They’re the songs that changed the face of music.
To create the most bad-ass (and possibly random) playlist of all time, we’ve been sure to limit each artist to one song only—and our choice may surprise you.
Some might really surprise you.
They are anthems, they are bedrocks. Game-changers, decade-definers. They are really great fucking songs.
That’s what makes them the best of our best—the best of the last 35 years.
35. “Black Hole Sun” Soundgarden (1994)
In an interview with Uncut, Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell stated: “What’s interesting to me is the combination of a black hole and a sun…. A black hole is a billion times larger than a sun, it’s a void, a giant circle of nothing, and then you have the sun, the giver of all life.” RIP, Chris Cornell who passed away by his own hand in 2017.
34. “Royals” Lorde (2013)
Discovered at her school talent show when she was twelve years old, Ella Yelich-O’Connor—Lorde—wrote the lyrics to her debut single in just thirty minutes. It’s a keeping-it-real response to the opulence so often the subject of so many songs, thought especially relatable for millennials.
33. “Back to Black” Amy Winehouse (2006)
According to Winehouse, this song is about her breakup with Blake Fielder-Civil, who she later married in 2007. In October 2006, she told the UK newspaper The Sun: “‘Back to Black’ is when you’ve finished a relationship and you go back to what’s comfortable for you. My ex went back to his girlfriend and I went back to drinking and dark times.” It’s the dark times that make this song so relatable and one of her best, and, sadly, it’s the dark times that took Winehouse and her signature soulful voice away from us far too soon.
32. “Jeremy” Pearl Jam (1991)
Inspired by the true story of bullied Texas teenager Jeremy Delle taking his own life in front of his English class in 1991, Eddie Vedder wanted to bring awareness to the issue of teens and gun violence. In accepting Pearl Jam’s award for Best Metal/Hard Rock Video at the 1993 MTV Video Music Awards, Vedder said: “If it weren’t for music, I think I would have shot myself in front of the classroom. It really is what kept me alive, so this is kind of full circle. So the power of music. Thanks.”
31. “Still D.R.E.” Dr. Dre featuring Snoop Dogg (2001)
Written by Jay-Z under his real name, Shawn Carter, “Still D.R.E.” serves as Dr. Dre’s comeback single on his multi-platinum studio album of 2001, his first for seven years. The single went on to win a Grammy.
30. “Jesus to a Child” George Michael (1996)
Michael is said to have written this hauntingly beautiful song after losing his great love Anselmo Feleppa to an AIDS-related illness in 1993. Every lyric, every note is seeped in longing, mourning and love. After Michael’s death in 2016, it was revealed that he’d donated all the proceeds from “Jesus To a Child” to ChildLine, a UK-based counseling service for children up to nineteen years of age. Michael had approached the charity without solicitation, and adamantly wanted his contribution kept secret.
29. “We’re Going to Be Friends” The White Stripes (2001)
Played during their first Saturday Night Live appearance in 2002, “We’re Going to Be Friends” was never released as a single, but partly because of its exposure as the intro for 2004 film Napoleon Dynamite, this strangely sweet tune about childhood innocence remains one of their most downloaded songs.
28. “Sweet Child O’ Mine” Guns N’ Roses (1987)
According to Duff McKagan’s 2012 memoir, It’s So Easy: And Other Lies, Slash hates this song. But fans loved it, and it’s attributed to catapulting a slow-starting Appetite for Destruction to the top of the charts. When the single hit No. 1, the band was on tour opening for Aerosmith, who, now in recovery, gave hard-partying members of Guns N’ Roses tour shirts that listed rehabs in place of tour dates and venues.
27. “Losing My Religion” R.E.M. (1991)
The song isn’t about religion at all, but unrequited love. As Michael Stipe told Top 2000 a gogo: “About holding back, reaching forward, and then pulling back again. The thing for me that is most thrilling is you don’t know if the person I’m reaching out for is aware of me. If they even know I exist. It’s this really tearful, heartfelt thing that found its way into one of the best pieces of music the band ever gave me.”
