Part two, in conjunction with the Sea of Tranquility countdown, the top 14 power trios.
Every day when Pete Pardo releases a new 3-9 minute video at 8 AM CST, he invites his viewers to follow along and put their picks in the comments. These are what I put in the comments. These countdowns have become a morning ritual for me as I get ready for work since late last year.
#14: ZZ Top
No matter the divide between red and blue states, there’s two things from the South that everybody loves — Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” and ZZ Top. The Texas trio is somewhere on nearly everyone’s lists. Whether you were first introduced to them with their first albums and their famous backyard BBQ gigs in the early 70s, or the MTV videos in 1983, or the documentary (That Little Ol’ Band From Texas, 2019), they seem to have something for everyone. I sometimes fantasize what they’d been like had they revisited their psychedelic origins with The Moving Sidewalks, but plenty of other bands picked up on that thread.
Two guitars, drums, no bass turned out to be just the right sound for this trio of indie punkers. The best all-woman band to emerge after Riot Grrrl, as essential listening for the cream of 90s rock alongside Fugazi, PJ Harvey, Bjork and Nirvana.
Tortona, Italy’s Ufomammut formed in 1999, and were influenced by Kyuss, Monster Magnet, early UFO and kosmische, while developing increasingly heavy, spine-crushing doom influences. After a promising start with Godlike Snake (2000), it took four years to make the followup, Snailking (2004), a stunning progression that not only highlighted Ufomammut as one of the best heavy bands on the planet, but also an innovator of their own blend of cosmic doom sludge. After the excellent Idolum (2008), they finally topped themselves with the classic Eve (2010), a five part opus that tells the tale of the so-called mother of mankind, with a suitably cinematic and mind-blowing cosmic trip that’s wildly diverse, yet feels like a cohesive piece. Stoner rock’s first opera. They nearly topped it with Oro, a double album released in two parts in 2012, and continue to release essential music this year. They’ve also elevated their genre’s visual look, with stunning album and poster art by the Malleus Rock Art Lab, e.g. Urlo, Poia and Vita of Ufomammut. Despite having prominent appearances near the top of the bill of large European festivals like Roadburn and Desertfest, and joinging Neurosis’ Neurot label, they remain under the radar in North America. Two important recent books on heavy music and doom and sludge metal did not even mention the band in passing, which is a huge omission.
#11: The Police
Three experienced jazz fusion/session journeymen dye their hair blonde and elbow their way into the punk sandbox, well, new wave really, and freakin’ kill it. Their innovations with their airy three-man arrangements became a massive influence on bands as diverse as Rush and Bad Brains. Not much else to say that hasn’t been exhaustively documented, other than I still say Synchronicity (the album overall) is garbage. But I was the first to get my ticket for their 2007 reunion show at Wrigley Field in Chicago, and it was awesome.
I had a strong feeling that a particular alternative/indie band was going to break through the mainstream and open the floodgates. In 1988-89, R.E.M., Janes Addiction, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nine Inch Nails, Ministry, The Church, even Danzig tested the hold, the gatekeepers seemingly unconcerned as they continued to invest in hair metal. To be fair, only R.E.M.’s Green cracked the top 100. None of the others surpassed fading 80s indie icons Morrissey and Talking Heads, so it didn’t look promising to the labels and beancounters. I first had my money on either Pixies, Soul Asylum or Buffalo Tom. Even though at the time I was more a fan of Mudhoney, I knew there was something special about Nirvana, and when the “Sliver” single came out, I knew they’d be big. Maybe I didn’t know how big, but big enough to fuck shit up.
#9: Yeah Yeah Yeahs
I’m not saying the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were better than Nirvana, just that I’ve gotten just a bit more spins and enjoyment from their music the two decades they’ve existed than Nirvana, who still stir up mixed feelings rooted in my own experiences, and the the tragic fates of Kurt and others close to me. After a nine year absence, they finally return with an album, Cool It Down, due Sep 30. I’m cautiously excited, because while I liked Mosquito (2013), it bent slightly to trends a bit too much and put Nick Zinner’s great Rowland S. Howard (Birthday Party)/Joey Santiago (Pixies) guitar on the backburner. Hopefully they’ve stopped chasing trends and will just be the YYYs.
#8: Colour Haze
Back in 2011 I wrote a piece covering their work up to that point, calling them the Kings of Stoner Mountain. While their songs sparingly feature vocals, the gorgeous guitar tones that Stefan Koglek started achieving on third album Periscope (1999) during their extended jams served as a massive influence for instrumental stoner psych throughout Europe and to a lesser extent in North America. They also arguably topped each previous album through at least All (2008), or possibly She Said (2012), their second of three double albums. I’d have loved to hear more like the succinct psychedelic songcraft on All, but the experimentation on recent albums have been plenty satisfying also, especially on the last one, We Are (2020). Their 13th album is due later this year, and they’re as strong as ever. I’m still holding out hope they’ll come play North America. They were originally scheduled to play at an early Psycho Las Vegas, but cancelled because they didn’t have their shit (papers) together. Musicians be musicians!
Probably the greatest 21st century band that’s virtually unknown in North America outside of a small cult following. Partly this is the band’s own choice, as they choose not to tour here, because they don’t really need to. They have a sizeable following in their native Norway and throughout Europe that they’ve sold enough of their more than two dozen releases over the past 30 years, and play to large festivals, they don’t need to deal with the headache of flying over the Atlantic. While one can recognize a signature sound from their past decade of mostly heavy psych prog touched with occasional experimental, classical and jazz, they’ve covered everything from alt noise rock to psych pop and even country rock. Highly recommended for fans of Dungen, Elder, Colour Haze, Causa Sui, Kanaan, Monarch, Mythic Sunship, Jaga Jazzist, Spidergawd, Tomahawk, TOOL, Radiohead, Sonic Youth, Pink Floyd, King Crimson.
