, even after only basically four albums.

Some people argued that REM isn’t a rock band; that their music doesn’t count as guitar-driven rock. I play ‘What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?’ for them and rest my case.  Great album after great album for twenty five years; they belong.  I don’t think you can do a Top Ten list and leave U2 off it. I also think we need to include more classic American rock and roll, especially southern rock, so add Lynyrd Skynyrd and Creedence Clearwater Revival. 

I think the people who voted for The Monkees weren’t taking the project seriously.  I don’t know, though, how you don’t include the Beach Boys.  I have to include two prog rock bands, if only because the critics at Rolling Stone Magazine (a vile and witless lot) hated them SO much: so Jethro Tull and Yes.  Three seminal and important bands who were amazing and great, but who had short careers: The Velvet Underground, The Kinks and Deep Purple.  And finally, to recognize the importance of punk, The Ramones (I just can’t bring myself to include The Sex Pistols–loathe Sid Vicious). 

So here’s my top ten list:

The Beatles
The Rolling Stones
The Who
Led Zeppelin
Pink Floyd (under protest)
Queen (under much more muted protest)
REM
Radiohead
Jethro Tull
The Beach Boys
U2
Deep Purple
Creedence Clearwater Revival
The Kinks
Lynyrd Skynyrd
The Ramones
Arcade Fire
The Velvet Underground
Yes

There you go.  Top Ten.  Ten greatest bands of all time.  The Ten best.  (I also suck at math.) 

8 thoughts on “Rock’s top ten

  1. Julia - Finding My Way Softly

    Yes, you do suck at math!

    I am glad you included U2. Maybe it is because I am in my 30s, but your Top 4 belong in my Top 20, but not really at the top. Maybe it is because I include soloists as part of my “tops?”

    I can’t separate out bands from individual artist, but that too is part of being human. If I don’t like the framework of a question, I want to change the question. 😉

    Reply
  2. Alisha

    Perhaps it is because I am in my mid 30’s but Radiohead had just as much an influence on my seminal years as say The Who (and I listened to them just as much). But Radiohead speaks to me and seemed to speak to a lot of my contemporaries. And I agree about Queen (and The Monkeys for that matter). But one should keep The Ramones and Velvet Underground on the list. They are tremendous.

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  3. Christopher Bigelow

    I think the reason the top five are the top five is because they created the mold for rock, not only the music but what it means to be a rock band. One seminal sixth band is missing, though: Black Sabbath. Oh, how I love me some Sabbath. Kurt Cobain said it best: the main thing he was trying to do was combine Beatles and Black Sabbath. Pretty much all rock music goes back to these top six, especially to the Beatles.

    I know that rock started before the Beatles. I know much of it draws on the blues. I have heard mention of early “rock” performers called “Elvis Presley” and “Chuck Berry.” I’m afraid they don’t hold any interest for me. More recent bands like Radiohead and U2 and the Cars are great, but they didn’t create the mold like the big 6. It’s not generational; it’s plain and simple history, and the originating bands get the higher rankings. They will always be the big six.

    Personally, I don’t get the Rolling Stones. They have a few OK songs and some personality, but there’s no mystique there for me, and I’ve never owned a Stones album and don’t care if I ever do. The Beatles are practically a religion to me, though, and Led Zeppelin comes close to similar status. The Who doesn’t do much for me. I had a big Pink Floyd stage but don’t listen much anymore. So for me its Beatles, Zep, and Sabbath, in that order, if we’re talking personal big 3.

    I’ve been listening mostly to 70s rock in recent months, for some reason. Lots of AC/DC and ZZ Top in the mix, among many others (both of those have tons a great stuff that never made it onto the radio). I personally think the 70s were overall the best decade for rock, as the earlier years of when the influence of the big 6 snowballed.

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  4. JaredNGarrett

    Oh man. OH man. Two words: Big Country.

    They were better songwriters, better musicians, and not better performers. They heavily influenced U2.

    Big Country is top five of all time, easy.

    I recognize the Beatles as a top 5 band, but I dislike their music; same for Rolling Stones. Zeppelin, beauty. Pink Floyd, occasionally boring, intermittently okay, mostly too self-indulgent, moments of absolutely incredible work.

    But Big Country. Great, great band.

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    1. Eric Sam

      Seriously? I read your comment, went straight to Youtube, and listened to four or five Big Country songs. I’m afraid we’ll have to agree to disagree! But that’s why we do this, isn’t it? To make a case for who we love.

      Reply
  5. LauraH

    The Tree of Life was NOT like watching paint dry. It wasn’t nearly that interesting.

    And Queen, YES. Freddie Mercury had more charisma and stage presence than the majority of past and present rock stars.

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  6. 29-year-old-mcgovernite

    Eric, I absolutely love your blog. I think you make some good and bold choices for your top 10. But can I compel you to consider Chicago? They have sold more records than any other American rock band beside the Beach Boys, and skillfully synthesized jazz and avant-garde styles with conventional rock. It’s okay to penalize them for the terrible ballads they did in the 1980s, and for floundering in the 1990s and beyond, but I’ll stand behind their body of work from the decade stretching 1968 to 1977. That includes a lot of great album tracks like “Questions 67 & 68”, “Now That You’ve Gone”, “Introduction”, and other pieces that never really got popular awareness.

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