Top 25 Soft Rock Songs


Oliver Barnfield

Soft Rock was one of the most dominant music genres in the 1970s, but by the ’80s, it wasn’t taken very seriously. Let’s give it another look and list the 25 best songs in the genre. Graphic by Oliver Barnfield.

Soft rock, or yacht rock as some like to call it, was a popular genre in the ‘70s and ‘80s that mixed the ballad songwriting style of Barry Manilow and Neil Diamond with traditional, albeit pared-down, rock and soul instrumentals. These songs were mostly by middle-aged men who weren’t particularly good-looking, and they primarily featured lyrics about breakups or odd characters. 

Instrumentally, they’re categorized by an incessant use of the electric piano (an electro-mechanical keyboard that produces a watery sound) and melodic bass, which gave the songs an added funk. Artists like Steely Dan, Fleetwood Mac, and Todd Rundgren were critically acclaimed practitioners of this genre, but equally popular performers included artists like Leo Sayer and Christopher Cross, who were hated by most critics and are mostly forgotten today. 

Adding the signature bombast of the decade, the genre would evolve in the ‘80s, with artists like Hall and Oates achieving huge commercial success using this template. However, ‘80s soft rock just wasn’t as good (with a few exceptions) and for the most part, it just became pop, indistinguishable from everything else. The smooth sounds were being usurped by jagged synths and syrupy strings, and by the end of the decade, the genre was nearly unrecognizable. 

The genre turned into pomp rock and easy listening, with pomp rock ruled by bands like Journey and Styx, and easy listening being the realm of Lionel Richie and Celine Dion. So, what belongs on this list and what doesn’t? Well, here are the parameters for what I consider to be soft rock. 

An essentially edgeless and distortion-free sound is hugely evident, and while remaining largely keyboard-centric, also features guitars, though rarely the main instrument. Additionally, soft rock boasts a crisp, polished production. You will not find flubbed notes, background noise, or raucous improvisation, as these songs are tight. Intriguingly, artists of the genre often have very similar voices. It’s hard to describe, but unless you’re a distinct singer like Stevie Nicks or Elton John, these voices are almost interchangeable.   

The smooth but dark aura that surrounds these songs can be traced to the lyrics. Adult topics such as failing relationships are strengthened by characters and storylines that figure themselves into the lyrics. It is for this reason that one of the subsets of soft rock is what I like to call “Divorce Rock.” Another subgenre is Yacht Rock, a subcategory that some use interchangeably with soft rock. However, Yacht Rock is more nautical-centric and has a lazier vibe. Some of the songs on this list certainly fit that criteria too. 

This list will have a natural bias towards the ‘70s. This is when the genre flourished, but a few stragglers remained well into the 1980s. It should be noted that I like all the songs on this list, but for different reasons. The closer the songs are to the bottom, the more ironic my appreciation of them is. Nevertheless, I think even the cheesiest songs here have an inherent value that makes them worth listening to. 



25. Private Eyes by Hall and Oates

Hall and Oates bridged the gap between soft rock and synth-pop with hits like this and I Can’t Go For That. Personally, I find their music to be a huge guilty pleasure, especially Maneater, but this song fits the soft rock mold a lot better. It’s catchy, but paranoid, much like the duo’s other songs, and while it’s not particularly deep, it’s a fun listen anyway.

24. Sailing by Christopher Cross

This is an incredibly cheesy song, but not having it on the list would just be wrong. It’s such an essential part of soft rock history, and besides, it’s a pretty and relaxing song that probably sounds great when you’re out sailing. 

23. Baby Come Back by Player

Occupying a middle ground between Steely Dan and the Bee Gees, this pretty and precise ballad is saved from sappiness because of that fantastic bass hook. It’s the rare song that’s sad and funky at the same time.

22. How Deep is your Love by The Bee Gees

The Bee Gees soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever is best known for its great disco tracks, but its ballads were just as popular, and this one is a great example. It veers dangerously close to Barbra Streisand or Barry Manilow territory but the melancholy electric piano and light guitar plants it firmly in the soft rock camp. 

21. Smooth Operator by Sade

The jazzy tone of Sade’s music and her velvety voice can only be described as, well, smooth.  It’s only natural that this is her biggest hit, and it’s a good one too. It’s a great mix of exotic percussion, sweet saxophone, and intriguing lyrics.

