In a singles-focused period for the music industry, our list of Top 20 Classic Rock Songs of 2016 shows how stars who rose to fame in a different era can still hold their own. Artists like David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, Paul Simon and Graham Nash helped define the days when albums were king, yet they still have the ability, all these decades later, to condense it all down into a individual moment of brilliance that leaps from our speakers.
Most of these songs – even those by relative newcomers like the Tedeschi Trucks Band and Airbourne – didn't exactly race up the singles charts, but that's more an indictment of the current industry climate than a knock on the work. We suspect the Top 20 Classic Rock Songs of 2016 will hang around a lot longer anyway.
"We're All Somebody From Somewhere"Steven Tyler
Aerosmith fans who weren't so sure about a shift to country sounds on Tyler's latest album could take solace in the title track, which winks its way through his band's familiar brand of cheeky lecherousness.
An elegiac farewell from Nash's first set of of new songs since 2002, "Encore" seems to speak to personal struggles with mortality – but also to the fierce disagreements that seem to have finally tore apart his old band Crosby, Stills & Nash.
Raitt can seem like an ageless wonder, but there's hard-won depth on every album, moments when she shows you her scars. Listen to the way she sings then slurs the line "Time ain't never healed a wound; can't think of anything that gets any better because it's old." This isn't her first rodeo.
"When I Wake Up Tomorrow"Cheap Trick
Bang, Zoom, Crazy ... Hello arrived after the longest break between albums of Cheap Trick's lengthy career – and the layoff clearly inspired them to try a few new things. With this cut, it's a Bowie-esque moodiness, cut midway through with a bright blast of Rick Nielsen's guitar.
"Let Me Get By"Tedeschi Trucks Band
The Tedeschi Trucks Band's intriguing blend of Southern soul, funk, blues, roots rock and jazz comes together in one neatly wrapped package here. This roof-raising blend of musical voices includes Derek Trucks (a former member of the Allman Brothers Band), blues star Susan Tedeschi and bassist Tim Lefebvre, a standout from the band that backed Bowie on Blackstar.
"You Want It Darker"Leonard Cohen
As with David Bowie's 2016 album, discussed later in our list of Top 20 Classic Rock Songs of 2016, You Want It Darker will be forever colored by the subsequent death of its creator. It's clear now what might not have been so obvious at first, as Leonard Cohen wrestles with death at what even then seemed like an uncomfortably close proximity. ("I'm ready, my Lord," he sings on this title song.) A couple weeks later, we learned just how close.
"Alone" is more than the title track of the latest Pretenders album; it's an updated mantra, as Chrissie Hynde moves ahead without any other regular members of her band – claiming it for herself once and for all. ("Nobody tells me I can’t," Hynde asserts. "Nobody tells me I shan’t.") At the same time, new songs like this one examine how being by yourself can be both empowering and desperately lonesome.
The Monkees' first album since 1996's Justus included a number of reliably kooky songs that recalled their heyday as sitcom stars – either because they were written by longtime collaborators or like-minded modern-day fans like Weezer's Rivers Cuomo. "Me & Magdalena," composed for the Monkees by Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, isn't that. Instead, this Mike Nesmith-sung gem displays a strikingly introspective bent.
"Breakin' Outta Hell"Airbourne
Some songs are meant for mulling over, others for rolling down the car windows and turning all the way up. File "Breakin' Outta Hell" – the bird-flipping title track of Airbourne's fourth studio effort – under the latter. “Put this record on," frontman Joel O’Keefe has said, "and it’s f--- the boss, f--- the traffic fines I just got, f--- all my bills and f--- all the tax I owe. I’m going out, I’m getting pissed and I’m going to listen to some rock ‘n’ roll."
The title song from Neil Young's second album of 2016 is given new power by its stripped-down sound, after a period of collaboration with rockers Promise of the Real. A message of resiliency in the face of so much outside adversity ("Don't think I'll cash it in yet," he sings) finds Young working alongside only drummer Jim Keltner and bassist Paul Bushnell. A paired Auto-Tuned Young vocal works in powerful counterpoint.
