Angus Young from AC/DC
Image: Time Out

The 28 best classic rock songs of all time

Lighters up: these are the classic rock songs that defined an era and changed the face of music

Contributors: Nick Levine & Bryan Kerwin

Given its waning cultural profile, all rock’n’roll is rapidly becoming classic – as in, an antique. But for the time being, when we use the phrase ‘classic rock’, it conjures a few distinct images. Hippies in tie-dye. Fender Stratocaster guitars. Bandanas and beards and aviators. It’s the music your parents listened to that you probably spent much of your youth attempting to reject, before giving in and admitting that it’s awesome.

Not all classic rock is created equal, though. Just because something’s from the ‘60s or ‘70s and gets played on the radio doesn’t mean it endures as an all-time jam. Here, we’ve separated the biggest gems from the large pile of rock’n’roll antiquities to create a list of the most classic of classic rock tracks – the ones that kids just picking up guitars will forever be trying to learn…as long as guitars still exist.  

Listen to these songs on Amazon Music


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Best classic rock songs of all time, ranked

1. ‘Purple Haze’ by Jimi Hendrix

There are famous riffs, and then theres ‘Purple Haze’. As usual, Hendrix was operating on a level wholly different than that of mere mortals, laying down an effortlessly original blend of freaky psych and screaming old-school blues with enough panache to seem like he really could just excuse himself for a few minutes to kiss the sky (or this guy) if he wanted to.

2. ‘Whole Lotta Love’ by Led Zeppelin

Zeppelin achieved god-tier fame and redefined music throughout the ’70s, all but defining the term ‘epic’ in rock thanks to its explosive compositions, blues-rock detours, Tolkien-inspired head trips and the thunderous approach to blowing minds. ‘Whole Lotta Love’, from the quartet’s second album, solidified Zeppelin as rock’s next great thing, serving almost as a mission statement for what the band would unleash upon the next decade. From Jimmy Page’s chugging guitar to John Bonham’s mortar-blast drums and Robert Plant's delirious yelp, the band struts throughout. It’s a frenzied, lightheaded trip that only slows down for a second in the middle. Maybe it does so to allow listeners a chance to breathe. 


3. ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ by The Rolling Stones

We’ve forced ourselves to pick just one Stones song, and it gave us about 19 nervous breakdowns. But few songs capture the essence of the Stones at full power quite like ‘Sympathy for the Devil’. Those unexpected hand drums from the late, great Charlie Watts. Keith’s sloppily perfect guitar solo. Mick starting off with feral yowls and only escalating the sexual deviousness as the song climbs to crescendo. ‘Satisfaction’ is more iconic and ‘Start Me Up’ more ear-wormy, but ‘Sympathy’ is the Stones doing everything they do at once, and doing it all just right. 

4. ‘Under Pressure’ by Queen & David Bowie

This 1981 song’s bassline is so brilliant it was borrowed by Vanilla Ice nearly a decade later for ‘Ice Ice Baby’, a 1990 pop-rap hit that topped the charts globally. But the bassline is just one part of the original song’s alchemy. Over the top you have two of rock’s greatest icons, Freddie Mercury and David Bowie, singing poignantly and powerfully about the sheer pressure of life in the modern world. ‘Under Pressure’ emerged from an impromptu jam session involving Bowie, Mercury and his Queen bandmates Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon, giving it an infectious looseness that’s impossible to imitate. Even now, it sounds like nothing else. 


5. ‘Baba O’Riley’ by The Who

We may never know if The Who guitarist Pete Townshend wrote this song’s massive riff specifically so he could windmill-strum it, but hey, it worked out perfectly that way. And when his guitar thunders in after the mechanical, synthesised opening, it’s surely one of rock’s most thrilling ever moments.

6. ‘Comfortably Numb’ by Pink Floyd

This epic track from the band’s magnum opus, 1979’s ‘The Wall’, is a distillation of everything Floyd — swirling, psychedelic organs, a doom-laden narrative of druggy madness and multiple heaven-scraping solos from David Gilmour, all searching for some sort of redemption through the haze. Its a moment of calm amid the constant storm of Floyds landmark double album. 


