100 of the Best Pop Songs of All Time

What makes a pop song a classic? A catchy melody, for sure. A beat that makes you want to move. Lyrics that speak to your heart and head. And a voice that catches your ear and holds your attention. The best pop songs contain all of these elements and more. 

Scientists at the University of London who have studied the psychology of pop music have identified three elements that make a song grab your attention:

  • Phrasing: The longer a singer holds a note or lyric, the more likely we are to listen. Think of Freddy Mercury's powerhouse vocals.
  • Chorus: Three different musical pitches appear to be the magical number to make a song's chorus memorable.
  • Strong vocals: Powerful male vocals seem to trigger the greatest emotional responses. 

Ask a group of songwriters what makes a pop song great and you're likely to get a number of different answers. Lamont Dozier, who wrote dozens of classic Motown songs, has told interviewers that there's no secret formula—people like what they like. A good beat helps, says Max Martin, who's written hits for Britney Spear and Taylor Swift. Martin also notes, however, that musical tastes change over time. What becomes a smash hit in one era may not in another.

Ultimately, musical taste is subjective, as are "best of" lists. Which didn't stop us from making one. Find out if your favorite tunes are on this list of what we consider the 100 best pop songs of all time.

At heart, "Take on Me" is just a simple synth-pop song. However, through its course, the singer ranges nearly two-and-a-half octaves, soaring to high notes that are exhilarating to hear. It became a No. 1 pop smash around the world and featured a highly memorable video using pencil sketch animation, which took home six awards at the MTV Video Music Awards.

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Included on the band's self-titled second album, "25 or 6 to 4" is one of the best examples of the band's distinctive jazz-rock fusion of horns and electric guitars. The song became Chicago's first top 5 pop hit single in the U.S. and their first top 10 hit across the Atlantic in the U.K.

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John Lennon himself stated that "Imagine" is as good as anything he wrote with the Beatles. The song remains one of the most powerful and poignant pleas for a peaceful world ever recorded. It reached the top 10 in both the U.S. and the U.K. upon its initial release.

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This pop standard, written in 1933, was first sung by Ethel Waters at the Cotton Club in Harlem. However, Lena Horne's version of the song, which was included in the 1943 movie "Stormy Weather," is probably the best-known recording of this classic. The song's lyrics brilliantly use weather as a metaphor for a strong emotional state, one of the reasons why it is included in the Grammy Awards Hall of Fame.

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"Over the Rainbow" was written specifically for the movie "The Wizard of Oz" by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg. Judy Garland singing the song was originally deleted from the movie, but Arlen and executive producer Arthur Freed lobbied to get it back in the film. The version from the film remains the best-known recording, but other cover versions, particularly the one by Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, are well known. The "Songs of the Century" list compiled by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts listed "Over the Rainbow" as No. 1, based on its historical significance.

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"Bye Bye Love" is the song that introduced the world to the Everly Brothers. It had been rejected by at least 30 other recording acts. The duo's version topped the country chart, and also reached No. 2 on the pop chart and No. 5 on the R&B chart.

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Leonard Cohen's song "Hallelujah" first appeared on his 1984 album, "Various Positions." It remained relatively obscure until John Cale recorded a 1991 version, which in turn influenced Jeff Buckley's 1994 cover. Buckley's recording, which is featured on his "Grace" album, has been recognized by many as one of the most beautiful and powerful records of all time. Since then, the song has become a contemporary pop standard that has been recorded and performed by a wide range of artists, including k.d. lang, in a celebrated appearance at the 2010 Winter Olympics, and Alexandra Burke, whose version became a No. 1 U.K. pop hit.

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Although it is far from the Electric Light Orchestra's (ELO) biggest commercial success, "Mr. Blue Sky" is arguably the best example of all the elements of group leader Jeff Lynne's style coming together. Awash in strings and with a pounding rock beat, "Mr. Blue Sky" expresses the pure joy of a sunny day with a heavily electronically manipulated vocal. The song is the fourth and final song that makes up the "Concerto for a Rainy Day" on the double album "Out of the Blue."

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Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" is an epic recording. At the time of its release, it was the most expensive song ever recorded. Notably, the song does not have a traditional chorus but instead is organized in distinct movements. "Bohemian Rhapsody" topped the pop singles chart in the U.K. for nine weeks and is regularly cited as the greatest pop single of all time in U.K. polls. It reached the top 10 in the U.S. on two different occasions.

