Skip to main content

The 50 best rock bands of all time

30. Nirvana

Nirvana at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards

Nirvana at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards (Image credit: Jeff Kravitz / Getty Images )

In September 1991, three socially-awkward slacker kids from Seattle changed the world. 

It’s genuinely difficult to overstate the impact Nirvana had – not just on music, but on popular culture as a whole – when their second album, Nevermind, dropped in the autumn of that year. Not since a certain Liverpudlian quartet had a phenomenon torn through the mainstream with such power – that bandleader Kurt Cobain had formed Nirvana with the idea of “mixing really heavy Black Sabbath with The Beatles” is no coincidence.  

Flanked by Krist Novoselic on bass and Dave Grohl on drums (original drummer Chad Channing left after recording their debut album), Nirvana released three studio albums in their seven years together (1989’s Bleach, 1991’s Nevermind, 1993’s In Utero). Along with their MTV Unplugged live album and ‘92 B-sides compilation Incesticide, Nirvana created some of alternative music’s most fundamental touchstones. With the help of their quiet-loud template – which Cobain famously admitted to stealing from The Pixies – they made good on the promise that all you need is three chords and the truth, distilling disaffected teenage angst into art, and influencing everyone from Weezer to Tori Amos and Take That.

“I think Kurt was a great songwriter, because it’s not easy to take something simple and make it sound interesting,” Chad Channing told us in 2016. “If you can put together a song that has three or four chord changes in it and keep people interested, that’s a trick. 

"It’s a trick to make things simple sound good. And one of his best qualities was his writing. Not just musically, but vocally; he had great vocal melody ideas. And that to me is key, in any good songwriting. You can have a really cool-sounding song, but you also need a really good vocal melody. He was really good at coming up with that sort of stuff in Nirvana.”

Of course, it all came to a tragic, premature end on April 5 1994, when it was announced that Cobain had died by suicide at his home in Seattle. Grohl eventually went on to form Foo Fighters, taking the nascent creativity he'd shown in his time with Nirvana and realising it to its full, arena-filling potential. 

Watch: Nirvana - You Know You're Right

29. Judas Priest

Judas Priest

Judas Priest (Image credit: Aaron Rapoport / Getty Images)

Black Sabbath came first. Iron Maiden and Metallica are bigger. But if there is one band, above all others, that defines the sound and aesthetic of heavy metal, it is Judas Priest

“Metal is a very special kind of music,” says the band’s singer Rob Halford. And what this band has represented, for more than 40 years, is metal in its purest form: the screaming lead vocals, the duelling guitarists, the bludgeoning riffs, the leather and studs, the songs about death and destruction and motorcycles and, yes, heavy metal itself. This singular vision and missionary zeal was proclaimed in the title of Priest’s 1984 album Defenders Of The Faith.

It was in 1969 that the original Judas Priest (named after the Bob Dylan song The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest), a blues-rock band led by singer Al Atkins, was formed in Birmingham. In 1970 a new line-up included guitarist Kenny ‘KK’ Downing and bassist Ian Hill. But it was after Atkins departed in 1973 that the real Judas Priest was born, with Halford their dynamic singer and second guitarist Glenn Tipton increasing their firepower.

Inspired by heavy rock pioneers such as Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Cream, the young Priest recorded their debut album, Rocka Rolla, in 1974. But it was two years later, with Sad Wings Of Destiny, that the band found their signature sound. 

In the 1980s Priest became one of the biggest metal bands in the world, with hit albums including British Steel and Screaming For Vengeance. In the 90s there were darker days: first, when a lawsuit was filed against the band following the deaths of two young fans from Nevada in a suicide pact allegedly inspired by Priest’s music; then when Halford quit to form a new band, Fight, and was replaced by Ohio-born singer Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens, poached from a Priest tribute act.

But in 2003 Halford returned to his rightful place as Priest’s master of ceremonies. And although Downing retired in 2011, the band have continued with Londoner Richie Faulkner as Tipton’s foil on the defiantly old-school 2014 album Redeemer Of Souls and 2018 return to form Firepower.

In 2015 Halford told Classic Rock: “I’ve always been very happy that I’m a singer in a metal band. It’s wonderful.” 

And Priest are not just any heavy metal band, they’re the most ‘heavy metal’ heavy metal band of them all.

