For the first time in 17 years, we’ve completely remade our list of the best songs ever. More than 250 artists, writers, and industry figures helped us choose a brand-new list full of historic favorites, world-changing anthems, and new classics
. It’s one of the most widely read stories in our history, viewed hundreds of millions of times on this site. But a lot has changed since 2004; back then the iPod was relatively new, and Billie Eilish was three years old. So we’ve decided to give the list a total reboot. To create the new version of the RS 100 we convened a p0ll musicians, and producers — from Angelique Kidjo to Zedd, Sam Smith to Megan Thee Stallion, M. Ward to Bill Ward — as well as figures from the music industry and leading critics and journalists. They each sent in a ranked list of their top 50 songs, and we tabulated the results.
Nearly 4,000 songs received votes. Where the version of the list was dominated by early rock and soul, the new edition contains more hip-hop, modern country, indie rock, Latin pop, reggae, and R&B. More than half the songs here — in all — weren’t present on the old list, including a third of the Top 100. The result is a more expansive, inclusive vision of pop, music that keeps rewriting its history with every beat.500
Kanye West, ‘Stronger’
Explaining the tighter, broader-reaching songs on his third album, Graduation, Kanye West said, “I applied a lot of the things I learned on tour [in 2006] with U2 and the Rolling Stones, about songs that rock stadiums. And they worked!” West found the inspiration for his most grandiose statement to date from Daft Punk’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger,” which he sampled and reshaped. West is a big fan of the French duo: “These guys really stick with the whole not-showing-their-faces thing. Just amazing discipline — that’s straight martial-arts status.”
Kanye West, ‘Stronger’
Explaining the tighter, broader-reaching songs on his third album, Graduation, Kanye West said, “I applied a lot of the things I learned on tour [in 2006] with U2 and the Rolling Stones, about songs that rock stadiums. And they worked!” West found the inspiration for his most grandiose statement to date from Daft Punk’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger,” which he sampled and reshaped. West is a big fan of the French duo: “These guys really stick with the whole not-showing-their-faces thing. Just amazing discipline — that’s straight martial-arts status.”
The Supremes, ‘Baby Love’
Diana Ross wasn’t the strongest vocalist in the Supremes, but as the Motown production team discovered, when she sang in a lower register, her voice worked its sultry magic. Berry Gordy instructed the Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting team to come up with something that replicated “Where Did Our Love Go,” the Supremes’ first Number One single. He thought the result wasn’t catchy enough and sent the group back into the studio. The result: the smoky “Oooooh” at the start. “Baby Love” went to Number One too, the first time a Motown group had topped the charts twice.
Townes Van Zandt, ‘Pancho and Lefty’
An epic story-song about a bandit and the friend who betrays him, “Pancho and Lefty” became a country hit thanks to Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard’s 1983 duet. But it’s the songwriter’s own forlorn reading, on 1972’s The Late Great Townes Van Zandt, that best conveys the doomed fates of the main characters. It begins with what might be one of the most descriptive opening verses in the country-folk canon: “Living on the road my friend/was gonna keep you free and clean/now you wear your skin like iron/your breath as hard as kerosene.” “It’s hard to take credit for the writing,” Van Zandt said in 1984, “because it came from out of the blue.”
Lizzo, ‘Truth Hurts’
“That song is my life and its words are my truth,” Lizzo wrote at the time. She had to tack on a writing credit to British singer Mina Lioness, who had tweeted its iconic line “I just took a DNA test, turns out I’m 100 percent that bitch,” but the power of this gale-force breakup banger was pure Lizzo, uproariously swaggering and endearingly soulful. “Truth Hurts” was originally released in 2017, but the song got a big boost two years later, when Gina Rodriguez day-drunkenly sang it in the Netflix show Someone Great, and it became Lizzo’s signature hit.
Harry Nilsson, ‘Without You’
“We did it because my career was on the wane and we wanted something to make a hit,” Harry Nilsson bluntly told an interviewer when asked why he covered Badfinger’s near-despondent ballad: “I heard it and searched through every Beatles album for two and a half weeks, trying to find out which one of their tunes it was.” Producer Richard Perry agreed, piling on the strings to showcase Nilsson’s desperate lunge of a vocal. Both were right — the song went to Number One and earned a Grammy nomination for Record of the Year.
Carly Simon, ‘You’re So Vain’
The holy mother of all diss tracks, “You’re So Vain” contains one of the most enduring musical mysteries of all time. Just who is so vain that he probably thinks the song is about him? Simon previously revealed that actor Warren Beatty inspired the second verse of the song (“Oh, you had me several years ago/When I was still naive”), but speculation abounds regarding the other man (or men) behind the ire. Either way, the track — boasting omnipresent Seventies arranger Paul Buckmaster’s orchestration and Mick Jagger’s background vocals — is pure soft-rock fire.
Cyndi Lauper, ‘Time After Time’
Cyndi Lauper was nervous about “Time After Time” — the aching ballad she wrote in the studio with keyboardist Rob Hyman to finish off her blockbuster solo debut, She’s So Unusual. “I asked them to please not put ‘Time After Time’ out as the first single,” Lauper said. “People would never have accepted me. If you do a ballad first, and then a rocker, that doesn’t work.” Her instincts were right: Following the jaunty “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” “Time” became her first Number One.
The Pixies, ‘Where Is My Mind?’
No song typifies the freakish pop instincts that made the Pixies stand out in a sea of gloomy Reagan-era bands better than “Where Is My Mind?” Joey Santiago’s lead guitar is catchier than most Top 40 hooks, and by the time Fight Club made this song iconic a decade after its release, it had already formed part of the DNA of countless alternative-radio hits in the years between, from Nirvana to Korn. When an interviewer in 1988 asked about his unique ability to crank out great songs, Black Francis’ answer was typically cryptic: “It’s nice to have space. How much can one brain deal with?”
Miles Davis, ‘So What’
It’s likely that no song on this list has soundtracked more dinner parties than Kind of Blue’s warm, welcoming first track. But at the time it was a jarring departure, trading bebop chord changes for a more open-ended modal style. According to pianist Bill Evans, the trumpeter worked up his material just hours before recording dates, but the all-star band here sounds like it’s been living with “So What” for years: Saxophonists John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley turn in solos that have since become as iconic as any in jazz history, and the rhythm section of Evans, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Jimmy Cobb swings like it’s dancing on air.
Guns N’ Roses, ‘Welcome to the Jungle’
Released as the first single from Appetite for Destruction, “Welcome to the Jungle” stiffed at first — it took the massive crossover success of “Sweet Child o’ Mine” to ready radio for GN’R at their most unvarnished. The song’s inspiration, according to Axl Rose, was a hitchhiking trip that landed him in the Bronx, where a stranger approached him and said, “You know were you are? You’re gonna die, you’re in the jungle, baby!” Rose took this mockery and turned it into an anthem.
Lil Nas X, ‘Old Town Road’
Montero Hill was an Atlanta college dropout sleeping on his sister’s couch and looking to break into music when he came across a track he liked by a Dutch 19-year-old called YoungKio that was based around a banjo sample from a Nine Inch Nails track. “I was picturing, like, a loner cowboy runaway,” he told Rolling Stone. Within a year “Old Town Road” was the longest-running Number One song of all time, seeming to sum up eons of American cross-cultural love and theft in just one minute and 53 seconds.
