It would be a gross oversimplification of terms to call ‘rock music’ a genre. If rock music is a genre, what defines it? A few guitars? A powerful drummer? An ostentatious drug habit?
Well, sometimes yes. But we’ve been throwing the word ‘rock’ around pretty loosely for the last 50 years. After more than half a century of experimentation, commoditization, integration, deconstruction, evolution, and devolution, a few guitars and a drummer hardly seems to cover it.
This narrow definition doesn’t leave much room for the electric viola that helped make the Velvet Underground’s first record so startling. It doesn’t tell us anything about the Wall of Sound orchestration that made every Ronettes song feel like a perfect summer night. It doesn’t began to explain how Run D.M.C.’s Jam Master Jay’s hard rock sampling forever changed the face of popular music in the 1980s.
So what is rock?
Originally, the term rock was at once a reduction of rock and roll and a sign of its evolution. (For more detail on the etymology of rock and roll, check out our Rock and Roll at Sixty: The Narrative History of Rock and Roll’s Conception.) The Golden Age of Rock and Roll ended in 1959, precipitated by a series of unfortunate events including Elvis Presley’s draft into military service, Little Richard’s departure into the priesthood, and the tragic airplane crash that claimed the lives of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper.
Rock and Roll had reached its first (though hardly its last) low ebb, leaving the world in the well-manicured hands of treacly teen idols like Frankie Avalon and Fabian. Rock and roll’s many critics, particularly the racist set who suggested that the explosive popularity of so-called ‘jungle music’ was a mere fad, believed themselves vindicated.
Then the Beatles and Stones washed ashore in 1964. A year later, Bob Dylan plugged his guitar into an amp at the 1965 Newport Folk festival. Rock and roll had returned with a harder edge, a more adventurous spirit, and substantially longer hair.
No longer did the old coital euphemism seem sufficient. Dropping the ‘roll,’ rock suddenly became a universe unto itself, with a scope broad enough to allow for the fantastical flights of instrumental fancy that carried the Grateful Dead for 30 years and simple enough to instigate the bludgeoning genius of the Ramones; commercially relevant enough to land Led Zeppelin IV in every teenage bedroom in America in the mid-‘70s and artistically receptive enough that you’ve actually heard of Sonic Youth; mannered enough to make the Drifters into a beloved American institution and disturbed enough to make the Sex Pistols any kind of institution at all.
Rock came to serve as the proper terminology for everything that came after the first Golden Age. Thus, the British Invasion, Girl Groups, Motown, Greenwich Village, Psychedelia, Hard Rock, Progressive Rock, Soul, R&B, Punk, New Wave, Disco, Funk, Hip Hop, Alternative, and even Rock and Roll itself all came to be subsumed under this one word. So when we call something a ‘rock band,’ it’s wise not to get too hung up on what you think ‘rock’ should sound like. Avoiding exactly those kinds of preconceived notions is what helped the artists on this list to earn our esteemed recognition, not to mention many lesser honors like unspeakable wealth and enshrinement in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Ok. You get the point. Rock is everything. Everything is rock.
Qualifications For Inclusion
Be a Band
For the purposes of this list, there are a few delimiting factors. First, in order to be considered one of the 100 Best Rock Bands of All Time, one must be a band.
So let’s review. A group of people who play instruments, write songs, and perform concerts together obviously qualify as a band. Sooooo, for instance, Hootie & the Blowfish would qualify as a band. Wait. Come back. That’s just an example. They aren’t on the list.
Also qualifying for inclusion here are duos, vocal combos, rap crews, house bands, and whatever you’d call the colorful mass of humans that comprise Parliament/Funkadelic. Not eligible for inclusion are solo artists, which obviously explains the conspicuous lack of references hereafter to Tiny Tim.
Also not eligible are bands whose greater output predates the proliferation of rock and roll. R&B groups like Billy Ward and his Dominos and vocal combos like the Ink Spots have an unquestionable place of importance in the early development of rock and roll. But there is an invisible line in history that bisects at the point where Elvis Presley first came to national prominence in 1955.
Thus, only those who achieved their greatest musical accomplishments thereafter may be considered.
Of course, everything I just said does nothing to prevent this list from including Hootie & the Blowfish. This is why our next qualification is fairly critical. The top qualification for inclusion here is musical, instrumental, and/or artistic excellence. Bands included here are those that helped to raise our standards and expectations of songcraft, studio ingenuity, virtuosity, or sheer emotional authority.
Often, these accomplishments are matched by a level of historical appreciation or a universal embrace that makes the inclusion of certain artists fairly indisputable. If you make a Top 100 list that doesn’t include Pink Floyd, it must be because Roger Waters ran over your dog with his car. Otherwise, the consensus is that they were pretty darn excellent.
The same is true of nearly all the artists included here.
Or Be Successful
Nearly all? Yes, I admit that not every band on this list is inherently excellent. But some band are simply too successful in one regard or another to miss the cut. Some bands sold so many freaking records that, no matter what you or I think of them, neither of us could deny their impact on popular culture. Yes, the Eagles are on this list. Yes, I recognize that they could be insufferably smug. But really, there’s just no way a band could sell 150 million records without doing a lot of things really right.
Or, Failing That, Be Important
Some on this list may defy a conventional definition of musical excellence or success but must be ranked for the outwardly rippling sociological or cultural impact of their work. Sid Vicious was such a crummy musician that his fellow Sex Pistols would famously turn down the volume on his amp during live performances. But the depraved bassist also captured perfectly the nihilism and rage that made his band legendary.
In order to be included on this list, being excellent helps. But if you don’t have that, making an earth-shattering impression on the course of history, either by way of mass appeal or guerrilla warfare, is the next best thing.
The procedure for ranking the bands included here was extremely scientific in the respect that I wore a lab coat and safety goggles. Beyond that, the variables that were considered without any empirical weighting were commercial success, artistic importance, cultural relevance, and personal preference. Yeah, that’s right, there’s some bias in here. If you don’t like it, write you’re own list. Seriously. I’m not being pithy. It’s a really fun exercise and I wish you the best.
But this is my list so you’re bound to disagree with some of my choices. You probably think I’m crazy to rank this band over that band. You might think I’m an idiot for ranking a band you hate ten spots above a band that you’d sell a kidney (perhaps even your own) to see live. You might even wish to send me hate mail for failing to find the space in 100 entries and 50,000+ words to even mention the band that you’ve dedicated your adult life to worshiping. (Rush fans, please direct your Dr. Who-reference-riddled diatribes directly to our webmaster).
Well that’s the beauty of a list like this. There’s no way it’s going to be 100% right but you can’t prove it’s wrong. This means that we get to have a fantastic and impossible-to-settle debate about rock music, about what it is, where it’s been, and where it’s going.
Enough introducing. Let’s get right into the bands.