Are there any really, truly great bands?
June 17, 2004 6:54 PM   Subscribe

Are there any really, truly great bands? [more inside]

My brother and I were talking the other day, and he argued that there are very few, if any, truly great (as opposed to good) bands. According to him, there are a lot of great solo artists, but not actual bands. For the purposes of the discussion, a band is defined as a group that plays its own instruments, but does not necessarily write its own material.

I came up with the Beatles, the Ramones, the Clash, and a couple of others as counter examples, but it got sort of hard after that. What do you think?

(NB: people suggesting Journey will be immediately bitch slapped. They may be good, but they are decidedly not great.)
posted by LittleMissCranky to Media & Arts (85 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The Berlin Philharmonic and London Symphony Orchestra come to mind.
posted by cbrody at 7:03 PM on June 17, 2004

posted by Evstar at 7:04 PM on June 17, 2004

Seriously, though. I'll assume you're talking rock bands so here are some i've come up with: CCR, Led Zep, Talking Heads.
posted by Evstar at 7:06 PM on June 17, 2004

Miles Davis Quartet, The Invisibl Skratch Piklz
posted by badstone at 7:10 PM on June 17, 2004

I take it you mean rock bands, and that Miles Davis' quintets or the Duke Ellington Orchestra (for example) don't count?

By me King Crimson was at two or three points really, truly great bands. Henry Cow, too. But I don't really know what you mean by "really, truly great".

(And doesn't your definition of "band" let in solo artists with stable backing bands? Tim Buckley wasn't a band, but I believe he mostly had the same musicians back him on most of his albums. Does Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band count?)

(On preview: along cbrody's lines, the Arditti and Emerson string quartets. The Sun City Girls on a good day.)
posted by kenko at 7:11 PM on June 17, 2004

I'm guessing you mean bands that are all kickass musicians and play well together as a unit, rather than as individuals? I would say The Ex and The Del McCoury Band off the top of my head.
posted by transient at 7:13 PM on June 17, 2004

Oh, if you mean rock, I guess Del doesn't count.
posted by transient at 7:13 PM on June 17, 2004

And your criteria are...?

I would surely put U2, R.E.M. and the Pixies in the "truly great" category because of influence, longevity (at least with the first two), "landmark" songs, and so on, though I'm sure the very next comment will laugh and call me names for mentioning Bono & Co. Whatever.
posted by arco at 7:15 PM on June 17, 2004

Response by poster: No classical or jazz -- too easy.

Yeah, so really, truly great is sort of fuzzy. I think that innovation would be a necessary factor, even if they're not writing their own stuff. Longevity is probably also important; not that the band has to stay together very long, but people still have to listen to them, say, 30 years down the road. I think influence on future musicians also plays a part. Also, they just have to be, you know, great.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 7:16 PM on June 17, 2004

Just rock? Feh. Would you count Kraftwerk? How about Parliament? Oh, and then to add one definite rock band, dare I say Metallica?
posted by badstone at 7:17 PM on June 17, 2004

There's only one way to settle an argument like this - the Ultimate Argument Settler, Rock, Rot, and Rule.
posted by Gortuk at 7:17 PM on June 17, 2004

if by bands you mean that the band's sound can only come from that specific set of people at that specific time, there are tons...Fleetwood Mac for one, and Earth, Wind and Fire, and Squeeze, and the Eagles, and Nirvana and Kraftwerk definitely, and Smiths and the Cure and Cocteau Twins and .....
posted by amberglow at 7:23 PM on June 17, 2004

and CSNY, and Sly and the Family Stone, and B52s, and Bruce and E Street Band, and ...
posted by amberglow at 7:26 PM on June 17, 2004

After staring at your definition and thinking a while - as far as innovation AND longevity go, it's the Skatalites, hands down. One of the most innovative bands of all time, influencers of more bands than know it, and still together 40 years later. (OK, with entirely different members now, but the transition has been continuous...)
posted by badstone at 7:26 PM on June 17, 2004

I second The Cure, REM and The Pixies and would like to add the consistently creative Wilco to that list.
posted by amandaudoff at 7:27 PM on June 17, 2004

