Top 10 Rock Songs of All Time
Let the great debate begin.
Every decade has hundreds upon hundreds of worthy candidates for the top 10 rock songs of all time: The 60s (Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”), the 70s (Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall”), the 80s (U2’s “With or Without You”), the 90s (Alice in Chains’ “Man in the Box”), and the 2000s (Audioslave’s “Like a Stone”). It’s a mind-boggling matrix that can, literally, be twisted in a thousand different directions.
The List of Greatness Begins
Difficult choices are just that, difficult. Case and point: the above superb, iconic tracks didn’t even make our countdown. So then, what are the top 10 rock songs of all time? At the end of the day, there are no wrong answers (whew!) -- just opinions. Consider, then, the following musical picks vying for the coveted title of being the best of the best!
- “Stairway To Heaven” – Led Zeppelin (1971)
In 2011, there was a crazy calibration of just how many recorded songs there’ve been in the history of music. Quick: take a wild guess. (No peeking).
Did you say 79 million? Congratulations on nailing it. Now, obviously, counting down nearly 80 million tunes one by one would take, well, a really long time. It’s no surprise that if we were to count ‘em down, when it comes to the GOAT (greatest of all time) the prestigious pendulum would point to none other than “Stairway to Heaven.”
Aside from it being an 8-minute masterpiece about “… a lady who's sure all that glitters is gold,” it’s ripe with musical levels featuring an intro of mellotron flutes veering seamlessly into Jimmy Page’s breathtaking guitar solo.
According to theguardian.com, a little-known fact of “Stairway to Heaven” was that it’s been played roughly 3 million times on the radio, amounting to 44 years’ worth of airtime. It’s also been suggested that if you play it backwards, you’ll hear Satanic messages, including “Here’s to my sweet Satan.”
Despite its firm position as a mysterious all-time classic, not everyone was sold on the lyrics including lead singer Robert Plant. “Ah, yes, the lyrics,” he told Q Magazine in 1988, “If you absolutely hated Stairway to Heaven, nobody can blame you for that because it was so … pompous.” The fact that Led Zeppelin didn’t want to release the song as a single is quite telling. Unsure of its place in radio history, they released it in 1971, and much to their surprise, it was a bonified hit despite the fact not everyone understood what it was about: “In a tree by the brook, there's a songbird who sings / Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven.”
Whether it’s cryptically poetic or just esoteric, the song went platinum 23 times over -- proving its prime place in the annals of rarified airplay.
- “Free Bird” – Lynyrd Skynyrd (1973)
Another staple on the ladder of best-evers -- directly above (or below) “Stairway to Heaven” -- is “Free Bird,” Skynyrd’s timeless blockbuster. Few songs can evoke the emotions found in “Free Bird” --- with its sweet nod to the paradise of freedom: “Cause I'm as free as a bird now / And this bird you cannot change.”
Lynyrd Skynyrd’s 9-minute epic features guitar work, not unlike “Stairway to Heaven,” that begins in mellow tempo then climaxes to blistering levels of speed. Thankfully, Skynyrd is still touring to this day, although the final original member of the band, Gary Rossington, was sidelined due to heart surgery. Still, the legend goes on – as “Free Bird” continues to survive, teaching a brand-new crop of kids the unequivocal power of free will.
- “Go Your Own Way” – Fleetwood Mac (1977)
Most break-up songs end up in a sock drawer no one is ever going to see – except for, maybe, one’s therapist. In the case of Lyndsey Buckingham, “Go Your Own Way,” it was anything but invisible. The intense break-up song was written for his then-ex-girlfriend and current band-mate, Stevie Nicks.
The single was a major player on Fleetwood Mac’s uber-popular, drama-filled Rumours, which went onto sell 40 million copies (and counting). However, the hit song, based on the Buckingham-Nicks permanent separation, wasn’t the only musical highlight of the album.
There were plenty others to groove to: “Never Going Back Again,” “Dreams,” and “Don’t Stop” were all featured on what many call a quasi, greatest hits set. But it’s “Go Your Own Way” that touches the most nerves. “Maybe I'd give you my world / How can I / When you won't take it from me.” The lyrics, so true and painful, seem to cry out with an enduring, visceral frustration.
