What makes a tune stand out amongst so many others, or enables it to stand the test of time and span of generations? Most importantly, how does a song become dubbed as “one of the greatest of all time”, seemingly immortalized? Maybe it’s the duration that it dominates the U.S. Billboard charts. Maybe it’s how the song helps define our culture. Perhaps it’s the millions of memories it’s help shape. Then again, maybe it’s as simple as the length of time it’s withstood without being drowned out by every other artist, or it comes to symbolize–to millions of folks–monumental people, places, and/or events in time. Who knows.
100 different people will come up with 100 different lists. So, while we aim for objectivity as much as possible, much of this list (and virtually any “top” list, for that matter) will inevitably be subjective. Inasmuch, it would prove nearly impossible to definitively rank the very “best songs”; therefore, our team set four realistic standards:
- There should be inclusion of songs from each of the last eight (or so) decades.
- No single artist, past or present, shall be awarded more than four spots on the list.
- Most genres of music, or to the most reasonable extent, shall be represented on the list.
- To avoid assembling “just another ho-hum laundry list of the best songs”, each song will include a brief intro and other relevant, interesting information.
- These songs are listed in no particular order.
*Key Abbreviations: RR/HoF (Denotes that the song is on the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs That Shaped Rock chart), RS/500 (denotes the song’s inclusion on Rolling Stones‘s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time chart, proceeded by its rank—i.e. “No. 23”).
1. (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction (The Rolling Stones)
An anti-establishment, sexually suggestive song that was released in June of 1965 (August in the U.K.), “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” was an almost-instant, global hit. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wrote the legendary song, which helped launch the Stone’s unparalleled success in the music industry. And perhaps one of biggest reasons that “Satisfaction” topped the charts and was so phenomenally successful was because it represented a huge departure from societal norms and values and stirred up plenty of controversy among older Americans.
“Satisfaction” was the British group’s first American hit and their forth in their home country. It knocked “I Can’t Help Myself“ and “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch“ off the top of the charts when it released, riding them (including the Billboard Hot 100) for over four weeks (remaining there for 14 weeks) before being surpassed by Herman’s Hermits classic “I’m Henry the Eighth, I Am.” “Satisfaction” also has a permanent home in the Rock&Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs That Shaped Rock compilation and boasts dozens of other major awards and honorable mentions from across the music industry.
Meaning of the Song: “Satisfaction” denoted unbridled rage, about the then-hugely-popular anti-establishment, anti-commercialism scene, as well as sex and sexual innuendo.
Accolades: RR/HoF; RS/500, No. 2; carried the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for 14 consecutive weeks.
2. Jailhouse Rock (Elvis Presley)
Released in 1957 to coincide with Presley’s movie of the same name, where Elvis performed a highly elaborate dance rendition of the song among a jailhouse backdrop, “Jailhouse Rock” (with “Treat Me Nice” on the B-side) was and always will be one of the most famous, powerful and influential songs (particularly of its genre) of all time. In fact, it became so popular, that even iconic musicians and bands like The Residents, Merle Haggard, ZZ TOP, Motley Crue, John Couger Mellencamp, and Abba (and several other prominent musicians) have covered and even put their own spin on the song.
Meaning of the Song: Although never officially substantiated, “Jailhouse Rock” bore an almost uncanny resemblance to the theme and rendition of “Rock Around the Rockpile”, a song from the previously-released movie The Girl Can’t Help It.
Accolades: RS/500, No. 67; RR/HoF induction; seven consecutive weeks at the top of Billboard‘s Top 100 Number One Singles; over four million records sold; two double-platinum RIAA certifications.
3. The Twist (Chubby Checker)
Although originally conceived of, produced, and sung by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters in 1959, Chubby Checker became the person who turned this “twelve bars”, blues-esque song into a smash hit and dance craze. After debuting on Dick Clark’s Bandstand with the song that Ballard was originally scheduled to perform, it took the coveted No. 1 spot on the 1960 U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart and No. 2 on the U.S. Billboard R&B Singles chart. Two years later, still wildly popular across the U.S., it reclaimed the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1962 (No. 4 on the R&B Singles chart). Checker since recorded other versions of “The Twist”, including a rap variety in concert with the Fat Boys (1988) and a country version in the ’90s. “The Twist” was featured on Billboard‘s Hot 100 50th Anniversary, All-Time 100 Top Songs list at No. 1 (2008).
