The conversations around ranking the best bands of all time are opinion-based, but we’ve boiled it down so that it’s at least based on the opinions of hundreds of millions of people. We can crowdsource that info based on things like sales, tours, and awards won.
While there might be a consensus this way, we all know the average person couldn’t explain to you the most basic thing about music theory, but they know what they like when they hear it. That means that some of the most-skilled bands out there won’t make the list because they don’t have mass appeal. And that’s part of our equation here.
The real fun is comparing the list here with our lists like the richest rock stars and the best guitarists of all time and seeing if there’s a pattern that emerges. Do money and skill go hand-in-hand in the music industry, and are bands really driven by lead roles like guitar or vocals? Open those links in the background to find out, but in the meantime let’s jump into the list of the best bands of all time…
#10 – Queen
CERTIFIED SALES: 147.6 MILLION
Queen already earned their slot on this list but lately, they’re gaining even more ground. Since 1970 they’ve not stopped touring and creating new music, albeit with new vocalists since Freddy Mercury passed. Their name may be Queen but they’re the kings of arena rock and pop-rock. Their songs are still overplayed today to the point where many of us are sick of them.
If you’ve been to a sporting event, you’ve undoubtedly heard their anthems chanted by those in attendance to intimidate the opposing team. The work they did for the Flash Gordon and Highlander made them some of the best soundtracks ever. There was even a biographical movie made about the band recently. That’s the big time.
Trivia Facts: Since 2004, Queen hit the road with new successful tours under the name “Queen+” with vocalists Adam Lambert and Paul Rodgers filling in for Freddy Mercury. There’s a musical based on their songs. They’ve released 15 albums but had 21 tours to support the releases.
#9 – The Doors
CERTIFIED SALES: 48.2 MILLION
The Doors were active from 1965 to 1973, a short eight-year run, but quickly became one of the most influential bands of the counter-culture era and a largely controversial band due to Jim Morrison’s erratic behavior. Every decade has had a revival in interest in the band and new fans added, due to cover songs becoming popular, usage of their songs in hit movies, movies about them, etc.
Their first album The Doors re-entered the Billboard charts 14 years after its initial release as did their greatest hits and “best of” albums. Their legacy will live on this way forever, it seems, as it should. They even created a brand new song in 2012 with Skrillex of all people, called “Breakn’ a Sweat.”
Trivia Facts: The Doors named themselves after Aldous Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception. They were the first American band to earn eight consecutive gold records. Morrison was the first rock musician to be arrested on-stage during a live performance. He’s also a leading member of the accursed 27 Club.
#8 – Nirvana
CERTIFIED SALES: 52.3 MILLION
Nirvana’s breakout star was undoubtedly Kurt Cobain, and since his passing and the breakup of the band in 1994, Dave Grohl has gone on to be a musical great, playing the drums, bass, and singing vocals for countless bands and collaborations. It was “Smells Like Teen Spirit” that launched them to stardom in 1991.
It didn’t take long for them to win all of the music awards in rapid succession, even being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the first year of their eligibility in 2014. It took the strength of their Nevermind album to finally knock Michael Jackson’s Dangerous from the top spot on the Billboard charts.
Trivia Facts: Nirvana’s founders, Cobain and Novoselic, first formed a Creedence Clearwater Revival band before evolving into the band we know and love. Courtney Love sold 25% of her stake in their catalog for $50 million in 2006.
#7 – The Who
CERTIFIED SALES: 27.8 MILLION
If you’re like me, you may be thinking “why, though?” The Who has a huge appeal, with their pop art and mod subculture influences and even more so thanks to their rock opera Tommy and its success. I like any concept album and theirs is great. The tours were enormous and exciting, which helped amplify the hype surrounding them.
It’s not just their music. They contributed to the development of the Marshall stack, the use of the synthesizer in rock, the use of large PA systems, and even down to things like power chords on guitar. Musicians appreciate them more than fans and cite them regularly as a top influence, and fans have to respect their favorite artists’ opinions.
