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The 411 Music Top 5 01.22.13: The Top 5 Modern Rock Bands

January 22, 2013 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas


Just a note, I know that this says “rock bands,” but technically all metal is rock, just not all rock is metal. Also, Pantera won’t be on this list because their first album was in 1983, no matter how much the band wants you to forget that.

Emperor – This band released their first EP in 1993, they are by far one of the greatest and most legendary black metal bands in the history of the genre. They always maintained a very symphonic feel to their music. They were one of the first and most notable bands in the black metal scene to do so, along with Bal-Sagoth.

Cannibal Corpse – This band released their first album in 1990. It really shouldn’t be that surprising that this band is on my list. Some people write off Cannibal Corpse because their albums, for the most part, have a same-y quality to them, but I say if it ain’t broke why fix it. But at the time, they were pretty innovative and important. They’re also the most successful death metal band of all time. I think that counts for something.

Immortal – The last black metal band on this list. They released their first EP in 1991. They’re personally my favorite black metal band, because their brand of black metal has a hint of thrash in it. I also love that they’re pretty goofy, and I’m pretty sure that they know that they’re goofy, and don’t care.

5. Amon Amarth

Have you ever listened to a band that made you want grab a sword, beat your chest (not with the sword), and go kill your enemies in the name of Odin? Amon Amarth is that band. Though surprisingly, their testosterone is mellowed a small bit by their melodious guitar work. With all their talk of Norse mythology and battles, and warfare, you’d think that they wouldn’t have that much in terms of songs that tackle humanity. I’d say the song, “Fate of Norns,” is a song that proves that they do (Spoilers), this man finds his son dead, how, I don’t know. You can feel the anger and pain that this man is going through, by the end of the song, he has built a pyre for his son and lays down on it with him, then in flames he goes. I can say that I’ve also never heard a bad song by them, this will be a common theme of the list.

4. Orphaned Land

I love this band. Every album that they’ve done changes their style just a little bit, but not enough to where you can’t tell that it isn’t them. They string together death metal and Middle Eastern folk music, as well as throw in dashes of doom and prog metal. It is very hard to get bored during any of their songs, because they constantly switch things around. Everything is done well, and there is not a bad song in their discography, though for being around almost 20 years, they only have 4 albums. It’s also rare that a band really focuses on the positives and tries to be a unifying force between the people of the Middle East, and I commend them for it.

3. Candlemass

This is the only pick on my list that I had to think whether or not they fit the criteria of, “modern.” I’m not one to really judge, because I wasn’t even born in the mid-1980s. I figured that mid-80s would allow a band that released their first album in 1986. I fit this band in the classic section of doom metal, seeing as they’re one of the first bands to help develop the genre in the 80s (along with Witchfinder General, Pentagram, Saint Vitus and Trouble). This is another band that I don’t think has a bad song, though I may be in the minority on that one, because they have an album in the late 90s that is not exactly looked upon fondly. It’s sad to see them retire from the studio for now, but maybe with their new singer, they’ll find new life. Also, fun fact, the segments in my column are all named after Candlemass songs.

2. Opeth

Here is a band that I feel like might slip down this list. This is a band that I still love very much, because most of their output is a very awesome mix of death metal and prog metal, and Mikael Akerfeldt has both the voice of a devil and an angel. Their songs are often sprawling and have many layers to them, which I love, though some of their songs can get a bit long. If their newest album is any indication of their future, they’ve moved from that death/prog sound, to a pure prog sound, with more rock influences in it. I love their past, and I’m very interested in what they may put out in the future, because even if they go totally rock, I might still be interested, but I guess time will tell!

