Boston is famous for a lot of things. Baked beans, the Boston Marathon, cream pie, and Red Sox. There is also the MIT, clam chowder, and the Boston Tea Party. The list can go on and on and on.
The city has also given the world an inordinate amount of rock music. From Aerosmith to Extreme, a lot of rock bands had their roots in Boston.
Here are 15 of the most famous rock bands from Boston. And if there’s a band on this list that gives you pause (“How famous can they be? I never heard of them”), understand that some of Beantown’s greatest acts occupied a niche that maybe you haven’t come across yet. Read this list to find out.
Let’s be honest. No way this list has any other band than Boston in the number one spot. It’s aptly named, as the founding members hail from the city. The band’s genre is hard rock and arena rock.
Founded by Tom Scholz, Boston gave us “More Than a Feeling” and two other hits from their 1976 self-titled debut album. Boston would remain one of the fastest-selling debut albums in US history. It sold more than 17 million copies and reached #3 on the Billboard 200.
The band garnered more attention and success after headlining a tour in 1976-1977 to promote their album. This led to Boston being nominated for a Grammy Award as “Best New Artist.” Aside from that, they were the first band to debut at Madison Square Garden.
Another of Boston’s successful albums is Third Stage, which reached #1 on Billboard 200. Its lead single, “Amanda,” went on to claim the top spot on Billboard Hot 100.
2. The Cars
The New Wave movement covered a lot of acts but few combined more disparate elements into a cohesive sound than The Cars. Ric Ocasek and Benjamin Orr met in Ohio and started playing together before settling in Boston in the 1970s.
The Cars drew from punk, synth-pop, and even some hints of rockabilly to create its identifiable sound. The charts took notice.
The Cars had a long string of hits, including their first hit, “Just What I Needed.” This song was played heavily on Boston radio stations. The band followed with “Shake It Up” and “Since You’re Gone,” among others.
“You Might Think” won the very first Video of the Year award at 1984’s inaugural MTV Video Music Awards ceremony.
Our next band might be the hardest-rocking band on this list. Blending blues and hard rock into a party-fueling sound, Aerosmith members had been playing in and around Boston for a while.
They became Aerosmith in the early 1970s, a name that drummer Joey Kramer suggested. After completing the band’s lineup, they moved into a home at 1325 Commonwealth Avenue in Boston.
Soon, Aerosmith signed up with a major label and recorded their self-titled debut album. It wasn’t a huge hit on the charts, but it spawned “Dream On,” which has become a rock staple.
Subsequent albums had hits like “Sweet Emotion” and “Love in an Elevator.” The band entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.
4. New Edition
The New Edition was modeled on the framework of the Jackson 5. The band came from the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston and was the predecessor of the modern boy band.
With five talented kids, the group stormed a Hollywood talent night show. And while they didn’t win, they got producer Maurice Starr’s attention.
What followed were hits like “Candy Girl” and “Mr. Telephone Man” and worldwide fame. But there were always the unfortunate side effects of it: infighting, clashing egos, and several splits and reunions.
Outside the band, several members—Bobby Brown, most notably, but also Ralph Tresvant and Johnny Gill—had varying measures of success in solo ventures.
5. New Kids On The Block
With the success of New Edition, Maurice Starr decided to create another group. This time, consisting of white members. His search for members led to the creation of New Kids on the Block.
Donnie Wahlberg was the first member after he impressed Starr with his rapping skills. His brother, actor Mark Wahlberg, also joined but eventually left.
Donnie recruited friends that included Jordan Knight and Danny Wood. Later on, Knight’s older brother, Jonathan, joined the group as well. In 1985, Joey McIntyre, the youngest of them, joined in. All of these members were born in or around Boston.
The group never won a Grammy, but they did win every single Boston Music Award for which they were nominated. Starr’s magic touch did for them what it did for New Edition: made them huge stars.
About 20 miles north of Boston sits the city of Lawrence, home to Godsmack. The band came together in 1995 when lead singer Sully Erna decided to stop being a drummer and become a lead singer.
The band recorded All Wound Up… in 1996. One of its singles, “Keep Away,” received heavy airplay from a Boston radio station. The song reached the top spot on the station. The album, almost unchanged, was re-released by Universal once the band signed with the label two years later.
Their sophomore effort, Awake, went multi-platinum, and Godsmack found themselves big stars. The band has made multiple appearances on the Ozzfest tour over the years and remains a recording and touring act.
7. ‘Til Tuesday
They were a one-hit wonder, sure. We stipulate that. But ‘Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry” was a big hit in the 1980s, and it still gets airplay today. Plus, frontwoman and bassist Aimee Mann would move from ‘Til Tuesday to a solo career that would elevate her to the position of generational spokeswoman and cultural icon.
The band formed in Boston in 1983 and won a city-wide battle of the bands. That victory led to a record deal with Epic Records.
Less than two years after they formed, ‘Til Tuesday had a top ten hit with “Voices Carry.” It reached #8 on the Billboard Hot 100.
8. The Lemonheads
In 1986, three friends came together to form a rock band. By then, Evan Dando, Jesse Peretz, and Ben Deily were still teenagers in Boston. First going by the name of Whelps, the group decided to call themselves The Lemonheads from a brand of candy.
