Here’s a fun fact: “Kashmir” and “Roundabout” are both 8 minutes, 33 seconds long.
It’s getting hard to write about these songs; they’re too good. Plus, I started this part having already written about 70 songs. Next time I produce a play, no author.
30. “Back in Black,” AC/DC
Greatness, I have come to believe, is the elimination of the false step. Money, Siren, ego … there are countless temptations down the wrong path. Is it the Muse who occasionally leads the artist past these obstacles? Determination? Vision? Or is it, as the sluggers say, just seeing the ball? The aplomb with which AC/DC survived the death of front man Bon Scott is astonishing. Embracing the memory and the challenge, they made every conceivable right move, from picking Scott’s successor in Brian Johnston to draping their next album in a black that evoked the funereal and the concert T-shirt. And while AC/DC made a lot more good music, they never again wrote this much good material for one album. Not many have.
29. “Aqualung,” Jethro Tull
In the world of Hard Rock, the opening six notes of Jethro Tull’s fourth record changed things in a way comparable to that four-note flourish of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony – the opening fusillade of a new direction. What is this? Seriously, WTF? Heavy, dissonant, different. It’s kind of a joke now, an aural GIFF that says, “Prog Rock.” But, heck, Beethoven’s salvo has become a joke of sorts, too. A real original, with probably the only great guitar solo of Martin Barre’s inimitable career. Dig that controlled feedback!
28. “Oh, Well Parts 1 and 2,” Fleetwood Mac
Just before he turned on, tuned in and dropped out, Peter Green had something going on with Fleetwood Mac – something sweet and scary and wicked and beautiful. This is an apogee, a 9-minute encapsulation of it all. Only the first part of this brings the rock, with singular ferocity, but separating them would be a Crime Against Rock, punishable by REO Speedwagon. I like the pure pop Fleetwood Mac, but it can’t touch this. I’m not sure anything does.
27. “Badge,” Cream
I’m a sucker for the Arpeggio Hook, one of the many gifts we received from the Beatles. It is especially insinuating when played through a Leslie cabinet. This was co-written by Clapton and George Harrison, and I assume it was the latter who gave us this, the greatest Arpeggio Hook of all time, hammered home by that outré Bruce/Baker precision and a Beatlesque wall of harmony. And then Clapton just crushes it. For more on the Arpeggio Hook, see “You Never Give Me Your Money,” “Day After Day” by the Pretenders and the Greatest Hard Rock Song of all Time™.
26. ” Funk 49,” James Gang
I know it’s popular to rip the Eagles, but seriously Joe … WTF? How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can’t already afford? The future? Hey, man, some futures aren’t worth living.
25. “La Grange,” ZZ Top
The tight pocket by which all tight pockets shall be judged. Steely Dan is intimidated by this. Pro Tools blows a circuit. Some things just need to be built by hand, from the ground up, with dirt and tequila and cheap sunglasses.
24. “Transmaniacon M.C.,” Blue Oyster Cult
It arrived fully formed, incubated in eldritch space until it had the power and intelligence to take over the world from its unlikely hatching place, Long Island. Has an opening cut from a debut album ever so completely captured a band’s raison d’etre? “See No Evil,” I guess, but what else? Demon bikers usurp the two-lane, moving “south from Altamont” to embrace the Summer of Love’s implosion. “Clear the road, my bully boys” …
23. “Surrender,” Cheap Trick
It’s hard to remember how different this was when it burst from the radio in the summer of 1978, the opening volley from one of the greatest of all great records, “Heaven Tonight.” The only song here that could legitimately top a Power Pop list, it contains no guitar solo but has a half-step key change that reignites the verse. In a way, that tells you all you need to know.
22. “Spirit of the Radio,” Rush
No rock band has ever done a 180 the way Rush has, crawling from a sea of stupidity to reach occasional greatness. Their first few records were horrible; and even when they did spit out some terrific singles like “Closer to the Heart” and “Fly by Night,” the albums were still terrible – puerile, pompous and, worst of all, bereft of melodies. It’s as if a switch were turned on before they recorded “Permanent Waves.” Musically and, for the most part, lyrically, Rush put it all together overnight. This song was a remarkable achievement, Brian Wilson’s pocket symphony for the black T-shirt crowd. A single designed for, and about, the radio that stacks its hooks a mile high and consistently confounds expectations.
21 “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Queen
Wow, I don’t have this on my iPod. You’d think I would, out of respect.
20. “Kashmir,” Led Zeppelin
In his drinking memoir, “John Barleycorn,” Jack London describes the white-knuckle despair of withdrawal as the “White Logic.” This is the soundtrack to the “White Logic,” an inexorable slide into chaos. Like Ravel’s “Bolero,” it’s one long crescendo, so it’s not entirely unique, but the tension is singular, and – for the right person – somehow enjoyable.
18. “Smoke on the Water,” Deep Purple
The Holy Trinity of Rock, as the Kids in the Hall once joked, is actually a four-chord riff plucked on three strings, two at a time, Jon Lord’s overdriven B3 providing half the power, and Roger Glover’s bass line breaking from hard, simple pulse just in time – and just briefly enough – to completely sell it. Next time you hear this, notice how precise the arrangement is, and how tightly it’s played. I’m particularly enamored of Blackmore’s simple, rising guitar part on the chorus, and the way the last few bars of the solo are played over the main riff – a classic construction. “No matter what we get out of this/I know we’ll never forget/Smoke on the water.” Amen, brother.
