As hard rock legends AC/DC have proven with their latest album, Power Up, solid (and vintage) rock ‘n’ roll never goes out of style, especially when it comes from a true original. Of course, not everyone keeps up with the new albums by their musical heroes. Many fans prefer to listen to the classic stuff and go to the shows to hear the hits. But listening to new music by older artists is something that both longtime followers and new disciples — if they have not considered it — should strongly contemplate.
The old adage is that you have your whole life to write your first album and a year to write your second, so for many fans, the earlier stuff is better. That may be true from the standpoint of energy, boldness, and raw power, but as one gets older they accumulate wisdom, new influences, and even a different take on the same ideas, sometimes expressing them with as much aplomb as they did in their heyday. Just like us, our icons have lived through a lot of triumphs and travails, and their new stories carry as much weight now as their earlier ones did, perhaps more so. The voice of experience is a powerful teacher, especially when married to good music, and many classic rockers have certainly become more proficient and skilled over time.
Granted, not every cherished artist from our youth will maintain a strong trajectory, but the ones listed below have continued making great music. This is not just their livelihood, this is their life, and many still have illuminating observations about the roads they have traveled and that we may as well. You may even have your own favorites to add to the following collection. The term “classic rock” can be applied to them all, but that in itself is a constantly expanding umbrella.
“Doom or Destiny” by Blondie from Pollinator (2017)
Punkish new wave pioneers Blondie, known for their eclectic influences and Debbie Harry’s diverse vocal stylings, took a novel approach for their eleventh studio album. They served up some originals with many tunes written by younger artists who have been influenced by them, including Charlie XCX, Sia, Nick Valensi (The Strokes), and Dev Hynes, plus their musical peer Johnny Marr (of Smiths fame). And it worked. The album is groovilicious and sounds fresh. Harry’s original track “Long Time“ invokes the spirit of the ethereal “Heart of Glass,” while the Harry/Chris Stein song “Doom Or Destiny,” their fourth single with a politically charged video featuring punk rock goddess Joan Jett, revives the insurgent spirit of the group’s earlier days.
“Our Ship’s Sinking” by Rick Springfield from Songs for the End of the World (2012)
Best known for his ‘80s teen idol days and power pop presence, Rick Springfield has continued making music into the new millennium. Songs for the End of the World is actually a harder-edged record than you would expect from him, but it makes sense given the emotional freneticism of his music. If you’ve read his 2010 autobiography Late Late at Night, which chronicles his battles with clinical depression and sex addiction, you can understand why his music always churns with intensity. This is a surprisingly propulsive release with this modern-sounding single and a diverse track listing (even going grunge on “Depravity”), especially impressive considering that Springfield was 63 when he put it out.
“Lazarus” by David Bowie from Blackstar (2016)
Whether he was exploring glam, “plastic soul,” new wave, or drum ‘n’ bass sounds, David Bowie always did things his way and immersed himself in the music. Whereas many rock and pop stars get older and often experiment with new styles in desperate attempts to appear relevant, the chameleon of rock made these transitions feel natural. Just like when he pulled off a co-headlining tour with the more bombastic Nine Inch Nails in the mid-’90s. For his swan song Blackstar, recorded while he was battling liver cancer, Bowie kept looking forward. He transmuted jazz, electronic, and hip-hop influences into this dynamic collaboration with Donny McCaslin’s jazz quartet and guitarist Ben Monder to explore a moody space in which the singer often contemplated his own mortality. Like the album, the video for “Lazarus,” released just three days before his passing, is haunting and took on new meaning once he left us. As many fans have noted, few artists could turn their death into art as bravely as Bowie did.
“No Surrender” by Judas Priest from Firepower (2018)
Forty-four years into their recording career, British metal legends Judas Priest roared back with their best album in nearly 30 years with the turbocharged Firepower. Rob Halford’s soaring voice has held up really well, and the band sound just as pumped as ever with young guitarist Richie Faulkner injecting extra energy into the fold. He, Halford, and original guitarist Glenn Tipton marry vintage and modern sounds on everything from the majestic epic “Rising from Ruins” to the elegiac ballad “Sea of Red” inspired by the sacrifices of World War I veterans. Priest have few metal peers that have sounded this fierce as deep into their career, and Halford’s lyrics reflect an increasingly tumultuous world while offering hope for the future.
