Skip to content

25 Classic Rock Songs That Everyone Should Know

These timeless tracks deserve a spot on your best-of playlist.

Whether you point the finger at TikTok pop stars, music streaming services, or the general death of the monoculture, there's no denying that there are fewer and fewer of those songs that "everybody knows" than there used to be. Personally, I blame the slow demise of terrestrial radio. Back when people still listened to FM in their cars, there were certain songs that were just always on—including all of these 25 classic rock songs that basically everyone should be familiar with. Read on for the best classic rock songs ever recorded (and note that there's some adult language in some of the videos below!).

RELATED: 30 Huge '80s Bands You Totally Forgot Existed.

The 25 Best Classic Rock Songs of All Time

"Johnny B. Goode" by Chuck Berry (1958)

Probably best remembered today as the song time traveler Marty McFly used to impress the '50s kids in Back to the Future, this hit from Chuck Berry was named one of the top 10 greatest rock songs of all time by Rolling Stone, which called it "the first rock & roll hit about rock & roll stardom."

"You Really Got Me" by The Kinks (1964)

With lyrics by Ray Davies and a killer guitar riff by his brother Dave, "You Really Got Me" captured the lusty, rebellious spirit of the '60s. Described by the latter as "a love song for street kids," the track's raw intensity and energy laid the foundation for the hard rock and punk movements to come.

"House of the Rising Sun" by The Animals (1964)

A traditional folk tune dating back to the early 20th century, this song was previously recorded by Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Nina Simone, but the version from the British band the Animals, a No. 1 hit in the U.S. and the U.K., has eclipsed them all.

"My Generation" by The Who (1965)

Allegedly inspired by the then-Queen Mother's demand that Pete Townshend's car—a Packard hearse—be removed from the streets of Belgravia because it offended her sensibilities, the Who's "My Generation" has been an anthem of rebellion ever since it topped the charts in 1965—though singer Roger Daltrey swears his signature stutter singing "who don't you all…fade away," which seems to be winking at profanity, was a result of his failure to practice it before going into the studio.

"Wild Thing" by The Troggs (1966)

Blessed with one of the most iconic opening riffs in rock history, this 1966 No. 1 hit by the Troggs was originally recorded a year earlier by a band called the Wild Ones, to little acclaim. In later years, the song was covered by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Runaways, and Siouxsie Sioux.

RELATED: The 36 Best Karaoke Songs for Totally Owning the Stage.

"Light My Fire" by The Doors (1967)

An early example of mainstream rock crossing over into psychedelia, the Doors' "Light My Fire" was a late '60s sensation, even though the lyrical content ruffled some feathers. When performing the song on The Ed Sullivan Show, Jim Morrison refused to alter an offending lyric ("Girl, we couldn't get much higher…") as originally planned, resulting in the group being banned from a return appearance.

"All Along the Watchtower" by Jimi Hendrix (1968)

Jimi Hendrix's transformative cover of Bob Dylan's original went beyond a great cover to become a sonic experience of its own, thanks to Hendrix's guitar artistry. With his literally electrifying performance, the song transcends its folk roots, evolving into a psychedelic masterpiece and the definitive version of the song.

"Sympathy for the Devil" by The Rolling Stones (1968)

Lucifer takes credit for the dark side of humanity, from Jesus Christ's crucifixion to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, in this hypnotic 1968 Stones jam. The song's samba-inspired rhythm and chant-like background vocals underpin Mick Jagger's sinister, charismatic delivery, making it a masterpiece of rock storytelling.

"Fortunate Son" by Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969)

John Fogerty's raw, screechy vocals lead CCR's critique of who is and isn't sent to fight wars. The song struck a nerve and became an anthem for Vietnam War-era youth.

"Stairway to Heaven" by Led Zeppelin (1971)

One of Led Zeppelin's defining hits, "Stairway to Heaven" has been ranked many times as one of the best rock songs ever and is a genuine pop culture staple, even inspiring a memorable gag in the movie Wayne's World—yet it was never officially released as a single in the U.S.

RELATED: The 25 Most Influential Music Videos Ever Made.

"Iron Man" by Black Sabbath (1971)

With a title and lyrics inspired by Ozzy Osbourne's reaction to hearing Tony Iommi's guitar riff for the first time (he said it reminded him of "a big iron bloke walking about"), this hard rock anthem has nothing to do with the Marvel Comics hero, and everything to do with telling a post-apocalyptic fable about a man who travels through time to warn humanity of the end of the world, only to be ignored.

"Dream On" by Aerosmith (1973)

Rock isn't all about the blaring anthems—power ballads are important too. And this hit single from Aerosmith's debut album is a defining example of the form, with lyricist and singer Steven Tyler's powerful vocals building and building with every repetition of the driving chorus—and the frontman was only 14 when he wrote it.

