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50 Essential Rock Songs
Crank it up! These classics range from headbangers
to power ballads.

 

Fans with their arms raised at a concert

   

 

A great rock track makes your pulse quicken and your spine tingle — over and over again. I’ve learned that happy, hard-driving lesson as a longtime rock writer for magazines such as Spin and Rolling Stone. So when tasked with winnowing down roughly 65 years of soul-stirring rock songs into a list of 50 essentials, I largely went with tunes that put one’s booty in motion (with some notable exceptions). Hence the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night,” an explosive call to freedom, rather than a sonic masterpiece like “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Or the Who’s funky “I Can’t Explain” over anthems like “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” And songs like “Jump,” Van Halen’s biggest hit and a physical call to arms, and the B-52’s “Rock Lobster,” the best of a long line of rock tunes as dance adverts. This list is chronological, but rock history moves in fits and starts. Some years — like 1955 and 1978 — simply had it going on, as did the entire ’60s. Rock’s mass appeal started to dwindle by the mid-1980s as rap and electronic pop ascended, and that’s reflected here, too. And to expand the number of artists, I’m representing 50 timeless acts with a single track each (sorry Beatles, Who, Jimi, Stones, Bruce...). That made my job a lot more difficult than yours, which is simply to listen, play some air guitar, and jump.

1950s

  • “Tutti-Frutti,” Little Richard (1955)
  • “Mystery Train,” Elvis Presley (1955)
  • “Who Do You Love?,” Bo Diddley (1957)
  • “Not Fade Away,” the Crickets (1957)
  • “Great Balls of Fire,” Jerry Lee Lewis (1957)
  • “Johnny B. Goode,” Chuck Berry (1958)
  • “What’d I Say,” Ray Charles (1959)

1960s

  • “Louie Louie,” the Kingsmen (1963)
  • “Be My Baby,” the Ronettes (1963)
  • “A Hard Day’s Night,” the Beatles (1964)
  • “You Really Got Me,” the Kinks (1964)
  • “I Can’t Explain,” the Who (1964)
  • “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” the Rolling Stones (1965)
  • “Like a Rolling Stone,” Bob Dylan (1965)
  • “Good Vibrations,” the Beach Boys (1966)
  • “Over Under Sideways Down,” the Yardbirds (1966)
  • “I’m Waiting for the Man,” the Velvet Underground (1967)
  • “Sunshine of Your Love,” Cream (1967)
  • “All Along the Watchtower,” the Jimi Hendrix Experience (1968)
  • “Piece of My Heart,” Big Brother and the Holding Company (1968)
  • “Fortunate Son,” Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969)

1970s

  • “Maggie May,” Rod Stewart (1971)
  • “Stairway to Heaven,” Led Zeppelin (1971)
  • “Diamond Dogs,” David Bowie (1974)
  • “Thunder Road,” Bruce Springsteen (1975)
  • “Gloria,” Patti Smith (1975)
  • “Cherry Bomb,” the Runaways (1976)
  • “Like a Hurricane,” Neil Young (1977)
  • “Barracuda,” Heart (1977)
  • “I Wanna Be Sedated,” the Ramones (1978)
  • “Surrender,” Cheap Trick (1978)
  • “Rock Lobster,” the B-52s (1978)
  • “London Calling,” the Clash (1979)

1980s

  • “Ace of Spades,” Motörhead (1980)
  • “Crosseyed and Painless,” Talking Heads (1980)
  • “Back in Black,” AC/DC (1980)
  • “1999,” Prince (1982)
  • “Beyond Belief,” Elvis Costello (1982)
  • “Jump,” Van Halen (1984)
  • "Teenage Riot," Sonic Youth (1988)

1990s

  • “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Nirvana (1991)
  • “Tender,” Blur (1999)

2000s

  • “Last Nite,” the Strokes (2001)
  • “Seven Nation Army,” the White Stripes (2003)
  • “American Idiot,” Green Day (2004)
  • “Time to Pretend,” MGMT (2008)
  • “Lonely Boy,” the Black Keys (2011)
  • “Hold On,” Alabama Shakes (2012)
  • “Love It If We Made It,” The 1975 (2018)

—Richard Gehr

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