The Best Band From Every State
Place and musical taste hold immense power over your identity -- probably more than you'd like to believe. Maybe you're a woman from Texas who loves country; a bro from Vermont who can't get enough Phish; a California tech executive who's really into... screamo? Sure!
That's part of why making a list of the best band from every state is so enragingly fun: It implicitly makes a statement about the quality of your home state, and choosing just one band will invariably piss people off. We embrace it.
Of course, it's helpful to know what criteria we used to come up with these (subjective) picks. Here were the guiding principles in figuring out our choices:
- The band must have been formed in or primarily based in the state in question. Lots of groups move to Los Angeles or Nashville or New York City after scoring a record deal, but they're not from those cities.
- Only groups, not individual artists, are considered. This admittedly skews the list away from hip-hop and country, but it also skews toward not driving us totally insane trying to wade through every musician from every state.
- We limited ourselves to bands who rose to prominence after World War II.
- These are not simply our favorite bands from every state; we considered a secret recipe of historical significance, influence, popularity, and the nebulous "quality" factor.
Did we get every state right? With apologies to Chuck Brown, Fugazi, and all of the District of Columbia (get statehood, already!), the following bands are perfect, unassailable choices, as you'll discover.
The Swampers are a band you've heard, but haven't seen. Officially named the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, this studio group created the iconic "Muscle Shoals Sound" as the backing musicians for Rick Hall's FAME Studios in -- you guessed it -- Muscle Shoals, AL. The Swampers broke off to start their own Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in 1969, and along the way they combined rock, soul, country, blues, proto-funk, and more to create a uniquely American sound in a tiny corner of northwestern Alabama. You've heard them on tracks like Aretha Franklin's "Respect," The Staples Singers' "I'll Take You There," Bob Seger's "Night Moves," and in collaboration with everyone from the Rolling Stones to Wilson Pickett to Jimmy Cliff to Lynyrd Skynyrd. The 2013 documentary Muscle Shoals, about the original FAME Studios and the sound that came out of it, should be on even the most casual music fan's must-watch list.
Portugal. The Man
The landscape of Alaska, with its snowcapped mountains and bear filled forests, is known for its natural beauty and roaming wildlife. In a 2012 profile of the state's burgeoning indie music scene, a SPIN writer described the way "foul weather fosters a devotion to craft and a pioneer's approach to community." That cold as hell climate, which gives young guitarists plenty of time to work on their scales, might also explain why some of the state's biggest acts, like psych-pop mainstays Portugal. The Man, end up relocating to Portland on the road to stardom. Can you still hear the Wasilla roots of the group's singer and guitarist John Gourley? Maybe. At the very least, the band displays a technical proficiency that likely comes from hours spent hiding indoors.
While "Hey Jealousy" by the Gin Blossoms might be the most immediately recognizable song by a band with Arizona origins -- unless you grew up yelping along to Jimmy Eat World's pop-punk anthem "The Middle" -- the Meat Puppets are the quintessential Arizona band. They might not have the hits of an act like Alice Cooper or the chops of a group like Calexico, but their combination of punk ideals, eclectic taste, and untamed spirit speaks to the mysterious character of the Southwest. While blending country, hardcore, and psychedelic rock, the Meat Puppets have endured longer than many of their SST Records peers of the 1980s, crafting a quirky legacy -- and a lengthy discography -- that's difficult to pin down but impossible to deny.
The pastoral doom metal of Pallbearer can leave you feeling hollowed out. The birthplace of Johnny Cash has proved to be fertile ground for musicians looking to examine humanity's darker impulses -- mid-'00s goth rock staples Evanescence also emerged from the state -- but Pallbearer plumbs these depths with unparalleled virtuosic precision and formal rigor. On records like 2012's Sorrow and Extinction and 2014's Foundations of Burden, the group -- which formed in Little Rock -- mixes the best of '70s metal with the genre's more ornate contemporary tendencies. They make the darkness feel ecstatic.
The Beach Boys
"If everybody had an ocean across the USA," sang The Beach Boys. "Then everybody'd be surfin' like Californ-i-a." It's a revealing sentiment: Golden State surf wax rebranded as psychic balm. There have been more succinct, revolutionary credos from other West Coast groups -- N.W.A's "fuck the police" or Jim Morrison's "people are strange" comes to mind -- but the Beach Boys, with their infectious mix of romantic pep and teenage melancholia, speak to a nebulous, enduring American idea of California as both the end and beginning of a profound project. If only everyone had an ocean, we'd understand.
