Rock is one of the most popular genres of music of all time and has a multitude of subgenres – punk-rock, soft rock, folk rock, heavy metal, just to name a few – each with their own dedicated fanbase. Many huge names have made a lasting impact on rock music, so many in fact that we have an institution, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, that purely exists to immortalise them. But with all these fantastic rock songs out there, how do you even begin to separate the great from the greatest?
If you’re looking to get into rock music or just brush up on your knowledge of the genre, it can be hard to know where to start. Luckily, we’ve put together a list of some of the best rock songs of all time, written and sung by some of the greatest artists to ever hit the stage. Here are 21 of the best rock songs ever.
Best Rock Songs Ever
“Bohemian Rapsody” – Queen
‘Bohemian Rapsody’ is considered not just one of the greatest rock songs of all time, but one of the greatest songs of all time. This track from Queen is truly one of a kind, a dramatic rock epic that effortlessly transitions from mournful piano ballad to a scorching electric guitar solo.
Freddy Mercury delivers one of the best vocal performances of his career, as well as some of the best song writing, as he portrays heaven and hell competing for a young man’s soul. The track appeared on Queen’s 1975 album A Night At The Opera – appropriate, due to the track’s operatic influences.
“Hotel California” – Eagles
This poignant and slightly unsettling track from the Eagles sees the band take shots at American consumerism, with the name-checked state of California standing in for just about any American location. A lonely traveller finds himself at a strange place with a young woman standing at the door.
He is welcomed to the Hotel California, which he is assured is “such a lovely place”. However, he quickly realises that the Hotel California is far more nightmarish than he thought, and searches frantically for an exit. Unfortunately, at the Hotel California: “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”
“Enter Sandman” – Metallica
Metallic put a sinister twist on a popular bedtime story in this heavy metal track. After a boy is told by his father the story of the sandman, and how he puts dream dust in his eyes, he feels threatened by the mystical creature and decides to stay awake and keep “one eye open.”
‘Enter Sandman’ was the lead single from Metallica’s self-titled 1991 album, also known as The Black Album. Thirty years on from the original released of The Black Album, a compilation album with covers of some of the album’s biggest tracks was released. The Metallica Blacklist features six cover versions of ‘Enter Sandman’, from the likes of Ghost, Weezer and Rina Sawayama.
‘Highway To Hell’ – AC/DC
‘Highway To Hell’ has one of the most instantly recognisable opening guitar riffs of all time. Named after the Canning Highway in Australia, it describes the treacherous nature of the road, which many rockers would drive down in order to reach The Raffles, a popular 70s bar.
Lead singer Bon Scott drove the road frequently from his door all the way to The Raffles, and wrote about how, despite how many accidents there were on the Canning Highway, he would never stop driving it in order to go and drink with his friends.
“(I Can’t Go No) Satisfaction” – The Rolling Stones
This classic Stones track sees Mick Jagger and the band lament the phony atmosphere in America, and the large gap that they see between real life and marketing.
It was Mick Jagger that wrote the majority of the lyrics about a man searching for authenticity, but it was Keith Richards who wrote the titular line, after waking up with a guitar riff and the words “I can’t get no satisfaction” in his head.
In 1975, ten years after the original release of ‘Satisfaction’, the song was bought by the church of scientology to be used on their retreats.
“Livin’ On A Prayer” – Bon Jovi
Bon Jovi spoke directly to the American youth with this blood-pumping track. Telling the story of two young people called Tommy and Gina, who work at the docks and in a diner respectively, the song chronicles the hard work they put in every day towards a distant dream, just like many of the working class crowds Bon Jovi were playing too.
‘Livin’ On A Prayer’ wasn’t originally going to be added to the band’s Slippery When Wet album – it was only when Jon Bon Jovi met a group of teenagers who related to the track that he released what a mistake it would be to leave it out.
“Basket Case” – Green Day
‘Basket Case’ is deceptively upbeat – over the heavy drums and electric guitar, it tells the story of a man struggling with his mental health. Unable to diagnose the issue with his mind, even after consultations with everyone from psychiatrists to prostitutes, the man is left feeling like a ‘basket case’. The song is heavily inspired by Billie Joe Armstrong’s own experiences with panic disorders.
“Stairway To Heaven” – Led Zeppelin
Although never released as a single and subsequently never a chart success, ‘Stairway To Heaven’ is one of the most iconic rock tracks of all time. The highly abstract track begins by describing a woman who learns that her wealth will not get her into heaven.
The whole song is loosely built around the question of what heaven is, and who will and will not be allowed to climb its stairway. “There’s still time to change the road you’re on,” Robert Plant reminds listeners.
“Sweet Child O’ Mine” – Guns N’ Roses
Another instantly recognisable guitar riff. ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ sees Guns N’ Roses sing about a love that makes everything seem as sweet and innocent as childhood. The lyrics came from a poem written by Axl Rose about his girlfriend Erin Everly. The track comes from Appetite For Destruction, the band’s first album. ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine was the album’s third single, and the one that catapulted it up the charts.
