Rock and roll was established as a genre in the 1950s; it’s characterized by heavy beats and simple melodies. Notably, some of the best bands of all time got their start as early as the 60s and continue to leave a lasting impression on pop culture. Take a look at the best rock bands to ever grace the airwaves:
1. The Beatles
Inarguably one of the best bands of all time, The Beatles were established in Liverpool, England in 1957. Reaching critical acclaim and becoming a mainstay in pop culture, their body of work is influential, catchy, well-written, and well-played. Comprised of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr, The Beatles are globally recognized and are credited with inspiring many famous musicians to pursue music. The most influential band of all time, The Beatles are creative and innovative, and a deserving band at the top of this list.
Undoubtedly, Queen’s enigmatic versatility is what keeps listeners coming back for more. Led by the late Freddy Mercury, Queen’s songs run the gamut from rock to pop and everything in between. Their lyrics are poignant and have resonated with audiences since the band’s founding in 1970. What’s more, Queen performances were untouchable by other bands; theatrical, exciting, and whimsical are all words that come to mind when one reflects on a Queen show.
3. Prince and The Revolution
With vocals and performances often likened to those of the late Michael Jackson, The Revolution was spearheaded by the one and only Prince. Prince was a brilliant vocalist and outstanding performer, characteristics that have given him his place in history. In fact, Prince and The Revolution’s most iconic track “Purple Rain” still graces the radio waves today which surely reveals the band’s ultimate staying power.
4. Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band
These New Jersey natives are the pride of the Garden State. Notably, the band has been a rock and roll mainstay for more than four decades. The band’s Americana vibe, inventive sound, relatable topics, and unrefined talent make the band one of the best ever. Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014, the band received much-deserved credit for their contributions to music.
5. Pink Floyd
This English rock band got together in 1965, making a big splash on the rock scene. The band is noted as one of the first-ever psychedelic groups, a genre inspired by mind-altering images. Known for their lengthy compositions, Pink Floyd’s songbook is unusual, trippy, and often philosophical. The band’s most famous album “The Wall” depicts images of a woebegone rock star; the album is purported to be autobiographical. Selling nearly 300 million records worldwide, Pink Floyd’s music is certainly an unstoppable force.
6. Rolling Stones
This British rock band was founded in 1962 and still performs today; talk about staying power! Iconic frontman Mick Jagger’s larger-than-life persona has a lot to do with the public’s overpowering attraction to the band. With a static look, sound, and delivery, fans always know what to expect from the Rolling Stones. It’s worth mentioning that the Stones’ edgy lyrics and counterculture attitudes were especially well-received by disenfranchised youth.
7. The Kinks
Another of many great English rock bands, The Kinks were formed in north London in 1963. The Kink’s body of work is distinctly emblematic of English culture which made them especially popular in their motherland. However, although they toured for a brief stint in the US, they were eventually banned from playing there as a result of their onstage antics and reprehensible behavior. Nevertheless, The Kinks’ carefully-honed lyrics, relevant themes, and incredible musicality have always resonated with audiences.
8. Grateful Dead
Forming in California in 1965 and recognized for its dancing bear logos, the band is known for its eclectic style that marries sounds of rock, blues, folk, and bluegrass genres. Emulating the San Francisco hippy scene, the Grateful Dead is synonymous with tie-dye imagery, the symbolic lightning bolt that represents the powers of nature, and peaceful lyrics that are an elixir to your soul.
Nirvana is an alternative, grunge-rock band hailing from Seattle, that was popularized in the early 90s. Credited with launching alternative music into mainstream popularity, Nirvana was led by Kurt Cobain who sadly took his life in 1994. However, Nirvana’s legacy far surpasses Cobain’s short life. The band’s popular smiley face logo, representative of the smiling faces that looked back at the band during live performances, is still a pop-culture symbol today.
10. The Doors
Emerging from the LA rock scene in 1965, The Doors were led by vocalist Jim Morrison. Known for pushing the boundaries of standard rock songs, both in sound and subject, The Doors’ breakout album, aptly named “Break On Through To the Other Side,” solidified the band’s place in rock and roll history. Releasing six albums before Morrison’s untimely death in 1971, The Doors’ legacy surely lives on.
