What makes a song great? Is it the beat? The vocals? The rhythm? Maybe it’s a particular drum or guitar solo. For me, it’s a combination of all those things and more. Like movies, a great song becomes part of your identity. You carry it with you even when you’re not listening to it. A great song is like a great movie. It overwhelms you with a mix of moods, emotions, and feelings. And it does this within a few, compacted minutes. Great songs become like drugs: they get into your system. Maybe that’s why we listen to our favorite songs over and over again. We become addicted to them.
Creating a list of the Greatest Songs of All Time is inherently arbitrary and, in the end, not very productive. Yet we do it. We can’t help ourselves. Done right, they can reveal a lot about yourself. (Maybe too much.) As a movie critic, it came as no surprise that a lot of my selections have deep, personal associations with the movies that I love. In some cases, I can’t tell where the love of the song ends and the love of the movie begins.
At a certain point I couldn’t bear to cut one more song. It was like death by a thousand cuts. They mean too much to me. So, I came up with a solution that I think rectified the problem. As a tribute to the Golden Era of the 45, selections 11-49 are presented as double A-sided singles.
Enjoy the playlist…
[Editor’s note: click the images for links to video clips.]
1. “A Day in the Life” (The Beatles, 1967) – Like a great symphony, “A Day in the Life” is a series of movements that build to an emotional crescendo. This Lennon-McCartney masterpiece describes three tales of daily life in order to illuminate the beauty and mystery of everyday life. (It’s like the greatest movie trilogy told in song form.) From John’s bemused yet compassionate vocals to Paul’s cheeky, before-rap-existed rap interlude to Ringo’s thunderous drum fills, “A Day in the Life” casts a shadow over all other pop songs. It tested the rules of pop music while at the same time breaking them. It’s the Citizen Kane of Pop songs.
2. Blitzkrieg Bop” (The Ramones, 1976) – Guitar. Drums. Bass. Vocals. Attitude. The essentials—the essence—of any great pop song. “Blitzkrieg Bop” is just that: a locomotive blast of all-American middle-finger energy. From Tommy’s Ringo-meets-Animal drumming to Dee Dee’s needing-a-fix bass playing to Joey’s special-needs vocals, it turns noise into melodic beauty. The world would never be the same after “Blitzkrieg Bop.”
3. “Good Vibrations” (The Beach Boys, 1966) – Musical visionary Brian Wilson creates rock’s first Pop symphony as a tribute to the strange and overwhelming feeling of falling in love. From Hal Blaine’s skip-a-heartbeat drumming to those angelic vocals to the otherworldly theremin bass line (an aural representation of that unexplainable tingling sensation you get when falling in love), “Good Vibrations” is nothing less than Pop’s answer to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”
4.. “Sympathy for the Devil” (The Rolling Stones, 1968) – Parents and religious leaders always claimed that rock-and-roll was the Devil’s music. The Rolling Stones emphatically responded by saying: Yes, it is. Written in response to the tumult of the 1960s, “Sympathy for the Devil” has become the eternal anthem for the continuous looming dark clouds on the perpetual horizon. From its hypnotic percussive opening to its “Woo-Hoo” incantations to Nicky Hopkins’ simple yet snaky piano playing, it’s a song that can still cause nightmares. And Mick’s cackling vocals would forever solidify him as the shimmering dark prince of rock. It remains rock’s most sinister song.
5. “Like A Rolling Stone” (Bob Dylan, 1965) – The moment the combination of Bobby Gregg’s drums and Mike Bloomfield’s guitar kick off “Like A Rolling Stone,” music—and the world—would never be the same. The music year of 1965 would turn out to be one of the most influential of the 20th century, and the opening track to Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisted would cast the largest shadow. It’s a song about being young, confused, and on your own–and the exhilarating sense of freedom that comes with all of that. For most, “Like A Rolling Stone” would be a crowning achievement. For Dylan, it was just the beginning.
6. “Rock & Roll” (The Velvet Underground, 1970) – Jenny turned on the radio and a New York station was playing The Velvet Underground’s “Rock & Roll.” With Mo Tucker’s walking-down-the-Avenue drumming and its free floating interlude punctuated by the greatest guitar riff, “Rock & Roll” embodies all that’s mysterious and cool about pop music. It’s a song that could literally save your life.
