The best of anything is almost always going to be subjective. So choosing the best rock bands of all time is downright audacious, quite slippery and likely to be brimming with diagnostic peril. To make things even trickier, we narrowed it down to a Top 10 list, which isn't in any way fair when you realize rock music has been around since the 50s.
Each decade since has brought on something new to the genre and propelled several bands to soaring heights. So how could we come up with just the 10 best bands of all time? Well, we chose to focus on bands that proved to be the most original as well as the most influential going off of tours, sales and awards won.
However, that also means that some of the highly-skilled bands won't make the cut due to a lack of mass appeal. That being said, we've sought to keep it as fairly balanced as possible, so we've included a broader range of styles, from classic and progressive rock bands to punk and alternative. Let's get right into the greatest rock bands of all time.
10 Best Rock Bands of All Time
Location: London, England
Years Active: 1970-Present
Certified Sales: 147.6 million
Notable Hits: Bohemian Rhapsody, Radio Gaga, Don't Stop Me Now, We Are the Champions, We Will Rock You, Under Pressure
Freddie Mercury is arguably the best rock singer the world has ever seen. His vocals are widely regarded as the perfect blend of rocking and operatic. And we all know very few, if any, did it better than him when it comes to commanding the stage and the crowd.
Queen are you typical rockstars: loud, puffed up and larger than life, yet still immensely likable. The great thing about them is they seem to be genuinely having fun with their music. Anyone who's just getting to know Queen should start from their Wembley concerts or their euphoric Live Aid performance, possibly one of the best live shows of all time.
Despite being a classic rock band at heart, Queen were too creatively diverse and big to be confined to a single genre. They did it all, from prog rock to disco. Unfortunately, the death of Freddie brought a sudden stop to Queen's career, a downturn they never really recovered from.
Original bassist, John Deacon, split from the band, while Roger Water and Brian May kept going with vocalists such as Adam Lambert and Paul Rogers. As time would have it, replacing the greatest rock voice of all time was always going to be almost impossible. Since 2004, they've been on successful tours with Adam and Paul under the name "Queen+".
Fifteen albums and 21 tours later, Queen's music is still iconic to this date. You've probably heard their anthems in all sorts of sporting events. They also scored the Flash Gordon and Highlander, creating some of the best film soundtracks yet.
9. The Doors
Location: Los Angeles, California, USA
Years Active: 1965-1973
Certified Sales: 48.2 million
Notable Hits: Light My Fire, Roadhouse Blues, The End, Break on Through, Riders on the Storm, Love me Two Times
The Doors was formed back in 1965 after Ray Manzarek, the keyboardist, met Jim Morisson, a film student at the time. They named themselves after Aldous Huxley's autobiography, The Doors of Perception. They were only active for 8 short years, but they quickly grew to be one of the most influential bands of the counterculture period.
The group was equally controversial, largely due to Morrison's unpredictable behavior. Back in their day, there were no rules to rock music, and the group wrote stunning, innovative and sometimes haunting music that didn't sound like anything else at the time. As the charismatic frontman and tortured poet he was, Jim Morrison would go to the deepest gutters and climb his way up to the stars in his lyrics and stage persona. His fans would dub him The Lizard King later on.
The Doors scaled incredible heights in their brief spell but were ultimately unable to stay there too long. The group was unable to overcome Jim Morrison's death in 1971 at the age of 27. They reunited a couple of times, but never again as The Doors, knowing too well that no one could ever fill Morrison's shoes.
Location: Aberdeen, Washington, USA
Years Active: 1987-1994
Certified Sales: 52.3 million
Notable Hits: Smells Like Teen Spirit, In Bloom, Lithium, Heart-Shaped Box, All Apologies, Breed
Bands from the early 90's made a massive impact on music. Guns N' Roses set things in motion, but it was Nirvana who took it to another level and left the biggest mark. And that was after only being around for just seven years.
In that time, they released three great albums. The second album, Nevermind, released in 1991, changed everything. Nirvana introduced the world to grunge, paving the way for other Seattle bands, such as Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains.
Grunge took the music world by storm. Nirvana had taken the quiet-loud dynamic used by The Pixies and applied their own musical style, which was half-The Beatles, half-Black Sabbath. Throw in lots of teen angst and alienation for good measure, and you can already see what made Nirvana so exceptional.
Kurt Cobain's sudden death in 1994 eventually led to the group's breakup. Nevertheless, the group is still alive and well among us. It still "Smells Like Teen Spirit". Nirvana also got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014, their first year of eligibility.
7. The Who
Location: London, England
Years Active: 1964–1983
Certified Sales: 27.8 million
Notable Hits: My Generation, Won't Get Fooled Again, Baba O'Riley, Magic Bus, Pinball Wizard, I Can't Explain
The Who might always find themselves in the shadows of The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, but you could argue they were a better rock band. From Pete Townshend's windmill strumming and John Entwistle's bass playing to Keith Moon's extraordinary drumming and vocalist Roger Daltrey's resounding screams and mic swinging. No other band before them had been able to capture as much youthful energy with as much style as they did.
