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Best Rock Bands: 20 Behemoths Who Beat A New Path For Rock’n’Roll
List & Guides

Best Rock Bands: 20 Behemoths Who Beat A New Path For Rock’n’Roll

These days, some say rock’n’roll isn’t relevant anymore, but the best rock bands suggest that it hasn’t just survived, it will live forever.

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As critics observe modern music’s ever-changing trends and mutating genres, they have often declared that “rock” is dead – or passé at least. Yet rock’n’roll’s primal beat has long since stamped its indelible impression on our lives, and no matter what its detractors say, rock music never really goes out of fashion. As Lou Reed once sagely noted, “You can’t beat two guitars, bass and drums,” so in that same spirit, Dig! salute the colossal contributions made by the 20 best rock bands of all time.

Listen to our Rock Classics playlist here, and check out our 20 best rock bands, below.

20: Grateful Dead

Arguably the greatest underground rock band of them all, Grateful Dead started out as counterculture figureheads and are forever synonymous with LSD and the late-60s hippie movement. However, those are merely the headlines, for while this legendary Californian band are known as the godfathers of acid rock, their love of The Beatles and The Beach Boys initially galvanised them into action, and their eclectic catalogue includes fantastic records such as Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty: pioneering, critically acclaimed forays into what we now usually term “Americana”.

Renowned for their relentless gigging (they are believed to have played 2,300 live shows prior to prime mover Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995), the Dead also adopted a revolutionary stance by encouraging their fans to bootleg their concerts. Such was the level of the group’s popularity, in 1993 they toured massive US arenas with no less a luminary than Sting as their opening act.

Must hear: Box Of Rain

19: Motörhead

Motörhead’s legendary frontman, Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister, famously laid out his band’s mission statement in an early interview with Pete Frame, when he said his aim was to “concentrate on very basic music: loud, fast, city, raucous, arrogant, paranoid, speedfreak rock’n’roll… it will be so loud that if we move in next door to you, your lawn will die”.

With hindsight, we can only surmise that UK and US garden centres’ collective losses were rock’n’roll’s gain, for Lemmy and co stayed true to their word as they established themselves as one of the best rock bands of all time. Their singular frontman hated to be lumped in among heavy metal acts (“We were not heavy metal, we were a rock’n’roll band and we still are – everyone always describes us as heavy metal even when I tell them otherwise,” he asserted to The Independent in 2011), yet from their inception, in 1975, through to Lemmy’s death in 2015, Motörhead unleashed a thunderous blitzkrieg of a catalogue, with their landmark albums Overkill, Ace Of The Spades and the unsurpassable No Sleep ’Til Hammersmith influencing everyone from punk acts such as The Damned through to rising metal acts of all stripes, Metallica, Napalm Death and Slipknot among them. Indeed, Motörhead gained respect from just about everyone.

Must hear: Overkill

18: Ramones

Ramones’ self-titled debut album is often credited with kick-starting punk, and the group’s influence hangs over that genre in the same way as Motörhead’s does with heavy metal. Yet, while Lemmy was keen to stress that his band were first and foremost “a rock’n’roll band”, the same rings true of Ramones. The seminal quartet from New York City may have played it hard and fast, but they had a keen ear for melody and they adored classic 60s pop of all stripes. So while they influenced everyone from the aforementioned Lemmy (who wrote the song R.A.M.O.N.E.S in tribute to the group) to Guns N’ Roses, alongside virtually every US punk act of worth, Ramones were also sought out by production geniuses such as Phil Spector and 10cc’s Graham Gouldman – and that’s because they’re one of the world’s best rock bands, whose best songs transcend era and genre alike.

