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100 Greatest Classic Rock and Roll Songs

A rock guitarist since the 1970s, Kelley has been a fan of rock, blues, and jazz since the 1960s.

25-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

Pilot

Pilot

100. Magic (1974)

“Magic” was one of the hottest tunes during the summer of 1975. Released by Pilot, a one-hit wonder band from Scotland, the single hit #5 on the US Billboard Hot 100; it also sold a million copies and won a gold disc. At any rate, Pilot still exists, so give them credit being better than a flash in the pan! Incidentally, you can hear the melody for this tune in a contemporary jingle for a diabetes medication: “Oh, oh, oh, it’s magic, you know, never believe it’s not so!”

The Animals' original lineup

The Animals' original lineup

99. The House of the Rising Sun (1964)

An integral aspect of the British Invasion of the middle 1960s, The Animals, featuring frontman Eric Burdon, released “The House of the Rising Sun,” which hit #1 on the US Billboard Hot 100. A traditional English folk tune with no verifiable authorship, the song made its way into the American South in the early 1900s; even Woody Guthrie did a version of it in 1941. But The Animals’ rendering of the song, recorded in one take, is perhaps the first folk rock hit single.

Thomas Dolby

Thomas Dolby

98. She Blinded Me with Science (1982)

Written and performed by Englishman Thomas Dolby, this rock song is probably the only one with “science” in the title. Featuring a synthpop vibe and heavy funk backbeat, it’s about a young man who falls in love with his science teacher: “Now she's making love to me. The spheres are in commotion, the elements in harmony. She blinded me with science—and hit me with technology!” This single hit #5 on the US Billboard Hot 100.

Black Sabbath

Black Sabbath

97. Children of the Grave (1971)

Released as a single from the album Master of Reality, and often considered one of Black Sabbath’s greatest tunes, “Children of the Grave,” like many of their songs, promotes love not war, as some of the lyrics attest: “Spread the word today. Show the world that love is still alive. You must be brave or you children of today—are children of the grave!” Many metal bands have covered this timeless Vietnam War era, anti-war tune.

The Rolling Stones in the early 1970s

The Rolling Stones in the early 1970s

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96. Gimme Shelter (1969)

Found on Let It Bleed, the first Stones’ album released after the death of Brian Jones, “Gimme Shelter” is about murder, rape, fear and war. Often considered one of the band’s greatest songs, it’s listed #13 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and featuring the vocals of Merry Clayton, the song wasn’t released as a single but appears on many compilations and live albums.

95. Too Much Time on My Hands (1981)

Found on Paradise Theatre, the tenth studio album by Styx, a progressive rock band from Chicago, Illinois, “Too Much Time on My Hands” is about a young man who spends too much time partying in bars and nightclubs. (Have you been there?) The tune was written by frontman/singer/songwriter Tommy Shaw, who based the lyrics on his experiences in a bar in Niles, Michigan. The song hit #9 on the Billboard Hot 100.

25-greatest-classic-rock-and-roll-songs

94. What I Am (1988)

Performed by Edie Brickell & New Bohemians, an alternative rock band from Dallas, Texas, “What I Am,” sang by Edie Brickell, relies on the use of suspended chords by the guitarists to give the tune a psychedelic tinge; and the lyrics, written by Brickell and Kenny Withrow, have a hippie-dippy, altered consciousness vibe that makes you contemplate the nature of identity. Brickell sings, “What I am is what I am. Are you what you are—or what?”

Led Zeppelin

Led Zeppelin

93. Whole Lotta Love (1969)

Featured on the album Led Zeppelin II, sometimes called the Brown Bomber, “Whole Lotta Love” was the Zep’s first hit single in the US and ascended to #4 on the Billboard Hot 100; it's also considered a hard rock classic by Rolling Stone and VH1. Unfortunately, the song wasn’t written entirely by Led Zeppelin. In recent times, partial credit for the tune’s lyrics has been given to Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon, two legends of the blues. Nevertheless, Jimmy Page’s awesome guitar solo, considered one of the best ever, belongs to him and the Zep.

Alice in Chains

Alice in Chains

92. Man in the Box (1991)

Alice in Chains, a grunge band from Seattle, Washington, released “Man in the Box,” which became one of their signature songs and features the use of a talk box, pedal effects and the vocals of Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell, all of which creating a haunting chant that makes you want to strut like a shaman. The song is about the government and media’s control of thought. Cantrell wrote: “It's just about breaking out of that box and looking outside of what’s been built for you.”