Like Colorado weather, the state's bands are a wild mix: jam bands (String Cheese Incident), indie favorites (Elephant 6-associated The Apples in Stereo), bro-rock (The Lumineers) and soft radio-friendly listening (The Fray). While Big Head Todd and the Monsters made waves as solid, guitar-driven mid-'90s indie that played on the radio, DeVotchKa better embodies the eclectic spirit of the Rocky Mountain State. Remembered by some for their soundtrack work on Little Miss Sunshine, the Denver-based group plays music that defies easy categorization, but could be called "Eastern European folk-rock-polka-dance jams with Latin American horn influences." Plus they use a theremin. Rock on.
MGMT got a bad rap for shooting to fame as their 2007 debut album, Oracular Spectacular, became the unfortunate soundtrack to frat parties (and post-college parties that wished they were frat parties). We can't really hold that against the duo. Oracular Spectacular may never extricate itself from its fans, but it doesn't have to: MGMT's follow-up, 2010's Congratulations, alienated those who wanted more "Kids" and "Time to Pretend," instead favoring the antagonistic obscurantism of wandering psychedelic electronica, which results in the band's best album. Hatebreed and Sorority Noise are worthy candidates for this title, but neither has had the impact of MGMT; you might not relish seeing artists like Foster the People make a living off a somewhat derivative synthy vibe, but MGMT certainly helped usher in a new era of modern pop-rock.
George Thorogood and the Destroyers
There's a throwaway gag in Wayne's World where Mike Myers imagines being "magically whisked away" to Delaware. "Hi, I'm in Delaware," he deadpans. Though this joke is very, very funny, it's not entirely accurate: The state is not as dull and lifeless as some '90s comedies based on SNL sketches would like you to believe. In fact, it's the home of George Thorogood and the Destroyers, the group that penned "Bad to the Bone," a movie trailer staple with a riff that still has the power to get stuck in your head for days. So, take that Wayne Campbell!
Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers
Many artists from different genres and generations have emerged from the swamps of Florida: 2 Live Crew took Miami Bass and filthy rhymes all the way to the Supreme Court; Orlando-bred pop acts like the Backstreet Boys and N*SYNC brought boy band mania to the masses; and a new generation of South Florida rappers like Lil Pump and Kodak Black continue to create controversy. But the title of best band in Florida has to belong to the one that personifies the area's rebellious yet easygoing nature: Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. Over a long and winding career, the Gainesville native, who died earlier this month at the age of 66, crafted Southern rock hits that spoke to universal truths and familiar emotions in a wry, yearning voice. More than any other rock star of his time, he made myths feel not just real, but attainable.
The ubiquity and omnipresence of "Hey Ya," a song that will likely be played at weddings on whatever planet we inhabit when this one bites the dust, would guarantee the hip-hop duo a spot in this conversation even if it was their only song. But when you take into consideration all the inventive work Big Boi and Andre 3000 accomplished in the time between 1994 and 2003? It shuts down the discussion. It's foolish to compare any other group -- even accomplished ones like TLC, Goodie Mob, R.E.M., or the B-52's -- to the run of albums that includes classics like Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, ATLiens, Aquemini, and Stankonia. OutKast is in its own category.
Sons of Hawaii
The musical tradition of Hawaii is obviously more than plastic ukuleles, cheap grass skirts, and people reminding you Bruno Mars was born there. (No shots at Mr. Mars -- he's a talented dude.) The Sons of Hawaii, whose lead singer Eddie Kamae died earlier this year at the age of 89, were a force in reviving public interest in the history of the state during what's referred to as the Hawaiian Cultural Renaissance. During their heyday of '60s and '70s, the group served as ambassadors for a rich heritage of folk songs and ballads that endure to this day.
Built to Spill
Boise has a lively alternative scene, and Idaho natives Paul Revere and the Raiders scored a Billboard No. 1 hit with 1971's "Indian Reservation." But you can't talk about Idaho without mentioning potatoes and Built to Spill. Doug Martsch, the founder and beating heart of a rotating cast of supporting musicians, is based out of Boise, so you can thank the Gem State for those catchy riffs that helped define mid-'90s indie rock.
