Growing out of the Rock and Roll music of the mid-20th century, the “Rock Genre” developed a harder edge than more mainstream ‘Pop Music’ and often drew its inspiration from traditional Blues, Country, and Folk music. Using hard bass lines, complex drumming, keyboards, and heavier guitar sounds it often featured lyrics based around the most pressing issues of the time. As Rock evolved, it spun off into a lot of sub-genres such as Punk Rock, Grunge Rock, and Progressive Rock but always kept, at its heart, a spirit of rebellion, a hint of danger, and a sense of its own identity. To be considered one of the Best Rock Songs of all time, a song has to challenge that genre, maybe even redefine it and inspire and innovate. Here’s our list of 10 of the Best Rock Songs of all time…
10. Whipping Post by the Allman Brothers
This song is a perfect example of pure angst in rock. Betrayed by his girl, the singer feels betrayed, lied to, and in so much pain he feels like he’s tied to a whipping post, just awaiting more and more pain. As performed by the Allman Brothers, it was a shining example of Southern Rock and stands the test of time as a classic. However, while the song is everything you could want it to be in an emotionally charged rock song, it took Frank Zappa to really bring it to life. Check out the stunning live performance from 1984 in this video, Bobby Martin’s soaring vocals and Zappa’s legendary guitar skills bring new life to this already classic rock masterpiece.
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9. Highway to Hell by AC/DC
Emerging from the Australian Rock scene in 1973, AC/DC quickly established themselves as major players in the Rock world. Initially formed by the Young Brothers, they worked steadily, continuing to write and perform hard-hitting, driving rock songs, and built a huge fan following. Despite the tragic loss of vocalist Bon Scott, an event that would cripple most bands, AC/DC recruited veteran singer Brian Johnson from the British band Geordie and kept the momentum going.
In 1979 they released the ‘Highway to Hell’ album, and the title track is a perfect example of what makes them one of Rock’s top acts ever. Starting with a blistering guitar solo from Angus Young, the song slowly builds to a crescendo of power chords that carry the whole song. This is a brilliant example of simplicity over flashiness. The chords pound out until Young hands the rhythm duties off to his brother Malcolm and hit us with a shining example of guitar virtuosity. Just when you think it will explode, the song shows unmatched restraint and goes back to the driving chords and screamed chorus. This is a rock classic.
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8. Smoke on the Water by Deep Purple
Richie Blackmore delivers what is quite possibly the best rock guitar riff of all time in 1972’s Smoke on the Water. Based on true events when the band witnessed the casino in Montreux burning down the year before, the song drives forward relentlessly. There’s probably not a rock guitar student alive that hasn’t copied that riff and realized that it’s not as easy as Blackmore makes it sound. The subdued keyboard skills of Jon Lord underpin the riff-driven song beautifully and when the guitar solo comes in it builds to become one of Rock’s most memorable songs ever.
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7. La Grange by ZZ Top
The little old band from Texas has always known how to write great rock songs, but La Grange is undoubtedly their masterpiece. This blues riff-based song starts with a solo guitar intro, quickly joined by a double-time subdued drum backing and Billy Gibbon’s growling vocals about a ‘Shack outside La Grange’ where they have a lot of nice girls. The drums keep the beat nicely in the background until the song breaks, and boy, how it breaks. This blues-influenced rock classic builds and builds until the guitar solo, where Gibbon demonstrates that it’s how you play the notes, not how many notes you play, that counts. The riff never goes away, the song shows restrained yet masterful playing. What makes it truly great, though, is how they adapt it in a live setting while never straying from the song’s powerful riff. Watch how much fun they have with La Grange live.
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6. Ace of Spades by Motorhead
From its surging bass opening, where Lemmy sets the breakneck pace with his unique playing style through the slow drum build that leads to the thrashing guitar, Ace of Spades delivers the perfect example of pounding, hook-driven rock. With lyrics mentioning almost every gambling reference known to man, a stunning and powerful vocal delivery, and controlled but manic drumming, this is 2 minutes 44 seconds of hard, dirty rock heaven. The song has a brief vocal break at about the 1:19 mark that allows the lead guitar solo that follows to really shine through, and from that moment, it never ever lets up. The riff is always there, the bass and drums drive it hard, and that chorus stays with you long after the song has finished.
