The 50 Greatest British Bands of All-Time

So something really awful happened recently, and to take my mind off it I decided to make a list of the 50 greatest British bands of all time. The actual list only took an hour or so to make, but it’s taken me a couple of weeks to write the necessary paragraph or two about each artist.

I did my best to keep my personal tastes out of this list, insofar as that’s even possible. This isn’t a list of my favorite British bands of all time. I’ve tried to use record sales and chart performance to justify my positions as much as I could. But, at the end of the day, my musical tastes did dictate at least a little of the list. Not many of these lists would include the Cocteau Twins over, say, Squeeze, but hey – it’s my list and I’ll do it as I please.

Keep in mind that the list implicitly includes spin-off acts. If you’re wondering how I could leave Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins off the list, note that they’re included under “Genesis”. My reasoning is that if I gave Gabriel his own entry, I’d have give Collins one, too. And if I did that, I’d have to have separate entries for Joy Division and New Order, Bryan Ferry and Brian Eno, and maybe Marc Bolan. And if I did all that, my list of “50 Greatest British Bands” would become the “15 Greatest English Bands, and their 35 Spin-Off Acts”.

Of course, the list also includes artists who are primarily known for being solo acts, like David Bowie. You typically wouldn’t call Bowie a “band”, but “50 Greatest British Musical Artists of All-Time” just doesn’t have the same ring that “50 Greatest British Bands of All-Time” does.

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50) The Verve: They weren’t my favorite band (“No shit? Your #50 band isn’t your favorite?”), but there’s no denying that The Verve had a certain degree of magic when they weren’t busy arguing with each other. These guys were tight, but seemed to have more personnel issues than Spinal Tap. And it’s kind of ironic that their most popular song… is now a Rolling Stones song. The band worked out an agreement to sample an orchestral version of the Rolling Stones’ song “The Last Time” for their single “Bitter Sweet Symphony”. Originally, the deal called for a 50-50 profit split between The Verve and the license holder. But when the song turned into a major hit, Allen Klein sued (he’s the former Stones manager who managed to steal the rights to most of their pre-1970 catalog), saying that The Verve had sampled it “too much”. Unbelievably, a court agreed. All profits were given to Klein, and songwriting credit was given to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. This led Verve frontman Richard Ashcroft to quip that “Symphony” was “the best song Jagger and Richards have written in 20 years” (and it was true: ”Symphony” was the highest-charting Jagger\Richards single since 1971′s “Brown Sugar”!)

The Verve

49) Japan – One wonders what British pop music might have been like had Yuka Fujii never existed. She was the girlfriend of Japan’s bassist, Mick Karn. In the early 80s, she packed up her things and, without telling Karn, moved in with lead singer David Sylvian. Not surprisingly, the band broke up shortly thereafter. Japan’s catalog is inconsistent, pretentious, and slightly dated. They started as a glam rock knock-off, moved in to disco for an album, then settled into art pop. But they did create some of the most unique pop music in British pop culture history. Their “Ghosts” single hit the Top 5 in 1982, and is one of the most… unique records to ever chart that high. And Sylvian’s solo work varies from esoteric to brilliant.

Japan

48) Bananarama – I know what you’re thinking: “Bananarama?”  But hear me out on this one. Until the Spice Girls came along, Bananarama had sold more records than any girl band in history. The Go-Go’s… The Supremes… Salt-n-Pepa… Bananarama outsold them all. And the band still holds the Guinness World Record for the most chart entries by a girl group: Destiny’s Child and the Spice Girls might have sold more records overall, but Bananarama have had more hits than any girl group in history. Ever. And it’s a sad, sad soul who doesn’t perk up when “Venus” or “Cruel Summer” come on the radio. The girls are still together after 33 years too, so they’re one of the few bands on this list that are still making new music!

Bananarama

47) Nick Lowe: To most Americans, Lowe is “the ‘Cruel to Be Kind’ guy.” And it’s true that Lowe hasn’t sold a billion records. But he’s a great songwriter, and has done some excellent production work, too (including The Damned’s “New Rose”, which most consider the first British punk rock single). Like Bob Dylan, Lowe is famous for other people covering his work: Elvis Costello’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” and Johnny Cash’s “The Beast in Me” were originally Lowe songs.

Nick Lowe

46) Cliff Richard – Oh sure, Cliff Richard is a bit of a joke in the music world. He’s kind of like England’s Barry Manilow or Neil Diamond, or whatever other unhip singer your parents (or grandparents, or great grandparents) listened to. But Richard is literally an icon of British music. His 1958 single “Move It” is considered by many of be the very first British rock song, and in Richard’s 53 year career he’s had 130 Top 20 singles and albums. He’s the third largest-selling singles artist in British music history and is the only artist to have a #1 song in every decade from the 1950s to the 2010s. Like him or not, you can’t argue with fourteen #1 singles.

Cliff Richard

45) Cocteau Twins – You could argue that my personal bias is showing here. After all, the Cocteau Twins never really had much mainstream success. But they certainly changed alternative music forever. In fact, I’d argue that the Cocteau Twins were the first true dream pop band (unlike say, “crossover” bands like The Cure who often get lumped in the dream pop category for some reason). But the real reason the band made the list is because of Elizabeth Fraser’s voice. Name any post-Cocteau Twins band with a whispy-voiced female singer – The Sundays, Sixpence None the Richer, Grimes, School of Seven Bells, The Innocence Mission, The Cranberries – and I’ll show you someone who was influenced by the band.

