When you decide that spending about 27 work hours determining the holders of the American Band Championship Belt going back to 1964 is a good, even noble idea, you quickly come up against two inconvenient facts.1 One, many of the best bands ever aren’t from the United States. You could even say that a majority of the best bands ever aren’t American. Just try talking about punk, metal, or dance music using strictly domestic acts — you won’t get very far. Even groups that seem like American bands aren’t really American bands. America is one-third British. The Band is four-fifths Canadian. Grand Funk Railroad appears to be telling the truth in “We’re an American Band,” but I’m afraid to administer a blood test.
Two, the strain of stubborn individualism in the American character inevitably screws with our groups. Either the lead singer is set apart as an “and the” figurehead — as in Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band or Prince and the Revolution — or the singer leaves, à la Beyoncé and Justin Timberlake, for a solo career.
As if this didn’t make the process difficult enough, there were the self-imposed rules I set down before sifting through 50 years of pop history and picking the winners. Four rules, to be exact.
1. No “and the” bands.
A very important rule that clarifies the process and makes the list more interesting. Without it, the belt winners would simply be the same old familiar list of popular singer-songwriters with celebrated backing bands. While I agree that, say, the E Street Band is a vital organization, its identity is absorbed by Springsteen’s persona. Springsteen is known simply as “Springsteen” whether or not he’s recording with the E Street Band. Therefore, it is not a true band for our purposes. Every band on this list is known first and foremost as a band. (Warning: I violate this rule twice.)
2. The band can include non-Americans if it identifies as American.
Arcade Fire is not an American band, even though Win and Will Butler hail from Texas, because it formed in Montreal and is generally associated with Canada. The Velvet Underground is an American band, even though John Cale is Welsh, because VU is the quintessential avatar of New York City scuzz. Please direct all other questions to your local immigration office.
3. Overall legacies matter, but belt distribution is weighted toward output in the specific years listed.
Self-explanatory, but I should add that I avoided repeats, so if a band is listed for one period I didn’t list it again for another period when it might’ve otherwise been a worthy challenger.
4. Obviously this boils down to personal opinion, but it’s not all personal opinion.
I tried to be as impartial as one can be when handing out a fictional prize on the basis of perceived artistic value. There are times when I chose groups that I personally don’t feel that strongly about, but whose résumés were indisputable. There were also times when personal favorites got the heave-ho. One of my favorite American bands of all time is the Replacements. The Replacements were not awarded an American Band Championship Belt. This enrages me, and yet it seems just.
That said, my personal biases inevitably infected the process in ways I’m not even conscious of, but will surely be obvious to readers. My advice: Deal with it.
Are we ready? Let’s hand out some belts.
The Beach Boys, 1964
Key music: Shut Down, Vol. 2 and All Summer Long
Overview: The first great American rock group, the Beach Boys are generally associated with the eras when they were decades removed from being actual boys. It’s not just a matter of kids not understanding that this is the band that made freaking Pet Sounds — there are individuals pushing 30 for whom the Beach Boys will always be the doddering, dog-shirt donning geezers who principally influenced Jesse and the Rippers.
It’s true that, for years now, tests have shown that a Beach Boys concert is a very sad thing. But let’s give credit where credit is due: The Beach Boys helped to set the template for many of the bands on this list. They had an acknowledged genius (Brian Wilson); the acknowledged genius’s asshole antagonist (Mike Love); a wild drummer who died tragically (Dennis Wilson); a quiet, historically undervalued genius (Carl Wilson); and another guy (Al Jardine). I included the Beach Boys here (and not in ’66, the year Pet Sounds was released) because in ’64 they were still a working band releasing indestructible radio fare like “I Get Around” and “Fun, Fun, Fun.” In December ’64, Brian Wilson had an anxiety attack while on tour, and by the following month he had officially retired from the road.
Biggest challenger: According to Diana Ross, the Supremes weren’t really a group but rather a Diana Ross solo act rounded out by Ross’s lackeys. Nevertheless, the Supremes rank among the finest executors of classic singles in American pop, and ’64 marked the beginning of their reign, with three consecutive no. 1 hits: “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Baby Love,” and “Come See About Me.”
