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The 28 best classic rock songs of all time

Lighters up: These are the songs that defined the classic-rock era and changed the face of music.

Written by
Andy Kryza
Contributor
Bryan Kerwin
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Classic rock songs isn't just a throwaway term for guitar music of a certain vintage. It's an era, a lifestyle and a sound all its own. To paraphrase one of its great practitioners, classic rock will never die. Even as the '60s and '70s fade further into history, classic rock's greatest contributions still have the power to ger your fist pumping and your feet stomping. 

Assembling our list of classic rock's greatest hits was an exercise in exclusion. While rock genres like punk, New Wave, psychedelic and pop are indeed classic, here we're defining "classic rock" as arena-ready, guitar-driven, thunderous compositions from the late '60s through the pre-hair early '80s. Yes, you'll find the likes of Talking Heads, The Police, The Clash and Blondie on classic-rock stations, but you won't find them here. They're classic, but they're not classic rock, no matter what your FM dial says. 

Prepare to raise your fists: These are the 28 essential classic rock songs. 

Listen to these songs on Amazon Music

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Best classic rock songs of all time

 "Purple Haze" by Jimi Hendrix
Image: Track Records

1.  "Purple Haze" by Jimi Hendrix

There are famous riffs, and then there's "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.

"Whole Lotta Love" by Led Zeppelin
Image: Atlantic

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, Toklien-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 deirious 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. 

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"Sympathy for the Devil" by The Rolling Stones
Image: Decca

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." Those unexpected hand drums. 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" is more ear-wormy (don't even get us started on Exile), but "Sympathy" is the Stones doing everything they do at once, and doing it all just right. 

"Under Pressure” by Queen & David Bowie
Image: Elektra

4. "Under Pressure” by Queen & David Bowie

Don't be fooled by the undemanding funk of that notorious two-tone bass line, this baroque and passionate plea for love from sorcerers Bowie and Mercury still sounds like they might beat you over the head with the mic stand if you don't listen up.

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"Baba O’Riley" by The Who
Image: Polydor

5. "Baba O’Riley" by The Who

We may never know if Pete Towshend wrote the massive all-downbeat riff specifically so he could windmill-strum it, but it worked out perfectly that way. And when his guitar thunders in after the mechanical, synthesized opening, it's one of rock & roll’s top all-time moments.

"Rockin’ in the Free World" by Neil Young
Image: Reprise

6. "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 capitalizes on his titular promise.

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"Comfortably Numb" by Pink Floyd
Image: Columbia

7. "Comfortably Numb" by Pink Floyd

This epic track from their magnum opus is a distillation of everything Floyd — swirling, psychedelic organs, a doom-laden narrative of druggy madness and multiple heaven-scraping solos from David Gilmour, endlessly searching for some redemption through the haze. It's a moment of calm amid the constant storm of Floyd's landmark double album. 

"Funk #49" by the James Gang
Image: ABC

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 with the Eagles.

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"The Boys are Back in Town" by Thin Lizzy
Image: Mercury

9. "The Boys are Back in Town" by Thin Lizzy

This pinnacle of party songs is a few parts leather (either pants or boots), a smattering of coin-operated jukebox and a splash of bar fight, topped with raucous guitar-monies. Mixes well with people you haven't seen since high school.

"Iron Man" by Black Sabbath
Image: Warner Bros.

10. "Iron Man" by Black Sabbath

Ozzy's lyrics are mostly nonsensical — he's a time-traveling revenge robot? — but he belts them out with purpose over the original sludge metal track, all pounding kick drum and destructive riffage meant to keep heads banging and devil horns pumping.

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"Roadhouse Blues" by The Doors
Image: Elektra

11. "Roadhouse Blues" by The Doors

The 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 —screamed about roadhouses as Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger filled the empty spaces with so much sonic bravado it felt like getting hit by a truck on a lost highway. 

"No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature" by the Guess Who
Image: RCA Victor

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

The Canadian rockers entered the riff-rock hall of fame with "American Woman," but "No Sugar" is their magnum opus, a 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. 

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"Smoke on the Water" by Deep Purple
Image: Warner Bros

13. "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 fire burn, set off by an overzealous fan with a flare gun at that night's Frank Zappa gig.

"Barracuda" by Heart
Image: Portrait

14. "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. 

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"Frankenstein" by the Edgar Winter Group
Image: Epic

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. 

"La Grange" by ZZ Top
Image: London

16. "La Grange" by ZZ Top

Legendary bassist Dusty Hill passed on earlier this summer, and with him went one of the powerhouses of simple three-man rock royalty. ZZ Top proved surprisingly enduring, but one need only listen to "La Grange" to understand how the 2/3 bearded dynamos became rock gods. That meandering intro. That flippant, fading "they gotta lotta nice girls." And, most crucially, that herky-jerky drum fills as the musicians slam into one of the best chord-driven rippers of the era. Have mercy indeed. 

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"American Girl" by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
Image: Shelter

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 his tragic death in 2017, so 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. 

"You Really Got Me” by The Kinks
Image: Reprise

18. "You Really Got Me” by The Kinks

Dave Davies' scuzzed-up playing on this record may have laid the foundation for whole other genres, though the band's magnum opus was clearly never meant to be more than what it was: an unkempt, three-chord “love song for street kids.”

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"Tom Sawyer" by Rush
Image: Anthem

19. "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 likely 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. 

"Locomotive Breath" by Jethro Tull
Image: Island Records

20. "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.

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"(Don’t Fear) the Reaper" by Blue Oyster Cult
Image: Columbia

21. "(Don’t Fear) the Reaper" by Blue Oyster Cult

Let's forget about the cowbell for a second — the 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.

"Whipping Post" by the Allman Brothers Band
Image: Capricorn

22. "Whipping Post" by the Allman Brothers Band

Any notion of the laid-back vibes presented by the noodling of "Jessica" and "Melissa" was shattered with the emergence of "Whipping Post," The Allman's epic in which the late Duane's steadily building guitar sputters and explodes like an ancient locomotive reigniting and driving straight to hell. The band's epic live versions often pushed into the double-digit runtime. The 5-minute studio version, however, packs the raw power of one guitar-rock's greatest sons pushing things to the absolute limit. 

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"Evil Ways" by Santana
Image: Columbia

23. "Evil Ways" by Santana

With respect to 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. 

"You Shook Me All Night Long" by AC/DC
Image: Atlantic

24. "You Shook Me All Night Long" by AC/DC

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.

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"Me & Bobby McGee" by Janis Joplin
Image: Columbia

25. "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 before reading this sentence you were unaware she didn't write it herself.

"Just What I Needed" by The Cars
Image: Elektra

26. "Just What I Needed" by The Cars

The song's ardent pulse and undeniable earworm melody, which bely Benjamin Orr's sardonic delivery and barely sincere lyrics, might be power-pop's crowning achievement.

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"Slow Ride" by Foghat
Image: Bearsville

27. "Slow Ride" by Foghat

Beginning with a foot-stomp, escalating into one of the best riffs in guitar-rock history, capping with a massive all-hands-on-deck frenzy and wedging in the phrase "slow ride, take it easy" into the proceedings with hypnotic abandon, "Slow Ride" is the most fist-pumping hangout song ever written. No contest. 

"School's Out" by Alice Cooper
Image: Warner Bros. Records

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," a song that has never gone out of style, never lost its luster and never felt anything less than revolutionary. Forty years on, this is a song that still feels edgy as hell every time it returns to heavy rotation at the emergence of summer. 

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