... pixies, silkworm, superchunk, the who, and, of course, the band. I think PFunk is really the uberband to end all bands. CSNY too, natch.
posted by jessamyn at 7:30 PM on June 17, 2004

Well, still, that's not so helpful. Magma were innovative, and have been around for over 30 years. Most people who don't detest them think they're absolutely amazingly great. They were influential—they created a style of music, and without them there would be no Ruins, themselves a very influential band, and the current "brutal prog" scene would probably be nonexistent. But even construing their influence as broadly as possible, we're talking a pretty small listenership.

(On preview: what if a lot of the influenced bands were, well, kinda bad? Nirvana certainly spawned a lot of crappy knockoffs. And you gotta have the Who, and Cream.)
posted by kenko at 7:31 PM on June 17, 2004

Yo La Tengo? Definitely great, but perhaps not "truly great."

Sonic Youth? A little closer...

Oh, and Pavement.
posted by arco at 7:33 PM on June 17, 2004

Public Enemy

(I'll stop now.)
posted by arco at 7:35 PM on June 17, 2004

what if a lot of the influenced bands were, well, kinda bad? Nirvana certainly spawned a lot of crappy knockoffs.
Well, that happens all the time--the Beatles did too, and there are ten million rap/rock shit bands out, etc. It's the gelling of the people and their talents that would make them great in my mind. Something like Talking Heads wouldn't make it on my list, or Blondie or even Ramones, no matter how much i liked their music. Many bands are just backups for the frontman or singer's voice or talented musician that needs more. I'd say Led Zeppelin wouldn't be on the list, because it seemed more clashing of egos than a coming together.
posted by amberglow at 7:36 PM on June 17, 2004

though PE didn't exactly play their own instruments, but they definitely have the "influential" part covered
posted by arco at 7:37 PM on June 17, 2004

The Dropkick Murhpys early work makes them a great band. Operation Ivy paved the way for punk/ska and nobody mentioned David Bowie.
posted by Keyser Soze at 7:37 PM on June 17, 2004

i hereby officially second PE and the Ex. two of the best.
posted by grimley at 7:38 PM on June 17, 2004

Didn't say PE, because of the "instruments" thing, but if we are going to include hip hop, and you want to talk about "influential", Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five eclipse PE, and they also have a sense of longevity that PE doesn't quite have yet.

Oh, and I'll also throw out Pink Floyd and the Animals for consideration, to round out the classic rock list.
posted by badstone at 7:41 PM on June 17, 2004

Public Enemy, Skinny Puppy, Pigface, and Talk Talk. That's my list.

Honourable Mentions: Pop Will Eat Itself, Alien Sex Fiend.

(I don't think Grandmaster Flash had a great band. I think he had an alright band that did great things. Musically, though, while it may have been interesting, and pioneering, I don't think it was great.)
posted by Jairus at 7:50 PM on June 17, 2004

Talk Talk is great.
posted by kenko at 8:13 PM on June 17, 2004

Radiohead, people.
posted by pieoverdone at 8:16 PM on June 17, 2004

What about great backing bands?

(Elvis Costello and) the Attractions

(David Bowie and) the Spiders from Mars

(James Taylor and) the Holding Company

I'd also like to nominate Los Lobos, Hüsker Dü, and Sleater-Kinney (or Cadallaca).
posted by nicwolff at 8:19 PM on June 17, 2004

Minutemen. We Jam econo!
posted by machaus at 8:20 PM on June 17, 2004

Steely Dan. The Police. The Band. Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention.
posted by emelenjr at 8:27 PM on June 17, 2004

I second Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. I also vote for Metallica. Love them or hate them, the band has been very influential, especially pre-Black albumn ispiring tons heavy metal.
posted by jmd82 at 8:44 PM on June 17, 2004

The Blasters. Another vote for Los Lobos. The Jimi Hendrix Experience. The Chesterfield Kings (hell yeah). Buffalo Springfield. Most definitely Led Zep - many would argue the egos (along with some borrowed riffs and a well placed zucchini or two) were instrumental to their success. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Add another vote for The Band!
posted by TomSophieIvy at 8:44 PM on June 17, 2004

The Who, Led Zep, Pink Floyd, Steely Dan(cheating on the "bandness" part, really), Television, Talking Heads, The Clash, XTC, Pixies, Wilco.

