Table of Contents
Last updated on April 12th, 2023 at 09:31 am
Rock n’ roll began in the 1950s, when artists like Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley combined blues, R&B, country, and standard pop into a cultural phenomenon. Since then, the genre has undergone dozens of changes, from the Brit Pop revolution to punk to grunge.
For our best rock songs list, we focus on covering all the major kinds of rock: early influences, 60s and 70s classic rock, punk, country rock, grunge, and even prog. Major bands and songs are included, but we’ve also added some fun surprises.
40. “Everybody Wants Some” – Van Halen
What would a best rock songs list be without Van Halen? Sure, they had bigger songs – “Panama” and “Jump” come to mind – but you can’t beat the tribal drums at the beginning of this one.
Plus, it features David Lee Roth at his wildman best. Especially when he belts, “I want some toooo-AHHHHH.”
39. “Take it Easy” – The Eagles
Though “Hotel California” had a bigger impact, “Take It Easy” was the song that brought country rock into the mainstream.
The Jackson Browne-penned tune shows how the Eagles began before they became more straight rock-oriented in their later years.
All the hallmarks of country rock are here: twangy guitars, a whimsical feel, some bluegrass instruments for flavor, and those harmonies.
38. “Smoke on the Water” – Deep Purple
“Smoke on the Water” undoubtedly contains the most popular riff in rock history.
From the 1971 album Machine Head, it’s the high-water mark of Deep Purple’s most famous incarnation, so-called mark two.
37. “Walk This Way” – Aerosmith
Though not as popular of a riff as “Smoke on the Water,” “Walk This Way” still features one of the best of all time.
The classic rock staple hit #10 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1975. It climbed all the way to #4 when re-done with Run-DMC just over a decade later.
36. “Everlong” – Foo Fighters
Arguably, the Foo Fighters are the Aerosmith of our generation.
Think about it: they specialize in big, arena-ready rock songs and powerful ballads. They’re also wildly successful.
Though I prefer the more uninhibited sound of their first record, “Everlong” is the song that put the Foo Fighters on the map.
35. “Enter Sandman” – Metallica
“Enter Sandman” may not be the best Metallica song, but it certainly is the most iconic.
One of the best hard rock songs of all time, “Enter Sandman” broke Metallica into the mainstream.
I used to sing “Enter Sandman” to my niece when she was a baby. Surprisingly, she turned out fine.
34. “The Chain” – Fleetwood Mac
Let’s be real: you could basically choose any song from Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors for a best rock songs list.
I’m going with “The Chain” because it best represents the totality of Fleetwood Mac as a band.
Though Buckingham, Nicks, and Christine McVie are its driving force, the band’s namesakes, Mick Fleetwood and John McVie, are the true stars of “The Chain.”
33. “November Rain” – Guns N’ Roses
Guns N’ Roses changed the rock game when they took the scene by storm with their 1987 album Appetite for Destruction.
Like all legendary bands, their sound grew with time.
Epic “November Rain,” from their double album Use Your Illusion, shows the more mature songwriting of their early 90s period.
32. “Number of the Beast” – Iron Maiden
What is the most badass rock song of all time? It’s hard not to go with Iron Maiden’s “Number of the Beast.” Or any Maiden song, for that matter.
Iron Maiden is kind of the ultimate rock band. They got the look and the musicianship, and their literate lyrics are the cherry on top.
31. “Down Payment Blues” – AC/DC
What best rock songs list could skip AC/DC?
Like many classic rock bands, their biggest hits are not even close to their best songs.
AC/DC seemingly couldn’t write a bad song in their early, boozy Bon Scott Days. “Down Payment Blues” is one of dozens of songs from that era that could have made this best rock songs list.
30. “Paranoid” – Black Sabbath
And the hits just keep on coming.
Yes, we’re all sad that Ozzy Osbourne has retired from touring. At least we’ll always have all his classics, like this title track from Black Sabbath’s second album.
Another one of the greatest riffs of all time.
Related: The 15 Worst Singers of All Time
29. “Layla” – Derek and the Dominos
Speaking of the best rock riffs, you knew Clapton was going to show up on a best rock songs list.
The energy of “Layla” can’t be denied. I guess that’s what happens when you fall in love with your best friend’s wife.
28. “Kashmir” – Led Zeppelin
Like with so many bands on this best rock songs list, it’s almost impossible to pick just one from Led Zeppelin.
Do you go with a groundbreaking early blues rock track like “Dazed and Confused”? Massive hits like “Black Dog” or “Immigrant Song”? The possibilities are endless.
“Kashmir” makes the list because it’s just so damn epic. Dig the mystical Eastern overtones.