20. Escape (The Pina Colada Song) by Rupert Holmes

Rupert Holmes created this perfect slice of soft rock in 1979, but its legacy has continued to this day, thanks to its catchy melody and iconic and unusual lyrics. The song tells the memorable story of a bored husband who places a personal ad that is answered by a mystery woman who turns out to be his wife. The off-kilter lyrics have ensured this hit a place in the collective consciousness for years to come.

19. Lowdown by Boz Scaggs

So funky that it almost slides over into disco, this pounding genre-bender could be considered soft rock, funk, soul, disco, or yacht rock depending on who you ask. For me, the sleazy and specific lyrics give this an ineffable soft rock vibe, and topped with Scaggs’ Kermit the Frog croon, it’s a great package no matter the genre. And just listen to that bassline.

18. Doctor My Eyes by Jackson Browne

Jackson Browne, like James Taylor, was a hugely popular singer-songwriter who often dipped his toes into the soft rock pool. Browne’s lyrics and catchy melody made this introspective song one of his biggest hits.

17. Lake Shore Drive by Alloita Haynes Jeremiah

With a piano melody that seems incredibly familiar even if you can’t place where you heard it, this song is slightly haunting despite its upbeat lyrics and melody. Something about the echoey production and minor key melody give it a ghostly feeling, like an old memory that you can’t fully recall. It’s the kind of song that feels nostalgic even if you’ve never heard it before. 

16. Every Breath You Take by The Police

Inescapable even today, this ominous song was the last gasp of The Police, one of the most innovative but flawed bands of the ‘70s and ‘80s. They had lost much of their edge and intrigue as the decade rolled on, falling into an uneasy mix of ominous dirges (King of Pain) and poppy love song filler (Do Do Do Da Da Da), but these two styles converged with this striking and memorable song. From the outset, it’s innocuous, but the lyrics reveal the story of an unhinged stalker, which some people seem to misunderstand. It’s an often-played wedding song, which is incredibly creepy, but removing it from those contexts reveal a dark and disturbing song with enough soft-rock polish to land it a spot on this list.

15. It’s Too Late by Carole King

Carole King’s 1971 album Tapestry is one of the two most important, influential, and successful albums of the LA soft rock boom.  While Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours might be the more popular of the duo, Tapestry is still an essential work in its own way. Lacking bombast or emotional histrionics, most of the songs are simply arranged for King’s sweet and earnest voice with piano accompaniment and light drums and bass. Written over a melody by King herself, lyricist Toni Stern’s breakup with James Taylor creates a mid-tempo and pleasing song for the ear. 

14. Rocket Man by Elton John

I debated on whether or not to include Sir Elton’s music on this list, but Rocket Man is too good to pass up. Of course the piano and vocals are excellent, but it’s the lyrics that make the song so memorable. The premise is so odd and creative that you can’t help but like the song, even if you aren’t the biggest fan of John’s music.

13. Him by Rupert Holmes

I’ve tried to avoid putting multiple songs by the same artist on this list because I don’t want to clog the countdown with Steely Dan and Fleetwood Mac, but I’ll make an exception with Rupert Holmes. Holmes’ other big song, Escape (The Pina Colada Song), might be more famous, but this song is a lot deeper and more interesting. Holmes doesn’t go for a humorous approach like he did on Escape, instead opting for an equally clever but just as catchy lyric and melody hook. The irresistible instrumentation and sweet harmonies, combined with the pretty chorus and Holmes’ wordless vocalizations during the chorus make for a masterpiece of the genre.

12. Disney Girls by The Beach Boys

The Beach Boys might be known as purveyors of sand and surf, but one listen to this heartbreaking song will cause you to see them in a whole new light. The song was written by Bruce Johnston, a tertiary member of the group who didn’t contribute all that many songs to the band’s albums. But with this one song, he proved himself as a songwriter, especially in the lyrics department. A dreamy ode to nostalgia tinged with an incredible sadness, it’s one of their best songs, and a highlight of their ‘70s wilderness years.

11. Sultans of Swing by Dire Straits

Not only does this song contain one of the best riffs in music history, but it also contains a mini-narrative about a jazz band being overtaken by rock ‘n’ roll in its lyrics. As usual, Mark Knopfler plays his echoey guitar with perfect grace, and the prominent bass line and jazzy hook make this an instant staple of the genre.