7. ‘I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll’ by Joan Jett & the Blackhearts

Joan Jett is a rock icon who inspired the Riot grrrl movement of the ’90s and Miley Cyrus alike – it was Cyrus who inducted Jett and her band the Blackhearts into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015. This crunchy and utterly infectious cover of a relatively unknown ’70s song by British band the Arrows became her signature hit when it topped the Billboard Hot 100 for seven straight weeks in 1982. In the process, it cemented the fact that Joan Jett has always loved rock ‘n’ roll, and it definitely loves her. 

8. ‘Funk #49’ by the James Gang

Joe Walsh gives a clinic in guitar hooks on this gritty, crunchy fist pumper, following that signature intro lick by howling ‘I sleep all day, out all night’ with the conviction of a rock star who had just done both. The song rips from front to back. No wonder Walsh looked so bored plucking away rather more sedately with the Eagles.


9. ‘The Boys Are Back in Town’ by Thin Lizzy

This pinnacle of party songs is a few parts leather (either trousers or boots), a smattering of coin-operated jukebox, and a splash of bar fight, all topped off with raucous guitar-monies. And it mixes well with people you haven’t seen since your teenage days.

10. ‘Iron Man’ by Black Sabbath

Ozzy Osbourne’s lyrics are mostly nonsensical — he’s a time-travelling revenge robot? Sure! — but he belts them out with purpose over the original sludge metal track, all pounding kick drum and destructive riffage. It’s a song designed to keep heads banging and devil horns pumping, and it does the job with bells on.


11. ‘Roadhouse Blues’ by The Doors

These LA rockers are more at home with the psychedelic denizens of Jefferson Starship and Donovan, but when they let loose on the blues, they made a massive crater in the soundscape. That’s no more apparent than on ‘Roadhouse Blues’, a droning, repetitive, swampy wallow through 12-bar debauchery in which Jim Morrison — vocally pushing 50 by the time he was 26 —screams gleefully about roadhouses. Behind him, bandmates Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger fill the empty spaces with so much sonic bravado it almost feels like getting hit by a truck on a lost highway. 

12. ‘No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature’ by the Guess Who

The Canadian rockers entered the riff-rock hall of fame with ‘American Woman’ – later covered by Lenny Kravitz – but ‘No Sugar’ is their magnum opus. It’s a gargantuan two-parter combining melodic harmonies and staccato vocal explosions with precision guitar and keyboard work serving as the stadium-ready glue that holds the whole chaotic thing together. 


13. ‘Barracuda’ by Heart

Ann and Nancy Wilson seldom get the credit they deserve in the early transition from classic rock’s heyday to the emergence of metal, but ‘Barracuda’ is a song of tremendous power, a crunchy, abrasive, catchy and violently triumphant amalgam of soaring guitars, transcendent vocals and fist-pumping bravado. It’s a top-tier song whose influence can be felt in everything from Joan Jett to Miley. Fergie of Black Eyed Peas fame, who’s a bit of a rock chick at heart, has even covered it in her live sets.

14. ‘Smoke on the Water’ by Deep Purple

Whole generations of guitarists have been introduced to the fretboard via this song’s iconically simple riff: four chords consisting of parallel fourths. The song’s lyrics reference the true story of Deep Purple's members watching a casino go up in flames after a Frank Zappa gig – the fire was apparently set off an overzealous fan with a flare gun.


15. ‘Frankenstein’ by the Edgar Winter Group

Oh nothing, just a deranged quartet of groove-rockers laying the groundwork for heavy metal way back in 1972 with an instrumental track that thrashes harder than basically everything that came after. This is a garage-rock masterpiece of heavy distortion, infectious riffs and early synth mayhem that still hits hard, but absolutely shattered brains when it debuted the same year that ‘Brandy’ and ‘American Pie’ were lulling listeners to sleep. 

16. ‘La Grange’ by ZZ Top

In the 1980s, the bearded brothers from Texas reinvented themselves as the MTV generation’s lascivious uncles. Before that, though, they were a lean, mean, boogie machine, and this galloping, mumbly blues rocker was their signature tune. It sounds like what you’d hear when a gang of outlaw bikers roll into a dusty desert town looking for a good time – which isn’t a coincidence, given that its inspiration is a famous brothel located in La Grange, Texas.  


17. ‘American Girl’ by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers

Petty became an unexpected classic-rock holdover in the ’80s and its elder statesman all the way through to his tragic death in 2017. For this reason, it’s hard to imagine how fresh and vibrant his 1976 debut truly was. In the intervening years, tracks like ‘Breakdown’ pack a greater punch, but despite its ubiquity, ‘American Girl’ remains bracing thanks to its giddily building vibes. It’s not Petty's best song by a long shot. But it’s the moment the scrappy longhair graduated to legendary status in a scant three-and-a-half minutes of riff-heavy bliss. 

