Featuring the Beatles, Queen, and favorites you wouldn’t expect, here are songs that are too good not to include on this list.
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We love rock & roll. But this thing that was once a relatively simple, blues/country mash-up has spent the past 70+ years growing into a sprawling, fantastic beast — a multi-tentacled subgenre monster (over 250 at last count) encompassing everything from prog to punk, metal to math — making the idea of choosing just 25 and declaring them "the best" scarier than Robert Johnson's pact with the devil. So we went back to basics.

There were four rules:

  1. These songs had to be desert island quality. 
  2. They had to pass the Wayne and Garth freak-out-in-the-car test. 
  3. They had to be boundary-breakers — their existence shoved rock forward. 
  4. They had to stand the test of time — as vital now as the day they were born.

Did we succeed? Indeed! Though you might not agree… but hey, before we go full Seuss with this intro, we want you to know something — we probably left off your favorite. We also, most likely, included something you hate. But look at it this way: If this list sends you down a rock rabbit hole, where the old is new, the new is old, and everything is connected, man, we can call that a win.

So without further ado, we loudly present the 25 best rock songs of all time.

"I Love Rock 'N Roll" (1981) — Joan Jett

So what if it's a cover – Joan Jett  owns this song with every ounce of her being. With vinyl-black hair and Gibson-sculpted arms, she doesn't just love rock, she is rock. But her toughness was no act  — when the Runaways broke up, she recorded a solo album and got rejected by 23 labels, making the chart-topping success of  "I Love Rock 'N Roll" that much sweeter. Spare as a schoolyard chant, stalwart producer Kenny Laguna created a perfect back-and-forth between crisp handclaps and dirty chords. And in the middle of it all, Joan's husky force of a voice — victory in every word.

"Born to Run" (1975) — Bruce Springsteen

If "At night we ride through the mansions of glory / In suicide machines" doesn't sound like a typical rock lyric, it's because this ode to love, cars, and unfulfilled American Dreams is anything but typical. "Born To Run'' is Bruce Springsteen's magnum opus, a desperation epic about getting outta Jersey via Highway 9, the road passing through his hometown of Freehold. Springsteen's voice starts off weary, nearly monotone, then slowly lifted by a wall of sound (guitars, organ, sax, drums, glockenspiel, bass, keyboards) culminating in the finest woo-oah's! known to rock. Driving relentlessly forward like the chrome-wheeled, fuel-injected machines he sings about, as the song moves toward its conclusion, the miraculous happens: hope beats defeat.

"Starman" (1972) — David Bowie

David Bowie's "Starman" is a soaring wonder, a sparkly tale about an alien communicating with Earth's children via radio (and phone!). Sci-fi as the lyrics are, it's also a tribute to good ol' American pop, from the "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" octave leap to the morse-code "You Keep Me Hangin' On" guitar to the intro's "oh-oh-oh's." Like an origami box, each fold reveals another treasure, from Mick Ronson's moonshot guitar to the feel-good chorus. Bowie's 1972 BBC TV performance of "Starman" was incredibly influential — reaching so many future stars when they were kids (from Bono to Boy George) — it was as if the lyrics had come true.

"Once in a Lifetime" (1980) — Talking Heads

An ode to disassociation, the Talking Heads' signature song is carried by Tina Weymouth's hypnotic rubber-band bass line and (her husband) Chris Franz' shuddery beats. But producer Brian Eno's studio wizardry was also responsible for much of the magic, taking the band's Fela Kuti-inspired jam sessions and looping them, an innovation ahead of its time. The result sounds like being trapped inside a telephone switchboard, full of repeating signals, samples, and scraps. Of course, David Byrne's hauntingly existential lyrics ("How did I get here?") and delivery — part fortune teller, part street preacher — really puts this thing over the top.

"Rebel Girl" (1993) — Bikini Kill

In the '90s punk scene, mosh pits were macho and "feminism" was a dirty word. Cut to a Bikini Kill show, led by the powerhouse Kathleen Hanna, roaring "Girls up front!" and "Revolution girl style now!" "Rebel Girl" is the band's OG ode to grrrl power, driven by crunchy guitars and a relentless beat. Of the three recordings, we like the '98 version best, with Joan Jett's chords beefing up the mix, but the constant is Hanna's jackpot voice, capturing teen girlhood like no other (only Poly Styrene compares). Her Valley girl howl will stop you in your tracks, proclaiming friendship, revolution, and, yeah, lust. When she sang, we heard the revolution.