Watch: Judas Priest - Painkiller

28. Genesis

Genesis in 1974

Genesis in 1974 - Steve Hackett in the attic, possibly (Image credit: David Warner Ellis / Getty Images)

Peter Gabriel – good, Phil Collins – bad’ (or indeed vice versa) is a common sub-text in discussions between Genesis fans. 

That split view of Genesis’ music over the years is based mostly on the assumption that during each of those two frontmen’s respective eras with the band, Genesis’ music was rigidly delineated musically and/or that the frontmen were always the chief architects of the band’s music at the time. 

But it’s a flawed premise that such an argument is based on. At all stages of the band’s career, all the members of Genesis contributed to the songwriting and arrangements, and the shift from Gabriel-led epics to Collins-fronted pop was neither instant nor as obvious as is often made out. 

Although Genesis came to epitomise the sound and character of British progressive rock – far more so than the deliberately abstruse eclecticism of King Crimson or the pastorally inclined, cod-mysticism of Yes – it’s worth recalling that that perception actually outlived for some considerable time Gabriel’s departure in 1975, and that their first real singles chart success was not some Collins-fronted 80s blockbuster but the typically quirky Gabriel-esque I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)... in ’74.

It can’t be denied, however, that Genesis’s music went through distinct stylistic shifts during the 70s and 80s. In crude terms, Mellotron-driven, flute-augmented, odd- time fantasy work-outs gave way to shorter, stripped-down, American soul-influenced pop songs with big drum sounds; in concert, English music-hall-meets-70s-art-school theatrics were replaced by mountains of equipment, banks of lights and lasers, and Collins’ barrow-boy bonhomie and frenzied tambourine routines.

Ever oblivious to contemporary trends in music, Genesis seemed untouched by punk, new wave, heavy metal and, in later years, Brit-pop and grunge. Ploughing a determinedly singular furrow, Genesis weathered the vagaries of popular culture, critical scorn, the loss of two major members a decade earlier and on-going solo careers, and by the early 90s were shifting records in the multimillions, yet their main protagonists seemed to be losing some enthusiasm for the project.

Although Genesis limped on to one final studio album in 1997, it was Collins’ departure in ’94 that sealed the band’s fate. Uniquely, they left a dual legacy, as both one of the most original British rock bands ever, and also as pop giants extraordinaire.

Watch: Genesis - The Carpet Crawlers

27. Motorhead

The classic three-piece Motorhead lineup

The classic three-piece Motorhead lineup (Image credit: Fin Costello/ Getty Images)

In the beginning, there was a bassist thrown out of space rockers Hawkwind because he enjoyed too many trips into orbit. After his dismissal from the group, following a drug bust on the Canadian border, the beleaguered bassist formed Motorhead in the summer of 1975, and the myth and legend of Ian ‘Lemmy’ Kilmister was born. 

As with Ozzy a few years later – after he was ejected from Black Sabbath – many believed that Lemmy wouldn’t have much of a career away from the mothership. But they were wrong.

Aided by guitarist Larry Wallis (a one-time Pink Fairy) and drummer Lucas Fox, Lemmy formed Bastard, then quickly changed the name to the drug-inspired Motorhead (slang for speed-freak). Both the band and their sound were so dirty and nasty that Lemmy once proclaimed: “If we moved in next-door your lawn would die.”

Motorhead were rock’n’roll, but like nothing anyone had heard before. By the time Lemmy was joined by guitarist ‘Fast’ Eddie Clarke and drummer Phil ‘Philthy’ Taylor, the trio were so high on speed (in more than one sense) that they left even the sharpest of the punks puking in their wake. They appealed to anyone who enjoyed hearing riffs being torn apart by a band who were thrash long before anyone had thought of that term in a musical aspect. 

They were rock’n’roll lifers, guys who found salvation in The Beatles and the hum of a Marshall amp. In a world where there was nothing to believe in – religion was a crutch, the church was full of hypocrites, government was a total shit show (we were and are led literally by the worst of us), and all honest hard work had to offer was a lifetime of back-breaking graft to line the pockets of the bosses – Motorhead were a colossal FUCKTHATFORAGAMEOFSOLDIERS.

They resonated because they weren’t faking it. They were uncompromising, fearless and full of piss and vinegar (well, cider and sulphate). A star like David Bowie – with his background in mime and his many image changes – seemed like he’d come from another planet. Motorhead, meanwhile, were like the guys you went to school with: piss-takers and trouble-makers. Beer drinkers and hellraisers. They were born to lose, but they lived to win. 