The Breeders, ‘Cannonball’
Notified by fax that her services in the Pixies were no longer required, Kim Deal called up her twin sister, Kelley, to be her new guitarist (never mind that she didn’t know how to play guitar) and had the last laugh when this absurdist gem became an MTV phenomenon in 1993. “When people were talking about the Breeders being a one-off,” Kelley told Rolling Stone, “I was like ‘No, actually … the Pixies are a side project.’” A little over a year later, the Breeders were on an extended break of their own, but the effortlessly fun trampoline bounce of “Cannonball” is one for all time.
The Weeknd, ‘House of Balloons’
Far from the international superstar he’d become, Toronto singer-songwriter Abel Tesfaye didn’t even send out photos or do any interviews when he released the first Weeknd album. “The whole ‘enigmatic artist’ thing, I just ran with it,” he said. “No one could find pictures of me. It reminded me of some villain shit.” But the title track of House of Balloons nevertheless set the course for his career, both thematically — drugs and sex, meet depression — and musically, with its sample of Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Happy House” announcing a new direction for R&B.
Solange, ‘Cranes in the Sky’
In an interview with her sister Beyoncé, R&B innovator Solange Knowles described how this song was inspired, in part, by overzealous real estate development she noticed around Miami: “This idea of building up, up, up that was going on in our country at the time, all of this excessive building, and not really dealing with what was in front of us.” She turned the metaphor inward to examine her own feelings about change, self-doubt, and aspiration, finishing the song years after it was originally conceived with producer Raphael Saadiq to create a lavish moment of neo-soul introspection.
Lil Wayne, ‘A Milli’
Producer Bangladesh looped the opening chords from Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Don’t Burn Down the Bridge,” then segued to a drill-like volley of trap drums. He gave the beat to his friend Shanell — a onetime R&B singer on Wayne’s Young Money Entertainment — to pass along. Wayne initially had grand plans for “A Milli”: He wanted to use the instrumental as skits for rappers like Tyga, Hurricane Chris, Corey Gunz, and Lil Mama. In the end, though, “A Milli” is just Weezy solo, blacking out in the booth and dazzling everyone who hears him.
Azealia Banks, ‘212’
In 2011, Azealia Banks was a teenage rapper-singer whose clear talent yielded a development deal with XL Recordings but little else. “She had been working on a collection of tracks and there was one Dutch house-sounding one that was just absolutely insane,” producer Jacques Greene recalled. Banks freestyled ferociously about her New York hometown and, uh, cunnilingus over the jittery beats of Belgian house duo’s Lazy Jay’s “Float My Boat.” Initially released in 2011 as a viral track, “212” was a hip-house banger that earned Banks a deal with Interscope and served notice that this uninhibited provocateur would not be constrained.
Weezer, ‘Buddy Holly’
Never has geek been so chic as in Weezer’s 1994 breakout single, “Buddy Holly.” Written for frontman Rivers Cuomo’s girlfriend, the poppy ode to nerdy romance was almost left off the band’s self-titled debut, also known as the Blue Album, due to Cuomo and now-ex-member Matt Sharp’s reticence. “We had the sense that it could be taken as a novelty song, and people aren’t going to take the album seriously,” Sharp told Rolling Stone. After producer Ric Ocasek heard the receptionist at the recording studio humming it, he insisted they keep it in.
The Four Tops, ‘I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)’
One of Motown’s most rousing anthems, “I Can’t Help Myself” was inspired by songwriter Lamont Dozier’s grandfather, who’d call the women his hairdresser wife fixed up “sugar pie” and “honey bunch.” During the recording, engineer Harold Taylor recalled, “People were banging on the door of the studio; they were so ecstatic about what they heard.” Nevertheless, Levi Stubbs asked Brian Holland if he could do another take. Holland promised him they’d do it soon — and Stubbs’ first pass hit Number One.
Lady Gaga, ‘Bad Romance’
Shortly after Gaga had established herself as a star, she catapulted to a next level of weirdness with this Nadir “RedOne” Khayat production, which drew upon the electronic music Gaga had been inundated with while touring Europe. “I want the deepest, darkest, sickest parts of you that you are afraid to share with anyone because I love you that much” is how she summed up the idea behind the song. Fittingly, she debuted the hit-to-be at Alexander McQueen’s show at Paris Fashion Week.
Robert Johnson, ‘Cross Road Blues’
The primal terror in the Mississippi bluesman’s voice, and his mystifying slide guitar playing, transfixed the Sixties generation of British rockers: “I could take the music only in very small measures because it was so intense,” said Eric Clapton. Recorded during a session at a San Antonio hotel room in 1936, two years before Johnson was murdered at 27, “Cross Road Blues” is a mythmaking statement of spiritual desolation and scorched-earth betrayal — even if the legend that it’s about Johnson selling his soul to the devil in exchange for his monster guitar chops is, as far as we know, apocryphal.
Biz Markie, ‘Just a Friend’
Nobody beats the Biz (1964-2021), an impossibly good-natured DJ, rapper, producer, human beatboxer, and hip-hop personality who broke big with this ode to the friend zone off his second album. Built on a fat beat, plinking piano, and his charmingly off-key singing, “Just a Friend” interpolates Freddie Scott’s 1968 song “(You) Got What I Need” as Biz warbles about a love that will never come to pass. It was based on real life. As he told Rolling Stone in 2000, “I was talking to this girl from L.A., and every time I called her, this dude was at her house, and she’d say, ‘Oh, he’s just a friend.’ I hated that.”
Santana, ‘Oye Como Va’
Growing up in San Francisco, Carlos Santana was shaped by the city’s psychedelic explosion. “You cannot take LSD and not find your voice,” he once claimed, “because there is nowhere to hide.” And while his early heroes were bluesmen, he changed history with this foundational Latin-rock reworking of a 1962 salsa number by Cuban percussionist Tito Puente. Santana kept the original’s cha-cha pulse but replaced its horns with Greg Rolie’s organ and Carlos’ lysergic guitar flares. Said Puente years later, “He put our music, Latin rock, around the world, man.”
Juvenile feat. Lil Wayne and Mannie Fresh, ‘Back That Azz Up’
In the late Nineties, Mannie Fresh’s diamond-sharp productions for Cash Money Records helped put New Orleans in the center of the hip-hop map. The title of this hit was so reminiscent of local artist DJ Jubilee’s single “Back That Thang Up” that Jubilee sued (unsuccessfully) for infringement, and the beat rode the “Triggerman” rhythm that is foundational to New Orleans bounce. Juvenile freestyled his best shit-talking bounce rhymes, and Lil Wayne shut it down with a “drop it like it’s hot” hook. As Mannie said, “[He] immediately was just like, ‘Shit, I’m getting a piece of this.’”