Cocteau Twins

44) Blur: Oasis might have won the Battle of Britpop, but Blur were right behind them every step of the way. They were huge in the UK from almost the moment they started. Their first album, Leisure, “only” made it to #7, and the follow-up, Modern Life Is Rubbish, only made it to #15. But every album since (including 1995′s The Great Escape, the album that broke them worldwide) has gone to #1. Oh, and every single one of their albums has gone at least gold, with Parklife going 4x platinum in the UK. These guys were huge.

Blur

43) The Animals: This is one of those bands that other musicians just love. Sure, “The House of the Rising Sun” belongs on any “Best of the 60s” compilation, but what about songs like “It’s My Life” and “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”, which was practically the theme song of US soldiers in Vietnam (and of which Bruce Springsteen said: “That’s every song I’ve ever written… That’s ‘Born to Run,’ ‘Born in the U.S.A.,’ everything I’ve done for the past 40 years including all the new ones. That struck me so deep. It was the first time I felt I heard something come across the radio that mirrored my home life, my childhood.”) I don’t know if I’d go quite as far as to call them the “British Doors”, but there are certainly a lot of similarities in sound between the two bands. Oh, and I have to give the band some love for hiring a pre-Police Andy Summers all the way back in 1968.

The Animals

42) Manic Street Preachers: Yeah, these guys were a blip on college radio in the US for a brief period back in the 90s. But in their homeland they had eight Top 10 albums and fifteen Top 10 singles (and three #1s: the 1998 album This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours and two singles). One wonders, however, if they’d be ranked as high as they are on this list if Richey Edwards hadn’t mysteriously disappeared.

Manic Street Preachers

41) The Human League – Sure, they might be “Three Hit Wonders” in the United States, and many in the UK would probably prefer to forget they ever existed. But The Human League were incredibly influential in the electronic music scene. Whereas a lot of 80s electronic bands were influenced by Kraftwerk, Neu! and other German acts, almost every single synthpop and electroclash band around today sounds like, was influenced by, pays homage to, does covers of, or owes a deep debt to The Human League. I daresay that one could even call them “The Beatles of Electronic Pop”, at least as far as their influence on modern bands is concerned. Without The Human League, acts like La Roux, Marsheaux, Foretaste, Class Actress, Ambra Red, Sound of Arrows and dozens of others would never had existed.

The Human League

40) Oasis: Me? I always found the Gallagher brothers to be insufferable, especially since they basically killed the goose that laid the golden egg. The band won 15 NME Awards, 6 Brit Awards and 9 Q Awards. In fact, at the 2010 Brit Awards (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? was named the best British album over the past 30 years. They had eight #1 singles, and had an unprecedented 22 consecutive singles reach the Top 10, the latter a Guinness World Record, one of two the band holds (the other is for spending 765 weeks in the Top 75 charts). Unfortunately, the band inspires fear and loathing amongst many, mostly for the prima donna act Noel and Liam always seemed to engage in. I’m not a huge fan, but it’s obvious they were THE British band of the 1990s.

Oasis

39) The Cure: What can I say about The Cure that hasn’t been written a hundred times already? They’re not the most popular band in the world: selling 27 million albums worldwide over a 36 year career isn’t all that, especially compared to others on this list. But the band certainly has a unique style and have had a huge impact on alternative music. In fact, I’d say they’re almost up there with Depeche Mode in being “most influential alternative band ever”. Unfortunately, I’m a fan of their early, dreary albums, especially Seventeen Seconds, Faith and Pornography. Later albums, like Disintegration and Wild Mood Swings, might be far more complex musically than their more straightforward early work, but I think the band really ran out of gas with Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me. I don’t want “teddy bear Robert Smith”, I want “creepy Robert Smith”.

The Cure

38) Buzzcocks: In the early days of British punk rock, far too many bands were of the “three-chord, shouty vocals” variety. But the Buzzcocks created some of the best tunes of the era, hell… the best songs of any era. ”Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t've)” and ”What Do I Get?” can stand proudly with “Stairway to Heaven”, “Hotel California” and “Dream On” as some of the best rock songs of all time. Yes, I’m serious. The band’s singles compilation album, Singles Going Steady, only ranks at #358 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. In my book, it’s in the Top 50.

Buzzcocks

37) Muse: OK, so Muse is kind of the poor man’s Radiohead, and despite having huge cultural awareness, the band has “only” sold 15 million records. Still, Muse was a great “filler band” in the late 90s British music scene, and the fact that the Brits are using “Survival” as the official song of the 2012 Olympics says a lot about what they mean to the UK.

Muse

36) The Happy Mondays: To paraphrase the old joke: if you can remember The Happy Mondays, you weren’t there. The band were Ground Zero of the “Madchester” scene, and although they didn’t have the chart success of other bands, their tunes rocked enough Ecstasy-fueled raves for the band to become legendary.