Must hear: Blitzkrieg Bop

17: AC/DC

AC/DC can’t claim to boast guitar virtuosos in the vein of Jimi Hendrix or Eddie Van Halen but when it comes to grit, authenticity and high-octane rock’n’roll, they’re world-beaters. Coming up the hard way on the Aussie pub circuit, the group were on the cusp of mass success when their charismatic original vocalist, Bon Scott, died after the release of 1979’s Mutt Lange-produced Highway To Hell album. AC/DC replaced him with another singular frontman, Brian Johnson, and enshrined their legend with 1980’s Back In Black: not only a key release, but, with global sales of an estimated 50 million, a record that sits among the five best-selling albums of all time.

Like both Motörhead and Ramones, AC/DC have never significantly deviated from their hard, heavy, anthemic approach, but despite a few leaner years during the 80s, they enjoyed a renaissance which began with 1990’s The Razor’s Edge and continued into the 21st century. 2008’s acclaimed Black Ice was one of that year’s biggest-selling albums and, despite being completed following the 2017 death of founding guitarist Malcolm Young, 2020’s global smash Power Up proved that you can’t keep the best rock bands down for long.

Must hear: You Shook Me All Night Long

16: Van Halen

Giants of US hard rock, Van Halen were nigh-on unstoppable during their heyday, from the mid-70s to 1985, when they parted company with their original vocalist, David Lee Roth. Credited with “restoring hard rock to the forefront of the music scene” by the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, they released a series of game-changing records, including their self-titled debut album, Van Halen II and Fair Warning, all of which went multi-platinum. Another mega-seller, 1984, shifted over ten million copies and yielded the band’s US chart-topping signature hit, Jump.

As a musical unit, Van Halen were tight and impressive, while David Lee Roth could claim to be one of the era’s most charismatic frontmen. Ultimately, though, Eddie Van Halen was the star of the show. Very much the guitarist’s guitarist, he’s often credited with popularising the tapping solo technique, allowing rapid arpeggios to be played with two hands on the fretboard, and he’s been idolised by successive generations of guitarists from the metal genre. Following his death from cancer, in October 2020, Eddie was honoured at the 2020 Billboard Music Awards by musicians as disparate as The White Stripes’ Jack White, Anthrax’s Charlie Benante and country star Dierks Bentley, proving that, while Van Halen should always be regarded as one of the best rock bands of all time, their music has an extremely broad appeal.

Must hear: Jump

15: Pretenders

The brainchild of the single-minded and hugely talented US-born anglophile Chrissie Hynde, Pretenders formed shortly after punk morphed into new wave. But while they sucked up the energy of that genre, Hynde’s songwriting smarts and her band’s abilities soon lifted them clear on their own terms.

Responsible for their classic, platinum-selling 1980 debut album and the equally stellar Pretenders II, the band’s initial line-up had talent to burn but foundered after the tragically premature deaths of guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and bassist Pete Farndon. Hynde, however, was determined to finish what she’d started, and she’s continued to outshine many of her male counterparts with vital albums ranging from 1984’s Learning To Crawl through to 1994’s Last Of The Independents. Capable of penning the toughest of rockers (Tattooed Love Boys, Middle Of The Road) through to the most tender ballads (I’ll Stand By You, Hymn To Her), Chrissie Hynde is one of rock’s true originals. With her band back on vintage form with their 2020 album, Hate For Sale, it’s clear she’s anything but finished yet.

Must hear: Tattooed Love Boys

14: Neil Young And Crazy Horse

As the likes of Harvest and Crosby, Stills Nash And Young’s Déjà Vu album prove, Neil Young’s best-selling titles aren’t necessarily those he records with Crazy Horse. However, since the maverick Canadian and his on-off backing band first saddled up for 1969’s stellar Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, their relationship has yielded a hefty slew of titles that seasoned Young fans would consider mandatory.

Young’s original guitar/vocal foil in the Horse, Danny Whitten, died prematurely of a heroin overdose, partially inspiring 1975’s harrowing Tonight’s The Night album. But after Frank “Poncho” Sampedro replaced him for that same year’s Zuma, the band acquired a chemistry which spurred Young on to greatness across numerous albums, including 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps through to 1991’s searing live double-album, Weld. Passion rather than precision’s their thing, and when Neil Young And Crazy Horse are really firing, they’re ferociously intense and most definitely one of the best rock bands in the world.

