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The 10 Most Influential Rock Bands Of All Time

Updated on July 23, 2016

The Beatles

The Beatles as they arrive in New York, 1964.
The Beatles as they arrive in New York, 1964. | Source

Top 10 Lists Are Fun!

Top 10 lists are completely meaningless and pointless, but they are also lots of fun. As a music fan I'm a sucker for best 10 lists. One of the reasons why is because of the discussions that they generate. I really enjoy picking apart them and criticizing the selections.

I'm throwing my hat in the ring with my list of the 10 most influential rock bands of all time. Even though I did include commercially successful bands, I did decide to base the list on harder to define criteria such as influence and innovation. For example, did the rock band help pioneer a new genre or sub genre. Did they influence countless other rock bands? Are the bands considered to be important links in the evolution of rock music?

So here is a list of the 10 best rock bands of all time. Let the debates begin!

#10: (tie) Beastie Boys & Public Enemy

When compiling this list I had a tough time choosing between the Beastie Boys & Public Enemy, so I decided to include both. Of course there are those that will contend that rap and rock are two separate genres and that rap groups obviously shouldn't be included on a list of the most important rock bands. Those are the same individuals that also argue that rap artists have no place in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. But let us consider why in the case of the Beastie Boys & Public Enemy this view is shortsighted. We will start off by considering why the Beastie Boys should be considered as one of the most influential rock bands of all time.

Beastie Boys

The Beastie Boys originally formed in 1981 as a hardcore punk band. Even though they ended up achieving their success as a hip hop band, they never fully abandoned their punk roots. For example, on a number of their albums and songs they would go back to their punk roots and play real instruments. A prime exhibit is a tune like "Sabotage", which is explosively rocking.

One of the most important parts of the Beastie Boys legacy is that they helped blurred the lines between rap and rock. For example, their landmark full length debut, 1986's Licensed to Ill featured a heavy rock influence on songs such as "(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)" and "No Sleep till Brooklyn" (which also featured Slayer's guitarist Kerry King). They helped create what is often coined as "rap rock" and for better or worst they were influential in the development of "nu metal". Even though they are primarily considered a rap act, they have achieved a number of modern rock hits.

Sabotage by Beastie Boys (Video)

Public Enemy

As part of the 2013 class, Public Enemy became only the fourth rap act to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (the other three in order are Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Run-DMC, and the aforementioned Beastie Boys). Despite the detractors, there is a number of compelling reasons why Public Enemy has earned their place as one of the most important rock bands of all time (that is right, I said rock).

The band's musical sound which was crafted by the band's production team, "The Bomb Squad" was as heavy hitting as just about any rock band. Their collaboration with Anthrax on Public Enemy's "Bring The Noise" was a key evolution link in the development of "rap metal" and "nu metal". Their touring with Anthrax along with being one of the first hip hop acts to headline major rock festivals further helped blur the lines between rock and rap. Their influence in the realm of rock as also been cited by numerous rock acts such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Nirvana (Kurt Cobain cited PE's 1988 classic album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back as one of his top 50 albums). It is with good reason that back in 1987 music critic Simon Reynolds declared Public Enemy as "a superlative rock band".

Bring the Noise by Public Enemy & Anthrax (Video)

#9: Sonic Youth

If you want to closely examine the evolutionary development of mainstream rock, you have to start with the underground. In just about any genre and sub-genre of rock, the architects that wrote the blueprints are the individuals that have never achieved commercial success. But if it wasn't for the blueprints many successful rock acts wouldn't have had the formula that they have followed on their way to mainstream success. Sonic Youth was one of those key architects.

Forming in 1981, noise rock pioneers Sonic Youth have become one of the most important indie rock bands of all time. Their 1988 album, Daydream Nation is considered an important cultural landmark, and it was even selected by the Library of Congress to be included in their National Recording Registry (honoring recordings of cultural significance) in 2005. They were also influential in the development of the soft and loud dynamic that became the trademark of the "grunge" sound. Both Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo are considered influential guitarists for exploring alternate tunings and their unorthodox methods of experimenting with different guitar sounds. Bassist Kim Gordon become an iconic figure and was extremely influential in the "riot grrrl" scene that was formed in the early 90s.

One of Sonic Youth's most important contributions to the evolution of rock was when they finally signed to a major label (Geffen) and in 1990 they released their major label debut Goo. Because Sonic Youth was able to sign a major label deal and maintain their creative freedom, that helped open the floodgates. For example, Nirvana signed to Geffen record, because Sonic Youth were heroes to Kurt Cobain. If Sonic Youth never signed to Geffen, Nirvana's Nevermind may have never ushered in the alternative rock explosion of the 90s.

