Top 20 Greatest Rock Bands
Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 20 Greatest Rock Bands.
For this list, we’ll be looking at the best ensembles in rock music. This list doesn’t include any rockstars known primarily for their solo work.
Did we forget one of your favorite rock bands? Let us know in the comments below.
#20: The Doors
In the mid-to-late ‘60s, the psychedelic movement produced many iconic acts such as the Doors. Their blend of the blues and newer rock trends gave them a musical edge. Singer Jim Morrison and his mystical status brought intriguing lyrics to their compelling songs. Next to Morrison’s star power, the group had the added soul of Ray Manzarek’s signature keyboard playing and Robby Krieger’s guitar work. The hugely successful collective saw their music strike a chord with counterculture audiences. Even though their singer died in 1971, their limited output left a permanent imprint on pop culture.
#19: Fleetwood Mac
Beginning as a blues rock act in the ‘60s, Fleetwood Mac took on different forms before their most famous era in the ‘70s. Drummer Mick Fleetwood recruited Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham in 1974, exploring a new sound with a rejuvenated energy. The result was a string of hit albums that included the award-winning “Rumours.” Among the defining records of its time, the record included a collection of classics written by Nicks, Buckingham, and Christine McVie. This particular lineup, while producing the greatest pop rock of its kind, had fractious relationships that almost destroyed the group. The many amazing songwriters in Fleetwood Mac managed to stay together and produce incredible music well into the ‘80s.
The Boston band emerged in the ‘70s as a hard rock act with stellar compositions beginning with “Dream On.” With five great musicians, the group created electric grooves and memorable riffs. Singer Steven Tyler set the tone for a new kind of frontman, establishing an instantly recognizable style and enviable vocal range. Together with guitarist Joe Perry, he wrote many classic hits through a multi-decade career. One of Aerosmith’s greatest achievements is being able to maintain and adapt to radical shifts in popular music trends. Who else but Aerosmith could effectively collaborate with Run-DMC and deliver a remixed banger like “Walk This Way?”
In the mid-70s, the Ramones arrived as one of the first mainstream American punk bands. Their leather jackets and minimal compositions rattled the establishment. Many people know them for “Blitzkrieg Bop,” but their impact on music goes much deeper. Boiling down rock to its essence, their distortion and energetic performance style defined the later decade. In their self-titled debut and “Rocket to Russia,” the group created a template for subversive and enthusiastic rock. They also came up with a wave of New York acts that showed the world that there’s an alternative approach to rock. Their iconography influenced a legion of followers that kept the punk aesthetic going for decades.
#16: Guns N’ Roses
Guns N’ Roses bridged the gap between hair metal and the hard rock of the late ‘80s. Led by charismatic frontman Axl Rose, the band developed a reputation as one of the edgier groups of their era. The album “Appetite for Destruction” introduced them to a large audience and proved their songwriting prowess. While they had an assortment of musicians over the years, people like Slash and Duff McKagan are two of the legends that held together the sometimes-unruly act. They experimented with more ballads and covers in the ‘90s, at which point several dramatic lineup changes threatened to end the group. Through its many incarnations, Guns N’ Roses remains a brand of rock music all its own.
#15: Creedence Clearwater Revival
Although they weren’t from the south, Creedence Clearwater Revival created a subgenre of music known as “swamp rock.” This mix of folk and rock styles built an endless list of unforgettable songs. Singer and songwriter John Fogerty headed the group and wrote many of their most iconic tracks. “Fortunate Son” and other singles showcase his ability to combine precise storytelling with crowd-pleasing melodies. They’ve even inspired other artists with the much-covered work “Proud Mary.” As an essential American band, CCR still ranks highly as crossover artists that brought together the country with their universal songwriting.