26. “Fuckin’ Up” Neil Young (1990)
One of the greatest, simplest, breath-paralyzing opening guitar riffs of any song ever, sustained in its monosyllabic chords throughout, never letting go of your throat. The sung/incoherently spat out lyrics are inaudible rage — they’re actually great lyrics but you’ll have to look them up to know what they are. Apparently we are all fuck ups! Duh. Knew that. But only Neil Young — yes, only Neil Young — can burn that into your soul like a cattle brand.
25. “Criminal” Fiona Apple (1996)
Not an easy feat choosing just one Fiona Apple song for this list, but we love the rawness of “Criminal”, and how, as a bold eighteen-year-old, the blatantly sexualized video of her rolling around in a seedy basement sent MTV into a tizzy. Lyrically it’s Fiona at her best, and we’re forever grateful for her soul-baring songwriting, which makes her a game-changer with every song.
24. “It’s Tricky” Run-D.M.C. (1986)
As the song explains, rap isn’t as easy as it sounds. It’s tricky. And getting a chart-topping rap album into the mainstream was even trickier in the mid-’80s, but Raising Hell, the band’s triple-platinum third album, with this awesome track, hit Billboard’s No. 1 in August 1986.
23. “Video Games” Lana Del Rey (2011)
Sad, beautiful songs are sometimes just that, and Lana Del Rey’s debut is one of the saddest and most beautiful and one of our favorites.
22. “Loser” Beck (1994)
As legend dictates, if Beck’s friend hadn’t affectionately called him “Loser”, we may never have had this timeless slacker anthem. What started as a bit of a joke became something oddly melodic — and really catching. Geffen Records thought so too, and signed Beck after the song bred a fanbase on college radio.
21. “Mama Said Knock You Out” LL Cool J (1990)
“Mama” is LL Cool J’s grandmother, who’d advised her grandson to knock the listeners out with his songwriting. He did just that, and won a Grammy with this track for Best Rap Solo Performance.
20. “Wicked Game” Chris Isaak (1989)
According to Chris Isaak, he wrote this song after a fiery, nothing-but-trouble lady-friend called and wanted to come over. By the time she’d arrived Isaak had written the song. Herb Ritts directed the music video, which featured Isaak and model Helena Christensen in a white-hot surfside romp.
19. “Beds Are Burning” Midnight Oil (1987)
When Midnight Oil performed “Beds Are Burning” at the 2000 Sydney Olympics closing ceremony, they wore all black with the word “sorry” boldly across their chest, appalled by Australia’s Prime Minister’s refusal to apologize for the historically horrific treatment of the Aboriginal tribes. The song protests the very same issue.
18. “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” Kate Bush (1985)
Originally called “A Deal With God”, Bush’s label advised a change, stating that radio stations might be hesitant to play a song with God in the title. Bush is said to regret the rename, though to date it’s her biggest U.S. hit, peaking at No. 35 on the Billboard charts.
17. “I Wanna Be Adored” The Stone Roses (1989)
Former Stone Roses frontman Ian Brown doesn’t actually want to be adored. He’s stated he’d condemned the “sin” of wanting to be adored. Either way, we adore this song, and even though The Roses broke up in 1996, Brown has enjoyed a successful solo career.
16. “In Spite of Me” Morphine (1993)
Known for combining an unusual flavor of blues, jazz and rock they called “low rock”, bassist and lead vocalist Mark Sandman resorted to a melodic whisper with their deceptively sweet-sounding single “In Spite of Me”, featured on the soundtrack for 1994’s indie film Spanking the Monkey. Sandman died of a heart attack while performing with Morphine in Italy in 1999, and the group disbanded, leaving behind a small but mighty legacy of one of the most unique sounds in alternative rock.
