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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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“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.

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“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.

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“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.

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“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.

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“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?'”

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“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.

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“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.”

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“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.”

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“Royals,” Lorde

2013 | 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.'” 

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“Rolling in the Deep,” Adele

2010 | 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.

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“Runaway,” Kanye West feat. Pusha T

2010 | 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.'”

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“Maps,” Yeah Yeah Yeahs

2003 | 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.

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“99 Problems,” Jay-Z

2003 | 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.”

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“Hey Ya!”, Outkast

2003 | 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.”

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“Seven Nation Army,” The White Stripes

2003 | 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.”)

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“Paper Planes,” M.I.A.

2007 | 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.”