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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

“Bad Romance,” Lady Gaga

2009 | 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.”

The 100 Greatest Songs of the Century – So Far

“Rehab,” Amy Winehouse

2006 | 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.”

The 100 Greatest Songs of the Century – So Far

“Dancing on My Own,” Robyn

2010 | 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.”

The 100 Greatest Songs of the Century – So Far

“Blackstar,” David Bowie

2016 | 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.

The 100 Greatest Songs of the Century – So Far

“Work It,” Missy Elliott

2002 | 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.

The 100 Greatest Songs of the Century – So Far

“All My Friends,” LCD Soundsystem

2007 | 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.

The 100 Greatest Songs of the Century – So Far

“Crazy,” Gnarls Barkley

2006 | 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.

The 100 Greatest Songs of the Century – So Far

“Toxic,” Britney Spears

2003 | 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.

The 100 Greatest Songs of the Century – So Far

“Alright,” Kendrick Lamar

2015 | 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?'”

The 100 Greatest Songs of the Century – So Far

“Get Ur Freak On,” Missy Elliott

2001 | 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.

The 100 Greatest Songs of the Century – So Far

“Since U Been Gone,” Kelly Clarkson

2004 | 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.”

The 100 Greatest Songs of the Century – So Far

“Last Nite,” The Strokes

2001 | 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.”