30 Most Iconic Songs That Stand the Test of Time
What elevates a song to iconic status? Most of us would agree that a great song has catchy lyrics, a strong melody, an inspiring message, an emotional catch … ideally, all of the above.
Of course, when it comes to music, all “best” lists are subjective. But we’ve studied industry rankings and listened to fans, and these are the most iconic songs of all time.
30. “I Want To Hold Your Hand”
Artist: The Beatles
Album: “Meet the Beatles” (U.S.)
Year released: 1964
What Makes “I Want To Hold Your Hand” So Influential
Many people believe the music revolution of the 1960s started with The Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” This song took the band’s popularity to a whole new level, making them global rock ‘n’ roll superstars.
Shortly after its release, John, Paul, George and Ringo appeared on “The Sullivan Show,” watched by a record-breaking 70 million viewers. “I Want To Hold Your Hand” gave the Fab Four their first U.S. No. 1 hit and became their best-selling single worldwide.
29. “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”
Artist: Band Aid
Year released: 1984
What Makes “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” So Influential
A Christmas single organized by Bob Geldof of The Boomtown Rats to raise money for the Ethiopian famine, this song featured an A-list choir. Bono, George Michael, Sting and Boy George were among the stars delivering the somber message: “The Christmas bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of doom.”
The song immediately shot to No. 1 in the U.K. and sold 3.8 million copies (12 million worldwide). Altogether, more than $28 million was raised for charity.
Artist: Edwin Starr
Album: “War & Peace”
Year released: 1970
What Makes “War” So Influential
It was ruled out as a Temptations track for being too candid, but “War” — with its anti Vietnam War message — was a No. 1 hit for Edwin Starr. It made history for being the first Motown song to make a political statement with the iconic line, “War. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!”
The song won the Grammy Award for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance, became a global hit and was covered by Frankie Goes to Hollywood at the height of their success in 1984.
27. “For What It’s Worth”
Artist: Buffalo Springfield
Album: “Buffalo Springfield”
Year released: 1966
What Makes “For What It’s Worth” So Influential
One of the most famous protest songs of the 1960s, “For What It’s Worth” was written by Stephen Stills as a commentary on the conflict between young people and law enforcement on Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip.
After being recorded by Buffalo Springfield (the house band got the infamous Whiskey A Go Go in L.A.) as a single, it was released on their self-titled album. Public Enemy sampled the track on their 1998 song "He Got Game," which was used in the movie of the same name — and Stills appeared on their version.
26. “Love to Love You Baby”
Artist: Donna Summers
Album: “Love to Love You Baby”
Year released: 1975
What Makes “Love to Love You Baby” So Influential
If anybody hadn’t heard of disco in 1975, “Love to Love You Baby” made the necessary introduction. A little controversy always helps to spread the word, too. In the U.K., the BBC banned the song due to its sexually explicit nature (it features the sounds of Summer simulating orgasm), and in the U.S., the Reverend Jesse Jackson used his group Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity) to call for a boycott against songs of this nature.
The reason? They led to an increase in teen pregnancy, apparently.
25. “I Am Woman”
Artist: Helen Reddy
Album: “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”
Year released: 1972
What Makes “I Am Woman” So Influential
Australian musician Helen Reddy said of “I Am Woman,” “I realized the song I was looking for didn’t exist and I was going to have to write it myself.”
The track’s opening line, “I am woman, hear me roar” has become widely referenced across all forms of media, from TV’s “Carol Burnett Show” to Elizabeth Dole’s 2000 Republican presidential campaign. You might also remember Carrie et al belting it out at karaoke in “Sex and the City 2.” “I Am Woman” reached the top of the charts in the U.S. and Canada and remains a rousing anthem for the women’s liberation movement.
24. “It Was A Good Day”
Artist: Ice Cube
Album: “The Predator”
Year released: 1992
What Makes “It Was A Good Day” So Influential
Ice Cube recorded “The Predator” album in the wake of the L.A. riots of 1992, and the success of “It Was A Good Day” led to a wider appreciation of rap. The lyrics take us through Ice Cube’s perfect day (including a pork-free breakfast and a spot of gambling) — and in 2012, a blogger worked out that the exact day is Jan. 20, 1992.
The hype continued, and an online campaign to put Ice Cube’s name on an actual blimp was a success. On Jan. 20, 2014, Goodyear flew Ice Cube’s blimp over South Central and raised $25,000 for charity.
