Friday, July 21, 2006

Top 40 Bands on the Planet, Part III

Some readers need to learn the art of delayed gratification. After a brief stint to Memphis, I'm back and ready to deliver the Top 10 Bands on Planet Earth. But first, a caveat:

Many of you are reading this wondering, "I wonder where Aerosmith will rank in the Top 10," or, "He's gotta have the Stones at Number 1, right?" Wrong. Old, legendary bands like Aerosmith and The Rolling Stones were of a completely different era, and haven't been relevant in upwards of fifteen years. They're great bands, they're still standing, and they get points for longevity--but, for the purposes of fair comparison, I haven't included them in this list. That goes for perennial reunion projects like The Who, Big Star, Fleetwood Mac, etc.

Onward and upward!

10) Red Hot Chili Peppers
Another aging band whose best days are behind it but whose worse days aren't fast approaching. Although their most recent effort sounds somehow less mature than 2000's Californication, the Chili Peppers are still a band devoted to musical alchemy and live-performance dominance, all in the context of the "Modern Pop Song." Any band that's still relevant fifteen years after its breakthrough is deserving of praise.

9) The Strokes
Is it a testiment to their strength or a sign of their weakness that The Strokes really catalyzed the "garage rock" Renaissance of the early zeros? Although you can tell something about a band by their influence, I'm of the opinion that no good band should be criticized for having crappy imitators. Three rock-solid albums, tireless touring, and singles that are as accessible and intriguing as ever, and I'm starting to wonder if we're still waiting for the best of The Strokes. Regardless of how you feel about their slightly indulgent lyrics, their carefully tailored hipster status, or their own commentary on their own band in their own scene, The Strokes are a group that is currently vital, relevant, and consistently interesting. Simply put: they matter.

8) Wilco
If The Strokes get credit for being a relevant faux-indie band on the mainstream's fring, Wilco gets extra credit for doing it twice as long. No other band of the past ten years has so gracefully straddled the hazy line between stars and superstars--their music is exceedingly well-known and successful, but the most casual music fan likely does not know the name Wilco. Being There (their debut) and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (one of the best albums of the decade) alone would merit a Top 20 ranking, but their entire catalogue serves as a constant reminder of just how rewarding thoughtful songwriting and potent performances can be. I often use the term successful as a relative, as though each band should be graded respective to whatever it is they do. In that, Wilco is a band that does what they do so well that they don't have any recognizable imitators--only a generation of admiring and appreciative fans.

7) Counting Crows
If a football team is only as strong as its weakest link, then perhaps bands are only as strong as their strongest link. In the case of the Counting Crows, their greatest asset and hindrance is the same person: singer and chief songwriter Adam Duritz. Few individuals in the history of rock are as simultaneously admirable and frustrating. When he's on ("Round Here," "Saint Robinson's Cadillac Dream," "Long December"), he's so, so on. When he's off ("Colorblind," "I Wish I Was a Girl," "New Frontier"), he's horribly off. But perhaps the greatest transgression is his more recent refusal to be productive in any capacity, good or bad. The Counting Crows, for all their longevity, hit-making prowess, and nearly unequalled musicianship, don't currently merit a higher ranking because they simply have been inactive for nearly four years. Here's hoping that next time is the best of times, rather than the worse.

6) R.E.M.
My brother and I believe that there are two types of people in the world: those who believe U2 was the quintessential alternative rock band of the 80's and those who believe R.E.M owns that distinction. Consider me in the latter camp, and I think time has proven it. Not only did R.E.M. age better in the 90's, they've become rock's most respectable and still relevant elder statesmen, opting instead to craft beautiful, accessible songs ("Imitation of Life," "Bad Day," etc.) rather than pimping IPods and posing as an unwitting, ludicrous self-parody. As a vocalist, Stipe remains as disarming, versatile, and gorgeous as ever, and the band has no shortage of creativity or ambition still in the tank. They are, with every new album and tour, writing the book on how a band can age gracefully.

5) My Morning Jacket
If R.E.M. was the South's band of yesterday, My Morning Jacket almost indisputably its band of today. Nevermind the fact that their first two major-label releases stand among the strongest and most relevant of the decade. Nevermind the fact that their live show is, to this artist's eye, currently the best on the planet. Nevermind the fact that Jim James hasn't even peaked as a songwriter yet, and that the addition of their new lead guitarist and keyboard player give the band an entirely new dimension in the studio and onstage. Disregard all of that, if you like. If for no other reason, love My Morning Jacket because they are a band simultaneously of yesterday and tomorrow--their music at once classic and clairvoyant, familiar and fresh. They are, arguably, rock's best new band, and it's possible they haven't even peaked yet.

