Of the hundreds of thousands of songs released in the history of recorded music, I seemed to notice that many of the same tunes are on multiple Top 100 Song lists across the internet. Despite the fact that there didn’t seem to be any consensus as at to what the rules were, what countries were involved, or what time frames were specified. Surely, different publications would have different angles as to what the greatest songs of all time are. So what I did was take 10 interesting lists and give the Top 20 songs a point value inverted from 1 to 20 (the #1 song got 20 points and the #20 song got 1) and added up the points to see if the critics all seemed to form some sort of subconscious conventional wisdom. Maybe you think my sources are invalid, which is a fair criticism, but if you’re a hardcore music fan, you should leave your own Top 10 Songs of All Time list in the comments section below and think of yourself as your own Beacon of Speech-approved music critic. After reviewing the lists, some inclusions seem to say more about the sources than the music. My Top Ten Sources are, with Hyperlinks included; Spin, Q, Guinness Physical, Guinness Digital, Mojo, Consequence of Sound, VH1, Billboard, Rolling Stone, and NME.
10. Prince - When Doves Cry (31 points)
Released in 1984 on the Purple Rain soundtrack, let’s take a step back and truly bask in the greatness of Prince. Purple Rain, the movie, starred Prince and made $70 million, won an Academy Award for Best Original Song Score, and was successful enough to merit a sequel. (Full disclosure, the Purple Rain sequel was a bomb and Purple Rain also garnered 2 Golden Raspberry Awards.) Purple Rain, the album, was a nine song masterpiece that spawned 5 singles. According to Billboard, When Doves Cry was the top selling single of 1984 and even the video was nominated for an MTV Video Award.
What I say: Prince was a genius. Just go ahead and check out the searing guitar solo on George Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps during the Rock and Roll induction ceremonies. With that said, When Doves Cry wouldn’t even crack my own top 10, I thought the album 1999 was better, and my favorite Prince single was Erotic City.
What they say: Of the 10 lists surveyed, it was the Spin list that vaulted When Doves Cry into the Top 10 here, coming in at #6 there. And just to show you the arbitrary nature of the lists, When Doves Cry was just a hair behind two others at Spin, Irma Thomas’ It’s Raining, which I had never heard before in my whole life, and the next song on our list….
9. Guns N’ Roses – Sweet Child o’ Mine (32)
Released in 1987 on Guns N’ Roses rock classic Appetite for Destruction, Sweet Child o’ Mine actually didn’t become a hit until 1988, and didn’t hit the UK charts until 1989. People forget that despite all the accolades accorded to the album today, it took a few months for the album to gain traction once it was released. And despite almost constant rotation on Rock formatted stations, Sweet Child o’ Mine was Guns N’ Roses only #1 single. A love letter from leader singer Axl Rose to his girlfriend, the legacy of the song lasted much longer than Rose’s marriage to the gal (1 month).
What I say: Not the biggest fan of Sweet Child o’ Mine. Thought Welcome to the Jungle, Night Train, Mr. Brownstone, and Rocket Queen were all much better songs from Appetite for Destruction.
What they say: It was VH1 that had this song as the #3 greatest song of all time that vaulted it up to #9 here, but Rolling Stone, the magazine, had it way down at #198, 3 notches behind Glen Campbell’s Wichita Lineman, another golden oldie with few modern admirers.
8. Beatles – I Want to Hold Your Hand (34)
Released in 1963, I Want to Hold Your Hand is one of 3 #1 singles in Britain by the Beatles in 1963 alone. This single had 1 million PRE-orders and was the first Beatles single to chart at #1 in America. It was also one of the seminal songs on the famous Ed Sullivan set back on February 9, 1964. Like many songs on this list, that day represented something bigger than a song, basically this cultural milestone was the beginning of the British invasion.
What I say: The greatest music movie ever made is Help! by the Beatles. With that being said, I much prefer later Beatles’ releases than the earlier ones. But I do understand the historical significance of the song.
What they say: Q magazine rates I Want to Hold Your Hand as the second greatest song of all time, tops among the 10 lists, but the Beatles are on all lists except for Digital Downloads. I Want to Hold Your Hand has sold over 10 million physical copies and is in the Guinness Book of World Records. Is it possible that the digital era is moving beyond the Beatles?
