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Top 50 Rock Bands: We Will Rock You

Nich

stuck in baby prison
(he/him)
Rock legends are a part of rock and roll, but when you get down to it, no one person can rock alone. You need a band. So with this list, we celebrate not the individual stars but the groups we love best out of rock's history, the ones who decided the music was more important than any individual member. (Although we will definitely be hearing from individual members during these writeups.)

#47 (tie): T. Rex
#47 (tie): The Aquabats
#47 (tie): The National
#47 (tie): The Postal Service
#45 (tie): Can

HONORABLE MENTION: The Originators

Here in Seattle, there's a practice at more socially conscious gatherings to perform a land acknowledgement before getting down to business. We recognize that whatever we're about to do is being done on Duwamish land, and give conscious recognition to the tribe's history and present, which continues to this day.

In that spirit, a little land acknowledgement of my own for this thread. Though the list we're about to proceed with is very white, rock and roll is a Black art form at its core. Rather than anyone who submitted lists, I blame myself for the omission. Black rock bands aren't unheard of--we had nominations for Living Colour (#67), Parliament (#93), and Fishbone (#207), to name a few--but they've largely been forgotten or ignored in white mainstream media. More widely known are individual Black musicians, which the constraints on this list didn't allow for. Much more than the absence of the King or the Boss, I regret the absence of trailblazers and innovators like Little Richard, James Brown, and everyone else namechecked in Mos Def's "Rock N Roll," the song that initially opened my eyes to all of this. As the man said (in a punk sneer backed by crunchy guitars, in case you missed the point):

Elvis Presley ain't got no soul
Bo Diddley is rock and roll
You may dig on the Rolling Stones
But everything they did, they stole


Everything that comes after this is stolen. My favorites and yours too. Let's acknowledge that and remember where we came from.

 
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Nich

stuck in baby prison
(he/him)
We do have 50 bands in this list, but there is no 50th place. Nor is there a 49th or 48th. In the first of many ties you'll see, we'll kick off with our first

#47 (tie): T. Rex
2 votes, 53 points (Top vote: Johnny Unusual at #5)
Members: Marc Bolan and a shifting lineup of others, particularly Mickey Finn, Steve Currie, and Bill Legend
Founded in: 1967 as Tyrannosaurus Rex, 1970 as T. Rex
Best Known For: "Bang a Gong (Get it On)," "20th Century Boy," "Children of the Revolution"

Our first entry features several defining elements of rock bands: a short life, a gruesome death, and giving up and starting over. Starting as a psychedelic rock group--and you know they were Tolkien hippies because one of the original members changed his last name to Took--as Tyrannosaurus Rex, they were never very successful in that form and changed their sound, as well as their name, with 1970's self-titled album T. Rex. Their best known album, featuring their biggest hit, was Electric Warrior. Oddly, two of their biggest hits weren't originally released on albums at all: you can find "20th Century Boy" on modern releases of Tanx, but "Children of the Revolution" is still a best-of only song. "Bang a Gong (Get it On)" was their big breakout hit, and you wouldn't have to read interviews with the Pixies to know they were fans: they lifted its bassline wholesale for "Cactus."

T. Rex put out seven albums in seven years, and that's all they would get before frontman and songwriter Marc Bolan crashed his car into a tree and died at 29. That's rock for you.

Johnny Unusual says:

T-Rex is definitely one of the fathers of the glam rock era and while Bowie is the chameleon king, T-Rex created an amazing soundtrack to it in Electric Warrior and makes you want to get up and vamp to it. It should come as no surprise that the bands that made Cosmic Dancer, 20th Century Boys and Bang-A-Gong (Get It On) where inspirations to a ton of bands down the line and the mythic imagery of their earlier hippy-aimed tracks is converted into something different and somehow more mythic when transposed next to the modern smooth, empowering grooves of the new sound of the era.

 

Johnny Unusual

(He/Him)
Yay, T-Rex. Like many bands on my list, I came into them through nerdy means. I was a big fan of the manga 20th Century Boys and learned the title was a song reference. And it is a banger. I got into Electric Warrior later and realized they did Bang a Gong and Cosmic Dancer, songs I was already familiar with through movie trailers and the Simpsons, respectively.