The Happy Mondays

35) Pet Shop Boys: I liked the Pet Shop Boys back in the early 80s, but if you’d asked me back then, I would have said they’d be around as long as Ebn-Ozn or Men Without Hats. 100 million records later, the band are the most successful duo in British music history, with 22 Top 10 hits. The thing PSB has going for them is consistency. Their flavor of dancey pop hasn’t changed much over the years, except as technology has improved. Their latest albums are as good as their earlier ones. But the flip side of consistency is similarity. The 2009 singles “Love etc.” and Did You See Me Coming?” were as good as anything they’ve ever put out… but they also could have been recorded in 1987, too. Still, PSB are titans of Britain’s electronic music scene and deserve props for putting out great tunes for 31 years.

Pet Shop Boys

34) T. Rex: Marc Bolan and T. Rex only released four albums, but the number of hit singles they had were extraordinary: “Bang a Gong (Get It On)”, “Jeepster”, ”20th Century Boy”, “Telegram Sam”, “Hot Love”, ”Children of the Revolution”, and “Metal Guru” to name just a few. More importantly, T. Rex (along with Gary Glitter) personified the entire glam-rock movement. Kiss, Twisted Sister, Mötley Crüe, Japan, Duran Duran, Adam Ant, Flock of Seagulls, Prince and Marilyn Manson were all heavily influenced the the band’s style, if not their music, too.

T Rex

33) The Police: You know U2 are like, globally popular? How they can sell out concerts in not just English-speaking countries, but all over Europe, Asia and South America, too? Well, The Police were the first New Wave band to do that, and they did it in the early 80s. They were the darlings of 80s college radio, often called the “thinking man’s punk band”. But then Synchronicity hit, and it turned out to be one of the biggest albums of the 1980s. In fact, Synchronicity was the album that finally knocked Michael Jackson’s Thriller off the top of the Billboard charts, and the most popular song from the album, “Every Breath You Take”, was #1 in the US for 8 weeks. Sadly, Sting’s ego got the best of him, and he left Copeland and Summers holding the bag. Had the band stayed together and released a few more awesome albums, they might have held the spot in pop culture that U2 holds today (By the way, U2 being an Irish band, are not British, which is why they’re not on this chart).

The Police

32) Coldplay: This is the most boring band in the whole world, but people seem to love them for some reason. The band has won seven Grammy Awards, four MTV Video Music Awards, and seven Brit Awards (including three for “Best British Group”). I’m putting them on this list because I feel obligated to, not because I want to.

Coldplay

31) Dire Straits: I’m not a fan of Dire Straits, either. But at least when I listen to them I think “hey, that dude can play the guitar!” Mark Knopfler and company started off with basic pub rock, but brought in elements of beat and jazz over time to make a unique sound. And, as mentioned, I think Knopfler is one of the most underrated guitarists ever. The band’s most popular album, Brothers in Arms, sold 30 million copies, which is more than Pink Floyd’s The Wall or Nirvana’s Nevermind and only 2 million fewer than Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I’m not sure if Dire Straits has a rabid fan base, but the band deserves one.

Dire Straits

30) The Specials: The Specials brought ska into the British mainstream, and the band had seven consecutive UK Top 10 singles from ’77 to ’81. “Too Much Too Young” and “Ghost Town” are still great tunes all these years later. At the end of the day, though, I actually prefer spin-off band Fun Boy Three. But The Specials make the list because they were the first multiracial band to become big in the UK.

The Specials

29) Kate Bush: Does Kate Bush really need an introduction? We all know her and her work, but sometimes you have to put things in perspective. In a world of Kate Nashes, Pixie Lotts, Amy Winehouses and Lilly Allens, it’s easy to forget that Kate Bush was the first female British solo artist to ever top the UK album charts, and was the first female artist (British or not) to enter the UK album charts at #1. The fact that Bush almost never tours hurts her ranking here (her 1979 “Tour of Life”, in which she played 24 shows, is the only tour she ever embarked on, and she’s only played a handful of shows since). And Bush’s music can be… dense and radio-unfriendly. Frankly, I find much of her music a challenge to listen to. Still, with the possible exception of Madonna, Bush has inspired more singers than just about any other woman on the planet. Florence Welch, Tori Amos, Alison Goldfrapp, PJ Harvey, KT Tunstall and (especially) Björk all show clear signs of Bush’s influence. And the list of other musicians who are fans – Peter Gabriel, Rufus Wainwright and John Lydon – is impressive, too.

Kate Bush

28) Fleetwood Mac: OK, so they’re not entirely British, but Fleetwood Mac were truly gigantic back in the 1970s. When I was a kid, it seemed like every white female I knew had a copy of Rumors on 8-track or vinyl. And why not? The album was #1 on the US charts for 31 weeks and produced four US Top 10 singles. As of today, it is the eighth best-selling album of all-time. Of course, the band’s lineup has changed considerably over the years, and this affected the quality and frequency of their output. Take Tusk, for example. It’s not exactly my thing, but it’s decent enough. As a follow-up to Rumors, however, it was considered a failure, which led the band to record the more commercial Mirage, of which, I can only remember the catchy, but limp, “Hold Me”.

Fleetwood Mac

27) The Stone Roses: Why? Because if you take New Order out of the picture, The Stone Roses were my favorite Madchester band. I also liked that they could “rock”, but had a mellow, non-ballady, side (“I Wanna Be Adored”). Methinks The Stone Roses were early fans of the Pixies.