- “Born to Run” – Bruce Springsteen (1975)
Bruuuuuuuuce! What kind of countdown of the top 10 rock songs of all time would it be without the Emperor of the East, Bruce Springsteen? Although the Boss’s super early first two albums were lauded by critics and the fact that his live shows -- with the omnipresent E-Street Band -- were known to clock in at 4 hours-plus, his fledgling fan-base reach wasn’t getting too far beyond the Jersey Shore.
The title track to “Born to Run” changed all that. The song climbed to big-time airplay on AOR stations coast to coast. Billboard called the song “one of the best rock anthems to individual freedom ever created,” helping to cement the Boss’s legend which continues to grow today.
“Born to Run” bleeds with eternal optimism: We're gonna get to that place / Where we really wanna go and we'll walk in the sun / But 'til then, tramps like us / Baby, we were born to run. Fan or not, the words make you want to stand up and cheer with all the world’s tramps.
MORE FROM THE 70s
Yes, we’re spending a lot of time in the 1970s, but that’s okay. It was a generous time for unforgettably decadent music deep in the heart of post-hippy love-ins and John Travolta’s limb-bending dance moves. The 70s monopolizes our top 10 rock songs of all time -- doing it proudly with flare and unapologetic confidence. Here are others:
- “Purple Haze” – Jimi Hendrix (1970)
Jimi Hendrix Experience had a fiercely inventive sound -- featuring a young, African American guitarist whose talent was something to behold. His inaugural single, “Hey Joe” leaped to #6 on the British pop charts setting the path for things to come. The (purple) sky was truly the limit.
Hendrix embodied soulful six-string play, mixing and matching rock and blues. As bad-ass as the original songs were, his sick live performances were flat out eye-popping. “Purple Haze” provided a perfect canvas for his behind-the-head guitar style and mesmerizing string-plucking with his teeth.
Unfortunately, like too many musicians before and after him, drugs played a pivotal role in both his creativity and demise. The themes of hallucination run all over the track: “Purple haze all around / Don't know if I'm comin' up or down.” One thing’s for sure: those fortunate enough to have seen him play live witnessed something which will never be witnessed again on the throne of rock and roll. Sure, Prince came close – but there will only be one Jimi Hendrix.
- “Back in Black” – AC/DC (1980)
Just close your eyes and feel the power surge of those awesome lyrics: “Back in black I hit the sack / I've been too long, I'm glad to be back / Yes, I'm let loose / From the noose / That's kept me hanging about.”
AC/DC was a rock and roll juggernaut busting out of the 70s with such mega hits as “Highway to Hell” and “Whole Lotta Rosie,” but the band’s trajectory faltered badly when original vocalist, Bon Scott, died from alcohol poisoning in February 1980. What would happen next?
The answer was the punch-in-the-face vocal style of Brian Johnson. “Back and Black,” both single and album, were monster successes lifting the band to new heights. Johnson, along with shorts-wearing, head-bobbing Angus Young, resuscitated the band to the tune of 25 million sold copies with “Back in Black,” befittingly dedicated to their gone but not forgotten former lead singer.
- “Bohemian Rhapsody” – Queen (1975)
Freddie Mercury, a self-described diva, knew exactly what he wanted in 1975 – and what he wanted (more than anything) was for a 6-minute rock song with opera vocals to be the first single from the appropriately titled, “A Night at the Opera.” Despite the record label fighting him on it, he and the band got their way – and the rest is radio history. Rolling Stone Magazine stated that the influence of “Bohemian Rhapsody” "… cannot be overstated, practically inventing the music video seven years before MTV went on the air."
All was well in the Queen camp when the song topped the UK singles chart for nine weeks, selling more than a million copies in under a year. Queen reached its pinnacle at 1985’s Live Aid international benefit concert when Mercury and company stole the show with a 20-minute performance known simply as one of the best rock and roll performances to ever grace a stage.
- Baba O’Riley – The Who (1971)
“Baba O’Riley,” the opening track on The Who’s album entitled Who’s Next, was a palpable change of pace from the standard rock of the day. With a sensational up-tempo violin solo, the song, incidentally not called “Teenage Wasteland,” was a definitive soundtrack calling card for the decade.
With Roger Daltry’s commanding voice and Pete Townshend’s memorable guitar licks, “Baba O’Riley,” successfully mixed fusion, rock, and roots to land on this best of list with flying colors.