I didn't know that thing about Cactus, which is possibly my favourite Pixies song (maybe tied with Holiday Song).
 
Really love your callout to black musicians. I definitely noticed the lack of variety when making my list.

For some reason, the opening bit from Handsome Boy Modeling School popped into my head:

I am the original DJ Jazzy Jay from the Mighty Mighty Zulu Nation.
And first I'll say my name is um, original scratch creator Grand Wizard Theodore.
For those who don't know, I started back out in '74. Africa Bambata, Disco King Mario, Cool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and you know, some of the pioneers who did it back then you know.
Hip hop is universal now it all depends upon on what you do.
Hip hop is like what you would call the bastard child of a lot of different forms of music.
I just feel good that like, like a lot of rock bands are like recognizing the culture.
We used to play these beats because they used to drive us on the dance floor.
And people don't really know that it's a rock record until like the guitars come in and stuff like that.
We didn't have no hip hop beats back in the days we had to take it from everywhere we could get it from.
Just trying to take it to another level.
That's what keeps the music new and keeps it fresh.
As far as, you know, rock is concerned, I think rock is, you know, a big part of hip hop.
Rock helped influence hip hop, hip hop helped influence the world.
 

Nich

stuck in baby prison
(he/him)
#47 (tie): The Aquabats
2 votes, 53 points (Top vote: Johnny Unusual at #6)
Members: MC Bat Commander, Crash McLarson, and a shifting lineup of others
Founded in: 1994
Best Known For: The Aquabats! Super Show!

Sometimes being a great rock band has little-to-nothing to do with your music. When it came to most bands on this list I wasn't familiar with, I'd do a little digging, find out what fans consider to be their best work, and give it a listen while putting together my writeup. But not for this one. Johnny can speak to them as a musical act below, but you'll notice he doesn't mention a single song or album in his "why I love the Aquabats" blurb either.

What makes the Aquabats great is their stage presence. They're musicians as superheroes, and every part of their act plays this up. Their album titles, like Fury of the Aquabats! and The Aquabats vs. the Floating Eye of Death! sound like comic books, and their members take on codenames, like the two mentioned up above or Eaglebones Falconhawk. They have a fictional mythos instead of a biography, and they wear costumes on stage and have choreographed fights between (or during) songs. They had their own honest-to-God children's show with animated segments that aired for two seasons.

I've still never heard any of their music. Who cares. I love that this band exists, that they've kept fighting through record label collapses and failed Kickstarters, and I hope they continue being underdog rock superheroes for as long as they possibly can.

Johnny Unusual says:

The Aquabats are a band that I first encountered in university and it didn't take me long to become a big fan. Though initially a ska band, they transitioned into a more of a synth pop sound but throughout kept their similar fun time themes of singing about monsters, superheroes, fairy tales, childish posturing and youth. The sound and time signatures definitely carry a Devo-inspiration but eschew that bands social commentary, mostly, in favour of a fun bouncy sound that is knowingly silly but also inspire some genuine fist pumping jams of triumph at times. Even the band's "premise" is cartoony, with them being a rock and roll group of superheroes who fight monsters.

 

Johnny Unusual

(He/Him)
Yeah, I know what they wanted to do with the initial kickstarter but it was a little too ambitious: a million dollars to fund the show and the new albums. They rejiggered it with a more modest goal. Frankly, I think the show is sometimes amusing and tonally super on-brand but I much prefer their albums. That said, the episode The Anti-Bats, written by Gerard Way (of My Chemical Romance and weird superhero comics) wrote an episode that ends with a dynamite joke. But the albums do have some great tracks, my personal favourite being the darkly humourous (a kind of song they wouldn't do anymore with more of a focus on their younger audience) Chemical Bomb. I had a friend who would occasionally play this in a coffee shop and would watch some people key into the weird dark lyrics.

Other great tracks.

Super Rad
Giant Robot Birdhead
Fashion Zombies!
Hey Homies!
Karate Body!

