In all my years around music (and now documentaries) I’ve viewed “best” lists with skepticism. How is it possible for so many people to get it wrong? My guess is that politics and friendship play a role in many selections. I also think that “legendary status” places some bands much higher in people’s esteem because it’s almost expected that they belong there. John Ford said, “When you have to choose between history and legend, print the legend.” It reminds me of the prodigy in Thomas Mann’s classic Das Wunderkind, a boy who knew his “legend” was more important than his performance. And so it is with many good — but not great — artists, whose body of work doesn’t survive close scrutiny, nor compare favorably to other artists.
Ten years ago, I wrote a column for Huff Post about what I considered the 10 best bands of all time. At the time I wrote the piece, I stated that the selection for a slot on a top 10 list “has to be more than that you grew up listening to them, saw them live in concert at a formative age, that the critics think they’re great or that you just like them.”
I created criteria for establishing a particular artist or band’s place on any all-time list: the body of work, originality, lyrics that matter, some commercial success, ability to play live, and most importantly, music that stands the test of time. Nostalgia doesn’t have a seat at this table nor does “legendary” status. So several bands from my original list have fallen off this new one because there are other, better bands.
Here are the best of all time. Let the arguments begin.
Ten Bands That Shook The World
In alphabetical order, and — in the spirit of Spinal Tap, we of course go to “11″ on this, and all the following “ten”-related lists.
The Beatles – As the years go by, we’re still amazed by their musical curiosity and how all the great songs stand the test of time.
The Beach Boys – Their best work retains the beauty and inventiveness that have marked them for greatness.
The Doors – Led by their poet/singer, one should not overlook the other three excellent members of the band. Together they created magic.
Jimi Hendrix Experience – Everything changed forever with this album. Still the greatest guitar player who ever lived.
The Kinks – A band that adopted their own original style with memorable songs and witty lyrics that didn’t sound like anyone else.
Led Zeppelin – A great band, musically amazing, if at times, lyrically challenged.
Pink Floyd – What you never hear someone say is “they sound just like Pink Floyd” –because no one does. And David Gilmour’s guitar solo on “Comfortably Numb” is the greatest in rock history.
Queen – There will never be a better singer than Freddie Mercury. The band excelled in a number of musical styles and created one of the first music videos years before there was an MTV.
Radiohead – The last of the great rock bands. Innovative in so many ways with a distinctive sound that stands apart.
U2 – The body of work, the musicianship, and of course the lyrics. The key to their longevity is they remain hungry and ambitious to create memorable new music.
The Who – A band so important that it’s impossible to measure their influence. If you were to look at every major music event in the past 55 years starting with Monterey, The Who was at every one.
Most Overrated Bands
I’m not saying these aren’t good bands, but their inconsistent work doesn’t live up to the legend.
The Rolling Stones — Some good songs, but essentially a cover band, low on originality or innovation. It must have been a PR firm that dubbed them the “World’s Greatest Rock n Roll Band.” They certainly are not that. I guess I’m not alone in that opinion. Paul McCartney was recently quoted as saying, “I’m not sure I should say it, but they’re a blues cover band, that’s sort of what the Stones are. … I think our net was cast a bit wider than theirs.”
Roger Daltrey followed that a bit later with, “You cannot take away the fact that Mick Jagger is still the number one rock ‘n’ roll showman up front. But as a band, if you were outside of a pub and you heard that music coming out of a pub some night, you’d think, ‘Well, that’s a mediocre pub band! No disrespect.”
The Velvet Underground — Cool band, but the music doesn’t hold up well. Lou, John, and Nico were better on their own.
Kiss — Not much here beyond the makeup. Very derivative.
Sex Pistols — Like the Velvet Underground, they’re more important for their influence than the quality of their songs.
The Strokes — Never moved beyond the promise of “Last Night.” Nothing stands out.
10 Best Albums of All Time
Based on the original versions, not expanded bonus track editions.
Stevie Wonder — Songs in the Key of Life An album that looms larger every year. There are so many great songs showcasing a musical genius that is second to none.
Bob Dylan — Blood on the Tracks A great, great album. It’s difficult to not have it in the first position. This is an album they will listen to hundreds of years from now.
