I’ve been wanting to make a list like this for quite some time. Obviously, nobody will agree on a list like this, but here’s my take.
I am not judging songs by how much I like them. I am judging them on several different characteristics: dynamics, lyrics, meaning, overall talent, sound, etc.
Because of this, some extremely famous songs will not be included due to a lack of meaning or seriousness behind the lyrics among other reasons. Hit songs and iconic songs are two different things.
50. Counting Blue Cars – Dishwalla
An absolute hidden gem of a song checks in at No. 50 on the list. 1995’s Counting Blue Cars by one-hit wonder Dishwalla is a unique but simple work of art. It looks at the bigger meaning of life through an ordinary walk down the street and poses the question that God could be…a girl? Genius.
49. Wonderwall – Oasis
Noel Gallagher, the lead singer of Oasis, said in 1996 that this song was written for his then-girlfriend. This would make sense as it has all the makings of a classic love song with a little extra tossed in – the lyrics are so simple on the surface but, in truth, carry so much emotion and meaning with them.
However, after Gallagher divorced the girl, he stated that the song was written about an imaginary friend.
48. Listen to the Music – The Doobie Brothers
Another case of simple lyrics and great vocal chords going a long way. Tom Johnston of the appropriately-named Doobie Brothers actually wrote this song as a cry for world peace, saying that the world would be a better place “if the leaders of the world got together on some grassy hill somewhere and either smoked enough dope or just sat down and just listened to the music…the world would be a much better place.”
47. Baba O’Riley – The Who
The dramatic intro of this song may be it’s most memorable component, but it’s title causes some uniqueness as well, as plenty of people incorrectly refer to it as “Teenage Wasteland”. It is, however, written about a “teenage wasteland” that occurred two years before its 1971 release: Woodstock.
46. Maggie May – Rod Stewart
Only Rod Stewart’s voice could have given this song the aura it has when it comes on the radio. The lyrics themselves may not be anything spectacular, but the vocals and mandolin section give it enough uniqueness to still sound fresh on radio stations nearly 35 years after its release.
45. Sister Christian – Night Ranger
Great harmonies and a striking chorus are the focus of Night Ranger’s 1984 hit. The song was written and sung by Night Ranger drummer Kelly Keagy about how he was amazed at how fast his younger sister was growing up.
44. Free Fallin’ – Tom Petty
A song filled with lyrical and musical genius, Tom Petty wrote this iconic 80’s ballad about a young girl he dated before reaching stardom.
43. Dream On – Aerosmith
An extremely dramatic song by a band known for loud rock anthems, Aerosmith’s “Dream On” is a classic case of a song that continues to build toward a climactic ending. Notice how Steven Tyler’s voice sounds different than in other Aerosmith songs – he says that this is the only cut from the band’s debut album in which he used his “normal” voice. He was insecure about how it sounded.
42. Pink Houses – John Mellencamp
A classic anthem about life in America’s small towns, “Pink Houses” is one of the most famous songs by Mellencamp, who is no stranger to the airwaves.
41. Come Together – The Beatles
Originally intended to be the campaign song for Timothy Leary, who was running against Ronald Reagan to be the governor of California, “Come Together” is one of the most catchy songs out there. The lyrics are outlandish and confusing, but there are rumors that each verse describes a different Beatle.
40. Sympathy for the Devil – Rolling Stones
The Stones created a catchy song with some great guitar licks when they decided to make a rather unorthodox piece of music in “Sympathy for the Devil.” Lead singer Mick Jagger sings the song as a first-person view from the Devil himself
39. Fortunate Son – Creedence Clearwater Revival
CCR made a statement with this 1969 anthem, denouncing war and how it benefits only the rich, who do not lose anything of value to themselves in it. It fit perfectly with the Vietnam era in the late-60’s.
38. You Can Call Me Al – Paul Simon
Any music video featuring Chevy Chase is a winner, right? Paul Simon’s upbeat-in-sound but depressing-in-meaning tune from his Graceland album is about a man having a mid-life crisis.
37. Purple Haze – The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Jimi Hendrix helped shape the soundtrack of the late-60’s with this guitar-driven masterpiece. While Hendrix insisted that it was somewhat of a love song, some of the lyrics suggest that it has to do with a psychedelic drug experience.
36. Bohemian Rhapsody – Queen
The vocals of the incredible Freddie Mercury and a haunting piano riff drive this unorthodox song about a man who ended up in jail after a murder – until Brian May delivers a solid guitar solo and the song spirals into complete mayhem.
35. Comfortably Numb – Pink Floyd
Some of the lyrics have to do with guitarist and partial vocalist David Gilmour being sick as a kid, some have to do with vocalist Roger Waters playing the role of a twisted doctor and some clearly have to do with heroin use; however, the main theme of the song about a man becoming numb to any emotion.
In the end, it is not the lyrics that make this an iconic song but rather the two incredible guitar solos, the latter of which regarded by many as the best of all-time.
