On Tuesday, the Harmonix studio released the final downloadable song for its Rock Band games—Don McLean’s “American Pie.” That ends a stretch of 281 weeks during which Harmonix steadily expanded the Rock Band library of songs with downloadable content (DLC). McLean’s tale of The Day The Music Died serves as a dignified capper to a music-game craze that—a mere five years ago—felt like it would never end. But as Harmonix and Activision (the publisher of the Guitar Hero series) flooded stores with plastic instruments and seemingly infinite variations on their games, players got weary, and the market fizzled.
Rock Band is still a hell of a lot of fun, though, so we’re paying tribute with our Ultimate Rock Band Set List. Contributors from The A.V. Club and The Gameological Society have chosen some of our favorite tracks from the library of 4,000-plus songs that Harmonix has made available for purchase. (We didn’t include anything from The Beatles: Rock Band because those songs can’t be transferred to any other version of the game.) We invite you load it up, tweak it as you see fit—we eagerly anticipate your suggestions in the comments—and rock on.
ANTHONY JOHN AGNELLO
Tears For Fears, “Head Over Heels” (available as downloadable content)
Of all the Tears For Fears jams that were drilled into people’s heads in Songs From The Big Chair, none are quite so celebratory as “Head Over Heels.” The cascading piano melody, the slow anthemic guitar solos, and Roland Orzabal’s throaty vocals are already a perfect blend of pop ingredients. In Rock Band, though, it works as massive punctuation, the perfect way to close a drunken set. “Funny how time flies.” Orzabal’s fading line never seemed so perfect as in this game.
Interpol, “PDA” (Rock Band 2)
Interpol really crapped out after its amazing first album,Turn On The Bright Lights. That 2002 debut was dark, wet, and hot. It also feels effortless, a characteristic wholly embodied by one of the band’s earliest singles, “PDA.” That dank headiness makes it an ideal mid-set rumbler for Rock Band players. When your group is blasting through the song’s tough drum parts, there’s a moment when Paul Banks’ dumb lyrics threaten to topple the moment, but the inherent sexiness of the song wins the day. Listening to the band’s follow-up, Antics, can be frustrating as hell, but at least there’s the game to help work out those frustrations.
Blue Öyster Cult, “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” (Rock Band)
“(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” is the Rodney Dangerfield of classic rock songs. It gets no respect. It’s a damn shame that most people know it these days as the setup for a punchline—“More cowbell!” It’s a monster of a tune built around a rippling, hypnotic guitar riff that circles around and around the rhythm section before exploding into a searing psychedelic solo, all topped off with some stoner-philosophy lyrics about the inevitability of death. What else does a ’70s-era rock anthem need? It’s not an easy song to play well in Rock Band, with four- and five-star difficulty ratings for all the instruments apart from vocals, but figuring out how to (fake) play that classic riff and mind-melting solo can deepen the appreciation of the song’s timeless appeal. And yes, for those who can only appreciate the classics through the lens of irony, the vocalist even gets to play the cowbell part. Happy?
The Buzzcocks (cover), “Ever Fallen In Love” (DLC)
Is there a pop-punk song more unjustly overlooked and unappreciated than The Buzzcocks’ “Ever Fallen In Love”? Not likely. It mixes its component “pop” and “punk” elements in perfect measure, matching lyrics anyone can identify with to a hooky, angular riff and a frenetic beat. An unforgettable earworm with a snotty, sneering edge, it would still be the envy of every Hot Topic band today if only anyone remembered the song. That makes it a perfect Rock Band selection—catchy enough to fall in love with on the first listen, obscure enough to impress your hippest friends, and, as a bonus, really easy to play, even if you’ve never heard the song before. The only bummer is it’s a cover version, but hey, that’s just all the more reason to go seek out the original after it sinks its hooks into you.
Queen, “Fat Bottomed Girls” (DLC)
“Fat Bottomed Girls” is a perfect Rock Band track. It gives each instrument a moment to shine, starting with the perfectly harmonized a capella opening. The bass steals the spotlight, if only briefly, with its monstrous entrance. Then there are the raunchy guitar solos that manage to rise out of the song’s primordial biker-rock soup. And finally, the drums with their thunderous, set-spanning fills. The magic of “Fat Bottomed Girls,” however, is how it brings these mighty licks together. The choruses, all bazillion of them, are pure rock ’n’ roll magic, full of crash cymbals, soaring guitar, and hammering bass drum. It’ll make you feel like a star, but, even better, like part of a band.