Meaning of the Song: According to Hank Ballard’s guitarist, “The Twist” was inspired by The Sensational Nightinggales (a ’50s gospel group) and Ballard’s “Is Your Love for Real” song—of which was inspired by The Drifter’s 1955 “What’cha Gonna Do”. Unfortunately for Ballard, though, The Twist skyrocketed on the charts (and is largely remembered) because of Chubby Checker’s breakthrough performances of it on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand.
Accolades: Features at No. 1 on Billboard’s 2008 “Hot 100 50th Anniversary” All Time Tops Songs; RS/500, No. 451; RR/HoF induction; peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 (1960) (1962); made the Billboard Top R&B Singles chart at No. 2 in 1960 and No. 4 in 1962.
4. Hey Jude (The Beatles)
“Hey Jude”—a song by Paul McCartney and the first one ever to be released on Apple Records–is a 1968 song by The Beatles, with “Revolution” on its flip-side. The Beatles longest single at 7:11, and the longest-ever single at the time, “Hey Jude” was the also one of the first mainstream long songs to get significant airplay, as radio stations of that time generally preferred shorter ones. Commercially, “Hey Jude” knocked “I Can’t Help Myself” and “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch” (The Four Tops) off the top of the charts when it released, topping them (including the Billboard Hot 100) for over four weeks and remaining in the Hot 100 for 14 weeks before being surpassed by Herman’s Hermits “I’m Henry the Eighth, I Am“.
In addition to its No.2 spot on Rolling Stone’s (magazine) 500 Greatest Songs of All Time chart, “Satisfaction” secured a permanent spot in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Meaning of the Song: Although unsubstantiated, it’s rumored that it was a tribute to John Lennon’s son, Julian, and was initially dubbed “Hey Jules”.
Accolades: RR/HoF induction; RS/500, No. 8 ; 4x platinum cert.; Grammy nomination for Record of the Year (1969); longest single at the top of U.S. charts for nine weeks; Billboard’s Hot 100 No. 1 song of 1968; one of the top-selling singles of all time (over eight-million copies sold worldwide).
5. Like a Rolling Stone (Bob Dylan)
Arguably one of the top 10–perhaps even top 3–songs ever put on vinyl, Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone (1965), despite critics initial, lukewarm reviews of it, almost instantly became a global hit and tremendously helped cement Dylan’s status as one the most iconic figures of music ever. Recorded as a single for the then yet-to-be-released Highway 61 Revisited album, “Like a Rolling Stone” is over six minutes long (unprecedented at the time) and its lyrics were described as confrontational, vengeful, and even revolutionary. It was initially shunned by the record company that produced it, Columbia Records, but once a DJ at a swanky disco known as Arthur discovered it, disc jockeys and other musical figures insisted that it be released.
Meaning of the Song: A few key adjectives give listeners the overall gist of the song’s meaning: Anarchism, confrontation, vengeance, and revolution. Indeed, Dylan made it clear that “Like a Rolling Stone” was no mushy love song.
Accolades: RR/HoF induction; RS/500, No. 1; No. 4 on Pitchfork Media‘s 200 Greatest Songs of the 1960s chart; topped several U.S. Billboard charts for 12 consecutive weeks.
6. Johnny B. Goode (Chuck Berry)
Before Charles Edward Anderson “Chuck” Berry put forth “Johnny”, he’d previously seen successes with songs like “Beethoven” (1956) and “Rock and Roll Music“ (1957). But Berry was in for one helluva shock after Johnny B. Goode was released. Almost instantly, it became a smash hit, topping Billboard’s Hot R&B Sides (No. 2) and the Hot 100 at No. 8. Chuck Berry once admitted that the song was partially about his early life in St. Louis, and subsequently used the character Johnny B. Goode in “Bye Bye Johnny”, “Go Go Go”, and “Johnny B. Blues”; Berry also created the album Concerto in B. Goode.
Meaning of the Song: ‘Goode’ was meant as, at least in part, a sort of ‘musical autobiography’ on Berry’s life, specifically of part of his childhood growing up in St. Louis.
Accolades: Billboard Hot 100, No. 8; Billboard Hot R&B Singles, No. 2; Q magazine’s 100 Greatest Guitar Tracks, No. 42; Rolling Stone‘s 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time, No. 1.
