Welcome to my first list I’ve done for the site in some time. The world of music is an interesting topic to try to write a “best of” list about. It’s not like ranking athletes, where you can use stats and an eye test to see who is better. Music is all subjective, and with a band’s music in particular, it’s even harder than say, ranking rappers, because you can see the skill and lyricism and make an educated opinion. This list may fit your eye or you may agree with none of it, and like all lists on the internet, it’s pretty much pointless…but I like writing them so please humor me. I’ve ranked the 30 bands here based on a variety of criteria: Quality and quantity of music released in the last 10 years only, impact in music and in popular culture, chart performance, critics’ reviews, and a dash of my own opinion. Enjoy!
These first few bands don’t make the best music, but they have big enough fan bases to warrant a spot:
30. Fall Out Boy
With some big radio hits in the mid-2000’s, the Chicago-bred band blasted onto the scene and built up a substantial audience in the process. The thing is, Fall Out Boy doesn’t completely suck, which is why they narrowly made this list and why they have outlasted many of the mid-2000’s pop punk bands they came in with. Their last record, titled “Save Rock and Roll,” may have some earnestness behind it, but they certainly won’t be the ones to do it.
29. Kings of Leon
Kings of Leon are the first of a few bands on this list that I think are unbelievably overrated by the average fan. But they have become one of the biggest names in American rock music the last decade, so they belong on here. The Tennessee rockers aren’t Nickelback-bad, don’t confuse me there, but they have that type of feel…a group with talented musicians and a solid singer, that have a whole catalog of songs with the most basic of topics about sex, drugs, and rock & roll. To give them credit, in 2007 and 2008, they put together a couple of solid albums, Because of the Times and Only By The Night,but everything before and since has been pretty lame.
28. Maroon 5
I saw an interview that Adam Levine did once, I believe it was on Howard Stern’s show, that when talking about the direction of his group, he said “it’s not like we are the Rolling Stones.” At least the guy gets it. Maroon 5 was never going to be a legendary rock group, or even a very good one. But Maroon 5 should be this generation’s Matchbox 20, a solid alternative band with radio appeal with decent enough music and lyrics, and they were for their first few albums…although 2002’s “Songs About Jane” was their best work, a lot of that album carried into 2004 and 2005, and their two following albums were as solid as it gets…but with Levine going to the Voice, and a change in musical direction, the band was become a huge pop act with songs like the dreadful “Payphone”, which is great for their wallets, not so much for their music. Lame pop beats and bland lyrics have taken over one of the best pop rock groups of the late 2000’s.
27. Dave Matthews Band
Oh, Dave. So hard not to like…blue grass rock and alternative music, harmless, bunch of super nice guys. So why do I have disdain for the band? Because Dave fans have built the band’s concerts to be like worship, like Dave himself as the Jesus-like figure. It’s almost blasphemous. Even worse, Dave has become the new Bob Marley- it’s cool to like them, but how many people can name three of their songs? The Virginia band is fun, have made some good songs, and give the fans their money’s worth with epically long concerts and fine albums this decade (particularly 2009’s Big Whiskey & the GrooGrux King). But it’s Dave Matthews Band, they aren’t re-defining music and doing anything that hasn’t been done before. With all that said, they have become an absolute force on the concert scene, and have one of the biggest fan bases in all of music, so they belong here for sure.
26. Linkin Park
Linkin Park is not exactly my cup of tea, but while the combining alternative, rap, metal, and some screamo in lesser talents’ hands can be extremely annoying and virtually unlistenable, the California-born rockers somehow became deservedly mainstream with expertly crafted singles. Linkin Park lasted longer and became more popular than similar bands like Korn and System of a Down in the early 2000’s, but the peak was in their first two albums pre-2004, Hybrid Theory and Meteora. Though 2007’s Minutes to Midnight over eight million copies worldwide, and all three albums of this decade came in at #1, Linkin Park’s most successful and critically lauded work came early on.