11. Beach Boys
Comprised of a group of Hawaiian-shirt donning, beach bums from California in the early 60s, the Beach Boys represent the lighter side of rock and roll. Despite having several original hits, woefully, the band was better known in their heyday for the disputes among them. Nevertheless, the Beach Boys got their start as a garage band but reached critical acclaim in the 80s. To this day, Beach Boys’ music, jovial in sound, can be heard at weddings or barbecues and are nearly always immediately recognized.
12. Pearl Jam
This 90s band who still sells out stadiums today hails from the same place many great alternative bands do: Seattle. Fronted by vocalist Eddie Vedder, Pearl Jam helped to make the music genre recognized by mainstream audiences. Pearl Jam’s songs are characterized by angry lyricism and impassioned vocals yet undeniably captivating choruses. With many multi-million-dollar albums under their belts, Pearl Jam’s messages are influential and unparalleled.
13. The Police
This English rock band got together in 1977 and is led by singer and bassist Sting. Achieving worldwide fame in the late 80s and early 90s, The Police’s sound is influenced by jazz and reggae characteristics. Of note, the band had four successive number-one albums from which hits such as “Don’t Stand Too Close to Me” and “Message in a Bottle” were born. Sadly, the group disbanded in 1983 as a result of irreconcilable in-fighting.
R.E.M. is an American rock band that joined musical forces in the early 80s. This conjoining of students from the University of Georgia was vocally led by famed musician Michael Stipe. Another of the first few mainstream alternative bands, R.E.M. delivered distinctive vocals, unique lyrics, and enigmatic live performances. Although the band had a devout following in its early years, it wasn’t until the early 90s that the band achieved global fame with the release of the albums “Out of Time” in 1991 and “Automatic for the People” in 1992.
15. The Clash
Hitting the London rock scene in 1976, The Clash is a British band whose lyrics broached political themes reminiscent of the social unrest of the era during which they were active. Notably, their songs were stylized protestations that spoke to the hearts of audiences. The band’s unique sound is a stylistic blend of punk, reggae, funk, jazz, and hip-hop all mashed together to create the idiosyncratic sound that is inherently The Clash.
One of the best rock bands to come out of London in the 90s, Coldplay is an alternative rock band with pop-rock undertones. Significantly, the band struck paydirt with the release of the 2000 hit “Yellow.” However, the acclaim received for this track laid the foundation for the future successes of “Clocks” and “Viva la Vida.” One thing is for certain, Coldplay has staying power and they are in it for the long-haul, which we think creates a great reason for their feature on this list.
17. Lynyrd Skynyrd
Lynyrd Skynyrd is an American rock band from Jacksonville, Florida. Banding together in 1964, the band got their start touring small concert settings before releasing their first album in 1973. Pioneers of the Southern rock movement, the band earned fame with songs like “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Free Bird.” Sadly, the band’s wild success came to a screeching halt when the band was involved in a plane crash that took the lives of three and terribly injured the others.
18. Guns and Roses
This hard rock American band was formed in 1985 in Los Angeles, California. Led by frontman and vocalist Axl Rose and lead guitarist Slash, the band experienced three top 10 hits off their debut album, “Appetite For Destruction” in 1987. Those three mega-hits (“Welcome to the Jungle,” “Sweet Child of Mine,” and “Paradise City”) can all be heard today in bars and as remixes in nightclubs all over the world.
19. Steve Miller Band
Founded in 1966, the Steve Miller Band was led by title frontman Steve Miller. With a succession of number one hits throughout the 70s, the band is a paragon of classic rock. The band’s series of successful tracks led to a greatest hits album which was released in 1978 selling more than 13 million copies worldwide. Of note, the band’s sound is distinctly bluesy while its lyrics are relatable and memorable.
20. Cheap Trick
This Midwestern American rock band was formed in 1973 and has been a musical mainstay ever since. However, Cheap Trick didn’t start topping charts until 1979 with the release of “I Want You to Want Me” and again in 1988 with “The Flame.” One of the ultimate bands to see live, Cheap Trick is known for playing their lesser-known tracks instead of the chart-toppers. Their unique sound and awesome lyricism are even credited as the musical inspiration for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame artists such as Nirvana and Green Day.
21. Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers
This iconic American rock band joined forces in 1976 when lead singer Tom Petty and band instrumentalists met in Gainesville, Florida. The band’s musical genre is characterized as Southern rock and has a distinctive twangy sound coupled with down-home lyricism. Rising to fame in the late 70s, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers continued to make new music and even tour until Petty’s untimely death in 2017.
22. Steely Dan
Hailing from the 70s Los Angeles rock scene, Steely Dan is a duo of college buddies who were innovative in their approach to music. Although the duo got their start as music writers in television, they clandestinely recorded and released their first studio album “Can’t Buy a Thrill.” Thrillingly, this album brought the duo fame with two chart-topping hits, namely “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ In the Years.”
23. The Cure
The Cure is an iconic British rock band that emerged in the late 70s led by vocalist and songwriter Robert Smith. Although the original band members were childhood friends, members often changed and Smith was the only mainstay. Characterized as gothic rock in genre, The Cure’s songbook reads like an Edgar Allan Poe story. Quite possibly one of the most versatile bands of the 80s, The Cure’s songs are raucous, raw, and beautifully messy.
24. Led Zeppelin
Led Zeppelin is a British rock band that earned acclaim in the 70s. Their musical style was innovative, making the band a pioneer in the genre that would later become dubbed heavy metal or hard rock. Stylistically, the band is known for powerful chords, striking volume, and distorted impressions. Fronted by singer Robert Plant, Led Zeppelin is most famously known for “Stairway To Heaven” which was released in 1971.
25. Creedence Clearwater Revival
Gaining huge popularity in the late 60s, Creedence Clearwater Revival is an American band known for dominating hits like “Proud Mary,” “Bad Moon Rising,” and “Green River” to name a few. Notably, the staying power of these tunes is still celebrated and recognized by youth today. The band’s unique sound is characterized as bluesy, Southern rock but more than that the up-tempo beats and catchy lyrics can make anyone jump out of their seat to boogie.
26. Van Halen
Fronted by guitarist Eddie Van Halen, Van Halen is an American band that emerged in 1972. The band became insanely popular in the mid-80s with hits like “Jump” and “Hot For Teacher.” Despite these and subsequent hits, the band was best known for Eddie Van Halen’s brilliance on the guitar. Not to be overlooked, however, are the vocals of the lead singer, David Lee Roth, and the contagious energy of the band as a whole. Van Halen sadly disbanded with the death of Eddie Van Halen in 2020.
Journey is an American rock band from San Francisco, California who set the stage for what classic rock would later become. Known for chart-topping, memorable classics such as “Don’t Stop Believin” and “Wheel In the Sky,” it’s impossible to sit still or remain quiet when a Journey tune begins to play. Notably, the band’s members are musical legends each of which comes from other successful bands such as The Steve Miller Band and Santana, among others.
AC/DC is an Australian rock band that hit this scene in the mid-70s and whose music has been described as a blend of blues and heavy metal. Best known for high-energy, over-the-top performances, AC/DC has released nearly 20 studio albums as well as a handful of live albums. To date, the band remains one of the best-selling rock bands in the US. Worth noting, the band is most famous for their 1980 release of “Back In Black” which still graces the airwaves today.
29. Def Leppard
Def Leppard is a British heavy metal band that rose to fame in the 80s. Known for their agreeable sound and suitability for mainstream radio, it wasn’t long before youth all over the world were singing along to Def Leppard songs such as “Pour Some Sugar On Me” and “Love Bites,” the likes of which can still be heard in watering holes today. Best of all, the band is still quite active today.
Another great California rock band, Metallica was formed in the early 80s and the band’s staying power is evidenced by the release of new albums much more recently. Known for its heavy metal sensibilities, the band found ultimate popularity with the release of their third studio album “Master of Puppets.” Notably, the band’s unique sound is characterized by up-tempo beats and aggressive musicality. Even more notably, the band has received nine Grammy Awards, an amazing accomplishment for musicians in the heavy metal genre.
31. The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Lauded as one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century, Jimi Hendrix was the frontman for this legendary British band. Forged in the mid-60s, The Jimi Hendrix Experience was a pioneer in the use of the electric guitar, catapulting its popularity into the mainstream. Regarded as one of the best guitarists of all time, you almost don’t need lyrics to appreciate Hendrix’s sound.
