SMX presents The Top 100 Classic Rock Songs

SinisterMinisterX

Illuminatus
Staff member
Many classic rock radio stations put together a "top 500" list, and count it down over the air once a year or so (usually on a holiday weekend). Some of these stations put their list on the web. I have tracked down 13 such lists so far and analyzed the results.

The reason I use radio lists: my intention was to find the most popular classic rock songs, not the "best". Remember that "best" is a matter of personal opinion, and the only reliable indication of the consensus is popularity, for better or worse.

Radio stations use playlists that their local listeners like. If the radio station is staying in business, we can assume their top 500 list is based on local popularity.

Thus, I did not include lists by critics, such as the notorious Rolling Stone top 500. Also, I excluded any list that cast too wide a net. I'm looking for the mainstream of "classic" rock that fans love, which means mostly hard rocking music. Any list which included Aretha Franklin's "Respect" was disqualified. That's a great song, but a soul song, not rock. My "No respect for Respect" rule made sure that all the top 500 lists I used were judging (more or less) the same group of songs, since any list with "Respect" also had many more non-rock songs.

Yet, the definition of "classic rock" varies. To qualify, the radio station had to describe themselves as classic rock, but there is still a wide spectrum. A few lists (4, I think) had a stronger focus on the metal side, naming plenty of Metallica, Van Halen, Ozzy and Maiden songs. (Yes, Maiden!) But most of the lists only got as far as AC/DC.

Out of these 13 top 500 lists, I only used the top 100 from each list. (I wanted a top 500 source to make sure the top 100 was, hopefully, well-considered.) There are 114 songs that were named on 4 or more lists, so my top 100 is drawn from those.

To see the influence of those metal-influenced lists, here are the top 20 songs with only 2 or 3 votes...
1. One (Metallica, not U2)
2. Nothing Else Matters
3. Child In Time
4. Thunder Road
5. Enter Sandman
6. Piano Man
7. Welcome To The Jungle
8. November Rain
9. You Really Got Me (Van Halen, not Kinks)
10. Paradise By The Dashboard Light
11. Stargazer
12. The Number Of The Beast
13. Runnin' With The Devil
14. Ace Of Spades
15. Whole Lotta Rosie
16. Don't Stop Believin'
17. Run To The Hills
18. Bat Out Of Hell
19. Knockin' On Heaven's Door (Bob Dylan, not GnR)
20. Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)

Without further ado, the countdown begins.

#100. The Kinks, "Lola"
The Kinks are the runt of the British Invasion. It's tough to make a mark when your contemporaries are the Beatles, Stones and Who. Nonetheless, Ray Davies cranked out a string of seventeen UK top 20 singles (5 of those made the US top 10). "You Really Got Me" from August 1964 was the birth of riff-based hard rock. "Lola" is best remembered for its gender-bending lyrics... "I'm glad I'm a man and so is Lola" can mean at least two different things.

#99. Blue Oyster Cult, "(Don't Fear) The Reaper"
There are some songs on this list which I think have been boosted by recent popularity, and the "more cowbell" skit might have had some impact here. But I don't think it's much, as I recall this song being a radio staple way back in the 80s. BOC started as one of the early metal bands. Their first 3 albums were as heavy as anything else out there save Sabbath. Reaper was their first big hit as their sound went slightly toward the mainstream, though BOC never stopped being a hard rock band.

#98. Jimi Hendrix, "Foxey Lady"
This live video well demonstrates the raw power of this song, completely unheard when it first came out in 1967. Jimi's abilities on guitar and the effect he had on rock music are well documented, but it's just as important to note that he was one with his instrument. His full personality is there whether picking or singing, and few people can truly do that. Also note that this clip is outdoors, and windy. Jimi loved that. He loved outdoor gigs, and he loved wild weather for them. He called it "Sky Church", as opposed to his indoor shows which he called "Electric Church".