Booker T. & the MG’s, 1965-66
Key music: Otis Redding’s The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads (1965) and Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul and The Soul Album and Complete & Unbelievable: The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul (1966), plus the songs “Hold On, I’m Comin’” by Sam & Dave and “In the Midnight Hour” by Wilson Pickett, among many other excellent Stax hits
Overview: Backing bands may seem tricky, because they might appear to violate the “and the” rule. But given the sheer volume of soul classics that Booker T. & the MG’s played on as the house band for the iconic Memphis label Stax (which makes them more than sidemen for just one figurehead singer-songwriter) and the fact that the MG’s were also a self-contained unit that recorded hits on their own (which sets them apart from Motown’s Funk Brothers or the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section), I feel they warrant inclusion. If nothing else, an interracial band hailing from the region that incorporated rock, R&B, gospel, and country into an unassailably sleek and badass sound is the most inherently American thing I can imagine.
Biggest challenger: If the Beach Boys influenced the composition of the classic American rock group, the Byrds shaped the sound. “Chiming guitars plus a driving rhythm section plus philosophical lyrics” is a bedrock formula of American music, serving everyone from Tom Petty to R.E.M. to Real Estate exceedingly well. Whenever somebody grows a beard and aspires to take guitar-based music in weird, druggy directions, the Byrds deserve a royalty check.
Second-biggest challenger: The Four Tops are my favorite classic-era Motown group (which partly explains why they’re here and not the better-regarded Temptations). This is perhaps their greatest two-year period — it includes the hits “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” “Standing in the Shadows of Love,” “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch),” and “It’s the Same Old Song.” Levi Stubbs is one of the all-time American pop belters — his range was limited, but his ability to express mind-melting romantic anxiety is unparalleled. Stubbs sang like he could take on the world if only he weren’t held captive by his own paranoia. I suspect Elvis Costello secretly wished he sounded like this.
Third-biggest challenger: In the history of L.A. rock bands, Love is usually overlooked in favor of more famous contemporaries like the Doors and the Byrds. But Love could go darker than the former and prettier than the latter. Rock geeks know 1967’s Forever Changes, but I ride for the rawer, more rocking early records. Plus, they lived in a castle, man!
The Velvet Underground, 1967-68
Key music: The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967) and White Light/White Heat (1968)
Overview: If this were the Coolest American Bands Championship Belt, you would have the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, the Ramones, Run-D.M.C., and a lot of other very self-conscious musicians who wished they looked as good in black. Anybody who forms a band in 2014 is still trying to sound, look, and act this fierce.
Biggest challenger: The Velvet Underground minus 75 IQ points plus a gallon of Boone’s Farm equals the Doors. As someone who loves both bands, I mean that as a compliment.
Second-biggest challenger: After hours of consuming the Velvet Underground and the Doors and the things one consumes when consuming that music, the only band that makes cognitive sense is Blue Cheer, a pioneer of early heavy metal and modern brain damage.
Creedence Clearwater Revival, 1969-70
Key music: Bayou Country, Green River, and Willy and the Poor Boys (1969), and Cosmo’s Factory and Pendulum (1970)
Overview: Not as cool as the Velvets, but arguably better. This two-year period is insane — no band passed the Five-Albums Test in a shorter period of time. In just 24 months CCR produced definitive singles that critiqued privilege (“Fortunate Son”), exemplified the American work ethic (“Proud Mary”), chronicled the downside of show business (“Lodi”), provided cool background music for guy-to-werewolf transformations (“Bad Moon Rising”), predicted the awesomeness of Licensed to Ill (“Down on the Corner”), and soothed the Dude (“Lookin’ Out My Back Door”). You know what most bands do in two years, even great ones? Play the same songs over and over. CCR in that amount of time produced a body of work that’s unparalleled in American rock. This band is so magnificent, it deserves a different belt than all the other bands get. The CCR belt shall be forged out of gold and spray-painted flannel.
Biggest challenger: Speaking of groups that had entire careers’ worth of greatness in the space of a few years, consider the Jackson 5’s run of singles in ’69-’70: “I Want You Back” (no. 1), “ABC” (no. 1), “The Love You Save” (no. 1), and “I’ll Be There” (no. 1). You catch my drift — Michael Jackson could’ve retired in 1971 and still had four songs that remained fixtures on the radio more than 40 years later. But why stop when you come out of the gate kicking this amount of ass?
Second-biggest challenger: MC5 made it acceptable for pudgy white men from the Midwest to grow helmet-haired Afros. So, yeah, including them here is personal for me. Also, because it bears repeating: KICK OUT THE JAMS, MOTHERFUCKERS!
