Overview: I love Deerhunter. My favorite album of the ’10s so far is Halcyon Digest, and I like Microcastle nearly as much. But let’s be frank: The last six years are the weakest ever for American bands. It’s not even close, really. There are still good bands, but they don’t matter like the other groups on this list. If you don’t know who Deerhunter is, you’re likely with the majority of readers. Please listen to them. You’ll thank me later.The Black Keys followed Deerhunter as the Champion from 2011-2014, which is somewhat difficult to stomach in an era that saw the rebirth / re-exposure of garage rock. For example, Thee Oh Sees destroyed all comers, even their own scene, with their prolific output. Pick an album, any album, they're all probably better than The Black Keys. That's not a knock on The Black Keys as much as it's a recognition of the fact that albums like Carrion Crawler / The Dream are pinnacles of garage rock's potential.
Yet, it is worth noting the difficulties of spreading the message of Thee Oh Sees far and wide: their records are mostly distributed by outfits such as Revolver / Midheaven, which basically ensures they won't ever have to worry about embarrassing themselves on Saturday Night Live (although, Ty Segall Band proves this "distribution argument" wrong with their lightning-quick performance on David Letterman. Thee Oh Sees did appear on Carson Daily's show). This factionalism inherent in American rock represents an earlier era, one peppered with small labels, stacked independent touring caravans, and bands that play raw, breakneck paces. I'm referring as much to the late-1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s as much as I am to the hardcore explosion of the 1980s.
Curiously, the 1950s are absent from Hyden's list, which could be explained by convenience (50 years of Champions has quite a nice ring to it). On the other hand, America's 1950s bands exhibit a type of primal rock, rockabilly, or country sound, or flat out rhythm & blues. The divisions between rhythm & blues and rock are unfortunate, and one of the strengths of Hyden's lists is that he masterfully nods to important rock, rap, funk, and R&B acts. So far so good. If one pushes the rhythm & blues tension back to its origins, and stretches the Championship Belts into the 1950s, suddenly factionalism, niches, and small-scale success is not as problematic (although there are certainly some popular artists in the 1950s, too).
Interestingly, Hyden includes a rule that no "& the" bands can be included in his list of Champions.
This is not a problem in R&B, where working with a solid leader or revolving corps of backing players was quite normal (this should sound familiar to anyone who follows the line-ups of most contemporary independent bands, who swap players rather frequently depending on their needs, vision, touring schedules, etc.). If the list begins in the 1950s, there ought to be no issue with "& the" bands, for almost everyone is an "& the," from Clyde McPhatter & The Drifters to Buddy Holly & The Crickets (both absolutely necessarily Champions, by the way, or at least serious Challengers). Elvis with The Jordanaires is another interesting -- and chart-topping -- pair, and there's all sorts of backing-band magic, personnel swaps, and intrigue during the girl group era of the early 1960s. Besides, overall, there shouldn't necessarily be an issue with celebrated backing bands following popular singer-songwriters (see The Byrds, one of Hyden's challengers, for several interesting reasons: not only did the group itself cut their teeth recording seminal Bob Dylan songs, but Roger McGuinn played lead guitar and sang in key incarnations, and there's always the issues of studio players inserted into the mix). This happens everywhere, including Deerhunter (a Champion) and even popular rock bands like Weezer (where Rivers Cuomo sings lead and plays lead guitar).
Those 1950s: The 1950s featured some raucous American bands, as well as some delightfully soft pop and folk music. As previously mentioned, The Drifters started their extensive career, certainly playing some of the best songs during the vocal driven R&B era (and backing the inimitable Clyde McPhatter). The Clovers' "Sh-Boom" is a strong enough song to enter them into the equation of Champions. Roy Orbison started his career, Buddy Holly enjoyed considerable success forming a minimal rockabilly sound (as well as more symphonic excursions), and other extremely successful groups included The Kingston Trio, The Platters, The Everly Brothers, and The Fleetwoods. Bandleader Big Joe Turner also provides considerable trouble for the "band" list, as two of his key songs ("The Chill is On" and "Sweet Sixteen") were recorded with Van "Piano Man" Walls and his orchestra. Certainly it is worth extending the string of American Band Champions to 1951 to celebrate Big Joe Turner's rowdy rhythm & blues achievements.
