The 100 greatest rock songs of the century... so far

10. Queens Of The Stone Age - No One Knows

With its monstrously catchy riff and refrain that even those who are not fans of QOTSA recognise, it’s easy to assume – with the benefit of distance and time – that No One Knows was an instant home run. Critics adored it. It charted well (Top 20 in the UK, No.1 in the UK Rock And Metal chart). And if you’ve been at a rock club or heavier indie night any time in the past decade or so, chances are you’ve moshed along to it a lot of times. 

So it’s strange that bassist Nick Oliveri considered it an unlikely choice for a single. “When they were talking about doing it as a single, I was like: ‘This is a five-minute song, dude. There’s a jam part in here, a bass part, a drum thing. What do you mean, single?’ y’know?” he says. “They’re going to cut this song up. The last thing I want to do is have anybody edit our song. But we kind of felt we could get behind any of the songs, and whatever single they wanted to choose, the one they wanted to get behind, we just said go ahead.”

From: Songs For The Deaf, 2002

9. Iron Maiden - Blood Brothers

A number of important questions were raised when Iron Maiden regrouped with Bruce Dickinson in 1999 for Brave New World. Not least, would singer Bruce Dickinson and bass player Steve Harris – never the friendliest of colleagues even the first time around – be capable of establishing a more stable workplace relationship?

Brave New World’s most important song was among its most concise. Blood Brothers was written by Harris in honour of his late dad. The pair had shared a very close relationship, hence the song’s poignant lyric: ‘Just for a second a glimpse of my father I see/And in a movement he beckons to me/And in a moment the memories are all that remain/And all the wounds are reopening again.’ 

It also set up Harris and Dickinson as blood siblings forever more. In an early indication that relations between the pair were set to warm, Dickinson said Blood Brothers was “a little masterpiece”, adding: “It’s kind of bittersweet and extremely loving, and at the same time very emotional. It [presents] a lot of mixed emotions, and musically speaking there’s a few Celtic nods.”

From: Brave New World, 2000

8. Audioslave - Cochise

Cochise was named after an Apache chief who led a savage push-back against the US government in 1861. “When several members of his family were captured, tortured and hung by the US Cavalry,” Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello said of that historic confrontation, “Cochise declared war on the entire South-West and went on an unholy rampage, a warpath to end all warpaths. He and his warriors drove out thousands of settlers. Cochise the Avenger, fearless and resolute, attacked everything in his path with an unbridled fury. This song kinda sounds like that.” 

Not for nothing was the riff from Cochise selected by Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi as a favourite of the post-millennium. After the track juddered to life like a fleet of jungle-strafing Vietnam helicopters (an effect actually created by a guitar and an abused delay pedal), Morello laid down a syncopated lick that evoked – then out-swaggered – Jimmy Page’s hook from The Ocean, over which Cornell’s vocal nods to Whole Lotta Love. “It’s one of the biggest riffs that we’ve ever committed to disc,” said Morello.

From: Audioslave, 2002

7. Velvet Revolver - Slither 

By the beginning of the 21st century, Guns N’ Roses’ stronghold on rock’n’roll seemed to be fading. Appetite For Destruction from 13 years earlier was but a distant memory, 2008’s Chinese Democracy was nothing more than a tired punch line. While rock still had a grip on mainstream culture, it was beginning to loosen. Heavy music needed heroes. 

Which was where the foundations for Velvet Revolver’s Slither, one of the century’s titanic rock hits, were laid. Today, 16 years on from its release, it’s still a regular on guitarist/co-writer Slash’s set-lists. Co-credited to all five band members, its tension-building first 30-odd seconds flipped into a full-pelt rock chuggernaut. It sounded like a classic, while retaining its own maverick groove and personality.

From: Contraband, 2004 

6. Rush - Caravan

When Rush’s Clockwork Angels album was released in 2012, few suspected it would turn out to be the band’s final album, not least because it sounded like the work of a group that still had plenty of fuel in the tank. But what a way to close out a quite remarkable career. A muscular yet intricate concept record, it included some stone-cold classics, led by the incendiary, one-two punch of Caravan

If you didn’t ‘get’ Rush before, this was likely to be the track that converted you. For a band who often revelled in the polarising sides of prog rock, Caravan had an instant, swaggering sense of funk, while retaining the nuances and textures that had served them well for 19 albums already.

From: Clockwork Angels, 2012

5. The White Stripes - Seven Nation Army

Four albums into The White Stripes’ career, Detroit native Jack White already had considerable form as a blues revivalist with a raw approach to production. But even by his standards Seven Nation Army was stripped back. It didn’t even have a chorus as such – that now-immortal G-major guitar line (all seven notes of it), routinely emulated, hummed and chanted the world over, was the chorus.

Seven Nation Army started life in early 2002, as a riff written in a hotel in Australia. Not that it was a mere throwaway, coughed out without intention. White did have one possible purpose for it in mind. He has said: “I thought: ‘If I ever got asked to write the next James Bond theme, that would be the riff for it.’”

There’s a good chance you can sing bits of the lyrics under your breath, but it’s the riff that has really been absorbed into public consciousness. It all started with football crowds. It’s generally accepted that Belgium’s Club Brugge fans were the first to adopt a (wordless) chant of Seven Nation Army, at their Champions League victory over AC Milan in October 2003. Since then it’s reappeared again and again at sports stadiums and festivals across the world.

From: Elephant, 2003

4. Foo Fighters - Best Of You

Released as a single in May 2005, Best Of You gave the Foo Fighters their biggest ever hit in the UK and US. It encapsulated everything that was great about the Foos, from the way the cautious verses suddenly blossomed into monster-sized choruses, to the throat-shredding intensity of Dave Grohl’s vocals. 