"Free Bird" by Lynyrd Skynyrd (1973)

Such a concert staple that members of the audience calling out "Free Bird!" during a show became something of a meme for a time, this Top 40 hit for Lynyrd Skynyrd was judged to have the third best guitar solo of all time by Guitar World magazine. During live shows, the band's riffs have stretched performances of the song to more than 14 minutes.

"La Grange" by ZZ Top (1973)

ZZ Top's biggest hit, this little ditty about a Texas brothel references the same real-world establishment that inspired the play and film The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.

"(Don't Fear) the Reaper" by Blue Oyster Cult (1976)

With morbid lyrics about the fate of Romeo and Juliet, "(Don't Fear) the Reaper" has been interpreted as a song about suicide, but singer/lyricist Buck Dharma said he actually thinks of it as a love song, albeit one that is preoccupied with death and the afterlife. "I was actually kind of appalled when I first realized that some people were seeing it as an advertisement for suicide or something that was not my intention at all," he told College Music Journal, as recounted by OnStage Magazine. "It's basically a love song where the love transcends the actual physical existence of the partners."

RELATED: The 30 Most Iconic Music Album Covers of All Time.

"Hotel California" by The Eagles (1976)

An epic of rock storytelling that ends with a climactic guitar duet by Don Felder and Joe Walsh (voted the best guitar solo of all time by Guitarist magazine), "Hotel California" matches its killer music with enigmatic lyrics that so fascinated Oscar-winning film producer Julia Phillips that she tried to adapt the song into a movie.

"Barracuda" by Heart (1977)

Ann Wilson channeled her rage over a sleazy comment from a man at a record company into the galloping anthem "Barracuda." Blistering guitar riffs by Nancy Wilson and fierce, commanding vocals by Ann make this a quintessential hard rock classic.

"Rock and Roll All Nite" by KISS (1975)

More than almost any other song, the insanely infectious "Rock and Roll All Night" invites listeners to pump up the volume and rally for guitar-driven liberation. Released by KISS in 1975, it's been the group's closing number for almost every concert since, and has appeared on more than a dozen of its albums.

"Comfortably Numb" by Pink Floyd (1979)

Lyricist Roger Waters claimed this track from Pink Floyd's concept album The Wall was inspired by his use of tranquilizers to treat stomach cramps before a concert. In the song, The Wall's fictional protagonist, Pink, is dosed with drugs by a doctor and forced to perform. "That was the longest two hours of my life, trying to do a show when you can hardly lift your arm," Waters later said.

"Heartbreaker" by Pat Benatar (1979)

The second single from Pat Benatar's debut album In the Heat of the Night, "Heartbreaker" was a bit of a slow grower on the charts, but eventually became one of her most enduring songs, despite the fact that it wasn't an original—it was first recorded in 1978 by an English singer, Jenny Darren.

RELATED: The 10 Bands Who Hate Each Other the Most.

"Back in Black" by AC/DC (1980)

This title track from AC/DC's seventh album features Brian Johnson as lead singer, as he'd stepped into that role after the 1980 death of former frontman Bon Scott. The song was intended as a tribute to the departed singer; the band asked Johnson to pen the lyric and he "just wrote what came into [his] head." The album went on to sell more than 50 million copies.

"Tom Sawyer" by Rush (1981)

Rush lead singer Geddy Lee has called "Tom Sawyer" a "defining" piece of music for the Canadian band, and it went on to become one of the most-played songs on rock radio—but it almost never made it out of the studio. According to Lee, problems with the mix (it was produced on one of the first computerized mixing consoles, he said) initially led him to suggest scrapping it.

"Under Pressure" by Queen and David Bowie (1981)

A signature hit for both Queen and David Bowie, this collaborative track came about almost by accident: The band and the singer were both recording in the same studio in Switzerland when they happened to bump into one another, and started working together. The result became a top 10 hit in 10 countries (and indirectly helped turn a rapper named Vanilla Ice into a superstar a decade later).

"I Love Rock n' Roll" by Joan Jett & the Blackhearts (1981)

Originally recorded by the Arrows in 1975, this song didn't attain iconic status until Joan Jett released her cover version in 1981 and saw it climb to number one on the charts. Legend has it Jett saw the Arrows perform the song on television in the U.K. when she was touring with the Runaways in the mid-'70s, and she went on to record it twice—first with members of The Sex Pistols in 1979, then later with Blackheart—the version that became one of her biggest hits.

"Edge of Seventeen" by Stevie Nicks (1981)

Inspired by the deaths of Stevie Nicks' uncle and John Lennon, and named for a misheard comment by Tom Petty's wife Jane, "Edge of Seventeen" makes a major play for the Police's "Bring on the Night" guitar riff, but adds searing vocals and a pulsating beat to drive its haunting, lyrical portrait of death. The song, from her hit solo debut Bella Donna, helped establish the post-Fleetwood Mac Nicks as a rock icon in her own right.

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller is a pop culture writer living in New York. Read more
Filed Under