One of the great maxims of my life has been the following: “Trust your gut, but DON’T conflate your initial reaction with your gut reaction.” E.g. you meet someone at first and you’re thrown off by something; then you realize that your initial reaction — “hey, this dude is over the top crazy!” — morphs over time into “this dude knows his stuff.”
Thus, a few weeks back, when Rolling Stone came out with its list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, the first reaction of shock and awe was replaced, in my book, with a gut feel that…well, if you asked 50 different people (which Rolling Stone did) what their 50 greatest songs were, you’d get a pretty random list.
So with this post we thought we’d set out to show how random a list you could get, and how objective musical tastes can be across the board.
Top Ten Songs of All Time
We reached out to some fellow music lovers and ended up with a few completely different Top Ten All-Time Greatest Songs lists. We even created a hashtag, #TopTenSongs.
So here we go:
John Puccio, Communications Consultant
10. Everclear, ‘Santa Monica‘
The lyrics describe many people’s attitudes about the current state of affairs in this country. Especially mine. I, too, want to live beside the ocean and watch the world die. Is it timeless or just timely? No idea. Do I overvalue songs that change tempo, start slow and build momentum? Do I pose too many questions? Perhaps, but if you don’t like this song, we can’t be friends.
9. Blondie, ‘Heart of Glass‘
Is it disco? Is it new wave? Does it matter? It’s Debbie Harry, and she is perfect. As the kids say, this song slaps. Also, Debbie Harry.
8. INXS, ‘New Sensation‘
Does it have killer guitar riffs? Check. Drum machine? Check. A saxophone? Check. Semi-androgynous lead singer with a Jim Morrison vibe? You’re goddamn right it does! It’s 1987 and INXS rules. People forget, but this band was ubiquitous for about 2 1/2 years in the late 80s and this song captures the zeitgeist of that time like no other. This despite sounding as if it were recorded yesterday.
7. U2, ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday‘
Is that an electric fiddle being played under the driving military drum beat? Brilliant nuance to a song describing war-torn Northern Ireland during the Troubles. How long must we sing this song? If anyone remembers U2 one-hundred years from now, it will be for this track. Bonus points for it being recorded before Bono became an insufferable douchebag.
6. Radiohead, ‘Bodysnatchers‘
It begins with a sustained hard rhythm. The tempo steadily increases as the cacophony builds, the beat shifts, shifts again until it reaches a frenetic climax that leaves you exhausted. It’s then you realize, this song is the sonic equivalent to the greatest fuck you ever had.
5. Pearl Jam, ‘Black‘
It is the summer of 1993. It’s 2am in the kitchen of a beach house full of college kids. This song comes on and a few start singing along. They are quickly joined by others and soon everyone in the house is belting this song out in unison. A communal experience that no one present will ever forget. Black is the greatest song of the grunge era, It was, is, and forever shall be, the anthem of Generation X.
4. Audioslave, ‘Like A Stone‘
Truly great songs can be rearranged drastically and still be brilliant. This is such a song. As arranged originally by the hard rock supergroup, it delivers perfectly with Rage Against the Machine supporting lead singer Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, the greatest voice of 90s hard rock (RIP). Tom Morello does Tom Morello things and the song rocks hard until the end of the bridge – where it breaks into a slow acoustic ballad of melancholic regret. Of all the great songs Soundgarden and RATM individually produced, they never surpassed the achievement of this collaborative track.
3. Bob Dylan, ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright‘
This song is the first of two in a row that are poetry set to music, but you could say that about every song Bob Dylan ever wrote. The Nobel Prize committee agrees. But of all of his brilliant work, none cut quite to the bone like this song about the end of a relationship. Covered countless times but never delivered better than the version he originally recorded. People think breaking up with Taylor Swift is dangerous, but if Dylan ever wrote a song about you (Positively 4th Street, Idiot Wind, etc.), you’d need actual stitches for all the phrases that drew blood.
2. The Shirelles, ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow‘
Written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin and perfectly delivered by the Shirelles with the help of swelling strings, this song is as beautiful as it is heart-wrenching. Besides the raw emotion of a young woman’s vulnerability and the listener’s knowledge that she is about to be lied to and have her heart broken, the song was downright subversive for America in 1960. Good girls were not even supposed to contemplate such things, let alone ask the question. This song is, also, poetry set to gorgeous music.
