he US has a rich and varied history when it comes to rock & roll.
From the earliest days of the blues, right up to the glam metal excesses of the Eighties and the grunge movement of the Nineties, US bands have inspired millions of music fans all over the world through the generations.
While the likes of Bruce Springsteen & the E Street band and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers would be more than deserving of recognition when considering the greatest US rock acts, only collective bands without named solo artists feature in the list below.
So, from folk rock icons to punk pioneers and indie favourites, here’s our pick of the 25 greatest US rock bands of all time.
25. Red Hot Chili Peppers
Californians Red Hot Chili Peppers became the US’s most prominent funk rockers after forming in 1983. Bass player Flea and former guitarist John Fruscianti are widely regarded as some of the best musicians of their generation, while songs like Californication and Under the Bridge and proved some of the most popular tracks of the Nineties. The band’s longevity is testament to their worldwide appeal and you can guarantee the band will still be jumping around shirtless on stage for years to come.
24. Foo Fighters
After playing drums in one of the most revered bands of the 21st century, Dave Grohl formed Foo Fighters following the death of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain in 1994 in a bid to find a new creative outlet. The band went on to achieve enormous commercial success, releasing their 12th album Concrete and Gold in 2017 and selling-out arenas around the world.
23. Crosby, Stills & Nash
Nothing personifies the great Americana rock of the Sixties and Seventies quite like the harmonies of Crosby, Stills & Nash. The group were sporadically joined by Neil Young throughout their career and created some of the greatest folk-rock records of the age. Ohio, which was written by Young in reaction to the Kent State Shootings of 1970 and performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, remains one of the finest protest songs ever recorded.
22. The Doors
The Doors made a huge impact on US rock in the space of six short years after forming in Los Angeles in 1965. Iconic frontman Jim Morrison’s vitriolic and frequently unhinged delivery was a key characteristic of the band’s sound, but the keyboard stylings of Ray Manzarek were just as significant. Their unique emphasis on organ-led tracks and psychedelic arrangements saw the band ingrain themselves into the rock zeitgeist before Morrison’s untimely death in 1971.
21. Van Halen
There’s a famous scene in Back to the Future where Marty McFly plays his father – then a teenager in Fifties America – a Van Halen track to try and convince him he’s an alien. It’s a great moment, which reflects the impact Van Halen had upon pop culture at large. Eddie Van Halen’s guitar playing was so incredibly ahead of its time that for many, he was the second coming of Hendrix. It wasn’t all fretboard pyrotechnics, though: the success of tracks like Jump proved that the group could write huge tunes, too.
US new wave never got more urgent and essential than Blondie, who were key players in the New York scene of the mid to late Seventies. Debbie Harry’s group brought fantastic energy, razor-sharp riffs and unforgettable songs to the fore throughout the decade. Fans were also delighted to see the group reform in the late Nineties for a string of albums and memorable live shows.
19. The Byrds
Roger McGuinn’s chiming 12-string guitar playing became one of the most influential and most frequently imitated sounds of the era after the Byrds emerged in the mid-Sixties. Original compositions like Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season) and Eight Miles High, as well as unforgettable Bob Dylan covers My Back Pages and Mr Tambourine Man made an indelible mark and the band’s psychedelic approach to folk rock would go on to influence countless musicians in the years that followed.
18. The Velvet Underground
In the famous words of Brian Eno, “The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.” Lou Reed’s New York art rockers received a fraction of the commercial success they deserved during their career, but they list among the most influential rock bands of the Sixties and Seventies. With Andy Warhol on board as their manager from 1965 the band approached their performances like art shows rather than live gigs, pushing boundaries and convention throughout their career. Much like their contemporaries Iggy Pop & the Stooges, the band came to have a huge impact on the music industry after initially enjoying limited commercial appeal.
17. The Pixies
The Pixies were amongst the pioneers of the Nineties alternative scene, becoming one of the most distinctive and revered bands of the era thanks to the unique blending of surf rock, psychedelia and grunge in their music. Their dynamic sound, evocative wordplay and characteristic use of ‘loud-quiet’ song formats would go on to influence the work of contemporaries Nirvana and many others. The Boston group found a new wave of fans after their track was used to devastating effect in the climactic scene of David Fincher’s Fight Club in 1999.
16. The Band
The Band first came to prominence as Bob Dylan’s backing band in the 1960s, before launching their own career with debut album Music from Big Pink. Their rootsy Americana sound and inspired songwriting helped the American-Canadian group become one of the most critically-lauded groups of the decade. Their classic track The Weight, which was used in classic 1969 film Easy Rider and covered by Diana Ross & The Supremes & The Temptations in the same year, has gone on to become an American standard.
15. The Strokes
New Yorkers The Strokes were hailed as savours of guitar music after breaking through in the early Noughties. The group, led by frontman Julian Casablancas and guitarist Albert Hammond Jr, single-handedly made rock music hip again after dance and manufactured pop dominated the charts in the years immediately following Britpop. The group’s debut Is This It marked one of the most critically acclaimed albums of its time and the band’s ineffable cool endures to this day.
14. Pearl Jam
The other great rock band from Seattle, Eddie Vedder’s Pearl Jam became one of the most popular alternative rock acts of the Nineties and helped spearhead the hugely influential grunge movement in the US. The band first made their breakthrough with debut album Ten in 1991 and never looked back, selling an estimated 60 million records worldwide.
Metallica helped to shape the sound of contemporary heavy metal after forming in 1981. The formidable qualities of frontman James Hetfield’s delivery with the dexterous drumming of Lars Ulrich and the virtuoso guitar stylings of Kirk Hammett all sync perfectly together on classic tracks such as Enter Sandman, Nothing Else Matters and Master of Puppets, which continue to inform and inspire metal and heavy rock musicians.
