Whether you love it or loathe it, rock music has been the most popular genre of music of the last 60 years.
So, here are some of music’s best rock songs for a high-octane musical ride full of vintage classics and modern hits.
American Girl – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Though Tom Petty wrote ‘American Girl’ while living in California, the lore at the center of the enduring single comes from the quaint southern US town of Gainseville, FL, where Petty is from. The story at the University of Florida goes that an all-American kind of girl decided to try hallucinogens for the first time in her dorm room and fell to her death out of a window. The popular ghost story served as inspiration for Petty’s song.
Related: This song features on our 70s songs list.
1969 – The Stooges
It wasn’t The Stooges’ most popular tune (that award goes to their hit ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’), but ‘1969’ perfectly captured America’s youth at the time of its release. As hippie counter-culture was taking over, the band used the song as commentary about the “boring” way they felt many expected them to live in the ’60s and ’70s.
Stay With Me – The Faces
Rod Stewart spent time contributing lead vocals to this English rock band in the late ’60s. The sexually-charged song did well for the Brit band in America, and several members would go on to have successful solo careers. Rod Stewart scored another hit with ‘Maggie May,’ and guitarist Ronnie Wood ultimately joined The Rolling Stones.
Whole Lotta Love – Led Zeppelin
Rockers Led Zepplin effortlessly combined the gritty roots of blues with powerful rock elements to create a unique sound. ‘Whole Lotta Love’ is an ideal representation of their rock-blues subgenre that would become so popular in the 1970s. Robert Plant’s lyrics featuring multiple sexual innuendos would become a popular writing technique for many bands in the experimental ’70s.
Related: Hear this song on the Cruella soundtrack list.
Honky Tonk Women – Rolling Stones
“Gin-soaked, bar-room queen in Memphis.” The Rolling Stones are synonymous with the rock and roll genre. ‘Honky Tonk Women’ is a rowdy Stones number with a classic rock rhythm featuring Mick Jagger bragging about how he can easily pick up ladies in a bar.
Hotel California – Eagles
“You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” Rock band The Eagles gained international fame with their hit ‘Hotel California,’ a haunting take on consumer culture in America and those trying to “keep up with the Joneses.” With lyrics focusing on over-indulging while leading a hedonistic lifestyle, warnings regarding the consequences of addiction, corruption, and violence can be found throughout the song’s story.
Related: Find this song on our playlist of The Big Lebowski music.
Free Bird – Lynyrd Skynyrd
Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd enjoyed a string of hits throughout the golden era of rock in the ’70s. ‘Free Bird’ is perhaps their most memorable tune, with bar patrons still jokingly shouting it out to live bands due to its laborious 9-minute length. The tune revolves around a guy telling a girl why he can’t settle down while several guitar solos wail between verses.
Related: Chirp along to these songs with birds in the lyrics.
Take the Money and Run – Steve Miller Band
Songwriter and frontman Steve Miller traded Bonnie and Clyde’s names for Billy Joe and Boby Sue with his outlaw story ‘Take the Money and Run.’ The lyrics tell the tale of a couple on the run after a robbery goes wrong. In 2001, Miller let rap duo Run D.M.C. sample the hit. The rappers made a name for themselves by combining popular rock hits with their own rhymes.
Related: Here are the best songs about being rich.
Bohemian Rhapsody – Queen
Frontman Freddie Mercury led one of the most interesting lives out of any rock star. Battling identity issues for most of his life, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ touches on religion (particularly Zoroastrian elements, which his family followed), sexuality, societal pressure, and family relationships. With a fantastical, operatic feel, Mercury’s hit is still considered one of the most famous rock songs ever recorded.
Related: See more figurative language in songs on this playlist.
Smoke on the Water – Deep Purple
While attending a Frank Zappa concert because the show’s facility was also where Deep Purple was set to record their next album, a fire broke out. As the band watched people scrambling and saw smoke from the flames floating eerily over a nearby lake, they were inspired to write their haunting hit, ‘Smoke on the Water.’