"Where Is My Mind" (1989) — Pixies

Pixies, a band that Bowie himself deemed "a psychotic Beatles" and Cobain credited as prime inspiration, were masters of the "loud-quiet-loud" formula. While it's nearly impossible to pick a single "best" from this band's quirkily infectious, violently hummable output, this track comes mighty close. Distinguished by guitarist Joey Santiago's melodic waves, Black Francis' panic-dream storytelling and Kim Deal's ghostly "ooh-ooh's" floating in from an underwater graveyard (in reality, the studio bathroom), this song, like all Pixies songs, finds magic in contrast: dreamy vs. screamy, darkness vs. light. The effect is like surf rock set on fire.

"Whole Lotta Love" (1969) — Led Zeppelin

As an established part of the classic rock canon, it's easy to forget what a strange beast Led Zeppelin actually is, in large part due to drummer John Bonham. Running against the standard rock formula (drummer follows bass), he instead followed guitarist Jimmy Page, creating a heavy, winding-road sound like no other. Even with its wicked guitar riffs, Robert Plant's over-the-top "re-interpretation" of classic Willie Dixon blues lyrics, and a trippy theremin break, "Whole Lotta Love" still manages to stay anchored, thanks to Bonzo.

"La Grange" (1973) — ZZ Top

To fully appreciate the radical nature of a monster like ZZ Top's "La Grange," a heavy, swinging, 10-truck-blues-rock-pileup, keep in mind it was released in 1973, when the top radio hit was by Tony Orlando and Dawn. Billy Gibbons (guitar), Frank Beard (drums), and Dusty Hill (bass) mixed modern rock with boogie blues, topping the whole enchilada with some of the crunchiest, funkiest, most ridiculously fire guitar work ev-er. The result was a whole new kinda groove. Later, they would adopt a slick commercial angle (with videos to match) but at this stage, they were just a trio of BBQ-soaked Texas weirdos doin' their thang.

"Fell in Love With a Girl" (2001) — The White Stripes

If you had to pick a song that sounds like falling in love feels, this might be it. The White Stripes know love isn't all hearts and rainbows — it's also snotty sing-alongs, slashing guitars, and crazy energy that makes you wanna jump six feet in the air. Orson Wells once said "the enemy of art is the absence of limitations," but this could've easily come from the Stripes playbook, too. Limitation has always been their jam — from the three-color palette to the two-person format, from Meg's satisfying-n-simple drumming to Jack's insistence on cheap plastic guitars. So if anyone's still puzzled over how something so minimal could create a sound this massive, just ask Orson.

"Bohemian Rhapsody" (1975) — Queen

The story of how this song got made is, by now, legendary — from the 10-hour-a-day singing sessions to the three-week recording time to the 180 (what?) overdubs. But none of that really matters when you hit "play" on Queen's Frankenstein and settle in for nearly six minutes of head-banging fun. One of the keys to the everlasting success of this "mock opera" (as Freddie Mercury called it) is how much fun it is to sing with. Entertaining as a summer blockbuster, satisfying as six-course feast — intro, ballad, solo, opera, hard rock, outro — "Bohemian Rhapsody" was, is, and will forever be a monument to joyful creative excess.

"Gimme Shelter" (1969) — The Rolling Stones

If you thought the last few years were chaotic, check out 1969: the Manson murders, the Vietnam Draft, and the election of Nixon. The Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter '' captured the end of the "peace and love" era  — perfectly summing up the desperation of the time via Keith Richards' echoing freight-train shuffle and the panic gospel of Mick Jagger and Merry Clayton. Clayton's wrenching vocals, the core of this song's power, were the result of an impromptu midnight session when she performed the iconic "rape/murder" siren in her PJ's. A final cursed touch: Richard's guitar fell apart in his hands on the last note. But they left it – the sound of something breaking was a perfect coda.

