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The 100 Greatest American Rock ‘n’ Roll Bands, Part VII – #31 to #21

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Things to enjoy in this segment – peanut butter, Tokyo, serial murderers, peaches

#32 – White Stripes

 

The White Stripes were as stripped down as a band could get – one percussionist and a singer/guitarist.  Meg White and Jack Gillis were married before they started their band (he took her surname) and divorced before they became famous.  Meg was a complete cipher in terms of being a public figure, she seemed to have no interest in communicating and played with a style that was reminiscent of fellow primitivist Moe Tucker.  Jack White explored the guitar sounds of blues, punk, and metal simultaneously and had an evocative singing voice to match his provocative public persona.  The White Stripes released two albums of their raw, lo-fi material in 1999 and 2001 that went gold after they became famous.

 

Their 2001 album White Blood Cells was a commercial breakthrough, attracting fans with the punkish “Fell in Love with a Girl” and the childlike innocence of “We’re Gonna Be Friends.”  The band went Top Ten on the album charts with 2003’s Elephant and behind the massive riff for “Seven Nation Army,” their best known song and, oddly, now a high school marching band staple.  They released two more successful albums and finally broke Top 40 in 2007 with the sonic crunch of “Icky Thump.”  The White Stripes broke up in 2011 with Jack White citing Meg’s lack of enthusiasm for the band.  White has continued to maintain a high profile as a musician, producer, and as the owner of the Nashville based label Third Man Records.

 

#31 – Los Lobos

 

Los Lobos is one of the most accomplished and versatile bands in the history of American popular music.  The band started in east Los Angeles in 1973 under the leadership of Frank Gonzalez, who had the original concept of performing Mexican folk music with traditional instruments.  Los Lobos spent the 1970s based in L.A.’s Hispanic community, performing wherever they could – at schools, restaurants, weddings, etc.  In 1980, they made their first foray into the Los Angeles punk scene, opening for John Lydon’s Public Image Ltd.  Still performing traditional Mexican folk music, the punk rock audience displayed their disapproval with saliva and beer bottles.  Deeming the event as not a failure, but as a challenge, Los Lobos then transitioned into performing as a more traditional rock band, although one with a distinctly Hispanic flavor.  A mutual admiration between Los Lobos and The Blasters helped to improve the visibility of the band and resulted in their 1983 EP …And a Time to Dance.

 

Critics took an immediate interest in the new Tejano/rock version of Los Lobos.  Their 1984 album How Will the Wolf Survive? finished in third place for that year’s Village Voice’s Pazz and Jop Poll and has been listed by Rolling Stone as one of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.”  Hell, even Waylon Jennings got a Top 5 country hit out of “Will the Wolf Survive.”  The band’s 1987 effort By the Light of the Moon was another well received effort but that year’s commercial breakthrough came from the movie and soundtrack La Bamba.  Los Lobos scored a #1 pop hit with the title track and also had Top 40 hits with “Come On, Let’s Go” and “Donna.”  The band later returned to their Tejano roots, but also branched into experimental soundscapes in the 1990s with Kiko and Colossal Head.  Los Lobos has somehow managed to keep the same core lineup for over four decades and released Gates of Gold, another fine album, in 2015.

 

#30 – Van Halen

 

Van Halen was a band much more beloved by young men than critics when they arrived on the hard rock/metal scene of the late 1970s.  The group had formed in Los Angeles in 1974 and worked for several years on the L.A. club scene.  A demo tape produced by Gene Simmons was valuable for name dropping purposes, but it was Mo Ostin and producer Ted Templeton that provided the recording contract for Warner Brothers.  Their 1978 debut album sold over ten million copies as “Runnin’ with the Devil,” “Ain’t Talking ‘Bout Love,” and “Jamie’s Crying” became staples on hard rock radio.  Young guitarists were stunned, trying to figure out what Eddie Van Halen was playing on “Eruption,” while David Lee Roth was busy playing the calculated, obnoxious frontman caricature to the hilt.  They had a major pop hit in 1979 with “Dance the Night Away,” the type of melodic rocker that snared oodles of female fans.

