Classic rock is a genre that has become hard to define. Mostly, this is because of the word classic – great cars from the 90s are now considered classics. I was on an American Airlines flight recently where movies from last year were in the “Classics” section. That word’s lost all meaning.
But for the purposes of this article, let us simply say this: Classic Rock is the genre of music emerging with the Beatles and dying out during the New Wave in the 80s. The greatest “rock” bands of the 90s fit better into the alternative rock category than they do the classic rock category.
That means that bands like Queen, Led Zepplin, and Pink Floyd remain in the classic rock category. It also means that neither Nirvana nor Elvis Presley fit into this category, simply because they don’t. Nirvana is the greatest alternative rock band of all-time. Presley is rockabilly, or white R&B, like the Bee Gees.
With that said, I will define who I believe to be the greatest Rock groups of all time. If it stirs up controversy – good. That’s what a good list does. Everybody’s got their own take and this is mine.
#40: Blue Oyster Cult
To say that Blue Oyster Cult is nothing but “Don’t Fear the Reaper” is to admit foolishness. When I was first introduced to BOC, I was foolish. “Don’t Fear the Reaper” is great, but it’s not all Blue Oyster Cult has in their repertoire. You’re missing out on “Godzilla”, “Burnin’ For You”, and “Cities on Flame with Rock And Roll”.
Honestly, “Godzilla” is perfect for a song being based on a mythical sea beast. Like the mighty creature, “Godzilla” emerges from a steady beat to wreak havoc – and by that I mean, being a genuinely entertaining song. That groove that “Godzilla” finds fits perfectly with the beast taking down towers, and it’s unfortunate it has not been in a Godzilla franchise film yet.
That Blue Oyster Cult is more famous for being in a Will Ferrell sketch than anything else amongst my generation disheartens me. But then Chance the Rapper donates 1 million to public education and I’m fine again.
#39: The Steve Miller Band
They say that some people call him the space cowboy. Some call him the gangster of love. Some simply call him Maurice. I choose to refer to the Steve Miller Band by all these things. But again, you can’t just reduce the band to their most popular song. Because “The Joker” is far from being their best.
The Steve Miller Band also wrote “Jet Airliner”, “Fly Like An Eagle”, and “Take the Money and Run”. “Jet Airliner” is a genre-bender. It’s funky. It’s groovy. But it’s firmly an earworm. I also just want to know which town is New England Town. It’s Boston isn’t it. It’s Boston.
#38: The Allman Brothers Band
“Ramblin’ Man” is both The Allman Brothers Band’s most popular song and the best. I love it so much, and it’s probably the best ‘moving on’ song, just from one phase of life to another. As I approach college graduation, it becomes relevant once more.
Foreigner is the band that’s both “Hot Blooded” and “Cold As Ice”. They “Want to Know What Love Is”. They’re the true “Jukebox Hero”. They just blew the world away, and those guitars felt good in their hands.
“Jukebox Hero” is the song that should be in every jukebox. It’s always listenable, and there’s a great power to it. The lyrics are easy to shout, and Foreigner was one of the first real anthem rock bands that made people excited. If you’re pregaming, and you want to listen to a Classic Rock song, you could do a lot worse than “Jukebox Hero”.
As the band has slowly devolved into Steven Tyler screaming, Aerosmith has lost what made them special – their songs were somewhat well written, and the lyrics of songs like “Dream On”, “Walk This Way”, and “Sweet Emotion” were worth remembering.
“Dream On” especially is the power ballad, in my mind. From the first “everytime that I look in the mirror…”, the song carries a weight to it, and it just builds. It’s a song about power, and it conveys its message really well. Every time the chorus kicks in, it makes you, as the song says “sing with me”.
#35: The Doobie Brothers
I still remember the first time I listened to the Doobie Brothers. I was in high school, listening to Pandora’s classic rock station, when “China Grove” came on. I immediately came back into reality, cause the song caught my full attention, something rare for classic rock in those days. I’ve been high on the Doobie Brothers since then.
With songs like “Listen to the Music” and “Long Train Running”, The Doobie Brothers are another in the category of underrated rock bands. The Doobie Brothers are one of the best bands for road trips, as their songs mesh really well with passing scenery and open windows.