The Go-Gos, ‘Our Lips Are Sealed’
The radiant first hit of the Go-Go’s was influenced, according to writer Jane Wiedlin, by “the Buzzcocks and Sixties girl-group stuff.” It was also inspired by a clandestine relationship she was having with Terry Hall, of U.K. ska group the Specials, who got a co-writing credit because Wiedlin based the lyrics on some poetry he’d written her in a letter. “It was pretty personal,” Wiedlin recalled. “I mean he had a fiancee at the time — nowadays I wouldn’t touch that with a 10-foot pole, but I was 19, and I was like ‘fiancee shmiancee.’”
Kris Kristofferson, ‘Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down’
The desolation of spirit in Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” is so heavy, so apparent, that it’s almost hard to listen to. But that despair is exactly what drew Johnny Cash to sing it on his TV variety show in 1970. Kristofferson cut his own stunning studio version that same year for his debut album, Kristofferson. Cash’s interpretation, more shuffling and accessible, is the one most listeners turn to, but listen to them back-to-back if you can, and marvel at how Kristofferson’s lyrics about being hung over, alone, and desperate shake your soul.
Janet Jackson, ‘Rhythm Nation’
Jackson’s socially conscious Number Two hit came together late in the sessions for her blockbuster LP Rhythm Nation 1814. Co-producer Jimmy Jam recalled being in the studio and “switching between MTV and CNN. Watching music videos on one side and watching atrocities on the other. Somehow they all merged together. The idea for ‘Rhythm Nation’ was you can dance, but we can also do something more intelligent.” When Jam heard Sly and the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” at a restaurant, he raced to the studio to sample it.
Curtis Mayfield, ‘Move On Up’
Mayfield’s irresistible “Move On Up” was politically empowering, morally demanding, and effortlessly propulsive, powered by swinging horns and tangy congas — the nine-minute LP version, with its powerful drum break, laid a foundation for disco and hip-hop alike. Mayfield’s message was just as steadfast: that pride and dignity were paramount for Black America to rise. “I’m not trying to say anything to make you think, ‘Well, this is the way, this is the only way,’” Mayfield said. “I’m trying to cover the whole subject.”
Tammy Wynette, ‘Stand by Your Man’
From the start, this pledge of wifely devotion, the first song Wynette ever co-wrote, was a cultural lightning rod. Feminists recoiled from its pledge of unquestioning fidelity in the Seventies, and Hillary Clinton defined herself a modern woman by slamming the song during Bill Clinton’s first presidential run. But the recording itself steamrolls over ideological objections, as the catch in Wynette’s voice on the verses gives way to a vocal swell that rises to meet the epic sweep of Billy Sherrill’s production.
Peter Gabriel, ‘Solsbury Hill’
Shortly after Gabriel quit Genesis in 1975, he climbed to the top of Little Solsbury Hill in Somerset, England, to reflect on his life-changing decision. It inspired his debut solo song, in which he explained to fans why he felt the need to go out on his own. Musically, it was a departure too, a pastoral tune with a 12-string acoustic guitar lead that was pointedly different from Genesis’ prog-rock. The song has since become ubiquitous in movies and film trailers. “Maybe I’ve let it go too much,” he admitted to Rolling Stone in 2011.
The Animals, ‘The House of the Rising Sun’
“We were looking for a song that would grab people’s attention,” said Animals singer Eric Burdon. They found it with the old American folk ballad “The House of the Rising Sun.” In 1962, Bob Dylan had sung this grim tale of a Southern girl trapped in a New Orleans whorehouse. The Animals, from the English coal town of Newcastle, changed the gender in the lyrics, and keyboardist Alan Price created the new arrangement (and grabbed a composer’s credit). Price also added an organ solo inspired by Jimmy Smith’s hit “Walk on the Wild Side.”
Gladys Knight and the Pips, ‘Midnight Train to Georgia’
Songwriter Jim Weatherly originally composed this as “Midnight Plane to Houston,” only to change it for Cissy Houston (Whitney’s mom) to something “more R&B … in order to get it onto Black radio.” Weatherly had already penned “Neither One of Us,” Knight and the Pips’ Number Two hit, and when they heard “Midnight Train,” they took it to the top. “I never really imagined writing R&B songs,” Weatherly admitted. “I really thought I was writing country songs.” It reflected the times; the 1970s were the first decade since after World War I in which more African Americans were moving to the South than leaving it.
Dixie Chicks, ‘Goodbye Earl’
A murder ballad with a modern, feminist twist, this jaunty song about poisoning an abusive husband spawned disparate reactions. Some stations banned it, apparently concerned that it would spawn a rash of hubby offings; others shared the number for domestic-abuse hotlines. When the label reps listened to the Chicks’ Fly album, though, they were more concerned with another song: “Sin Wagon,” with its reference to “mattress dancing.” “You can’t say [that],” Natalie Maines recalls their manager’s relayed message from the execs, “but they love the song about premeditated first-degree murder.”
Mazzy Star, ‘Fade Into You’
Singer Hope Sandoval and guitarist Dave Roback, the prime movers behind Mazzy Star, were active in the 1980s neo-psychedelic Paisley Underground scene in Los Angeles. After Sandoval replaced singer Kendra Smith in the band Opal, David Roback and Sandoval reconstituted the band under the name Mazzy Star. Their second album yielded this spaced-out hit, perhaps dream pop’s ultimate statement of blurry desire. “We’re not so concerned about the outside world,” said Roback. “[Each song] is its own world unto itself.”
Nirvana, ‘Come as You Are’
“It’s just about people and what they’re expected to act like,” Kurt Cobain said. “The lines in the song are really contradictory. They’re kind of a rebuttal to each other.” The song is driven by a simple riff that Butch Vig goosed with a flanged, subaquatic guitar effect. Cobain apparently lifted it from a 1984 song by U.K. art-metal band Killing Joke, who Dave Grohl paid back 12 years later by drumming on their 2003 album. In the wake of Cobain’s suicide, though, the most haunting lyric would become, “And I swear that I don’t have a gun.”
Luther Vandross, ‘Never Too Much’
The Eighties’ major male R&B balladeer’s solo debut was financed in part from money he made singing jingles for KFC and 7UP. Vandross had been pushed to do his own thing by Roberta Flack, for whom he’d sung background. Said Vandross: “She said, ‘Luther, you’re too comfortable sitting on that stool singing “ooh and aaah.”‘ Roberta was single-handedly responsible for me starting my own career.” What pushed her was hearing the demo of “Never Too Much” — one of the most buoyant love songs of the Eighties, with Vandross’ high notes as delicate as soap bubbles.
Daft Punk feat. Pharrell Williams, ‘Get Lucky’
When Pharrell Williams volunteered to appear on Daft Punk’s fourth album, he told them he’d been thinking about Chic legend Nile Rodgers musically; fortuitously, the French dance producers could play him a track they had on hand that they’d made with Rodgers himself. The result was “Get Lucky,” which, as the lead single from their disco-flavored album Random Access Memories, rose like a phoenix to become the song that defined its year. “I think the robots are leading,” Williams told Rolling Stone. “Daft Punk, they’re definitely leading.”
