Pop music has always been an ambiguous genre. It’s quite easy to pinpoint a song that is “pop,” but extremely hard to come up with a blanket definition, outside of something cryptic along the lines of “designed to appeal to the masses;” “pop” is short for “popular” after all. The gut check is always going to win out with this one. Artists have turned everything from rock and roll to soul to dance to hip hop into pop music over the years, and it’s hard to argue with just how powerful that can be. I’ve compiled a list of the greatest songs from the rock and roll era that fall into this category. You’ll see tracks rooted in various genres here, but all of them have one thing in common: they’re pop songs. The only criteria here is that a) the songs are pop, and b) the songs are good. That combination almost always results in a hit, and you’ll just happen to notice that all of these songs were. The only way to rank them, at that point, is by execution and and impact. Check out the playlist at the bottom for the greatest pop experience of your life!
100. “Tainted Love”
The “Tainted Love” we all know is wildly different from its original, recorded by Gloria Jones in the mid-60s. Soft Cell’s epic cover became such a big hit that most people didn’t even realize that it’s actually a cover. Their version replaces simple rock and roll instrumentation with synthesizers and drum machines, and slows the tempo down to create something menacing and uncomfortable. “Tainted Love” is a piece of synthpop history that you can’t help but love.
99. “Summer In The City”
The Lovin’ Spoonful
The Lovin’ Spoonful were an important, era defining rock act, but they are most noted for their deliriously tactful pop melodies. “Summer In The City” was their greatest “pop moment” by far. Their big hit is psychedelic rock at its finest with the kind of progression and instrumentation that screams “1960s,” but its spitfire lyrical delivery makes for something a little less comfortable, but a little more exciting. Through it all, “Summer In The City” still remains brilliantly catchy.
98. “Groove Is In The Heart”
“Groove Is In The Heart” is one of the most notorious one hit wonders ever. Deee-Lite’s funky, psychedelic throwback jam was inescapable, overplayed, and totally worn out by the end of its reign, which is possibly why they never had a second hit. After the dust cleared, though, we were able to see just how brilliant the song actually was. For every quirk, there’s a moment of equal genius; the track is just as mindful as it is mindless. It’s everything pop music should be.
97. “Glad All Over”
Dave Clark Five
The British Invasion was a crucial time for rock and roll, turning bands like The Beatles, Rolling Stones, and The Who into legendary superstars. One of the era’s biggest unsung heroes has always been the Dave Clark Five, even despite their Hall of Fame induction. Their biggest hit, “Glad All Over,” was one of the most pop-oriented moments of the time, but also one of the best. The chorus is sublime and memorable, pairing brilliantly with the upbeat backing track.
96. “Our Lips Are Sealed”
The Go Go’s
For as much as The Go Go’s tried to be taken seriously as a rock band, they couldn’t help but give us some seriously awesome pop hits. Their best single just also so happened to be their first, “Our Lips Are Sealed.” There’s an undeniable garage rock undertone to the track, but the chorus explodes like bubblegum popping. These girls were talented musicians who knew how to rock their instruments, but they also knew how to craft damn good pop hits that we’re still listening to.
95. “Don’t You Want Me?”
It’s easy to hear just how “Don’t You Want Me?” managed to stick out prominently in a hoard of mindless synthpop tracks during an era where that was pretty much all you were going to get. The Human League megahit was musically, lyrically, and melodically superior to pretty much everything else released around the same time. Outlining the details of a strained relationship from both perspectives, it’s the memorable chorus and production quality that drew us all in.
94. “Midnight Train To Georgia”
Gladys Knight & The Pips
After leaving Motown, Gladys Knight & The Pips experienced a sort of rebirth that resulted in arguably their most famous hit, “Midnight Train To Georgia.” The soulful, mid-tempo track vividly illustrates the story of a woman willing to follow her man back to a “simpler place and time.” Knight’s effortless vocal delivery characteristically pairs brilliantly with The Pips’ tight vocal harmonies, and the play between the two in the iconic chorus really makes for one of soul’s greatest pop moments.
