Nirvana is the "newest" artist on our list of the 12 best rock and roll artists from 1960 to the present day, thanks to several influential pieces of music released in the early 1990s. However, where do they rank in our Top 12? Well, we didn’t actually rank them, but if we did …
It’s tough to reduce 67 years of rock and roll to just a list of 12 artists, nevertheless, we’ve done our best to put that list together for you. This doesn’t have anything to do with number of records sold, although some of these artists certainly qualify on that measure. The list doesn’t have anything to do with No. 1 hits, either, but some of these artists surely have had their fair share of chart-topping songs. Our AXS list here has more to do with cultural impact and penetration into the permanent social consciousness that comes with a unique kind of success.
By that token, all these artists are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As the organization’s website states, " … music has the power to bring generations, nationalities and people together." That’s what we were looking for with this list of the 12 best rock artists from 1960 to the present day, and we think that is what we’ve found. Timeless with the ability to connect across eras and generations, these 12 artists are the most unique in representing the long history of rock and roll. While other groups have accomplished similar success, these 12 acts stand out.
We know there can be no universal agreement on a list like this, so we’re not going to bother ranking the 12 artists. That would be impossible. So here, in alphabetical order, are our picks for the 12 best rock artists from 1960 to the present day.
Aretha Franklin: She is the Queen of Soul, and her hits still resonate in modern advertising like they were released yesterday. Plus, what teenage girl in society through the decades since hasn’t belted out their own version of "Respect" in front of the bedroom mirror? In the latter half of the 20th century in America, as society moved closer to economic, political and social equality for all, her version of the Otis Redding song has been anthem for many people—not just little girls. Plus, as her Rock Hall bio states, " … she has sung at the inaugurations of two U.S. presidents (Bill Clinton and Barack Obama) and received the Presidential Medal of Honor from another (George W. Bush)." Maybe she should run for President in 2020. The nation certainly needs someone that can unite us all in harmony.
The Beatles: They probably No. 1 on the list if we had decided to rank the artists, because no one else has had the impact that John, Paul, George and Ringo have had on rock and roll (or the music industry, in general). They had the hits; they had the popularity. They owned the stage; they owned the television. The Beatles even made their own feature-length films. This Rock Hall website quote basically sums it up pretty well: "The group both reflected and directed culture and music, and grew up along with their fans. It’s no exaggeration to say that rock & roll as we know it today wouldn’t exist without the Beatles." There’s not much we can say to illustrate why the group is on this list. By the way, on this definitive list of the best rock and roll albums ever, the quartet from Liverpool, England, holds three of the top five spots and four of the top 10 spots—and it’s not even shocking.
The Bee Gees: In the first teaser trailer for the 2016 film Suicide Squad, you can hear a 1960s Bee Gees hit playing in the background (albeit a modern cover version). How cool is that? Even if you think disco sucks, it’s hard to deny the group’s lasting impact, especially since they were chart toppers long before disco had its hey day. Add in the dominant disco run the band enjoyed—rivaled only, really, by The Beatles’ chart dominance in the 1960s—and it’s easy to see why the Rock Hall website noted that " … the Bee Gees might be pop’s ultimate chameleons." Through different eras and generations, the group remained relevant and successful, while establishing a permanence still felt in today’s pop-culture world. Besides, even if someone claims they hate disco, you know they’ve sung "Stayin’ Alive" out loud at least once in their life.
Bob Dylan: He just won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and we’re not sure if there’s a bigger confirmation that he belongs on this list. Dylan connected with a generation of disaffected youth in the 1960s, and he never stopped producing music that resonated with the social injustices of the world or the lost souls of America. When the Rock Hall website states that " … his reputation as a merry prankster and enigmatic figure who went wherever his muse took him", his listeners were just happy to be along for the ride. He may not have the ear of today’s Millennial listeners on Spotify right now, but Dylan’s lyrics have been taught in poetry courses at universities across the United States for decades. That’s how a rock and roll musician finds himself winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience: It’s been 50 years now since Jimi Hendrix first came to the world’s attention, and even though he died decades ago, everyone still knows who he is. Why? Part of it is the legend of his guitar playing, since whether we know it or not, we’ve all heard his instrumental version of the national anthem from the original Woodstock Festival. It’s iconic and eternal. What could be more patriotic, even in a time of cultural and social upheaval? The Rock Hall website calls it " … mournful, frustrated and angry—a reflection of the Woodstock generation’s patriotic disillusionment and a striking farewell to how things used to be." Every generation taps into that political frustration these days. Beyond the guitar solos, Hendrix was "a psychedelic rock pioneer whose work and approach touches all styles of music." It’s hard to think of modern music without Hendrix, actually.
