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 Scientist,” Coldplay
2002 | Capitol; | 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.
“Sign of the Times,” Harry Styles
2017 | Erskine; Highest | 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.
“Happy,” Pharrell Williams
2013 | Universal; | 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.
“Redbone,” Childish Gambino
2016 | Glassnote; | 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.
“Cry Me a River,” Justin Timberlake
2002 | JIVE; | 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.
“Sorry,” Justin Bieber
2015 | Def | 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.”
2000 | Aftermath; | 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.
“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.
“Electric Feel,” MGMT
2008 | Columbia; | 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.
“Hurt,” Johnny Cash
2002 | American; | 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.
“Beautiful Day,” U2
2000 | Interscope; | 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.”
“No One Knows,” Queens of the Stone Age
2002 | Interscope; | 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.
2016 | PARKWOOD; | 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.”
“You Want It Darker,” Leonard Cohen
2016 | COLUMBIA; | 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.”
“Gold Digger” Kanye West feat. Jamie Foxx
2005 | DEF | 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.”
“Blue Jeans,” Lana Del Rey
2012 | Interscope; | 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.
“Mr. Brightside,” The Killers
2004 | Island; | 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.”
2000 | Capitol; | 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.
“In Da Club,” 50 Cent
2003 | Aftermath; | Aftermath; Highest Chart Position: 1
Fitty threatened to “put the rap game in a chokehold” and did just that, riding Dr. Dre’s killer beat all the way to the top of the pop charts. “Dr. Dre came up in a … Lamborghini, blasting one of my tapes,” said 50 Cent about his soon-to-be producer. “When he got out of the car, all he said was, ‘You ready to make history together?’ ” Together, 50, Dre and co-producer Mike Elizondo made a breakout party anthem that established the smirking, hardened superstar to the tune of nine weeks at Number One. “As soon as he walked into the studio, he picked up a pen, and we were done in an hour,” said Dre. Its long appeal is in part from the “Go, shawty, it’s your birthday” line, likely borrowed from Uncle Luke’s 1994 hit “It’s Your Birthday.” “Every day, it’s someone’s birthday, so it’s relevant all over again,” said 50 Cent.
“Wake Up,” Arcade Fire
2004 | Merge; | Merge; Highest Chart Position: Did not chart
The band’s signature anthem – the apex of their debut LP, Funeral – was an arena-scale singalong even when they were still playing clubs, from its hands-in-the-air “whoa-oh/whoa-oh-oh-oh” chant through Win Butler’s second-verse shrieking (“We’re just a million little gods causing rainstorms/Turning every good thing to rust!”) to the Motown-strut outro. It’s about the loss of innocence and the sureness of death, and its intensity impressed even the band’s elders. U2 loved it so much, they played the recording to begin their shows for a stretch; it impressed David Bowie so much, he sang it live with the band for what became a benefit EP. The group knew it had something from the get-go; when he first heard his bandmates run through it in Butler’s kitchen, drummer Howard Bilerman testifies, “I was just knocked on my ass.”
“Mississippi,” Bob Dylan
2001 | COLUMBIA; | COLUMBIA; Highest Chart Position: Did not chart
Dylan knew he had something special when he wrote “Mississippi” during the sessions for 1997’s Time Out of Mind, but despite trying it three very different ways (later released on 2008’s Tell Tale Signs) he eventually gave up on it and handed it over to Sheryl Crow for release on her 1998 LP The Globe Sessions. “Polyrhythm doesn’t work for knifelike lyrics about majesty and heroism,” Dylan later said about his failed attempts at the song. But in 2001, he gave it another shot during the Love and Theft sessions and finally nailed an arrangement that worked, one that’s as stark and simple as it is haunting. It arrived in stores on September 11th, 2001, giving lines like “sky full of fire/Pain pourin’ down” a chilling resonance.