Trivia Facts: The Who really solidified their reign when they played at Woodstock. Pete Townsend is credited with creating the windmill strum and other types of guitar showmanship. They also started the use of non-musical noise like feedback, and now everybody does it!
#6 – U2
CERTIFIED SALES: 110.3 MILLION
U2 formed as a crew of friends in secondary school in Dublin, Ireland before any of them had any real proficiencies with music. Within four years they scored a record deal. By their fifth album, they became a global sensation. In the present, they’ve won 22 Grammy Awards, more than any other band, period.
Part of their success is every time they run into controversy or boredom from their fan base, they evolve and revolutionize their sound. They’re huge experimenters, and The Edge really exemplifies this with his guitar pedal array.
Trivia Facts: The U2 360 degree Tour of 2009 to 2011 broke the records for being the highest-attended and the highest-grossing concert tour in history. They made a deal with Apple to force everyone’s devices to download one of their albums once. It was so annoying.
#5 – Led Zeppelin
CERTIFIED SALES: 140.6 MILLION
Part of reaching a wide audience is having a wide appeal. Led Zeppelin played music in the blues-rock and folk-rock genres but are also thought of as progenitors of heavy metal, too. Possibly the most influential and popular songs in rock history are their single Stairway to Heaven. These guys did it big, every time.
The concerts broke records for people in attendance. Their albums rank among the top-selling ever. Each of their nine total albums reached the top 10 and six reached the number-one slot on the charts. They’ve earned all of the music awards available. Their legacy is everlasting among musicians and fans alike.
Trivia Facts: Led Zeppelin’s career occurred in a time before we had the internet, and even though it’s been nearly 40 years since their last album was released, their fan base is still growing. The internet’s combined manpower has unveiled just how many of their songs were actually heavily influenced by, if they didn’t straight up plagiarize, other songs from their time period.
#4 – The Beach Boys
CERTIFIED SALES: 31.1 MILLION
The Beach Boys rode the wave of the California Sound of surf-rock and then evolved into more personal themes as their fan base also matured. Their music’s orchestrations and arrangements became so complex that, like the Moody Blues, they couldn’t perform it faithfully live on stage.
Their vocal harmonies were recorded in one take early on and are absolute perfection that few achieve today. They’re one of the few bands that found success before the British Invasion and maintained it during and after that period. These guys were deeply spiritual and if you listen closely you can hear it in the lyrics.
Trivia Facts: The Beach Boys spirituality led Dennis Wilson to befriend Charles Manson and begin recording music with him at Wilson’s home studio, which you can hear if you look for it. Eventually Manson’s followers invaded Wilson’s home and then the big event occurred. The Beach Boys came under massive negative media scrutiny during that time.
#3 – Pink Floyd
CERTIFIED SALES: 121.4 MILLION
Even with their early releases led by Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd was already making their mark on the British rock scene. Later, when David Gilmour joined the band and took over the creative direction they gained international recognition. Four of their albums topped both the US and UK charts, though only two of their singles ever reached the top 10 in either region.
In a six-decade career, they’ve released 15 albums and toured to support each release. They even composed film scores for some lesser-known movies. Two of their albums, The Wall and The Dark Side of the Moon are both on the list of the best-selling albums of all time. Dark music like theirs won’t ever be considered a pop, but they have just as many fans and longer-lasting popularity.
Trivia Facts: Pink Floyd’s band name is derived from two of Syd Barrett’s favorite blues musicians, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. They were huge fans of the comedy group Monty Python and helped finance the 1975 movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
#2 – The Rolling Stones
CERTIFIED SALES: 100 MILLION
The Rolling Stones are such a big deal that even the member’s solo careers, like that of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, are just as big. They got started in 1962 and were at the forefront of the British Invasion. Of the top 5 highest-grossing tours, four of them belong to this band.
