11. Imagine (John Lennon)
Released in 1971 by Apple Records, “Imagine” claims its place in musical history as one of John Lennon’s most defining hits, as well as one that Rolling Stone Magazine placed at No. 3 on its The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list. The song, heavily influenced by part of Yoko Ono’s 1964 book “Grapefruit”, was written and performed by British rock star John Lennon and become part of the 1988 “Imagine: John Lennon” documentary, which featured work from both the artist’s tenure with the Beatles and his subsequent solo career. Additionally, “Imagine” garnered a Hall of Fame Grammy Award and a permanent spot on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll compilation.
Meaning of the Song: Inspired by the three-line poem “Cloud Piece” in Yoko Ono’s book, “Grapefruit”, “Imagine” represents, in the words of Lennon himself “the concept of positive prayer…If you can imagine a world at peace, with no denominations of religion—not without religion but without this-my-God-is-bigger-than-your-God thing—then it can be true…The World Church called me once and asked, “Can we use the lyrics to Imagine and just change it to ‘Imagine one religion’? That showed [me] they didn’t understand it at all. It would defeat the whole purpose of the song, the whole idea.”
Accolades: VH1‘s “100 Greatest Rock Songs” (2000), No. 1o; BMI‘s “Top 100 Most-Performed Songs of the 20th Century” (1999); Triple J‘s Hottest 100 of All Time, No. 11 (2009).
12. “Respect” (Aretha Franklin)
Written and initially performed by Otis Redding at the iconic Stax studio, “Respect” never really made it big time until 1967 when soulful, mesmerizing R&B singer, Aretha Franklin, recorded it. And because the lyrics were changed (from Redding’s version) to favor a woman’s perspective, Franklin’s cover became an icon for the feminist movement and is overwhelmingly considered one of the best songs of the R&B genre ever. “Respect” was recorded with Aretha’s sisters, Carolyn and Erma on backup.
And although Aretha churned out several hits before and after it, critics largely consider “Respect” her signature song.
Meaning of the Song: “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”, as deliberately spelled out in the song, was a declaration from an extremely confident woman who knew that she has everything her man wants–never doing him wrong, but demanding his respect. Franklin’s version adds the “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” chorus and the backup singers’ refrain of “Sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me…” with overtones of the civil-rights movement and gender equality. It was, essentially, an appeal for dignity.”
Accolades: Two Grammys for “Best Rhythm & Blues Recording” and “Best Rhythm & Blues Solo Vocal Performance, Female” (1968); Grammy Hall of Fame induction (1987); RS/500, No. 5; RIAA’s ‘Song of the Century’.
13. Stairway to Heaven (Led Zeppelin)
“Stairway to Heaven” is a 1971 song by the English rock band Led Zeppelin, released in late 1971. Composed by guitarist Jimmy Page and vocalist Robert Plant for Zeppelin’s untitled fourth studio album (sometimes known as Led Zeppelin IV), “Stairway” is often referred to as one of the greatest rock songs of all time. And running a whopping eight minutes and two seconds, it’s composed of several sections of which progressively increase in tempo and volume.
Randy California (the songwriter of Spirit’s “Taurus”) is quoted in liner notes (contained within the 1996 re-release of Spirit’s original album) as saying “People always ask me why [Stairway] sounds exactly like “Taurus”–which debuted two years earlier–and “I know Led Zeppelin also played “Fresh Garbage” in their live set. They opened up for us on their first American tour.”
Meaning of the Song: “Stairway to Heaven” isn’t so much about some imaginary ascent to Heaven; rather, it’s a piece that pays homage (speculation exists as to whether this “paying of homage” was intended or not) to the 1967 song “Taurus” by Spirit.
Accolades: RS/500, No. 31; No. 1 on Q104.3’s (NYC) “Top 1,043 Songs of All Time”, as well as on Guitar World‘s “100 Greatest Guitar Solos in Rock and Roll History”.
14. Hotel California (The Eagles)
A late-seventies hit by Don Felder, Don Henley and Glenn Frey on the album Hotel California, the very title “Hotel California” (which was originally dubbed “Mexican Reggae”) rings synonymous with the band The Eagles—even defining them to many. Don Henley (drummer and lead vocalist) described “Hotel” as “our interpretation of the high life in Los Angeles.” The song itself is allegorical of hedonism, self-destruction, and greed in the late seventies music industry.