Thin Lizzy

Thin Lizzy

91. The Boys Are Back in Town (1976)

Hoping to make a splash in the US, Thin Lizzy, hailing from Dublin, Ireland, released Jailbreak, the band’s sixth studio album, from which sprang “The Boys Are Back in Town.” According to Rolling Stone, this rousing tune became the band’s most popular song. Some think it’s about the Quality Street Gang, alleged perpetrators in a string of crimes in Manchester, England. In the US and UK, the song is often included in commercials, movies, TV shows, sporting events and the 2012 RNC convention, which played it without authorization. Now there’s a crime!

Classics IV

Classics IV

90. Stormy (1968)

“Bring back that sunny day!” That’s the hook in “Stormy,” as recorded by Classics IV, a pop rock assemblage from Jacksonville, Florida. Not to be confused with “Spooky,” another hit single by Classics IV, both songs have a similar title and feel and were released about the same time. Both did well in the charts too: “Spooky” reached #3 on the Billboard Hot 100, while “Stormy” hit #5. So if you want to put “Spooky” in this spot, go head on, as they used to say!

Living Colour

Living Colour

89. Cult of Personality (1988)

The band Living Colour, hailing from NYC, scored big time on their debut album Vivid (1988), which features perhaps their greatest hit single, “Cult of Personality.” The song is a politically charged exposé about the rise of politicians such as Joseph Stalin, JFK and Benito Mussolini. It ascended to #13 on the Billboard Hot 100 and won a Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock Performance. Notably, guitarist Vernon Reid’s opening guitar riff and solo are some of the most memorable licks of the 1980s.

25-greatest-classic-rock-and-roll-songs

88. Free as a Bird (1995)

It seems people are endlessly trying to resurrect The Beatles. Originally recorded by John Lennon on a cassette tape in 1977, “Free as a Bird” is a latter-day Beatles’ single produced as a promotional addition to The Beatles Anthology. At that time, the three surviving band members wanted to record the song as if Lennon had simply left for a time and then returned to finish the song. It certainly sounds like a Beatles’ song—but for full effect watch the video too. “Free as a Bird” is a poignant reminder of the Beatles' achievements and tragedies, particularly now that George Harrison has passed on and only two are left.

Carole King

Carole King

87. It’s Too Late (1971)

Featured on Tapestry, one of the greatest selling albums of all time, “It’s Too Late,” is a song about a woman who leaves her man, which makes it a song of feminism, a social movement gaining traction back in the day. Toni Stern wrote the lyrics, while King wrote the music. Incidentally, King had just broken up with singer James Taylor before she wrote the tune in a single day. The song hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and won a Grammy Award for Record of the Year in 1972.

Foreigner

Foreigner

86. I Want to Know What Love Is (1984)

One of many power ballads by Foreigner, a British-American rock band that’s become one of the greatest selling musical groups in history, “I Want to Know What Love Is” is Foreigner’s most popular hit single. Guitarist/singer Mick Jones said this about writing the tune: “I consider it a gift that was sent through me. I think there was something bigger than me behind it. I’d say it was probably written entirely by a higher force.” Still very popular, the song has been covered by numerous bands and solo artists such as Mariah Carey.

It's a Beautiful Day

It's a Beautiful Day

85. White Bird (1969)

Included on a long list of bands from the San Francisco Bay Area, It’s a Beautiful Day released “White Bird” on its self-titled debut album. Featuring the singing of Pattie Santos and the five-string violin of David LaFlamme, the song includes a violin solo that’s as stirring and melodic as any in rock history; and a line in the chorus sticks with you: “White bird must fly or she will die.” The song became the band’s signature number and was often played on the FM-stereo album rock of that era.

Elvin Bishop (left)

Elvin Bishop (left)

84. Fooled Around and Fell in Love (1976)

A blues legend singing and playing lead guitar with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, as well as a star in his own right, Elvin Bishop formed a rock group that released the hit single, “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” which soared to #3 on the Billboard Hot 100. Included on Bishop’s studio album, Struttin’ My Stuff, Bishop, generally the lead singer of his group, decided this song should be sung by backup singer, Mickey Thomas, who did a smashing job crooning this classic rock ballad.