Joni Mitchell, ‘Help Me’
Mitchell’s 1974 album, Court and Spark, her biggest-selling ever, was also the one that she held the tightest amount of musical control over to date. “I guided everything into place on Court and Spark — even though I didn’t play it, I sang it, and then they played it from that, and it was pretty much as writ,” she said. (Her next album, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, was looser and more jazz-oriented.) “Help Me,” recorded with the jazz group Tom Scott’s L.A. Express, features one of Mitchell’s sultriest vocals and most brocaded arrangements, inspiring Prince, 13 years later, to pay the song lyrical tribute in his “Ballad of Dorothy Parker.”
John Lee Hooker, ‘Boom Boom’
Hooker, whose canny blues boogie became a root integer for early rock & roll, said this swinging, swaggering bit of primal thump was inspired by his inability to get to a regular gig on time. “There was a young lady named Luilla,” Hooker said. “She was a bartender [at the Apex Bar in Detroit]. I’d always be late, and whenever I’d come in she’d point at me and say, ‘Boom Boom, you’re late again.’ One night she said, ‘Boom boom, I’m gonna shoot you down.’ She gave me a song, but she didn’t know it.” Keith Richards said of Hooker, “Even Muddy Waters was sophisticated next to him.” That was a compliment.
Van Morrison, ‘Into the Mystic’
Delectably arranged, transportingly sung, this may be the definitive Morrison song — an evocation of “the days of old” that feels like a lover’s whisper. The highlight of 1970’s classic Moondance, “Into the Mystic” benefited from a new, more organic way of recording for him: “It was more like working with an actual band rather than a bunch of session guys,” Morrison said. As for the lyrics, he’d admit, “So many of my songs from that Seventies period, I haven’t a clue what they’re about. A lot of the time, I was just picking up on a vibe.”
Roy Orbison, ‘Crying’
Orbison said he wrote this lush, dreamy ballad after an encounter with an old flame: “Whether I was physically crying or just crying inside is the same thing.” His near-operatic performance culminated in a high, wailing note, which Orbison never lost the capacity to hit before his death, in 1988. “He sounded like he was singing from an Olympian mountaintop and he meant business,” Bob Dylan wrote in Chronicles. “He was now singing his compositions in three or four octaves that made you want to drive your car over a cliff. He sang like a professional criminal.”
Steel Pulse, ‘Ku Klux Klan’
The first great British reggae band — and some of the style’s finest songwriters — made their Island Records debut with this incendiary look at the rising tide of racist violence in late-Seventies Britain: “The Ku Klux Klan/Here to stamp out Black man.” They underlined the lyric by actually performing the song live — including a memorable BBC appearance — wearing white Klan headgear. “The hoods seemed extreme at the time, but that’s what we are in a way,” vocalist Michael Riley said. “When we wore them, people started questioning what the song was about instead of just dancing to it.”
Sade, ‘No Ordinary Love’
Helen Adu’s small but fully inhabited range has been her secret weapon from the beginning. “I decided that if I was gonna sing, I would sing how I speak, because it’s important to be yourself,” she said. Her voice cracks before she reaches the first chorus of this 1992 hit, playing up the romantic drama of the lyric. Even better, so does Stuart Matthewman’s guitar; in the middle of this otherwise mellow groove, he overdubs a seriously moody and low-key noisy part that gives the whole thing a welcome edge. Sade — it’s not just the singer’s name, it’s also a band.
In 1992, 22-year-old Beck Hansen was scraping by as a video-store clerk while performing bizarro folk songs at L.A. coffeehouses. After friends offered to record some songs, Beck cut “Loser” in his producer’s kitchen. It became the centerpiece of the album Mellow Gold. At first people took “Loser” to be a mere novelty hit, but Beck knew better. “You’d have to be a total idiot to say, ‘I’m the slacker-generation guy. This is my generation.… we’re not gonna fuckin’ show up,’” he said. “I’d be laughed out of the room in an instant.”
Bon Jovi, ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’
Like his New Jersey model Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi concentrates on working-class heroes and heroines. “Livin’ on a Prayer,” co-written with guitarist Richie Sambora, pumped the everyday struggles of Tommy and Gina full of grandeur — guitar-pick slides, dramatic pauses, the inevitable key change — and continues to resonate today. “It’s great that we wrote songs so long ago that people can still relate to,” Bon Jovi said in 2005. “When I hear ‘Livin’ on a Prayer,’ I think to myself, ‘We wrote that. That song has really made its mark. I guess that works.’”
Lana Del Rey, ‘Summertime Sadness’
For her second album, Del Rey went for a sound even more lush than on her debut, and the relentless strings of “Summertime Sadness” recall the soundtracks Angelo Badalamenti composed for David Lynch’s films. She wrote the song in Santa Monica. “I would sit under the telephone wires and listen to them sizzle in the warm air,” she recalled. “I felt happy in the warm weather, and started writing about how sad and gorgeous the summertime felt to me.” A year after its first release, Cedric Gervais’ dance remix turned the song into a Top 10 hit.
Jefferson Airplane, ‘White Rabbit’
The song that brought acid rock to Middle America was a heady rock bolero written by vocalist Slick, reportedly after taking LSD and listening to Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain. She first recorded it with her earlier band, the Great Society, before rebooting it with the Airplane. “Our parents read us stories like Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and The Wizard of Oz,” Slick said. “They all have a place where children get drugs, and are able to fly or see an Emerald City or experience extraordinary animals and people.… And our parents are suddenly saying, ‘Why are you taking drugs?’ Well, hello!”
Sister Nancy, ‘Bam Bam’
Nancy (a.k.a. Ophlin Russell) was the DJ (mic controller) for Kingston’s Stereophonic sound system when she met reggae producer Winston Riley in the late Seventies. “I really admired how he took recording serious,” Nancy said. “You couldn’t go into his studio and do any foolishness.” Their peak, “Bam Bam,” is one of the great early dancehall anthems, booming but bright, tough but playful — and it’s been sampled extensively by everyone from Lauryn Hill to Kanye West.
Missy Elliot, ‘The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)’
As producers, Elliott and Timbaland had already made their rhythmic impact on hip-hop and R&B before Missy’s first single. And some high-profile features had even introduced Elliott’s bobbing, whizzing rap style to audiences. But still, no one could have predicted “The Rain,” with its ghostly sample of Ann Peebles’ “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” memorable Beenie Man misquote (“Who got the keys to the jeep?”), and twitchy yet sleek beat. It made Elliott a star, and she and Tim the producers to beat.
“It’s funny,” Toto drummer Jeff Porcaro said in 1985. “We thought ‘Africa’ was bold, and it did pretty good, but lyrically it didn’t make a dime of sense.” No matter — that instantly calming synthesizer riff, played on a Yamaha GS-1 “dialed in [to] those kalimba, marimba kind of sounds,” as Porcaro described it, does most of the talking, along with that soaring chorus. It hit Number One and has lived on as a yacht-rock touchstone; in 2019, Weezer’s affectionate cover made it ubiquitous all over again — a favor Toto returned by covering Weezer’s “Hash Pipe.”
