If debate is the lifeblood of social advancement, then why should music be any different? I've spent a little too much time recently compiling--mentally at first, then in actuality--a list of the Top 40 Bands on Planet Earth in this, the year 2006. Of course, what you're about to read is nothing more or less than one man's debatably informed opinion--disagreement is not only welcome, but encouraged. First, some ground rules:
1) I'm only dealing with outfits that fall loosely under the umbrella of a "rock band." This is really only to say that, to my complete disappointment, groups like The Roots and Outkast will not appear on this list because of genre limitations, not because they're not great, great artists.
2) A band's popularity is often, for better or worse, an undeniable sign of its relevance. Pop music's history has largely been written (and rightly so) by its most popular acts. So, while I like the Secret Service (an extremely independent band from Memphis) a great deal, it's unproductive to compare them to, say, The All-American Rejects. They both do different things, but one's filling a 100-person club, the other's selling 2 million records. You tell me which band is probably clicking on more cylinders.
3) This list's crucial detail is the date of its release: 2006. I aim only to measure the merit of each band at this specific point in time, not its overall legacy. For example: Radiohead gets automatic Pantheon status because of their entire catalogue, but they'll retain an extremely high ranking on this list because their last album was very good, and their live performances are still top-notch. Oasis, on the other hand, you won't be seeing (although you would have 10 years ago).
4) Finally, a few noteworthy omissions:
--The New Pornographers - On the verge, but not quite there yet.
--Aqualung - One more album away.
--The Walkmen - I like this band about as much as anyone can for the strength of exactly one song ("The Rat"). Beyond that, I couldn't pull the trigger.
--The Old 97's - Rhett Miller's doing that solo thang, so the 97's have temporarily disbanded.
--Fugazi - Punk's most credible (and durable) band is "on hiatus," so out of consideration. Otherwise, Top 20.
40) Dashboard Confessional
At the risk of sending everyone cooler than me running for the hills, I give Dashboard Confessional credit for doing whatever the hell they do fairly well (occasionally horrific lyrics aside). A string of minor hits, a rabid fanbase, and no apparent lack of ambition = Just cracking the Top 40.
39) The Black Keys
Soulful, blues-based riff-rock by White Guys from Akron. And it's actually solid, albeit more repetitive than a Keane ballad. I give them credit for having the chops to back their swagger.
38) Jimmy Eat World
Aren't they, ultimately, just a better version of Dashboard Confessional? Still on the radar, 4+ years after "The Middle," which is still the smartest "emo" hit yet. (Side note: all emo kids reading should savor the flavor...the closer we get to the best, the further we'll get from your music. Just a warning--Fallout Boy is NOT up next.)
37) Nickel Creek
Tight harmonies, complex composition, and a world-class mandolin player get them consideration. "Can't Complain," their only really successful song, gets them to #37.
36) The Shins
My brother (whose taste is oft-maligned in this space) said it best: "I've listened to Chutes Too Narrow nine times and I still can't tell if it's any good. I'm going with 'not really.' After nine times, you should know." True enough, although "New Slang" has flashes of brilliance and, should this band ever get a pulse, it might as well.
A band that stresses melody above all else will quickly find my good side. Interesting rhythmically, unique melodically, energetic, quirky, ultimately likable. Their live show sets them back in the countdown, however.
34) Bright Eyes
The kid's young yet, and he's got a handful of promising songs. And, although I question the band's importance, it's hard to deny its popularity. I will say this: of the three-million things Oberst should learn from Bob Dylan, he should start with "hitting the notes."
33) North Mississippi All-Stars
Nickel Creek opened for them at my school last year, and the All-Stars made them look like amateurs. Strictly as players, they're stunning. Too good a group of musicians to be behind 34-40, too inconsistent in their songwriting to be any higher.
