It’s hard to come up with a list of the 100 greatest songs of all time and not leave people out, or be called a “son of a bitch” and other unflattering things by your readers. Nevertheless, inStash goes where not even Rolling Stone magazine has dared to tread. While the famed music publication needed a top 500 to feel comfortable even undertaking such a task, inStash honors the legends of rockers past, country’s greatest crooners, and the songs of today with 100 must-haves for your iPod or MP3 player.
Don’t think of this as a top 100 greatest songs so much as a 100 essentials. Ratings themselves are always subjective. This is just inStash’s way of saying that if we could take only a century mark of songs with us through our remaining years, these are the ones we’d pick.
100. “Umbrella” (Rihanna and Jay-Z)
What It’s About: Fame, fortune, turmoil, obscurity—the umbrella mentioned in this collaboration from Rihanna and rap artist Jay-Z is a metaphorical one that will protect friends from all of life’s changes. It can be both a love song or one of friendship, broadening its appeal to the masses.
Why It’s Great: Ten weeks atop the U.K. charts and #1 peaks in the United States, Canada, and ten other countries make this Grammy-winning hit of 2007 one of the most beloved songs of the last five years. Rolling Stone magazine also voted it the #3 song of the year in which it was released.
What It’s About: The fragile nature of love takes center stage in this hit from New Wave band Blondie, who states that love has a “heart of glass,” and can be a real “pain in the ass.” It’s all about your perceptions of a love affair against the conflicting reality.
Why It’s Great: Few songs in the history of music were as completely embraced by the world as this signature song of 1979. Written by Debbie Harry and Chris Stein with Harry providing vocals, “Heart of Glass” topped charts in eight countries including in the U.S. and the U.K., and performed well on several more.
98. “Another Brick in the Wall-Part II” (Pink Floyd)
What It’s About: “We don’t need no education!” Can’t tell you how many times I cranked this song up in protest at my parents for something I’d gotten in trouble for at school. And that’s really what “Another Brick in the Wall-Part II” is: a protest against the rigidity of schooling, with an emphasis on those of a boarding nature.
Why It’s Great: Everyone agrees that Pink Floyd is one of the most influential rock bands of all time. This particular release was their only #1 hit in the U.S., the U.K., and a variety of other countries.
What It’s About: This one mostly has Paul McCartney’s fingerprints on it, though some of the composition is credited to John Lennon. McCartney had written a song called “Hey Jules,” as a show of comfort and support to Lennon’s child Julian when the Beatles front man got divorced. It evolved into the massive hit you know today.
Why It’s Great: Most best-of lists that want any credibility are going to include this Beatles hit somewhere in their countdown. It stayed at the top of U.S. charts for nine weeks upon its release in August 1968, the longest run of any Beatles single released to the States.
What It’s About: A tribute piece to the legend of Marilyn Monroe—“your candle burned out long before your legend ever did.”
Why It’s Great: In 2007, the Guinness Book of Records recognized the 1997 release, which was dedicated to the late Princess Diana, as the biggest selling single “since records began.” The original version is among Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 greatest of all time at #347.
What It’s About: You might call it barroom rock. “This Afternoon” is a happy-go-lucky number from one of the most prolific bands of the modern era. Its country influences are undeniable as it sings about the simple joys of hanging out with friends and partying like rock stars in blue collar bodies.
Why It’s Great: Nickelback got to where they are today by continuing to work and produce new music. They’re by no means one of the best bands of all time. Much of what they produce simply isn’t that good. But “This Afternoon” is just a full-on embrace of their image, and it really speaks to today’s man. Still a relatively young song, it says a lot that it has charted in eight countries including a #4 ranking in the U.S. and a #2 in the U.K. It still has a lot of life left, too.
What It’s About: “I’m standing here on the ground / The sky above won’t fall down / See no evil in all direction / Resolution of happiness / Things have been dark for too long / Don’t change for you / Don’t change a thing for me.” A song about breaking the restraints of misery and “coming out of the dark,” as Gloria Estefan might sing, “Don’t Change” is one of the rock band INXS’s most optimistic numbers about being true to yourself and coming of age.
Why It’s Great: While “Don’t Change” would never enjoy the commercial success that some of INXS’s other work did, it announced their arrival and helped turn them from an Australian rock band to an international sensation, who would dominate much of the late 80’s and 90’s.
What It’s About: Learning to stand on your own two feet is something Clarkson knows a lot about following her American Idol Season 1 victory. It is also the subject of this hit single.
Why It’s Great: Set aside the fact that it has sold to date over 1.4 million copies and achieved RIAA Gold status. This original recording, co-written by Avril Lavigne, Bridget Benenate, and Matthew Gerrard, propelled Clarkson to the status of “pop princess,” according to MTV. It first appeared on the soundtrack for Princess Diaries 2, and would later be the title track on Clarkson’s 2004 album. It is the current record holder for most time on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart with an astounding twenty weeks.
What It’s About: One long glorious night with a woman who knows how to work it!
Why It’s Great: It’s important to remember when considering AC/DC that their songs almost never charted high at the time of release. They had the misfortune of being considered “the Devil’s music,” throughout the 80’s. However, their rabid following of fans have continued to elevate sales. Originally released on the Back in Black album, the song reappeared on Who Made Who. Along with “Highway to Hell” and “Back in Black,” this song is one of their most well loved and respected numbers, earning the #5 honor from Triple M’s Ultimate 500 Rock Countdown as well as a nod from VH1 as the #10 song of the 80’s.
What It’s About: The members of AC/DC warned new lead singer and lyricist Brian Johnson when writing this song about the late Bon Scott, their former lead singer, that the song could not be morbid. It had to be a celebration. And that’s what it is in bad boy fashion, the way Scott would have wanted it.
Why It’s Great: Though the song did not chart well compared to other AC/DC fare, it has gone on to accolades such as #187 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest. It has now reached double platinum status in sales, and it assisted the album Back in Black in reaching 22x Multi-Platinum status with overall sales of 49 million copies.
What It’s About: Artist David Bowie earned his reputation as an icon of 70’s music through both personality and musical diversity. Many feel this song is reflective of how one must roll with the changes, good and bad, in a lifetime. The song is a statement for how Bowie did just that.
Why It’s Great: Released as a single in early 1972, “Changes” became one of Bowie’s most well-known and beloved songs, but it didn’t happen overnight. The chart performance was fairly abysmal for a song that would later be recognized as the #127 song of all time by Rolling Stone magazine.
What It’s About: Songwriter Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” was originally a road song about a brief love affair between the narrator and a girl named Bobby McGee. The gender of Bobby changed for Janis Joplin’s cover, which Kristofferson didn’t know existed until after her death. Kristofferson and Joplin were friends and lovers from the beginning of her career to her untimely demise in 1970.
Why It’s Great: What a difference a few days make. Joplin recorded this song that soon before her death. It would become only the second posthumous release ever to top the charts. Rolling Stone magazine votes the Joplin cover of “Me and Bobby McGee” as the #148 song of all time.
88. “Honky Tonk Women” (Rolling Stones)
What It’s About: A “honky tonk woman” is a dancing bar girl, who may or may not turn tricks for money. It pretty much depends on what you’re looking for and how much you’re willing to pay. A girl’s got to have standards.
Why It’s Great: Rolling Stone magazine picked “Honky Tonk Women” as the #116 song of all time circa 2004. At the time of its release, it topped the Billboard Hot 100 for four weeks. A fantastic song with country and rock crossover appeal, it is one of the signature releases from perhaps the greatest band of all time.