Iggy Pop, “The Passenger” (Lego Rock Band)
“The Passenger” is one of the gems hidden away in Lego Rock Band that can be ripped from their home and plugged into a larger Rock Band library. It’s a strange inclusion for a game that’s attempting to be more “family-friendly.” For starters, it’s sung by a man known for his horrible heroin addiction and for pulling out his junk on stage—a man who appears in the game via a Lego-fied avatar (Lego junk not included). The song itself is a sea of perpetually moving, jangly guitar and bass, backed up by an unrelenting shuffle beat. It’s innocuous and light at the start but builds into an intimidating snarl. Perhaps it’s the song’s classic singalong chorus that sealed the deal. It cuts through the haze with a series of harmonized “la la la la las” that can get anybody singing, kids included.
Coheed And Cambria, “Ten Speed (Of God’s Blood And Burial)” (DLC)
If Claudio Sanchez is to be believed, every song he sings in Coheed And Cambria is a matter of life and death. That’s what happens when you write albums as epic and grandiose as 2005’s Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, Volume One: From Fear Through The Eyes Of Madness—and its soaring third single “Ten Speed (Of God’s Blood And Burial).” True to form, the track is a melodramatic, prog-steeped chapter in the album’s overarching storyline. The plot doesn’t make much sense, but it doesn’t have to; like Geddy Lee fronting a suddenly hook-friendly The Mars Volta, Sanchez sells it.
Queens Of The Stone Age, “Little Sister” (DLC)
More cowbell? No problem. Queens Of The Stone Age have it covered on “Little Sister.” The slinky, sinuous, oversexed song is a throwback to the golden rock ‘n’ roll age of sleazy come-ons and rock-god hedonism. In other words, pretty much par for the course for Queens Of The Stone Age. But on “Little Sister,” frontman Joshe Homme lubes up his riffs and sets his croon on stun. The result is lascivious, sure, but it’s also catchy as hell. Kind of like the clap.
Jimmy Buffett, “Volcano” (DLC)
As much a businessman as he is a musician, Jimmy Buffett has a knack for knowing which way the volcano is blowing. So it probably shouldn’t have been surprising when his usual shortlist of languid island anthems showed up early in the Rock Band store’s first summer, or even that he re-recorded the songs specifically for the game. Buffett is a touring machine—he belts out “Cheeseburger In Paradise” pretty much every day. And yet it still felt a little validating. It was only a few months earlier that Rock Band was still settling for imperfect song covers, and now here was an old-guard pop star, a man my father respects (yeah, I don’t know) going to the studio just for the sake of the game. He even changed the lyrics to “Volcano,” cementing Rock Band in the list of acceptable Parrothead ways to chill. Playing that song with a pitcher of mojitos nearby was the perfect mid-decade tropical pastiche.
Miranda Cosgrove, “Headphones On” (DLC)
A promotional single from the Nickelodeon show iCarly, “Headphones On” entered the Rock Band store at the height of that game’s popularity, and it was completely free. This was probably meant to be a gift for the credit card-free tweener audience. What it became in my group’s old playlists was a punishment and a time bomb. Bets were built around it, with the loser having to “sing”—but then we all lost, because no one knew how it went, and also a grown-ass man was singing a Nickelodeon song. Its real purpose was to sit there until someone picked it intentionally. This was a good sign that the party was over, that it had gone too far, and that we should consider calling for an ambulance and a stomach pump. It’s an integral and horrible part of any playlist. Well, it’s probably horrible. I still don’t know how it’s supposed to sound.
Anvil, “Metal On Metal” (DLC)
Until the rock-doc Anvil! The Story Of Anvil came around, the early heavy metal band Anvil seemed doomed to live on only as a footnote in the history of metal. However, the documentary helped bring Anvil’s most famous track, “Metal On Metal,” back into the conversation, and the song earned a place in the Rock Band track list. It’s a chugging work of art, complete with fun chant-along lyrics, thick guitar riffs, and even the sound of an anvil being worked over. It’s cheesy in exactly the right ways. Most lines are prefaced with a snarling “Metal on metal…” falsetto from singer Steve “Lips” Kudlow. “Metal On Metal” may not resonate with those unfamiliar with the film, but with the right group, it’s magic.
