Everything is fair game in the lyrics of the best classic rock songs. Love, heartbreak, drugs, war, politics, gambling, or just a desire to have a good time have all inspired the best rock songs.
As the years go by, the time period that includes classic rock has expanded. However, for the sake of listing the best classic rock hits, the focus here is on the period of the original classic rockers from the late 1960s through the 1980s.
The Definitive List of the 25 Best Classic Rock Songs
1. Jethro Tull “Locomotive Breath”
In an era of guitar heroes, Ian Anderson played the flute. This amazing song from 1971 starts gently with blues piano before the electric guitar and drum make it clear that you’re listening to a rock song. The intensity continues to build and ultimately delivers an amazing listening experience that has already stood the test of time.
2. Eagles “Hotel California”
The list of hits from the Eagles is a long one. The songwriters Don Felder, Don Henley, and Glenn Frey produced a steady stream of huge rock hits throughout the 1970s. The men worked in the long tradition of making songs that tell a story. As the title track of the group’s Grammy-winning sixth album, “Hotel California” tells the story of people who are consumed by their drug use. The song captures the excitement of a hard-partying lifestyle that then descends into addiction.
3. Janis Joplin “Peace of My Heart”
During her short life, Janis Joplin made herself into a big star with stunning vocals of unfiltered emotion. This is a song about intense love and heartbreak from a female rock singer who performed at Woodstock and always played by her own rules.
4. Queen “Bohemian Rhapsody”
You’ll frequently see this beloved song on any list of classic rock songs despite the fact that it’s really an opera song. Even so, Queen was a brilliant rock band made famous by the extraordinary vocals of Freddie Mercury, who wrote the track for the aptly named 1975 album “A Night at the Opera.” The song enjoyed considerable commercial success and remains popular to this day.
5. Pink Floyd “Brain Damage”
From the late 1960s through the 1980s, Pink Floyd dominated the music scene with its psychedelic rock that combined supreme artistry with classic rock. “Brain Damage” is a beautiful song with a soaring sound that laments the ravages of mental illness. The band’s loss of Syd Barret to mental illness likely inspired this track from the 1973 album “The Dark Side of the Moon.”
6. Joan Jett & the Blackhearts “I Love Rock and Roll”
When you want classic rock songs to play loud, put this one on your playlist. Although this is a cover song, Joan Jett totally owns it on her band’s 1981 album. The song held the number one position on the Billboard Hot 100 for seven weeks. This song is an elemental force as Jett sings unapologetically about taking home the object of her romantic desire.
7. Rolling Stones “Sympathy for the Devil”
Out of the gate in the 1960s, the Rolling Stones were vilified as bad boys who would corrupt the tender youth of the Western World. You can’t ask for better credentials as rock stars. This iconic song has an epic scope as Mick Jagger sings from the Devil’s point of view on the stage of history. The track exhibits the mastery of American blues guitar in the hands of famously immortal Keith Richards.
8. AC DC “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘N’ Roll)”
If you want to talk about rockers, you have to understand what they go through to get to the top. Apparently, the members of AC DC suffered considerably before the world embraced them as unassailable masters of rock. “Gettin’ robbed, Gettin’ stoned, Gettin’ beat up, Broken-boned, Gettin’ had, Gettin’ took, I tell you, folks, It’s harder than it looks.” This was the first track on the 1975 album T.N.T. After that, they broke out internationally and have been releasing music ever since. Presumably, they have been paid much better since their rough early days in Australia.
9. Heart “Barracuda”
Sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson blow the doors off the rock-and-roll boys’ club with “Barracuda.” Rumbling bass and an unrelenting beat make this the song that you’d play in your car on the way to commit a crime of passion. Released on the 1977 album “Little Queen”, Barracuda explodes with rage at a comment made about the sisters being incestuous lovers. When you’re angry about something, crank up this song to purge your rage.
10. Van Halen “Running With the Devil”
Critics of rock have long labeled it the “Devil’s music,” and Van Halen embraced that sentiment on their first album in 1978. Recklessness defines the rock-and-roll attitude, and the band summed that up with the lyrics “I live my life like there’s no tomorrow, And all I’ve got, I had to steal, Least I don’t need to beg or borrow, Yes I’m livin’ at a pace that kills” Although sadly no longer with us, guitarist and songwriter Edward Van Halen has been regarded as a ground-breaking guitarist since his music came on the scene in the 1970s. There’s no rock fan alive who doesn’t turn up the volume for Van Halen.
11. The Guess Who “No Sugar Tonight / New Mother Nature
This lovely song from 1970 presents an example of an acoustic style classic rock song. Although the Guess Who have plenty of hard-rocking hits, this one demonstrates the gentler side of authentic 1970s sound.
12. Creedence Clearwater Revival “Fortunate Son”
In the late 1960s, rockers added their voices to the Vietnam War protest. “Fortunate Son” offered an unabashed criticism of wealthy elites who sent other people to war. John Fogerty wrote the song, and his band released it in 1969. The lyrics expose the faux patriotism of the ruling class who expect the working class to pay for their warmongering with money and blood. The harsh lyrics are juxtaposed upon a folksy rock sound peppy enough to make you tap your foot despite the rage it invokes.
