A rock guitarist since the 1970s, Kelley has been a fan of rock, blues and jazz since the 1960s.
It could be said the Big Apple rules rock and roll—at least in that part of the country.
For the purpose of this list, New York City comprises the boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, the Bronx, Staten Island, as well as Long Island, generally not considered part of New York City, the most populous metropolis in the US.
Now let’s begin the countdown to select the greatest rock band in the history of NYC!
17. The So So Glos
Formed in 2007 in Brooklyn, New York, The So So Glos are four purveyors of punk rock. The band was led by the Levine brothers, Alex and Ryan, and their stepbrother, Zach Staggers. They began playing music together at a young age and self-produced their first studio album, The So So Glos (2007). Then, the following year, they released Tourism/Terrorism, which won the award for Best Punk Album at the Ninth Annual Independent Music Awards, after which they toured Europe to support the LP. In 2010, they released the EP Low Back Chain Shift (2010). Their most acclaimed album, Blowout, was released in 2013; it was included on Rolling Stone’s list of the top 50 albums of 2013. In 2016, they released the studio album Kamikaze.
So So Glos
16. New York Dolls
A decidedly androgynous assemblage of hard rockers, the New York Dolls formed in 1971 and produced two albums—New York Dolls (1973) and Too Much Too Soon (1974)—which became cult classics in the world of punk and glam rock. During this time, because of drug abuse, arguments, and death, the names of the band members seemed to change on a daily basis; drummer Billy Murcia overdosed in 1972. Critics were divided on the Dolls’ talent and production; a Creem magazine poll listed them as the best and worst new group of 1973; and some considered them little more than a “mock rock” band. Attired in campy feminine garb, the Dolls were certainly an eyeful. The band broke up in 1975 and then reformed in 2004, though not looking all that dolled up. Then the Dolls released three more studio albums, including Dancing Backwards in High Heels (2011), as well as many live albums and compilations.
New York Dolls
15. Talking Heads
Formed in the mid-1970s, Talking Heads was a new wave band, the members of which looked straight as telephone polls yet played with an avant-garde feel, their lyrics often showing a socio-political conscience. Their first album, Talking Heads: 77, received critical acclaim, and its top single, “Psycho Killer,” (a reference to the Son of Sam murderer) reached #92 on the Billboard Hot 100. In the 1980s, Talking Heads experimented with world music by adding musicians Adrian Belew, Bernie Worrell, and others, creating a driving, polyrhythmic sound. In 1984, the band produced Stop Making Sense, a concert film, the first made entirely using digital audio technology. The album was wildly popular and critically acclaimed and features three hit singles: “Burning Down the House,” “Swamp” and “Take Me to the River.” Talking Heads disbanded in 1991.
Formed on Long Island, New York in 1969, Mountain was comprised of various musicians such as Corky Laing (drums) and Felix Pappalardi (bass), though always including Leslie West on guitar and vocals. The band played a style of hard rock heavily influenced by the supergroup, Cream. Famously, Mountain played at the Woodstock Festival in 1969 but only their music was included on the album Woodstock Two (1971). The band’s debut album was Climbing! (1970), which includes “Mississippi Queen,” a rock classic, and their biggest single; it climbed to #21 on the Billboard Hot 100. Mountain’s last studio album was Masters of War (2007), an offering of Bob Dylan covers.
13. Blood, Sweat & Tears
Founded by blues legend Al Kooper and trumpeter Randy Brecker in 1967, Blood, Sweat & Tears (BS&T) played a style known as jazz-rock or brass rock, referring to the band’s inclusion of a Chicago-like horn section. Comprised of scores of musicians and singers from the 1960s to the 2010s, perhaps the band’s greatest lead singer was David Clayton-Thomas, who sang the lead on “Spinning Wheel,” “You Made Me So Very Happy” and “When I Die,” all of which #2 hits as found on their second studio album, Blood, Sweat & Tears (1968), which won a Grammy Award for Album of the Year. Notably, in 1976, BS&T covered the Beatle tune “Got to Get You into My Life,” an ode to pot, which ascended to #7 on the Billboard Hot 100. The band’s last studio album was Nuclear Blues (1980).
Blood, Sweat & Tears
12. Velvet Underground
An experimental rock group comprised of four eccentric musicians, Velvet Underground (VU) formed in 1964, with singer/guitarist Lou Reed as VU’s frontman. VU featured an avant-garde usage of musical instruments and voicing. In 1967, the band became an integral aspect of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, an artistic roadshow produced by Pop Art legend Andy Warhol, who managed the group for two years. Warhol also added Nico (Christa Päffgen) a German-born singer to VU, leading to the release of the band’s debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967). Generally ignored by critics and a commercial flop, the album nevertheless became a cult classic. In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine listed it #13 on its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. The VU broke up in 1972 and reformed in the 1990s, and still drones on in the present day.
11. Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
Since 1991, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, a punk blues trio from NYC, has produced a seemingly endless number of studio albums, EPs, so-called other albums, retrospective compilations, remixed albums, singles, and music videos. Their debut album is A Reverse Willie Horton (1991), though this one may have been little more than a bootleg album. Touring often around the world, Jon Spencer (vocals, guitar, and theremin), fires up the band’s live performances, often flashing a James Brown, Little Richard, Carl Perkins, or Elvis Presley stage persona. At any rate, the band’s lyrics and song titles often cause criticism or controversy. The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s most recent studio album is Freedom Tower—No Wave Dance Party 2015.
Jon Spencer Explosion
10. Living Colour
Black guys play hard rock—it’s true! Living Colour has been playing their brand of metal, jazz fusion, hip-hop, alternative rock, and funk, since 1988 when they released their debut album, Vivid, which features their signature hit, “Cult of Personality,” which earned a Grammy Award for the Best Hard Rock Performance in 1990. Vivid reached #6 on the Billboard 200; in fact, their first three studio albums were critically acclaimed. Then Living Colour broke up in 1995 and reformed in 2000, eventually producing three more studio albums to date, the latest of which Shade (2017), which features covers to three songs: “Preachin’ Blues” by Robert Johnson, “Who Shot Ya?” by Notorious B.I.G. and “Inner City Blues” by Marvin Gaye.
9. The Rapture
The Rapture is an alternative rock band formed in 1998 in NYC. Encompassing many genres such as post-punk revival, acid house, indie rock, and electronica, The Rapture is fronted by Luke Jenner on lead guitar and vocals. Jenner likes to surround himself with musicians with taste. In an interview by Andrew Parks in 2018, Jenner said you can’t teach people taste. “I’ve been in so many bands that had questionable taste,” he said, “and it always ends badly. Because saying you don’t like someone’s taste is like saying you don’t like someone’s face.” The Rapture has released three studio albums: Echoes (2003), Pieces of the People We Love (2006) and In the Grace of Your Love (2011). Notably, their music has been used many times in pop culture: “Echoes,” a popular single of theirs, is used during a scene in the film Superbad (2007) and in the opening theme of the British TV series, Misfits.
8. Gogol Bordello
Gogol Bordello is a folk rock band from the Lower Eastside of Manhattan. Comprised of musicians and singers from all over the world, the band formed in 1999, and their unique sound is inspired by gypsy music and punk rock, utilizing instruments such as accordion, violin, and saxophone, as well as guitars and drums, of course. A very lively, theatrical and flamboyant band, Gogol Bordello has appeared in many films such as Everything is Illuminated (2005), Kill Your Idols (2004), Filth and Wisdom (2008)—directed by Madonna—Wristcutters: A Love Story (2006), as well as Gogol Bordello Nonstop (2008), a documentary covering the band’s popularity from 2001 to 2007. Gogol Bordello has released seven studio albums, the most recent of which Seekers and Finders (2017).
7. Spin Doctors
Spin Doctors sprang to prominence in the early 1990s with the release of their debut album, Pocket Full of Kryptonite (1991), which features two hit singles—“Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong,” and “Two Princes.” Appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone in January 1993, the magazine wrote this about the band: “Their popularity is based on universal rock & roll virtues.” Notably, Spin Doctors played at Woodstock ’94, a concert to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Woodstock; the band also appeared on Saturday Night Live in October 1992. Their lineup changing only occasionally over the years and decades, Spin Doctors still performs and records. Their sixth studio album is If the River Was Whiskey (2013).
Formed in 1974 by singer Debbie Harry, a former Playboy playmate, and guitarist Chris Stein, Blondie is a new wave band capable of playing many musical styles. Only mildly successful at first, Blondie hit the big time with the release of their third studio album, Parallel Lines (1978), which includes the disco-inspired hit single “Heart of Glass” (the song was irksome to some rock purists) and “One Way or Another,” a hit in the US. The album sold 20 million copies. It was Blondie’s most commercially successful LP to date. After Blondie broke up in 1982, Debbie Harry, Chris Stein, and keyboardist Jimmy Destri, all songwriters, pursued solo projects. Then Blondie reformed in 1997, releasing the album No Exit (1999), which features “Maria,” a #1 hit in the UK, where the band is the most popular. Blondie’s eleventh studio album is Pollinator (2017).
