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The Top Artists and Songs of Classic Rock

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What does “classic rock” really mean? To others, the term may be casually referred to as some rock music that came out particularly from the late 60s, the entire 70s and the early 80s.

However, we would like to clarify that “classic rock” is NOT really a musical genre. The line between classic rock and oldies may be almost blurred but there is also a marked difference between them. Classic rock may mean oldies music, but oldies may not mean classic rock.

Classic rock was borne out of a radio format that used to be named as “album oriented rock,” also known as AOR. While classic rock leans more on the whole album, “oldies” on the other hand is primarily geared towards singles that became successful on the music charts. You could say that “classic rock” is also a marketing ploy to help “immortalize” sales as well as glowing perceptive memories of rock music from the late 1960s to early 1980s.


So what makes any rock music classic? Is it in the artist, the high amount of radio plays, the millions of records sold, or musical styles and subjects tackled in the lyrics? Actually, none of these things are required for music to be considered “classic rock.” “Classic rock” doesn’t mean the 70s rock records became automatically a classic by the time they were released. Nor an artist that releases these records doesn’t necessarily become a classic rock artist. A record’s huge sales don’t mean that record instantly becomes classic rock. The Beatles and Led Zeppelin have different musical styles and themes from each other, but both of them are nevertheless considered classic rock artists because they released classic rock albums.

Some of the ands that are considered classic rock:

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Jimmy Page used a double-necked guitar to perform “Stairway to Heaven” live.

1. Led Zeppelin

One of the major pillars of classic rock, Led Zeppelin’s devil-may-care attitude and penchant for breaking old rules and making new ones are the reasons why they became wildly successful. The band consisted of guitarist Jimmy Page, lead singer Robert Plant, keyboardist John Paul Jones and drummer John Bonham.

They broke new records in record sales as well as in concert tours. The band is also legendary when it comes to indulgence in their lifestyle. However, every rock fan knows that behind the personal excess, Led Zeppelin was earnest in their own craft and pushed themselves to the limit musically. From the blues rock of their eponymous debut album in 1969 to the seamless energy of Led Zeppelin IV in 1971 to the mind-blowing double-album Physical Graffiti in 1975, it seems that Led Zeppelin knew that their records would stand the test of time. Their golden era ended when drummer Bonham died in 1980 due to excessive alcohol consumption, but their legend lives on.

2. The Beatles

The Beatles: Top - left John Lennon and Paul McCartney, bottom –left George Harrison and Ringo Starr

The Beatles: Top – left John Lennon and Paul McCartney, bottom –left George Harrison and Ringo Starr

The Beatles changed the whole landscape of pop and rock as we know it during their short but monumentally remarkable era. Each one of their albums — from their first LP Please Please Me in 1963 to their last album Let It Be in 1970 — is considered a classic. Every Beatles fan knows that. And even if you’re not much of a fan, you otherwise recognize their enduring influence that extends beyond music, even several decades past their prime.

3. Aerosmith

When Aerosmith was on the threshold of their career during the 1970s, people started comparing them to Rolling Stones. Despite the blues-rock influence similar to The Stones (not to mention front man Steven Tyler’s resemblance to Mick Jagger), the comparison wasn’t really fair to either band. The naysayers seemed to stop when Aerosmith came out with their third LP Toys in the Attic in 1975 that helped them to make their unique mark in the rock music field.

Aerosmith, from left to right: Brad Whitford, Steven Tyler, and Joe Perry

Aerosmith, from left to right: Brad Whitford, Steven Tyler, and Joe Perry

Like many other rock bands, Aerosmith experienced a lull in their career due to the band member’s drug addiction problems. However, they managed to bounce back in the 1980s and even enjoyed a more successful renaissance in their career with their albums Pump (1989), Get a Grip (1993) and Nine Lives (1997), all of which went multi-platinum and further sealed their legendary status.

 

 

4. AC/DC

AC/DC in concert in 2009

AC/DC in concert in 2009

AC/DC was formed by brothers Malcolm and Angus Young during the early 1970s. From their rough beginnings in Sydney, AC/DC staged one of the most dramatically successful “second chances” in rock history.