Bon Jovi, “Wanted Dead Or Alive” (Rock Band)
Sometimes the best songs to play along with also happen to be the worst songs. Donning a lame cowboy bravado, Jon Bon Jovi adds a paltry southern twang to his voice for “Wanted Dead Or Alive.” “I’m a cowboy / On a steel horse I ride / And I’m wanted / Dead or alive,” goes the boring chorus of the track. While the song trots along like any other Bon Jovi song, there is a certain thrill to be found in hamming up the lyrics from behind a Rock Band mic. Suddenly, vamping each syllable to its logical, cartoonish extreme reveals how much fun JBJ must have had singing up there all along. Just don’t complain when your buddies boo you off the mic and pick a “better” song.
Ween, “Gabrielle” (Rock Band Network)
Like Steve, the dorky outcast in Wet Hot American Summer who spends his summer camp playing with chickens but literally blows everyone away at his camp’s talent show, you can never be quite sure what Ween is capable of. “Gabrielle” is Ween’s talent show, a moment for the band to shock the world for no reason other than the fact that it can. While the cult genre-hoppers preferred to make puerile and challenging music (they described their sound as “brown”) for most of their career, “Gabrielle” finds frontman Gene Ween channelling his inner Phil Lynott for an upbeat, psychedelic breakup romp. Essentially, it’s the greatest Thin Lizzy song Thin Lizzy never wrote. While no one expected Ween to even try making a “Gabrielle,” they pulled it off and bucked a nasty reputation, even if only for a few minutes of perfect pop.
Rush, “Limelight” (DLC)
There are many levels on which singing “Limelight” with a bunch of your friends (or playing the complex guitar or bass parts) is awesome, the biggest being that it’s a song about the perils of fame. Singing it in Geddy Lee’s high voice, and trying to get your head around a huge rock song about how being in a huge rock band maybe isn’t the greatest thing—it’s kind of beautiful. But even more beautiful than that is understanding how much fun Rush songs are when broken down into their component parts. Perhaps they’re more fun to play and sing along with than listen to, which makes for a great Rock Band track.
Alanis Morissette, “You Oughtta Know” (Rock Band 2)
I do not like “You Oughta Know,” but I don’t hate it, either. It’s always sort of flummoxed me. I understand why it was a massive hit, since it’s so full of angst and catchy hooks, but it’s also really dumb. Still, when you’re performing it on Rock Band, be it guitar or vocals, it becomes clear that “You Oughta Know” has personality to spare. Lines that made me cringe when I heard them on the radio (specifically “Was she perverted like me? / Did she go down on you in the thea-a-ta?”) are incredibly fun to sing, especially if you’re willing to let it all hang out and just ape Alanis completely. The girl could inflect like a mofo when she was mad.
The Sterns, “Supreme Girl” (Rock Band 2)
I came across this song while playing through a random set list on Rock Band 2, and it became a staple for both the game and my MP3 player. On the surface, it’s a poppy song about a boy disenchanted with his girl. It’s actually being sung from the perspective of George W. Bush as he looks back on his failed Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers. As it turns out, she was “not the supreme girl that (he) thought she was.” There’s plenty of good music inspired by Bush’s presidency, but this might be my favorite because it’s so clever and amusing.
Disturbed, “Down with the Sickness” (Rock Band 2)
I never thought singing was hard enough in the Rock Band games, which often had long stretches where the player with the mic did nothing at all or tapped a simple rhythm just to fill time. So my friends and I used “Down With The Sickness” to give an extra challenge to the vocalist. It’s hard enough to replicate David Draiman’s bizarre scream, but we strove to also sing along to his appropriately disturbing mid-song rant, even though the game didn’t require it.