#34: Lynyrd Skynyrd
When you think of classic rock, what is the first song that pops into your head? For me, it’s “Sweet Home Alabama”. I don’t honestly know what it is about the song, but I’ve always associated it with the genre. It’s one of the best of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s limited works, and “Free Bird” is the other. The song that everybody yells for at rock concerts is their work. Whether it’s because of the guitar work within the song, or the short, simplistic, sweet lyrics, “Free Bird” remains popular, even as “Sweet Home Alabama” continues to pass through generations.
Holy wow that hair. That hair defined the 70s, and it’s just… it’s truly amazing. But Boston is more than just hair, thankfully. Their catalogue of songs is incredible, with the likes of “Amanda”, “Long Time”, “Rock & Roll Band”, and “Peace of Mind”.
But for me, the song I’ll remember most for Boston is “Foreplay/Long Time”. I play it every fourth of July, because it’s a great instrumental at first, and as it morphs into “Long Time” the lyrics are great as well. It’s a nice break from the overtly American songs.
From the first heartbeats in “Renegade”, you know it’s something special. Then the “Yeah!” comes in, the song picks up speed, and it’s off and running. Cause that hangman is coming down from the gallows and you’ve gotta move it.
“Mr. Roboto” is the song Styx is most famous for, which is a shame. It’s kind of overrated, but there’s a good period between middle school and high school where you actually think its something special. Then, as you get older, you realize how much better “Renegade” is.
#31: ZZ Top
Those beards are still some of the best in music. ZZ have been working on them for a while, so they ought to be. But even before the beards, ZZ Top was something special. The laughs off “La Grange”, the dueling guitars on “Sharp Dressed Man”. Honestly, though, the best part about ZZ Top songs is the gravely voice on display at odd moments.
Honestly, La Grange doesn’t truly get started til those laughs, and that makes it even better. I’m a big proponent of laughter in songs, though.
#30: Motley Crue
When you listen to a Motley Crue song, whether it be “Kickstart My Heart”, “Home Sweet Home”, or “Smokin’ In the Boys Room”, you can feel the power surging through your veins. Whether that’s an effect of their grizly guitars or simply the power of the Crue, it’s one of my favorite things about good Classic Rock. That power surge is indicative of good music in the genre, and Motley Crue is good at producing it.
#29: Cheap Trick
I grew up with both “Surrender” and “I Want You To Want Me”. Before I knew about the rest of these bands, I knew about Cheap Trick. They were my introduction to the genre, and they continue to have a special presence in my heart. “Dream Police” came into my life later, but I know it as well as I know “Surrender”, because I’ve just had continual exposure to Cheap Trick.
#28: Pat Benatar
Benatar’s “Heartbreaker” is one of the best classic rock songs, period. The drums, the guitars, everything about the song makes you move, moves you to shake. It’s a great power ballad by a great artist. Benatar’s other works, including “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” and “Love Is a Battlefield” are speical, but it’s “Heartbreaker” that puts her over the top for me.
#27: Def Leppard
I still credit Def Leppard with the name for the iPhone. They say it in “Pour Some Sugar On Me” and there’s no use in trying to tell me otherwise. They literally say “red eye phone”, and in the 80’s, I have no idea what that is. Jobs listened to that song, thought the same, and decided to name his phone to make that lyric mean something. That’s how history happens, people.
I played “Blitzkrieg Bop” all throughout high school. I understand that song more than I would like to. Still, that opening chant of “hey, oh, let’s go!”, that’s something special. I also thought that it was “Let’s Keep Up” for most of my high school experience, so maybe I didn’t know it as well as I thought I did.
But “I Wanna Be Sedated” is far better. And when I want to just scream my head off nowadays, which with the current administration, happens a lot, it’s “I Wanna Be Sedated” I turn to. Just waiting on my generation’s version, and if they could hurry, hurry, hurry, that would be great.