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The Canadian group The Band toured with and recorded "The Basement Tapes" with Bob Dylan before releasing their debut album, "Music From Big Pink." The song is performed in the style of a Southern American folk song and had influence well beyond its chart success. Aretha Franklin's soul interpretation of the song was a top-20 hit in 1969.

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"Good Vibrations" is the Beach Boys' magnum opus. Written by Brian Wilson, it became the band's third No. 1 pop single. Some consider the song to be a mini-symphony of sorts in multiple sections. Production of the song is reported to have taken 17 sessions and ultimately cost over $50,000, a phenomenal cost at the time. "Good Vibrations" broke new ground both its use of new kinds of instruments—something akin to a theremin is used in its final segments—and by splicing together a wide range of discrete recorded components to create the final work.

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Inspired by a trip Mitchell took to Hawaii, "Big Yellow Taxi" has become a touchstone for the environmental movement, thanks to its distinctive line, "They paved paradise/and put up a parking lot." It didn't become a significant pop hit until a live version of the song reached the top 25 in 1975.

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"Your Song" made its first appearance on Elton John's self-titled second solo album. The simple, earnest love ballad ranks as one of the top love songs of all time. It became Elton John's first top 10 pop hit in the U.S. Ellie Goulding took the song to No. 2 in the U.K. in 2010 with a cover version. 

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"Mack the Knife" was originally composed in German and made its premier onstage in Berlin in 1928. It was widely introduced to English-speaking audiences as part of an English version of "The Threepenny Opera" by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht. The song is a murder ballad detailing the crimes of a highwayman known as MacHeath. Pop singer Bobby Darin recorded a version that hit No. 1 on the U.S. pop charts in 1959. It went on to win the Grammy Award for Record of the Year.

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Bruce Springsteen has stated that he wrote "Born to Run" as a last-ditch effort to become a star. His first two albums had been critically acclaimed but didn't sell particularly well. The song is essentially a passionate, heroic love letter to a girl named Wendy, which features such powerful imagery as "kids huddled on the beach in a mist" and "highways jammed with broken heroes." Along with the rest of the album, "Born to Run" did indeed help propel Bruce Springsteen to the top. He appeared on the covers of Time and Newsweek, and the album hit No. 3 on the charts. Neither of his first two albums had even placed inside the top 50. The song itself reached No. 23 on the pop singles chart in the U.S.

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"Escapade" represents an upbeat, joyful peak in Janet Jackson's pop career. It was one of seven top 5 pop hit singles from the album "Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814." "Escapade" went all the way to No. 1 on the pop singles chart and is accompanied by a celebratory Mardi Gras-inspired music video.

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"One" is the third single from U2's hit album "Achtung Baby." It was written to celebrate the reunification of East and West Germany and released as a benefit single for AIDS research. It eventually became a top 10 hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

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Madonna worked with producer William Orbit to put together this techno dance classic. It became the top song played in dance clubs for the year 1998. The accompanying video was inspired by the time-lapse photography in the film 'Koyanisqaatsi." "Ray of Light" was a top 10 smash hit in both the U.K. and the U.S. 

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Madonna's classic "Like a Prayer" grew out of a concerted effort by the singer to record something more adult. She was inspired by the Roman Catholic belief in transubstantiation, by which the bread and wine in the Eucharist become literally the body and blood of Christ. The song and accompanying video generated controversy, but the anthemic sound of "Like a Prayer" and its gospel backing chorus were enthusiastically received by fans, who turned it into a No. 1 pop smash.

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"Don't Speak" was written in the wake of the end of a seven-year relationship between No Doubt's lead vocalist Gwen Stefani and bass player Tony Kanal. The emotional power of the song earned a Grammy Award nomination for Song of the Year. "Don't Speak" topped pop radio airplay charts for nearly four months.

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The Swedish pop superstars first performed "Dancing Queen" live as part of a televised gala honoring the wedding of Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustaf and his bride, Silvia Sommerlath. The song went on to be a No. 1 pop hit around the world and was certified gold in both the U.S. and the U.K. It is the legendary group's only No. 1 hit in the U.S.  

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"Blue Monday" is one of the most influential pop records of all time. New Order recorded it just two years after the group had risen out of the ashes of the postpunk band Joy Division, which fell apart when lead vocalist Ian Curtis died. The band incorporated influential elements from seminal dance artists Kraftwerk, Donna Summer, and Sylvester. The breakbeat production work of Arthur Baker in New York was also a strong influence. The 12-inch single became the biggest selling 12-inch recording of all time.

