Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Top 15 American Rock 'N Roll Songs

(The Wonder Years and The Cosby Show TIED for favorite 80s sitcom. I guess I should get more people to vote so we don't have this problem....)

Here are 15 songs that I think should be considered the best when discussing American rock music. The British have dominated many lists of the greatest music with acts like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, The Who and so on. But all of those groups were influenced first by the original rock and rollers on this side of the Atlantic. Some of the songs on this list came before the "British Invasion" and deserve their place in the history of 20th century music.

There are a couple of great American songs I couldn't fit in the top 15 that do deserve mention for their contribution to rock history. Bill Haley and The Comets pretty much fired the first shot of the rock 'n roll revolution when their hit song "Rock Around The Clock" appeared over the title of the 1955 film Blackboard Jungle. Soon they were playing to packed houses on both sides of the Atlantic. That song is still as catchy today as when it was written. Another classic, "Ain't That A Shame" by Fats Domino is well written, nearly forgotten, and almost made the cut. "Truckin'" by The Grateful Dead is another great song with great harmony and country roots which deserves to be mentioned. And I was struggling with "Sittin' On The Dock of the Bay" by the late great Otis Redding, but finally couldn't fit it in either.

Anyway, here are the 15 songs I think are at the top:

15. Sweet Home Alabama- Lynryd Skynryd

Although The Allmann Brothers Band is the greatest Southern rock group, this is the best song of that genre. Many might pick "Ramblin' Man" or "Free Bird" ahead of it but not me. If I had to make a list of the "Most Redneck Songs" then "Free Bird" would take the top spot for sure.

14. Respect- Aretha Franklin

The only woman on the list and the only woman who can hang with any of these guys. Nobody to this day can belt it out like the Queen of Soul. This of course was an Otis Redding song which Aretha took to new heights with a female point of view.

13. Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On- Jerry Lee Lewis

The Killer had a short career in the early days of rock but it sure packed a punch. Few could rival his eccentric stage performances and few have ever rocked the keys like Jerry Lee.

12. Papa's Got a Brand New Bag- James Brown

This is the song that put The Godfather of Soul on the map. There are plenty of songs as good or better in his huge catalogue but this one is the most important.

11. L.A. Woman- The Doors

This wasn't the first hit by the Doors (actually, I think it was the last) nor was it their most popular, but for my money it is their best. It has all of the elements that made them one of America's top bands of all time, Bluesy guitar, funky keys, and Jim Morrison's powerful deep vocals.

10. Long Tall Sally- Little Richard

Although "Tutti Frutti" was Little Richard's first hit, this was his first #1 and was subsequently recorded by Elvis, The Beatles, and The Kinks. Ironically it was Pat Boone's cover of the song that led to its commercial success.

9. Blue Suede Shoes- Carl Perkins

Carl Perkins was one of rock and roll's great singer-songwriters in the early days like Little Richard, and Chuck Berry. This classic was taken to new heights by Elvis Presley.

8. What's Going On?- Marvin Gaye

Number One Soul recording of all time.

7. That'll Be The Day- Buddy Holly

The hit that jumpstarted Buddy's career which was cut way too short but influenced EVERYBODY from The Beatles and Rolling Stones to The Grateful Dead.

6. Good Vibrations- The Beach Boys

Brian Wilson is recognized as one of the top songwriters in rock history. The Beach Boys have plenty of songs worthy of being mentioned here but this "mini-symphony" with its use of a theremin and a studio cost of approximately $50,000 to make, is by far their best single.

5. Purple Haze- Jimi Hendrix

This guitar riff is one of the most recoginizable in rock history, which makes this song the doorway to the world of the greatest rock guitarist who ever lived!

4. Heartbreak Hotel- Elvis Presley

Before this record, Elvis was a regional success but not only did "Heartbreak Hotel" become his first #1 hit it changed the face of American music forever. Years later it would hit #1 again on the country charts when Willie Nelson and Leon Russell did a cover version.

3. What'd I Say- Ray Charles

This could easily be numero uno on this list. There are few records more important or more controversial than this one. It is arguably the first "soul" song on record because it crossed over from the R&B to the pop charts. This is the cornerstone for the motown, funk and hip-hop sounds that came later. The song has been recorded by numerous artists in different genres including Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Eric Clapton, Eddie Cochran, Van Morrison, Steve Winwood, and even Nancy Sinatra. Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson have all said it was a major influence on their songwiting. George Harrison once said, "It was one of the best records I ever heard."

2. Like a Rolling Stone- Bob Dylan

This also could be number one. Rolling Stone magazine (gee, I wonder why) voted it #1 on their Top 500 songs list back in 2004. It is almost impossible to describe why it is so good. If you've heard it and you don't know why I suggest you keep listening. It's sort of like the pinnacle for Dylan, the perfect sample of his genius: a combination of biting but poetic lyrics and a wall of sound that defies convention. There are very few songs I relish singing along with as much as Rolling Stone. It was a favorite of Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, and The Beatles and has been covered too many times to reference.

1. Johnny B Goode- Chuck Berry

The bottom line is simply stated: This IS rock and roll. If an alien lifeform landed on earth and wanted an explanation of what rock music is this is the song to play. Chuck Berry had already created a few hits, "Maybellene" being the first, but nothing he had done compared to the raw power of this classic. I imagine kids hearing it for the first time in 1958 and thinking it was the wildest, fastest, and rockingest music on earth. It still cooks over half a century later. Evidence of it's influence and impact is that it is one of the most covered songs in rock history, most famously in the movie Back to the Future. As Marty McFly takes the guitar from injured "Marvin Berry" (supposedly Chuck's cousin) and jams out the guitar staple you get a sense of what those '58 teens experienced!

Here's a short list of some that covered Johnny B. Goode: Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, Judas Priest, John Mayer Trio, Carlos Santana, Buddy Holly, Led Zeppelin, The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Prince, Lynryd Skynyrd, The Beach Boys, B.B. King, Elton John, and The Carpenters!


Daniel said...

OK, I voted for Elvis initially, but I think I would change my vote to Ray Charles. Sorry...I didn't see his name on the list. Black people started rock "n" roll according to Mos Def...and a lot of other people.

Dignan said...

Yes, they did. But you can't go wrong with Elvis, or Ray, or Chuck. In my opinion those three are the most important. I voted for Elvis because he made it global. Being white and being "good lookin'" had advantages for sure but when Sam Philips got goosebumps listening to "That's Alright Mama" it was all about the sound not the image which came later.

Yeah, black people pretty much created most American music except bluegrass and country.

Anonymous said...

Hank Sr. was black. It's ridiculous how people believe everything the media tells them.

Anyhoo, the best songs on there are "What's Going On" and "Like A Rolling Stone". Hard to pick between those two.

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Andrew said...

Through this blog I come to know about superb songs. Some of them I already know. I like beach boys among them.