#25: Black Sabbath
Sabbath is the closest this list gets to metal. With songs like “Paranoid”, “Iron Man” and “War Pigs”, the band gets really dark. The band is also the launching point of Ozzy Osbourne. Sabbath is like the Ship of Theseus – it’s gone through so many members it’s hard to keep track. Tony Iommi, one of the founders, though, remains one of the most important members. “War Pigs” is the best song from the band.
#24: Guns N Roses
There might not be a better guitar album than Appetite For Destruction. Between “Sweet Child O’ Mine”, “Welcome to the Jungle”, and “Paradise City”, it’s one of the best classic rock albums. And Guns N Roses had a lot of great albums. They’ve just got a lot of great songs, as well.
I could listen to “Paradise City” a dozen times in a row and not get sick of it. In fact, I’ve done that before. It’s simply better than a ton of other songs, especially in today’s musical landscape.
#23: Eric Clapton
I’ve never been as high on Eric Clapton as the rest of the world seems to be. I don’t know if his success just didn’t transfer over to my generation, but he’s the artist on this list I’ve heard the least. He’s this high because of “Layla”. I adore that song. It’s one of the best songs for guitar ever written.
I think Rush is the band that you get more and more into as you get older and older. I think that’s because you start appreciating drums more and more, and Neil Peart is the greatest drummer to have ever lived. The fact that they’re Canadian doesn’t hurt them here either. The futuristic parts of “Tom Sawyer” and “The Spirit of Radio” I also adore. That synth though.
“25 or 6 to 4” is one of the greatest songs ever written. Period. It’s that good. Having played it throughout my high school pep band career, I’ve gotta admit… it was the most fun I’ve ever had playing trombone. This was a song meant for pep bands, and I’m surprised it’s not in more arenas. It could be a great goal song in hockey, especially that beginning. Hey, there’s always Vegas. Nobody knows what that goal song is gonna be.
Journey is another group I grew up with. Mostly this was because of my first sports fandom being baseball. Journey is everywhere in baseball. “Don’t Stop Believin'” was essentially the official 2005 White Sox championship song. I adore it for that reason, much the same way I adore “Chelsea Dagger” as a championship song. And it’s weird because as I’ve listened to more and more Journey, I don’t know if “Don’t Stop Believin'” even cracks my top 3. “Faithfully”, “Separate Ways”, and “Any Way You Want It”. Nope, it doesn’t.
#19: The Band
Yeah, “The Weight” is that good. It’s one of the best songs, period, ever written. It’s a classic, and it helped to define the genre, but at the same time it brought the Band to the edge between good country and classic rock. They weren’t the only ones on that line.
From the first strums of that guitar, “the Weight” lets you know you’re in for a good time. Then the steady drum, the excellent voice, just… everything’s okay when listening to “the Weight”. You’re told to take a load off, and the song makes you do so.
#18: The Doors
The Doors have achieved a cult-like following, partially based off of the words of Jim Morrison. The lyrics of the band have become a focal point, but people forget the piano, the general feelings the Doors elicited in their music. Those chills the songs gave you, the general excitement, the band was able to emotionally move you. That’s been overshadowed, and it’s unfortunate. People also forget how many great songs the Doors had. “Break On Through”, “Light My Fire”, “Riders On the Storm”, “Love Her Madly”, the list goes on.
#17: The Police
The Police came out in the same era as New Wave, and for that reason, they can be somewhat lumped in to that group. Their sound is greatly influenced by the decade they emerged in. But they’re just an update to the classic rock formula – bass, drums, guitar, lead vocals, it’s all there. The Police just added instruments native to the 80s. Their songs are warnings of love, rather than just straight love songs – songs like “Roxanne” and “Don’t Stand So Close To Me”. Their songs are as unconventional as the band is, and they come across as a purely different band. But this is where they belong.
I can understand it if you think that “Sunshine of Your Love” is Cream’s best song. You’re wrong, but I understand it. It’s what people mostly think of when they think of Woodstock, of the trippy age of the 70’s. It just has that opening guitar lick, the descending bass line, it just makes for… a trip. But it’s not their greatest work, their magnum opus.