Other fun facts:

The Baron Von Tito, the drummer from the original line up went onto co-form the band Blink-182. Step up or step down? You decide.

And the frontman and essentially the heart of the Aquabats, Scott Christian, also created the massively popular kids show Yo Gabba Gabba! One of the Brothers Chaps (of Homerstar Runner) directed many episodes of that one. So maybe he's to blame for a lack of Homestar material at a certain point.
 

Kirin

Summon for hire
(he/him)
I once tagged along to an Aquabats concert with no context, which was a very weird experience, but not unenjoyable.

Meanwhile I skimmed through the episode Nich embedded and I gotta say that's an amazing super-villain origin story.
 

Falselogic

Techno-Threadcromancer
(they/them)
I saw the Aquabats in early 2000s. They opened up for Blink 182. I don't recall any of the songs but the show was quite the spectacle. IIRC there was hardly enough room on the stage for the the entirety of the band and their gear.
 

Issun

TT's Resident Ace of Base Superfan
Bang A Gong is the only T Rex song I'm really familiar with. I should rectify that someday.

I have heard of the Aquabats but that's about as much as I can say about them.
 

clarice

bebadosamba
Yay, T-Rex. Like many bands on my list, I came into them through nerdy means. I was a big fan of the manga 20th Century Boys and learned the title was a song reference.

Me too! =)

For a while i was really into T. Rex. Nowadays, i don't think i'm ever in the mood to hear them, but they're always a pleasant listen. If i'm hearing T. Rex, i'm probably listening to early T Rex though, especially Unicorn.
 

Issun

TT's Resident Ace of Base Superfan
Just so I can say I called it if it turns out to be right: Nich is holding off on the next two bands until tomorrow because one of them is either Dropkick Murphys or Flogging Molly.
 

Nich

stuck in baby prison
(he/him)
Hey, sorry for the delays--there will be entries today, but they'll go up later tonight, and I'll make up for yesterday's absence this weekend.
 

Nich

stuck in baby prison
(he/him)
The moral of this story is that I picked a bad week to start this list. Let's get back to it.

#47 (tie): The National
2 votes, 53 points (Top vote: Adrenaline at #4)
Members: Matt Berninger, Aaron and Bryce Dessner, Scott and Bryan Devendorf
Founded in: 1999
Best Known For: Alligator, High Violet

With a lot of bands on this list, even if you're not into them, you know their hits. (Or hit.) But the National don't have any hits. Not one song they've released as a single has appeared on the overall Billboard Hot 100 chart--ever. The genre-specific Adult Alternative Airplay chart is a bit kinder to them, but even there they had a lone #1 hit with "The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness", and a few other, lower-placing appearances in recent years as well. They're even poison to other artists: when they featured on the recent Taylor Swift song "Coney Island," it was the worst performance of any single in Swift's career, topping out at #63.

No, if you like the National, you're not in for just a penny. They're an albums band, whose sound is pretty consistent across releases. They don't often do bangers; National songs are more likely to be driven by piano and spare, jangly guitars with Matt Berninger's vocals mixed unusually low for a rock band. His voice becomes just another part of their contemplative, moody soundscape. This is the sound of rainy afternoons and wanting to do something but you're not sure what, so you might as well throw on a National album and sit around for a while. Everyone needs a band like that, and for a lot of people, the National fits the bill like nothing else.

Tangential to all this: the Dessners organized and produced an album called Dark Was the Night, which was a charity release benefting AIDS research. It's a very good album, focusing on modern folk rock, and well worth tracking down.

Adrenaline says:

The National have been stalwarts of the indie rock scene since the turn of the century. Their sound has a lot of influences from post-punk to Americana, but Matt Berninger's distinctive baritone vocals give them a consistency that makes any of their songs recognizable immediately. It's hard to point to any one thing that makes them stand out for me, I can just say they have dozens of songs that have gotten lodged in my brain for weeks or longer. Their creative highpoint is almost certainly the period from 2005-2010 in which they released Alligator, Boxer, and High Violet, their three best albums, but I think their whole discography is strong.

