A band name is about as important, I think, as the name of a person. Which is to say that it can help or hurt in minor ways early on, but is basically inconsequential in the end. Where actual human names differ from band names is that we can benefit from our lineage. If I’m the evident son or daughter of so-and-so, it may have a positive impact on my life and career. That doesn’t work for bands. Example: I could gather four friends and a few instruments and invite you to the first ever performance “Pearl Jam Two.” The name might make you double-take. Maybe you’d laugh. But you wouldn’t assume anything—at least anything positive—about our talent. And unless you were really bored or lonely, I hope you wouldn’t come to our show.
Talent, of course, trumps a name. Take ‘The Beatles.’ Thinking about it now, I’m genuinely uncertain whether ‘The Beatles’ is a great name, an awful one, or somewhere in between. What I do know is that when I think about the band, I don’t imagine a group of small, scuttling insects with hard exoskeletons. And not just because the Fab Four spell the word with an “a.” Their legendary status has eclipsed the actual meaning of the name.
This happens to all great bands. We’re (rightly) conditioned to consider the product rather than the title, and in the midst of interesting melody and lyrics, it’s a fairly easy job. Who cares about a Beatle? Still, when looking back at the greats, it’s possible to evaluate their names on a rigorously independent great/good/average/poor/terrible scale. Here’s an example of each:
Great: The Smiths
Morrissey and Marr conjured a fantastic—and rare—synthesis of name and content. In the broadest sense, their songs were about England—all the strangeness and contradictions and absurdity contained in a place choked with surface propriety—while its former glory continued to fade. “The Smiths,” a representative surname and a prototypical family, evokes all that stiff normalcy on one hand, and all the subterranean oddities and neuroses on the other. In fact—and this is important—you don’t have to know the music to understand the band. It makes you laugh. It’s perfect.
Good: The Velvet Underground
Now would be a good time to note that I’m judging these names in a vacuum. The music, along with the back-story behind the name and the intent of the artist, doesn’t matter. Band names have to be judged alone. “The Velvet Underground” is a poetic example that sounds cool and calls up an interesting scene. It doesn’t blow your mind by encompassing all aspects of a specific society and era like “The Smiths,” but it’s damn good anyway.
Average: The Rolling Stones
It’s simply “average” because it references a personality type in an interesting way, but cannot on its surface claim a broader significance or an especially clever commentary. And I’m frankly not sure whether Mick Jagger should be applauded or booed for naming his group after a Muddy Waters song. In either case, the result isn’t cringe-inducing, and that accomplishment is harder than it appears; just ask Rage Against the Machine.
Names that try to sound like they’re badass (or controversial, or flip) tend to get a poor rating. See also: ‘The Beastie Boys,’ ‘The Sex Pistols.’ Today, there are fewer of these examples. Coy irony and self-deprecation have largely replaced overt masculinity in the poor category.
It’s a flimsy kind of shorthand that, on its surface, feels hollow and superficial, like a text message from a 12-year-old who you’ve just wished a Happy Thanksgiving. (Put down your pitchforks, Bono devotees; I remind you that we’re judging these names by themselves, and this is no commentary on the music.)
Now that we’ve established criteria that are neither objective nor entirely clear, let’s take a gander at the new kids. What were the best new band names of 2011? What were the worst?
Note: for this list, I’ve consulted a variety of sources. I’m familiar with the music of some, and unfamiliar with others. I tried not to let talent, or lack thereof, affect the choices. Obviously, the idea of a “new band” is pretty hard to define. All these bands were around, and making music, before 2011. Some of them have released albums before 2011, and some of those may even have been on labels. But insofar as such things can be defined, these groups gained a legitimate following this year. I’m putting them in order for my own amusement; #1 is best, #1 is worst. First, a bonus:
Most Hilarious, Least Internet Searchable Band Name:
It’s a group of dudes, and man, I have no idea if they conceived the name just because it would lead to problems when you searched them out on Google, but I hope that’s the case. Because that would be very funny. The name also has the potential to lead to some interesting conversations. Who are you going to see tonight? Young Girls. What’s on the headphones? What do you want for Christmas? You get the idea.
10. David Wax Museum
I know I’m not supposed to consider the origin. I know that. But this band features a guy named David Wax. Maybe this name is actually terrible, but I can’t help but admire and applaud anyone willing to make that kind of pun on his own name for public consumption. Call it a guilty pleasure.
9. The Soft Moon
Nice, imagistic, serene.
8. I Break Horses
Yeah, it sort of has that Euro precious thing going on (and indeed, the dudes behind it are Swedes), but there’s a western, rugged vibe I dig.
7. The Seventeenth Century
I like names that are surprising, but not because they’re controversial or weird or mordant. I have no idea which aspects of the 1600s the name refers to, if any, but I like that it’s a big, bold name with an impressive power of association.
6. Dry the River
Some metaphors work, some don’t. This one’s great.
5. Library Voices
Great double meaning for a soft, folksy band. I imagine a lot of people hate this name, but I would argue that the hatred has more to do with the type of music rather than the name itself.
4. The Lumineers
Without looking it up, all I can tell about this band name is that they’re trying to cast light on something. Which may sound like a pretentious idea, I grant you, but the archaic-sounding “Lumineer” lends it an earnestness that sounds vital and juuuust a wee bit badass.
Is it “Widow Speak” or “Widow’s Peak?” Probably the latter. Either way, I dig the simplicity and the image.
2. The Civil Wars
This name is so good that I can’t believe it hasn’t been used before.
1. Raised on Replicas
For our generation? Fantastic. Almost “Smiths” good.
10. Action Bronson
Gag me. Gag me with pop-culture references and their smirky tone.
9. Cult of Youth, Youth Lagoon
Two bands here. We get it; you’re young. One band managed to succeed with ‘Youth’ in its name, and that band, of course, was Sonic Youth. And I’m pretty sure they didn’t throw it in our faces. Ten years ago I would probably have skipped past these names, but I’ve realized lately that the only special thing about being young is the perception that you’re special because you’re young. And by special, I think I mean “grating.” Or something.
8. Suuns and The Deeep
Two bands here, following in the footsteps of Wavves. Notice an (obnoxious) trend?
7. Christian AIDS
CONTROVERSIAL! THIS BAND PLAYS BY ITS OWN RULES!
5. The Super Happy Fun Club
If I had to describe this band name with another band name from the list, I would choose ‘Yuck.’
I hate you. I hate you so much. In fact, I hate this name so much that I automatically hate the music. This could be a reincarnation of Bob Dylan and fucking Mozart and I would still refuse to listen.
3. Morbid Grape
This is one of those word combinations that produces guffaws from two groups: people whose sense of humor stopped developing at age 14, and 14-year-olds.
SBTRKT comes from the ‘dubstep’ genre, and I almost feel bad including it because I think those dudes operate by a different set of rules. But man, this sucks.
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.
This name is so deeply wrapped in layers of irony and smugness and hipsterism that it’s essentially the Judah Friedlander of band names. And boy, do I hate me some Judah Friedlander.
I don’t want to end on a negative, so I’ll say for the record that most of the new band names I came across were good. It certainly took longer to fill the bad list, anyway. We’ll never be rid of the bad ones, but I think the kids are all right. And, also, it doesn’t even matter. Thanks for listening.