#97. The Rolling Stones, "Angie"
A great Stones ballad, though I was surprised it ranked higher than "Wild Horses". The song is named after Keith Richards' daughter, then recently born. This comes from my favorite era of the stones, the Mick Taylor years. Taylor is the best guitarist the Stones ever had, but after 4 albums he couldn't get along with Richards anymore and split.

#96. Queen, "Another One Bites The Dust"
For all their 70s success, it took this song for Queen to finally get a US #1 single. I've seen some people say that this song did so well because it had a good dance beat, but I'd like to think it's Freddie's vocal performance. The video I linked is live, but if you care to look up the studio version, check out 2:20... at 2:28 it officially becomes Epic.

Next installment: #95-91, including the first appearance of the two bands with the most entries.
 

Shadow

Deluxe Edition
Staff member
What kind of formula did you use to calculate the results?


I'd have expected "Lola" to be higher. It's one of those songs literally everyone knows (although I guess that goes for most of the songs on those lists).
 

valacirca

Trooper
SinisterMinisterX said:
the first appearance of the two bands with the most entries.
Hm. I'm a bit surprised that The Rolling Stones aren't one of the two bands with the most entries. In any case, I can't help but take a guess:

If The Beatles are considered "classic rock" (although personally I think they shouldn't) then them and Led Zeppelin. If not, I'm guessing LZ and Pink Floyd.
 

Deano

Ancient Mariner
Yeah, I'm a bit surprised that the Stones wouldn't be one of the two; the way American radio is however, I figure Clapton must be one of them.
 

valacirca

Trooper
Shadow said:
I associate them more with the more melodic and playful Pop Rock label (Beach Boys, The Kinks, David Bowie, The Zombies, The Byrds) than the more bluesy and edgy Classic Rock label (Rolling Stones, The Doors, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, The Who).
 

Onhell

Infinite Dreamer
I agree with Val. The Beatles are still plain "Rock." Sure they innovated a lot, but still good ol' rock. "Classic" rock stations, as mentioned by SMX, I've noticed mostly play stuff from the 70's and some early 80's, and I rarely if ever hear the beatles on said stations.

I'm really looking forward to the rest of the list. Great project SMX!
 

SinisterMinisterX

Illuminatus
Staff member
Shadow said:
What kind of formula did you use to calculate the results?

I'd have expected "Lola" to be higher. It's one of those songs literally everyone knows (although I guess that goes for most of the songs on those lists).

I took the top 100 from each of the top-500 lists. #1 got 100 points, #2 got 99 ... down to #1 got 1 point. Then, just add 'em up.

And you're right: everyone should know every song on this list. The youtube links are for the few who don't. And because I like finding those live videos. :bigsmile:

As to the Beatles: most classic rock stations do call them classic rock, but the focus is usually on the later Beatles songs, not the earlier poppy stuff.

Deano said:
I figure Clapton must be one of them.

Clapton's output is split between several band names: Cream, Derek & The Dominoes, solo material. So while Clapton makes several appearances, they don't get counted together.

valacirca said:
I can't help but take a guess: ... The Beatles ... and Led Zeppelin.

Correct! Here's the bands who had 10 or more different songs named in the 13 top-100s I added up:
Beatles - 22
Led Zeppelin - 20
Rolling Stones - 17
Pink Floyd - 13
AC/DC - 11
(Not all of those songs made my top 100, of course.)

I also discovered that I made a slight error. Zep has the most songs in my countdown - 8. I thought the Beatles also had 8, but it's only 7. Also 7 songs: Stones and Floyd.

On we go!

#95. Led Zeppelin, Immigrant Song
It annoys me to no end when I hear someone call Zeppelin "heavy metal" or even "early heavy metal". Zeppelin had very diverse songs, and are best called "rock" simply because there's no other term to encompass what they did. (Another band in the same situation: Queen.) But there are a handful of Zep songs which qualify as "early heavy metal", even if Zep as a band does not. "Immigrant Song" is the heaviest Zep ever got, and this song had a big impact on the then-just-developing genre of metal.