Sly & the Family Stone, 1971
Key music: There’s a Riot Goin’ On
Overview: James Brown and George Clinton generate more dialogue, but Sly Stone was arguably the most innovative. Still, it might seem counterintuitive to award Sly & the Family Stone the belt in 1971, as the group was in pretty rough shape at the time. To illustrate this, watch this clip from Woodstock in 1969, when Sly was an undisputed champion:2
Imagine the sheer number of babies conceived during this performance. The rate of procreation boggles the mind. Nobody was more exciting live than Sly & the Family Stone at their peak.
Now, watch this clip of Sly & the Family Stone performing the same song on The Dick Cavett Show in 1971.
It’s not terrible. But it’s noticeably less good. The band sounds exhausted. As for Sly, it’s not clear if he is really talking to Dick Cavett or if he’s teleporting an image of himself down to Earth from Pluto.
Nevertheless, Sly & the Family Stone acquired the belt because they put out There’s a Riot Goin’ On, one of the great “end of the ’60s” albums, a murky haze of bummed-out drum machines, demonic anti-harmonies, and poisoned vibes that plays like grimy audio verité for the Family Stone’s own apocalypse. Don’t bother waking Sly up — I’ll just lay the belt at his feet.
Biggest challenger: Had Duane Allman’s death in October 1971 not cruelly ended the Allman Brothers Band’s promising and oft-brilliant original incarnation, I might be handing them the belt for multiple years in the ’70s. It’s amazing to consider that Allman was only 24 when he died, and yet his body of work (both with the Allmans and as an in-demand studio musician) had already made him a legend. He was just a kid when he died, but Allman remains one of this country’s greatest guitar heroes. I’m not in the habit of pushing guitar solos, but Allman’s playing on any live version of “Blue Sky” will make the coldest day in February feel like the middle of July.
Second-biggest challenger: At the risk of falling down into a guitar solo rabbit hole, here is Eddie Hazel of Funkadelic playing the title track from 1971’s Maggot Brain and slowly vaporizing all maggot brains in the vicinity.
Grateful Dead, 1972
Key music: Europe ’72, plus a whole lot of live recordings, both official and bootleg
Overview: The Dead put out their most acclaimed studio albums, 1969’s Workingman’s Dead and 1970’s American Beauty, a few years prior. In fact, the Dead released no studio records in ’72, just the live triple-LP Europe ’72. So why did I award them the belt for this year? You gotta listen to the tapes, maaan. When it comes to live Dead, any year between ’69 and ’74 is pretty reliable — now more than ever, because enjoying live Dead no longer involves spending time with actual Deadheads. I went with ’72 because of the band’s consistently strong performances and the fact that it was their last year with original keyboardist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, who exited the band that June and died in March 1973.
The Dead belong here for a variety of reasons — they successfully invented an entire subculture around their music and iconography, they are a core influence for rock, folk, and jam-band artists, and (as Mr. Rosso advised) when you’re stressin’ out, the Dead always help.
Biggest challenger: I was very tempted to give the belt to Big Star, which put out its self-jinxing debut #1 Record in ’72. But putting them on the precipice of success without allowing them to achieve it seemed like a more appropriate tribute.
The Stooges, 1973
Key music: Raw Power
Overview: On some days, I think 1970’s Fun House is better. Occasionally I even prefer 1969’s The Stooges. But Raw Power is really the apex of the Stooges, and therefore the apex of filthy, scary, funny, not-funny, seriously-this-is-the-real-fucking-shit-and-this-shit-is-bottomless American punk rock. Raw Power is the only album in rock history that could justifiably be called Raw Power, because titling any other album Raw Power would seem silly compared with whatever Raw Power would be called. People in this alternate dimension would constantly argue, “No, that Stooges album not called Raw Power deserves to be called Raw Power, BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT IT FUCKING IS!”
What else can I say about Raw Power that hasn’t already been said about prison riots or a unicorn having sex with a ’55 Chevy? Raw Power single-handedly made hailing from the upper Midwest seem dangerous. Iggy Pop can do this and this and it doesn’t matter because he made Raw Power. You know that part in the original Superman movie, when young Clark Kent is called out to the barn by that glowing crystal, and his superhero fate is revealed to him? For every subsequent band that mattered at all, that crystal is Raw Power.3 Raw Power was transformative then, and it’s transformative now.
Biggest challenger: None.