Video of Kool Thing by Sonic Youth (with Chuck D of Public Enemy)

#8: The White Stripes

I am not going to lie; being objective it was hard for me to know where to rank The White Stripes. I absolutely love the Stripes and they are one of my all time faves. Personally I prefer them to just about any band that I ranked on this list. So the question remains whether or not I am being totally objective including them on this list. But oh well. It is my list and I can include whom I want to.

That being said, there is no denying the fact that they are an important band. They are arguably the most important rock band of the 2000s. Forming in 1997, in many ways they were like a fresh of breath air. By the 2000s, rock & roll was starting to become pretty bland and generic. Then came The White Stripes who helped usher in the garage rock revival of the early 2000s. This was arguably the most important development in rock music since the early 90s grunge explosion.

In many ways, for a band that found mainstream success they were truly unique. There was the brother and sister gimmick of Jack and Meg White (in reality they were previously married, and Jack adopted Meg's last name). There was also the fact that there were only two members (guitar and drums). But Jack White thrived with limitations and this help paved the way for numerous rock & roll duos that were now competing in a surprisingly competitive rock & roll tag team division. They proved that sometimes less is more. In many ways, The White Stripes almost single-handedly saved rock & roll at a time when it was practically on life support.

Ball and Biscuit by The White Stripes (Video)

#7: The Velvet Underground

Releasing their debut album in 1967, The Velvet Underground are widely considered to be the first alternative rock band. Even though they achieved minimal commercial success, they are considered widely influential. Highlighting this, Brian Eno, referencing the fact that the band’s debut album only initially sold 30,000 copies, made this famous statement in a 1982 interview for Musician magazine: "everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band." That same album, The Velvet Underground & Nico was added to the Library of Congress Recording Registry in 2006.

Part of the reason for the band's lack of commercial success was the band's unconventional and experimental approach. There was also the band's provocative and nihilistic lyrical approach that was in sharp contrast of the peace and love vibe of much of the 60s. Even though drug references were not new, VU were more direct (such as with their 1967 song "Heroin"). In many ways they were truly ahead of their time. They helped influence numerous punk and alternative bands.

The band also proved to be a key jumping off platform for a few of their key members. John Cale would go on to become an important producer and avant garde performer and composer. Lou Reed would go on to achieve some commercial success as a solo artist (most notably his 1972 hit "Walk on the Wild Side") and was considered a key figure in the development of experimental rock music. Nico who sung on three songs off their 1967 debut, The Velvet Underground & Nico became a cult figure and is considered influential in the development of goth music. The Velvet Underground's drummer, Maureen "Moe" Tucker is considered to be an important link in the evolution of women in rock.

Heroin by The Velvet Underground (Video)

#6: The Clash

Back around the time of the release of their 1979 landmark album, London Calling, The Clash was regularly billed as "The Only Band That Matters". For a time, they came pretty close to living up to that tag line. The Clash arguably became the most important of all of the bands from the British punk scene of the late 70s.

They stood in contrast with the nihilistic approach of bands like the Sex Pistols and the more pop approach of bands like the Buzzcocks. They were idealists who believed that music could be a tool of social change. They have become one of the most important socially conscious rock bands ever. In many ways, Joe Strummer was the Bob Dylan of punk rock.

Another key aspect that helped set them apart was they did not allow themselves to be limited by the confines of punk. Their incorporation of ska, reggae, rockabilly, jazz and numerous other styles showed an eclecticism and ambition which would go on to make them hugely influential. There is no shortage of punk and alternative bands that have cited them as a formidable influence.

White Man (In Hammersmith Palais) by The Clash (Video)

#5: Bob Marley & the Wailers

Bob Marley & the Wailers were one of the first reggae acts to crossover to appeal to a rock audience. Right down to this day it is not unusual to hear The Wailers get played on classic rock radio. That crossover would go on to influence a number of ska and reggae inspired rock acts including the aforementioned The Clash, The Police and even Eric Clapton (who had a US #1 hit with The Wailers' "I Shot The Sheriff"). Also Bob Marley's abilities as a lyricist made him a key figure in the development of socially conscious rock music.