This next group of bands are legends who are shell of their former selves, but still better than most:
25. Red Hot Chili Peppers
The Chili Peppers are fun, pure and simple. They deserve the recognition they’ve gotten, and have lasted some 30 years in the industry, with reboots and resurgences aplenty. Like all of these next five bands, RHCP is definitely higher than the 25th best band on this list. But strictly based on the past decade’s work, the Chili Peppers don’t quite have the (blood-sugar-sex)-magik they once did. The Californians have done it all before, and done it better. 2006’s double-album Stadium Arcadium had some really good songs on it, but also had a lot of filler, and 2011’s I’m With You was a bit stale.
Oh how I love Weezer. The nerdy-looking LA indie rockers came onto the scene in the mid-90’s with a classic self-titled LP (The Blue Album) and the infinitely playable “Buddy Holly”. Weezer then followed up that album with one of music’s most polarizing albums of the last 20 years, 1996’s Pinkerton. 2001’s Green Album solidified Weezer as one of the best bands of the last 20 years, combining a melodic punk sound to Rivers Cuomo’s lyrics that can be hilarious to haunting. Though the four albums this decade aren’t quite up to par with the band’s early work, three of the four LP’s (Make Believe, Weezer, Hurley) have all been really good.
Radiohead probably should be a band you should listen to someone else about. While most critics have hailed the band as one of the best ever, I personally, along with a LOT of people, can’t seem to figure out why they get THAT much love. Sure, Radiohead has pushed musical boundaries, and have crafted some classic albums and songs, but some of their stuff, to me, is hard to even listen to. Thom Yorke’s lyrics and oddball delivery have struck a chord with critics and a devoted fanbase though, making Radiohead one of the most talked about bands of the last quarter century. 1997’s Ok Computer and 2000’s Kid A are pretty much widely accepted as their masterpieces, rightfully so. The English band has only made two albums in the last 13 years, 2007’s In Rainbows (very good) and 2011’s The King of Limbs (not as much).
U2 is one of the most popular bands in the history of rock, selling over 150 million records worldwide. In their prime, the Irish crew was that rare group with mass appeal who still produced complex songs, lyrics, and albums. 1983’s War, 87’s The Joshua Tree, and 1991’s Achtung Baby are three amazing albums from the Bono-led group. So while the band’s prime is nearly 20 years in the past, two albums release this decade proved that U2 still has some creativity left in the tank. Though they’ve done more activist work than music making this millennium, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb and No Line on the Horizon are pretty good albums, considering the band’s members being in their 40’s and 50’s during recording.
21. Green Day
People under about 22 years old know a slightly different Green Day than they should. Though the band’s music hasn’t softened too much from their beginnings in the early 1990’s, much of the younger generation views Green Day as this mainstream pop-punk band who churns out radio songs…and they aren’t necessarily wrong. But the East Bay crew started at as rebels onto the punk scene, with as much angst as the Sex Pistols. Green Day took punk rock and added some melody that few others could blend, becoming pioneers of a new genre. Billie Joe Armstrong has had one of the most recognizable voices in music since, and Green Day has turned out hit after hit after hit. 2004’s American Idiot was supposed to be their edgy political record, and ended up being the biggest radio mainstream record of their career. Some backlash towards the band has come out as that record’s success, but GD followed it up with 2009’s 21st Century Breakdown, one of their most expertly crafted albums. 2012’s attempt at a trio of albums was a bit of a dud, but the group is still one of the top bands of the past 10 years.
20. The Decemberists
One of the lesser known bands on our list, the Oregonians have had a slow and steady rise over the last decade, mixing indie rock with folk better than just about anybody. Four albums in the last 10 years culminated with their first #1 record ever, 2011’s very good The King is Dead. The catalyst of The Decemberists has been singer/songwriter Colin Meloy, who’s crisp and sharp lyrics have put the group in a higher class than most of their counterparts. Meloy’s musical acumen is as good as it gets, citing the likes of Morrissey and The Replacements as top influences.