No song on Santana's 2016 reunion album more perfectly encapsulates the improvisational joys of their early-'70s era – and Carlos Santana wouldn't have it any other way. Before recording this thunderously trippy instrumental, he specifically advised the group: "Look, let's go back into the studio right now, and everybody start playing, and remember the patchouli oil, the weed ... let's go play like that." Mission accomplished.
After another typically eruptive studio project, Jeff Beck goes off script with this contemplative album-closing song. Featuring new collaborator Rosie Bones front and center on vocals, "Shrine" takes a boldly inward look even as the rest of the occasionally overtly political Loud Hailer pushes hard against outside forces.
Sting's much-discussed return to rock on 57th and 9th was perhaps a little over-hyped. It's more that he sharpened a few edges of his polished adult-pop sound, best heard on this stand-out cut. "50,000," a tribute of sorts to fallen rock stars, deftly moves between meditative verses and a soaring, redemptive chorus – and there's not a lute in sight.
"Somebody's Knockin'"Eric Clapton
Eric Clapton has certainly done a lot to make us forget his roots in the blues tradition, starting with his turn toward psychedelia in Cream and continuing with reggae experiments in the '70s, then the sleek pop sides that have followed. But every album, and every show, includes a nod to that grounding influence – and "Somebody's Knockin'" from his most recent studio project stands as one of the more satisfying examples.
"Hungry No More"Mudcrutch
By now, the story of Tom Petty's star-crossed pre-Heartbreakers band Mudcrutch is probably familiar: Florida guys head to Los Angeles for their big break, but instead break up. "Hungry No More," the atmospheric closing song from their second reunion album, 2, explores the kind of passion and determination that leads to a homecoming decades later. It's tied together by one of guitarist Mike Campbell's most expressive turns.
"Cool Papa Bell"Paul Simon
Simon contemplates both heaven and our overuse of the word "motherf---er" on a spritely song titled after a legendary Negro League centerfielder who was once hailed as the "fastest man on earth." It's just the latest example of Simon's ability to weave seemingly disparate elements into one delightfully intriguing whole. Toward the end of "Cool Papa Bell," he adds "I'm never gonna stop." We can only hope.
Gardenia was a real-life stripper, once pursued by both Iggy Pop and Allen Ginsberg. (See the line, "America's greatest poet was ogling you all night.") Credit producer Josh Homme for combining it with a memorable bass line, turning a funny anecdote into a career-enlivening comeback song that introduced Post-Pop Depression. If this really is Pop's last album, he went out with a bang.
"Atlas, Rise!" is one of those times when Hardwired ... to Self-Destruct sounds like everything you've wanted Metallica to be for so long: A band that incorporates both its distant and more recent past into one kick-ass song. They succeed here by smartly transitioning from thrashy aggression to thunderous grooves, without the emotional turmoil that seemed to post such an existential, post-millennial threat to the band.
"Ride 'Em on Down"Rolling Stones
The Stones' long-held ability to dig deep into the blues legacy – early songs included Willie Dixon's slow-boiling "Little Red Rooster" and the underrated Slim Harpo's "I'm a King Bee" – comes into play here with a new take on a largely forgotten Eddie Taylor song. As with those earlier covers, there's much to bind the two legacies – beginning with the twinned guitars. Mick Jagger's closing harp is just molten.
This advance single for Blackstar began, now chillingly, with the line: "Look up here, I'm in heaven." Turns out, that wasn't the only hint Bowie left before his death from cancer, just days after the album finally arrived. It seemed like they were everywhere, really – beginning with an accompanying video that found Bowie confined to a hospital bed, his eyes obscured by bandages. It was his latest, and perhaps most amazing, career twist.
Top 20 Classic Rock Albums of 2016
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