The Beatles are unquestionably the best and most important band in rock history, as well as the most compelling story. Almost miraculously, they embodied the apex of the form artistically, commercially, culturally and spiritually at just the right time, the tumultuous ’60s, when music had the power to literally change the world (or at least to give the impression that it could, which may be the same thing). The Beatles are the archetype: there is no term in the language analogous to “Beatlemania.”
The Rolling Stones
When the Beatles ceased to exist in 1970, the title of “World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band” fell with very little dispute to the Rolling Stones, who by then were in the middle of such a wondrous creative peak that they might have challenged the Fab Four for the title anyway. It’s a title the one-time “anti-Beatles” haven’t relinquished since. Not only have the Stones been the greatest rock band in the world for more than 30 years, but they have been a functioning rock ‘n’ roll unit for more than 40, the longest run in history.
Ireland’s U2 is the most important and influential band of the post-punk era, joining ringing guitar rock, punkish independence, Celtic spirituality, innovative production techniques and electronic experimentalism — all held together by singer/lyricist Bono’s transcendent vision and charisma.
Brian Eno has famously said that not many people bought the Velvet’s albums when they were originally released, but everyone who did formed a band. After bravely jousting the twin enemies of indifference and open hostility in its lifetime, the Velvet Underground has gradually been embraced as one of the best and most important bands in rock history.
Over a 10-year, nine-album career from 1969-79, Led Zeppelin was the most popular rock group in the world, ultimately selling more than 50 million records in the U.S. alone (more than 200 million worldwide), developing the blues-based power trio-plus-lead singer archetype in many directions including mystical English folk-rock, Middle Eastern-influenced exotica, quirky pop and every manner of heaviness. They also came to symbolize the Dionysian excesses of the rock lifestyle.
The Ramones — Dee Dee (bass, vocals), Joey (vocals), Johnny (guitar), Tommy (drums, later replaced by Marky) — were theAmerican punk band, an endless wellspring of noise, energy, attitude, humor and (sometimes forgotten) great songs, who helped reinvent rock ‘n’ roll when it needed it most in the mid-’70s.
Pink Floyd is the most eccentric and experimental multi-platinum band of the album rock era, creating exceptional cinematic sound sculptures “Meddle,” “Dark Side of the Moon,” “Wish You Were Here,” and the band’s popular apex and conceptual death knell, “The Wall.”
Bob Marley and the Wailers
The greatest singer, songwriter, and cultural figure in Jamaican history, Bob Marley brought the righteous message and “positive vibrations” of reggae music to the world, and is the only towering figure of the rock era not from America or the U.K.