18. ‘You Really Got Me’ by The Kinks

The story goes that guitarist Dave Davies stabbed his amplifier’s speaker with a razor in order to achieve the uniquely scuzzy tone captured on this horny, three-chord garage banger – and in the process ended up laying the foundation for the sound of a bunch of genres yet to be invented. When it comes to quick, cheap thrills, though, no one has ever quite matched this sub-two-and-a-half minute hormonal blast. 


19. ‘Charity Ball’ by Fanny

Operating in a genre dominated by white men, this all-female four-piece were pioneers. Led by Filipino American sisters Jean and June Millington, Fanny cracked the US Top 40 in 1971 with the catchy, harmony-laden classic rock stomp of ‘Charity Ball’, the title track from their debut album. They never managed to best its chart success, but David Bowie summed up their underrated status beautifully in a 1999 interview when he said of Fanny: ‘They were extraordinary: they wrote everything, they played like motherfuckers, they were just colossal and wonderful, and nobody’s ever mentioned them.’ 

20. ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’ by Neil Young

The godfather of grunge comes out swinging on one of his most intense tracks, with the first Bush administration, American malaise and drug addiction catching jabs, all while Young’s fierce, fervid guitar work capitalises on his titular promise. Incendiary and transcendent stuff.


21. ‘Tom Sawyer’ by Rush

Rush occupies the same prog-rock space as such brilliant acts as King Crimson and Yes. But while the latter remained on the fringes, content to appeal to the more mathematically inclined fan, Rush brought the thunder, bridging the gap between music nerds and the mainstream by simply rocking the holy hell out of everything they did. ‘Tom Sawyer’ is probably their most popular song. It’s also one of their best thanks to Neil Peart’s all-timer drum fills, Geddy Lee’s manipulation of the bass and Alex Lifeson’s gnarly licks. 

22. ‘Locomotive Breath’ by Jethro Tull

Ian Anderson might not be the ’70s most iconic name, but he does hold a number of superlatives regarding his use of the flute — best chorus involving a flute, most animated flute solo, fastest flute solo, perhaps the decade’s only flute solo... Some would say it’s a gimmick, but we say it’s innovation.


23. ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’ by AC/DC

Frontman Brian Johnson tries on a few metaphors over the course of this track, but AC/DC's raison d’etre — hot-blooded, balls-to-the-wall rock & roll — doesn’t suffer any of that; they've got the best damn woman that they’ve ever seen, and we’re going to hear all the brash, sweaty details. Loudly. And with fearsome commitment.

24. ‘(Don’t Fear) the Reaper’ by Blue Oyster Cult

Let’s forget about the cowbell for a second — thoz song’s mystical, serene take on death achieves a level of profundity you wouldn't expect from the band behind ‘Godzilla’, and the proto-metal solo section is everything a hard rock devotee could hope for. Play it loud and play it proud.


25. ‘Evil Ways’ by Santana

With respect to his ‘Smooth’ collaborator Rob Thomas, guitar god Carlos Santana was at his peak when he recorded this slam-bang classic, which goes from a laid-back Latin-infused groove to an all-out axe assault so quickly you might just get whiplash. 

26. ‘Me & Bobby McGee’ by Janis Joplin

In her most fiery, delirious performance, Janis claimed Kris Kristofferson's much-covered song as her own so completely that there’s a high chance that you were unaware she didn’t write it herself. It’s a totemic classic rock performance from the late rock icon.


27. ‘Slow Ride’ by Foghat

It begins with a foot-stomp, then escalates into one of the best riffs in rock history, before culminating in a massive all-hands-on-deck frenzy... and wedging in the phrase ‘slow ride, take it easy’ for good measure. ‘Slow Ride’ is the most fist-pumping hangout song ever written. No contest. 

28. ‘School’s Out’ by Alice Cooper

When goth rock, classic rock, metal and glam collide, you either get some ham-handed ‘Another Brick in the Wall’ wannabe or you get ‘School’s Out’, song that has never gone out of style, never lost its lustre and never felt anything less than revolutionary. Forty years on, it still feels edgy as hell every time it returns to heavy rotation at the end of June.

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