#94. The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band / With A Little Help From My Friends
The youtube is the recently (2009) remastered audio. The Beatles stopped touring in 1966, less than a month after releasing Revolver. Thus Sgt. Pepper was the first album they made without any need to reproduce the music live. Coupled with their mid-60s lifestyle -- McCartney has described it as "smoking dope for breakfast" -- the band let the music go wherever their imaginations could fly. There's a famous story about this song. In England, Sgt. Pepper was released on a Friday. That Sunday night - less than 72 hours later -- the Beatles went to see Hendrix live, and he was already covering this song.

#93. Van Morrison, Brown Eyed Girl
The link is Van Morrison lip-syncing to the original record on American Bandstand, and he doesn't look happy about it. I chose it because it shows Van as he looked back then. Having first made his name with Them (and their hit "Gloria"), Van went solo and ultimately chose a different direction, moving away from pop and toward jazz and folk. This remains his biggest hit. It's a song many bar bands know, as it always gets a dance floor hopping.

#92. Deep Purple, Highway Star
I first saw this on youtube a couple of years ago, and immediately ran out and bought the DVD. If you're a Purple fan who hasn't also done so, you need to get this video now. Filmed in Copenhagen at the start of the Machine Head tour, it's interesting to compare the concert to Made In Japan from the end of the tour. That also means this video is one of the first performances ever of "Highway Star".

#91. Rush, The Spirit Of Radio
1978: Rush creates "La Villa Strangiato" and finally burn themselves out on long epics. 1980: Their next album started towards more concise songwriting, and this leadoff track became their biggest hit yet. A Rush-fanatic friend has told me that "The Spirit Of Radio" is the only song Rush has played at every show since it came out. I certainly hope everyone knows where the "words of the profits ... sounds of salesmen" section came from.
 

Travis The Dragon

"I sell shower curtian rings. BEST in the world."
I thought Tom Sawyer was Rush's biggest hit and I don't think they ever dropped that one from their live shows either.
 

Shadow

Deluxe Edition
Staff member
SinisterMinisterX said:
#94. The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band / With A Little Help From My Friends
The youtube is the recently (2009) remastered audio. The Beatles stopped touring in 1966, less than a month after releasing Revolver. Thus Sgt. Pepper was the first album they made without any need to reproduce the music live. Coupled with their mid-60s lifestyle -- McCartney has described it as "smoking dope for breakfast" -- the band let the music go wherever their imaginations could fly. There's a famous story about this song. In England, Sgt. Pepper was released on a Friday. That Sunday night - less than 72 hours later -- the Beatles went to see Hendrix live, and he was already covering this song.

I'm always a bit surprised when this combination shows up on lists like these. I've always thought of "Sgt. Pepper..." as an intro rather than proper song and "With a Little Help from My Friends" as a fun piece to start things off, not as one of the greatest rock songs ever. The really great stuff doesn't start until Lennon asks us to picture ourselves in a boat on a river. And after that, it just keeps on getting better.

Well, it goes to show what I know about classic rock radio ;)
 

Perun

After the war?
Staff member
SinisterMinisterX said:
#100. The Kinks, "Lola"
The Kinks are the runt of the British Invasion. It's tough to make a mark when your contemporaries are the Beatles, Stones and Who. Nonetheless, Ray Davies cranked out a string of seventeen UK top 20 singles (5 of those made the US top 10). "You Really Got Me" from August 1964 was the birth of riff-based hard rock. "Lola" is best remembered for its gender-bending lyrics... "I'm glad I'm a man and so is Lola" can mean at least two different things.

Yeah, this is one of those songs that of course I knew, but couldn't associate with anyone. I think it got some popularity boost recently due being featured on that Coca Cola commercial where some random bloke is caught on video singing it, and it turned into a viral internet hit. To be honest, I think that ad is more noteable than the song, because it really captures the zeitgeist of our age.