15. “Sabotage” Beastie Boys (1994)
First recorded as an instrumental, with lyrics added two weeks before completion, this song is about the Beastie’s frustration over an engineer that, according to them, was trying to “sabotage” their sessions. Spike Lee directed their killer video, which has a memorable ode to ‘70s sitcoms, as only the Beasties could do.
14. “Pepper” Butthole Surfers (1996)
Who or what is Pepper, you ask? Well, we’re still not sure, the only thing we know is we’re happy not to be mentioned in the tragic story “Pepper” tells us. It’s said to be based on lead singer Gibby Haynes’s Texas college days. The entrancing, super-loud opening riff harkens back to the psychedelic ‘60s and, to whoever is listening, we need more songs like this, please.
13. “Dear God” XTC (1986)
Andy Partridge is said to have written “Dear God” at the peak of his struggle with God’s existence. Produced by Todd Rundgren and off of the band’s ninth studio album Skylarking, it’s a plea to God to help exploited children. Peaking on the U.S. charts at No. 37, it’s the band’s biggest American hit. Partridge is now officially a self-declared atheist.
12. “Let Love Rule” Lenny Kravitz (1989)
In a 1998 interview with Tracey Pepper, Kravitz explained: “When I did ‘Let Love Rule,’ everyone said what a naive piece of shit it was. Journalists would ask, ‘Don’t you feel funny singing about that?’ and I was like, ‘If I were sitting here singing about the devil and raping children, then it’d be okay?’ God forbid you sing about love. It’s a lost concept.” We love everything about your music, Lenny. And we love this song.
11. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” U2 (1987)
Inspired by gospel, The Edge explained in a 1998 interview with Q magazine how the song was written and (oddly) reviewed: “We were listening to some gospel during The Joshua Tree sessions – I remember The Mighty Clouds and the Reverend Cleveland and The Staple Singers. The original was looser, almost Jamaican. Bono hit on the melody and I had the title in a notebook. At first, no one took it that seriously because it sounded so unlike anything we’d ever done and it didn’t gel until the mix, but when it was finished we all realized that we had something special. The reviewers didn’t like it though. One American said it was a pale imitation of the original form and that Foreigner song ‘I Want To Know What Love Is’ was better.”
10. “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” Tracy Chapman (1988)
Choosing one Chapman song for this list was a tough order, as her multi-platinum debut album Tracy Chapman is nothing short of songwriting perfection. Not at all the American chart-topper of her debut single “Fast Car”, “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” did well internationally, and, since its ’88 release, has been covered as a peaceful protest hymn for decades.
9. “Creep” Radiohead (1993)
You know those three bizarre guitar blasts before the first chorus? Supposedly they’re Johnny Greenwood’s attempt to sabotage a song he thought kind of weak. And though it’s said to have been nicknamed “Crap” by the band, it strikes the perfect balance between ethereal songwriting and eternal slacker theme tune.
8. “Lose Yourself” Eminem (2002)
Rumor has it, Eminem refused to perform “Lose Yourself” at the 2003 Academy Awards — and didn’t show up to accept his Best Original Song Oscar — because he’d refused to censor the song for the event. It’s also said he didn’t expect the song to win and just decided to stay home. They even considered getting someone else to perform it, but after nixing that horrific idea “Lose Yourself” became the first nominee in its category in fourteen years to not receive an Oscar performance.
In the movie 8 Mile, that sheet of paper Jimmy’s writing on on the bus is the actual paper Eminem wrote “Lose Yourself” on, and it sold for $10,000 on eBay.
7. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” Nirvana (1991)
Kurt Cobain claimed that when he wrote “Smells Like Teen Spirit” he was trying to write a Pixie-esque pop tune. As the old cliché goes, when one songwriting goal totally fails, an anthem is born. (Or something like that…) The result is the seminal song of the grunge era, and one of our all-time rock ‘n roll favorites.