“All Too Well” Taylor Swift
2012 | BIG | BIG MACHINE; Highest Chart Position: 80
“It was the most emotional, in-depth song we’ve ever written,” said co-writer Liz Rose. Originally twice as long as the version that appeared on Swift’s 2012 LP, Red, “All Too Well” is the most majestic post-breakup purge of her career and spins a tragic tale of doomed love and scarves and autumn leaves and maple lattes. No other song does such a stellar job of showing off her ability to blow up a trivial little detail into a legendary heartache.
“Umbrella,” Rihanna feat. Jay-Z
2007 | DEF | DEF JAM; Highest Chart Position: 1
Rihanna’s career-defining hit was written in “maybe 15 minutes,” according to Terius “The-Dream” Nash. Kuk Harrell put together a drum loop, Christopher “Tricky” Stewart added some chords, then Nash stepped up to bat and “sung it from the top to the end – exactly as is, how you hear the song today.” “Maybe I had to change four words,” he added. The signature echoes – “ella ella eh eh eh” – that made the single catnip for radio programmers were a stroke of genius caused by budget constraints: “Back in the day we couldn’t afford the good reverb program,” Nash said. Originally rejected by Britney Spears’ management, “Umbrella” became the tsunamic R&B ballad that cemented Rihanna as one of this century’s most dominant hitmakers.
2000 | LAFACE; | LAFACE; Highest Chart Position: Did not chart
“Everybody’s been doing music like they all have the same formula: E = MC2,” Outkast’s Big Boi complained in 2000. “B.O.B.” was a blistering response to that aesthetic stagnation. Outkast revel in pure speed, expelling syllables in a breakneck rush, pushing the tempo past 150 beats per minute. Their romp brings them into a realm beyond the typical distinctions that separate hip-hop, dance music and rock, where guitar solos mingle lovingly with furious scratching and children’s chants. “B.O.B.” wasn’t a hit, but it was a call to arms. And it earned Outkast plenty of admirers, including Rage Against the Machine’s Zack de la Rocha. “It defies definition,” he said of “B.O.B.” “That’s the dopest kind of music.”
“Hotline Bling,” Drake
2015 | Cash | Cash Money; Highest Chart Position: 2
Drake said the beat to his biggest hit is “sunnier” than some of his other records, giving this exquisite alone-with-my-phone lament a world-hugging warmth. Director X said that the goal of the song’s hugely popular video was to “make men dance more.” Rapper D.R.A.M. said he felt Drake “jacked” his song “Cha Cha” in creating “Hotline Bling.” But the idea of shared culture was in keeping with the song’s welcoming vibe. “You know, like in Jamaica, you’ll have a riddim and it’s like, ‘Everyone has to do a song on that,’ ” Drake said. “Imagine that in rap, or imagine that in R&B. Imagine if we got one beat and every single person – me, this guy, this guy, all these guys – had to do a song on that one beat.”
“Uptown Funk,” Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars
2014 | RCA; | RCA; Highest Chart Position: 1
A perfect Eighties funk-pop nostalgia bomb – so perfect in fact, that the Gap Band and other acts from era took legal action. But Mars’ sparkling showmanship is one of a kind. Producer Mark Ronson later said that he worked so hard trying to nail the track he fainted during a session break at a restaurant: “They had to carry me out.”
“Lose Yourself,” Eminem
2002 | AFTERMATH; | AFTERMATH; Highest Chart Position: 1
Eminem remembered telling his manager, “I don’t know how to write about someone else’s life,” before penning this Academy Award-winning eye-of-the-tiger anthem for his character, Jimmy “B-Rabbit” Smith Jr., in the movie 8 Mile. “That was the trick I had to figure out: how to make the rhyme sound like him, and then morph into me somehow, so you see the parallels between his struggles and mine.” The rapper plunged to the emotional depths for this tongue-twisting anthem that tells the story of a rapper’s all-or-nothing struggle: the spaghetti-vomit nerves, the diapers that food stamps won’t buy, picking up after getting booed off the stage, and more. “The first time I heard it, I shit in my pants,” said co-producer Jeff Bass.
