Selecting the Best American Bands

“What are the top ten greatest American bands?” is a pretty ridiculous question. Like all such “Top Ten,” “Best Of,” or other forms of listicles with which we are regularly bombarded in our media-driven, click-hungry lives, it’s terrible folly to legitimately attempt to qualify let alone rank these naturally prejudiced sorts of artistic things. It’s a parlor game. A bar argument. An exercise in nonsense. Of course. And, it’s often kind of fun.

Not long ago an acquaintance of mine who’s also a highly respected journalist garnered days of heated exchanges when he posed this very topic on Facebook. And over the years, together with my friends and fellow music fiends, the Zing brothers, we’ve spent untold hours curating our own carefully considered lists (and duly trashing each other’s). So, what the hell, let’s give it a shot.

First and foremost, we should recognize the obvious: all of this is completely subjective, and entirely personal. So, since I’m that person, you will not see certain otherwise widely appreciated bands get even a sniff of my list.

Making some immediate cuts

I never warmed up much to Talking Heads. I’ve tried, but can’t understand the adoration of Wilco. Metallica, Kiss and Bon Jovi can just piss off. Dave Matthews Band and Smashing Pumpkins make nails on a blackboard sound pleasant. Don’t even get near me with The White Stripes. And Prince is the single most overrated act of all time (my list, my subjectivity).

But that last one raises the first key issue.

What exactly is considered a band?

To wit, would the purple paisley one, along with his frilly band The Revolution, even qualify? (again, it doesn’t matter in this instance: for our purposes the artist formerly known as Prince can currently be labeled as the poser who’s staying the hell off my list). But what of the more essential cases: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, etc.? Are these monuments of American music glorified solo artists with long-time backing groups, or legitimate bands? I recall one online commentor’s query “Bruce Springsteen is not a member of the E Street Band, is he? If so, why the phrase ‘Bruce Springsteen AND the E Street Band?” Fair question. But I don’t care. Final answer: they’re bands.

True Solo Artists

The same could not be said, however, for some of the biggest names and best solo artists in American music history. Sorry, but off the list are Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley, Aretha Franklin, Buddy Holly (I know, The Crickets, but no), Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Carole King, Michael Jackson, James Taylor, Johnny Cash, Willie NelsonLittle Richard, Otis Redding, Jackie Wilson, Wilson Pickett, Marvin Gaye, Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, or Lou Reed. Nor James Brown, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix (The J.B.’s or The Famous Flames with Brown? Big Brother & The Holding Company with Joplin? The Experience or The Band of Gypsies with Hendrix? Nah, James is James, Janis is Janis, and Jimi is Jimi).

Contemplating Musical Duos and Studio Bands

Alright, then what about some of the best musical duos? I don’t know, I don’t think I can really consider Simon & Garfunkel, Loggins & Messina, Hall & Oates, or the Everly Brothers to be true bands. They’re out. Yet, Steely Dan, who one could argue was really a two-man operation, yup, they’re a band. Count them in. As for famed studio bands like The Wrecking Crew, The Funk Brothers, or The Muscle Shoals “Swampers”? Huge historical significance and mammoth bodies of work, but no, not genuine “bands.”

Essential Qualities of Greatness

And now that we’re really getting into it, what’s a compulsive music obsessive to consider as proper criteria for being granted a spot among the coveted “greatest”? Well, best overall music, right, the catalog. But surely we’ve got to dig a bit deeper.

What about particular songs? Los Lobos is a band that I admire greatly and that’s had an amazing career, but what are their big hits? Is longevity a factor, and if so does a band like Aerosmith get extra credit? What about bonuses for consistency of lineup? ZZ Top has had the same exact members from 1970 to the present (yeah, it’s just three guys, but that’s still the longest uninterrupted and unchanged run of any band in history, domestic or otherwise).† Do we weigh influence, say, from groundbreakers like the Velvet Underground or The Ramones? Or simply the caliber of impact from even individual albums, where Nirvana would surely reign, and, to less dramatic extents, The Cars and Boston?

†since the original posting bassist Dusty Hill’s death ended this stretch at 51 years

Wait, What Makes an American Band?

Before we overlook a potentially thorny issue, what even is an “American” band? Although the music genre of Americana was seemingly coined to fit The Band’s dust bowl aesthetic, knowing 4 of its 5 members were Canadian is a hard disqualifier (only dear drummer Levon Helm was from the ol’ U.S. of A.). And the same mixed international issues must unfortunately knock out Buffalo Springfield (blame Neil Young and the full rhythm section), Crosby, Stills, Nash & sometimes Young (even without that pesky Canadian Young there’s still the English Graham Nash), Fleetwood Mac (both Fleetwood and Mac – Mick Fleetwood and John McVie – are Brits), and Derek and the Dominos (Clapton, that’s on you, chap).

The Groups of Groups

Well alright then, without further ado – that was already a pretty fair amount of ado – here we go. And let’s do it in quasi-countdown mode. The entrants for all-time greatest American bands in, well, groups of groups (starting in reverse order, but not in specific sequence within the groupings…got that?):

The non-qualifiers-but-still-just-fun-to-bring-up group of groups:

The nowhere-near-the-top-but-worthy-of-honorable-mention group of groups:

The greatly-accomplished-but-still-outside-of-realistic-range group of groups:

The greats-worthy-of-some-consideration group of groups:

The very-close-and-really-painful-to-leave-off-the-ten-greatest-list group of groups:

Hold on, a quick detour….

The if-it-was-just-up-to-me-they’d-be-the-best group of groups (some of whom legitimately belong among the previous categories, but I’m choosing not to cross-over):

And finally – drum roll, please – here it is….

The So-Much-Great-Music-top-ten-greatest-American-bands-ever group of groups:

(I bet some of you forgot a couple of those were still out there)

Well, if you’ve gotten this far, I’m sure all readers obviously agree with each of the choices and every one of the placements, unanimously and across the board. Everything 100% aligned. Of course. And, just in case not, feel free to submit your comments, corrections, grievances, or even your own fully thought-through lists. And while you’re busy ruminating over the Independence Day holiday on this critical All-American matter, I hope you’ll enjoy the only song that could possibly be chosen to wrap up this subject.

(yup, the cowbell-clanging drummer, Don Brewer, sang it)