 

The group continued to release multi-platinum albums in the early 1980s, but reached a new plateau with their 1984 album.  Eddie’s synthesizer experiments resulted in the #1 pop hit “Jump” and the larger than life, rock star image of the band clicked perfectly for MTV.  1984 went on to sell over twenty million copies, but ego clashes between Eddie and David Lee Roth lead to Roth either quitting or being fired.  Veteran hard rock star Sammy Hagar took over lead singing duties in 1986.  The first two albums with Hagar sold over ten million copies while producing the Top Five hits “Why Can’t This Be Love” and “When It’s Love” (but, not, “Hey, Maybe This Could Be Love”).  In the late 1990s, Hagar left and the band had an unsuccessful experiment with Gary Cherone as lead vocalist.  In 2012, Van Halen released their first album in 14 years – A Different Kind of Truth had David Lee Roth back on lead vocals and was a solid effort.  Long time fans continue to stand by for the next installment in the decades long Van Halen musical soap opera.

 

#29 – Big Star

 

Big Star was a completely different animal.  Instead of pounding out power chords and strutting as rock gods, Big Star composed tightly structured Beatles inspired power pop, but the music was held together by a fragile beauty reflecting the pain and aspirations of Chris Bell and Alex Chilton.  Memphis musician Chris Bell was a fixture at Ardent Studios in the early 1970s, learning recording techniques and putting together material for his band.  Alex Chilton was a 22 year old, cynical veteran of the music business who had topped the charts as a teenager as the lead vocalist of “The Letter” by The Box Tops.  Their 1972 debut album (quixotically titled #1 Record) was a complete commercial failure, partially due to distribution issues with Stax Records.  Even so, “Thirteen” has a melancholy adolescent romantic/sexual confusion that is beautifully expressed and “In the Street” would later become the theme song to That 70’s Show.  Chris Bell, crushed by the failure and the attention that Chilton received in the band, left the group.

 

Radio City, their 1974 release, was even better with the power pop standard “September Gurls,” and the rockers “O, My Soul” and “Back of a Car.”  More commercial indifference followed and Chilton, a natural contrarian, was becoming an increasingly difficult bandmate.  The ensuing “Big Star” album, titled Third/Sister Lovers, is primarily a collaboration between Chilton and producer Jim Dickinson.  The sessions were completed in 1975, but the album wasn’t released until 1978.  While the record has devotees, it’s questionable whether it belongs in the Big Star catalogue.  In the 1980s, Big Star’s profile was raised by The Bangles cover of “September Gurls” and The Replacements’ song “Alex Chilton.”  Chilton, along with original drummer Jody Stephens joined Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer for an extended reunion from 1993 to 2010.  Chilton passed away in 2010 and the band was memorialized in the excellent 2012 documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me.

 

#28 – R.E.M.

 

The Athens based band R.E.M. negotiated through the various levels of music recognition as deftly as possible in the 1980s – first creating a buzz among rock critics, then becoming the definition of hipster college rock, before moving to a major label and spending years as one of the biggest bands in the music industry.  Many acts without the same political savvy and work ethic were left in their wake.  R.E.M. unleashed their highly stylized jangle pop into the world with their 1981 single “Radio Free Europe” and were signed by I.R.S. for their 1982 EP release Chronic Town.  1983’s Murmur was a critical smash and named “Album of the Year” by Rolling Stone magazine.  R.E.M.’s next three albums hit the Top 30 on the album charts and were eventually certified gold.