The Who had a massive appeal, thanks to their pop art and subculture influences. The group also contributed a lot to the development of Marshall Stack. Their influence further extends to the use of synthesizers in rock music, using large PA systems for performances and even power chords on a guitar. It's no surprise that The Who are often more appreciated by musicians than fans.
Their songs and albums are just as outstanding. From simple rock singalongs to audacious rock operas, The Who did it all. Even after losing Entwistle and Moon along the way, Townshend and Daltrey are still active, making new albums and going on enormous and electrifying tours from time to time, and still showing others how it's done.
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Location: Dublin, Ireland
Years Active: 1976-Present
Certified Sales: 110.3 million
Notable Hits: Where the Street Have No Name, New Year's Day, Bad, Sunday Bloody Sunday, Beautiful Day, Pride (In the Name of Love)
U2 is a band that will always split opinions, but there's no denying the iconic songs and albums in their catalog. Formed as a group of friends from secondary school in Dublin, U2 had become a global sensation by their fifth album. With Bono as the singer and Edge on the guitar, the band has made a lasting influence in the rock world, inspiring just about all indie, post-punk or alternative rock musicians out there.
Part of the success is how U2 have never walked away from covering heavy and sometimes controversial topics like politics and religion. Furthermore, they're huge experimenters and have always been brave enough to evolve their sound constantly. U2 have won 22 Grammy awards so far, more than any other band. So no matter how you feel about Bono, his artistry has definitely created some of the greatest anthems of our generation.
5. The Eagles
Location: Los Angeles, California, US
Years Active: 1971–1980
Certified Sales: 149.9 million
Notable Hits: Hotel California, Take It to the Limit, Lyin' Eyes, Take It Easy, The Long Run, Lyin' Eyes
You could argue The Eagles were the greatest rock band of all time from America. Mostly active for a nine-year stint between 1971 and 1980, their album singles were usually "okay" but never outstanding. However, they were consistently on top of their game that they now hold the first and third most on most albums sold.
A huge portion of their success was down to how the whole band shared vocal duties. Despite Don Henley and guitarist Glenn Frey may have been the band's main creative forces but everyone brought something to the table. Everyone loved their stunning blend of bluegrass, rock, soul and R&B.
The band inevitably split in 1980, largely due to their huge success, drug and abrasive egos. They got back together in 1994, quickly released a new album and a documentary, and then embarked on an extended world tour. Although they couldn't replicate their earlier success, The Eagles are still the ultimate crowd pullers, filling pretty much every venue they held live shows.
4. Led Zeppelin
Location: London, England
Years Active: 1968–1980
- Reunions: 1985, 1988, 1995, 2007
Certified Sales: 140.6 million
Notable Hits: Stairway to Heaven, Dazed and Confused, Communication Breakdown, Kashmir, Achilles Last Stand, Whole Lotta Love
What's new to say about Led Zeppelin? Their vastly wide appeal speaks for itself, bringing a whole new definition to a fanatical following. Led Zeppelin was shrouded in mystique and myths, so much so that it almost seemed like they were visitors from another planet.
Led Zeppelin played a wide range of music, from folk rock and blues rock to being the pioneers of heavy metal. Between 1968 and 1980, the group released nine stellar albums and a handful of singles that took over the world. They preferred their albums to be listened to as a whole. Ironically, the single Stairway to Heaven remains one of the most influential and popular songs in history.
Jimmy Page's approach to the guitar was truly innovative, and his riffs were second to turn. His knack for experimenting in the studio and coming up with new production techniques gave Led Zeppelin a unique, massive, thick sound that hadn't been heard before.
Roger Plant's vocals power matched Page's guitar pyrotechnics, while John Bonham's insane drumming would set the standard for every rock drummer who came after him. John Paul Jones, the bassist and guitarist, was just as versatile as a musician and arranger, and he was arguably the group's X-factor.
Led Zeppelin did it big, every time. The group broke attendance records in their concerts. All nine albums made it to the top 10, and six of them made it to the top slot. And their albums are among the best-selling ever.
The group chose not to continue after John Bonham's death, reuniting for only a few concerts. Nevertheless, Led Zeppelin has duly earned all the music accolades available. More so, they created an everlasting legacy for both musicians and fans.
3. Pink Floyd
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Location: London, England
Years Active: 1965–1994
Certified Sales: 121.4 million
Notable Hits: Money, Wish You Were Here, Another Brick in the Wall, Have a Cigar, Time, Comfortably Numb
Where can you possibly start with Pink Floyd's influence on other artists? Their musical experimentation and activity remain unmatched to this day, from ambient and art rock to classic and progressive rock. They created some of the most iconic songs and solos from any mainstream rock act, despite being unjustly dismissed by punk rock fans.
