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Best Rock Songs: 20 Classic Anthems That Transcend Time
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List & Guides

Best Rock Songs: 20 Classic Anthems That Transcend Time

Evergreen, evocative and often epoch-defining, the best rock songs of all time will forever shape the musical landscape.

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It might be a singular guitar riff, an anthemic chorus or an evocative melody that renders it special, but a truly great rock song has the ability to transcend time – and its appeal can span generations. From Led Zeppelin to Deep Purple, The Doors and more, Dig! salute the cream of the genre-shapers, stadium-fillers and FM radio hitmakers, and pick the 20 best rock songs of all time.

Listen to our Rock Classics playlist here, and check out our 20 best rock songs, below.

20: ZZ Top: La Grange (from ‘Tres Hombres’, 1973)

La Grange arguably dukes it out with Gimme All Your Lovin’ as ZZ Top’s signature song, but as it remains one of the finest examples of Southern rock, we reckon it deserves the nod. The key cut from Billy Gibbons and co’s third album, Tres Hombres, it was at least partly based on two John Lee Hooker songs (Boogie Chillen and Boom Boom), but ZZ Top coated it in a delicious Texan spice of their own. Though only a medium-sized hit on release (it stalled just shy of the Billboard Top 40), La Grange is regarded with fondness by rockers of all stripes, while Rolling Stone dubbed it “a standard for guitarists to show off their chops” – a recommendation that surely earns the track its place among the best rock songs.

19: The Rolling Stones: Gimme Shelter (from ‘Let It Bleed’, 1969)

Any self-respecting list of the best rock songs has to include The Rolling Stones, though attempting to boil their immense contribution to music down to a single song is a seriously tough ask. Nonetheless, Gimme Shelter remains as good a call as any. An era-defining classic forever associated with the social unrest at the tail-end of the 60s (not least the darkness of the Stones’ infamous concert at Altamont, where fan Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death during the band’s performance), the song remains the most brooding track in the Stones’ canon. In a 2012 NPR interview, Mick Jagger said, “It was a very moody piece about the world closing in on you a bit… When it was recorded, early ’69, it was a time of war and tension, so that’s reflected in this tune.”

18: Boston: More Than A Feeling (from ‘Boston’, 1976)

Boston mainman Tom Scholz has said that The Left Banke’s baroque pop classic Walk Away Renee was the starting point for More Than A Feeling. Despite the two songs sharing a similar chord progression, that claim still seems unlikely, but whatever the truth of the matter, More Than A Feeling remains instantly recognisable on its own terms. Perhaps the ultimate radio-friendly rock hit, it’s hard to dispute Guitar World’s claim that “few can resist indulging in fits of fleet-fingered air guitar and a spirited falsetto singalong” whenever the song comes on the air.

17: Alice Cooper: School’s Out (from ‘School’s Out’, 1972)

It’s often said that songs with a universal appeal will do well on the charts, and Alice Cooper’s first major hit, School’s Out, certainly bears that theory out. The song’s lyric indicates not only that the school year has ended for summer vacation, but has, indeed, ended forever, and that the school itself has been literally blown up (“Out for summer, out ’til fall/We might not come back at all”), ensuring that virtually every school kid everywhere in the world was immediately onside. Align that to a crunching backing track featuring a classic Glen Buxton riff, and it’s no wonder School’s Out shot into the US Top 10 and effectively launched Alice Cooper’s career.

16: Fleetwood Mac: Go Your Own Way (from ‘Rumours’, 1977)

Arguably the most high-profile track from one of rock’s biggest ever albums, the Lindsey Buckingham-penned Go Your Own Way was intensely personal. A breakup song written for his former partner, Stevie Nicks, with whom Buckingham was still in Fleetwood Mac, Go Your Own Way simply soared and, as Rumours’ lead single, it did a fantastic job, encouraging pre-orders for the album to reach 800,000 – at the time the largest advance sale in Warner Bros’ history. Always a contender among the best Fleetwood Mac songs, Go Your Own Way is the very epitome of rock (blended with a little folk) at its most melodic and accessible.

15: Neil Young: Rockin’ In The Free World (from ‘Freedom’, 1989)

On learning that their Glasnost-era tour of the Soviet Union wouldn’t be happening, Crazy Horse guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro remarked that the band would have to “keep on rockin’ in the free world”. This seemingly off-the-cuff remark inspired Neil Young to knock out this barnstorming protest song, which deserves its place among the best rock songs for its energy and spirit alone – even if some of his ire was directed at political targets (the George HW Bush administration and Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini) who were very much of their time.

14: Bruce Springsteen: Born To Run (from ‘Born To Run’, 1975)

Springsteen’s first two albums were critically acclaimed, but he had trouble finding an audience outside the Northeastern US, where his live shows had built him a huge following. Born To Run, however, changed all that. A classic widescreen anthem, the song picked up significant airplay on album-oriented rock radio and rewarded Springsteen with his breakthrough hit on the US Hot 100, after which there was no stopping him. Later described by Billboard as “one of the best rock anthems to individual freedom ever created”, Born To Run is synonymous with Springsteen and, flaunting its status among the best rock songs, has been aired at nearly every full-band concert The Boss has performed since 1975.