1. The Beach Boys, ‘God Only Knows‘
Produced by musical savant Brian Wilson, lyrics written by the indispensable Tony Asher, sung by the Wilson/Love clan, and backed by the legendary studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew – God Only Knows is the closest thing that exists to a perfect pop song. It takes balls to start a love song with the line “I may not always love you” but the irony works in a song where the protagonist is trying to convince himself that his existence is not hopeless without her. Of course, he knows that is not true. From the album that inspired the Beatles to make Sergeant Pepper – Pet Sounds was the last great work by the Beach Boys. The transatlantic competition between the two groups was never a fair fight: Lennon, McCarthy and producer George Martin versus an outnumbered Brian Wilson. If Mike Love were your sounding board, you’d have a nervous breakdown too.
“February Seven” – Avett Brothers; “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” – Tears For Fears; “Brilliant Disguise” – Bruce Springsteen; “Sultans of Swing” – Dire Straits; “Cathy’s Clown” – Everly Brothers; “Dancing Queen” – ABBA; “Psycho Killer” – Talking Heads; “Australia” – The Shins; “Heroes” – David Bowie; “Father and Son” – Cat Stevens; “Thunderclouds” – Sia, Diplo & Labrinth; “The Way” – Fastball
Note that Anonymous Bob is a pseudonym for someone who chose to remain anonymous.
10. Fitz and The Tantrums, Don’t Gotta Work It Out
These guys had precisely ONE good album and it was a doozy.
9. The Producers, ‘Operation‘
The Producers Obligatory Atlanta shoutout – pick your own favorite Producers song – fine with me. Drummer Bryan Holmes is a monster. He’s bringing Neal Peart chops to three minute pop songs.
8. Failure, ‘Sergeant Politeness‘
7. Bleu, ‘Feet Don’t Fail‘
Acceptable substitutes include anything Jellyfish ever did. Throwing this one out there because his album “Redhead” is perfect. Skip everything he did after.
6. Metallica Damage, Inc.
Metallica Track down some raw board tapes of Hetfield playing live in his prime and you’ll be reminded he is a different breed.
5. Steely Dan, ‘The Fez‘
Sex hat song. Yessir.
4. Joni Mitchell, ‘All I Want‘
I didn’t figure out Joni until I was 35 and that’s a lot of missed time.
3. Mase, Feel So Good
2. The Beatles,’Blackbird‘
Picking the best Beatles tune is stupid but this one has a unique vibe…also, I can play this particularly well and it’s scored me some tail.
1. George Gershwin, ‘Rhapsody in Blue‘
America’s best song.
John Simley, Communications Executive
10. Blue Oyster Cult, ‘(Don’t Fear) The Reaper‘
This could make the list purely on the strength of the production, especially the miking of the drums. Add to that the great guitar riff that runs all through the song.
9. Jethro Tull, ‘Living in the Past‘
A very sophisticated sleeper hit in 5/4 time and with a gorgeous flute accompaniment.
8. David Bowie, ‘Golden Years‘
An excellent showcase for Bowie’s voice, built over a hypnotic F# to E riff and even a B diminished in the bridge. Plus, he whistles a great counter melody at the end.
7. Elton John, ‘Blue Eyes‘
Elton sings in an unusually low register here, with his piano accompanied by vibraphone on a song with at least 16 chord changes. It all resolves beautifully. Arguably, this is his best song.
6. Gordon Lightfoot, ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald‘
Probably the most perfectly constructed story of a real event, complete with a conclusion and denouement (“Lake Huron rolls, Superior Sings…”). All the more amazing, it was recorded on the first take.
5. Simon and Garfunkel, ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water‘
This one makes the list just for its poetry and Art Garfunkel’s beautiful voice. The only thing keeping it from perfection is the overworked orchestration at the end, so better to listen to a live version.
Bonus link to the Central Park Concert version:
4. Marvin Gaye, ‘Inner City Blues‘
No list is complete without Marvin Gaye, and this is his best: a jazz-inflected reading of economic despair.
3. Roberta Flack, ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face‘
Roberta Flack has one of the most beautiful voices in music, and this song is just gorgeous – led by her stunning vocal.