Lemmy carried on making music with Motorhead, flanked by Phil Campbell and Mikkey Dee, until his death in 2015. Now, all three members of the classic line-up have sadly departed, but the band's legacy will live on forever. 

Watch: Motorhead - Overkill

26. Foo Fighters

Foo Fighters in Denver in 1998

Foo Fighters in Denver in 1998 (Image credit: Martyn Goodacre / Getty Images)

It reads like a poorly pitched film script – the kind studios would scoff at, and that a wary public would skip at the multiplex if it should somehow ever get made. It goes like this: one of the world’s biggest and most influential bands ends in a horribly violent suicide. Drummer emerges from the wreckage. He can both sing and play guitar. He releases an acclaimed debut under the guise of the Foo Fighters and before long, to all intents and purposes, takes over the world. Yes, it does sound ludicrous. But it happened. 

How do you pick yourself back up again when your world is thrown into utter turmoil? The answer is that you just sort of have to. “After Nirvana, I wasn’t really sure what to do,” Grohl told Rhythm magazine in 2005. "I was asked to join a couple of other bands as the drummer, but I just couldn’t imagine doing that because it would just remind me of being in Nirvana; every time I sat down at a drum set, I would think of that." 

So, instead, Grohl – also a talented vocalist and guitarist – threw himself into creating simply for himself, and a reluctant frontman and band leader emerged. Soon, he was fronting one of the world's most successful modern rock bands. Nine albums in, the band still continue to pack out arenas across the globe by staying true to the roots and ethos that saw them conquer the world in the first place.

Unlike so many of his peers, Grohl wears his artistic heart on his sleeve. The Foo Fighters’ early videos gave a nod to the celluloid excesses that bands like Roth-era Van Halen pioneered: ham theatrics, strained plot lines, a lot of dressing-up. Their more recent work has seen them dabble in bold experimentation – after touring the US' Sonic Highways in search for some rock'n'roll magic, 2017's Concrete And Gold emerged as a statement piece sent to warn us about the world's increasingly precarious political situation. Musically, Grohl was aiming for the place “where hard rock extremes and pop sensibilities collide, [like] Motörhead’s version of Sgt Pepper”. 

What happens next is anyone's guess, with Grohl's solo projects – not to mention that of bandmate Taylor Hawkins – spiralling off in ever-more-experimental directions. What we can be confident of, though, is that the Foos are an enduring icon of rocking through the hard times, and we need them now more than ever.

Watch: Foo Fighters - Walk

25. U2

Adam Clayton and The Edge perform on stage for the second night of U2's 360 Degrees World Tour in their home town at Croke Park on July 25, 2009 in Dublin, Ireland

Adam Clayton and The Edge on stage at Croke Park on July 25, 2009 in Dublin, Ireland (Image credit: Neil Lupin / Getty Images)

An unusually divisive band, not least in the rock community, for every dyed-in-the-wool U2 megafan there are also those for whom Bono’s posturings and weighty themes will always stick in the craw and infuriate. Let's not even talk about that time he was made Glamour Magazine's woman of the year. Or that unfortunate iTunes incident.

But whatever you think of the characters involved in the band – and, for what it's worth, we hear The Edge is an amiable enough chap – to deny the music, or the impact their music has had on the rock landscape over the years, would be nothing short of churlish. Everyone from prog stars to indie kids have heralded U2's finest moments as monumental to their own sound.

Plus, Bono's never been one to shy away from topics other similar-sized acts would run a mile from (religion, politics), so he deserves a bit of credit for that. Constantly shifting and evolving, whatever your view, there’s no doubting a vast body of work of planet-sized proportions. 

Musically they've had it all. Starting off life as a punky, rough and ready kind of rabble, the career-defining The Joshua Tree completely turned that on its head, transforming them, seemingly overnight, into a cinematic stadium band. They became a band of slow-burn builds and climactic wig-outs, string arrangements, Beatles-esque chamber flourishes and glorious stretched outros. 

At their best – such as on The Unforgettable Fire, or the aforementioned Joshua Tree – they were textured, incredibly layered yet still propulsive, the addition of a soupcon of swing, dramatic 80s synth stabs and sweeping strings highlighted an eagerness to explore territories previously off-piste.

