OKAY! It's over and here we are in 2022. What was your favorite new music of last year? Well, if you don't know, check out this ultimate list of the absolute best rock songs of 2021. We guarantee there will be a song or two you will love ... if you're a classic rock fan.
TOP ALBUMS OF 2021
21. Nancy Wilson, 'You and Me'
Nancy Wilson bided her time to release her debut solo album, but it was worth the wait. You and Me sees Wilson in a new light, highlighting her talent as a guitarist — her primary role in Heart – but also as a confident lead vocalist. In her own words, You and Me was not a planned affair, but an endeavor brought on by the lockdown. “I’m not going to sit here and do a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle,” she told Rolling Stone in 2020. You and Me includes originals, but it's her choice of covers that stand out, each a small nod to fellow musicians who have inspired her along the way: Bruce Springsteen's "The Rising," Simon & Garfunkel's "The Boxer," Pearl Jam's "Daughter" and others. Wilson even brings some special guests along for the ride like Sammy Hagar, Taylor Hawkins of Foo Fighters and Duff McKagan of Guns N' Roses, making for a collaborative effort during an isolated year. She also pays tribute to those she's lost — the opening title track was written for her late mother, while the closing song "4 Edward" is a tender acoustic note for Eddie Van Halen. — Allison Rapp
20. Micky Dolenz, 'Dolenz Sings Nesmith'
For his first studio album in nine years, Micky Dolenz returned to the material of an old friend, his former Monkees bandmate Michael Nesmith. While the LP does feature several Monkees deep cuts, it’s the songs Nesmith penned at other points in his career which really shine. “Different Drum” (made famous by Linda Ronstadt) becomes a folky rocker in Dolenz’s hands, while “Little Red Rider” (originally recorded by Nesmith’s First National Band) is delivered in a surprisingly raucous way. Overall, the album serves as a well-crafted tribute from one friend to another, showcasing Nesmith’s impressive songwriting, while also proving Dolenz still has plenty in the tank, even at 76 years old. The two will head out for one final Monkees trek in the fall of 2021. We can only hope a few of these non-Monkees gems sneak into the set lists as well. — Corey Irwin
19. Steve Lukather, 'I Found the Sun Again'
A combination of original material and cover songs, Steve Lukather offered up a little bit of everything with his ninth solo LP I Found the Sun Again. The singer and guitarist, best known as the sole continuous founding member of Toto, channeled some of his band’s famous jazz-inspired sound on the track "Serpent Soul." Still, much of the album strayed from that particular brand of rock. Instead, Lukather delivered an eclectic LP, featuring moody grooves (“I Found the Sun Again”), heavy-handed rockers (“Along For the Ride”) and even a soaring instrumental (“Journey Through”). Adding to the album were some of the musician’s famous friends, including Toto bandmates Joseph Williams and David Paich, and Beatle Ringo Starr. Covers on the LP include renditions of Traffic’s “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys,” Robin Trower’s “Bridge of Sighs” and Joe Walsh’s “Welcome to the Club.” — Irwin
18. Monster Magnet, 'A Better Dystopia'
Monster Magnet frontman Dave Wyndorf noted in the news release for A Better Dystopia that he didn't want to spend his quarantine "panhandling on the internet, hawking masks and Zoom-rocking practice sessions." So the band instead hunkered down in a small New Jersey recording studio and let loose on covers of obscure late-'60s and early-'70s psychedelic and garage-rock gems. A Better Dystopia's 13 songs are perfectly chosen and delivered with high skill and wild abandon. These 48 minutes fly by, with strong takes on the Scientists' "Solid Gold Hell" and the Table Scraps' "Motorcycle (Straight to Hell)" getting especially high marks. The result is one hell of a fun ride that also helps to illustrate exactly where Wyndorf got his unique sensibility. — Matthew Wilkening
17. Liquid Tension Experiment, 'Liquid Tension Experiment 3'
The virtuosos in Liquid Tension Experiment had no reason to reunite beyond the thrill of collaboration — well, that and maybe boredom. The instrumental prog supergroup knocked out their third LP (and first in 22 years) during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, with everyone’s touring demands lightened indefinitely. “It certainly has been on all our minds, and we definitely knew there was interest and a demand,” guitarist John Petrucci recalled in April. “And honestly, the past year, with everybody being off the road — literally every musician — there was no conflict of schedule anymore, so you really couldn't make that excuse." Liquid Tension Experiment assembled the album through a few weeks of jams, winding up with plenty of neck-breaking, solo-stuffed workouts (“Hypersonic”) but also some intriguing experiments, like a metallic duet between bassist Tony Levin and drummer Mike Portnoy (“Chris & Kevin’s Amazing Odyssey”) and the atmospheric calm of “Liquid Evolution.” — Ryan Reed
16. Styx, Crash of the Crown'
Although they’re on the brink of their 50th year as a band, Styx continues to clock new milestones. The title track of their newest album, Crash of the Crown, finds all three vocalists – Tommy Shaw, Lawrence Gowan and James “J.Y.” Young – sharing lead vocal duties for the first time on a Styx recording. Keeping things in a historical vein, Winston Churchhill makes an appearance (okay, via archival audio) on the anthemic “Save Us From Ourselves,” while Shaw successfully sneaks a banjo into the framework of “Our Wonderful Lives.” Working from home because of the pandemic also gave the Styx members a chance to utilize vintage gear that doesn’t travel well. (Witness the appearance of Gowan’s MiniMoog as one example.) Throwback synths and organs echoing the band’s ‘70s heyday are generously granted admission in a number of spots throughout the album. For those who enjoyed the band’s 2017 comeback The Mission, this latest album is a worthy sequel. — Matt Wardlaw
15. Greta Van Fleet, 'The Battle at Garden's Gate'
These Michigan retro-rock revivalists saw your “Led Zeppelin cosplay” jokes and raised you some strings. Everything about Greta Van Fleet’s second full-length is more expansive: the instrumentation, the song lengths, the budget, the fantasy-realm absurdity, the physical range of Josh Kiszka’s Valhalla-seeking shriek. Working with top-drawer producer Greg Kurstin (Paul McCartney, Foo Fighters, Adele), Greta Van Fleet leaned into their proggiest, heaviest instincts — jettisoning the dopey folk-rock detours (“You’re the One”) that bogged down stretches of their 2018 debut, Anthem of the Peaceful Army. They sound more natural in this cinematic space, allowing guitarist Jake Kiszka to orchestrate riffs on a bigger scale (like on epics “Age of Machine” and “The Weight of Dreams”). Sure, nothing about The Battle of Garden’s Gate is particularly original — but who cares? Few bands recycle the past with such flair and finesse. — Reed
