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Top 100 Greatest American Rock Artists of All Time

Updated: Apr 4

Top 100 Greatest American Rock Artists of All Time

(Pictured - The Beach Boys 1971)

Rock n' Roll's roots can be traced back to the American South in the 1940s, as blues, country, gospel, and jazz began to merge into one uniform style. It would still be years until the style would become an independent, respected genre by the latter half of the '50s, thanks in large part to many American rock pioneers, many of whom will be making an appearance on this list. By the '60s, the style saw a significant amount of utilization in the UK and throughout Europe, perhaps even surpassing the US as the focal point of rock n' roll. Nevertheless, rock n' roll is a uniquely American art form, at least in origin, and is perhaps mankind's greatest gift of the twentieth century. To celebrate the legacy of American rock music, we have compiled who we believe to be the 100 greatest American rock artists of all time, following our recent list of the 100 Greatest American Albums of All Time. For the purposes of this list, our criteria are broad within rock but narrow within music. Artists included are solely rock artists or can be considered primarily rock artists. Blues, most pop, jazz, hip-hop, soul, R&B, country, along with any other styles that have their own unique identity, have been excluded to keep the focus of the list primarily around the rockers. Any artist who has been included has proven themselves equally as a rocker, as much as any other style. For a broader list celebrating American music, be sure to check out The Top 100 Greatest American Albums of All Time.

1. Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan has amassed a legacy as an American rock musician simply second to none. The folk, turned electrified rock hero, churned out a slew of deeply decorated albums throughout the 1960s and into the ‘70s while constantly evolving his sonic style. Dylan has mixed folk, gospel, blues, Americana, and rock to create a sound that became so grand, it could simply be called a genre in its own right. In scouring both our own lists here at Melophobe and similar lists across the internet celebrating rock albums, Bob Dylan tends to consistently have more entries than any other musical act, including The Beatles. His songwriting style, often a mix of self-loathing wit and protest-laden lyrics, is simply one in a million. In short, the legacy Bob Dylan has amassed as a musician is quite substantially larger than that of any other American rock musician.

2. Jimi Hendrix

The story of Jimi Hendrix is a relatively brief, but densely packed series of events ending with his untimely death at the age of 27. Jimi’s innovative approach to guitar playing forever changed the rock landscape through his use of unusual chords, distortion, amplifier effects, and overall heavy-sounding, sometimes even demonic guitar playing. Through the rise of Jimi Hendrix as a musician, he entered the scene at a time when rock music was about as malleable as could be. Jimi changed what it meant to be a rock star, mixing relatively standardly crafted pop tunes with advanced, center-of-attention guitar playing. Aside from just the sounds Jimi came up with, his British backing band was about as tight as could be. By our calculations, Jimi Hendrix is also the greatest guitarist of all time, along with being the second greatest American rock musician of all time, impressive in its own right, but even more impressive given that he is rarely referred to as a very "gifted" vocalist.

3. Beach Boys

Formed in 1961 in Southern California, The Beach Boys saw an interesting sonic evolution over their extensive career. Initially formed as almost a barbershop-sounding, surf-infused pop outfit, the band quickly entrenched themselves within America’s garage rock scene. By the time Pet Sounds was released in 1966, it was quite clear that The Beach Boys were long beyond a bubble-gum pop, somewhat novelty act and were now one of the most interesting and creative forces in rock music across the world. By this point, it had become quite clear that band member Brian Wilson, who had taken over much of the composition, was simply an unworldly creative mind, creating some of the most jaw-dropping pop-rock and baroque pop songs ever heard. The band has since been celebrated as one of the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed bands of all time. The band's reinventing of the use of harmonies in rock alone has made them one of the most influential bands of all time.

4. Elvis Presley

Just as Jimi Hendrix changed what it meant to be a rock star, it was indeed The King, Elvis Presley, who created the notion of a rock star. Elvis's story as a rock musician was a deeply unusual one as, by no means, was he an incredibly skilled guitar player, nor did he write hardly any of his music. What made Elvis so legendary was how he essentially built a brand around himself, with show-goers losing their minds when they heard him sing and saw him dance. Elvis had a unique baritone voice, rarely possessed by white musicians of the time, and his skill as a performer was where he really excelled. American rock n’ roll is synonymous with the name Elvis. He captured a level of undivided attention from the American public that nobody has ever been able to replicate, except for perhaps Nirvana, but on a much narrower scale.

