My List is just rock. Other peoples’ lists seem to include songs from the “rock era” but I’d rank some of them as soul, jazz, blues or folk.
These are what I consider the greatest rock songs, tempered, of course, by my own subjective opinion—my favorites. If you just want to talk about the greatest and most influential songs in history, “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” would be high on the list. Perhaps the first great heavy riff. I don’t include it here because I only listen to it through the guitar solo. Who needs the rest?
And yeah (yeah, yeah, yeah)—no Beatles. I do not deny their cultural significance. They were brilliant songwriters, brilliant artists. I had friends [for whom] the Beatles were practically their religion. But call me up at random times, ask me what song I’d like to hear in that moment—the Beatles are gonna be pretty far down the list.
1. “Roll Over Beethoven,” Chuck Berry (1956) – Have to start with Chuck Berry. You youngsters don’t remember what it was like when rock ‘n roll arrived. “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” hit Number One on the Charts. “Roll over Beethoven, tell Tchaikovsky the news” has to be the single best line in rock ‘n roll history.
2. “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” Rolling Stones (1968) – No story here, no messages or hidden meanings. Pure rock exuberance.
3. “Whole Lotta Love,” Led Zeppelin (1969) – Best riff ever. First thing you hear when you put on the number one heavy metal album of all time.
4. “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” The Who (1971) – The death of Woodstock. Peter Townshend was the Beethoven of “My Generation.”
5. “All Along The Watchtower,” Jimi Hendrix (1968) – The moment a lot of kids went: “Who is this guy?”
6. “Layla,” Derek & The Dominos (1970) – Title track from the best album ever recorded with electric guitars.
7. “Night Moves,” Bob Seger (1976) – “Started humming a song from 1962.” And that was in ’76. Ouch! Title track of best American rock ‘n roll album ever released.
8. “Gimme Shelter,” Rolling Stones (1969) – It’s just a kiss away. Any list of best Stones albums that doesn’t end with Let It Bleed as number one is invalid.
9. “Free Bird,” Lynyrd Skynyrd (1973) – Every story you ever heard about somebody getting into Skynyrd went: “Yadda, yadda, yadda… Then I heard ‘Free Bird.’”
10. “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” Led Zeppelin (1969) – “Communication Breakdown” and “Dazed and Confused” were monsters, but it was this spell-binding acoustic number that seriously made Zeppelin something special.
12. “Tangled Up In Blue,” Bob Dylan (1975) – Even in Dylan’s catalog this stands out. “She handed me a book of poems…”
13. “Break On Through,” The Doors (1967) – First song on the first Doors album. You won’t believe what follows.
14. “Born To Be Wild,” Steppenwolf (1968) – May be a little high on the list, but it coined the term Heavy Metal.
15. “All Day And All of the Night,” The Kinks (1964) – I always liked this tune better than “You Really Got Me,” which invented power chord rock.
16. “Like A Rolling Stone,” Bob Dylan (1965) – Most rank this song high because it marked Dylan going electric. That did not mean much to me. But who the frick writes songs like this?
17. “Helplessly Hoping,” CS&N (1969) – Positively sublime: clever lyrics, incredible harmonies. Stephen Stills doesn’t get the recognition he deserves, he did everything on this album except drums and the other guys’ vocals.
18. “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” The Animals (1965) – Crystallizes the longing and restlessness of the era, plus it has a great bass line. While most British Invasion groups were cranking out upbeat ditties, the Animals were playing heavy blues. One could argue they set the stage for the fabled British Blues Boom of the late ’60s.
19. “Pipeline,” Chantays (1962) – One of the first great electric guitar compositions, and one of the best instrumentals in rock history.
20. “Help Me Rhonda,” Beach Boys (1965) – Could’ve gone with “Fun, Fun, Fun” or “Sloop John B” but “Help Me Rhonda” sums up the desperate innocence of Teenage Love.
22. “Bad Moon Rising,” Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969) – “Proud Mary,” their biggest hit, was okay, but over-played. Came a point, I’d hear it and think: “Asshole! Maybe you could try ‘Lodi,’ ‘Fortunate Son’ or ‘Someday Never Comes.’”
23. “Thunder Road,” Bruce Springsteen (1975) – The Boss has written a crap load of great songs. But “like a vision she dances across the floor while the radio plays” simply slays me.
24. “Into The Mystic,” Van Morrison (1970) – A beautiful song that transports you into an ethereal time and place.
25. “Breakdown,” Tom Petty (1976) – A great simmering groove punctuated by the brutal simplicity of Petty’s lyrics. Doesn’t hurt that every time I hear it I remember an ex, pulling off her top to dance topless for me to this song.
26. “Midnight Rambler,” Rolling Stones (1969)- Keith Richards called this a Blues Opera.
27. “Shakin’ Street,” MC5 (1970) – A standout track from Back in the USA.
