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A Beginner’s Guide to the Genres Of Rock Music

The expansive world of rock music contains some of the great albums of all time. But where do beginners start with the genres of rock?

Image shows Artic Monkeys (top left), Bruce Springsteen (top right), Queens of the Stone Age (bottom left), and Fleetwood Mac (bottom right)
What are the best albums to get into certain rock genres? [From top-left, clockwise] Credit: Shutterstock/Christian Bertrand, Credit: Shutterstock/Brain Patterson Photos, Credit: Shutterstock/Randy Miramontez, Credit: Shutterstock/Ben Houdijk

Where do beginners start with the many rock music genres?

It’s hard to know where to start with the many artists and genres – some hard rock, some pop rock.

Inherently, beginners are usually younger people who are already disadvantaged by the array of rock music genres. We’re told it’s for people from past generations and that young people generally don’t listen to it.

But it’s not. Rock music is for everyone, and the stereotype that it’s only for other generations means Gen Z is not enjoying some of the best music of all time.

This list includes just some of the many genres within rock music and (in my opinion) the best albums to interest beginners in that genre.

Genre: Acoustic Rock – Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen

Image shows cover of Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen
Nebraska – Bruce Springsteen. Credit: YouTube/Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen was coming off the high of having his first big hit with “Hungry Heart” off The River when he wrote this solemn album. He sat down on the night of January 3, 1982, and recorded fifteen songs, mostly just him and his guitar.

Springsteen intended to make this a full-band album, but it never got that far. What you hear when you listen to Nebraska are the demos that he recorded on that winter night.

The songs that made it to the album were all about down-on-their-luck blue-collar people, as well as societal outsiders and criminals with nothing in their future. The title track tells the story of criminals on a killing spree who are eventually caught and sentenced to death.

Nebraska also features “Atlantic City,” a Springsteen classic about the inevitability of death. It tells the story of a man who becomes part of an organized crime family to pay off his debts.

Nebraska also features many of Springsteen’s classic acoustic songs, including “My Father’s House,” “Johnny 99,” and “State Trooper.”

The album marked a sharp departure from Springsteen’s heartland rock sound. Nebraska showed a more depressed Springsteen writing his way through hard times.

Best Song – Atlantic City

Most Underrated Song – State Trooper

Genre: Blues Rock – Let It Bleed by The Rolling Stones

Image shows the cover of The Rolling Stones album Let It Bleed.
Let It Bleed – The Rolling Stones. Credit: YouTube/The Rolling Stones

In terms of blues rock, Let It Bleed is as good as it gets. The album followed the success of Beggars Banquet, however on Let It Bleed Brian Jones was largely absent due to his drug use. Jones would be fired while the band were recording this album and die a short month later. Jones’s death ushered in a new and different era for The Rolling Stones. Despite the tragedy of Jones’s death, the album was a huge success. It would be praised for its “heavier” sound, with Let It Bleed hitting number one on the UK charts.

The album opened with what became arguably the greatest song in The Rolling Stones discography – “Gimme Shelter.” It is a song that covers the themes of war and murder, with Mick Jagger describing it as an “end-of-the-world” song. It also features the soaring vocals of Merry Clayton, who adds an entirely new dimension to the song.

“You Can’t Always Get What You Want” would also go on to become one of the band’s greatest songs. Originally released as a B-side to “Honky Tonk Women,” it would become famous for its choir opening. Jagger said he originally did the unique opening for “a laugh.”

Let It Bleed boasted a vast array of other blues hits by The Rolling Stones. “Monkey Man,” “Midnight Rambler,” and “You Got The Silver” became live staples in subsequent tours.

Best Song – Gimme Shelter

Most Underrated Song – Live With Me

Genre: Desert Rock – Songs For The Deaf by Queens Of The Stone Age

Image shows album cover for Songs For The Deaf by Queens Of The Stone Age.
Songs For The Deaf – Queens Of The Stone Age. Credit: YouTube/Queens Of The Stone Age

Queens Of The Stone Age would come to the desert rock scene in 1998 but would have their definitive breakout album in 2002 with Songs For The Deaf. The album is a concept album, with the album being the concept of a drive through the California desert and listening to different radio stations in different towns. Frontman Josh Homme said that the album “goes from garage sounds to almost like rock opera in some moments.”

Queens Of The Stone Age’s best-known song, “No One Knows,” would be released as the first single from the album. It was their only song to top the US Alternative charts, aided by an all-time classic guitar riff. The song garnered huge critical acclaim, with NME placing it at 18 on its 2011 list, “150 Best Tracks of the Past 15 Years.” “No One Knows” also received a Grammy nomination in 2003.

Another single of Songs For The Deaf was “Go With The Flow.” The song is often cited as one of the bands greatest songs, with Kerrang naming it as the fourth greatest Queens Of The Stone Age song. “Go With The Flow” deals with the theme of takings things as they come, and not holding on too tight to what you have.