“Bouncing Off Clouds” by Tori Amos from American Doll Posse (2007)
The profound singer-songwriter known for ‘90s feminist manifestos like Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink might seem a little young for the “classic rock” tag – hey, grunge is now falling into that diverse domain – but Tori Amos actually began her career in a pop-rock vein with the ill-fated group Y Kant Tori Read, whose lone album in 1988 quickly faded from view (but is actually better than you might think). By the time she released American Doll Posse in 2007, Amos was already two decades into a career that has explored many different styles, from pop to orchestral to holiday music. This album firmly falls more into rock territory with her Zeppelin side strongly breaking through in spots. Exploring this eclectic material through the perspective of five different personas, Amos stated that the main theme of the album is that the political is personal and not the traditional inversion of that concept. (Her recent opus Native Invader is her most political so far and includes a redone Posse outtake.) While Amos is certainly revered for her confessional piano and vocal ballads, she’s also great when she rocks out as she frequently does here. American Doll Posse may be her most rocking album, and it’s one of her best.
“This Party’s Over” by Fish from Weltschmerz (2020)
Over three decades after he departed pioneering English prog-rock band Marillion, the soul-bearing Scottish singer-songwriter Fish continues crafting elegant, poignant, and meaningful music. I consider his first solo album, Vigil in a Wilderness of Mirrors from 1990, to be the greatest rock album ever made, and this double album is certainly a fitting finale to a solo career – yes, he says that’s the case – that finds him ruminating on the dark state of the world today. Indeed, the album’s German title translates both as “world weariness” or “the pain of the world,” depending upon the context you want to use it in. As always, Fish serves up clever turns of phrase, a tapestry of moods, and thoughtful insights on life. There are some heady topics here: crumbling democracy, global turmoil, the loss of his father, and his own brush with death. Even though this “grey-bearded warrior, a poet of no mean acclaim” feels that these times are overwhelming, there are glimmers of hope and resolve in his prose. Are we prepared to fight for a better future?
“Bitter Pill” by Billy Idol from Kings and Queens of the Underground (2014)
In an interview with CBS from 2014, the iconic pop-punk vocalist discussed dealing with addiction in an unusual way. “I’m not sober,” he told reporter Tracy Smith. “I have to say to myself, ‘You can do everything, man.’ But I’m not doing it. It shouldn’t work really, but if I say to myself, ‘I’m never doing anything again,’ I’ll immediately go and do it. That’s what I’m like.” The balance is found in that he gives himself license to do whatever he wants, but another side of him says no. His dynamic last studio album, mostly produced by Trevor Horn and featuring the distinct axe work of Idol’s longtime musical partner, Steve Stevens, encompasses that struggle with the angel and devil on his shoulders, from the begrudging self-control of “Bitter Pill” to the chaotic indulgence of “Whiskey and Pills.” Along the way, he relives memorable and tragic moments in his life. This is the tale of a man perpetually battling his demons, and they sometimes still win.
“Fragile” by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts from Unvarnished (2013)
The female punk rock pioneer and mother of ‘90s Riot Grrrls, Joan Jett returned after 2006’s Sinner with this album of anthems that combines her classic guitar-based sound with a more mature lyrical approach that tackles themes of facing mortality, remaining a defiant outsider, and overcoming tragedy. As many positive critical reviews have noted, Jett took her time-honored approach of rocking out while dealing with more adult themes. She collaborated with longtime musical partner Kenny Laguna along with Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl (“Any Weather”) and Against Me’s Laura Jane Grace (“Soulmates to Strangers”). It’s also great to hear the orchestrated strings in “Fragile” and the poignant closing ballad “Everybody Needs a Hero”.
“The Man Who Stole a Leopard” by Duran Duran from All You Need Is Now (2010)
Working with producer Mark Ronson (Lady Gaga, Adele), the ‘80s new romantic pioneers created this gem that matches anything from their ‘80s heyday. Duran Duran also managed to create enduring hits with 1993’s The Wedding Album and their classic line-up reunion album Astronaut (2004), but All You Need Is Now is something more special. The quintet certainly invokes the Rio era with tunes like the ballad “Mediterranea” and the percolating “Being Followed,” but then the enigmatic song “The Man Who Stole a Leopard” and the quirky, synth-driven title track offer some fresh takes. The lyrics and musicianship are more mature, and the group sounds happy to still be performing together after 30 years. This isn’t paint-by-numbers nostalgia; it’s Duran Duran embracing their musical legacy while staying relevant.
