It is one of the tenets of my life that anything someone else can do well, I can do poorly, so awhile back when Kembrew McLeod posted his list of the 50 best rock songs for Rolling Stone, I thought, “Well, that would be a fun pandemic exercise!”
In my bizarre and varied freelance writing career, I have written about all sorts of subjects for which I have no qualifications (to wit: I started out writing art reviews), but I have never written about music (at least not for pay or whuffie). But, as I said, I thought it would be a diverting challenge to come up with my list of the 50 best rock songs of all time. Lists are impossible, and they provoke arguments, first and foremost with the list maker. (Why are there no R.E.M. songs on this list, I find myself asking? I love them; I think they are a fantastic band. My ultimate answer was that, despite my love of them, I think of them as an album band, not a song band. I rarely want to hear a single R.E.M. song—I want to sit down and listen to all of Document or Lifes Rich Pageant or Automatic for the People.)
In compiling this list, I used the following criteria, more or less:
- No matter how overplayed the song, is it one that would make me happy if I heard it come on at the grocery store? (Mind you, some of these will never come on at the grocery store.)
- Does it fit one (or more) of the Great Themes of Rock and Roll? Namely,
- My baby’s gone
- I gotta get out of this place
- Fuck the man
- Celebrate good times
- Is it a song that I like in most or all versions? Though this list contains both originals and covers, I tried to avoid songs that I only like in one particular recording and despise in all other versions or covers.
- Does is it break any or all of those guidelines? Cool. This is rock and roll, man.
As this is my list, it’s high on folk rock and low on a lot of other sub genres and related genres. I was feeling bad about that, but then that’s why other people exist, because none of us can cover everything.
And thus, without further ado, the list, in chronological order of the year of release.
Laura’s Top 50 Rock Songs (as of this moment)
Here’s a Spotify playlist of most of the stuff on the list—see the note about Garth Brooks below.
Folsom Prison Blues—Johnny Cash (There probably should have been a category just for train songs… don’t worry, there are more coming.)
Johnny B. Goode—Chuck Berry
La Bamba—Ritchie Valens
Will You Love Me Tomorrow?—the Shirelles (written by Carole King—I love her version, too, but I wanted some girl group representation)
Dink’s Song—Dave Van Ronk (arguably not a rock song, but Van Ronk had such a huge influence everyone who passed through the folk scene in NYC, and his guitar work and growl presage a lot of later rock)
Like a Rolling Stone—Bob Dylan (really, I could just make an entirely Dylan playlist, but you’d all hate me—I made an obvious choice for reasons of historical significance and because, well, it is a great song)
Ticket to Ride—the Beatles (Lacking any better criteria for choosing a Beatles song, I went with my son’s favorite. It is not only his favorite Beatles song; it’s his favorite song in the world.)
Good Vibrations—the Beach Boys
I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to Be Free—Nina Simone
Sympathy for the Devil—Rolling Stones
Piece of My Heart—Big Brother and the Holding Company
The Star-Spangled Banner—Jimi Hendrix (I know, I know, it’s the national anthem, not a rock and roll song—until Jimi Hendrix plays it. Then it becomes one of the virtuoso performances of all time and the only version of the song I like.)
Sweet Jane—the Velvet Underground (I went back and forth between this and Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” settling on “Sweet Jane” for its stunning cover by the Cowboy Junkies and for how often Jane comes up in rock and roll.)
City of New Orleans—Steve Goodman (Steve Goodman wrote it; Arlo Guthrie did probably the best recording of it. Did I mention there were more train songs coming?)
Rocket Man—Elton John
I Can See Clearly Now—Johnny Nash
Lean on Me—Bill Withers (In the category of overplayed but always make you happy songs—in fact, a remix of this came on at CVS while I was in the post-shot waiting area after my second COVID vaccine and indeed, it did make me happy.)
Angel From Montgomery—Bonnie Raitt (I believe John Prine once said this song belonged to Bonnie Raitt, just as Kris Kristofferson said “Me and Bobby McGee” belonged to Janis Joplin. All versions of it are good, but hers is classic.)
Three Little Birds—Bob Marley
Badlands—Bruce Springsteen (How do you pick a Springsteen song? By the first line that comes to mind—“It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.”)
I Will Survive—Gloria Gaynor
I Wanna Be Sedated—the Ramones
Bad Reputation—Joan Jett
California Über Alles—the Dead Kennedys (I debated on including this, since so much of it is topical—but some rock and roll is.)
Late in the Evening—Paul Simon (“It was late in the evening / And I blew that room away.” Awww yeah.)
Jack and Diane—John Cougar Mellencamp (Do you have to be a Midwesterner to love John Mellencamp? I know it’s true of Bob Seger. In any case, again, so many songs to choose from, but I went with the most iconic.)
Billie Jean—Michael Jackson (Still a fine song, even without the Moondance—although whatever else you want to say about him (and there is a lot), he was an amazing dancer.)
Burning Down the House—Talking Heads (My favorite Talking Heads song is “Life During Wartime,” but only the version from Stop Making Sense, and only with the video.
Fast Car—Tracy Chapman (Is there a more poignant song in the world?)
Straight Outta Compton—N.W.A. (I am, obviously, not a big rap/hip hop listener. I did go back and revisit the stuff I remember listening to a bit when I was younger, which I would characterize as “college radio hip hop,” and none of it really held up. I don’t remember when I first heard this song, but that “Compton Compton Compton” beat stuck with me even before I had any idea what it meant.
Wave of Mutilation—the Pixies
Friends in Low Places—-Garth Brooks (This one is missing from the playlist, because Garth Brooks doesn’t want you to listen to his music. As of this writing, the only streaming service that has it is Amazon’s, though there are covers and imitations all over the place. I assume his lack of presence on other platforms is part of his longstanding campaign against people listening to music except via a physical CD they bought new. Relics of the 90s may recall his contributions to the campaign against used CD sales—and locals may remember the giant cutout of him outside the Record Collector in the early 1990s warning you not to buy used CDs. Regardless, though, this is a great song—just reading the comments on one of the YouTube video imitations of it will break your heart and put it back together again and again.)
Come As You Are—Nirvana
I’m No Heroine—Ani Difranco
Unknown Legend—Neil Young
Product—New Bad Things (The perfect indie pop song. Really. Give it a listen.)
Fuck and Run—Liz Phair
Good Things—Sleater Kinney
Car Wheels on a Gravel Road—Lucinda Williams (I almost can’t listen to this one anymore now that I have a kid, but that gutting feeling is part of what makes it great.)
Underneath Your Clothes—Shakira
This Year—the Mountain Goats
The Denial Twist—the White Stripes
The greatest—Lana Del Rey (I don’t know if this will last, but it’s the best distillation of 2020 I’ve heard—my thanks to Steve for getting me to listen to it in the first place.)