32) Death Cab for Cutie
I want to hate this band. I really, really want to hate this band. Most of the time I'm successful. Then I hear "I Will Follow You Into the Dark" and curse them for writing an occasionally great song. At their best, though, they're the B version of Belle and Sebastian. And that ain't quite good enough for the Top 30.
The Welsh folk rockers have lost an extra gear in the last three years, and this list in 2003 would have featured them in the Top 20. Still imminently listenable, tight, and likable due in large part to the unique power of Kelly Jones' voice.
30) The Decemberists
A super-hip band from the Pacific Northwest that seems chiefly influenced by the South. "California Youth and Beauty Brigade" is enough to catch my ear, but this band has kept it for quite a while now. I can't say how high their ceiling is, and they'll probably never sell 10 million records, but it's hard not to admire their strengths.
29) Franz Ferdinand
When "Take Me Out" broke, I kept confusing it with Modest Mouse's contemporary hit "Float On." Still do...kind of. But now I know the difference between the two bands: Franz Ferdinand is the European band with all the hype and little production, and Modest Mouse are the SubPop "fuckups" that just happen to exceed expectations. So, until further notice: Ferdinand stays in the car at gunpoint and Modest Mouse stays airborne.
I know, I know--this band isn't exatly rock. They're not exactly rap, either. They're so weird and engaging that they're one of the most immediately recognizable bands on earth--even if you don't know their name, you know their sound. The greatest strength, however, is their commitment to sonic alchemy within the boundries of a pop song. Boy howdy.
27) The Raconteurs
If you read my blog last week, you might've seen this coming. The secret is that Jack White's new band's new album's best song isn't even the tip of the iceberg: would you know know that the whole dern disc is great? So great, in fact, that (should this band stick together and around) they'll climb this list quickly.
26) Drive-By Truckers
Arguably, the South's grittiest, dirtiest, realist band, and in many respects My Morning Jacket's evil stepcousin. Where the Jacket is expansive, experimental, abstract, and gorgeous, the Truckers are concrete, narrative, harsh, concise, and incapable of holding back. They didn't really win me over, however, until their most recent (and stripped down) album, showing a more mature side. They're not aging, they're evolving--and getting better by the year.
25) Modest Mouse
Bands like Modest Mouse (and hits like "Float On") don't come around often. They are at once so bizarre and familiar, so unique and engaging, that they don't often sustain their greatness. That is, a band of quirks will at some point produce a bit of quirkiness that appeals to the unusual streak in all of us, and might disappear just as fast as they arrived. I don't know if they'll enter the Top 40 again, but Modest Mouse is great at what they do, and might just be getting better.
24) Phantom Planet
If this list had been made in 2002, Phantom Planet would've been Top 10. The Guest was a remarkable album, and their live performances were nearly unparalleled. Jason Schwartzman's exit, however, produced an uneven follow-up, some reportedly shaky performances, and a healthy amount of anxiety in most of their fans. This band might have already peaked, but they're holding steady in the mid-20's for at least another year.
There is always something to be said for a powerful band. And, derivative as they may be, Jet are a powerful band that knows their way around a pop song. They aim high, swing hard, and frequently miss. But when they hit, they hit harder than just about anyone.
22) Sonic Youth
Sonic Youth has done as much as any band can in their career without widespread "commercial" success. They are a household name although they've never once knocked on your door, flashed a smile on your TV, or graced your mailbox with their presence on a superglossy magazine cover. They are, simply, a great 20 year-old band, who are still making music on their terms. Oh, and their most recent album is among their best.
21) Kings of Leon
For all their small problems, Kings of Leon play well, write fairly well, and certainly mean well. At the time of their arrival, they were unfairly grouped with other "neogarage rockers" like the Vines, Strokes, and Hives. But they were always much more musical and cautious than that group's median, and "California Waiting" is the work of a band that is clearly aware of its successes and limitations. This band is somewhere between satisfying and frustrating, because I just can't tell how much to expect from them. Maybe I'll just say they're very good and leave it at that.
Top 20 Tomorrow!