Earth, Wind & Fire
This is a tough one. In addition to the sweeping art-rock of Billy Corgan's Smashing Pumpkins, there are groups like Cheap Trick, Wilco, Ministry, Big Black, Jesus Lizard, and Tortoise to contend with. There's the long history of Chicago blues bands. And, yes, there's also a band just named "Chicago." But in terms of longevity, durability, and sheer ability to get your ass moving, it's hard to argue against Earth, Wind & Fire, one of the most important funk and soul acts of all time. A song like "September," the group's chart-topping 1978 hit, has an almost elemental rhythmic pull to it. You can't help but get surrender to its charms.
Bloomington is home to the influential record label partners Jagjaguwar and Secretly Canadian, but arguing against Gary natives the Jackson 5 qualifies as musical blasphemy. Obviously the group is most famous now for including a young Michael Jackson, but during the Motown years of the late-'60s through the '70s, the brothers (Jermaine, Tito, Jackie, Marlon, and Michael) churned out classics like "ABC" and "I Want You Back," which are among the best that Motown ever produced. The pristinely bouncy image the young, uber-talented brothers cultivated was later stained when several of the Jacksons, including Michael, characterized their father/manager, Joe, as an abusive control freak. Then, of course, there's Michael Jackson's dubious reputation, including allegations of child abuse. But damn: Those songs are incredible.
The Everly Brothers
Sorry Slipknot fans -- Des Moines' reigning nu-metal troublemakers don't take this one despite having the most intimidating costumes. Instead, the distinction goes to The Everly Brothers, who might be more associated with Nashville but actually got their start in Shenandoah, Iowa. Long before they got selected for both the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame, the family band serenaded locals on the radio station KMA, where their father Ike Everly hosted his own show. Soon enough, their sweet vocal harmonies would be heard across the country.
It's challenging to make a list like this and not include at least one band that uses the name of a state or city in its name. With our deepest apologies to Alabama, Boston, Chicago, and Missouri, the members in Kansas are a cut above the rest. The '70s AM rock radio kings combined some of the more ornate elements of prog -- the quirky instrumentals, the multi-part song suites, the grandiose album titles -- with the laid-back ease of Southern music, creating a sound that remains ideal for hanging out in a backyard.
My Morning Jacket
You'll never believe this, but the Bluegrass State has an excellent bluegrass and country music tradition embodied by Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass. His Blue Grass Boys band played an essential role in developing the genre, but Monroe achieved more notoriety as an individual artist. While Terry Adams-led NRBQ has decades of history and talent under its belt, Cage the Elephant boasts more commercial success, and Nappy Roots has a place in the rap canon, My Morning Jacket blends the country and bluegrass traditions of their home state with rock and jam band sensibilities to create a sound that's both fresh and timeless, helping them become one of the biggest indie bands of the 2000s. MMJ's 2003 album, It Still Moves, is still the band's finest effort, with lead singer Jim James' haunting, reverberating voice echoing over 12 freewheeling guitar-laden tracks that make you feel like everyone in the group just loves to play.
While it's tempting to simply declare the Hot Boys -- the Cash Money rap outfit of Lil Wayne, Juvenile, B.G., and Turk -- the best band in Louisiana and call it a day, that would be glossing over the history of New Orleans jazz and funk. Specifically, that would mean not giving credit to The Meters, a group that not only scored a handful of minor radio hits in their time but also served as a back-up band to the stars, including Dr. John, Robert Palmer, Jess Roden, Allen Toussaint, and Paul McCartney. The group's command of funk idioms, ability to toggle between styles, and understanding of New Orleans music traditions makes them an easy pick.
Beautiful landscape, lobster, breweries, quaint little liberal arts colleges: Maine has a lot of great things to offer the world. A thriving music scene is not one of them. Good bands come out of Maine, of course, but none have "made it big" in the sense that many of the groups on this list have -- traditional folk outfit Schooner Fare is excellent if traditional American music is your bag, but we're going with Coke Weed, out of Bar Harbor. A mix of female and male vocals, plus a loose, garage-y sound with melodic guitar hooks makes Coke Weed a fun band to put on when you've got a crisp fall afternoon to yourself.