12. Steely Dan
LA hipsters Donald Fagan and Walter Becker formed Steely Dan in the early Seventies, producing a style of smooth rock inflected with jazz, R&B and soul. Their back catalogue features some of the most virtuosic musicianship you’re likely to find on mainstream rock records and it’s little wonder that so many artists cite them as an inspiration.
Founding member Walter Becker sadly died in 2017, but the band’s legacy will live on for generations.
11. Talking Heads
Talking Heads were one of the celebrated bands who played regularly at the legendary CBGBs club in New York, which helped establish some of the most influential new wave bands of the Seventies and Eighties. David Byrne’s distinctive vocal delivery (not to mention his penchant for oversized suits) gave the band their distinctive post-punk sound, while they also boasted one of the funkiest and most formidable rhythm sections in rock, the form of bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz.
10. Rage Against the Machine
An inspired melding of rap and thrash metal made Rage a pretty unique proposition for rock fans in the early Nineties. As well as producing a string of killer tunes the group also gained a reputation as one of the most overtly political bands of the decade too, with revolutionary messages featuring in many of their lyrics.
Their politics would play a further role years later, when fans successfully campaigned to make their track Killing in the Name Christmas number one in the UK in a protest against the X Factor in 2009.
9. Bon Jovi
Bon Jovi are one of the most commercially successful US rock bands of all time, with more than a 100 million albums sold and followers all over the world. The glam metal of Livin’ On a Prayer, Bad Medicine and You Give Love a Bad Name and the bombastic balladry of Bed Of Roses and Dead or Alive helped make them a powerhouse in the Eighties and the group continue to sell out arenas.
8. Fleetwood Mac
While Fleetwood Mac were in fact formed as a blues rock group in London in 1967, it was the reincarnation of the band as FM rockers in LA that proved to be the group’s most commercially successful move. American musicians Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined the group, taking their sound in a dramatic new direction. The best-selling album 1977 Rumours and the impact of tracks like The Chain, Go Your Own Way, Everywhere and Dreams made them one of the most successful groups of the generation with an enduring musical legacy.
7. The Ramones
The Ramones might be more familiar to many as a t-shirt rather than a band these days, but the group’s impact on US rock culture cannot be understated. The group were pioneers of the US punk scene in the mid-70s, proving the perfect antidotes to the overblown and indulgent prog rock movement earlier in that decade. The group’s songs rarely stretched past the two-and-a-half-minute mark, but their deeply melodic approach to songwriting set them apart from their contemporaries.
6. Guns N’ Roses
Hard rock legends Guns N’ Roses earned a reputation as “the most dangerous band in the world” in the late Eighties, embodying the rock and roll excesses of the era unlike any other. Their debut album Appetite for Destruction racked up sales of around 30 million worldwide, with standout single Sweet Child O’ Mine spring-boarding the group to international acclaim. The band’s more recent efforts have been slightly less convincing, with long-awaited album Chinese Democracy proving a flop back in 2008, but the group remain one of the most successful acts of their generation.
R.E.M combined country, stadium rock and indie to create some of the most compelling music of the Eighties and Nineties. The unmistakable vocals of frontman Michael Stipe and the vastly underrated lead guitar work of Peter Buck underpinned the group’s sound throughout their career, which spanned from their formation in Georgia in 1980 until their split in 2011. Whether you prefer the group’s idiosyncratic early material or the breakthrough mainstream success of albums such as Out of Time and Automatic for the People, the band represent one of the most intriguing groups of their era with plenty to discover across their extensive back catalogue.
4. The Eagles
It’s a testament to the band’s appeal that the Eagles sold over 100 million records in the US alone, with their music proving incredibly popular over the past five decades. Their carefree brand of soft rock on hits like Take it Easy and Hotel California is just about as quintessentially American as it gets and you can hear the heat of their native California reflected in The Eagles’ sun-drenched sound. As well as fabulous songwriting and crystalline harmonies, the band’s music features some of the slickest guitar playing you’re ever likely to hear courtesy of Joe Walsh.
No one did stadium rock quite like Aerosmith in their pomp. Formed way back in 1970, the sheer longevity of the group is impressive in itself. Their first top 10 single Dream On came in 1976, while their biggest hit I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing topped the charts 22 years later in 1998. As well as representing one of the biggest acts of the last forty years with more than 150 million record sales to their name, Steve Tyler’s group are also responsible for one of the first (and one of the best) rock/hip hop collaborations, the Run DMC mash-up Walk This Way.
2. The Beach Boys
The Beach Boys blended surf rock with unforgettable pop melodies and stunning harmonies, creating a musical niche all of their own after forming in 1961. There was a joyous precision to the group’s songwriting that set them above their contemporaries, while few acts before or since used the recording studio in such pioneering ways or with such boundless invention. 1966’s Pet Sounds is one of the most lauded classic American albums ever released and Brian Wilson remains one of the most revered figures in the industry.
Nirvana united a generation in the early Nineties when Kurt Cobain become an unlikely poster boy for the disenchanted, disenfranchised twenty-somethings of the age. The group’s raucous rock arrangements and Cobain’s trademark drawl spoke to Generation X in a way that few had done before, but that was far from the extent of their appeal.
Their finely-crafted songwriting and keen pop sensibilities also gave the group an inter-generational musical appeal which many bands involved in the Nineties alternative rock movement would never manage. The universal quality and fervour of the band’s music helped to make them one of the greatest bands ever, with Cobain rightly remembered as the great rock anti-hero of his time.