I’ve spent the past 4 months putting this list together, alternating from bursts of inspiration to weeks of inactivity and basically accepting that I’d never finish.
Yet, here we are.
I trust that you’ve read the title, so you should know what you’re here for. I’m going to rank my 100 favorite songs of all-time.
But first, here’s a few things about my music taste that you should probably know:
- I care more about musical elements than genres. What I like is simple: great bass lines, melodies that move in a descending and/or ascending direction, big choruses, interesting lyrics, and good production. If that can be found in a Kpop, Country, or EDM song, then I like it.
- I am shameless about really popular singles. A lot of my favorite songs from past decades were insanely popular singles at the time of their release. I don’t see anything wrong with liking singles. They are basically time capsules of their respective times and they’re really useful in that regard since I wasn’t fucking alive when they were actually released.
- I discovered a lot of music through Movie/TV/Anime soundtracks. I have no shame. I’m sorry.
- I like songs sung in languages I can’t understand, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. You don’t see anyone who speaks English policing people in Vietnamese clubs because they don’t know what “Go shorty, it’s your birthday” means. Because it shouldn’t really matter if they’re enjoying themselves.
Okay, with that out of the way, let’s talk about how I went about selecting and ranking these songs, since simply saying “because I like it” is boring and useless to you and everyone else. When picking and ranking these songs, I tried to adhere to a few guiding principles:
- Song quality: I don’t think there’s such thing as “objectively” good music (or anything) but I think there are certain elements that make a song sound good to a lot of people. These include quality production, musical variety, instrumentation, and a sense of cohesion.
- Influence: Songs that had an impact on their respective genre or music as a whole were considered more favorably.
- Listening experience: Basically how a song makes you ‘feel’ while you listen to it. Does it make you feel empowered, reflective, or invigorated when you listen to it? How consistently does it produce these feelings?
- Personal preference: I tried to keep the 3 principles above in mind when making the list, but the reality is that there are just some songs that I love for intangible reasons. And that should be okay. It’s my list, after all.
Okay. At long last, after 50 pages of writing, and many more hours of writer’s block, I’m ready to begin.
So let’s begin:
100. “All Falls Down”– Kanye West
Starting off strong.
Social commentary songs are like the “anti-meat rhetoric” of music. The intentions are usually pure, and the content is sound, but artists can sometimes walk the line between educational and condemning a little too closely.
Given this eggshell walk of a song type, Kanye perfectly handles the topic of materialism without sounding pious.
He talks about the self-consciousness that the media helps create, and the subsequent obsession over fancy possessions that we’re told will help us appear successful.
I’m sure this kind of song has been done both before and since the release of “All Falls Down”, but it’s West’s admittance of his own self-consciousness and attempts to mask it with wealth that really makes this track special.
Nearly every line of this song (“Even if you in a Benz, you still a n*gga, in a coup) is gold, and carries a sense of candidness that makes us feel more pensive than guilty.
“I wanna act ballerific like it’s all terrific/ I got a couple past due bills, I won’t get specific/ I got a problem with spending before I get it/ We all self conscious I’m just the first to admit it”.
99. “Hips Don’t Lie”– Shakira feat. Wyclef Jean
A textbook example of musical fusion perfected.
Shakira and Wclef Jean masterfully mixed together their respective Columbian and Haitian roots to produce a song that has kept the entire world dancing since its 2006 release.
It’s rare that a track this overwhelmingly popular with such an iconic trumpet sample seems to never get old.
Hopefully, it never does.
98. “Runaway”– Kanye West
Runaway is a rare glimpse of the megalomaniacal West as a vulnerable, normal human being. I always find it especially commendable when an artist drops their guard and allows us to examine personal flaws and pains.
There might be some of my own personal experience mixed in with this song’s high ranking, but it’s mostly because of West’s own romantic failures that are so nakedly injected into this track.
Without sounding too dramatic, I’ll go ahead and say that this song seems a bit more “alive” than others in his catalogue.
There’s just a bit more pain, history, self-pity, and apprehension that this track emits, and I’m amazed that Kanye was brave enough to do this while his brash antics still dominated his image.
Also: to quote Kanye himself, this is also one of the greatest music videos of all time.
97. “Cowboys From Hell”– Pantera
Sure, Pantera might have been a band full of Confederate flag-waving rednecks during their heyday (and probably now), but there’s no denying the tremendous impact this song had on my adolescence.
The blistering, unapologetically distorted guitar of Dimebag Darrell helped establish Pantera as the Metal genre’s last hope in the 90s, and became a daily listen for me during my middle school years.
Seriously–I listened to it every day on my way to school in 7th grade.