#99. Blue Oyster Cult, "(Don't Fear) The Reaper"
There are some songs on this list which I think have been boosted by recent popularity, and the "more cowbell" skit might have had some impact here. But I don't think it's much, as I recall this song being a radio staple way back in the 80s. BOC started as one of the early metal bands. Their first 3 albums were as heavy as anything else out there save Sabbath. Reaper was their first big hit as their sound went slightly toward the mainstream, though BOC never stopped being a hard rock band.

I love the cowbell skit, but this song is nevertheless way beyond that. The skit is actually fairly well-known even in Germany, although of course we don't have SNL here (there used to be a great copy back in the mid-nineties, but it lasted only a few years. Everybody remembers it fondly, though). Still, I don't think there was a great popularity boost due to the skit. The song was already quite popular before, and I heard it on the radio dozens of times.


#97. The Rolling Stones, "Angie"
A great Stones ballad, though I was surprised it ranked higher than "Wild Horses". The song is named after Keith Richards' daughter, then recently born. This comes from my favorite era of the stones, the Mick Taylor years. Taylor is the best guitarist the Stones ever had, but after 4 albums he couldn't get along with Richards anymore and split.

The Stones played it when I saw them in Berlin in '06, and it was a great experience, the crowd was quite into it. Mick introduced it as "this is a song about a German madel" (in German), and of course he was referring to Angela Merkel, who is nicknamed Angie. She wanted to use the song in some of her campaign rallies, but the Stones did not allow it, preferring to remain unpolitical. The more subtle media pointed out the satirical value of the song, with lines such as where will it lead us from here or with no loving in our souls and no money in our coats. After five years of Angie's chancellorship, the song is however a tragically accurate statement.
Also, there is a quite funny parodic cover of this song by German fun metal band, JBO:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7kROWoT9OF8

As a song, I prefer Wild Horses myself, too.

#96. Queen, "Another One Bites The Dust"
For all their 70s success, it took this song for Queen to finally get a US #1 single. I've seen some people say that this song did so well because it had a good dance beat, but I'd like to think it's Freddie's vocal performance. The video I linked is live, but if you care to look up the studio version, check out 2:20... at 2:28 it officially becomes Epic.

This is one of those songs that I love and hate at the same time. It's a great song and a terrible one. I don't want anyone to associate Queen with this, but let's face it, it is also one of their best songs.

#94. The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band / With A Little Help From My Friends
The youtube is the recently (2009) remastered audio. The Beatles stopped touring in 1966, less than a month after releasing Revolver. Thus Sgt. Pepper was the first album they made without any need to reproduce the music live. Coupled with their mid-60s lifestyle -- McCartney has described it as "smoking dope for breakfast" -- the band let the music go wherever their imaginations could fly. There's a famous story about this song. In England, Sgt. Pepper was released on a Friday. That Sunday night - less than 72 hours later -- the Beatles went to see Hendrix live, and he was already covering this song.

Mention of Sgt. Pepper the song as a classic is proof to me that people will buy anything by the Beatles. I think it's a pretty messy piece of music that only works as an intro to the album. With a Little Help from my Friends is a good song, but it was done much more poignant and memorable by Joe Cocker.
 

Forostar

Ancient Mariner
I wonder if the Golden Earring is still played in the US.
The Twilight Zone, Radar Love... Some mighty (radio) rock songs.
 

Wästed The Great

Minister Of Chicks, Metal&Beer; Cool & Froody Dude
Staff member
I hear both of those songs almost weekly!

Great list SMX!! Thanks for taking the time to make this one up!
 

Mosh

Winner of the 2020 Dumbest Comment Ever Award
Staff member
Forostar said:
I wonder if the Golden Earring is still played in the US.
The Twilight Zone, Radar Love... Some mighty (radio) rock songs.
yup. especially the former
 

SinisterMinisterX

Illuminatus
Staff member
No, they won't.

Golden Earring (both of those songs) were mentioned in a few of my source lists, but didn't make the top 100.