34. Wake Me Up When September Ends – Green Day
Yes, Green Day is on this list. Hear me out.
If this song were written at a time when rock was more popular, it would have been an absolute hit (even though it kind of was already a hit when it came out in 2004).
Billy Joe Armstrong wrote this emotionally-moving song about the death of his father, but it took on a new meaning when the band decided to dedicate it to the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
33. The House of the Rising Sun – The Animals
Originally written as a folk song, The Animals turned “The House of the Rising Sun” into one of the world’s first folk-rock tunes with a terrific guitar chord progression and great vocals from Eric Burdon.
32. Jump – Van Halen
Inspired by a TV news report of a man threatening suicide by jumping off of a building, “Jump” was actually written as an invitation to a relationship. Eddie Van Halen’s unique guitar style, David Lee Roth’s vocals and the trademark synth keyboard gave this song a sound that only Van Halen could produce.
31. Tuesday’s Gone – Lynyrd Skynyrd
A southern-rock ballad about a breakup. Creative lyrics, Ronnie Van Zant’s emotional vocals and Billy Powell’s piano solo – possibly the greatest in rock history – all come together to form an absolute masterpiece.
30. Brown Eyed Girl – Van Morrison
I dare you to find anyone who doesn’t like Van Morrison’s classic, upbeat, catchy, old-fashioned love song. There’s a reason it has remained a radio staple for nearly half a century.
29. Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana
One of the hardest songs on the list, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was named after a brand of girls’ deodorant and the lyrics make little, if any, sense. Nonetheless, Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic of Nirvana changed rock music and defined an entire generation with a memorable guitar riff and a new genre (soft verses, loud chorus) of music known as grunge.
28. Gimme Shelter – Rolling Stones
Although the Vietnam War may be viewed as a dark period in the history of the world, it did cause some great music to be created. This song by the Stones is about the war and how the world seemed to be collapsing upon everyone.
27. Mrs. Robinson – Simon and Garfunkel
This song was not, in fact, written about anyone named Mrs. Robinson; Simon and Garfunkel just thought the name fit well in the chorus. It became famous for being featured in the film The Graduate and was also the first song played in Simon and Garfunkel’s famous 1981 reunion concert in Central Park.
26. Have You Ever Seen the Rain? – Creedence Clearwater Revival
Creedence Clearwater Revival wrote this song as a metaphor for the unexpected pains of fame. Rain on a sunny day was used in comparison to how the band members were unhappy with their lives despite being rich and famous.
25. Wish You Were Here – Pink Floyd
A ballad about former Pink Floyd frontman Syd Barrett, who had to leave the group due to a serious mental breakdown as a result from drug abuse. Deep lyrics and a haunting guitar are enough to invoke strong emotions from anyone who misses someone else.
24. Back in Black – AC/DC
Just because a hard rock song has an instantly-recognizable heavy guitar riff and screeching vocals doesn’t mean it can’t have a deep meaning behind the lyrics. AC/DC’s biggest hit, sung by new lead singer Brian Johnson, was written about former lead singer Bon Scott, who had died from alcohol poisoning.
23. You Can’t Always Get What You Want – Rolling Stones
The way this power ballad is structured is a work of absolute brilliance. In fact, it may be the greatest display of lyrical genius ever created. The three verses were each written about the three themes of the 1960s: love, politics and drugs. Released in July 1969, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” was the perfect goodbye song to one of the wildest decades in history.
22. American Pie – Don McLean
One of the most recognizable songs of all time, McLean wrote “American Pie” about the devastating plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P.”The Big Bopper” Richardson as well as his vision of American life declining.
21. Piano Man – Billy Joel
Billy Joel takes something as simple as being a lounge singer and turns it into a reflection on the life stories of people from different backgrounds with this dramatic piano and harmonica-driven ballad.
20. Sweet Caroline – Neil Diamond
An instantly-recognizable song that is nearly impossible not to sing along to when it is played either on the radio or at a sporting event. Neil Diamond’s inspiration for the song actually came from a picture he saw of John F. Kennedy’s daughter – who was only 11 years old when it was written.
19. Sweet Home Alabama – Lynyrd Skynyrd
A response to two Neil Young songs that condemned the South (“Alabama” and “Southern Man”), “Sweet Home Alabama” has become the unofficial anthem of the United States. Young has come around to enjoying the song, saying he deserved the criticism.
18. Like a Rolling Stone – Bob Dylan
An iconic organ riff and lyrics about trying to put oneself in the shoes of someone less fortunate caused this ballad to be named the greatest song of all-time by Rolling Stone magazine. It’s a little lower on this list, but still an absolute classic.
17. Strawberry Fields Forever – The Beatles
John Lennon regarded this song as his favorite creation. It was inspired by picnics he would have in the garden behind a Salvation Army children’s home near his house as a child, named Strawberry Field.
16. (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay – Otis Redding
Otis Redding’s fantastic lyrics and vocals created one of the more relaxing songs in rock, written about sitting on the dock and thinking about life. Redding’s whistling verse adds a unique twist unlike any other classic rock song.
