When you hear the phrase “greatest rock bands,” you almost certainly get an image of four or five white guys holding guitars—the Beatles, the Stones, Zeppelin, Van Halen, Nirvana, and all the other classic rock gods.
Classic rock by guitar bands is often fantastic; I’m a fan. But rock’s had a long and extremely varied history, and it seems a shame to restrict greatness to the one and only subgenre. So this list is an effort to imagine what the greatest rock band might mean if we peeled our ears off the usual suspects for a second and heard what else was out there rocking.
The bands are in loose chronological order of their heydeys.
1. Clara Ward Singers
Gospel’s contribution to rock is often forgotten. But a big part of rock’s secular roll came first from the sacred singers. Clara Ward’s Philadelphia outfit started as a family trio in the 1930s. Then in the 40s, they added the rough alto of Henrietta Waddy and the multi-octave firestorm that was Marion Williams. Songs like the barn burner “Packing Up” unleash Williams’ “OOOOOO” at full force, a gigantic barbaric yawp that rock bands have been trying to recapture since.
2. Louis Jordan and the Tympani Five
Louis Jordan’s hip-swinging jump blues band was the blueprint for early rock with its novelty lyrics, vocal hiccups, and driving beat; when Louis Jordan screeched “Calllldooonnnia!” everyone from Little Richard to Hank Williams sat up and yodeled.
The original 1938 lineup of the band was Jordan on saxes and vocals, Courtney Williams on trumpet, Lem Johnson on tenor sax, Clarence Johnson on piano, and the unstoppably propulsive rhythm section of Charlie Drayton on bass and Walter Martin on drums. The band’s single most famous rock moment is Carl Hogan’s stinging electric guitar solo at the beginning of “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman,” which inspired Chuck Berry and the rest of rock guitar to come.
3. Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Three
Luther Perkins on electric guitar, Marshall Grant on upright bass, and (slightly) later W.S. Holland on the drums perfected the boom-chikka-boom sound that chugged through Johnny Cash’s first recordings in the late 50s and into the hearts of every rock and country primitivist for the next 70 years. They weren’t virtuosos, but that’s why “I shot a man in Reno/just to watch him die” sounds so bare-knuckled and lonesome.
4. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles
Singers Warren “Pete” Moore, Ronnie White, and Claudette Rogers Robinson were joined by a range of others as the 50s turned to the 60s, but the lead was always Smokey Robinson. He was blessed not just with an amazingly flexible and distinctive falsetto but with songwriting genius. Under his guidance, the Miracles were not just a doo-wop group but a stunningly flexible instrument.
They rocked so hard they were almost funk on songs like “Mickey’s Monkey,” sighed into the supersensual proto-quiet-storm of “Ooo, Baby Baby,” and built the prototype of orchestral pop on masterpieces like “Tears of a Clown” and “Tracks of My Tears.”
5. The Beatles
It can be hard to listen past the hype, but John, Paul, George, and Ringo remain a marvelous band. You can make a greatest rock band list that isn’t quite as focused on the Beatles first, last, and always, but it’s hard to create a greatest rock band list that excludes them altogether.
6. Booker T. and the MGs
They had their own hits, like the churning “Green Onions” in 1962. But the band may possibly be even more important as the house players for the Stax label, ground zero for Southern soul. Organist Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper on guitar, Lewie Steinberg and (post 65) Donald Dunn on bass, and Al Jackson, Jr. on drums played on the key hits of Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas, and Albert King. Dirty blues guitar bands from the Rolling Stones to the White Stripes have latched onto the MGs’ mix of raunch, grease, joy, and heartache, but no one ever did it better.
7. The Velvet Underground
Andy Warhol started the band as a sort-of-joke provocation in the 60s, little knowing it would, in some ways, overshadow the rest of his legacy. Lou Reed talk-sang in bored Dylanesque New Yawk about drugs and Masoch and drugs. John Cale sawed and droned like the point of rock was to destroy violas. Sterling Morrison’s chunka chunka guitar and Mo Tucker’s on-the-beat drumming anchored void and noise. A strangely evil, strangely lovely band.
8. Sly and the Family Stone
Cynthia Robinson, drummer Greg Errico, saxophonist Jerry Martini, bassist Larry Graham, and most of all, leader Sly Stone fused soul, blues, rock, doo-wop, gospel, and more into the spiky, lurching, explosive ball of psychedelic funk. The band’s colorful San Francisco late 60s hippie couture was influential, but the music was even more so. Everyone from Stevie Wonder to Brian Eno owes them a debt, and it’s hard to imagine hip hop without Sly’s bizarre collage approach to assembling songs from jagged bits of style and shards of rhythm.