19. Explosions in the Sky
Not too many bands can stir emotions up quite like the Texas instrumental band, Explosions in the Sky. Though they’ve shunned the category of “post-rock”, the group has essentially become the posterchild for instrumenta,l atmospheric music, and have developed a large following in the process. It seems like everywhere you go you can hear Explosions, with tracks in countless movies, commercials, and television shows in recent years, most notably the Friday Night Lights movie and show, along with another recent Peter Berg film, Lone Survivor. 2003’s The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place has spawned the most recognizable songs from the group, spilling over into the next few years of popular culture, and the band has made three cinematic albums since, scoring a top 20 album in 2011, unheard of from a band without vocals.
18. Yeah Yeah Yeahs
It’s really hard not to like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The NYC trio came out of the art-rock scene of the early 2000’s in the city, and have built up a dedicated fanbase over the last dozen years. A mix of indie and post-punk, with some dance pop mixed in, Yeah Yeah Yeahs are flat out fun, and an easy listen, even with occasional deep and complex themes underneath. Their last two albums in particular, it’s Blitz! and Mosquito have been widely recognized on year-end best albums list, and Spin magazine called it’s Blitz! “the alternative pop album of the decade—one that imbues The Killers’ Hot Fuss and MGMT’s Oracular Spectacular with a remarkable emotional depth and finesse.”
MGMT is only three albums in, but have already left an imprint in modern music. Part indie-pop, part psychedelic-rock, the young duo from Connecticut started their career by making one of the best albums of the last 10 years, 2007’s Oracular Spectacular. “Time to Pretend” and “Kids” were released from the record and took off, ending up on almost everyone’s best songs lists. You have to listen to MGMT to understand their music- it isn’t easily defined. And despite just releasing their debut seven years ago, they already have countless imitators popping up every other day in today’s scene. Their last two albums, Congratulations and MGMT, have been met with mixed reviews and feedback, with claims they haven’t lived up to their initial music. To be fair, it’s hard to top a near-flawless album.
16. Noah and The Whale
Noah and the Whale is a quirky, fun indie band from London that makes quirky, fun music. The reason they are one of the top 15 bands of the last 10 years is really for one reason, their 2009 masterpiece, The First Days of Spring. The second album for the band, TFDOS was jaw-dropping, cinematic, epic, dark, deep, and completely unexpected from a good band who didn’t appear to have “greatness” in them, but boy did they ever. Met with widespread critical acclaim, the album set the group apart from many of their contemporaries, and sparked greater interest into their following records. Though their subsequent debut and their two proceeding albums have been very solid, including some undeniably catchy singles, it’s TFDOS, one of my favorite albums ever, that has them this high.
15. Foo Fighters
As you can see from this list, many of the top bands in the world aren’t “rockers” like rock & roll used to be. Sometimes, that’s a good thing, lyricism and instrumental subtlety, to me, is much more enjoyable than straight ahead “rock” like a Metallica, AC/DC, etc. Foo Fighters are a bit of a dying breed, a rock band, through and through. Singer Dave Grohl has quite a resume, being the leading man in the Foo Fighters, a very good band for some 20 years, as well as drumming for the likes of Nirvana and Queens of the Stone Age. The band can rock out like very few still do, but with a melodic touch and a wide range of good lyrics- sometimes political, sometimes societal, sometimes just hilarious. The band doesn’t have a classic album in their discography, nor a bad one. The three that have been released this decade are all very good, and the band continues to be a force on the mainstream and modern rock charts.
14. Pearl Jam
The members of Pearl Jam, named in a USA Today poll from a few years ago as “the greatest American rock band ever”, are now turning or nearing 50, which should place them in that group of bands a little lower on this list. The problem is, a band that should be venturing into the greatest hits portion of their career is still making great new music, and still impacting the culture more than most bands could ever dream of. Three albums this decade- Pearl Jam, Backspacer, and Lightning Bolt, have been three of their best since their initial three classic albums, Ten, Vs, and Vitalogy. The music Eddie Vedder and crew are making isn’t “essential listening” like the music of their past, but it’s still better than 99% of today’s rock and alternative stuff. In the conversation for best band on this list, Pearl Jam is still selling out arenas and bringing in a new generation of fans, bands like U2 aren’t doing quite as strongly. Plus, with a documentary directed by Cameron Crowe, plus being a big part of multiple presidential campaigns and the fight for the West Memphis Three in the last decade, PJ is not going out quietly.