Widely referred to as the first "Third World Rock Star" Bob Marley was rightfully inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, but it is absolutely criminal that the rest of The Wailers were excluded. Original members Peter Tosh & Bunny Wailers were important in the development of the band's sound. Also on their classic 1973 album (their first album to gain significant international attention and to appeal to a rock audience) Catch a Fire, Peter Tosh wrote two standout tracks, "400 Years" and "Stop That Train". Even when Tosh and Wailer left in 1974, The Wailers continued to make a key musical contribution to Marley's sound. One of the most significant contributions came from the Barrett Brothers rhythm section. The bass of Aston "Family Man" Barrett (the "Family Man" came from his role as bandleader) and drums of Carlton Barrett would go to create a huge musical legacy that would transcend reggae music.

No Woman No Cry by Bob Marley & the Wailers (Video)

#4: Nirvana

Even though Nirvana's legacy is undeniable, there is a degree of subjectivity with their inclusion on this list. More than any other band, Nirvana was extremely influential in the development of my personal musical taste. In many ways Nirvana was a musical gateway drug for me. As a teen in the 90s much of the music I got into was introduced to me through Nirvana. That being said, part of the reason why Nirvana deserves to be on this list is because they ended up becoming a musical gateway drug to millions of other youths as well.

Even though Nirvana didn't invent "grunge" or alternative rock, they were the catalyst that launched it into the mainstream. The success of the album Nevermind and the song "Smells Like Teen Spirit" permanently changed the rock & roll landscape. The underground was now bubbling up into the mainstream. Nirvana was also able to accomplish this feat without compromising their music. Nirvana didn't come to the mainstream but the mainstream came to them.

Because of this unexpected success, Kurt Cobain now became a reluctant generational spokesman for disenfranchised youths. His inabilities to handle this pressure lead to his untimely demise and his tragic inclusion into the 27 Club.

Lithium by Nirvana (Video)

#3: Led Zeppelin

I have a confession. Out of all of the bands on this list, Led Zeppelin is my least favorite. There are numerous bands that did not make this list that I personally enjoy more. Even though they do have songs I genuinely enjoy, I just never really made a personal connection with their music. So their inclusion at #3 is evidence that I was trying to be objective with this list. You really don't have to be a huge fan to appreciate their unsurpassed influence. For example, you would be hard pressed to find a hard rock or metal band that formed after 1969 that does not have an obvious Led Zeppelin influence. Very few bands have been as widely imitated as Led Zeppelin. From everything to their sound, to their appearance, to their live performances they have been widely emulated.

John Kalonder, a former executive of Geffen records, summed up their influence well, with the following statement: "In my opinion, next to the Beatles they're the most influential band in history. They influence the way music is on records, AOR (Album Oriented Rock) radio, concerts. They set the standards for the AOR-radio format with 'Stairway to Heaven,' having AOR hits without necessarily having Top 40 hits. They're the ones who did the first real big arena concert shows, consistently selling out and playing stadiums without support. People can do as well as them, but nobody surpasses them."

Whole Lotta Love by Led Zeppelin (Video)

#2: Ramones

Of course there were a number of protopunk bands that lead to the development of punk rock, but the Ramones are widely cited as the first punk band. Regardless of whether or not they were the first they were definitely game changers. Their brand of 50s & 60s rock & roll played faster & harder was a departure from the prog rock and disco of the era.

Just like with Led Zeppelin with hard rock & metal, you would be hard pressed to find a punk or alternative rock act that formed after 1976 that did not owe at least some form of debt to the Ramones. The speed of the Ramones musical attack also helped inspired many trash and speed metal bands as well. Their first four albums in particular wrote the punk rock blueprints which many would go on to follow. Even though the Ramones commercial success was somewhat modest, if they collected royalty checks from every artist that were inspired by them they would be multi billionaires. For example, Billie Joe Armstrong & Tré Cool of Green Day have children that they have named in honor of the Ramones (Armstrong's son Joey and Cool's daughter Ramona). Of course in the case of Green Day, the debt goes beyond baby names, you can hear the influence in their music.

Their tremendous impact was summed up best by comments contained in a "Eulogy of Joey Ramone" published by Bono of U2 for Time magazine: "When we first formed the band, Adam and I were 16, Edge was 15, and Larry was 14, and we were fans of the Ramones. They kind of stopped the world long enough for bands like U2 and others to get on... We were a band before we could play. We formed our band around an idea of friendship and shared spirit. That was a preposterous notion before the Ramones."

After the Ramones many bands formed first, learned to play second. This may have been the Ramones greatest legacy.

Blitzkrieg Bop (Live) by Ramones (Video)

#1: The Beatles

Being honest, when making this list I was trying to find a way to justify excluding them from the list (or at least listing another band at #1). This is nothing against The Beatles, because I am legitimately a fan and The White Album is one of my all time favorite albums. It had more to do with not wanting the list to become too predictable or obvious. But I couldn't do it. Trying to argue that there were rock bands more important than The Beatles borders on treason.