Steely Dan, 1974-76
Key music: 1974’s Pretzel Logic, 1975’s Katy Lied, and 1976’s The Royal Scam
Overview: When people talk about critical revisionism in pop music, they typically focus on how writing analytically about the first Destiny’s Child record is now considered more valuable than writing analytically about the first Animal Collective LP. But for me the most amazing flip-flop for what’s currently deemed to be “good” taste concerns Steely Dan. Ten years ago, Steely Dan’s reputation seemed dubious. It was regarded as L.A. session-musician porn. Any argument in favor of Steely Dan had to be couched in “guilty pleasure” language. Now, it’s the people who hate Steely Dan who are on the defensive. The conversation has shifted from “Steely Dan is great and I don’t mean that ironically!” to “Steely Dan is great and I don’t have to explain it because it’s self-evident!” I’m not sure how or why this happened — I suspect Kanye West sampling “Kid Charlemagne” on Graduation was a turning point — but I’m glad it did or else I would’ve had to fight hard to justify giving Steely Dan the belt for three years in the heart of the ’70s. But now, as any major dude will tell you, I’m obviously correct.
Biggest challenger: Arguing in favor of Aerosmith, on the other hand, is still a hostile action. It actually makes people angry if you insist that Aerosmith was ever great. They will vehemently argue against it, in spite of never spending some quality time drinking six-packs and jamming out to 1974’s Get Your Wings, 1975’s Toys in the Attic, and 1976’s Rocks. I have no patience for this. Nobody would think Steely Dan was cool if Donald Fagen and Walter Becker had started recording Diane Warren songs in the late ’90s. That Aerosmith did do this shouldn’t be held against their golden-era output.
Second-biggest challenger: Since we’re on the subject of quality American rock bands that smart people pride themselves on not understanding, I must also mention Lynyrd Skynyrd, who peaked during this period with 1974’s Second Helping, 1975’s Nuthin’ Fancy, and 1976’s Gimme Back My Bullets. In some circles, declaring your love of Skynyrd is like declaring Glenn Beck as your favorite author. It immediately puts you inside an uncomfortable demographic box reserved for bigots and dullards. But in the ’70s, when original leader Ronnie Van Zant was still alive, Skynyrd wasn’t yet the musical version of Fox News that it later became. They were into whiskey drinkin’ and butt-kickin’, sure, but also gun control (see “Saturday Night Special”) and Jimmy Carter. There’s also the fact that these albums rock like a goddamn sonofabitch, which seems pertinent.
The Ramones, 1977
Key music: Leave Home and Rocket to Russia
Overview: Below is a video of the Ramones performing at CBGB in 1977. The four men onstage are now dead. That’s what we’ve been told, anyway. I don’t really believe they are dead. Just look at them. Do they look dead to you? Looking at them makes me feel like I’m the dead one. I’ve never rocked a leather jacket and half-shirt simultaneously. I don’t have enough life force inside of me to pull that off. Few humans do. The Ramones are beyond our comprehension — in 2001, they would’ve been the monolith and the apes. You can’t bury this.
Biggest challenger: As much as I admire the Ramones, I don’t love them as much as Cheap Trick. If I awarded the belt based purely on my own opinion, Bun E. Carlos would be wearing it around that majestic beer gut of his right now. The best thing about Cheap Trick if you live within 200 miles of the band’s headquarters in Rockford, Illinois, is that you can see them playing at some casino or community festival at least once every year. And every time you see Cheap Trick, it will be amazing. AMAZING. Rick Nielsen will toss guitar picks, Robin Zander will turn psychotic for “The Ballad of TV Violence,” and Tom Petersson will be more suave than any bassist not named John Entwistle. (Bun E. sadly won’t be there, but that’s a whole other story.) I don’t take this for granted. Cheap Trick still being so accessible is like if the Fantastic Four were your local police department.
Second-biggest challenger: Is there a band with more squandered potential than Television? How did they put out only three albums? Television could’ve been better — should’ve been better, even — than the Ramones or even my precious Cheap Trick. Instead, we have to be satisfied with Marquee Moon, merely one of the four or five best debut albums ever.
Third-biggest challenger: I like the Eagles! I think Hotel California is great! Come at me, bros! Seriously, if 1977 was Year Zero for punk, it should be noted that the most trenchant criticism of the corporate rock machine that year came from a curly-haired drummer preoccupied with a spooky public lodging metaphor. Who but the Eagles had a better idea of how dehumanizing the stadium-rock beast could be? And yet, because they were true nihilists, the Eagles embraced it anyway. Like the man says, “Shit don’t float.”
