40 Greatest Classic Rock and Roll Songs
Rock and roll can be dangerous and fun at the same time, so thanks a lot.— Billie Joe Armstrong
This list tries to include some of the greatest rock tunes ever, all of which are classics; that is, songs released before the year 2000. Also keep in mind it only includes mainstream rock and roll (and we all know what that is, right?) whether soft or hard rock, but certainly not pop, R&B, soul, funk, blues, hip-hop, disco, jazz, country, bluegrass or classical - just good ol’ rock and roll, period, okay?
Moreover, most of these songs were released as singles, so their exposure has been much greater than songs only available on albums.
So let’s start the countdown!
Rock and Roll is the most brutal, desperate, vicious form of expression it has been my misfortune to hear.— Frank Sinatra
40. Louie Louie (1957)
First played by Richard Berry and the Pharaohs, “Louie Louie” is one of the most played rock tunes of all time. In the old days, this was usually the first tune learned by rock guitarists (the chords A, D, Em,D). Often considered a dirty song, though it isn’t - but you know how inventive kids can be - a seemingly endless number of bands have covered this song, often adding a guitar or saxophone solo, but The Kingsmen in 1963 may have produced the most popular version, though the lyrics are barely intelligible, as they often are in rock songs.
39. You Really Got Me (1964)
Prime culprits in the so-called British Invasion of the middle 1960s, the Kink’s third single was “You Really Got Me,” a hard rock/heavy metal international hit that makes you want to stomp and shout while playing air guitar – no matter where you are! Written by singer/guitarist Ray Davies, “You Really Got Me” uses three-note power chords with plenty of fuzz and distortion – until your ear drums ache. Ray Davies said this about the song: "I was floundering around trying to find an identity. It was in 1964 that I managed to do that, to be able to justify myself and say, 'I exist, I'm here.' I was literally born when that song hit."
38. Somebody to Love (1967)
The words “somebody to love” make a popular song title, and this list includes the song recorded by the Jefferson Airplane. If there’s a song that’s redolent of the Haight/Ashbury subculture of the San Francisco Bay Area in 1967, it must be the Airplane’s “Somebody to Love.” The lead sang by Grace Slick, former sister-in-law of Darby Slick who wrote the lyrics, the tune has a driving, acid-rock tinged favor with a screaming guitar solo at the end. If there’s an anthem for the free-love movement, this may be it.
37. I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll (1982)
Originally recorded by the Arrows in 1975, “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” was catapulted to the level of rock anthem by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts the following decade. Eventually climbing to number one for seven weeks on the US Billboard Hot 100, The Blackheart’s version of the tune has received many accolades, one of which a ranking of #56 on Billboard’s list of the 100 Greatest Songs of All Time; also, in 2016, it was inducted into the Grammy’s Hall of Fame.
36. Hound Dog (1956)
In the early days of rock and roll, Elvis Presley, billed as “Elvis the Pelvis” and later, the “King of Rock and Roll,” covered “Hound Dog,” a twelve-bar blues tune made popular by Big Mama Thornton. After Elvis heard Freddie Bell and the Bellboys perform the tune, he made it the closing song for his shows. Rocketing to stardom in the middle 1950s, Elvis actually became a little too popular for some people, as FBI director J. Edgar Hoover called Presley “a definite danger to the security of the United States,” referring to Elvis’ perceived ability to arouse the sexual appetites of teenagers.
35. Like a Rolling Stone (1965)
Bob Dylan began his singer-songwriting career performing as a folk singer or folkie, producing his debut album in 1962. But in the middle 1960s Dylan began playing an electric guitar and performing with blues artists and rockers who shunned acoustic instruments. In 1965, Dylan released the single “Like a Rolling Stone,” which quickly became the anthem of the counterculture/peace and love generation. Thereafter, Dylan began recording and performing with The Band, an electric ensemble, though he’s always stayed connected to many kinds of music – folk, gospel, country, Christian and rural-based themes.