96. “Livin La Vida Loca”– Ricky Martin
The late 90s saw American pop culture experience a sort of “Latin fever”, with the airwaves dominated by Hispanic Pop artists with cross-appeal.
Leading the charge was Enrique Martín Morales, marketed as “Ricky Martin” to appeal to the mass (White) market.
Whitening of names aside, Livin La Vida Loca perfectly embodies why Martin is known as the “King of Latin Pop”.
From the first trumpet blow, this song is an onslaught of musical momentum. The pre-chorus takes the already urgent tempo of the verses and builds towards an absolute explosion of a chorus before moving to the next verse without skipping a beat.
Throw in a tasteful guitar solo and an heart-stopping ending, and you have a track that’s an absolute thrill ride from beginning to end.
95. “Lonely Boy”– The Black Keys
Honestly–what’s the last great Rock song you remember being released?
Much less, who would have expected that it’d be released by a rock duo from Ohio?
The Black Keys’ Lonely Boy is what Modern Rock needs to be these days: a distilled, palpable energy built around an easily repeatable chorus.
While it’s unfortunate that the evolution of public taste has brought us to this point, there’s no shame in perfectly executing what people want.
94. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”– Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell
The old saying goes: “Necessity is the mother of invention”.
Early Motown artists didn’t have the luxury of large, complex recording studios with separate rooms. As a result, recordings were done with all instrumentalists and singers sharing the same space.
Likely unexpectedly, the product of these conditions were tracks that sounded natural, is if you were in the room with the artists too.
Perhaps the gold standard of the Motown era, this iconic track featuring Tammi Terrell and Marvin Gaye is a relic to the soul, ingenuity, and overall zeitgeist of the 1960s.
93. “Lookin Out My Back Door”– Creedence Clearwater Revival
Speaking of relics to the past, this track by Creedence Clearwater Revival is my own personal time capsule.
I remember it like it was yesterday: After spending all night in our high school gym for “Sober Grad”, my best friends and I decided to go to the local Walmart. There we were, curled up in the seat of my friend Gavino’s van (affectionately called the ‘love van’ back then) at 7am with this song blasting.
It was oddly silent, as if we were all independently recognizing that this might be our last moment like this together.
Freezing cold in the Salinas breeze, with the sun rising on our metaphoric adulthoods, it was clear nobody wanted to leave that van.
We eventually did, of course, as life frequently requires of us, but we’ll always have that moment, and this song, to remember.
92. “Nightshift”–The Commodores
Lyrically, this song is a farewell from The Commodores to their deceased fellow artists, with the “nightshift” representing the afterlife.
However, upon first listen, this sobering message has its impact eased by how beautiful the accompanying music sounds.
It’s an optimistic sendoff of a track, and one that I’ve found myself constantly revisiting as I’ve continued to bid people adieu in this life.
91. “Malaguena Salerosa”–Chingon
Kill Bill was my first Tarantino movie, and could easily be considered the single reason why I’m so into movies today.
Tarantino’s eclectic nature with incorporating (or ‘stealing’ depending on who you ask) genres, songs, and influences into his films is in a league of its own, and Kill Bill remains the best example of this talent.
The end credits sequence of Kill Bill: Vol. 2 serves as a sort of victory lap, recapping the entire cast of this sprawling saga. All this is set to Chingon’s rendition of La Malaguena, a famous mariachi song. In true Tarantino fashion, this song just…works as a closer to an incredibly satisfying viewing experience.
I honestly cannot (and will not) imagine the series ending on anything besides this great song.
90. “Tear Drop”– Massive Attack
If you’re able to ignore this song’s strong association with a certain TV show featuring a certain grumpy doctor, you’ll realize why it was picked to be its theme song to begin with.
There’s something about the heartbeat drums and somber piano chords just makes you furrow your brow and suddenly take the song seriously. This makes it all the more impactful when the sweet female vocals come in and upend your expectations of the song.
It’s an intense, oddly soothing, and immersive e listening experience that can leave you sitting in pensive silence long after it ends.
89. “Hurricane”– Bob Dylan
This track is less of a traditional song and more of a Broadway play narration.
After a haunting acoustic intro, Dylan plops the listener directly into the scene→ “Pistol shots ring out in the barroom night”.
From then on, Dylan delivers a no-holds barred description of the events leading to Hurricane Carter’s unlawful imprisonment.
The scathing, visual language of the song was a success, generating enough public buzz to get Carter released from prison (albeit 20 years after his original indictment).
This song is a testament to both Dylan’s mastery of social commentary as well as music’s ability to be a weapon for fighting oppressive systems.
88. “No Role Modelz”– J. Cole
Sometimes I wonder: will the world remember J. Cole for more than 2014’s Forest Hills Drive?