9. Led Zeppelin
Celebrated 60s session guitarist Jimmie Page fused cosmic electric blues and starry-eyed Tolkien folk into the Hammer of the Gods. Robert Plant added a voice that brought opera to the Delta, or vice versa.
John Bonham turned rock’s big beat into thunder. John Paul Jones added more layers of technical pyrotechnics on bass and keyboards. The quartet was the first to scientifically prove that brontosaurs are fleet of foot and can boogie your brains out.
10. Miles Davis’ Bitches’ Brew Band
The band that founded jazz/rock fusion was as sprawling, swaggeringly messy, and brilliant as the genre itself. For the titanic 1969 Bitches Brew album sessions, Davis assembled a rotating supergroup centered on fiery British electric guitarist John McLaughlin, soprano saxophonist Wayne Shorter, electric pianists Joe Zawinul and Chick Corea, and drummers Lenny White and Jack DeJohnette.
The resulting brew is filled with lumps of spice; Davis’ trumpet honks and cries over clanking rhythms and odd severed lashes of notes. It still feels like the band is too big to fit into rock or even into music itself.
11. The Original JB’s
After James Brown’s band quit for higher pay in 1970, he hired a new lineup. Horns became a distant second in the mix. Instead, the focus was on the incredible throbbing bottom; Bootsy Collins on bass, Catfish Collins on guitar, Jabo Starks on drums, and Bobby Byrd on organ.
Tracks like “Get Up I Feel Like Being a Sex Machine,” “Super Bad,” and “Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothing” are giant slabs of pulsing, fiercely repetitive funk. Brown’s rasp is a percussive instrument in itself. This is the quintessential example of a rock band as bludgeon…of soul power. Hah!
ABBA is disco, pop, and all things not rock. But Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus love the Beatles and the Beach Boys with every inch of their Eurovision brain stems. And so they constructed a big beat, sugary hook delivery system for people who can’t tell the difference between rock and musical theater.
Two of those people, Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, just happen to have some of the most amazing voices on earth. The result is glorious.
Arguably the most influential band on this list, German avant-oddballs Florian Schneider (flutes, synthesizers, violin) and Ralf Hütter (organ, synthesizers) started Kraftwerk as an arty experimental rock but quickly got weirder.
Beginning with 1974’s Autobahn, the duo practically created electro-pop, using moogs and synthesizers to craft stiff anthems of catchy, repetitive technophilic tech alienation. Joined by Wolfgang Flür and Karl Bartos, they became an unstoppable herky-jerk dancing man-machine, bleeping and blooping towards the future.
14. Fleetwood Mac
Fleetwood Mac started as a solid British blues-rock outfit in the late 60s, anchored by drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie. It was only when they reshuffled by bringing on LA guitarist Lindsey Buckingham and singer Stevie Nicks in 1974 that they became a commercial and aesthetic juggernaut.
Buckingham was a restless hyperkinetic weirdo; Nicks had a stunning gift for harmony and an iconic way around a ballad. Christine McVie on the piano could also pen a mighty earworm. Blues-rock, California folk-rock, Beach Boys-esque orchestral pop, Buckingham’s New Wave experiments: the band seemed to be able to turn any bizarre, eclectic, ravishing thing into radio gold.
15. Prince and the Revolution
Inspired by Sly and the Family Stone, Prince put together a multi-racial, multi-gender backing outfit incorporating rock, funk, and the jerking New Wave sound. The lineup at various points included Dez Dickerson or Wendy Melvoin on guitar, Brown Mark on bass, Bobby Z on drums, and Lisa Coleman on keyboards.
The Revolution powered Prince’s classic recordings 1999, Around the World in a Day, and Purple Rain, establishing the explosively sparse Minneapolis funk sound and a blueprint for slippery, smoldering, 80s rock. If James Brown made Beatles records or vice versa, it might have sounded something like this.
16. The Smiths
Singer Morrissey, guitarist Johnny Marr, bassist Andy Rourke, and drummer Mike Joyce strolled out of Manchester with a mannered sigh and a spray of roses, wafting jangly dream-pop behind them. Morrissey’s clipped enunciation, ethereal baritone, and towering ironic romanticism (“to die by your side/is such a heavenly way to die”) defined the band. But just as important was Marr’s chiming, fractured, distorted guitars, pointing the way to shoegaze and Coldplay to come.
Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King rip out guitar solos that sound like roadrunners being electrocuted. Bassist Tom Araya spits out lyrics like the taste has poisoned his throat. And Dave Lombardo hits his patented double bass till the rhythm is a giant bruised throb of pain.