Pink Floyd was led by Syd Barrett in their earlier releases, helping them to make their mark on the English rock scene. Later, David Gilmour joined the band, taking over its creative direction that brought them international recognition. Four of the albums topped both Uk and US charts, although only two of their singles ever made it to the top 10.
Whether you preferred when the band was led by Syd Barrett, David Gilmour or Roger Waters, there's no denying Pink Floyd remains at the top of the most enigmatic and fascinating bands of all time. Plus, their awe-inspiring live shows were just as staggering as their albums.
In a career that has spanned six decades, Pink Floyd has released 15 great albums and gone on tours to support each release. They even composed scores for a few lesser-known movies. All in all, they've built and maintained massive fans and everlasting popularity.
2. The Rolling Stones
Location: London, England
Years Active: 1962-Present
Certified Sales: 100 million
Notable Hits: Paint It Black, Wild Horses, Time Is on My Side, Angie, Start Me Up, Sympathy for the Devil
The Rolling Stones are the true embodiment of Rock n Roll with timeless hits, a charismatic frontman, an enigmatic guitarist, plus drugs and debauchery. Despite their age and never-ending drug-fueled antics, the band is still going strong, making great songs and albums and selling out tours all over the world.
They have always been a big deal, so big that some of the members turned out as big when they went as solo artists, like Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. Part of what makes them juggernauts them a force to reckon with is how they have stayed true to their R&B, soul and rock foundations. Pop music is always evolving rapidly, and their consistency explains why The Rolling Stones are still at the top nearly six decades later.
Despite the death of original guitarist Brian Jones and drummer Charlie Watts later on, the group has always found a way to stay on top. Their signature, "the ancient art of weaving", where the guitarists interplay with each other, remains as sublime as ever.
1. The Beatles
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Location: Liverpool, England
Years Active: 1960-1970
Certified Sales: 279.8 million
Notable Hits: Hey Jude, Yesterday, I Want to Hold Your Hand, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Yesterday, Come Together, Let It Be
For a lot of people all over the world, The Beatles are definitively the best band in all of rock history. Even though they were only around for 1o years, they transcended being just the biggest rock band; they became a cultural phenomenon that no one was immune to. Everyone in the 60s caught Beatlemania.
The Beatles changed Rock n Roll forever, even though they burst onto the scene in its infancy. Their seemingly endless series of albums and singles make them the best-selling artists of all time, and that's without including solo albums and side groups.
Their musical legacy towers over all other bands before and after them. The Beatles won all music awards, produced and even starred in movies. The Lennon-McCartney songwriting duo is undeniably the most successful ever, with massive pop and rock appeal, while also evolving through the hippy era interests.
Who Almost Made It to the List?
Certainly, many other great bands would have made it to the list with little to no objection. These include:
- Rush, the progressive rock gods - 40 million certified sales.
- The Jimi Hendrix Experience - 30 million certified sales
- Yes - 13.5 certified sales
- Kiss - 28.2 million certified sales.
- Van Halen - 80+ million certified sales.
- Guns N' Roses - 77.6 million records sold
- Iron Maiden - 100+ million albums sold.
- Metallica - 102.9 million sales
- AC/DC - 123.8 million certified sales
- Black Sabbath, the gods of heavy metal
Suffice it to say, we could go on and on. Plus, the list would keep changing if we used a different set of variables to rank the bands. But this is part of what makes these conversations so fun; everyone is right in their own way.
Bob Marley & The Wailers
Location: Kingston, Jamaica
Years Active: 1963-1981
Certified Sales: 43.2 million
Notable Hits: Get Up, Stand Up; No Woman, No Cry; Buffalo Soldier, Is This Love, Could You Be Loved
Bob Marley is unquestionably the greatest songwriter, singer and cultural figure in the history of Jamaica. He brought the pure message and buoyant energy of reggae music to the world. Marley became the only towering figure during the rock era not from the UK or the US.
Bob left his home aged 14 years to pursue a life in music in the tough Trench Town slum in Kingston. There, he met and became friends with Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer. Soon after, they formed a vocal trio that called themselves the Wailing Wailers, later trimmed to just The Wailers.
The Wailers worked within the existing styles of music at the time. They started with the upbeat ska and progressed to the slower winding rock steady that eventually gave way to reggae. The group became greatly popular in their home country when recording with legendary producers Lee "Scratch" Perry and Coxsone Dodd in the 60s. However, their reach became global in 1972 when Chris Blackwell's Island Records signed them.
Their first two albums at Island became instant classics and introduced several anthems to the world. Later on, Tosh and Wailer left to pursue their solo careers, and Bob made The Wailers his vehicle of expression. Until his untimely death in 1981, he created anthem after anthem and brought hope and pride and touched people all over the world.
So there you have it, the ten best rock bands of all time. We've taken into account their musical and cultural influence, staying power (popularity over time) as well as the impact they made in rock music. Despite missing some of the greats, and our list being fairly short, there's no doubt that our top 10 rock bands have left an everlasting impression in rock history and the music industry.
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