The 100 Greatest Songs of the Century – So Far
The 2000s has produced a shocking amount of incredible music – and since changes in technology have made it all pretty much free, we’ve been able to hear more of it than ever before. We’ve been lucky enough to see some larger-than-life superstars roll through, from Beyoncé to Drake to Jack White to Adele, and we’ve seen greats from the previous century like Beck, Outkast and U2 change and re-up their game.
It’s been 18 years teaming with great indie-rock guitar bangers, overwrought dance anthems, heart-on-sleeve punk rock and emo, genre-mutating R&B and sonically adventurous, politically radical hip-hop. Kanye West has also been somewhat productive throughout this period.
To compile our list the “100 Greatest Songs of the Century – So Far,” we reached out to a large group of artists, producers, critics and industry experts who sent us ranked lists of their favorite songs. We tabulated the votes. Our own editorial list might look a little different, but the result is an excellent reflection of an incredible period in music history.
You can also read the list in the July issue of Rolling Stone. We’ve relaunched the magazine with a new look and we think this list perfectly embodies our commitment to giving you the deepest sense of the best music happening now and shaping the future.
“Gasolina” Daddy Yankee feat. Glory
2004 | Universal | Universal Latino; Highest Chart Position: 32
A watershed in reggaeton’s rise to world dominance is built on the four-syllable title and Glory’s declaration “Le gusta la gasolina” – Puerto Rican slang for a party girl, with “gasolina” suggesting any number of fluids. “I think the song was so popular because there was a lot of different meanings for the song,” Daddy Yankee said. “People created their own meanings, and I said, ‘OK, I have no problem.'”
“Int’l Players Anthem (I Choose You),” UGK feat. Outkast
2007 | Jive; | Jive; Highest Chart Position: 70
After nearly two decades as a hard-talking Houston concern, underground kings Pimp C and Bun B finally rode a gleaming Willie Hutch sample to chart success. UGK fans Outkast lent a helping hand, Andre 3000’s verse about marriage a stark contrast to UGK’s pimp-centric swagger. “They sent the track and I just wrote what I thought ‘choosin” for real meant to me,” said Andre. “I don’t know why I went to marriage as a topic, but I guess that’s the ultimate version of ‘choosin.'”
“Archie, Marry Me,” Alvvays
2014 | Polyvinyl; | Polyvinyl; Highest Chart Position: Did not chart
“It is a fictitious character, but the situation was a bit of an autobiographical one,” said singer Molly Rankin of Toronto’s Alvvays. True or not, the dreamy Canadian band delivered a sharp, skeptical view of modern romance, tangled up in some of the sweetest indie pop this side of Belle and Sebastian. The result was among the most charming guitar pop of this or any era.
2009 | Glassnote; | Glassnote; Highest Chart Position: 84
Only Phoenix, the four-man embodiment of effervescent Parisian cool, could have made us nostalgic for the turn of the last century at the beginning of this one. “1901,” which reached millions of Americans by appearing in a Cadillac commercial, made the stylish French band stars, somewhat surprisingly for European rockers who didn’t do anything to hide their continental sophistication. “Sometimes one song will be in one commercial and you think only about this, but we believe this will come and go and the song will stay,” said the band’s singer Thomas Mars.
“Tighten Up,” The Black Keys
2010 | Nonesuch; | Nonesuch; Highest Chart Position: 87
Nearly a decade into their career, the Black Keys finally notched a hit with “Tighten Up,” a soulful roots rocker about a man on the hunt for love, which they top-loaded with one musical hook after another. Producer Danger Mouse helped the duo rein in a deluge of whistling, skanking guitar, funky bass and an urgent-sounding guitar solo to make for three and a half minutes of pop that you just can’t shake. The single went platinum.
“Can’t Get You Out of My Head,” Kylie Minogue
2001 | Parlophone; | Parlophone; Highest Chart Position: 7
Thirteen years after scoring a squeaky-clean mall-pop hit with her cover of “The Loco-Motion,” Australian diva Minogue re-emerged with the sexy, throbbing disco hit “Can’t Get You Out of My Head.” Songwriters Cathy Dennis and Rob Davis had originally written the song for the British teenybopper group S Club 7, but manager (and American Idol producer) Simon Fuller rejected it, so they shopped it around. Minogue was the first artist to bite, and the song helped establish her as a club-music queen.