10. It Wouldn’t Make Any Difference by Todd Rundgren

Todd Rundgren’s 1972 masterpiece double album Something/Anything? is packed with soft rock classics, but I think this one fits the mold best and is also one of my favorites on the album. As with the rest of the record, Rundgren played all the instruments himself, and each crisp bongo and faded piano hits the sweet spot of musical perfection. This track is best heard on a slightly warped vinyl.

9. The Way It Is by Bruce Hornsby and The Range

Some of the greatest piano playing in music is present on this essential ‘80s soft rock song. Hornsby manages to mix his signature keyboard stylings with socially conscious lyrics that encourage racial harmony, all the while making the song incredibly easy to listen to. On a personal note, this song always reminds me of Colorado, not because of the lyrics, but because the first time I heard this I was in a small town there. Something about its rich piano tone causes me to associate it with the beautiful Colorado mountaintops. 

8. Year of the Cat by Al Stewart

Hyper-specific but cryptic lyrics are a staple of ‘70s soft rock, and this song is one of the best showcases of them. Built around a catchy piano hook, it’s littered with solos and evocative turns of phrase, making it a perfect soft rock song with a hint of prog.

7. I’m Not In Love by 10cc

One of the weirdest hit songs ever, and one of the best, this creepy and eerie single by 10cc contains a chorus of ghostly vocals and a terrifying spoken-word interlude. Though leaning more into art rock, this nonetheless has the buttery vocals and electric piano that characterize the best of the soft rock genre.

6. Take the Long Way Home by Supertramp

Beginning with ominous strings and a howling harmonica wail, this Supertramp classic is, much like What A Fool Believes, a tale of a broken and adrift man. The unforgettable lyrics and rhyme scheme include the memorable couplet,“So you think you’re Romeo, taking part in a picture show.” As someone who often takes the long way home in my daily life, it’s gotten frequent play during said walks. 

5. Her Town Too by James Taylor with JD Souther

James Taylor is best known for his folky singer-songwriter tracks, but his later career veered into familiar soft-rock territories. Anchored by smooth electric piano and Taylor’s plaintive voice (mirrored by JD Souther), it’s a beautiful and relaxing song that can instantly calm me down when I feel anxious.

4. Peg by Steely Dan

Steely Dan are the go-to example when it comes to soft rock music of the ‘70s. Their smooth, jazzy, and cynical songs were radio hits, but they also received critical acclaim, and for good reason. Their music is produced with such polish and detail that listening to them with earbuds doesn’t do them justice. These songs were intended to be heard with the best headphones, the only option to hear the crisp guitar solos and layered percussion. But don’t fret, because their music holds up well in any context, and this might just be their best song.  With a chirpy saxophone line and funky guitars, it’s the closest they ever ventured into pop. Their songs often tell stories of sleazy characters, but this is so infectious and upbeat that you wouldn’t notice until your 14th listen.

3. How Long by Ace

Anchored around one of the greatest basslines ever, this song is the ultimate soft rock classic. It has all the elements of one, with its paranoid and bitter lyrics, smooth harmonies, and of course, the two most iconic soft rock instrumental cliches: the cool electric piano and the melodic bass line. It’s also what inspired me to write this article. I love this song so much that I knew I had to discover more music like it and then write about that music.

2. What A Fool Believes by The Doobie Brothers

Michael McDonald’s husky voice, that glittering synth line, the earworm rhythm, and of course that falsetto chorus combine to create a perfect song. As usual, the lyrics tell of a sad broken man trying to “recreate what has yet to be created,” in probably the saddest sentence to ever appear in a hit song. Oh, and good luck getting this song out of your head, because once it’s in, it stays there forever. 

1. Dreams by Fleetwood Mac

The unimpeachable king of soft rock albums is Rumours, which doubles as one of the best albums of all time. This is one of the best songs on the 1977 masterpiece, and also the best soft rock song of all time. The mellow electric piano is the instant marker of the genre, and Stevie Nicks’ languid and mysterious vocals made this an international and enduring hit. The entire album was essentially a flurry of name-calling against other band members, all of whom were involved in affairs with each other. This song might be the best kiss-off on the record, as it doesn’t attempt to point fingers or accuse, instead going for a resigned and metaphorical lyric pattern that only adds to the relaxed vibe. It makes sense that this song remains popular to this day, even kickstarting a TikTok trend, as its chilled rhythm and memorable vocals make it instantly recognizable.