Most of us are born with an inclination toward supergroups. My first supergroup was a diabetic concoction of Cap’n Crunch, Lucky Charms, and Fruit Loops all floating in the same cereal bowl and turning my milk a color that would stump marketing execs at Crayola. A few years later, I spent countless hours playing fantasy general manager and drafting Dream Team-rivaling hoops squads on PlayStation. Not long after that, I completed a middle-school history project in which I reimagined Woodstock with a lineup of contemporary bands that I felt captured the original festival’s spirit. If I recall, I regrettably organized the Summer of Nu-Metal – shame on me.
Of course, all of this, except for my Frankenbreakfasts, was pure fantasy. Our parents rightly teach us early on to make practical choices, compromise, and settle because we live in a world where we can’t have it all – where we can’t play pick-and-choose with reality like it’s a video game or breakfast on the go. The appeal of supergroups, in part, recalls that selfish, fussy kid in the cereal aisle who wants the best of all sugary worlds at the same time. So, when bits and pieces of our favorite bands merge and join forces to create something new and promising, some small part of our spoiled selves rejoices in the world having delivered what usual only comes to fruition in our imaginations.
What strikes me most about supergroups — both those on this list and in general – are how varied their origins and subsequent journeys often are. My favorite story of how a supergroup came together goes to Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends, the lead singer of which, Screaming Lord Sutch, more or less tricked his backing band by turning a playful jam session into his debut album. Devious to be sure and all the more shocking when you find out that band included Jimmy Page, John Bonham, Jeff Beck, and Noel Redding. Some of the supergroups on this list came together through friendship or mutual admiration while the impetus for others was creative frustration or even shared tragedy. In some instances, these groups formed and split in the relative strum of a chord; in others, the supergroup, so often thought of as a side project, became the de facto regular group and for what those artists involved are most remembered. In each case here, an aligning of stars, however ephemeral, made a significant impact on music as we know it.
So, how did we make sense of the term “supergroup” in order to make this list? Well, the majority of the supergroup’s band members must’ve been relatively well known prior to joining the group in question. Secondly, each group on this list recorded at least one proper studio album together. That criterion eliminates dozens of contenders who might have only existed as a group for a single night or performance. Beyond that, we stuck to the supergroup eyeball test. For instance, Foo Fighters felt more like a Dave Grohl solo project that later got fleshed out, Broken Social Scene (by their own admission) more a collective than an actual supergroup, and Plastic Ono Band more a rotating ensemble than a steady unit. At any rate, these are the supergroups we feel truly live up to that super billing.
Excelsior! (I’ve always wanted to say that.)
10. Them Crooked Vultures
Years Active: 2009-10 (on hiatus)
Super Friends: Them Crooked Vultures brings together two of the biggest hard rock heroes of the last few decades in Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme and Nirvana/Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl — and then combines them with one of the absolute gods of rock ‘n’ roll, Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones.
“Superest” Song: The herky-jerky blues thrill of “No One Loves Me & Neither Do I” has one of those iconic guitar groove breakdowns that made Zep legends in the first place, boosted with a dash of desert stoner goodness.
Playin’ in a Travelin’ Band: It’s telling that Them Crooked Vultures started hitting festivals and massive live sets months before their studio recordings hit. Their mastodon stomp was designed for the stage, and their roaring performances showed it.
Super Powers: You’d think that a 28-year age gap between its members might mean we’re dealing with strange bedfellows, but then the language of rocking out seems to transcend decades. Seeing modern rock heroes Grohl and Homme play alongside a member of one of the most important classic rock bands was an amazing shock, but just imagine what it must have been like to actually be one of those guys. For a couple of kids growing up on Zeppelin, Grohl and Homme hold up their end of the bargain, their riff chops matching JPJ’s minute for minute. But let’s not forget the bassist, as he keeps up with the younger guys’ ferocious playing. They only have one album and a year or so of touring under their belts, but you never know when the Vultures could start circling again. –Lior Phillips
09. The New Pornographers
Years Active: 1997-Present
Super Friends: How many Canadian singer-songwriters does it take to screw in a light bulb? Not sure, but to put together a supergroup, what works is bringing together Carl Newman, Destroyer’s Dan Bejar, and Neko Case as a core and then adding in musicians from other bands.