7. Rolling Stones – I Can’t Get No (Satisfaction) (34)
Released in 1965, this was the Rolling Stones first #1 hit in America. Off of the American version of the Out of Our Heads album, this song is so ingrained in the psyche of American culture that it was enshrined in the National Recording Registry in 2007, alongside Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech to Congress.
What I say: Good choice, but I much prefer Sympathy For the Devil, as does Consequence of Sound, which has that that song at #7. Kind of over the Stones personally, but I am in the VAST minority. Their 50th Anniversary Tour that ran from 2012 through the summer of 2013 made $150,000,000 at the gates.
What they say: Not surprisingly, Rolling Stone, the magazine, has I Can’t Get No (Satisfaction), by the Rolling Stones, the band, as the #2 song of all time. Seemingly, almost for spite, competitor Spin has the Rolling Stones with the #3 song of all time, but their choice was Tumblin’ Dice. Lead singer Mick Jagger is such a cultural icon that Maroon 5 wrote a smash hit in 2011 called Moves like Jagger, and that single sold over 14 million digital singles.
6. Aretha Franklin – Respect (35)
Released in 1967 by Aretha Franklin, the song is actually a cover of 1965’s Respect by Otis Redding. Again, so culturally significant was this single that it, too, is enshrined in the National Recording Registry, but this single was announced as one of the 50 original choices, alongside Thomas Edison’s first sound recordings, an 1897 recording of Stars and Stripes Forever, and Orson Welles’ 1938 broadcast of The War of the Worlds.
What I say: What makes a song great is its timelessness. In both clarity and message, Franklin’s song is as clear and strong as the day it was recorded. Compare that to another classic from 1967, Procol Harum’s Whiter Shade of Pale, which sold 10 million copies. A great song, yes, but it sounds like it was written in another era half a century ago. (Which it was.)
What they say: Rolling Stone, the magazine, has Respect as the #5 song of all time, which is the highest of the 10 lists. With this song being on practically everyone’s Top 100 list, Q surprisingly chose Think as Aretha Franklin’s contribution to their list.
5. Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On? (37)
In 1971, What’s Going On was the lead single on the album of the same name. Marvin Gaye was deeply influenced by the political unrest of the day and was inspired to record this soulful classic, no matter what ramifications it would have on his career. Not only did the song hit the charts when it was first released, but it re-charted as part of a charity re-mix album by Artists Against AIDS Worldwide, 17 years after Gaye’s tragic murder at the hands of his father.
What I say: You put this album on the turntable and you are automatically teleported to 1971. As you listen to this classic, you can close your eyes and envision the sights and the sounds of the times. You can also imagine the smells of the times. There would be a hazy, herbal cloud of…. (you know the rest).
What they say: Mojo actually had 2 Marvin Gaye songs in the Top 10 of all time, What’s Going On and Heard it Through the Grapevine, but it was Rolling Stone, the magazine, which nudged What’s Going On into its position here. When you think of Motown, you think of Marvin Gaye, and the folks at Digital Dream Door also agreed with Mojo, choosing I Heard it Through the Grapevine as the greatest Motown hit of all time. (What’s Going On was coincidentally #5 there also.)
4. Beatles – Hey Jude (40)
This song seems to be the common representative when evaluating the later era of the Beatles discography. Released in 1968, the folklore of this song is fairly well known, as Paul McCartney wrote the song to comfort bandmate John Lennon’s son during his parents’ divorce. From there it broke such records as longest #1 pop song in Great Britain and the most time a Beatles song lasted at #1 in America. Oh yeah, and it sold over 8 million copies.
What I say: To me, there are much better representatives like Helter Skelter (#13 on Q), Help! (#53 on Mojo), or While My Guitar Gently Weeps (#136 on Rolling Stone), but Rolling Stone, the magazine, itself parlayed its love for the Beatles into a 100 Greatest Beatles Songs List, where they named….
A Day in the Life as the greatest Beatles song.