“Jesus Walks,” Kanye West
2004 | Roc-A-Fella; | Roc-A-Fella; Highest Chart Position: 11
“So here go my single, dawg, radio needs this/They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus,” rapped West in this lushly produced, heavily spiritual hip-hop song that, nonetheless, hit Number 11. “I found a gospel song by a choir of reformed drug addicts in New York,” said co-writer Rhymefest about the song’s sample of the Addicts Rehabilitation Center Choir. “Even though I’m not a Christian, it moved me, and the beat was kinda like a rap groove. We jacked the whole song, but it came to life when Kanye added the army sounds and made it like God’s soldiers.”
“I’m Not Okay (I Promise),” My Chemical Romance
2004 | Reprise; | Reprise; Highest Chart Position: 86
The song that sold a thousand jars of Manic Panic hair dye, My Chemical Romance’s signature anthem spawned a new generation of emo kids with “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)” – a call to arms for horror punks with a soft spot for musical theater. The song marked a turn away from the genre’s girl-bashing antics and brought big-time vulnerability to the pop charts. The video flirts with queerness, too: Before the band goes up against a squad of macho lacrosse jocks, guitarist Frank Iero sneaks glam-goth singer Gerard Way a fleeting smooch.
“Stoned and Starving,” Parquet Courts
2012 | Mom | Mom + Pop; Highest Chart Position: Did not chart
This minimalist anthem to Swedish fish, munchies and magazines was the opening salvo to the tweens’ alt-rock revival, and the most memorable punk shout-out to the maligned borough of Queens since the Ramones’ “We’re a Happy Family.” The song – written by singer-guitarist Andrew Savage, about a stoned walk through the Queens’ Ridgewood neighborhood that he took while cat-sitting for his girlfriend – even became a microhit. “I don’t care to play it anymore,” Savage said at the time. “I don’t like Joe College in the audience yelling for it.”
“Despacito (Remix)” Luis Fonsi feat. Daddy Yankee and Justin Bieber
2017 | Universal | Universal Latin; Highest Chart Position: 1
For a song that’s all about the pleasure of a slow, sensual advance, 2017’s “Despacito” hastened a massive historical turn in American music, demonstrating the mainstream viability of Spanish-language pop. An unlikely collab between two Puerto Rican hitmakers – pop-rock heartthrob Luis Fonsi and reggaeton kingpin Daddy Yankee – the song had already blitzed international pop charts and amassed millions of YouTube views prior to Bieber’s remix, which conquered Number One on the Billboard Hot 100 and stayed for 16 weeks.
“1 Thing” Amerie
2005 | Columbia; | Columbia; Highest Chart Position: 8
According to R&B singer and songwriter Amerie, “1 Thing” was written about how “there’s always one thing that keeps you attracted to someone. No matter what they do or how they act, there’s that one undeniable thing that keeps you coming back.” Based on a gritty beat sampled from an oldie from New Orleans funk gods the Meters, the song became a huge hit, and poignantly so, as it arrived in the late summer of 2005, just before Hurricane Katrina happened.
“Hate to Say I Told You So,” The Hives
2000 | Epitaph; | Epitaph; Highest Chart Position: 86
After the Strokes broke open the dam for raw, punky, electric rock & roll in 2001, the Hives swelled in. The group had been ripping up stages in Sweden for about a decade by the time “Hate to Say I Told You So” hit the charts with its chugging riffs and frontman Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist’s atavistic, shredded–vocal-cord declarations of independence, so the Hives had their matching suits pressed and ready when the tune became a hit two years later.
“Hannah Hunt,” Vampire Weekend
2013 | XL; | XL; Highest Chart Position: Did not chart
After starting off as Afropop-loving collegiate-pop aesthetes, Vampire Weekend grew up fast, and by the time of their third album, Modern Vampires of the City, they were writing about what singer Ezra Koenig described as “growing up, starting to think more seriously about your life and your faith.” That sense comes through powerfully on “Hannah Hunt,” a hauntingly pretty song about a cross-country trip, tinged with Dylanesque indecision. It remains their best marriage yet of smarts, soul and sweetness.