What It’s About: Songwriter Lindsey Buckingham wrote this song in dealing with his and band mate Stevie Nicks’ break-up. The song caused some discomfort for Nicks, but always the professional, she powered through and helped Fleetwood Mac produce one of its biggest hits.
Why It’s Great: This 1976 release was the first single from the Fleetwood Mac Rumours album. Though it barely cracked the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100 at the time, it has since been recognized as the #119 greatest song of all time by Rolling Stone magazine and one of the 500 songs that shaped rock and roll by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
86. “Not Fade Away” (Buddy Holly and the Crickets)
What It’s About: Charles “Buddy” Holley (or “Holly,” as he is commonly known) wrote and performed this love song about a man trying to communicate the way he feels to his beloved, who may or may not feel the same. The song is best known for its “Bo Diddley” beat.
Why It’s Great: Honestly, what do charts truly know? This song has influenced the Rolling Stones, Deep Purple, the Supremes, Black Sabbath, the Beatles, Sheryl Crow, and dozens of other bands. Rolling Stone magazine calls it the #107 song of all time. But at the time of its release, it never was a blip on the pop charts. Go figure.
What It’s About: Billy Ray is the son of a preacher man, but he apparently doesn’t share Daddy’s convictions. He and the song’s narrator sneak away every chance they get to do things that we’re left to wonder about. What we do know is that it involves kissing—lots and lots of kissing.
Why It’s Great: Dusty Springfield took this number written by John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins and turned it into an international hit with her soulful voice. Few who heard it at the time could tell that the young diva was from the U.K. because of the song’s southern-to-middle America roots. Rolling Stone magazine has since recognized it as one of the 500 best songs of all time. New Musical Express agrees, placing it at #43 on their list of the greatest singles.
What It’s About: Written and performed by George Michael following the disbanding of his band Wham!, “Faith” is a simple song about relationship empowerment. It’s about walking away when your heart says no, because your head knows what’s best for you. Too bad more people don’t heed its advice!
Why It’s Great: “Faith” ruled 1988, earning its slot as the highest selling single of that year. The Australian, Dutch, Italian, New Zealand, and U.S. charts all had “Faith” as their #1, and it reached #2 in the U.K.
What It’s About: One big social rant set to music, the song talks about everything that troubled the band, from financial woes to nuclear disaster. As such, it is one of the most successful complaints of all time.
Why It’s Great: VH1 voted it the #42 song of the 80’s. Rolling Stone magazine picks it as the #15 song of all time. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame considers it one of the 500 songs that shaped rock and roll—not bad considering it is not even of that genre.
What It’s About: “Love hurts, love scars / Love wounds, and marks…” Songwriter Boudleaux Bryant penned the lyrics to this song about the damaging effects of love, and enjoyed a variety of success with it over the course of the 60’s and 70’s. But it was one particular version from an unlikely rock band named Nazareth (borrowing a line from The Band’s “The Weight”) that would bring the most commercial and critical success.
Why It’s Great: This particular version of the song, originally recorded in 1960 by the Everly Brothers, was also popular with music legends such as Roy Orbison and Emmylou Harris, who both recorded covers throughout the 60’s and 70’s. Cher was another music giant, who latched onto the tune in 1975. But that same year, Nazareth, considered by some a one-hit wonder, charted in eight countries, taking the song to #1 in three locations and marching into the top ten in another two.
What It’s About: Though “The Weight” contains a boatload of religious imagery, what with “I pulled into Nazareth,” the actual meaning is far from an endorsement of any particular faith. To hear songwriter Robbie Robertson’s take, the inspiration is derived mostly from the trip-y films of Luis Bunuel in which one character’s simple task snowballs into an unwanted predicament. In the case of “The Weight,” it starts with a simple task: give regards to everyone from Anny. In the end, the traveler has been pulled into events well beyond his control.
Why It’s Great: It’s a testament to the stupidity of people that the bellowing Aretha Franklin’s version ranked higher in the charts than The Band’s, but time appears to have healed all wounds. While few will remember the self-proclaimed Queen of Soul’s version today, The Band’s has been honored by Rolling Stone magazine (as the #41 greatest song of all time) and Pitchfork Media (as the #13 song of the 60’s).
What It’s About: Dispensing everything from relationship advice to warning of killers on the road, Jim Morrison and the Doors sure did know how to kill a party.
Why It’s Great: Popular in the Netherlands, the U.K., and the U.S., “Riders on the Storm” was the last Doors single ever released and remains one of their most popular. An inductee into the Grammy Hall of Fame, this song is an eerie mix of psychedelic rock and jazz fusion that has influenced acts such as Creed, Blondie, Wolfmother, and Snoop Dogg.
What It’s About: “I’m Yours” has a Thoreau-esque point of view, which is very refreshing in the age of the smartphone. “Our name is our virtue,” sings Mraz, as if to say the only thing we really have of value is who we are and what we do with our lives, not how many bright shiny things we have. Beyond that, Mraz’s signature song is a love song, a rebuilding song, an island song, and a lot of other things to a lot of different people.
Why It’s Great: A favorite of Mraz’s live shows since its original release in 2005, “I’m Yours” is a song with staying power. To date, it has sold over 5 million downloads, ranking it as the #6 bestseller of all time via that medium. Five years since its original release, it continues to be popular in the U.S. racking up 76 weeks in the Billboard Hot 100 (the current record holder).
What It’s About: An anthem for the American Civil Rights Movement, “A Change Is Gonna Come” is a sad yet optimistic song about a man, who has seen nothing but suffering all his days. Nevertheless, he keeps looking ahead because he knows this life is his only guarantee, and he needs to make the most of it while he can.
Why It’s Great: “A Change Is Gonna Come” didn’t enjoy the commercial success that many of Sam Cooke’s other hits did, but its legacy has made it one of the greatest songs of all time (#12 to be exact, if Rolling Stone magazine is to be believed). Likewise, Pitchfork Media declares it the #3 song of the 60’s.
What It’s About: There is never enough time in a day to share with the one you love, and that was the sentiment of this haunting #1 hit from Croce that landed just months before his death in a plane crash.
Why It’s Great: Croce’s short career scored him a number of hits, but none were quite as successful as “Time in a Bottle.” Charting in the U.S. and Canada, it reached #1 on both adult contemporary and mainstream charts.
What It’s About: A man comes to the end of his life and realizes, right or wrong, he did it his way and that’s good enough. A life without regrets—may we all be so lucky!
Why It’s Great: Paul Anka rewrote the lyrics to an old French tune the way he thought Frank Sinatra would sing it. He clearly had Ol’ Blue Eyes in mind, and Sinatra didn’t disappoint. Peaking at #27 in the U.S., the song enjoyed far greater success in the U.K. setting a record that has still never been broken—75 weeks in the Top 40.
75. “You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You” (Dean Martin)
What It’s About: The message is simple and straight forward. Material things will not fill the void in your life like true love.
Why It’s Great: Russ Morgan, Larry Stock, and James Cavanaugh wrote this oft-recorded song, but nobody did it better than Dino. Other than topping the Easy Listening chart and placing #25 in pop, it showcased the vocal range of Martin, who is unquestionably one of the greatest singers of all time.
What It’s About: Hot rods and break-ups were never done better than this Chuck Berry update of the fiddle tune “Ida Red.”
Why It’s Great: For starters, Berry debuted as the first African-American solo artist to reach the Billboard top ten with a single, giving rise to the Jimi Hendrix’s and the Lenny Kravitz’s of the world. Secondly, he is credited with giving birth to guitar rock by Rolling Stone magazine, who votes it the #18 song of all time. Last but not least, National Public Radio deems it one of the 100 most important musical works of the 20thCentury.