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Written by Paul Simon, "Bridge Over Troubled Water" is one of Art Garfunkel's few solo performances. There was conflict over that decision, but it remains a stunning vocal tour de force. The song spent six weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and sold over 6 million records worldwide. It won Grammy Awards for both Record and Song of the Year.

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"My Heart Will Go On" had a somewhat rugged path on its way to becoming one of the biggest romantic pop hits of all time. It first was written as an instrumental motif for the film "Titanic," and film director James Cameron initially had no interest in it as a vocal song to be included at the end of the movie. Ultimately, however, the stars aligned, and the song became a worldwide pop smash, winning the Academy Award for Best Original Song as well as Grammy Awards for Record and Song of the Year.

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76
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Beatles: 'Yesterday' (1965)

The Beatles 1965
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"The Guinness Book of Records" claims that no song has inspired more cover versions than "Yesterday." A melancholy ballad comprised of Paul McCartney's vocals laid over a string quartet, it details the aftermath of a relationship gone sour. However, when something so simple is done so perfectly, it becomes a classic. The other Beatles members were at first adamantly against including the song on an upcoming album because the sound was so different from their other work. They did veto its release as a single at home in the U.K. In the U.S., the song was a No. 1 hit. A 1999 BBC poll voted "Yesterday" the Best Song of the 20th century.

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The biggest hit single by the band R.E.M. went to No. 4 on the pop singles chart. The sound of the song is built around a mandolin hook. The song's title comes from a Southern colloquial phrase meaning to lose one's temper. R.E.M.'s lead vocalist has said the song is about unrequited love and romantic expression. The accompanying video was highly acclaimed. It won a Grammy Award for Best Short Form Video.

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Written by Linda Perry, Christina Aguilera's single "Beautiful" has been adopted as an LGBT anthem. It received a Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, was nominated for Song of ​The Year, and peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. It went all the way to No. 1 on the pop singles chart in the U.K. 

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Britney Spears' commercial success seemed to be fading when she headed into the studio to record this single from her album "In the Zone." It has a very high-pitched hook that is unforgettable. The song has been the subject of cover versions by artists ranging from bluegrass band Nickel Creek to French-Israeli folk-pop artist Yael Naim. The song brought Britney Spears back to the pop top 10 and earned her a Grammy Award for Top Dance Recording.

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Lady Gaga debuted the song "Bad Romance" on the fashion runway at Alexander McQueen's Paris Fashion Week show in October 2009. According to Gaga, the collaboration with producer RedOne was just supposed to be experimental. The song nonetheless peaked at No. 2 in the U.S. and at No. 1 in several other countries. It has sold approximately 10 million digital copies worldwide and many consider it to be Gaga's signature recording. The accompanying music video received a Grammy Award, and it is recognized as one of the top music videos of all time.

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Stephen Sondheim, one of the most accomplished composers of stage musicals of all time, does not aim to write hit songs. However, the emotional power of "Send in the Clowns," from the musical "A Little Night Music," attracted the attention of a wide range of performers, including the legendary Frank Sinatra. In 1975, Judy Collins turned it into a pop hit, and "Send in the Clowns" received the Grammy Award for Song of the Year as a result.

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"American Pie" is considered by many to be an allegorical history of rock music up to the time of the song's recording. The "day the music died," the famous line from the chorus, refers to the day that Buddy Holly died in 1959 in an airplane crash with Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. Although McLean has stated that the plane crash inspired him to write the song, he has been tight-lipped about other specifics about the lyrics. However, many believe that such figures as the Byrds, Mick Jagger, and the Beatles are subjects mentioned in the song. "American Pie" was a No. 1 pop single for four weeks.

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Vocal group the Association experienced its pop breakthrough with the top 10 hit "Along Comes Mary." They followed it with a love song that the record label believed was too old-fashioned. However, pop fans felt differently and turned the ballad "Cherish" into a No. 1 smash.

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The Rolling Stones topped the U.S. pop singles chart for the first time with this song. It has all of the components of a classic Rolling Stones hit, including Keith Richards' arresting guitar intro and Mick Jagger's distinctive preening vocals. The song was recorded at the Chess Studios in Chicago. "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" was considered subversive and threatening due to its sexual suggestiveness and attacks on commercialism, but it turned the Rolling Stones into superstars.