The Von Bondies, “C’mon C’mon” (DLC)
Thousands of commercials for Denis Leary’s Rescue Me have burned this modern garage rock anthem into your subconscious forever. More importantly, it’s plain flippin’ fun! For just over two minutes, a constant barrage of post-punk swagger allows all four members of your band to feel like complete badasses. Here’s the secret, though: It’s totally easy! Even on the hardest difficulty, the guitar and bass play intuitive and easy-to-follow sequences of three-to-four notes, never deviating from the beat. The drums are active but never outlandish, and the vocals—well, it’s a punk song without any screaming. No problem! It’s an easy high-energy track for building your band’s confidence and getting the party started.
The Main Drag, “A Jagged Gorgeous WInter” (Rock Band 2)
“A Jagged Gorgeous Winter” is the perfect example of how the game Rock Band and actual rock bands could help each other. Made up mostly of Harmonix staffers, The Main Drag had a small but enthusiastic fanbase online that only grew with the inclusion of their single “A Jagged Gorgeous Winter” in Rock Band 2. In addition to being unflinchingly hooky, the song is a dream to play, with just enough activity on all four instruments to make sure no one ever feels like they’re playing the weakest instrument. And there’s a final verse (starting at 2:50 in the above video) where both the singer and the guitarist get to wail their hearts out. The Main Drag went on to release two entire albums on the Rock Band Network. “A Jagged Gorgeous Winter” remains a fan favorite among Rock Band players and a must-have in every library.
The Zombies, “Tell Her No” (DLC)
This ’60s pop gem feels unlike anything else in Rock Band. Melodic, spacious, and generally calm, the sound of “Tell Her No” plays against the act of playing the song. Remarkably challenging, “Tell Her No” casually boasts a stream of syncopated notes and an enthusiastically bleated chorus that should make any halfway decent singer squeal like Prince during the Mardi Gras parade. Also remarkable is how this track genuinely makes players feel connected, as all four parts collaborate smoothly with one another to form one glorious psychedelic pop whole. Don’t be surprised if you wind up glancing over to your bandmates to make sure they’re feeling the groove just as strongly as you are.
.38 Special, “Hold On Loosely” (DLC)
Pleasurable bouts of face-melting guitar wankery aside, it’s advisable to avoid exhausting your full band by obliging either earnest or sarcastic chants for “Freebird”—and most of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s catalog of lengthy opuses. Opt instead for Skynyrd sister act .38 Special and their 1981 hit “Hold On Loosely.” It’s a catchy song that cuts out a portion of the southern rock fat while losing none of its muscular power. There’s still a blistering two-minute guitar solo at the end of the song, but it’s partially disguised by the eminently singable chorus. And then there’s Donnie van Zant’s lyrics, a Dr. Phil-like lecture to clingy people in relationships—“Hold on loosely, but don’t let go / If you cling too tightly / You’re gonna lose control”—that accidentally doubles as a tutorial for Rock Band instrument playing.
Ozzy Osbourne, “Crazy Train” (Rock Band 3)
A British hard rocker’s lament about modern society’s role in creating his unstable mental state is an unlikely candidate to blare from the loudspeakers of nearly every football stadium in America. But there’s a good reason why the first single from Ozzy Osbourne’s debut solo album morphed into a Jock Jam du jour sometime in the ’90s. “Crazy Train” begins with the Ozz Man’s infectious call of “All Aboard!” followed by a suspenseful bass line that builds into Randy Rhoades’ rousing guitar riff. That lick and a mid-song guitar solo provide the driving force for the song, but there’s plenty of red meat for the rest of Rock Band’s performers—from the punchy bass part and nifty drum work to Ozzy’s cackling over-the-top vocal performance. Fair warning: Everyone inevitably sounds ridiculous singing the echoey “Aye! Aye! Aye!” part—just embrace it.
Ratt, “Round And Round” (Rock Band 2)
It’s fair to question the musical and cultural legacy of ’80s hair metal. The term “guilty pleasure” was likely invented just to describe our complicated relationship with spandex-clad pretty boys who shaved some of the hard edge off heavy metal and banged their heads to sleazy odes about promiscuous teen girls. But in the context of Rock Band, a game in which you’re pushing buttons on fake plastic instruments in a quasi “performance” of popular music, the artifice of hair metal feels like the perfect fit. Ratt’s delightfully terrible “Round And Round,” for example, isn’t a song in heavy rotation on my iTunes playlist, but it closes out half the Rock Band parties I’ve ever had. Here’s why: It rocks, but not too hard. It’s simple, but there’s a modicum of virtuosity. Most importantly, almost everyone in the room knows the chorus and will sing along with you. It’s just too bad you can’t jump through a ceiling and shred the guitar solo on a dinner table in front of stuffy rich people like Ratt did in their video.
