20 Greatest Songs of all Time

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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17: One

U2 (1992)

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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.

13: Hallelujah

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

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones performing at Earl's Court, London, 25th May 1976.  (Photo by John Minihan/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones performing at Earl’s Court, London, 25th May 1976. (Photo by John Minihan/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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)

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Simple, stirring, strangely wistful anthem of freedom, both personal and political.

 

5: Lola

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)

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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.

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