All that said, if you're not convinced by now, you probably never will be. But let it be said, you're missing out – and their placing on this list suggests more people agree with us than you might think.

Watch: U2 - Vertigo

24. Bon Jovi

Bon Jovi in Tokyo in 1984

Bon Jovi in Tokyo in 1984 (Image credit: Shinko Music / Getty Music)

Rock'n'roll bands don't come much bigger than Bon Jovi. In a career spanning nearly 30 years, they have sold 130 million albums and played to an estimated 34 million fans in more than 2,600 shows. 

At the heart of this classically all-American success story is the man born John Francis Bongiovi, Jr, in Sayreville, New Jersey in 1962. Blessed with movie-star good looks and driven by a ferocious work ethic and an unshakable will to succeed, he was the kid who had the Superman logo tattooed on his arm and believed it. And after renaming himself Jon Bon Jovi – less “ethnic”, more “rock star” – he found the path to glory. 

Having served a lengthy apprenticeship in various bar bands and working at his cousin Tony Bongiovi’s recording studio, The Power Station, Jon got his first break in 1982 when his song Runaway became a radio hit in the Jersey area. A contract with the Mercury label followed, and a band was formed under the name of Johnny Electric, hastily changed to Bon Jovi. 

The band’s original guitarist was Dave ‘Snake’ Sabo, a childhood buddy of Jon’s who went on to form Skid Row. But in 1983 Jon settled on the line-up with which he would conquer the world: guitarist Richie Sambora, keyboard player David Bryan, bassist Alec John Such and drummer Tico ‘The Hit Man’ Torres. 

It was in 1986, with their third album, Slippery When Wet, that Bon Jovi became one of the biggest bands in the world, and Jon Bon Jovi, with his fluffy hair and million-dollar smile, was transformed into rock’s leading sex symbol. The follow-up album, 1988’s New Jersey, was another multi-million seller. But arguably, Bon Jovi’s greatest success has been their longevity. 

While many big 80s acts were killed by grunge, Bon Jovi rode out the storm with 1992’s Keep The Faith. Almost 30 years on, they’re still doing the business, enjoying both European stadium tour and a Mediterranean cruise in the last year. 

But it was in the 80s that Bon Jovi were at their big-haired, hard-rocking best, when Jon sang without a trace of irony or embarrassment: “I’ve seen a million faces, and I’ve rocked them all!” How we loved him for it. 

Watch: Bon Jovi - You Give Love A Bad Name

23. David Bowie

David Bowie - 1976 publicity photo

David Bowie - 1976 publicity photo (Image credit: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

The music press obviously does’t know much about lizards. If they did, perhaps they wouldn’t have spent five decades referring to David Bowie as the ‘chameleon of pop’.

The defining characteristic of the chameleon, surely, is its ability to change colour to match its surroundings. It blends in with what already exists, rather than being different. 

The reverse was true of David Bowie. After the release of his first batch of singles in 1966, Bowie forced the background to blend in with him. Then, when it did, he shed his musical skin and strode out in search of fresh inspiration. We watched Bowie do this countless times, right up until the releases of Blackstar in 2016, which he recorded with longtime producer Tony Visconti and a troupe of previously unheralded New York jazzers. Whichever way he turned, he never failed to prompt excitement and respect.

When contemporary rock bands talk about experimentation, it generally means that they’ve learnt a new chord. Bowie’s interpretation of the word was rather more extreme. When he reinvented himself, little remained of what went before. The musical direction might have gone from glam to Philly soul; the production might have traded sumptuous for brittle; the Bowie persona might have leapt from androgynous spaceman (aka Ziggy Stardust) to a Nazi-obsessed cabaret act (aka The Thin White Duke); even Bowie’s personnel – always a vital strand of each new era – were built on shifting sands, as the artist sought out the best foils to his dilettante muse.

Bowie’s appetite for reinvention made him both magnetic and inconsistent. He left genres and collaborators behind just as it seemed they were hitting their stride. Sometimes, he loitered longer than necessary in such questionable waters as electronica and dance. At times his eclecticism seemed contrived – and during his final quarter century there’s little doubt that he missed the target more than he hit. 

And yet, as he proved with 2002’s excellent Heathen, with 2013's The Next Day and with Blackstar, you wrote off David Bowie at your peril. While most bands embraced familiarity, he remained one of the few established artists still capable of shocking and innovating; perhaps the only 70s' superstar who still pushed himself. Right until the end. 