Not including these two classics, Songs For The Deaf still contains many of the best-known Queens Of The Stone Age songs. It features songs like “First It Giveth,” and “A Song For The Dead,” which has been described as sounding like “Satan rising from the depths of Hell.”

Best Song – Go With The Flow

Most Underrated Song A Song For The Deaf

Genre: Folk Rock – Hejira by Joni Mitchell

Image shows the cover of Hejira by Joni Mitchell.
Hejira – Joni Mitchell. Credit: YouTube/Joni Mitchell

Coming off the back of the success of The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, Joni Mitchell would release the sprawling Hejira. Hejira, which is the Arabic word for migration (referring to Muhammad’s journey from Mecca to Medina), would contain some of Mitchell’s most complex lyrics and melodies yet. The album would be created during three car journeys across the United States in late 1975 and early 1976, some of which she took alone and without a driver’s license.

The only single released from the album was “Coyote,” which is known for its long and winding verses. It tells the story of a romance between the narrator and a womanizing man, partially based on Mitchell’s romance with playwright Sam Shepard.

Hejira would also become known for having one of Mitchell’s longest songs – “Song for Sharon.” The song contains ten verses and no choruses, relating back to the sprawling nature of the album. “Song for Sharon” deals with the theme of a woman torn between wanting her freedom and the pressure to get married. It also tells the story of Mitchell’s trip to New York City, naming some of the places she visited such as a Mandolin Brothers guitar shop. The song is structured as a postcard addressed to Mitchell’s friend Sharon Bell, who wanted to be a singer but became a farmer’s wife. Conversely, Mitchell wanted to be a farmer’s wife but became a singer.

Hejira is one of Mitchell’s personal favorite albums from her discography. In 2006, she said of the album: “I suppose a lot of people could have written a lot of my other songs, but I feel the songs on Hejira could only have come from me.”

Best Song – Song for Sharon

Most Underrated Song – Refuge of the Roads

Genre: Grunge – In Utero by Nirvana

Image of the cover of In Utero by Nirvana
In Utero – Nirvana. Credit: YouTube/Nirvana

Nirvana would release In Utero after breaking into the mainstream with the huge success of Nevermind. For In Utero, Nirvana sought a more complex and “heavier” sound than the album that came before it. The band would record the album in just two weeks. Subsequently, rumors circulated that the album would not be picked up due to the different sound it had compared to Nevermind – it, of course, was. Steve Albini played a key role in the recording of In Utero. He was brought in by Nirvana to produce the album with a more uncommercial sound. Despite the different sound of the album, it was a huge success. Many fans praised the band for not going “mainstream” after the success of Nevermind. In Utero would skyrocket to number one on the US Billboard 200.

The album contained one of the band’s most famous songs – “Heart-Shaped Box.” It was released as the first single from the album, with audio engineer Craig Montgomery recalling that before the song was even recorded, Kurt Cobain knew it would be the single. The song was written about children with cancer, with Cobain saying: “Every time I see documentaries about little kids with cancer, I just freak out.”

“All Apologies” was the other single off In Utero. Dave Grohl said of the song that: “I remember hearing it and thinking, ‘God, this guy [Cobain] has such a beautiful sense of melody, I can’t believe he’s screaming all the time’.” Cobain dedicated the song to his daughter, Frances Bean Cobain, and his wife, Courtney Love, saying “All Apologies” was about: “Just happy happiness.”

Best Song – All Apologies

Most Underrated Song – Milk It

Genre: Hard Rock – Appetite for Destruction by Guns N’ Roses

Image shows the cover of Appetite For Destruction by Guns N' Roses
Appetite For Destruction – Gun N’ Roses. Credit: YouTube/Guns N’ Roses

Appetite for Destruction was the debut album for Guns N’ Roses, eventually becoming their most successful album. According to frontman Axl Rose, many of the songs on the album were written whilst the band was trying to make it on the Los Angeles club circuit. After having trouble deciding on a producer, with Paul Stanley from KISS being considered, they settled on Mike Clink. With Clink on board, they recorded the album hastily. Well, Rose did not – instead, he recorded one line at a time. Appetite for Destruction would be released to little acclaim but would gain more attention after significant radio play.

“Welcome to the Jungle” was the definitive hit of the album. The classic was quickly developed from a riff that guitarist Slash wrote in his mother’s basement. Guitarist Izzy Stradlin summarised the song, saying it was: “about Hollywood streets; true to life.” “Welcome to the Jungle” is often viewed as Guns N’ Roses’s greatest song, with VH1 ranking it as the second greatest metal song ever.

Appetite for Destruction also contained various other hard rock hits for the band, such as – “Sweet Child of Mine,” “Paradise City,” and “Rocket Queen.” The aforementioned plethora of hit songs helped Appetite for Destruction hit number one on the US Billboard 200.