Migos feat. Lil Uzi Vert, ‘Bad and Boujee’
If cellphones gave rise to ringtone rap, social media gave us meme rap. The Atlanta trio Migos’ opus “Bad and Boujee” has become the latter’s keynote anthem, its “Raindrop, drop-top” hook inspiring scores of Twitter memes and Vine clips, and even showing up at the 2017 Women’s March on Washington, D.C. The trio’s Offset wrote the song’s hook, he told Rolling Stone, while “I had some little situations going on with life, family stuff going down, so I went downstairs to record. Sometimes that’s the best time to get music off — you might be mad, make some crazy shit.”
Neil Young, ‘Powderfinger’
According to Crazy Horse guitarist Frank “Pancho” Sampedro, this song came to Young in a seizure dream: It’s an epic Western crammed into a roaring five minutes, and one of rock’s grizzliest coming-of-age stories. Young sings about a lone 22-year-old left to defend his no-account outlaw kin against government soldiers now that his daddy’s dead, with the corrosive majesty in Young’s frontier-grunge guitar mirroring his protagonist’s doomed dream of freedom. “It shows the futility of violence,” Young wrote. He originally recorded it in 1975 for his abandoned Chrome Dreams album, and returned to it four years later to open the plugged-in side of Rust Never Sleeps.
Blue Öyster Cult, ‘(Don’t Fear) The Reaper’
Blue Öyster Cult, a hard-rock band born out of the intellectual, Sixties hippie scene at Long Island’s Stony Brook University, had been kicking around a few years when they manifested this spooky death trip, which Rolling Stone deemed 1976’s best rock single — as engineer Shelly Yakus said at the end of the first take, “Guys, this is it!” Being the subject of Saturday Night Live’s infamous “More cowbell!” sketch made the song a punch line in the 2000s, but to hear it on the radio late at night is to be freaked out anew by singer-guitarist “Buck Dharma” Roeser crooning about Romeo, Juliet, and the “40,000 men and women every day” headed to the great beyond.
Erykah Badu, ‘Tyrone’
“Why can’t we be alone sometimes?” Badu pleads at first — and then comes the swerve: Her man’s best friend, Tyrone, should come and get him and his things, stat. It presaged later R&B classics of the type, from TLC’s “No Scrubs” to Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable.” The frank tone of “Tyrone” also helpfully deflated some of the hype surrounding the imperiously cool Badu, a leader of the budding neo-soul scene. “The more they get familiar with me, the more they see I’m not a spiritual-goddess leader without a flaw,” she said. “That makes people doubt you, because a lot of times people look at the messenger more than they wanna take the message.”
The Beatles, ‘Help!’
“Most people think it’s just a fast rock & roll song,” Lennon said. “Subconsciously, I was crying out for help. I didn’t realize it at the time; I just wrote the song because I was commissioned to write it for the movie.” Overwhelmed by Beatlemania, Lennon was eating “like a pig,” drinking too much, and “smoking marijuana for breakfast” — only 24 years old, he was already expressing nostalgia for his lost youth. “I don’t like the recording that much,” Lennon would later tell Rolling Stone. “We did it too fast, to try and be commercial.”
Bruce Springsteen, ‘Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)’
“I wrote it as a kiss-off to everybody who counted you out, put you down, or decided you weren’t good enough,” Springsteen wrote of the first roof-raising arena anthem of his career. The melody and cadence for “Rosalita” came from a Van Morrison-style song that Springteen played as a solo acoustic tune; it evolved into his riotously hard-charging set closer throughout the Seventies, a story of underdog rock & roll romance that he said was ripped straight from his real life — “even the names, Big Bones Billy, Weak Kneed Willy, all of ’em.”
T. Rex, ‘Cosmic Dancer’
“I am my own fantasy. I am the ‘Cosmic Dancer,’” Marc Bolan said. His fantasy world was all encompassing. T. Rex began as Tolkien-loving hippie-folk gnomes, but by the time they recorded Electric Warrior in 1971, producer Tony Visconti helped them create a glam masterpiece; on the sky-skipping ballad “Cosmic Dancer,” Bolan shows the distracted child beneath his slithering get-it-on persona, singing “I was dancing when I was eight/Is it strange to dance so late,” at once hot, absurd, and disarmingly human.
50 Cent, ‘In Da Club’
Queens rapper Curtis Jackson came ready-made with a mythic backstory (he’d been shot nine times) and a pedigree of hot mixtapes. When he teamed up with Dr. Dre, he got the sound he needed to become a superstar. Dre actually came up with the spartan-yet-smooth track for “In Da Club” with Eminem protégés D12 in mind, intending to use it on the 8 Mile soundtrack. “50 walked into the studio and picked up a pen,” Dre said. “We were done in an hour. We just made some shit we wanted to hear.”
Fall Out Boy, ‘Sugar, We’re Goin Down’
“I wrote the lyrics in Chicago,” bassist Pete Wentz told Rolling Stone of modern emo’s national anthem. “I was with my dad, and we were listening to the old music where they’d always say ‘sugar’ and ‘honey’ — stuff like that. I was like, ‘Why doesn’t anyone do that anymore?’” When Fall Out Boy did it, it signaled a sea change — emo, which had roots in confessional hardcore punk, had grown into a new and often highly theatrical kind of arena rock. But when Patrick Stump finishes the title phrase with the word “swinging,” it still makes the heart surge.
Motörhead, ‘Ace of Spades’
With a galloping beat, assaultive riffs, and loads of distortion on pretty much everything, “Ace of Spades” is a lynchpin moment in English hard-rock’s evolution into a faster, harder, more brutish beast, adored by punks and metalheads alike. The double-time, chunka-chunka percussion that kicks in at around 1:12 is a reverbed wood block, a swinging flourish of detail amid the fury that was added at the suggestion of producer Vic Maile. “I’m glad we got famous for that rather than for some turkey,” bassist-growler Lemmy Kilmister said. “But I sang ‘the eight of spades’ for two years and nobody noticed.”
Miranda Lambert, ‘The House That Built Me’
For all her sass and swagger, country star Miranda Lambert’s finest moment is this bittersweet ballad, a moving evocation of home as a place you can return to, if only in memory. “The House That Built Me” is full of heart-tugging concrete imagery: the tiny bedroom where the narrator did her homework, the live oak under which her dog is buried. In the studio, Lambert set up photos of her childhood home to set the mood. “I just started bawling from the second I heard it,” she said. It still has the same power; the singer cried performing the song at a show in her home state of Texas in 2021.
Alicia Keys, ‘If I Ain’t Got You’
Saddened by the tragic 2001 death of R&B singer Aaliyah, Keys composed this moving expression of her loss, bringing the organic-feeling lushness of Seventies R&B balladry into the digitized 21st century. She was on such a creative roll at the time of her album The Diary of Alicia Keys that she almost gave the song away to Christina Aguilera, until her A&R rep Peter Edge intervened. “I was like, ‘Why? I’ll write a hundred more,’” she recalled telling him. “I’m kinda glad he made sure I didn’t do that.”
Celia Cruz, ‘La Vida Es un Carnaval’
Celia Cruz had a voice that combined opulent, operatic tones with the Afro-Cuban call-and-response style of pregón — and her legendary roar was at its most august and powerful extolling the joy of being alive on 1998’s triumphant “La Vida Es un Carnaval.” The song was especially potent coming from Cruz, who came to New York and helped shape the salsa movement following a painful exile from Cuba in the Sixties. “La Vida Es un Carnaval” became a life-giving anthem for audiences and marked a stunning final act of her formidable career.
