Naming the 15 top classic rock ‘n’ roll songs ever is an impossible task. Hell, it’s tough to narrow down the top 15 songs by The Beatles alone! But here is our totally non-definitive list of favorite tunes that never fade, no matter how many years go by.
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“American Pie,” Don McLean
Written in response to the tragic plane crash that killed Buddy Holly and Richie Valens in 1959, otherwise known as “the day the music died,” Don McLean’s magnum opus utterly defines our cultural reckoning with the end of early rock and 1950’s tradition up through the disillusion with the decade that followed. Beginning with a nostalgic throwback to his “broncin’ buck” youth, McLean’s narrator travels through the years in a fantastically elusive daze, coming up against unnamed rock and roll legends, largely figured to be the likes of Elvis, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Jefferson Airplane, and Janis Joplin as “the girl who sang the blues.” The obsession with music itself in “American Pie” borders on religiosity as the song rests on parables and winds into continued fervor. However, aspects of the lyrics are still hotly debated among McLean fans who continue to mine this eight-and-a-half-minute rock epic for new historical meaning.
“Brain Damage / Eclipse,” Pink Floyd
“Brain Damage,” along with its semi-counterpart, “Eclipse” concludes Dark Side of Moon, Pink Floyd’s highly conceptual and universally acclaimed 1973 album. Although certain Dark Side of the Moon singles stick out, like “Money, “Time,” “Us and Them” or the soulful “Great Gig in the Sky,” the final outro of “Brain Damage / Eclipse” emerges most powerfully, marrying together various somber themes at play. Dark Side of the Moon is so much more than stoner rock. Roger Waters’ eerie vocals evoke a looming lunacy and explore, explicitly, the subject of mental illness which colored much of Pink Floyd’s work following the departure of founding member, Syd Barrett. Behind Waters’ voice, the air is textured with maniacal laughter, screaming, and incoherent muttering, showcasing the height of Pink Floyd’s schizophrenic sonic experimentation. In “Brain Damage,” the term “dark side of the moon” is finally uttered as a reference to the singer’s eventual outcome. Following without pause, “Eclipse” zooms out to a maximal, choir-infused litany of “everything under the sun” — only to get eclipsed by the moon. It’s a fittingly enormous ending to the pioneering, highly philosophical record that cemented the legacy of Pink Floyd and struck wonder in listeners for decades to come.
“The Wind Cries Mary,” Jimi Hendrix
Unlike, say, “All Along the Watchtower,” or “Purple Haze,” “The Wind Cries Mary” is not a typical go-to Jimi Hendrix song. But this rock ballad exemplifies all the traits that made Hendrix a legend: unusual lyrics, enigmatic energy, and a guitar that seems to speak. The piece moves slowly as if traipsing through an upside-down fairytale town where traffic lights turn blue, brooms sweep themselves, and a king and queen experience marital strain. The three-and-a-half minutes play out like a setting sun, with the calls to Mary providing bursts of spirit through nightfall. Jimi Hendrix’s electric guitar bends to cry and scream like the titular wind, occupying a mind of its own. “Will the wind ever remember the names it has blown in the past?” Probably not. Jimi Hendrix supposedly wrote “The Wind Cries Mary” after an argument with his then-girlfriend, Kathy Mary Etchingham. She had stormed out of the house following Hendrix’s comments about her cooking, specifically her “lumpy mashed potatoes.” In Etchingham’s absence, one of rock and roll’s greatest (and most underrated) songs was born.
“Baba O’riley,” The Who
It is not called “Teenage Wasteland.” Let’s get that straight! The unusual title actually comes from a combination of the names Meher Baba and Terry Riley, two of Pete Townshend’s mentors. Baba was an Indian spiritualist who believed that reality was false and invented. (Think The Matrix.) Riley was an American minimalist composer. So how does all that figure into the “teenage wasteland” Robert Daltry sings about on this Who’s Next opener? Originally, “Baba O’riley” was meant to be part of a new rock opera following Tommy, called The Lighthouse, which was never fully realized. The basic concept of The Lighthouse was a future dystopia in which humanity becomes entirely disillusioned and is forced to stay indoors due to deadly pollution. Sound familiar? “Baba O’riley” would have kicked off the opera’s journey, in which a man implores his wife, Sally, to come looking for their missing daughter – out in the wasteland. “Sally take my hand / we’ll travel south cross lands.” Townshend’s explanation of the plot certainly sheds light on the mysterious hit. And although the background a little complex, “Baba O’riley” is still a song that anyone, even teens, could jam out to. It’s an invigorating call to action, whether you are battling post-apocalyptic demons or chilling in your bedroom, waiting for life to start again.