32. Joan Jett and The Blackhearts
This punk-pop band is an American phenomenon that became wildly popular following a career-making concert in 1981. Their later release of “I Love Rock ‘n Roll” in 1982 solidified their place in the history books. Joan Jett’s vocal range is insane and, not surprisingly, she’s been dubbed “The Queen of Rock and Roll.” One of the best female artists in the rock and roll game, Joan Jett is an icon.
33. Bon Jovi
This 80s hairband, the pride of New Jersey, has remained a musical force since its founding; in fact, the band still records new music and tours today. Led by vocalist John Bon Jovi, this American band is best known for its powerful ballads, beautiful guitar riffs, and catchy melodies. Bon Jovi, who had been playing together since the year before, got its big break when their single “Runaway” topped the charts in 1984. Since this time, Bon Jovi has remained a steadfast rocker loved by many successive generations.
34. Bob Dylan
A major player in rock and roll culture since his start in music in the 60s, Bob Dylan is one of the best singers and songwriters in American music. With a distinctively folksy sound and incredible lyricism Dylan is often equated to the “Shakespeare of music.” A common subject in many of Dylan’s hundreds of original songs is romantic innuendo which is incredibly approached through prosaic and unprecedented lyrics.
This English rock band led by frontman Phil Collins was established in 1967. With nearly 150 million albums sold globally, Genesis is a serious force. Regarded as founders of the progressive rock movement, Genesis’s discography comprises a whopping 21 albums in total. Finally, Collins’ greatest hit “In the Air Tonight” was released in 1981 and is still a hit today. Laudably, the band still is making strides towards touring the globe.
36. The Eagles
Most well-known for laying the foundation for country-rock as a commercial music genre, The Eagles are an American rock band that got together in Los Angeles, California in the early 70s. With a litany of accolades and awards to show for the mega success, The Eagles’ debut, self-titled album was released in 1972. The album delivered two chart-topping hits, namely “Witchy Woman” and “Take It Easy,” both of which still grace the radio waves today.
37. Allman Brothers Band
This legendary Southern rock band formed in Florida in the late 60s. Known as pioneers of the genre, the band laid the foundation for pop-rock music as we know it today. Best known for songs like “Whipping Post” and “Midnight Rider” the band’s vibe authentically blends sounds of blues, jazz, and rock. Sadly, tragedy stole the lives of two band members, bringing their legacy to a screeching halt.
38. Foo Fighters
One of the most popular American rock bands, the Foo Fighters’ sound is inspired by elements of punk and heavy metal. From beautiful ballads to all-out, hard-hitting rock jams, the Foo Fighters’ versatility coupled with their sheer talent has given them staying power. Established in the mid-90s amid the Seattle grunge scene, the band defined itself as something unique and captivating. Led by vocalist Dave Grohl, the band is still going strong today with new music and fresh tours.
Best known for smash hits such as “Dream On,” “Sweet Emotion,” and “Walk This Way,” Aerosmith is led by enigmatic lead singer Steven Tyler. Getting their start as a blues band in the late 70s, Aerosmith emerged in the 80s and 90s as a rock and roll band whose sound embraces hints of blues, pop-rock, and heavy metal. Still rocking stages and releasing new music, these guys are still kicking this late into their epic career.
U2 is a legendary Irish rock band led by renowned frontman Bono. With more than a dozen studio albums in their discography, U2 is one of the best-selling rock bands of all time. Rock and Roll Hall of Famers and 22-time Grammy winners, U2 are still together today. With songs that hit on social and political issues, the band has the intelligence to broach sensitive subject matter in a way that strikes a nerve with audiences. Best of all, Bono’s soulful tenor delivers unprecedented and resonating emotion.
41. Red Hot Chili Peppers
The Red Hot Chili Peppers are an American band straight out of Los Angeles; they got together in the early 80s. Discovered by band members Anthony Keidis and Flea, the band combines musical elements of funk and punk to hone their eccentric rock sound. The band has released 12 studio albums but the one that catapulted them into stardom was “Uplift Mofo Party Plan” which dropped in 1987.
42. Fleetwood Mac
This British band led by legendary female vocalist Stevie Nicks hit it big with the 1977 release of their album “Rumours.” The band’s sound is eclectic and diverse while their songs range from ballads to hard-hitting political commentaries. Notably, Fleetwood Mac’s sound is a magical blend of blues and rock that combines elements of British and American rock.