Van Halen, 1978
Key music: Van Halen
Overview: What are the arguments against giving Van Halen the belt? Was Eddie Van Halen’s guitar playing too flashy? Was Alex Van Halen’s drumming too bombastic? Were Michael Anthony’s backing vocals too shiny and perfect? Was David Lee Roth too magical for our world? Is joy overrated? Is having a sense of humor unnecessary? Is life not worth living?
I’m sorry, but these arguments are not persuasive. Van Halen’s debut has brightened more lives than the cure for polio.4 The belt is theirs.
Biggest challenger: Devo was Van Halen for people who preferred reading critical theory to having sex. This is not a criticism. For some of us, sex wasn’t an option for a long time.
Talking Heads, 1979-80
Key music: 1979’s Fear of Music and 1980’s Remain in Light
Overview: Talking Heads is my no. 1 band that I wish would reunite that never will reunite. And I know this is probably for the best, because nothing lasts forever and disappointment awaits whoever doesn’t accept that. Still, how incredible would it be to see this in person?
I don’t think there ever was a band better at doing everything than the Talking Heads on these two albums. The music contained therein is catchy and confounding, accessible and alienating, funky and rigid, visceral and intellectual, dorky and hip, and so on and so on. I honestly believe that the return of the Talking Heads would make pop music seem less polarized, because this was the rare band capable of reconciling so many different contradictions. But, hey, if David Byrne can’t get along with Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth for the good of mankind, so be it.
Biggest challenger: Hey, did you know Chic isn’t in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in spite of inventing the sound of modern pop with “Good Times”? Just thought I’d mention that because it’s extremely stupid.
Black Flag, 1981
Key music: Damaged
Overview: The ’80s is the best decade for American bands, hands down, and it all starts with Black Flag, one of the groups primarily responsible for establishing the network of basements, VFW halls, and dive bars that constituted the indie-band tour circuit during the Reagan era. Black Flag played anywhere and everywhere, often for audiences not used to seeing fire-spitting punk bands, and planted the seeds of future music scenes in their wake. (To name just one example, one Black Flag show in Seattle during the band’s sludgy My War period is credited with kick-starting grunge.)
Have I mentioned how incredible the music is? Henry Rollins’s hectoring delivery made him a star, but the meat of Black Flag’s sound will always be Greg Ginn’s ungodly guitar, a thick and whizzing buzz saw that sounds like Tony Iommi being fired out of a cannon.
Biggest challenger: In 1981, loving Black Flag usually meant hating the epitome of AOR, Journey. For some people, this dichotomy is still meaningful and needs to be preserved. I am not one of those people. I love Damaged and I love power ballads about city boys raised in south Detroit. I understand why some people feel like they have to choose. At one time, it appeared that bands like Black Flag had to exist as an antidote to the omnipresent cheese of bands like Journey. But now they both exist in history, where the old divisions matter less. Ultimately, Henry Rollins and Steve Perry are wailing the same life-affirming message: Don’t stop believin’, because you’ll rise above.
Key music: Chronic Town (1982), Murmur (1983), and Reckoning (1984)
Overview: In 1983, R.E.M.’s full-length debut, Murmur, placed second in the Village Voice’s annual Pazz & Jop poll of American music critics, right behind Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Rolling Stone went further, declaring Murmur its album of the year. Given R.E.M.’s peerless reputation among American bands, this might not seem all that extraordinary. But consider that R.E.M. was based in Athens, Georgia, far outside the country’s major media centers, at a time when not living in New York or L.A. essentially equated to residing in Siberia. Or that R.E.M.’s Southern boho sensibility perplexed big-city music writers accustomed to bands aggressively jabbing fingers in their chests. Those writers couldn’t deny Murmur, but R.E.M. (in its early-’80s incarnation, anyway) would always seem a little exotic for how it personified the world as it existed in the hinterlands. This proved an empowering message for countless other artists: Don’t move away. Make your hometown matter. Represent who you are.
Biggest challenger: I already mentioned how heartbroken I am over not awarding the Replacements the belt. If ever there were a remote chance of Paul Westerberg becoming my personal friend and mentor, I’ve squandered it now.5
Second-biggest challenger: If I am brutally beaten because of this column, I know it will be over my failure to properly honor Metallica. Let me just say, should this happen, and my attacker is put on trial, please inform the court that I recognize the greatness of 1983’s Kill ’Em All and 1984’s Ride the Lightning, it’s just that the competition in the ’80s bracket is that intense. If mid-’80s Metallica were competing at any time in the 21st century, it would be no contest. James Hetfield would be drinking James Murphy’s blood out of a Master of Puppets chalice. Blame history, not me.