1. Death

For anyone who has ever read my column, or knows me personally, this pick is about the least surprising thing on this list. I adore this band, there is not a single not I can hear off of any of their songs and say, “That’s not good,” because everything they have ever done is pure gold. Yes, it is me being a fanboy, and I will not be ashamed for being one. Just like many of the other bands on this list, they have a certain progression to them, they started out as your typically blood and guts death metal band (back when there was no such thing), and after they had a brief break in 1990, the lord and savior, Chuck Schuldiner made the executive decision that I personally feel is a good one, to start weaving in progressive elements, and by their last album, the vocals had evolved into an almost black scream with flowing passages all throughout. It doesn’t hurt that the band is a “Who’s Who” of musicians, Individual Thought Patterns alone has Chuck (who is my favorite guitarist, as well as one of favorite vocalists (I know, fanboy)), along with Steve Digiorgio (my favorite bassist), Andy LaRocque (of King Diamond fame), and Gene Hoglan (who is also one of my favorite drummers). This band also launched my favorite drummer, Richard Christy, so there is that. This band was done by 1998, and Chuck went on to make his “Death minus the death vocals” band Control Denied, then he got cancer, and died. Though he may have left pretty early (Fuck cancer!), but he left us some well crafted songs, awesome solos, and memorable riffs. I’d say what Chuck Schuldiner left us describes Death perfectly.


Honorable Mention: Dave Matthews Band
5. Radiohead

I went through a momentary debate over whether it would be Dave Matthews Band or Radiohead that would break my list’s surface. Each band’s strongest merit offset a lacking criterion wherein the other emerged ahead. Ultimately, I pondered what “Top 5” should really embody. This week’s list didn’t stipulate that I merely praise the “Top 5 Commercially Viable, Radio-Accessible Modern Rock Bands.” Broadly assigning that I argue in favor of my personally ranked” top five modern rock bands” entailed considering as many criteria as would be reasonable – from influence paid forward and stylistic innovation, to commercial accolades. That didn’t mean that I couldn’t weight one category’s value over another, as suits my own values.

Between touring and recorded output, both have reaped admirable commercial bounties since emerging upon the FM alternative radio scene around the same time – Radiohead releasing their debut single “Creep” in 1992, while Dave Matthews Band would release their major-label debut Under the Table and Dreaming in 1994. As the years wore on, DMB maintained a brutally relentless touring schedule that yielded a live-recording catalog that became the quartet’s hallmark. Those 18 official live recordings further bolstered sales from a string of eight accessible, radio-friendly albums in 12 years. Meanwhile, Radiohead released eight studio albums and no live albums from 1993’s Pablo Honey to 2011’s The King of Limbs. Commercial/popular advantage, Dave Matthews Band. The bottom line doesn’t tell the whole story.

Meanwhile, Radiohead achieved critical and audience acclaim album after album after album for exploratory sounds that defied conventional structure. In Rainbows crowned them as pioneers of independent online distribution when it achieved staggering sales even after the band permitted free-of-charge downloading via their website. To date, they’ve moved 30 million albums compared with Dave Matthews Band having sold 30-40 million as of 2010 alone.

That isn’t to say that Dave Matthews and his collaborators aren’t accomplished artists. It’s been rare that the band has ever “made the same album twice,” with each presenting some form or another of structural or lyrical departure. Radiohead have achieved almost exactly the same, though. Their evolution has been ceaseless, although they’ve sometimes taken far lengthier gaps between releases than DMB.

In the end, though, Radiohead have achieved comparably admirable commercial acclaim while easily exceeding Dave Matthews Band in terms of musical invention – even when the result has been anything but “radio-friendly.” For that reason, Dave Matthews finds himself barely on the outside looking in.

4. The Police

For pure musicianship and ensemble chemistry, few compare with Sting, Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland.

In an era marked by exploration and fusion, The Police happened upon the best-constructed formula: a perfect amalgamation of punk energy, reggae inflections and jazz flavors played by three men whose respective personal differences never impeded upon their timing. They made more memorable music across their five major albums than many latter-day peers achieved across 150% of that output.

3. Red Hot Chili Peppers

It would be a fallacy to say that the Red Hot Chili Peppers made an “often imitated, never duplicated” sound. Truth be told, count Faith No More, Jane’s Addiction and Primus among their best-regarded peers amid that criterion. It would be a mistake claiming that even any of the above have been as highly regarded as wisely as Anthony Keidis, Flea, John Frusciante and Chad Smith.

