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Feature Story

The 50 greatest rock songs of all time

3/6/2024

When you think of rock music, what songs come to mind? What tunes provide blistering beats that make you curl your lip, nod your head up and down, and pound your fist to the rhythm? Is it the shredding guitar riff or a low bass dance beat? Or are your fingers strumming, air-guitaring on your outstretched thigh to the driving tune?

Regardless of the musical hook that got you into the groove, this deep everlasting love of the music depends on the first time you experienced a rock song you wanted to listen to over and over. Once you bought the album, attended the concert or joined the fan club, you were doubly hooked. 

Maybe it was the time when the memorable beat of “Under Pressure” — dum, da da da, da da da dum dum came on the radio. Or when you strolled into a magical “Stairway to Heaven”-themed school dance and the DJ played all your favorite songs loudly and without any parents instructing you to turn it down. 

It could be dancing with your mom or grandma to “Hound Dog” or educating you about the greatest band of all time, the Beatles, while “Revolution” played in the background.   

Lyrics to songs permeate your memory, and you’re soon channeling Mick Jagger when your kids are whining for a cutting-edge toy, silently singing to yourself, “You can’t always get what you want.” 

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When getting ready for a night out on town, theme songs pumped you up. Prince says, “Let’s go crazy, let’s get nuts,” while the Rolling Stones “Start Me Up” begins the dance party in your dorm room. When you hop into your car, you’re agreeing with Sammy Hagar as you floor your accelerator to “I Can’t Drive 55.” 

Music is the only thing that can transport you back to the exact feeling when you got your driver’s license, experienced your first kiss or mourned a teenage breakup. 

As a confessed music lover, my tastes have evolved over the years. When I received a new cassette player, my sister’s friend sold me her old cassette tapes of Queen, Boston and KISS, and I pressed play, rewind and play repeatedly. “Bohemian Rhapsody” was my song. Queen, with its dramatic vocals and memorable guitar riffs, was my band. My long-time love affair with Queen is still tops nearly 50 years later.

The 1970s and 1980s classic music scene was the most influential rock era of all time, taking the Elvis and Beatles influence a step further with arena rock, edgy guitar riffs by men in tight pants and long hair, and women in two-inch bangs and skin-tight attire.

When MTV hit the airwaves in 1981, it was easier to see rock stars live. Watching our beloved singers perform 24/7 meant music lovers were exposed to the new songs.

Now, with music streaming devices, we don’t have to sit by the radio, hoping the DJ plays our favorite songs. We just ask Alexa to play our classic 1980s rock mix and, before long, we’re teasing our bangs, jamming in our kitchens to Van Halen’s “Jump.”

With all this rock music, we return to the question — what are the greatest rock songs of all time?

The staff at Big Green Umbrella (the publisher of CITYVIEW and the Iowa Living magazines) gathered in their conference room to come up with a list of the greatest rock songs.

The List

For reference, the group who contributed varied in age from a few young baby boomers to Gen X’ers, millennials and a few Gen Z’ers. Opinions varied, and we avoided searching the “best of lists” on the internet. Instead, we each came up with our own rock favorites, songs that stood the test of time. And all agreed — these songs never get old.

Among the generations, most settled on the classics, such as the Beatles, Elvis Presley, The Who and the Rolling Stones. 

As we brainstormed, we came up with what feeling was evoked when we heard the song for the first or the 100th time. Some recall their parents playing songs. Others mentioned anthem songs played during sports practices. What team didn’t sing “We are the Champions” as their victory song?

If we couldn’t think of the song, we hummed it or sang it, commenting, “Oh, yeah, I LOVE that song!”

Here’s where the tricky part came in. 

According to numerous sources, rock music was invented in the 1950s by Chuck Berry. The dictionary defines rock and roll as characterized by a heavy beat and simple melodies, based on guitar, bass and drums. Although rock music exploded, it evolved from the 1960s-1990s. 

In those eras, other music emerged. There’s folk rock such as Bob Dylan. Blues rock is influential, such as Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine.” Anthem rock ballads, like “Born in the U.S.A.” by Bruce Springsteen are special national anthems. Then there is easy listening, pop rock, disco, R&B, country, rap, hip-hop, metal, bubblegum, electronic and boyband rock. 

So, what is TRUE rock?

Although we loved songs from Madonna, Michael Jackson, The Backstreet Boys and countless others, they didn’t necessarily rock — or did they?

Should we include horn bands like Chicago or R&B bands like Earth, Wind and Fire? They didn’t seem like the definition of rock. 

Before long, we asked what we got ourselves into in trying to narrow this list down.

So, instead, we focused on music up to the 1990s. Many of the songs kept cropping up, such as those by The Who and AC/DC, which have countless rock hits. We could have easily listed the top 50 with just a couple musicians, but we decided to limit this list to just one song per band. The 1970s and 1980s gave birth to classic rock tunes. Just look around. What songs are the local cover bands playing? Hairball and other countless classic rock tribute bands are continuously performing these classic hits.

This list is in no particular order. However, since I’m the writer, I was afforded some editorial creative rein. So, I did my best to at least put my favorites toward the top of the list.

It all boils down to what songs get you pumped every time. What songs get you dancing, gyrating, singing at the top of your lungs, word for word?

  Read the list. We hear you singing along. And after you read it, we want to hear from you. Which songs should not be on here? Which ones did we miss?

Drumroll, please….

CITYVIEW is proud to present, the 50 Greatest Rock Songs Of All Time.

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