The Stone Roses

26) Iron Maiden: I’m not a metal fan. But my friend Richard sure is. So in high school I heard him play a lot of Slayer, Metallica, Zepplin, Judas Priest and every other metal or hard rock act you can think of (and many you’ve probably never heard of). Of those bands, the only one I could ever really stand was Iron Maiden. As far as rock bands go, Maiden was as solid and tight as they come. Bruce Dickinson could sing, and his lyrics weren’t bad, either. But the best thing about the band was that they didn’t rely on gimmicks like make-up (like Poison) or contrived offensiveness (like W.A.S.P.). They just brought it. In fact, other than the fact that they make loud-ass noise, I can’t think of a reason to NOT like Maiden. And the fact that they were so influential – selling 85 million records with little radio play or TV support – tells me that they’re one of the most popular metal acts of all time.

Iron Maiden

25) Small Faces: Small Faces are interesting in that they had immense influence on two different genres of music: mod and psychedelic rock. They became mod icons in their early years for their blue-collar work ethic. They toured almost constantly, becoming one of the highest grossing live acts of the day in the UK. Those early days were lean ones for the band, but when singles like “Lazy Sunday” and “Itchycoo Park” hit the shelves, the band finally got the recognition they deserved. Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake is remembered as a classic album, and rightfully so.  And let’s not forget that when Small Faces broke up, three members coaxed Ronnie Wood and Rod Stewart, two more British music icons, into joining the reformed Faces.

Small Faces

24) Duran Duran: Duran Duran were one of the most derided bands of their day. Most “serious” music magazines proclaimed them pretty boys with little talent. But guess what? The band made some of the most solid pop hits of the 80s. “Rio”? “Hungry Like The Wolf”? “Girls on Film”? Those were great tunes! But what really puts Duran Duran on this list actually is the chief complaint from Rolling Stone: that Duran Duran, for better or worse, changed the way pop music was sold. Sure, the band had 14 Top 10 singles in the UK. But Duran Duran became, at least for a while, the biggest band in the world thanks to their looks, music videos and album art. Although they long to be remembered for their music, many will remember the band for their packaging. Which is a shame, because John Taylor is the most underrated bass player ever!

Duran Duran

23) Genesis: Genesis is, of course, a tale of two bands. You have the awesome, if slightly over the top, art-rock band fronted by Peter Gabriel. But then he left and the world had to deal with the hooky, yet cheesy, pop of Phil Collins. Fans of the band have long split into three camps: those who only like Gabriel-era Genesis; those who only like Collins-era Genesis; and those weirdos who like both. But let’s not forget that before the blockbuster pop of Invisible Touch, Genesis was a band who greatly influenced prog acts like Yes and King Crimson. In fact, if you look at all the acts directly influenced by Genesis, it starts to read like a Who’s Who of prog and art rock. And of course, I feel compelled to mention the solo work of Gabriel and Collins. Gabriel created some of my favorite songs ever, like “Red Rain”, “Solsbury Hill” and “Games Without Frontiers”. I didn’t like Collins’ solo work nearly as much, but you can’t deny his talent as a songwriter. His tunes seemed to dominate pop radio in the 80s.

Genesis

22) Status Quo: It’s hard to think of a band I like less than Status Quo. There’s nothing “wrong” with their music, it’s really just not my thing.  But they’ve had more songs in the UK charts (over 60) than any other band in history, and 22 of them have made in into the Top 10. More importantly, the list of popular bands covering Status Quo tunes is literally like a mile long, so they’ve been pretty influential, too.

Status Quo

21) Depeche Mode: If you’d asked me twenty-five years ago which current band would still be around in the 2010s, Depeche Mode would have been way down the list. Sure, they put out some great pop tunes with awesome hooks… but they didn’t seem like a band with a lot of staying power. Yet here we are, twelve Top 10 albums and 100 million records later. DM are probably the most successful electronic band ever, eclipsing even New Order for the title. And the fact that so many current bands have been influenced by Depeche Mode only helps their cause.

Depeche Mode

20) The Jam: One of my all-time favorite bands, and yet another British band that was huge in their homeland, but mostly unknown in the US outside college radio and New Wave circles. What was their appeal? For one thing, they began as a typical punk band, but quickly evolved into a Northern Soul\Mod Revival act while still retaining punk’s energy. And Paul Weller was a master at painting pictures with his lyrics. “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight” and “That’s Entertainment” paint a bleak, yet poignant and beautiful picture of the English working class of the era. But what’s more, Weller didn’t (at the time) wear his politics on his sleeve. Whereas, say, Bono and Sting also wrote songs that shared  Weller’s sense of social justice, they beat you over the head with it. Weller let his songs speak for themselves. And here’s an amazing fact: every single released by The Jam – all 18 of them – hit the UK Top 40, with four of them going to #1. One of my favorite stories about the band is actually about their fans. So the story goes, Weller broke up the band in late 1982 because he’d “said all he could with the band”. Fans, hurt and angry that the band had broken up, took to wearing t-shirts that said “Paul Weller 1958-1982″, indicating that he was dead to them. That’s love for a band, folks!