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The ballad "I Want It That Way" is seen by many as one of the ultimate boy band singles. The Backstreet Boys earned Grammy Award nominations for both Song and Record of the Year with the recording. It topped both mainstream pop and adult contemporary radio charts.

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Rod Stewart's tale of a manipulative romance with an older woman is believed to be autobiographical. It became Stewart's first No. 1 pop single and is credited with launching his career as a solo star. "Maggie May" brought a British folk-pop style and Stewart's trademark raspy vocals into the pop mainstream. Rod Stewart has said he's not sure why it became such a big hit because it has no melody.

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The only significant pop hit single that Jimi Hendrix had was this cover of a Bob Dylan song. It was recorded for his album "Electric Ladyland" and released only six months after Dylan's version. The Hendrix interpretation is widely considered the superior take, and even Dylan has acknowledged that he now performs the song Jimi's way.

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Although Jon Bon Jovi did not like the original recorded version of "Livin' on a Prayer," a reworking of the song has turned into his band's signature hit. It has become a favorite for jukebox singalongs and has sold more than 3 million digital copies.  

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Recorded in just two takes, this No. 2 pop hit is one of Motown's most memorable records and the signature song of vocal trio Martha and the Vandellas. Controversy erupted around the song in the late 1960s when it was adopted as a civil rights anthem by militant protesters. As a result, some radio stations banned the song. "Dancing in the Street" was officially added to the National Recording Registry in 2006 by the Library of Congress. 

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Although it was never officially released as a single in the U.S., "Stairway to Heaven" is widely recognized as one of the greatest rock recordings of all time. It was adopted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2003, due in no small part to the song's stellar guitar solo by Jimmy Page.

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"Son of a Preacher Man" is the centerpiece of English singer Dusty Springfield's landmark "Dusty in Memphis" album. The song was first recorded by Aretha Franklin's sister Erma, and the Queen of Soul decided to record it herself after hearing Dusty Springfield's interpretation. "Son of a Preacher Man" became Springfield's fourth top 10 hit in the U.S. and her 10th at home in the U.K.

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"Unchained Melody" was originally recorded as the theme song for an obscure 1955 prison film, "Unchained, for which it was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Song From a Motion Picture." An instrumental version by Les Baxter and a vocal version by Al Hibbler hit the pop charts shortly afterward. The best-known version of "Unchained Melody" is a Phil Spector-produced solo performance by Bobby Hatfield of the Righteous Brothers, but it was still credited to the duo upon release. This version was a top 5 pop hit, and it returned to the charts in 1990 after being included on the soundtrack to the film "Ghost." "Unchained Melody" remains one of the most romantic pop songs of all time.

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Despite the fact that the true subject of this song is still not known, it is one of the most devastating portraits of conceit ever recorded. Mick Jagger, Warren Beatty, Kris Kristofferson, and James Taylor are all potential influences. Various clues to the identity have come out over time. Musically, "You're So Vain" is one of the best examples of a confessional style of singer-songwriter pop. The song is Carly Simon's only No. 1 pop single.

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Tricky Stewart and The-Dream wrote "Umbrella" with Britney Spears in mind. Her record label rejected it, claiming they had enough songs for her upcoming collection. The song then caught the attention of L.A. Reid at Island Def Jam, and after he sent it to Rihanna she immediately wanted to record it. Upon release, the song quickly became the biggest hit of Rihanna's career, reaching No. 1 around the world. "Umbrella" remained at the top of the chart in the U.K. for 10 weeks, the longest of any song in the decade. It was nominated for Grammy Awards for Song and Record of the Year and won a Grammy for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration.

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The Black Eyed Peas debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 with "I Gotta Feeling," just behind their "Boom Boom Pow."  It later went to No. 1 and spent 14 weeks at the top, giving the Black Eyed Peas chart dominance for six months. The celebratory party feel of "I Gotta Feeling" earned it a Grammy Award nomination for Record of the Year.

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To many fans, the upbeat, inspirational words of reggae hit "Three Little Birds" are the essence of reggae legend Bob Marley. It was released as a single from his 1977 gold-certified album "Exodus."

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"Hey Jude," the Beatles' biggest pop hit single, began as a song written by Paul McCartney titled "Hey Jules," It was meant to comfort a young Julian Lennon while his parents were going through a divorce. With a four-minute fade, "Hey Jude's" length made it one of the longest No. 1 pop hit singles of all time. The song earned Grammy Award nominations for Record and Song of the Year.

