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And Now for Something Completely Different

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Charles Sykes

For starters some ground rules. Broadly speaking we're talking about rock or popular music, by a very expansive definition. But we're not talking about Jazz or groups that are clearly in the Country category.

But some problems immediately crop up. For us at least what we're talking about is a multi-person group and one where the group isn't really one dominant person. And a lot of the iconic bands turn out not to be American.

So the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, The Who, U2, The Clash are out because they're not American. Fleetwood Mac is out because most, but not all, of the key players are British. The Band is in some ways a quintessentially American band, deeply rooted in Americana, and they often get ranked in this category. But they're actually Canadian, with the exception of the late Levon Helm.

Then you've got Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. But that's really Bruce Springsteen. That's not to diminish all the talent in the E Street Band. But it's really Bruce Springsteen. Then there's Bob Dylan, a personal favorite of mine and one of the most formative musical artists and lyricists of the 20th century. But of course he's not a band. The Jimi Hendrix Experience? Basically in the Springsteen category - that's Jimi Hendrix. Same with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers or Buddy Holly and the Crickets. And then there's Elvis.

Now before getting too far here, let me say that yes, I do see that all my examples so far are of musical acts that formed between 35 and 50 years ago. To some extent I'm showing my age and just my musical tastes. But we're talking about the greatest or the top bands ever. So we can't really be talking about any bands that have only been around for a few years. They have to have been around long enough to have produced a substantial - and great - body of work. And some period of time is necessary to know whether that body of work stands up to time, something that is often not apparent for some time.

So with all that some clear contenders, not at all meant to be exhaustive but undoubtedly shaped by my biases - The Beach Boys, the Eagles, Aerosmith, REM, Nirvana, the Velvet Underground, the Grateful Dead, Journey, the Ramones, the Talking Heads, the Doors (though is it just a naming convention that distinguishes the Doors from the Jimi Hendrix Experience or Springsteen?).

So what's your pick. I'm opening up a thread in The Hive (sub req) to discuss this important question. (If you're not a member, just email in your nominees.) To make it more than purely subjective or a popularity contest (though it can't help mainly being that) try to give a sense beyond personal taste what make this band or this group of bands their claim to the title.