Megan Thee Stallion feat. Beyoncé, ‘Savage (Remix)’
A Houston summit meeting: the skyrocketing MC Megan Thee Stallion’s breakout single, remixed with the city’s — and R&B’s — reigning queen confidently spitting a few quick bars to remind us that, if she really wanted to, she could rap circles around your favorite MC as a full-time job. When Beyoncé confirmed her guest spot was on, Megan said, “I cried — like, I had to call my grandma.” But just her grandma: The collaboration — which hit Number One on its own — was kept under wraps until the last second: “I didn’t even tell my best friend.”
Lucinda Williams, ‘Passionate Kisses’
As Williams struggled to find a place in the pigeonhole-happy music industry of the Eighties, she landed on the British punk label Rough Trade and recorded a self-titled album anchored by this raw-voiced demand for not only kisses but also homelier needs like “pens that don’t run out of ink.” Three years later, Mary Chapin Carpenter turned it into a Grammy-winning country hit that also crossed over to pop and adult contemporary, making it Williams’ best-known song. “When I get to the line ‘It’s my right,’ all the women in the audience yell out and go nuts,” Williams has said. “I love it.”
Carly Rae Jepsen, ‘Call Me Maybe’
A Canadian pop star mostly unknown in the U.S., Jepsen said she initially wrote the inescapable hit that ruled the radio in 2012 as a “folk song.” Once it was restructured, with giddy string breaks, it caught the ears of reigning pop-power couple Justin Bieber, who tweeted that it was “possibly the catchiest song I’ve ever heard lol,” and Selena Gomez, who said, “This smile is because of Carly Rae Jepsen. We have not stopped listening to your song girl!” Sometimes even a classic needs a little push.
Rush drummer Neil Peart tackled the trap of rock-star fame without sounding like a spoiled rock-star misanthrope — and, a little ironically, ended up writing one of the Canadian prog-rock trio’s biggest arena hits. “Limelight” sanded down the knottier edges of its 7/4 riff to sound at home on FM radio, as Geddy Lee sang about feeling “ill-equipped to act/With insufficient tact,” making no apologies for their brainy aspirations. “I didn’t want to be famous,” Peart observed years later. “I wanted to be good. And that’s a whole other thing.”
Ramones, ‘Sheena Is a Punk Rocker’
The Ramones’ ode to the liberating power of punk and the unsinkable spirit of their native New York appeared both as a single that actually hit the charts (at Number 81) and as a slicker, remixed cut on their comparatively high-budget third LP, Rocket to Russia. Joey Ramone took the title from the golden-age comic book Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. “I combined Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, with the primalness of punk rock,” he said. “It was funny, because all the girls in New York seemed to change their names to Sheena after that.”
Pet Shop Boys, ‘West End Girls’
Inspired in equal parts by the hip-hop social commentary of “The Message,” the abstract imagery of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and a late-night viewing of an old Jimmy Cagney gangster flick, Neil Tennant turned the eye of a detached observer on British club life for the pop duo’s career-making single. Rarely has a synth-bass been as eloquent as the one that underlines this chorus. And in five words, Tennant later summed up not just the song but the Boys’ whole early aesthetic: “It’s about sex. It’s paranoid.”
Eddie Cochran, ‘Summertime Blues’
Cochran’s label tried molding him into a crooning teen idol, but he made his mark with a string of rockabilly ravers written with partner Jerry Capehart. Explaining the inspiration for this classic, Capehart said, “There had been a lot of songs about summer, but none about the hardships of summer.” With that idea and a guitar lick from Cochran, they knocked out the song in 45 minutes. It’s one of rock’s first great alienated-teen anthems, with an absurdist political element that resonated with future hard rockers, including the Who and Blue Cheer, who are among the many bands to cover it.
It shows just how jam-packed Prince’s double LP Sign O’ the Times was that its awe-kissed finale, the gospel-drenched slow jam “Adore,” wasn’t a single. But that doesn’t mean the song never got radio airplay — in fact, that’s part of why he recorded it. “Adore” was written to answer criticism that Prince had lost interest in the Black audience. It was aimed at quiet storm, the adult R&B format as heavy on album tracks as on singles — where, as intended, it got substantial play.
Pete Rock and CL Smooth, ‘They Reminisce Over You’
When “Trouble” T Roy, a dancer with Heavy D and the Boyz, died on tour in 1990, his pals — hip-hop producer Peter “Pete Rock” Philips and rapper Corey “CL Smooth” Penn — put together hip-hop’s most powerful elegy. Over a warm horn break sampled from composer Tom Scott, Smooth kicks conversational rhymes about love, music, family, memory, and friendship, beautifully honoring their late buddy. “When we listened back to the record, we just started crying,” Pete Rock recalled. “When I felt like that, I was like, ‘This is it.’ Deep in my heart I felt like this was gonna be something big.”
Queen and David Bowie, ‘Under Pressure’
Queen was in a Swiss studio recording their album Hot Space when they bumped into Bowie, who was in the same studio working on a song for the horror movie Cat People. This epic anthem of resistance against the forces of everyday exhaustion evolved out of an impromptu jam, with Bowie scatting his vocals on the fly. “Everybody just goes in there with no ideas, no notes, and sings the first thing that comes into their head over the backing track,” Queen guitarist Brian May recalled. “Then we compiled all the bits and pieces.”
Harry Styles, ‘Sign of the Times’
When the One Direction heartthrob announced he was going solo, nobody quite expected his first single to be a sweeping, glammy piano ballad. Cut in all of three hours, “Sign of the Times” is full of falsetto verses, choral background vocals, and deep-focus guitar fuzz. “The song is written from a point of view as if a mother was giving birth to a child and there’s a complication,” Styles said. “The mother is told, ‘The child is fine, but you’re not going to make it.’ The mother has five minutes to tell the child, ‘Go forth and conquer.’”
Sugar Hill Gang, ‘Rapper’s Delight’
When New Jersey indie-label owner and R&B hitmaker Sylvia Robinson heard about rapping DJs from her son, she decided to get in on the action. The Sugarhill Gang, named for the label she co-owned with her husband, Joe, had no ties to the New York hip-hop scene, but with some help from Cold Crush Brothers’ Grandmaster Caz’s rhyme book, they laid out 14 minutes of silly stories and ingratiating style to a re-creation of Chic’s “Good Times” and changed the world.
Nicki Minaj, ‘Super Bass’
Minaj had surprised fans of her raunchy, skills-flaunting mixtapes with the cotton-candy swirl of radio-friendly synths on her debut LP, Pink Friday. She was a new kind of popular rapper, one who could sing her own hooks without seeming soft. When that album didn’t produce a smash hit, this follow-up did the trick. It’s a dizzy celebration of objectifying and thirsting after boys hooked to a timeless “boom, badoom, boom, boom, badoom, boom, bass.” As Minaj described it at the time, it’s about when “you kind of want to get your mack on, but you’re taking the playful approach.”