Girl Groups: Before the American Band Championships begin in 1964, a curious trend occupies the Billboard's "hot" charts. A gang of girl groups, such as The Shirelles and The Ronettes, turned rowdy R & B into lovestruck, empowering, or wistfully short sides. Hyden touches on this with The Supremes, who are a Challenger to The Beach Boys in 1964, but the girl group trend is arguably more significant than a secondary mention (and one sees this if the American bands story is started several years earlier).
The girl group narrative is important because it can be cashed-out, continuously, throughout American music history. Be it through new wave music like The Go-Gos, R&B like TLC, SWV, Salt-N-Pepa, or Destiny's Child, or rock music like Sleater-Kinney (a Challenger in Hyden's article, but arguably the greatest single band in American music history, for their appropriation of punk rock, their application of feminist scenes in popular culture, and their RIFFS!). Obviously, one can dive ever deeper into this scene of great American girl bands -- in fact, I gather an entire list can be made of girl-centric music from 1964-present, and that such a list would tell a significant story about American bands.
Influential Patterns: While thinking about The Black Keys and Deerhunter, it struck me that several extremely influential bands were missing from the list of contenders. Of course, this will happen in any list exercise -- I'll miss influential bands in this feature, too. Depending on the story, though, missing influential bands can be an issue, and in this case Deerhunter and The Black Keys owe considerable debt to American bands ranging from The Bassholes and Mr. Airplane Man to The Amps / The Breeders, The Everly Brothers, and The United States of America. In fact, depending on your viewpoint, one could argue that Deerhunter is The United States of America, The Amps, and The Everly Brothers.
Certainly, one could counter that citing influential groups would defeat the purpose of such a list -- Deerhunter are a great band because of how they churn influences into equally ambient and rocking sounds. Goodness, could you imagine how Nirvana breaks down if you simply look at their influences? Arguably, Mudhoney released the most important (and best) grunge record with Sub Pop, and The Pixies exemplified college rock, but Nirvana certainly was more than the sum of hardcore underground ("actual"?) grunge and college rock. No, Nirvana were great because of their energy, conviction, and songwriting chops, as much as their exemplification of certain influential independent bands.
On the other hand, this argument about influence can go the other way, too. What good is influence if the corporate hands turn Nirvana into years of Nickelback (thankfully not American) and Creed (unfortunately American)? Creed is another band that didn't made Hyden's list, presumably because Nirvana and Pearl Jam were already mentioned. That Kurt Cobain's suicide created a power-vacuum filled by clueless executives says more about major labels than it does about Nirvana, but Nirvana's influence must bear the years of Creed and Nickelback, too. Oddly enough, if one is concerned about factionalism or niche markets in contemporary music, one can blame Cobain and major label executives for that, too. It seems difficult to call Nirvana's legacy influential without recognizing that because of the series of events in the 1990s, we now have fractured independent markets (which are GREAT!).
The way one views influences is significant for developing a specific story about American rock. Perhaps if the goal is to culminate with Deerhunter and The Black Keys, it is indeed important to list The Velvet Underground as the most influential band during the mid-to-late 1960s. But, if one lists The 13th Floor Elevators as the most influential group during that era, perhaps it is less difficult to see small, regional, factional groups like Thee Oh Sees as significant bands in the current era.
Regions: If one thinks about contemporary factions, one notices strong regional influences. Thee Oh Sees, White Fence, and Ty Segall Band are just some of the artists first associated with San Francisco's scene of musicians and labels, and now associated with Los Angeles. Following that legacy, one can find interesting traditions to mine, from Big Brother and the Holding Company and Quicksilver Messenger Service (both worthy Challengers, if not Champions, in America's band traditions). In this case, an album like Surrealistic Pillow by The Jefferson Airplane might be more important than The Velvet Underground (I should make it clear that I'm not bashing The Velvets. I absolutely love them, especially their grand bootleg series and gnarly guitar tones. But, the point is to really press exactly what was influential and great in the history of American bands).