17. “The Boys are Back in Town,” Thin Lizzy
Thin Lizzy is probably most revered now for the twin-guitar attack they pioneered, and the passel of guitarists they spit out, the Yardbirds of the ’70s. And yeah, it’s amazing, particularly when they harmonized their parts on a riff like this one, or “Whiskey in the Jar.” But only two guys played on every Thin Lizzy record, bassist/songwriter Phil Lynott and drummer Brian Downey, and I’m convinced they were the key to band’s greatness. The easy argument here: Is there a shuffle, anywhere else on any planet, that rocks like this? That, friends, isn’t easy; it’s soul.
16. “Heartbreaker/Living, Loving Maid,” Led Zeppelin
Zeppelin’s live output can run the gamut from brilliant to bust, on the same record. But I’ve never heard a bad version of “Heartbreaker.” You know why? Because it’s fuckin’ awesome, that’s why. It’s everything great about Zeppelin in four minutes. I don’t suppose “Living, Loving Maid” is really a second part, but when I was a kid they always seemed purposely grouped, and it stuck. They also serve as musical emblems, in reverse, of Zeppelin past and future – “Maid” the last gasp of their beginning as the New Yardbirds, and “Heartbreaker” slowing down and pulling away.
15. “Roundabout,” Yes
Liv Tyler once explained growing up with stepfather Todd Rundgren thusly, and I paraphrase: “I just thought it was normal to have your dad walking around the house listening to ‘Roundabout’ 12 times in a row.” When you blow Todd’s mind, you’re onto something. What else sounds like “Roundabout?” What else has more hooks? What else rocks this hard? What else has an intro as iconic? What band outside of James Brown’s played with more soulful precision?
14. “Carry on Wayward Son,” Kansas
Forget its ingenuous earnestness, the band’s fatal flaw for most, and enjoy the kalkogathia of this amaranthine hard rock staple. That, by the way, is a Greek word once used to describe an overall excellence, a combination of unique virtues hard to find in one place. This is a master class in dynamics, starting with a lovely four-part a cappella that clears the palate of anything else that was on the radio before it, then kicking into hard-R Rock, with the drums – thump-thump, thump-thump, thwack! – welcoming an iconic riff, one of only two times the two guitars play the same thing. Full power-ballad verses lead into the chorus, a reprise of the intro but with a soaring full-band accompaniment. I remember when this came out; even my dad liked it. Among my friends there was a lot of, “Who’s that?!?” Words cannot express my delight at the chorded last two parts of the middle riff, or at the one moment drummer Phil Erhardt doubles up on his snare. Before it’s over you get not one but two operatic “No moooore!”s from Steve Walsh, a couple tastefully short guitar solos, and an official outro of harmonizing lead guitars. If you don’t get this, you’re dead from the neck down.
13. “Where Do You Come From?” Dave Davies
I actually got the chance to ask Dave Davies about this song, and I told him that I thought the opening track from his first solo record was a message: “This is how it’s done.” I don’t remember his exact answer, but it was something like, “That’s exactly what I was going for.” After playing rock operas and AOR for the previous 10 years, the man who pioneered hard rock with a set of knitting needles in 1964 exploded on “AFLI-3603.” This one’s a bracer, and a lesson in how to layer guitars that every producer should study. Follow-up LP “Glamour” was even darker and heavier, but nothing touched this. Few rock songs have. And, by the way, how good a guitarist is this guy? We all know the Alpico amp story, but Dave Davies developed peerless chops; from “Arthur” on, he was never less than perfect, and he carried records like “Sleepwalker” and “Schoolboys in Disgrace” on his back.
12. “White Room,” Cream
There has always been something other-worldly about the recorder to me; maybe because its use in rock tends to be on inscrutable, melancholy songs such as “Ruby Tuesday,” “Fool on the Hill” and, well, you know … The recorder on “White Room” is fairly minimal, but it’s used to unique effect – as a power chord on the opening theme. The overdubbed recorders mix seamlessly with Clapton’s sustained, single-note attack, and are mimicked by Jack Bruce’s falsetto bridge back to the intro. Plus, you get a classic slice of understated Ginger Baker power, some totally sick Wah work from Clapton and the wonderfully opaque lyrics. A towering achievement.
Note to self: What are the greatest intros of all time?
11. “Cinnamon Girl,” Neil Young
A friend of mine took issue with including Neil Young on a hard rock list. My answer: What else would you call it? It is, as they like to say, what it is. I have a penchant for one-note runs in guitar solos; they punctuate a riff – or, in this case, the absent melody – and this is one of the best (see also: “I Am a Tree,” GBV; “Big Sky,” the Kinks;” and “Shine on Brightly” by Procol Harum). I also like it when the last few notes of a vocal trip over a return to the riff the way the verse does here (“… chasing the moonlight/My cin – duh-duh-duh-duh-dih — nnamon girl…”) Clocks in at under 3 minutes.
Note to self: Why isn’t “Shine on Brightly” on this list?
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