Must hear: Cinnamon Girl

13: Queen

Led by the ultra-flamboyant and much-missed Freddie Mercury, Queen initially plied their trade as a progressive rock band at the dawn of the 70s. However, they quickly found their own style, initially breaking through with their stylish 1974 hit, Killer Queen, and then going supernova on the back of Mercury’s ambitious Bohemian Rhapsody – not so much a pop song as a mini-operetta which played out over six minutes and shot to No.1 in the UK en route to becoming the country’s third best-selling single of all time.

Following that spectacular breakthrough, Queen enjoyed a stellar career with hit albums (A Night At The Opera, News Of The World, The Game) and further smash singles (We Will Rock You, Don’t Stop Me Now, A Kind Of Magic) which have long since been recognised around the world.

Though broadly a classic rock band, Queen made forays into disco, funk and classic pop without ever sacrificing their identity, and they remained a phenomenal live act until they effectively ceased touring in 1986 (their 1985 Live Aid set is widely regarded as one of the greatest live performances of all time). Many assumed that Queen would call it a day after Mercury’s death, in 1991, but original members Brian May and Roger Taylor initially reinvented themselves with vocalist Paul Rodgers and, more recently, new frontman Adam Lambert, and are now a world-renowned live act all over again.

Must hear: Killer Queen

12: The Doors

First formed in Los Angeles in 1965, The Doors built a formidable following after they were employed as the house band at the city’s legendary Whisky A Go Go during 1966. By the time they signed with Jac Holzman’s Elektra label, they were fully formed and fabulous, and, as their multi-platinum, self-titled debut album quickly proved, they were major stars in waiting.

Frontman Jim Morrison’s poetic lyrics and his band’s dark, psychedelic rock was a winning combination, but, to their credit, they largely maintained the quality control across all six albums they cut in their original incarnation. A truly electrifying live act, The Doors were often a subtler entity in the studio, though their final two albums, Morrison Hotel and the sublime LA Woman, allowed their blues influences to breathe a little more. Their gilt-edged catalogue has long since set their legend in stone, though the question as to what they could have achieved had Morrison returned safely from his fateful Paris sojourn hangs heavy to this day.

Must hear: Roadhouse Blues

11: The Who

The Who are perpetually associated with the mod movement, but in reality they’d gotten most of their initial, amphetamine-fuelled pop out of their system by the time they parted ways with their original producer, Shel Talmy, early in 1966. From thereon in, the group flirted with pop-art and psychedelia on late-60s albums such as A Quick One While He’s Away and The Who Sell Out before emerging with a much heavier sound at the end of the decade.

Arguably their magnum opus, 1969’s famous concept album, Tommy, hogged the headlines for Pete Townshend and co, but 1970’s storming Live At Leeds revealed that – Led Zeppelin aside – The Who were arguably the greatest live band on the planet on the cusp of the 70s. Further successes would follow, with 1971’s Who’s Next and 1973’s ambitious Quadrophenia ensuring that The Who’s status as one of the world’s very best rock bands simply couldn’t (and still can’t) be denied.

Must hear: Won’t Get Fooled Again

10: Fleetwood Mac

A band whose history you couldn’t make up, Fleetwood Mac seem all but indestructible. Originally an astonishing blues-rock band led by the mercurial Peter Green, they first rose to prominence during the late 60s, courtesy of acclaimed albums such as Then Play On and classic singles including Oh Well, Man Of The World and the UK chart-topping Albatross.