7. “A Hard Day’s Night” (The Beatles, 1964) – From the boisterous opening F-chord of Paul’s Rickenbacker guitar to Ringo’s I-just-wanna-play enthusiastic drumming to John’s joyous recounting of how hard he works in order to get back home to the one he loves, “A Hard Day’s Night” is quite possibly the happiest song in rock & roll history. The opening to both the movie and subsequent soundtrack of the same name, “A Hard Day’s Night” represents a real line-in-the-sand moment. It’s when rock music went from “something the kids were into,” to something that was going to conquer the world. To listen to “A Hard Day’s Night” is to hear the true birth of rock & roll music.
8. “Let’s Go Crazy” (Prince, 1984) – From its synth-meets-church organ opening fanfare to Prince’s spoken-word sermon about living life and not letting the “de-elevator” take you down (chillingly, Prince’s body was found in an elevator) to the Eddie-meets-Tchaikovsky climatic guitar solo, “Let’s Go Crazy” is a rock-dance fusion mission statement for life.
9. “Sinnerman” (Nina Simone, 1965) – This Gospel-blues-soul syncopated epic is more than Nina Simone’s greatest song. It may be the only song to be blessed by God. Miss Simone wants to take the world to church because it’s the only way she knows how to save it.
10. “The Message” (Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, 1982) – A series of panoramic snapshots of inner-city life, circa 1982. Not much has changed. Like “Like A Rolling Stone,” this spare, cautionary rap epic is a landmark in storytelling. It’s the moment when rap music went from being a novelty and transformed into a culture.
11. “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” (The Rolling Stones, 1967) / “You’re Gonna Miss Me” (The 13 Floor Elevators, 1966) – Side A: From its take-no-prisoners opening B-flat guitar chord to the parochial school-meets-de Sade lyrics, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” is a slo-mo strut down the wild side of rock & roll. It’s the moment when rock revealed its dark side. Side B: With its electric-jug rhythms and Roky Erickson’s howls of joy and pain, “You’re Gonna Miss Me” is a blistering blast of proto-punk defiance.
12. “In My Life” (The Beatles, 1966) / “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” (Talking Heads, 1983) – Side A: The centerpiece of arguably The Beatles’ finest album (Rubber Soul), “In My Life” finds the Fab Four already sounding wistful and wise as they foreshadow the beginning of the end. Lennon sings, “In my life I loved you more.” As it turns out we did too. Side B: A Caribbean-flavored ditty that’s as innocent as it sounds. A terrific showcase for both Chris Franz’s intricate drumming and Tina Weymouth’s sensitive bass playing. And for a fleeting moment David Byrne’s trademark coolly detached, almost metallic vocals give way to something resembling warmth and comfort.
13. “Be My Baby” (The Ronettes, 1963) / “Then He Kissed Me” (The Crystals, 1963) – Side A: From the moment we hear Hal Blaine’s kickdrum kick off Phil Spector’s immersive Wall of Sound production Pop music would never be the same. “Be My Baby” is 2-minutes-and-41-seconds of perfection as Ronnie Spector declares her devotion to the one she loves and begs and pleads for him to do the same. In the process the listener declares their devotion to pop music. Side B: From its opening guitar riff, Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound washes over you with all the anticipatory excitement of a first date. Or a first kiss. “Then He Kissed Me” helped shaped our ideal of romantic perfection that has ruled our lives ever since.
14. “Fight the Power” (Public Enemy, 1989) / “White Riot” (The Clash, 1977) – Side A: P.E. brings da noise with this eternal rallying cry. “Fight the Power” is nothing less than hip-hop’s national anthem. Side B: A ferocious blast of melodic noise that commands you to use force against inequality. In other words, always be prepared to fight.
15. “Stayin’ Alive” (The Bee Gees, 1977) / “Mighty Real” (Sylvester, 1978) – Side A: From its iconic, strut-with-a-purpose bass line to Barry Gibb’s heaven-sent falsetto, “Stayin’ Alive” is the eternal anthem for any big city dweller who has been knocked down but not defeated by the daily grind of life. Side B: The Greatest Disco Song Ever.
