There are many fantastic songs in the world that span decades of creativity and many varied genres. However, some songs have stood the test of time and crossed genres to be considered the greatest songs in history. Keep reading to discover the best songs of all time and facts about each one.
Stairway to Heaven – Led Zeppelin
While it’s considered the best rock song of all time, ‘Stairway to Heaven’ was never a huge hit on the charts. That’s because it was never released as a single. While many of its lyrics were purposely written to be abstract, the beginning is about a greedy woman who realizes she won’t go to heaven.
Heroes – David Bowie
This underdog song is about a German couple who meet each day under a gun turret on The Berlin Wall, so they don’t have to be apart. It was inspired by an affair between David Bowie’s producer and a backup singer.
Superstition – Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder alludes to and criticizes several common superstitions in this piece. It was originally intended for Jeff Beck, who finally recorded his own version in December 1972.
Related: Find this song on our magic playlist.
Respect – Aretha Franklin
Otis Redding originally recorded what became one of Aretha Franklin’s most definitive tracks. Its message is simple: romantic partners should respect one another. Franklin’s version was more diverse than Redding’s, who only used verses with no chorus or bridge.
Related: See more self-empowerment songs.
Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana
This track’s title had nothing to do with the deodorant brand—Kurt Cobain, who wrote the track, had never even heard of the company. Cobain attempted to write a definitive pop song with this classic, which became the first mainstream alternative hit. It’s about conformity and the apathy of young people.
Related: Check out our list of top 90s karaoke songs.
Imagine – John Lennon
John Lennon asks the listener to imagine a peaceful world free of possessions, religions, countries, and other concepts and things that divide humans in one of his classic songs about peace. Lennon’s wife, Yoko Ono, inspired the concept of imagination in song.
Ain’t Got No, I Got Life – Nina Simone
This song goes beyond wanting and wishing for material things and realizing that having one’s life, freedom, and spirit is enough to be happy and whole. It’s a medley of the songs “Ain’t Got No” and “I Got Life” from the musical Hair.
Related: Find more songs about life journey.
Waterloo Sunset – The Kinks
Here’s a track about two lovers meeting at Waterloo Station. Lead singer Ray Davies crossed Waterloo Bridge daily as a student, inspiring the song.
The Way It Is – Bruce Hornsby and the Range
This track condemns racism and becoming complacent to social injustice. While it became a Top 40 hit, it lacks many of the standard elements of a popular song, such as a catchy hook or sensational chorus.
Sweet Child O’Mine – Guns N’ Roses
Axl Rose pulled this classic’s lyrics from a poem he was working on at the time. It was about his future wife Erin Everly and one happy memory from Rose’s dark childhood.
Related: This song appears on our playlist of popular 80s love songs.
Bohemian Rhapsody – Queen
This track’s meaning is famously ambiguous, although there are many religious themes throughout. It’s possibly Freddie Mercury’s coming out song, but this will likely never be confirmed as Queen remains secretive on its meaning out of respect for Mercury.
Related: Check out more fun sing-along songs.
Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag – James Brown
“Brand new bag” means a new style of music that James Brown was embracing in this context. Initially, it was seven minutes long but was edited to be radio-friendly and reached Number Eight in the United States.
Dreams – Fleetwood Mac
This song’s inspiration was likely the breakups that the band members were experiencing at the time of writing. It was the group’s only Number One hit in the United States despite its American popularity.
Related: Sing along with more fun road trip songs.
Running Up That Hill – Kate Bush
Sometimes, seeing things from someone else’s perspective could make it easier to have a relationship with them. That’s what this song explores. The title was changed from ‘A Deal With God’ to be more radio-friendly.
Fight the Power – Public Enemy
Public Enemy’s most famous song is a Black pride anthem that aims at many white cultural icons. It was meant to be controversial and have some shock value.
Related: Check out more control songs.