13. Mumford and Sons
Mumford and Sons’ success has been imitated more than just about any other band’s over the last five years. One of a few bands on this list that critics and fans alike either love or hate, you cannot deny the impact the British folksters have had. 2012’s Babel, the band’s second full length record, sold over 600,000 copies in it’s first week, not only making it one of the biggest debuts in recent years, but also was a stupefying number for any non-pop act. While some will say the biblical and pre-industrial themes in the lyrics are both artificial and overused, Marcus Mumford and his crew sure know how to craft a good song. It’s been a while in music for a band to make the banjo and other blue grass instruments seem so cool, but without Mumford and Sons, the success of other indie folk acts (some, like The Lumineers, may actually be better bands), would not be as impactful, or even exist at all. Like a Dave Matthews, they’ve become this generation’s college radio band.
12. The Black Keys
The Black Keys have arguably become one of the top American bands of the last few years, with growing popularity culminating in 2011’s smash record, El Camino, which debuted with big numbers at #1, produced well-received singles, and scored grammy nominations. I like the Keys, and the duo from Akron puts out quality music. The only problem is, because of the lack of quality American bands over the last decade, the Keys, who are bigger in the states right now based on radio play and charts than a few better bands later on our list (see #11, 8, 6, 3) have been put in a position to revitalize American rock & roll, and I’m not quite sure they are the answer. Still, with six albums in the last 10 years and a strong live act, the Black Keys have the ferocity to last a long time.
11. The Strokes
The reason why I made sure to say this list was “the best bands of the last decade” was to help simplify my case with certain bands who had work before 2004. The Strokes, a phenomenal New York band who deserve to be mentioned with bands like The Ramones, had one of the most startlingly great debuts of the last 30 years in 2001’s Is This It. The band’s first album literally changed the course of the rock and alternative scene in the early 2000’s, and felt both classic and completely fresh at the same time. It was at the top of nearly everyone’s best of list in 2001, and NME named in “the best album of the 2000’s” in 2009. But the band has only produced three albums this decade, with a hiatus from 2006-2011. And all three records- First Impressions of Earth, Angles, and Comedown Machine have all been solid and shown sparks of the brilliance from Is This It, but haven’t quite lived up to it, placing them a tad lower than they should be. Personally, I think they are wonderful, and have influenced more GOOD bands in the last dozen years than anybody.
10. The xx
The xx are perfect for this time in music. Catapulted by off the wall imagery and atmospheric tones, they are the band for the digital moment. You hear influence from older (better) British bands like the Eurythmics and New Order, but The xx have enough originality of their own to be one of the best bands in the world right now. The trio debuted in just 2009, but with their self-titled debut being hailed as one of the year’s best, and 2012’s follow-up striking gold again, the group has turned into a world power. Plus, few other bands have been viewed on YouTube as much as The xx. It’ll be exciting to see what they have in store next.
9. Queens of the Stone Age
Queens of the Stone Age freaking ROCK. There’s not much more to say than that. Unbelievably great musicianship mixed with singer Josh Homme’s straight-forward, kick-ass lyrics have made QOTSA a throwback for the rock and roll of yesteryear. Three albums this decade and they’ve all been great, especially last year’s …Like Clockwork, which got the group their first #1 album. Like the Foo Fighters (Dave Grohl has played drums with Queens), the California rockers have had some political edge and have showed some teeth covering racy topics about life, but also can be laugh-out-loud funny. Truly a hard-nosed gem of a band that we should appreciate while we still have them.