43. The Ramones
The Ramones are a punk rock band that got together in the mid-70s. Formed in New York City, the band not only spearheaded the punk rock movement but left an indelible mark on the pop music scene too. Popular through the mid-90s yet still hailed today, The Ramones drew inspiration from The Beatles (who didn’t?) and sadly disbanded in 1996; regrettably, all of the members have since met their maker.
44. Smashing Pumpkins
This Chicago-born alternative rock band was developed in 1988 and is fronted by lead guitarist and vocalist Billy Corgan. Popular throughout the 90s, the band credits predecessors such as Led Zeppelin and The Beatles as inspiration for their sound and vibe. Although they struck stardom in the early 90s, their most popular song of all time is “Bullet With Butterfly Wings,” which, like many of their tracks, has a hard-hitting rock sound.
45. Green Day
This American punk rock band was formed in the late 80s in California. Led by Billy Joe Armstrong, the band’s lyrics broach angsty teenage issues in a way that is both relatable and catchy. Made famous in 1994 with the release of their ever-popular album “Dookie,” Green Day has been touring ever since. Moreover, the band has maintained global recognition with subsequent albums such as “American Idiot” which dropped in 2004.
46. ZZ Top
This American rock band is famous for its gritty blues sound, its Texas beginnings, and bearded aesthetic. Led by vocalist and guitarist Billy Gibbons and bassist Dusty Hill, the band formed in 1969 and enjoyed a more-than 50-year career before the death of Hill ended their tenure. Despite losing the heart of the band, ZZ Top continues to tour today.
Santana is an American rock band whose sound draws from elements of jazz, blues, and Latin genres. Led by Mexican-born Carlos Santana the band catapulted into mainstream popularity following a 1969 Woodstock performance. The band’s debut, self-named album topped the charts later that same year. Notably, the band is most widely known for the triple-platinum album “Supernatural.” Remarkably, Santana is still touring and releasing new music today.
48. Black Sabbath
Trailblazers in the heavy metal genre, Black Sabbath is a British band that formed in 1968. With a succession of chart-topping albums, the band soared to great heights in a genre that had never before been commercially popular. Consistently led by wildcard vocalist Ozzy Osbourne, the band has experienced an ever-changing lineup of bandmates. Known for their bombastic sound, incredible guitar riffs, and dark subject matter, Black Sabbath has undoubtedly left a mark on rock and roll.
49. Nine Inch Nails
Nine Inch Nails is an American rock band hailing from Cleveland and formed in 1988. Led by Trent Reznor, the band’s only steadfast member, the band is synonymous with a distinctly alternative rock sound and dark, gothic lyrics. Nine Inch Nails first earned critical acclaim in 1992 when the track “Broken” hit the airwaves. Acclaimed for their theatrical live performances, Nine Inch Nails has long been a popular band to see live; in fact, the band still tours today.
50. The Who
The Who is a British rock band that got together in the mid-60s; fronted by the iconic lead singer Roger Daltrey and lead guitarist Peter Townshend, the band has been making waves since its establishment. Known for frenetic guitar riffs as well as their contributions to the pop-rock and mod movements, The Who has left a lasting impression on rock and roll. Notably, The Who released their first big hit, “I Can’t Explain,” in 1964 and the rest is history. Sadly, the band split in 1983 but their contributions to rock remain relevant.
51. REO Speedwagon
This American rock band got together in Illinois in the late 60s, although their following didn’t begin to flourish until the 70s. Then, in the 80s, the band finally achieved commercial success with the release of the album “Hi Infidelity.” Astonishingly, this one album produced four number-one hits including “Keep On Loving You” and “Take It On the Run.” Known for their warm ballads and soft sound, REO Speedwagon is a legendary rock band.
This list of the best bands proves that not only will rock and roll rock on but it’s also indelibly infiltrated pop culture, unlike any other musical genre.
As the Head Editor at Music Grotto, Liam edits content produced from over 30 professional music/media journalists and contributing writers. He works closely with journalists and other staff to format and publish music content for the Music Grotto website. Liam is also the founding member of Music Grotto and is passionate in disseminating editorial content to its readers.