34. Nights in White Satin (1967)
Included on the Moody Blues second album, Days of Future Passed, “Nights in White Satin” when first released in 1967, wasn’t a hit, only reaching #103 on the US singles chart; but when re-released in 1972, the song hit #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and garnered a gold record. Not surprisingly, this was a time when progressive rock exploded in popularity. Astonishingly, the song charted one more time in 2010! This dreamy, violin-laced, ethereal ballad has elements of rock and classical, the latter of which played by the London Festival Orchestra. Has rock ever been so . . . romantic?
33. Sunset Grill (1984)
Intermittently, lead singer, songwriter and drummer for the Eagles—the most commercially successful American band in history—Don Henley went solo in the 1980s, producing five solo albums, including Building the Perfect Beast (1984), which featured “Sunset Grill,” an epic song featuring imposing keyboard and synthesizer riffs and meandering horn-based accentuations. Ironically, as impressive as its instrumentation and production values are, the words are simply about a bar where a boy and girl like to meet, drink beer and talk about leaving this place one day, as they “watch the working girls go by . . . down at the Sunset Grill.”
32. 25 or 6 to 4 (1970)
When Chicago, a rock band with horns—eventually becoming one the most successful musical groups of all time, selling 23 gold records and 18 platinum—released their second album, Chicago (1970), one of their hit singles was “25 or 6 to 4,” a blistering hard rock tune highlighted by the incendiary guitar work of the late Terry Kath. Although not considered such at the time, Kath was one of the greatest rock guitarists in the world in the 1960s to ‘70s; even Jimi Hendrix thought Kath was better than him. Notably, in 2019, two music critics for Billboard magazine ranked “25 or 6 to 4” #1 on their list of the “50 Best Chicago Songs.”
31. Mary Jane’s Last Dance (1993)
No, the song isn’t about somebody giving up pot; it’s about an Indiana girl who’s saying goodbye—but the award-winning video shows Tom Petty taking the body of a beautiful woman (Kim Basinger) from the morgue, so he can dance with her one last time and then leave her floating in the ocean till she sinks. The video’s plot is similar to that of Cold Moon, a French film. Having a solo career and one while playing with groups such as the Heartbreakers, Mudcrutch and the Traveling Wilbury’s, Tom Petty wrote countless hit singles over the decades and certainly one of his best is “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” which climbed to #14 on the Billboard Hot 100.
30 Can’t You See (1973)
The Marshall Tucker Band is a Southern rock assemblage that formed in the early 1970s and has continued performing with various musicians to the present day. In 1973, the band produced their eponymous debut album, which included the single “Can’t You See,” perhaps their greatest hit, though that would be hard to figure. Written by the late Toy Caldwell, “Can’t You See” is a song redolent of the country rock sound from that era of classic rock bands (1965 to 1975), and is almost certainly one of those tunes people will never get tired of hearing.
29. Back in Black (1980)
Played by masters of metal AC/DC, “Back in Black” has an incredibly infectious beat nobody can resist. (Listen to it right now and see if you can keep from gleefully jumping up and down.) Appearing on an album of the same name, the album sold 50 million copies - the second highest selling album ever - while “Back in Black” the song peaked at #37 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. A tribute to former lead singer Bon Scott, who died young at 33, Brian Johnson, Scott’s replacement, was asked to write the song and then the band created one of the most memorable hard-rock tunes of all time.
28. Smells Like Teen Spirit (1991)
Dubbed as an anthem for apathetic kids, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is arguably Nirvana’s greatest hit and perhaps the greatest one of Grunge or alternative rock. It’s so popular, even now, that college marching bands sometimes play it. Moreover, the intro guitar lick, played with power chords, has become one of the most iconic riffs in rock and roll history. It seems every rock guitarist can play it to some degree. How about you? Anyway, the song blasted to #6 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1991 and 1992, shaking up the entire world of rock.