Contemporary Baltimore is a hotbed of musical innovation that's bursting with politically urgent hip-hop, punk, and dance music, and a case could be made for Wye Oak, Lower Dens, or Future Islands and some of the other long-running indie bands that have broken into the mainstream -- early R&B innovators and doo-wop pioneers The Orioles, named after the state bird, also deserve a listen. It's Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally's dream-pop project, however, that earn a nod for their prolific output and ability to develop their distinctive sound without betraying their style. Releasing Depression Cherry and Thank Your Lucky Stars within two months of each other in 2015 was an excellent, respectable troll move that sandwiched a bizarre "fake song hoax," all of which sent the music press into a typing frenzy. Fun!
Aerosmith are bigger stars. Boston embodies the spirit of... Boston. The Cars have more unavoidable radio hits. Mission of Burma came first. There may be bands that produced more for the indie rock revolution than the Pixies, but it's tough to deny the group's lasting influence despite a relatively slim catalog. With ragged guitars, clunking bass lines, singer Black Francis coughing out lyrics low in the mix, and drums that sound like they were recording in your friend's basement (especially on the seminal Surfer Rosa), the Pixies opened the door for the unkempt rock renaissance of the early '90s.
To talk about Michigan music is to talk about Detroit -- and to talk about Detroit is to talk about Motown. The idea of the city as a company town, defined by its relationship to the automobile empires that transformed it into the Motor City, has carried over to the way critics narrativize its artistic history. The thinking goes like this: In the same way Ford, GM, and Chrysler mass produced cars, Barry Gordy's Motown label pumped out soul, R&B, and pop hits. But that type of analysis minimizes the human touch a group like the Temptations brought to their velvety, smooth tracks, songs that deftly floated in the background during a tumultuous decade. They didn't simply roll of an assembly line.
Prince and the Revolution
Any attempt to pithily describe Prince's talent and influence falls comically short, so suffice to say he was the greatest rock guitarist since Jimi Hendrix, and no one really comes close. What many people forget, however, is that he put together one of the greatest bands ever in the Revolution. They had to be: Prince was notoriously difficult and finicky, frequently hiring and firing supporting talent in the span of weeks or days, which he could do because no one was as good as Prince. In guitarist Wendy Melvoin, drummer Bobby Z., keyboardists Lisa Coleman and Doctor Fink, plus bassist Brown Mark -- and numerous other members who cycled in and out over the years -- Prince assembled a crew that could stand up to and even enhance his supernatural talent. There's no "Purple Rain" without the Revolution... and they were really good at basketball, to boot.
Elvis Presley was born in a two room shotgun shack in Tupelo, Mississippi in 1935. Over 70 years later, brothers Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi arrived in Tupelo with their mother, who had recently left the army, and settled in the city's Ida Street housing projects. The raucous, party-starting hip-hop the duo makes under the name Rae Sremmurd may not sound much like early hits of Elvis, but the two acts are united by one by one phrase: rock star. With songs like "Black Beatles" and "No Flex Zone," the group carries on the rule-breaking, hip-shaking lineage of the King himself.
While Kansas City is tied to the legend of jazz innovator Charlie Parker and St. Louis is noted for being the birthplace of early rock trailblazer Chuck Berry, both of those men made their names as solo artists. The same is true for many of the other jazz, rock, and pop acts from the state. But The Rainmakers, a bar band that emerged in the 1980s and still plays shows, are worth celebrating as an example of the state's clever, unassuming charms. A song like "Downstream" off the band's 1986 self-titled record, which name checks Mark Twain and boasts rubbery new wave vocals, offers pleasures both high and low.
The vast open spaces of Montana make it an ideal place for celebrities to retreat from the trappings of fame. In addition to film and TV figures like David Letterman, Dennis Quaid, and Tom Brokaw, the state has also served as a home-base for musicians like John Mayer, Pearl Jam bassist (and Montana native) Jeff Ament, and Huey Lewis (of, you know, Huey Lewis and the News). But when it comes to notable bands from the area, indie rock standard-bearers Silkworm, who first began performing together under the name Ein Heit in Missoula, deserve your attention. For over a decade, the group carved out its own dissonant, bass-driven sound with the help of producer Steve Albini, who oversaw the recording of most of their output on Matador Records and Touch and Go. Following the death of drummer Michael Dahlquist in a tragic car accident, two of the band's remaining members, Andy Cohen and Tim Midyett, went onto form the equally formidable rock group Bottomless Pit.
