(Why not the top 10? Because everybody argues about it. What should be there, what doesn’t deserve it, why #6 should be #1, and on and on. Taste is a funny thing, and arguing about trivia on the internet is pointless. So to make this easier for everyone here’s nine instead, in no particular order. You decide which one I’ve missed, put them in whatever order you feel is right for you, and debate with your co-workers at the water cooler.)
There are songs out there that have transcended pop music status to become anthems in their own right. These are songs almost everybody thinks are awesome. But in spite of being widely liked, people don’t even think of them when they’re making lists of songs, because they’re so far above any group of songs in any genre they become assumed baselines. They’re timeless. They burst category boundaries at this point and have become part of the world’s cultural DNA.
“Bohemian Rhapsody,” Queen
If there’s a first among equals, this is it. What kind of song is this, really? All of them? It’s different things to different people. But it’s inescapable. Attempts have been made to create songs as sprawlingly, bombastically awesome as this one (“Band on the Run,” anyone?) but at the end of the day, nobody can touch “Bohemian Rhapsody” or its unique and deserved place on this list.
“In the Air Tonight,” Phil Collins
Perhaps the unofficial Miami Vice theme song, there’s something haunting about this melancholy-cool synth hallucination. You can’t turn away from it, like a closed door in a dream you have to open. And let’s be real, you know you air-drum along with that lick in the middle.
“U Can’t Touch This,” MC Hammer
In the early days of hip-hop, when it was bursting onto the radio and reaching audiences totally unfamiliar with its tropes, MC Hammer sampled (using “sampled” loosely) Rick James to create this track. It’s an earworm for the ages. Everybody knows it, and while not everybody loves it, nobody can truly hate it. This song was a phenomenon, and that phenomenon has not gone away.
“Thriller,” Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson could own this list if we let him. “Black or White,” “Man in the Mirror,” “Smooth Criminal,” “Bad,” and the indubitable “Billie Jean” are all tracks that blow the roof off pop music. But “Thriller” is the king, built as it is from the ground up to stand completely alone as a mini-movie; an event more than just a song. And even stripped of the theatrics and taken solely as a song, it’s still a total banger.
“Livin’ on a Prayer,” Bon Jovi
80s hard rock is full of anthems that still rock today (Guns n’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle” could be here and fit right in), but “Prayer” is so iconic anymore it can’t be denied. This chorus gets played during sports events--the anthem of underdog teams improbably mounting a comeback scoring drive. People sing along en masse in bars. It’s the kind of song that’s impossible to hate. It might even be called … transcendent.
“Eye of the Tiger,” Survivor
One of the things that makes a song transcendent is being instantly recognizable, and this one absolutely checks that box. From the first beats, you know exactly what song this is, and you can’t help but get pumped. Speaking of pumped, you can’t get out of a weight room without hearing this song. Even if it’s not on, you sing it to yourself.
“Single Ladies,” Beyonce
I know, I know, you were starting to think this list was a total sausage fest. So here you go. Up until 2008, this slot would probably belong to Cyndi Lauper and “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” Sorry, Cyndi, Queen Bey is taking the girl-power throne. Everything about this song is infectious and awesome. It’s singable, it’s danceable, it’s unforgettable. And if you cock your head to the side and squint, it’s even got a wholesome message.
“Sweet Home Alabama,” Lynyrd Skynyrd
Country music has its share of anthems, but southern rock is where the most crossover success can be found. And in the realm of southern rock, “Sweet Home Alabama” reigns supreme. Who doesn’t turn it up right after the song tells them to? Nobody. Instantly recognizable, head-bobbing catchy, and with a chorus easy to sing. Yeah, that’s the stuff.
Prince’s brand of funk-rock is an audible drug, and this is one of his best. He’s like Mozart. His work doesn’t seem like it should be good--it’s too simple--but somehow everything fits together perfectly. The genius is there, and happens over and over (“Raspberry Beret,” “When Doves Cry,” and more). To take or add would wreck it. It’s flawless.