15. For What It’s Worth – Buffalo Springfield
While some mistake this song to be about war (particularly the Vietnam War), it was actually written by Stephen Stills about the Sunset Strip riots he witnessed in 1966. The riots were caused because the new 10pm curfew law was being strictly enforced, and plenty of demonstrators did not agree with it.
14. Born to Run – Bruce Springsteen
“Born to Run” was written as Bruce Springsteen’s last-ditch effort to hit it off big time as an artist. It’s pretty safe to say that it worked. The song itself takes a first-person view of a motorcycle rider who is in love with a woman but doesn’t have the time or patience to be a part of such a large commitment.
13. Layla – Derek and the Dominos
An epic guitar riff drives this story of Eric Clapton’s love for George Harrison’s then-wife, Pattie Boyd, whom he eventually married and then divorced after 11 years. Aside from the passionate lyrics and excellent guitar work, the song transitions dramatically into an iconic piano riff.
12. Livin’ on a Prayer’ – Bon Jovi
The chorus of Bon Jovi’s song about a working-class couple trying to make it through a tough economic situation has made it a rock anthem sung on all sorts of occasions. It is one of the defining songs of the 1980s and has been well-received across the music universe.
11. Go Your Own Way – Fleetwood Mac
Unlike any other song on this list, “Go Your Own Way” was written about the failing romantic relationship between two band members: Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham. Despite the conflict and tension within the group, Fleetwood Mac was still able to create an absolute hit that highlighted the band members’ struggles.
10. All Along the Watchtower – The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Bob Dylan’s original version of this song is regarded by some to be the best, but Hendrix’s gets my vote. The epic guitar solos, including one that is broken up into four different parts, showcase Hendrix’s superhuman skills with the axe better than arguably any other song of his.
9. Tiny Dancer – Elton John
Elton John showcases his skills as one of the greatest pianists of all-time in this epic ballad written by Bernie Taupin about women in California.
8. Let It Be – The Beatles
Another terrific ballad by the Beatles, this one written about McCartney visiting his mother, who died when he was just 14 years old, in a dream. The lyrics are very touching, as in the dream, McCartney’s mother told him that everything “would be alright, just let it be.”
7. Hotel California – Eagles
An epic, guitar-driven, surrealistic masterpiece that metaphorically tells a story of someone from a small town reaching fame in Hollywood. The song, including the famous chorus, all lead up to one of the greatest guitar solos – or duets – in the history of rock, played by Don Felder and Joe Walsh.
6. Don’t Stop Believin’ – Journey
Maybe it’s clichéd, maybe it’s overplayed, but for good reason. Steve Perry may be the greatest vocalist in music history and this song sends out the empowering message of never losing faith.
5. Hey Jude – The Beatles
Out of all the great songs written by the Beatles, this may be the best. Paul McCartney sings a story to John Lennon’s son, Julian, to help him feel better after finding out that his parents, Lennon and Cynthia Powell, were getting divorced. The “Na Na Na” outro of the song may be the most famous section of any Beatles song.
4. One – U2
U2’s only appearance on this list comes in the form of their 1992 ballad, regarded by many as the greatest song of the 1990s with only the aforementioned “Smells Like Teen Spirit” offering any competition. It was written about dysfunction within the band, but also takes on the message of supporting your fellow human beings.
3. Imagine – John Lennon
There’s not much more to this song other than a piano and Lennon’s voice – which is part of the reason why it is so great. The message of the song is simple, but one that it seems like so many have forgotten to follow.
2. Stairway to Heaven – Led Zeppelin
Many have referred to “Stairway” as the greatest song of all-time. It carries a hidden meaning that money can’t buy happiness, but is different from other songs in the sense that it continues to speed up. The drums do not make an entrance until more than halfway through the song, which is driven by several different guitar riffs. The song then transitions into a guitar fanfare, which then leads into one of the greatest and most majestic guitar solos in rock history, followed by a series of screamed lyrics by lead singer Robert Plant.
1. Free Bird – Lynyrd Skynyrd
Only the name of one song is guaranteed to be shouted at just about every concert that occurs…this one. And rightfully so.
Like “Stairway”, “Free Bird” starts off as somewhat of a ballad and leads into absolute insanity: a four-and-a-half minute, face-melting guitar solo performed by Allen Collins.
The first half of the song is highlighted by a slide guitar and frontman Ronnie Van Zant singing ironically prophetic lyrics about leaving and being free. Van Zant, as well as other members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, were killed in a plane crash in 1977. Van Zant was only 28 years old.
Also, the intro was written by a roadie named Billy Powell, who the band hired as a full-time pianist because of it. Powell then became one of rock’s greatest pianists and added a signature piano sound to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s arsenal.
The song opens with Van Zant singing the line, “If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?”
Clearly, almost 40 years after Van Zant’s death, he and the other bandmates of Lynyrd Skynyrd who have passed on are fondly and vividly remembered.