Having tasted mass success, however, the increasingly ascetic Green quit the band, and Fleetwood Mac entered a period of turbulence during the early 70s, with personnel changes happening as regularly as the group released albums. However, after relocating to the US, the band’s second legendary line-up fell into place when singer-songwriter duo Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined the core trio of Christine McVie, Mick Fleetwood and John McVie. Despite internal strife, this line-up scored mass success – twice – having hit upon a winning, radio-friendly rock sound which led to staggering, multi-platinum sales figures for both 1977’s Rumours and 1987’s Tango In The Night albums. Emotional turmoil has defined some of their career, but it can’t prevent the Mac from lining up among the world’s best rock bands.

Must hear: Dreams

9: Metallica

Arguably the most titanic metal outfit of them all, San Francisco Bay Area quartet Metallica were first formed by frontman James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich in 1981. Influenced by the UK’s New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, they helped pioneer a faster, heavier form of metal known as thrash metal, with early albums such as Kill ’Em All and the widely acclaimed Master Of Puppets gaining them international recognition.

It’s not all been plain sailing. The band have had their collective demons to quell, and they’ve also had the tragic death of original bassist Cliff Burton to overcome. Yet 1991’s arguable career best, Metallica (aka “The Black Album”), exuded a broader appeal which led to it selling 16 million copies and thrusting Metallica into the heart of the mainstream – a place they’ve since occupied with pride, with their nine Grammy Awards and subsequent chart-topping albums such as 2016’s Hardwired… To Self-Destruct preserving the group’s place among the best rock bands in the world.

Must hear: Master Of Puppets

8: Deep Purple

You could argue that Deep Purple deserve their place among the best rock bands simply because Ritchie Blackmore’s Beethoven-inspired Smoke On The Water riff remains the go-to guitar figure for all budding rock guitarists. In reality, though, it’s the group’s stalwart presence on the hard rock scene, plus a series of major triumphs, which ensures their place here.

Initially a psychedelic outfit when they first formed in 1968, the band rose to prominence with 1970’s widely-acclaimed Deep Purple In Rock: a key release which saw Deep Purple, along with their contemporaries Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, referred to as the “unholy trinity of British hard rock and heavy metal in the early- to mid-seventies”. Further big-hitting albums, such as Fireball and Machine Head, cemented their reputation, but despite hiatuses and personal reshuffles, the best Deep Purple songs prove the group’s impact can still be felt in the 21st century.

Must hear: Black Night

7: The Jimi Hendrix Experience

Quite probably the most talented and visionary rock guitarist of them all, Jimi Hendrix was always going to be the star of whatever show he hitched up to. He needed help, however, and, thanks to manager Chas Chandler, he chose to enlist bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell, who would make up his rhythm section for much of his professional career.

Redding and Mitchell were installed behind Hendrix within days of his arrival in London, in the autumn of 1966, and – as The Jimi Hendrix Experience – the duo provided just the right blend of funkiness, feel and virtuosity Hendrix required on Are You Experienced, Axis: Bold As Love and the sprawling Electric Ladyland – the three studio albums upon which the iconic musician’s reputation primarily rests. Posthumous Hendrix live albums, such as his legendary Monterey Festival set from 1967, meanwhile, further reinforce the belief that the Experience were also one of the world’s best rock bands on stage as well as in the studio during this pivotal period of rock history.

Must hear: Voodoo Child (Slight Return)

6: Pink Floyd

Pink Floyd’s backstory is an inspirational affair that sees them rise from London’s underground psych scene of the late 60s (during which time they were led by the brilliantly creative and mercurial Syd Barrett) to become globe-straddling behemoths whose era-defining album covers and bar-raising live shows matched the ambitions of their renowned concept albums.

After personal issues led to Barrett steeping away from the band, his replacement, David Gilmour, helped shape their sound through the 70s. After entering the mainstream with 1973’s The Dark Side Of The Moon, Pink Floyd could do no wrong. They pioneered a virtuosic, yet melancholic and always thought-provoking variety of arena-sized rock, which yielded further monolithic titles such as The Wall and The Division Bell, and even survived the resignation of prime mover Roger Waters as they duly established themselves as one of the best rock bands (or maybe rock brands?) of all time.