16. “Once in a Lifetime” (Talking Heads, 1981) / “All My Friends” (LCD Soundsystem, 2007) – Side A: Brian Eno’s fine production sees Talking Heads fulfilling their promise on their greatest song. Artistic-savant David Byrne runs through a series of humanity’s fundamental Existential questions on this profound, densely layered, one-of-a-kind pop classic. “Once in a Lifetime” is the “It’s a Wonderful LIfe” of pop songs. Side B: Lead singer-mastermind James Murphy drops his trademark deadpan snark long enough for it to give way to something resembling sincere and slyly profound (“I wouldn’t change one stupid decision for another five years of life”). Beginning with pop’s greatest piano intro, “All My Friends” is an ode to the fragile yet enduring bonds of friendship that sustain us through life.
17. “Blue Monday” (New Order, 1986) / “Marquee Moon” (Television, 1977) – Side A: A percolating epic bliss-out that stands as the North Star of the glorious ‘80s Brit Pop era. Side B: From its awesome, intricately layered guitar playing to Tom Verlaine’s death-trip lyrics, Television’s signature song is another kind of epic bliss-out. “Marquee Moon” is Punk’s answer to “Stairway to Heaven.” And it’s better.
18. “Inner City Blues” (Marvin Gaye, 1971) / “Got to Give It Up, Pt. 1” (Marvin Gaye, 1977) – Side A: From its heartbeat-of-the-city drum beat to Marvin’s elliptical yet vivid snapshots of inner city life (“Trigger happy/Policing”), “Inner City Blues is the towering centerpiece of the What’s Going On project. Gaye sings, “God knows where we’re heading.” Indeed. Side B: It ain’t a party until you play this Disco-funk-soul classic. The swirling, shimmying groove beckons us as Gaye oozes and drips sexuality all over the dance floor.
19. “Moonlight Mile” (The Rolling Stones, 1971) / “You Don’t Know Nothing About Love” (Carl Hall, 1967) – Side A: Ruled by Charlie Watts’ bone-rattling drumming and Mick’s greatest vocal performance, “Moonlight Mile” is a powerful, slow-build, emotional experience. It’s a song you either feel in your soul or you don’t. Side B: The Pop landscape is littered with countless songs about break-ups and heartache. Carl Hall’s slow-burn soul-stirring masterpiece might be the greatest of them all. He makes you feel that the pain is worth it.
20. “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” (Bruce Springsteen, 1975) / “Walk On the Wild Side” (Lou Reed, 1972) – Side A: Springsteen’s Staxx-ish ode to leaving home for the Big City in order to pursue a dream rivals “Like a Rolling Stone” in intensity and greatness. Three perfectly written verses about the possibility of success and the reality of possibly coming up short. Side B: Reed made it to the city and catalogues all the like-minded beautiful freaks he met there on this acoustic-soul classic. Contains rock’s greatest sax outro.
21. “Billie Jean” (Michael Jackson, 1982) / “Smooth Criminal” (Michael Jackson, 1987) – Side A: Containing the most recognizable opening beat in music history, “Billie Jean” is a walk down the dark alley of Pop. From the climatic guitar riffing to the airy, in-the-round synth-lite rhythms, this is the moment when dance music turned away from the happy-go-lucky sounds of Disco and transformed itself into something more foreboding. Side B: The spiritual sequel to “Billie Jean.” This time, Billie (now called Annie) gets her comeuppance when she dances with the wrong man. From the James Brown-inspired “Oww’s” to the Chic-ish guitar riff to Pop’s most innocently sinister question (“Annie are you okay?/Are you okay, Annie?”), “Smooth Criminal” is a street smart, blood-on-the-dance-floor pop classic.
22. “School Days” (Chuck Berry, 1957)/ ”Summertime Blues” (Eddie Cochran, 1958) – Side A: Containing rock’s first guitar riff, “School Days” remains the ultimate chronicle of a-day-in-the-life of American youth. Berry’s depiction of American teen life is every bit as vivid as one of Springsteen’s busted-dreams-of-the-working-man fables. Side B: One of rock’s first casualties, Eddie Cochran’s lament over long and lazy summers (and the agonies and ecstasies that come with them) taps into the restless energy of growing up. Contains rock’s first great use of handclaps.
23. “The Modern Age” (The Strokes, 2001) / “Sheena Is A Punk Rocker” (The Ramones, 1977) – Side A: From its punching-bag drumming to Julian Casablanca’s’ busted-intercom vocals to the most liberating guitar solo ever, “The Modern Age” is an after-midnight anthem for a generation that wasn’t going to be deterred from going out into the night and having a good time. Side B: By day, Sheena is a good girl that hangs out with her friends. At night, she lets her hair down, comes out of her shell, and goes out looking for a real good time. “Sheena” is a strutting, New-York-City-is-burning-and-I-don’t-care siren song about the possibility of having one perfect night.