93. “Since U Been Gone”
Thanks to her victorious win on the culturally significant American Idol, Kelly Clarkson was a pop star before she even had a hit. It wasn’t easy, but she managed to shed her reality show stigma rather quickly. When she released “Since U Been Gone,” it was clear that all bets were off with her. The rock-infused track has one of the most powerful chorus explosions in pop history, and the way Kelly brings it to life reminded us all just why we all voted for her to begin with.
Van Halen started out as rock gods right from the get go. Between David Lee Roth’s epic frontman persona and Eddie Van Halen’s now-legendary guitar skills, they had everything it took to rule the world of rock music, but instead they made “Jump.” The song is far more well known for its synthesized hook than any moment Eddie has on guitar, and the chorus is minimal as opposed to something out of a stadium anthem. Still, the track’s pop sensibility is incredibly awesome.
91. “Mr. Brightside”
There was something so intriguing about The Killers upon their arrival. The band felt like an exciting rejuvenation of new wave that wasn’t like anything else on the radio. Their first single, “Mr. Brightside,” sounded like it could’ve been a fluke, and thus it couldn’t be ignored. We know now that The Killers are really just an awesome band, but their breakout hit felt like it was a fleeting moment in pop history. The chorus is so incredibly anthemic that it demands a festival-like sing-a-long every time, but the height the music creates is its most powerful aspect.
90. “Cry Me A River”
Justin Timberlake boldly went where no man has ever gone before. He went from a boy band figurehead that no one took seriously to a solo act that we now consider a legend and a genius. He’s now a sought after songwriter, producer, and collaborator, and it was “Cry Me A River” that got him there. The bitter break up track showed off just how epic the pairing of JT and Timbaland is, and stood out as a particularly well crafted piece of pop that lacked in pretension or desperation.
Rihanna featuring Jay-Z
“Umbrella” was a game-changer for Rihanna, who now has more hits under her belt in under a decade than most other artists rack up in two. This was the song where the critics started to take her seriously. The track audaciously adds a syllable to its title word and turns it into one hell of a memorable hook. Jay-Z’s presence on the track is uncharacteristically almost unnecessary because RiRi holds down the fort so well. This is a pop song that everyone involved got right.
88. “Just The Way You Are”
Billy Joel has many songs in his catalog that are pure pop, but “Just The Way You Are” is the one that’s just a little more special. This romantic ballad, lifted from his fantastic The Stranger LP, is a prime example of his natural songwriting ability, and his intuition to fold in sounds from jazz and R&B. The track has a smoothness about it that’s endearing, but also easy for everyone to get into, so when you add a singsongy melody to the mix, you’ve got yourself a classic.
87. “Common People”
Pulp’s “Common People” is a bonafide Britpop anthem. Some will even call it the best Britpop song ever, and the argument is compelling. The track outlines the story of a girl from a wealthy upbringing wanting to experience life as your “Average Joe.” You know, it’s you’re typical “grass is always greener” thing. The way the band builds the music around the lyrics is astounding, and every time you think the track has officially climaxed, the zing you with something even bigger.
86. “Big Girls Don’t Cry”
Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons
Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons were one of the crucial acts in bridging doo wop and rock and roll, and they had plenty of popular hits along the way. “Big Girls Don’t Cry” is one of their most famous tunes, and one of the best examples of not only their unique style, but their melodic intuition. Thanks to Frankie Valli’s distinct, almost annoying falsetto, and the Four Seasons’ outstanding harmonizing capability, you have to be impressed, but it’s damn fun at the same time.
85. “Mrs. Robinson”
Simon & Garfunkel
“Mrs. Robinson” originally began its life as a fixture in the hit movie The Graduate, but later became a huge single for the legendary Simon & Garfunkel. The charismatic folksy tune sees Paul and Art locked in as two of the tightest harmonizers in the history of rock, and with its run-through of off the wall lyrics (including a Joe DiMaggio shout out,) the track is a pop gem in a rather unconventional sense. “Mrs. Robinson” is classic that will always have a captivating quality to it.