7. Smells Like Teen Spirit (Nirvana)
To deny grunge rock (or Kurt Cobain for that matter) a place on this type of list would show, at best, clear misjudgment. Released September 10, 1991 in the U.S. and subsequently in dozens of other countries, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (from the album Nevermind) is often heralded as the single greatest hit by Nirvana. The platinum hit was later deemed “an anthem for apathetic kids”, referring to Generation X, and was admittedly a tip of the hat (or rip-off of, one) to the band, The Pixies—a band that heavily influenced both Cobain and Nirvana.
Meaning of the Song: Deodorant. Yes, deodorant. See, a friend of Cobain’s allegedly spray painted “smells like teen spirit” on a wall. And ‘Teen Spirit’ was, unknown to Kurt, the name of a deodorant. So, while that may be, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” means so much more to its fans and rock overall: Chiefly, symbolizing rebellion and the then-fledgling grunge movement.
Accolades: RS/500, No. 9; RR/HoF 500 induction; two Video Music Awards; two Grammy nominations for Best Hard Rock Performance with Vocal and Best Rock Song; Billboard Hot 100, No. 6 (1992).
8. Wonderwall (Oasis)
“Wonderall”, released on October 30, 1995 by Creation Records for the album Morning Glory, was undoubtedly one of Oasis’s hugest hits–if not its hugest. Guitarist Noel Gallagher originally told New Musical Express (NME, a British music magazine) that “It’s about my girlfriend, Meg Matthews.” But when the couple split up in 2001, Gallagher walked back the comment and instead went with “the song was about an imaginary friend who’s gonna come and save you from yourself.”
Meaning of the Song: According to Noel Gallagher, the band’s songwriter and lead guitarist, “Wonderwall” describes “an imaginary friend who’s gonna come and save you from yourself.” The title itself was taken from George Harrison’s first solo album, dubbed Wonderwall Music.
Accolades: Certified platinum (BPI); certified gold (RIAA); on the top ten of 13 influential charts, including topping Billboard‘s Alternative Songs chart for 10 weeks and peaking at No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 (1997); two 1997 Grammy nominations; No. 27 on NME (U.K.) magazine’s “50 Greatest Indie Anthems Ever” publication.
9. Time to Say Goodbye (Andrea Bocelli & Sara Brightman)
Originally ‘Con te partiro’ (‘With You I Will Leave’), Bocelli and Brightman’s duo performance of the song made shock-waves throughout the musical scene in much of Europe. Ironically, while it wasn’t nearly as popular in Italy (where the song was born and originally performed), it became one of the biggest hits in history in the U.K, Germany, Belgium, and France.
Meaning of the Song: “Time to Say Goodbye” was initially performed by Bocelli for his album ‘Bocelli’; later, in 1996, Bocelli teamed up with Brightman perform to perform for International Boxing Federation light-heavyweight champion, Henry Maske,’s final match (against American Virgil Hill). Likely one of the most romantic songs ever produced and or written, it’s about two lovers (a war veteran and a widow) who meet, and after the man returns from war, they depart on a new life together to explore the world outside of their respective homelands. Allegedly, it’s named as such due to the man’s temporary separation from his lover when he went to war.
Accolades: 11× Gold in Germany (2,750,000 records sold); Gold in the U.K. (400k records); one of the best-selling singles ever in Germany, France, and Belgium; spent a record 12-consecutive weeks on Belgian top-singles charts; more than 12-million copies sold globally.
10. Smooth (Carlos Santana ft. Rob Thomas)
A collaboration by Santana and Rob Thomas, “Smooth” was written by Thomas and produced by Itaal Shur (who also produced Matchbox 20’s album Yourself or Someone Like You), sung by Thomas, who re-wrote the lyrics and melody and re-titled it “Smooth”, then recorded the song as a demo to play for Santana. After hearing the song, Carlos Santana tapped Thomas to record the final version of “Smooth”, which was released from Santana’s album, ‘Supernatural’. One fascinating aspect about the song, in addition to its long list of accolades, is that it’ll be remembered as the final No. 1 hit of the 1990s and 20th-century.
Meaning of the Song:
According to Rob Thomas, “Smooth” was written for his wife, Marisol Maldonado. Thomas also claims that the line “My Spanish Harlem Mona Lisa” was inspired by Elton John’s “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” (1972), itself a spinoff of Ben E. King’s “Spanish Harlem”.
Accolades: Three Grammys, including Record of the Year, Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals, and Song of the Year; 12 consecutive weeks at No. 1 on Billboard‘s Hot 100; Carlos Santana’s biggest-ever hit single; Billboard‘s No. 1 rock song of the past 50 years; spent 10 consecutive weeks at the top of VH1‘s “Top 20 Video Countdown”.