2. The Beach Boys, ‘Good Vibrations‘
This is a story about chasing a girl stitched together from several sections. The harmonies are perfect and the instrumentation is exceeded only by Strawberry Fields.
1. The Beatles, ‘Strawberry Fields Forever‘
Bruce Springsteen said songs are just dreams you can share, and this one is John Lennon’s recollection of his childhood. It has a great melody, sophisticated chord changes, and a lot of psychedelic instrumentation – particularly on the fadeout. It’s perfectly executed.
Stephen Barrigar, Marketing Executive
10. M83, ‘Midnight City’
The perfect start to the new decade that sounded fresh throughout, despite the 80s sax solo that completes the song. Brought together with a superb video, this song is just amazing.
9. Arcade Fire, ‘Wake Up‘
Out of nowhere they came and before you knew it, Canadian music was back to being relevant. 5 members, 7 members, 11 members, it didn’t matter how many were on stage, there is nothing better live than the chorus of Wake Up.
8. Pulp, ‘Common People‘
You had to be there. There was Blur, there was Oasis, there was Brit Pop, but the true definition of the Brit Pop sound is “Common People” by Pulp. Infectious, relevant, timely – the perfect song to sum up a generational moment.
7. Prince & The Revolution, ‘Let’s Go Crazy‘
Considered the little sibling to “When Doves Cry,” “Let’s Go Crazy” kicks off Purple Rain the movie and the soundtrack and there is no 24 consecutive weeks at number 1 for the album without this song. This song helped change Prince from a singer to a musician.
6. The Beatles, ‘A Day in the Life‘
Basically put an end to any debate over who was the greatest band of the time. A wonderful blend of two songs and the greatest band’s great song.
5. MGMT, ‘Time to Pretend‘
Lightning in a bottle.
4. Depeche Mode, ‘Enjoy the Silence‘
Never in my life have a heard a song once and thought – yup, that’s the best song that’s going to be released this year. In February 1990, Depeche Mode achieved that.
3. The Verve, ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony‘
There was always promise with the Verve and their previous album had two legit anthems with History and On Your Own, but in 1997 with that “borrowed” Rolling Stone background, they achieved perfection. To this day, sounds fresh and outstanding.
2. The Waterboys, ‘The Whole of the Moon‘
There are two types of people in this world, those who love “The Whole of the Moon,” and those who have never heard “The Whole of the Moon.” Released to little fanfare except for preppies who made their own mixed tapes and John Hughes movie soundtrack hunters, “The Whole of the Moon” is a wonderful poem to the sound of the 80s.
1. New Order, ‘Bizarre Love Triangle‘
You can tell the age of anyone who makes their best of list, because the number 1 song will have been released between the ages of 15-24. This is the perfect song. And my kids hate it.
Journey, “Don’t Stop Believin’” — this song will be remembered in 100 years
The Beach Boys, “God Only Knows” – the perfect love song
Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On” – basically sums up a whole moment in time
Aretha Franklin, “Respect” – I’m not saying Rolling Stone is wrong, I’m just saying it’s not my number one
Queen and David Bowie, “Under Pressure” — the greatest bassline of all time
Jerry Beach, Sportswriter
10. Bruce Springsteen, ‘Queen of the Supermarket‘
There’s literally hundreds of Bruce songs most people would choose before this off his much-maligned “Workin’ On A Dream” album. But of all his songs about blue collar life, there’s something special in how he finds flashes of beauty from an anonymous woman working the supermarket. And there’s a wonderful suddenness to the final verse: “As I lift my groceries into my car, I turn back for a moment and catch a smile that blows this whole fucking place apart.” (It also helps my first true love worked at the local supermarket after we broke up; I tried wooing her back–unsuccessfully, I should note…)
9. U2, ‘Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses?‘
I’m perfectly content with “One” going down as U2’s greatest song and a candidate for a top-10 song all-time. But this is one of the best bitter post-breakup songs of all-time. “Well you lied to me, cause I asked you to. Baby, can we still be friends?”