 
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conchobhar

What's Shenmue?
(he/him/his)
I had the National at #15, which might sound low for what I'm about to say: there's no band that hits me in the same way that they do. Between the quiet guitars, the steady but delicate rhythm section, and Matt Berninger's gravelly baritone, it's rock music that is concerned purely with setting a mood. It's pensive and sombre, but not melancholic— just something that induces a space to think, in the way that a good ambient album can (but this has guitars). I turn to them often on quiet nights. I fell in love with the band when I was in my teens but I think my appreciation for them has only grown as I've gotten older.

I go back and forth on whether I like Alligator or Boxer the best (and have since, oh, 2007), but I really, really liked 2019's I Am Easy to Find as well. It's a very bold album for the band: taking a bit of a maximalist approach with the addition of orchestral strings, choirs and guest vocalists to duet with, and having the band themselves step back and let others shape the sound. It's not something I'd expect for a band as close-knit and with an intimate sound to do, but it pays off as the most interesting thing they've done to date— and on their eighth album, at that, at a point when you might expect the band to settle in. I don't expect that sound to continue, but I'm excited to see if they have anything else new in mind for any subsequent albums— and that's not an emotion I usually associate with the band!

Also "I Am Not in Kansas" is the best thing Berninger has written.
 
I think the only song of theirs I know is So Far Around the Bend, which was part of the Indie Rock charity compilation Dark Was the Night. I highly recommend that album if you haven't listened to it before.

Very distinctive voice, I didn't recognize the band name but as soon as I listed to the song Nich linked I knew it was the same band who did that song. I should check more of their stuff out!
 

Nich

stuck in baby prison
(he/him)
#47 (tie): The Postal Service
2 votes, 53 points (Top vote: falselogic at #3)
Members: Ben Gibbard, Jimmy Tamborello, Jenny Lewis
Founded in: 2001
Best Known For: Give Up, "Such Great Heights"

The conditions of creating Give Up, the one and only album recorded by the Postal Service, would have been perfect for our pandemic zeitgeist. (Come to think of it, why didn't the long-rumored second Postal Service album finally happen in 2020?) Since both Ben Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello were busy with their main projects, which were Death Cab for Cutie and Dntel respectively, Tamborello created the tracks and mailed them to Gibbard, who then shaped the song around the vocals he added. (Whether Jenny Lewis also participated via the same disembodied manner is unclear, but she's on the songs nevertheless.) Obviously, this isn't how it would happen now--if they'd been formed in the last couple of years, would they have named themselves Dropbox or FTP or something?

Even though they only had one album, it's not hard to see why it resonated so much with fans. They have a unique sound that blends the jittery drums and airy, playful synths of Tamborello's electronic background with the warm, clear, upbeat vocals Gibbard made his name with in Death Cab. Lewis is usually on background vocals that blend into the mix, but she gets a couple of standout moments too, especially her breaking into with "I feel I must interject here" on "Nothing Better" as the synth strings burst into the song along with her.

Their best known song is "Such Great Heights," due to Iron and Wine's cover of it on the Garden State soundtrack, but listening to the two side by side reveals why lumping them in with that twee, performatively vulnerable aesthetic does them a disservice. The Postal Service's original is bouncy and propulsive, and only works because the music serves as an important counterpoint to the lyrics. The Iron and Wine version, drenched in self-seriousness, doesn't reveal its hidden emotional core, it just sucks all the air out of the track. Don't let them, or Louis DeJoy, ruin your appreciation for the Postal Service. Accept only the full-strength, unbound, original version no longer shackled to any ridiculous requirements to prepay the pension of every employee. Sorry, what were we talking about?