27 Pour Some Sugar on Me (1987)
One of seven hit singles from their fabulous album, Hysteria, which sold 25 million copies worldwide, “Pour Some Sugar on Me” became one of the best stripper songs of all time, if nothing else. Also, in case you’re interested, the song reached #2 on VH1’s 100 Greatest Songs of the 1980s in 2006; and the video for the song was rated #1 on MTV’s list of the Top 300 Videos of All Time. It seems safe to point out that the tune is synonymous with Def Leppard’s greatest success as a rock group.
26. Something to Talk About (1991)
Singer/guitarist Bonnie Raitt, whose country-rock sound, which features her bluesy slide guitar breaks, didn’t find commercial success until she released the album Luck of the Draw, which won three Grammy Awards and included “Something to Talk About,” a song that reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and may be her most popular song to date. Artist Graeme Connors said this about her: “Bonnie Raitt does something with a lyric no one else can do; she bends it and twists it right into your heart.”
25 God Only Knows (1966)
Released in 1966 and written by Brian Wilson and Tony Asher and sung by Carl Wilson, “God Only Knows” is perhaps the greatest hit on the Beach Boys album, Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson’s answer to the Beatles’ Rubber Soul. “God Only Knows” is a song rich with experimental instrumentation, structure and vocals, creating what could be called baroque pop or progressive rock. And, notably, this was the first time “God” was mentioned in a mainstream rock tune. Also recorded as a single, the record’s flip side was “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.“ Rolling Stone magazine voted “God Only Knows” #25 on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time; and Pitchfork Media labeled it the greatest song of the 1960s.
24. Rocket Man (1972)
It would be hard to name a rocker or pop star who’s garnered more awards and honors and produced more hit singles and albums than Elton John, who rocketed to prominence in the 1970s as an exemplar in the glam rock genre. Written by Elton John and his longtime songwriting partner Bernie Taupin, “Rocket Man” is a ballad about an astronaut who, no longer perceived as being a hero, must blast off into space and become “high as a kite,” simply because it’s his job. Featured on the album Honky Château (1972), the single climbed to #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 and reached the status of three-times platinum in the US.
23. Juke Box Hero (1982)
Included on Foreigner’s album 4, “Juke Box Hero” is a story within a story. It’s about a young man who waits for hours outside a concert that sells out before he can buy a ticket. Hearing the music inside, he has an inspirational moment and hopes to become a juke box hero, a goal he eventually achieves. Then one day this same guy spots another young man standing outside the stage door of one of his concerts, then invites him inside and shows him around backstage. Mick Jones, who co-wrote the tune, said it’s based on a true event: he waited in line to see Jimi Hendrix, but the gig was sold out. “Juke Box Hero,” the single, reached #3 on for the US Billboard Mainstream Rock chart and eventually sold over a million downloads.
22. More Than a Feeling (1976)
“More Than a Feeling” is the lead single for Boston (1976), Boston's debut album, which sold a whopping 17 million copies. Written by Tom Scholz, the lead singer of Boston and one of its founding members (the only one still with the group in fact), “More Than a Feeling” is widely considered the best song Boston ever produced. Notably, in popular culture, the song is certainly one of the most popular rock tunes ever; it can be heard in seemingly countless movies, premium channel series and TV shows. Also, during the 2008 Republican presidential campaign, Mike Huckabee used it promote his candidacy, but when Tom Scholz found out about it, he told Huckabee to stop, which Huckabee promptly did!
21. Light My Fire (1967)
Performed by The Doors, a quartet from Los Angeles, “Light My Fire” has a jazzy verse and impressive keyboard riffs at the beginning and end of this tune, which was played throughout that wonderful, peace-and-love summer of 1967. In July of that year, “Light My Fire” ascended to #1 for three weeks on the Billboard Hot 100. Interestingly, when playing the song live, The Doors performed a much longer version of the song with solos for guitar and keyboard. Of course, frontman/singer/poet Jim Morrison, aka the Lizard King, always put on a show with his powerful voice and offbeat stage antics.