Omaha has long been a haven for indie artists, thanks largely to Saddle Creek Records, home to Nebraskans like Brights Eyes, Cursive, and The Faint. When a scene has a lot of candidates, it can make the final decision even harder. But Omaha's Icky Blossoms rise to the top despite the name-brand recognition of the above band, mostly because they're just damn fun to listen to. In Icky Blossoms songs, the chillwave aura of Washed Out meets a rhythmic, Crystal Castles-esque dance quality, achieving a cool factor that can occasionally elude Bright Eyes and Tilly and the Wall (one of the latter's members is in Icky Blossoms).
A state whose largest city is known for condensing the bombastic, pleasure-driven soul of America into a 4-mile-long strip of distraction has produced bands that prioritize image first, music later. Panic! At the Disco and Imagine Dragons are the worst versions of this sensibility; the Killers offer some reprieve. Singalong-friendly hits off 2004's insanely popular Hot Fuss, like "Mr. Brightside," "Somebody Told Me," and "All These Things That I've Done," left an indelible mark on the pop landscape. After some meandering, aimless years in the desert, the band attempts to recapture some of the Hot Fuss magic with 2017's Wonderful Wonderful, and it kind of works! If you're more into the alternative, jangly garage scene, give Surf Curse a listen -- anti-Las Vegas at its best.
The Shaggs can't play. Like, they REALLY can't play, and their album Philosophy of the World might prove unlistenable for many. And yet. This group of New Hampshire sisters announced in the opening lines of their 1969 album, their only one before disbanding upon their father's 1975 death, "Oh the rich people want what the poor people's got," as off-time drums and out-of-tune guitars clang against each other. The title song achieves an effortless punk rock ethos at a time just before punk rockers tried desperately to cultivate their outsider status. While on the one hand you might dismiss them as the distressing result of a weird, overbearing father who harbored delusional hopes of making his daughters stars, music never truly belongs to its creators, and there's a reason the likes of Frank Zappa and Kurt Cobain considered Philosophy of the World among their favorite albums of all time.
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
The Boss doesn't need an introduction. His hardscrabble, self-consciously romantic reinvention of rock mythology has itself become a nostalgic commodity, but it's important to pause for a minute and think about the actual band that's supported him through the second half of the 20th century and into the present, providing the spiritual muscle behind his big tent pop revival act. Springsteen himself has gone solo at various points -- to varying artistic results -- but he keeps coming back to the rotating cast of Garry Tallent, Roy Bittan, Max Weinberg, Steven Van Zandt, Nils Lofgren, and Patti Scialfa for a reason. (The late Clarence Clemons clearly also played an important role.) The larger Springsteen project is at the peak of its power when he's summoning that rapturous Jersey sound behind him. That's the surest way to make it to the promised land.
Though James Mercer, the driving force behind the Shins, is commonly thought of as a Portland figure, especially after showing up in a fictional band alongside Colin Meloy and Corin Tucker on Portlandia, his band actually has its origins in Albuquerque, a city that's not exactly known for its whimsy. Often grouped with other mid-'00s acts of the OC and Garden State soundtrack indie era, Mercer's gifts as a songwriter and ear for adventurous production techniques have allowed the band to prosper and develop creatively while other Seth Cohen favorites have flatlined. (Like, uh, Rooney.) As anyone who has spent time with records like Chutes Too Narrow, Wincing the Night Away, and Port of Morrow can attest, the band's work is more thorny and complex than "New Slang," the group's Zach Braff-approved breakout track.
Public Enemy. Blondie. Velvet Underground. The Ramones. New York Dolls. Sonic Youth. Wu Tang Clan. Le Tigre. Beastie Boys. Shangri-Las. The Strokes. Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Billy Joel and the group of corner dwellers singing a capella around a burning trash can on "For the Longest Time." Hundreds of others we can't and won't name here. As the nation's largest city and its unofficial cultural capital, New York City has played a major role in developing artists of every genre, from gospel, jazz, blues, and R&B to rock, punk, post-punk, indie, garage, and many more. The best band in New York could be playing at Trans-Pecos this weekend, Music Hall of Williamsburg the next, at the Beacon Theater in a few months, or maybe they just hung around Max's Kansas City and CBGB back in the '60s and '70s.