“We Belong Together,” Mariah Carey
2005 | Island; | Island; Highest Chart Position: 1
Carey spent the early 2000s in a career rut, but she came back big with “We Belong Together,” a piano ballad perfectly balanced between R&B grace and hip-hop toughness. “I was driving in Miami and I pulled up to a stop,” recalled record executive L.A. Reid, who has worked closely with Carey for decades. “A lady pulled up beside me singing the song at the top of her lungs and her windows down. I said, ‘I’ll be damned, she cracked the code.'”
“I Love It,” Icona Pop w/Charli XCX
2012 | Ten; | Ten; Highest Chart Position: 7
“You’re from the Seventies, but I’m a Nineties bitch,” the synth-pop duo holler – and the non-Nineties bitches in the club ran for the hills. “I Love It” was also a breakout of sorts for innovative U.K. pop singer Charli XCX, who wrote the song, which was about the frustrations of being in a relationship with an older person. “We want people to feel the anger behind it,” the band later explained. “People hear we were going through love drama, and we were pretty tough and angry. It feels good when we meet those pigs and we can thank them, because they were a big reason behind it.”
“My Shot,” Original Broadway Cast of ‘Hamilton’
2015 | Atlantic; | Atlantic; Highest Chart Position: Did not chart
“I fall in love with storytelling regardless of genre,” Lin-Manuel Miranda told Rolling Stone. With lyrical nods to Eminem (“Lose Yourself”), Biggie (“Going Back to Cali”), Nas (“Ether”) and Oscar Hammerstein II (“You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” from South Pacific), in a posse-cut structure equal parts Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario” and Stephen Sondheim, Lin-Manuel Miranda fired Hamilton’s kill shot. The American musical, and hip-hop, would never be the same.
“One More Time,” Daft Punk
2000 | Virgin; | Virgin; Highest Chart Position: 61
Daft Punk made the leap from the house and techno scene into fully realized pop music on this elastic disco epiphany, one of the decade’s most surprisingly influential songs. The French duo sprayed Eighties metal-guitar cheese all over the galaxy on “One More Time,” perfectly in step with the nostalgic mood of the moment, and the liberal use of talkbox presaged the rise of Auto-Tune. Those talkbox vocals on the song were handled by New Jersey singer-producer Romanthony, who passed away in 2013.
“Lost Cause,” Beck
2002 | Geffen; | Geffen; Highest Chart Position: Did not chart
Moving past the winky bravado of his 1999 album Midnite Vultures, Beck stripped down his songwriting and got real on this beautifully frayed breakup autopsy. He said he was trying to write a song “that could’ve been written 40 years ago.” “Lost Cause” was the luminous lead single from his 2001 Sea Change, one of his most intimate albums, recalling the California singer-songwriter comedown vibe of classic artists like Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. “This record is more like what you’d hear if you just heard me playing in a room with an instrument,” Beck said.
“New Slang,” The Shins
2001 | Sub | Sub Pop; Highest Chart Position: Did not chart
Natalie Portman gave the Shins a huge boost when her character in the 2004 movie Garden State said “New Slang” will “change your life.” Shins frontman James Mercer said he wrote it to sum up the “angst and confusion about what my future was going to be. The Shins weren’t anything when I wrote that song. There wasn’t any hope for anything like a music career.” By summing up shaky generational aspirations with lines like, “I’m looking in on the good life I might be doomed never to find,” he arrived at nothing less than an Aughts mumble-folk “Sounds of Silence.”
“Hollaback Girl,” Gwen Stefani
2004 | Interscope; | Interscope; Highest Chart Position: 1
Stefani had written an entire album’s worth of material for her solo debut, but she felt like she was still missing something. “I knew I didn’t have my attitude song – my ‘this is my history, fuck you because you can’t erase it’ song,” she said. But during a session with Pharrell Williams, the two artists melded a sneering, sing-song melody – with lyrics that were in part a clap-back at Courtney Love for referring to Stefani as “the cheerleader” – with a distorted beat and squirting synths. To top it all off, Stefani taught the whole world how to spell “bananas.” Hear it once, and you can’t erase it.