13. Jimi Hendrix “Rainy Day, Dream Away”
EVERY song from Jimi Hendrix is a classic rock song, but “Rainy Day, Dream Away” encapsulates so much of the man’s talent. His able hands produce a very bluesy guitar sound true to his quintessentially American roots. It opens to the sound of him apparently inhaling a substance illegal at the time, like the true rock legend that he was born to be. Although hailed for generations as a guitar god, Hendrix was also a gifted songwriter. This song represents an alternative to his many hard-driving anthems that still grace radio airwaves. His artful lyrics remind us to appreciate rainy days.
14. Doors “Roadhouse Blues”
There’s just no discussing classic rock without including the Doors. The band’s sound is in many ways unique, and Jim Morrison embodies the cliche of the tortured, drunken artist who sadly died far too young. Their sound is a synergy of musical styles and frankly difficult to define. Labels are hardly necessary though because the Doors produced timeless music. Any of their albums can be played from start to finish without the slightest urge to skip a track. “Roadhouse Blues” is the type of song that makes you want to take a long road trip and never look back.
15. Led Zeppelin “Immigrant Song”
All of Led Zeppelin’s songs deserve the label classic, but only one tells the tale of conquering Northmen. With a driving beat that gives you the energy to pull an oar across the North Sea toward the Western Shore, the Immigrant Song demands that you bang your head, play air guitar, and imagine yourself in Valhalla. After all, this was the Led Zeppelin song in “School of Rock” that Dewey Finn chose for teaching the kids how to get the Led out.
16. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers “Refugee”
As a prolific artist, the late Tom Petty could fill lists of the best rock songs. “Refugee” provides a fine example from his 1980 album “Damn the Torpedoes.” Unpretentious guitar, bass, keyboard, and drums create a well-refined rock sound punctuated by Petty’s mournful vocals. The song encourages you to forgive yourself after being beat down by trauma because you don’t have to hide after bad things happen to you.
17. Rush “Working Man”
Where does one even begin with Rush? Decades of amazing albums. Legions of fans. The band truly can be called a peerless trio of perfectionists. To choose a classic, you might as well go to the beginning with “Working Man” on their debut album in 1974. It immediately appealed to anyone who’s ever longed for more than a dull, workaday life. Everything anyone ever loved about Rush is right here in this song with emotional vocals, grinding guitar, and impeccable drumming. “Working Man” launched their glorious career defined by music that seemed impossibly huge for a three-piece band.
18. Alice Cooper “I’m Eighteen”
The single “I’m Eighteen” came out in November 1970 and marked the band’s first entry into the Top 40 charts. Sorrowful guitar, a plodding drumbeat, and Cooper’s careworn voice lament the uncertainty of coming of age. Apprehension for the future and doubts about adulthood torture young people as they realize their lack of experience with the world and the inevitability of being flung into it. On top of making songs that go straight to the heart of young people, Alice Cooper embodied the hard-drinking, rock-and-roll lifestyle that included flashy stage performances and scary makeup.
19. The Who “Pinball Wizard”
This hugely successful British band created the art form known as the rock opera. “Pinball Wizard” from the 1969 album “Tommy” is immediately recognizable from the first guitar chord. The Who is a pure rock band all about guitar, bass, and drums. The song tells the story of a teen who cannot see, hear, or speak, but nevertheless is a champion pinball player because he “plays by sense of smell” and “becomes one with the machine.”
20. Steppenwolf “Born to Be Wild”
When you’re looking for badass classic rock, this song checks off every box. If ever a guitar sounded like the deep-throated engine of a chopper, it was in this song. The lyrics celebrate the freedom of the open road and a willingness to throw off the constraints of polite society. The turbulent summer of 1968 was the setting for the release of this song that later was added to the soundtrack of the film “Easy Rider.”
21. Neil Young “Rockin in the Free World”
As a 1989 release, this song comes in a little after the traditional era of classic rock, but it sums up everything about classic rock. Young’s intense social commentary about the state of American society, including politics, drug use, homelessness, and infanticide, accompany a classic rock guitar sound. As a rocker who got his start in the 1960s and released hits throughout the 1970s, Young has a secure place within the pantheon of classic rockers.
22. Eric Clapton “Cocaine”
Drug use was no secret in the classic rock universe, and Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine” released in 1977 took an honest look at the popular party drug. Music flows from the hands of the legendary guitarist with a melancholy sound that summons a feeling of regret despite apparently glorifying drug use.
23. Lynyrd Skynyrd “Free Bird”
You’re not human if you can listen to “Free Bird” and not shed a tear from at least one eye. The song is a lament about a man who can’t change and therefore must leave his girl behind.
24. Steely Dan “Do It Again”
A rock group with a jazzy sound, Steely Dan may not receive much attention now, but the band’s music possesses a slick, lounge-act quality that makes it unique. The gentle music of “Do It Again” reveals the diversity of sound that developed into the classic rock genre. The subject of the song tells the tale of a degenerate person committed to a vice-filled lifestyle.
25. ZZ Top “La Grange”
As another Southern Rock band with a bluesy style, ZZ Top songs often celebrate carnal desires. This 1973 hit stays true to the long tradition of illicit sex in rock-and-roll songs. It extols the charms of a local brothel that’s “got a lot of nice girls.”
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.