28. “Rhiannon,” Fleetwood Mac (1975) – Yeah, I love “Dreams,” too, but this was the “Who is this?” moment for the Buckinham-Nicks iteration of Fleetwood Mac.
29. “Call Me The Breeze,” Lynyrd Skynyrd (1974) – I asked Ronnie Van Zant how they decided to record it. He told me: “I heard that song, I knew we had to do it.” An incredible guitar solo by Gary Rossington. The capper is Ronnie’s little coda—“Mr. Breeze!”
30. “Pictures of Home,” Deep Purple (1972) – People don’t talk about this song, but it’s the standout track on Machine Head, a monument of heavy metal. Love the extra instrumental tagged onto the end.
32. “She Lies in the Morning,” Ten Years After (1970) – A great band, if you’ve never gotten into them it’s well worth your time. Their golden age stretched from their third album (Sssh in ’69) to A Space in Time (1971).
33. “Samba Pa Ti,” Santana (1970) – Along with “Pipeline” has to be considered one of the best instrumentals in musical history. Name one better. “Take Five” maybe. My point exactly. A nice acoustic rendition of this song was recorded by New Agee Ottmar Liebert in 1992 with Carlos Santana playing electric guitar.
34. “I Can’t Tell You Why,” The Eagles (1979) – A rather atypical track for this band, written primarily by Timothy B. Schmit. What makes it is the sublime lead guitar.
35. “Runaway,” Del Shannon (1961) – For the pure joy and exhilaration of rock ‘n roll, this song can’t be beat.
36. “Magic Man” (and “Crazy On You”), Heart (1975) – Another great first song on a band’s debut album, separated by the acoustic “Dreamboat Annie.” These basically comprise a suite and they told you exactly who this group was—solid rockers with that Led Zep/Iron Butterfly combo of hard and soft.
37. “Thirty Days in The Hole,” Humble Pie (1972) – If I was making a list of best albums ever I’d have to include their Rock On. A great English rock ‘n roll record (right up there with A Nod Is As Good As A Wink from The Faces). “Thirty Days in The Hole” became the signature track off Smokin’, after which they boogied their way into oblivion.
38. “Too Rolling Stoned,” Robin Trower (1974) – Morphing through movements with a seemingly never-ending guitar solo, this is the best of several masterpiece tracks on Bridge of Sighs. I don’t know if anybody tops Robin Trower for that slow, dreamy psychedelia.
39. “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide,” ZZ Top (1979) – The coolest of the cool. “Rolling down the road in some cold blue steel. Got a blues band on the back, and a beautician at the wheel.”
40. “It’s My Life,” The Animals (1965) – This song came on the radio at the perfect time when I was a young man embroiled in emotional upheaval, instilled me with a sense of “Screw You” (I’m paraphrasing here) which would ruin a lot of shit for me later in life.
42. “Apeman,” The Kinks (1970) – A lighthearted ditty which belies what a powerful social commentary this song really is.
43. “Spooky,” Classics IV (1968) – One of rock’s great riffs conjures up the perfect eerie feel. Originally, this song was a jazz instrumental.
44. “Gimme Your Money Please,” Bachman-Turner Overdrive (1973) – Yet another great opening track from a band’s debut, this was the tune that got BTO their recording contract. Randy Bachman submitted the first BTO album to Mercury Records, got a call from label President, Charlie Fach. He could hear “Gimme Your Money Please” playing in the background. I don’t think Fred Turner gets the recognition he deserves as both a bass player and vocalist.
45. “Angel of Mercy,” Dire Straits (1979) – A true jewel, a kind of medieval Sword & Sorcery love song with some really great guitar.
46. “A Dream Away,” The Cars (1981) – A great, great band, a totally original sound, even within their mechanized tunes they hit a bunch of great riffs. Elliot Easton is one of rock’s most under-appreciated guitarists, and much of the band’s unique sound is due to the keyboard work of Greg Hawkes. “The good life, it’s just a dream away.”
47. “Long, Long Time,” Linda Rondstadt (1970) – Speaking of slaying me after all these years nothing hits like Linda Ronstadt singing “Long Long Time.” Arguably one of the best vocal performances of all time; much as I love her version of “Desperado,” she never touched the emotional intensity of “Long Long Time” again.
48. “My Old School,” Steely Dan (1973) – Great recording artists more than a band. There’s a great story behind this tune, some great lyrics (“Oh, no, Guadalajara won’t do”), and an unbelievable guitar solo from Jeff “Skunk” Baxter.
49. “Monster,” Steppenwolf (1969) – One of the most sweeping and insightful political songs ever written—a major statement about society which transcends tribal rivalry and is just as relevant today as it was in the late ’60s.
50. “When The Music’s Over,” The Doors (1967) – Perhaps the first rap song? Jim Morrison was more of a poet than a songwriter. His meandering commentary conjures images, evokes a visceral fascination; like driving past an accident, you can’t help but look. Meanwhile the band just keeps cooking along behind him.