That, friends, is none other than “I Feel Free”. From the opening claps, to the humming, to the chant-like “I feel free”, it’s the great work from Cream. When the lyrics finally kick in, the long form lyrics with “I can walk down the street”, it just becomes an orgy of sound, and that’s actually better than it sounds.
#15: The Clash
This is where it becomes undebatable anymore. We’re locking in, and these are the fifteen greatest rock bands of all time. You can debate the rest, the order they’re in, but from here on out it’s pretty firm. I have arguments to beat anyone with. Try me.
The Clash for me help to summarize my obsession with classical punk – The Clash, Dead Kennedys, Ramones, etc. They do that through “I Fought the Law” one of my favorite songs. From the opening amping up drum rhythm, to the guitar riff that kicks in, the Clash’s “I Fought the Law” is the warning sign – hey, if you fight the law, it’s perfectly understandable – the law’s gonna win. It fits with some of the other music I’m obsessed with – “Fight the Power” and “F*** the Police”. “I Fought the Law” is just a little bit more subtle with their themes.
#14: David Bowie
Bowie’s last album, Blackstar, defined what the artist was known for – it was wonderfully absurd, but at the same time it was some of the finest music in the world. Bowie was an alien, his persona strange, but what he made was completely Earth-bound, grounded and yet not, and it helped to motivate some of the world’s greatest artists.
My David Bowie experience came after listening to Blackstar, because that was the first time I had ever truly thought about Bowie. And the thing is, he’s made so much of my favorite music. From “Dancing in the Streets” to “Under Pressure”, from “Moonage Daydream” to “Modern Love”.
Ziggy was the first dance music. His music made you want to groove, its beats and rhythms were infectious. I think that’s the thing I’m always going to remember about Bowie – you can’t listen to it without a smile on your face. That’s what truly great music does.
I keep talking about growing up with Classic Rock. AC/DC is the reason why. When I was growing up – elementary school well through junior high – AC/DC was my favorite band. Imagine this cute little blonde boy coming up to you and singing “Thunderstruck” – that was me. My first experience with them was at a White Sox game – the team still uses “Thunderstruck” as the introduction song – and I was in love.
Even as an adult, with rapidly evolving tastes, I was more than excited when Spotify got all of AC/DC’s music finally. I remember needing that from the service, and then having it just show up one day. It was great. Not as great as the band itself, but still.
AC/DC is grisly, gnarled music. It’s mean, it’s rude, it’s bold. It’s just pure testosterone. The guitars, the vocal fry, the drums, everything about the band screams sweat and effort. And maybe that’s why I still love it. Cause that’s not something I’m getting from a lot of the music I listen to now.
#12: Tom Petty/and the Heartbreakers
This is the first of the artist/band couplets. I consider Tom Petty’s career in two phases – himself, and his band, the Heartbreakers. To me they are inseparable, because it is Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and Tom Petty. It is him, he continues to bear his name with his band. They sound the same, too.
My mother’s favorite band is Tom Petty, and the Heartbreakers. For that reason, I’ve always been a sucker for them. “American Girl” especially. The really fast guitars, the slow bass, the rising chorus. Everything about that song is symbolic to me. It’s a lot quieter than the music before this – bands like Def Leppard versus Tom Petty, it’s a stark difference. But they both have similar power, just different ways of conveying it.
I think Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers are one of those bands known for their drums more than anything. That steady rhythm in the background becomes the basis for a lot of their songs, and it’s what drives the message home in their songs. You can’t really air guitar to Tom Petty. You can air drum, though.
#11: Fleetwood Mac
I’m probably a lot higher on Fleetwood than the rest of the world, and honestly I cannot tell you what it is about the band that makes me feel this way. I can tell you that Rumors is one of the greatest albums ever produced. I can tell you that it’s the combination of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks’s voices and the soft guitar sounds behind them that make this band so incredible. Wait, I do know what I love about this band!
It’s a hard contest for me between my favorite Fleetwood song. Honestly, “Landslide” is so great, but it’s not my favorite. “The Chain” is another of their great songs, but again, not my favorite. And then comes “Go Your Own Way”, the rocking fable about making our own decisions in this life. That’s probably my favorite, because it’s the chance to let the guitars shine, with a good minute of material just for them.