“Wild Horses,” The Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones‘ “Wild Horses” may not be so hardcore, but it subtly defines rock ‘n’ roll, like a glance behind the purple velvet curtain. Mick Jagger’s melancholy verses illustrate the mythology of rock for being just that: a myth. As a band struggles on the road, it’s easy to imagine this song coming together on the back of a tour bus through Americana landscapes. Horses pass by but you can’t ride them. You have money but you haven’t got time. “Wild horses couldn’t drag me away,” Mick Jagger sings while reflecting on a love that’s somewhere else. Like the much more literal “Satisfaction” (or the more positive spin, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”), Keith Richards has said that ‘”Wild Horses” was about the usual thing of not wanting to be on the road, being a million miles from where you want to be.” Netflix’s Bojack Horseman explores this celebrity paradox front and center and features The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” in its moving first season finale; the song’s event is portrayed literally, by anthropomorphic horses.
“Day in the Life,” The Beatles
On its surface, “A Day in the Life” is grounded in time, sampling from newspaper clippings of the day like an extraordinary collage. But the song quickly abandons that hyper-realistic premise to ascend through sound and achieve an impact that’s timeless. The first incident referenced, a reported car crash, is meant to stand for the 1966 death of Guiness heir, Tara Browne, who was a friend of The Beatles and first introduced Paul McCartney to LSD. Psychedelics emerges, front and center, in the song’s intense refrain: “I’d love to… turn… you… on…” Experiences with acid were a primary inspiration for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, an album which re-solidified the creative fusion of Paul McCartney and John Lennon. Serving as the finale to this experimental project, “A Day in the Life” challenges straightforward narrative with an atmosphere of avant-garde, orchestral crescendos that rise above the rest of the record to become a supernatural gem among the Beatles’ repertoire – and recorded music as a whole. (Although this tearjerking rooftop final performance holds a special place in our hearts.)
“American Girl,” Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
With its peppy beat and catchy hook, hearing “American Girl” in passing always feels warmly comforting – maybe even a little patriotic. That’s because Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ 1976 single still receives regular radio play and has become utterly ingrained in our national memory as a pillar of classic rock songs. But the protagonist, for whom highway traffic echoes “waves crashin’ on the beach,” yearns for so much more than her version of America. She knows disappointment, she knows loneliness. Coming from no named region, her plight stretches coast to coast. Tom Petty himself denied interpretations that the song’s narrative is literal, deriving from the story of a University of Florida student who jumped to her death from a dormitory balcony. In fact, the New York Times recently ran a story about the late songwriter’s process in honor of his solo album, Wildflowers’ re-release. Lindsay Zoladz writes, “Petty believed he channeled his music from somewhere else, so it wasn’t like him to immediately consider exactly who or what a new song was ‘about.’” Relying on free-association riffs to generate ideas, the new Wildflowers & All The Rest introduces listeners to this unconventional method through a collection of lovely, never-before-heard home-recordings, proving that even after death, Tom Petty is still an active force of rock ‘n’ roll.
“Dreams,” Fleetwood Mac
It’s “Dreams” season. And we are here for it. Fleetwood Mac’s hit Rumours single – their only song ever to hit the coveted #1 Billboard spot – has returned to the top of the charts thanks to a viral 2020 TikTok by Nathan Apodaca (aka doggface 208), otherwise known as the Ocean Spray Skateboarding Guy. This surprising resurgence is introducing Gen Z to the mysterious, alluring sounds of one of rock and roll’s most dramatic bands. (We all know the rumors about many Rumours scandals by now. As John Mulaney succinctly put it: “It’s an album by and for people cheating on each other.) Mick Fleetwood himself has even responded to Apodaca with his own TikTok, in which the namesake drummer also skateboards, grinning hugely and sipping from his own bottle of Cran-Raz Ocean Spray. Unexpectedly, Stevie Nicks’ cool vocals compliment these ultra-modern takes well. In fact, this is not the first time that “Dreams” has been meme-d; in 2018, there was a viral twitter thread about dancing to “Dreams.” It is no surprise that Rumours endures. Fleetwood Mac’s second album is brutal, unsympathetic, and somehow calm in the face of romantic agony; it subverts pain in favor of imagery that’s nearly mystical. Nicks herself has stated that “Dreams” was meant to portray “a liver lining of hope.” And as Apodaca latches onto that enchantment, both his TikTok and Fleetwood Mac will remain in the zeitgeist.