The next installment will come late tonight (tomorrow, for those in Europe). :bigsmile:
 

Genghis Khan

Ancient Mariner
This is interesting.  Usually I don't care for such compilations, but since you're putting so much effort into it, I'm rather curious what the overall popularity of some of the songs I really like may be (or how few will even make it).
 

Onhell

Infinite Dreamer
Perun said:
Mention of Sgt. Pepper the song as a classic is proof to me that people will buy anything by the Beatles. I think it's a pretty messy piece of music that only works as an intro to the album. With a Little Help from my Friends is a good song, but it was done much more poignant and memorable by Joe Cocker.

The beginning of awesome, drugged out Beatles... nuff said. Also, it's number #94, so it's cool, were it higher on the list I'd agree with you whole-heartedly.
 

valacirca

Trooper
Considering the Beatles have 7 songs in the countdown, I'm very surprised that that song made it to #94. If there were 7 Beatles songs to be considered as classic rock tunes, I wouldn't have even considered SPLHCB/WaLHfMF... My guess for the remaining six would be: A Day In The Life, Strawberry Fields Forever, In My Life, Penny Lane, Something & Hey Jude.

Although personally, I would love to see songs like I Am The Walrus, Tomorrow Never Knows, For No One, Dear Prudence, Happiness Is A Warm Gun & While My Guitar Gently Weeps make the countdown.

(omg I almost forgot how many amazing songs The Beatles have...)
 

SinisterMinisterX

Illuminatus
Staff member
#90. The Police, "Every Breath You Take"
Sting has claimed that as soon as he finished writing this song, he knew he'd written a #1 hit. While 1983 was the year ruled by Thriller, this was the song that actually spent the most time at US #1 that year (8 weeks). Sting wrote the chords and lyrics, but Andy Summers came up with those guitar arpeggios which gave the song its "thick and creamy" sound (quote and info from a Sting interview).

#89. Jimi Hendrix, "Hey Joe"
This was first recorded by an obscure garage band called The Leaves, and that remains their only claim to fame. "Hey Joe" was the debut single for the Jimi Hendrix Experience, displaying Jimi's skills within the context of a "normal" song ... before he unleashed his own songs like "Purple Haze" on an unsuspecting public. The chords are simple (C G D A E), and Jimi's magic is all in the execution - a challenge that every garage band since has tried to live up to.

#88. Bachman-Turner Overdrive, "Takin' Care Of Business"
I've never liked this song much. I guess people with the kind of 9-to-5 jobs referred to in the lyrics are happy to hear something they can relate to, so they like it. Even if I don't like it, I have played this song live in bars, and it's another guaranteed crowd-pleaser. Some years ago, Randy Bachman got in the Guinness Book of Records for leading the largest rock band ever assembled, when he got a thousand people to bring their guitars and play along with this song. (Not hard at all, it's the same three chords over and over and over and over and over...)

#87. Elton John, "Tiny Dancer"
Here's another song that I suspect has been boosted by (relatively) recent popularity - specifically, the bus scene in Almost Famous. By what I've heard, the airplay for "Tiny Dancer" went up astronomically after that movie came out, and hasn't gone down much since. I was never a huge fan of this song, but the video linked above is a superb performance; John's strength was always his live performances, and this does not disappoint. Now if only classic rock radio gave more airtime to "Funeral For A Friend / Love Lies Bleeding", which is beyond amazing but didn't make the countdown.

#86. The Guess Who, "No Sugar Tonight / New Mother Nature"
This the best I could do for a live video: the Guess Who in 2001, on acoustic guitars, with 2 band members looking like they ate their 1970 selves. (How does he even reach his drums?) Still a good performance, although it sounds like they dropped the key to suit their aging voices. What makes this song magical for me is the final verse, when the two sets of lyrics are sung together. It shows the care these guys put into song construction, even while sticking to the three-chords-and-the-truth format.

Coming in the next installment...
A solo Beatle.
A song that radio stations play when it rains.
A cover song, where most people have never heard the original.
One of the elements.
That song with the bizarre spoken bit at the end.
 
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