“Ante Up (Robbin-Hoodz Theory)” M.O.P.
2000 | Loud; | Loud; Highest Chart Position: Did not chart
We’re not here to endorse larceny, but anyone who can make a street-crime anthem as fuck-shit-up fierce as Brooklyn’s Mash Out Posse did with “Ante Up” deserves some love. MCs Billy Danze and Lil Fame take ferocious glee in snatching chains, rings, bracelets and senses of well-being; they even make having a modest bank balance – “I’m 900 and 99 thou short of a mil” – sound kind of intimidating. Based on a saying from Danze’s mother, “Ante Up” was also M.O.P.’s request for some overdue r-e-s-p-e-c-t. “It was ante up,” Danze said. “We’ve been in this game too long – you guys see how we demolish the stage, how we make short work of the main major artists when we get on their records, and you still won’t give us the props and the recognition that we deserve.”
“Drop It Like It’s Hot” Snoop Dogg feat. Pharrell
2004 | Doggystyle; | Doggystyle; Highest Chart Position: 1
“[The Neptunes] shit was cutting-edge. It was that shit,” said Snoop Dogg, offering a tribute to collaborator Pharrell Williams, one half of the pioneering avant-funk production duo. “When me and you worked together, you gave me something that I was missing. I was always a cool, fly, bad, gangsta motherfucker, but you couldn’t see the fun in me. You brought out a smile.” This minimalist click-and-bloop was the first and only Number One hit for Snoop, an esteemed rap veteran in his 10th year of fame. “It was like 40 Crips in there,” said Pharrell of making the beat. “Dark-blued out. . . . I was reading the room. That and a hell of a lot of contact [smoke].”
“Young Folks,” Peter Bjorn and John
2006 | Wichita; | Wichita; Highest Chart Position: Did not chart
These Swedish indie guys whistled their way to an earworm as catchy as anything created in a high-gloss recording studio. Despite the title, “Young Folks” is actually about feeling jaded while chatting someone up at a bar. “I think the sound of that whistle, and it’s a bit out of tune, connects to people,” the trio’s John Eriksson said. And he was right: Gossip Girl featured it, Kanye West sampled it, James Blunt covered it and bands like Foster the People jacked its airy style.
“Losing My Edge,” LCD Soundsystem
2002 | DFA; | DFA; Highest Chart Position: Did not chart
Like Rob Gordon from High Fidelity or Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons, the narrator of LCD Soundsystem’s debut single is a geek whose rarified pop-culture tastes are the basis for their whole identity. Over a budget-techno pulse, James Murphy brags of his hipster exploits, from being present at a seminal krautrock moment to giving counsel to Captain Beefheart, citing several dozen record-nerd faves along the way. Before he was a frontman, Murphy was a DJ who made a name for himself playing obscure artists like the ones he names in the song. “I was afraid that this newfound coolness was going to go away, and that’s where ‘Losing My Edge’ comes from,” he said. “It is about being horrified by my own silliness.”
“Get Lucky,” Daft Punk feat. Pharrell Williams
2013 | Columbia; | Columbia; Highest Chart Position: 2
At a time when dance music was at a commercial peak, Daft Punk went progressive. “Electronic music right now is in its comfort zone and it’s not moving one inch,” the group’s Thomas Bangalter said at the time. “That’s not what artists are supposed to do.” So they approached songwriting more organically with help from Pharrell Williams and disco hitmaker Nile Rodgers, who played scratchy guitar all over what became “Get Lucky.” It later won them two Grammys and a Durex condoms tie-in.
“The House That Built Me,” Miranda Lambert
2009 | Columbia | Columbia Nashville; Highest Chart Position: 28
Lambert established a reputation as a Texas pistol on her early singles, singing about torching shit, toting guns and seeking revenge on her ex. But she scored her first country Number One with this ballad about visiting your childhood home in search of meaning and healing. When she was a child, her family was literally homeless after her parents’ business went south; eventually, the Lamberts built up a rundown property into a new family home. So it’s easy to see why the song’s lyrics about making your dream home a reality would have struck a chord with Lambert – and why she snatched up the song after it was sent to then-boyfriend Blake Shelton. “It was beautiful,” she said. “I mean, I just started bawling from the second I heard it. [Shelton] was like, ‘If you have a reaction to this song like that, then you need to cut it.'”