“Ms. Jackson,” Outkast
2000 | LAFACE; | LAFACE; Highest Chart Position: 1
This apology to the mother of Andre 3000’s ex-girlfriend Erykah Badu began as an acoustic-guitar song that the Outkast member was working on at home. It ended up their first Number One hit and first Grammy winner. “I probably would never come out and tell Erykah’s mom, ‘I’m sorry for what went down,’ ” André said of his son Seven’s grandma in 2002. “But music gives you the chance to say what you want to say.” And how did Badu’s mother feel about being addressed in this pop confessional? “Baby, she bought herself a Ms. Jackson license plate,” said Badu. “She had the mug, she had the ink pen, she had the headband, everything. That’s who loved it.”
“Take Me Out” Franz Ferdinand
2004 | DOMINO; | DOMINO; Highest Chart Position: 66
An emblem of the early-21st-century rock revival, this alternately stomping and boogying masterstroke bartered a perfect peace between sputtering guitar frustration and dance-floor abandon. The lyrics mirror the music, and begin with an agitated dude scoping out a lover over an antsy riff: “I’m just a cross-hair/I’m just a shot away from you,” Alex Kapranos declares creepily. When it becomes clear that he’s not getting anywhere, the song blooms into a spiky tantrum of disco-rock glory, giving in to the quality that makes music unique among all the arts: It will rock you even when no one else wants to.
“Bad Romance,” Lady Gaga
2009 | INTERSCOPE; | INTERSCOPE; Highest Chart Position: 2
Trashy heartbreak, techno trounce and a “rah-rah” chorus: “Bad Romance” is peak Gaga, released at the height of Gagamania. She wrote it on tour in Norway, riffing on the idea of falling for the wrong person and thinking of Hitchcock movies to get the right unhinged vibe. “I want your psycho, your vertigo shtick/Want you in my rear window, baby you’re sick.” She told MTV later, “What I’m really trying to say is I want the deepest, darkest, sickest parts of you that you are afraid to share with anyone, because I love you that much.”
“Rehab,” Amy Winehouse
2006 | ISLAND; | ISLAND; Highest Chart Position: 9
“That song was against the establishment,” says Salaam Remi, who produced five tracks on Winehouse’s 2006 breakout album, Back to Black. “It’s ‘The roof is on fire, we don’t need no water, let the motherfucker burn.'” Winehouse lived it like she sang it, but before she tragically passed away in 2011, the singer helped transform modern R&B with a scorching throwback sound that influenced Adele and Sam Smith, among others. The backing track for the defiant Motown-steeped “Rehab” was recorded in Brooklyn with producer Mark Ronson and powerhouse retro-funk band the Dap-Kings. Winehouse later added her final vocals in London, delivering a staggering performance. “[She sang] like it was from her diary,” backup vocalist Zalon Thompson said of Winehouse. “It sounds so simple, but she was able to connect. She was a walking truth.”
“Dancing on My Own,” Robyn
2010 | Konichiwa; | Konichiwa; Highest Chart Position: Did not chart
Robyn was more than a decade out from her last major U.S. hit when she wrote “Dancing on My Own” with longtime collaborator Patrik Berger, but this midtempo stunner vaulted her out of industry limbo and into the history books as our favorite Swedish sensation since Abba. Chalk it up to those thudding-heart synth arpeggios and her expert twist on a classic pop story: Robyn sees her ex with someone new, and it very much sucks, but she’ll be damned if she lets it ruin her night. It’s the ultimate crying-in-the-club anthem for our time, and a foolproof template that countless other pop stars have since followed to their own emotional breakthroughs on the dance floor (see Taylor Swift’s 1989). “This song, to me, is perfect,” Lorde wrote in a 2015 Tumblr post. “It’s happy and sad, fiery and independent but vulnerable and small, joyous even when a heart is breaking.”