So: Television. Formed in 1973, Television comes close to representing the collective influences that produced the punk and post-punk scene bubbling out of New York City's grimy primordial ooze in the 1970s; cofounder Richard Hell is a punk legend, and Television were regulars at the influential venues CBGB and Max's Kansas City. Unlike many punk acts, however, Television focused on musicianship, drawing from the downtown jazz scene that had developed in the city during the preceding two decades. The result was Marquee Moon, an ambitious debut that retained a punk spirit while breaking new ground in structure, rhythm, and themes, epitomized in the 10-minute-long title track. Are they the best band from New York? You can form your own opinions.
North Carolina has one of the most dynamic, compelling, and idiosyncratic local music traditions in the country. In addition to making significant contributions to the the history of gospel, country, and jazz, the state also boasts brilliant groups like Willmington stoner-rock freaks Weedeater and Durham hip-hop innovators Little Brother. At the same time, there's North Carolina's Chapel Hill indie rock scene, which produced Archers of Loaf, Polvo, and the wordy piano-pop of Ben Folds Five. But Superchunk and singer-guitarist Mac McCaughan's yelping vocals reign over the state, emphasizing a punk DIY ethos, a no-bullshit attitude, and musical consistency above all else. Long after "college rock" fades as a marketing buzzword, curious young people will keep discovering this endlessly rewarding band, who are also responsible for founding the influential Merge Records label.
Bobby Vee and the Strangers
The rural North Dakota life described in Chuck Klosterman's essential heavy metal memoir Fargo Rock City isn't exactly populated with mega-successful local bands. That relative scarcity is part of what drove the young writer to obsess over far-flung (and outlandish) acts like Poison, Mötley Crüe, and Guns 'N Roses. But it's not that the state is totally lacking in rock history: Bobby Vee and the Strangers, who originally called themselves The Shadows, made their live debut in 1959 at a Moorhead, Minnesota show by filling in for Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper after they were killed in a plane crash the same day. (Don Mclean later dubbed it "The Day the Music Died" on his hit "American Pie.") From those darkly tragic beginnings, the 15-year-old Vee went on to record a string of hits that made him a teen sensation -- and one of North Dakota's brightest musical stars.
The Isley Brothers
Indie faves Guided by Voices, Pixies bassist Kim Deal's breakout band The Breeders, and New Wave weirdos Devo all hail from Ohio, and all would be a solid choice as the best band from the state. But it's The Isley Brothers, originally hailing from Cincinnati, who have had the greatest influence, longest career, and biggest hits. Starting with wedding staple "Shout," the Isleys had a knack for crafting popular songs -- including "Twist and Shout" and "It's Your Thing" -- that drew on R&B, soul, rock, and gospel influences, which would later develop into a proto-funk sound. In addition to their own considerable skills, they had an ear for talent, hiring a young Jimi Hendrix to play lead guitar in their band before he broke out with his own group. The Isley Brothers are one of the greatest bands of all time, and their legacy lives on in both their hits, and in famous samples; Notorious B.I.G.'s "Big Poppa" is a version of the Isleys' "Between the Sheets."
The Gap Band
Oklahoma is the land of Garth Brooks (and the Flaming Lips), which means The Gap Band often goes overlooked in a state more known for its red-blooded love of country. The Tulsa-born Wilson brothers founded and formed the core of the group in 1967, and for the next 43 years developed a sensibility influenced by George Clinton’s P-Funk collective, with heavy R&B overtones. The result is songs like “I Don’t Believe You Want to Get Up and Dance (Oops!),” which sounds a LOT like a P-Funk song, and fun electro-dance tunes like “You Dropped a Bomb on Me,” a song that makes bouncing along with its beat impossible to avoid. Like The Isley Brothers before them, The Gap Band’s influence has lived on in samples, like in Snoop Dogg’s “Doggfather” and “Snoop’s Upside Your Head.”
Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks
Portland, Oregon is a city that's often spoken of in the binary terms of natives and transplants, but anyone who's lived in a city long enough knows those strict distinctions can become messy. It only makes sense that the state's best band would be headlined by Stephen Malkmus, a transplant from California who by this point scans as a local to most outside observers. (He even plays in a local softball league!) Soon after the break-up of the seminal West Coast indie group Pavement, the Santa Monica-born songwriter skipped up north and launched his next project, which has previously counted notable Portland musicians like the Decemberists' John Moen and Sleater Kinney's Janet Weiss as members.