8. Bob Seger, ‘The Fire Inside‘
There’s no shortage of timeless and iconic Seger songs about growing up. This one, about what happens between growing up and growing old and when one’s investments in his or her passions are no longer guaranteed to be returned, hits in a different way. “And it comes to you how it all slips away, youth and beauty are gone one day, no matter what you dream or feel or say, it all ends in dust and disarray.”
7. Alanis Morrissette, ‘Hand In My Pocket‘
In the moment, I HATED “You Oughta Know” with the passion of a thousand suns (don’t mind it now). But this song, coming out my last year of college, nailed the uncertainty and melancholy of trekking out into the real world. It’s not a great sign for me or Generation X it still does so a quarter-century later. “And what it boils down to is nobody’s got it figured out quite yet.”
6. Led Zeppelin, ‘Rock & Roll‘
There is a point in every young man’s life when driving around in his parents’ car with this blasting out of the speakers is the coolest fucking thing he can do.
5. Night Ranger, ‘When You Close Your Eyes‘
A simple, feel-good mid-tempo, harmony-filled hard rock song, until you get to that point in life when the line “Ain’t no good for an old memory to mean so much today” hits you right in the solar plexus.
4. Billy Joel, ‘Keeping The Faith‘
I won’t argue if anyone wants to declare “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” is not just Billy’s best song but the greatest song ever written about life in America, or that “Goodnight Saigon” is a more important work (especially the last 20 years, with 9/11 first responders singing the chorus live). But this, too, is a perfect song and deceptively simple. “The good ol’ days weren’t always good and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems” is a pretty great way to go thru life.
3. Pearl Jam, ‘Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town‘
This song was on Vs., which came out my first semester away at college and as I sensed a growing disconnect–unwanted but inevitable–with some of my hometown friends. “I’ve changed by not changing at all, small town predicts my fate.”
2. Extreme, ‘Hole Hearted‘
A great songwriter creates songs that mean entirely different things to his or her listeners. As a writer, the final line of this song — “Should’ve known I’d fall short with the things I’d do”– motivates me. A good friend of mine, who sadly died in 2018, saw this song as a symbol of the constant effort and failure associated with trying to be a good Catholic. The song was the final track on a concept album about an impressionable boy trying to make his way in a world drenched in decadence. What does it really mean? Whatever you want it to mean.
1. Gerry Rafferty, ‘Baker Street‘
Just my favorite song of all-time. Great story-telling enhanced by that haunting, evocative sax solo. The Foo Fighters’ cover of this might be better than the original.
Dave Van de Walle, Area 224
10*. Constantines, ‘Working Full-Time’
I put this tenth on my top ten and guarantee that no one else voted for it; it’s from a pretty obscure Canadian band called Constantines. These guys are up there with bands like The Bravery and Del Amitri in my book: acts that should have been much much bigger than they turned out to be.
This particular ditty is off their “Tournament of Hearts” album, released in 2005.
The video is an outstanding stop-motion animation piece that needs to be seen, but the song itself has the right mix of catchy guitar riffs and psychotic drums to sneak into my list. I overplay this video, when you see it, you’ll see why.*
*That’s a nod to erstwhile Toronto Blue Jays First Baseman Fred McGriff, who gave us this classic:
10*. Urge Overkill, ‘The Break‘
First of all, it’s my website, so, after oscillating between this song and the song above for the number 10 slot, I called a draw and both get listed.
I maintain this is the perfect 90s rock song. Impeccably crafted, with an unheard of “verse-chorus-chorus-verse-chorus” structure, this song even tells the story of the band itself: UO could not get a break in the 90s. Despite getting tons of street cred from another song (“Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” originally sung by Neil Diamond, featured in the movie Pulp Fiction), this Chicago band was never as ubiquitous in the 90s on Chicago radio as Smashing Pumpkins.
The video, too, is pure UO-level hubris. Eddie “The King” Roeser and Nash Kato were over-the-top in love with the whole scene, man. “Everything ends in a heartache.” They, too, couldn’t get a break; like the other occupant of my number ten slot, Urge Overkill could have sold out stadiums if they had played their cards right and maybe ended up in a few more Tarantino movies.
This song makes me want a cigarette and I don’t even smoke.
9. Adele, ‘Rolling in the Deep‘
This song is an instant freaking classic that sounds as good today as it sounded the first 150 times you heard it. Adele seemed to come out of nowhere and, well, then she was everywhere and it was tough to get away from hearing this song. But you didn’t mind because she was ADELE and gosh darnit this sounded better than any soul song you heard from the 60s or any Motown ditty.
