Lewis Carrol once said that there were six impossible things in life, but then Lewis never tried to assemble a list of the twenty-six greatest rock artists of all time.
If he had, he’d have added another task to his list and increased the number to seven, as trying to compress nearly seventy years of musical history into a list of twenty-six artists is a Sisyphean endeavor of epic proportions.
How do you do it? Alphabetically, by record sales or the impact that the band or artist had on the mainstream? It was a tough call, and in the end, we chose the artists and bands who, in some small way, forever changed the genre and altered the mainstream perception of rock and roll and what it is, and what it can be.
Like most things in life, our list is personal and there are bound to be some bands and musicians that you probably think shouldn’t have made the cut, and that’s fine as taste is subjective, and we don’t all like the same bands. If we did, life would be boring and the one thing that rock and roll was never supposed to be, was staid, stuffy, and boring.
And on that note, we’ll dive straight into the list of twenty-six of the greatest rock artists of all time…
Table of Contents
The Rocks Off List | Twenty Six Greatest Rock Artists Of All Time!
1. Black Flag
The Hermosa Beach punk rock wrecking crew collectively known as Black Flag were pioneers of the fledgling scene that would later become known as Hardcore.
But it was their relentless work ethic and their adherence to the idea that they could and should do everything themselves, from releasing their own records to booking their own insanely long tours that made them punk pioneers. If it wasn’t for Black Flag, punk rock might not have discovered the Do It Yourself ideology that was and is fundamental to its existence.
And if it wasn’t for Black Flag, Henry Rollins would probably have never left Washington DC and wouldn’t have become one of Rock and Roll’s greatest spoken word artists.
The video below is questionable quality, but the rock/punk energy is undeniable!
Credited with having invented thrash metal, the San Francisco powerhouse Metallica went from a mid-level festival band to one of the biggest bands in the world with the release of their seminal Black album in nineteen ninety-one.
The five-year tour that followed its release set a precedent that other artists have tried to imitate, but have rarely been able to follow or match.
It was their single-minded determination to stay on the road until they played everywhere they could that endeared the band to their fans and set them on the path to global stardom that has helped them sell one hundred and twenty-five million albums. That’s not too bad for a “small garage band” from the Bay Area.
Rock and roll has always been cyclical, and the genre constantly reinvents itself in order to remain relevant and retain its razor-sharp focus, but nothing could have prepared the world for the advent of grunge and its leading light, Nirvana
During the course of their brief seven-year existence, their nihilistic, feedback-drenched power-pop anthems that were driven by a relentless punk rock energy showed an entire generation that rock and roll wasn’t a homogenized entity and could be anything that you wanted, and needed it to be. With tracks like Polly, Come As You Are & Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana has provided the soundtrack for teenage angst around the world.
Who knows what the band could have achieved if their frontman Kurt Cobain hadn’t chosen to take his own life at the tragically young age of twenty-seven.
4. The Doors
One of the most controversial bands to have emerged from the counterculture movement of the nineteen sixties, The Doors were seen as being wild and a challenge to the established forces of law and order, due to the onstage persona and provocative lyrics of singer Jim Morrison.
They were and still are a forward-thinking, progressive band whose music inspired, and continues to inspire outsiders, free thinkers, and intellectuals. Which is exactly what Jim Morrison always wanted his band to be.
Leaving a legacy of iconic albums including Strange and the more controversial Waiting For The Sun, Jim & The Doors were a force for good in a world that’s all too often subsumed in darkness.
There are no ifs, and’s or maybes about it, the Brimghand quartet, with the release of their debut self-titled record in nineteen seventy created a musical genre that legion of bands and fans have been drawn to ever since.
And their reputation for living the rock and roll lifestyle to its absolute fullest was well earned, as the former frontman Ozzy Osbourne is the self-proclaimed Prince of Darkness whose wild and inhibited life has become the stuff of rock and roll legend. England really does have a lot to answer for…
6. The Who
When Roger Daltrey first sang the immortal line “I hope I die before I get old”, he probably had no idea that his band would still be tearing up the stage fifty years later.
The original wild men of rock and roll, The Whomade the idea of the concept album cool, when they released Tommy in nineteen sixty-nine and Quadrophenia in nineteen seventy-three.
Perpetual outsiders with a finger on the pulse of what really makes, and made the world tick, The Who have always been leaders, and have never, and never will subscribe to the philosophy of being followers.