Nirvana: The single most profound revolution in mainstream rock and roll came in the early 1990s, and this artist was at the center of it all. From opening riffs of "Smells Like Teen Spirit", the music audience would never be the same. The Rock Hall website says the band’s 1991 album Nevermind "brought rock & roll kicking and screaming into the modern world." Generation X might be the forgotten ones, caught between the overwhelming masses of the Baby Boomers and the Millennials, but band frontman Kurt Cobain gave a voice to the disaffected just as Dylan did three decades prior—although the voice was distinctly different in its deliver and style. Yet the impact was no less profound: "Nirvana ultimately sounded so different from everyone else because Cobain had diverse musical tastes." The band has even influenced a new generation of fans that weren’t alive to hear the original moments when the Seattle-based Nirvana spread its sound across America.
Pink Floyd: The fact that one of their albums spent 741 straight weeks on the Billboard Top 200 tells everyone about the group’s ability to connect over generations. But Pink Floyd always been about more than just The Dark Side of the Moon: "Pink Floyd were the architects of two major music movements—pyschedelic space-rock and blues-based progressive rock—and became known for their biting political, social and emotional commentary." That’s a significant statement from the Rock Hall website, but it’s true. Whether you listen to Dark Side, Animals or The Wall today, the messages in the lyrics and music resonate fully with teens, adults and senior-citizen rockers. It’s not just about "Comfortably Numb", "Dogs", "Money", "Sheep" or "Time", either, although the last composition on that list may be in the running for the best song ever written/recorded in rock and roll history. In the end, the band showed the world that "… personal torment could resonate on a massive level." We’ve all had rough times in our lives, and Pink Floyd has helped a lot of us through those dark moments.
Elvis Presley: If Aretha is the Queen of Soul, then Elvis is the King of Rock. Duh. Before The Beatles, he was the main man in music, and even though his heyday was in the 1950s, he actually won his first Grammy Award in 1967. His music popularity made him a famous movie star, but his influence on rock and roll is undeniable. According to the Rock Hall website, Presley " … took traditional influences—blues, country and bluegrass—and modernized them for contemporary (and more youthful) audiences. Quicker tempos, hotrodding arrangements, edgier textures—all of these things became hallmarks of his music", while also becoming the norms in the rock and roll decades to come. His physical presence also influenced generations of singers to emphasize sexuality, from Mick Jagger and Jim Morrison to Madonna and Miley Cyrus. How’s that for far-reaching influence?
The Rolling Stones: The fact the band is still touring is irrelevant when you consider things like Maroon 5’s "Moves Like Jagger" and Keith Richards’ influence upon Johnny Depp’s characterization of Captain Jack Sparrow in five Disney films now. The Stones and their Glimmer Twins have been everywhere, forever, it seems: "Their secret? A stubborn willingness to stay current coupled with limitless confidence in their own musical abilities." Despite lineup changes and the world changing around them, the band has managed to continually thrive thanks to Jagger and Richards. As the Rock Hall website notes, "The band’s status as an unstoppable rock & roll machine remain uncontested." Since they’ve been around for more than 54 years now since the band’s first official gig on July 12, 1962, it’s hard to imagine any artist topping their longevity any time soon.
The Supremes: Their influence filtered down to later artists like Destiny’s Child, and that’s all you need to know about this act, really. Like every artist on this list, the reach is far and wide: "The Supremes were America’s ingenues, exuding a stylish charm and soulfulness that appealed across the board to black and white listeners at a time when racial divides were coming down." After The Beatles, they were the most popular group of the 1960s, and their story has been told via the Broadway show (and later film) Dreamgirls. Like many artists, the group eventually splintered due to ego clashes, but the music and the influence remains intact to this day, obviously. In terms of chart success, The Supremes set a record for the most consecutive No. 1 hits by an American group (five). Few artists have had that capability and/or potential since then.
The Temptations: Like The Supremes, the influence of this act extends to the present day in the form of boy bands and male singing groups far and wide. Unlike their counterparts at Motown, however, " … the group’s melodies and vocal interplay sounded effortless, [as] they were actually carefully organized to amplify the strengths of each individual member." The range of voices is what made this artistic grouping special: "In their heyday, the quintet boasted dynamite choreography and soulful, elegant harmonies spanning the entire spectrum of vocal timbres: high and middle tenor, baritone and bass", according to the Rock Hall website. Over the years, The Temptations adapted to lineup changes, musical shifts and social evolution, demonstrating their lasting power into the current century.
U2: Perhaps no modern artist has had the political and social impact that the band from Dublin, Ireland, has had over the years. This was true from the early days of the band’s success with "Sunday, Bloody Sunday" to U2’s current live performances, which are full of social messaging and political stances. It doesn’t seem to negatively impact their success at all, whether in charting or selling albums. As the Rock Hall website states, "U2 has been hugely popular in its first quarter century, yet they’ve remained a supergroup with an idealistic sense of purpose." Whether the purpose has been raising social awareness or political activism, the band continues to do its best—for itself and the world, too: "As Bono told USA Today in 2000, ‘There is a transcendence that I want from rock … I’m still drunk on the idea that rock and roll can be a force for change. We haven’t lost that idea.’" Perhaps no artist in rock and roll history has done as well in this aspect as U2 has.