“Blackstar,” David Bowie
2016 | COLUMBIA; | COLUMBIA; Highest Chart Position: 78
Just 12 months before he died from liver cancer, Bowie summoned a group of relatively unknown jazz musicians into New York’s Magic Shop studios to begin work on his final album. The title track and centerpiece of the album is a haunting, surreal 10-minute song where Bowie repeatedly refers to a “solitary candle” and a mysterious “black star.” “We were listening to a lot of Kendrick Lamar,” said producer Tony Visconti. “The goal, in many, many ways, was to avoid rock & roll.” What they accomplished was a sound unlike anything else in music history, a combination of jazz, electronics, progressive rock and even Gregorian chants. It showed that even at the very end of his life, Bowie remained a fearless innovator.
“Work It,” Missy Elliott
2002 | GOLDMIND; | GOLDMIND; Highest Chart Position: 2
Producer Timbaland and fellow funkonaut Elliott cut this retro-future space break-dancing jam at least five times before they settled on the slurpy, back-masked hook that turns “flip it and reverse it” into a literal proposition. “That’s something that she did creatively,” says the producer about the backward vocals. “When she came back and played it for me, I was like, ‘That’s the one.’ ” Elliott’s biggest chart hit is an onomatopoeic treat if you play it forward as well, full of ra-ta-ta-ta, buh-bump-buh-bump-bump and ba-rum-pa-pum-pum.
“All My Friends,” LCD Soundsystem
2007 | DFA; Highest | DFA; Highest Chart Position: Did not chart
In 2007, James Murphy’s mid-life-crisis masterpiece captured the ennui and self-loathing of a generation hobbled by FOMO and other millennial anxieties, so busy trying to “get with the plan” that they (we) don’t notice years slipping by, and that love – not clubbing or careering – is what gives life meaning. Driven by a strung-out, minimalist piano pattern and a krautrocking treadmill groove, it builds its drama in slow swells of realization that reach a bittersweet climax. “I thought it was too poppy, almost cloying,” the hyper-critical Murphy once said. Hardly: it celebrates life as an existential dance of magnificent futility, with Murphy sweating it out on the floor alongside the rest of us.
“Crazy,” Gnarls Barkley
2006 | ATLANTIC; | ATLANTIC; Highest Chart Position: 2
Producer Danger Mouse described “Crazy” as “straight spaghetti Western,” a direct homage to Italian composer Ennio Morricone; Gnarls Barkley singer CeeLo Green likened its sound to “industrial Euro soul.” Not exactly the stuff of Top 40 success. But the song’s jittery, spacious feel and Green’s urgent delivery touched a nerve, giving Gnarls Barkley a hit on both rock and R&B radio, while inspiring covers by everyone from Nelly Furtado to Prince to alt-rockers the Afghan Whigs. The members of Gnarls Barkley used some shrewd amateur pop psychology to give “Crazy” a boost. “Cee Lo and I started talking, and I somehow got off on this tangent about how people won’t take an artist seriously unless they’re insane,” Danger Mouse remembered. “. . . We started jokingly discussing ways in which we could make people think we were crazy.” That conversation informed Green’s lyrics, which he then recorded in a single take.
“Toxic,” Britney Spears
2003 | JIVE; | JIVE; Highest Chart Position: 9
Asked to choose from among her many hits in 2010, Spears was decisive: “My favorite song is ‘Toxic,’ ” she tweeted. Ding-ding! This is the correct answer. Compared to her early smashes, which carried a whiff of cornball maximalism even at their best, “Toxic” is an exquisite camp masterpiece. That’s what happens when you switch out Max Martin, who misplaced his chill somewhere back in the mid-Nineties, in favor of weirder, subtler Scandinavian pop scientists like Bloodshy & Avant. They pile the track high with James Bond guitars, Bollywood strings and a dash of Daft Punk vocoder sparkle, cleverly building 20th-century references into a 21st-century disco gem. British songwriter Cathy Dennis, hot off her success two years earlier with Kylie Minogue’s best singles ever, is the song’s secret weapon; when Minogue famously passed on “Toxic,” Spears got to taste its poison paradise. Lucky her, and us.