Watch: David Bowie - Life On Mars

22. Thin Lizzy

Thin Lizzy and a police horse in New York, 1977

Thin Lizzy and a police horse in New York, 1977 (Image credit: Richard E. Aaron / Getty Images)

Thin Lizzy – named, like all great rock’n’roll bands, after a big, shiny car – sparked to life in 1970 as a trio of Dublin freakniks who played a Mulligan’s stew of traditional Irish folk mixed with bluesy rock’n’roll.

Led by the charismatic Phillip Lynott, a rare black Irishman with a wild, Hendrixy afro and a mischievous glint in his eye, the young, scruffy group struggled to find their way until they discovered the simple pleasures of searing hard rock, soaring twin-guitar harmonies, mirrored basses and impish moustaches.

By the mid 1970s, the world had caught on, and the little band from Dublin became one of the best-known, and beloved, arena rock bands of all time. But Thin Lizzy lived as hard as they played, and for every significant step forward in their career there was a crushing setback.

The band went through guitar players faster than most guitarists go through strings. The endless world tours took a physical and mental toll on the band. The members were plagued by poor health, erratic behaviour, violence and, in the case of their gregarious frontman, crushing chemical addiction. And yet they endured, enthralling audiences with their hard-driving tales of vagabonds, kings, fools and madmen.

If ever there was a rock band for the people, it was Thin Lizzy. Ah, but nothing lasts forever. Burdened by dwindling record sales and racked with addiction and dysfunction on all sides, Thin Lizzy finally called it quits in 1983.

Lynott and drummer Brian Downey formed the short-lived Grand Slam, hoping to build a new Lizzy out of old parts, but a disillusioned Downey threw in the towel within a year, effectively slamming shut the Thin Lizzy book for good.

On Christmas Day, 1985, Lynott collapsed at his home and was rushed to hospital. He passed away a few days later, on January 4, 1986. The official medical report cites heart failure and pneumonia, brought on by a drink and drug binge. Some, though, would contend that Lynott died from a broken heart, still mourning the break-up of his beloved Thin Lizzy.

Ironically, the band would reunite 10 years later, with Lizzy guitarist John Sykes also handling vocals, and various other ex-Lizzies hopping on and off at different points. They then morphed into Black Star Riders

As for Lynott, a handsome statue of him was unveiled in Dublin in 2005, commemorating their fallen rock’n’roll son. And the years have been kind to the man’s legacy and his music.

Watch: Thin Lizzy - Don't Believe A Word

21. Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan in London, 1966

Bob Dylan in London, 1966 (Image credit: Fiona Adams / Getty Images)

The legendary Bob Dylan may be a divisive character in the world of rock, but surely one thing we can all agree on is that the whole concept of album-oriented music – that is, collections of songs that deliberately attempt to say more than merely ‘I love you/you love me’, the mainstay of pop singles from time immemorial – would simply not have developed as it did without Bob Dylan. 

From his bold attempt to raise pop lyrics to the level of poetry came The Beatles’ own decision to leave behind ‘She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah’ and instead sing about such things as semolina pilchards, and skies full of women named Lucy.

And from The Beatles came... well, everybody else, including, yes, Deep Purple. Indeed, the whole evolution of electric guitar-driven, album-oriented music can be traced directly back to the Dylan/Beatles interface and the explosion of musical (and artistic, political and spiritual) ideas that emanated from their ground-breaking albums in the 1960s. 

For without the alchemy Dylan employed to turn the base metal of old folk songs like Scarborough Fair into the shining post-war gold of newly minted ‘originals’ like Girl From The North Country there would never have been the impetus for people like Jimmy Page and Robert Plant to later write songs like Stairway To Heaven

Born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1941, Dylan had a voice that sounded old when he was 20; now it sounds positively decrepit. But then no one has followed quite the same, zig-zagging musical path; from folk-protest to rock visionary, to born-again bible thumper, to worryingly lost-soul, to truly reborn songsmith of jaw-dropping dexterity as, now in his late 70s, he considers the onset of his own mortality – a subject no rock artist has yet tackled head-on the way Dylan has on the albums he's made since the turn of the century. 

Watch: Bob Dylan - Tangled Up In Blue