23. “Fight the Power”
Artist: Public Enemy
Album: “Fear of a Black Planet”
Year released: 1989
What Makes “Fight the Power” So Influential
Described by Chuck D as “the most important record that Public Enemy have done,” “Fight the Power” was written for the soundtrack of film director Spike Lee’s 1989 film “Do the Right Thing.” In keeping with the theme of the movie, the song was designed to empower the Black community and encourage younger generations to get involved in politics.
It’s been called “the most provocative song ever” and an “iconic anthem of rage,” in part due to its scathing attack on white icons like Elvis Presley and John Wayne. In 2021, the song was ranked No. 2 in Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list.
Artist: John Lennon
Year released: 1971
What Makes “Imagine” So Influential
For starters, it’s John Lennon’s signature (and best-known) song, bringing listeners all over the world to tears for the last 50 years. According to Lennon himself, its success lies in the fact that it’s “anti-religious, anti-nationalistic, anti-conventional, anti-capitalistic … but because it’s sugar-coated, it is accepted.”
“Imagine” took on another level of poignancy after Lennon’s death in 1980, but it hasn’t avoided criticism. Some detractors can’t get on board with a multimillionaire asking the rest of the world to “imagine no possessions.”
21. “Strange Fruit”
Artist: Billie Holiday
Year released: 1939
What Makes “Strange Fruit” So Influential
Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” was named as Time magazine’s “Song of the Century” in 1999 and was sampled by rapper Kanye West in his 2013 album “Yeezus.” As a symbol of the brutality and racism suffered by so many in the American South, the song brought pain to Holiday, but she was determined to keep performing it and did so until her untimely death in 1959, age 44.
In her autobiography, Holiday explained that the song reminded her of how her father died — he was turned away from the hospital because he was a Black man and later died of a lung condition.
20. “What A Girl Wants”
Artist: Christina Aguilera
Album: “Christina Aguilera”
Year released: 1999
What Makes “What A Girl Wants” So Influential
After years of good (but not great) female pop vocalists, Christina Aguilera shook things up with her incredible vocal range (FYI, it spans four octaves from around C3 to C7) on “What A Girl Wants.” The track was a chart-topper in several countries, and critics drew comparisons with Mariah Carey, setting the bar high for the contemporary female ballad.
Aguilera also transcends genres, with inspirations like Aretha Franklin and Billie Holiday infusing her songs with an old-school sound.
19. “You’re Still The One”
Artist: Shania Twain
Album: “Come on Over”
Year released: 1998
What Makes “You’re Still The One” So Influential
Modern country music took its first foray into pop with Shania Twain’s smash hit “You’re Still The One.” The third single from her “Come on Over” album cemented her place as a huge crossover star.
It’s no surprise Twain describes it as “one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written.” It was nominated for four Grammy Awards in 1999 and won the awards for Best Country Song and Best Female Country Vocal Performance. It’s also been covered by numerous other artists, from Prince to Harry Styles — always a sign of an iconic track.
18. “The Twist”
Artist: Chubby Checker
Album: “Twist With Chubby Checker”
Year released: 1960
What Makes “The Twist” So Influential
“The Twist” didn’t only change the music scene, it changed the dance floor. For the first time, crowds of dancers didn’t have to get their groove on with a partner — this global dance craze required people to twist on their own. The influential musician Hank Ballard originally recorded the song in 1959 with his group, The Midnighters, after getting the idea from watching the group moving onstage.
According to Ballard, they often moved as if they were “trying to put a cigarette out.” Chubby Checker later expanded on the theme, saying it was "like putting out a cigarette with both feet and coming out of a shower and wiping your bottom with a towel to the beat."
17. “Concrete Jungle”
Artist: Bob Marley and The Wailers
Album: “Catch a Fire”
Year released: 1973
What Makes “Concrete Jungle” So Influential
“Catch a Fire” was the album that made Bob Marley and The Wailers popular, and “Concrete Jungle” was a standout — if not the most commercially successful — track. Many people believe it was ahead of its time, as it tackled some of the themes later confronted by hip hop artists, such as globalization and lack of opportunity for marginalized populations.
Marley himself grew up in some of the most impoverished neighborhoods in Jamaica; West Kingston was often called the “Jungle” or the “Concrete Jungle.”
Artist: The Beatles
Album: “The Beatles”
Year released: 1968
What Makes “Revolution” So Influential
“Revolution” marked a big change in direction for The Beatles — from playful pop to a more politically charged message. A call for peace written in response to the Vietnam War, the song peaked at No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the U.S. and topped singles charts in Australia and New Zealand.