27. “Free Bird” – Lynyrd Skynyrd
Alright, alright, so this is a super cliche choice. But it’s cliche for a reason – it’s one of the biggest, brashest, best rock songs of all time.
Simply, “Free Bird” is the pinnacle of Southern Rock.
26. “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” – Elton John
Elton John has bigger, poppier, more popular hits than “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding.” “Crocodile Rock,” “Rocket Man,” and “Your Song” come to mind.
Like “Free Bird” and “Kashmir,” “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” gets a spot on our best rock songs list because of how huge and epic it is. It just rocks.
25. “Piece of My Heart” – Big Brother and the Holding Company
Janis Joplin shows off her soulful, bluesy vocal chops on “Piece of My Heart.”
Certified platinum in the U.S., the iconic song is from Big Brother’s chart-topping 1968 album Cheap Thrills.
24. “Close to the Edge” – Yes
We gotta show progressive rock some love, right?
If you want to go really outside the box, check out Yes’ Tales from Topographic Oceans, which contains one long song across four sides of an album.
By comparison, the 20-minute title track from their 1973 album is downright compact.
Nobody did prog rock better than Yes. The musicianship, the vocal theatrics, the classical overtones, the mystical lyrics…they truly had it all.
23. “Purple Haze” – Jimi Hendrix
Guitar god Jimi Hendrix revolutionized rock music in the late 1960s. His combination of blues, R&B, funk, soul, and psychedelic rock is truly a genre unto its own.
Based on a deceptively simple but still iconic riff, “Purple Haze” sounds as fresh today as it did in the ’60s.
22. “See No Evil” – Television
The rock world lost one of the greats when Television’s Tom Verlaine died in 2023.
Fortunately, we’ll always have the band’s music, like this single from their groundbreaking 1977 debut album Marque Moon.
Though the title track finds the band at their expansive best, “See No Evil” shows the power of their combination of new wave, punk, and power pop in a more compact form.
21. “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” – Creedence Clearwater Revival
Amazingly, Creedence Clearwater Revival came out with six albums full of classics in three short years (1968-1970).
During that time, they had 14 top-10 singles.
“Have You Ever Seen the Rain,” from 1970’s Pendulum, rose as high as #8 on the Billboard Hot 100.
20. “Light My Fire” – The Doors
The Doors were so much more than just the dark poetics of their eccentric frontman Jim Morrison.
For example, the hook on their breakout song, “Light My Fire,” is an incredible organ riff from Ray Manzarek. It was written largely by lead guitarist Robby Krieger.
Still, it’s Morrison’s “IDGAF” swagger that makes “Light My Fire.”
19. “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” – Wilco
What is the best rock song right now? Well, that’s not in the purview of this list, but Wilco’s “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” is the most current track here.
Taken from the band’s revolutionary 2002 album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, menacing noises contrast perfectly with its simple folk song foundation and frontman Jeff Tweedy’s drowsy vocals.
18. “You Really Got Me” – The Kinks
And now for something completely different.
No best rock songs list would be complete without the Kinks, and the incredible solo in “You Really Got Me” warrants its inclusion.
17. “Brand New Cadillac” – The Clash
Punk icons the Clash have a handful of the best rock songs ever.
Among them is their cover of Vince Taylor’s “Brand New Cadillac.” The original recording is considered one of the first British rock records.
16. “In the Court of the Crimson King” – King Crimson
Underground rock began with King Crimson’s 1969 album In the Court of the Crimson King.
Its mix of experimental, straightforward rock, jazz, and more was unique for the time. Nothing still sounds quite like it.
The structure of “In the Court of the Crimson King” is mind-blowing, and the lyrics are as trippy as you’d expect from the title.
15. “American Girl” – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
The old Monty Python bit fits here, too: and now for something completely different.
Tom Petty stripped rock n’ roll back to its roots with the two-and-a-half minute timebombs from his first couple of albums.
Instead of focusing on raw garage rock like his punk counterparts, though, Petty reached back equally to the jangle of the Byrds, as is apparent on “American Girl.”
14. “Comfortably Numb” – Pink Floyd
Like “You Really Got Me,” only in a completely different way, the guitar solo on “Comfortably Numb” is enough to get it added to any best rock songs list.
Sure, Roger Waters’ lyrics are typically overwrought, but the band more than makes up for it.
13. “Dancing in the Dark” – Bruce Springsteen
“I want to change my clothes, my hair, MY FACE!”
This song might seem like a lightweight single, but an actual perusal of the lyrics proves it to be otherwise.
As Tom Morello once said, they’re as dark as anything by Iron Maiden.
Sure, “Dancing in the Dark” is marred by that big, echo-y 80s production, but it still encapsulates everything we love about the Boss.