14. Cheap Trick, 'In Another World'
To paraphrase Cheap Trick themselves, “Everything works if you let it.” So when it came to In Another World, their 20th studio album, they didn’t veer from the usual playbook. But Cheap Trick are hardly just churning out tired retreads of their glory years: If anything, they’re adding vital chapters, with new music that’s as tightly constructed and energetically rockin’ as their most celebrated albums. One can argue that drummer Daxx Nielsen has given the group a much-needed shot in the arm on the records they’ve made since his 2010 arrival. “The Summer Looks Good on You” oozes with attitude paired with a glorious vocal snarl from Robin Zander, while “Boys & Girls & Rock N Roll” has a delightful Bowie-esque tint. “Light Up the Fire” is a rowdy, psychedelic crusher that features some choice guitar shredding from the ever-colorful Rick Nielsen, and the album closer of John Lennon’s “Gimme Some Truth” is another worthy addition to their Beatles-related songbook. In Another World is arguably the best album Cheap Trick has put forth in the past decade. — Wardlaw
13. Melvins, 'Working With God'
Melvins brought back members of the "Melvins 1983" lineup for their 24th studio album, as original drummer Mike Dillard returned to his post for the first time since 2013's Tres Cabrones. (Longtime current drummer Dale Crover, who wasn't in the band in 1983, moved over to bass.) Dillard's approach is far more direct than Crover's nuanced wizardry, and the shift once again seems to have brought out the delightfully primal side of singer-guitarist Buzz Osborne's playing. Humorous and profane takes on the Beach Boys' "I Get Around" and Harry Nilsson's "You're Breaking My Heart" might grab your attention at first, but the more lasting thrills can be found on original propulsive rockers such as "Bouncing Rick" and "The Great Good Place." — Wilkening
12. Steven Wilson, 'The Future Bites'
Steven Wilson has always been much more than a progressive rock musician: From day one, as a solo artist and collaborator, he’s experimented with psychedelia, electronica, alt-rock, trip-hop and metal – pretty much any style that doesn’t involve trap beats or cowboy hats. He just happens to have earned fame as bandleader of Porcupine Tree, the most purely prog-leaning project in his massive repertoire – even as his music keeps evolving beyond the label he can’t seem to shed. His sixth solo LP, The Future Bites, is the most modern-sounding, least muso-centric work in his catalog: built on glistening synths (“Man of the People”), glitchy beats (“King Ghost”) and eerie vocal effects, with bursts of pop-rock balladry (“12 Things I Forgot”) and demented electro-funk (“Eminent Sleaze”) rounding out the palette. The future may bite – but for Wilson, its possibilities seem limitless. — Reed
11. Blackberry Smoke, 'You Hear Georgia'
There's always been a steady stream of strong rock bands out of Atlanta, Ga., Blackberry Smoke among them. Their seventh studio album, You Hear Georgia, marks the group's 20th anniversary, and Blackberry Smoke aimed to emphasize that deeply rooted connection with their Southern roots. Working with fellow Georgian producer Dave Cobb and special guests including Allman Brothers guitarist Warren Haynes, the Black Bettys and Jamey Johnson, You Hear Georgia is a hardy combination of driving rock tracks and slower, more relaxed country folk-esque tunes recorded at Nashville's famed RCA Studios. The result is an honorable homage to their home state. — Rapp
10. Alice Cooper, 'Detroit Stories'
Alice Cooper has certainly built himself a brand. His 21st studio album, Detroit Stories, is instantly recognizable as being his. Working with his tried-and-true band of musicians, along with longtime producer Bob Ezrin, Cooper incorporated the usual drama and embellishment, but this time he offered another theme for fans to follow: nostalgia. Born in Detroit, Cooper moved away when he was young and attempted, as many young rock bands of the time did, to launch a musical career out of L.A. with the Alice Cooper Band. He eventually made his way back to Detroit, where the group found mainstream success being themselves. This was the unconventional, gritty community that Cooper paid tribute to on Detroit Stories, which features numerous fellow Detroit names like Wayne Kramer from MC5 and Johnny “Bee” Badanjek from Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. On his cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Cooper even shifts lyrics that look back on New York to focus on Detroit. For many fans, part of the appeal of Cooper is that he's always looking forward, but on Detroit Stories, he proves that looking back can be just as much fun. — Rapp
9. Billy Gibbons, 'Hardware'
On his third studio album, Hardware, Billy Gibbons brought the heat. The legendary ZZ Top guitarist actually set up shop in the California desert when crafting this record, and that proved to be the perfect location to crank the volume. “You’re surrounded with a lot of sand, rocks and cactus – maybe a few rattlesnakes thrown in for good measure," Gibbons said. “But that was really the environment that served as a very creative outlet to make some loud noise.” Hardware was made with only a small handful of people working by Gibbons' side (including drummer Matt Sorum and guitarist Austin Hanks), but there was another person Gibbons wanted to honor with a scorching record like this one: his longtime producer Joe Hardy, who worked with Gibbons on his two previous solo albums, and for whom he named Hardware. Between the LP's opening track, the bluesy "My Lucky Card," the special guest appearance from Southern rock sisters Rebecca and Megan Lovell of Larkin Poe on "Stackin' Bones," and the psychedelic spoken word of the final song "Desert High," Gibbons lets rip as only he can. — Rapp
8. Kings of Leon, 'When You See Yourself'
Kings of Leon made their hoped-for destiny real by becoming mainstream rock stars, playing bigger and bigger songs before bigger and bigger audiences. Somewhere along the way, however, they started to take the process – and then, it seems, themselves – far too seriously. Their music lost its agency, its free-wheeling vibe. Once seen as saviors of Southern rock, Kings of Leon became a bit of a drag. The intriguing thing about how they've come back from the brink is that the Followills started taking things even more seriously. But rather than trying (and trying) to write the Next Anthem, they began peering inward. Wholly unexpected, that introspection provides the emotional foundation for darker, yet far more authentic new successes on When You See Yourself. Maybe Kings of Leon will never be huge stars again (in fact, this album's shadowy soundscapes likely ensure it), but at least they've broken out of the gilded arena-rock cage they built for themselves. – Nick DeRiso
7. Weezer, 'Van Weezer'
Van Weezer was never going to boast the seedy danger of '80s glam metal, no matter the title and album-cover treatment. Asking that from Weezer is to misunderstand the group, certainly at this late date. Sure, this is their rockingest project since 2002’s Maladroit, perhaps the band's best post-reunion LP. But Van Weezer is really – like so much of their music – about sweet nostalgia, something Rivers Cuomo totally cops to in "I Need Some of That" when he longs for a place where he can "press rewind and go back to a simpler place." His apparently eternal boyishness ensures that Van Weezer is too hooky, too happy and at times maybe too damned cute to have emerged from the Sunset Strip. (More like Saved by the Bell.) In the end, however, this isn't a problem. In fact, it's a strength. Call Van Weezer a guilty pleasure, if you must, but that's not always a bad thing. – DeRiso
6. Weezer, 'OK Human'
The first of two Weezer albums released in the first half of 2021 is the less-gimmicky one, concept-free and the better record because of that. Unlike the hair-metal tribute Van Weezer that came out four months later, OK Human riffs on Radiohead (see: that title) by turning things around with a totally analogue recording rooted in the chamber-pop music from the mid '60s through early '70s. With an orchestra aiding the band without getting in the way, it's the most organic-sounding Weezer album and one of their best, with tracks like "All My Favorite Songs" finding a sweet spot between melancholy and joy. — Michael Gallucci
5. Chrissie Hynde, 'Standing in the Doorway: Chrissie Hynde Sings Bob Dylan'
Chrissie Hynde is no stranger to Bob Dylan tunes. She's joined him on stage, regularly sung "Forever Young" with the Pretenders, and utterly owned "I Shall Be Released" at his 30th anniversary concert. Still, a quarantine project devoted to covering this vast catalog – sparked by the surprise arrival of a new Dylan song, "Murder Most Foul," in the early days of lockdown last year – would have to somehow claim its own narrative voice. Hynde finds unlikely purchase by returning to early-'80s Dylan fare. Songs like "In the Summertime," "Sweetheart Like You" and "Don't Fall Apart on Me Tonight" are typically, and sometimes rightly, overlooked in a discography stuffed with era-defining classics. But they're also unexamined enough to give Hynde plenty of interpretive space, opening our ears to her tough vulnerability before she returns to the perhaps more-expected "Love Minus Zero / No Limit" and "Every Grain of Sand." Well named, this album's title track is its triumph. She has a sigh that's worth a million words. – DeRiso
4. Mammoth WVH, 'Mammoth WVH'
Wolfgang Van Halen had to thread quite a narrow needle while launching his solo career: establishing a musical identity separate from his father Eddie's massive shadow while still living up to his family's high standards, just months after the guitar legend's death. No pressure, right? But he pulls it off with seeming ease on Mammoth WVH, acting as a one-man band on an impressively sharp and hook-filled collection of songs that draw from a completely different set of influences than Van Halen. You won't find any of David Lee Roth or Sammy Hagar's cocky vocal swagger or winking sexual foreplay here. But there's a big dose of pop smarts along with plenty of clever, complex instrumental bits to reward repeated listens. Best of all, the disciplined focus on structure, hooks and melodies never wavers. No wonder Eddie couldn't stop raving about this record. — Wilkening
3. Peter Frampton, 'Frampton Forgets the Words'
That Peter Frampton can play with such subtle fluidity may come as a surprise to anyone who last checked in during the Comes Alive era. But this smartly titled instrumental project isn't Frampton's initial foray into lyric-less brilliance: He won a Grammy for his first one, 2006's excellent Fingerprints. Forgets the Words is in some ways rangier, as his new set of covers draws deft lines between R&B (Sly and the Family Stone's "If You Want Me to Stay," Marvin Gaye's "One More Heartache"), pop (Roxy Music's "Avalon"), Americana (Alison Krauss' "Maybe"), jazz (Jaco Pastorius' "Dreamland") and – of course – rock (George Harrison's "Isn't It a Pity," Radiohead's "Reckoner," David Bowie's "Loving the Alien"). In the end, however, Forgets the Words makes the same case: There's far more to Peter Frampton than his open-shirted talk-box heyday. — DeRiso
2. Foo Fighters, 'Medicine at Midnight'
Foo Fighters will never escape that middle-of-the-road, '90s-meets-the-'00s rock 'n' roll thing they do, so calling their 10th album, Medicine at Midnight, a shift in style really means they've added a few new detours. It's pretty much what you expect from a Foo Fighters album: fist-raising anthems and arena-shaking rock songs sprinkled with a dash of introspection. What's new here are the dance and pop elements Dave Grohl drops into songs like "Shame Shame" and "Waiting on a War." Medicine at Midnight won't change the way you think about Foo Fighters, but it does offer some insight into what they're capable of when they switch lanes. — Gallucci
1. The Black Keys, 'Delta Kream'
The Black Keys have spent the past several years proving they're capable of more than just replicating the hill country blues that helped launch their career two decades ago. But on their 10th album, they swivel back to the sound for their least-fussy and rawest record since 2010's Brothers made them new-century rock 'n' roll saviors. Covering songs by R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough and others (and also employing sidemen who've played with the late bluesmen), Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney are back in their element on Delta Kream, pounding out garage-rock stompers like "Poor Boy a Long Way From Home" and John Lee Hooker's oft-covered "Crawling Kingsnake" that are injected with a bit of back-road history and lots of grit. — Gallucci
TOP ROCK SONGS OF 2021 - BONUS CONTENT
Making music in 2021 has proved something of a feat for many artists. Even as performing live began to pick up again, the reality of releasing new work during a pandemic has taken the form of everything from archival projects to iPhone demos.
For some, lockdown offered the opportunity to revisit previously unreleased material — the estates of George Harrison, Tom Petty, Prince, Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young put out music that had, up until 2021, been locked down itself. Others turned to the comfort of familiar songs: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit delivered a full album of covers by Georgian artists, while Nancy Wilson, Peter Frampton and Deep Purple also revisited some of their favorite rock songs. Others — like Iron Maiden, Alice Cooper, Mammoth WVH and more — went back to the drawing board, composing brand new material that was often recorded remotely in home studios, utilizing the power of technology to fulfill their visions. Some even used the time to collaborate with artists they may not have otherwise – Brian Wilson sang with My Morning Jacket's Jim James, David Crosby worked with Donald Fagen and Michael McDonald and Elton John made an entire album of duets with some of his old and new friends.
The below list of the Top 40 Rock Songs of 2021 ranges from rock to metal, blues to prog and everything in between - the end results of an exciting and fruitful year.
40. Nancy Wilson, "4 Edward"
Eddie Van Halen was best known for his revolutionary electric guitar playing, but Nancy Wilson highlighted a less-famous side of his artistry with the tribute song "4 Edward." The gentle acoustic instrumental, which appears on the Heart singer and guitarist's debut solo album You and Me, was inspired by an exchange the duo had while on tour together decades ago. The morning after Wilson gifted Van Halen an acoustic guitar, he thanked her by calling her hotel room and playing what she described as "this beautiful piece of acoustic guitar instrumental music. I was so touched ... it was one of the prettiest things I'd ever heard." Six months after Van Halen's death, Wilson paid him back. - Matthew Wilkening
39. Jethro Tull, "Shoshana Sleeping"
“Shoshana Sleeping” marks the end of a long drought: Jethro Tull’s last album of original songs, J-Tull Dot Com, came out in 1999. (To be fair, bandleader Ian Anderson had since migrated the band's folk-prog sound over to his solo albums, including 2014’s Homo Erraticus.) Regardless, it was hard not to click “play” without a bit of nervousness: Given the delay (plus Anderson’s battle with COPD), a drop-off in quality would’ve been understandable. But “Shoshana” feels like a master telling his audience, “I still know how to do this” — draping poetic imagery (“Sweet field lily, sweet Shoshana / Names to conjure fragrant danger / My fingers tremble, trace the line / From nape to sacrum down the spine”) over a vintage flute pattern and dissonant guitar riff. - Ryan Reed
38. Blackberry Smoke, "You Hear Georgia"
Blackberry Smoke grew up surrounded by strong source material like local southern bands Georgia Satellites and Drivin N Cryin. You can hear traces of familiar drawling riffs in the title track to the band's seventh album, You Hear Georgia. But there’s also an unmistakable swagger of their own that's been perfected over 20 years together. In the call-and-response "You Hear Georgia," Charlie Starr and Paul Jackson trade licks back and forth, leading one of the year's biggest earworms. - Matt Wardlaw
37. Elvis Costello and the Imposters, "Magnificent Hurt"
After excursions into jazz and poetry on 2020's Hey Clockface and then oddly intriguing Hispanic recreations on 2021's Spanish Model, you could be forgiven for wondering if Elvis Costello would ever return to the curled-lipped post-punk of his earliest days. That's not a requirement, of course, so much as a closely held wish. After all, he was one of the the original Angry Young Men – the dude that infuriated Lorne Michaels in 1977 by rebelliously switching songs on Saturday Night Live, then provoked a 1979 bar fight that led to a completely justified face punch from Bonnie Bramlett. So, the deliciously abrupt "Magnificent Hurt," powered along by a series of organ blurts by Costello's Attractions-era collaborator Steve Nieve, fulfills every dream sequence. – Nick DeRiso
36. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, "Ivory Tower"
With four distinctive songwriters, CSNY had an embarrassment of riches — few other bands leave a song this solid on the cutting-room floor. True, it’s hard to imagine Deja Vu outtake “Ivory Tower” bumping any tracks from that 1970 classic. But this country-rock outtake, first envisioned for Stephen Stills’ band Manassas, deserved a better fate than being shelved for decades. (A revised version, titled “Little Miss Bright Eyes,” was released on the 2013 Stills box set, Carry On.) With its stacked vocal harmonies, stabbing guitars and laid-back swagger, it’s vintage CSNY in every sense — if slightly rough around the edges. - Reed
35. Marillion, "Be Hard on Yourself"
The higher the stakes, the more cinematic the vibe, the better the Marillion. And three-part epic “Be Hard on Yourself” — the first sample of their upcoming 2022 LP, An Hour Before It’s Dark — brings all the mystery and intensity of the band’s proggiest peaks. After a wintry choral intro, the tune’s first section (“The Tear in the Big Picture”) builds an unsettling art-rock atmosphere, highlighted by plenty of Steve Hogarth falsetto. It’s a patient climb over nine-plus minutes, but the payoff is immense: The third section (“You Can Learn”) stacks synths and guitars into blinking Morse code, until the rhythm shifts into double-time and the band reaches overdrive. “Strap in, get ready,” Hogarth sings, fittingly. “Push the button, blow it all up.” - Reed
34. Neil Young, "Heading West"
Restoring an old barn to its former vintage glory provided the perfect setting for Neil Young to tackle his 12th album with Crazy Horse. As “Heading West” demonstrates, the music that emerged was also classic and surprisingly succinct. Despite operating with some parameters of brevity, Young and his musical comrades still find plenty of room to jam on the song, a raggedly gritty, electric tribute to his “growing up” years and the early adventures he shared with his mom. - Wardlaw
33. Jason Isbell, "Driver 8"
Jason Isbell's southern roots run deep. Hailing from northern Alabama, the guitarist swiftly fell into the Muscle Shoals scene while still a teenager But Isbell's style has consistently gravitated toward a style of modernity, inspired by groups like R.E.M., who Isbell once described as "'southern rock' that isn't that at all." He and his band, the 400 Unit, made good on their promise to release an album of covers by Georgian artists after the 2020 presidential election — "Driver 8" stands out as a succinct tribute to R.E.M., a band that effectively proved that "southern rock" could take on new forms. Isbell ably carries the torch. - Allison Rapp
32. The Fixx, "Wake Up"
"Politicians just lie to get elected, and then forget what they said. It’s all bullshit," Fixx frontman Cy Curnin says. "As a band, we like to remind people of that and to not just lie there like sheep, and to wake up to their own responsibilities." Sounds like the perfect soundbite for their 2021 single, also titled "Wake Up." Except Curnin's quote is from years ago. In keeping, "Wake Up" isn't some out-of-nowhere clarion call to awareness and activism. It's just another sign that the Fixx, a rare band boasting both all of its classic-era members and all of its classic-era nerve, were always about something more than their cool-coifed MTV contemporaries. While nobody noticed, they were picking apart our empty Cold War allegiances, discussing the dangers of fixating on mutually assured nuclear destruction and then, more recently, examining the ugly aftermath of 9/11. "Wake Up" could have neatly fit in any of those eras but seems especially needed in this one. – DeRiso
31. Weezer, "All My Favorite Songs"
Rivers Cuomo aims for his sad-silly sweet spot on “All My Favorite Songs,” a centerpiece of Weezer’s recent baroque-rock excursion OK Human. With its shiny classical keyboard motif and nursery-rhyme vocal delivery, “Songs” at first seems like surface-level Weezer: shiny and playful, without much under the surface. But as the strings swell and Patrick Wilson leans into his hip-hop drum groove, the track reveals an unexpected depth and drama: Cuomo's words use irony as clever contrasts — even touching on social anxiety: “I love parties, but I don’t go,” he sings. “Then I feel bad when I stay home.” - Reed
30. Melvins, "Hund"
Never content to stay in one spot for long, Melvins reformed their "1983" lineup for the first time in eight years on 2021's Working With God. Mike Dillard, who briefly served as the band's first drummer before Dale Crover took over in 1984, had to take time off from his full-time job as a union machinist to record with the band, while Crover switches to bass. The general idea is that this lineup offers a slightly simpler, more primal version of Melvins' complex and unconventional approach to heavy music, peppered with humorously profane Beach Boys and Harry Nilsson covers. But songs like the blistering and quite intricate "Hund" lay that description to waste quickly, particularly during a dazzling mid-song instrumental section where King Buzzo makes like Ace Frehley on acid in between furious Keith Moon-style bursts by Dillard. - Wilkening
29. Greta Van Fleet, "Broken Bells"
Josh Kiszka romanticizes familiar images of perseverance (cracked bells ringing, flowers sprouting between sidewalk cracks) on this smoldering, string-anchored power ballad — the most dramatic moment on Greta Van Fleet's supersized second LP. Though they're best known for retro-leaning hard-rock riffs, these guys were born to soundtrack lighter-waving arena moments — adding orchestrations was the next logical step. To all the horns-up haters: Stick around until the climax to savor Jake Kiszka's psychedelic wah-wah guitar solo. - Reed
28. Ann Wilson, "Black Wing"
Ann Wilson was watching birds fly across the river outside her home when inspiration for "Black Wing" struck. "I thought, 'Well, that spirit is carrying a lifeline from the world,'" she said. "So that got me thinking about writing a song … about carrying messages from the world's insanity out to this pure place." The resulting song is an exercise in contrasts: light and dark, soft and heavy, physical and spiritual. Over delicate acoustic strums and a repeating keyboard riff, Wilson sings of the spirits connecting the threads of nature, before monstrous drums and power chords come crashing in and she unleashes her transcendent, gravelly howl. - Bryan Rolli
27. Yes, "The Ice Bridge"
“The Ice Bridge” commences with one of the corniest moments in recent prog history: a squelching synth-brass fanfare that would have sounded dated in 1984. But that awkward opening is an aberration on The Quest’s lead single, a spirited showcase for every Yes member. Guitarist Steve Howe, who produced the quintet’s 22nd album, is on fire here — sustaining the song’s momentum through slippery hammer-ons and laser-beam staccato fills destined to score an epic fantasy film. On an album occasionally hurting for energy, “The Ice Bridge” proves Yes can still tap into that ‘70s spark when the mood arises. - Reed
26. Tears for Fears, "No Small Thing"
New wave legends Tears for Fears are best known for synth-pop hits like “Shout” and “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” But for their first album in nearly 18 years, the duo - made up of Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith - tap into a folk-rock sound. Jangly acoustic guitar, a stomping backbeat, accordion and strings highlight the song, which alternates from Dylan-esque composition to something darker and much more menacing. It’s a distinct change for the band, yet one that doesn’t feel forced or strays so far from previous work that Tears for Fears lose what made them such a dynamic act in the first place. “No Small Things” proves that even more than 40 years after they first formed, Orzabal and Smith still have plenty of tricks up their sleeves. - Corey Irwin
25. Cheap Trick, "Light Up the Fire"
Cheap Trick prove rock 'n' roll alchemists on In Another World, expertly blending bubblegum and bombast on the raucous single "Light Up the Fire." Guitarist Rick Nielsen exacts maximum wattage from his descending three-chord riffs, while Robin Zander bellows like a cocksure ringmaster inviting his audience to the hottest show in town. The band cuts the hard-rock tumult with a sweet, poppy pre-chorus before launching into the supersized chorus, exhorting listeners to "light up the fire" with abandon. "Are you looking for heaven or one hell of a time?" Zander asks early on. He already knows the answer — and so do you. - Rolli
24. Sleater-Kinney, "Worry With You"
Sleater-Kinney's most recent advance single, "Hurry on Home" from 2019's The Center Won't Hold, was an angular expression of come-hither horniness – a scene from the button-popping beginning of a relationship. "Worry With You," which likewise led off 2021's Path of Wellness, sounds like the same couple once they've settled into the rhythms, the comfort and (most of all) the trust that follows as a pairing becomes a pair. The song's breezy feel only adds to a sense of contentment that might have once felt off-putting, or even maybe lazy, from a band known more for pushing envelopes until the paper cuts. But "Worry With You," a COVID-era paean to pulling up the covers, arrived at just the right time. – DeRiso
23. Brian Wilson and Jim James, "Right Where I Belong"
"Well I get anxious, I get scared a lot / It's what I live with," Brian Wilson sings in "Right Where I Belong," openly acknowledging the significant mental health issues the Beach Boys co-founder has struggled with for decades. Even after all the heartbreak, Wilson remains driven and unwilling to abandon the joy he clearly finds, still, in making music. Enlisting the assistance of My Morning Jacket's Jim James, who seems to have an innate knack for those Beach Boys-style high notes, Wilson keeps looking to the future: "I know myself / I know my willpower will get through again." - Rapp
22. Peter Frampton, "Isn't It a Pity?"
Peter Frampton, who literally made his guitar sing via a talk box, has always best expressed himself with his instrument rather than his voice. That thinking fuels Frampton Forgets the Words, an album of instrumental covers of songs by artists who've inspired Frampton over the course of his career. The album's highlight is a rendition of George Harrison's "Isn't It a Pity?" and it comes with history: Harrison invited a 20-year-old Frampton to play acoustic guitar on his landmark 1970 solo album All Things Must Pass, which includes "Isn't a Pity?" Fifty years later, Frampton brings new emotional weight to one of the late Beatle's greatest compositions. - Rapp
21. Guns N' Roses "Hard Skool"
Let's get the negatives out of the way: No, Guns N' Roses' "Hard Skool" is technically not a new track but rather a repurposed Chinese Democracy-era demo with new guitar and bass piped in by Slash and Duff McKagan, respectively. That doesn't change the fact that it's a kick-ass tune, powered by infectious hooks and vintage GNR riffage. McKagan's one-note bass intro a la "It's So Easy" delivers an instant serotonin boost, and Slash's slinky, bluesy solo transitions effortlessly into a trippy bridge before Axl Rose takes it home with his caterwauling screams. Fellas: We’ll happily take a "new" GNR album of songs that are old enough to vote if they all sound this good. - Rolli
20. George Harrison, "Cosmic Empire"
The box set marking the 50th anniversary of George Harrison's landmark 1970 solo album All Things Must Pass chronicles the making of the record over six discs and more than 40 previously unreleased demos and outtakes. Harrison spent two consecutive days laying down demos for the record; on the second, he went totally solo with just an acoustic guitar. "Cosmic Empire" is one of the handful of songs that never made the album, a spirit-questing bit of revelry that pushes Harrison's voice into its upper register. Too bad we never got a full-band take on the song, but this breezy version is a one-man celebration. - Michael Gallucci
19. Alice Cooper, "Social Debris"
"Social Debris" was released in early February on Alice Cooper's 73rd birthday, but it sounds like it could have been pulled from 1971. Featuring the original Alice Cooper Band lineup, the track - which appears on Cooper's 21st album, Detroit Stories - pays tribute to the group's breakout years in the city. "We didn’t fit in with the folk scene, we didn’t fit in with the metal scene, we really didn’t fit in with anything that was going on at that time," Cooper said of the song - a "gift to Detroit, to my fans and to myself." - Rapp
18. Dirty Honey, "California Dreamin'"
You could easily write off Dirty Honey as merely the sum of their very obvious influences: Zeppelin, Aerosmith, the Black Crowes, et al. But it's much more fun to hang up your critic's hat and lose yourself in the quartet's soaring hooks and killer chops, both of which are on full display in "California Dreamin'," the lead track off the band's self-titled debut album. Singer Marc LaBelle unleashes raspy, skyscraping vocal runs over guitarist John Notto's slinky riffs, while bassist Justin Smolian and drummer Corey Coverstone anchor the track with their meat-and-potatoes grooves. "It's so easy," LaBelle howls in the pre-choruses, but he's being modest: It takes years of practice to rock as effortlessly as Dirty Honey. - Rolli
17. Jerry Cantrell, "Atone"
The lead single off Jerry Cantrell's third solo album, Brighten, bears all the Alice in Chains hallmarks: towering guitars, somber hooks and haunting, harmonized vocals, this time all capably supplied by Cantrell. But on "Atone," the guitarist dials back the gain without sacrificing an ounce of heaviness, eschewing AIC's dour alt-metal wallop in favor of quasi-psychedelic outlaw-country menace. The track is a tantalizing slow burn rather than a riff-rock inferno, enveloping listeners with twangy guitars and a sinister tale of a man trying to outrun the hellhounds on his trail. - Rolli
16. Kings of Leon, "100,000 People"
Released the same day as “The Bandit,” “100,000 People” was somewhat overlooked at first. But a relisten reveals one of Kings of Leon’s deepest tracks in more than a decade. Built upon a driving bass line, the song offers a slow build as Caleb Followill sings about various memories strung together during a long romance. The singer was inspired by his father-in-law, who suffered from dementia. “I felt like I could write a love story about it, this man who is still in love with this woman. And maybe she’s gone, maybe she isn’t. Maybe he’s gone, maybe he isn’t," he explained to Apple Music. "It’s one of those things where the whole song is just kind of searching for something.” The result is one of the most poignant tracks of Kings of Leon’s career. - Irwin
15. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, "105 Degrees"
After releasing the expansive Wildflowers & All the Rest last year, Tom Petty's estate once again dipped into the treasure trove of material from the late singer-songwriter's mid-'90s period. Angel Dream, a reimagined collection of songs from 1996's She's the One soundtrack, features several previously unheard songs, like the rollicking "105 Degrees," a full-band number that stands out from the more tender songs typical of the Wildflowers era. "Come on Tommy!" someone exclaims just before a chugging riff enters "What do you want?" Petty sings. "Perfection?" - Rapp
14. Jackson Browne, "My Cleveland Heart"
Jackson Browne shows his humorous side with “My Cleveland Heart,” a wry acknowledgement of his own advancing years in which the singer-songwriter imagines a scenario where his actual beating heart is replaced with an artificial one. “They never break, they don't even beat and they don't ache / They just plug in and shine,” he sings with an uncharacteristically sunny tone to the musical bed enveloping his words. The video, featuring new-school singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers as a nurse munching on Browne's heart, is a perfect companion for one of the veteran's best songs in years. - Wardlaw
13. Iron Maiden, "The Writing on the Wall"
Six years after releasing their last album, The Book of Souls, Iron Maiden return in predictably grandiose fashion with "The Writing on the Wall," a swaggering mid-tempo rocker full of vintage riffs that split the difference between power metal and outlaw country. (No, really.) The band's signature dueling riffs and solos abound, but "The Writing on the Wall" is ultimately more restrained than many of Maiden's recent efforts, allowing Bruce Dickinson's powerhouse vocals to carry the song's simple, heroic chorus. The tune crushes on its own, but its epic animated video — featuring gunslinging demon bikers, a bloated caricature of a certain disgraced ex-president and a larger-than-life samurai Eddie — is required viewing. - Rolli
12. Elton John and Dua Lipa, "Cold Heart"
Elton John has worked harder than any other artist of his rarefied stature to promote new musicians, collaborating with countless younger stars and tirelessly promoting their work on his online Rocket Hour show. That enthusiasm and open-mindedness pays big dividends in "Cold Heart," which finds John teaming up with pop sensation Dua Lipa to mash together lyrics and melodies from four of his older songs over an infectious dance beat. The song became John's first U.K. No. 1 in 16 years, offering further proof of his continuing relevancy. - Wilkening
Elton John, Dua Lipa - Cold Heart (PNAU Remix) (Official Video)
Subscribe to Ultimate Classic Rock on
11. Billy Gibbons, "My Lucky Card"
From the first pulsating note, its evident what Billy Gibbons is delivering on “My Lucky Card”: pure, unfiltered blues rock. That comes as no surprise considering the bearded musician is best known as the frontman of the legendary trio ZZ Top. But the fact that Gibbons, now 71, can still rock this hard is nothing short of stunning. “My Lucky Card” is as grizzled as the man behind it - a heavy, grimy combination of bass, guitar, drums and attitude. Sure, the lyrics are a standard affair - Gibbons compares his mystery woman to a high-stakes game of poker - but fans don’t come here for the words. The allure is in the riffs, and “My Lucky Card” delivers some of the burliest guitar sounds of the year. - Irwin
Billy F Gibbons - My Lucky Card
Subscribe to Ultimate Classic Rock on
10. Prince, "Welcome 2 America"
Even though "Welcome 2 America" was recorded more than a decade ago, it couldn't have arrived at a better moment. In a little more than five minutes, Prince's rhythmic spoken-word assessment of the U.S. covers everything from excessive media consumption to a broken educational system to lack of equality for women. "Hope and change?" Prince's background singers chime in. "Everything takes forever," he replies. "And truth is a new minority." Many of the songs from the posthumously released album of the same name utilize similar themes of social and political commentary. Now's the time for us to finally listen. - Rapp
9. Duran Duran, "Anniversary"
Aging gracefully is a myth: You simply stay exciting or become boring. Duran Duran do the former on the effervescent Future Past single "Anniversary," which finds the new wave survivors celebrating four decades together. Roger Taylor's four-on-the-floor kick and John Taylor's nimble bass lines anchor the swaggering synth-rock romp, while Nick Rhodes' keyboard hooks pop like bottle rockets toward the stratosphere. Singer Simon Le Bon preens and peacocks atop the track, beseeching listeners in that ebullient tenor to join the band, holy and unchained, in a toast to its enduring triumph. - Rolli
8. Foo Fighters, "Waiting on a War"
Foo Fighters aren’t confined to one style on their 10th LP — dabbling in funk-rock (“Medicine at Midnight”), horns-up quasi-metal (“No Son of Mine”) and McCartney-styled pop balladry (“Chasing Birds”). But the album’s showstopper is just good ol’ fashioned Foo, conjuring the same big arena thunder as the eternal “Times Like These.” Sure, there are new wrinkles on this wide-eyed protest rocker: the strings shadowing Dave Grohl’s strummed acoustic, the skyrocketing tempo toward the grand finale. But when those palm-muted electric guitars arrive with a pile-driving alt-rock flourish, it feels like 2002 all over again. - Reed
7. The Rolling Stones, "Troubles a Comin"
Charlie Watts' death brought with it a shower of tributes, but none more powerful – or more perfect – than this one. The Rolling Stones have been returning to the vault to complete left-behind tracks for anniversary box sets for some time; that tradition continued with 2021's expanded reissue of Tattoo You. The difference is Tattoo You was fashioned just the same way, so it perhaps unsurprisingly yielded far sturdier source material. Watts is (once again) the cucumber-cool star of "Troubles a Comin," the best of the set's nine pretty great previously unreleased songs. With a basic track recorded in Paris in 1979, this cover of a Chi-Lites' 1970 song swings with an understated authority that only could come from their late Savile Row-suited drummer. – DeRiso
6. David Crosby, "Rodriguez for a Night"
The former Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash co-founder has been sidling up to this collaboration with Donald Fagen for years, memorably releasing "She's Got to Be Somewhere" as part of 2017's Sky Trails – a song rightly described as Steely David Crosby. Unlike "Rodriguez for a Night," however, Steely Dan's Fagen didn't actually appear back then. But Crosby was clearly telegraphing his interest in Steely Dan's sophisticated jazz-inflected vibe. Fagen finally came around, sending over lyrics for a song that became "Rodriguez for a Night." The results put an exclamation point on a remarkable late-career run that's seen Crosby release five albums since 2014. – DeRiso
5. Radiohead, "If You Say the Word"
Kid A Mnesia is the year's best archival release, a three-disc packaging of Radiohead's one-two Kid A/Amnesiac combo punch from 2000-01. A third CD collects leftovers, B-sides and alternate versions, delivering a more complete portrait of the era as well as of one of the most essential recordings of the century. "If You Say the Word" was recorded during the sessions for the LPs but never released. It's hard to understand why. The track is a multitextured think piece that doesn't sound like a castoff or unfinished sketch from the period. It's a remarkable excerpt from a new musical revolution. - Gallucci
Radiohead - If You Say The Word (Official Video)
Subscribe to Ultimate Classic Rock on
4. The Black Keys, "Crawling Kingsnake"
"Crawling Kingsnake" was first recorded in the early '40s, but its origins go back two decades earlier, when it was a Delta blues staple that eventually evolved into the more familiar electric versions over the years. John Lee Hooker recorded the song in the '40s, and it's his take (via a Junior Kimbrough interpretation) the Black Keys draw inspiration from in their spirited cover included on Delta Kream, an album of the hill country blues that influenced the duo in its early days. After several years expanding their musical palette, the Keys return to their basic elements on their 10th album. "Crawling Kingsnake" is a callback to what they do best. - Gallucci
The Black Keys - Crawling Kingsnake [Official Music Video]
Subscribe to Ultimate Classic Rock on
3. Mammoth WVH, "Don't Back Down"
"Don't Back Down"'s finale features a split-second musical quote from the ending of Van Halen's 1981 single "So This Is Love?" but that's about the only time you'll hear Wolfgang Van Halen borrowing from his father on Mammoth WVH's debut album. Acting as a one-man band throughout, the younger Van Halen draws from a completely different and newer set of influences. In this case, he pairs a big Gary Glitter beat with Songs for the Deaf-era Queens of the Stone Age riffing to rousing effect. He also gets bonus points for making one of the funniest music videos in years. - Wilkening
2. Lindsey Buckingham, "I Don't Mind"
Lindsey Buckingham's self-titled 2021 album marks his first solo record in a decade and first since his split from Fleetwood Mac. It's also a breakup album that traces, in very adult terms, the hard decision to move on amid uncertainty. "I Don't Mind" offers up solutions and compromises, even if resolution seems nowhere in sight. The kicker? This potentially downer subject is cloaked in a springy pop song that belies its true intentions. The entire album is like that; this first single is a perfect introduction to it. - Gallucci
Lindsey Buckingham - I Don't Mind (Official Audio)
Subscribe to Ultimate Classic Rock on
1. Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, "Can't Let Go"
There are plenty of mood-setting, dust-kissed songs on Raise the Roof - Robert Plant and Alison Krauss' excellent follow-up LP to 2007's Raising Sand - that feel lived-in and snug within their environment. "Can't Let Go" is one of a handful of tracks that breaks a little sweat along the way. Like most of the songs on Raise the Roof, "Can't Let Go" is a cover - written by obscure singer-songwriter Randy Weeks and recorded by Lucinda Williams on her landmark 1998 LP Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Plant and Krauss give a typically nuanced performance here, melding their voices until two points of beauty become one glorious sound. - Gallucci