Top 20 Rock Songs of 2021 (So Far)

It’s been an uneven year for rock music so far, thanks in no small part to the COVID-19 pandemic. While many artists used lockdown time to craft new material, rules on social distancing meant that band members often had to jump through hoops to get into a studio together, if they even could.

As a result, many of the Top 20 Rock Songs of 2021 (So Far) were recorded long before their release.

In the case of George Harrison, Tom Petty, Prince and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, unearthed tracks from decades ago were refreshed and issued for the very first time.

Billy Gibbons and Iron Maiden skirted COVID restrictions by recording new material in the California desert and Paris, respectively.

Meanwhile, artists such as Mammoth WVH, Foo Fighters and Greta Van Fleet already had the bones of their new material recorded and simply used the lockdown time to get things absolutely right before release.

Will easing restrictions mean a flood of new music in the second half of the year? Only time will tell. For now, the below list of the Top 20 Songs of 2021 (So Far) runs the gamut of rock, with folk, metal, blues, prog and just about any other subgenre you can think of represented.

20. Greta Van Fleet, “Heat Above”

Some people praise Greta Van Fleet as rock’s newest saviors; others criticize the band for sounding too much like their classic-rock forefathers. Wherever your opinion falls on the band, it’s hard not to be moved by their single “Heat Above.” The soaring, euphoric track is powered by organ, drums and acoustic guitar. Rising above it all, the powerful vocals of Josh Kiszka, delivering lyrics about love, “walking hand in hand” and “ascending to the stars” with such powerful earnestness, it’s hard to avoid getting caught up in the emotion. While the band’s much ballyhooed debut, 2018’s Anthem of the Peaceful Army, put the group on the musical map, the follow-up, The Battle at Garden’s Gate, prove Greta Van Fleet are here to stay. – Corey Irwin

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.” – Allison Rapp

18. David Crosby, “River Rise”

There’s a palpable sense of optimism to David Crosby‘s “River Rise,” a track from his new album, For Free. The song was cowritten with Crosby’s son, James Raymond, and Michael McDonald, whose voice blends with the veteran singer-songwriter over the top of a smooth bass line. As Crosby describes the end of a long day in California, he’s hopeful. “Time won’t slip away,” he sings, “Let the clock run out. Don’t care about it, not today.” – Rapp

17. Crown Lands, “Context: Fearless Pt. 1”

Crown Lands already shared a lot of superficial similarities to Rush: They’re Canadian, for one, and arrange massive, muscle-flexing tunes with a slim lineup (Cody Bowles on drums and vocals; Kevin Comeau on guitar, bass and keyboards). But these Geddy-heads went the extra mile on the eight-minute single “Context: Fearless Pt. 1,” expanding beyond their early blues-rock into a proggy realm of pinging guitar harmonics, thwacking Rickenbacker bass and splashy tom flourishes. It’s such unabashed Rush worship, they even worked with three of the band’s former producers, utilizing pieces of a drum set gifted to Nick Raskulinecz by the great Neil Peart. Luckily, the song rises above the overt backward glances, adding a more youthful spin on the Moving Pictures sound. – Ryan Reed

16. 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. – Matthew Wilkening

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. 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. – Bryan Rolli

13. 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

12. 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

11. 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. – Nick DeRiso

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. Cheap Trick, “Boys and Girls and Rock N Roll”

Forget about getting soft in old age: Cheap Trick sound tougher than ever on “Boys and Girls and Rock N Roll,” the snarling fourth single off the new In Another World. Guitarist Rick Nielsen fires off muscular riffs and searing solos, while guitarist Robin Zander belts in his gravelly mid-range and slips briefly into a falsetto croon, sounding no worse for wear after 45 years of rocking. As those indelible backing vocals kick in behind Zander on the arena-ready chorus — “See what she’s got for me, boys / Well, she lays it down for me, boys” — Cheap Trick prove they’re still the undisputed kings of power-pop sing-alongs. – Rolli

8. George Harrison, “Cosmic Empire”

The upcoming 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

7. 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 on “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

6. Mammoth WVH, “Think it Over”

Released the same day as hard-rocker “Don’t Back Down,” “Think It Over” finds Wolfgang Van Halen showing off his pop smarts. The upbeat Jimmy Eat World-influenced track might be the Mammoth WVH album’s best showcase for the frontman’s lead vocals. It would have been a perfect fit on a soundtrack to any one of John Hughes’ classic ’80s movies. – Wilkening

5. Foo Fighters, “Making a Fire”

Dave Grohl teased that the Foo Fighters’ 10th album, Medicine at Midnight, would be a “dance record,” and he delivered with the opening track “Making a Fire.” That’s not the say that the Foos abandoned their guitars for drum machines and techno beats – far from it. Instead, the band built upon its well-honed grunge base, adding deeper instrumentation, funkier riffs and just enough swagger to get listeners moving. “Making a Fire,” with its soulful “na na na” backing vocals, stomp-and-handclap breakdown and soaring guitar parts exemplify the band’s approach. A remixed version – produced by Mark Ronson – turns the track into a “Sympathy for the Devil”-like romp, completely different yet equally as enjoyable as the original. – Irwin

4. 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

3. 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

2. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, “Our House”

The expanded 50th-anniversary version of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Deja Vu includes a ton of great outtakes and alternate versions from the sessions and the lead-up to them. In this intimate demo featuring just Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell, the couple – whose domestic tranquility was the subject of “Our House” – sits at her piano and runs through the song, with Mitchell providing playful harmony. By the time the band got around to properly recording the song, Nash and Mitchell were no longer together. But there’s no mistaking the love and shared admiration during happier times. – Gallucci

1. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, “Birds”

There are many gems to uncover on Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s 50th-anniversary Deja Vu box. Among them is an early demo of Neil Young and Graham Nash working through a rendition of the former’s “Birds.” “Are you sure you’re completely in tune?” Nash politely asks Young as the recording starts — Young double checks his strings and begins again. The song would appear on Young’s 1970 album After the Gold Rush, which arrived six months after Deja Vu, but it’s Nash’s floating upper harmonies that make this early version such a great listen. – Rapp

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