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)
Was always a bigger fan of The Rolling Stones over The Beatles, but I do agree with you assessment of their output.
Steely Dan’s “Aja” is underrated? By whom? I would put that album along side “Dark Side Of The Moon!”
Ah, lists – I love ’em. Mostly on the same page as you except 1. I never “got” Radiohead so would not include them. 2. Best debut albums? C’mon, you can’t leave out Roxy Music!
So many disagreements here (seriously, The Doors as one of the greatest bands?) but the exclusion of The Cars s/t debut and Elvis Costello’s My Aim is True from the Best Debut album list is unforgiveable.
Ooooooh I love The Cars.. (Benjamin Orr, swoon)..
Good fun, and taken with a grain of salt. HOWEVER, to include the Doors and exclude the Stones is sheer lunacy. The Stones had a massive impact, whether it was introducing American teens to forgotten blues artists, social commentary, interesting studio treatments of excellent songs…good God, Keef’s guitar work and unique tunings if nothing else. Beggar’s Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street? Come on, Jeff, what did they do to you to hurt your feelings? Seriously, interesting lists, thanks.
Hard to disagree with!
one of the best and most influential bands if you include R&B music who also made lots of fantastic album Earth Wind and Fire. Also James Brown and Sly Stone has been left off the lists.
Some say ‘Rides Again’ defined the 70’s. Truly underrated IMHO.
Every one of these lists can be debated. Precisely as my own comparable lists would be.
I will say this:
That Sex Pistols debut punched us in the teeth at a time when the popular music charts were perpetually populated with the harmless (yet mega-talented) likes of The Bee Gees, Barry Manilow and The Captain and Tenille.
I also maintain that sonic salvos such as “God Save The Queen”, “EMI” and “New York” are perfectly performed detonations of delirium blasted by admittedly and unabashedly imperfect musicians.
“We mean it, maaaaaaan.”
Ask a 60s music fan or mod who’s better, The Who or The Kinks, and you can often grab the popcorn as they have a HAL-style meltdown.
To relegate The Rolling Stones as low as Kiss is an absurdity beyond measure. Mediocre bar band? Ridiculous, and I don’t care who said it.
As long as I’m here let me also say that Pet Sounds, while have a memorable single is overrated. The Beach Boys had innumerable brilliant, well produced singles, but with the exception of any number of their anthologies, I never made it through any of their albums.
Kind of agree with you about Pet Sounds. Some really nice songs, and others, I just don’t get it.
Hi Jeff, as a list-maker, I enjoyed reading yours. Agree with a bunch, not with some, don’t know enough about some of the others. Your “Best” list included three of my “Favorites”, Blue, Who’s Next, BLood on the Tracks. I personally go with Abbey Road over Pepper. And Jackson Browne’s Late for the Sky (you mentioned lyrical significance, and that is my biggest driver). I would like to send you an email about the project I am working on, if you are okay with it. You can contact me at email@example.com so I can send you that message.
Hi Jeff, nice to speak to you. I was wondering what your thoughts are on The Smiths, as I do think they could perfectly be placed on the list of most influential bands, both because of their sonic originality among other 80’s bands, and because of their witty lyrics. I would like to hear your comments. Thanks.
Even after the sublime car radio experience of Satisfaction, it took me a long time to fully appreciate the Rolling Stones. Their genius is the ability to make so much out of so little. Mick can’t really sing, and yet… Keith recycles similar open-G-tuning riffs endlessly and yet… They didn’t start out as songwriters and yet… they’ve written some of the very best rockers and the very best ballads ever. Gimme Shelter is equal to, and maybe better than, A Day In The Life.
Thanks for your thoughts…love the passionate comments. Music fans rarely agree and that’s what makes it interesting.
No jazz or Cuban or New Orleans or African artists exist in this author’s world.
Any Scottish bagpipes in yours?
To each his own.
As ever and always.
Oh, my heart just breaks. Not because of any choice to include or exclude an artist from one list or another. No, what fills me with despair is seeing an author so experienced and knowledgeable nevertheless referring to “the” solo in Comfortably Numb.
Out in the wider world, I’ve given up on expecting better. There the fight has been lost, if google search results are any guide. But here? In this space? Please, please tell me it was just a little typo, a dropped “s” at the end of “solo.” A simple oversight regarding the basic facts.
Tell me the dream isn’t really gone, after all.