“Superest” Song: Considering the depth of songwriting talent and material in The New Pornographers’ catalog, it’s a difficult choice, but the rollicking, grand “Sing Me Spanish Techno” showcases their charm and ability in equal measure.
Playin’ in a Travelin’ Band: Depending on who’s available, you’ll have a couple of handfuls of brilliant musicians crowd the stage and fill the room with magnetic material. When Newman, Case, and Bejar are all there, the vocal weaving is astonishing, but a night at a New Pornos show is a powerful affair no matter the exact lineup.
Super Powers: Oh Canada! Like a star-studded ensemble romantic comedy, The New Pornographers have a lot of flash and flair, but celebrity isn’t their sole power. Newman’s the orchestra leader here, and the endlessly charismatic songs are the beating heart. Now seven albums into their work as a unit, the group have only gotten better with age, not letting any of their solo projects stand in the way. Even Bejar’s absence while working on Destroyer albums couldn’t throw things off balance, as proven by the new Whiteout Conditions, their first album without him. From the jittery high of “Electric Version” (and the album that takes its name) to the fluorescent Brill Bruisers, The New Pornographers show that a supergroup can thrive on subtlety. –Lior Phillips
08. The Postal Service
Years Active: 2001-05, 2013
Super Friends: The cleverly named The Postal Service came together when Deathcab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard and Dntel’s Jimmy Tamborello started sending each other tapes through the mail. Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis jumped on board not long later while the Mynabirds’ Laura Burhenn and former Tattle Tale member Jen Wood contributed to tours.
“Superest” Song: While jittery, experimental tracks like “Natural Anthem” are absolutely thrilling, how could you put down anything but “Such Great Heights” — the song that launched a thousand covers, commercials, and sweet kisses.
Playin’ in a Travelin’ Band: The Postal Service’s 2003 debut, Give Up, spawned an almost equally beloved tour. After a decade or so of hot anticipation for a follow-up, Gibbard and Tamborello went out for one more quick batch of festival dates before calling it quits.
Super Powers: For a project that started out so quietly (DAT tapes sent through the mail don’t make a ton of noise), The Postal Service sure went on to drive a lot of fervor. It all started when Gibbard contributed vocals to a single Dntel song (“(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan”), and the two decided to keep the magic going. Fusing twitchy electronics and soaring pop chops into an electro-indie masterpiece, Tamborello, Gibbard, and Lewis created a bubbly touchstone for a generation. –Lior Phillips
07. The Breeders
Years Active: 1989-1995, 1996-2003, 2008-Present
Super Friends: When Kim Deal decided to step away from her second-fiddle role with Pixies and take the fore, she did so with the guitarist-vocalist of tourmates Throwing Muses, Tanya Donelly. They eventually added violinist Carrie Bradley from fellow Boston outfit Ed’s Redeeming Qualities and then brought in Slint drummer Britt Walford for their debut. Eventually Kim’s twin sister, Kelley, would become a key member, as well.
“Superest” Song: From the first flash of feedback, it’s clear that “Cannonball” is an absolute all-time classic. It’s certainly not the end of The Breeders’ greatness, but it’s a five-star smash that will never get old.
Playin’ in a Travelin’ Band: The Deals had their volatile moments, but when The Breeders were on, they had some transcendent times. That comes in large part from Kim’s soaring falsetto, already a Pixies secret weapon and now the spotlit tool in The Breeders’ arsenal.
Super Powers: Apparently, The Breeders first billed themselves as Boston Girl Super-Group, which certainly is a bold and straightforward way to describe the band where many shied away from the term. And though they may not have reached the acclaim of Pixies, they’re also far more than the “Cannonball” one-hit wonders that some assume them to be. Those that have dug into the outfit’s four albums know that there’s a lot of subtle depth to The Breeders, in addition to some sweet chops that have provided inspiration to a generation of indie rockers — Boston girls and others alike. Kim Deal deserved her own turn at the front of the stage, but The Breeders were so much more than a new solo project, instead fueled by the contribution of several notable musicians — and their legacy bears that out. –Lior Phillips