One especially interesting region that has (at least) a six decade story to tell is that of Texas (and, specifically, Austin). The 13th Floor Elevators are one of the most significant regional bands in American history, and they spur a series of continually under-the-radar-yet-on-the-pulse group of musicians from Nice Strong Arm to current groups like Spray Paint (who are employing one of the most radical guitar sounds amidst washes of unceremonious fuzz in contemporary American rock). The Texas list of challengers gets even more fun if one expands their reach to Houston, which includes everyone from ZZ Top to Red Krayola.
Arguably, the same lineage can be traced throughout many other regions; Seattle, Olympia, CLEVELAND, Washington, D.C., Detroit, Athens, Minneapolis, etc. Some of these regional acts appear on Hyden's list -- particularly Minnesotans Husker Du and The Replacements (in fact, Hyden's list includes an excellent Minnesotan lineage from Husker Du through to The Hold Steady). Undoubtedly, those bands tell a significant story about the development of American music distribution from "major labels" back to small-scale, factional scenes. That story is told over, and over, and over again in many other American cities.
The Monkees: If The Black Keys are the most significant American Band currently playing, there is an interesting logic that can be applied backwards on the list. Specifically, The Black Keys are most important because they are incredibly popular (I remember when they sold out Chicago's Aragon Ballroom for several consecutive New Year's Eve shows a few years back), and one cannot possibly know which underground groups will be most important from the contemporary scene (this is the gist of an argument The Empty Bottle and Hyden conveyed to me via Facebook and Twitter, respectively).
Yet, if one cannot know which contemporary acts will be most influential, and popular groups therefore are given more importance during their specific time, including groups like The Velvet Underground as Champions tells an incomplete story: if this list was made in 1967 or 1968, The Monkees would probably be regarded as the most popular, significant American band -- certainly, their place on TV, radio, and record sales supports that claim. Why do we use hindsight to forget about, or disparage, or underplay the importance of acts like The Monkees? Presumably, this is exactly what journalists will do when they're writing this list in 2030: The Black Keys will be booted, in favor of someone like Purling Hiss or Bitchin' Bajas or something. And the argument will be, "well, Bitchin' Bajas turned out to be really influential due to their fusion of krautrock, jazz, and experimental music within an accessible rock framework." Or, "Purling Hiss effectively used shred-happy, wide open guitar tones to return rock music to a competent, solo-happy exercises." Or who knows: maybe it will be a Drill group from Chicago, etc.
(One can make this argument in nearly every American decade. Groups like Chicago, Boston, Journey, Bon Jovi, Creed, etc., have been quite popular to Americans. Obviously, one can argue that they weren't necessarily influential in the way The Velvet Underground, Parliament, or Black Flag were. Yet, if one can note that The Black Keys are currently the most influential American band, it shouldn't be that far of a stretch to praise Creed at the turn of the decade.)
It simply is not satisfying to say, "we cannot know what the future will bring." This is precisely the type of exercise where one can put their neck on the line and argue about what is most important in contemporary music. I say this as a total apologist for contemporary groups, precisely because American bands are quite good at the moment. Probably better than ever. Factional, regional templates allow musicians to fuse krautrock, R&B, experimental formats, and other sorts of noise in ways that acts like Guns N'Roses never had to do in a large commercial format. So, if we cannot know the future, and can only judge what is influential, important, or great via what is most popular, The Monkees ought to claim their rightful spot as America's finest purveyor of beat music in the mid-to-late-1960s. Just like The Black Keys currently are regarded as quite a popular band.
(1) Hyden's "& the" rule seems to create quite an interesting series of exclusions throughout American history.
If the list is expanded beyond the 1960s, and into the 1950s, Les Paul & Mary Ford are absolutely crucial to American music. In fact, without this duo, it is arguable that other forms of experimental multi-tracking would not have been palatable in pop tastes. Les Paul manipulated tape as much as anyone in music history, and his combo records with Mary Ford are playful and surreal (as much as they are good, clean pop).