“Alright,” Kendrick Lamar
2015 | TOP | TOP DAWG; Highest Chart Position: 81
Sang at an anti-Trump rally in Chicago, a Black Lives Matter rally in Cleveland and the Million Man March anniversary in D.C., Lamar’s silkily optimistic, euphoric “Alright” is, as rapper Ric Wilson described it, “the modern-day … ‘We Shall Overcome.'” “It could’ve easily been a street or party record, but he turned it into something that uplifts our culture,” said longtime Lamar collaborator Sam Taylor, who worked with the song’s co-producers Pharrell Williams and Sounwave, and helped connect the rapper to the beat. “It’s bittersweet, though – because of what was happening to our people at the time and what is still happening to this day. In a way, it’s sad that he even had to write those words at all.” Said Lamar, “I wanted to approach it as more uplifting – but aggressive. Not playing the victim, but still having that ‘We strong,’ you know?'”
“Get Ur Freak On,” Missy Elliott
2001 | GOLDMIND; | GOLDMIND; Highest Chart Position: 7
Elliott worried its bhangra-based beat might be “too far left,” but “Get Ur Freak On” ended up being the hottest jam of her and Timbaland’s amazing early-2000s run. “Sometimes there are records that you don’t even know what to put on it because they’re so ill,” Elliott remembered upon first hearing Timbaland’s intoxicating mix of tabla-tapping beat science, funky bhangra and Southern bass. But this stuttering, avant-garde, trans-continental experiment hit the Top 10 in 2001. As for the party-starting intro? “There happened to be a Japanese janitor at the studio, so I had him come – with his mop and stuff – and record that part in Japanese,” said Elliott.
“Since U Been Gone,” Kelly Clarkson
2004 | RCA; | RCA; Highest Chart Position: 2
After becoming American Idol’s first champ, Clarkson teamed with producers Max Martin and Dr. Luke to give teen pop a punk-rock makeover. “It was real bare and there were hardly any words,” Clarkson recalled of the song’s demo. “My label was like, ‘This song is so amazing!’ And my manager and I were like, ‘It sounds cool, but they’re not really saying anything.’ And they were like, ‘Listen to the melody,’ and I was like, ‘The melody doesn’t really sound like it’s solidified yet!’ They were like, ‘I know, but it’s the production,’ and I was like, ‘There’s really only a guitar and a snare!’ It was a lot of trust in the label because I didn’t know Dr. Luke or Max. And it worked out. We ended up getting together in Sweden, and they got to know me as an artist and we amped up the track and made it a little more rockin’. But they didn’t know I was going to go an octave above on the chorus.”
“Last Nite,” The Strokes
2001 | RCA; | RCA; Highest Chart Position: did not chart
“People would say, ‘You know that song ‘American Girl,’ by Tom Petty? Don’t you think it sounds a little like that?’ ” the Strokes’ Julian Casablancas said. “And I’d be like, ‘Yeah, we ripped it off. Where you been?’ ” The real punchline is that almost 20 years down the line, “Last Nite” doesn’t sound like anyone but the Strokes. Albert Hammond Jr. and Nick Valensi play that nicked riff in a way Mike Campbell never dreamed of – it’s somehow both cleaner and dirtier than the original, which is kind of this band’s whole thing – and Casablancas’ last-call drawl is 100 percent him. Petty himself got it right in 2006, when he shrugged off any potential copyright issues in an interview with Rolling Stone: “A lot of rock & roll songs sound alike. Ask Chuck Berry.”
2013 | LAVA; | LAVA; Highest Chart Position: 1
Maybe the greatest striver’s anthem of our modern era was written in half an hour by a 15-year-old in Auckland, New Zealand – perfectly reasonable, since no one views the world’s absurd unfairness, or their own rights within in it, with greater clarity than a 15-year-old, especially one situated 8,800 miles from Wall Street and the heart of pop-culture imperialism. Ella Yelich-O’Connor, a.k.a. Lorde, came up with the name after seeing a picture of the Kansas City Royals’ George Brett in a magazine, and its critique of luxury fetishism after bingeing on rap LPs (especially Watch the Throne) and Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die. “All those references to expensive alcohol, beautiful clothes and beautiful cars,” she said. “I was thinking, ‘This is so opulent, but it’s also bullshit.'”
