Turn the FM dial to your local classic-rock radio station and you're bound to hear a tagline guaranteeing the "best classic rock songs of all time." You know what to expect—Stairway, Hendrix pick squeals, a dash of Beatlemania and the rest. But when you get down to the nitty gritty, how do you define "classic rock"? Is it a style or an era of time? Could one ever classify a modern blues rock outfit—take Greta Van Fleet—“classic”? It's a bit looser category than racking up the best country songs, best pop songs or best New Jersey songs—so we kept our parameters narrow and chose only the most unforgettable tunes from the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, with a focus on the hits themselves over the bands. Crank it to eleven and start rocking.
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Best classic rock songs of all time
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.
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.
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.
The sexual bluster and braggadocio of “Start Me Up” is quintessential Stones, but the song's playfully gratuitous come-ons—heightened by Mick Jagger's bug-eyed performance—and Keith Richards's monster riff take it from 10 to 11.
The utopian vision of provincial life “Proud Mary” promotes would seem exceedingly cheesy if it wasn't such an authentically successful country-blues hybrid, with John Fogerty's relaxed but powerful voice and the languid vibe all but packing your bag for you to set sail on a river boat queen.
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.
There's no innuendo here, no way. Robert Plant delirious and yelpy, the band strutting and chugging; it's a frenzied, lightheaded trip that only slows down for a second in that middle part to...well, you know.
This tune’s Muddy Waters–style appeal to an indecisive lover plus some controlled chaos in the form of wild tempo shifts and half-Spanish call-and-response vocals makes it sound like one of the best tracks of the 1950s twenty years after the fact.
Aerosmith achieves impressive synergy as Joe Perry's big-dog riff struts around Steven Tyler's breakneck near-scatting with ease despite the frantic pace. The rhythms are so front-and-center that it's not so surprising Run DMC reinvented it 11 years later as a hip-hop hit.
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.