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The 100 Greatest Songs of the Century – So Far

We polled artists, critics and industry insiders to create a list of the era’s truly essential moments

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.

The 100 Greatest Songs of the Century – So Far

“The Scientist,” Coldplay

2002 | Capitol; Highest Chart Position: Did not chart

Chris Martin’s friend had just gone through a breakup, and, as he said at the time, he too was “always having disasters with girls,” so he funneled his shortcomings into this brittle, sentimental ballad. “The Scientist” occurred to Martin while he tried, unsuccessfully, to play George Harrison’s “Isn’t It a Pity.” “Then this song came out at once,” he said later. It was a high point for Coldplay, a grand moment of empathy. 

The 100 Greatest Songs of the Century – So Far

“Sign of the Times,” Harry Styles

2017 | Erskine; Highest Chart Position: 4

After leaving One Direction, Styles shocked the world with his first solo single, a solemn, nearly operatic rock ballad that recalled Queen and David Bowie. ” ‘Sign of the Times’ came from ‘This isn’t the first time we’ve been in a hard time, and it’s not going to be the last time,'” Styles told Rolling Stone. “The song is written from a point of view as if a mother was giving birth to a child and there’s a complication. The mother is told, ‘The child is fine, but you’re not going to make it.’ The mother has five minutes to tell the child, ‘Go forth and conquer.’ ” And that’s exactly what Styles did: “Sign of the Times” went Top Five in the U.S. and Number One in the U.K. 

The 100 Greatest Songs of the Century – So Far

“Happy,” Pharrell Williams

2013 | Universal; Highest Chart Position: 1

A shot of Sixties-soul sunshine that cut against the self-aware tone of so much 2000s pop. Pharrell threw an outdoor party that everyone on Earth felt free to join. He released the song fresh off his success co-writing Daft Punk’s “Happy,” after originally writing it for Cee Lo Green. It went Number One in 40 countries; in Iran, after some fans were arrested for singing it on YouTube, they received a pardon by the county’s president, who tweeted, “#Happiness is our people’s right.” A pretty significant impact for a song written for the Despicable Me 2 soundtrack.   

The 100 Greatest Songs of the Century – So Far

“Redbone,” Childish Gambino

2016 | Glassnote; Highest Chart Position: 12

“How do you start a global revolution, really?” Gambino mused in 2016. “Is that possible with the systems we’ve set up? There’s something about that Seventies black music that felt like they were trying to start a revolution.” He distilled that spirit into “Redbone.” The insistent refrain interpolates Parliament-Funkadelic mainstay Bootsy Collins; the lurching, slap-happy bass points to L.T.D.’s Quiet Storm hit “Love Ballad;” the barbed-wire falsetto can’t help but evoke Prince. The revolution was slow in coming – “Redbone” simmered for months before truly exploding – but suddenly, in an era when R&B singers are required to prove their fluency with hip-hop at every turn, a track full of blatant Seventies references was ubiquitous.

The 100 Greatest Songs of the Century – So Far

“Cry Me a River,” Justin Timberlake

2002 | JIVE; Highest Chart Position: 3

“Cry Me a River” tumbled out of Timberlake in a vicious, vindictive recording session following rumored drama with his then-girlfriend, Britney Spears. The beat, ornate and unclassifiable, somehow smuggled Gregorian chants into a huge hit; it still stands out – even in producer Timbaland’s remarkable catalog – as a monumental accomplishment. Timberlake found the brooding instrumental “matched how I felt at the time,” and staged a scorned lover’s temper tantrum: “You told me you love me/Why did you leave me all alone?” By unloading heaps of juvenile angst, the 21-year-old singer left ’NSync behind and charted a course for solo pop stardom.

The 100 Greatest Songs of the Century – So Far

“Sorry,” Justin Bieber

2015 | Def Jam; Highest Chart Position: 1

Looking to move past his unfortunate bad-boy phase, Bieber explored a genuine sensitivity on “Sorry,” a ballad apology to ex-girlfriend Selena Gomez. “Sorry” was co-written by Justin Tranter, who took pride in creating songs that “let men be allowed to be vulnerable,” and producer Skrillex strove to “keep it simple” with an almost elegiac beat. Bieber felt the heartfelt results might be “too safe.” But as Skrillex put it, “When you listen to his lyrics, you can tell he’s becoming an adult.”