What It’s About: Love can produce an agonizing hunger, especially uncertain or estranged love, as demonstrated in this Alex North-Hy Zaret song.
Why It’s Great: “Unchained Melody” by the Righteous Brothers is one of the most beautiful harmonies ever recorded in both its 1965 original version and its 1990 rerecording for the release of Ghost, a film in which it is featured prominently. Easily the most familiar version, the song was still successful in other forms as Les Baxter, Roy Hamilton, Al Hibbler, and Jimmy Young, all had #1 hits with it in 1955. Rolling Stone magazine voted it the #365 song of all time.
What It’s About: Undying loyalty as a result of unconditional love is what this song is about. Even though someone can tear your heart out and feed it to you, there is still a sense of allegiance.
Why It’s Great: Call us suckers for rock power ballads. As far as those go, you’ll be hard-pressed to find one better than this. While the band members of Cheap Trick were not responsible for writing this—those nods would go to Bob Mitchell and Nick Graham—they definitely knew how to sing it. A #1 slot on both the U.S. and Australian charts were the results. It also rejuvenated this 70’s rock band’s career.
What It’s About: Roy Orbison and Joe Melson wrote this haunting song about heartbreak. Orbison sang and recorded it, and without it, there would probably be no Chris Isaak or K.D. Lang.
Why It’s Great: It’s in the Grammy Hall of Fame. It’s #69 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the all-time greatest. At the time of its release in 1961, it peaked at #2. Time has since corrected the screw-up and turned this into one of the most beloved and influential break-up songs ever recorded.
What It’s About: Summertime is typically supposed to be a great time for teenagers, but not for the subject of Eddie Cochran’s anthem for the frustrated youth of America. Built around a teen who just can’t seem to get free time with his honey, this song in a rather clever way also makes a statement about the feeling that kids are second-class citizens. “I’d like to help you, son, but you’re too young to vote.” And now it seems as if politicians don’t care if we are old enough. They’re not helping regardless. But I digress…
Why It’s Great: It appeals to the American teenager on every level and at every era. Ranking at #8 in the U.S. and #18 in the U.K., its popularity has grown over time, landing it at #73 on Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 greatest.
What It’s About: Smokey Robinson allegedly wrote this song for his wife Claudette Rogers Robinson. Fellow Miracles member Ronald White assisted on the ink job, and the Temptations did the rest. A sweet little melody, “My Girl” sticks in your head and is a nice boyfriend-girlfriend song, though some dads have been known to sing it to their little girls.
Why It’s Great: Rolling Stone magazine votes “My Girl” the #88 song of all time on their most recent 500 list. The Motown classic announced the arrival of the Temptations, who’d been around before its release, but had never enjoyed chart-topping status. The song landed at #1 shortly after its Christmas 1964 release and continues to be the group’s signature song and an oft-covered classic.
What It’s About: The King always knew how to straddle that line of sexuality in his songs with utter confidence. Such is the case in this powerful number that deals more with the physicality of being in love than the emotional aspects.
Why It’s Great: One of the King’s 40 top ten hits, this one peaked out on the Billboard Hot 100 chart at #2, but went all the way to the top in Cashbox’s weekly top 40 circa November 11, 1972.
What It’s About: Suspicion really is like a slow-moving cancer within the immune system of a love affair. The King demonstrates this perfectly with his powerful and intense delivery of Mark James’ words.
Why It’s Great: Ranked #91 by Rolling Stone magazine on their 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list, “Suspicious Minds” is also noteworthy for its tremendous change-ups in style and pacing, and for being the King’s eighteenth and final number one hit.
66. “Change the World” (Eric Clapton and Babyface)
What It’s About: Cut us to ribbons for this one, but “Change the World” may be Eric Clapton’s best song. Thematically, it is a love song that deals with the desperate conflict between what we want and what we are to those we love, who may not feel the same way.
Why It’s Great: The RIAA declared it to be the #270 song of the century, and yes, that’s all genres. It reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 circa 1996 and stayed for a greedy 13 weeks at #1 atop the Adult Contemporary charts. It’s also amazing how well Clapton and Babyface’s voices go together, considering their differing backgrounds.
What It’s About: Dylan biographer Robert Shelton says it best—“‘Rolling Stone’ is about the loss of innocence and the harshness of experience.” It details the fall, or rise depending on viewpoint, of Miss Lonely from the bourgeois lifestyle to having literally nothing left to lose.
Why It’s Great: Charting in six countries, but only reaching as high as #2 (in the U.S.), singer-songwriter Bob Dylan’s song is one of the most influential he’s ever produced. Jimi Hendrix, Green Day, and Michael Bolton have all covered it—oh Lord, did I just write those three names together?—and Rolling Stone magazine went as far to say it was the #1 song of all time on their 2004 list.
What It’s About: There is something very Kerouac about Roger Miller’s signature song “King of the Road.” The tune deals with a traveling drifter who takes great pride in the fact that there is nothing or no one to tie him down.
Why It’s Great: Covered by everyone from Dean Martin and Elvis Presley to the Proclaimers and the Reverend Horton Heat, “King of the Road” is a grade-A piece of Americana that has managed to transcend its grassroots origins and skip over the pond for additional success. A #1 hit on the country charts, a #4 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, and a rare #1 in the U.K., make this a classic of the country-western genre.
What It’s About: Like Rogers’ other great work “Coward of the County,” this is a bit of a story song about an old-time gambler at the end of his days passing along a bit of useful information to his troubled railroad traveling companion. “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em / Know when to fold ‘em / Know when to walk away / Know when to run / You never count your money while you’re sittin’ at the table / There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done.”
Why It’s Great: Darling of U.S. country and mainstream charts, the song reached #16 (Billboard Hot 100), #3 (Billboard Adult Contemporary), and #1 (Billboard Country). It also played well in Canada and the U.K., two countries not exactly known for their embrace of the American country music experience.
What It’s About: Hard to feel sympathy for a guy who “lost my wife and a girlfriend somewhere along the way,” assuming he had both at the same time, but that’s just what Strait does as he sings over a saddening musical overture. Sometimes a person’s free spirit can lead to a lot of heartache.
Why It’s Great: Proof positive that a song needn’t top every chart to deserve its place in the annals of greatness, “Amarillo by Morning” did make it to #4 in the U.S. and #1 in Canada, but it has since become Strait’s, perhaps the most successful country artist of all time, most beloved song. Country Music Television also voted it the #12 country song of all time.
61. “This Is Where the Cowboy Rides Away” (George Strait)
What It’s About: Taking imagery popular in such classic western films as Shane with Alan Ladd, George Strait croons a song about the sacrifices and the bittersweet melodrama of the relationships that don’t work out. People who love each other break up every day. This song illustrates that.
Why It’s Great: Written by Sonny Throckmorton and Casey Kelly, the song performed well upon its release in 1985, charting at #5 in the U.S. and #3 in Canada. Since then, it has become a favorite at Strait’s live shows, usually closing out his performances. It was also featured prominently in the underrated vampire flick Near Dark.
What It’s About: The daily grind, of course! “9 to 5” is a song about the dreary monotony of the workaday life.
Why It’s Great: Released in late 1980, the song reached the pinnacle of Billboard’s Hot 100 and Country charts in early 1981. Appearing in a film of the same name, which also starred Parton, it would go on to receive four Grammy Award nominations and an Academy Award nomination in 1981. It won two (Best Country Vocal Performance, Female and Best Country Song). In 2004, AFI ranked it #78 on its 100 Years, 100 Songs list.