Part of the amazing thing about The Beatles was the tremendous artistic growth experienced over a short period of time. They started off basically as one of the first "boy bands" and morphed into an experimental and groundbreaking rock band. The modern day equivalent would be N'Sync morphing into Radiohead. They were one of the few bands that could balance commercial success (they are the most commercially successful band of all time) with universal critical acclaim. They also had impeccable timing knowing to break up the band when they were still in their prime. This further helped cement their legacy. In all honesty there were a few bands that I was considering for the top 10 list, but were primarily excluded because they didn't know when to call it a day.

Concerning The Beatles considerable legacy, Jack White summed it up best: "Do not trust people who call themselves musicians or record collectors who say that they don't like Bob Dylan or The Beatles. They do not love music if those words come out of their mouths."

Don't Let Me Down by The Beatles (Video)

10 Best Rock Bands of All Time Poll

How many of the 11 bands on this list would of made your best of list?

See results

© 2012 CJ Baker

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    • spartucusjones profile image
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      CJ Baker 3 years ago from Parts Unknown

      Bensen32, I have to admit if this list was only based on my faves Zep would not have been on my top 10. Trying to be objective I had to acknowledge their considerable influence which is why they did make it to #3. As far as comparing them to the Ramones I do honestly feel that the Ramones influence on punk (and different forms of alt rock) is comparable to Zep's influence on hard rock and metal. That being said, even with trying to be objective, there is always a degree of subjectivity.

      Concerning Pink Floyd, I actually am a big Floyd fan and I prefer them over Zep. I also feel that you could make a strong argument concerning their overall influence. Unfortunately it is hard to narrow down this list to just 10 (or 11 because I cheated with the tie). That being said, after thoughtful consideration I decided that the other bands on my list were more influential. But of course that is just my personal opinion.

      Thanks for the read and the comment!

    • bensen32 profile image

      Thomas Bensen 3 years ago from Round Lake Park

      Wow, I really like the Ramones and they would certainly be in my top 10 but above Led Zeppelin? I can't agree with that as Zep is my favorite band of all time and how can you not have Pink Floyd in there somewhere?

    • spartucusjones profile image
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      CJ Baker 3 years ago from Parts Unknown

      I agree! In many ways The Beatles was the starting point for modern rock music. You can't argue their influence! Thanks for the read and the comment.

    • oldiesmusic profile image

      oldiesmusic 3 years ago from United States

      Can't argue with you on your #1 list (and with Jack White too). The Beatles changed not only the face of music but also in terms of culture, fashion and trends. Their influence transcends generations and races too. That's an objective reasoning, though I'm a fan too. Without the Beatles, some of the bands in your list wouldn't have existed. :)

    • spartucusjones profile image
      Author

      CJ Baker 4 years ago from Parts Unknown

      Thanks for the share and the vote up! I am glad you are willing to overlook the Beasties (even though there is going to be no apologies).

    • bethperry profile image

      Beth Perry 4 years ago from Tennesee

      spartucusjones,

      really enjoyable list to read! You've got some great bands here, and it was cool finding Bob Marley and the Wailers here. My husband and I are huge fans, though to confess I really never considered them a "rock" band.

      And since you listed Led Zep and the Beatles I'll just pretend I didn't see the Beastie Boys on the list ;)

      Thanks for sharing, I'm going to vote up.

    • spartucusjones profile image
      Author

      CJ Baker 4 years ago from Parts Unknown

      Thanks for your input! You definitely can't deny the influence of The Beatles.

    • Hendrika profile image

      Hendrika 4 years ago from Pretoria, South Africa

      I do not know that much about rock music, or shall I say past the 70s but I will always go with The Beatles

    • spartucusjones profile image
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      CJ Baker 4 years ago from Parts Unknown

      I will give it a read. Thanks.

    • Andy McGuire profile image

      Andy McGuire 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Hell yeah it is! Read some of my stuff and feel free to comment as well.

    • spartucusjones profile image
      Author

      CJ Baker 4 years ago from Parts Unknown

      Thanks for your input and your personal additions. I agree that it is fun to share personal views on these types of list.

    • Andy McGuire profile image

      Andy McGuire 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      I find it pointless to argue with someone over their "Top ___" choices, but I do love sharing thoughts with them, so I don't agree with all of those, which is to be expected, but I think this is still an overall great list.