20. We Are the Champions (1977)
One of the most commercially successful and popular rock bands of all time, Queen excelled at producing arena rock songs that eventually became anthems of sports teams around the world. Included on the album News of the World (1977), “We Are the Champions” was written by lead singer/pianist Freddie Mercury. In 2005, it was one of the most recognized rock tunes ever. It was also voted the world’s most favorite song by the Sony Ericsson world music poll and may be the catchiest tune in the history of popular music. Notably, Mercury used complex jazz chords while playing the piano in the number, which shouldn’t surprise anybody, since many of the band’s songs had a grand, baroque feel, as was Queen’s style.
19. Hotel California (1977)
Don Henley of the Eagles wanted to write a song about life in Los Angeles, California, particularly its emphasis on fame, hedonism and money. Henley wrote, “It's basically a song about the dark underbelly of the American dream and about excess in America, which is something we knew a lot about.” Henley wanted the song, decidedly somber, and played in harmonic minor, seem like an episode of the Twilight Zone, which it certainly does. Apparently the song worked on many levels, because it won the Grammy Award for Record of the Year in 1978. And the dueling guitars coda was rated the greatest guitar solo by Guitarist magazine in 1998.
18. Smoke on the Water (1972)
The lyrics relate to a real event experienced by members of Deep Purple, while staying at an entertainment complex near the Montreux Casino. Suddenly a fire broke out in the theatre where The Mothers of Invention were playing and the casino was soon destroyed. But while watching smoke drift across a nearby lake, Deep Purple created the words to a classic rock tune, “Smoke on the Water.” Released in 1973, it reached #4 on Billboard’s pop singles chart. Also SOTW is often considered one of the best metal songs of all time, highlighted as it is by its iconic, though simple, opening riff.
17. Won’t Get Fooled Again (1971)
Appearing on The Who’s spectacular album, Who’s Next, “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” was written by guitarist Pete Townshend, who said the song seeks to make a connection between music - highlighted by the use of a synthesizer throughout the song - and the teachings of Meher Baba and Inayat Khan. Thereafter, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” became a song The Who usually played at the end of their live performances, when Townshend destroyed his guitar and Keith Moon kicked over his drums, as the crowd squealed and hooted with delight.
16. Layla (1971)
This is another song with a true story behind it. The name Layla relates to a book entitled The Story of Layla and Majnun, which tells the tale of Majnun, who falls in love with a beautiful young woman; but her father rejects Majnun and he goes crazy with desire. In real life, guitarist Eric Clapton, the co-writer of “Layla,” fell in love with Patty Boyd, who had married George Harrison. Eventually, though, Boyd and Harrison got a divorce and Clapton then married Boyd. How sweet! Anyway, over the years “Layla” has garnered great popular and critical acclaim. Interestingly, Both Clapton and Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers wrote and played the famous guitar licks throughout the song.
15. Walk This Way (1975)
One of many Aerosmith hit singles in the 1970s, “Walk This Way” is a hard rock tune appearing on the band’s third studio album, Toys in the Attic, which is their highest selling album to date. “Walk This Way” jumped to #10 on the Billboard Hot 100. Then, during the 1980s, when Aerosmith hit a lull in popularity, the rap group Run-D.M.C re-made the song, with Aerosmith vocalist Steven Tyler and guitarist Joe Perry making guest appearances in the tune and on the video. Surprisingly, this version of the song did even better on the Billboard Hot 100, climbing to #5, and also helped spawn a new genre – rap rock.
14. A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
As the story goes, The Beatles movie needed a title, something other than Beatlemania, so the Beatles suggested a comment made by Ringo might work. Ringo had said they’ve worked so hard night and day that it’s been a hard . . . day’s night, kind of a malapropism. Eureka! Then, once the producers had a title for the movie, they also needed a theme song. So John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote it and the Beatles recorded it the next day. In July 1964, “A Hard Day’s Night,” the single and album, soared to #1 on the charts in both the US and UK, the first time a musical group had achieved such a feat.
