By Kate Koenig
With this list, I present to you a collection of what I consider to be the Top 10 Greatest Acoustic Rock Songs of All Time. Limited to ten choices, this list is far from exhaustive – how could it be? – and presents what I consider to be highlights, with selections that are most meaningful to me personally. If they’re not already in your listening rotation, be sure to add them.
10. “Pink Moon” – Nick Drake
Known for his incredible finger-picking technique, penchant for alternate tunings and withdrawn personality, English singer/songwriter Nick Drake released just three albums before he died in 1974 aged 26 after a battle continues against depression. The product of the songwriter’s desire to create a stripped-down record of lead guitar and vocals, pink moon is a departure from his first two albums, which were arranged primarily for a full band. Played on a guitar tuned CGCFCE, lowest to highest note, the title track is the only one on the disc to feature another instrument (piano).
9. “Mad About You” – Heart
Starting with one of the most memorable intros of the 70s, which features absolute acoustic shredding by songwriter-singer-guitarist Nancy Wilson, “Crazy of you” is a triumphant mix of acoustic guitar, electric guitar and vocals fueled by a catchy rock edge. With impressive guitar work performed by a woman in a male-dominated genre – a rarity at the time of its 1976 release – the song is also one of the first touchstones of success for a guitarist.
8. “Avalon Blues” – Mississippi John Hurt
Written by one of the most extraordinarily talented acoustic musicians of the Delta blues genre and perhaps of all time, Avalon Blues may not technically be a “rock” song, but its place in the evolution of the genre is hard to argue. On this track, Hurt makes an orchestra out of a single instrument, his pick hand constructing a bassline and high-pitched vocal with just four fingers at breakneck – or at least rather difficult to imitate – speed.
7. “New Slang” – Shins
The most recent song on this list, the Shins’ 2001 single off the band’s debut album, Oh, inverted worldwas thrust into the pop culture limelight when featured on the soundtrack of the 2004 film garden condition. The acoustic ballad uses only the I, IV, V, and vi chords in the key of C major, running on a combination of the classic progression and intricate lyrical imagery of frontman James Russell Mercer.
6. “Leaving the Music (for a Movie)” – Radiohead
Originally written for the soundtrack to Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film, Romeo + Juliet“Exit Music (For a Film)” was later released on Radiohead’s 1997 seminal album, Ok Computer. The progressive alternative rock band’s hits feature an array of acoustic and electric tracks, but this one stands out for its surreal lyrics, subdued vocals and textures provided by acoustic guitar and synths. I also appreciate jazz pianist Brad Mehldau’s rendition of the melody.
5. “Astral Weeks” – Van Morrison
After the release of Van Morrison’s first album in 1967, Blow your mind!and his hit single “Brown Eyed Girl”, audiences and record executives expected more of the same from the songwriter on his second full-length album, Astral weeks. What was delivered instead was an eight-track, stream-of-consciousness mix of folk, rock, jazz, and blues. The musicians for the album’s backing session were given no track sheet, and for the title track, flautist John Payne entered the booth without having heard the song before.
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4. “Midnight Rider” – The Allman Brothers Band
Described in Gregg Allman’s autobiography as “the song I’m proudest of in my career”, “Midnight Rider” was the second single from the Allman Brothers’ second studio album, South Idlewild (sharing a record with its B-side, “Whipping Post”). Driven by Duane Allman’s acoustic guitar and Gregg’s vibrant vocals, the song failed to achieve chart success until it was reissued on Gregg’s first solo album a few years later. It has also been covered by Joe Cocker, reggae artist Paul Davidson and Willie Nelson.
3. “Blackbird” – The Beatles
A staple of the folk-rock collection, “Blackbird” was written by Paul McCartney after being introduced to a certain fingerpicking technique by Scottish folk singer Donovan. Featured on the eponymous Beatles disc in 1968, or on the “White Album” the melody is one of the band’s few songs that features only guitar and solo vocals – except for the birdsong samples in the background – and while it may sound complicated to play , it’s actually a great song for beginners to learn.
2. “Space Curiosity” – David Bowie
A Bowie classic, this track was released on the singer/songwriter’s self-titled second studio album, in 1969. The rock legend composed “Spatial oddity” For the movie i love you until tuesday and wrote it from the perspective of the fictional character Major Tom – a creative theme continued by his later use of the characters Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke.
1. “Wish You Were Here” – Pink Floyd
A melancholic ballad from the album of the same name, “Wish you were Here” was played on six- and 12-string acoustic guitars and sung by guitarist and co-writer David Gilmour. The song is often thought to be dedicated to co-founding member Syd Barrett, who left the band in 1968 due to serious mental health issues, but in interviews bassist and co-writer Roger Waters has stated that the lyrics were more self-directed and open to interpretation.