The 100 Greatest Songs of the Century – So Far

“Stan,” Eminem

2000 | Aftermath; Highest Chart Position: 51

Eminem at his scariest, but also his most human, trying to help a deranged fan with a Dido sample as deus ex machina. “[The character Stan] is crazy for real and he thinks I’m crazy, but I try to help him at the end of the song,” the rapper once said. “It kinda shows the real side of me.” “Stan” has subsequently become both a verb and a noun to refer to an artist’s megafans – in a good way.

The 100 Greatest Songs of the Century – So Far

“Cranes in the Sky,” Solange

2016 | Saint Records/Columbia; Highest Chart Position: 74

“There were times that I felt like, ‘Well, I’m doing what I love to do, what I’ve always wanted to, so why do things still feel so heavy?’ ” Solange said of the Grammy-winning single from A Seat at the Table. The song, like Solange, is elegant and poised, even if her emotions are raw. Over producer Raphael Saadiq’s ascending bass line, Solange presents her mind as a potholed construction site, a dream of a better future, something imposed upon her, man-made, daunting, cold, awesome and powerful, simultaneously highlighting deep pain and exquisite beauty. 

The 100 Greatest Songs of the Century – So Far

“Electric Feel,” MGMT

2008 | Columbia; Highest Chart Position: Did not chart

The first complete song that Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser wrote defines their psychedelic Vitamix magic. A glistening funk jam masterfully produced by Flaming Lips wingman Dave Fridman, it’s wrapped in silvery synths, with vocals that sound like Kool and the Gang in a grain silo on DMT, owing a bit to Beck’s Nineties meta-pop but with a more genuinely pie-eyed sense of wonder. At the core, like most great funk jams, it’s about the druglike power of sex, or in this case maybe sex on drugs. “Shock me like an electric eel/Baby girl/Turn me on with your electric feel” goes the reprise, proving that when bliss is full on, language is beside the point. 

The 100 Greatest Songs of the Century – So Far

“Hurt,” Johnny Cash

2002 | American; Highest Chart Position: Did not chart

Cash cut his devastating acoustic cover of the Nine Inch Nails single at Rick Rubin’s house, for what turned out to be the last of the American Recordings LP series. “Hurt” is a painfully revealing meditation on addiction and regret; Trent Reznor considered it “my most personal song,” so much so that he was at first put off by how fully Cash inhabited it. But Reznor ultimately felt honored, and like anyone who’s seen it, stunned by the video, in which Cash, then in ill health, performs indelibly, time’s ravages plain in the close-ups of his face and hands (“The first time I saw it,” Rubin recalled, “I just cried”). Cash died the following year; as final statements by musicians go, this remains a yardstick by which all are measured. 

The 100 Greatest Songs of the Century – So Far

“Beautiful Day,” U2

2000 | Interscope; Highest Chart Position: 21

In March 2000, Bono told Rolling Stone about an in-progress song for their upcoming album, All That You Can’t Leave Behind. “We had this song called ‘Beautiful Day,'” he said. “A surf-punk song, and now it’s a New Age hymn, and we’ve been chasing it around for a couple of days, and this morning we came up with something. Maybe it’s on the record.” It wound up being the lead single, giving U2 a much-needed megahit after a long dry spell in the 1990s. The song, about finding joy in the face of horrific hardship, was almost left on the cutting-room floor, because the band felt it sounded too much like the U2 of old. “You know, when people wanted the old Coke back and the corporation caved in to the people?” Bono said. “We knew the sucker punch that that guitar riff would be. We knew it would look like the corporation caving in.” 

The 100 Greatest Songs of the Century – So Far

“No One Knows,” Queens of the Stone Age

2002 | Interscope; Highest Chart Position: 51

Queens kept hard rock alive in an era that felt a little light on high-protein power. The band released the song in 2002 on its third album, Songs for the Deaf, which featured interim drummer Dave Grohl. The experience led Grohl to proclaim QOTSA “the baddest rock & roll band in the world.” Queens frontman Josh Homme has humbly countered, “Wasn’t that guy in Nirvana?”). But perhaps what Grohl meant is that no matter what the current trends are, the 21st-century blues-rock grind of “No One Knows” is timeless. 

The 100 Greatest Songs of the Century – So Far

“Formation,” Beyoncé

2016 | PARKWOOD; Highest Chart Position: 10

The only statement of black feminist defiance ever to debut at the Super Bowl, “Formation” celebrated Beyoncé’s Southern roots (“My daddy Alabama, mama Louisiana”) with a party-starting battle cry. The song emerged after months of relentless headlines about the wrongful deaths of African Americans – from the murder of Trayvon Martin to the rash of police brutality across the country to the race riots in Ferguson, Missouri, to Baltimore. Musically, it was the culmination of a decades-long process of honing her own message of empowerment, hooked around a killer Mike Will Made It synthy hook and absolving the pain of millions with the simple words “I slay.”