Related: Grab your raincoat and enjoy these songs about water or rain.
Stairway to Heaven – Led Zeppelin
The winner of “Most Played Song in the History of FM Radio” goes to Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ But when the song was first released, it quickly became steeped in controversy, causing many record stores and music outlets to ban it. Many claimed if you played the song backward, hidden “satanic” messages could be heard.
Related: Listen to these songs with heaven in the title.
More Than a Feeling – Boston
This 1976 hit took five years to come to fruition from start to finish. When band leader Tom Scholz began penning the tune, he wanted it to have a fantasy element in the production. The song is about a guy who wakes up feeling down. But once he turns on the radio and hears his favorite song, he begins daydreaming and finds the drive to tackle his day.
Related: Drift away with more songs about daydreaming.
Layla – Derek and the Dominos
Throughout his career, blues guitarist Eric Clapton has played in many different well-known bands, from Cream and The Yardbirds to Derek and the Dominos. He wrote ‘Layla’ with Jim Gordon, drummer for the Dominos. At the time, Clapton was in love with Beatle member George Harrison’s wife (who would end up marrying Clapton). It inspired the song along with the Persian poem Layla and Manjun.
Related: If you like this song, you’ll enjoy the rest of the Goodfellas soundtrack list.
All Along the Watchtower – Jimi Hendrix
Guitar legend Jimi Hendrix made Bob Dylan’s tune ‘All Along the Watchtower’ the beloved vintage classic it is today. With a socio-political slant in the lyrics (a songwriting staple for Dylan), Hendrix’s version features him howling into the microphone during the recording and offering up soaring, spirited guitar solos in between lyrics.
Related: Head over to our list of songs from the 60s.
Ooh La La – The Faces
Early definers of the “folk rock” genre, The Faces’ ‘Ooh La La’ was their last studio album recorded in the early ’70s after a string of releases and tours. Though Rod Stewart typically sang lead for the band, guitarist Ronnie Wood took over the mic for this song featuring a grandfather warning his grandson about the wild ways of certain women.
Roadhouse Blues – The Doors
Featuring a solo by Lovin’ Spoonful’s harmonica player John Sebastian, it became an instant rock radio staple even though ‘Roadhouse Blues’ didn’t chart well. Its classic blues structure and powerful production have helped the bar tune stand the test of time, with bands still covering the powerful song at live music venues everywhere.
Related: Check out more harmonica songs.
Sweet Child O’ Mine – Guns N’ Roses
One of the most popular rock songs of the ’80s was Guns N’ Roses’ ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine.’ Over Axle Rose’s dynamic vocal range and Slash’s uplifting electric guitar, a simple love story is told. Rose wrote it about his love interest Erin Everly who he ultimately married, though it didn’t work out long-term.
Related: Enjoy our list of classic 80s love songs.
La Grange – ZZ Top
With mostly guitar work by ZZ Top frontman Billy Gibbons, the few lyrics featured in their cheeky track ‘La Grange’ center around a coming-of-age story for boys in the little Texas town they grew up in. Besides taking a ride to the Mexican border, part of “becoming a man” involved traveling to the outskirts of La Grange, Texas to visit a well-known brothel.
Rockin’ in the Free World – Neil Young
In 1989, the Berlin Wall separating east Germany from west Germany was finally demolished, and democracy was once again restored to the country. As folk songwriter Neil Young navigated his way around a quickly changing Russia, he wrote ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’ after arriving back home (he was supposed to perform in Russia, but it never happened). Though the song encompasses the overall social-political feelings at the time, it was particularly critical of America’s administration in the late ’80s.
Related: This song is on our list of the best 80s songs.
I Want You (She’s So Heavy) – The Beatles
With early heavy rock elements not often heard in The Beatles’ production, bandmate John Lennon wrote this ’69 single for his wife, Yoko Ono. The progressive rock song contains unique instruments like the congas, a Moog synthesizer, and even a wind machine. ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ appears on the band’s career-defining 1969 album Abbey Road.