The Jam

19) Madness: The nutty boys from Camden Town are yet another band thought of as a “One-Hit Wonder” in the United States, but consider this: they’ve had 22 Top 20 singles in the UK, and 15 of those made it to the Top 10. The lowest any Madness album has ever charted in the UK was #17 (1999′s Wonderful). And from 1980 to 1986 (a period of 312 total weeks), there was a Madness single in the UK charts for 214 weeks. Where The Specials might have been the first big ska band in the UK, Madness made the genre a household name.

Madness

18) Black Sabbath: I think it’s fair (and quite obvious, actually) to say that Sabbath were one of the most influential hard rock acts of all time. Paranoid is a classic no matter where you’re coming from musically, and the fact that it’s 4x platinum kind of bears that out. Along with Alice Cooper, Sabbath pioneered the dramatic, occult-inspired image that so many later metal bands would use. Would pentagrams and allusions to black masses have become so ubiquitous in the metal world without Black Sabbath? Maybe. But its genesis is obviously in Sabbath. And, of course, Sabbath made Ozzy Osbourne a star, and made Ronnie James Dio a star, too (his earlier work with Rainbow notwithstanding).

Black Sabbath

17) The Jesus and Mary Chain: Sure, these guys had a bit of popularity with the 80s alternative crowd. But how do they manage to get all the way to #17 on this list with just two Top 10 singles and one Top 10 album in the UK? Have you listened to indie radio lately? I swear, every single band coming out of Brooklyn and LA these days sounds like “a mixture of The Jesus and Mary Chain and [some other band]“, or “The Jesus and Mary Chain, only with [something different, like a female singer, or heavy keyboard effects]“. Which is fitting in a way. Like The Ramones, Jim and William Reid loved 60s girl bands. But when they tried to emulate The Shangri-Las, they ended up just sounding like a Scottish version of The Ramones. So they started playing with noise and feedback and created something new… just like how Asobi Seksu mixed the Cocteau Twins and The Jesus and Mary Chain to get their sound. And The Radio Dept., Bowery Electric, M83, Over the Atlantic, A Place to Bury Strangers, Sleigh Bells, Beach House, Ringo Deathstarr, The Raveonettes… and 3,000 other current bands have done. The mainstream might not have listened to The Jesus and Mary Chain then, but the bands who make music now sure did.

The Jesus and Mary Chain

16) Radiohead: Radiohead’s first single, “Creep”, was first released in the UK in 1992 and only made it to #78 in the charts, selling a paltry 6,000 copies. But the music industry can be a funny thing sometimes. An Israeli radio DJ named Yoav Kutner fell in love with the song and put it into heavy rotation on his show. The song became a hit in Israel, and the band booked several gigs there to capitalize on the success. And then the same thing happened in Spain, then New Zealand, then Scandinavia, and in San Francisco, where a DJ at KITS fell in love with the song, too. What had been a chart disaster slowly became a worldwide hit. And thus, the Radiohead phenomenon was born. Oddly, I’m not a huge fan of the group, which is weird, because you’d think it’d be right up my alley. But I do love how the band is not afraid to play with their sound – could any other modern band have gotten away with Kid A? The band is also not afraid to take on the music industry (their infamous “pay what you want” strategy for In Rainbows). The band are one of the most innovative in pop music today.

Radiohead

15) Elvis Costello: If punk rock had a crooner, it was Elvis Costello. Sure, the music he makes today might be “just a little more exciting than John Tesh”, but let’s not forget how awesome his early catalog was: “Alison”, “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes”, “Watching the Detectives”, “(I Don’t Want to Go To) Chelsea”, “Pump It Up”, “Radio Radio”, “Oliver’s Army” and “I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down” are just a few of his early hits. Costello is perhaps the best songwriter alive today. He is thoughtful and intelligent and is a student of music. If you’ve ever read any of his music articles in Vanity Fair you know the man knows his music, and is keen to let the world know about other acts he likes. Aside from, I dunno… EYEBALLING YOUR THEN-GIRLFRIEND FOR AN ENTIRE CONCERT, Costello seems like a great guy all around. He might not have sold as many records as others on this list, nor has he had a huge influence on subsequent artists, but he’s a treasure all the same.

Elvis Costello

14) Joy Division: I remember the first time I really heard Joy Division: I’d asked for (and received) the Unknown Pleasures CD for Christmas. After the holiday festivities died down, I went to my room and put my headphones on and had a listen. I’d “heard” songs like “She’s Lost Control” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart” before, obviously, but this was the first time that I really gave the band my full attention. And as soon as “Disorder” started I was hooked. For some reason, that song has always reminded me of a factory where all the giant industrial machines were started one by one and just happened to make a great tune together… and then Ian Curtis’ haunting voice came over the top of it all. Joy Division weren’t hugely popular, at least not in the strictly commercial sense. But they kicked off the entire post-punk movement and (for better or worse) became the father of all gothic rock bands. And that’s just Joy Division. Minus Curtis, the band continued as New Order, making some of the most popular electronic music of all time (it’s amazing that, despite all the huge club hits since the 80s, “Blue Monday” is still the most popular 12″ single of all time). Joy Division and New Order left huge marks on the history of British music.