13. Johnny B. Goode (1958)
“Johnny B. Goode” is a song about a country boy who makes it big by playing rock and roll; of course, that boy was Chuck Berry himself, whose guitar work on this twangy tune comprises rock guitar 101. Just about every guitarist in the business has studied Berry’s riffs in this quintessential rock classic. Incidentally, “Johnny B. Goode” hit #8 on the Billboard Hot 100, and Rolling Stone magazine named it #7 on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Not bad for a song that has been called “the first rock star origin story.”
12. Sympathy for the Devil (1968)
Performed by the Rolling Stones and written and sang by Mick Jagger, who narrates the song as if he were the devil himself, declaring that he’d wreaked havoc on humanity over the centuries. Interestingly, Jagger’s inspiration for the song came from the books of Baudelaire and Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita. Jagger’s intention was that it would be a kind of Bob Dylan song. But it was guitarist Keith Richards’ idea to increase the tempo of the song, add percussion, and give it a samba-like feel. The result – a ballistic rock classic!
11. American Pie (1971)
A solo artist since the late 1960s, Don McLean produced his magnum opus early in his career. “American Pie” is a folk-rock ballad that refers to the death of rockers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P Richardson, aka the Big Bopper, all of whom died in a plane crash in 1959. Popularizing the expression “the Day the Music Died,” the song refers to this tragic day as the end of innocence for rock and roll. The song is the longest - eight and a half minutes - to reach #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. And in 2001 it was voted #5 on the list of 365 Songs of the Century.
10. Welcome to the Jungle (1987)
Guns N’ Roses began their career with a big bang. Their first single, “Welcome to the Jungle,” arrived on their debut album, Appetite for Destruction, and both kicked some serious tail. “Welcome to the Jungle,” a tune about the mean streets of Los Angeles, soon catapulted to #7 on the Billboard Hot 100, while Appetite for Destruction eventually sold 30 million copies, the eleventh best-selling album in the US. And, in 2009, VH1 picked “Welcome to the Jungle” as the number one hard rock song of all time.
9. Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2 (1979)
Included in Pink Floyd’s rock opera, The Wall, “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)” spawned a single that became Pink Floyd’s only number one hit in the US, UK and other countries. Subtitled “Education,” it’s a protest song about the strict schooling in the UK, particularly as it relates to that in boarding schools. Part 2, written by bassist Roger Waters, as well as all the other “parts” of the song, contains a school choir, a searing and poignant guitar solo by David Gilmour and a disco drum beat, of all things. Members of Pink Floyd resisted making this a single, but we’ll all lucky they changed their minds.
8. Purple Haze (1967)
Perhaps the first great acid rock tune, “Purple Haze” was written by guitar god Jimi Hendrix and performed by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Hendrix, a blues and R&B guitarist by trade, quickly learned to play psychedelic blues, essentially inventing the style as he produced the album, Are You Experienced, on which “Purple Haze” appears. The words for the song, seemingly about a man tripping on acid, are simply about a young man going crazy for this foxy lady. No drugs required for that, right?
7. Don’t Stop Believin’ (1981)
One of the top rock bands in 1980, Journey produced a classic tune for their seventh album, Escape. Sometimes referred to as the perfect rock tune, “Don’t Stop Believin’” is a song with a complex structure, awesome guitar runs, and sang by a Steve Perry, who may have one of the greatest voices in the world of rock. The song smashed the charts in the US, UK and many other parts of the world, and its subsequent popularity throughout the world cannot be overstated. Also, in 2009, the Glee TV series version of the song did very well. Among many other tunes on this list, this song is a solid gold rock favorite.
6. Wanted Dead or Alive (1987)
Lead vocalist Jon Bon Jovi admired the heroes of the Old West, even the anti-heroes or outlaws, which he likened to rockers who traveled about the country, living the wild life in all the towns and cities where they performed. So he and Richie Sambora wrote the song “Wanted Dead or Alive,” which became Bon Jovi’s anthem. Released on the album, Slippery When Wet, “Wanted Dead or Alive” along with “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “Never Say Goodbye” all soared to the Top Ten of Billboard’s Hot 100, the first hard rock album to have three top singles. Not bad for Bon Jovi, a so-called Hair Metal band!
