The Best Songs Of All Time—According To Critics And Fans
What song would you add to the list?
Ask 20 people what the best song of all time is, and you’ll probably get 20 different answers. That’s the beauty of a great song: It has the power to move you on a personal level, which is far more important than what anyone else thinks.
However, in an effort to create a list of the all-time greatest songs, we considered the views of professional music critics and fans alike, via Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time and Ranker’s The Best Songs of All Time.
25. ‘Purple Haze’ — The Jimi Hendrix Experience
At No. 17 on Rolling Stone’s list of the best songs is “Purple Haze,” written by Jimi Hendrix and released as the second single by The Jimi Hendrix Experience in 1967. One of Hendrix’s best-known songs and many people’s first taste of his inimitable psychedelic rock sound, it regularly ranks high on lists of the best guitar songs, including No. 2 by Rolling Stone and No. 1 by Q magazine. In 2013, Rolling Stone readers voted it the fifth best Hendrix song. It may also have one of the most misheard lines in rock history — for future reference, Hendrix sings “Excuse me while I kiss the sky,” not “Excuse me while I kiss this guy.”
24. ‘London Calling’ — The Clash
What was created under difficult personal circumstances (lack of management and rising debt) and reflected concern about world events went on to become a signature song for punk band The Clash.
“We felt that we were struggling,” lead vocalist Joe Strummer said, “about to slip down a slope or something, grasping with our fingernails. And there was no one there to help us.”
“London Calling” was released as the only single in the United Kingdom from the album of the same name and reached No. 11 in the charts in 1980, becoming the band’s highest-charting single until “Should I Stay or Should I Go” hit No. 1 10 years later.
23. ‘What A Wonderful World’ — Louis Armstrong
At No. 15 on the Ranker list of the best songs is “What a Wonderful World,” which was written by Bob Thiele (as “George Douglas”) and George David Weiss and first recorded by Louis Armstrong. It topped the pop chart in the U.K. in 1967 but only hit the No. 32 spot in the U.S., though it was inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.
Other artists who’ve covered the song include Eva Cassidy and Katie Melua, The Flaming Lips, Tony Bennett (who was reportedly offered the song before Armstrong and turned it down) and k.d. lang, Joey Ramone, and Nick Cave and Shane MacGowan.
22. ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ — Sam Cooke
Sam Cooke’s 1964 hit “A Change is Gonna Come” was released as the B-side to his posthumous hit single “Shake” just days after his funeral in December 1964 (he was fatally shot at a motel in Los Angeles). Despite not being a huge chart success — it peaked on the national pop chart at No. 31 and climbed to No. 9 on the R&B chart — it was one of the biggest anthems of the civil rights movement.
In 2007, “A Change is Gonna Come” was chosen by the National Recording Registry for preservation in the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important.”
21. ‘The Sound Of Silence’ — Simon & Garfunkel
Ranking 10th in the Ranker community, Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” was recorded in 1964 for inclusion on the duo’s debut album, “Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.” The song hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in January 1966 and was a top 10 hit in many other countries, including Australia, Austria, West Germany, Japan and the Netherlands. It was also in the movie “The Graduate,” for which Simon & Garfunkel also wrote “Mrs. Robinson.”
In an interview with NPR, Paul Simon (who wrote the song at age 21) said the key to “The Sound of Silence” was “the simplicity of the melody and the words, which are youthful alienation.”
20. ‘A Day In The Life’ — The Beatles
One of the last true Lennon-McCartney collaborations and widely considered to be one of The Beatles‘ greatest achievements, “A Day in the Life” was the dramatic conclusion to the 1967 album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Many artists have covered the track, including Jeff Beck, Barry Gibb, The Fall and Phish, and Paul McCartney himself has included it in his live performances since 2008.