"There She Goes, My Beautiful World" (2004) — Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

"You weren't much of a muse, but then, I weren't much of a poet" might not sound like a love song, but this being Nick Cave, trust us, it is. His core driving philosophy is love in all its variety — from darkest depths to goofiest heights, always delivered with desperation. On Abattoir Blues/Lyre of Orpheus, his 13th album with the Bad Seeds, we meet a new Nick — Cave 2.0 you could say — married, sober, and harnessing the power of gospel without ever abandoning his punk soul. "There She Goes" presents him in black-suited power-preacher mode, backed by a band on fire, raging holy poetry and name-dropping Larkin, Nabokov, and Thunders in what might be the greatest (only?) rock song written about writer's block.

"All Day and All of the Night" (1964) — The Kinks

It seems almost impossible to believe that this song, the sound of teen lust pressed into vinyl, was released in 1964, when Joey Ramone was 13 and the words "punk rock" wouldn't be uttered for another seven years. And yet the raw, modern sound conjured wouldn't be out of place on a current Sub Pop release. Yeah, the chords are jaggedy, deliberate, and perfectly paced. Yeah, Ray Davies is cool with a capital C. But the real key to the magic is that crazy tone – the dirty, grungy, previously unheard sludge created when guitarist/Ray's brother Dave Davies slashed his amp's speaker with a razor. And just like that — with the flick of a wrist — punk was born.

"London Calling" (1979) — The Clash

If you were lucky enough to hear "London Calling" (the title track from the album) on the radio back in 1980 (when it finally invaded the US), that first 20 seconds would've stopped you in your tracks. What else sounded like Topper Headon's drum crunch as Joe Strummer and Mick Jones followed on their guitars? Boots pounding asphalt, maybe? By the time the bass swoops in, "London Calling" has set into motion a rain-soaked, three-minute film, presented by Strummer, master storyteller. Clash songs are solid state instruments — low budget, low flourish, muscular — and this one's no different. Guitars provide brief, jagged slashes of color, but the spotlight stays trained on Strummer and his end-times tale. Apocalyptic, yeah, but never dour — more like a call to arms.

"Blitzkrieg Bop" (1976) — The Ramones

The Ramones were the essence of simplicity and efficiency. Four members, four chords. Identical names, identical outfits. And you always knew when their hard-n-fast songs were about to start because Joey (aka the Punk Giant) used a helpful "1, 2, 3, 4!" countdown, or in the case of "Blitzkrieg Bop," "Hey, ho, let's go!" The Ramones stood on stage not as rock gods or unattainable heroes, but as weirdos, misfits, and fellow outcasts in torn jeans. Of course they created catchy, bouncy, perfect pop-punk, but the democratic nature of the Ramones will be their true legacyeveryone was invited to the party.

"Smells Like Teen Spirit" (1991) — Nirvana

"With the lights out, it's less dangerous / Here we are now, entertain us." Kurt Cobain famously hated being famous. Emerging from the flannel-shirted Pacific Northwest punk/grunge scene, the success of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (platinum seller, widely praised by critics) seemed to surprise him. An ironic, pissed-off anthem for an ironic, pissed-off generation, the combo of rhythmic punk power chords (inspired by Pixies' "Debaser") angry, sarcastic lyrics, and a funk-inspired drumming choice by Dave Grohl created once-in-a-lifetime rock alchemy.

"Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" (1970) — The Jimi Hendrix Experience

"Voodoo Child" represents Jimi Hendrix as Zeus, hurling Strat-shaped thunderbolts down to earth. Or Jimi as a fire-breathing rock monster, Godzilla in tie dye, or simply Guitar God, telling tales about his life, like…standing next to mountains, chopping them down with his hand, making islands with the pieces, you know, stuff like that. And then, as if to wink at the listener, Jimi laughs. The crazy thing is that the guitar work on this track is so incendiary he earns those bragging rights — and then some.

"Gloria: In Excelsis Deo" (1975) — Patti Smith

"Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine," Patti Smith declares in the most self-assured, coolest rock intro of all time. Her song, "Gloria: In Excelsis Deo," is actually a mash-up of two works — Smith's original poem, "Oath," and Van Morrison's song "Gloria." No surprise, she absolutely slays it, bending and twisting Morrison's innocent bop to fit her much darker, more complex vision. And when she asserts "my sins belong to me, me!," it's shiver-inducing, the sound of a woman staking her claim in male-dominated rock & roll world, shoving the establishment aside and saying "make room." And they did.

