Like baseball, apple pie, and pickup trucks, rock and roll is considered quintessentially American. Sadly, many of the “best of” lists ranking rock bands are dominated by bands from the UK. Sure, there are some great bands from across the pond, but there’s something special about the great rock bands from this country — something rebelliously robust. American rock bands are the teeth of our communities and they aren’t afraid to get messy. So, my list is comprised of bands that formed in America and whose majority of members are American (sorry, that means The Jimi Hendrix Experience is disqualified).
Before the list, a note of explanation may be in order: readers will notice the conspicuous absence of The Beach Boys as well as Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. As far as the E Street Band, and this is probably not fair, but the music is so identified with the Boss as to basically reduce the E Street Band to his backing band (they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a backing band). The Beach Boys, on the other hand, while producing one of the greatest albums of all time in Pet Sounds, are not a great band. In fact, the band barely played on Pet Sounds. The famed Wrecking Crew provided the music for the album, as they did for many of our most beloved albums from that time period. I even considered including the Wrecking Crew on the list.
Let me know in the comment section which great American rock bands I’ve overlooked.
Honorable Mentions in no particular order: Guns N’ Roses, Fleetwood Mac, Journey, Pearl Jam, Motley Crue, Heart, The Cars, Cheap Trick, R.E.M., The Byrds, The Velvet Underground, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, The Band, Megadeath, The Replacements, The White Stripes, Rage Against the Machine, The Allman Brothers.
To be honest (and this is a bad way to start a “greatest of” list, I know), there are better bands than the Ramones listed as an Honorable Mention. The only time I listen to this legendary punk band is when I’m writing lists like this one. However, the Ramones’ influence is undeniable. I would be remiss, though, if I didn’t also acknowledge their NYC punk scene peers, the New York Dolls, Patti Smith, and the Stooges. Consider the Ramones a stand-in for the entire early/mid ’70s NYC punk scene.
11. Lynyrd Skynyrd
Even beyond their two most beloved hits — “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Free Bird” — Lynyrd Skynyrd gifted us the finest Southern rock music of all time. If you don’t like Lynyrd Skynyrd, you may not be an American.
Until feuding within the band and drug addiction temporarily derailed Aerosmith, no band was producing better blues-based hard rock. Aerosmith, Get Your Wings, Toys in the Attic, and Rocks are the rock album equivalent of a major league pitcher winning four straight Cy Young awards.
9. Van Halen
The question isn’t whether Van Halen belongs on this list or not, because of course, they do. The question is: which Van Halen? The version with Diamond Dave or Van Hagar? (we’re not going to even mention the Gary Cherone debacle). I think the correct answer is the Diamond Dave version. Van Hagar belongs in the Honorable Mention section.
While writing this article, I asked my friends on Facebook to let me know which bands they’d include. I had already pretty much decided which bands were on the list and wasn’t actually expecting to have it altered. Lo and behold, Ronald Bean and Greg Linscott combined to get me to revisit early Chicago and, hence, add the great, horn-based band to this list. If you, like I mistakenly did, only think of the ’80s’ soft-rock version when you hear someone mention the band Chicago, give their earlier stuff a listen. It’s great!
Metallica has produced the greatest thrash metal of all time. Include the Black Album and Load, and Metallica’s library is as good, interesting, and influential as the rest of the bands mentioned. Nothing they made after 1996 really matters.
6. Talking Heads
What a brilliant band! The Talking Heads were the one band that I wanted to rank higher, but I couldn’t convince myself to leapfrog them over any of the bands in the top five. Besides their sizeable influence over New Wave as well as the punk scene that morphed into grunge/alternative, the Talking Heads produced some of the greatest music of any genre under the rock/pop umbrella. If you doubt that claim, put Remain in Light on a turntable, turn it way up, and marvel at the musical genius of David Byrne and the rest of the band.
Nirvana is a band that many of those who are either older or younger than me will only begrudgingly admit belongs on this list (if they even do that). However, Nirvana’s influence over America’s music scene is undeniable. And they were a great band, to boot.
4. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
During a time when synthesizers were all the rage, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers churned out guitar-based heartland rock and roll. And some of the most beloved American rock songs came from the downhome, straight-up rock and roll of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. If they had only recorded their self-titled debut album, Into the Great Wide Open, Damn the Torpedoes, and Southern Accents, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers would have made this list. Thankfully, they also recorded many other excellent albums.
For some reason, people love to hate the Eagles. Yet, their place in rock and roll history is as secure as any band. They became one of the most successful rock bands of all time by producing solid rock songs that resonate with a wide audience. They may not be the most exciting band on this list, but the Eagles were the most consistently good rock band that America has produced.
2. The Doors
Would The Doors be number one on this list if Jim Morrison hadn’t devolved into the alcoholic and drug-induced mess that eventually killed him at the young age of 26? There’s a good chance because, during their brief existence as a band (with Morrison), The Doors released six stellar studio albums that all entered the top ten. Frequently using a keyboard in place of a bass, The Doors’ sound is unmistakable and is full-on rock and roll at its finest.
1. Creedence Clearwater Revival
Everyone loves CCR. Over the space of only four years, the “swamp rock” band produced some of our most loved rock songs: “Fortunate Son,” “Run Through the Jungle,” “Bad Moon Rising,” and their smoldering and cowbell-featuring cover of “Susie-Q,” to name but four great songs in CCR’s sizeable canon. From the Bay Area in California but with a blues-based sound that seems to emanate from the Southern swamps, there is no other rock and roll band that is as American and rock and roll as CCR.