Here’s a bonus link to a cover of the song by Linkin Park.
8. Queens of the Stone Age, ‘Little Sister‘
Mark Twain is credited with the line “I apologize for writing a long letter, as I didn’t have the time to write a shorter one.” This song is the short letter Twain meant to write, tells a story of an illicit love affair, and succeeds in melting faces with its guitar solo.
7. Foals, ‘Mountain at My Gates‘
When pressed by “Canadian Steve” for my “Songs of the Decade” list for the 2010s, this song came in number 1. Guitar and bass and keyboards and the voice range of the uber-cool Yiannis Phillippakis melded together and it’s absolute dynamite.
6. Geto Boys, ‘Mind Playing Tricks on Me‘
When the late, great Bushwick Bill drops lyrics like “It was dark as fuck on the street/My hands were all bloody from punching on the concrete,” and it’s, maybe, the fifth-best line in the song?
This is, simply, the greatest rap song ever created.
5. Led Zeppelin, ‘Fool in the Rain‘
We’re not going for a list of “favorite” songs here, we’re going for “greatest” songs. Sure, “Stairway” is phenomenal, and you could list dozens of spectacular pieces from Zep, but oh my gosh, this one? The whistle leading to the abrupt tempo shift in the middle? John Bonham, whose drum kit must have included extra appendages? Robert Plant’s voice range? That guitar toward the end? I applaud the frenetic song structure here and this is (IMHO) this band’s greatest work.
(Bonus link: isolated John Bonham drum track.)
4. Michael Jackson, ‘Beat It‘
See above for the relative difficulty of picking the greatest song from one of the greatest artists of all time.
For me, the combination of Michael being Michael plus EDDIE VAN HALEN on the guitar gets this into the top ten.
3. Yes, ‘Roundabout‘
If 70s prog-rock chose a fight song, this would be it. This song, to channel SNL’s Stefon, has everything: psychedelic keyboards, lyrics that make you ask if the mushrooms were that good while reading Walden, guitar solos that suggest you it’s time to drag race in your ’72 Cutlass Supreme.
2. The Who, ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again‘
Before it became the scream that launched a thousand memes — thanks, David Caruso — this 1971 track provides one of the greatest synthesizer solos ever, right before the line “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss.” Then the sunglasses go on.
(Bonus link: Pussy Riot covered this song.)
1 Pearl Jam, ‘Corduroy‘
If the true meaning of the song — that Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder wrote it as a lamentation to the fact that a knockoff of a corduroy jacket that he wore was being sold for hundreds of dollars — is true, then it’s quite the story. If not, “Everything has chains/absolutely nothing’s changed” remains a heck of a line. Are famous people like Eddie chained down by fame? Or is it just a jacket at Spencer’s in the mall?
Vitalogy is Pearl Jam’s last great album; this song is the band’s finest hour, and, oddly (though probably on purpose) the lyrics aren’t in the book jacket that came with the CD. The song leaves you with the feeling — one that’s confirmed if you see the band live — that, as the song fades, the band would rather it kept on going.
Ellie Goulding, “Lights” (An absolutely amazing pop/dance/trance number; bonus points for playing as the credits rolled in the movie “Spring Breakers.”)
Eric B and Rakim, “Paid in Full” (The soundtrack of early hip hop and Rakim drops rhymes like nobody’s business. “Thinking of a master plan…” Bonus points for including Ofra Haza in the tune; Eric B’s ability to drop tracks on top of tracks on top of other tracks turns a minute-or-so of Rakim rhyming into HOLY CRAP OH MY DEAR LORD!!!)
The Smiths, “The Queen Is Dead” (Cancel Morrissey all you want; this band owned the mid-80s and this leads off a top-to-bottom staggeringly good album.)
Rush, “Subdivisions” (I’ll admit to having switched from mildly acknowledging the existence of Rush to appreciating how insane a three-piece they were; Neil Peart is on the short list of greatest drummers ever.)
So…What Do You Think?
Feel free to weigh in on Twitter with the hashtag #TopTenSongs. Would love to read your own lists!