Related: You’ll want to hear the best songs about desire.
Takin’ Care of Business – Bachman Turner Overdrive
Frontman Randy Bachman had work in mind when he wrote ‘Takin’ Care of Business.’ With the first lyric referencing “your alarm clock’s warning,” the tune chronicles everything people must do to simply live life. The mainstream rock song appears on the band’s 1973 album, Bachman–Turner Overdrive II.
Related: Don’t procrastinate listening to these songs about being lazy.
Alright Now – Free
Combining hard rock and blues rock subgenres, Free’s ‘Alright Now’ was written after the band completed a tough gig in England. After calling it quits in 1973, a couple of Free members, including the lead singer Paul Rogers went on to form the band Bad Company, which had much success in the music industry.
Californication – Red Hot Chili Peppers
90s alternative funk-rock band, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, released their seventh album Californication with the title song released as a single. The term ‘Californication’ is a loose reference to a 1940s term that criticized residents of California for moving out of the state and seeking shelter in several other western states. The influx of out-of-towners caused a bit of a panic, and some began to worry about “unchecked population growth.”
Related: Go to our list of C major songs.
Everlong – Foo Fighters
Songwriter and former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl penned ‘Everlong’ about a girl he was dating before releasing it with the Foo Fighters in 1997. The song is an emotional journey detailing feelings of euphoria when you’re in love. The instrumentation and powerful vocal performance evoke harmony and bliss for listeners while streaming the track.
Related: Everyone will enjoy our entertaining list of songs that start with E.
Sex on Fire – Kings of Leon
The band of brothers, Kings of Leon, doesn’t leave much to the listener’s imagination with their early hit ‘Sex on Fire.’ The explicit song featuring Caleb Followill’s vibrato-laced, yearning vocals is a fast-paced modern rock tune from beginning to end. When their label picked up the song and released it as a single, they couldn’t believe it due to its explicit nature.
Related: Grab a fire extinguisher for our list of the best songs about fire and burning.
Kashmir – Led Zeppelin
An isolated desert road in southern Morocco inspired Led Zeppelin songwriter Robert Plant to write ‘Kashmir.’ As the song progressed, the lyrics took on a more direct approach to one’s spiritual journey rather than a specific geographical place. The song appears on their album Physical Graffiti which earned the group a Grammy for Best Rock Performance.
Born to be Wild – Steppenwolf
“Heavy metal thunder.” This simple lyric in Steppenwolf’s rockin’ song ‘Born to Be Wild’ sparked an entirely new genre we now call heavy metal. Often touted as the first heavy metal song, the anthemic tune continues to be a popular hit among counter-culture movements, including biker clubs.
Related: Listen to more Easy Rider music.
Money for Nothing – Dire Straits
It is often hard to take celebrities seriously when they complain about how hard fame can be. This is what struck songwriter Mark Knopfler as the perfect prompt for a song while waiting to be helped in a department store. He overheard two workers making fun of rockstars while watching MTV, realizing that with fame and fortune comes a life of ease. He tackles this duality with his band Dire Straits in ‘Money for Nothing.’
After Midnight – J.J. Cale
J.J. Cale is perhaps the most respected – yet least known – rock artists of the lot. Known as one of the originators of ‘the Tulsa sound’ (a laid-back mix of blues, country, rockabilly, and jazz), he’s a musician who’s often held up as one of the greats (Neil Young, for one, is a huge fan). It wasn’t all plain sailing, though. Cale recounts early in his career, “I was dirt poor, not making enough to eat, and I wasn’t a young man”. Then Eric Clapton did a cover of ‘After Midnight’, which put JJ on the map.
Related: Go to our ranked list of best J.J. Cale songs.