“Misery Business” – Paramore
This effusive piece of pop rock from band Paramore tells a classic love triangle tale. Lead singer Hayley Williams tells of how happy she is with her boyfriend – even though she admits to stealing him away from another girl. It’s okay though, because the girl in question terrorises her classmates and thinks she’s better than everyone. “It just feels so good,” sings Williams, of getting one up on the girl.
“You Oughta Know” – Alanis Morissette
Morissette is finding it hard to accept that her partner is happy with someone else, especially when he told her that he’d love her until the day that he died. “But you’re still alive,” she points out. Morissette is a reminder of the love they shared, and she’s not going to allow her ex to ignore her.
There was plenty of speculation when ‘You Ought Know’ was released about who the angry lyrics could possibly be about. Morissette has said that she will never confirm who the song was written for.
“Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time)” – Elton John
This classic Elton John track chronicles the adventures of an astronaut who’s set his sights on a new frontier. Released around the time of the Apollo 16 mission, mankind’s fifth trip to the moon, the song tells the story of a father and partner preparing to head out on a mission and leave his family on Earth. It’s also pertinent to John’s own life and the isolating sphere of rock stardom.
“Heroes” – David Bowie
“We can be heroes, just for one day,” sings Bowie on ‘Heroes’. Written whilst Bowie was living in Berlin, the song tells the story of a German couple living on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall who managed to meet every day under a gun turret.
“Though nothing will keep us together, we could steal time, just for one day,” sings Bowie, from the perspective of the lovers. The song drew real-life inspiration from Bowie’s producer, Tony Visconti, and his girlfriend, back-up singer Antonia Maas.
“Crazy Train” – Ozzy Osbourne
“All aboard!” yells Osbourne, to open ‘Crazy Train’. The song posits that life is insane, and that we just have to try and find a way to get through it. The specific insanity that the song is referencing is the Cold War – “Heirs of a cold war, that’s what we’ve become,” sings Osbourne. The song’s title also points to ‘M.A.D’, the concept of mutually assured destruction.
“Everlong” – Foo Fighters
This upbeat track from the Foo Fighters is actually a very tender love song. “Hello, I’ve waited here for you everlong,” sings Dave Grohl. Although the protagonist might be a little self-destructive, he’s very much in love, and doesn’t want to let go of what it is he’s found.
The track is beloved by many, including talk show host David Letterman, for whom the song took on special meaning during his heart surgery. He asked the Foo Fighters to play the song as guests on The Late Show With David Letterman for his first post-surgery appearance.
“Great Balls Of Fire” – Jerry Lee Lewis
The signature tune of Jerry Lee Lewis, this innuendo-filled rock and roll tune was shocking when it was shocking in the 1950s south. The song has since been covered by a range of other musicians, including Dolly Parton, whose version was the title track on her 1979 album.
“Live And Let Die” – Paul McCartney
McCartney plays with the phrase “live and let live” to create something much more appropriate for a James Bond theme. Created with his band Wings, the theme for the eighth James Bond film. According to drummer Danny Seiwell, after reading the script for the film, McCartney sat down at the piano and wrote almost the entire track in about ten minutes. ‘Live And Let Die’ ended up being a more successful Bond tune than any before it.
“Go Your Own Way” – Fleetwood Mac
Written by Lindsey Buckingham as a message to ex-girlfriend and fellow band member Stevie Nicks, ‘Go Your Own Way’ sees Buckingham telling Nicks that as far as he’s concerned, the relationship is over.
Whilst the message “You can go your own way” sounds like a positive, encouraging sentiment from one ex to another, the verses of ‘Go Your Own Way’ actually include a lot of bitterness and resentment, as Buckingham accuses Nicks of “shacking up” with other people.
“All Summer Long” – Kid Rock
This country rock tune from Kid Rock tells a coming of age story about “summertime in Northern Michigan.” The melodies in the song are a mashup of two great tunes – ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ and ‘Werewolves Of London’ – to reflect what the teenagers in the song’s story are listening to. The track is an idyllic picture of being on the cusp of adulthood and enjoying your last couple of teenage summers.
“Born In The U.S.A.” – Bruce Springsteen
This thoughtful tune from Springsteen is often taken as a patriotic anthem, but it’s a little more complex than that. The track actually references the problems faced by soldiers returning to the US after serving in Vietnam. Springsteen gives an emotional vocal performance as he sings from the perspective of one such soldier.
“All Along The Watchtower” – Jimi Hendrix
Although originally written and recorded by Bob Dylan in 1967, it was Jimi Hendrix that made ‘All Along The Watchtower’ famous. He’s one of many artists to cover the track – including Eric Clapton, Neil Young and U2 – but it’s Hendrix’s fantastic vocal and musical interpretation of the track has allowed it to rise above the rest.
It’s impossible to choose a universally greatest rock song of all time, because every rock song out there means something different to different listeners. Depending on your tastes and preferences, one song on this list might rise above the rest, or your favourite rock song might not even have made it into our top 21.
The wonderful thing about music is that everyone gets to have their own different and still equally correct opinion. Either way, it can’t be denied that these 21 songs are some of the very best rock songs of all time.
Caitlin Devlin is a music, entertainment and lifestyle writer based in London. When she’s not creating playlists for Repeat Replay, she’s reviewing gigs and interviewing artists for Ticketmaster UK and thinking about what her Spotify Wrapped will look like this year.