Third-biggest challenger: There has never been a sweeter relationship between bandmates than the union between Mike Watt and D. Boon in the Minutemen. It truly is the greatest love story in rock history. If you can listen to Watt talk about D. Boon in We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen and not get choked up, you are made of sterner stuff that I. It’s like the end of It’s a Wonderful Life multiplied by the end of E.T., only with better bass lines.
Key music: King of Rock (1985) and Raising Hell (1986)
Overview: In the video for “King of Rock,” Joseph “Run” Simmons and Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels force their way into a rock-and-roll museum, mildly accosting an elderly security guard (played by Larry “Bud” Melman) in the process. At the time, this scenario was a metaphor for rap’s fight for artistic credibility as it entered into the mainstream. But it also was a depiction of events that actually occurred in 2009, when Run-D.M.C. was inducted into the actual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Run-D.M.C. imagined rap taking over pop music and then initiated the takeover with Raising Hell. Run-D.M.C. didn’t win the belt; they took it by justifiable force.
Biggest challenger: Hüsker Dü is my no. 2 band I wish would reunite that will never reunite. Everyone who loves Hüsker Dü is resigned to this, as the relationship between Bob Mould and Grant Hart is Mike Watt and D. Boon’s antimatter. (And Mould’s relationship with bassist Greg Norton isn’t much better.) All of which prompts an obvious question: How do we hologram this?
Second-biggest challenger: You know what great mid-’80s American rock band still tours regularly? The Meat Puppets. The iconoclastic midpoint between Black Flag and Grateful Dead, the Meat Puppets have survived myriad trends, record-industry busts, and addictions and come out the other side as a true national treasure.
Guns N’ Roses, 1987-90
Key music: Appetite for Destruction (1987) and G N’ R Lies (1988)
Overview: This is it, the best period for American bands in the last 50 years. To give you an idea of how plentiful great American bands were during this time, here’s a list of groups I won’t be slotting as challengers for the belt, in spite of their formidable résumés: Pixies, N.W.A, Jane’s Addiction, Los Lobos, De La Soul, Living Colour, the Feelies, Galaxie 500, Digital Undergound, Faith No More, the Black Crowes, Eric B. & Rakim. (These were also good years for previously mentioned bands like R.E.M., Metallica, the Replacements, and Hüsker Dü.)
So, why GNR? Well, you had Appetite for Destruction, which is the best album released during these years. You had G N’ R Lies, which had one of the best songs of the period (“Patience”) and the most controversial (“One in a Million”). And you had their performance at Farm Aid in 1990, which prompted Steven Adler’s dismissal and signaled the end of GNR’s glory years. No American band would ever be this huge ever again.
Biggest challenger: There are at least six credible challengers for the belt during these years, and the top three are virtually even. But since I am required to rank to them, I’ll go with simple math: Sonic Youth is the top challenger because they put out three great albums, 1987’s Sister, 1988’s Daydream Nation, and 1990’s Goo. I’m sure people whose taste is superior to mine will insist that Sonic Youth deserves to be placed ahead of GNR. So why do I already feel bad about the decision to not rank Sonic Youth behind the other two challengers?
Second-biggest challenger: Seriously, is it too late to change my mind? Putting Public Enemy as the second challenger seems ludicrous. This group put out 1988’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (possibly the greatest rap LP ever) and 1990’s Fear of a Black Planet (which I actually like more than Millions). You can’t understand America in the late ’80s without studying those records. Chuck D is already writing a “She Watch Channel Zero?!”–style protest song about how pop-culture websites are shallow noise because of this slight. I don’t blame him.
Third-biggest challenger: The Beastie Boys “only” put out Paul’s Boutique in this period, though the singles from Licensed to Ill were still dominating pop culture throughout 1987. How does a game-changer like Paul’s Boutique warrant only a third-biggest challenger slot? I have no idea. 1987-90 is killing me. Let’s move on.
Key music: Nevermind (1991), Incesticide (1992), and In Utero (1993)
Overview: OK, this one was much easier. Not that the early ’90s weren’t also flush with benchmark American bands. It’s just that Nirvana owned these years like no other band on this list. I could’ve given another band the belt for ’91-’93, but that would’ve created a smoking crater where this column used to be.
Biggest challenger: Pearl Jam was never considered as culturally important as Nirvana, but Pearl Jam was more popular and ended up surviving much longer. I’m amenable to the argument that Pearl Jam should be slotted ahead of Nirvana because it successfully navigated the career gantlet that Kurt Cobain opted out of. I don’t agree with that argument, but I see its value.