The band that brought punk rock back to the mainstream and was almost single-handedly responsible for making it the second-biggest musical and cultural movement of the nineteen nineties, Green Dayhas refused to compromise or deviate from its own unique vision of what music should be throughout its thirty-year career.
It hasn’t always been easy for them, or their fans, but the biggest punk rock band in the world has never and probably never will never give even an inch or submit to record label of public pressure.
They are a testament to the power of the spirit of rock and roll.
8. Iron Maiden
Black Sabbath may have invented heavy metal, but it was Iron Maiden who took it to the masses and made it a musical force to be reckoned with.
Over the course of forty-six years, Maiden (as their rabid global fanbase calls them) has played on every continent and has taken their insanely catchy and high-energy anthems to places that other bands wouldn’t even dream of venturing to.
They made heavy metal an acceptable facet of rock and roll for mainstream audiences, and it’s no wonder that over the course of their long career they’ve sold over one hundred million records worldwide.
9. Creedence Clearwater Revival
Even though they were born and bred on the West Coast, Creedence Clearwater Revival was the voice of sixties rebellion that spoke to the youth of middle America.
They were the first band to sign on the dotted line to play Woodstock and chose to highlight social and political issues with their intelligent and concise lyrics that were paired with their take on Southern rock and roll.
Not without their trials and tribulations, (e.g. the John & Tom Fogerty fallout) the impact of their short, five-year career is still being felt all over the world nearly fifty years after the members of the band all went their separate ways.
10. George Thorogood & The Destroyers
In the late seventies and early eighties when most bands were looking to the future and trying to decide what kind of music they should play based on current trends and what they thought people wanted to hear, George Thorogood and The Destroyers played what they wanted to, good old fashioned, high octane rock and roll.
They didn’t care about selling records or being popular, they just wanted to play the music that they loved, and it turned out that they weren’t alone, as it was the music that America wanted to hear too.
The chances are, if you ask the average Joe on the street who invented punk rock, they’ll tell you that it was the Sex Pistols, but they’d be wrong.
Punk rock was invented by four reprobates from Queens, New York who called themselves The Ramones and played lightning-fast, infectious two-minute, three-chord songs about cartoons, lost love, and the harsh reality of growing up in seventies America.
One of the most successful rock bands of all time, the Eagles were formed in nineteen seventy-one by a bunch of musical desperados who just happened to be some of the most sought-after session players in California.
Their anthem is dedicated to the ravages of the rock and roll lifestyle and the loss of individual identity, Hotel California was a global hit and is one of the most played records in the history of rock and roll. Which probably explains why the band has sold more than two hundred million records in its turbulent on and off again career.
Hit play on this live version of Hotel California below to witness what may be one of the best dual guitar solos ever.
Australia isn’t just famous for boomerangs and being the Land Down Under. It’s responsible for some great music (does anyone know Ed Kuepper or Hoodoo Gurus?) – however, musically – it gave the world a band that epitomizes everything that rock and roll should, and could be, AC/DC.
This no-frills stripped down and straight the point, blue-collar rock and roll juggernaut have been doing what they do best, tearing up stages and writing insanely catchy songs for almost fifty years, and unless someone tells them to stop, they’ll probably do exactly the same for the next fifty years too.
14. Jimi Hendrix
Between nineteen sixty-six and nineteen seventy, Jimi Hendrix reinvented the art of playing the guitar. He made the impossible possible and turned the six-stringed world upside down.
His was a rare and unique talent, and while he was a flawed genius whose demons eventually got the better of him and ended his short, inventive, and wild life, he wasn’t celebrated as one of the greatest guitarists of all time until he left the trapping of the material and the physical world far behind.
15. Lynyrd Skynyrd
Southern rock came of age the day Lynyrd Skynyrd unleashed Free Bird and Sweet Home Alabama on an unsuspecting world. They were and still are, a tour de force that a thousand bands have tried to replicate, but have not been able to better.
While their origins remain deeply rooted in the psychedelic rock movement of the nineteen sixties, Pink Floyd became an incredibly cerebral band whose music combined social and political commentary with soulful, exquisitely, crafted riff-led rock found a global home with an army of like-minded souls.
Pink Floyd’s Animals, Dark Side Of The Moon and Wish You Were Here particularly showcase the themes, awareness and intelligence that this outfit possessed.
The band that proved over and over again that rebellion isn’t just a young man’s game, Pink Floyd, came to the end of their lengthy, and storied career and officially retired in two thousand and fifteen.
17. The Grateful Dead
The Grateful Dead spent thirty years on the road taking their message of peace and serenity and slow, but vital personal change to their faithful and devoted fans, who somehow seemed to increase in number with every tour until the death of the founding member Jerry Garcia in nineteen ninety-five.