A Day in the Life – The Beatles
This story-rich piece tells some fascinating tales about daily life. Some of the tidbits in the lyrics are based on real-life news stories. A 41-piece orchestra lent its sound to the track, giving it a unique and rich sound.
Like a Rolling Stone – Bob Dylan
This track is largely about losing your place and footing in the world. It was quite a shock when it became popular, as it has an impressive six-minute and 13 second run time.
In Your Eyes – Peter Gabriel
Peter Gabriel has said that this searching song is about the strong relationship and love between either a man and a woman or a person and God. While it is pretty famous for its use in the film Say Anything, it cost the moviemakers a pretty penny to include it—$200,000, to be exact.
I Will Survive – Gloria Gaynor
In this girl-power survival song, Gloria Gaynor encourages women to move on and live well after a breakup. It won the 1979 Grammy Award for Best Disco Recording.
Layla – Eric Clapton
Eric Clapton is justifiably considered one of the greatest guitarists of all time – he’s the only person to have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (known as the ‘Rock Hall’) three times, if that’s any indication. Layla is his signature song – and whether it’s his electric or acoustic version – it’s pretty immense.
(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay – Otis Redding
As the title would suggest, Otis Redding was sitting on a dock of a bay around the time he wrote this song. He passed away in a plane crash only three days after recording this track, and it was released a month later.
Strawberry Fields Forever – The Beatles
This song refers to John Lennon’s happy memories at the Strawberry Fields Salvation Army home in Liverpool. Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, donated $375,000 to the home in the 1980s. John Lennon is the only artist who made it to the Top 10 twice with ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Imagine.’
Idioteque – Radiohead
This grim track takes place in a bunker during an apparent apocalypse. The title is not mentioned in the song and might be a play on the word “idiotic,” as ‘Idioteque’ is not a real word.
New York, New York – Frank Sinatra
While this is a definitive Frank Sinatra track, Liza Minelli first sang it for a film of the same name. Sinatra began to perform it in 1978 at concerts in New York City. It’s a true celebration of NYC and all its fame and glory.
Related: Take a trip with our playlist of songs with cities in the title.
I Shot the Sheriff – Bob Marley
This track tells the story of a man who shoots a sheriff but is wrongly accused of shooting the deputy. Bob Marley claimed that parts of the song were true without clarifying which ones.
Related: Check out more crime songs.
Bridge Over Troubled Water – Simon and Garfunkel
Here’s a classic about comforting someone in their time of need. It was meant to be a simple gospel tune but became something more advanced as it was written.
A Change is Gonna Come – Sam Cooke
This is a protest song about fighting for equality in the time of the United States Civil Rights movement. It was the first deep and serious track of Cooke’s, who was more well-known for lighter, sunnier pieces.
Billie Jean – Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson sings of a woman claiming that her child is his, as well. It was based on Jackson’s real-life stalker who made such claims.
Related: See more songs with good bass.
American Pie – Don McLean
This track pays homage to Buddy Holly, who died in a plane crash with Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper in 1959. It also pays tribute to the nostalgia of the 1950s.
All Along the Watchtower – The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Jimi Hendrix covered this Bob Dylan track, inspired by Dylan’s near brush with death. It was Hendrix who brought the song fame.
What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye
This song has a surprising and political anti-war message. This was one of the first Motown tracks to present such a powerful message and would welcome many more change songs to follow.
Strange Fruit – Billie Holiday
This shocking yet important anti-racism track was written by a white Jewish activist and schoolteacher named Abel Meeropol after seeing a photo depicting a horrible act of violence against two Black men. Billie Holiday popularized it after a quartet made up of four Black men performed it for the first time at a fundraiser.
Born to Run – Bruce Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen confesses love to a girl named Wendy in this classic. While it’s not entirely clear if this is one of Springsteen’s tracks based on a real-life woman, he has said that it’s about a young guy and girl running away together.
