If you could boil rock music down to its essence, what would it sound like? These 10 songs provide the answer, an impressive survey of the different styles that have shaped contemporary mainstream rock.
This San Diego band proved to be an alternative to '90s alternative rock with this titanic track about an unobtainable, deeply disturbed woman. Merging a hard-rock rhythm section with a pop-savvy chorus, Stone Temple Pilots paved the way for accessible rock songs that felt heavy but revealed a hooky, sensitive center.
How could a jet-black dance song about kinky sex ever become a hit? In the hands of Trent Reznor, Nine Inch Nails' "Closer" was industrial rock's very peak, a desperate cry for human connection buried in distorted guitars, menacing keyboards and drum machines. But once you step back from its abrasive, hypnotic surface, you discover a perfectly calibrated pop song at its core. Reznor wanted to express his alienation, but this song ended up making him universally loved.
Before Superunknown, Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell was better known for his intense singing style, but on this ballad, he demonstrated that there was a nuanced vocalist under that gruff exterior. But "Black Hole Sun" was no sellout -- the song's dark, layered arrangement paired with Cornell' vaguely apocalyptic imagery made for an arresting listening experience as gripping as any they'd previously attempted.
Art Alexakis wrote songs about regular guys whose mediocre existence didn't keep them from dreaming of a better life out there somewhere. "Santa Monica" encapsulates all that was magnificent about his pop-punk aesthetic: soaring choruses; guitar hooks that sound fabulous blasting out of your car speakers; and urgent, empathetic vocals that capture the rage and disillusionment of 9-to-5ers everywhere.
They may have been a one-hit wonder, but this English band made their brief moment in the sun count. Mainstream rock is beset with songs filled with angst and sadness, but "In the Meantime" offers a rare glimpse of optimism. Focusing on life's happier aspects with a philosophical perspective, singer Royston Langdon may be bummed about the end of a love affair, but Spacehog's buoyant guitars keep him from getting too depressed.
The epicenter of '90s rap-rock, this taunting track off Significant Other was the bastard child of the Beastie Boys' brashness, the Red Hot Chili Peppers' hard-rock hedonism and a decade's worth of gangsta-rap posturing. Singer Fred Durst came on like a cocky jerk, dissing exes and enemies with equal bile, daring anyone to knock him off the top of the hill. Limp Bizkit faded from the scene, but groups like Linkin Park would soon follow in their footsteps.
Staind are a metal band, but their biggest hit was one of their softest tunes. But though "It's Been Awhile" feels rather listener-friendly, frontman Aaron Lewis sings about dark subject matter, such as his battles with addiction and his strained relationship with his father. The ebb-and-flow of the song's dynamic structure nicely mirrors both the singer's self-doubt and his hope for redemption.
Love them or hate them, Nickelback helped set the agenda for 21st-century mainstream rock on this bulked-up power ballad. Chad Kroeger boasts the scene's biggest pipes, opening the door for ruggedly sensitive singers like Chris Daughtry and Saving Abel's Jared Weeks. Guys might have dismissed this track as being corny, but Kroeger's intimate lyrics made rock a safe place again for female listeners.
Rock songs aren't known for having a terrific sense of humor -- after all, artists are leery of being labeled novelty acts -- but "She Hates Me" is a fun exception. The subject matter is very familiar -- singer Wes Scantlin discovers that the girl of his dreams doesn't dig him -- but the track's playful, self-deprecating tone demonstrates that heartbreak can be funny.
If the essence of rock music is the killer riff, then "Slither" is the gold standard by which such songs must be measured. Slash's looping guitar line skips along with Scott Weiland's energetic "Hey!" chants to produce a superb piece of contemporary rock that pays homage to the nasty spirit of classic hard rock.