“Secret Love” by Stevie Nicks from In Your Dreams (2011)
Three decades after releasing her solo debut, Bella Donna, the famed Fleetwood Mac singer returned with her first new album in a decade. Recorded and mainly co-written with Dave Stewart of Eurhythmics fame, In Your Dreams conjures the earthy vibe of classic Fleetwood while not feeling recycled and being viewed through the lens of accrued wisdom. The temporary nature of many romantic entanglements is explored with their magic and melancholy both being represented, concepts that Stevie Nicks has always been passionate about expressing. Mac bandmates Lindsey Buckingham (guitar) and Mick Fleetwood (drums) made guest appearances, and Stewart helps the material flow and gel.
“Human Feel” by Journey from Eclipse (2011)
Producer Kevin Shirley, who has worked with Journey many times, once told me that guitarist Neal Schon and keyboardist Jonathan Cain “are like brothers that love each other, but Jon writes pop songs and Neal always wanted to be Van Halen.” The group’s most recent studio effort, Eclipse, now nearly a decade old, embodies that latter ideal. Gone are the sentimental ballads that drive some of us crazy; in are riff-based and harder anthems that definitively prove that, underneath the pop hits people know them for, Journey are bonafide rockers. There’s also a buoyant sense of optimism driving these tracks. This second album with singer Arnel Pineda departs from their classic sound for something different; even the softer tunes are more metaphysical in nature. If you’re open to change, Eclipse is electric.
“Punchline” by The Motels from The Last Few Beautiful Days (2018)
Through the first half of the ‘80s, The Motels, led by beguiling singer Martha Davis, possessed a haunting quality that made them stand out from the new wave pack on albums like All Four One and Little Robbers. The group has gone through a few incarnations, and their most recent album took a darker turn as many of the songs were inspired by the loss of Davis’ oldest daughter, Maria, to opioid addiction. The moody tunes are gorgeous and cathartic; even dissonant in the case of “Machine.” Great art can come from personal pain, but it still takes an insightful, poetic, and self-aware artist to make it click as Davis does here. PopMatters aptly called this “New Wave Noir”.
“Dreams of Yesteryear” by Uriah Heep from Livin’ the Dream (2018)
These British hard rock legends never truly got their due in the United States beyond their ‘70s peak, but they have remained a stronger force overseas. After later revamping their classic sound with an ‘80s twist – Abominog and Head First are classics – the group acquired singer Bernie Shaw in 1986, and he has remained with them ever since. Starting with two amazing ‘90s albums (Sea of Light and Sonic Origami) that harkened back to their vintage sound, the powerhouse quintet has managed to stay vital and sound impassioned ever since with perennial guitarist/co-founder Mick Box and longtime keyboardist Phil Lanzon, along with now-deceased members Trevor Bolder (bass) and Lee Kerslake (drums), providing continuity and consistency. There’s a timeless quality and increasing maturity to Heep’s music that usually dissipates with most other bands, but as their last album attests, this music is in their DNA. And if you saw them open for Judas Priest two years ago, you could see that they are still elated to be playing together. That’s magical.
“Nineteen Eighty” by Joe Satriani from Shapeshifting (2020)
Joe Satriani is simply one of the greatest electric guitarists alive and has continually proved his musical mastery on a variety of albums. His catalog varies in strength depending upon which styles or moods you prefer, but his most recent effort is his best in nearly a decade and showcases a variety of influences from reggae to surf guitar to jazz. That, along with its emotional core, gives the album breadth. In his sixties now, Satch continues to wail away with passion, and the track “Nineteen Eighty,” an homage to guitar shred from back in the day, shows his songwriting is as catchy as ever. He’s been nominated for a Grammy Award 15 times and never won one, and he’s not nominated this year. What gives? It’s about time he took one home.
“Comfort Me” by Night Ranger from Don’t Let Up (2017)
Night Ranger are one of those rock bands that always had a steady catalog of arena hits throughout the 1980s, and they continue performing those in concert today without having to worry about releasing new music. But they don’t rest on their laurels, and this most recent studio release shows that the band is still firing on all cylinders. On Don’t Let Up, there are recurring themes of romantic upheaval, embracing maturity, and committing to life choices, and while the production is more raw than anything they did in the ‘80s, the spirit of their music from that time still lives on. There’s something insistently catchy about this album that makes it worthy of repeat listening.