Joy Division

13) Pink Floyd – This legendary band wasn’t as big as Lepplin, and their influence on future musicians was perhaps the most subtle of any of this list. Sure, there are a lot of bands that might have copied Floyd’s sound, but I’m thinking their influence wasn’t as obvious as most. For example, the opening riff of Animals inspired a young David Evans to go out and buy his first delay pedal (you probably know him better as “The Edge”). The Pet Shop Boys and Nine Inch Nails have called Floyd an inspiration, two bands for whom the Floyd influence is not immediately obvious. And the thing is, I don’t know that the Barrett or Waters-led band ever released a bad album: The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, A Saucerful of Secrets, Ummagumma, Atom Heart MotherMeddleObscured by Clouds, The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals, The Wall and The Final Cut are all, without question, rock classics, with not a clunker among them. Of course, Dark Side of the Moon was in the US charts from 1973 to 1988, a run of 741 weeks that has never been equaled, nor likely to be repeated. And film adaptation of The Wall was a cultural phenomenon of its own, providing endless entertainment to stoned teenagers everywhere.

Pink Floyd

12) The Smiths: There was a point in time in the 1980s where British music fans were on the verge of the ultimate heresy: naming The Smiths, and not The Beatles, as the best British band of all time. I don’t know if I would go quite that far, but the fact is that The Smiths just might be the biggest cult band of all time. It’s hard to believe it now, but the band only had one single that cracked the Top 10 (“This Charming Man” hit #8 as a re-issue in 1992, long after they’d broken up). And while each of their four studio albums charted at either #1 (Meat is Murder) or #2 (The Smiths, The Queen is Dead and Strangeways, Here We Come) in the UK, their success outside the UK was limited. No Smiths album charted higher than #55 in the US, #28 in Australia, #27 in Canada, #33 in Germany, or #13 in the Netherlands. Still, Johnny Marr’s guitar work was widely imitated, Morrissey’s controversial views kept him in the music press, and the band’s popularity seemed to grow and grow and grow, albeit slowly. To state that the band was influential is stating the obvious: The Smiths begat the entire Britpop movement, and bands like Blur, The Stone Roses, Oasis, and The Libertines owe much of their ethos to The Smiths. And emo, or the act of wearing teenage depression on your sleeve, is all Morrissey.

The Smiths

11) Roxy Music: If you’re a fan of New Wave, you probably know that most New Wave bands were influenced by two music acts. Roxy Music was one of them. The band, although not unknown in the US, was huge in the UK and Australia. They released eight studio albums, and the lowest any of them charted in the UK was #10 (Roxy Music). With the exception of 1979′s Manifesto (which “only” hit #7), their remaining 6 discs all charted into the top 5. And while rock music had been loosely associated with art and fashion since the 1960s, it was Roxy Music who consciously tried to bring them together into one coherent package. Roxy’s influence on bands like Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Japan, ABC, and Ultravox was legion. And let’s also not forget that Bryan Ferry and Brian Eno were once in the same band at the same time! If you include Ferry’s solo singing career with Eno’s pioneering ambient work and massive production credits, the band is even bigger than you might think.

Roxy Music

10) The Who: I’ve always felt a bit sorry for The Who. They were incredibly popular and had a huge influence on a lot of early punk bands, especially The Jam. They were a big influence on Mod culture, have had 18 Top 20 singles in the UK and put on some of the most famous concerts in rock history. But they always seemed to be a second-tier band compared to The Beatles or The Stones. In my mind, The Who is Wake Forest compared to The Beatles (UNC) and The Rolling Stones (Duke). Maybe I just have a cultural blind spot for The Who… but it just seemed like, growing up, they were everyone’s fifth or sixth favorite band, never anyone’s favorite band.

The Who

9) Elton John: People under the age of 35 have probably always thought of Elton John as a bitchy old gay man who used to be popular. And I can’t say that I blame them. John has been coasting since at least 1985, popping up now and then on Disney soundtracks, at some charity event or a “Feed the Sun City Ferry Disaster AIDS Victims” single. If that’s you, you can’t possibly imagine how big Elton John was in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He’s sold over 250 million records, has had 56 Top 40 singles, had seven consecutive #1 albums in the US charts, and has won almost every music award you can think of. More important, I think, is that Elton John was perhaps the last “universal” pop star.  When I was a kid in the 70s, Elton John’s music was everywhere. Teens liked him. Grandmothers liked him. Little kids liked him. Rock stations played his edgier tunes while AOR stations played his ballads. There was a good chance you could find an Elton John song on the radio at any given moment, and you’d hear Muzak versions of his songs at the doctor’s office or grocery store. Even black folks (as a rule, not John’s core audience) could name five or more of his songs, and they could probably sing along, too. The guy was huge.

Elton John

8) The Kinks: Sure, musicians love them, but The Kinks just might be the most under-appreciated band of all time. Everyone knows their 1964 hit “You Really Got Me”, a tune which had a huge influence on later metal and punk bands as it was the first to use what would become the rock staple of “power chords”. But what The Kinks really have going for them is their longevity. Few bands existed from 1964 to 1996, and it’s only a tiny few that cranked out hit after hit like The Kinks did. And it wasn’t just the power chords that brought the fans, either. Ray Davies might be one of the best, most eloquent songwriters in English music… like, ever. Although The Kinks had pretty good success in the charts – seventeen Top 20 singles and five Top 10 albums in the UK and five Top 10 singles and nine Top 40 albums in the US – their lasting contribution to music has been their great influence on later generations.