Part of their success is attributed to them staying true to the safe foundational genres like R&B, soul, and rock. They even recently won a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Blues Album. Consistency is key when pop music evolves and changes so rapidly, which is why they’re still on top after nearly 60 years.
Trivia Facts: The Rolling Stones thankfully survived several feuds that have broken up other bands. In that time they’ve released 30 studio albums, 23 live albums, 25 compilations, 120 singles, and embarked on 48 tours.
#1 – The Beatles
CERTIFIED SALES: 279.8 MILLION
The Beatles had a short run of only 10 years from 1960 to 1970, but they’re still the best-selling artists of all time by far. If you were to add in their solo albums and side groups, they’ll hold that record forever. They started young and led the British Invasion of pop and rock into the USA, and their fans grew up alongside them, purchasing each album as time went on.
These guys won all the awards, starred in and produced movies, and even hold records like having the most covered song of all time. The Lennon-McCartney songwriting team are the most successful ever. They had pop appeal, rock appeal, evolved through the interests of the hippy era… they’re some of the best musicians to ever exist. They’re so good that hipsters think it’s cool to hate them.
Trivia Facts: UNESCO recognizes January the 16th as World Beatles Day. Eric Clapton was almost welcomed as the fifth Beatle. Each member of the band and the band itself have an asteroid named after them. Paul McCartney is still releasing music and getting millions of views on YouTube!
Runners Up: Who’s Almost the Best Band of All Time?
What’s the fun with only sticking to a top 10 when we can quickly tack on 5 more who all at least deserve a mention. There are so many top-notch bands out there, so hopefully, if you didn’t see your favorite above then you’ll see them next to or in the honorable mentions further down.
CERTIFIED SALES: 40 MILLION
Rush are progressive rock gods, so much so that they gained a mainstream and international fan base, despite the “weird” genre. Geddy Lee is considered one of the best bassists of all time while Neil Peart is considered by many, including me, to be the top of the best drummers of all time. The amount of sound coming out of just three guys is unbelievable.
Peart was known to use electronic drums to be a one-man-band. Lee would play the bass, play the synthesizer, and sing all at the same time. Lifeson is respected by guitarists everywhere. Their unique science fiction and fantasy-based lyrics help them stand apart, but it’s the musicianship that really dialed them in.
Trivia Facts: They have all the music awards, a Hollywood Walk of Fame star, and even documentaries about them. They’re even Officers of the Order of Canada. They even have a postal stamp in Canada. Though people even love or hate them, even their fans love and hate some of their 19 studio albums.
Bob Marley & The Wailers
CERTIFIED SALES: 43.2 MILLION
It’s hard to imagine a Jamaican or Reggae band that will ever have a larger impact than Bob Marley and The Wailers. The Wailers were a vocal ska group that went through various lineups before becoming Marley’s backing band, and more shakeups after that.
You’d think the star of the show was Marley and you’d be right, but it was the Wailers that wrote some of the biggest hits, such as “Stir It Up” and “Get Up, Stand Up.” They wrote so much scattered material that the Roots Reggae Library has tried to make a comprehensive list, but we aren’t sure it’s fully complete.
Trivia Facts: Bob Marley & The Wailers consisted of 19 full members, 2 touring members, and 18 session musicians over their 18 year period of activity. The band gets its name from one of the founders, Bunny Wailer.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience
CERTIFIED SALES: 30 MILLION
The Jimi Hendrix Experience only had 3 years of activity from 1966 to 1969, and that was enough to change the rock music industry forever with their three studio albums and tours. Everyone loved the skill level and charisma of Hendrix himself, but it was their performance at the Woodstock Festival that made history for them.
Following the lead of Cream, the Experience helped popularize the power trio, further opening the road for bands like Rush. The early passing of Hendrix in the middle of a tour put an end to the band. Who knows what the music industry, let alone rock music, would be like today if that hadn’t happened.
Trivia Facts: All three of their albums are featured among the top 100 best albums. In 1992, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Even in three years they had a break-up due to bad relations, but thankfully got the band back together.
