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20 Best Graduation Songs of the Last 20 Years

From Green Day to Miley, the best songs for moving on

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Though much of graduation season is soundtracked by the Pomp and Circumstance Marches, the stuffy layer of tradition is occasionally punctured by pop hits that strike the right emotional chord. Over the past two decades, a select number of songs have captured the proper feelings of pride, nostalgia, excitement and sadness that accompany such a rite of passage. As the class of 2015 turns their tassels from right to left, here are the 20 best graduation songs of the last 20 years.

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Vitamin C, “Graduation (Friends Forever)”

A few years after striking out as the singer of the alt-rock band Eve's Plum, New Jersey singer Colleen Ann Fitzpatrick rebooted her career as the orange-haired dance pop star Vitamin C. Her self-titled 1999 debut yielded a couple Top 40 hits, the latter of which, "Graduation (Friends Forever)," sampled a classical commencement ceremony staple, Pachelbel's Canon In D, to pull on the heartstrings of seniors. The song peaked on the charts in May 2000, just in time for graduation. 

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Drake, “Started From the Bottom”

"I am proud of every part of my past and I'm excited for this song to find a place in your life as well," Drake wrote in the 2013 blog post premiering "Started From the Bottom," his look back at his journey from childhood to megastardom. Drake's infectious ode to growth and keeping one's friends close is also really easy to shout along with during those moments of grad-party bliss.

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Sarah McLachlan, “I Will Remember You”

Sarah McLachlan was not yet a household name when she wrote "I Will Remember You" for the 1995 indie movie The Brothers McMullen. But it ultimately became one of her signature songs when it appeared on her multi-platinum 1999 live album Mirrorball, and grew into a ballad that's touched the hearts of countless departing graduates.

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Baz Luhrmann, “Everybody’s Free (to Wear Sunscreen)”

"Ladies and gentlemen of the class of '97: Wear sunscreen." During the dialup era, a commencement speech opening with that sage bit of advice made the online rounds, attributed to sci-fi genius Kurt Vonnegut. The speech was actually written by the Chicago Tribune's Mary Schmich, who used a 1997 column to opine on what her ideal graduation address would sound like. When maximalist director-composer Baz Luhrmann's inbox was graced with the piece, he took to it so deeply that he decided to incorporate it into his remix of Rozalla's 1991 club hit "Everybody's Free (To Feel Good)" — and he properly credited Schmich, thus proving that even in the old days of the Internet, a little research could debunk an urban legend. 

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Katy Perry, “Firework”

The third single in Katy Perry's unprecedented run of six consecutive Number One hits from 2010's Teenage Dream was its biggest and most enduring, perhaps because the lyrics are durable enough to suit many situations. In addition to being heard frequently at graduations, "Firework" has become a 4th of July staple and an unofficial anthem of the LGBT activism movement It Gets Better.

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fun. feat. Janelle Monáe, “We Are Young”

The concept of "YOLO" took hold in youth culture in 2011 thanks to Drake's song "The Motto." But the triumphant chorus of fun.'s end-of-the-night breakthrough hit — "Tonight/We are young/So let's set the world on fire" — poetically encapsulated the idea of living for now with singalong gusto. "The lyrics came after my worst drinking night of all time," Ruess told Rolling Stone shortly after the song blew up. "Have you ever been kicked out of a cab for puking all over the place? I have. The cabbie was demanding all this money, and all I could do was stand on the corner with my head against the wall. It took me another day before I was a functioning adult and could actually write down the verses." 

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Green Day, “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)”

"That was really the first time we attempted a ballad," Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong told SPIN in 2010. "The first time we ever played that song was during an encore in New Jersey — I had to pound a beer backstage to get up the courage. I knew we were gonna take a tomato to the face." The snotty punks left this tune off their 1994 breakthrough, Dookie, for sounding too different from the rest of their repertoire, but it was eventually released on the 1997 album Nimrod and quickly became a pop culture touchstone, soundtracking Seinfeld's 1998 farewell broadcast as well as countless graduation ceremonies.

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