(Sean’s Note: No, I’m not at all ignoring that Keidis and Flea recorded the band’s first three albums alongside drummer Jack Irons and co-founding guitarist Hillel Slovak. I’m acknowledging that the band never sounded simultaneously tighter and more thrillingly combustible than with Frusciante.)

The band has strayed little from a single magnetic recipe of funk, punk and thrash. Despite keeping a close eye upon their chemical bonds that make up the band’s sonic fingerprint, they’ve managed to let it out and tighten it like a tailor to a fine suit to custom fit each album. Whatever roads they’ve driven, personally and sonically, we’ve all been along for the ride.

2. Metallica

There just is no killing this band. They eventually had to basically dump guitarist Dave Mustaine by a roadside somewhere like a crazed problem dog that couldn’t be trained to stop shitting on the carpet. As the band’s acclaim stood poised to explode, a bus crash claimed bassist Cliff Burton’s life and sent James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich and Kirk Hammett into alcoholic voids of mourning. An onstage pyrotechnic catastrophe could’ve – and by all rights, probably should’ve – at best ended lead singer Hetfield’s and the band’s respective careers. Longtime fans shat upon Load when the band emerged from hiatus with “sell-out” short haircuts. After bassist Jason Newsted left the band, the band released the nearly universally panned St. Anger.

Despite all of these tragedies that would’ve (and in some cases, have) marked other bands’ demises, they’ve more than soldiered onward. They’ve remained quite possibly metal’s most broadly accomplished band instrumentally, and one of the acts that truly made an art of the genre.

1. Nirvana

Make no mistake: they’re on this list as much for the enduring mystique and supposition as for their artistic output. It was no one thing that gave Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic the velocity to make the impact that the definitive grunge band made. Musically speaking, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden were arguably as accomplished technically. Personally, I’ve always preferred Layne Staley and Chris Cornell as vocalists. However, neither was as varied in their approaches to their songs as Cobain, Grohl and Novoselic were to Cobain’s distinctively personal, often embarrassingly misinterpreted lyrics.

Cobain, for the many ways he was mischaracterized as merely angry, highlighted the shades that distinguished disaffection broken by curious bouts of happiness, and just being pissy. Many came after Grunge’s emergence to capitalize on it and endure. Nirvana defined it.

NOTE: For my EPs, I decided to leave out options such as the many Peel Session EPs, the iTunes exclusives, live performances and so on. This is intended to be extended play albums of entirely (or almost entirely) new music from the bands in question.

Honorable Mention: The Cure, Tool, Nine Inch Nails, U2

5. Arcade Fire

Win Butler has a bit of a reputation for being an asshole, but I can separate an artist’s persona from their music and in this case, the music is well worth a little douchiness. Funeral quickly became one of my favorite albums to listen to when I learned about the band post-The Suburbs; for that matter The Suburbs and Neon Bible are both great listens as well. Butler, Régine Chassagne and the rest of the band managed to achieve something that is a rarity for me: they made indie rock something that I not only could listen to, but love. As good of a band as Arcade Fire is, their true power is in the impact they helped bring. They certainly aren’t the only band to bring the public’s eye onto indie rock but I do believe they are one of the most prevalent. It is to no small degree because of them that indie rock is becoming a focus of the public eye and even for more mainstream rock fans like me, that’s a good thing because it keeps rock music from slipping further down the decline in its losing war with other genres.