Best Song – Rocket Queen

Most Underrated Song – You’re Crazy

Genre: Indie – AM by Arctic Monkeys

Image shows the cover of AM by Arctic Monkeys
AM – Arctic Monkeys. Credit: YouTube/Official Arctic Monkeys

Arctic Monkeys took a different approach when creating AM than they did with their previous album, Suck It and See. The band hoped with AM to master the sound of a “studio album.” AM would be rooted in more of a funk and blues sound than their previous albums, helping it achieve more mainstream success. This album would arguably be their most important. It allowed them to break big in the U.S.A., as well as allowing them to headline Glastonbury again.

The most successful single off AM was “Do I Wanna Know?” – a song about the narrator wondering if they want to know if the feelings they are experiencing are mutual or not. The single would go on to spend 65 weeks in the UK charts, the longest any Arctic Monkey’s single has spent there. It has since become a live staple, with crowds chanting the classic guitar riff that opens the track.

“R U Mine?” was another hugely successful single off AM and was another song based on previous relationships of band members. Alex Turner said of the theme: “There’s a few references for people to pick up on in there.” The music video would also receive much attention – it saw Sex Pistols member Steve Jones debut the song on an American rock radio station, with Alex Turner, Matt Helders, and Nick O’Malley lip-syncing to it in a car. NME ranked the song as the 49th best of the 2010s.

AM featured various other indie songs that would become live staples for the band. These include “I Wanna Be Yours,” “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?,” and “Knee Socks.”

Best Song – R U Mine?

Most Underrated Song – One for the Road

Genre: Pop Rock – Revolver by The Beatles

Image shows the cover of Revolver by The Beatles.
Revolver – The Beatles. Credit: YouTube/The Beatles

Generally viewed as one of the most groundbreaking albums of all time, Revolver would become just one in a perfect array of iconic albums by The Beatles. Coming after Rubber Soul, The Beatles went in a different direction with Revolver, capturing an assortment of genres in the album. The album had mostly pop-based songs, but some that were harder rock, and some verging on psychedelic. Revolver was not necessarily easy to record, taking over 220 hours to perfect every song. The band would also experiment with new instruments on the album – namely the tambura, clavichord, and vibraphone.

“Eleanor Rigby” was arguably the most famous song to come off the album, released on a double A-side single with “Yellow Submarine.” The song, written mainly by Paul McCartney, was inspired by an elderly lady who McCartney shopped for. McCartney said of her: “Just hearing her stories enriched my soul and influenced the song I would later write.” The lyrics garnered particular praise – with poet William S. Burroughs complimenting how much narrative McCartney got into just three verses.

Revolver would also be the album in which The Beatles would have their first radical departure from their regular sound on “Tomorrow Never Knows.” The track, penned by John Lennon, was inspired by his experiences with LSD in 1964. Lennon would use a sitar drone and tambura to capture the unique sound of the track. “Tomorrow Never Knows” was also praised for being an early venture into psychedelic music, as well as gaining lyrical praise for pioneering lyrical themes such as Eastern spirituality and opening of the mind.

Revolver featured various other classic pop rock hits by The Beatles – “Taxman,” and “Here, There and Everywhere.”

Best Song – Tomorrow Never Knows

Most Underrated Song – Taxman

Genre: Soft Rock – Rumours by Fleetwood Mac

Image shows the cover of Rumours by Fleetwood Mac.
Rumours – Fleetwood Mac. Credit: YouTube/Fleetwood Mac

In 1977, Fleetwood Mac wrote what became one of the greatest albums ever. Rumours was autobiographical in nature, bringing Fleetwood Mac into the mainstream. It also attained the success of being one of the highest-selling albums ever – selling over 40 million copies.

The tracks for Rumours were written whilst band members Lindsey
Buckingham and Stevie Nicks were breaking up, Christine McVie and John McVie were divorcing, and Mick Fleetwood was also going through a divorce. There was also vast drug consumption from all members during the recording. The combination of their excessive drug use and relationship breakups somehow led to their magnum opus.

“Dreams” was the song off Rumours that went to number one on the charts. Nicks wrote the song about her and Buckingham’s breakup, doing so in just ten minutes. Despite the band not being fans of the song initially, it was recorded and ended up on the album. It has come to be seen as one of the best Fleetwood Mac songs, entering the charts again in 2020 after a viral TikTok.

Buckingham would write arguably the band’s most famous song for Rumours – “Go Your Own Way.” Like Nicks, he wrote the song about their breakup, but taking a more hardline stance than Nicks and telling her she can, pretty much, get lost. It was released as the first single for the album, garnering praise for Buckingham’s guitar work, as well as his vocals. It was also nominated for a Grammy in 1978 for Best Vocal Arrangement.

Rumours was loaded from top to bottom with other classic Fleetwood Mac hits. Some other soft rock classics from the album were “The Chain,” “Don’t Stop,” and “Never Going Back Again.”

Best Song – The Chain

Most Underrated Song – Second Hand News  

Written By

Matthew McKeown is a student at Ulster University, in his final year of a BA History degree. His interests include current affairs, politics, and international relations.

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