THE 100 GREATEST HARD ROCK SONGS OF ALL TIME has nearly broken me. I stumble to the finish line bruised, dirty and exhausted, and thus we end with a whimper. Yet end it must; I need the closure.
I also lost my list, so this is recorded from memory and I somehow had 11 songs left. Because, I suppose, this Top 10 goes to 11.
It’s been real.
10. “Jailbreak,” Thin Lizzy
Definitive Lizzy. There’s little I can add except my eternal respect for the fills Brian Downey lays down before the choruses, especially the second.
9. “Heartless,” Heart
My love for Heart is not unconditional, but it’s intense. In the end they were too driven by the charts, ultimately churning out professional, listenable crap and making a shit-ton of money. But at their peak, Ann and Nancy Wilson’s outfit was an all-timer: a real, shit-kicking hard rock band defined by the feminine mystique and a gift for writing hit singles. This is the least-played of their many hits but it’s their best, the perfect blend of chops, dynamics, hooks and production. Put the headphones on and just listen to the guitar parts. Then concentrate on the vocal parts. There isn’t a note on this record that doesn’t make complete sense. This is why I spent so much time on this list; to maybe get people to reassess some of this stuff.
8. “Dream On,” Aerosmith
White people can, in fact, sing the blues. When they do it right, it sounds like this. Though the British were the first to try really Anglicizing the blues, it always had the whiff of an experiment about it; it was aloof, a badge or a T-shirt. And while Aerosmith clearly was most influenced by the British purveyors of blues, this is, in fact, the real deal; an amalgam of the new and old, the way Scott Joplin recreated Chopin. It’s complex and lovely and arranged, but it’s raw. It contains no artifice, unmitigated angst with power chords and Mellotron. Aerosmith is probably underrepresented on this list “Sweet Emotion” is certainly as worthy as a dozen other songs here, but they never expanded on the promise of their first single – never, in fact, got better. In hindsight, maybe it was impossible.
7. “Teen Archer,” Blue Oyster Cult
An inscrutable anthem to the gods spinning at the edge of a black hole. Was the vortex always there, or did this spider’s web of guitars and backbeat inadvertently solve an arcane puzzle and trip some cosmic trigger?
6. “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” the Who
The history of the civilization (incidentally, another 8 minute, 30 second masterpiece; has MIT looked into this?).
5. “Minstrel in the Gallery,” Jethro Tull
It starts with the acoustic balladry the haters like to make fun of, but don’t turn it off, rock fans; it’s a palate cleanser. Tull is about to get all real up in ya. Nothing – NOTHING – in the 60-odd years of rock ‘n’ roll roils as powerfully as the rolling thunder of Barrimore Barlow’s drums on “Minstrel in the Gallery,” whether it’s setting the odd angles of the middle freak out or propelling the hard rock reprise of the opening. Yes, there is cowbell.
5. “Shoot to Thrill,” AC/DC
Created in the Riff Lab at Area 13. The guitar solo is known to have been banned by clerics in six countries.
4. “Black Dog,” Led Zeppelin
Let’s finally talk about John Bonham. Though my infatuation with this was born of its byzantine wall of guitars (it was the first guitar solo outside of the Beatles that I committed to memory), it’s Bonham’s work that continues to fascinate me, starting with the fact that he’s so physically powerful and his choices so basic – as in DNA basic – that he somehow holds together very busy guitar and bass parts, even as it reverses the polarity after the second chorus. But dig the economy with which he raises the dynamic stakes, from the slight, trademark shuffle of his high hat to the ride bell on the chorus. I also love the way he switches from snare to kick to emphasize the “1” on the bridge. Pure Bonham. And as my pal CF Kelly once pointed out, no one produced drums like Jimmy Page. Kismet.
2. “The Green Manalishi (with the Two Prong Crown),” Fleetwood Mac
Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac flamed out at the top, touching the ineffable with not only its final single, but the last song the band ever recorded – a sweaty confessional about the Devil and filthy lucre that may, in fact, have been inspired by an actual encounter with Old Scratch. Maybe Mr. Green saw the future of his once fearsome band. Truly frightening.
1. “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper,” Blue Oyster Cult
Subversive, beautiful, kinetic, epic. There are 99 other songs on this list and choosing No. 1 was never a concern. “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper” does it all better than anyone else ever has or ever will. A love song to death with hooks worthy of ABBA; there’s nothing else like it.