What they say: Mojo had Hey Jude by the Beatles as the #6 greatest song of all time, but all lists had a Beatles song on them, with the cumulative effect being some Beatles votes seemingly cancelling each other out. (Inexplicably, Spin’s top Beatles entry was Please Please Me at #93, one notch below the Smiths, yet one notch above the Cure.) Even without a clear consensus over the best Beatles’ song, somehow Rolling Stone, the magazine, had Beatles albums rated as #10, #5, #3, & #1 albums of all time. (The White Album, Rubber Soul, Revolver, & Sgt. Pepper, respectively.) No matter what you say, there’s no way the Beatles had 3 of the Top 5 Albums of All Time.
3. Beach Boys – Good Vibrations (56)
Released as a single in 1966, this musical project began during the Pet Sounds album, but didn’t get released on an album until 1967’s Smiley Smile. Good Vibrations was historically significant because it was the Beach Boys first million-selling single and eventually earned the Beach Boys multiple Grammy nominations. The song was later inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1994.
What I Say: What always impressed me about the Beach Boys was how well 3 brothers, their cousin, and their friend could harmonize. But by the late 70’s, the sparkle had dimmed from the Beach Boys’ wave. I saw the Beach Boys after a baseball game in the late 1980’s and all I can remember is seeing John Stamos in the band. After that, my opinion of the Beach Boys has been irreversibly skewed in a negative direction. The Beach Boys also toured in support of their 50th Anniversary, complete with a re-energized Brian Wilson with mixed results. The mixed results being how jaded you are about 70 year old men singing about teenage girls.
What they say: Mojo had this as the #1 song of all time, but again, as with the Beatles, votes were split across lists, as Consequence of Sound had God Only Knows as their #1 song of all time. Also garnering votes on multiple lists was 1964’s Don’t Worry Baby.
2. Bob Dylan – Like A Rolling Stone (70)
Released in 1965, this epic single was Dylan’s first Top 10 hit in America off of the Highway 61 Revisited album. Never far from America’s public consciousness, the official video for the song came out in 2013 and in 2014 the handwritten lyrics were auctioned off for $2,000,000.
What I say: I could lock myself in a room for a week and come out with a Top 1,000 Song List and still not have Bob Dylan on it. Some artists might not be my cup of tea, but I understand their contributions to music. Not Bob Dylan. He is the single most overrated performer in the history of music. I do like some of the songs he wrote….for other artists.
What they say: Let’s start in 2012 and work our way back. In 2012 Bob Dylan received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Songwriters Hall of Fame, he got a special citation for the Pulitzer Prize, received Grammies, Golden Globes and Academy Awards, and finally has sold more than 100 million records. Rolling Stone has this single as the #1 of all time, while both Mojo and Consequence of Sound have the song at #3 of all time. Surprisingly he is not on all the lists, being left off of the Billboard Top 100, and both the Top 100 in Physical Sales and Digital Sales List. Spin prefers Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door to Like a Rolling Stone, as do I. Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door by Guns N’ Roses, that is.
1. Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit (90)
With the Kurt Cobain documentary, Montage of Heck, now being promoted, it was 1991 when Nirvana exploded into the public consciousness. Smells Like Teen Spirit went straight to #1, changed the musical landscape for years, and briefly made Seattle the Music Capital of the World. Like a singular point of light, no other Nirvana song is even in the Top 50 on any of the aforementioned Top 100 lists.
What I Say: Smells Like Teen Spirit was the last great Rock song. It basically flipped the script for a short time making the underground the mainstream. Problem is, within a few short years, Kurt was dead and Rock would soon be breathing its dying breaths. This is the only song from the article from my personal Top 100 list, with my list being skewered toward the late 80’s and the early 90’s. I bring this up because it seems like a lot of these other lists heavily gravitated toward the rich musical landscape of the late 60’s and early 70’s. There is no right answer, for the #1 digital single of all time is by Taiwanese Pop Star Jay Chou with nearly 20 million digital downloads. How many music fans know who Jay Chou is? (Well, in America.)
What They Say: Nearly every chart had Smells Like Teen Spirit in their Top 20, like it was their nod that the 90’s existed. Both VH1 and NME had Smells Like Teen Spirit as their #1 song and Nirvana was one of the last artists to sell over 8 million physical copies of their single. NME also clearly agrees with my experiment in obsessive compulsive behavior.
Fred Hunt’s Top 100, which may or may not be better than yours.
*According to Rock Critics