Within months of recording their fifth album Highway to Hell, lead singer Bon Scott died in early 1980 due excessive alcohol consumption. In grief, the band considered splitting up but changed their minds, eventually hiring British singer Brian Johnson to replace Scott. With Johnson as new front man, AC/DC recorded Back in Black which turned out to be their most commercially successful album — in fact, it became one of the best-selling albums of all time. The formula has not changed since the band’s genesis, and that even helped them sell millions of records worldwide.

5. Queen

Queen during 1984 concert in Germany

Queen during 1984 concert in Germany

Nobody does a heady, sweeping mix of rock and opera like Queen can, thanks to their fourth album A Night at the Opera in 1975. The LP contained the song “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which immortalized the band’s legendary status as one of rock’s most bombastic and electrifying acts.

During their time Queen was one of the wildly famous rock bands, with their concerts selling millions around the world and their singles enjoying huge commercial success. Despite the astronomical success, Queen still strived to experiment with their sound especially during the early 1980s. Their charismatic founder and front man Freddie Mercury was struck by AIDS and eventually died from complications in 1991.

 

6. Rolling Stones

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The Rolling Stones – left to right: Charlie Watts, Keith Richards, and Mick Jagger during a 2012 concert in Newark

It’s impossible not to include the Rolling Stones in this list of classic rock artists. With over 50 years in the business and still going, the Rolling Stones are obviously a living testimony to rock music’s staying power.

The Stones started in the business by doing covers of the American artists they admired. But eventually the Stones made their mark in the world through their own original songs such as “(I Can Get No) Satisfaction,” “Paint It Black,” “Get Off My Cloud,” and “Honky Tonk Women,” among others, which became huge chart hits. They have not only endured the changing trends of each decade, they have also integrated some of those trends and musical styles into their own music with so much success. Albums such as Out of Our Heads, Their Satanic Majesties Request, Exile on Main Street, Sticky Fingers, Through the Past Darkly, Some Girls and Tattoo You are just a handful from the Stones’ beloved vast body of work.

7. Pink Floyd

Pink Floyd is a classic example of a band that made the astounding transformation from cult rock darlings to a world-famous rock act. Before achieving legendary rock status, Pink Floyd was founded by the offbeat genius Syd Barrett, primarily as a vehicle for his tripped-out inclinations that extended beyond music.

Pink Floyd as they appeared in 1971

Pink Floyd as they appeared in 1971

The band’s debut LP The Piper at the Gates of Dawn exhibited Barrett’s extraordinary, psychedelic musical flair. Unfortunately, Barrett’s mental health worsened due to drugs which rendered him ineffectual. He eventually left the band in 1968. After his departure Pink Floyd changed gears, creating the idea of concepts for their albums such as Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall which made them one of the biggest rock bands in the world.

8. Journey

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Journey

Journey may be widely loved or roundly hated, grossly underrated or quite overrated, but it’s undeniable that the group has been enjoying a remarkable career that has spanned for over three decades. Charismatic front man Steve Perry and his cohorts Neal Schone and Jonathan Cain wrote some of the best-known hits in the rock arena.

It is during the band’s golden era with Perry when the band enjoyed million-selling records — and that included seven consecutive multi-platinum albums such as their most famous Escape (1981) — sold-out concerts, and songs that have become the staple of classic rock. After Perry left the band, the group recruited Arnel Pineda and went on to score million-selling albums such as Revelation (2008) and Eclipse (2011). And it seems that Journey’s road to success isn’t letting up just yet.

9. The Who

The Who in 1975

The Who in 1975

Like many English bands during the 1960s, The Who were influenced by American rock and roll, R&B, and blues music. However, they decided to change the game that set them apart from their peers — literally smashing instruments and pushing themselves musically into gargantuan proportions. The Who is one of the few bands who could be electrifying and brilliant at the same time, both during a live concert and on their records.

