Who Is the Greatest American Rock Band?

We break it down so you can fight it out.

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Of all the debates that revolve around the arts, entertainment, and sports, surely the most contentious for any category is the question of who is “The Greatest” (or, in modern parlance, The GOAT). Some branches seem to have an answer: in boxing, Muhammad Ali is simply known as “The Greatest.” With other fields, there are answers with caveats: for the NBA, if it’s rings, it’s Bill Russell, and if it’s general excellence, it’s Michael Jordan. But when it comes to music, and particularly American music, every genre is so laden with subjective opinions, clashing definitions, and varying criteria that it can be incredibly hard to answer that divisive question. Nevertheless, as we acknowledge the 50th anniversary of Aerosmith’s debut album (a band that is often considering one of the “The Greatest”), we’re going to try.

What Is a Rock Band?

A rock band’s gotta be a rock band — guitar, bass, drums  — rock. It also has to be an American rock band. No Beatles, Stones, Who, Zeppelin, U2, Maiden, Priest, Clash, Queen, Rush, Sabbath, Floyd, AC/DC, Golden Earring, etc. Any commenters suggesting anyone beyond the 50 states and territories will be sent to the Woodstock cool-down tent to chill out. Fleetwood Mac is also DQed: sorry, 3/5 of the classic line-up is British.

In terms of attacking the question, we’ll start with a few groups that are easily identified as leaders in a certain category. Like the NBA, it might not yield a clear, immediate winner, but it’s instructional in terms of how an act could be considered The Greatest.

Sales

Eagles perform “Hotel California” in 1977 (Uploaded to YouTube by Eagles)

According to a Business Insider piece that was originally published in 2016 and updated for November 2022, the rock band with the most albums sold in America is The Eagles (or, Eagles, if you’re a stickler). They’ve racked up sales topping 120 million records. Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band would be next with 71 million units, but there’s a major glitch there: some releases are credited only to Springsteen as solo albums (like 1987’s Grammy-winning, three-million-selling #1 album Tunnel of Love). So the true #2 would be the aforementioned Aerosmith, at 69.5 million. Then it’s Metallica, with 63 million (yes, Lars Ulrich is a Danish citizen, but the remaining 75 percent of the band throughout its history has been American). After that, Van Halen checks in at #4 with 56.6 million units (yes, Eddie and Alex Van Halen were born in the Netherlands, but they immigrated to the States when Eddie was seven and were naturalized U.S. citizens). Rounding out the top five is Journey, with 49 million sold.

More Impact Than Success

The Velvet Underground performing “Sweet Jane” (Uploaded to YouTube by Warner Records Vault)

A different way to measure greatness might be a band’s influence. There’s an ongoing joke in music circles that not that many people bought The Velvet Underground & Nico, but that everyone who did started a band. Even U2’s Bono said, “Every song we’ve ever written was a rip-off of a Lou Reed song.”  The group had a seismic impact on what would become the New York City punk scene, a breeding ground for Patti Smith, The New York Dolls, Television, Talking Heads, Blondie, and, of course, The Ramones. The Ramones themselves are an exemplar of impact over success; their records were never chartbusters, but their songs have become well-known despite a lack of radio airplay, and their fast, aggressive style left an indelible mark on punk, metal, and alternative rock. An icon in his own right, Henry Rollins, wrote “The Ramones influenced a lot of bands and reached more people than anyone could imagine.”

Speaking of the alternative rock landscape, Hüsker Dü emerged from Minneapolis in 1979 to redefine the parameters of hardcore, raise the speed limit set by The Ramones, and provide a new power-trio blueprint that acts like Green Day and Nirvana would follow. Critic Zeth Lundy of Vanyaland even called them ““The Beatles of the ‘80s.” Another major influence on Nirvana, and alt-rock in general, was The Pixies; the band’s melding of distortion, surf guitar, and loud/soft/loud dynamics echoed through nearly every rock band that rose in the ’90s, including their artier U.K. brethren Radiohead. That band’s Johnny Greenwood said, ““The reason we don’t use as much guitar now is there are only a handful of Pixies albums. You can’t keep copying them.” Could the best band be the band that influenced the largest number of subsequent bands?

