There is no right way to decide the best songs simply based on criteria like popularity and sales, as this is a very subjective and personal topic. What I present here is a result based on different published ‘top songs’ lists from reliable sources. The selected songs may not be your taste, but they are undeniably deserved and recognized classics from their era. Also, don’t forget to listen to the songs using the embedded player at the end of their respective sections.
#5 Smells Like Teen Spirit (Nirvana – 1991)
This song served as a voice and anthem for a new generation of young people, revealing its revolution and freedom to the world with the establishment of grunge. Some of its main features were ‘borrowed’ from The Pixies, particularly the explosive alternation between calming and heavy sounds. The lyrics never meant to make any sense, and the idea for the title itself came from the Teen Spirit deodorant brand, aimed at teenage girls at the time. Today it is considered the most covered of all Nirvana’s songs, and a huge influence for new bands around the world.
The band had no idea of the success and impact the song would cause, which allowed Nirvana to become the leader of a whole generation of the young American pop culture and music industry. It stayed as a huge hit for a long time, and its derived music video brought the formula even further, depicting the nonsensical, but yet a unique view of its identity. Smells Like Teen Spirit remains a symbol of a whole generation and escalated one of the most iconic and influential bands of the 90s.
#4 Imagine (John Lennon – 1971)
The song was composed by Lennon and inspired by Yoko Ono and some of her work. It brings a message of global peace, hope and the world as a place for human harmony and spiritual connection. Unlike the songs he composed as a Beetle, mostly about love, Imagine brings a more humanistic, political and intellectual aesthetic for the generation at the time. Lennon himself admitted the social aspect of the song, that even relates to Communist manifesto in some ways.
With the death of John Lennon, this song would become his signature and eventually transcend and encourage many people decades later, being considered by many as the official anthem of humanity and the world hope. Featured with the album of the same name, Imagine would reach the top 10 upon its release, and remained in the top charts of England a few times. Now it is seen as a message left by Lennon for the future generations to come.
#3 Respect (Aretha Franklin – 1965)
Originally written by Otis Redding, this song would establish Aretha Franklin as the Queen of Soul, and one of her greatest achievements. Starting as a gospel singer, Aretha eventually followed a career on R&B where she would find her place to success and excellence. Respect was featured in several films and TV shows, earning Grammy and other awards for several years.
The song served as a strong influence at the time, dealing with racial and gender inequality and raising discussions related to women rights and recognition. It brings the message that a woman can be as capable and intelligent as any man, becoming a symbol against genre disparities, a controversial topic at that time. Considered one of the most memorable songs of the rock and roll era, Respect would reach a timely awareness as an anthem of civil rights movement and social issues. It became immortalized as a true masterpiece, revealing its true nature whenever Aretha sings and plays it at the piano.
#2 Billie Jean (Michael Jackson – 1983)
Considered by many as one of the most revolutionary songs of the popular music, Billie Jean helped drive Michael Jackson to success as his clever and original piece of art. The music video for the song was produced by Quincy Jones, who brought an innovative and cinematic way of presenting music visually that changed the way we see music videos forever. They way it presents the pavement magically glowing on Michael’s steps through the rhythm of the songs, highlighting his moves in a noir and dramatic environment have opened new possibilities for emotional music expression and presentation.
Billie Jean became an icon of pop music through its own merits, staying in the top charts for months and establishing the Thriller album to the status of best-selling of all time, with sales that surpassed 110 million worldwide. The song was a major influence that helped define a new era of dance music, also turning Michael Jackson a reference for a generation, leading his own style and charisma for dancing and music. It still prevalent to this day with a recognition that will be always an exceptional part of the history of the music industry.
#1 Like a Rolling Stone (Bob Dylan – 1965)
A song seemed as Bob Dylan’s magnum opus, it would survive through time and become one of the most impacting and influential songs for bands of different rock genres, including Beatles. Considered one of the great heroes of folk music, Bob Dylan presented a magnificent work with Like a Rolling Stone and created one of the most popular and acclaimed songs for many generations. His honest and insightful lyrics reveals different aspects of a story of a woman dealing with her misery after failing to see the real values of life in a glamorous and seemingly fulfilling past.
This song presented us with an image of the rock generation, carrying many aspects of its complex nature and values, revealing the iconic artist that Dylan would become over the years. This work of art offers the right balance between words, melody, and harmony, and gives a unique way to describe many levels of drama and views of the world and human nature. Earning many accolades as one of the greatest songs of all time, this masterpiece completed 50 years of its release on the last July 20th. Definitely, a record that is still appreciated, inspiring and encouraging new generations of musicians around the globe.
Choosing the best songs is more a matter of personal tastes and preferences. What about YOUR 5 personal favorites? Please consider sharing your best list of top 5 songs in the comments below.