"Search and Destroy" (1973) — The Stooges

You might already know the role this hard-driving, sinister song played in the invention of punk. But what you might NOT know is how much David Bowie (as producer) had to do with it. His decision to put Iggy Pop's voice and James Williamson's wild guitar melodies up front (while keeping the volume low on the rhythm section) inadvertently created a template used by bands from the Sex Pistols to the White Stripes and beyond. The result is an urgent, propulsive song with a raw spirit and some of Iggy's most super-charged writing with deceptively simple lyrics about love and war, dripping with desperation.

"Let's Go Crazy" (1984) — Prince & The Revolution

With its purple bananas, elevators, church organs, unhinged guitar solos, and the best sermon/eulogy in rock & roll history, Prince's paean to partying (and religion — "de-elevator" refers to Satan) opened Purple Rain  — the album and the film alike. With its propulsive mix of synth, drums, guitar, amazing wordplay ("Dr. everything'll be alright / make everything go wrong") and a howl that puts all others to shame, it stands the test of time. Now that he's gone, of course, the life-and-death lyrics take on new poignancy, but songs like this assure his legacy.

"Tutti Frutti" (1955) — Little Richard

Little Richard,  a former drag queen (performing as Princess Lavonne) from the deep south, catapulted himself onto the American pop music scene in the 1950s with a signature blend of gospel, blues, and a fearless attitude. Richard, who referred to himself as the "King and Queen" of rock, screamed and played piano as if his life depended on it. As EW's Jonathan Bernstein put it, Richard was considered the "first-ever mainstream popular entertainer of his era to openly explore his gender identity and sexuality on stage." To make "Tutti Frutti," his first hit, radio-friendly, a writer helped him swap the original NSFW lyrics but kept the vivacious spirit, turning "A-wop-bop-a-loo-mop-bam-boom" into a national catchphrase.

"Johnny B. Goode" (1958) — Chuck Berry

There's not a lot of debate over who "invented" rock n roll: Mr. Chuck Berry. And though "Maybelline" was his first song (released in 1955), it was "Johnny B. Goode" a few years later that truly blew the roof off the joint, a wild, rollicking guitar ride that influenced… well…everyone. And we really do mean…everyone!

"Be My Baby" (1963) — The Ronettes

Ronnie Bennett was an 18-year-old singer from Spanish Harlem with an achingly emotional tough-girl voice (and perfectly winged eyeliner) when she recorded "Be My Baby" with producer Phil Spector, her eventual husband. And though their lives together (and apart) would take many dark turns, this recording still shines as a stellar example of his "wall of sound" technique, capturing Ronnie's perfect expression of young love (and one of the most iconic drum intros in rock history). Though we lost her in January at the age of 78, Ronnie Spector's voice goes on forever.

"A Day in the Life" (1967) — The Beatles

The final track on the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is a surrealistic John Lennon/Paul McCartney collaboration for the ages. After John's dark start — "I read the news today, oh boy" — Paul steps in from an alternate universe, chirping about his happy morning routine. The song famously finishes with a 40-piece orchestra going completely nuts as McCartney guides the musicians to start at the lowest note and build up to the highest, creating a beautiful cacophony that ends with a single E chord bashed on three pianos at once. "A Day in the Life" is a mystery box of a song, a Beatles crown jewel that continues to demonstrate rock's creative potential, even today.

"Wuthering Heights" (1977) — Kate Bush

Spoiler alert: "Wuthering Heights" is sung from the POV of a ghost named Cathy. Non-spoiler alert: This is not the weirdest thing about the song. "Wuthering Heights" is a mood, and though it might not sound traditionally rebellious, it's possibly the most radical choice on this list. As bizarre now as the day it was born, this Bronte novel set to music captures madness in a spinning chorus you won't be able to excise. Written by the now-ubiquitous Kate Bush when she was 18 and sung in what might be described as "full banshee mode," "Wuthering Heights" was initially refused by her label to be the first single. But she insisted, filming a now-legendary video to match. And now, Bush's story continues as her music's role in Stranger Things has garnered renewed interest and a new generation of fans. Long may she twirl.

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