In a first ever, Time magazine devoted an article to discussing "Revolution," writing that the song was "exhilarating hard rock" directed at "radical activists the world over." A review for AllMusic, described it as one of the Beatles' "greatest, most furious rockers" with "challenging, fiery lyrics" where the listener's "heart immediately starts pounding before Lennon goes into the first verse."
15. “We Shall Overcome”
Artist: Pete Seeger
Album: “We Shall Overcome”
Year released: 1963
What Makes “We Shall Overcome” So Influential
Originally a gospel song (said to have been inspired by the hymn “I’ll Overcome Someday,” which was published in 1901), “We Shall Overcome” became a protest song and key anthem for the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and ’60s.
Pete Seeger, a director of the People’s Songs organization, was one of the many singers who added it to their set list — others included Frank Hamilton, Joe Glazer and Joan Baez. In August 1963, 22-year old Baez sang the song (together with a 300,000-strong crowd) at the Lincoln Memorial during A. Philip Randolph's March on Washington.
14. “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock”
Artist: Bill Haley
Album: “Rock Around the Clock”
Year released: 1954
What Makes “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock” So Influential
Back in the early 1950s, partying into the small hours was considered quite a rebellion, so “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock” was something of a revolutionary anthem. It was the first rock ‘n’ roll record to reach the top of the U.S. chart, and after it was featured in the 1955 movie “Blackboard Jungle,” it became the soundtrack for rebellious youths.
In 2018, the song was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically or artistically significant.”
13. “Sunday Bloody Sunday”
Year released: 1983
What Makes “Sunday Bloody Sunday” So Influential
The lyrics of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” transport the listener to the troubles in Northern Ireland that began in the late 1960s — specifically the Bloody Sunday incident in Derry in January 1972.
However, Bono has said that the song is more personal than the horrific events of that day, when British paratroopers killed 13 Irish citizens at a civil rights protest. Today, it's still considered one of the band's most iconic songs and is ranked among the best political protest songs.
12. “God Save the Queen”
Artist: Sex Pistols
Album: “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols”
Year released: 1977
What Makes “God Save the Queen” So Influential
This song was exactly what a generation disillusioned with the rule of the British monarchy needed in the late 1970s. Sex Pistols’ manager Malcolm McLaren released the song in 1977 to coincide with The Queen’s Silver Jubilee (commemorating her 25th year on the throne), but the band’s attempt to perform the song outside the Palace of Westminster on the day of the Jubilee were thwarted.
Nonetheless, the statement had been made, and “God Save the Queen” became an anthem for the U.K. punk movement and angry young people fighting against the establishment.
11. “I Will Survive”
Artist: Gloria Gaynor
Album: “Love Tracks”
Year released: 1978
What Makes “I Will Survive” So Influential
“I Will Survive” was the song that put Gloria Gaynor on the disco map. An anthem for female empowerment, it’s become the soundtrack for anybody trying to move on after a bad relationship. However, writer Dino Fekaris actually based it on his experience of getting fired by Motown Records.
"They let me go after almost seven years,” he said. “I was an unemployed songwriter contemplating my fate. I turned the TV on, and there it was: a song I had written for a movie theme titled ‘Generation’ was playing right then (the song was performed by Rare Earth). I took that as an omen that things were going to work out for me. I remember jumping up and down on the bed saying, 'I'm going to make it. I'm going to be a songwriter. I will survive!’”
10. “9 to 5”
Artist: Dolly Parton
Album: “9 to 5 and Odd Jobs”
Year released: 1980
What Makes “9 to 5” So Influential
Written by Dolly Parton for the comedy film of the same name, “9 to 5” was another powerful female empowerment anthem. As well as encouraging women to oppose workplace inequality, the song also helped take Parton’s career to the next level.
The country star quickly became a mainstream artist, and she also scooped an Academy Award and four Grammy Award nominations along the way (she won for Best Country Song and Best Country Vocal Performance, Female). In 2004, “9 to 5” ranked at No. 78 on the American Film Institute's “100 Years, 100 Songs.”
9. “Same Love”
Artist: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis feat. Mary Lambert
Album: “The Heist”
Year released: 2012
What Makes “Same Love” So Influential
An unofficial gay anthem adopted by supporters of legalizing same-sex marriage, “Same Love” was a long time coming. Macklemore said that it “was a song I wanted to write for a long time, but I didn’t know exactly how to address the issue.”
Mary Lambert, who was raised in the church and grew up feeling guilty about the “sin” of being gay, sings the powerful “I can’t change” chorus. The song is much more than a pro-gay marriage anthem, as it address gay rights and homophobia both within the hip hop community and the world at large.