In the same year, the band was able to self-release All the Way to the Cleaners. They quickly racked up some quality gigs and built a following.
But they failed to get national attention, possibly because Dando was writing music that was, genre-wise, all over the place. There were country, punk, and elements of what would become grunge in the band’s early material.
Once they honed in on a sound, “It’s a Shame about Ray” and a cover of “Mrs. Robinson” shot them to fame. There was a long period of hiatus but the Lemonheads reunited and still play today.
9. Letters to Cleo
Without TV and movies, we might not have ever heard of Letters to Cleo. The Boston quintet, fronted by Kay Hanley, landed a single, the 1994’s “Here and Now,” on TV’s Melrose Place soundtrack.
Fast forward to 10 Things I Hate About You, in which they covered Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me.” And of course, the band appeared in the movie.
That same year, the band opened for Cheap Trick in Boston’s The Paradise Club. They also recorded 13 songs for Generation O!, an animated children’s TV series.
In 2000, Letters to Cleo disbanded and reunited seven years later. They figured into the plot of the TV sitcom Parks and Recreation, where they played a fictional concert.
The band still played reunion shows in 2022 though most of the members have solo careers.
10. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones
Formed in Boston, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones infused their horn-driven ska sound with punk rock elements. And though that seems like a weird combination, it paid off.
Now the band is considered one of the forerunners of this genre, ska punk. They were also the creators of the subgenre ska-core, which mixes ska and hardcore punk.
The band played ska music from 1983 to 2022. That’s a pretty good run for a group playing a musical genre that had a small window of mass popularity and then seemed to disappear.
But the band was determined to succeed. They made appearances on MTV’s 120 Minutes and had a #1 hit with “The Impression That I Get.” They also appeared in the Alicia Silverstone classic Clueless.
11. Juliana Hatfield Three
Our next band, Juliana Hatfield Three, was formed in 1993 in Boston, Suffolk County. Creating the band provided the commercial breakthrough that the leader, Juliana Hatfield, had been waiting for.
The band released the commercially successful album, Become What You Are in 1993. The album produced the hit singles “My Sister” and “Spin the Bottle.”
Though the band didn’t last long, she had been a force on the Boston music scene. After Juliana Hatfield Three disbanded, Hatfield embarked on a solo career and appeared in a few television roles.
In 2014, after 20 years, she reformed the band and made its second album, Whatever, My Love.
One of the most successful rock bands in the early 90s was Extreme who formed in Boston in 1985. You’ll probably recognize them for their song “More than Words.”
The single immediately became a hit, reaching the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. Its album, Pornograffitti, was also commercially successful. It reached #10 on the Billboard 200.
The band’s members were catapulted into fame. Frontman Gary Cherone was notable for crooning nicely, and guitar god Nuno Bettancourt deftly wielding an acoustic guitar and warm backing vocals.
But even before Pornograffitti, Extreme had already made a name. In fact, they were awarded the “Outstanding Hard Rock-Heavy Metal Act” at the Boston Music Awards in 1986 and 1987.
13. The Magnetic Fields
Singer-songwriter Stephin Merritt formed The Magnetic Fields in Boston in 1991. It was a vehicle for his songs and his very own musical experimentation lab.
Notable were his resonant baritone voice and choice of unusual instruments. With this combination, his project produced some weird sounds but also some great stuff.
The album 69 Love Songs demonstrated Merritt’s songwriting abilities and the band’s musicality. The album contained 69 songs. One of them is “The Book of Love,” a song covered by Peter Gabriel, lead singer of the rock band Genesis, to great effect.
The Magnetic Fields released a total of 12 albums between 1991 and 2020. As of the moment, the band is still writing and recording.
14. The Breeders
The American alternative rock band The Breeders was only meant as a side project. After all, Kim Deal was already playing with the band Pixies and Tanya Donelly with Throwing Muses.
But when the Pixies split in the early ‘90s, Deal and her sister had some spare time. So they formed The Breeders with Donnelly in 1989. The band’s bona fides were unquestioned since before they were called The Breeders, they were billed as Boston Girl Super-Group. And they lived up to the name.
Their hit single “Cannonball” was a top-five hit. The song was from the equally successful album, Last Splash.
Several problems sidelined the band, and the players have since pursued other projects. In 2012, they reunited and went on tour.
They never had any #1 hits. And to be honest, there were large areas of the country that had never heard of the Pixies. The band was formed in Boston in 1986.
Nevertheless, the band released eight studio albums between 1988 and 2022. Not only that. The Pixies inspired acts as diverse as Radiohead, Alice in Chains, and Nirvana.
In fact, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain admitted to blatantly attempting to co-opt the band’s sound and aesthetic when writing “Smell Like Teen Spirit.”
Also, David Bowie, who made some pretty great stuff in the 1980s, said that the band’s output was the best music of the decade.
Summing Up Our List Of Famous Boston Rock Bands
Boston remains a terrific city to visit. If you’re from there, anecdotal evidence suggests that you have a statistical probability of becoming a successful rock musician. It worked for these 15 acts, right?
If you’re not from Boston, then we hope you had a great time learning about these bands.
They are proof of the immense talent one can find in Beantown. But more than that, we hope that you enjoyed listening to the music they created.