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Gnarls Barkley is a collaborative project between producer Danger Mouse and vocalist Cee Lo Green. Their debut single, "Crazy," became one of the most acclaimed pop hits of the decade. It spent nine weeks at No. 1 in the U.K., the first song to do so in 10 years, and reached No. 2 in the U.S. Musically, "Crazy" was inspired by the spaghetti western film scores of Ennio Morricone. Lyrically, the song emerged out of a conversation between Cee Lo and Danger Mouse.

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"Like a Rolling Stone" is no doubt a pop music epic, which Bob Dylan originally wrote as a short story. At more than six minutes long, its length is nearly unheard of for any pop song, then or now. Its lyrical meaning has been hotly debated over the years, but in the end what really matters is the power of Dylan's poetry and Al Kooper's organ work, which overlays the song like a gathering storm. The song reached No. 2 on the pop singles chart and remains Bob Dylan's biggest hit.

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The musical introduction for "Light My Fire" was influenced by the work of Johann Sebastian Bach. It gave the mainstream pop world their first introduction to the groundbreaking artistry of the Doors. Although the original seven-minute album version of the song was provided to pop radio in a heavily edited three-minute cut, the full-length song was often requested by listeners. "Light My Fire" spent three weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.

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Gospel singer Sam Cooke turned to the secular world with this single. Its crooning, romantic R&B style is considered a rock-and-roll landmark. "You Send Me" remains Sam Cooke's only No. 1 pop single.

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Pop songwriter Jimmy Webb wrote "Wichita Lineman" after driving through Oklahoma and noticing a seemingly endless line of telephone poles, broken only by the silhouette of a lone lineman atop a pole in the distance. He imagined the loneliness of the solitary worker and turned it into a song. Glen Campbell's recording of "Wichita Lineman" became a No. 3 pop smash and turned him into a star. It also topped both the country and adult contemporary charts.

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Propelled by a distinctive drum line, "Peggy Sue" became one of Buddy Holly's three top 10 pop hits. Like many early rock and roll hits, it was a major success on the R&B chart as well. "Peggy Sue" was added to the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.

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This song, featured in the film "The Graduate," details the hidden lives of middle-class families in the late 1960s, with references to Joe DiMaggio, illicit romance, politics, and even mental illness. A pop cultural tour de force, "Mrs. Robinson" became a No. 1 hit single for the duo.

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"ABC" showcases the joyful energy of a young Jackson 5, and is a showcase for lead singer Michael Jackson's vocal range, including his distinctive falsetto. It was the second of four consecutive No. 1 pop hits that kicked off the group's career.  

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"Fame" was recorded in a one-day session in which John Lennon provided backing vocals. Lennon also contributed the song title to the tune, which was based around guitarist Carlos Alomar's compelling riff. The result was the first No. 1 pop hit of David Bowie's career. John Lennon's backing vocals can be heard on the record.

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Many consider this one of the sexiest recordings of all time. It was reportedly written after a case of serious writer's block. Marvin Gaye was struggling to come up with material to follow his landmark "What's Going On" album. The song was first written from a spiritual point of view and then with political overtones. Ultimately it became one of the most celebrated odes to lovemaking ever recorded.

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When he recorded this song, Frank Sinatra, one of the top pop artists of all time, had not had a No. 1 single since 1955. It won three Grammy Awards, including Record of the Year. One of the most distinctively remembered components of the recording is the scatted "doo-be-doo-be-doo" as the song fades.

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This song introduced the world to Britney Spears. It is also a landmark hit in the career of songwriter and producer Max Martin. Although Britney Spears was only 16 at the time of recording, the song has a decidedly salacious tone, which is enhanced by the sexy schoolgirl theme of the accompanying music video. "...Baby One More Time" has been widely covered by other artists, including Fountains of Wayne and Panic at the Disco. The song became a chart-topping hit in more than a dozen countries around the world.

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"Dreams" was written in the midst of the emotional and personal upheaval experienced by the members of Fleetwood Mac, which ultimately resulted in the legendary album "Rumours." Stevie Nicks says she wrote "Dreams" in the studio in about 10 minutes. Christine McVie found the song a bit dull until Lindsey Buckingham put together a three-section arrangement that pulled everything together. "Dreams" became the Fleetwood Mac's first No. 1 pop hit in the U.S. and one of the group's most distinctive recordings.

