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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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