What It’s About: Written by Willie Nelson, “Crazy” is a song about the effects of love on a person’s psyche—how it leads us to do irrational and sometimes destructive things in the name of holding on to it.
Why It’s Great: Country diva Patsy Cline had a lot of issues with this song in the beginning. Coming off painful injuries sustained in a car wreck, she had difficulties hitting high notes and bringing the song to life the way it was intended. Despite the headaches, this song became perhaps her best loved piece, receiving three standing ovations at the Grand Ole Opry and making three separate charts: Hot Country Songs (#2), U.S. Hot 100 (#9), and Adult Contemporary (#2), making it one of the first country songs with crossover appeal.
What It’s About: A love affair of a different kind, this song is about a man’s relationship with nature, a theme that Denver explored a lot in his music career and his life.
Why It’s Great: Okay, the hair and the “plant-a-tree” commercials of the 80’s might have contributed to his unfair reputation as country’s answer to Barry Manilow, but Denver’s music career is a lot better than you remember it, people. “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” his signature track, was a certified million-seller and charted on both mainstream and country charts in the U.S. and Canada circa 1971.
What It’s About: “I Walk the Line” is a simple love song about a man, who cannot contain his love for that special lady. Cash himself “walked the line” for June Carter, a woman he credits for getting him off the wrong tracks of life and onto the right ones. Coincidentally, the rhythm of this son is very much like the rhythm of a train rollicking along the tracks.
Why It’s Great: Staying 43 weeks on the charts, this first #1 hit for Johnny Cash has been covered multiple times since its 1956 release and served as the basis for the critically acclaimed film Walk the Line starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon.
What It’s About: Just a good old-fashioned prison song, “Folsom Prison Blues” is about a man, who has had the time to reflect on his mistakes from within the four walls of a cold gray prison cell. That’s what you get for shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die, I suppose.
Why It’s Great: This is one of Cash’s few hits that had crossover appeal at the time of its release. A little bit prison, a little bit railroad, “Folsom Prison Blues” peaked at #1 on the country charts in the U.S. and Canada, and also registered on mainstream charts in both countries. It continues to influence artists in both rock and country and remains one of Cash’s most easily recognized tunes.
What It’s About: Pain is one of the only sensations that is real—one of few that can’t be bottled up or put in a jar, but can be every bit as tangible as any object you hold in your hand. This song is an anthem for people who struggle with regret, remorse, or loss. (Sometimes all three.)
Why It’s Great: Originally written and recorded by Nine Inch Nails, Cash covered it for his America IV: The Man Comes Around release. The video directed by Mark Romanek features juxtapositions between Cash as a young man, and the dying 71-year old who recorded it. His heartfelt delivery along with the mesmerizing video turned this from a Trent Reznor song into a farewell to a music legend. As Reznor himself admits, “Wow. [I felt like] I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn’t mine anymore.”
What It’s About: Rosanne Cash, daughter to the Man in Black, says it best: “The song is about the transformative power of love and that’s what it has always meant to me and that’s what it will always mean to the Cash children.” In the film Walk the Line, that “transformative power” is demonstrated via the relationship of Johnny Cash and the song’s co-writer June Carter, who Cash credits with helping him beat his drug and alcohol addictions.
Why It’s Great: This was Cash’s biggest hit. Seven weeks at #1 was only the beginning of a legacy that has grown stronger in the last 47 years.
What It’s About: This song is about a place of absolute decadence where “you can have anything you want, but you better not take it from me.” It’s a place where no desire goes un-indulged—maybe a place like Los Angeles, perhaps?
Why It’s Great: Other than registering on both the Rolling Stone magazine 500 and the Q Magazine 1,001 best songs ever lists, “Welcome to the Jungle” was also recognized by VH1 as the greatest hard rock song of all time. Rolling Stone readers have also voted it the #1 sports anthem of all time, and as the second release from GNR, it reached #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 countdown.
What It’s About: “November Rain” has always been a favorite Guns ‘N Roses song because of the subject matter that it so poetically deals with—the necessity of isolation. It is a deep song, especially for a hard rock band.
Why It’s Great: This is the kind of single that sets GNR apart from being a simple 80’s hair band. The song helped transition them into the 90’s, enhancing Axl Rose’s reputation as a songwriter, even though it climbed to only #3 on the U.S. charts. Since then, however, it has earned the respect of music critics and audiences alike. The New Zealand Rock 1,000 list, which picks the 1,000 best songs in rock, recognized it as #1 and #2 in 2006 and 2007, respectively. It registers on Guitar World’s 100 Greatest Guitar Solos at #6. It was GNR’s last top ten hit.
What It’s About: “Sweet Child O’ Mine” is just a simple love song where the wailing vocals of Axl Rose describe the object of his affections in an almost magical reminiscent fashion more suited to something Eric Carmen might have sang in the 70’s. The famous Slash guitar riff and hard rock soundtrack, however, place this in another genre altogether.
Why It’s Great: Guns ‘N Roses had other hits, but nothing that would surpass the commercial success of this, their third single. Charting in multiple countries, it reached the very top of the Billboard Hot 100 in 1988, and it rose to #6 on the U.K. Singles Chart.
What It’s About: “Rising up / Back on the street / Took my time, took my chances / Went the distance now I’m back on my feet / Just a man and his will to survive.” The rock band Survivor’s best known hit is the essence of the Rocky movies, for which it was originally composed. “Eye of the Tiger” is all about staying hungry. No retreat, no surrender! (Which incidentally was another series of films popular in the 80’s.)
Why It’s Great: Most will think the Rocky series only brush with Oscar was the original, but the reality is that, thanks to Survivor, the third film in the popular series of boxing films got another Oscar nomination. It didn’t win, but the six weeks “Eye of the Tiger” spent at the top of U.S. charts was a nice consolation prize. Billboard declares it #21 in their all-time top 100.
What It’s About: An upbeat and inspiring single, it’s no surprise that the song was originally recorded by that maestro of all things inspirationally 80’s Joe Esposito—also the best around—but it wasn’t until Irene Cara told us to “take our passion and make it happen” that we listened.
Why It’s Great: The theme of the movie Flashdance reached #1 in 11 countries, including the United States, where it also received a Grammy for best performance by a female vocalist, and a Golden Globe and Academy Award for Best Original Song. Billboard rates it as #26 in their all-time top 100.
What It’s About: Definitely not one of English rock band Queen’s friendlier tunes, this song is rather obviously a song about a man getting back on all the wrong that’s ever been done to him with a machine gun and some bullets. Literal or figurative is your call. I prefer to think of Freddie Mercury actually toting around that machine gun.
Why It’s Great: At the time of its release in 1980, the song peaked at #1 in five countries including Argentina, Canada, Guatemala, and Spain. In the United States, it not only hit number one but achieved Platinum status and would be the legendary rock band’s most successful single of all time. With a kick-ass bass line and lyrics, it is no wonder why.
What It’s About: “End of the Road” may sound beautiful, but you can’t get more horrible than the narrator and the object of his affections. She’s a cheater, and he’s a loser, who refuses to give up on their horrible relationship. Insert gun in mouth. Pull trigger.
Why It’s Great: Originally released as a song on the Boomerang soundtrack (starring Eddie Murphy), this hit was one of the biggest the Boyz ever had, resting at the top of the U.S. charts for a relaxing 13 weeks. It would later be released as a bonus track on the Cooleyhighharmony reissue.