 

Nich

stuck in baby prison
(he/him)
Hey, we're finally out of the #47 ties! Time for the #45 ties!
#45 (tie): Can
2 votes, 54 points (Top vote: conchobar at #5)
Members: Holger Czukay, Irmin Schmidt, Michael Karoll, Jaki Liebezeit, Malcolm Mooney, Damo Suzuki, and a shifting lineup of others
Founded in: 1968

I'm not remotely qualified to talk about Can, since they have a rich discography and a widely varied, experimental sound, none of which I've dipped a toe into as of yet. So I'll just give conchobar the floor here, but his lavish praise makes them something I definitely want to spend some time with once this project is over.

conchobar says:

They are a rock band, yes; but their members came from decidedly non-rock backgrounds— avant-garde classical and free jazz— and counted ethnic folk music among their influences. And they, too, wanted to create a unique and distinctly German style of rock; but paradoxically, they did so by adopting an international outlook and multicultural character: the band was fronted, at different points, by an African-American expat and a Japanese traveller, and in its later days included Jamaican and Ghanian members.

All of these disparate elements come together in their music, but rather than clash, they come together in novel and exciting ways. You can hear a rough, garage rock sound at their core, but it's been augmented— by Jaki Liebezeit's jazz drumming, by Holger Czukay's prominent but minimal bass, by Michael Karoli's understated but atmospheric guitarwork— and transformed into something entirely their own: rhythmic, propulsive, groovy. Can's music is entrancing, and I mean that in the literal sense: it is music that mesmerizes and captures attention like no other.

I think what I find most interesting about the band is just their method of playing; it feels loose and free, yet tightly-controlled. I guess the way to put it is the sound of a group of musicians, who are in complete control of their instruments and aligned with one another, simply playing. And what a result it is.

 

Kirin

Summon for hire
(he/him)
These are both cool bands that I hadn't heard much from before.

And the description of Can tangentially made me remember a totally different band that *definitely* would've made my list if I'd remembered them, dangit. Though TBH I'd be surprised if anyone else voted for them so it's probably a moot point.
 

clarice

bebadosamba
Yay Can! It was my 13 on my list. conchobar's writing about the band is great! I don't have much to add.

I guess, personal story and all of that, i used to introduce Can to random people at campus housing in college (with Mother Sky or Halleluhwah). The reception was almost always great - i guess the band is entrancing.

Nowadays, i'm not usually in the mood for the 'altered state of consciousness' mood of the music from Can, but geez, i'm having such a great time listening to them right now.

Ah, and there was a time when i just couldn't get She Brings The Rain out of my mind.
 

Torzelbaum

????? LV 13 HP 292/ 292
(he, him, his)
And the description of Can tangentially made me remember a totally different band that *definitely* would've made my list if I'd remembered them, dangit. Though TBH I'd be surprised if anyone else voted for them so it's probably a moot point.
And which band is that?

Also, don't assume - I'm sure we could surprise you. Well, maybe not me but some other tyrant(s).
 

Falselogic

Techno-Threadcromancer
(they/them)
The Postal Service's album is something that I discovered when I started running, as @Nich said above: "bouncy and propulsive." It helped me get in the zone. With the lyrics that invite you in but don't let your mind get too caught up in them. It's on a select group of albums that help me get into flow.

I'm so glad it got recognized.
 

Johnny Unusual

(He/Him)
Postal Service and the National are bands I'm aware of and remember liking but I never really dove into that. Maybe I'll correct that soon. I think they both did "AV Club Undercover" when that was still a thing.
 

Tomm Guycot

(he/him)
I knew of Postal Service from their radio play, but I "discovered" them on my first trip to Japan, using my now-ex-wife's iPod. Fatefully giving them a chance during a subway ride (because Such Great Heights was "our song" and we played the Iron & Wine version at our wedding and what a metaphor Nich has established)... it was the perfect match.

This will always be my quintessential Japan album. If I am ever somehow put in charge of a Yakuza game set in the 00's you can look forward to its inclusion.
 
Ooh, I'm glad The Postal Service made it. They were on my initial too-long list but didn't make my final one.

I've actually never heard the Iron & Wine version until now and I cannot deal with the song being slowed down that much! Kind of funny since I don't think I've heard it for years, but apparently I have strong opinions of the tempo of it.

My husband loved the song Clark Gable, there's something so surreal about that one although I can't verbalize it.

Can is totally new to me! Going to have to check them out.
 

Ixo

"This is not my beautiful forum!" - David Byrne
(Hi Guy)
I know Can is an experimental powerhouse but all I can think of is...



Forgive me.
 
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