8. “Rapper’s Delight”
Artist: Sugarhill Gang
Album: “Sugarhill Gang”
Year released: 1979
What Makes “Rapper’s Delight” So Influential
Widely considered to be the track that made U.S. hip hop mainstream, “Rapper’s Delight” was a whopping 15-minutes long. Even so, it was played on Black radio stations. To ensure white listeners shared the delight, Sugarhill Gang recorded a seven-minute version for mainstream radio.
It was super catchy, but its mass appeal may have been down to the lack of controversy in the lyrics. "It wasn't too heavy," said band member Wonder Mike. "It wasn't the message that was years later. It wasn't 'bash the police' — that was years after that. What I wanted to portray was three guys having fun. We were always bragging about stuff we didn't have to impress the chicks."
7. “Bohemian Rhapsody”
Album: “A Night at the Opera”
Year released: 1975
What Makes “Bohemian Rhapsody” So Influential
It’s been described as the rock song that changed the face of music, remains one of the best-selling rock songs of all time and was voted Song of the Millennium in 2000. If you’ve seen the biopic starring Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury, you’ll know that nobody at the band’s record label thought “Bohemian Rhapsody” would be a hit.
It made an impact because it was unlike anything Queen had ever released (in terms of structure, it’s more like three or four songs instead of just one) and was the product of their total creative freedom.
6. “A Change Is Gonna Come”
Artist: Sam Cooke
Album: “Ain’t That Good News”
Year released: 1964
What Makes “A Change Is Gonna Come” So Influential
This soul tune became the unofficial anthem of the U.S. civil rights movement, written by Sam Cooke after hearing Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” It was released as a single a few months after Cooke died, meaning he never witnessed the impact it had on the world.
Over the years, the song has been recorded by a huge number of artists, including Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Bobby Womack, the Fugees, Jon Bon Jovi, Seal, Al Green and the Righteous Brothers.
5. “He Stopped Loving Her Today”
Artist: George Jones
Album: “I Am What I Am”
Year released: 1980
What Makes “He Stopped Loving Her Today” So Influential
Is it the greatest country song of all time? Lots of people believe it is, and an industry poll in the 1990s agreed. Written by Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman, it tells the tale of a man who never gives up on a previous romance until the day he dies; he holds on to hope that she would "come back again."
Its wistful tone was something of a departure from the usual upbeat, hopeful country music offerings of the time. “He Stopped Loving Her Today” is also notable for being Jones' comeback song after years of addiction and crime.
4. “Hey Ya!”
Album: “Hey Ya!”
Year released: 2003
What Makes “Hey Ya!” So Influential
Until Outkast (aka Big Boi and Andre 3000) came along, no artist had successfully combined hip hop, country and gospel. The release of “Hey Ya!” in 2003 marked the absolute acceptance of hip hop in the mainstream music world.
It was a massive crossover hit, embraced by all top radio stations and was No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for nine weeks. It was also the most-downloaded song on iTunes when the service went Windows-compatible in 2003 and became the first song in history to rack up 1 million downloads and achieve Platinum status as a download.
3. “Hotel California”
Artist: The Eagles
Album: “Hotel California”
Year released: 1976
What Makes “Hotel California” So Influential
Considered to be the most famous recording by one of the biggest bands of all time, “Hotel California” was awarded the 1978 Grammy Award for Record of the Year. In 1998, Guitarist readers also voted its long guitar coda the best guitar solo of all time.
The song is about a traveler trapped in a mystical hotel, but its deeper message concerns the downsides of life in L.A., where the allure of the town’s glamor often comes hand-in-hand with greed and ruthlessness.
2. “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
Year released: 1991
What Makes “Smells Like Teen Spirit” So Influential
As the first alternative rock song to go mainstream, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” made an enormous impact on the whole world of music. It remains an anthem for angsty youth (and those who are old enough to remember it when it was first released) and gave the band the biggest hit of their all-too-short career.
Tortured lead singer Kurt Cobain may not have been a fan (mainly because the subsequent global fame was never part of his plan), but the song is a regular on lists of the Best Songs of the ’90s and the Best Songs of All Time.
1. “Like A Rolling Stone”
Artist: Bob Dylan
Album: “Highway 61 Revisited”
Year released: 1965
What Makes “Like A Rolling Stone” So Influential
Rolling Stone magazine thinks it’s the greatest song of all time, and only The Beatles’ “Help!” could keep it off the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100. Despite being over six-minutes long the song got radio play (at that time many stations wouldn’t play songs that surpassed the four-minute mark) and inspired a whole new generation of artists.
“That snare shot sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind,” said Bruce Springsteen when he inducted Bob Dylan into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.