#14: The Clash
The Clash was arguably the quintessential punk band. They helped spearhead the initial movement in the UK and they pushed the subgenre to its logical end point. Not only that, they were able to evolve by embracing other genres such as new wave and reggae. Songwriter Joe Strummer co-created their mission statement that included an outspoken political viewpoint. Along with their devotion to a consistent message, the Clash sported one of the better lineups of their era. Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, and drummer Topper Headon joined Strummer for some of the most raw and inventive music of its kind.
The Eagles are one of the most famous and successful American bands of the ‘70s. Their destructive personalities often got in the way, but they also produced some enduring hits. Starting in more of a country style, the group slowly gravitated towards more of a traditional rock sound by the end of the decade. Drummer Don Henley and guitarist Glenn Frey teamed up to write many of their best songs while also sharing singing duties. With the inclusion of musicians like Don Felder and Joe Walsh, they expanded their sound with staggering instrumentation on “Hotel California.” They broke up in 1980 after their egos got the best of them, but adoring audiences have welcomed their subsequent reunion tours.
Metallica is a metal band that learned from the best and inspired another generation of hard rockers. Beginning with their celebrated ‘80s run, the band’s innovative thrash sound gave them a leg up among their contemporaries. Their speedy and head-banging riffs generated a steady following throughout the next decade. Bassist Cliff Burton colored their early sound with a low-end that couldn’t be matched. With their self-titled album, the group achieved breakthrough success with non-metal fans. Surviving growing pains and great tragedy, Metallica endures as the definitive act that brings together the best of metal and rock.
Among many accolades, AC/DC are Australian hard rock gods. Their use of the power chord riff became a staple of their tracks and their greatest asset. Bon Scott sang for them in their breakthrough period that saw success with the albums “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” and “Let There Be Rock.” After Scott’s death, singer Brian Johnson took over and helped create their most well-known album “Back in Black.” Angus Young’s guitar sound punctuated the band’s finest compositions through both eras. Even into the ‘90s, the group maintained their relevance with the electric “Thunderstruck.” They made it clear that rock didn’t have to be complicated to affect people on a global scale.
Radiohead has had a career that’s the furthest thing from predictable. They began with the surprise hit “Creep” in the early ‘90s, ushering them into the spotlight of alternative music. The band then became Britpop darlings with their second album “The Bends.” In their third album “OK Computer,” they created cerebral and artistic rock music that put them on critic lists. Experimental releases in the 2000s challenged audiences even more. At no point did the act want to follow mainstream trends, even releasing a record with a pay-what-you-want model. This creative spark carried them through several transformations that will undoubtedly motion them towards further innovation.
If there was any band that changed music for an entire decade, Nirvana did that for the ‘90s. Their album “Nevermind” grounded rock after the hair metal of the late ‘80s, bringing a more visceral energy to audiences. Kurt Cobain’s songwriting produced a brief but legendary catalog of devastatingly brilliant work. Every one of his lyrics had a personality and pain that cut deep with listeners everywhere. His collaborations with bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl go down as the most resonant of their respective era. With only three studio albums, Nirvana did more in their limited time than most acts ever achieve.
#8: The Beach Boys
From their early career, the Beach Boys personified the sunny pop rock of California. Their early work were enjoyable radio hits that were impossible to get out of your head. Among their many trademarks, the band delivered some of the best harmonies in music. In the mid-60s, songwriter Brian Wilson took their sound to the next level with “Pet Sounds.” The experimental album revolutionized the industry with its intricate orchestrations and classic melodies. In other singles such as “Good Vibrations,” they asserted themselves as revolutionaries in the music world. To this day, Wilson and his bandmates’ contributions to the American songbook are still unmatched.
#7: Black Sabbath
Most hard rock and metal acts look to Black Sabbath as the true godfathers of their sound. The original four-piece infused the early ‘70s with some of the heaviest music of the period. Ozzy Osbourne set the bar high for lead singers with his distinctive tone. His work on “Iron Man” and other classics leave audiences hyped to this day. This doesn’t discount the work of guitarist Tony Iommi or the other core members, all of whom helped fill out the depth of pieces such as “Paranoid.” Even after Osbourne’s departure, the core lineup continued with other singers like Ronnie James Dio that reignited the band’s spark. While some argue over their best era, Black Sabbath’s ultimate impact on hard rock is unquestionable.