The Kinks

7) Sex Pistols: The Pistols weren’t the first punk band. They weren’t even the best punk band. They were only together for two years, and released just one album. But no single band, not even The Beatles, changed the course of music history more than the Sex Pistols. English pop music of the early 1970s was a dreary world of disco and progressive rock, the latter of which was described by Duran Duran keyboardist Nick Rhodes as “men with beards singing songs about gnomes in obscure time signatures”. Acts like David Bowie and Roxy Music led jet-setting lifestyles that the average English teen couldn’t dream of. And bands like Pink Floyd lived in secluded estates that gave Buckingham Palace a run for the money. It was bad enough that England’s teenagers faced alienation from the workplace and society at large… but it was flat-out tragic that they couldn’t even relate to their own music. And suddenly, out of nowhere, the Sex Pistols showed up and begged the youth of the UK to “wake the fuck up”. And wake up they did. Where Pink Floyd’s music required an army of engineers and lots of expensive equipment, the Sex Pistols required only drums, bass, a guitar and a singer. Just as The Ramones convinced thousands of American kids to start their own bands, the Pistols did the same for the UK. And although the band crashed and burned way too soon, in their place came thousands of bands, all doing their own (beautiful) thing.

Sex Pistols

6) Queen: You can’t think of 1970s music without thinking of Queen. The band were gigantic in their day. They’ve sold 300 million records worldwide, had eighteen #1 singles and eighteen #1 albums, currently hold the UK record for the top-selling album of all-time, Queen’s Greatest Hits, and have spent a grand total of 1,322 weeks in the UK charts, another record. They’re also the only band in which each member wrote a #1 single (sorry, Ringo). We Will Rock You, a musical based on Queen, opened in London in 2002, and is the longest-running musical in West End history, eclipsing even Mamma Mia and Grease. There are more websites hosting Queen bootlegs – in 2001, 12,225 such sites – than any other band. In fact, the popularity of their bootlegs led to Queen’s huge popularity in countries where Western music is banned or frowned upon, like Iran or the old Soviet Union. A list of musicians who have named Queen as an influence would take up all 50GB of my allotted space on this server. In numerous British polls, “Bohemian Rhapsody” has been named the “best single in history”, and you’ve gotta love it for it’s sheer cheesiness and the balls it took to release it as a single in the first place. And let’s not forget that Queen’s performance at Live Aid in 1985 was probably the greatest televised rock performance ever.

Queen

5) David Bowie: If Roxy Music formed one pillar of New Wave, then David Bowie surely formed the other. After starting his chart career with what amounts to a novelty single (“Space Oddity”), Bowie transformed himself into alter-ego Ziggy Stardust and became the biggest cult phenomenon in the world. Bowie’s sound was constantly evolving in the 70s, as evidenced by Young Americans and then Low, “Heroes”, and Lodger. His sound changed again with Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), which included the smash hit “Ashes to Ashes”, a callback to “Space Oddity”. Although Bowie had millions of fans by that point, he’d never really had much in the way of mainstream success. Sure, teenagers and hipsters knew who Bowie was, but few parents did. Enter Let’s Dance, Bowie’s most popular album to date. Thanks to the catchy, Nile Rodgers-produced tunes and the heavy rotation of his videos on MTV, Bowie finally became a household name. But since then… ehhhh. Tonight and Never Let Me Down were flat-out embarrassments to his catalog, and Tin Machine (and all subsequent solo releases) just scream “LOOK AT ME! I’M STILL RELEVANT!” desperation to me. Still, Bowie’s mountain of quality earlier work, his willingness to try anything, and an acting career that’s only enhanced, not detracted from, his music cements his place as a music icon for the ages. One thing you can say about Bowie is that there’s only one of him!

David Bowie

4) The Rolling Stones: In their early days, The Beatles were cute guys, with their charming accents, mop-top haircuts and matching suits. It was almost as if mothers would have been proud to have their daughters bring home John, Paul, George or Ringo. But no parent anywhere wanted his daughter to bring home Mick Jagger, Keith Richards or Brian Jones. They were the anti-Beatles. While the Fab Four were singing safe, cheery songs like “Can’t Buy Me Love”, the Stones played dirty, sexy rock and roll heavily inspired by American R&B. The Beatles were “safe”; the Stones were “dangerous”. Girls liked The Beatles; dudes liked the Stones. And, until the late 80s, the Stones cranked out hit after hit after hit after hit. I’m not even that much of a Stones fan, but looking at their singles discography, I know half of them by heart. Although they only rank #14 on the list of all-time best-selling artists in the US, their impact is far greater than that. Every “bad boy” rock act since comes from Jagger and Richards, two of the most heralded songwriters of the rock era.

Rolling Stones

3) Led Zepplin: Zepplin were one of the biggest acts in music history anywhere. They’ve sold more records than any musical act in the US save for The Beatles, Elvis Presley and Garth Brooks (gross). I think part of this is because Zepplin offers something for everyone: drunk rednecks love their balls-out rock and roll; more intellectual types can try to decipher Robert Plant’s opaque, yet seemingly meaningful, lyrics; and musicians can appreciate the pure talent that Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and John Bonham brought to the table. And Zepplin hated singles, so refused to release them, ushering in the era of album rock. To say that Zepplin “influenced a lot of bands” would be the understatement of the century. More than that, I think Jimmy Page should be given a lifetime achievement award by the guitar industry; there’s no telling how many millions of white dudes heard Zepplin and rushed out to buy an electric guitar because of Page’s work.