“Rolling in the Deep,” Adele
2010 | XL; | XL; Highest Chart Position: 1
Shortly after the breakup that ended her “first real relationship,” 20-year-old Adele went into the studio with songwriter Paul Epworth and channeled her raw heartache into a muscle-car Motown update that built to a gospel fever. “It’s me saying, ‘Get the fuck out of my house,’ instead of me begging him to come back,” she explained. Powered by the pain and authority of Adele’s vocal, “Rolling in the Deep” put old-school soul music back on the charts – all the charts, including rock, pop, R&B/hip-hop, dance and Latin, making it one of the biggest crossover hits ever.
“Runaway,” Kanye West feat. Pusha T
2010 | ROC-A-FELLA; | ROC-A-FELLA; Highest Chart Position: 12
This “toast for the douchebags,” soaked in regret and guilt, is the nine-minute centerpiece of West’s massive My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. “He probably had listened to the beat for four minutes, and got in the booth, and almost verbatim to what’s on the song today, just did it,” said producer Emile, who provided the original skeleton for the track. “The lyrics and the concept were what they were, and that’s when the Kanye West genius producer mode came in to play. He totally reproduced the record, and kept working on it and working on it, along with Jeff Bhasker. … He turned it into this epic song. It’s just a beautiful record. A masterpiece.” Rapper Pusha-T, who provides a raw second verse, referenced relationship problems he was going through at the time. “In the verse, I’m really having a conversation with someone: I was in the wrong about something, so I’m saying it, but then I’m trying to ease it, too,” he said. “And [West is] like, ‘No, I need more douchebag. No, please – more douchebag.’ He’s killing me, he doesn’t even know it. Eventually I’m like, ‘Fuck it, I’ll just go all the way.'”
“Maps,” Yeah Yeah Yeahs
2003 | INTERSCOPE; | INTERSCOPE; Highest Chart Position: 87
In the early 2000s, Yeah Yeah Yeahs were one of those preternatural New York City punk bands where you felt cheated if you went to show and didn’t catch a wad of Karen O’s spit. But they weren’t a local band for long. Fever to Tell, their 2003 debut album, produced by TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek, sold 1 million copies worldwide on the strength of, ironically, its most tender song. Karen O wrote the heartsick ballad “Maps” about her boyfriend, Liars frontman Angus Andrew, and hoped that he would come to see her at the video shoot for the song before she left for tour. “He was three hours late. . . . I didn’t think he was even going to come, and this was the song that was written for him. . . .” she said. “I got myself in a real emotional state. The tears in my eyes were real.” She wasn’t the only one crying. Even Beyoncé referenced it in Lemonade during “Hold Up,” her own anthem of reckoning.
“99 Problems,” Jay-Z
2003 | ROC-A-FELLA; | ROC-A-FELLA; Highest Chart Position: 30
“I kept trying things that I thought would sound like a Jay record,” said veteran Eighties bell-rocker Rick Rubin, “and after, like, three or four days he said, ‘I want to do something more like one of your old records, Beastie Boys-style.'” Pointing back to vintage Def Jam and forward to Kendrick Lamar’s incendiary survival tales, this hard-rock riposte to critics, crooked officers and the prison-industrial complex found its indelible, provocative hook – “I got 99 problems and a bitch ain’t one” – from a 1993 record by Ice-T and 2 Live Crew’s Brother Marquis. “The hook itself,” said Jay in his book Decoded, “is a joke, bait for lazy critics. At no point in the song am I talking about a girl.”