Steppenwolf

Steppenwolf

83. Born to be Wild (1968)

Included on the soundtrack for Easy Rider (1969), perhaps the greatest biker movie of all time, “Born to be Wild” evokes the dawn of heavy metal, but not the music; it expresses the desire of driving a motorcycle. The song goes, “I like smoke and lightning, heavy metal thunder, racing with the wind and the feeling that I’m under.” The song hit #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and has achieved anthemic status as it relates to the heedlessness, daring and dash of biker anti-heroes—or any bold, carefree folks who like to hop on motorcycles and tear down the highway.

Fleetwood Mac

Fleetwood Mac

82. Dreams (1977)

Originally a blues band fronted by guitarists such as Peter Green, Fleetwood Mac developed a new pop rock sound when Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined the group in 1974. Then the band released the album Rumours (1977), which skyrocketed to popularity and critical acclaim, eventually becoming one of the most successful rock albums of all time. The album spawned four hit singles, one of which was “Dreams,” which ascended to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. At this time, band members were undergoing romantic turmoil, which seems conducive to creating stellar rock—for some crazy reason!

Meatloaf

Meatloaf

81. I'd Do Anything for Love But I Won't Do That (1993)

Meatloaf has had a brilliant career as a singer and perhaps his greatest song ever is “I'd Do Anything for Love, But I Won't Do That,” which topped the Billboard Hot 100, the only time he’s achieved that feat; it was also #1 in 28 countries and won a Grammy Award for Best Rock Vocal Performance, Solo. In the video for this operatic tune, Meatloaf portrays the Beast, who says he’ll do anything for the love of the Beauty. But the Beauty insists, “Sooner or later you’ll be screwing around.” “No,” he declares, “I won’t do that!”

Paul Young

Paul Young

80. Every Time You Go Away (1984)

Paul Young, an integral personage of the Second British Invasion of the early to middle 1980s, sang a version of this ballad that draws the tears right out of you. Written and composed by Daryl Hall of Hall & Oates—who recorded it but didn’t release it as a single—hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and the video won an award for Best British video. Notably, Young, along with his backing band, The Royal Family, which included three black harmony singers, performed the song in Wembley Stadium during Live Aid in 1985.

Steely Dan

Steely Dan

79. Kid Charlemagne (1976)

Steely Dan, founded by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, were called the “perfect music antiheroes of the Seventies” and "the Manson and Starkweather of rock 'n' roll," play a style of rock that’s funky, yet sophisticated and includes quirky, esoteric lyrics, jazz inspired rhythms and mind-bending guitar solos. Found on The Royal Scam, the band’s fifth studio album, “Kid Charlemagne” is somewhat based on the exploits of Augustus Owsley Stanley, the notorious LSD impresario of the 1960s. And, highlighted at the song's coda, is a guitar solo by Larry Carlton that’s considered one of the most memorable of all time.

Them

Them

78. Gloria (1965)

This three-chord garage band classic was written by Van Morrison and released on Them’s first studio album, The Angry Young Them (1965). The song is an anthem to male teenage lust; Gloria is a girl who’s so forward she comes to this young man’s house, knocks on his door, enters his room—and then makes him feel—all right! Virtually every rock guitarist in the 1960s learned this song the first week or two they began playing. Compiled in 2004, “Gloria” placed #208 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

77. Woodstock (1970)

Written by Canadian Joni Mitchell, “Woodstock” is side B of a single with “Big Yellow Taxi,” another hit for Mitchell. The words to “Woodstock” include a third person account of the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, which Mitchell couldn’t attend because of a scheduling conflict. She compares the festival to the mythical Garden of Eden. The supergroup, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young released a hard rock cover of the song that reached #11 on the Billboard Hot 100. Either version of this iconic tune could appear on this list, so pick your favorite!

Sound Garden

Sound Garden

76. Black Hole Sun (1994)

Soundgarden is a grunge band from Seattle, Washington. Included on Superunknown, the band’s most popular and commercially successful album, “Black Hole Sun” is an alternative rock tune written by frontman Chris Cornell, who said, “It's just sort of a surreal dreamscape, a weird, play-with-the-title kind of song." Often considered a positive song, he said, “No, ‘Black Hole Sun’ is sad.” Some critics have called it a Beatles’ tune with a Lennonesque melody. The song reached #1 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Tracks, and it won a Grammy Award in 1995 for Best Hard Rock Performance.