I know that might sound like blasphemy to some, but the reality is that deliberate low-key (a cornerstone of Cole’s identity) artists are often lost to the sands of time.
No matter→ as long as we have No Role Modelz, we’ll be alright. The song is the many dimensions and talents of Cole condensed into a 5-minute track, and one that’ll undoubtedly remain on the soundtrack of our generation.
From the song’s very first line (a wink of a Fresh Prince reference) to its chorus that resonated with the youth of the era, it’s clear that this song was made for the 90s/2000s generation and as such will remain in the memories of our youth.
87. “Pijamas”– Babasonicos
I first heard this song during a spanish class in undergrad, and was instantly hooked→ even if the initial appeal might have had more to do with the wacky music video.
It’s hard not to find something to like in this song, whether it be the dreamy guitar riffs, the seemingly innocent lyrics, or its overall chill vibe.
I happened to like all three, which led me to binging Babasonicos for the rest of my college years.
86. “Trinity (Titoli)”– Annibale E I Cantori Moderni
This song is so badass.
When it comes to appeal, you can take your pick: the alluring voice of the singer, the galvanizing whistle melody, or the Candy Land explosion scene that it accompanies in Django Unchained.
Whatever it is, this song’s relentless confidence will rub off on you, and give you a triumphant swagger in your step.
85. “Hells Bells”– AC/DC
I think we often forget how stark of a sonic shift Back in Black was for AC/DC.
Unfortunately initiated by the passing of Bon Scott, Back in Black was the band’s evolution from their raw, rowdy sound into a polished Rock act that the world would have to take more seriously.
The opening bell chimes and slow build reflected that this was a new, patient AC/DC that had enough confidence in their own sound to display this amount of restraint.
The song was a symbolic sendoff to their dearly departed Scott before going on their global takeover, and remains one of the band’s very best efforts.
84. “God Only Knows”– Beach Boys
While I’m a huge Beach Boys fan, I never quite understood the acclaim for Pet Sounds. It likely has to do with a lack of oldness or Whiteness on my part, but I’ve listened to the album several times and never felt the same zeal that the likes of Rolling Stone magazine do when discussing great albums.
However, that said, the track God Only Knows is an undeniable masterpiece of production, and a song that warrants every bit of praise it gets. The complex sound arrangement revolving around sweet and simple lyrics gives you a listening experience in which you notice something new each time.
The song’s use in the film Boogie Nights to signify the reconciliation of several adult film professionals just drives home the universal application of the song’s message.
83. “Iron Man”– Black Sabbath
Black Sabbath’s dystopian tale about humanity’s empathetic futility can easily be considered the granddaddy of all Metal.
While simplistic from today’s standpoint, Tony Iommi’s distorted Gibson SG riff was THE template for all guitar riffs to come afterwards.
Keep in mind that Sabbath came to prominence during the “Flower Power” era where bubblegum Pop songs ruled the airwaves.
Ozzy’s shrill vocals and Iommi’s dooming Blues-inspired guitar tapped into the morbid attitudes of fringe society. Little did anyone suspect that there were many people fed up with the facade of rainbows and gumdrops, and Sabbath soon found themselves at the forefront of a musical revolution.
Absolutely iconic, Iron Man is a must for any self-respecting Rock & Roll aficionado.
82. “‘Till I Collapse”– Eminem
The workout song heard ‘round the world.
Or, at least, ‘round amateur highlight videos on YouTube.
I’m not sure if Eminem ever meant for his declaration as an iconoclastic titan of Rap to be featured on pre-game pump up playlists for the next 20+ years, but here we are.
After all, the lyrics are too relatable and vivid to not use as a sort of motivation.
This includes me, who has listened to this song while working out since I was 15. As such, I’m pretty sure I’ve heard it over 500 times, and not once has it lost its ability to get me amped.
It’s pretty damn impressive to craft a song that has pumped this many people up for this long, and I’m sure that there are hundreds of successful athletes out there who owe Eminem a “thank you” as a result.
81. “The Time They Are A-Changin'”– Bob Dylan
The best and worst things about Bob Dylan lyrics is that they’re timeless.
The best part being that they can serve as rallying cries for generations, and the worst part being that such timeless application implies the continued existence of oppression.
Such is the case for 1964’s The Times They Are A-Changin’, which was Dylan’s stern warning to older generations resisting the changing times.
In a painful example of irony, the same Boomer generation that once used this song to rebel against criticism from their elders are now on the opposite end of its lyrics.
Here’s to hoping that the same fate doesn’t await us.
Looks we’re off to a good start. Make sure to tune in for the rest of the list!