19. ‘My Generation’ — The Who
Rolling Stone’s 11th best song of all time is The Who’s “My Generation,” one of the band’s most recognizable hits. Other accolades include 13th place on VH1’s list of the 100 Greatest Songs of Rock & Roll and 37th place on VH1’s Greatest Hard Rock Songs.
NME includes it in their 100 Best Songs of the 1960s, writing, “Taking in a timeless sense of youthful disaffection via a countercultural, Mod lens, Pete Townshend’s age-defying ditty distilled what it feels like to be young, energised and in the prime of life into 3:18 minutes of bristling hedonism.”
18. ‘Light My Fire’ — The Doors
Claiming the 16th spot on the Ranker community’s list of the best songs, The Doors’ “Light My Fire” was released in 1967 on the band’s eponymous album. As an edited single, it spent three weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and was responsible for taking the band’s career to another level. Notably, it got them an invite to perform on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” but on the condition that Morrison didn’t sing the line, “girl, we couldn’t get much higher.”
However, he did include the forbidden line, and it was their first and last performance on the show.
17. ‘What’d I Say’ — Ray Charles
Rolling Stone’s pick for the 10th greatest song of all time, “What’d I Say” by Ray Charles was famously composed late one evening in 1958 when Charles and his band were on stage in Pittsburgh and had some time to fill.
“I said to the guys, ‘Hey, whatever I do, just follow me,'” Charles told David Letterman. “And I said the same thing to the girls, I said, ‘Whatever I say, just repeat it, I don’t care what it is.'”
The reaction of the audience was enthusiastic, and “What’d I Say” went on to become Charles’ first top 10 pop single. Throughout his career, Charles closed every gig with the song, and it was added to the National Recording Registry (a list of songs that “are culturally, historically, or aesthetically important, and/or inform or reflect life in the United States”) in 2002.
16. ‘Paint It Black’ — The Rolling Stones
Claiming the fifth spot on Ranker’s list of the best songs of all time is “Paint it Black,” the 1966 single released by The Rolling Stones that reached No. 1 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the U.K. Singles Chart; it became the band’s third No. 1 hit single in the U.S. and sixth in the U.K.
Rolling Stone readers ranked “Paint It Black” as the band’s third-greatest single, after “Gimme Shelter” and “Sympathy for the Devil.” In 2004, Keith Richards said that what made “Paint It Black” great was Bill Wyman on the organ.
“It didn’t sound anything like the finished record until Bill said, ‘You go like this,'” Richards said in 2004.
15. ‘Respect’ — Aretha Franklin
Written and first recorded by Otis Redding in 1965, it was soul singer Aretha Franklin who turned “Respect” into an anthem for female empowerment two years later. She made it her own by adding the “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” chorus and the backup singers’ refrain of “Sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me…” and it remains one of Franklin’s signature songs.
“Respect” earned her two Grammy Awards in 1968 for Best Rhythm & Blues Recording and Best Rhythm & Blues Solo Vocal Performance, Female, and it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1987. According to Rolling Stone, it’s the fifth greatest song of all time.
14. ‘All Along The Watchtower’ — The Jimi Hendrix Experience
“All Along the Watchtower” was written by Bob Dylan, but it’s the version by The Jimi Hendrix Experience that the Ranker community ranks the fourth best song of all time.
The song first appeared on Dylan’s 1967 album “John Wesley Harding” and six months later was recorded by Hendrix for the album “Electric Ladyland.” It was a top-20 hit for Hendrix in 1968, and that version ranks 47th on Rolling Stone’s list of the all-time greatest songs.
Neil Young, U2 and Eddie Vedder are a few of the many other artists who have covered the song.
13. ‘What’s Going On’ — Marvin Gaye
Marvin Gaye’s politically-charged 1971 release “What’s Going On,” inspired by police brutality in California, was initially rejected as uncommercial but later reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and became one of the star’s most successful Motown songs.
Rolling Stone describes it as “an exquisite plea for peace on Earth” and ranks it fourth on their list of the greatest songs of all time.