The Beatles — Sgt. Pepper Probably the most influential album of all time. The magic of epic songs like “A Day In The Life,” is balanced with often overlooked gems like “Fixing A Hole” and “She’s Leaving Home.”
The Who — Who’s Next Song for song, it’s a great work of art. Profound lyrically and explosive musically.
Joni Mitchell — Blue Seems like it’s taken decades for this album to receive its due. One of the best songwriters of all time. Her masterpiece.
The Doors — The Doors An eternal album that continues to sound fresh to a new generation of fans.
The Beach Boys — Pet Sounds Full of beautiful songs and groundbreaking vocal arrangements that every other band copied. A sonic beauty.
Pink Floyd — Dark Side of the Moon I sometimes wonder how an album this progressive could have ever become so popular. It’s an album for the ages.
Love — Forever Changes A majestic album that sounded so restrained and elegant in contrast to most of its loud contemporaries. Very diverse musical styles, with lyrics that resonated and songs that jumped off the record.
Radiohead – OK Computer The last great rock album, each song better than the previous one. It’s like listening to a symphony.
U2 — Achtung Baby Among all the great U2 albums, this is their best. Sonically, lyrically, and musically, it captured the sound of Berlin as the wall came down.
Top Debut Albums of All Time
Ranked in order.
King Crimson — In The Court of The Crimson King The most impressive debut in rock music history. Hendrix called them “the best group in the world” and Townshend called the debut, “an uncanny masterpiece.” An astounding musical virtuosity that was breathtaking then — and still is now (maybe why Kanye sampled the lead track).
Jimi Hendrix Experience — Are You Experienced Guitar playing was never the same, and this magnificent trio blew everyone away.
The Doors — The Doors Recording an album full of this many memorable songs was enhanced by the often overlooked sound of the record. Credit to label head Jac Holzman and producer Paul Rothchild.
Jeff Buckley — Grace A one-in-a-million voice that matched intriguing songs with great lyrics. An amazing debut.
Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin From the first few notes of the very first song, you knew something was different. An exhilarating first-listen experience that is hard to match.
Dre — The Chronic As important an album as any in the past 30 years. The Chronic changed everything and began hip hop’s ascent to domination.
The Pretenders — The Pretenders An excellent album, and track for track, better than any other punk or post-punk album, with the exception of The Clash.
Pearl Jam – 10 Hard to imagine having this many great songs to put on their first album.
Kanye West — The College Dropout This remarkable debut combines witty and soulful lyricism with an overall theme of self-reflection, hardships of childhood, and the pitfalls of the American school system, which tie the album together into a compelling story.
Bruce Springsteen — Greetings from Asbury Park We all can remember first hearing about this album before finally hearing it. The brilliance of Bruce was clear from Day One and he just got better.
Guns N’ Roses — Appetite for Destruction A momentous debut that yielded so many classic songs.
Most Underrated Albums
In alphabetical order:
Dire Straits — Making Movies From start to finish a masterpiece, culminating with Romeo and Juliet.
Peter Gabriel — So Great songs and lyrics, which continue to dazzle today. “Don’t Give Up” with Kate Bush is probably the best duet of all time.
Kinks — Village Green Preservation Society Every song on this remarkable album is a revelation.
John Martyn — Solid Air British singer/songwriter Martyn is largely forgotten now, but the quality of the songs still resonates.
Steely Dan — Aja A beautiful album from one of America’s most original bands.
Most Influential Artists
These 15 artists changed music forever. In alphabetical order, and no explanation is needed.
Best Live Bands
Ranked in order:
The Who – Always the most exciting band in any lineup; just ask all the unfortunate bands that tried to follow them.
Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band – In every way, one of the best shows a music fan could ever hope to attend.
Dire Straits – A magnificent band live. Their version of Sultans of Swing at Live Aid was better than any other performance, including Queen.
U2 – Anything can happen at a U2 show and it often does. The sense of spontaneity and excitement is second to none.
Pink Floyd – Always great live, their set at Live 8, the first one in 24 years with the original band, was so extraordinary that the mesmerized audience barely uttered a sound.
Of course we want to hear from you, and expect lots of opinions about Jeff’s lists. Just remember to be kind!
Photo: The Kinks (public domain)