Most Musical Exploration

“Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys (Uploaded to YouTube by The Beach Boys)

While there will always be those who want their rock to be 4/4 time with easily identifiable verse/chorus/verse structures and predictably timed guitar solos (and that is 100% fine), many of the greatest acts push the boundaries and redefine what it means to be a rock musician. No single American musician grew more from their first single to their later work than Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys. The growth rate from 1961’s “Surfin’” to 1966’s immortal trio of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “God Only Knows,” and “Good Vibrations” is almost incalculable, and it happened in just five years. One major argument for Wilson and the rest of the band’s greatness is how they captured distinctively American imagery (our country’s love of cars, California culture, etc.) and made it an inextricably part of their music and identity. It’s possible that no one went as far as Wilson, but the counterargument will always be that they drifted from recording as the core unit to assembling a vast swath of studio musicians, like the storied Wrecking Crew, which changes the concept of “rock band.”

While Brian Wilson was an undeniable genius, another act that stretched the boundaries of the genre was a product of the New York punk scene: Blondie. Debbie Harry combined a bombshell aesthetic and a unique vocal style; the rest of Blondie excelled musically, notably Chris Stein on guitar and Clem Burke on drums (all of whom still tour). Harry’s versatility and the whole band’s adventurous spirit saw them veer across eclectic genres, doing everything from rockers to ballads to disco to reggae to hip-hop. That’s right; for some kids, “Rapture” was the first time that they heard anything approximating rap. And it made sense for the band because they legitimately were friends with the hip-hop pioneers they referenced, like Fab 5 Freddy and Grandmaster Flash. Aside from selling 40 million records, you know that you’re a great rock band if you can make a great song in any genre.

Showmanship

“Rock and Roll All Nite” by Kiss (Uploaded to YouTube by KISSARMYHQ)

People see live music for entirely different reasons. Some like to see the music performed at the peak of an artist’s abilities. Some like the communal experience. Others . . . they love pyro. And whether you like them or not, it’s hard to deny that the ultimate avatars of showmanship have to be . . . Kiss. What do you get at a Kiss show? Pyro? Check. Lasers? Check. Fire-breathing? Check. During the Hot in the Shade tour the band deployed a giant talking sphinx with spotlights for eyes. Kiss are not subtle. Of course, the pervasive image of Kiss is the look that they designed back in the 1970s, the one-two punch of make-up and costume. Patterned around the vaguely super-heroic identities that each member created for themselves (The Demon, Star-Child, Spaceman, The Cat), Kiss’s outfits made them look unlike any band before them, though many have emulated them since. If “The Show” is your metric, you must consider Kiss.

Genre Elevator

“One” by Metallica (Uploaded to YouTube by Metallica)

One consideration has to be how much a band contributed to, or elevated, their genre. It’s possible that no American band elevated a genre more than the group that literally has their category in their name: Metallica. Metallica stretched the boundaries of metal, working initially within the thrash subgenre and then expanding into songs that were essentially suites with various movements, including key and tempo changes. This is a different version of the boundary-stretching that Brian Wilson employed, notably because Metallica did it with their own four core members. The bands lyrics delved into serious topics, including depression, addiction, and the cost of war, putting a literary spin on a style of music that had often been derided for a shallow focus on hedonism. They were underground heroes and then, suddenly in 1991, “Enter Sandman,” exploded, driving them to be one of the biggest bands in the world. Metallica is the first group to have performed on all seven continents (yes, even Antarctica). From emerging from a specific San Francisco scene to worldwide metal ambassadors, it’s hard to discount Metallica.