Dire Straits did some good work. That double live Alchemy album seems to make a good case for "bandness".

ZZ Top was a great band before they did videos.

Little Feat. I can make the argument that the Rolling Stones were great as a band for a certain period of time.

A lot of bands are great in short bursts. That Family Stone note above is dead on, as they could kill anyone in front of a live audience for about 3 years. Not so much after, though. Does greatness require quantity, or just one bright shining moment?

There really are quite a number of bands I quite like in the previous comments.
posted by dglynn at 8:52 PM on June 17, 2004

Sloan. Rush. David Wilcox. Skinny Puppy. Tragically Hip. Barenaked Ladies. Great Big Sea. The Guess Who. Canadian bands, all.

Jimi Hendrix Experience. Grateful Dead. Bob Marley and the Wailers. The Kinks. Air. Thievery Corporation. The Cars. Luna. Death Cab for Cutie. Jethro Tull.

This list could go on and on, but my definition of GREAT deals only with how I feel about a certain band, not the population in general.
posted by ashbury at 9:07 PM on June 17, 2004

Just want to throw in Fugazi and the Charles Mingus Big Band.
posted by tetsuo at 9:10 PM on June 17, 2004

Thievery Corporation? Compared to them, Barenaked Ladies qualifies.
posted by kenko at 9:17 PM on June 17, 2004

I just never thought I'd see Rush and Death Cab for Cutie mentioned in the same post.
posted by jalexei at 9:19 PM on June 17, 2004

Am I the only one who need understood the appeal to Fugazi?
posted by jmd82 at 9:31 PM on June 17, 2004

I'd choose Minor Threat over Fugazi.
posted by Jairus at 9:41 PM on June 17, 2004


kidding, just kidding

But I would second The Clash, The Kinks, and U2, especially early U2.
posted by karmaville at 9:47 PM on June 17, 2004

Glad to see the Heads in the third post.

Seconds on Fugazi, Sonic Youth, Who, Cure, Minutemen, Pink Floyd, Radiohead, Clash, Pixies, Beatles.

Roxy Music. Beach Boys. Husker Du. Pretenders - quintessential rock goddess.

Best backing band - Crazy Horse.

Influence - Mission of Burma.
posted by coolgeek at 9:50 PM on June 17, 2004

Forty Four comments and I appear to be the first to nominate the Velvet Underground.
posted by alphanerd at 9:58 PM on June 17, 2004

I feel like a Spin reading/VH1 watching asshole for saying this, but, uhh Nirvana?
posted by Quartermass at 10:04 PM on June 17, 2004

Deep Purple and AC/DC
posted by mischief at 10:06 PM on June 17, 2004

Skinny Puppy, the Swans, Crass and Motorhead. The only bands that ever mattered.
posted by cmonkey at 10:08 PM on June 17, 2004

Black Sabbath.
posted by jmd82 at 10:17 PM on June 17, 2004

As an aside, I've been trying to put together a Skinny Puppy write-in campaign for Canada's Walk of Fame. You should all go nominate them for 2004.
posted by Jairus at 10:38 PM on June 17, 2004

As probably in the top 20 Radiohead fanboys alive (I'm a mod for the message board on the IMA-winning [url=]At Ease[/url]), my opinion is predisposed ;) Seriously, they're the greatest band ever in my eyes. And I mean, I know for example the Beatles were smarter and more innovative in their time - but RH to my modern ears exceeds anything ever done.

There's something about RH that's endlessly satisfying. Of course, having Hail to the Thief in my discman for a month straight does make it wear a bit, but unlike any other band I don't get that sort of TV headache feeling of too much repetition. It's something so non-predictable, without being esoteric or anything, that's just hard to describe.
posted by abcde at 10:41 PM on June 17, 2004

DAMN my BBcode instincts.