Must hear: Money

5: Guns ‘N’ Roses

Guns N’ Roses embody living Hollywood’s rock’n’roll dream to the very nth degree. Their first three albums, Appetite For Destruction and the simultaneously released Use Your Illusion I and II, collectively sold around 100 million copies while the band lived fast and made myths, yet somehow stayed around long enough to enjoy it. That doesn’t mean it’s all been sweetness and light, of course. Inter-band relations have often been fractious, and frontman Axl Rose was the only original Gunner to appear on the band’s 2008 album, Chinese Democracy. However, fellow GNR originals Slash and Duff McKagan rejoined the group for 2016’s Not In This Lifetime…, tour and the fact that that mega-grossing undertaking is still alive and adding fresh dates five years later shows that GNR are still one of the biggest and best rock bands on the planet.

Must hear: Sweet Child O’ Mine

4: The Rolling Stones

Rock’s original bad boys played their first gig at London’s famous Marquee Club in July 1962, and went on to morph from hip blues practitioners into British rock royalty (and The Beatles’ closest rivals) as the 60s drew on. Despite losing the talented yet star-crossed Brian Jones in 1969, the Stones only got bigger during the 70s: a period when they cut high-water mark titles such as Sticky Fingers and the daring double-album Exile On Main St. Having since gone on rack up composite sales of over 240 million, stage four of the five highest-grossing concert tours of all time and notch up a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, the Stones have defied everything from drugs to advancing age, and show no sign of stopping. Frankly, their entry among the world’s best rock bands writes itself.

Must hear: Sympathy For The Devil

3: Black Sabbath

Motörhead were perhaps louder, and Led Zeppelin were certainly a bigger global phenomenon, yet when it comes to what we now casually refer to as “metal”, then the original smelters were surely the mighty Brummie quartet Black Sabbath. During their early 70s heyday, nobody did metal heavier (or better) than Ozzy Osbourne and co, and their initial run of legend-enshrining releases, Black Sabbath, Paranoid, Master Of Reality and Vol.4, still take some beating. The group spent some time in the wilderness after two terrific post-Ozzy albums featuring Ronnie James Dio in the early 80s, and several of their 90s releases deserve reappraisal, but they shot back to the top with their final studio set, 13, and their widely acclaimed farewell tour, The End, which ran across 2016 to 2017 and was a worthy victory lap for such a monumental act.

Must hear: War Pigs

2: The Beatles

If you can’t credibly survey the world’s best rock bands without The Rolling Stones, then The Beatles’ inclusion is also mandatory. Indeed, virtually every other artist on this list was directly inspired by The Fab Four – whether that be Lemmy joining 60s beat group The Rockin’ Vicars after hearing The Beatles’ early recordings, or Jimi Hendrix immediately introducing his own version of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band into his live set after hearing an acetate of the (then still unreleased) song. The Beatles will probably always remain the ultimate pop phenomenon, so there’s not much we can add to their legend, save to point out that they did it all first.

Must hear: A Day In The Life

1: Led Zeppelin

Trawling the history of modern music to snag the very best of the best rock bands out there is a tough ask, but if we’re pushed, we simply have to go with Led Zeppelin. From the moment Jimmy Page brought Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and John Bonham together for their first rehearsal, the chemistry was there and the group’s rise to fame was simply staggering. Within just a few short months of playing their first live shows, held in Scandinavia in the autumn of 1968 (where they were billed as The New Yardbirds), Led Zeppelin had recorded their self-titled debut album and were already wowing US audiences with their marathon live sets.

From then on, there was no stopping the group as their sales figures ratcheted up (“Led Zeppelin IV” remains the fifth highest-selling album of all time), and they effectively invented stadium rock as their shows just got bigger and louder and more expansive throughout the 70s. The loss of drummer John Bonham brought their imperial reign to a close at the turn of the 80s, but when it comes to rock on the most grandiose scale, no band has ever flown quite as high as Led Zeppelin.

Must hear: Whole Lotta Love

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