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Arguably, "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" is the most iconic pop song of the World War II years. It was recorded by the Andrews Sisters in January 1941 before the U.S. entry into the war, but after a peacetime draft had been initiated. The song was included in the Abbott and Costello film "Buck Privates," and it received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song. Bette Midler brought the song to the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 in 1973.  

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Prince wrote "Nothing Compares 2 U" for his proteges in the group the Family. It was released on their debut album. However, the song received little attention until released as a single by Irish artist Sinead O'Connor in 1990. Her stark, emotional vocal was a No. 1 smash hit around the world. It accomplished the rare feat of being both a major alternative and adult contemporary hit.

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The meaning of the mysterious lyrics of this Eagles classic has been the subject of widespread speculation for decades. In 2013, group member Don Henley said it's about "a journey from innocence to experience...that's all." Featuring a distinctively beautiful guitar solo, "Hotel California" went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and received a Grammy Award for Record of the Year.

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The electronic pop band Human League was skeptical about the release of "Don't You Want Me" as a single and thought it would stall their commercial progress. To their surprise it went to the top of the pop singles chart in both the U.S. and the U.K. It has since become known as a defining song of New Wave pop. The match of deadpan vocal delivery with an aggressive electronic hook is unforgettable.

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Dolly Parton wrote, recorded, and topped the country chart with the original version of "I Will Always Love You." But it was Whitney Houston's dramatic rendition of the song for the soundtrack to the film "The Bodyguard," in which she also starred, that became one of the biggest pop hits of all time. The song reached the top 3 of the Billboard Hot 100 once more after Houston died in 2012.

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Depeche Mode reached the pop top 10 in the U.S. for the first—and to date the only—time with this second single from the album "Violator." The notable accompanying music video depicts lead vocalist Dave Gahan as a king wandering the Scottish highlands with a deck chair.

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"I Heard It Through the Grapevine" was first recorded by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles but was rejected by Motown label owner Berry Gordy. A Gladys Knight and the Pips version was released and became a No. 2 hit. However, Marvin Gaye's mysterious, brooding recording made the song a classic—and a No. 1 pop and R&B smash.

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Released as Johnny Cash's fourth single, "I Walk the Line" established him as both a country and pop star. The song is driven by a distinctive freight-train-style backing rhythm. Johnny Cash hums before each verse to establish the new key that changes with each new verse.

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A pulsing introductory bass line and Michael Jackson's trademark "hiccup" vocals distinguish "Billie Jean," a song about a patrimonial accusation that is apparently based on a real-life incident. "Billie Jean" almost missed the cut to be included on the "Thriller" album. It went straight to No. 1 and was a top 10 smash across Europe. 

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"I Love Rock 'n Roll" was first recorded in 1975 by the Arrows. Joan Jett first heard the song when she was touring the U.K. with the Runaways. Her later recording with her band the Blackhearts became a huge success at home in the U.S. It topped the pop singles charts for seven weeks. It remains one of the hardest rocking songs to ever spend that length of time at the top of the pop chart.

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31
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Beatles: 'Help!' (1965)

Beatles - Help!
Courtesy Capitol Records

This Beatles classic was primarily written by John Lennon to express the extraordinary stress caused by the band's meteoric rise to fame. It was also the title song for the Beatles' second feature film. Lennon once stated that it was among his favorite of the songs he wrote because it was honest. It did mark a shift in subject matter for the Beatles, who began to write more and more about personal, political, and social topics.

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Included in the 1942 hit movie "Holiday Inn," Bing Crosby's version of "White Christmas" ultimately became the bestselling record of all time, selling an estimated 50 million copies. The song was written by Irving Berlin as a nostalgic musing about an old-fashioned Christmas. "White Christmas" won the Academy Award for Best Original Song.

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"Since U Been Gone" was written for Kelly Clarkson's album "Breakaway" by Max Martin and Dr. Luke. Clarkson has stated that she insisted on adding the rock feel to the recording. The result was a record that captured the prevailing sound of mainstream pop with near perfection. "Since U Been Gone" went to No. 1 on the U.S. pop singles chart and was a top 10 hit around the world. The reputation of the song has grown since its original release, and it is frequently covered by other artists.

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Utilized for the futuristic segment of Donna Summer's disco album "I Remember Yesterday," "I Feel Love" is a watershed moment in electronic pop music. Producer Giorgio Moroder was one of the key architects of its sound, which features an entirely synthesized backing track. Although it was a top 10 pop hit for Summer, the sound is not something Summer explored extensively in later recordings. However, "I Feel Love" inspired waves of electronic bands and artists for decades to come.