Led Zepplin

2) The Beatles: Oh no! The Beatles aren’t number one? Put your torches and pitchforks down, people. Yes, The Beatles are probably the most popular band in history, ever. Yes, they inspired at least six million bands. Yes, there’s a Beatles song being played on the radio every second of every day. But I’m just done with The Beatles. Their early work – the “Love Me Dos” and ” I Want To Hold Your Hands” – were solid bubblegum pop of their day, but they’re all but unlistenable to me now, cheesier than a cave in Leicestershire. Of course, that all started to change on Revolver, and yes, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles and Abbey Road are all classics. But if a band ever suffered from overexposure, it was these guys. Held up as some kind of Rock Gods, the band’s material has been packaged and repackaged so many times, it’s almost nauseating. What’s worse is a certain type of Beatles fan, usually found on the Internet, who refuses to believe that any band could ever be anywhere near as good as the Beatles. Mention The Smiths or Oasis, and they’ll either argue with you until they’re blue in the face or they’ll stick their fingers in their ears and say they can’t hear you. None of this is band’s fault, of course. And Beatles fans are right when they say that no band will ever have the per capita fanbase that the Beatles did. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

The Beatles

1) The Clash: They were called “the only band that matters”, and with good reason. Where the Sex Pistols epitomized punk rock’s “angry, three-chord” side, The Clash represented the musically adventurous, thoughtful side. Had Joe Strummer been born a couple of decades earlier, he might have gone down as England’s answer to Woody Guthrie. But he wasn’t, and while The Clash started off as your standard rock band, they quickly branched out into ska, reggae, funk, dub and rockabilly… all backed up with Strummer’s incredible (if annoyingly leftist at times) message. And the band put their money where the mouth was… literally. They wanted their third album, the great London Calling, to be released as a double album, but sold for the price of a single album. Their label, CBS, flat-out refused, and told them they’d either sell the disc at the double album price or cut the existing album down to a single disc. The band refused this, and the two sides negotiated for several days. Eventually CBS agreed to release London Calling as a double album at the single album price if the band agreed to eat the cost out of their share of the profits. The band agreed, and one of the most important albums in music history came to be. But the best example of The Clash’s mindset comes from a music festival the band played in 1977. The audience was drunk and rowdy, and a chain-link fence had been put up to protect the musicians from the hundreds of beer bottles that had been thrown at the stage. During the set, Strummer jumped off the stage and tried to pull the fence down. That he was more offended by the fence keeping the fans away than he was afraid of taking a bottle to the head says everything you need to know about The Clash.

The Clash

64 thoughts on “The 50 Greatest British Bands of All-Time

  1. P. Seidmann

    No Peter Gabriel is a crime,although you did mention Genesis. What about Yes,The Moody Blues,Jethro Tull,The Eurythmics,Judas Priest,Deep Purple,Hawkwind,ELO,E-Lake & Palmer, Bad Company,Dave Clark Five,The Yardbirds,Traffic,Blind Faith,and Def Leppard to name a few.

  2. Jim Post author

    @P. Seidmann: As I mentioned in my opening paragraphs, I included ALL solo acts with their original band(s), because if I did that the list would be more like “15 Greatest British Bands and their 35 Solo and Spin-Off Acts”. So Gabriel is listed under Genesis.

  3. Jorge

    You can’t put The Clash No. 1. I mean, obviusly you can, but they are not as huge as other bands you have on the list. Despite the fact that you are done with The Beatles they are the No. 1 band. There’s nothing you can do about it.

  4. Robert

    Mate, I think I might agree on some aspects of your list, but, really, WHERE IS KEANE?!!!. They have sold more records than most of these bands, and have achieved things that only a very few amount of people can brag about. My opinion is that they deserve at least to be 20-25 in this list.

  5. Subik Shrestha

    I say it is a tie between The Beatles and Zeppelin at no. 1. The rest are ok with me. The Clash at number one? Oh well… what to say!!

  6. janet

    I thought you had forgotten about The Clash until I was pleasantly surprised to see them on the top! Great list, although I might disagree about the order, I’d say all my favourite bands are here. Thank you!

  7. Oldboy

    Pink Floyd should be way way way higher. 2 or 3. And without going into to much detail, Joy Division should be number 1.

  8. Si

    Beatles, queen and stones head and shoulders above the rest. Zeppelin are u pissed !!!!! What have they done in comparison to the bands I’ve mentioned. Fuck all

  9. Bret Bowman!

    I Would,ve Put Iron Maiden At Number 1! Sold Over 85,000000 Albums + With No Help From Radio! Just The Fan,s ! Amazing Band! And In 2008 Lead Singer, Bruce Dickinson Flu The Whole Band Around The Would In A 757 Airplane, Roadies Ect! Is The Biggest Tour Of ALL TIME! Fact :)

  10. jake w

    my top 10 favorite bands are ony this list and im 18 and not even british haha. Music has really died in my generation

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