What It’s About: The song never actually mentions disco, but it is very disco-centric. This is because the Bee Gees were asked to write and record a song for the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, and the only source material they had was a disco mania article from New York magazine. Lyrically, it seems like the story behind “Stayin’ Alive” is a young man’s redemption through disco, which sounds ridiculous until you actually hear it.
Why It’s Great: It may have only spent four weeks at #1 in the U.S., but “Stayin’ Alive” was, and remains, a worldwide phenomenon. Known as the signature song of the Bee Gees, it also charted high in 21 countries, reaching #1 in 12 of those. Rolling Stone magazine also holds it in high regard as #189 on their greatest 500 list.
What It’s About: “What’s the use in trying? / All you get is pain / When I needed sunshine, I got rain / Then I saw her face…” In this, The Monkees’ seminal hit, the narrator of the song is a guy unlucky in love, who finally gets it right.
Why It’s Great: Billboard’s All Time Top 100 features “I’m a Believer,” a Neil Diamond original, at #48. But it’s not the Diamond version that has received all the accolades. The Monkees enjoyed the most success with this, charting at #1 for an astounding seven weeks and reaching Gold status in two days through pre-orders alone totaling over 1 million.
What It’s About: This song is about a man’s surprise to find that his old high school crush is now the centerfold in a “girly magazine.” A little more relatable than you might think—more on that in a moment. As for this Seth Justman-written hit for the J. Geils Band, it could be referring to lead singer Peter Wolf’s relationship with actress Angel Tompkins.
Why It’s Great: How about spending six weeks on top of the Billboard Hot 100 list and ranking as the #52 all-time top song from that agency? Those are plenty of credentials, but it’s one of my all-time personal favorites because of how much I can relate to it. One of my old high school friends went on to work as a broadcaster for Playboy Radio and has appeared as the subject of several photo shoots for the Hef. Search “Brandie Moses” if interested.
43. “I Love Rock and Roll” (Joan Jett and the Blackhearts)
What It’s About: Those crazy kids and their rock and roll music. That’s what this song is about. Sung from the perspective of Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, the band who had the most success with it, it’s about a girl who likes the bad boys—in particular, a bad boy standing by the record machine, who “must have been about seventeen.” Put those words in the mouths of The Arrows, an all-male band from London who originally wrote and performed it and you’ve got one of the most homoerotic tunes ever recorded.
Why It’s Great: This song is all attitude, and in 1982, attitude was something few female artists were known for. Along with the popular black-and-white music video, which received ample airplay on fledgling MTV, the spirit of this cover pushed it to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for seven weeks. Other accolades include #56 on Billboard’s All-Time Greatest Songs list and a slot among the 500 greatest according to Rolling Stone magazine.
What It’s About: “Never gonna stop, give it up / Such a dirty mind, always get it up / For the touch of the younger kind.” Ah hot young filthy nasty love! The Knack may not have ever again made the same splash as they did with this track about loving a younger woman, but they made sure the bills were paid for life.
Why It’s Great: It’s been covered by everyone from the Chipmunks to Pearl Jam—there’s a legacy—and it sold over one million copies in 1979. Billboard sales show it to be the #1 single of that year on U.S. charts and the music tracking agency has also declared it the #75 pop song of all time.
What It’s About: People who love each other break up every day, and that is demonstrated well through the lyrics, “I hope you know, I hope you know / That this is nothing to do with you / It’s personal, myself and I / We got some straightening out to do.” Fergie broke free, temporarily, from the Black-Eyed Peas to release this heartfelt love song about how sometimes love is just not enough to sustain a relationship.
Why It’s Great: Why should past hits have all the fun? This one will age well, and it hasn’t done too badly for itself in the present, topping ten charts worldwide: Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, Croatia, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, Romania, and the U.S. Pretty much all over the world!
What It’s About: “I could say day, you’d say night / Tell me it’s black when I know that it’s white / It’s always the same, it’s just a shame, that’s all.” A rock song about troubled and contradictory love, “That’s All” speaks true of the differences between men and women and the unstable nature of relationships.
Why It’s Great: Yes, Phil Collins had bigger hits, both separate and apart from Genesis, but this is the only song that can convince me of his bad-ass qualities. The music is very much rock, very much Genesis, but there also seems to be a tinge of country in there. “That’s All” was the band’s first top ten hit, peaking at #6, where it also landed in Ireland. Other top twenty placements include the U.K., Austria, and Switzerland.
What It’s About: “Sink your teeth right through my bones, baby / Let’s see what we can do, come on and make it hurt!” “Hurt So Good” is a song about a grown man’s longing for his wild and crazy younger days. It’s also about rekindling some of that joy through a younger little tart. Sure, why not!
Why It’s Great: Billboard awards it #83 on its greatest songs of all time list, although it only reached #2 in the Hot 100 of 1982. Nevertheless, it contributed greatly—along with its then-raunchy video—to the success of John Cougar, the man who would be Mellencamp.
What It’s About: Finding strength after a breakup is the topic of Gloria Gaynor’s smash disco hit. Gay and female empowerment groups also use it as a bit of an anthem. But you don’t have to be gay or a woman to feel inspired by it.
Why It’s Great: Okay, I much prefer the Cake version, though it is Gaynor’s least favorite cover of the song on account of the F-bomb they drop in the middle of it. Nevertheless, Gaynor gets the nod here for the overwhelming commercial success she attained here, topping both U.K. and U.S. charts within 24 hours of each other. It is also considered one of the 500 greatest songs of all time by Rolling Stone.
37. “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” (Creedence Clearwater Revival)
What It’s About: “Someone told me long ago / There’s a calm before the storm / I know / It’s been comin’ for some time.” You don’t think about it raining on sunny days, yet it’s an anomaly that happens more often than you think, and in this CCR hit, it symbolizes the tension the band was experiencing at that time, particularly involving writer John Fogerty and his brother Tom.
Why It’s Great: Haunting, sad, heartfelt, and deeply personal, it is one of the greatest rock band’s greatest songs. It was also another in a long line of gold-selling CCR singles.
What It’s About: Featuring a slow acoustic opening and a gradual build that leads to a head-banging hard rock finale, this song demonstrates in excess the greatness of its authors. Lyrically, it’s one of the most challenging numbers Led Zeppelin ever released. Take your guess about meaning. “Buying a stairway to Heaven,” deals with the mistaken notion that you can get to heaven through material possessions. The rest is poetry.
Why It’s Great: VH1 says that “Stairway to Heaven” is the #3 rock song of all time. It has also been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame considers it one of the 500 songs that shaped the genre. To listeners in the U.S., it was one of the most requested songs of the time in spite of never having been released as a single. “Stairway to Heaven” is just one long adrenaline rush set to music.
What It’s About: Lennon’s oft-covered tune about a world where man does not let his personal beliefs interfere with the happiness and safety of others is perhaps one of his best. “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one / Hope someday you will join us / And the world can live as one.” Sure, it’s a pipe dream to think that mankind will stop killing each other in the name of their gods, but it’s also one heck of a recording.
Why It’s Great: Lennon believed this song to be as good as anything he’d ever done with the Beatles, and he may have been right. Rolling Stone magazine declared it the #3 song of all time in 2004. While it never topped the charts in the states, it is still a well-respected and highly revered melody.
What It’s About: Writer Roger Waters penned the lyrics to this deeply personal Pink Floyd collaboration that deals with the effects of alienation.