Second-biggest challenger: Characters in music documentaries that choke me up, part 2: Phife Dawg in Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest. I want to give him a hug and a record contract whenever he’s onscreen. Q-Tip is still A Tribe Called Quest’s main attraction on two of the best rap albums ever, 1991’s The Low End Theory and 1993’s Midnight Marauders, but Tribe would’ve gotten nowhere without Phife doing the microphone checks.
Third-biggest challenger: Is Pavement a band that people born between 1965 and 1980 are cursed to love without the ability to properly articulate why we love them? Like Weezer, Pavement has an appeal that seems to elude anybody outside of that generation. I feel like the sexiness of not giving a shit should be obvious, but it is not.
Wu-Tang Clan, 1994-95
Key music: Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993), Method Man’s Tical (1994), Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version (1995), Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx … (1995), GZA’s Liquid Swords (1995)
Overview: In his essential 2010 book The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop, Dan Charnas details the brilliant behind-the-scenes wrangling that allowed the Wu-Tang Clan to sign separate record deals with different labels for the group and for each of the group members. As Charnas explains, this unprecedented business arrangement allowed Wu-Tang to harness the promotional power of the entire recording industry, as any solo project inevitably involved other Wu-Tang members and therefore fed into the group identity. So, while Wu-Tang’s historic debut, Enter the Wu-Tang, technically came out in November 1993, its full impact wasn’t felt until ’94 and ’95, when the Wu-Tang mythos proceeded to take over the culture.
Biggest challenger: Trent Reznor emerged as America’s most charismatic post-Cobain rock star at Woodstock ’94. He subsequently fired up a mythos of his own in the wake of Nine Inch Nails’ 1994 album, The Downward Spiral, directly (Marilyn Manson) and indirectly (Stabbing Westward) building an army of clones. But Reznor was always the muddiest of them all.
Second-biggest challenger: Bob Mould once likened Smashing Pumpkins to the Monkees; he intended it as a put-down. Billy Corgan, meanwhile, filled the commercial gap left by Nirvana in much the same way that the Monkees stepped in to exploit a market left behind by the late-’60s art-rock Beatles, gladly writing the radio hits their visionary counterparts couldn’t be bothered to supply. You can still hear all the big singles from Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness played on heavy rotation on rock radio, no matter Billy Corgan’s current “cat-stroking Bond villain” phase.
Third-biggest challenger: While not nearly as famous as Wu-Tang, Nine Inch Nails, or Smashing Pumpkins, Guided by Voices produced more great songs than any of them during these years. This is a fact and not a subjective opinion informed by my intense personal experience with GBV.
Key music: ATLiens (1996), Aquemini (1998), and Stankonia (2000)
Overview: How great was Outkast during these years? When André 3000 and Big Boi made the perfectly reasonable decision to mount a perfectly entertaining tour this year, the reaction to the initial shows was disappointment over Outkast merely performing Outkast songs and not redefining music as we know it. Our idea of what Outkast should be had overshadowed what Outkast actually is, which is the most incredible rap duo there ever was.
Biggest challenger: There was a time in my life when Wilco’s late-’90s albums — 1996’s Being There and 1999’s Summerteeth — were like the worst kind of drinking buddies, pushing me to punish my liver with stronger and stronger chemicals while wallowing deeper and deeper in my own neuroses. I’m older now, and my buddies and I have chilled out. Now when we get together, I’m usually driving my wife and son around in the car.
Second-biggest challenger: Yo La Tengo is to the ’90s what Spoon is to the ’00s — never considered the era’s best band, even though it put out more great records than anybody.
Third-biggest challenger: I like Portlandia and all, but Carrie Brownstein doing sketch comedy is like Jimmy Page deciding to join Monty Python instead of recording Houses of the Holy. The world is already drowning in comedy TV, but the sort of riffs that Brownstein deployed in Sleater-Kinney are in dangerously short supply.
The White Stripes, 2001-03
Key music: White Blood Cells (2001) and Elephant (2003)
Overview: Look, make fun of Jack White all you want for being a humorless scold who looks mournful at baseball games, but don’t pretend like White Blood Cells wasn’t murderous when it made the White Stripes MTV stars. There are only two songs that I can remember where I was when I heard them for the first time: “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground.” White’s guitar-playing on that song was a supercharged Jordan Shrug at rock history. White might’ve been arrogant, but it was earned. On the next record, he wrote his generation’s “We Will Rock You”–style sports anthem, cinching immortality.