“Bohemian Rhapsody,” Queen
If you have ever been in any car when Bohemian Rhapsody comes on, then you’ve experienced the communal power of Queen’s cuckoo, operatic, erratic beast of a rock song. The six-minute, 1975 standout track is weird. Theatrical. Transcendent. Freddie Mercury’s lyrics tell a fractured story that begins with a young man committing a regrettable murder. From there, everything spins out of control: high keys dip to low registers, Mercury’s role splits into a full band harmonization, a cappella verses bounce back and forth, chimes are deployed, and nonsense is declaimed. In quieter moments, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is also piercingly reflective. Lines like “Is this the real life? / Is this just fantasy? / Caught in a landslide / No escape from reality” can no doubt apply to Queen itself, which was experiencing meteoric success at the time. The video which promoted “Bohemian Rhapsody,” attached below, was equally revolutionary in terms of visual editing and bolstered the trend of making music videos for decades to come. It’s fitting that the acclaimed 2019 Freddie Mercury biopic, starring Rami Malek, would take its name from the iconic underdog suite.
“Heart of Glass,” Blondie
“Heart of Glass,” and Blondie in general, is worth noting as an example of the mainstream transition into more modern genres like pop and new wave. “Heart of Glass” was retooled several times by the band as they experimented with finding the right sound, before eventually settling on the disco-infused version which found widespread commercial success in 1979. Other Blondie songs, like “Call Me” or “Hanging on the Telephone,” exhibit more traditional rock ‘n’ roll sounds, but “Heart of Glass” is worth noting for its place in history. At the time, Blondie received harsh backlash for selling out to the growing disco movement. Lead singer, Debbie Harry has said that “People got nervous and angry about us bringing different influences into rock.” But with its simple premise and sweet bear, “Heart of Glass” endured and still dominates the club scene. Miley Cyrus‘ recent, rocker girl cover is also worth a watch, infusing new rocker girl spirit into the throwback. (She also borrows heavily from Debbie Harry’s classic look, sporting the bottled blonde shag ‘do and red lips.)
“Free Bird,” Lynyrd Skynyrd
The words in “Free Bird” are barely there, and yet an entire love story dissolves within your very ears over the course of nine minutes and seven seconds. This classic off of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s debut album revolves around a breakup. He’s gonna leave, she’s staying. That’s all there is to it. And even though the singer exhibits a seriously disturbing level of commitment issues, you can’t help but believe him when he says that “things just wouldn’t be the same.” Because the rest of the song just shreds so hard. This is a dumping done right: extended metaphor plus a full five-minute guitar solo. Sorry “Sweet Home Alabama,” but After 47 years, this Lynyrd Skynyrd masterpiece still has us shouting: PLAY FREE BIRD!
“Once in a Lifetime,” The Talking Heads
The Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” marked a cultural divergence for pop rock by taking wildly varied influences into account. Among them, afro-beat, hip-hop, and… preachers’ sermons. David Byrne’s crazy cadence implores listeners with loud confidence, as if singling them out. The music video, linked below, further distorts that preacher-flock relationship as Byrne’s trademark funky dance moves play beside authentic religious ceremonies. Along with producer and collaborator, Brian Eno, The Talking Heads created an album that is as striking and unconventional now as it was in 1980. Many songs on Remain in the Light came to be through improvised jam sessions in which favorite riffs were chosen and replayed. Again, and again. This process drives the excessive layering of “Once in a Lifetime,” inside which the “water flowing” seems to take on new life force. Byrne asks the age-old question: “Well, how did I get here?” But the answer is not so obvious. His latest project, a concert movie called David Byrne’s American Utopia, thrives off that disarmingly direct style of dance and speak. Performances trace back from the 1970’s-era Talking Heads through present day. David Byrne’s American Utopia is available now on HBO and HBO Max.