4. Radiohead

Radiohead is very much a love them or hate them band. There are those who exalt them as one of the greatest rock groups of all-time and there are others who consider them an unlistenable pretentious byproduct of the alt rock era. I’m not in either category but if I were to identify with either extreme, it would be the former. Even if I don’t worship at their feet, I’m not going to make the criminal move of leaving them off of their rightful spot on this list; their influence within the alternative scene simply cannot be denied. Radiohead is one of those rare groups that have consistently bucked the trend of success and yet they’ve remained unbelievably successful based on the sheer strength of their talent. Their music is very challenging–a big reason that they’re so divisive–but there is brilliance in that challenge. They dare you to listen and frankly, they don’t care if you think they’re overrated because they know exactly where they stand. And while the band certainly could have capitalized on the radio-friendly “Creep” with an all-out assault on the pop/rock charts with mainstream hits, they chose not to and instead preferred to make the music that they wanted to make, taking whoever wanted to come along for the ride. As it turned out, that group was pretty damned numerous.

3. The White Stripes

The White Stripes helped bring about as renaissance for garage rock in the turn of the twenty-first century, which was a necessary thing to bring the era of post-grunge dominance to a limping, merciful end. (Not that there aren’t some good post-grunge bands out there, but seriously, that movement needed to die.) Now let’s add into the plus side that Jack and Meg White seriously knew how to rock. The married couple brought a sense of punk and DIY style to their music, which was the perfect antithesis to the label-backed glamorous post-grunge assholes that we were used to seeing on the radio. Listen, I’ve got nothing against Nickelback as a rule. While I don’t think they’re a good band, I do think they are enjoyable. But does anyone get inspired to become the next Chad Kroeger? No. Do people get inspired to be the next Jack White? Yes. Sadly, the difference is that the only thing stopping people from being the next Chad Kroeger is a studio contract and lots of money while what’s stopping people from being the next Jack White is something much harder to get: talent. The White Stripes came along and shook us up in a way that we liked.

2. Foo Fighters

After the dissolution of Nirvana, Dave Grohl was left without a band. Interestingly he almost didn’t do this; he entertained a few other offers including becoming the permanent drummer for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. In the end though, he decided to go his own way and the end result was one of the most successful, enduring and frankly impressive rock bands to form since 1994. When we at 411 did our Top 50 Albums of the 411 Era, The Colour and the Shape came in at #22 and I said in my write-up that I felt many other Foo Fighter albums could have merited inclusion on the list. The band started off with some definite Nirvana influence, but as the years passed they moved very successfully away from that into more of a pure alt-rock sound that suited them better. Their accolades are more than I have space to list here, but just a few: eleven Grammys out of twenty-five nominations, three-for-three on BRIT Awards, four-for-four on NME Awards, three Kerrang! Awards, an American Music Award, 10 million albums sold in the US (no small feat in the digital age), seven #1 songs on the Alternative Rock chart, six out of seven top 10 albums and a host of placements on “Best Of” lists around the world, including this one.

1. Nirvana

There is no question here for me. There are those people who call Kurt Cobain overrated and say that Nirvana wouldn’t have been thought of as the iconic band that they are today if Kurt hadn’t died in April of 1994. I think that those people are delusional. Cobain was everything about the hardcore grunge scene and with Nirvana, he made grunge a genre that music fans paused to pay attention to. The music scene could easily have been described as on its last legs before grunge came around, and it’s cool to make fun of it now the same way it’s cool to make fun of the hair metal that grunge took over from. Now, I have a love of certain hair metal bands, but there is a world of difference in the artistry between a group like Warrant and one like Nirvana. Cobain may or may not be the “voice of a generation” that he’s been labeled as—I have my own opinion, but that’s not the point here. He was the quintessential sound of an era that completely changed rock music, ushered the alternative rock era back into popularity and, sadly, blazed out soon after.

The Final Word
As always, the last thoughts come from you, the reader. We’re merely unpaid monkeys with typewriters and Wikipedia. Here’s what you need to do: List your Top Five for this week’s topic on the comment section using the following format:

5. Artist – “Song”: Why you chose it
4. Artist – “Song”: Why you chose it
3. Artist – “Song”: Why you chose it
2. Artist – “Song”: Why you chose it
1. Artist – “Song”: Why you chose it


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Jeremy Thomas
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