5. The Allman Brothers Band

In the late ‘60s, southern rock emerged as one of rock’s uniquely American subgenres, finding broad success through the coming decades. At the forefront of southern rock was Jacksonville Florida’s The Allman Brothers Band. Made up of brothers Duane and Gregg, backed by an impressive group of musicians including Dickey Betts and Butch Trucks, the band uniquely separated themselves from country rock, making songs longer and taking influence from gospel, blues, and early hard rock. Although commercial success for The Allman Brothers was pretty modest, years of touring and creating a cult following propelled them to become one of the finest bands to ever emerge out of the states. Garnering the most attention for the group in the early days was guitarist Duane Allman, who died just before the release of their fourth album Eat A Peach. Even after Duane’s passing, the group continued to dominate Southern rock and pave the way for bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Black Crowes, and The Marshall Tucker Band.

6. The Doors

The most decisive American rock outfit to find themselves at the crossroads of blues rock, progressive rock, and ‘60s psychedelic rock was The Doors. The Southern California four-piece rock troupe comprised a stellar mix of musicianship, with each of the four musicians finding themselves amongst the best at what they do, with frontman Jim Morrison especially being remembered as one of rock’s most lauded frontmen. Sadly for The Doors, as too many of these stories go for iconic rock bands, the passing of their frontman Jim Morrison under suspicious circumstances in 1971 essentially ended it for the band. Although The Doors were to release three albums after Morrison’s passing, it was the band's first six albums that really dropped jaws across the world building into their 1971 masterpiece, LA Woman. There had never been a frontman like Jim Morrison before, and there has never been anyone since. Morrison redefined what a frontman in rock could be, turning into almost a messiah-like character for many listeners.

7. Chuck Berry

Running alongside Elvis Presley as an early rockstar in the 1950s was Chuck Berry. Unlike Elvis, Chuck Berry backed up his stage persona with influential and fresh-sounding guitar playing. Although in terms of sheer talent, Chuck Berry can't hold a candle to most of the guitar heroes to follow, like Duane Allman, Jimi Hendrix, or Jerry Garcia, he certainly paved the way for them, changing how the guitar was played, earning him the title of “The Father of Rock and Roll” for good reason. Chuck took influence from blues, R&B, and rock to write some of the most iconic early rock tracks that still make quite an impact today. Credited as one of the first rock guitarists to solo, that alone unlocked a great deal of doors for those who followed him. Chuck Berry was a big factor in the injection of youthful spirit and rebellion into rock music, shaping what was to follow him perhaps to an extent more so than any other American rock musician.

8. Billy Joel

Expressing a unique and sophisticated side of rock music, Billy Joel implanted a level of class into rock and roll that had been largely absent in the early '70s. An incredibly gifted composer and pianist, Billy Joel came with a level of old school class, expressed through his music. His style sounds as a mix of '40s presentation and prestige, mixed with the sprawling creativity of keyboard-centric rock music. His earliest records hold a sound more akin to soft rock or lounge-pop but by his third album, he made his way deeper into the progressive rock field. By his fifth album, Billy Joel had released his masterpiece The Stranger to the world, mixing old-school class with modern, creative rock compositions. Billy Joel has shown the timelessness of his sound, particularly to American audiences, dominating the pop world for decades and filling stadiums to today. No other musician was quite able to nudge their way into that style in the same way Billy Joel did, making him not only one of the finest American musicians but one of the most unique.