At Ease
posted by abcde at 10:42 PM on June 17, 2004

Phish are a bunch of hairy hippies who like to jam for 30 minute stretches, but they are amazing instrumentalists who work very, very tightly together. If you've ever been to a show, you know they go through stylistic phase after stylistic phase, playing everything from country to rock to trip hop to jazz to rap to lounge and whatever else you can think of. Basically, they can play anything in the world they want to play, they have a hell of a lot of fun doing it, and they make millions of people happy. I think that's pretty great.

But hairy hippies are disqualified or something, I'm sure.
posted by scarabic at 10:47 PM on June 17, 2004 [1 favorite]

jairus: I put in my vote. They sure deserve it more than Bryan Adams.
posted by cmonkey at 10:49 PM on June 17, 2004

I don't get that sort of TV headache feeling of too much repetition. It's something so non-predictable, without being esoteric or anything, that's just hard to describe.
posted by abcde at 10:41 PM PST on June 17

A nice ode to music.
posted by the fire you left me at 10:50 PM on June 17, 2004

Quasi. Two members, both amazing, rock 'n' roll.
posted by interrobang at 10:51 PM on June 17, 2004

The Tiger Lillies are a truly great band, too.
posted by cmonkey at 11:04 PM on June 17, 2004

My fave bands (who I think are truly great) don't meet all your criteria but I'll mention them anyway as I think they all had/have very unique sounds: Sweep the Leg Johnny, Husker Du, the Velvets, The Constantines, Masada, Minutemen, Guided by Voices, Shotmaker, The Coctails, LIARS, Beat Happening, The Dirty Three, Lambchop, Stars of the Lid, Giant Sand, The Handsome Family.
posted by dobbs at 11:07 PM on June 17, 2004


But seriously: Joy Division. And The Fall (though do they count as a band? More like one guy and a bunch of different bands, really.) And, in a different vein altogether, Beat Happening.

Fuck. dobbs beat me to that one. But I still get JOY DIVISION.

This is kind of silly, isn't it?
posted by mr_roboto at 1:42 AM on June 18, 2004

I imagine y'all will find this silly, and perhaps lack of longevity disqualifies, but an old 70's band that I have found I like more now than then, is E.L.O.

My long-time #1 band is Pink Floyd. I was surprised how far down the thread they appear. Perhaps due to the post-'Final Cut' works. I don't put them on nearly as much as I used, but then, I'm not nearly as young as I used to be, either.

Another not so long-lasting band which still makes me very happy to hear is "America". Ha, at one time, I resented the Eagles as an imitation.
posted by Goofyy at 2:21 AM on June 18, 2004

Ha, I just came back here because I couldn't stand that the band I consider the best bar none was hardly mentioned, only to find that Goofyy has already jumped in to defend the faith. Pink Floyd well and truly fit the criteria and are a no-brainer for the #1 slot.

After that, there are a number of bands that I consider to be great in their own way, such as The Animals, The Cure, Dire Straits, U2, The Doors, The Eagles, Led Zeppelin, Midnight Oil, The Rolling Stones, The Who .... The quality or "greatness" of their music is something open to debate and more a matter of personal style than anything else, but they all played a major role in shaping the musical trends of their time. The sad part is that they also (I guess) played a part in shaping musical trends that can be traced through to the current generation of crap that passes as music.

How many bands currently in the Top 40 will still be considered even worth the bandwidth to download pirated copies of their songs in 20 years time? Sigh. Now you have me started on all that "rock music died in 1974" thing again.
posted by dg at 4:45 AM on June 18, 2004

Joy Division definitely.

On a related note, I just heard Maroon5 for the first time yesterday, and i liked it, but all i could think was "oh, that sounds like Stevie Wonder/Jamiroquai/funk" so they're not in. : >
posted by amberglow at 5:33 AM on June 18, 2004

Does it always have to be me to tell you that the Sex Pistols were a truly great band?

