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Gibson.com’s Top 50 American Rock Bands of All Time

07.04.2014

In celebration of the country’s independence, and legacy of amazing bands, Gibson.com is counting down the Top 50 American Rock Bands of All Time.

That’s right, we’re celebrating the good, old U.S. of A. with some holiday musical fireworks, sure to ignite a fiery debate over who owns the title of the best American rock band — ever! Let the countdown begin.

10. The Allman Brothers Band

For pure playing smarts, The Allmans deserve top billing with anybody. The late Duane Allman and the ever-present Dickey Betts made a superb guitar tag-team early on in the band's mix of blues, country, jazz and even classical music, making for mind-altering jams delivered with supreme tightness. The Allmans’ first four albums opened the door for the whole Southern rock genre, and to their legion of loyal fans, the band invented a new musical language, yet one which was grounded in rootsy Americana. The motorbike crash that killed Duane Allman in 1971 took a rare talent, but even in recent years, with slide supremo Derek Trucks onboard, The Allmans’ retro shows can still conjure a jaw-dropping and surprisingly elegant noise. The likes of “Whipping Post,” “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” “Melissa,” “Stormy Monday” and Midnight Rider remain part of ‘70s American rock’s DNA. – Michael Leonard

9. The Beach Boys

Formed in 1961, key members of The Beach Boys are still rocking 50 years later: you can catch Mike Love’s version of The Beach Boys, guitarist Al Jardine's band or original leader and mastermind Brian Wilson on the road regularly (although Wilson is considering retirement soon). The band’s early hits were the stuff pop dreams were made of – girls and cars, sunshine and surf – but they soon moved into more heady territory as Wilson explored increasingly sophisticated song structures, instrumentation and studio experimentation. Wilson left in the ’60s and returned in the ’70s only to leave again, eventually re-recording one of rock’s great lost albums, Smile, in 2004. The Brian-less Beach Boys, meanwhile, scored a #1 hit in 1988 with “Kokomo” from the Tom Cruise movie Cocktail. The song featured actor John Stamos on drums, and Stamos still performs with The Beach Boys, schedule permitting, to this day. In 2010, Love confirmed that there had been discussions about a possible collaboration with Brian Wilson to mark the band’s 50th anniversary in 2011. – Peter Hodgson

8. R.E.M.

They might have lost their religion, but in through their long and varied career, the guys in R.E.M. have never lost their cool. In the ’80s, the Athens, Georgia, band set the standard that all alt-rockers would follow – independent label, constant touring and a sound that was 180 degrees from whatever was on the radio. Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Michael Stipe never had to “sell out” to make it big – by the early ’90s, radio had changed to suit them – they just made great albums that were followed by equally great (and often totally different) follow-ups. Even Berry’s departure didn’t slow the band’s penchant for fierce experimentation, amazing melodies and emotional, often mysterious, lyricism. Image was fine and hits were nice, but with R.E.M. it’s always been about the music – from back when Stipe was murmuring about gardening at night all the way to 2011, when the band was eager to Collapse Into Now. – Bryan Wawzenek

7. The Byrds

Inspired by the so-called British Invasion, several U.S. bands surfaced in the early ’60s that would challenge England’s musical domination. The best, and most influential of all the L.A. bands were The Byrds. Led by the 12-string toting Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, Gene Clark, Chris Hillman and Michael Clark lashed Dylan to The Beatles and came up with an infectious, driving, harmony-heavy, folk and rock fusion whose influence is still felt in every garage band on the globe. Their version of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” put Bob on the map, pretty much inventing folk-rock in the process. And if that wasn’t enough, their late ’60s Gram Parsons years saw them follow that by blending country and rock and roll. Any other American bands invented and perfected two global music genres? – Andrew Vaughan

6. Van Halen

I wonder if Van Halen clocking in only at #6 (they’re #1 in my book) is because of the tumultuous nature of the inter-band relationships, as well and their many iterations over the years – Van Halen, Van Hagar, Van Cherone, Van Roth II (oops… maybe not), Hagar Roth, Van Hagar II, Van Roth III). Regardless, however you slice whoever’s singing, Van Halen is one helluva’n American band. For virtually every rock guitarist under the age of, say, 55, most can tell you exactly where they were when they first heard Van Halen – or, more specifically, where they were when they first heard Eddie’s brain-crunching instrumental, “Eruption.” That one track alone changed the direction of guitar-driven rock forever, and the genre has never been the same (just as I was never the same after witnessing – from the front row in high school – Diamond Dave preening around in buttless-chaps like he owned the joint, which he did.) No wonder Jeff Spicoli hired them with his reward money! – Sean Patrick Dooley