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5. Welcome to the Jungle by Guns and Roses
If ever a rock song captured an era and the essence of the times in which it was written, it’s ‘Welcome to the Jungle‘ by Guns and Roses. Built around a series of heavy riffs by guitarist Slash, Axl Rose’s lyrics lay out a vision of American city life that is both tempting and terrifying at the same time. The Jungle, a place where “you can have anything that you want, but you’d better not take it for free” calls to the rebellious spirit of the times but warns of the stark dangers that can come with it. The song so skillfully weaves the hard impact, fast-paced, aggressive delivery of some of the best musicians in rock history with the almost painful and emotional delivery of Axl Rose’s voice. The band claim they wrote the song in about 3 hours, but its legacy will last a lifetime.
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4. Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes
The first seven notes of this rock anthem define and dictate the whole song. Instantly identifiable, they provide the backbone to a song that has been used by sports teams to create chants and even used by the Italian Soccer team as their unofficial theme song. From the bass-like opening riff, Seven Nation Army builds with drummer Meg White providing a solid heartbeat rhythm and composer, guitarist, and vocalist Jack White manipulating the riff in unique ways like no song ever has before. While the riff is always there in the back of your mind, he skillfully weaves notes around it, threatening a virtuoso solo, then bringing it back. The song builds, then slows, builds, then slows, making a lasting impression on the listener.
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3. Whole Lotta Love by Led Zeppelin
While the song was mired in controversy as some of the lyrics were lifted, without credit, from Willie Dixon’s blues song “You Need Love” Led Zeppelin created a hard-driving, hard rock song around them that has remained unmatched. All the members of Led Zeppelin had the pedigree, and it shows in this incredible composition. Establishing itself with hard riffs and Robert Plant’s phenomenal vocal range, ‘Whole Lotta Love‘ kicks off by building with the driving bass and powerhouse drumming. However, just when you think you know what’s coming, John Bonham segues into a mini drum solo that leaves you wondering where it will go next. Where it goes is to Jimmy Page’s inspired use of a violin bow on his guitar and the introduction of spatial acoustics that had never been heard before, including Plant’s sexually charged vocals. As his voice reaches a high crescendo, Page’s guitar solos break through, and the riff comes back in. The whole song is underpinned by John Paul Jones’ bass and Bonham’s unique drumming and remains a hard rock classic to this day.
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2. Sympathy for the Devil by The Rolling Stones
The Stones were always seen as edgy, dangerous, and counter-culture, and nothing demonstrates those qualities like ‘Sympathy for the Devil‘, their understated masterpiece. Starting with some hand drumming from Charlie Watts layered with Mick Jagger’s almost feral grunts, the song quickly transitions into an understated and laid-back rock song with lyrics that basically laud the devil. The vocals take pride of place, and Jagger makes sure to carefully enunciate every single word as the melodies weave in and out of the background. The nearest it comes to breaking out is Keith Richards’ sloppy sounding but carefully played, few notes of a solo. This went against their blues-based background and showed that the Rolling Stones could write one of the best rock songs of all time.
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1. Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen
If you’re going to write just one rock song, just one composition that will define you as an artist and imprint your legacy across the generations, it is this one. Bohemian Rhapsody didn’t just break genre stereotypes it redefined them. Written by Freddie Mercury, arguably one of the greatest ever front men in rock history, the song weaves its way through perfect harmonies, overdubbed hundreds of times, a beautifully sung ballad, a hard rock guitar solo, and operatic vocals that bring the tragic lyrics to life and a hard-driving guitar riff-based rock section, before slowly descending to an outro that leaves you gasping. The perfectly pitched high vocals of drummer Roger Taylor cut through the operatic chorus like a knife, and Brian May’s guitar solos send shivers down the spine. There’s not a single bad part of this masterpiece, and while the song shook the world of rock to its roots, the video paved the way for music videos to become seen as works of art, an integral part of the song rather than merely a promotional tool.
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