5. Vampire Weekend
Expressing emersion in indie rock, chamber music, and afro pop, Vampire Weekend formed in NYC in 2006. The name Vampire Weekend refers to an interest in vampire stories by Ezra Koenig, the band’s lead guitarist and vocalist. Their eponymous first studio album, Vampire Weekend (2008), includes the hit singles “Oxford Comma” and “A-Punk.” The album hit #17 on the Billboard 200, and in 2012 Rolling Stone listed it #430 on its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Vampire Weekend appeared on Saturday Night Live in March 2008, after which critics bashed them for appearing to be Ivy League snobs and the “whitest band in the world.” Responding to such criticism, Ezra Koenig stated, “Nobody in the band is a WASP.” The band’s most recent studio album is Father of the Bride (2019).
One of the most commercially successful rock bands of all time, selling over 100 million records, KISS formed in NYC in 1973. Their original members were Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, Peter Criss, and Ace Frehley, but only Simmons and Stanley have remained with the group until the present day. Certainly one of the flashiest and loudest rock bands ever, band members wear the costumes and makeup of comic-book characters and make use of elaborate sets, outrageous theatrics, pyrotechnics, and Simmons spitting blood. Their first three studio albums weren’t financially successful; however, since the band was known for putting on a great, if not spectacular show, their first live album, Alive! (1975)—featuring their signature hit single, “Rock and Roll All Nite,” helped rocket KISS to prominence in the world of hard rock. And, in 2019, KIϟϟ embarked on their End of the Road Tour.
3. The Ramones
Certainly one of the greatest punk rock bands of all time, The Ramones performed relentlessly and released 14 studio albums from 1975 to 1995. Rock critics generally loved The Ramones, even though their songs tended to be fast and short and comprised of four chords; their performances tended to be very short too—15 minutes or so. In 1976 Newsday’s Wayne Robbins called them “the best young rock and roll band in the known universe.” But years later, Jean Simmons, bass player for Kiss, said they were a failed band because they had only one gold record and couldn’t sell out arenas. “It doesn't mean they weren't great,” Simmons said, “it means the masses didn't care.” By 2014, all of the band’s original four members—Joey Ramone, Dee Dee Ramone, Johnny Ramone, and Tommy Ramone—had passed on. By the way, the Ramones weren’t related; their last name was a pseudonym Paul McCartney once used when checking into hotels.
Along with Metallica, Megadeth, Overkill, Nuclear Assault, and Slayer, Anthrax is one of the forerunners of thrash metal, a subgenre of heavy metal that arose in the 1980s. It was formed in Queens NYC in 1981 by Scott Ian (guitarist) and Daniel Lilker (bassist), who chose the band’s name because it’s “sufficiently evil.” Sounding like the fall of Armageddon, Anthrax’s sound—monstrous, sustaining power chords and droning pedal points—is influenced by such metal giants as Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, UFO, Saxon, Judas Priest, and Motörhead. The band’s debut album is Fistful of Metal (1984) and features a cover of Alice Cooper’s “I’m Eighteen.” Notably, Anthrax has won multiple awards for metal prowess, including Metal Hammer Golden Gods Awards in 2005, 2012, and 2016.
1. Blue Öyster Cult
Formed in 1967, Blue Öyster Cult is a hard rock band that began pumping out cutting edge studio albums in the 1970s and ‘80s and has continued recording and performing in the present day. Their most popular songs to date are “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper,” “Burnin’ for You,” “Cities on Flame with Rock and Roll,” “Goin’ Through the Motions,” “We’ve Gotta Get out of This Place” and “Godzilla,” a facetious tune included on the LP Spectres (1977). A covered version of the song can be heard on the soundtrack for Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019). Two lines from the song provide the gist of it: “History shows again and again how nature points up the folly of men. Godzilla!” Blue Öyster Cult has often been called the “thinking man’s metal band” because of their use of esoteric lyrics. And don’t forget Saturday Night Live’s “More Cowbell” sketch, which parodied the band’s use of the lowly cowbell.
Please leave a comment!
Blue Öyster Cult
© 2020 Kelley Marks
Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on August 10, 2020:
Thanks for the comment, Peggy Woods. I enjoyed writing about these rock banks, many of which disappeared years or even decades ago. Later!...
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on August 08, 2020:
I have heard of several of these performers even though I do not usually listen to the music of rock bands. Thanks for giving us your list of the 17 greatest ones from NYC.