 

Their 1987 album Document went double platinum spawning the Top Ten hit “The One I Love” and the pop culture celebration “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).”  It was the first of six consecutive multi-platinum studio albums.  The band had their biggest pop hit in 1991 with the atmospheric, unrequited love song “Losing My Religion.”  By that time, R.E.M. were also major stars on MTV, reflecting a much different sensibility from the hair metal bands of the previous decade.  Moving between art pop and harder rocking material, they continued to have Top 40 hits with “Man on the Moon,” “Everybody Hurts,” and “Bang and Blame.”  Drummer Bill Berry left the band in 1987 – more coincidentally than correspondingly, the group’s commercial status began to wane at that time, but the group continued to tour and record until their breakup (wake up?) in 2011.

 

#27 – Talking Heads

 

The Talking Heads started as a scrappy, somewhat oddball CBGB’s unit that eventually worked funk and work music into their repertoire, becoming one of the most accomplished acts of their era.  The core of the band met at a private liberal arts college, the Rhode Island School of Design, and worked their first gig, opening for the Ramones, in 1975.  Their 1977 debut album received attention for its serial murderer profile “Psycho Killer,” a minor chart hit.  1978’s More Songs About Buildings and Food displayed a wider range of influences and included their first Top 40 hit, a cover of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River.”  The closing track, “The Big Country,” is the most humorous and cynical look at rural living ever released by a major rock act.

 

By 1979, the Talking Heads incorporate African rhythms and funk music into their sound and released their new wave classic “Life During Wartime.”  While not a hit single, the album went gold and the band continued to balance critical raves with enough success in the marketplace to keep experimenting.  The band went further into polyrhythms and nontraditional production techniques with their 1980 Remain in Light, which is best known for the this-is-not-my-beautiful-wife confusion of “Once in a Lifetime.”  The Talking Heads scored their only Top Ten pop hit in 1983 with “Burning Down the House” and, reflecting the respect that the band had, topped critics lists and went multi-platinum in 1985 with the album Little Creatures, which had no hit singles.  The Talking Heads decapitated in 1991, but represent a legacy of consistently being in front of the arc in pop music – creating their own path with integrity and quality.

 

#26 –  Hüsker Dü

 

The Minneapolis hardcore band Hüsker Dü was a volume machine, cranking out explosive rockers that either reeked of aggression or disgust (meaning Bob Mould wrote them) or had a deceptively sweet disposition (meaning Grant Hart wrote them).  The came out of Minneapolis at the same time as fellow critical faves The Replacements and had a somewhat similar career in terms of having a devoted following while making independent records, but not being able to succeed when signed by a major label.  However, they made one hell of a joyous racket.  Hüsker Dü formed in 1979 and began getting positive press in the early 1980s for their highly charged hardcore music.  The 1984 concept/double album Zen Arcade reflected a musical and emotional depth unusual for a hardcore defined band and the group started receiving national attention.  At the same time, Hüsker Dü released a volcanic cover of The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High.”

While opinions vary on what the band peaked, their two 1985 albums for SST, New Day Rising and Flip Your Wig, represented a band firmly rooted in the punk rock ethos that was able to play tuneful material with precision and ferocity.  Having been signed to a major label, it seemed like Hüsker Dü was on the verge of becoming a household name.  Unfortunately, Hüsker Dü was an act that had burned so brightly for so long that a major crash seemed inevitable in hindsight.  There were major frictions within the band and Grant Hart also had serious drug abuse issues.  The most prominent theme on their 1986 release Candy Apple Grey was depression and, with both songwriters fighting for credits, the 1987 Warehouse double album was too long and monotonous.  Hüsker Dü disbanded in 1988, never seeing the success they deserved, but serving as an inspiration for independent bands that would change the landscape of American music in the 1990s.

 

#25 – Lynyrd Skynyrd

 

There’s a lot of psychological baggage that surrounds Lynyrd Skynyrd due to (a) the Confederate symbolism, (b) yelling “Free Bird!!!” at a live performance being the worst joke in music history, and (c) the silly cover band/tribute act that has been tarnishing the name for decades.  Still, Ronnie Van Zant was a sly, smart, observant songwriter and culturally the group was the Rolling Stones of the Southern United States during the mid-1970s.  Nobody was more important to a generation of rock fans that grew up on the sunny side of the Mason/Dixon line.  The band formed as teenagers in Jacksonville, Florida in 1964 and were discovered by Al Kooper in 1972.  Their debut album, Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd, produced no immediate hits but went gold in 1974 due to “Tuesday’s Gone,” the hippie survival guide of “Gimme Three Steps,” and “Free Bird.”