Artists like the War on Drugs, Modern Baseball, Sheer Mag, Beach Slang, Mannequin Pussy, Nothing, and hometown hero Kurt Vile have helped establish Philadelphia as a national bright spot for guitar-driven rock music. (For a primer, check out this list of the 20 best records from Philly last year.) But the title of best band from Pennsylvania has to go to The Roots, the stylistically nimble hip-hop group that has repped the city hard for nearly three decades. Even while sitting atop the late night perch of the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, acting as hip-hop elder-statesmen to the mainstream, the group has produced musically challenging, politically urgent records that land like gut punches. And, as the long-running Roots Picnic proves, they still know how to throw a party.
Is it cheating to refer to Talking Heads as a "Rhode Island band" when most fans associate them with New York's '70s punk scene? Maybe. Clearly, CBGB, where the group played their first show, was not located in The Ocean State. But the conceptual qualities that separated the group from their grittier, confrontational peers like the Ramones, the New York Dolls, and Suicide were likely picked up in art school at the Rhode Island School of Design, where the group's frontman David Byrne met fellow students Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth. (Before dropping out, Byrne and Frantz even played in a band at RISD called The Artistics.) The Rhode Island DNA was strong with the band and their New York origins hasn't stopped the school from claiming the members as their own.
The Marshall Tucker Band
The Marshall Tucker Band is one of those confusing groups where the band's name includes a person's name, but there actually isn't a "Marshall Tucker" in the band. (This must be a thing in South Carolina because the state's most commercially successful outfit, Hootie and the Blowfish, used a similar tactic.) Anyway, don't hold the lack of a Marshall Tucker against them. Over a long career, the Spartanburg group has deftly mixed bluegrass, jazz, gospel, and country influences to create a winning Southern rock cocktail with the kick of moonshine and the comfort of a cold beer on a warm evening.
Scatter Their Own
Outside of Shawn Colvin, who scored a hit with 1997’s “Sonny Came Home,” South Dakota has produced little of national note in the music department (and, though Colvin was born in Vermillion, it wasn’t until she moved to New York that she started picking up steam). The state features the stark, overpowering beauty of Badlands and the crushing brutality of life on reservations like the Pine Ridge Reservation, which has some of the worst poverty and unemployment rates in the United States. A band from the Pine Ridge, called Scatter Their Own, captures it all. Comprised of Scotti Cliff and Julianna Brown Eyes, Scatter plays alternative rock with lyrical themes that pay “tribute to the concepts and philosophy of their Lakota culture.”
With Nashville the country capital of the USA, and Memphis playing host to a long line of blues artists, Tennessee is robust with music history. Still, Big Star stands out for a couple of reasons. One is that while Nashville and Memphis see hundreds of talented musicians set up shop in bars and recording studios, country and blues tend to emphasize individuals over groups. Another is that Big Star is an incredible tragedy, a band that wrote and recorded some of the most remarkable rock songs of the past half century, yet toiled in obscurity through three under-distributed albums before breaking up. Ingenue Alex Chilton and Chris Bell most effectively combined forces on their debut (ironically titled #1 Record), a compendium of one pop-rock gem after another featuring lush arrangements and dissonant guitars that influenced generations of indie rock after them. The two stars bickered, leading Bell (who was killed in a 1978 car crash) to leave the band -- but not before he and Chilton produced classics like the rocking "In the Street" and the pensive, melancholy "Thirteen." Rap group Three 6 Mafia may have an Oscar, but they can't compete with Big Star's legacy.
The size of Texas encourages artists to chase wild sounds. How else do you explain the vivid psych experiments of the 13th Floor Elevators, the controlled art-rock demolition of Spoon, or the existential hip-hop testimonials of the Geto Boys all coming from one region? The mind clearly has room to wander -- and dream. More so than many pop acts, Destiny's Child was a group defined by competing dreams: The increasing artistic ambitions of Beyoncé Knowles, the financial hopes of her father, and the often diverting desires of Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams. (Let's not forget the other members left behind on the road to success either.) Despite the tension that fans would learn about later, the group's sound on hits like "Say My Name," "Jumpin' Jumpin," and "Survivor" was one of control, independence, and liberation. Though Beyoncé's solo career may now overshadow their relatively small discography, Destiny's Child left behind a creative footprint that's as big as the state they called home. Pop stars have been playing catch up ever since.