“With a Little Help from My Friends,” Joe Cocker
Anyone who can outperform The Beatles at their own song deserves to be on every Top 15 playlist. Forever. Joe Cocker’s passionate, raw, soul-infused take on “With a Little Help from My Friends” is nearly unrecognizable compared to The Beatles OG version off Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Cocker performed “With a Little Help from My Friends” at Woodstock in 1969 to a rapturous crowd. His Live at Woodstock recordings capture the chaotic showmanship that defined his live performances and hard rockin’ covers. Cocker sounds totally uninhibited as his voice careens off-kilter, subverting expectations. The words move through the mic like real emotion, unfiltered. But Cocker also relies heavily on his backup: an echoing choir, electrified instruments. Just as Cocker calls and returns to the other singers on stage, you might feel compelled to join in. That’s the power of Joe Cocker; it stays strong.
“Sunday Morning,” Velvet Underground
The Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning” may not be an obvious classic rock song pick, but the album, The Velvet Underground & Nico is a quiet superstar. Apart from front man Lou Reed, The Velvet Underground never found a widespread audience during their heyday. But their edgy 1967 debut featuring German singer, Nico and hailed Andy Warhol as manager (and cover artist), is cited as a major influence for countless innovative bands which followed throughout the ‘70’s, ‘80’s, and even ‘90’s. The Velvet Underground & Nico consistently ranks as one of the best albums of all time, even though it only sold 30,000 upon release. “Everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band,” according to Bryan Eno. Among those musicians: David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, The Sex Pistols, Joy Division, U2, and REM, just to name a few. So, what makes The Velvet Underground & Nico so inspiring? The eleven short tracks deal plainly controversial subjects, like drug use in “Heroin” or the S&M fetishism in “Femme Fatale” and “Venus in Furs.” Through that dark lens, the lyrics are literary and even scholarly in their dense references. Each song has a wildly different twang, alternating between the voices of Nico and Reed, but they fit together like pieces in a complex puzzle. “Sunday Morning” opens the record softly but strongly and melts like a lozenge compared to what follows. Its eerie, easy vibe feels real on just about any Sunday, as The Velvet Underground continues to capture more hearts than ever.
“Hurt,” Nine Inch Nails
While the Nine Inch Nail may not technically count as classic rock (they are technically industrial, occasionally metal), their distinctive work pulls from many rock artists. Their sophomore album, Downward Spiral is inspired by Pink Floyd and David Bowie specifically, and contains the mainstream breakout track, “Hurt,” which was nominated for best rock song in 1996. “Hurt” is a tough song. It reflects on addiction issues, self-harm, depression. Those topics are set against a lilting piano tune that can only be described as creepy. But as it gains momentum, you will find yourself overcome with both empathy and pain as the experiential sounds seem to chart the singer’s decline. “You can have it all / my empire of dirt / I will let you down / I will make you hurt,” the borderline angry sentiment cuts deep. Following the release of Downward Spiral, Bowie himself compared NIN lead singer Trent Reznor’s musical impact to that of The Velvet Underground. Johnny Cash famously covered “Hurt” as one of his final creative projects before his death in 2004. The haunting video which accompanies that version, really tackles the idea of “empire” in the song and cements the astonishing rock legacy of “Hurt.”
And let’s not forget our 25+ honorable mentions to add to your ultimate rockin’ playlist:
- “Touch Me,” The Doors
- “Hotel California,” The Eagles (tied with “Take it to the Limit,” The Eagles)
- “Horse with No Name,” America
- “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” Guns N’ Roses
- “Dream On,” Aerosmith (tied with “Sweet Emotion,” Aerosmith)
- “Piece of My Heart,” Janis Joplin
- “Go Ask Alice,” Jefferson Airplane
- “Wonderful Tonight,” Eric Clapton
- “Heart of Gold,” Neil Young
- “Jack and Diane,” John Mellencamp
- “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” Bob Dylan
- “Barracuda,” Heart
- “Space Oddity,” David Bowie
- “Born to Run,” Bruce Springsteen
- “Cherry Bomb,” Joan Jett & The Runaways
- “War Pigs,” Black Sabbath
- “Stairway to Heaven,” Led Zeppelin (tied with “Whole Lotta Love,” Led Zeppelin)
- “Tiny Dancer,” Elton John
- “Lola,” The Kinks
- “More Than a Feeling,” Boston
- “Sultans of Swing,” Dire Straits
- “I Want to Know What Love Is,” Foreigner
- “Carry on Wayward Son,” Kansas
- “Thunderstruck,” AC/DC (tied with “Back in Black,” ACDC)
- “Fortunate Son,” Creedence Clearwater Revival