A clutch of massive pop songs and a debut album that shook the music world, a gloriously brief & explosive career, they were the spark that lit a million fuses - and they are still listened to today. Almost single handedly created a culture - in the UK & Europe, even if you yanks dispute that as a fact.

I spit in your general direction...
posted by dash_slot- at 5:55 AM on June 18, 2004

Am I the only one who need understood the appeal to Fugazi?

They were an absolutely mind-blowing live band.

My votes: Afghan Whigs, Yo La Tengo, Pixies, Fugazi. Stones, Zeppelin, various incarnations of James Brown's backing band, Beatles. R.E.M., U2, Velvet Underground, the Band, the Clash.

Superchunk is a personal favorite but I'm not sure they count as a great band.

on preview: the Pistols were a great phenomenon more than a great band (no offense)
posted by mookieproof at 5:58 AM on June 18, 2004

I mean, I also second the Kinks, the Heads, Television, and The Special AKA The Coventry Specials. Another genre-creating band with a tragically short half life.

At some point, the Alabama 3 will be accorded their own place in the pantheon, but apparently the world isn't ready to do that yet. It will, tho, it will.
posted by dash_slot- at 6:05 AM on June 18, 2004

Having come in late to this thread, I'm amazed that no one's mentioned the Replacements.
posted by boomchicka at 6:26 AM on June 18, 2004

all bands are great.
posted by corpse at 6:52 AM on June 18, 2004 [1 favorite]

How many bands currently in the Top 40 will still be considered even worth the bandwidth to download pirated copies of their songs in 20 years time?
About as many as from any other era.

Eventually the last Beatles fan who actually listened to them when they were a band will die. Only thereafter can their legacy truly be determined.
posted by mischief at 7:15 AM on June 18, 2004

Moody Blues
The Pixies
posted by iconomy at 7:38 AM on June 18, 2004

is the question:
which bands are (1) good and (2) better than the solo efforts of their members?
if so, it's worth noting that (2) could be well-defined whichever of skalas's categories you fall into (since it's just a relative judgement).
posted by andrew cooke at 7:40 AM on June 18, 2004

Great list dobbs.
posted by btwillig at 9:36 AM on June 18, 2004

the madisuns

well, i'm biased, since it's my band!
posted by triv at 9:38 AM on June 18, 2004

I've said it before, I'll say it again, and it seems especially apt here: Arguing about music is like arguing about religion. You're not going to change anybody's mind, so it's pointless to even bother.

What are the Truly Great religions out there? I mean there are plenty of 'good' ones, like shintoism and scientology, but are there any that can be called capital-g 'Great'?

Having said that...
Wilco, the B-52s, Pavement?!?

I am tempted to second the Specials, but they are only great to people who appreciate the subculture [ska]. Likewise Fugazi [metal], Kraftwerk [electronica], P-Funk [funk], and Phish [crap]. They all are probably 'great', but I would hesitate to call them 'truly great', which applies a universality these groups simply don't have. Also, the Sex Pistols released one great album, but calling them a great band is beyond the pale. The same, I believe, applies to Nirvana. Great songwriting, timely release and timeless legacy, but in terms of musicianship and chemistry it just isn't there, not on the Beatles or Stones level, anyway.

mischief: Eventually the last Beatles fan [...] will die.

Dare I dream...?
posted by ChasFile at 9:45 AM on June 18, 2004

Booker T. and the MGs, Funkadelic, Chic (all of whom also qualify for Truly Great Backup Bands). Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band.
posted by timeistight at 9:46 AM on June 18, 2004

There are precious few 'truly great' artists, writers, presidents, football players, nosehair trimmers, and tire irons, as well. Of course there are very few 'great' bands; the nature of the semantics involved ensures it. The term 'great' requires extreme selectivity to carry any meaning whatsoever, and bemoaning the fact that there are very few 'truly great' anythings is fallacious in its self-contradiction. If every band in the world was 'truly great', than none of them would be.
posted by ChasFile at 9:53 AM on June 18, 2004

The World's Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band. End of story.