“Marvin Gaye’s peerless voice sent a message to millions,” wrote The Guardian.
12. ‘Stairway To Heaven’ — Led Zeppelin
Led Zeppelin’s epic 1971 release “Stairway to Heaven” is a big hit within the Ranker community, coming in at their seventh best song of all time.
Planet Rock readers voted it the greatest rock song of all time, giving it more than twice the amount of votes of its closest rival, Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and it has also been voted the U.K.’s favorite rock anthem.
Despite the fact that it was never commercially released as a single in the U.S., it was the most requested song on FM radio stations in the 1970s, proving the power of the band’s growing fan base.
11. ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ — Bob Dylan
Rolling Stone ranks Bob Dylan’s 1965 release “Like a Rolling Stone” the greatest song of all time, writing, “No other pop song has so thoroughly challenged and transformed the commercial laws and artistic conventions of its time, for all time.”
A longer than average track at six minutes, 13 seconds, radio stations were initially reluctant to play it, but it nonetheless became a huge worldwide hit, reaching No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. It’s been covered by everyone from The Jimi Hendrix Experience to Green Day.
According to review aggregator Acclaimed Music, “Like a Rolling Stone” is the statistically most acclaimed song of all time. At a 2014 auction, Dylan’s handwritten lyrics to the song fetched $2 million, a world record for a pop-music manuscript.
10. ‘God Only Knows’ — The Beach Boys
Voted 25th by Rolling Stone, 19th by the Ranker community, one of the 500 songs that shaped rock and roll by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the greatest song of the 1960s by Pitchfork Media, “God Only Knows” wasn’t the biggest chart hit for the Beach Boys (it was released as the B-side of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” in the U.S.), but it remains a firm fan favorite. In fact, Rolling Stone readers voted it the best Beach Boys song, and even fellow ’60s creative genius Paul McCartney has said it’s his favorite song of all time.
9. ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ — Bob Dylan
“Blowin’ in the Wind” has been variously described as “Dylan’s first important composition,” the most famous protest song ever, an anthem of the civil rights movement and the song Dylan is best known for, so it’s perhaps a surprise that this song didn’t chart for Bob Dylan. However, it was a massive hit for the folk band Peter, Paul and Mary in the summer of 1963, and in 1994 was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
It ranks No. 14 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time, and Ranker voters place it at No. 17.
8. ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ — The Beatles
Another of several “best song” entries for The Beatles, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” is sixth on Ranker and 16th on Rolling Stone. Released in 1963, it was the group’s first No. 1 hit in the U.S. and stayed in the U.K. top 50 for a total of 21 weeks.
In 1980, John Lennon said the song was written “eyeball to eyeball” with McCartney.
“I remember when we got the chord that made the song,” he recalled. “We were in Jane Asher’s house, downstairs in the cellar playing on the piano at the same time. And we had, ‘Oh you-u-u/ got that something…’ And Paul hits this chord, and I turn to him and say, ‘That’s it!’ I said, ‘Do that again!’ In those days, we really used to absolutely write like that — both playing into each other’s noses.”
7. ‘Johnny B. Goode’ — Chuck Berry
Rolling Stone credits Chuck Berry’s 1958 hit “Johnny B. Goode” as “the first rock & roll hit about rock & roll stardom” and “the greatest rock & roll song about the democracy of fame in pop music.”
The semi-autobiographical song about an illiterate “country boy” from the New Orleans area who plays the guitar “just like ringing a bell” peaked at No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100. It was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999 for its influence as a rock-and-roll single and is No. 1 on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time list. It’s also a hit with Ranker voters, who put it at No. 11.
6. ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ — Nirvana
The only ’90s release on the list, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” became an anthem for an apathetic generation. Named after a brand of deodorant for girls, the song was the band’s biggest hit in most countries, has been certified platinum (1 million copies shipped) by the Recording Industry Association of America and sent the album “Nevermind” to the top of the charts at the start of 1992. But the song put unwanted pressure on the band.