84. “Don’t Speak”
No Doubt is as much a pop band as they are anything else, but they’ve always been determined to do things just a little differently. It’s part of why they’ve been able to maintain a rock-star status over the years. Still, they managed to craft one of pop’s most tender moments of the 90s, better known as “Don’t Speak.” The alluring track has the perfect play between its verses and chorus, striking all of the right levels of emotion just when they needed to.
83. “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)”
The Temptations are one of the most successful vocal groups ever, which is really only a testament to their talent. One of their last great hits ended up being one of their most important and best. “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” acts as the swan song for founding members Eddie Kendricks, who sings lead, and Paul Williams, who has a brief solo. The ballad is one of those incredible pop moments that feels completely organic, and it naturally became a huge hit.
“Venus” is a song that’s been a #1 hit on two separate occasions. The Bananarama cover remains a fond memory for 80s fans on both sides of the Atlantic, but Shocking Blue’s original wins in terms of quality and legacy. The track has that perfect pop hook (“She’s got it!”) that makes an instant impact, the progression is second to none, and the slightest tinge of psychedelic rock makes for something quite fun. “Venus” feels like a snapshot in time, but strikingly relevant at the same time.
81. “Girls & Boys”
“Girls & Boys” was Britpop’s breakout moment in the commercial realm. Blur’s now-iconic hit turned the group into pop stars in their native UK, despite their every effort to maintain their cool (their rebellious self-titled album released 3 years later is proof of that.) The song, outlining a balls-to-the-walls “holiday down to Greece” is one of the catchiest songs you’re ever going hear, built around a wittily circular chorus, a funky bass line, and a danceable keyboard hook.
80. “Hungry Like The Wolf”
Duran Duran made some of the greatest pop music of the 1980s and beyond, but no other song of theirs was more glorious than “Hungry Like The Wolf.” The hit single has one of those perfect, effortless melodies that beckons a sing-a-long. The guitars are severely processed, and you really have to listen hard to hear the incredible bass line, but all of the parts come together so well that time after time you’ll find yourself just dancing mindlessly, and that’s perfect.
79. “Just Can’t Get Enough”
It’s rather difficult to remember that Depeche Mode started off as trendy synthpop band before transforming into the group we know them as today. Still, one of their most memorable hits, “Just Can’t Get Enough,” was actually one of their first. The bubbly track is everything you’d expect from something out of the early 80s, but it’s just a little bit cooler for some reason or another. The synth hook alone is enough to get stuck in your head, but the whole thing is catchy.
78. “River Deep, Mountain High”
Ike & Tina Turner
Some consider it one of Phil Spector’s biggest missteps, others consider it one on his crowning achievements, but we can all agree that “River Deep, Mountain High” is something legendary. One of Ike & Tina Turner’s most memorable hits, the track goes just a little bit further than their bluesy soul roots; this is a full on pop song that they’re able to make their own. It’s amazing how Tina’s commanding belt holds strongly against one of Phil’s tallest walls of sounds ever.
77. “Reach Out, I’ll Be There”
The Four Tops
Motown may have perfected soul music, but they turned their acts into bonafide pop stars. One of their biggest acts, The Four Tops, never quite had the same track record of pop hits as the likes of The Temptations or The Supremes, but their legendary catalog still contained a few such gems. Easily the best of the lot is “Reach Out, I’ll Be There,” almost two tracks in one, with very distinct verses and choruses. Thanks to the instrumentation and vocals, it’s on another level.
76. “Runaround Sue”
After leaving The Belmonts for a solo career of his own, Dion landed his first #1 hit with “Runaround Sue.” The doo wop inspired track, telling the story of a floozie named Sue, is strangely fun. It’s the kind of song that gets everybody up and dancing at a wedding, and that’s not necessarily a negative thing. “Runaround Sue” is a great pop moment simply because of how well executed it is and how it’s actually impossible not to like on some level or another.