Metallica wrote trickier songs, and lots of death metal bands went further into gothic noise. But for pure amphetamine gasoline devilry, you can’t beat Slayer.
18. Sonic Youth
Sonic Youth took the noise improv experiments of the New York new music avant-garde and hammered them onto rock styles from punk to girl group to shoegaze over a three-decade career. Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo’s detuned, retuned, and broken guitars get most of the attention.
The rest goes to Kim Gordon’s twisted bass lines, and icy vocals get most of the attention. But drummer Steve Shelley was the glue that kept the rock in the rock band. His beat holds the songs down even as the world explodes around him.
19. Public Enemy
Rock rap is often considered something of a bastard subgenre. But back when Kid Rock was barely a squirming pebble, Public Enemy was already fusing rock’s blast of fury to hip hop’s funk DNA.
Chuck D’s chesty pronouncements and Flavor Flav’s manic backtalk exploded over the air raid siren detonations of the production team, the Bomb Squad (Hank Shocklee, his brother Keith Shocklee, and Eric “Vietnam” Sadler), while Terminator X scratched directly across your inner ear. Noise never sounded so funky, nor funk so loud.
What if we were like Black Sabbath, but heeaaaaaavvvvvvvvvy?! Determined to find out, volcanic bellower and guitar player Buzz Osborne (King Buzzo) recruited terrifying skin-smasher Dale Crover and a rotating cast of bassists. Then they all started trudging towards music so twisted and filthy they called it sludge metal.
Nirvana and all of grunge were inspired by watching the Melvins lurch through tar pits, feedback, and mangled consonant sounds. But accept no substitutes; this here is the one true authentic ugly monster thing.
21. Shonen Knife
Sometimes the greatest band is the most influential band. That’s not the punk ethos, though. Guitarist/singer Naoko Yamano has been banging out three-chord ditties about cats, cookies, and the occasional capybara for four decades now, originally with sister Atsuko on drums and Michie Nakatani on bass, but later with other friends and co-conspirators.
If rock is hammering out a catchy riff to joy until your fingers fall off or you collapse in giggles, then there’s no greater rock band than Shonen Knife.
Atlanteans Andre 3000 and Big Boi called their music Southern hip hop.
But that harmonica solo on “Rosa Parks” sure sounds a lot like Southern soul, and the guitar fire in “B.O.B.” dodges around a flow that Andre delivers at thrash speeds. Especially by the 2000s, when Andre was singing as often as rapping, and every song seemed like an opportunity to see how many styles they could fit on a track, OutKast was too weird to fit in any genre. It doesn’t get more rock than that.
23. Destiny’s Child
Girl group is an ignored but foundational rock subgenre, and Destiny’s Child knows it. Beyoncé’s vocals touch on Aretha’s gospel for one minute. The next, she navigates Beach Boys-worthy harmonic confections with bandmates Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams (or earlier LeToya and LaTavia.) DC’s rhythm tracks are huge, and their attitude is caustic enough to take the anarchy decals off of Johnny Rotten’s designer leather jacket. “Say My Name” is a demand and an insult, not a plea.
24. Konono No.1
Konono No.1 was formed by Mingiedi Mawangu, a rural migrant to Kinshasha, in 1966. Mawangu took traditional thumb pianos and electrified and amplified them so they could be heard in the noisy, competitive city.
Some forty years later, in 2004, the bellowing, rhythmically intense band he pioneered released a record on the Belgian label Crammed Disc, which went global. The band’s astonishing ear-bleeding polyrhythmic grunge has entranced indie rockers from Juana Molina to Deerhoof.
25. 100 Gecs
Laura Les and Dylan Brady’s hyper pop is a dayglo smear of autotune, ear bleed, distortion, profanity, heartbreak, electronic shrieks, and ultrahip iPhone audio vomit. It’s designed to reduce anyone over 17 to a quivering slab of puritanical outrage.
That’s not music! Listening to this is what grandparents must have felt like listening to Elvis in 1954. And if your rock music doesn’t scare the grandparents at least a little, what’s the point?
The last band I took off the list was Tribe Called Quest; the last I almost put on was Joni Mitchell and L.A. Express. Others that almost made it include Steely Dan and Van Halen. “But what about the Rolling Stones?!” you ask. “Where’s R.E.M.?” “You really think Destiny’s Child and ABBA are rock?!” To which my answers are, in order, “They are great also!” “Not my personal favorites, but a worthy mention,” and “Darn tootin’.”
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Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.