“There are many other songs that I have written that are as good, if not better,” claimed frontman Kurt Cobain. Rolling Stone puts “Smells Like Teen Spirit” at No. 9, while Ranker voters have it at No. 13.
5. ‘Good Vibrations’ — The Beach Boys
“Good Vibrations” was a huge hit for the Beach Boys in 1966, scoring them No. 1s in both the U.S. and the U.K. as well as many other countries.
At the time, it was the most expensive single ever recorded, with a studio bill of $50,000. Brian Wilson composed and produced the song, which was inspired by his fascination with cosmic vibrations — stemming from a moment in his childhood when his mother tried to explain why dogs barked at some people and not others.
“A dog would pick up vibrations from these people that you can’t see but you can feel. And the same thing happened with people,” Wilson said. One of his goals with the song was to create a better song than “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin,” and both Rolling Stone and Ranker believe he did it, ranking “Good Vibrations” at No. 6 and No. 8, respectively.
4. ‘Yesterday’ — The Beatles
The Beatles’ most famous ballad was voted third-best by the Ranker community and 13th by Rolling Stone. It was also ranked third on BMI’s list of the Top 100 Songs of the Century and was voted the best song of the 20th century in a 1999 BBC Radio 2 poll of music experts and listeners.
“Yesterday” only features one of the Fab Four: McCartney’s vocal over a string quartet. McCartney described it as “one of the most instinctive songs I’ve ever written.” The melody came to him in a dream while he was staying at his then-girlfriend Jane Asher’s house. But initially, the band was “a little embarrassed” about recording a song that was so far from their rock-and-roll roots.
3. ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ — The Rolling Stones
“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” deemed by Rolling Stone to be the second-best song of all time, gave The Rolling Stones their first U.S. No. 1, and despite being initially restricted to pirate radio stations in the U.K. (due to its sexually suggestive content), it later topped the charts there, too.
The song’s unmistakable riff came to Keith Richards in a dream one night in May 1965, in his motel room in Clearwater, Florida, on the Rolling Stones’ third U.S. tour. According to Rolling Stone, “He woke up and grabbed a guitar and a cassette machine. Richards played the run of notes once, then fell back to sleep.
“On the tape,” he said later, “you can hear me drop the pick, and the rest is snoring.”
2. ‘Hey Jude’ — The Beatles
It’s the best song of all time, according to thousands of Ranker voters, and it comes in at No. 8 on the Rolling Stone list. “Hey Jude,” the first single release on The Beatles’ Apple label, was a No. 1 hit in many countries around the world and the top-selling single of 1968 in the U.K., U.S., Australia and Canada.
The message behind the song is touching and deeply personal: McCartney wrote it on his way to visit Lennon’s soon-to-be-ex-wife, Cynthia, and their son, Julian. McCartney once said the opening lines were “a hopeful message for Julian: ‘Come on, man, your parents got divorced. I know you’re not happy, but you’ll be OK.'”
He later changed “Jules” to “Jude” — a name inspired by Jud from the musical “Oklahoma!”
1. ‘Imagine’ — John Lennon
Voted second by the Ranker community and third by Rolling Stone, John Lennon’s “Imagine” is worthy of our top spot. First released in the U.S. in October 1971 and in the U.K. in October 1975, it was Lennon’s best-selling solo hit.
BMI named “Imagine” one of the 100 most-performed songs of the 20th century (it’s been covered by Madonna, Stevie Wonder, Lady Gaga, Elton John and many others, and since 2005 has preceded the New Year’s Time Square Ball drops in New York City), and it’s ranked No. 30 on the Recording Industry Association of America’s list of the 365 Songs of the Century.
Shortly before his death, Lennon said that much of the song’s content and lyrics came from his wife at the time, Yoko Ono, and in 2017, she received a co-writing credit.