“Letter From an Occupant,” The New Pornographers
2000 | Mint; | Mint; Highest Chart Position: Did not chart
Dan Bjar was the Bowie-obsessed pop oddball; Carl Newman was the Bacharach-loving refugee from Nineties power-pop band Zumpano; Neko Case was the up-and-coming five-alarm alt-country belter. Together the Canadian crew was one of the most consistently transcendent indie-rock acts of the ’00s. “Letter From an Occupant” exploded off their debut album, Mass Romantic, a whirlwind of hooks that pinged around in your head even if the lyrics didn’t add up to much. ” I don’t know what a ‘letter from an occupant’ is,” Newman later said. “But I’m hoping that I will figure it out at some point. It sounds like it must mean something.”
“House of Jealous Lovers,” The Rapture
2002 | DFA; | DFA; Highest Chart Position: Did not chart
With production from LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, the Rapture’s cowbell-thwacking nail-gun guitar banger made “dance punk” the hot thing in Bohemia. The song became the flagship single for DFA Records, the influential label that brought together indie rock and dance music and helped jump-start a new era of New York music. “We created the label, based around one song,” recalled DFA co-founded Jonathan Galkin, “which was I think maybe indicative of what we were trying to do and I think succeeded, which was ‘House of Jealous Lovers,’ by the Rapture.”
“Bad and Boujee,” Migos feat. Lil Uzi Vert
2016 | Quality-Control; | Quality-Control; Highest Chart Position: 1
Migos’ triplet-packed rhymes will go down as a hallmark of 2010s pop the same way Outkast’s rapid-fire drawls helped define the previous decade. That sound found its apotheosis in this Number One hit about cars, women and “cooking up dope with an Uzi.” For a chart-topper, it does not exactly come up and give you a hug: It’s spare, low-gloss and moody. “We did it the trap way, not the pop way,” Offset said. Offset, who wrote the song’s “raindrop/droptop hook,” recorded his verse at home with his son sitting by his side and something heavy on his mind. “I had some little situations going on with life, family stuff going down,” he told “Rolling Stone.” “Sometimes that’s the best time to get music off – you might be mad, make some crazy shit.”
“Call Me Maybe,” Carly Rae Jepsen
2011 | 604; | 604; Highest Chart Position: 1
The Canadian Idol finalist proves that the hormonal rush of pure bubblegum never gets old, even in a cynical age. “It was written, recorded and produced within four or five days, tops. It was a pretty easy song to write,” said Jepsen, who had previously been a runner-up on Canadian Idol. It took off worldwide, topping the charts in a number of countries and inspiring lip-sync tributes by everyone from Katy Perry to the Miami Dolphins cheerleaders to the Harvard baseball team. “What person hasn’t wanted to approach somebody before and stopped because it’s scary?” she later asked, explaining the song’s universal appeal. “I know I have.”
“American Idiot,” Green Day
2004 | REPRISE; | REPRISE; Highest Chart Position: 61
The title track to Green Day’s 2004 opus is arguably 21-century rock’s most potent political anthem – as relevant now as it was the day George W. Bush was re-elected. Billie Joe Armstrong was inspired to write it after hearing Lynyrd Skynrd’s Southern-rock pledge of allegiance “That’s How I Like It” on his car radio. “it was like, ‘I’m proud to be a redneck,’ and I was like, ‘Oh my god, why would you be proud of something like that? This is exactly what I’m against.'” he came up with the song that raged against complacency with Who-size power, the sound of pop-punk brats inheriting a higher calling.
“Thinkin Bout You,” Frank Ocean
2012 | Island; | Island; Highest Chart Position: 32
Ocean broke new ground for masculinity in R&B, writing gender-fluid lyrics, savoring words like “cute” and singing in a gently insistent falsetto aching with hope. Ocean originally wrote “Thinkin Bout You” for R&B singer Bridget Kelly, who later recorded her own version. But Ocean’s demo version was leaked, a music video followed, and then the song became the lead single from his landmark debut album, Channel Orange.