 

The band broke Top 40 in 1974 with “Sweet Home Alabama” from the Second Helping album and used a traditional country narrative on the AOR track “The Ballad of Curtis Loew.”  “Free Bird” then followed “Sweet Home Alabama” into the Top Twenty.  Skynyrd had their first Top Ten album with 1975’s Nuthin’ Fancy, whose lead track/hit single “Saturday Night Special” was an anti-gun song.  (As the saying goes, those were different times.)  Street Survivors, the last album by the original band, was released three days before the infamous plane crash that took the lives of Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, and Cassie Gaines.  Posthumously, “What’s Your Name?” became another Top Twenty hit for Van Zant.  The most powerful and ghostly track on the album was “That Smell,” which seemed to foretell the songwriter’s fate.  For music fans that can get beyond the one-dimensional trappings, Skynyrd sold rock hard home truths with a side dish of smartly honed boogie.

 

#24 – Beastie Boys

 

The Beastie Boys formed in New York City in 1981 and were originally a punk act that performed at CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City.  In 1982, they began moving toward a rap music/hard rock fusion, releasing singles with samples from AC/DC (“Rock Hard”) and Cheap Trick (“She’s on It”).  Produced by Rick Rubin, their 1986 debut album Licensed to Ill was a landmark record that was shocking both musically and lyrically.  Blatant samples of Led Zeppelin and the metal underpinnings of the Top Ten single “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)” helped the record with the hard rock crowd.  Lyrics about carrying guns and sex with underaged girls and smacking teachers created an obnoxious bad boy image, while critics lapped up the funk and hip hop influences.  The album sold over ten million copies, moving pop music, somewhat uneasily, from traditional arena rock.

 

1989’s Paul’s Boutique was a departure from a hard rock with more integrated samples and a funkier sound, courtesy of The Dust Brothers.  It didn’t sell nearly as well, but if there’s one Beastie Boys album to own, it’s Paul’s Boutique.  The record included the minor Top 40 hit “Hey Ladies,” which sampled fourteen different songs, running the gamut from Deep Purple to James Brown.  1994’s Ill Communication started a string of three studio releases that went to #1 on the album charts.  “Sabotage,” a savage rapcore effort which had the Boys playing instruments again, was a major MTV hit and they returned to the Top 40 in 1998 with “Intergalactic” (a song that went Top Ten in many countries, but in the U.S. peaked at #28).  The Beastie Boys last two studio albums had a lower profile, but the band evolved from a purposefully dumb thug image to a track record that proved they were one of the most creative acts in rap music history.  The Beastie Boys broke up in 2012 after the death of Adam Yauch.

 

#23 – The Stooges

 

The Stooges, sometimes known as Iggy and the Stooges, were lead by one of the most iconic figures in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.  Whether bulging, bleeding, smearing peanut butter or stage diving, Iggy Pop had the type of public persona that was synonymous with danger – through either self abuse or provocation.  The Stooges formed in Ann Arbor in 1967 and released their first album in 1969.  It wasn’t a sophisticated effort but the rawness of the Bo Diddley in need of psychotherapy “1969” and the sleigh bell enhanced monster riff of “I Wanna Be Your Dog” served as a critical antidote for the excesses of the psychedelic era.  On “No Fun” the band counterbalanced the teenage ennui lyrical theme with handclaps.