#6: The Who
The Who’s live performances catapulted them to the top of the British Invasion craze. While they got their start as traditional rockers, the group quickly explored more deep and meaningful songwriting. Pete Townshend masterminded one of the first rock operas ever with “Tommy,” beautifully sung by singer Roger Daltrey. The musical experiments didn’t stop there as the records “Who’s Next” and “Quadrophenia” expanded their sound even more with expansive production and lyrical sophistication. Storytellers at heart, the band became an endearing act that transcended their wild stage presence. Keith Moon’s chaotic drumming created a foundation for their music, with bass player John Entwistle laying down some of the best lines in rock history.
#5: The Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones are one of the longest-serving rock bands in the history of the genre. Since 1962, the group has perfected their unique blend of genres into an influential style. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards co-wrote many of the great standards, from “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” to “Start Me Up.” Their lineup changed over the years, but talents like Charlie Watts and co-founders Bill Wyman and Brian Jones were integral parts of their evolution. Embracing their own brand of music, they really excelled in the late ‘60s and ‘70s as they delivered classic albums such as “Exile on Main St.” Their open-mouthed logo accurately encapsulates their anti-authority roots and their status as the original bad boys of rock.
#4: Pink Floyd
Among the most famous progressive acts of all time, Pink Floyd’s music defies space and time. Their humble beginnings with Syd Barrett started a superb career of rock explorations. Barrett exited the group in 1968, while newer member David Gilmour helped steer the band through its most successful period. The group created the magnum opus “The Dark Side of the Moon” in the early ‘70s, sparking a decade of experimental projects and concept albums. Bassist and frequent songwriter Roger Waters then took the reins for “The Wall,” another masterpiece that spawned an iconic stage show and several incredible songs. Even after Waters left the group, he continued to perform their songs as Gilmour and other members persisted with the Pink Floyd name.
Starting with glam and moving into broader rock stylings, Queen were the perfect live act for both the ‘70s and ‘80s. Their early period involved operatic and diabolical productions such as “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Before long, the band was known for their well-rounded sound and bold songwriting that avoided simple categorization. Singer Freddie Mercury’s enviable range remains the gold standard for rock frontmen to this day, inspiring audiences in classic shows like “Live Aid.” Brian May’s guitar-playing provided unexpected solos and some of the most compelling work of his generation. May and his bandmates have carried on the legacy of the group long after Mercury’s death, ensuring that their former singer’s contributions will never be forgotten.
#2: Led Zeppelin
Led Zeppelin is arguably the greatest hard rock act of all time. After the British Invasion and ‘60s countercultural movements, rock music was waiting for one band to move it into much heavier territory. At the same time, the band also explored a folk side that produced classics like “Stairway to Heaven.” Jimmy Page’s virtuoso guitar-playing was only one small piece of this musical puzzle, which also included John Bonham’s amazing drum patterns and John Paul Jones’s incredible bass parts. Robert Plant’s powerful vocals cut through their tracks in both a fierce delivery and powerful grace. There’s a reason that they’re referenced by almost every rock group since, given their ability to blow the roof of any stadium.
#1: The Beatles
There’s no denying the Beatles’s pivotal hold on music history. While some only see them as a pop act, they also created a template for future rock bands to follow. In less than a decade, the quartet went from unknown British group to the most revered musicians of their day. John, Paul, George and Ringo are synonymous with a revolution in songwriting and live performance. From “Love Me Do” to “Hey Jude,” they explored every possible sound with their unforgettable talents. Many have tried to replicate the success and artistic heights of these Liverpool lads, but nobody has ever topped them.