8. Vampire Weekend
Vampire Weekend is a bit polarizing at the moment. “Rock people” HATE them. Young people and hip music bloggers and magazines LOVE them. Vamp is another band like The xx that use imagery and creativity in their album artwork, music videos, etc. to set them apart. While critics loved their 2008 self-titled debut and 2010’s Contra, I started leaning towards the old-school guys…what the hell is so great about this group. I thought singer Ezra Koenig’s lyrics and style was pretentious and completely self-serving and self-aware. I thought the comparisons to Paul Simon and other great songwriters were a bit off. Then last year’s Modern Vampires of the City came out to even more critical acclaim, and I dived in again. The New York City band has matured, and crafts at times beautiful pieces of music, almost like artwork. Are they overrated? Yes. I don’t believe their album was last year’s best, like Rolling Stone and every other magazine claimed, but it’s very good, and right now, I’m beginning to think they are too.
7. The Killers
When you get to be as popular as a lot of these bands have, you get scrutiny. The Killers have done everything you’d want out of a band musically- every album has been different, they take chances but also know how to stick to what they do best, and rock out (enough) to not be a pop act, yet somehow the critics are always divided on Brandon Flower’s Las Vegas troupe. I’m on the good side of the fence about The Killers. I think they are as good of an American band (who I thought was from England until about five years ago) as we’ve got right now. Sure, influences as wide as New Order on their 2004 debut Hot Fuss, to Bruce Springsteen on their 2006 follow up Sam’s Town, are sometimes almost hit-you-over-the-head obvious, but The Killers in their two albums since, Day & Age and Battle Born, have begun to just be “The Killers”.Ironically, their two best albums are their first two, with Hot Fuss being one of the better debut albums ever. Sam’s Town had critically mixed reaction, while fans have gravitated towards it, as Rolling Stone readers named it “the most underrated album” of the last decade. All in all, The Killers are a very solid band, and one of those rare bands who are big in the home country and even bigger in different parts of the world, making them one of the biggest acts on Earth.
6. Arcade Fire
Arcade Fire, like the Killers, debuted in 2004 and put a shot in the arm to indie rock music. All four albums they’ve put out have been universally lauded, making them the top critical darling of the genre this decade. Though I personally am not a huge fan of them (yet), I understand the hysteria. The Canadian six-some doesn’t sound like anything you’ve heard before, and they continue to re-invent and push the boundaries of what their sound is. All four albums- Funeral, Neon Bible, The Suburbs, and Reflektor, have become “event-albums”, and whenever you can create that buzz around an album, you are doing something right. With a sound like Arcade Fire’s, staying fresh is key, and Arcade Fire continues to do that. Pitchfork wrote last year “Reflektor is a triumph, but not a victory lap; the band never sounds content enough for that.”
If other bands on this list have been “love ’em or hate ’em”, Coldplay is the king. But that happens when you are literally the biggest band on the planet, and that’s what Coldplay has been for over a decade now. Staggering popularity world-wide and huge album numbers, Coldplay is this generation’s U2. What saddens me is that I really like Coldplay, despite some criticism by some non-fans and listeners as being soft as a pillow, but I think they may have used that criticism against themselves. One thing you cannot say about Coldplay is that they’ve played it safe. After their first two pre-2004 albums, Parachutes and A Rush of Blood to the Head, slowly began experimenting and changing musical directions to feel fresh, more edgy. It worked on their next two records, 2005’s X&Y and 2008’s Viva La Vida, but has derailed their momentum and musical brilliance since, on 2011’s Mylo Xyloto and what we’ve heard so far from the upcoming Ghost Stories. Hopefully one day Coldplay will go back to what made them so great. Guys, it’s okay to be soft sometimes.
4. The White Stripes
The White Stripes were so good it’s almost not fair. They disbanded in 2011, giving us only two albums in the last 10 years (the last being 2007’s great Icky Thump), but oh were they awesome. Nobody sounds like The White Stripes, and nobody probably ever will. Jack White’s guitar playing is second to none, and what the Detroit ex-couple gave to the music scene will continue to live on. Although their most famous song “Seven Nation Army” was released in 2003, it stayed on the charts well into 2004, and has become one of the most played songs at sporting events ever. The guitar solo in “Seven Nation Army” is one of the best in the history of music. Unfortunately, most people only know the band from that song, which is a shame, because they’ve got so many good ones. I encourage you to dive in.