 

1970’s Fun House album was recorded live in the studio and reflects a more powerful band than on the debut album.  Critics and audiences didn’t know what to think of the record at the time of its release, but songs like “Loose,” “Down on the Street,” and “T.V. Eye” would be an important point of departure for the punk rock movement.  Except for the avant-garde “L.A. Blues,” The Stooges were making music with primordial simplicity and power.  Poor sales and heroin addiction would cause the band to break up temporarily, but they returned in 1973 with the Raw Power album.  Despite problems with the production mix, “Search and Destroy” is an anthem for the ages.  The Stooges broke up again in 1974, but reformed in 2003 and released two additional albums.  The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010.

 

#22 – Cheap Trick

 

Cheap Trick emerged from the universal epicenter of rock ‘n’ roll, Rockford, Illinois, in the mid-1970s with a lead singer known as “The Man of 1,000 Voices” and a guitarist who looked like Huntz Hall’s illegitimate son.  Various members of Cheap Trick had been performing together since the late 1960s, but the band didn’t solidify their name and lineup until 1974.  In 1977, they released an excellent debut album, produced by Jack Douglas, that meshed hard rock riffs with the melodicism of the Beatles.  Unfortunately, the record bombed and Tom Werman softened up their sound to the point of cotton candy wimpiness on the 1977 In Color album.  Still, the studio version of “I Want You to Want Me” was a major hit in Japan and a beacon for better days ahead.  The 1978 album Heaven Tonight only reached #48 on the album charts, despite the anthemic “Surrender” and a better production balance between hard rock riffs and an underlying pop sensibility.

 

In April of 1978, Cheap Trick performed two shows in Tokyo and in October of that year released At Budokan, which was only intended as a Japanese release.  However, demand for the album as an import was so strong that Epic released the album in the U.S. in February of 1979.  The live version of “I Want You to Want Me” became a Top Ten pop hit and the album went Top Five, eventually selling over three million copies.  The success of At Budokan delayed the release of Dream Police, which would chart two Top 40 singles – the title track and “Voices.”  Bassist Tom Petersson left the band after 1980’s All Shook Up album and Cheap Trick could not maintain their commercial momentum.  They had a comeback on the pop charts in 1988 with “The Flame,” an MOR ballad not written by the band.  They permanently left the Top 40 after 1990, however the 1997 Cheap Trick album and 2009’s The Latest are highly recommended listening.  The band will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2016 and have a new album slated for release in April.

 

#21 – The Allman Brothers Band

 

The Allman Brothers Band formed in Jacksonville, Florida in 1969, becoming one of the first proponents of “Southern rock.”  Guitarist Duane Allman had worked as a studio musician at the FAME studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, but found the job too confining.  Legendary studio head Rich Hall didn’t understand the jam band concept, so the group signed with Capricorn Records and they debut album was produced by house engineer Adrian Barber.  Their 1969 release received little commercial traction, but is noteworthy for the original recording of “Whipping Post.”  Duane Allman raised his profile in 1970, performing with Derek and the Dominos and the 1971 album Idlewild South was a Top 40 album and the first to contain the Old West mythos number “Midnight Rider.”  The real breakthrough came with 1971’s Fillmore East live double album, demonstrating the band’s polyrhythmic blues jam mastery.  The platinum effort peaked at #13 on the album chart.

 

Still without the benefit of a Top 40 singles, 1972’s Eat a Peach was a Top Five double album with extended jams and more traditional songwriting on “Ain’t Wasting No More Time,” “Melissa,” and “Blue Sky.”  It was the first record released after Duane was killed in a motorcycle wreck in late 1971.  The Allman Brothers peaked commercially with the 1973 #1 album Brothers and Sisters and the #2 pop hit “Ramblin’ Man.”  Beset by drug problems, the 1975 album Win, Lose or Draw was disappointment and the band broke up in 1976.  The group reunited in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s and had two forgettable Top 40 singles.  They reunited again in 1989 and began releasing albums in the original spirit of the band (i.e., they weren’t chasing pop hits).  Dickey Betts was ousted from the lineup in 2000 and the group released a series of retrospective live albums.  They performed their final concert in 2014 having established and maintained their status as Southern rock pioneers.

 

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