Muddy Waters, ‘Mannish Boy’
Chess Records was a competitive place. After Muddy Waters issued “I’m a Hoochie Coochie Man,” Bo Diddley wrote a response, called “I’m a Man” — and two months after that, Waters wrote his own reply. “Then I got on it with ‘Mannish Boy’ and just drove him out of my way,” he recalled. (Diddley received a co-writing credit.) “Mannish Boy” became a British blues anthem for, among others, the Rolling Stones — a band Waters proudly called “some of my best friends.”
Blackstreet feat. Dr. Dre and Queen Pen, ‘No Diggi
No one wanted to record “No Diggity.” Teddy Riley introduced the idea for this R&B rump shaker to Aaron Hall during failed reunion talks for their pioneering New Jack group Guy; Hall passed. Riley’s then-current group, Blackstreet, didn’t like it either: He had to persuade them to do it, even singing the first verse as encouragement. With its old-school harmony vocals and a sample of some Bill Withers acoustic guitar, “No Diggity” became their biggest hit and a guaranteed floor filler ever since its release.
Fiona Apple, ‘Criminal’
As 18-year-old Apple wrapped up work on her debut, Tidal, her label said the album needed one more commercial track (as labels are known to do). In 45 minutes, she whipped up what would become her only hit single, about “feeling bad for getting something so easily by using your sexuality.” A jagged piano bass line, searing strings, and a clattery beat contribute to a moody song that is tricky to pin down — self-critical yet self-satisfied, playful yet ominous, sulky yet seething.
Craig Mack feat. Notorious B.I.G., LL Cool J, Busta Rhymes, Rampage, ‘Flava in Ya Ear (Remix)’
Knowing a smash when he heard it, Bad Boy label head Sean “Puffy” Combs purchased the beat — built around an incessant two-note riff and thick drum smack — from producer Easy Moe Bee and used it for Mack, then making his debut. Mack’s remix verses are solid (“Wanna grab my dick/Too lazy/Hold it for me”), but his guests make this perhaps the greatest posse cut of all time. LL is smooth, Busta spits machine-gun fire and Biggie, mere months away from his own debut, drops such gems as “I get more butt than ashtrays,” and “You’re mad ’cause my style you’re admiring/Don’t be mad, UPS is hiring.”
The Smiths, ‘How Soon Is Now?’
With its engulfing, molten guitar intro and enormous drums, “How Soon Is Now,” which began life as a B side, grew to become a bona fide club hit for the Smiths. Guitarist Johnny Marr wanted a riff that would be inescapably recognizable: “When [it] plays in a club or a pub,” he said, “everyone knows what it is.” Marr came upon the song’s guitar riff hungover at an afternoon session after producer John Porter asked him to try to replicate the Elvis Presley classic “That’s All Right.” Porter later recalled thinking, “Now we’ve got a band that could be like R.E.M. are now.”
The Mamas and the Papas, ‘California Dreamin’ ‘
One frigid winter in Manhattan, a song came to John Phillips in the middle of the night. He woke up his young wife, Michelle, who was homesick for the West Coast, to help him finish writing “California Dreamin’,” one of the all-time sunniest songs of longing. The tune was first recorded by Phillips’ folk group the New Journeymen, and later given to Barry McGuire as a thank-you after McGuire, riding high with “Eve of Destruction,” introduced the group to producer Lou Adler, who convinced the Mamas and the Papas to cut it themselves.
Mariah Carey, ‘Fantasy’
The diva’s big dive into the world of hip-hop is built on a sample from the Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love,” further enhanced by a Puff Daddy remix. The rap feature from Ol’ Dirty Bastard was hardly smooth sailing — according to A&R rep Cory Rooney, ODB took three naps while recording his verse, and demanded Moët and Newports to get him in the mood. The rapper’s wild presence unsettled Columbia Records execs, but Carey said she loved the energy he brought: “He was your loving, fun-ass uncle who gets drunk at all the festivities, at Christmas dinner, the cookout, Thanksgiving.”
Booker T. and the MGs, ‘Green Onions’
The Stax house band had never considered making its own hits until it cooked up this simmering jam based around an organ line 17-year-old Booker T. Jones had written, “trying to emulate Ray Charles.” As guitarist Steve Cropper recalled, “I said, ‘Shit, this is the best damn instrumental I’ve heard since I don’t know when.’” As for the onions, Cropper explained that “we were trying to think of something that was as funky as possible.” Its original title was “Funky Onions,” but, according to Jones, “It sounded like a cuss word. So we retitled it ‘Green Onions.’”
Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars, ‘Uptown Funk’
The breezy boogie vibes of “Uptown Funk” didn’t come easy. A rehearsal jam at Mars’ Los Angeles studio led to several arduous sessions of trial and error. Mars lifted the “Don’t believe me, just watch” hook from rapper Trinidad James’ hit “All Gold Everything.” Ronson paid homage to Kool and the Gang by using an all-horns chorus featuring Antibalas and the Dap-Kings; he also added a crucial guitar part, while producer Jeff Bhasker contributed synths. After the song became a huge cross-genre hit, its knowing riff on Eighties funk styles also inspired several lawsuits — proof that success has many fathers.
Pearl Jam, ‘Alive’
This song was the genesis of the band — guitarist Stone Gossard wrote the music, and future singer Eddie Vedder recorded the vocals after hearing a demo — and “Alive” still sounds like Pearl Jam at its wooliest. “It all happened in seven days,” guitarist Mike McCready remembered. “It was very punk rock. Eddie would stay there in the rehearsal studio, writing all night. We’d show up, and there was another song.” Together, Gossard and McCready worked up a maelstrom, while Vedder matched them with a tempestuous vocal as he remembered the difficult days he lived through after learning of the long-hidden identity of his birth parents.
Depeche Mode, ‘Enjoy the Silence’
With a low-slung guitar riff and a lyric delivered by Dave Gahan at his most quaveringly romantic, “Enjoy the Silence” was the Top 10 hit that made Depeche Mode into American superstars, propelling their seventh album, Violator, to triple-platinum status and prompting a near-riot at a SoCal in-store appearance. Originally, “it was kind of half a song,” Gahan said. “And Alan [Wilder] and Flood, who was producing the album, had this idea to put a beat to it.” When Martin Gore added the guitar, Gahan said, “that was it.”
Featuring one of the greatest opening lines in rock — “When I met you in a restaurant/You could tell I was no debutante” — “Dreaming” is both escapist fun and about escapist fun — the kind that doesn’t cost anything. Blondie guitarist-songwriter Chris Stein called “Dreaming,” the shimmering hit from their 1979 album Eat to the Beat, “a mishmash of a lot of things. It really was supposed to be more disco rock than it came out. The bass drum got swamped by the tom-toms.” Drummer Clem Burke later said that he played all those wild roller-coaster fills because he thought the recording was just a warmup take.