Is there a band that conforms more to the stereotypes of Utah than the Osmonds? A large family of devout Mormons, The Osmonds were stars from a young age, having performed on variety shows starting in the ‘60s and enmeshing themselves in the pop culture milieu of the day. In a remarkable callback to other entries on this list, the Osmonds scored their first hit in 1970 when they recorded a single called “One Bad Apple,” a song that was rejected by the Jackson 5 (Donny is the Osmond performing the Michael Jackson-esque background vocals). The recording location? Muscle Shoals, Alabama. They peaked in the early 1970s, when they had a TV show to go with their pop success, which eventually spun off into the Donny & Marie show. The Osmonds are still going strong today, with Donny and Marie performing a show in Vegas -- sometimes child stars turn out OK in the end.
Sorry, Phish fans. The ultimate jam band is as Vermont as maple syrup and Bernie Sanders, but just TRY to listen to one of their albums and you’ll quickly understand why they’re not the best band from Vermont. A more conventional choice would be Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, but only if you’re looking to fall asleep before the end of this story. Instead, we’re going with Lambsbread, a reggae-pop band formed by the two surviving members of Detroit’s proto-punk band Death, who moved to Vermont after their garage project failed, only to be rediscovered by later generations.
"The Neptunes aren't a band!" you yell at your computer, before realizing it's an inanimate object and we can't hear you. Since we’re here, though, we’ll just say: Aren’t they? Made up of producers Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, the duo produced an absurd amount of pop and hip-hop in the late-‘90s and early 2000s, building Pharrell’s drumming into a distinct sound that was virtually unavoidable -- one survey estimated that they had their fingers on 43% of the songs played on the radio in 2003. OK, perhaps picking the Neptunes is a cop-out, but how else can anyone choose the best band in a state that’s birthed the likes of country and folk legends The Carter Family and The Stanley Brothers; jammy bro groups the Dave Matthews Band and Old Crow Medicine Show; Neptunes-associated rap duo Clipse; hardcore and metal heroes GWAR and Lamb of God; and, of course, Leesburg’s own Car Seat Headrest?
Of all rock's many micro-genres, grunge is probably the one most often associated with the lazy cliche that the gray skies of the Pacific Northwest somehow inspired the moody wails of groups like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden. But if Washington is truly so filled with despair, how do you explain the defiant howl of Sleater Kinney? Along with other Olympia, Washington groups like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and Heavens to Betsy, the trio, who reunited for the excellent comeback album No Cities to Love in 2015, forged a sound that was raw, ferocious, and exhilarating. Anchored by Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein's alternating vocals and thundering guitars, records like Call the Doctor, Dig Me Out, One Beat, and The Woods stand up against any full-lengths in discographies of their Seattle peers. To listen to them is to get swept up in their whirlwind.
Asleep at the Wheel
West Virginia is about as backwoods as it gets, so it won’t come as a surprise that the best band from the state is a country group: Asleep at the Wheel, formed in the great town of Paw Paw, West Virginia in 1969. They later moved to Texas, where they made significant contributions to Western swing and country music over the course of more than 40 years under the direction of Ray Benson. If you’re looking for a stricter definition of the West Virginia music experience, check out The Lilly Brothers, a bluegrass group that conjures up the banjos-and-hunting images many associate with the state.
America's most dairy-laden state has given the world so much more than the Packers and extra-sharp cheddar. Mainly Garbage. The Madison group served as the Midwestern vanguard of grunge-twinged alternative rock, with Butch Vig -- the guy who produced Nirvana's Nevermind, Sonic Youth's Dirty, and Smashing Pumpkins' Siamese Dream -- on drums and a viciously blasé Shirley Manson belting out lyrics to massive hits like "Stupid Girl" and "Only Happy When It Rains." Early indie stars like Violent Femmes and guitar god Steve Miller's eponymous band also deserve mentioning in any record of notable Wisconsin bands, but none of them put out a song as good as "Queer."
So much land. So much sky. So few people. So little music. The nation’s least populous state hasn’t set the world on fire with its bands, but check out the Lillingtons, a rock-solid pop-punk group that sounds like it would be more at home in the gutters of New York City than the wide-open spaces of Wyoming. After their breakup in 2001, vocalist and guitar player Kody Templeman went on to play with Wyoming’s other notable pop-punk band, Teenage Bottlerocket. It’s a small scene out west.