The Absolute Best Songs in History

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What are the 100 absolute best songs in history? That question will raise as many hackles on the backs of necks as the questions of who are the greatest players in a given sport or the best presidents in American history. (Here’s a list of every Song of the Year since the Grammys started.)

It may not settle any arguments, but 24/7 Tempo devised a way to determine what those 100 best songs would be. (Note that this list covers only specific performances of pop songs from the 1950s through the present day, and doesn’t include standards from the so-called Great American Songbook, classic folk songs, or other earlier music.)

To compile our list, we developed an index composed of Billboard chart performance, critical rankings, and cultural popularity. An inverse score wherein a week at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 is worth 100 points, a week at No. 2 worth 99 points, up to a week at No. 100 worth one point, was included in the index at full weight. A song’s ranking on the 2021 edition of Rolling Stone’s “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list was included in the index at full weight. The number of times a song has been covered was included in the index at double weight. (Data on song covers and songwriting credits comes from song database SecondHandSongs.) Only songs on the Rolling Stone list were considered. (These are the best cover songs of all time.)

Baby Boomers who feel that the music produced while they were coming of age was the best ever might feel vindicated by this list. Of the 100 songs here, exactly 60% of them – including eight of the top 10 – are from the 1960s and ‘70s. The explosion of pop music in those decades was intense. 

Besides homegrown rock ‘n’ roll from the Beach Boys and Creedence Clearwater Revival, soul and Motown sounds from acts like the Miracles and the Temptations, and singer/songwriter performances by such as Simon & Garfunkel and Joni Mitchell, the music scene was enlivened by the British invasion, led most of all by The Beatles, who have three songs in the top 10.  

The 1970s marked a period of distinct shift in American music, spawning disco, funk, and such rock ‘n’ roll subgenres as punk and new wave. There are 21 songs from the 1970s on the list, from artists including Earth, Wind & Fire, the Bee Gees, David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, and Roberta Flack.

There are also six songs here from the classic rock ‘n’ roll era of the 1950s – but none from the 2020s.

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