Biggest challenger: Another case of squandered momentum, though in retrospect the Strokes were set up to fail by all the hype that greeted Is This It. I still love this band, and probably always will. I bought Angles on vinyl, for crissakes. I don’t expect my stubborn Strokes true-believerism to be vindicated, but I don’t rule it out either.
Second-biggest challenger: Drive-By Truckers is one of my all-time favorite bands, and it pains me to deny them the belt, especially since Mike Cooley would cream Jack White and Julian Casablancas in a fist fight.
Third-biggest challenger: If I were awarding belts for rock records, Queens of the Stone Age’s Songs for the Deaf would be hoisting it above all comers. Until then, I’m risking Nick Oliveri’s wrath by putting QOTSA in the honorable mention category.
LCD Soundsystem, 2004-07
Key music: LCD Soundsystem (2005) and Sound of Silver (2007)
Overview: LCD Soundsystem is an emblematic band for the last 20 years of rock music not because it made era-defining records (though LCD did do this), but because it stopped making records prematurely. Post-Nirvana, important rock bands reach a certain level and either break up or deliberately make themselves seem less important. Nobody ever decides to just go bigger, the way Guns N’ Roses did. Voluntary marginalization is the name of the game now.
Biggest challenger: The Hold Steady’s first three albums — 2004’s Almost Killed Me, 2005’s Separation Sunday, and 2006’s Boys and Girls in America — hit my aesthetic buttons so squarely that I sometimes mistrust my reaction to them. Do I love this band or do I love how this band repackages what I already love? Whenever I feel this way, I take another swig of beer, turn up the volume, and within seconds I’m back to being lost in my own joy.
Second-biggest challenger: This was back when the National still wrote the occasional “screaming” song. I miss those songs in the National’s recent catalogue, which I otherwise love. Memo to Matt Berninger: Please shout “fuck!” in your songs more often. Your pal, Steve.
Third-biggest challenger: Did you think I’d forget Spoon? Well, you were (almost) correct. I really wanted to put Mastodon in this spot, because 2004’s Leviathan and 2006’s Blood Mountain are among the most potent metal records to come out this century. Then I realized, “Hey, I just wrote a column talking about how Spoon isn’t held in the proper esteem, and now I’m doing the same thing.” I will not be a product of my environment; I want my environment to be a product of me, so I’m putting Spoon and Mastodon here.6
Key music: Microcastle/Weird Era Cont. (2008) and Halcyon Digest (2010)
Overview: I love Deerhunter. My favorite album of the ’10s so far is Halcyon Digest, and I like Microcastle nearly as much. But let’s be frank: The last six years are the weakest ever for American bands. It’s not even close, really. There are still good bands, but they don’t matter like the other groups on this list. If you don’t know who Deerhunter is, you’re likely with the majority of readers. Please listen to them. You’ll thank me later.
Biggest challenger: Vampire Weekend isn’t just a challenger, it’s arguably the favorite. If I liked Vampire Weekend more, Ezra Koenig would be holding the belt. But I don’t, so he’s not.
Second-biggest challenger: If you are familiar with Titus Andronicus’s 2010 release, The Monitor, there’s a high likelihood that you love The Monitor. It’s a record that demands and often receives intense adoration. Of all the bands that have claimed to be influenced by Bruce Springsteen in the past 10 years, Monitor-era Titus Andronicus was the best at communicating potentially embarrassing (or just embarrassing-embarrassing) thoughts and emotions in a similarly galvanizing fashion.
The Black Keys, 2011-14
Key music: El Camino (2011) and Turn Blue (2014)
Overview: The Black Keys perform a thankless role in our culture: They’re a mainstream rock band making mainstream rock songs that can be slotted comfortably next to the popular hits of every other genre. Even more than their testy rival Jack White, they are responsible for keeping blues-derived guitar music — the most familiar form of American music from the past half century — alive as a relevant pop genre. The Black Keys are the only youngish American band that’s a credible headliner for a Super Bowl halftime show; they’re also the only band that seems worthy of the belt for reasons that go beyond my personal preference. It’s the closest thing there is to a consensus favorite.
Biggest challenger: Really, the only other band I can think of to compete with the Black Keys are the Roots, a group that’s never been a significant force commercially but nevertheless can be seen every night on our nation’s top late-night talk show. Can any other band on earth play with as many different artists without it seeming forced or weird? The Roots are practically a national mascot of genre versatility at this point.
Photo illustrations by Ben Buysse