5. Hey Jude (1968)
The impetus for this song is that Paul McCartney wrote it for Julian, John Lennon’s son, after John had filed for divorce from Cynthia and struck up a romance with Yoko Ono. Paul felt sorry for kids in broken homes, ya know? Funny thing is, John thought the song was about him! Anyway, the single lasts seven minutes, long for the time, and who can forget the four-minute, orchestral coda? By the way, “Hey Jude” was the first single produced by Apple Records; it also stayed at number one on the US charts for nine weeks, topping all other Beatles’ singles; and in 2013 Billboard named it the tenth best song ever.
4. Freebird (1973)
“Freebird,” a power ballad by Lynyrd Skynyrd, quickly became a rock and roll classic, particularly its long three-part guitar solo at the end of the tune. Released as a single and also as a longer version on the album, “Freebird” has become the band’s signature song and is generally played at the end of each concert appearance, lasting as long as 14 minutes, give or take. The group solo itself rose to #3 on Guitar World’s 100 Greatest Guitar Solos. Interestingly, the song is dedicated to Duane Allman and Berry Oakley, members of the Allman Brothers who died in motor cycle accidents in the early 1970s, and then became “freebirds.”
3. “I Can’t Get No” Satisfaction (1965)
Sometimes the best songs have the simplest licks. Guitarist Keith Richards created the main guitar lick in “Satisfaction,” a three-note riff played with a Gibson fuzzbox, which made the guitar sound like a saxophone, with which Richards hoped to replace it at some point - but the producers said no way Jose. Anyway, the song was performed live for the first time on Shindig!, an American TV show on which everything was performed live. You gotta love it! Many Boomers probably remember watching this memorable show. Not surprisingly, Rolling Stone magazine picked “Satisfaction” #2 on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
2. Stairway to Heaven (1971)
Most songs on this list were singles but, at least at first, this one wasn’t. Hey, the Zep didn’t do singles! Yet Atlantic Records released it as a promotional single in 1972. Appearing on Led Zeppelin’s fourth album, “Stairway to Heaven” is a song in three parts, each one increasing in tempo and volume, until the thunderous crescendo, punctuated by guitarist Jimmy Page’s orgasmic trills, and then the tune slowly fades away with an acoustic coda. This breathtaking tune was picked as #3 on VH1’s 100 Greatest Rock Songs compiled in 2000. Incidentally, the rock band Spirit claimed it had created the song’s signature riff, but Spirit lost the copyright infringement lawsuit in 2017.
1. Bohemian Rhapsody (1975)
“Bohemian Rhapsody” is a prime example of 1970s’ progressive rock. Written by vocalist/pianist Freddy Mercury and performed by Queen, the song is a six-minute suite, including an operatic passage, of all things, and multiple key and tempo changes, and may be the most original of all songs on this stellar list. Not surprisingly, after released, “Bohemian Rhapsody” hit the top of the UK Singles Chart, selling more than nine million copies and kicked butt in the US as well. Astonishingly, the song was re-released in 1992, after the death of Mercury, and did almost as well as before. Then in 2004, “Bohemian Rhapsody” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. This awesome song is a prime example of the astonishing range of expression in rock and roll!
Please leave a comment.
Questions & Answers
Who is the best rock group?
The Beatles, of course.Helpful 40
Is "Bohemian Rhapsody" rock n roll?
Yes, I'm sure most people consider it rock and roll.Helpful 16
Why is Nirvana in a classic rock list?
As I stated in the introduction, all of these classic rock tunes were released before 2000, which seems classic to me.Helpful 14
Is the Buddy Holly song "That'll Be the Day" not worthy of top 25?
It's not worthy. But I almost picked Bill Haley and the Comet's "Rock Around the Clock."Helpful 13
Is "Hard Days Night" the top-rated Beatles song?
"Hard Days Night" is definitely one of the highest selling singles for the Beatles.Helpful 11
© 2017 Kelley Marks