5. Metallica

Metallica were to thank for bringing an orchestral blend of brawn and brains to heavy metal of the ’80s. Just as the metal public tired with hair metal, James Hetfield, Kirk Hammett, Lars Ulrich and Cliff Burton boldly came to the rescue, adding a new complexity and intensity to the speedy thrash genre. Metallica’s arrangements were thick and brawny, from the lilting, bare-bones riffs and grooves in “Enter Sandman” to the haunting, heavy textures of “Nothing Else Matters” to the melancholy reckless mourning of “Fade to Black.” These songs evolved into huge rock anthems for generations, and their enormous popularity made Metallica the biggest-selling rock act of the ’90s. Following the heartbreak of Burton’s untimely passing, the California men licked their wounds and continued in his legacy, refining their focus as songwriters. Metallica were the underground heavy metal revolution itself. – Anne Erickson

4. The Ramones

Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy – The Ramones – were one of the most important bands of the 20th Century. At a time when rock had become bloated and pretentious, The Ramones dialed it back to its essentials: two minutes of guitar, bass and drums played at the speed of a runaway subway train. What set them apart from many of their punk contemporaries was the surprising sincerity with which they played. While others sneered for the sake of sneering, Joey and the boys clearly loved rock and roll played the way it should be played – loud, fast and with reckless abandon. Gabba Gabba Hey! – Michael Wright

3. Nirvana

It’s difficult to find a band that had a greater effect on music in the last 30 years than Nirvana. Just seconds into their breakthrough single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Kurt Cobain and company had completely dismantled the previous decade of popular music. Typewriter-speed guitar solos and lyrics about being a Viking and talking dirty to me suddenly seemed ridiculous. In an instant, the door was thrown open for a generation (now, generations!) of kids who were energized to think, “Hey, I can do that!” In the years that followed, the group continued to evolve. Cobain’s songwriting matured, even as his personal life grew bleaker. Dave Grohl proved to be one of the great drummers in rock. And Krist Novoselic was the perfect counterweight that kept things from tipping into the mud – the lovable lunk across the stage from the tortured genius. Nirvana were only on top for three years when Kurt ended it all, but their music continues to resonate to this day. – Michael Wright

2. Aerosmith

Although initially inspired by the British Invasion groups of the ’60s, Aerosmith soon emerged as all-American idols. Their roots as disciples of The Beatles, Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, The Rolling Stones and The Yardbirds soon morphed into an arena-ready sleaze-rock sound built around Joe Perry’s swinging riffology and Steven Tyler’s whoop-yer-ass wail. Tyler and Perry’s “Toxic Twins” epithet says more about their hedonism than heroism, but over 40 years of ups and downs Aerosmith have remained consistently compulsive: you don’t get to release eight different hits compilations without classic songs in your locker. Aerosmith were always determined to live the dream: “We weren't too ambitious when we started out,” Tyler once quipped. “We just wanted to be the biggest thing that ever walked the planet, the greatest rock band there ever was. We just wanted everything. We wanted it all.” And Aerosmith have had it. When aliens land in your back yard and inevitably ask, “so, what is this “American rock music?” Answer = Aerosmith. – Michael Leonard

1. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band

OK, so we all know Springsteen is a brilliant artist and a rock and roll songwriter of the highest echelon. But this isn’t a list of the Top 50 American Rock Stars – this is a band list. So, in this case, we’re talking about Bruuuuuuuce and the heart-stopping, pants-dropping, house-rocking, earth-shaking, legendary E! Street! Band! Bruce wrote amazing songs about America – the promise, the failures, the hard times and the glory days. But it took this most amazing of bar bands (assembled specifically for their performance prowess) to fully demonstrate the all-encompassing power of these songs, these anthems. This was a band that could go 3 hours, 4 hours, 5 hours – and we’re talking dynamic shows that could vary from a hushed arrangement of “The River” to the blazing epic “Rosalita,” with the fearless frontman sliding all the way across the stage on his knees (even at age 60!) somewhere in between. Recently, E Street has been in mourning – with the loss of organ player Danny Federici a few years ago, and saxophonist Clarence Clemons just a few weeks ago. If the group’s marathon shows have taught us anything, it’s that the E Street Band doesn’t quit unless it’s on their terms. We likely haven’t heard the last of the greatest American band. – Bryan Wawzenek  

Votes for the Top 50 Covers of All Time were included from Michael Wright, Bryan Wawzenek, Andrew Vaughan, Sean Patrick Dooley, Cesar Acevedo, Paul Burch, Arlen Roth, Ted Drozdowski, Russell Hall, Peter Hodgson, Anne Erickson, Michael Leonard, Paolo Bassotti and the Gibson.com Readers Poll.

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