6. “Rain on The Scarecrow” John Mellencamp (1985)
Farm Aid co-founder and proud Indiana native John Mellencamp will never stop fighting for farmers. “Rain on The Scarecrow” is an American anthem, part tribute, part protest, and part get-your-shit-together-America outrage, and tells the plight of the American farmers, having their land and effectively their lives repossessed by banks. It peaked at No. 2 on the charts, and established Mellencamp as one of America’s great songwriters and a voice of conscience.
5. “Like a Prayer” Madonna (1989)
Life is a mystery, but one thing we can always count on is Madonna’s willingness to stand alone — and create controversy. Though they sang on the recording, the Andrae Crouch gospel choir refused to appear in the video, which, due to the depiction of stigmata, burning crosses and Madonna kissing a black man all combined to the American Family Association — and The Vatican — disavowing it. Bless you, Madonna. We humbly crown you Our Lady of Rock.
4. “Fuck Tha Police” N.W.A. (1988)
There’s no escaping the sentiment. And no apologizing for it. When N.W.A. (which stood for Niggas With Attitude, in case anyone has forgotten) released their inventive and explosive rap about police brutality in 1988, it jarred America in a way perhaps no recording had ever done. It was reviled, viciously attacked by a shocked, mostly-white media and public, and adored by everyone else. It was Black Lives Matter almost three decades before BLM was a movement. It was a shot across the bow of societal niceties, a warning that a new generation of black musicians did not know their place, thank you very much, or, more succinctly, knew where it was, and it wasn’t where white America would like them to stand.
It remains one of the most important and powerful songs ever recorded, let alone in the last 35 years. The opening lyrics — “Right about now, N.W.A. court is in full effect/ Judge Dre presiding/In the case of N.W.A. vs. the Police Department…” — do they sound oddly, and sadly, current?
3. “Troy” Sinead O’Connor (1987)
This song is a masterpiece, as only O’Connor could sing it. It’s a haunting depiction of family tragedy, the longing underneath the pain of recalling a disturbing past. The city of Troy is the metaphor for O’Connor’s abusive childhood, and the anguish of dealing with those epic emotions, which she so honestly and so courageously shares with us.
2. “Silent All These Years” Tori Amos (1992)
In 1997 “Silent All These Years” was re-released as a fundraiser for the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), an organization she’s been involved with since it was founded in 1994. Thank you, Tori Amos, for a career devoted to giving voice to the silent. And for one of the most beautiful and powerful songs ever recorded.
1. “Fight the Power” Public Enemy (1989)
The song is not about resisting or overthrowing the police, but about fighting all abusive authority. “Law enforcement is necessary. As a species we haven’t evolved past needing that. ‘Fight the Power’ is not about fighting authority—it’s not that at all. It’s about fighting abuse of power,” said PE bass player Brian Hardgrove.
It’s more nuanced than “Fuck Tha Police” — which is not exactly a difficult thing to be — and when Chuck D wrote the lyrics, on a plane to Italy to support Run D.M.C.’s tour, he was trying to expand on the theme of the original “Fight the Power”, a song by The Isley Brothers from 1975, and “fill it in with some kind of modernist views of what our surroundings were at that particular time,” he has said.
The song came about from Spike Lee asking for an “angry anthem” for his own genre-busting work of art, the 1989 film Do the Right Thing. But when the single was released (and a little different version included on their 1990 album Fear of a Black Planet) it eclipsed not only the movie but all popular music. That is not an exaggeration. This was not a pop song, and this was more than a defiant rallying cry, this was the revolution. Youth, not just in America, but all over the world were suddenly awoken from some kind of rolling antipathy of the presumed natural progression of their lives and rebelled against the way things were.
Because the way things were was unjust and wrong. And the awful spell of a manipulative society was broken — yes, it was — with this thumping song and its soaring, empowering, staccato rap:
“And the rhythm rhymes rollin’
Got to give us what we want (uh)
Gotta give us what we need (hey)
Our freedom of speech is freedom or death
We got to fight the powers that be.”
The world changed with this song.
Listen to the songs below: