The 1970s was a decade in transition for rock and roll, especially. The softness from the Summer of Love had hardened in mainstream rock. Psychedelic sounds were traded in for more progressive compositions and remnants of folk merely whispered in the background.
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Rock music in the ’70s was a launching point for hefty arena rock, defiant punk, and exaggerated new wave. But before the genre shifted and split, there were the classics, the songs that defined this transitional era for rock so perfectly. Here are our picks for the top 7 classic rock songs of the 1970s.
7. “Bohemian Rhapsody” – Queen
The quintessential Queen aria “Bohemian Rhapsody” is a part brooding ballad, part thundering opera, part explosive hard rock anthem all wrapped up in one classic rock magnum opus.
The song shows off the very best of the band – frontman Freddie Mercury’s theatrical lilt, Brian May’s ripping guitar chops, Roger Taylor’s intuitive drumming, and John Deacon’s sturdy bass playing. Released in 1975, the tune was a chart-topper then, and is to this day, a go-to for Queen fans everywhere.
6. “Sultans Of Swing” – Dire Straits
Dire Straits’ 1978 released “Sultans of Swing” is pure rock perfection, a blues-drenched hit with the right amount of everything. The beat, while subdued, is sturdy and in the pocket; the guitar is crisp and exact; the vocals are lax, but oh so cool. The whole song sounds effortless.
A radio staple still, “Sultans Of Swing” shows off the skill, the hook, and the staying power that a top classic rock pick should.
5. “Smoke on the Water” – Deep Purple
Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” contains a sound inseparable from rock music. Its signature dun, dun, dun, du-du-dun-un riff is instantly recognizable and not soon forgettable. Persistent and punching, the 1972 release sounds treacherous with its muscular riff, thumping bass line, and sneering vocals.
4. “Layla” – Derek and the Dominos
No song screams “’70s classic” quite like Derek and the Dominos’ “Layla.” Bluesy flourishes and brutal howls erupt from the song, giving it the desperate, aching tone that drives home the chorus: Layla, got me on my knees / Layla, begging, darling, please.
Eric Clapton’s guitar work shines against his steady rocking accompaniment. The iconic piano coda tones down the hefty composition as the song fades out in a waltz of dainty keys.
3. “Free Bird” – Lynyrd Skynyrd
The most requested song at a concert … really any concert, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” is 9 minutes of pure bliss. Weepy steel and a low-hung beat kick off the song, emphasizing the song’s forlorn lyrics. The 1973 Southern rock tune soon explodes into a flurry of technical difficulty, showing off the band’s musical prowess across instruments.
2. “Stairway to Heaven” – Led Zeppelin
Led Zeppelin’s 1971 hit “Stairway to Heaven” has become synonymous with the classic rock from the decade. There can’t be one without a mention of the other. The song shows off the very best of the band – Robert Plant’s crystalline tenor, Jimmy Page’s guitar chops, John Paul Jones’ robust bass and piano prowess, as well as John Bonham’s reliable beat. A delightful mix of folk, progressive, and hard rock, the tune has reached anthemic status over the years.
1. “Hotel California” – Eagles
There can’t be a list of ’70s rock without the Eagles. And where there’s the Eagles, there’s “Hotel California.” The band’s 1977 classic is a delicious cinematic listen full of intricate harmonies, a wall of strings, and driving drums. “Hotel California” is quintessentially the Eagles. Brimming with their trademark California rock, the song was an instant hit then and an enduring classic now.
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