Excluding Simon & Garfunkel in the mid-1960s seems rather strange. Same with The Mamas & The Papas -- they were so influential, they actually helped organize one of America's most important pop music festivals ever. Yet, Simon & Garfunkel were a band; they were a duo, just like The Black Keys. That they needed supporting musicians at times is not really important -- last I saw, The Black Keys play with extra musicians, too. Simon & Garfunkel exemplified American folk tropes in the pop format, and even if some of their jokey attempts to rip off Bob Dylan are tough to stomach, their light, psychedelic stylings on albums like Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, & Thyme more than make up for the rough spots.
There are some other uniquely American "&" bands (but not "& the"): Sonny & Cher, Lee Hazlewood & Nancy Sinatra, Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young, and so on. I'm not sure if these groups were all excluded because of their "&," but some of these bands are absolutely crucial to the development of American pop tastes.
(2) Some factional genres are surprisingly absent from Hyden's list -- this, of course, can be understood, for Hyden appears to be working toward a grand narrative about the development of R&B and rock tastes through major commercial American acts (with some notable punk canon exceptions).
It may be due to my age, but the exclusion of emotional hardcore groups seems intriguing. I'm not arguing that bands from The Nation of Ulysses to Fugazi, or Alkaline Trio to Braid to Sunny Day Real Estate to Death Cab For Cutie necessarily need to be American Band Champions. Perhaps these groups exemplify American factionalism, which explains why they are not noted as significant influences in the history of American bands. I also remember an era in which every damn one of us were starting high school emo-influenced bands.
I absolutely despise the idea of "Adult Alternative," but there were a series of soft-rocking bands that appeared once again in the mid-to-late 1990s and early 2000s: Third Eye Blind, Tonic, Matchbox 20 immediately come to mind, perhaps fulfilling the legacy of Chicago or Simon & Garfunkel (albeit with a louder, slightly more distorted sound). Again, I'm not arguing that these bands are Championship-material, but I do think it's worth asking whose tastes determine what is influential. In the grand scheme of things, "Adult Alternative" might be the rock'n'roll age's answer to the crooners or pre-pop forms of the 1950s.
Folk music also has a number of serious threads throughout the 20th century, some of which enter pop markets. Here, one can jump from The Kingston Trio or Chad Mitchell Trio to Simon & Garfunkel and The Mamas & The Papas to Fleet Foxes. These types of trends exhibit a rather interesting trait to American music: perhaps American music is fatally factional, and groups are influential precisely according to the type of music one is attempting to make. In this scenario, American bands speak to specific traditions, or communicate via specific codes, rather than attempt to speak to broad audiences. So, obviously, if you're trying to start a band like Fleet Foxes, The Velvet Underground is probably not as important or influential as Simon & Garfunkel. That's not a bad thing; Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, & Thyme is quite a good record, and so is White Light / White Heat. Those records are talking past one another in a really important way.
(3) I might be a total sucker, but I remember Boyz II Men as an incredibly popular fusion R & B group. In fact, their album title even advertised their affinity for Philadelphia soul and Motown R&B.
(4) What does one do with gangsta rap? This probably falls under the same issue of, "What does one do with emotional hardcore"? N.W.A. get a shout-out from Hyden, but perhaps they deserve more for basically launching the careers of an entire set of musicians hellbent on brutal commentary. (I'd argue that gangsta rap might even be more important than punk insofar as gangsta rappers actually spoke to specific injustices and perceptions of violence and authority, rather than producing fashionable angst).
Ultimately, if one wants to argue that contemporary American bands are weak, one has to retell previous American music history in one specific way. Perhaps American commercial bands really must take off after the British Invasion, which forever holds American bands to a position of inadequacy around the world. On the other hand, one can embrace contemporary American bands by exploring the 1950s, girl groups, and regionalism in American music. American bands are always better than they used to be: they are always great, because they are always speaking to factionalism and regionalism. This story about American bands predates The Beatles, and it begins with everything from Les Paul & Mary Ford to Chad Mitchell Trio to The Drifters to The Ronettes to The Sonics, etc. It is in this spirit that one can specifically understand the influence, importance, and greatness of contemporary American bands. This history of extensive factionalism and regionalism is precisely why I am an apologist for contemporary American bands.