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
06. The Dead Weather
Years Active: 2009-Present
Super Friends: The Dead Weather fuses heavy-hitters from garage rock and alternative rock that already hit pretty hard on their own, namely Jack White, The Kills’ Alison Mosshart, Dean Fertita of Queens of the Stone Age, and Jack Lawrence from The Greenhornes (not to mention another of White’s bands, The Raconteurs).
“Superest” Song: The riff-tastic “Die by the Drop” captures the feral interplay between all four members, particularly Mosshart and White’s yowling, back-and-forth vocals.
Playin’ in a Travelin’ Band: If the intensity on record seemed cranked to 11, magnify that tenfold for their live shows. Having two explosive band leaders (three if we’re counting Fertita) share the stage could be a challenge, but Mosshart and White play together like two wolves hunting their prey.
Super Powers: Jack White took a step away from fronting one of the most important bands of a generation to form the supergroup side project The Raconteurs, who went on to cross the globe with some amiable guitar rock. As if that wasn’t enough, he followed that up with an even bigger supergroup, The Dead Weather. White offers his staccato yelps from behind the kit while Mosshart howls at the fore, Fertita and Lawrence laying out jagged slabs of some of the most ferocious and inventive rock of the last couple of decades. Each musician gets their time to shine whether that’s via slippery solo or jackhammer wail, and yet it all fuses together into a mercurial chemistry. –Lior Phillips
05. Traveling Wilburys
Years Active: 1988-90
Super Friends: No, you’re not staring into the sun. That’s just the blinding star power of a group featuring a Beatle, a Heartbreaker, a Voice of a Generation, Mr. Blue Sky, and the Big O himself. George Harrison was looking to have some friends help him record a B-side – what would become “Handle with Care” – and gathered with Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison over dinner at Bob Dylan’s Malibu recording studio. By dumb luck, the “quiet Beatle” forgot a guitar at Tom Petty’s house nearby, which is how Petty ended up as part of the group. Oh, and that’s legendary session drummer Jim Keltner on the skins. Whooey, it’s bright in here.
“Superest” Song: “Handle with Care”, the one-off song that led to the group, in a landslide. The phrase itself comes from Harrison seeing a box in Dylan’s garage marked with it, and he turned it into a highly relatable and sweet plea for gentleness following a rough patch of being “beat up and battered around.” While Harrison handles the verses, all five Wilburys sing on the track, including a tender bridge by Orbison that confesses, “I’m so tired of being lonely.” Apart from a final solo record, it’s one of the last vocals Orbison ever recorded and fittingly bookends with 1960’s “Only the Lonely”.
Playin’ in a Travelin’ Band: The name “Wilbury” comes from a studio joke between Harrison and Lynne; whenever parts got botched, Harrison would tell Lynne, “We’ll bury ’em in the mix.” Originally, Harrison wanted to call the band the Trembling Wilburys, but Lynne suggested “Traveling” as a better adjective. It’s a bit of a misnomer, though, because the Wilburys never actually toured their music. While busy solo careers and Roy Orbison’s death just a half-year after recording their debut may have derailed plans to tour the multi-platinum smash, Harrison definitely had spent some time envisioning what a Wilburys tour might look like. Petty, on the other hand, suggested that touring would have been too “formal” a function and robbed the Wilburys of the looseness that made them special. In the decades since the band’s split, all the surviving members, particularly Petty, have occasionally worked old Wilburys tunes into their sets.
Super Powers: One gets a sense that The Traveling Wilburys served as a brotherly escape for its five main members. Each one was already a legend — though at different points and levels of popularity in their careers — and found a friendly outlet for telling stories, writing songs, and recording them without hassle or expectation. The fact that each donned the surname Wilbury for the project with a different old-timey Christian name sort of tells you that no Wilbury felt held against his will. Even though the supergroup would only last three years, the five continued to partner on projects and tours both during the band’s run and in the years that followed. Maybe the most telling sign of musical brotherhood comes in the music video for “End of the Line”, which was filmed after Orbison died of a heart attack in late 1988. During Orbison’s recorded vocal parts, the camera focuses on a guitar in a rocking chair next to a picture of the late, great artist. Once a Wilbury, always a Wilbury. –Matt Melis