Bursting into Pop Culture with their first hit single, Touch Of Grey, they were a band who you either “got”, or left you scratching your head wondering what it was you just heard – and they spent their entire career balancing on the thin line that separates genius and insanity.
Described as ‘a hot bowl of soup for the soul’ – you need to see this beautiful live version of Ripple:
An individual and unique band who challenged the long-held ideas of what rock and roll should be and defied convention at every stage of their constantly evolving career, Queen were never content to rest on its laurels.
Whether they were providing the entry-level rock soundtrack for the fans who found rock and roll through Wayne’s World, helping Flash Gordon to save the Earth from Ming the Merciless, or taking their audience on a wild and exciting adventure to The Seven Seas of Rhye, their seemingly endless inventive spirit enabled rock and roll to move beyond its limited beginnings and become something new, fresh and exciting.
19. Johnny Cash
The Man in Black and the first real bad boy of rock and roll Johnny Cash believed that music was for everyone, which is probably why he was the first artist in history to record two live albums in federal penitentiaries (Live At Folsom and Live In San Quentin) and was a troubadour that every blue-collar man and woman in the United States could relate to, and trust in.
The master of reinvention, David Bowie was what most people would call a “seeker” as his constant thirst for knowledge and desire to explore every facet of his own life and genre of music, helped him to forge an eclectic and endlessly creative back catalog.
Bowie didn’t believe in limitations and spent his life crashing through them and encouraging everyone else to follow in his wake. Whether playing the role of Major Tom or Ziggy Stardust or preaching the gospel of Modern Love, Bowie always maintained that the only thing in life that really mattered was music.
21. Frank Zappa
The musician’s musician, Frank Zappa was heralded as one of the greatest artists of his, or any other generation. His music was always complex and intelligent but remained accessible and appealing to everyone. A champion of free speech, Zappa challenged Congress when the government and the bodies that constantly lobbied it wanted to censor the music industry and he beat them at their own game.
Zappa is the sole reason why artists can still say whatever they want on their records without fear of persecution. And his music, from Sheik Yer Booty to Joe’s Garage is still some of the most mind-blowing, jaw-dropping rock and roll that we’ve ever heard.
Watch peak Zappa below as he rocks out Cosmik Debris.
22. Bruce Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen earned the name ‘The Boss’ the hard way, by reinventing Americana for the blue-collar generations whose government betrayed and lied to them and constantly let them down.
Springsteen is the rock and roll champion that America has always needed, and over the course of his fifty-year career has played more shows (which often last nearly four hours) than he can remember and released twenty albums, all of which have been critically lauded and devoured by his fans.
The Boss, more than any other living artist, embodies the spirit of rock and roll and has done more to further its cause in the last five decades than any other band or artist.
23. Van Halen
Picking up the guitar baton that Hendrix dropped in the sixties and seventies, Eddie Van Halen charged into the eighties and nineties with Van Halen and rewrote the guitar and hard rock handbook with the energetic, searingly clever anthems that his band seemed to effortlessly create.
Often called the greatest guitarist who has ever lived, Van Halen was a maverick who refused to bow to convention and only ever did things his way. It’s probably why he sold fifty-six million records in the United States of America and why he’s still hailed, and probably always will, as the God of the Six Strings.
Jump into the Van Halen magic below:
24. Elvis Presley
If it wasn’t for Elvis Presley it would have taken another decade for America to fall in love with rock and roll.
Taking inspiration from the many brilliant black blues musicians before him, Elvis created both a music and movie legacy that spans generations.
He was, is, and always will be the King of Rock and Roll, and having sold more than one billion records, is still the single biggest selling and most popular artist in the history of rock and roll.
25. The Rolling Stones
In the sixties, you were either a Beatles fan or you were in love with The Rolling Stones, and which side of the fence you were sat on told the world everything it needed to know about you.
The Stones were the baddest band on the planet, and while the mop-haired crew from Liverpool sang about needing Help, the Stones told the world about hanging out with Lucifer in Sympathy For The Devil.
They’ve committed every sin known to man and invented a few new ones and lived to the tale, and in a career that’s lasted six decades, they’ve sold close to a quarter of a billion records.
26. The Beatles
There was only ever going to be one band at the top of this list, and nothing we could possibly say about The Beatles would ever come close to capturing even a fraction of what this band from Liverpool did or would help to tell the real story of how they made the world fall in love with rock and roll.