I’m here to state that the series of singles “Last Time”, “Satisfaction “, “Get Off My Cloud”, “19th Nervous Breakdown “, “Paint It Black”, “Mother’s Little Helper”, “Ruby Tuesday”, “We Love You”, “She’s A Rainbow”, “Jumping Jack Flash”, “Street Fighting Man”, and “Street Fighting Man” over a period of only three years and putting aside all the great album material certainly elevates The Rolling Stones to top ten bands that shook the world. As incredible and original as the Doors first album was they cannot begin to match the level of sustained creativity that the Stones thrilled us all with during those dark and influential days of 1965 to 1968.
I’m not a Rolling Stones fan AT ALL, but to diminish them to just a covers band, as much as I like Macca. Not really a Who fan. Is just unfair because they wrote many of their own great hits. I see no Elvis Presley in your most influential list. And again even if he didn’t write his own songs, he opened the door for many who followed and is as important as Chuck Berry, The Beatles and Dylan. And a big influence on the latter two. I agree with you on Love and The Kinks (seen Ray Davies three times). But that’s about it. I was 20 in 1997, long after many of these artists hit the big time.
My list of influences would be:
1. Elvis Presley (forced to like him as a child, same age as my Dad)
2. The Beatles
4. The Kinks
5. Bob Dylan
7. The Velvet Underground
8. Syd Barrett (and that era Pink Floyd)
9. The Sex Pistols
10. Elliott Smith
Beatles album: Revolver, followed by Abbey Road, Bob Dylan: Bringing it all back home, Pink Floyd: Piper at the Gates of Dawn, The Doors: Strange Days, John Martyn: London Conversation
Cannot stand Kanye West, or many of the other musicians mentioned. I will add I like Roxy Music and The Cars, and many more I can’t be bothered to list here..
Can’t underestimate the contributions of Syd Barrett and his work, both with Pink Floyd and as a solo artist. Other artists such as David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Robyn Hitchcock and Graham Coxon have named Barrett as a major influence.
All lists create space for debate, but this has so much right, I’d feel petty tweaking it. Well done
Would’ve liked to have seen Pink Floyd’s “The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn” among the best debut albums.
Although his tenure with the band was short, Syd Barrett’s influence continued to be felt in their subsequent work, from “Dark Side of the Moon” to “Wish You Were Here” and even “The Wall”. It was Barrett who named the band, pointed them down the path of psychedelia, wrote their first two hits plus the majority of their first album, and helped them secure a recording contract with EMI.
Nothing before sounded like that first Pink Floyd album when it appeared. Perhaps some mention of it is deserved?
Ok, if I had to quibble, hwy 61 or Blonde above the also exceptional Blood on…. Stones so much more than a cover band, count all the Jagger/Richards credits (and one uncredited Parson contribution) and no pub band would have one of the greatest rhythm guitarists ever.
I enjoyed reading these various compilations.
For me, personally, there are The Beatles and then there’s everyone else. That being said, I feel the Stones have been unfairly maligned.
Who I feel is not worthy of being on this list are Guns N Roses. Talk about over rated. Axl Rose’s singing sounds as though he grabbed a cat by the tail and is swinging it around in circles above his head. In addition, they were not a groundbreaking band. All they did was bring rock and roll back to the forefront, after being dormant as a result of Punk and New Wave. They didn’t do anything that hadn’t already been done (and better) by The Stones, Aerosmith, or Van Halen. I actually like Slash along with the other members of GNR, and find them talented. But you can have Axl. There are any number of other bands and artists who had impactful debut albums with as many, if not more hits than Appetite For Destruction.
I also think Van Halen could have earned a spot somewhere here, if for no other reason than Eddie’s guitar playing.
Hard to not agree with most of that!
Every list generates disagreement, a thankless assignment ( like being a goalie in any sport). With just a few exceptions or omissions, when I finished the article I felt very good about it; something that seldom happens. No compulsion to rant angrily. Easy to tell the writer listened to and appreciated a lot of music over a long period of their life.
List are mostly just a slap in the face. How you could ever leave out Elvis makes me suspicious of your entire focus. Debut albums must include Boston. Blood on the Tracks can’t hold a candle to Hwy 61. Radiohead??? Nope.
I love Dire Straits, but I watched Live Aid and Queen was mesmerizing. No contest.
Interesting choices. I’d argue that The Band should be included in each list. Big Pink for debut. The Band for best album.
It’s a very US/UK oriented list. Woodface by Crowded House, an Australian/NZ band, is note for note the equal of any Beatles album. The very best album to come from south of the equator.
Always wonder why some say ‘equal of any Beatles Album, better than the Beatles, almost as good…..’
it’s all a matter of taste. I happen to think Larry Bird might possibly be the best Basket Ball player ever but…………………