Once in a Lifetime – Talking Heads
This track talks about the futility of being dissatisfied with life and the helplessness that comes with realizing time keeps moving no matter what you do. It’s also about how modern humans live on autopilot, going through their daily lives without much thought about what they’re doing.
Ring of Fire – Johnny Cash
June Carter wrote this song about her tumultuous relationship with future husband Johnny Cash, who lived an uncontrolled lifestyle when they began working together. The two ended up divorcing their partners and married each other in 1968.
Related: See more songs about rings.
Purple Rain – Prince and the Revolution
This power ballad is the title track from Prince’s Oscar-winning film of the same name. ‘Purple Rain’ refers to the end of the world; the song is about surviving the roughest times with your significant other.
Lean on Me – Bill Withers
This is a unifying track about leaning on the people who care about you in your darkest times and is one of the greatest friendship songs. It’s one of the first songs that many children learn to play on the piano because it’s easy to play—you don’t have to change fingers.
Be My Baby – The Ronettes
The protagonist of this track asks a love interest to be her baby. Ronnie Spector sang parts of it for Eddie Money’s ‘Take Me Home Tonight’ in 1986. It’s one of the most popular songs with “baby” in the title.
Gimme Shelter – The Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones sing of the political unrest of the 1960s with this piece. Most of the track was written by Keith Richards.
Related: This song is on our classic war songs playlist.
God Only Knows – The Beach Boys
This track about love and its connection to spirituality was one of The Beach Boys’ first tracks with a somewhat deeper theme. It was released as a B-side due to the word “God” in the title. However, it did manage to hit the Top 40 in the United States.
Somewhere Over the Rainbow – Israel Kamakawiwo’ole
‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ was first sung by Judy Garland for the classic 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, though the Israel Kamakawiwo’ole version has been quite popular in recent times. It’s all about dreaming of a different, more magical life.
Fortunate Son – Creedence Clearwater Revival
This is an anti-government, anti-war song sung from the perspective of Blue Collar pride. It explores how class discrimination and war intersect lead to people being broke, particularly in American society.
Take Me Home, Country Roads – John Denver
This ode to West Virginia was originally written for Johnny Cash, but John Denver didn’t think it fit his style. It ended up being Denver’s signature song after he recorded it.
What A Wonderful World – Louis Armstrong
‘What A Wonderful World’ is one of the best hopeful songs about the beauty in the world. It was recorded in 1967 but had a throwback style that recalled the 1940s.
Africa – Toto
The protagonist of ‘Africa’ must decide if he will stay in the country he loves or leave with the woman he loves. The song’s writer, Toto keyboardist David Paich, had never been to Africa when he wrote the song.
Related: See the best 80s songs for karaoke.
Jailhouse Rock – Elvis Presley
This Elvis Presley hit is about a group of inmates partying and dancing. Its six-second intro is one of the most celebrated in rock history and is easily one of the most iconic songs.
Can’t Help Falling in Love – Elvis Presley
This song about the inevitability of falling for someone special. Elvis Presley sang this song in the film Blue Hawaii. Its melody is based on a French song called ‘Plaisir d’amour’ from 1784.
Tiny Dancer – Elton John
This was likely based on Elton John co-writer Bernie Taupin’s experiences in the United States – Los Angeles specifically. Taupin has said he observed the free-spirited behavior of women in California compared to that of the women in England.
Heart of Gold – Neil Young
Neil Young was likely talking about searching for kindness in this track. Some found it clichéd, but Young’s fans responded well to it, leading it to the legendary status it holds today.
Piano Man – Billy Joel
This imagery-rich track was inspired by Billy Joel’s performances at a Los Angeles piano bar called The Executive Room. The characters were based on real people, including a waitress who became Joel’s wife.
Careless Whisper – George Michael
Here’s a fictional account of cheating on a loved one and regretting it. While many thought that this was a real-life story of George Michael’s, he came up with the idea for the track’s story while getting on a bus.
Related: Sneak over to our playlist of songs about love affairs.