13: The Doors: LA Woman (from ‘LA Woman’, 1971)

The centrepiece of The Doors’ final album with Jim Morrison, the seven-minute LA Woman is an absolute tour de force. Driving and dynamic, it’s arguably the steeliest rocker in the band’s canon, and it inspired a lyric widely believed to be Morrison’s final goodbye to Los Angeles before his ill-starred sojourn to Paris in the spring of 1971. Employing both the tenderness (“If they say I never loved you, you know they are a liar”) and darkness (“Motel, money, murder, madness/Let’s change the mood from glad to sadness”) Morrison so often juxtaposed in his best lyrics, the song brilliantly evoked both the glamour and sleaze inherent in the City Of Angels, and it remains a five-star rock classic.

12: David Bowie: Ziggy Stardust (from ‘The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars’, 1972)

Starman got David Bowie on Top Of The Pops, but it was The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars which secured his long-term breakthrough – and the album’s anthemic almost-title-track had a lot to do with that. Like so many of Bowie’s greatest songs from this remarkable period, Mick Ronson played a significant role in its execution, with his monster initial riff creating the ideal backdrop for Bowie to relate the birth-to-death chronology of his famously androgynous alter ego – and effectively rewrite the rock’n’roll template for the 70s and beyond.

11: Eagles: Hotel California (from ‘Hotel California’, 1977)

Eagles’ soft-rock classic Hotel California went through a lot of changes during its creation, with its initial working title, “Mexican Reggae”, mirroring its original Latin and Caribbean influences. Though composed by Don Felder, Don Henley and Glenn Frey, the guitar interplay between Felder and Joe Walsh is often picked out as the song’s decisive ingredient, with Guitarist magazine later voting its lengthy coda the best guitar solo ever. As the title track to Eagles’ unstoppable Hotel California, the song topped the Billboard Hot 100, won a Grammy in 1978 and has long since been recognised as an evergreen among the best Eagles songs, so its place among the best rock songs of all time is assured.

10: The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Purple Haze (UK single A-side; US ‘Are You Experienced’ album track, 1967)

The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s second single – and the first release on the Track imprint – Purple Haze features one of the guitarist’s most instantly recognisable riffs and some of his most inventive guitar playing: a dizzying blending of blues and Eastern modalities. Though Hendrix himself referred to Purple Haze as a love song, its cosmic lyrics have led listeners to interpret it as a paean to a psychedelic experience. Indeed, that headiness was further enhanced by Hendrix performing the guitar solo with help from electronics whizz Roger Mayer’s Octavia guitar effects unit: newly developed at the time, the gizmo, which doubles the frequency of the sound it is fed, essentially added an upper octave. On release, Purple Haze shot to No.3 in the UK and has long been acclaimed as the innovative classic it remains.

9: Black Sabbath: Paranoid (from ‘Paranoid’, 1970)

Black Sabbath’s self-titled debut album and its immediate follow-up, Paranoid, are two of the cornerstones of heavy metal, and their influence on the rock landscape of the next half century can’t be overstated. According to bassist Geezer Butler, the song Paranoid “was written as an afterthought. We basically needed a three-minute filler for the album, and Tony came up with the riff. I quickly did the lyrics, and Ozzy was reading them as he was singing.” However, while it was dashed off against the clock, Paranoid had staying power. The closest thing to a snappy “hit single” Sabbath ever came up with, it shot to No.4 in the UK, landed the band on Top Of The Pops and still stands tall among the best rock songs. Not a bad return on a few minutes’ work.

8: Van Halen: Jump (from ‘1984’, 1984)

Jump’s inclusion among the best rock songs might seem a little contentious, but though it was driven by a prominent keyboard riff, it did offer Eddie Van Halen the chance to shred during his expressive guitar solo. Ultimately, though, Jump has every right to be here, as it became Van Halen’s most successful single, topping the Billboard Hot 100 with help from an MTV-friendly video which encapsulated all that was bigger and more bombastic about rock during the mid-80s. Its anthemic qualities have also led to the song enjoying a remarkable afterlife at sporting events, having since become the go-to anthem for the NBA’s Detroit Pistons, in addition to European football teams such as France’s Olympic De Marseille and Italy’s AC Milan.

7: The Beatles: Helter Skelter (from ‘The Beatles’, 1968)

Widely regarded as a key influence in the early development of heavy metal, Paul McCartney wrote Helter Skelter after reading an interview with Pete Townshend, in which The Who’s guitarist described their September 1967 single, I Can See For Miles, as the loudest, rawest, dirtiest song the group had ever recorded.

Intrigued, McCartney was disappointed when he heard the song. “I heard their record, and it was quite straight, and it was very sort of sophisticated,” he told Radio Luxembourg. “It wasn’t rough and screaming and tape echo at all. So I thought, Oh well, we’ll do one like that, then. And I had this song called Helter Skelter, which is just a ridiculous song. So we did it like that, ’cause I like noise.” It turned out The Beatles’ audience liked noise, too – and so did bands from future generations, such as Siouxsie And The Banshees, Mötley Crüe, Aerosmith, U2 and Oasis, all of whom have recorded covers of the song.