A fun fact: According to Rolling Stone Magazine, the violin conclusion was the idea of drummer Keith Moon. As for the passion the band ultimately had for the song, said Townshend, "I just hope that on my deathbed I don't embarrass myself by asking someone, 'Can you pass me my guitar? And will you run the backing tape of 'Baba O'Riley'? I just want to do it one more time."
- “Dream On” – Aerosmith (1973)
When digging through the treasuries of classic rock ballads, and asking yourself, What are some great slow, sad and beautiful rock songs?, “Dream On” stands head and shoulders above the pack. The mega-ballad, penned by lead singer Steven Tyler, and featured on their first album titled Aerosmith, was (and is) a concert high point.
But it’s those awesome lyrics that pulls us into the song’s energy, embracing everything we desire if only we had the means. “Sing with me, sing for a year / Sing for the laughter, and sing the tear / Sing with me, if it's just for today / Maybe tomorrow, the good Lord will take you away.”
Aerosmith, now 45 years young, continues to record and play to sold out audiences. In fact, play dates are set through 2023! If you’ve never seen them, go. “Dream On” played live-- from those wonderful power chords to its filmic gong at the end – it’s a wildly important bucket list moment you’ll remember for eternity.
- “Sweet Child of Mine” – Guns N’ Roses (1988)
In the late 80s and early 90s, rock and roll was all about three things: hair, spandex, and the Sunset Strip. Baby bands such as W.A.S.P., L.A. Guns, Faster Pussycat, Poison – and lots of other sexed up, glammed up would-be superstars - erupted from the modest stages of the LA scene. There were countless acts – with looks and talent to spare – but it was Guns N’ Roses who rose to the highest prominence with insane talent and a knock-out single called “Sweet Child O’ Mine.”
The absolutely killer track featured the lead vocal chops of Axl Rose (male’s answer to Janice Joplin) and Slash’s loud, lethal, progressively unstoppable guitar solo. It remains to this day one of the most explosive sounds to emerge from this or any other musical era.
The story of the song was that it was written for the daughter of Don Everly (half of the Everly Brothers). Her name was Erin. Story goes: Erin met Axl Rose at a party before the band elevated to the stratosphere. He fell for her, hard, and the rest is love song folklore: “She's got eyes of the bluest skies / As if they thought of rain/ I'd hate to look into those eyes and see an ounce of pain.” That pretty image, thanks to Axl and GNR, is now of legend in one of the most energetic tunes you’ll ever hear.
Honorable Mention (to Metal)
Selecting only 10 rock songs of the best ever is a daunting task. Many of the songs which didn’t make the cut fall into the hard-rocking category of heavy metal which begs the question: who are the top metal bands of all time?
From there, let’s add to the equation what is the most meaningful heavy metal song of all time? – and now we’ve got something: a forceful foursome and their cream of the crop, head-banging masterpieces. The following bands provide an impressive and worthy list. Whittled down to an elite class of super hard, super-fast acts, it’s tough to argue with the below batch of rock and roll royalty:
- Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” and “Heaven and Hell”
- Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” “The Unforgiven,” and “Master of Puppets”
- Iron Maiden’s “Run to the Hills” and “Fear of the Dark”
- Megadeth’s “Peace Sells” and “Symphony of Destruction”
Note: Despite these – and many other -- sinfully vociferous songs that didn’t cash in their top 10 chips, it doesn’t mean we don’t love them equally. Stay tuned for Best Heavy Metal Songs of All Time, a definitive collection devoted to the loudest form of music on earth. Period.
When tabulating the top 10 rock songs of all time, there’s a lot to take in. There was no shortage of hardcore rock songs and weepy love ballads to dive through in this plentiful list of masterful tracks.
Whether it’s “Dream On” or “Sweet Child of Mine” or “Go Your Own Way,” the debate of what’s “the greatest” will go on forever.
The most important aspect is what it means to you: because, when it’s all said and done, the emotional connections to your favorite rock songs are what matters most.
Universally loved music does what no other art form can: it embraces you, inspires you, and sets you free. You’re never – ever - alone when those songs are playing. In your head. Or on the radio. And that’s the beauty of rock and roll.
So -- what are your favorite songs? Mind you. You have are over 79 million choices.
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