Genre Shifter

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana (Uploaded to YouTube by Nirvana)

Metallica may have elevated heavy metal, but what do you say about the greatness of a band whose arrival changed the rock landscape seemingly overnight? Much has been made of how Nirvana seemingly destroyed “hair metal” when it broke out, but what it really did was proclaim that not only had alternative rock fully arrived, it could dominate a decade. Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic had one acclaimed album under their belts, but the addition of drummer Dave Grohl gave 1991’s Nevermind a sound that shook the world. Disaffected youth found an anthem in “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and the band’s hometown of Seattle suddenly had a spotlight on all of its other rising bands like Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains. While inroads had been made by acts like R.E.M. and the first Lollapalooza festival, Nirvana really were the lever that moved rock into the 1990s. Though the band dissolved after Cobain’s death in 1994, they remain a contender, as may the band that Grohl formed just a year later: the 32x platinum Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, Foo Fighters.

Virtuosity

“Eruption” by Van Halen (Uploaded to YouTube by Van Halen)

In determining the greatest band, musicianship should always count. Rock fans continually discuss Frankensteining the best band ever by combining the greatest players into one unit. But who are the greatest players? For lead guitar, there are essentially two late greats in the running: Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen. Is the best bassist Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers, Les Claypool from Primus, or someone else entirely? Who would you put behind the drums: Dave Grohl, Jimmy Chamberlin from Smashing Pumpkins (check out “Geek U.S.A.” You’re welcome), or another choice? For lead vocals, do you go with Ann Wilson or maybe Ronnie James Dio?

“Alone” by Heart (Uploaded to YouTube by thebandheart)

Speaking of Ann Wilson, Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart inspired countless women to rock via Ann’s unmatched vocal prowess and Nancy’s place as one of the most visible female guitarists in the history of rock. They always surrounded themselves with top-notch players. But Ann arguably has the greatest voice in American rock, and it has lost nothing in over 50 years. If you have a legit vocal virtuoso up front, does that make you the greatest?

For an entire American band, is it possible that there is a group where every member is a virtuoso? Maybe Eddie is so great that you overlooked how good the rest of Van Halen is. This really is the most granular category of the debate, but it bears a close look.

Most Unexpected Resurgence

“Walk This Way” (Uploaded to YouTube by Run DMC)

America loves a good comeback story, and two of the five best-selling American rock bands have stories of amazing returns to prominence. Aerosmith had, by their own admission, gone off the rails due to substance abuse. The band was already getting clean and pulling together with 1985’s Done with Mirrors, but it was 1986’s team-up with Run-DMC for their hip-hop cover of “Walk This Way” that introduced Aerosmith to a new generation and re-established them as a top act. 1987’s Permanent Vacation and 1989’s Pump made Aerosmith one of the biggest bands in the world and sold a combined 12 million copies in the U.S. alone.

“Don’t Stop Believin’” (Uploaded to YouTube by Journey)

The other major return in that top five came from an unusual place. Journey had been a successful band for years, and had come back from hiatus in the mid-’90s. Lead singer Steve Perry had departed and was replaced by Steve Augeri in 1998. The band continued to make music and tour, but an unforeseen circumstance launched them into the iTunes Top 10 in 2005. That was when “Don’t Stop Believin’” was featured in the second season premiere of MTV’s wildly popular reality series, Laguna Beach. A car sing-along with cast members Lauren Conrad and Stephen Colletti drove downloads in insane numbers.  After that, “Believin’” basically became America’s second national anthem. The song became a staple of every major sports venue while being used all across media, most notably on a recurring basis on Glee and in the much-discussed finale of The Sopranos. Journey had never really gone away, but the rebirth of that song made it so they never will.

Longevity

“I Hate Myself for Loving You” (Uploaded to YouTube by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts)

Many of the bands in the conversation have existed in one way or another for decades. Some have left and come back, like Eagles, Journey, and Aerosmith. Others have persisted through line-up changes, like The Beach Boys or Metallica. But occasionally you have the rare rock and roll survivor that was a legend in two bands, and never stopped. That described Joan Jett. Joan Jett became the avatar of toughness, earning the respect and adulation from every other genre of rock, including the punk, metal, and alternative bands. With The Runaways, she forced everyone to recognize the legitimacy and power of a band consisting entirely of women. Later, fronting Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, she became an indefatigable symbol of never-ending touring. Her recorded output includes covers that she made her own (“I Love Rock ‘n Roll”), statement originals (“Bad Reputation”), and tunes that have become ingrained in the cultural fabric (“I Hate Myself for Loving You,” which is the source for “Waiting All Day for Sunday Night,” the theme to NBC’s Sunday Night Football). If being unstoppable is a sign of greatness, put another dime in the jukebox for Joan.