Original Grateful Dead

Original Grateful Dead

75. Touch of Grey (1987)

After a six-year hiatus, the Grateful Dead released In the Dark (1987), an album that charted at #6 on the Billboard 200, the Grateful Dead’s only album to crack the top ten for albums. The greatest single from the album was “Touch of Grey,” which climbed to #9 on the Billboard Hot 100, the Dead’s highest charting single. The video for the tune was very popular too; it features life-size marionettes of the band members—operated by a pair of skeletal hands. The song highlights their signature lyrics: “We will get by, we will survive.” This video was a major treat for the so-called Deadheads, the band’s traveling audience/entourage.

Original Pearl Jam

Original Pearl Jam

74. Even Flow (1992)

“Even Flow,” written by singer Eddie Vedder and guitarist Stone Gossard, is about the life of an illiterate, crazy man “who chases away butterflies,” as the song goes, while living on the streets of Seattle, Washington, a city beset by homeless folks. The song is included on Ten (1991), one of the greatest rock albums, which stayed on the Billboard 200 for five years! Notably, in their live performances, Pearl Jam has played “Even Flow” more than any of their songs. A complex composition, they practiced it countless times—until band members hated each other!

Van Morrison

Van Morrison

73. Brown Eyed Girl (1967)

An Irish multi-instrumentalist and lead singer, Van Morrison joined the rock group Them in 1964, and then he turned solo in 1967, soon releasing the hit single “Brown Eyed Girl,” which soared to #10 on the Billboard Hot 100. Written by Morrison, he didn’t think the song was all that great: “It's not one of my best,” he said. “I mean I've got about 300 songs I think are better.” Nevertheless, redolent of counterculture free love and joie de vivre, it became Morrison’s signature hit and, since 2015, is the most played and downloaded song of the 1960s.

Hall & Oates

Hall & Oates

72. Sarah Smile (1975)

Featured on Daryl Hall & John Oates, the fourth studio album by Hall & Oates, one of the most successful duos in the history of pop music, “Sara Smile” is about Daryl Hall’s 30-year relationship with girlfriend, Sara Allen, with whom he broke up in 2001. This soft ballad with an R&B flavor is an integral aspect of what has been called blue-eyed soul, and has become one of those songs many people never get tired of hearing. “Sara Smile” ascended to #4 on the Billboard Hot 100. It has been covered by numerous artists, including After 7, Rumer, B-Legit and Jimmy Wayne.

U2

U2

71. The Fly (1991)

In the Naughty Nineties, U2 produced Achtung, a comeback album of sorts and Grammy Award winner, which features a plethora of hit singles including, “The Fly,” sang by Bono, perhaps rock’s greatest frontman, who said the song “sounds like four men chopping down the Joshua Tree,” a reference to U2’s fifth studio album, because the song departs from the band’s spiritual sound of the 1980s. The guitarist, The Edge, charges-up the verse with an industrial sound not previously heard by the band. This seems appropriate since the song is about a crank caller from hell who tells the listener he likes it there. Bono sings, "Every artist is a cannibal . . . every poet is a thief."

Billy Idol

Billy Idol

70. Eyes Without a Face (1983)

A power ballad of note in the 1980s, a decade marked by new wave pretensions, MTV videos, hair metal and electronic drums, “Eyes Without a Face” is offered on Rebel Yell, the second studio album by Billy Idol. A schoolteacher of Idol’s labeled him as “idle” and the name stuck to this spiky-haired Brit with the signature crooked sneer and pumped fist. “Eyes Without a Face” is driven by the guitar mastery of Steve Stevens, starting with poignant acoustic guitar, followed by rakish power chords on the electric guitar for the tune’s ending choruses. The song reached #4 on the Billboard Hot 100.