“Springsteen,” Eric Church
2011 | EMI | EMI Nashville; Highest Chart Position: 19
North Carolina tough guy Church gets weepy over his memories of “Born to Run” and fading high school romance. The result is the most moving country song of the 2000s. “Springsteen” was ripped from real life. As Church later recalled, “I went to a concert when I was younger with a girl, and to this day, when I hear that artist, it’s the soundtrack to that girl. I never think about her any other time, except when that song is on. That’s where the ‘Springsteen’ came from, and he seemed to be the perfect guy to craft that story around because of my love for him.”
“What You Know,” T.I.
2006 | Atlantic; | Atlantic; Highest Chart Position: 3
“What You Know” is a nimble, infectious, Grammy-winning boast from one of contemporary rap’s most gifted and internal-rhyme-obsessed craftsmen. But the real star was that beaming, blown-out beat from Atlanta veteran DJ Toomp. With co-producer Wonder, he re-created the ecstatic, goose-bumpy gospel-rock chord progression built from the end of Roberta Flack’s 1970 tune “Gone Away” in Reason software. “DJ Khaled called me from Miami and was like, ‘Yo, you guys got a smash! I want you to listen to this crowd, man, when I drop this record and watch what they do,’ ” said Toomp. “He dropped that shit and everybody went crazy. He was like, ‘Man, you got one, I’m telling you, you got one.'”
“Beez in the Trap,” Nicki Minaj feat. 2 Chainz
2012 | Young | Young Money; Highest Chart Position: 48
After Minaj’s success with electro-pop crossovers like “Super Bass” and “Starships,” “Beez in the Trap” was a welcome return for Minaj in pure hip-hop form: a slow-rolling Southern-rap bass boom, a chorus that recalls a Schoolly D flow from the mid-Eighties and a guest verse from 2 Chainz. “I was submitting beats to Nicki when I heard she was getting her project going, and I just kept submitting,” said producer Kenoe. “Mack Maine, the A&R over at Young Money/Cash Money, called me in the last hour and told me what they was looking for. He was like, ‘Nicki needs some rap shit.'”
“We Found Love,” Rihanna feat. Calvin Harris
2011 | Def | Def Jam; Highest Chart Position: 1
When big-tent dance music stormed into the Top 40 in the early 2000s, the results were sometimes messy, with hasty, ill-conceived collaborations resulting in some truly cringeworthy records. Then there were songs like “We Found Love,” which more or less instantly became modern standards. A simple synth riff from Calvin Harris reaches back to dance-floor killers from the early Nineties while Rihanna sings with steely generosity. “I want each track to be as good as it can possibly be,” Harris said, “and that usually means me not singing on it.”
“DNA,” Kendrick Lamar
2017 | TOP | TOP DAWG; Highest Chart Position: 4
The greatest rapper alive tells you what he’s made of: nothing short of loyalty, royalty, war, peace, power, poison, pain, joy, hustle, ambition and flow – and that’s just in the first 15 seconds. Producer Mike Will Made It matches Lamar’s attack with some trunk-rattling 808s and a back end that chops a bit of Rick James stage patter from a 1982 concert in Germany; the producer later said Lamar did the ending a cappella and then asked Will to put drums around it. “But he was going so hard – that man was rapping so crazy,” the producer told NPR. “I wanted that shit to sound just as crazy. I wanted it to sound like he’s battling the beat. He said he wanted the shit to just sound like chaos.”
“Sugar, We’re Goin Down,” Fall Out Boy
2005 | Island; | Island; Highest Chart Position: 8
Fall Out Boy got their start on the emo scene, but they were never convincing as hipsters. The pop punk of “Sugar” makes geeky drama seem trashy and fun. “I wrote the lyrics in Chicago,” recalled bassist Pete Wentz. “I was with my dad, and we were listening to the old music where they’d always say ‘sugar’ and ‘honey,’ stuff like that. I was like, ‘Why doesn’t anyone do that anymore?'” The song helped make them unlikely arena-rock stars.