Most-Played on Radio

Sure, you may be saying, those are all fine categories. But wouldn’t how often we hear the band have something to do with it? Performance rights organization BMI reports The Association’s “Never My Love” was the second most-played song of the 20th century (for completists, #1 was American vocal duo The Righteous Brothers with “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”). But in the broader sense (as in the whole body of work, versus one song), the two bands with the most radio airplay consistently are Eagles and Van Halen. In 2014, Nielsen Soundscan reported that Eagles’ “Hotel California” plays somewhere on American radio stations every eleven minutes. If pervasiveness is a metric, that’s big point in their favor.

Most Streamed

“Demons” (Uploaded to YouTube by ImagineDragons)

Seeing as we’re over two decades into the 21st century, streaming must also be taken into consideration. According to Spotify, the American band with the most streams is Imagine Dragons with a whopping 22 billion plays. In fact, four of their songs (“Thunder,” “Demons,” “Believer,” and “Radioactive”) have been streamed over a billion times each.

So, Who Is It?

After carefully weighing the options and examining the data and listening to waaaay too many songs given our deadline, the answer is . . . impossible to determine. Music is, was, and always will be a matter of personal taste. One person’s deep connection to a band’s music and lyrics might not be another person’s experience at all. You may love Blondie, but can’t stand Imagine Dragons (in this example, “you” is “this writer”). And really, that’s what’s great about music in general. There’s something for everyone. There will never be an all-encompassing number one pick, but there’s no reason to ever stop trying to convince someone else that you’re right. So dream on, don’t stop believin’, and avoid unmarked hotels, especially in California.

Troy Brownfield’s Completely Subjective, Unscientific, and Highly Personal Top Five List of The Greatest American Bands Ever

The Beach Boys: “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “God Only Knows,” and “Good Vibrations” are close to perfect as anyone’s going get.

Blondie: My single favorite song of all time is “Dreaming.” It has everything. Harry’s glorious vocals, tremendous keys by Jimmy Destri, unassailable guitar work by Chris Stein, and a true monster of a drum performance by Clem Burke.

The Ramones: It is my closely-held belief that it is un-American to not like The Ramones. The Ramones are everything great about rock, but faster.

Nirvana: I was at Headstone Friends in Terre Haute, Indiana on September 24, 1991 to pick up my own copy of Gish by Smashing Pumpkins (my best friend had gone a different college, and had the group copy). One of the younger clerks of my acquaintance put Nevermind on top of Gish and said, “You’re going to want this.” Best customer service ever. That record shook the planet. It still does.

Guns N’ Roses: Appetite for Destruction is quite possibly the greatest debut album by any band. It’s like they arrived as fully-formed avatars of rock spirit, the product of an unholy union between classic rock and punk. It’s easy to make jokes about dysfunction, but nobody can joke about “Rocket Queen.”

Bonus: Any band featuring Bob Mould. My single favorite musician has fronted Hüsker Dü, Sugar, and The Bob Mould Band. He frequently tours with just himself and his electric guitar, because HE CAN. Bob rules.

 

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Comments

  1. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, bar none. Spans all genres with the deepest of catalogs. Has to weigh heavy in this very subjective conversation.

  2. Thank you for this thoughtful and humble (by comparison) piece. By by comparison I mean to the Rolling Stone’s pompous Greatest 200 singers list. Which left off Ann Wilson !%#!!%%#@!!! So much more to dis the list too (no Judy Garland, Steve Walsh, Jon Anderson, Geddy Lee; some laughable inclusions, vast overratings and underratings). The author has it right: It’s all subjective. I agree with some of his ideas, disagree with others (like non-Americans need not apply), but I really appreciate his honesty that it’s all subjective. And he does employ some good metrics to present his opinions We all have our personal tastes. Viva la difference.