The 100 Greatest Songs of the Century – So Far

“You Want It Darker,” Leonard Cohen

2016 | COLUMBIA; Highest Chart Position: Did not chart

Cohen spent the final year of his life battling severe pain and mobility issues while living on the top floor of a modest house he shared with his daughter Lorca in the Wilshire neighborhood of Los Angeles. His condition was so dire that he rarely left the dwelling, causing his son Adam to create a makeshift studio powered by a laptop in his living room so he could work on his last album, You Want It Darker. On the title track, Cohen did not hide the circumstances of his life. “If you are the dealer, let me out of the game,” he sang in a voice beautifully grizzled by time and wear. “If you are the healer, I’m broken and lame.” Never has impending death sounded quite so exquisite. “They say that life is a beautiful play with a terrible third act,” Adam Cohen told Rolling Stone weeks before his father died. “If that’s the case, it must not apply to Leonard Cohen. Right now, at the end of his career, perhaps at the end of his life, he’s at the summit of his powers.”

The 100 Greatest Songs of the Century – So Far

“Gold Digger” Kanye West feat. Jamie Foxx

2005 | DEF JAM; Highest Chart Position: 1

Kanye at his catchiest – a little bit backpack, a little bit bling – cracking jokes over a euphoric beat as Foxx does his best Ray Charles impression. The song was originally intended to be presented from a woman’s point of view – West recorded the Charles-sampling beat at Ludacris’ Atlanta home, intended for underrated Chicago MC Shawnna. Foxx – who would win an Academy Award for his portrayal of Charles in the biopic Ray – was brought in just in case they couldn’t clear the chopped-and-fricasseed sample of Charles’ 1954 original “I Got a Woman.” 

The 100 Greatest Songs of the Century – So Far

“Blue Jeans,” Lana Del Rey

2012 | Interscope; Highest Chart Position: Did not chart

Promising to “love you more than those bitches before,” Del Rey exudes an alluring sense of longing on this slow-melt Cali-goth benediction. Del Rey originally envisioned “Blue Jeans” as “more of a Chris Isaak ballad,” but working with Emile Haynie, she came up with something harder to pin down. Artists who pride themselves on defying expectations took note. Courtney Love “got obsessed” with Del Rey’s work, and Kanye West was so moved to he took to Twitter to dub Del Rey “one of my favorite artists.” Like the bad boy at the center of “Blue Jeans,” Del Rey knows how to make an impression.

The 100 Greatest Songs of the Century – So Far

“Mr. Brightside,” The Killers

2004 | Island; Highest Chart Position: 10

“I remember us going into the Virgin Megastore to buy Is This It on the day it came out, and when we put it on in the car, that record just sounded so perfect,” said Killers singer Brandon Flowers. “I got so depressed after that, we threw away everything.” Except “Mr. Brightside,” a frenzied mash of jealousy and paranoia, New Wave and post-punk that achieved chart success the Strokes could only dream of. “Mr. Brightside” is brutally simple – verse-hook-verse-hook-coda – and overflowing with hummable riffs. Flowers attacks each line with every ounce of his Vegas-showman zest. Nearly 15 years after release, the reputation of “Mr. Brightside” only seems to grow with time. “It just keeps snowballing and getting bigger,” Flowers said. “I can’t complain.”


“Idioteque,” Radiohead

2000 | Capitol; Highest Chart Position: Did not chart

In the aftermath of their 1997 breakthrough LP, OK Computer, Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke knew the band had to discover a completely different sound if it wanted to survive – especially as copycat bands like Travis and Coldplay began taking over the radio airwaves. One of the first things Radiohead did was put down their guitars and (inspired by electronic groups like Aphex Twin) begin writing songs on the synthesizer. At one point, guitarist Jonny Greenwood gave Yorke 50 minutes of improvisation on a synth. The singer zeroed in on just 40 seconds (which included a sample of Paul Landksy’s 1976 composition “Mild und Leise”) and used it as the basis for a pulsating song about an impending nuclear holocaust. It’s become a very unlikely singalong moment at their concerts and the most transcendent moment on Kid A, an album too weird and bold for any copycats to latch onto.