Let's be honest—ranking the best songs ever feels like a ludicrous endeavor. What constitutes a “song” (does Beethoven's Fifth Symphony count)? Against which qualifying rubrics do you choose to measure a song's craft (influence, emotive resonance…)? How do you compare values of quality across cultural boundaries (can you really measure a $1-million Bollywood production against a lo-fi ’50s blues riffer)? Oof! The questions go on and on. Clearly some parameters are in order. For our purposes, we selected songs with lyrics in the Western pop- and folk-music tradition—no instrumental, classical, experimental… The list needed to reflect an even distribution across time, with the best ’80s songs alongside party songs from today. The songs had to be good in their own right (nothing influential but, uh, shoddy). And for fairness, we allowed no double dipping: one song per artist.
Best songs ever
“Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday
With her lone voice floating icily above spare piano chords, Holiday transformed the emotional and political scope of popular music forever by putting an enduring name to the trauma and suffering of white supremacist violence in America. Its devastating invocation of “strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees” locks eyes with this country’s anti-black foundations and refuses to let listeners avert their ears.
“Heartbreak Hotel” by Elvis Presley
The cultural impact of the song that launched both Elvis and rock & roll can't really be understated. Like a melting pot of country, blues and R&B, the tune reconfigures its constituent elements into a uniquely American stew, guitars electrified and all.
“Stand By Me” by Ben E. King
The stately, borderline euphoric orchestration belies lyrical dark times of all-consuming night and wanton destruction. But King's steady belief in devotion and camaraderie and his indomitable vocal disposition reminds everyone that the light is never far off.
“Imagine” by John Lennon
Lennon’s dream world of a divisionless, unified humanity seems just as far out of reach today as it ever did, but his embodiment of ’60s idealism, wrapped up in a magnanimous, beatific piano ballad, remains an inspirational beacon for everyone who believes it might just be possible.
“Killing Me Softly” by Roberta Flack
It speaks to the craft, enduring relevance and influence of Flack’s 1973 original that it and the ’90s Fugees cover both won Grammys. When the same song can capture the heart of generations decades apart, you know it holds a uniquely timeless potency.
“God Only Knows” by Beach Boys
Brian Wilson’s orchestra pop mastery in on full display in this hymn to teenage love, featured on the band’s seminal 1966 record, Pet Sounds. It might be the closest rock & roll ever gets to the divine.
“Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson
“Billie Jean”’s manipulative femme fatale thoroughly inhabits the song’s landscape—in the steadily creeping bass line, the wordless, ever-encroaching backups, the irresistible guitar-slap—lending the track an air of mystery and danger that the King of Pop moonwalks right into legend.
“Can’t We Be Friends” by Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong
Ella and Louis, an electric pairing of captivating personalities, marked a watershed moment in the nexus between jazz and pop. The album's pinnacle moment features the two reinventing a Broadway classic with wit and charm that only the legendary duo could provide.
“Superstition” by Stevie Wonder
From the moment the snare kicks off, everything about “Superstition” is irrepressible: its wide-collared, boisterous groove, the whip-crack horn syncopation, Stevie’s flagrantly smooth vocal runs. At no point does its ebullient energy slacken or fade, resulting in the hands-down funkiest song of all time.
“Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac
This song’s world-weary atmosphere bespeaks an “old soul” but Stevie Nicks was only in her mid-twenties when she wrote it as one of her first contributions to Fleetwood Mac—an ode to change and loss amid her tense relationship with guitarist Lindsey Buckingham.