#10: The Who
The Who’s Super Bowl performance remains the greatest lazer show I’ve ever seen. Just all the colors and the beams poking up from everywhere, it was just a sight to behold. But The Who’s music is what’s really special. Throughout their careers, the Who haven’t stuck to one genre. They’ve produced “Baba O’Riley”, which is all piano all the time. They made Tommy, a Broadway musical. And then they’re legends for their guitar songs, like “My Generation”.
The drums in the Who, provided largely by Keith Moon, are what shine through all the songs. More so than with most other bands, the drums remain a focal point of the Who’s sound. While the Who’s lyrics and Townshend & Daltry’s voices are very 70’s, it’s Moon’s drumming that become a focus.
#9: Jimi Hendrix
You can have your Claptons, your Richards, your Van Halens, your Pages. I’ll take Jimi as the greatest guitarist ever. His solos, his ability on the guitar, everything about him was special. Even Eric Clapton, one night after Hendrix had been pulled to Britain, said, “You never told me he was that good.” Cause Jimi was that good. He was the greatest of all-time.
For me, it’s “All Along the Watchtower” that shines through Hendrix’s discography. It’s a remarkable piece by a remarkable man, and the skill it took to get that piece done was what launched Hendrix to stardom. And one of the greatest misheard lyrics of all-time is in “Purple Haze”. It’s not “while I kiss this guy”, though that would be quintessential 70’s, no, it’s “Kiss the Sky”.
#8: Bruce Springsteen/and the E Street Band
The E Street Band lost something special when Clarence Clemens died. He’s one of the greatest saxophonists, and likely the greatest in rock, ever. That sax just blew with the lungs of a linebacker behind it. Clemens was extremely special, and he’ll be missed dearly for the rest of E Street’s existence on this planet, which should be eternal.
Bruce is also one of the best personalities in the world. He’s a renownedly humble man who’s also one of the world’s foremost liberals. When a rock god is on your side, you’ve gotta use that more, and the Democrats haven’t. Hopefully, Tom Perez is better about that.
Springsteen’s collected works is one of the best discographies on the planet. It’s also one of the longest, spanning four decades, with Bruce set to release his first original album since 2012’s Wrecking Ball. His discography includes a Christmas album and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”. Yes, my favorite Springsteen song is that one.
#7: Creedence Clearwater Revival
Yeah, for me, Fogerty is higher than Springsteen. I just love Creedence’s sound, I always have. I consider them a peak for classic rock, and one that hasn’t been surpassed by the bands that sound a whole lot like them since. “Fortunate Son” is a miracle of music making. Any montage of politicians doing their work set to “Fortunate Son” (looking at you, West Wing) is immediately superior. That’s the ‘American’ song to me.
And it doesn’t end there. The band has come to define America for me, especially with works like “Lookin’ Out My Back Door”, “Bad Moon Rising”, and “Down on the Corner”. Whenever I listen to Creedence, I gain a kick to my step that’s rare for a singular band to give me.
Creedence is what Americana should be. I think that saying that a different genre should aspire to a band is one of the highest compliments I can bestow.
#6: Van Halen
The wailing guitars. That’s really what Van Halen is known for, that and for the two separate ages – Van Halen, and, as my father taught me, Van Hagar. One’s distinctly better than the other, and yes, it’s Van Halen.
Between “Hot For Teacher”, “Panama”, and “Jump”, it’s easy to get lost in the rock of VH. That’s what I love most about them, though. That it’s so easy to get lost in their excellent music, and that’s a great thing. Who doesn’t want to get lost in good music for a few hours at a time? Just relax, listen to some great guitar music, and let your worries drip off of you. That’s something Van Halen is especially good at.
#5: Pink Floyd
Pink Floyd has some of the greatest albums ever made. Between Wish You Were Here, The Wall, and Darkside of the Moon, it’s just a collection of near-perfect music that stretches genre and what it means to be a rock band. Especially with the Diving Bell, Pink Floyd’s more experimental album, they’ve made a lot of music in a couple different genres.