Rebel Rebel – David Bowie
“We like dancing, and we look divine.” Sporting a direct reference to a beloved drag queen with his use of the word “divine,” Bowie channeled classic rock elements in his song ‘Rebel Rebel.’ Musician Alan Parker shaped the popular guitar riff in the tune in the studio after Bowie asked him to add some “Rolling Stones” attitude to the lick. Parker used a Les Paul running through a Fender Reverb amp to create artistic depth.
Won’t Get Fooled Again – The Who
Songwriter Pete Townshend penned “Won’t Get Fooled Again’ while reflecting on the failed counter-culture revolution of the ’60s due to a lack of direction. As the ’70s were ushered in, he wanted to make their stance with a new wave of politicians very clear. The song was not only the last one on their album Who’s Next, but it was often the last song they played at their shows. Mainstream bands like Dream Theater and Van Halen would go on to cover the iconic song.
Highway to Hell – AC/DC
In Australia, AC/DC constantly drove Canning Highway, a busy, hectic road full of bars and pubs they used to play at and frequent. When they penned ‘Highway to Hell,’ Canning Highway served as inspiration along with their endless days touring countless cities in a cramped van.
Related: Get the keys and hit the road with our highway songs playlist.
Paranoid – Black Sabbath
This critically acclaimed heavy metal song epitomizes classic Black Sabbath rock and roll. It was featured on the album by the same name on the A side, with another of their highly coveted tracks, ‘The Wizard,’ featured on the B side. ‘Paranoid’ is a hard-hitting song chronicling the manic-depressive emotional rollercoaster someone with mental health issues goes through.
Related: Don’t worry, we’ve got a great list of paranoia songs.
Ace of Spades – Motörhead
When Lemmy and his band Motorhead set foot in the studio to record their fourth album, Ace of Spades, they had hit their musical stride. Writing about the risks and rewards that come with gambling, this high-octane tune directly references outlaw Wild Bill Hickock and the signature hand he was holding when he was murdered, also known as “the dead man’s hand,” the ace of spades.
Born to Run – Bruce Springsteen
This reflective song, along with the album by the same name, was the product of a last-ditch effort on rock icon Bruce Springsteen’s part to have a successful career in music. While the personal artistic struggle was the catalyst for ‘Born to Run,’ as he wrote it, the story began to take shape with two people at the center attempting to make their way home again.
Related: Here are the best songs about survival.
The Boys are Back in Town – Thin Lizzy
The Irish rock band Thin Lizzy became closely associated with the traditional archetype of masculinity with their continent-hopping hit ‘The Boys are Back in Town.’ But frontman Phil Lynott didn’t have to create an anthem for the hard-partying, no-strings-attached modern man in mind when he wrote the tune. He spent a lot of time in London because his mom ran an illegal drinking establishment that attracted gang members. The brawny composures of the gangsters and their wild stories inspired him for the hit.
Like a Rolling Stone – Bob Dylan
Though Bob Dylan has never said exactly what his hit ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ is about, many have long-speculated it’s about socialite Edie Sedgwick. She was caught between two artists during the ’60s, both Dylan and pop artist creator Andy Warhol. This tug-of-war story made it into the lyrics for the 1965 tune.
Related: Listen to more iconic tunes on our playlist of the greatest songs of all time.
Shine on You Crazy Diamond – Pink Floyd
“Remember when you were young? You shone like the sun.” This experimental progressive rock tune is lovingly referred to as “Syd’s Theme” by fans and the band. ‘Shine on You Crazy Diamond’ is a nine-part epic featured on Pink Floyd’s revered album Wish You Were Here. Among synthesizer solos, layered guitar riffs, and hints of the blues, the band sings about Syd Barrett, one of the original members who had to leave the band due to poor mental health and substance abuse issues.
Related: Need more diamonds? Head over to our list of songs about jewelry.
Hideaway – John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers
Blues musician John Mayall covers a 1960s classic in ‘Hideaway’ originally written by Sonny Thompson and Freddie King. This Bluesbreakers single features blues guitarist Eric Clapton, who spent some time playing with the band before embarking on his own solo journey.