“Teenage Dream,” Katy Perry
2010 | Capitol; | Capitol; Highest Chart Position: 1
In Perryland, every song was the song of the summer. The blindingly bright “Teenage Dream” was one of five Number One hits from her album of the same name. No one had done that since Michael Jackson’s Bad. Perry wrote the song with Max Martin and Dr. Luke in Santa Monica, building it around what she called “a Chaka Khan fierce little beat.” As she also said, “I want people to kind of like think of me as that pinpoint poster in their room, or hopefully I can invade their dreams.”
“Hung Up,” Madonna
2005 | Warner | Warner Bros.; Highest Chart Position: 7
Madonna turned back to her roots in New York nightlife with 2005’s Confessions on a Dance Floor, a disco-pop masterpiece for a new millennium. While polishing her lead single, “Hung Up,” Madge made personal calls to Abba songwriters Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, begging permission to sample their 1979 hit “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight).” Although the pair were notoriously protective of their material, they said yes to Madonna. “Hung Up” rapidly climbed the charts, peaking at Number One in a record-breaking total of 41 countries. But if the music recalled the past, the song itself was no holiday; Madonna’s lyrics took on middle age with Dylanesque honesty.
“The Wire,” Haim
2013 | Columbia; | Columbia; Highest Chart Position: Did not chart
The three Haim sisters started out playing in a family band with their parents, who were big fans of acts like Prince and Earth, Wind and Fire, before eventually developing their own Eighties R&B and soft-rock sound. By the time they released their debut LP, Days Are Gone, they were getting compared to their heroes. “If I read, ‘Check out this band, they sound like both Fleetwood Mac and Beyoncé,’ I’d be like, ‘What?!'” Danielle Haim said. “I get squeamish when people say that. Fleetwood Mac is one of the greatest bands out there! Let’s start a little smaller, you know?” Be that as it may, their breakout hit, “The Wire,” sounded like what might happen if the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac had secretly made an album together – in other words, some brilliant retro-rock fan fiction.
“Bodak Yellow,” Cardi B
2017 | ATLANTIC; | ATLANTIC; Highest Chart Position: 1
“I like to talk shit about people that used to talk shit,” said Cardi B. “Like, yeah, I fixed my teeth. And it wasn’t cheap either, bitch. While I was recording it, every bitch I don’t like came into my head and I was picturing me rapping it to them.” On her debut single, Cardi B flipped the flow from a freestyle by rapper Kodak Black into a hard-edged, bloody-shoed boss boast. She promptly launched herself from mixtape rapper and Instagram personality to one of Time‘s 100 most influential people and a Number One chart-topper – the first female rapper to do so since 1998. “I just heard the pain and the hunger in her voice on this track,” said producer J. White. “I was like, ‘This might be a record that gives us an opportunity to get another record out.” … I wasn’t trying to make no record to go Number One or change the game, I was only trying to make a record that would get us another record.”
“Ni**as in Paris” Jay-Z and Kanye West
2011 | Roc-A-Fella; | Roc-A-Fella; Highest Chart Position: 5
Jay-Z and Kanye West once played “Ni**as in Paris” 12 times in a row at one concert – a fittingly indulgent move for a song that pays homage to over-the-top indulgence. Alongside a tweedling hook that seems to taunt haters, two kings trade quips about the high life like they’re three bottles of Armand de Brignac in. But there’s a dark truth underlying the mayhem, as Jay-Z imagines the fate that could have awaited him had he not become Jay-Z: “You escaped what I’ve escaped, you’d be in Paris getting fucked up too.” As Jay later explained, “It’s not, like, ‘We’re here! We’re balling harder than everybody,’ it’s like, ‘I’m shocked that we’re here.’ … Having so much fun and then stopping and saying, ‘What are we doing here?'”