And its central message of positivity in the face of adversity chimed hard in the post-9/11 era. Prince’s Super Bowl cover two years later rubber-stamped this once-unloved song as one of the great rock anthems of the 21st century. 

From: In Your Honor, 2005

3. Alter Bridge - Blackbird

“It’s a pretty dark song, but it’s also one I’m so very proud of,” says Alter Bridge singer Myles Kennedy of Blackbird. “We all felt it was one of the most challenging yet gratifying songs we’ve ever written. It was inspired by a friend of mine who passed away just as we were finishing it. In essence, the song is a story about the struggle to move on to a better place. It was my dearest wish for him to finally find peace.” 

Such were the searing back-to-back licks of lead guitarist Mark Tremonti and Kennedy, meanwhile, that Guitarist magazine later voted the song – ahead of Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Eddie Van Halen and others – as having the greatest guitar solo of all time. 

“I knew that solo was the last one I had organised for the record,” Tremonti says of the dual threat instrumental break. “I put a ton of pressure on myself for that one because as a band we felt that was the strongest song on the album. I saved it until the end and made sure it was right. I put everything that I could into that solo."

From: Blackbird, 2007

2. AC/DC - Rock N Roll Train

It was a song good enough to have been on AC/DC’s all-conquering Back In Black, and it’s on the last of the studio albums recorded by the Back In Black line-up. Rock N Roll Train also has the distinction of being one of only two songs recorded after 1981’s For Those About To Rock to remain in AC/DC’s live set after a first touring cycle, the other being the mighty Thunderstruck

And in a long-running tradition of great AC/DC songs with ‘rock’n’roll’ in the title, albeit spelled in slightly different ways, Rock N Roll Train is right up there with the best of them, alongside Rock And Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution from Back In Black, and others, such as Rock ‘N’ Roll Damnation and It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘N’ Roll), from the years when the legendary Bon Scott fronted the band alongside their talismanic lead guitarist and eternal schoolboy Angus Young.

As Angus told Guitar World in 2009: “Certain songs just seem to come to life when you add that phrase.” And as with those earlier songs, the new title was perfectly in tune with the simple ethos that had driven AC/DC from the very start, an ethos summed up by Malcolm Young in 2003: “It’s just loud rock’n’roll, wham bam thank you ma’am!”

From: Black Ice, 2008

1. The Darkness - I Believe In A Thing Called Love

From the first spin of I Believe In A Thing Called Love, it was clear that here was a song to go the distance. Back in September 2003, The Darkness’s signature tune was instant, heroic, effervescent and just the right side of ludicrous. All factors amplified by the dour mewlings of nu metal’s fag-end. 

Seventeen years down the line, with I Believe In A Thing Called Love prancing atop our poll of the 21st century’s greatest rock songs thus far, its giddy power remains undimmed. “Playing that song is like slipping into a comfortable bath with a loved one,” frontman Justin Hawkins tells Classic Rock.

On the fateful day when a chunky chord sequence rolled off Justin’s acoustic guitar, ears pricked up. “It just popped out, that ridiculous opening riff,” he recalls. “It just sort of naturally emerged from the ether. Dan [Hawkins, guitar] had the chords for the pre-chorus. With the ‘touching you’ bits, that just seemed like a natural thing to do. You need to sort of put the brakes on a bit after all that information about steering wheels.” 

When Justin belted out the octave-straddling chorus, his younger brother worried that it was overly frivolous. “When I hear something that sounds too serious,” Justin says, “I tend to worry that it sounds like we’ve climbed up our own arse, whereas I think Dan has the opposite concern. There are moments when we pull each other in opposite directions, and times when we meet in the middle. If we’d gone any further, that song would have become a parody. The question was: ‘Can we get away with this?’ And the answer was clearly, ‘Yes’. 

“But it wasn’t until we fired it up in rehearsals that we realised how good it felt to play loud,” he continues. “It felt real and fun and silly, at the same time. It never sounded of its time. I don’t even think it sounded like the eighties rock thing that people compared it to, apart from the middle section when the synthesiser comes in. I don’t think I Believe In A Thing Called Love has ever really sat well with what’s contemporary. It’s just its own thing.” 

The final recorded version of I Believe was a tapestry of overdubs, and there’s a good reason why Justin recalls the exact date when he tracked his lead vocal at 2khz Studios in North London: “The vocal that we ended up using on the recording was from September 11, 2001. I remember coming into the studio as it was all unfolding. There were people watching it on the TV. I just thought there’d been an accident of some sort. Somebody said there were two planes and a building, and in my head I arranged that to mean two planes had crashed into each other, then landed on a building. "I didn’t understand what had happened. I didn’t realise the implications until afterwards. I just got on with my work.”

It has never been more difficult to write an all-time rock classic than it is now. With a dwindling stock of unclaimed riffs, and an ever-diminishing well of untapped melodies, today’s songwriter is a fearful creature, tiptoeing through a minefield of plagiarism cases. But with I Believe In A Thing Called Love The Darkness made striking gold seem effortless. A decade after Classic Rock crowned it the greatest song of the noughties – and despite the great tracks in the rundown you’ve just read – nothing has really come along to dethrone it.

From: Permission To Land, 2003

David Stubbs

David Stubbs is a music, film, TV and football journalist. He has written for The Guardian, NME, The Wire and Uncut, and has written books on Jimi Hendrix, Eminem, Electronic Music and the footballer Charlie Nicholas.