The debate about the number one rock song of all time originates back to the 1950s and has evolved over the years to include many candidates.
When you consider the number-one rock song of all time, think of rock hits that have transcended the genre and become cult staples in pop culture today.
Rock music hits range from fast and energetic anthems to slow and introspective ballads touching on many themes and emotions.
It’s why the genre is still popular today and continues to be a force in the charts throughout the decades. With a diverse selection, how can you define the number-one rock song of all time?
What makes a good rock song?
Several factors can contribute to the everlasting appeal of a classic rock song. Many of these songs share important elements that make them more than just a hit of their time. Some of these aspects include:
- Strong lyrics: Good rock songs have meaningful lyrics that speak to the listener personally. Whether they tell a story or touch on certain themes, the greatest lyrics are more than heard, they are felt.
- Dynamic arrangement: Rock songs with an interesting and varied arrangement are more engaging and enjoyable, They feature iconic riffs and virtuoso solos, and legendary songs use instruments to bring the piece to life.
- Emotion: A memorable rock song evokes strong emotions that are powerful and memorable. By connecting strongly with its audience, a song can become a symbol of something much larger than anyone may think.
- Originality: Good rock songs are innovative and bring something new to the genre, making them more memorable. A definitive new sound will make people talk about it after that first listen.
The ingredients of a good rock song vary depending on the era and style. However, they all share common themes that help them maintain a high esteem.
What is the number one rock song of all time: The candidates
Stairway to Heaven – Led Zeppelin
“Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin is considered one of the world’s greatest rock songs. There are several reasons why this 1971 hit is ranked number one by many media outlets.
First, there is the layout of the song. The soothing opening riff from Jimmy Page has an ethereal quality, backed by Robert Plant’s haunting vocals.
As things progress, Plant’s lyrical quest about life asks listeners to question their existence. Even as the song fades, the dark and mournful lyrics bring everything full circle from a serene start.
Of course, there’s the rousing finale. The song builds to a huge finale with Page’s iconic solo, which is technically flawless and hugely emotive.
As the lively ending breaks down to a quiet finish, you have gone through an audio experience unlike anything else. It is a true emotional rollercoaster in just under eight minutes.
Bohemian Rhapsody – Queen
Odd time signatures, gibberish lyrics, and a wide range of styles explain “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Only Queen could pull off this outrageous song and let it stand the test of time.
The brainchild of Freddie Mercury, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is a true blend of everything you can imagine. All starting from a simple piano melody, Mercury tells a story about someone fighting with their inner demons in life.
Mercury’s lyrics sound scattered but help depict the mind of a tortured soul. It’s always backed by perfect instrumentation, from Brian May’s flawless solo to Roger Taylor’s control of the percussion.
It’s a technical marvel, utilizing multi-tracking effects to emphasize the operatic section and bring the call and response between Mercury and Taylor to life. It is a true masterpiece in every sense of the imagination.
Crazy Train – Ozzy Ozbourne
Ozzy Osbourne’s work with Black Sabbath laid the foundation for heavy metal however his solo career brought it into the mainstream. Case in point: “Crazy Train.”
From Ozzy’s 1980 debut, Blizzard of Ozz, the iconic sounds of “Crazy Train” are made possible by the guitar work of Randy Rhoads.
The opening riff is fist-pumping – to the point that it fills stadiums to this day. Also, Rhoads’ guitar solo is melodic, chaotic, and flawless.
Throw in Ozzy’s discussion about diving into madness and personal demons, and you have the perfect hard rock song for the modern era.
Sweet Child O’ Mine – Guns & Roses
Guns N’ Roses have plenty of hits to choose from, but their trademark is still the iconic ballad “Sweet Child O’ Mine.”
Axl Rose’s nasal crooning about his love at the time was genuinely heartwarming. Not quite touching on clichés, he encapsulates perfect comparisons worthy of any classic poem.
Then, there is Slash’s phenomenal guitar work. Not only does he provide one of the greatest opening riffs of all time, yet he brings in several face-melting solos to the floor too.
Even if things off-stage were sometimes rocky, the band just gelled when creating music, and “Sweet Child O’ Mine” is living proof of G’N’R at their very best.
Comfortably Numb – Pink Floyd
Pink Floyd was never shy to push the boundaries, and “Comfortably Numb” shows why they were so good at doing this.
Taken from their iconic concept album The Wall, the song talks about someone’s plight into madness and accepting their fate. This is shown brilliantly by the different vocal melodies of Roger Waters and David Gilmour.
Waters provides the darkness to Gilmour’s lighter tones, and it seriously shows a tortured soul pulled between different directions.
Let’s not forget Gilmour’s two solos, either. Arguably the greatest solos ever recorded, no guitar captures pure emotion like Gilmour does here. It shows how melody and harmony can be used to devastating effect.
Livin’ On A Prayer – Bon Jovi
There is perhaps no other rock song quite as anthemic as “Livin’ On A Prayer.” Everyone knows the chorus, no matter their age or taste in music.
It helps that the song is more than a sing-along at parties. Jon Bon Jovi pens lyrics about overcoming adversity no matter what you might face. Also, that rising chorus is perfectly delivered, getting bigger and bigger as the song develops.
What you also find is that the band brings familiarity to almost everything in this song. From Sambora’s masterful use of the vocoder to the driving keys and bass, it all comes full force at you.
The result is a soul-boosting anthem that will get you singing and playing air guitar at any point. It is a true party classic.
Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana
If only one song transformed a generation, it would be “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana. It brought an entire genre and movement to the forefront.
What makes “Smells Like Teen Spirit” so iconic is that it was so different in every way possible. It uses dirty riffs to the driving drums, and the whole band sounded unlike anything else beforehand.
Kurt Cobain’s rough and almost screamed vocals showed angst yet control simultaneously. Backed up by Dave Grohl’s driving percussion, the melodic verses give way to near-unbridled chaos at the end.
By bringing in emotion and sounds not heard in the mainstream, Nirvana became the sound for entire generations to embrace moving into the future.
Sometimes, it can be difficult to determine just what the number one rock song is of all time. After all, public perception and legacy often outshine record sales themselves. However, you will find some traits that all these songs share.
These hits feature leading musicians of their era – individuals and a collective. By merging such creative souls, it helps bands create musical songs that are remembered for decades.
This can be due to iconic moments like “Crazy Train” or “Livin; On A Prayer” or going on epic journeys heard in “Stairway To Heaven” or “Bohemian Rhapsody”.
Other songs even become anthems for a generation, such as “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which audiences will rediscover year after year.
With various songs and styles on display, it can make defining just what is the number one rock song of all time tricky and enjoy a vast collection instead.