Dio, “Holy Diver” (DLC)
When Ronnie James Dio died of stomach cancer a few years back, a part of me died too—the part that always wanted to walk into some random castle, give hard looks and slay its inhabitants with the power of metal. “Holy Diver” is entry-level Dio, but even without its incredible video, the song is one that will instantly see me stalking around the living room, menacingly waggling my fingers, and growling “Look out!” To this day, I’m not really sure what the song title is referring to, but “Holy Diver” is undoubtedly one of the top five songs I want played at my own viking funeral.
Megadeth, “A Toute Le Monde” (DLC)
Growing up, my brother and I went to a rather unremarkable South Jersey public school. There was, I think, a French teacher, but I have no recollection of taking the class. No matter. Both of us learned everything we needed to know about the language of Rimbaud and Depardieu from two songs: “Wind Of Change” by The Scorpions, and “A Tout Le Monde” by Megadeth. The latter wasn’t necessarily my favorite Megadeth song (“Ashes In Your Mouth” or “Tornado Of Souls” have that honor), but Dave Mustaine’s rare French dip, which I’ve always just assumed was nonsense grammar that sounded cool, added a continental flair to the usual heavy riffs.
Radiohead, “Creep” (Rock Band)
When it was first released as Radiohead’s debut single in 1992, “Creep” barely garnered any attention for the British alt-rockers. A year later, it exploded on the charts thanks to word of mouth and widespread radio play. In fact, “Creep” became so popular, the band became annoyed with countless requests to play it, eventually dropping it from their set list altogether. Fortunately, “Creep” will forever be known as one of the signature tracks that was available on the first Rock Band. With its cascading guitar riffs and haunting lyrics, it’s not only one of the greatest rock songs of all time, but it’s also a song that highlights almost every instrument in the Rock Band arsenal. Sure, you’ll probably sound more like a dying wildebeest than Thom Yorke when you hit those high notes, but damned if it isn’t still among the best Rock Band tracks.
Jonathan Coulton, “Still Alive” (DLC)
Nerd rocker Jonathan Coulton has made an impressive career for himself thanks to his catchy melodies and quirky lyrics. His geek de résistance, however, is “Still Alive.” Originally used in the closing credits of Portal, the song is a sharp blend of poppy rock and surprisingly poignant lyrics—considering it’s largely about cake and sung by an evil robot. Bottom line: It was a classic when it was first used in Portal, and it’s even more awesome as a Rock Band duet with GLaDOS.
Nine Inch Nails, “March Of The Pigs” (DLC)
While almost 20 years old(!), Nine Inch Nails’ “March Of The Pigs” still feels as dangerous now as it did back then. It’s easy to see why: The drums resemble bullets ricocheting off a metal wall, violently driving the song’s metal-industrial guitar and seething bass and keyboard buzz. But mainly, “March Of The Pigs” belongs to NIN vocalist Trent Reznor and his deranged-drill-sergeant delivery, which oozes contempt and derision. When the song pauses for a creepy piano interlude and T-Rez hisses, “Doesn’t it make you feel better?” it’s unclear whether a “yes” or “no” answer will satisfy—and prevent him from snapping.
The Pixies, “Debaser” (DLC)
Pixies’ music is deceptively difficult to perform. Exhibit A: Doolittle’s “Debaser,” a raucous song with carnival barking from Black Francis, plenty of tempo twists, and sudden dynamic shifts. The song’s recurring guitar melody is simple yet< totally a pain to keep on tempo, while the rhythm section—consisting of Kim Deal’s melodic bass burbles and David Lovering’s chattering drums—is always switching gears. Such complexity merely adds to the charms of the song, which features some of Pixies’ finest sandpaper-rough guitars and cryptic lyrics. What is a debaser, anyway, and why would you even want to be one?