“Do You Realize??” The Flaming Lips
2002 | Warner | Warner Bros.; Highest Chart Position: Did not chart
Wayne Coyne described the band’s 2002 LP Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots as a set of “storytelling acid rock” with a “theme of sunshine funerals.” Part cartoon Beatles psychedelia, part Moody Blues space-schmaltz, the album features this melodic crown jewel that’s the epitome of Coyne’s genius for combining garden-variety bliss with bad-trip realism to create something greater and deeper than the sum of its parts. It was a defining, inspiring moment for a band that had evolved from Midwestern acid-punk noisemakers to mainstream rock redeemers. “There’s that strange little nuance of meaning in that lyric ‘Where everyone you know someday will die,’ ” Coyne said. “That will pop up in little quotations that you see out there next to other cosmically hippie, philosophical lyrics. It feels like we’re talking about life and love and happiness and death and all the things.”
“Weird Fishes/ Arpeggi,” Radiohead
2007 | XL; | XL; Highest Chart Position: Did not chart
Radiohead debuted initial versions of “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi,” a liquid, thrilling track, on the road in 2006 before holing up in what producer Nigel Godrich once described as “a Scooby-Doo mansion” to record In Rainbows. The guitars in “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” mingle and curl gently upward as the drums race forward. Thom Yorke sings cryptic lyrics that are typically bizarre and alluring, equating love with drowning and being eaten by worms. “I follow to the edge of the Earth,” he sings. “And fall off.” It might be the band’s most gorgeous moment.
“212,” Azealia Banks feat. Lazy Jay
2011 | Self-released; | Self-released; Highest Chart Position: Did not chart
After being dropped by XL Recordings, Banks self-released this gem, a bawdy, galloping hip-house cut about a “coked-out, overly ambitious bitch.” “‘212’ came out of a place of desperation,” Banks said. “But it also came out of a place of anger. It was like, ‘Fuck all y’all. I’m the best bitch here.'” And for a brief moment, she was: “212” sold more than 250,000 downloads in the U.S. and climbed to Number 12 in the U.K. Who needs a label?
“Portions for Foxes,” Rilo Kiley
2004 | Warner | Warner Bros.; Highest Chart Position: Did not chart
In a just world, Kiley’s power-pop classic would have dominated the airwaves; in this one, it was merely the greatest song from a great (and totally underrated) band. Jenny Lewis outlines a relationship built on conflicted feelings and physical attraction, alternating between vulnerability and belt-it-out boldness as co-writer Blake Sennett digs into a big bag of guitar tricks. The title comes from a Bible verse about how we all become worm food; the chorus is both a little cynical and totally irresistible: “And it’s bad news/Baby, I’m bad news/I’m just bad news, bad news, bad news.”
2012 | 4AD; | 4AD; Highest Chart Position: Did not chart
With sunrise-tinted bangs and an otherworldly soprano, Canadian eccentric Claire Boucher ushered in a new era of oddball dance pop with her 2012 album, Visions. In the standout track, “Oblivion,” Boucher contemplates the perils of being a woman out after dark, over an undulating synth. “I was assaulted and I had a really hard time engaging in any types of relationship with men,” Boucher told Spin. “I was just so terrified of men for a while.” The video shows Boucher wandering blithely around sport stadiums, surrounded by screaming, shirtless boys – a dream of the feminine coexisting peacefully inside a masculine domain.
2014 | RCA; | RCA; Highest Chart Position: 8
Sia had had a long and successful career as an A-list writer for other artists, including Rihanna and Beyoncé. But she really broke out as a solo artist with this drama storm of a song, inspired by her own struggles with alcoholism. It was her response to the hard-partying tone of much pop music. “That’s why ‘Chandelier’ was interesting to me. …” she said. “I wrote the song because there’s so many party-girl anthems in pop. And I thought it’d be interesting to do a different take on that. For some reason … I didn’t wanna give it away.”
“Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” Beyoncé
2008 | Columbia; | Columbia; Highest Chart Position: 1
Beyoncé and Jay-Z were already secretly married when she released “Single Ladies.” With its swinging beat and splashy black-and-white video, it became an empowerment classic. Her dance routine in the song’s black-and-white video was unforgettable too, inciting countless homages and parodies. Beyoncé later said the inspiration for the routine was Bob Fosse’s 1969 performance of “Mexican Breakfast” on The Ed Sullivan Show. As she herself put it, this was “the most iconic” song and video of her career up to that time.
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