“Hey Ya!”, Outkast
2003 | LAFACE; | LAFACE; Highest Chart Position: 1
Sure, nobody takes Polaroid pictures anymore. But “Hey Ya!” still feels like the funk-rock future. “That’s when my friends started hipping me to the Ramones, the Buzzcocks, the Smiths,” said Outkast’s André 3000 about writing the song, a few years before its 2003 explosion. “I was getting to this music late. I was like, ‘Damn, this shit is jamming. Where have I been all this time?'” Playing the first guitar chords he ever learned – and every other instrument save some studio cameos from Kevin Kendrick and Aaron Mills of the Eighties funk band Cameo – André tried to do what he called “a Woody Allen kinda thing, a humorous kind of honesty,” with lyrics about a romance that seems more like an obligation. “But,” he told Rolling Stone, “people just want to dance to it.”
“Seven Nation Army,” The White Stripes
2003 | V2; | V2; Highest Chart Position: 76
The 21st Century’s greatest riff came to Jack White during a soundcheck in Melbourne, Australia, and the title was a placeholder. “That’s what I called the Salvation Army when I was a kid,” he told Rolling Stone in 2010. “[It] was just a way for me to remember which one I was talking about, but it took on a new meaning with the lyrics.” Fully formed, it addressed toxic gossip, the sort that grinds away at you, likely referring to the sort he endured over his relationship with drummer/ex-wife Meg White. It’s a coiled, cresting threat to go ballistic, with a fist-pump battle-readiness that has made it an all-purpose anthem of defiance, chanted at protests and sporting events worldwide. (As White said of the Italian soccer fans who made it their national rallying cry, “I am honored [they] have adopted this song as their own. . . . I love that most people who are chanting it have no idea where it came from. That’s folk music.”)
“Paper Planes,” M.I.A.
2007 | XL; | XL; Highest Chart Position: 4
Maya Arulpragasam’s globalist hip-hop masterstroke was one of the freshest things to hit radio this millennium, based around a Clash-sampling gun-clap beat by her then-boyfriend, Diplo. But it’s a lucky thing “Paper Planes” even got created in the first place. “It nearly didn’t happen,” M.I.A. recalls. “Straight after I wrote the song, me and Diplo had a massive fight, and I threw the hard drive [that contained the demo] at his head from the top floor. Luckily the hard drive landed in the boot of the taxi that he was about to get into and not on the ground. So it got saved.” Two months later, Interscope A&R man Mark Williams called M.I.A. and asked her to finish the track. She reconvened with Diplo in Brixton; the producer Switch joined them during these sessions as well. “They had this Clash sample [from ‘Straight to Hell’] and were struggling with the rhythm section,” Switch remembers. “I heard it, was blown away, and got more involved with the technical side of things – layering up the kicks in the chorus, putting the gunshots in.” “Paper Planes” was not chosen as the first single from M.I.A.’s Kala album. Or the second. Or the third. But when Seth Rogen placed the single in the trailer for his stoner comedy Pineapple Express, “Paper Planes” became a Top Five hit. “Shout-out to Seth Rogen,” M.I.A. says. “He changed my life.”
“Crazy in Love,” Beyonce feat. Jay-Z
2003 | COLUMBIA; | COLUMBIA; Highest Chart Position: 1
“It has this go-go feel to it, this old-school feel,” Beyoncé said of her debut solo single. “I wasn’t sure if people were going to get it.” In fact, the funk-fire horn blasts that opened “Crazy in Love” heralded her arrival as the boldest superstar of the century, the diva who made everyone else’s splashiest gestures seem tiny. Producer Rich Harrison constructed the song’s blockbuster beat around a horn sample lifted from the Chi-Lites’ 1970 song “Are You My Woman? (Tell Me So),” but he kept it in the can until he found the right artist to record it. After warming to the beat, Beyoncé told Harrison to write a song around it, returning to the studio two hours later to knock out her vocals. “She’s got such a strong voice, your job is just to make sure nothing gets distorted,” recalls engineer Jim Caruana. The decision to add a verse from Jay-Z, whom she’d begun dating, came at the last minute. “I asked Jay to get on the song the night before I had to turn my album in,” Beyoncé said. “Thank God he did. It still never gets old, no matter how many times I sing it.”