      My personal additions: Deftones, The Offspring, The Rolling Stones, and the best of the best, the modern punk geniuses, Rise Against!

    • spartucusjones profile image
      Author

      CJ Baker 4 years ago from Parts Unknown

      Thanks for the input. The Sex Pistols are probably the most influential band to have only released one studio album. Even though they didn't quite make my list it is amazing what they accomplished with that one album. I agree it was not easy to narrow it down to ten. I started with a list of 45 different bands (and even that excluded a number of my personal faves).

    • nuffsaidstan profile image

      nuffsaidstan 4 years ago

      A good list there mate, the Stones and the Sex Pistols would have been on my list, can't stand the Beatles but can't deny their influence and its harder than people think nailing a list down to just ten.

    • billd01603 profile image

      billd01603 4 years ago from Worcester

      Thanks!!!

    • spartucusjones profile image
      Author

      CJ Baker 4 years ago from Parts Unknown

      Thanks for the vote and the comment. Also thanks for adding your personal picks as well. Also feel free to see my previous comment on why I choose to exclude the Stones. I was really close to including The Who and they barely missed the cut. Concerning Springsteen and Petty I did kind of overlook the Heartbreakers and E Street Band and I viewed them more as solo artists. But I guess that is a judgement call (one which I did make with Bob Marley & The Wailers). That being said I still would of ended up excluding them. It certainty isn't easy to narrow down this list to 10.

    • billd01603 profile image

      billd01603 4 years ago from Worcester

      Enjoyed reading this HUB. Only would take Beatles, Clash. Would have had Stones, Who, Petty and Springsteen on my list. But that is just my humble opinion. Thanks voted up and interesting

    • spartucusjones profile image
      Author

      CJ Baker 4 years ago from Parts Unknown

      FatFreddysCat - Thanks for the read and the comment. We definitely share a love for the Ramones! I was tempted to make them #1 but I thought that just might be a tad bit to bold.

      rfmoran - All good bands that you have listed. Your Baby Boomer comment also highlights that the time period we grew up in could also play a factor in how we analyze music and how we would rank a list such as this. My list potentially would have been different if I grew up in the 60s instead of the 90s. Thanks for the read and the comment.

      Georgie - I knew out of all my exclusions that the Stones would potentially be the most controversial. Even though they are not one of my all time personal faves, being objective I do need to acknowledge that they have recorded a number of classics songs and they do have a few albums which are considered all time classics. Because of that fact I was seriously considering them for the top 10 list.

      My reason for excluding them was eluded to in my comments. I am taking the potentially unpopular stance that the Stones have stuck around to long. I know that many would point out their longevity and the fact that they continue to be a huge concert draw. But the reality is that their set list really hasn't changed much in the last 40 years. When people mention classic Rolling Stones songs and albums they generally don't mention songs and albums that were recorded after the 70s. Any new material is an excuse to tour. They have essentially became the world's most successful nostalgia act. To me this has actually has diminished their musical legacy. Just my opinion though. Thanks for the read and the comment. Also looking forward to reading your hub!

      theframjak - Agree that Exile is a classic album. See my above comment to Georgie on why I excluded them. Thanks for the read and the comment

      Act 3 - Great picks. Thanks for the input.

      e-five - Thanks for the vote up and I am glad that it gave you food for thought. It is always good to receive input from a knowledgeable music fan such as yourself.

    • e-five profile image

      John C Thomas 4 years ago from Chicago, Illinois, USA

      Voted up... thought provoking!

    • Act 3 profile image

      chet thomas 4 years ago from Athens, GA

      My top 10, which includes some of my personal faves, has to include: Beatles, Stones, Who, Allman Brothers, Grateful Dead, Traffic, Cream. (I'm saving my last 3 picks for later!)

    • theframjak profile image

      theframjak 4 years ago from East Coast

      Interesting list. I enjoyed reading it. Exile on Main Street is reason enough the The Stones should be on it as well.

    • Georgie Lowery profile image

      Georgianna Lowery 4 years ago from Lubbock, TX

      Dude! The Rolling Stones! Now I have to go make my own list! :P

    • rfmoran profile image

      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      All top 10 lists are controversial, mine included. So here's my contributions: The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Eagles, Jefferson Airplane (can you tell I'm a baby boomer?. Fun hub!

    • FatFreddysCat profile image

      Keith Abt 4 years ago from The Garden State

      I can't argue with any of the artists on this list (especially with the Ramones ranked so highly, haha)... they may not all be my personal taste but they have all made a major impact on music. Nice one.