Why It’s Great: In 2004, Rolling Stone declared it the #316 song of all time. We think it’s a bit higher than that, and so do talents such as Billy Corgan, who aided Pink Floyd members David Gilmour and Richard Wright when the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It is a touching song, and has only picked up steam with younger audiences.
What It’s About: With lyrics such as “I’m gonna give you every inch of my love,” and “Shake for me, girl, I wanna be your backdoor man,” it’s no surprise Led Zeppelin ruffled some feathers with this, their first hit single. I’ll let you read into those lyrics what you will.
Why It’s Great: Besides the fact that it bucked social norms of the day and liberalized stringent censorship standards, it also made Led Zeppelin a household name. Rolling Stone considers it the #75 song of all time. Q Magazine says it’s the #3 guitar track of all time. VH1 awards it the honor for #3 rock song of all time.
What It’s About: “Oh let the sun beat down upon my face,” begins this massive hit from Led Zeppelin, about a man on a journey through presumably the Sahara Desert where the song’s lyrics were actually written by Robert Plant. Never mind the fact that the original title, “Driving to Kashmir,” indicates a location in the Himalayas.
Why It’s Great: The song seems to go on forever like that stretch of Sahara road in which it was born. Nevertheless, on the heels of “Stairway to Heaven” it was a radio station darling. After all, DJs didn’t have to play anything else for over eight minutes, while listeners loved the infectious mix of Eastern music and heavy rock. That guitar reminds me of something in the original Dirty Harry that Lalo Schiffrin might have composed. It is considered one of the 100 Greatest Rock Songs of All Time by VH1, and the #140 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
What It’s About: Written by singer-songwriter John Fogerty, “Proud Mary” is a song that combines rock, soul, and gospel, in a neat little package of down-home lyrics that tell the story of a man on the move.
Why It’s Great: It was the first gold-selling single to the legendary CCR’s credit. It was also the first top ten hit for the band, reaching number two. Time has made it one of the most easily recognized songs of the 60’s. Singer Tina Turner changed it up a bit and enjoyed enormous amounts of success with it. Rolling Stone magazine voted it the #155 song on their 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list.
What It’s About: “Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste!” So begins the Rolling Stones controversial hit “Sympathy for the Devil,” in which Mick Jagger, who also co-wrote the song with Keith Richards, sings from the point of view of Lucifer. Within its 6:28 runtime, the song covers a variety of wars and tragedies attributing them all to the King of Hell.
Why It’s Great: For starters, look at when the song was released. 1968 wasn’t exactly a time where open minds ruled the day. The simple act of having “Devil” in the title was enough to earn the Stones an undeserved rep as Satan worshippers. The song’s structure and content didn’t help. Nevertheless, it remains one of their most popular tunes, and has been voted the #32 song of all time by Rolling Stone Magazine.
What It’s About: Ah, the past was always a better place, wasn’t it? While we tend to look at such things through rose-colored glasses—as does this song—it is certainly a beautiful, if not sad, depiction of a man, who longs for yesterday because that’s where he left his happiness. “Yesterday” is a simple, heartfelt love song that always sends one’s thoughts back to the idealized past.
Why It’s Great: The Guinness Book of World Records claims that this one Beatles tune has been covered over 1,600 times since its 1965 release. Inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1997, the song has received many accolades including #13 on the Rolling Stones 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
What It’s About: “Silence like a cancer grows,” refers to how silence, or submission, to the will of another without thinking for yourself can lead to destruction. “Hearing without listening,” is a nice way of saying what fools we can be when we stop thinking for ourselves.
Why It’s Great: South Park may have gotten it right when they portrayed Bono as a giant turd, who starts to think of himself as more than what he is, but you can’t deny the greatness of this song. While it would probably be best for all of us if celebrities would just shut the hell up and come to the realization that their opinions don’t matter, you’ve got to learn to separate personal feelings from the work if you want to develop a list like this. And no matter how little I think of Bono or his band’s current output, “With or Without You” is a damn fine song, peaking at #1 on the U.S., Canada, and Irish.
27. “Sound of Silence” (Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel)
What It’s About: “Silence like a cancer grows,” refers to how silence, or submission, to the will of another without thinking for yourself can lead to destruction. “Hearing without listening,” is a nice way of saying what fools we can be when we stop thinking for ourselves.
Why It’s Great: Forget chart performances for a bit. This song is great because you know hearing it that the writer is trying to say something important, but it’s up to you to decipher his meaning. With that said, the song did perform well once the electric guitar, bass and drums were added in to amp up its commercial appeal. In fact, Simon and Garfunkel got back together and enjoyed enormous success as a direct result of it.
26. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel)
What It’s About: The song can be read as a love song or a warm dedication to a friend. “Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down,” means that whatever your troubles are in life, you have a friend who will help you cross to the other side.
Why It’s Great: You can’t spend six weeks at the top of the U.S. pop and adult contemporary charts, receive distinction from Rolling Stone Magazine as being the #47 song of all time, and even lead to the breakup of one of music’s most successful acts without having some potency and greatness behind you. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” did all of these things.
25. “Thunder Road” (Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band)
What It’s About: As in most of Springsteen’s more depressing fare, it’s a song about two washouts looking for a better lot in life. Thematically, it plays like a somber version of “Born to Run,” which was also the album “Thunder Road” appeared on in 1975. But make no mistake regarding its humble harmonica lead-in. It is no less intense than its companion piece. Often, you will hear Springsteen play the two together in concert, so there is definitely a feeling that one leads in to the other.
Why It’s Great: Songs that tell stories and invest you in the world and the characters are perhaps the most compelling forms of storytelling you will ever encounter. “Thunder Road” has grown in popularity over the last three and a half decades, and has earned a variety of accolades during that time. Rolling Stone calls it the #86 song of all time. The University of Pennsylvania’s public radio station declared it to be the greatest song of all time, period. And Q Magazine gives it #226 on their “1001 Greatest Songs Ever” list.
What It’s About: “Good Vibrations” is a single written by Brian Wilson and Mike Love for their band The Beach Boys. Lyrically, it is a simple love song, but there is a lot more going on with the music. Not every day that you hear a cello and an electro-theremin in a pop song, much less one released in 1966.
Why It’s Great: Until The Beach Boys released “Good Vibrations,” no one would have ever thought of them as a group that could go psychedelic. But that they did with this number that stretched their boundaries and helped them to emerge as a more successful (and mature) band on the other side of its chart-topping performances in both the U.S. and the U.K. Rolling Stone later declared it to be the #6 song of all time, and it is also on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.
What It’s About: In his three short years as an active performer, Buddy Holly sang a lot about love and loss. Nothing in his catalog is as upbeat as this catchy little number about the excitement of getting to spend time with the person you love.
Why It’s Great: The tempo and the subject matter make it perhaps one of the best singles Holly ever released. Of course, he was one of those artists who grew into a legend after his death in a fateful 1959 plane crash along with Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper, so any commercial success he received at the time for this and his other hits paled in comparison to his posthumous legacy. “Oh Boy” peaked at #10 on U.S. charts and #3 in the U.K. Holly would go on to influence artists such as Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, and Bruce Springsteen, who says that he still plays a little Holly every night before he goes out on stage.
What It’s About: “When you believe in things that you don’t understand, you suffer”—not exactly a viewpoint with which the majority of middle America would agree, but it fits perfectly with the layout of this Stevie Wonder song, which chronicles the different superstitions that many people believe. No story per se, but it’s a damn catchy tune.