24. “It Takes Two” (Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock, 1988) / “Hip Hop Hooray” (Naughty by Nature, 1993) – Side A: ‘It Takes two” is a swirling collage of beats and sounds that is nothing less than the greatest party song from the first Golden Age of Hip-Hop. Side B: Just at the moment when Gangsta Rap was taking over the musical landscape, Naughty by Nature came up with this hand-swaying yet street tough celebration to all that is positive about Hip Hop.
25. “Born to Run” (Bruce Springsteen, 1975) / “Purple Rain” (Prince, 1984) – Side A: Springsteen’s Spector-meets-Beatles signature song has become the theme song for anyone who has felt trapped and wanted to drop everything and start all over. In other words, it’s a song for all of us. Side B: Prince takes pain and rage and turns it into love on this futuristic, guitar-driven, metal-meets-soul stadium anthem.
26. “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (The Who, 1971) / “Clampdown” (The Clash, 1979)
27. “Everybody Knows” (Leonard Cohen, 1988) / “Bad” (U2, 1984)
28. “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House” (LCD Soundsystem, 2005) / “Hey Ya!” (Outkast, 2003)
29. “Sex Machine” (James Brown, 1970) / “Get Yr Freak On” (Missy Elliot, 2001)
30. “Living for the City” (Stevie Wonder, 1973) / “Ball of Confusion” (The Temptations, 1970)
31. “Born Slippy” (Underworld, 1996) / “Heart of the Sunrise” (Yes, 1971)
32. “I’ve Got A Feeling” (The Beatles, 1969) / “Ooh La La” (Faces, 1973)
33. “Golden Years” (David Bowie, 1975) / “Ray of Light” (Madonna, 1998)
34. “Shelter from the Storm” (Bob Dylan, 1975) / “Tupelo Honey” (Van Morrison, 1971)
35. ”Juicy” (The Notorious B.I.G., 1995) / “Lose Yourself” (Eminem, 2002)
36. “Please, Please, Please” (James Brown, 1956) / “I Love You So” (The Chantels, 1958)
37. “Regulate” (Warren G., 1994) / “Can I Kick It” (A Tribe Called Quest, 1990)
38. “Train Kept A-Rollin’” (Johnny Burnette and the Rock & Roll Trio, 1956) / “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” (Jerry Lee Lewis, 1957)
39. “Lust for Life” (Iggy Pop, 1977) / “Rock & Roll” (Led Zeppelin, 1971)
40. “Everybody’s Talkin’” (Harry Nilsson, 1968)/ “People Are Strange” (The Doors, 1967)
41. “California Love” (2Pac, 1996)/ “Roller Coaster Town” (Garland Jeffreys, 2011)
42. “The Girl Can’t Help It” (Little Richard, 1956) / “Let Them Hang High” (Syl Johnson, 1969)
43. “God” (John Lennon, 1970) / “The Man Comes Around” (Johnny Cash, 2002)
44. “He Was Really Sayin’ Something” (The Velvelettes, 1964) / “Just My Imagination” (The Temptations, 1971)
45. “That’ll Be the Day” (Buddy Holly, 1957) / “Bo Diddley” (Bo Diddley, 1955)
46. “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” (Dee Jay, 2005) / “How I Could Just Kill A Man” (Cypress Hill, 1991)
48. “Mannish Boy” (Muddy Waters, 1977) / “Ball and a Biscuit” (The White Stripes, 2003)
49. “It’s A Long Way to the Top If You Want to Rock & Roll” (AC/DC, 1976) / “Sabotage” (The Beastie Boys, 1994)
50. “Free” (X, 2020) – A ferocious, blow-back-your-hair blast of pogo-inducing energy. It’s a song so subversive that it could be the rallying cry for both progressives and insurrectionists. It is also proof that great songs are being made today.
NOTES: 1. No Clean versions. 2. No radio edits. 3. No Re-recorded versions.
Aaron Aradillas is a Texas-based Pop Culture critic and writer. He specializes in movies and music. His writing has appeared in RockCritics.com, RogerEbert.com, and Texas Public Radio. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org