20: We’ll Meet Again
Ross Parker & Hughie Charles (1939); DV: Vera Lynn
Optimism and stoicism made this singalong the people’s song of the Second World War.
19: Dancing Queen
Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus, Stig Anderson (1976); DV: ABBA
On a purely melodic and harmonic level, ABBA operated in a sphere beyond most pop songwriters. The joyous escapism of Dancing Queen is infused with ephemeral loss, a feeling of youth burning out before your very eyes and ears.
18: God Only Knows
Brian Wilson & Tony Asher (1966); DV: The Beach Boys
Gorgeous devotional love song floats on a heartbursting baroque melody.
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The confrontation implicit in a bitter divorce is somehow transmuted into inspirational anthem of mutual dependence.
16: Strange Fruit
Abel Meeropol (1936); DV: Billie Holiday (1939)
Sinister poetic account of racist lynchings. Holiday is said to have broken down every time she performed it.
15: The Boxer
Paul Simon (1969); DV: Simon and Garfunkel
Soul stirring song of survival, our weary narrator drawing inspiration from a scarred fighter’s refusal to surrender.
14: The River
Bruce Springsteen (1981)
Springsteen is a master of American narratives, and digs deep on this huge, haunting ballad charting how economic hardship can destroy a relationship, with the dried river as a symbol of elusive hopes and dreams.
Leonard Cohen (1984); DV: Jeff Buckley (1994)
The song that has everything: desire and rejection, love and sex, God and man, failure and transcendence.
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12: Sympathy for the Devil
Jagger & Richards (1968); DV: The Rolling Stones
Jagger outrageously puts himself in the cloven hooves of Satan in a wild, evocative roll call of human outrages.
11: God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind)
Randy Newman (1972)
Equally outrageously, Newman casts himself as God contemplating his pitiful creation.
10: Everybody Hurts
Stipe, Berry, Buck & Mills (1993); DV: REM
A secular hymn of compassion constructed around a simple picked rock-and-roll guitar motif.
9: I’ve Got You Under My Skin
Cole Porter (1956); DV: Frank Sinatra
Has there ever been a more streamlined, sensual evocation of addictive desire?
8: Somewhere Over the Rainbow
Harold Arlen & E. Y Yarburg (1939); DV: Judy Garland
The rising melody and wistful lyric perfectly encapsulate yearning for a different, better life.
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7: Saint James Infirmary
Traditional blues; DV: Louis Armstrong 1928
A singer ponders lost love and prepares for his own funeral on a sad, defiant contemplation of mortality that has been passed down through the mists of time and recorded by artists as diverse as Billie Holiday and the White Stripes.
6: Redemption Song
Bob Marley (1979)
Simple, stirring, strangely wistful anthem of freedom, both personal and political.
Ray Davies (1970); DV: The Kinks
Witty, compassionate, inspirational song of confused, transgender love, boasting dazzling rhymes, exultant melody and explosive emotion.
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4: Unchained Melody
Alex North & Hy Zaret (1955); DV: The Righteous Brothers (1965)
A thousand karaoke versions cannot destroy this epic, vocally demanding ballad.
3: Tangled Up in Blue
Bob Dylan (1975)
Dylan’s dazzling narrative of star-crossed love and divorce was shaped by abstract art into a tableaux you can come at from any angle and discover something new.
2: Let It Be
Lennon & McCartney (1970); DV: The Beatles (1970)
Anthem of consolation, inspired by Paul McCartney’s dream of a visit from his own mother, Mary.
1: Life On Mars?
David Bowie (1971)
Gloriously strange sci-fi anthem. A stirring, yearning melody combines with vivid, poetic imagery to accomplish a trick very particular to the art of the song: to be at once completely impenetrable and yet resonant with personal meaning. You want to raise your voice and sing along, yet Bowie’s abstract cut-up lyrics force you to invest the song with something of yourself just to make sense of the experience, and then carries you away to a place resonant with intense, individual emotion. The magic and mystery of music and lyrics. It is something to behold.