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John and Michelle Phillips wrote "California Dreamin'" while living in New York and longing for their native California. The song became a top 5 smash and the first hit by the Mamas and the Papas. It has become a standard for anyone suffering through a long, cold, dark winter.

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This protest against rigid schooling that was included on Pink Floyd's opus "The Wall" was one of the most surprising hit songs of all time. It also sets up the depression and subsequent withdrawal of the main character in the movie based on the album. "Another Brick in the Wall (Part II)" features vocals from the Islington Green School choir, along with shouted orders and mocking statements by presumed teachers. The song became Pink Floyd's only No. 1 pop single in the U.S. and the U.K., but it was banned in South Africa.

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The Ronettes' hit single "Be My Baby" is often considered the epitome of Phil Spector's Wall of Sound production style. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys has declared it the best pop record ever made. "Be My Baby" utilizes a full orchestra on the recording. It reached No. 2 on the U.S. pop chart.

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Before "Saturday Night Fever," the Bee Gees created one of the top disco hits of all time. "You Should Be Dancing" is their only No. 1 disco chart hit and was significantly featured later in the movie "Saturday Night Fever." The uptempo, thumping dance mix combined with a massive pop hook makes "You Should Be Dancing" one of the catchiest records of all time.

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Co-written with guitarist Steve Cropper, Otis Redding recorded what became his signature song just days before his tragic death in a plane crash in December 1967. Released in January 1968, it became the first posthumous No. 1 pop hit in the U.S. Otis Redding began writing the lyrics to the song while sitting on a rented houseboat in Sausalito, California.

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"Moon River" was composed by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer for the film "Breakfast at Tiffany's." It won Grammy Awards for Record and Song of the Year as well as the Academy Award for Best Original Song. It became a top 20 pop hit single in versions both by Henry Mancini and R&B singer Jerry Butler.

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Although it is not one of the group's biggest hits, "God Only Knows" is one of the Beach Boys' most daring and successful. It was one of the first major pop releases to use the word "God" in the title and includes both French horns and accordion in the introduction. Paul McCartney has declared that "God Only Knows" is his favorite record.  

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Although not a success in its initial 1992 release, Radiohead's "Creep" became the band's breakthrough hit single when re-released the following year. Part of the song's initial failure was due to the BBC's decision to not play the song because it was "too depressing." It first became a hit in Israel with supportive radio airplay and slowly spread around the world, being adopted by alternative radio in the U.S.

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Legendary pop songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote "Stand by Me" with singer Ben E. King, basing it on the spiritual "Lord Stand by Me." Ben E. King had first gained fame as a member of vocal group The Drifters. "Stand by Me" was his first No. 1 hit as a solo artist. The song went back to the pop top 10 in 1986 as the title song for the movie "Stand by Me."

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Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell wrote "Georgia on My Mind" in 1930 in tribute to Hoagy Carmichael's sister Georgia. It first became a hit in 1931 with a recording by Frankie Trumbauer. However, Ray Charles' soulful version became the legend. His recording topped the pop and country charts while going to No. 3 on the R&B chart. In 1979 it was officially adopted as Georgia's state song.

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"Respect" was originally written and recorded by R&B legend Otis Redding in 1965. However, it is Aretha Franklin's 1967 version that has become definitive and a signature song for her. The showstopping "R-E-S-P-E-C-T / Find out what it means to me" line is unforgettable. The song went to No. 1 on the U.S. pop charts and won two Grammy Awards for Best R&B recording and Best R&B Female Vocal Performance.

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"Sugar Sugar" is the pinnacle of bubblegum pop and also the biggest pop hit single in the U.S. ever by an animated act. Given credit as being performed by the stars of the Saturday morning cartoon series "The Archie Show," the vocals on the record are performed by Ron Dante, who co-produced Barry Manilow's first nine albums, Toni Wine, and Canadian pop star Andy Kim.  

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Written by Neil Diamond, "I'm a Believer" is the biggest pop hit by a manufactured TV pop band. The song received over a million advance orders at the peak of the group's success and ultimately sold over 10 million copies worldwide.

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Sting's tale of creepy obsession in "Every Breath You Take" is the biggest hit single in the U.S. by The Police. Although some view it as a love song, at the core it is about pernicious stalking. "Every Breath You Take" won the Grammy Award for Song of the Year and topped the pop singles charts in both the U.S. and U.K.