Meaning of the Song: Despite the concocted notion years ago by a few evangelists that “Hotel California” somehow incorporated Satanic meanings in its verses or was really about the hotel that Anton LaVey converted into a Satanaic church, the band describes it as interpretation of the high life in Los Angeles” and “it’s basically a song about the dark underbelly of the American dream and about excess in America, which is something we knew a lot about.”
Accolades: Peaked on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart for one week (May 1977); certified gold (1977); Grammy for Record of the Year; certified platinum again (Digital Sales Award) by the RIAA for 1,000,000 digital downloads; RS/500, No. 49; RR/HoF induction.
15. California Love (2Pac)
Featuring Tupac Shakur, Dr. Dre and Roger Troutman, “California Love” was a post-prison hit (1995) for Shakur and, by most accounts, one of his best-ever singles, reaching No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks and being posthumously nominated in 1997 for a Grammy for ‘Best Rap Solo Performance’ and ‘Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group’ (with Dr. Dre and Roger Troutman).
Meaning of the Song: “California Love” was sampled from Joe Cocker’s “Woman To Woman”; his “Street People’s West Coast Poplock”, performed by Roger Troutman, was incorporated as the song’s hook.
Accolades: 2x platinum certified by the RIAA; CRIA (Canadian Recording Industry Association)-certified gold; Grammy nominated (posthumously) (1997); IFPI-certified gold (Norway); RS/500, No. 346.
16. Bohemian Rhapsody (Queen)
“Bohemian Rhapsody”–the darling of Queen, Freddy Mercury, and Rock&Roll itself collectively–forever sealed Queen’s status as one of the most memorable, illustrious “hair bands” of the eighties and of all time.The song “Bohemian Rhapsody”, while lacking any trace of a chorus, instead employs four basic components: A ballad, guitar solo, an operatic piece, and then hard rock. “Bohemian Rhapsody” was the most expensive, most complex single ever produced at the time, according to several sources.
17. I Heard It Through The Grapevine (Marvin Gaye)
Originally recorded by recorded by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, then Gladys Knight & the Pips (the latter first made it a hit), Gaye eventually put his gold take on the song, causing it to rock the charts in the U.S. for the second time. Soon after, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” was cemented as Gaye’s most famous hit and signature song, as well as Motown Records’ most successful ever song on its Tamla label.
18. Oh, Pretty Woman (Roy Orbison)
Heavily popularized by the 1990 movie Pretty Woman, “Oh, Pretty Woman” (1964) was released after Orbison had already made a hit out of “It’s Over”—itself which only four years prior had topped the charts in both the U.S. and the U.K.. “Pretty Woman” also became one of Roy Orbison’s crowning achievements in the recording industry.
19. Oh Boy (Buddy Holly and The Crickets)
Sonny West, contrary to what most people know about “Oh Boy”, actually first recorded the song; however, that version flopped. But when “Oh Boy” debuted on the Holly album The “Chirping” Crickets, in tandem with a single with “Not Fade Away” on its B-side, the song soared. Holly and his band recorded “Oh Boy” at the famed Petty Studios in Clovis, New Mexico; The Picks added backup vocals in a subsequent recording. Since then, several other musicians have covered it, including the British band Mud in an a cappella-style, which topped the charts in the U.K.
20. Billie Jean (Michael Jackson)
The second single from Jackson’s sixth album, Thriller (1982), “Billie Jean” became world-renowned for its unique bass line, MJ’s vocal hiccups, eccentricity, and distinctive beat. The song was mixed 91 times by audio engineer Bruce Swedien before it was finalized. Christopher Connelly of Rolling Stone magazine quoted as describing “Billie Jean” as a “lean, insistent funk number whose message couldn’t be more blunt: ‘She says I am the one–But the kid is not my son’”. Connelly added that it was “a sad, almost mournful song, but a thumping resolve underlies [Jackson’s] feelings”.
Blender magazine memorably described the song was “one of the most sonically eccentric, psychologically fraught, downright bizarre things ever to land on Top 40 radio”. They added that it was “frighteningly stark, with a pulsing, cat-on-the-prowl bass figure, whip-crack downbeat and eerie multi-tracked vocals ricocheting in the vast spaces between keyboards and strings”. Overall, the magazine described the track as “a five-minute-long nervous breakdown, set to a beat”