When Van Morrison wrote his first hit, “Gloria,” with the Belfast garage band Them, he was just another hungry young rocker, but his gravelly voice sounds years older than he was, and you can already notice the roots of the Celtic R&B mysticism he’d pursue for decades to come. “I was just being me, a street cat from Belfast,” Morrison said. “Probably like thousands of kids from Belfast who were in bands.” A Chicago group called Shadows of Knight hit with a more cautious version in 1966; Morrison later complained that “Gloria” was “capitalized on, a lot.“
Neneh Cherry, ‘Buffalo Stance’
“I always try and put an element of rawness — which probably is sex — into what I do,” Neneh Cherry said of her solo smash “Buffalo Stance.” “It’s that something that sends tingles up your spine, that’s the sex in my voice.” A searing dance track featuring the first rapping by a British woman most Americans had heard, the song was inspired by the London designer Ray Petri, who called his streetwear-inspired fashion Buffalo. “To me, a buffalo stance is an attitude you have to have in order to get by,” she told The New York Times. “It’s not about fashion but about survival.”
Wilco, ‘Heavy Metal Drummer’
Jeff Tweedy yoked the sweetest melody of Wilco’s career to this openhearted song about making peace with the hair-metal dudes he used to mock in his punk-rock youth. It’s the centerpiece of Wilco’s post-alt-country artistic breakthrough Yankee Hotel Foxtrot: a kicky drum groove, some breezy strumming, randomly accented electronic blips, and Tweedy singing himself a midlife lesson about never giving into easy irony. As he said in 2004, “That song is really just another reminder about not being judgmental and reductive.”
Allman Brothers Band, ‘Whipping Post’
The studio version (recorded when author and singer Gregg Allman was 21 years old, and written a year earlier, on the cover of an ironing board as it came to him) clocks in at a comparatively svelte 5:17 on the Allman Brothers’ 1969 debut. Built around Berry Oakley’s bass riff and opening in an unusual 11/4 time signature, it became the stuff of jam-band legend in its sprawling 22:40 live version on 1971’s At the Fillmore East, where it showcased guitarists Duane Allman and Dickey Betts’ bluesy fire and the rhythm section’s jazzy ramble.
Foo Fighters, ‘Everlong’
A fittingly intimate monument to the alternative era, “Everlong” has become a quasi-official pop-culture envoi, whether it’s been arranged for strings for Monica and Chandler’s wedding on Friends or performed by the Foo Fighters on David Letterman’s final Late Show. No surprise: Dave Grohl came up in the Washington, D.C., hardcore scene, and the signature Foos song was the rare Nineties hit to supersize original Eighties D.C. emocore. Grohl wrote it following his breakup with Louise Post of Veruca Salt; when asked, he would only confirm that it was “about a girl.”
Cat Stevens/Yusuf, ‘Father and Son’
This wisdom-sharing ballad about the strained generation gap between families has its origins in a musical Stevens wrote about the Russian Revolution. The project was ultimately shelved, and “Father and Son” became a hit from Tea for the Tillerman, one of the biggest albums of the early-Seventies singer-songwriter boom. “That’s a beautiful thing about the gift of music and what it can do to you,” Stevens, who later changed his name to Yusuf Islam, told Rolling Stone. “It’s really become integral to so many people’s lives.”
Lynyrd Skynyrd, ‘Free Bird’
This definitive Southern-rock guitar epic had a humble birth, with late Skynyrd frontman Ronnie Van Zant scribbling lyrics about keeping love alive on tour, while Allen Collins jammed on guitar — although initially, the singer complained Collins used too many chords. “But after a few months,” said guitarist Gary Rossington, “we were sitting around and he asked Allen to play those chords again. After about 20 minutes, Ronnie started singing ‘If I leave here tomorrow,’ and it fit great.” The nine-minute album cut got heavy rock-radio airplay, an edited single reached the pop Top 20, and Skynyrd always encores with it.
Run-DMC, ‘Sucker MC’s’
Rap’s boom-bap Big Bang: On this B side to their first 12-inch (“It’s Like That” was the A), Run-DMC rhymed over a stark break stripped out of an Orange Krush song by their guitarist Davy DMX, inspiring Run’s line, “Davy cut the record down to the bone.” “Sucker MC’s” established the crew as rap’s new kings, turned Queens into the rugged successor to rap’s birthplace, the Bronx, and proved that in hip-hop, melody and other pop niceties were fully optional. “We figured we had very, very good rappers,” co-producer Russell Simmons said, “and we wanted people to appreciate what they did.”
Selena, ‘Amor Prohibido’
By 1994, Mexican American star Selena Quintanilla had proven she could hype a crowd with the party-starting glee of “Baila Esta Cumbia,” and just as easily crush a listener with the tenderness of “Como la Flor.” However, as her husband and bandmate, Chris Pérez, once noted, her voice took on a stunning new resonance when she sang about a deep, forbidden love on “Amor Prohibido,” an upbeat cumbia co-written with her brother that mixed modern pop with Tejano sounds. Selena famously ad-libbed “Oh baby” after the refrain, making a song inspired by her grandparents, as well as her own relationship with Perez, even more personal. It became her first Number One solo single.
Kiss, ‘Rock and Roll All Nite’
After the band’s 1974 album Hotter Than Hell sold poorly, Casablanca Records head Neil Bogart demanded that Kiss write a bigger, more anthemic hit. Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley obliged with what Stanley called ”a song that could be the rallying cry for all of our fans.” The result was the ultimate Kiss rocker, closing every one of their concerts since 1976. “When I was writing it, naive or not, it was really about celebrating,” Stanley later said. “It wasn’t about getting high or getting stoned or anything like that.”
Rufus and Chaka Khan, ‘Ain’t Nobody’
When keyboard player David “Hawk” Wolinski showed the “Ain’t Nobody” instrumental to his pal Glenn Frey, the Eagle instantly thought it would be a Number One hit. But Rufus and Chaka Khan’s label, Warner Bros., wasn’t as enthusiastic about “Ain’t Nobody,” according to Wolinski. “I said, ‘If you don’t release the song … I will give that thing to Quincy [Jones] for Michael [Jackson] and retire,’” he remembered. The label relented, and Frey’s prediction proved accurate — “Ain’t Nobody,” with its gnarled guitars and slippery programmed groove, became a Number One R&B hit.
Bill Withers, ‘Lovely Day’
Withers’ vocal style was so laid-back and conversational that it’s easy to overlook that this breezy ballad hinges on an impressive technical feat: For 10 to 20 seconds at a stretch, Withers holds the note containing the second word of the song’s title, and moreover, he holds it absolutely level, with no vibrato and no audible strain. That’s fitting — it’s Withers’ most winsome tune, moving at an unhurried gait, with sepia-toned horns. “I used to get criticized for making simple records — the term was ‘underproduced,’” Withers recalled, adding, “Those few simple songs that I did, fortunately, found their own way.”
Fleetwood Mac, ‘Go Your Own Way’
“Go Your Own Way” was the sound of a relationship shattering in real time. Lindsey Buckingham, who wrote it while breaking up with Stevie Nicks, said that the razored lyrics came to him “almost as a stream of consciousness,” while Nicks has admitted that they angered her so much that she “wanted to go over and kill [Buckingham]” each time she sang it onstage. For the beat, Buckingham wanted something similar to the way Charlie Watts played on the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man,” which drummer Mick Fleetwood interpreted into the song’s tension-filled snare-tom thump.