3. The National
The National are a band that makes sense right now. Built off utter emotion, and despair, but sound nothing like an “emo band”. They define a generation of young people who are more open and in touch with their darker emotions than generations before. Matt Berninger, for my money, is the best songwriter in American music right now. The National’s road to success is an interesting one, founded in Cincinnati then relocating in New York, the National built up a devoted fanbase but had virtually no mainstream success until they were in their mid-30’s, and 2011’s High Violet and last year’s Trouble Will Find Me pushed them into the masses. Backed up expert instrumentation, Berninger’s baritone vocals sound like nothing in music right now, and the haunting beauty of the lyrics has made The National beloved by anyone who has let them in. Mix their countless anthems with one of the best music documentaries in recent years about their band, Mistaken for Strangers, as well as being one of the top bands behind the Democratic presidential campaigns, The National has become one of alternative and indie music’s treasures.
2. Arctic Monkeys
If The National is the best band in American at the moment, Arctic Monkeys are the best band in the world. And with the sudden decay of the quality in Coldplay’s music, Alex Turner and the Sheffield, England boys may soon be the biggest band in the world, slowly gaining a big audience in the US and other parts of the world outside of Europe. The band themselves are in a class with no one else in terms of musical quality. The guitars are nearly flawless, the drums, the vocals- everything seems like it was made in a perfect band science experiment. But what makes Arctic Monkeys potentially one of the best bands ever already, is the pure genius and wit of Turner’s lyrics. Refined now more than ever, but even on their 2005 debut Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, when the band was nothing more than a bunch of teenagers, you felt like you were listening to a mix of a young Morrissey and Pete Doherty. Their debut was the fastest selling album in the English history, and was considered an instant classic. Arctic Monkeys blasted through the door The Strokes and The Libertines opened a few years earlier and took on the world, basically as young kids. Over the next three great albums, Favourite Worst Nightmare, Humbug, and Suck It and See, the band maintained success, but it was last year’s AM, that re-solidified them as the greatest band music has. Giving them their second masterpiece in nine years, AM built up an even stronger American audience. It was the best album of last year, and is one of the best albums in the last decade. If you haven’t given these guys a chance yet here in America, please do.
1. The Smiths
Ok, I know I’m cheating. A band that broke up over 25 years ago is your #1? How, with no new music this decade, can this band be on this list? If anyone knows me and my love for The Smiths, this will seem completely biased, but please, hear me out. The Smiths are arguably one of the best bands of all-time, with a reign in the mid-80’s that ended as abruptly as it started in 1987. But something has happened in recent years. Though some of the best bands ever – The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, etc. have music that is still beloved and will always live on, The Smiths are actually more popular now than they were when they were together… Something completely unique in all of music. Usually it takes a death of someone in the group, like say Nirvana, for the music to rise in popularity after any music-making is over, but a new generation of teens and young people have been drawn to The Smiths. There are many factors: for one, they have been covered, and cited as primary influences by more bands than almost anyone (over a dozen on this list alone). Two, the band has been immortalized in other mediums of entertainment- movies (500 Days of Summer, The Perks of Being a Wallflower being two recent ones that have The Smiths music intertwined in the story), books (countless books chronicling The Smiths have charted, and Morrissey’s autobiography was one of the top selling books of last year, and one of the best selling music memoirs ever). So many good filmmakers, bands, writers have credited The Smiths over the last seven or eight years with shaping their lives that it’s become cool to like The Smiths, virtually completely the opposite of when they were actually an existing band 30 years ago. Here’s how big The Smiths have become: Coachella, the biggest music event in the country, has offered the band a rumored 50 million dollars in recent years to reunite, as well as offering to make their event “100% vegetarian.” The Smiths’ music continues to grow and grow, despite only releasing 80 some songs in a brief five year span. Morrissey, the wordsmith of the group, re-invented his solo career this decade, still selling out tours in America. It truly is a one of a kind phenomenon that has happened to the band over the last few years, and the band’s who had an album that NME just named “The Greatest Album Ever” deserves the top spot on our list more than any existing band. Crazy.