Why It’s Great: Written, produced, arranged, and performed (in its most popular form) by Wonder, “Superstition” is the ultimate funk song, and boasts a complex musical arrangement that you never get tired of hearing. It’s no wonder that the song topped U.S. charts in both pop and soul categories in the U.S. circa 1972. It also peaked at #11 in the U.K. and in 2004 earned the honor of #74 on the Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
What It’s About: Wife Rita Marley says, “He was already secretly in a lot of pain and dealt with his own mortality, a feature that is clearly apparent in the album (Uprising), particularly in this song.” Bob Marley had been diagnosed with the cancer that ended up killing him in 1979 when the song was written. Key lyrics are taken from a 1937 speech by activist Marcus Garvey: “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our minds…”
Why It’s Great: Covered well over a dozen times, “Redemption Song” is one of the most personal performances Marley ever gave in a studio or on stage. While full musical accompaniment typically surrounded the song in concert, the most remembered version is the studio cut, where Marley breaks free from his usual style and croons this out with only the aid of his acoustic guitar. Rolling Stone Magazine votes “Redemption Song” #66 on its 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. It’s the best work of a musical legend.
What It’s About: Who knows what any of Jimi Hendrix’s songs are about? There is always the old standby that it’s about drugs and getting high, as attested by the fact that Purple Haze is both a form of marijuana and LSD, drugs that the guitar auteur was no doubt familiar with. The lyric “Excuse me while I kiss the sky,” is also an expression for getting high. Do the math.
Why It’s Great: “Purple Haze” is a marvel of modern rock. It doesn’t have the most inventive lyrics in the world, but then, Hendrix became a legend not because of his poetic prowess, but because no one before or after him could match his skills on the guitar. The song peaked in the U.S. at #65 and in the U.K. at #3, spending 22 weeks in the charts between the two countries. It probably would have reached higher had it not been so far ahead of its time. Rolling Stone Magazine recognizes it as #17 on its 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
What It’s About: When once asked what the lyrics to “American Pie” meant, singer-songwriter Don McLean stated simply, “It means I never have to work again.” After four weeks at the top of the charts, the song eased in to music history with its complex symbolism and heartfelt sorrow. While Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper are never mentioned by name, most feel that the song is about their 1959 plane crash, in part because McLean dedicated his 1971 album of the same name to Buddy Holly.
Why It’s Great: Very rarely does a work transcend its roots and become something else—something greater. McLean refuses to help out in determining his song’s meaning, and the music world has been enriched for it. In addition to the overwhelming commercial success, this song remains one of the most debated pieces of literature in music history.
What It’s About: Exploding popular myths starting now—“For What It’s Worth,” was neither a Vietnam War protest song, nor a tune that commemorated the Kent State shootings as it predated the latter event by four years. Stills claims the song is about conflicts between young partiers and police intrusion with the closing of West Hollywood’s Pandora’s Box the catalyst that inspired him to write it.
Why It’s Great: Often covered and used in film, this distinctive hit which single-handedly got Buffalo Springfield inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, may not have topped the charts upon release—in fact, it only reached #7 on the Billboard Hot 100—but it later escalated to #63 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
What It’s About: Anyone who thinks they can give you an answer to the plot of this song only half knows what he’s talking about. For starters, the song has been altered and changed for a number of years, some even say centuries. The Animals’ version is often referred to as a song about prostitution, but there is nothing lyrically to indicate this is the case. The only definite is, as South Park’s Mr. Mackey would say, is that gambling and alcohol are bad, m’kay?
Why It’s Great: The first ever folk-rock hit, this one topped charts in the U.S., U.K., Canada, and Sweden. Despite the fact that the song had been recorded and played in live shows by a variety of artists since the early 20th Century, including by artists such as Bob Dylan, it was The Animals’ arrangement that stood out from the pack.
What It’s About: Ah, the sexual tension of high school! No song illustrates the joys of “losing it” like “Walk This Way.” Originally a semi-successful song of the late 70’s, it didn’t rise to the next level until the rap group Run DMC covered it in 1986.
Why It’s Great: What could Run DMC have done differently to set their version apart? Well, for starters, they brought in Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, the songwriters and original performers from the band Aerosmith. The pairing of rap and rock was at the time largely unheard of, but the results were nothing short of spectacular. Not only did the song break through to the mainstream, peaking at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and out-performing the original, but it re-launched the career of Aerosmith, who had pretty much vanished since the end of the Jimmy Carter Era. Its influence continues to be heard on Top 40 radio today.
What It’s About: Delivered with Eminem’s signature style, “Lose Yourself” is one of the greatest rap songs ever recorded in part because it is so surprisingly accessible while remaining true to its roots. A Rocky-esque anthem, if the Italian Stallion had listened to rap, it was used for the film 8 Mile, which also starred Eminem. The positive message is also surprising considering this is the guy who raps about murdering his girlfriend and anyone he doesn’t like on a regular basis.
Why It’s Great: Infusing a little rock-and-roll with originality for a change, this is not a song of samples and anger, as much of rap is, but one with a catchy beat and a determined story that literally makes you feel one with the underdog. It earned its 12 weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100, and its #1 slot on 24 charts worldwide. It also won Best Song at the 2003 Academy Awards and racked up two Grammy wins in 2004.
What It’s About: Returning to the Ten Summoner’s Tales album, Sting’s 1993 release, is this song, which has appeared in films such as Leon: The Professional and Lethal Weapon 3. Perhaps one of the most cinematic of Sting’s melodies, the tune could be a feature film itself. The only way I can describe it is as the ultimate loner ballad. And we brooding males dig those!
Why It’s Great: If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then consider the R&B and hip-hop communities very flattering as they have sampled this song over ten times following Nas’ “The Message” in 1996. The song was never released as a single, so it didn’t get a chance to prove what it could do on the charts, but of the eleven songs on Sting’s 1994 three-Grammy-winning album, this and “Fields of Gold” are the two with the most staying power.
What It’s About: Each song on the album Ten Summoner’s Tales tells a story. “Fields of Gold” is a tale of carefully chosen lyrics and imagery that takes us into the fields of barley with two young lovers as the years pass. It’s the sort of song that takes you to your own special place every time you hear it; but it also leaves you reflective, and that can be either happy or sad depending on what you have to look back on.
Why It’s Great: With simple piano and guitar musical arrangements, Sting proves with this beautiful and melancholic song just how much can be accomplished with very little. While it would only hit #23 on Billboard’s Hot 100, the song was one of the major releases off Sting’s album, which itself was a darling at the 1994 Grammy Awards. “Fields of Gold” is perhaps one of the most touching love songs ever written.
What It’s About: “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life / Looking at the barrel of an Armalite. / I don’t want to spend the rest of my days / Keeping out of trouble like the soldiers say…” Tensions in Northern Ireland hit very close to home for The Police and on the Ghost in the Machine album circa 1981, they took a departure from lighter fare to sing about it.
Why It’s Great: If music could pierce you like a bayonet, this would be the song that could do it. The haunting aura of the synthesizer along with Sting’s purposely drone-like voice gives one the feeling of oppression. This was also the song that proved the new wave of 80’s bands could be just as viable as the protest artists of the Vietnam Era. The #2 peak in the U.K. didn’t hurt it either, especially considering that the BBC issued a ban for sensitive subject matter.
What It’s About: “Every breath you take and every move you make / Every bond you break / Every step you take / I’ll be watching you.” By now, it’s no big mystery what this, perhaps The Police’s greatest hit, is speaking about. The narrator of this song is a seriously disturbed individual, who can’t seem to let go. Of course, the haunting and beautiful musical undercurrent makes you think of something different, but there is no getting around the lyrics.