4) Radiohead
If this list came out in 1997, Radiohead would be my consensus #1. Since The Bends and OK Computer (two Pantheon albums), Radiohead has taken an aesthetic departure towards more "experimental" music. While Kid A and Amnesiac were ultimately successful forays, Hail to the Thief is a thoroughly disjointed album. Most recently, they've sounded like a band that has blazed so many trails they're reluctant to pick one. Never discount their enormous influence, exceptional songwriting, and cultural importance--all three are above reproach. Radiohead's current problem is not unlike the Counting Crows': it's been far too long since their last release, so it's difficult to grade them on what they've done lately. There's a fair chance that the next Radiohead album will be completely brilliant, catapulting them to their debatable place at #1. Until then, though, their memory and sustained impact keep them safely in the Top 5.

3) Green Day
Many pop music fans, even Green Day fans, struggle with the question, "How seriously can I take Green Day?" This is due, in large part, to their self-effacing persona, their uneven live shows, and the fact that their debut album was named after poo. For me, American Idiot put those questions to rest. Here is a band that has simply, magically, completely grown up. Smarter songwriting, pointedly topical lyrics, fantastic musicianship, and a palpable sense of urgency inform this double-disc--it plays like the last and definitive statement of a band that has nearly everything to say for itself. And, in a time when some of rock's "biggest" bands claim their fame by pretending to be small, Green Day remains a great band for their willingness to go big, and their capacity for delivering.

2) The White Stripes
Of the two "new" bands in the Top 5, My Morning Jacket has the higher ceiling, but the White Stripes have (to this point) achieved more. This could be due to the fact that Jack and Meg White are simply older and more experienced than Jim James & Co. This could be due to the fact that they're more devoted to writing songs with a pop sensibility, gaining them increased airplay, exposure, and mainstream impact. Or, they could just be more consistent. Whatever the reason, the span from White Blood Cells to Get Behind Me Satan is as good a three-album stint as we've had since the mid-90's. These two are steady, reliable, sharp, and exciting, and in their absolute prime. For right now, they're as good as anyone.

1) Pearl Jam
The best band (in the studio and on the road) of the past 15 years just released one of their best albums. Their concerts are as tight and unpredictable as ever. And Eddie still has his fastball. Pearl Jam, at least for 2006, is the Once and Future King.


P.S. Special thanks to everyone at the P&H Wednesday--y'all know how to make a kid feel at home again.


Michael said...
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Elizabeth said...

I think your Top 10 assessment is pretty dead-on, except I feel REM should rank higher than Greenday. But that's just me. You are entirely correct about them being superior to U2. And Pearl Jam happens to be my fourth favorite band ever, so good call on making them numero uno.

And a note about Number 38: I don't think of Jimmy Eat World as emo. Help me understand that one.

Chris Milam said...

REM's career is more impressive than Green Day's, but in 2006, Green Day's operating on a higher level.

I should've clarified what I meant by emo, since nobody seems to know what it means. Jimmy Eat World, at least aesthetically, seems emo: high-pitched, wavering vocals, simple song structure, big choruses paired with softer verses, interpersonal (dare I say, um, teenage-friendly?) lyrical content, etc. The thing that sets them apart is that they're smarter, less sentimental, and more varied. So, they're at once pre-emo (premo?) and non-emo--progenitors of the movement and transcendent of it.

Chris Milam said...

P.S. Don't take my word for much of anything--just one man's debatably informed opinion. Remember: I once thought 311 was the world's greatest band.

P.P.S. How's it going, Elizabeth? Good to hear from you...

burrito said...

For the Top 10 (rock) Bands on the Planet, I think you've hit the nail on the head. You've picked the artists that, in this genre anyway, have had the most enduring influence and originality. (and thus the most imitators). Well done! makes me want to break out the old PJ stuff again. (I still think 'Vs.' was their best. Be interested to know your favorite...)

burrito said...

Ok, here's mine. I like this game!

10.My Morning Jacket
9.Radiohead (probably should be higher, but still too depressing for my top 5)
7.John Brown's Body
5.Robert Randolph and the Family Band
4.The Roots
3.Steel Pulse
2.Femi Kuti

Anonymous said...

What do you mean by "best" here? You're seriously killing me. You're a great writer, though. I'm gonna go back through and stalk you a bit.


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