The Strokes, Tool, and Nickelback... Evan Serpick names the imposter in this trio
The Strokes
Credit: The Strokes: Rob Watkins/ RetnaUK

Which rock bands matter — and which don’t

Ten years ago, bands like Rage Against the Machine and Cypress Hill fused rock and hip-hop into a crunching, aggressive new sound that largely conquered rock radio and continues to dominate. Call it rap-rock, nu metal, whatever you want — quoth Billy Joel, ”it’s still rock ‘n’ roll to me.”

But for the casual listener, it may be hard to differentiate between the endless stream of new rockers who pop up like zits on an eighth-grader. That’s where we come in. As always, EW helps you separate the champs from the chumps — and the goodie goodies from the hipsters. As you listen to your local rock station or surf CDNow, use this handy guide.

The Innovators Amid all the bluster, reverb, and growl of most modern rock bands, a talented few distinguish themselves as originals within the mainstream. When Tool started playing it’s brand of epic, symphonic heavy metal in 1993, they were the furthest thing in the world from the rock mainstream. Even now, few other bands can get an eight-minute single played with any regularity.

Looking forward, System of a Down is one of the few bands that seems to be leading the pack in a direction that is at all fresh. When their 1999 single ”Sugar” hit radio — after mass word-of-mouth appeal — it was one of the most hardcore tracks ever to hit heavy rotation. Their recent album, ”Toxicity,” which manages to combine thrash and supremely delicate melodies, is already inspiring copycats.

The Spin-Offs The new rock follows an unfortunate reality in popular music, where artists that get the most acclaim, sales, and fame, are usually at least one generation removed from the real pioneers (think Elvis, the Eagles, and MC Hammer). Most of the best-selling current rock acts, like Linkin Park, Nickelback, and Staind combine their predecessors’ sound (Limp Bizkit, Stone Temple Pilots, and Korn, respectively) with a poppier appeal and go mega-platinum.

The Goodie-Goodies Proving the elasticity of spiritual music, a few Christian-oriented bands have infiltrated the hard rock arena. Anathema a few years ago, Creed sells millions of records by playing hardcore — but overwhelmingly generic — hard rock with religious-right messages about salvation, grace, and family values. Even more remarkable, P.O.D. (Payable On Death) play derivative spiritual thrash-rap. A few years ago, this stuff would be strictly the domain of parody — now it’s an industry institution.

The Hip-Hoppers The influence of rap and R&B can be heard through virtually all popular music. Scratched records, rapped lyrics, and funk samples can all be heard throughout pop and rock playlists. A few artists have tried to integrate the genres further. On his lastest album, Kid Rock mixes hard-rock bluster with hip-hop style (albeit cartoonish) to craft a reckless modern hero who will doubtedly appeal to a wide swath of kids. Hip-hop producers the Neptunes approch the cross-polination party from a different perspective. For years, the duo crafted rap tracks for the like of Jay Z, Mystikal, and Noreaga. Recently, they also produced songs for Britney Spears and ‘N Sync. Now, under the name N.E.R.D. (No One Ever Really Dies), they are releasing an album of songs that use live instruments and rock arrangements to convey a hip-hop sensibility. The first single ”Lap Dance” is already on heavy rotation at New York City’s K-Rock.

The Hipsters Of course, alternative-minded rock fans will always find music outside the mainstream that appeals to their particular tastes. One surprise, however, is that a few of these indie-minded favorites have found their way into the mainstream alongside more pop-oriented acts. After an emormous round of critical raves from both sounds sides of the Atlantic, the Strokes, with their homage to bygone New York rockers like Television and the Velvet Underground, have started to make an impact on radio. Similarly, pretty-boy indie fave Pete Yorn has pushed his way into the mainstream with low-fi guitar grace and an army of devotees.

There you go, folks. Now get out there and mosh.