Singer-songwriter Pete Townshend perhaps became the unofficial spokesman of the 60s youth through his anthem “My Generation.” From their hard-driving blues-rock, The Who expanded their creativity and musical ambitions, climaxing in their 1969 album Tommy, a highly influential rock opera/concept album that became a huge masterpiece. They followed their streak with Who’s Next, another classic rock masterpiece. Their golden era ended following the death of drummer Keith Moon.

10. The Eagles

The Eagles, left to right, Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Joe Walsh, and Timothy B. Schmit during a concert in 2008

The Eagles, left to right, Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Joe Walsh, and Timothy B. Schmit during a concert in 2008

The Eagles also enjoyed astronomical commercial success during their 70s-80s heyday. In 1971 the founding members started out as a backing band for singer Linda Ronstadt; with her blessing, Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Randy Meisner and Bernie Leadon decided to start their own band.

By the middle of the 70s — when guitarists Don Felder and Joe Walsh joined the lineup — the Eagles became one of the biggest bands on the planet. In 1977, their album Hotel California went to #1 on the US Billboard 200 and in many parts of the world, selling over 16 million copies in the US alone. In the early 1980s the Eagles split due to animosity among the band members, but in 1994 they reunited and since then they’ve been busy with a series of tours and records up to the current time.


Top Classic Rock Songs

It is a difficult job to pick out the best classic rock songs because there are so many of them. However, here is our final list of the classic rock songs that we think have become indelible to the minds of rock fans coming from various generations.

1. Stairway to Heaven (1972)

Written by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, this is easily the greatest classic rock song of all time. The song opens with an acoustic-based folk intro and is highlighted by hard-edged rock music courtesy of Page’s intricate guitar work. Despite being never released as a single, it was the most requested song on the radio.

2. Bohemian Rhapsody (1975)

This song and “Stairway to Heaven” are usually competing neck-and-neck for the greatest classic song of all time. With operatic and hard-rock influences, as well as its iconic music video, “Bohemian Rhapsody” became one of the best-selling singles in the world by the time it was released, as well as growing to become a classic rock staple.

3. Hotel California (1977)

The Eagle’s song about the demise and decadence Hollywood show business went triple-platinum in the US alone, as well as selling well around the world. The success of the single helped its album Hotel California lift over 16 million copies. Needless to say, it has also become one of classic rock’s most memorable songs.

4. Smoke on the Water (1972)

Once you’ve heard the riff, you know it already! Deep Purple’s biggest hit is easily one of the most recognizable songs in the classic rock field.

5. Wish You Were Here (1975)

Never has alienation sounded so beautiful and brilliant as in Pink Floyd’s song “Wish You Were Here.” Even up to the 21st century this song is still popular as it’s been streamed over a million times on Spotify.

6. Comfortably Numb (1979)

Its excellent guitar solos in particular in the Pink Floyd song “Comfortably Numb” earned a lofty place as one of the greatest guitar masterpieces in the world of classic rock.

7. Baba O’Riley (1971)

The first track of The Who’s Who’s Next album is sometimes otherwise known as “Teenage Wasteland.” Taking the name from Pete Townshend’s influences, the spiritual guru Meher Baba and minimalist music genius Terry Riley, whose work was the inspiration of the song’s hypnotizingly repetitive electronic textures. It is one of The Who’s greatest legacies to classic rock.

8. You Shook Me All Night Long (1980)

The first AC/DC song to feature new lead vocalist Brian Johnson, this has been regarded by many rock fans as one of the essential songs you shouldn’t miss when you get introduced to classic rock.

9. Sweet Home Alabama (1974)

“Sweet Home Alabama” is probably the most well-known song by Lynyrd Skynyrd. Combining hard rock music with some touches of country as is typical in Southern rock genre, the song went to #8 on the Billboard Hot 100.

10. Sweet Emotion (1975)

This song by Aerosmith is included in their album Toys in the Attic which gave the band the breakthrough success they aspired. It still rocks to high heaven, even 40 years after it was first released.


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