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"The Way We Were" is considered one of the greatest movie songs of all time. The American Film Institute included the reflective ballad on their all-time list of movie songs, ranking it No. 8. It also took home both a Golden Globe and Academy Award. The song was Barbra Streisand's very first No. 1 pop hit and her first visit to the top 10 in three years.

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"Hey Ya" was released as one of the two lead singles, along with "The Way You Move," from OutKast's double-disc set "Speakerboxxx / The Love Below." Its catchy, uplifting pastiche of rock, pop, hip-hop, and R&B was instantly celebrated as brilliant work. The song reached No. 1 on the pop singles chart and ended the year as a frequent mention in critics' choices for the top single of the year. The video that accompanies the song references the Beatles' historic appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show." The song's memorable line, "Shake it like a Polaroid picture," was later used by that company in its advertising.

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Legendary folk musician and songwriter Woody Guthrie wrote "This Land Is Your Land" as an answer to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America," which Guthrie felt was simplistic and unrealistic. Although originally written in the 1940s, the song came to prominence in the folk-pop boom of the early 1960s. The Library of Congress added "This Land Is Your Land" to the National Recording Registry in 2002.

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Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" blasted grunge into the mainstream pop world. The band's lead singer, Kurt Cobain, said he was trying to write the ultimate pop song by ripping off the Pixies, his favorite band. Cobain's searing delivery of inscrutable lyrics mystified some and were seen as an anarchic celebration by others. The song was promoted with one of the most heralded videos of all time, depicting a crazed high school pep rally. The song became a top 10 smash hit in the U.S.

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Amy Winehouse's signature song originated out of a conversation she had with producer Mark Ronson about her father trying to convince her to go to rehab. The Motown-style production, combined with Winehouse's distinctive vocals, hit the pop top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic. "Rehab" took home Grammy Awards for Record and Song of the Year.  

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"Heartbreak Hotel" was the first No. 1 pop single by Elvis Presley and the bestselling single of the year in 1956. The song's subject matter of extreme sadness at the end of a love relationship was inspired by the songwriter Thomas Durden reading a story about a suicide in a newspaper. A note was left saying, "I walk a lonely street." The intense bluesy sound with a slow rock-and-roll beat was a radical change from Elvis Presley's earlier recordings.

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Stevie Wonder originally wrote "Superstition" for guitarist Jeff Beck. However, at the insistence of his management, Wonder recorded it himself. The song showcases Wonder's exploration with a funkier sound and the use of innovative arrangements of synthesizers and horns. The song was the lead single for Stevie Wonder's "Talking Book" album and hit No. 1 in the U.S. in early 1973.

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Few people know that Cher was among the background singers on "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'," one of the most definitive examples of producer Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound" recording technique. It went to No. 1 on the pop singles charts in the U.S. and the U.K. in the midst of peak of interest in the British Invasion. Daryl Hall and John Oates took the song back into the top 20 in the U.S. in 1980.

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Beyonce's solo debut away from Destiny's Child was one of the most anticipated pop events of 2003. Her first single, "Crazy in Love," with its powerful hook, did not disappoint. Blending an early 1970s soul feel with hip-hop attitude, the song went straight to No. 1, spending eight weeks at the top in the U.S. and topping the pop singles chart in the U.K. as well.

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There has been a significant amount of discussion through the years about what was actually the first rock-and-roll song. However, there is no disputing the first rock-and-roll song to reach No. 1 on the pop chart in the U.S., and that is "Rock Around the Clock." Although initially released in 1954, the song did not take off until it was used in the hit film "The Blackboard Jungle" in 1955.

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This gospel-influenced classic was written by Curtis Mayfield of the vocal group the Impressions. It only reached No. 14 on the pop singles chart, but its social and political overtones were perfect for the times. The song has been covered repeatedly by a range of artists that include Bob Dylan and Dionne Warwick.

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"Fantasy," driven by a sample from Tom Tom Club's hit "Genius of Love," was released at the peak of Mariah Carey's commercial success. The song became the second song to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. The recording is an effortless blend of pop, R&B, and light hip-hop and became one of the top 20 pop hits of the 1990s.

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The image of Prince in a bathtub that opens the music video for "When Doves Cry" is one of the most memorable from the golden era of MTV. Turning into a No. 1 pop smash, "When Doves Cry" established Prince as a superstar. It served as an introduction to the film soundtrack "Purple Rain."

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