9. Nirvana

The late '80s and early '90s was an interesting time for American music. Many American audiences were becoming tired of synth-pop and new wave, dominating American pop stations, and the notion of pop stars could only satisfy so many people. Many American listeners, like Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, began turning their attention towards more underground alternative rock groups like R.E.M., Pixies, Melvins, and Sonic Youth, expressing newer, and even taboo musical ideals. Once Nirvana released Nevermind in 1991, the gloves were off, and it was now the time for grunge and alternative rock to experience their time in the sun. Nirvana captured a level of wholehearted attention that by this point, no American rock act except for Elvis had ever really achieved. So many listeners were encapsulated by their sound, and what was being played on pop stations became so uninteresting to so many listeners that bands like Nirvana and R.E.M. began to now dominate the pop world as well. Backed up by expert guitar-playing and passion beyond belief propelled Nirvana to the status of immediate legends until, surprise surprise, Kurt Cobain died in 1994 at the age of 27, essentially ending grunge, and turning pop stations back towards more mainstream sounds. This now marks the third individual in our top ten to pass at the age of 27.

10. James Brown

Towing the line between funk, soul, R&B, and rock, James Brown lived and breathed what it means to be an unhinged rock star. Known for his peculiar persona, multiple marriages, and an unknown amount of children, James Brown exemplified the fine line between being a genius and a crazy person, excelling at both, but a genius he undoubtedly was. As an active musician since the '50s, James Brown expelled peak musical performance throughout his entire career, becoming regarded as one of the most impressive vocalists of all time. James Brown had a perfected ear for what the people wanted and delivered for decades. Backed by a revolving door of skilled musicians, James Brown always had a specific sound he was after, and simply stopped at nothing to get that perfect sound. His language was unapologetically groove, and no one could groove quite like James Brown.

11. Grateful Dead

12. Stevie Wonder

13. Talking Heads

14. Bruce Springsteen

15. The Velvet Underground

16. Prince

17. Steely Dan

18. R.E.M.

19. Lynyrd Skynyrd

20. Simon & Garfunkel

21. Pixies

22. The Strokes

23. Buddy Holly & the Crickets

24. Bo Diddley

25. Frank Zappa

26. Van Halen

27. Tina Turner

28. Pearl Jam

29. Eagles

30. Janis Joplin

31. Metallica

32. Creedence Clearwater Revival

33. Aerosmith

34. The Ramones

35. The Everly Brothers

36. Booker T & The MG's

37. Red Hot Chili Peppers

38. The Byrds

39. Joan Jett & the Blackhearts

40. The Stooges

41. Interpol

42. Smashing Pumpkins

43. Patti Smith

44. Jimmy Buffett

45. Warren Zevon

46. Tom Petty

47. Pavement

48. Beck

49. Stevie Ray Vaughan

50. Sonic Youth

51. Black Flag

52. Guns N' Roses

53. Rage Against The Machine

54. Little Richard

55. Jefferson Airplane

56. Blink-182

57. Curtis Mayfield

58. Soundgarden

59. The Replacements

60. Alice In Chains

61. Green Day

62. Blondie

63. Sly & The Family Stone

64. Death Cab For Cutie

65. Dave Matthews Band

66. The Feelies

67. Steve Miller Band

68. Bob Seger

69. Bon Jovi

70. James Taylor

71. Modest Mouse

72. The Cars

73. Alice Cooper

74. Carly Simon

75. Dinosaur Jr.

76. Buffalo Springfield

77. Wilson Pickett

78. Heart

79. Dead Kennedys

80. Hall & Oates

81. Jane's Addiction

82. Jackson Browne

83. Blood, Sweat & Tears

84. Jim Croce

85. The Mamas & the Papas

86. KISS

87. The White Stripes

88. Foo Fighters

89. The B-52's

90. Ween

91. The Doobie Brothers

92. Weezer

93. New York Dolls

94. The Ventures

95. Roy Orbison

96. Jerry Lee Lewis

97. Parliament-Funkadelic

98. Chicago

99. TOOL

100. The Flying Burrito Brothers


Just Outside the Top 100

101. Nine Inch Nails

102. Huey Lewis & the News

103. Minutemen

104. Anthrax

105. Love

106. Fugazi

107. Dr. John

108. ZZ Top

109. Carole King

110. The Shins

111. Wilco

112. Butthole Surfers

113. The Black Keys

114. Journey

115. Stone Temple Pilots

116. Little Feat

117. LCD Soundsystem

118. Hüsker Dü

119. Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band

120. MGMT

121. Pantera

122. The Flaming Lips

123. Melvins

124. Vampire Weekend

125. America


2000's alternative & indie rock playlist cover 2.JPEG
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