6: Pink Floyd: Comfortably Numb (from ‘The Wall’, 1979)

Pink Floyd’s staggering 1979 double-album, The Wall, is generally regarded as bassist Roger Waters’ pet project. During the making of the record, however, Waters and Dave Gilmour were both especially passionate about how they wanted the songs to sound. Arguably the album’s most popular live number, Comfortably Numb was primarily a Waters composition, but Gilmour’s two searing guitar solos – created with help from his Big Muff distortion pedal and delay effects – turned the track into the tour de force it became.

5: Derek And The Dominos: Layla (from ‘Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs’, 1970)

Layla is now regarded as such a colossal song that it’s hard to imagine it emerged from a time of personal darkness for Eric Clapton, who recorded it with his short-lived group Derek And The Dominos. Indeed, while the song’s parent album, Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs briefly scraped the US Top 20, it failed to chart in the UK and was regarded as a failure. However, after Layla the song was included on 1972’s successful The History Of Eric Clapton compilation and reissued as a single it went Top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic – and it’s only grown in stature ever since.

Effectively a song in two movements, high-profile guest Duane Allman played a key role on Layla’s first part, coming up with the distinctive riff and the slide guitar solo, while drummer Jim Gordon’s evocative piano piece formed the song’s second part, with producer Tom Dowd adroitly splicing the two together. Much later, Clapton’s stellar MTV Unplugged version of Layla further enhanced the song’s legendary reputation, and its place among the best rock songs is now forever secured.

4: AC/DC: Back In Black (from ‘Back In Black’, 1980)

Late-70s classics albums such as Powerage and Highway To Hell brought AC/DC to the very cusp of major international success, but it looked like the prize would be snatched away from the fast-rising Aussie stars when their original vocalist, Bon Scott, died from acute alcohol poisoning in February 1980. However, after the band enlisted ex-Geordie vocalist Brian Johnson they bounced back with the career-defining Back In Black: a brilliantly consistent hard-rock album which became one of music’s biggest-ever sellers, moving 25 million copies in the US alone. Huge hits such as Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution and You Shook Me All Night Long helped its progress, but the record’s all-conquering title track (written in tribute to the group’s late singer) remains its hedonistic high point.

3: Queen: Bohemian Rhapsody (from ‘A Night At The Opera’, 1975)

Queen’s signature hit, Bohemian Rhapsody broke all the rules. Instead of conforming to the tried-and-tested three-minute pop-song format, it was a six-minute suite, notable for its lack of a chorus refrain and consisting of several sections: an intro, a ballad segment, an operatic passage, a hard-rock part and a reflective final coda. However, Freddie Mercury and co were vindicated when Bohemian Rhapsody topped the UK singles chart for nine weeks and, by the end of January 1976, had sold more than a million copies. The song again topped the UK charts for five weeks after Mercury’s death, in 1991, and in March 2021 it was certified diamond for sales of over ten million copies. Its commercial success speaks for itself but, ultimately, Bohemian Rhapsody sashays into this list of the best rock songs on audacity alone.

2: Deep Purple: Smoke On The Water (from ‘Machine Head’, 1972)

Smoke On The Water related the seemingly fantastic – but 100 per cent true – story of what happened when Deep Purple decamped to Switzerland’s Montreux Casino to record their fifth album, Machine Head. All was fine until the eve of the recording session, when a Frank Zappa concert was held in the casino’s theatre – which then partially burnt down due to an incident involving a flare gun, leaving Purple to sort out alternative studio arrangements.

Musically, however, Smoke On The Water has written itself into history thanks to its central theme, developed by guitarist Ritchie Blackmore. It is a four-note blues-scale melody in G minor, harmonised in parallel fourths, which Blackmore later said was an inversion of Beethoven’s Symphony No.5. The striking guitar figure has since become the go-to riff that all aspiring hard rock guitarists must master. As Purps drummer Ian Paice later said, “It’s so gloriously simple and wonderfully satisfying.”

1: Led Zeppelin: Kashmir (from ‘Physical Graffiti’, 1975)

Both Whole Lotta Love and Stairway To Heaven could also have featured in this list of the best rock songs of all time, but claiming the top spot is a song of epic proportions: Kashmir, the very epitome of an epic, groundbreaking rock song. One of the best Led Zeppelin songs to boot, it eventually became the pinnacle of the band’s widely acclaimed Physical Graffiti, but it had a relatively slow gestation. Initially demoed by Jimmy Page and John Bonham in 1973, Robert Plant penned its mystical lyrics, which were was inspired by a drive through the southern desert of Morocco, late that same year. One of few instances where the group called upon outside help to realise their vision, Kashmir was further enhanced by strings and horns, in addition to John Paul Jones’ evocative Mellotron, and developed into the shape-shifting, world-music-tinged behemoth we still marvel at today.

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