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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.

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“Letter From an Occupant,” The New Pornographers

2000 | 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.”

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“House of Jealous Lovers,” The Rapture

2002 | 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.”

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“Bad and Boujee,” Migos feat. Lil Uzi Vert

2016 | 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.”

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“Call Me Maybe,” Carly Rae Jepsen

2011 | 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.”

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“American Idiot,” Green Day

2004 | 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.

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“Thinkin Bout You,” Frank Ocean

2012 | 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.

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“Springsteen,” Eric Church

2011 | 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.”

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“What You Know,” T.I.

2006 | 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.'”

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“Beez in the Trap,” Nicki Minaj feat. 2 Chainz

2012 | 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.'” 

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“We Found Love,” Rihanna feat. Calvin Harris

2011 | 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.”

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“DNA,” Kendrick Lamar

2017 | 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.”

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“Sugar, We’re Goin Down,” Fall Out Boy

2005 | 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.

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“Teenage Dream,” Katy Perry

2010 | 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.”  

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“Hung Up,” Madonna

2005 | 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. 

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“The Wire,” Haim

2013 | 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. 

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“Bodak Yellow,” Cardi B

2017 | 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.”

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“Ni**as in Paris” Jay-Z and Kanye West

2011 | 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?'”

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“Do You Realize??” The Flaming Lips

2002 | 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.”

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“Weird Fishes/ Arpeggi,” Radiohead

2007 | 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. 

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“212,” Azealia Banks feat. Lazy Jay

2011 | 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?

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“Portions for Foxes,” Rilo Kiley

2004 | 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.”

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“Oblivion,” Grimes

2012 | 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.

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“Chandelier,” Sia

2014 | 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.”

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“Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” Beyoncé

2008 | 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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