  3. Jefferson Airplane-Starship, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, The Grateful Dead, and a lot more should be parts of this article, plus many who continue to use their blues based R&R in the field of Contemporary Christian music. Rock and Roll never died, it simply got reborn.

  4. It’s been said many times that America was our (USA) answer to the Beatles, just listen to the lyrics in their songs. I’m a little disappointed they were not mentioned. Being early 70’s perhaps it was before your time, with all due respect.
    Stephen B.

  5. This is a reminder to play nice. Feel free to politely disagree with one another. Feel free to air your opinions. But let’s be kind to one another and stick to the topic. Thank you.

  6. Actually, rock really began with Rocket 88 in 1951. I’ve written about that and the great pre-British Invasion artists. This category also excludes vocal groups, as established in the piece. And I merely asked questions. I decided fir no one but myself in the sidebar.

  7. So, according to Troy Brownfield, rock ‘n’ roll started in the ’60s. Hey, how about the ’50s? Buddy Holly & the Crickets, the Drifters and the Five Satins, whose hit “In the Still of the Night” is still considered one of the greatest rock and roll songs of all-time, just to name a few?

  8. The Byrds, edging out the Beach Boys, Buffalo Springfield, and Velvet Underground. My favorite later bands are the Ramones and Nirvana. Special recognition to Neil Young’s Crazy Horse.

  9. What about the Silver Bullet Band? And the Crickets, with Buddy Holly – even the Beatles claimed to have been influenced by them?

  10. Oh my, what a lovely tour that manages to miss the greatest American rock bands entirely.

    The “goddamn” Grateful Dead! 500 songs. Completely, distinctly, unarguably American from front to back and top to bottom. They take Miles Davis and Merel Haggard and run them along rt 101 down through Big Sur while driving Tennesee Jed to meet up with his Sugar and her Magnolias. They mate two drummers with the Hammond B3, the most original of all lead guitarists, the unique rhythm paler and the bass player with the high-end music theory degree.

    Rock and Roll isn’t selling records. It’s getting people on their feet and dancing. No one, nowhere, and at no time has done more of that than the Dead.

    Then, there’s Creedence. No one, nowhere, and at no time, has generated a more complete catalog of instantly identifiable “hooks” than Fogerty fronting Creedence. And, no place else on earth could generate those songs and those sounds other than the USA. Proud Mary could never be rollin on the Thames or be produced by an angry, black-clad, basement-dwelling NYU grad school drop-out. That’s the heart of the USA, right there.

    Finally, a greatest American band list without the Allman Brothers. Sorry, I just don’t get it. Perhaps, you were just too young to ever experience it, or maybe your stereo relies on streaming mp3s.

    I’m going to have to go along with Bill Graham’s opinion on this. The night he closed the Fillmore East ( you’ve heard of it?), he stated that the Allman Brothers were the single greatest sho he’d ever experienced.

    American? As American as a Harley hardtail on a red dirt road or a Cadillac convertible with a blonde on rt 66 at midnight headed west.

  11. This resident of Terre Haute, IN believes that R.E.M. is the greatest band that America has ever produced. After all, alternative music was named for them – they were the first. Intelligent songs written and performed by brilliant musicians. They stayed true to themselves and never sold out.

  12. REM Never a bad album. Song writing, air play, vocals, musicianship, tops. Longevity, Socially conscious. Nice guys. Unpretentious. Universal appeal. The greatest by far.

  13. In my humble opinion, The Beach Boys are the greatest American band and Prince, the greatest single American musical artist.

  14. Iam between The Stooges and The Doors. Great poets and front men.Not much better for me since.

  15. You people ever heard the “Doobie Brothers “ been around for over 50 years and still touring. Sure beats that Nirvana crap , this group plays real rock music !!!

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