The “Favorite Band” Question

NOTE: See this post for a 2019 update on this biggest of musical questions.

For as long as I have been a sentient being, music has stood as one my most primary passions: I love listening to it, thinking about it, writing it, recording it, reviewing it, and just generally reveling in it holistically in a whole-body fashion. Good music makes me vibrate psychically and physiologically to the very core of my being. It moves me, and how.

People with any personal connection to or familiarity with me generally are acutely aware of my musical obsessions, and if they themselves are musically inclined, they will often seek to engage me on the topic one way or another, typically with the fairly predicable opening question: “So . . . who’s your favorite band?”

Oddly enough, I find that question terribly difficult to answer, since I feel like picking one band above all others will somehow render me more musically one-dimensional than I wish to appear, conversationally or in other people’s mental images of me.

My stock answer to the question for many, many years has been “I like to listen to anything done well.” On the one hand, that’s a facile answer. But on the other hand, it does accurately capture the omnivorous nature of my listening habits. Looking at my iPod play list, just this afternoon, I listened to jazz (Charles Earland), grindcore (Napalm Death), contemporary folk-rock (Frontier Ruckus), classic rock (AC/DC), indie folk from Iceland (Sin Fang), country (Dolly Parton), progressive rock (Jethro Tull) and hard industrial hip-hop (Dalek). And I liked all of it. Seriously.

But if I were to try to answer that question in a more conventional manner, the first thing I would have to do would be to figure out what “favorite band” really means, since I don’t think in such terms normally. To receive such an encomium, I would expect that a listener’s relationship to the artist in question would include such factors as:

  • The listener actively looks forward to listening to the favorite band’s music more than any other music, and does so weekly, if not daily;
  • The listener seeks to have a complete collection of the favorite band’s work, and is willing to spend a little bit more money than usual to acquire it, with special attention paid to albums or singles that less-enthusiastic fans might never find or hear;
  • The listener never grows tired of the favorite band and its works, and anytime they come on the stereo or radio, no matter what the song, it is greeted with volume raising and singing along;
  • The listener seeks to learn more about the favorite band, and will often buy books or magazines or watch television or internet shows related to its members and their music;
  • The listener makes an effort to see the favorite band in a live setting as often as practically possible.

When I apply such a filter, and look back at my music listening life, I can see different bands have met those criteria at different times. In some cases, I’ve loved a band during the time when they were generally considered to be producing their most seminal or formidable work. In other cases, I’ve gotten into bands long after their creative heydays, but have been just as obsessed by them as a Johnny Come Lately as I would have been had I been Johnny on the Spot, discovering them when they were fresh.

If I discard short-term passing fancies, and just look at bands that impressed me most and met the criteria above for multiple-year periods, I can develop an evolving list of favorite bands that looks something like this, with rough dates of favored status indicated:

  • Simon and Garfunkel (Initial musical sentience-1971)
  • Steppenwolf (1971-1973)
  • Wings (1973-1976)
  • Steely Dan (1976-1978)
  • Jethro Tull (1978-1982)
  • XTC (1982-1984)
  • Butthole Surfers (1984-1994)
  • Hawkwind (1994-1998)
  • The Residents (1998-2004)
  • The Fall (2004-2009)
  • Napalm Death (2009-present)

So there’s eleven bands there, each one of which has captured and held my fancy for a long time, in relative terms. Can I pick a favorite among them? Yeah, I probably can, through process of elimination. Some of these can be tossed out since I rarely listen to them anymore (Simon and Garfunkel, Steppenwolf, XTC). And some others are so esoteric that they don’t really work for general listening, but require a more intense, active listening regimen for me, or work best in some specific setting, e.g. the gym, or the office (The Residents, The Fall, Napalm Death). One of these bands (Wings) is a guilty pleasure, and I know that I love them as an adult only because I discovered them as a child, before cynicism set in.

That leaves just four: Steely Dan, Hawkwind, Jethro Tull and Butthole Surfers. And if I honestly and fairly assess which of those three bands has given me the most listening pleasure over the longest period of time, then the answer becomes obvious and clear to me: that would be Jethro Tull, who are playing in the background as I write this post. Sure, they’ve become a nostalgia act live over the past 20 years, and haven’t put out a particularly solid studio album since 1982’s The Broadsword and the Beast (which didn’t move me quite as much on its release, but has aged brilliantly, and become one of my favorites), but their core material, from 1969’s Stand Up through the aforementioned Broadsword, always sounds good to me, and it’s a rare week that I don’t listen to, and enjoy, some part of their canon from that era.

Maybe it’s finally time to just start answering the big question with a more conventional answer. So . . . what’s my favorite band? Right now, that would be Napalm Death. And on a lifetime basis, that would be Jethro Tull.

Wow. That wasn’t hard at all.

At least until the first “Dude, Jethro Tull sucks!!!” e-mail rolls in . . .

15 thoughts on “The “Favorite Band” Question

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  4. All right, so I don’t like Jethro Tull. I don’t like half the bands on the list. But nobody offers more encyclopedic musical knowledge than J. Eric Smith. Nobody. I mean, to think I ever considered myself smart because I knew Junior Walker played saxophone on “Urgent.” That seems like kid stuff now. Thanks, JES, for introducing me to bands I’ve never heard of.


    • Thanks, RH . . . . appreciate it . . . . tell me, though, is this the same RH that geeked music with me at both Mitchel Field and J-ville? If so, I still have your Talking Heads’ “Fear of Music” and “Peter Gabriel III” albums. Ooops!


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  7. My first real memory of you, Eric, is hanging out and listening to Aqualung, somewhere in 1979, I believe. It was you, me, and some other guy. Possibly Jim? Anyway, yes, you have always liked Jethro Tull!


    • I’m sure it was Jim, since he and I both obsessed with Tull in that period of time . . . and spent most of our time together, whether we were listening to them or not . . .

      Who’da thunk that here we’d be, 32 years later???


    • P.S. “Aqualung” was me and Jim’s fave album to listen to when we were partaking of certain flammable herbal substances that shouldn’t be mentioned here since this is a family and work friendly website . . . so does your memory include us being incapacitated, or were we smooth enough to pull that off without giggling?


  8. Out of curiosity — how many people would actually listen to this supremely correct, but admittedly time-consuming, method of parsing out one’s “favorite” band once the question was asked?

    From personal experience (lo, had I a nickle…), I know few people who wanted a nuanced answer to this seemingly casual question. That the missus listened to my prattling and rambling on about music for so many hours — even before we were dating, I might add — was certainly a sign of things to come, I have to think.


  9. Napalm Death are writing a new album as we speak. Also, Shane Embury is playing in Primate along with Kevin Sharp from Brutal Truth and some clown from Mastodon. It’s OK.


  10. I wouldn’t dare say Tull sucks, dude. But I will say this. Nobody in the history of rock ‘n’ roll ever did a better “Arlene Francis wearing her blindfold on To Tell The Truth” impersonation better than Broadway Blotto – which I only saw him do once and that was backstage, and I don’t know if he knew how good it was, or even if he knew he was channeling Arlene in the first place. But it was spot on. Which counts for something amongst us old rock critics who have seed it all.


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