Why It’s Great: Aside from sticking in your head and becoming permanently lodged there, the song elevated what was already a great rock band in The Police and it set Sting aside as a tour de force in the music world. But if that’s not enough for you, how about eight weeks at the top of the U.S. charts, four at the top of the U.K.’s, a Song of the Year win for 1983, a Grammy Award at the 1984 ceremonies, and a deserving #84 slot on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list!
What It’s About: “He’s got this dream about buyin’ some land / He’s gonna give up the booze and the one night stands / And then he’ll settle down, there’s a quiet little town / And forget about everything.” The song seems to be about how life turns us into zombies, and how we always put off improvements for tomorrow—that “Someday I will” line of thought that causes us to waste time and delay confronting the ugly side of ourselves.
Why It’s Great: This song from former Stealers Wheel front man Gerry Rafferty charted in the U.S. and the U.K., peaking at #2 and #3, respectively. Artists such as Slash from Guns ‘N Roses and the Foo Fighters (whose cover charted in the U.S. at #34) have been influenced by it. It has appeared in the movie soundtracks A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints and Good Will Hunting. The song’s sax portion from Raphael Ravenscroft also single-handedly upped sales and use of the instrument in the years following its release.
What It’s About: There was great soul music before “What’s Going On,” but nothing dealt with the Vietnam Era like this one. Part of a nine-song concept album of the same name, Gaye’s moody delivery about a vet returning from the war to a society he doesn’t recognize opened doors of personal freedom for the artist’s career and became one of the most covered songs of all time by high-profile artists such as Quincy Jones, Coldplay, and U2.
Why It’s Great: In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine voted the What’s Going On album as number six among the 500 greatest albums of all time. The title cut is where most of the heart, soul, and guts come from. Dealing with drug abuse, poverty, and the Vietnam War, “What’s Going On,” elevated the themes of soul music from personal guy-girl relationships to that of a man trying to find his way back into the changing world. The song also spent five weeks at the top of the U.S. R&B charts, and peaked at #2 on Billboard’s Hot 100.
What It’s About: “Focusing on nowhere / Investigating miles / I’m a seeker, I’m a really desperate man”—the song seems to be about going through life like a directionless arrow. There is always the need to find your target, but you just don’t know what to pierce. “I ask Bobby Dylan; I ask the Beatles; I ask Timothy Leary / But he couldn’t help me either.” Life isn’t easy, and no one, no matter how great they are, can make your decisions for you.
Why It’s Great: The guitar riffs in this song are unbelievable. It doesn’t matter that songwriter Pete Townshend dislikes it, and it doesn’t matter that The Who have had bigger hits. Play this song 40 years after its 1970 release, and it sounds like it belongs on the same airwaves as the bands it influenced—acts such as Green Day, Judas Priest, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Nirvana, The Clash, U2, Van Halen, Aerosmith, Deep Purple, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Pearl Jam. This song is great because it’s heavy-duty. It is bad-ass and in another 40 years, it will still be.
What It’s About: The death of the railroad as a primary form of transportation brings with it far greater implications. Not only is it the end of an era, but it is the end for a way of life that many people swore by. The future is coming, and the rest is history. It’s a sentiment that, at some point, we all must face.
Why It’s Great: Never has a song so completely captured the feeling of time moving on without you. Lyrically, it uses the railroad to depict the sense of loss we feel with getting older. Vocally, Nelson’s powerful delivery is one of unmistakable sadness and dignity that isn’t quite as present in Arlo Guthrie’s version. Written by the late Steve Goodman (“You Don’t Have to Call Me Darlin’”), this is a classic of folk-country music.
What It’s About: With lyrics such as, “You know I tried to treat you right, but you stayed out, stayed out late at night. But I’ll forgive you if you bring it to me. Bring your sweet lovin’. Bring it on home to me,” Cooke was able to give audiences a look at the gritty, authentic, agonizing infidelity, while skirting the uptight codes of morality circa 1962.
Why It’s Great: Not every great song has to be a chart-topper. Ask most R&B singers and songwriters, and they will point you to this 1962 track from Cooke as the greatest soul song ever written. The wailing vocals of Cooke, along with the haunting backgrounds of an un-credited Lou Rawls, make “Bring It On Home to Me,” a song that has gotten better with age. Charting at #13 on the pop charts and going all the way to #2 on the Black Singles Chart, this song’s greatness shows up more in the work of the people it influenced than any success it experienced at the time. It is also considered one of the 500 songs that shaped rock and roll by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
What It’s About: Though Jackson would never speak about the incident, it was linked by biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli to a crazed fan who stalked Jackson and claimed that he was the father of one of her twins. The behaviors escalated to a level that unsettled the King of Pop further when he received a parcel that contained a letter, a gun, and a photo of the crazed fan. In the note, she asked that Jackson kill himself at a certain day and time. She would do the same to their baby and herself, so that they could be together in the next life. Nothing ever became of it, though Taraborrelli claims that the young fan was later admitted to a psychiatric hospital.
Why It’s Great: No matter how you see the man’s character, you can’t deny the appeal of this, his greatest work. With a bass line that is out of this world, “Billie Jean” is a song with staying power. In 1983, when it was originally released, it charted in 14 different countries, making it to #1 in seven. Upon Jackson’s death, the song once again charted in 2009, this time in 15 countries. The first time France only pushed it to #45. Twenty six years later it was that country’s #1 hit.
What It’s About: “Locked inside your heart-shaped box”? This sounds like he is a prisoner to obsessive love. “Meat-eating orchids”; “Cut myself on angel hair and baby’s breath”; “Throw down your umbilical noose, so I can climb right back”? Note the contrast between those things that are supposed to be delicate and beautiful (Courtney Love perhaps), and their destructive natures (some think if Love was not directly responsible for Cobain’s death, she must have driven him to it). Her crazy-ass antics before and after Cobain’s death lend credibility to this theory.
Why It’s Great: It may not have been number one everywhere it went, but this song charted 12 different times in 11 countries. That along with the disturbed concrete imagery makes this more than a song. It’s a piece of literature.
What It’s About: The desperate urgency of being with the one you love.
Why It’s Great: When you think “Elvis,” crap like “Hound Dog” too often comes to mind. Chances are this isn’t the first song that jumps into your brain; nevertheless, it’s the most successful single the man ever released. It sold over 25 million at the time of its release and topped charts in the U.S. and the U.K. (where it spent nine weeks at #1). It also inspired Barry White to stop stealing tires and start singing songs about love-making, so in turn, Presley was responsible for a whole lot of us guys getting action.
What It’s About: The lyrics are simple. The melody is infectious. The meaning is uplifting. Dark days will pass, and brighter ones will come again.
Why It’s Great: One of many standout hits from Abbey Road, this song demonstrates the emerging talents of George Harrison, who until that point was not given much creative credit by fans or even his own band mates when it came to songwriting. Over 30 covers later from bands such as U2, Bon Jovi, Coldplay, Yo-Yo Ma, and even Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, this remains perhaps the greatest band’s greatest effort. And it did all of this without ever being released as a single.
What It’s About: The lyrics have been open to interpretation for many years. Some see it as a Vietnam War protest song. Others believe drugs are hidden in the underlying meaning. These two themes, whether accurate or not, were blamed on a lot of 60’s music. At its most basic level, the song is about a man mourning the loss of his dead girlfriend.
Why It’s Great: Covered by U2, The Black Dahlia Murder, W.A.S.P., and myriad other bands since its 1966 release, “Paint It, Black” reached number one on Canadian, Dutch, U.K., and U.S. charts. If that’s not great, then what is?