25-greatest-classic-rock-and-roll-songs

69. Wipe Out (1963)

At least one instrumental should be on this list, and “Wipe Out” by the Surfaris could be a good choice. Eventually becoming an international hit, countless bands have covered this catchy, surf-rock tune with its rousing, classic drum solo; but the best version may be that of The Ventures, particularly when they use two drummers while performing it! In 1963, “Wipe Out” hit #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. Then it was re-released in 1966, when it reached #16 on the Hot 100; and in 1970 it climbed to #110 on the Bubbling Under Hot 100 Singles chart. Hey, when you wipe out on the surf board, just dive into the waves and try again!

George Harrison

George Harrison

68. My Sweet Lord (1970)

Borne from the demise of the Fab Four, the solo career of George Harrison blossomed quickly; Harrison produced the triple album, All Things Must Pass (1970), which features the number one hit single “My Sweet Lord,” a paean to Eastern religion and the Hindu god Krishna, of which Harrison was so fascinated he practiced transcendental meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and took sitar lessons from Ravi Shankar. Harrison said he used the Christian hymn “Oh Happy Day” for inspiration in writing the tune. Notably, Harrison played the song at his Concert for Bangladesh in 1971, rock’s first benefit concert. The quiet, thoughtful ex-Beatle was certainly on a roll in those days, wasn’t he?

David Bowie

David Bowie

67. Fame (1975)

A master of showmanship and spectacle in many of his live performances in the 1970s and ‘80s, David Bowie seemed able to produce whatever style of music was popular at the time. Written by Bowie, Carlos Alomar and John Lennon, “Fame” is about the darker side of being famous. About fame, Bowie wrote: “I think fame itself is not a rewarding thing. The most you can say is that it gets you a seat in restaurants." Notably, Bowie died two days after the release of his last studio album, Blackstar (2016), which became one of his most successful, winning five Grammy Awards and topping the Billboard 200. So, was Bowie’s demise a famous one?

Cream

Cream

66. Sunshine of Your Love (1968)

Appropriately recorded during the memorable Summer of Love in 1967, “Sunshine of Your Love” is your quintessential psychedelic rock tune. Inspired by a Jimi Hendrix concert Cream bassist Jack Bruce had attended, he developed the song’s iconic riff. Covered by numerous rockers at the time, including Jimi Hendrix, of course, “Sunshine of Your Love” was played—and still is—by countless rock guitarists using the minor pentatonic blues scale. The single hit #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in August 1968, not long before Cream—perhaps rock’s first supergroup—broke up at the end of the year.

The Doobie Brothers

The Doobie Brothers

65. Listen to the Music (1972)

Included on the Doobie Brother’s second studio album, Toulouse Street, “Listen to the Music” is the band’s first hit single. Written and sung by Tom Johnston, one of the founding members of the group, the song, which reached #11 on the Billboard Hot 100, suggests that world peace could be attained if people just partied and listened to the music. About writing the tune, Johnston said, “It was very utopian and very unrealistic (laughs). It seemed like a good idea at the time." “Listen to the Music” is often played at the encore of the band’s performances.

25-greatest-classic-rock-and-roll-songs

64. Good Lovin’ (1966)

The Young Rascals or simply The Rascals, had many hit singles in the middle to late 1960s, including “Good Lovin’,” which soared to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. But, as many people may not know, the song is a remake of a tune by the R&B band, The Olympics. Becoming very popular at that time, many bands covered it, including The Grateful Dead (often playing it in their performances), The Tremeloes and Tommy James and the Shondells. The song ranks #333 on Rollingstone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Peter Frampton

Peter Frampton

63. Do You Feel like We Do (1976)

Featured on the album, Frampton Comes Alive!, one of the greatest-selling live rock albums of the all time, this is live version of “Do You Feel like We Do,” originally released on Frampton’s studio album, Frampton’s Camel (1973), is one of three hit singles on the live album. Notably, this 14-minute version of the song—often shortened in length on radio stations—features one of Frampton’s famous talk box guitar solos. The single reached #10 on the Billboard Hot 100, and it may be Peter Frampton’s signature hit tune.

Nirvana

Nirvana

62. Heart-Shaped Box (1993)

In Utero, the third studio album by Nirvana includes the song “Heart-Shaped Box,” written by Kurt Cobain, who said the song was inspired by documentaries about children with cancer, the subject matter of which made him very sad. But some think the song is about his relationship with his wife Courtney Love, particularly as it relates to the song’s most memorable line: “I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black.” Is this another way of saying, I love you? The song reached #1 on Billboard’s US Alternative Songs list.