The Trooper – Iron Maiden
Slang for the word “soldier,” heavy metal band Iron Maiden’s ‘The Trooper’ covers an 1854 battle during the Crimean War. This famous historical war also inspired Lord Tennyson to write a poem about it by the same name, which is how frontman and songwriter Steve Harris came up with the title for the song.
Related: Learn something new on our playlist of the best songs about history.
Whipping Post – Allman Brothers Band
This five-minute single featured on the Allman Brothers Band’s 1969 album is in 12/8 meter, a welcomed change that offers more creativity and depth than rock’s standard 4/4 time. Songwriter and Allman Brother bandmate Duane Allman wrote the tune after returning home to Jacksonville, Florida, from sunny Los Angeles. His rocky relationship with a girlfriend ended, and ‘Whipping Post’ was a blistering takedown about the terrible ways she treated him. But all was not lost. It inspired one of the best Allman brothers songs.
Related: Feeling betrayed? Here’s our list of songs about betrayal of friendship.
Bang a Gong (Get it On) – T. Rex
A pioneer of the glitter rock movement, which had more lasting power in the UK than in the US in the ’70s, T. Rex inventor Marc Bolan released a series of sexually-charged tunes that became popular with the young, rebellious crowd. With lyrics focusing on drugs and sex, ‘Band a Gong (Get it On)’ is one of glitter rock’s lasting contributions despite the subgenre’s short-lived influence.
Related: Clap along with our playlist of clapping songs.
Reelin’ in the Years – Steely Dan
While this tune is a favorite among Steely Dan fans, it’s one of the band’s least favorite. The meaning behind ‘Reelin’ in the Years’ centers around memories with a lover after a complicated breakup. While the band was often billed as “jazz-rock” due to their impeccable sound, the musicians blended funk and pop to gain a more widespread audience.
Walk Away – The James Gang
Before Joe Walsh experienced massive success with The Eagles, he was in a rock band called The James Gang. He wrote their moderately successful hit ‘Walk Away,’ and his dynamic guitar work on the single garnered him significant positive attention from critics. The band’s sound combined the hard rock elements of Walsh’s guitar with bits of funk and soul.
Carpet Crawlers – Genesis
Progressive rock band Genesis featured quite a few musicians who would go on to have successful solo careers, including Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel. With their imagery-driven tune ‘Carpet Crawlers,’ religion and rebirth are key themes as both Collins and Gabriel share lead vocals while telling the story of their protagonist, Rael. The song appears on their 1975 album, The Lamb Dies Down on Broadway.
Gimme Shelter – The Rolling Stones
The opening track on their 1969 celebrated album Let It Bleed, bandmates Keith Richards and Mick Jagger wrote ‘Gimme Shelter’ during the height of the Vietnam War. This powerhouse of a song was written to comfort Americans, many of whom were protesting the war, ultimately leading to almost 60,000 deaths of American soldiers. Lyrics like “a shot away” hint at Richards’s increasing drug use and the ability to block out reality when one uses it, which they related to blocking out the atrocities the world witnessed.
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Rock N Roll – Velvet Underground
Frontman Lou Reed was known for his experimental taste when it came to his rock creations, and ‘Rock N Roll’ was one of his most personal tunes written. Taking a page out of punk rock with a series of hard-hitting barre chords, Reed tells the story of his discovering rock and roll at a young age over electric rhythm. Though the song is about Reed, he replaced himself with a different character in the song, Jennie, who started her rock journey at five years old.
Related: Turn up the volume for more songs about the radio.
Let Me Love You – Jeff Beck Group
Guitarist Jeff Beck is known for being a key developer of a popular subgenre among music schools and decorated musicians, jazz-fusion. However, the hit song ‘Let Me Love You’ is more rooted in the blues-rock camp. For this tune featured on his 1968 album Truth, he combines his intricate playing with repeated lines confessing his love for a beautiful woman.