The Foo Fighters’ career has been a series of improbabilities. There is the first, and most obvious hurdle: The idea that any member, let alone the drummer, would rise from the ashes of Nirvana after Kurt Cobain’s suicide and, while not necessarily defining a whole other generation of music (in the way of, say, Joy Division and then New Order), would continue to thrive commercially and artistically. This isn’t meant to downplay the roles Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic played in Nirvana — the trio that recorded the band’s two classic albums was one of those lineups you can’t imagine any other way, one of the lineups that you read about coming together through circumstance and seeming forces of nature in a way that becomes simultaneously very discouraging and untouchably inspiring if you’ve ever tried to put together a functional band yourself. And, of course, Grohl was a monster behind the kit, one of the most identifiable and beloved drummers of his generation.
The issue is that the legacy he was stepping out from under, for better or for worse and partially media-created or not, was one of Cobain being a voice of the generation, of Nirvana being a watershed cultural moment in of itself (well, alongside the other Seattle bands). It all seems heavy enough from a professional or artistic standpoint, and that’s not even beginning to reckon with the personal trauma that must have characterized Grohl’s sudden loss of his friend. In another history, Grohl accepted Tom Petty’s offer to become the full-time drummer of the Heartbreakers in ’94, or he might’ve replaced Dave Abbruzzese in Pearl Jam, and maybe he still wound up contributing to Queens Of The Stone Age or something. He’d still be one of the most respected and beloved drummers of his generation, and nobody would fault him for anything.
Thing is, not only did Grohl decide he was going to start his own musical project, he also decided to go at it as a vocalist and guitarist, and then it turned out he emerged from Nirvana with a penchant for indelible hooks and riffs that propelled his next band through a long and fruitful career. This is sort of bizarre to think about, but the Foo Fighters turn twenty in two years (or next year if you count Grohl distributing cassettes to his friends in late ’94). In lesser hands, Foo Fighters would’ve inevitably been a footnote to Nirvana, but Grohl proved himself such a consistent songwriter and able (and perpetually affable) performer that Foo Fighters have weathered multiple changes of the guard, starting with the decline of the grunge era Grohl came out of. Probably most crucially, they distinguished themselves amongst the crop of post-grunge mainstream hop-ons, whether you’re talking about the watered down alt-rock of the Collective Souls of the world or all the histrionically guttural mall-rock Vedder impressions that became inescapable as the ’90s wore on. Grohl, for his part, still trafficked in the quiet verse/loud chorus formula he’d help pound into popularity alongside Cobain, but now even when he was angsty he favored power chords that were power-pop rather than post-grunge, endorphin rush rather than moody posturing.
While the elements Grohl preferred have ensured that the albums the Foo Fighters released in the latter half of the ’90s have aged a lot better than the output of many of their contemporaries, they’ve definitively dated them in more recent years. Now Foo Fighters live on as alt-rock journeymen, on the vanguard of a next generation of classic rock. Grohl & co. never really seemed interested in bids to stay current, never dabbled in the indie-rock trends that came to rule the ’00s. When they have strayed away from their formula, it’s been rather clumsy — like their performance with Deadmau5 at last year’s Grammys. That’s the thing about Foo Fighters: they’re best when they’re dependable, and that’s really what you want them to be. A band that might not have made the album that changed your life, but has made a lot of really strong ones, which maybe you associate with a few important memories. They’re the sort of artist you don’t really want to change, moments like the Deadmau5 collaboration becoming wince-inducing like the cool but aging uncle wandering from what he does best.
If that last bit seems an ambivalent note leading into a Counting Down feature, it isn’t. The idea that bands like Foo Fighters are no longer relevant is more or less a product of writers like me deciding that fact. Yes, their sound is and forever will be rooted in a certain bygone era (whether it’s the ’90s or their own youths), but each time they seem to be flagging they come roaring back with a new sense of purpose, Grohl’s pop hooks garnering late-era hits (occasionally) as strong as their classics. It feels as if the Foo Fighters might be under-appreciated now because they’re the sort of band that keeps plugging along and you wind up taking for granted as this enjoyable thing that’s happening over there. We don’t write about them because there doesn’t seem to be a cultural narrative to attach to them. And yet, they are still a force, playing to massive crowds and winning awards. In their way, those arguments for the band’s continued relevance might ironically underline the extent to which Foo Fighters are left over from another era: a big rock band from the last time big rock bands truly dominated the mainstream. Maybe that’s where the narrative of the Foo Fighters lies, a continuing story of a band that has thwarted any number of circumstances that should have made them fade away. Instead of trivia populating the Wikipedia entry of Grohl’s life post-Nirvana, Foo Fighters have became the sort of rock band whose name will live on itself, with an engaging body of work to accompany that legacy. Here are those albums, ranked from worst to best.
Start the Countdown here.