In the late 80s, my college radio station manager and sometime housemate Tim, pushed us to play two new bands — Slint and Melvins. I happily complied. Gluey Porch Treatments (1987) with it’s menacing crawl, heavy bass thuds and Buzz’s unhinged vocals, sounded like nothing else. Ozma (1989) was hotly anticipated at WMCN, and Bullhead (1991), Eggnog EP (1991) and Lysol (1992) were massively influential. When we got them to play an outdoor show outside our student union in the spring of ’91, it felt liked we’d scored a Led Zeppelin to step down from Valhalla to our campus. At the time they of course were still playing tiny venues and dive bars. Beyond our small group of hardcore fans, most of the audience just kind of raised their eyebrows and thought of them as a novelty band. History though, has vindicated and recognized them as pioneers. Melvins can be credited/blamed as an early influencer of drone metal, sludge metal, grunge and stoner rock. 39 years after they formed, they’re still going strong, and still confounding expectations.
When Lemmy (Ian Fraser Kilmister) left Hawkwind, the first couple years were filled with uncertainty. Hard rock’s popularity was stagnant in 1975-76, and he wasn’t connecting with an audience who liked it as hard and fast as Lemmy. He changed the name from Bastard to a song he wrote with Hawkwind, recorded demos, and eventually a self-titled debut album released in 1977. Like AC/DC, punks respected their raw, stripped down sound, but they weren’t finding success like the Aussies were. It wasn’t punk’s grudging approval of their existence, but rather the growing popularity of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal that helped them find their fanbase. It was the first time most people were introduced to heavy metal in the form that was recognized through the 80s, even though Lemmy consistently rejected the term, saying they simply played proper rock ‘n’ roll. But on Overkill and Bomber (1979), it was rock ‘n’ roll on extreme overdrive, just how the headbangers like it. While they may have peaked critically with Ace of Spades (1980), they grew their fanbase into a global brand to the point where people who don’t even know the music knew about Lemmy and sported their logo. Lemmy actually improved as a lyricist, and they never really suffered wilderness years like most bands. Rest in pieces Lemmy, Philthy Animal and Fast Eddie.
#4: The Jam
One reason that isn’t often taken into account why some of the punk era bands were so great were that they did not just appear out of nowhere. The Jam actually formed way back in 1972, and by the time they recorded debut In the City (1977), they were still young, but seasoned professionals. Their nod to punk was to toonce up the aggressive energy a scoche, but were more mod and power pop than anything. Given they had five years to amass songs, it’s surprising that This is the Modern World (1977) sounded weak and rushed, but then for the next three albums, they hit a run of classic albums and singles unmatched by any band in the UK from 1978-80 (except arguably Elvis Costello).
#3: Hüsker Dü
You have to forgive us Gen Xers for thinking the world revolved around us for a period in the 80s when we were teenagers. While Elvis and the Beatles struck a chord with teen boomers, they quickly transitioned their records from innocence to adulthood, skipping over the teen angst phase. In the 80s, we got to luxuriate in angst, anger, ennui — all the adolescent feels — between John Hughes movies and The Cure, Violent Femmes, the Smiths and the Replacements. Bands that directly addressed the adolescent experience. But beyond hardcore punk, and some metal, no one expressed rage/frustration/despair as well as Hüsker Dü. On their epic double album Zen Arcade (1984), loosely telling the story of a teenage runaway with heartbreaking melodies and kaleidoscopic psychedelic colors hiding behind blackened sheets of distortion. They burned bright, hot and fast, putting out an average of two albums worth of new material every year from 1984-87, then were gone. Grant Hart’s death ensured there would be no reunion, which sucks, but also leaves their legacy unsullied by awkward attempts to reignite that blowtorch.
#2: The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Cream may have been the original power trio, and most certainly a groundbreaking one, but Jimi Hendrix was a whole new level. He slogged it out for years as a journeyman with other artists, from Little Richard to the Isley Brothers, and when Chas Chandler plucked him from playing tiny rooms in New York City and brought him to England to assemble a power trio, he probably didn’t even know what he was in for. Hendrix’s brain was spilling over with creativity, and swinging London in 1966 was just the place for him to to fuse with his exceptionally road tested musician chops with a new band. He was sneaky presenting his cover of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” as a respectful tribute to his elders, but then just obliterating them. He did the same thing to the Beatles, playing “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” just a few days after it was released, showing that complex psychedelic rock, which the Beatles were too chicken to even attempt to pull off live, can be done in the hands of a master.
By now everyone knows Rush’s amazing story thanks to the documentary Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage (2010). But years before, especially during their wilderness years of the 90s, Rush were distinctly uncool, presumed to be hated by all women, and anyone with proper taste. But the band’s character and dedication to their art gradually won over bigger and bigger audiences, until they were a huge concert draw, a global brand in a way similar to Iron Maiden. The power trio format was so perfect for the band, allowing each musician’s talents to expand over the years. It’s impossible to imagine another member being added to the trio of Neil Peart, Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson without messing up their magical and disarming chemistry.
- Jimi Hendrix Experience
- Hüsker Dü
- The Jam
- Colour Haze
- Yeah Yeah Yeahs
- The Police
- ZZ Top
- Dinosaur Jr.
- Blue Cheer
- Walt Mink
- Dirty Three
- Meat Puppets
- Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
- The Obsessed
Bubbling Under (Honorable Mentions)
High On Fire
Babes In Toyland
Screaming Blue Messiahs
Yo La Tengo
Crosby, Stills & Nash
Place of Skulls
Grand Funk Railroad
Stevie Ray Vaughn and Double Trouble
A Place to Bury Strangers
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
House of Large Sizes
Them Crooked Vultures