But damn, I miss the Minutemen.
posted by languagehat at 10:02 AM on June 18, 2004

Oh, I want to point out that when I finally form my revolutionary band, The Young Hegelians, rock & rock history, having reached its apex, will end. There will still be bands, sure, but TYH will truly have been the last and greatest of them all.
posted by kenko at 10:09 AM on June 18, 2004

1. Good musicians aren't necessarily good song writers aren't necessarily good composers.

2. A great band has to be all three.

3. A great band has to be more than one person.

4. A great band has to transcend time.

For example: Shakespeare is a great playwright. So is Sophocles. This is not subjective to culture.

Okay. So how about some arguments in which bands I've never heard of are measured by all three yardsticks. Provide play lists, excerpts from lyrics that are illustrative and not "they got lucky that time", and maybe for extra credit you could discuss how the band influenced others, innovated, and why it endures as a musical force.

Or, like, wait, you could like, list bands and stuff.

YEAH!!!!! ROCK ON!!!!!
posted by ewkpates at 10:56 AM on June 18, 2004

My votes: The dBs, the Feelies, Big Star, ACDC, Cheap Trick, Let's Active, the Mekons, the Minutemen, Pere Ubu, Television, Suicide, The Afghan Whigs, and of course The Velvet Underground.
posted by lilboo at 12:51 PM on June 18, 2004

(and I can't believe no one else mentioned VU before now ?!?)
posted by lilboo at 12:53 PM on June 18, 2004

Personally, I don't think anybody has listed anything yet that could be classified as "truly great". Mostly because we just don't know.

Anything that's come out in the past 20 years is far too new to be considered fairly, and anything that came out in the 30 years before that is too much subject to nostalgia.

I can say that I have yet to find any band/recording artist/musician that I do not eventually tire of.
posted by rocketman at 12:57 PM on June 18, 2004

Throwing Muses
early Siouxsie
posted by archimago at 1:25 PM on June 18, 2004

psst... lilboo
posted by boomchicka at 2:12 PM on June 18, 2004

Late, as usual, but here's my vote anyhow: Dirty Three. They're an electric guitar, drums and a violin. I mean, maybe they're not THE greatest band, but they are great, and they're great because they have such a clear and distinct voice.
posted by picea at 4:01 PM on June 18, 2004

Yeah, Dobbs reminded me of my all time #1 favorite band - Guided By Voices. I am such a dumb-ass. (Owned Nirvana records: 4 - Owned GBV records: 132)
posted by Quartermass at 5:55 PM on June 18, 2004

"Eventually the last Beatles fan [...] will die."

Every generation finds the Beatles. So in a way, your fucked.
posted by Keyser Soze at 8:58 PM on June 18, 2004

I love the GBV, but c'mon, it's always been Bob Pollard and The Rotating Cast of Dudes. It's not the band that made GBV great, it's the man and his vision and the guys along for the ride. I think that falls into the 'great solo' category (even if Pollard's non-GBV 'solo' stuff sometimes is far less hot than the music he releases under the Guided By Voices moniker).
posted by lesingesavant at 9:08 PM on June 18, 2004

Sorry I'm late, but -- the question is about great bands-as-bands, not driven or led primarily by one person (my first two thoughts upon opening this thread were of Wilco and the Replacements, but they're both leader-driven acts, so maybe they don't count).


The Red Hot Chili Peppers? But they spawned way too many awful, awful acts.
U2? Not for lack of trying, but -- well, maybe.
ELO is Jeff Lynne and a bunch of schmoes.
Ramones? Maybe. Motorhead? Possibly.
Public Enemy? You could make a case.
Suicide? Come on.
Gipsy Kings? The Modern Lovers? X? Radiohead? Grand Funk? REM? Talking Heads? Beefheart? Velvets? Mekons? Dire Straits? Fugazi? The Cars? Blur? I love them all, a lot, but there's a culture-crossing greatness problem with every single one. There are large demographics of people who just will never understand some of those acts, no matter how hard you try.

Which may disqualify them for this question. I'd think about universality as part of the criteria. (GBV? Skratch Piklz? Death Cab? At your parties, but not in this thread.)
posted by chicobangs at 10:03 PM on June 18, 2004

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