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The Greatest American Rock & Roll Band?

After three decades of making music together, the rock band R.E.M. have announced that they are calling it quits (as a group, anyway). Unfortunately, R.E.M. reached their zenith a number of years ago, so they're going out with a whimper, and not a bang. Still, it's been a good run. Someone on an internet forum I frequent (because that's what I do in my spare time -- visit internet forums) posited the following:

I think you could make a strong case that they were the greatest American rock and roll band of the past thirty years.

Now, I got to thinking about this. My initial reaction was a knee-jerk nodding of the head, but then further contemplation brought forth some doubt. There are other rock & roll bands that could vie for the title of 'greatest' from past thirty years, surely? Perhaps R.E.M. comes to the fore because of its longevity? But does quantity stand tall over quality? Seems doubtful. Let's look at some other rock bands from the past three decades.

When thinking of prominent rock bands of the modern era, of course R.E.M. holds a place of importance. So does Nirvana. Granted, they weren't around too terribly long (for obvious reasons), but their star burned bright before burning out. What of The Flaming Lips? They're often underrated, but have produced some really great rock music in the last couple of decades. Greenday is also an awesome American rock band, and has rightfully seen a lot of praise over its increasingly long career. They have remained relevant by producing credible rock song after credible rock song -- not an easy task.

I've gotta give a shout-out (mad props, or whatever the kids are saying these days) to homegrown rock band HUM. They've had some good, quality, well-accepted albums over the years, including 1995's classic You'd Prefer an Astronaut. And what of the (relatively) short-lived band Jellyfish, from the early 1990s? I was introduced to their two studio albums by Ashley, and I have to admit that they're both great  examples of pop/rock music. Speaking of two-album-bands, we can't overlook Vampire Weekend who, in my humble opinion, are the best rock group performing today.

Our list could go on and on. We've got: Fleet Foxes, Dave Matthews Band, OneRepublic, Lady Antebellum, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Bon Iver, Talking Heads, Phish, Soul Asylum, The Lemonheads, Styx, etc. etc., to name but a few.

So, yes, a strong case could be made that R.E.M. was the greatest American rock & roll band of the past thirty years, but it is certainly not a conclusive case. All of the aforementioned rock bands (as well as countless others not mentioned) could have strong, plausible arguments made in their favor. True, some of them weren't around for 30 years like R.E.M., but then I'd argue that the term "greatest" means quality of music, not necessarily quantity of years. But then I'm sure you have your own criteria by which to judge this sort of thing.


  1. 30 years is a long time period that could include a huge array of bands. I'm on the record as not being a fan of REM, but that doesn't mean I don't recognize their contribution and influence as a band. That said, here are some possible contenders as the most influential (i.e., not necessarily the greatest). Big caveat: I do not like many of these bands, either.

    Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Sonic Youth, Radiohead, The Pixies, Beck, Steve Earle, Wilco (Sun Volt, Uncle Tupelo), Elliot Smith, Patti Smith, Johnny Cash, DMB, Tom Petty, Tom Waits, Guided by Voices, Coldplay, Oasis, White Stripes, U2, Bob Mould (Husker Du, Sugar), Bob Dylan, Liz Phair, Lucinda Williams, Flaming Lips, NIN, PJ Harvey, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Bjork, Belle & Sebastian, Portishead, The National, Arcade Fire, Fleet Foxes, Foo Fighters, Guns N' Roses, My Morning Jacket, The Police, Sigur Ros, Sufjan Stevens, Neko Case, Built to Spill, Ryan Adams, Spoon, Kings of Leon, Death Cab, The Decemberists, Animal Collective, Yo La Tengo, TSOOL, BRMC.

    My totally subjective votes would be for Gn'R, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, The National, Arcade Fire, Fleet Foxes, Sufjan Stevens.

  2. Hmmm, interesting.

    What is it about the groups (aside fro Sufjan Stevens) that you mention in the last sentence that you think has been influential?

    You have a nice, comprehensive list (even if they're not all bands, as some are just solo acts, and they're also not all American. But I don't want to be pedantic). ;-)

  3. Yeah, I guess I kind of glossed over the "American" part of the question. Interesting, since I would probably tag U2 as the "greatest" band of the past 30 years.

    Gn'R: Came out of nowhere and destroyed hair metal, which paved the way for grunge to go mainstream. Set the stage for the most important rock movement (grunge) of our generation.

    Nirvana: Gold standard of the grunge era.

    Pearl Jam: Here for sentimental reasons. One notch below Nirvana, but have stuck with it for 20 years and are making some of their best music right now.

    The last four are simply my favorites from the past decade - don't really have a good argument to back it up. ;)


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