“Money”, with it’s beginning perfectly utilizing actual sounds made while dealing with currency, is the best anti-Capitalist theme. “Wish You Were Here” starts soft, but makes its way, rising, aided by gentle guitar, until, more than a minute and a half in, it becomes the most melancholy, bittersweet song about life just passing.
And above all stands 1979’s The Wall, a perfect album by an astounding band, which includes the seminal songs “Another Brick in the Wall, Part II”, “Comfortably Numb”, but also more hidden songs like “Don’t Leave Me Now” and “In the Flesh”.
#4: Led Zeppelin
I think everyone in the Western world by the time they’re 10 years old knows “Stairway to Heaven”. I think that’s one of the songs you just become aware of – you don’t remember where you first heard it, it’s just always sort of been in your life. You know the lyrics by heart, but again, don’t remember how. It’s just a part of us.
And that’s how Led Zeppelin sort of got into my life. I’ve heard their music so much, and it’s been very rarely that I’ve deliberately sought them out. And when I do, I always leave glad for having done so. There’s not a bad Led Zeppelin song. If you told someone that your favorite band was Led Zeppelin, then cited any of their songs as your favorite, people would be generally accepting. For me, it’s “Kashmir”. It’s always been one of the most “rock and roll” songs for me.
Yeah, most people are going to say “#3? Are you crazy? Queen isn’t that good!” Except it is. “It’s not better than LZ or Pink Floyd, that’s insane”. Is it though? Follow along with me.
Who’s the greatest singer there’s ever been? Your brain might tell you Frank Sinatra, Beyonce Knowles-Carter, hell, some might even say Elvis. But in your heart of hearts, you know who it is: Freddie Mercury. I can cite facts at you like that Queen is the only band with all four core members in the songwriting hall of fame – Ringo wrote “Octopus’s Garden” and that’s his best song with the Beatles. I can tell you that Queen is perhaps the greatest live performance band there’s ever been. That Freddie Mercury amped up the crowd like no other performer has done before or since. I could do all these things. But I won’t, because you already know it.
Queen is only held back by this fact: there’s not more of their music in this world. I wish to hell there was, I wish they were like the Rolling Stones, always touring, but they can’t be. The world will always miss Freddie.
#2: The Rolling Stones
This is the band that won’t stop touring, that won’t stop making music. They released an album last year, and were touring as well. They started out in England, as too many of the classic rock groups do, and became worldwide sensations. Whether it’s because of the rock figures of Mick & Keith or just the songs they’ve been able to produce, the Rolling Stones continue to be beloved in the world.
Like many of my generation, my first experience with the Stones was in the Guitar Hero franchise. “Paint It Black” was one of the first songs playable in like II I believe. It was the first song I had heard from the band. I was yet to fall in love with them, though. Strangely enough, it was the show Entourage where I would fall in love with the band. One of the episodes ended with “Sympathy for the Devil”. Having known about the Stones generally, I knew that was their song. It was in that song that I fell in love with the band.
Ever since then, I’ve had Rolling Stones in my favorite music. Both “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Gimme Shelter” have been in my most played songs over the last two years. They were both lead singles for back to back Stones albums in the late 60’s. But I’m about to go even earlier.
#1: The Beatles
My favorite band of all time is the Beatles. I’m heavily contemplating getting a yellow submarine on the bottom side of my forearm. That’s how much I’ve fallen for the quartet from Liverpool. I don’t think my life is the same without the Beatles. I don’t say that about many artists. I’ve been to Abbey Road, and until recently that was the most religious experience I’ve had. The Beatles have so many great songs, so much great work. It captures every mood I’ve had – yeah, I’ve usually been happy, but so what. I like happy music.
The Beatles can be depressing – look at The White Album. Both “Blackbird” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” can be depressing in the right context. The Beatles can be angry – “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and “I Want You/She’s So Heavy” are certainly not happy songs. The Beatles are life. The Beatles are happiness. The Beatles are everything. Whoops, sorry, went a little bit cultish there. But, then again, so did the world.
That’s right. Just look into Paul’s olive-colored eyes and fall in love. There you go. Just drift gently off and let the Beatles surround you. Become you… Sorry, a bit cultish. Can’t help it.