12. “Baba O’Riley” – The Who
“Baba O’Riley” is the only selection on this best rock songs list that references a minimalist classical composer in the title.
The “Riley” is Terry Riley, whose music was an influence on the iconic keyboard intro.
Each member of the Who shines on the opening track from 1971 classic Who’s Next.
Keith Moon’s drums and John Entwistle’s bass are typically all over the place, vocalist Roger Daltry gives one of his best performances, and Pete Townshend shines on both guitar and synths.
Related: Long Live the Who
11. “That’ll Be the Day” – Buddy Holly and the Crickets
You can’t overestimate Buddy Holly’s influence on rock n’ roll.
He was the first major artist who wrote his own songs, which influenced the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and so many others.
Holly has many of the best rock songs, from “Peggy Sue” to “It’s So Easy,” but “That’ll be the Day” is rightly his signature song.
Using the phrase was inspired by John Wayne’s character in classic 1956 film The Searchers.
10. “Ziggy Stardust” – David Bowie
Glam rock get its due with the ostensible title track from Bowie’s 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
All the hallmarks of glam are there: big guitars, a space-y theme, a smidge of overt sexuality…
9. “The Weight” – The Band
The Band brought rock music back to the country with their rootsy debut album, 1968’s Music From Big Pink.
To say that it made an impact is an understatement. It even convinced Eric Clapton to quit the psychedelic excesses of Cream.
The surreal lyrics somehow sound like a sensible parable behind the downhome, effortless musical backing of the Band.
8. “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” – Rolling Stones
Keith Richards wanted the riff of “Satisfaction” to be done by horns instead of distorted electric guitar, but we’re glad producer Andrew Loog Oldham didn’t take his advice.
The Rolling Stones eventually solidified their blooze rock sound, which began with the swagger of “Satisfaction.“
Definitely one of the best classic rock songs of all time.
7. “Bohemian Rhapsody” – Queen
70s rock doesn’t get more epic than “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The headbanging scene in Wayne’s World has played out many times since the song’s release.
If you’re building a best rock songs of all time playlist, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to start with “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
6. “Like a Rolling Stone” – Bob Dylan
“How does it FEEEEEEL!”
Clocking in at nearly six minutes, there’s no way that Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” should have been a hit, much less the genre-shifting anthem that it is.
But it is.
Related: Is Bob Dylan Overrated?
Related: 27 Fascinating Facts About Bob Dylan
5. “That’s Alright Mama” – Elvis Presley
Simply, Elvis Presley’s “That’s Alright Mama” is the first rock n’ roll song.
It’s the first song to combine country western and rhythm and blues without losing the distinctness of each, which is the essence of rock n’ roll.
In typical rock fashion, the sendup of Arthur Crudup’s blues classic wasn’t even planned. Elvis was just fooling around with it between songs during a recording session.
Related: The Life and Music of Elvis Presley
4. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – Nirvana
The Nirvana grunge revolution, which was spearheaded by “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” was in many ways the last major shift in rock n’ roll.
There was nothing like its raw, huge pop music before it, and it’s never been done as well since.
Because culture is now so splintered and compartmentalized, we’ll likely never see a song and band with the broad popular and critical impact of “Smells like Teen Spirit” and Nirvana ever again.
Related: Where is Kurt Cobain’s Daughter Now?
3. “Sweet Jane” – Velvet Underground
What is the coolest rock song? That’d be Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane.”
There are multitudes to Lou Reed, but when he wanted to, he could write a helluva catchy rock song.
“Sweet Jane,” from VU’s 1970 album Loaded, proves as much.
2. “Johnny B. Goode” – Chuck Berry
Rock n’ roll began with Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, and Buddy Holly. Of the three, Berry is arguably the most influential.
Autobiographical “Johnny B. Goode” features the pure rock poetry and singular guitar playing that Chuck Berry is known for.
1. “Strawberry Fields Forever” – The Beatles
What is the #1 rock song of all time? For our money, it’s the Beatle’s exemplary “Strawberry Fields Forever.”
You could describe “Strawberry Fields Forever” as a psychedelic rock song, but it transcends that genre, and rock itself, for that matter.
The 1967 single definitely marked rock’s transition from “rock n’ roll” to straight “rock.”
The lyrics are heavy and meaningful, inspired by Dylan’s earnestness and surrealism but somehow more mysterious.
Musically, it’s simply heavy, like nothing else the Beatles, or anyone, ever did.
Simply, “Strawberry Fields Forever” is the ultimate rock song, in that it both encapsulates and transcends the genre.
Related: The 10 Best Beatles Songs, 1963-1966