CERTIFIED SALES: 13.5 MILLION
Yes is an unbelievable band full of some of the biggest egos you’ll ever hear about. That’s why they kept breaking up, getting back together, having two versions of the band operating at the same time, merging those, etc. And that really sucked for the fans and the industry as a whole, because everything they release is incredible.
They’re a big enough deal, especially with the older crowd, that they have an annual prog-rock-themed cruise called Cruise to the Edge. Their music deals with very spiritual topics that have probably hurt their widespread fan base, but those who love it really love it.
Trivia Facts: They’ve had 19 members over the time periods they actually made music instead of being in hiatus. On their album Magnification, the keyboardist had quit and they chose to fill his parts with a small symphony orchestra.
CERTIFIED SALES: 149.9 MILLION
The Eagles had a 9-year run starting in 1971 (though they’re back recently!) and made a lasting impact in that time. Like Pink Floyd, their albums singles all did “okay” but never great, but they were so consistently good that they now hold the 1st and 3rd spots on the most sold albums ever list, with the winner being their greatest hits record.
In 1994, the band got back together and quickly dropped an album of new material and live music, released a documentary, and embarked on an extended tour. This will only further solidify their sales and fan base. Everyone loves their blend of soul, bluegrass, rock, and R&B, for good reason.
Trivia Facts: A member of The Eagles was once fired. The group always had an even 5-way split of profits, but this member wanted a higher percentage and got told where to stick it. He later invented reasons to sue the group for $50 million in daamges and the judge quickly dismissed the case upon hearing it.
Honorable Mentions for the Best Bands of All Time
There are so many that it’s simply not right to cap it off even with some runners up. We can quickly list off a big handful of more of the all-time great bands, so why not? Many of these groups are still playing and pumping out new music, so they have a real chance to climb the list higher.
- Kiss has sold 28.2 million records (way more uncertified) and it’s their tours and merchandising that show just how deep of an impact they left on their many fans.
- Van Halen has achieved over 80 million sales by bringing hard rock back as the leading genre and satisfying endless fans’ needs.
- Def Leppard raked in 42.3 million sales, partially due to being among the first rock bands on MTV during the height of its popularity.
- Guns N’ Roses boast 77.6 million units moved, of which almost half come from one amazing album with extremely successful singles.
- Deep Purple has been active since 1968 and is a pioneer of heavy metal and modern hard rock. They have lifelong followers and continue to gain new fans. Their longevity is impressive.
- Aerosmith has 85.8 million sales under their belt, but did you know they’ve made even more money through their work with the Guitar Hero video game franchise?
- Iron Maiden is said to have sold over 100 million albums worldwide though it hasn’t been tracked.
- Metallica is a heavy metal and a founding thrash metal band that’s sold 102.9 million units so far. Their tours are monstrous and they’ve won all the awards.
- Black Sabbath is considered the first heavy metal band. They’re so powerful that they launched several solo careers that were just as successful.
- AC/DC are among the giants of heavy metal with their 123.8 million certified sales. Even the other pros in the music industry praise them for their performances and music.
- The Dave Matthews Band took over the jam band touring scene. They’ve been hitting number-one on the charts and winning all the awards since the release of their first album.
- The Pat Metheny Group constantly tours globally and hires only the best instrumentalists and vocalists from anywhere on the planet. They just have to be the best.
We could literally go on forever. And if we changed the variables used to rate the bands, the entire list would rotate around or change entirely. That’s why these conversations are so fun. It’s fun to find your own favorite band appears and fun to watch people rage when theirs doesn’t. I know it’s wrong but it feels so right.
If you enjoyed this, then you’ll probably have fun scrolling through the list of the richest musicians in the world. There’s a good bit of crossover, and you’d probably be surprised by where that crossover exists. It’s not what you’d expect. Let us know if your favorite didn’t appear in this best bands of all time list and we’ll see what we can do about it.
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