75. “Super Freak”
It’s dance, it’s funk, it’s rock, and it’s one of the best pop songs to ever hit radio. Rick James’ brilliant “Super Freak” had all of the makings of a hit, from its iconic bass line (also to be found in MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This”) to its joyous keyboard arrangements, to its memorable chorus, to its naughty lyrics. If you find yourself particularly drawn to the backing vocals, you can thank The Temptations, who deliver one of the song’s most memorable hooks.
74. “Why Do Fools Fall In Love?”
Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers
These guys actually were teenagers. The legendary Frankie Lymon and his overwhelmingly talented backing group crafted one of the greatest pop tunes of early rock and roll almost entirely by themselves; Lymon has the lead writing credit on the track. The doo wop song features a familiar arrangement for the genre, but the lyrical maturity and melodic intuition that is injected into every facet is astounding. This is one of those formative tracks that should never be overlooked.
73. “I Will Survive”
“I Will Survive” the greatest disco breakup song of all time (yes, there are many.) Gloria Gaynor’s memorable hit became such a classic that we’ve still yet to escape from its euphoric clutches (not that we’d want to.) Beginning with a looming intro that beckons a bigger sing-a-long than the actual chorus, the track unleashes into a powerful disco masterpiece that is not only definitive on an era and a genre, but is proof that pop music is a multifaceted art form for everyone to enjoy.
72. “Beat It”
During Michael Jackson’s Thriller era, everything he did was genius. The album spawned 7 top-10 hits in the US, and 3 music videos that each have gone down as amongst the best ever made. “Beat It” sticks out as a particularly shining moment. This was Michael’s first real venture into rock music, but he never strayed far from his pop roots. With a killer guitar solo from Eddie Van Halen and a belted-out chorus that you can’t help but sing along to, the whole track is epic.
71. “Bad Romance”
Upon the arrival of “Bad Romance,” Lady Gaga could do no wrong. The track was so much more than a reiteration or a culmination of her previous works, it was a game-changer. Even with pop’s shift to a more dance-oriented trend, there was nothing quite like the track on the radio, and we all couldn’t help but get sucked into its glory. Even part is a memorable hook, but the chorus sticks out as one of the most epic in pop history. “Bad Romance” is Lady Gaga at her best.
70. “Son Of A Preacher Man”
No one has ever mastered blue eyed soul like Dusty Springfield. Her sultry, raspy voice has gone down in history as one of the best ever, and even landed her a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. One of her most well-known hits, “Son Of A Preacher Man,” is a classic moment in pop history. The bluesy tune not only features a set of risqué lyrics, but a melody so sweet and memorable that all Dusty had to do with sing it for it to work. Instead, she made it even more special.
69. “God Only Knows”
The Beach Boys
It’s largely agreed upon that The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds is the greatest pop album of all time. Pretty much every track included is a classic in its own right, but the Carl Wilson-led “God Only Knows” is truly something special. Crafted by the formidable Brian Wilson, the song features an unusual array of instruments for a pop song, in addition to a true-to-form complex vocal arrangement, but the melody is what holds it all together. The sum of it all is overwhelmingly beautiful.
68. “Unchained Melody”
The Righteous Brothers
“Unchained Melody” is one of the most beautiful songs ever written and recorded. The Righteous Brothers’ hit was actually a solo performance by Bobby Hatfield and remains as one of Phil Spector’s crowning production achievements; the wall of sound that climaxes the grand finale is awe inspiring. Although this version is actually a cover, it’s gone down as the quintessential rendition of the track and remains one of the greatest pop moments in rock history.
67. “Miss You”
The Rolling Stones are often considered the greatest pure rock band of all time, even despite all of their success in the mainstream. However, there’s one song that sticks out in their catalog as a moment clearly designed for the wonderful world of pop. “Miss You” dangerously taps into the disco craze of the time, but doesn’t come across as selling out or taking a cheap shot. The track is groovy, danceable, and unconventionally focuses on a repetitious melody than any sort of hook.
66. “Maggie May”
Rod Stewart was an important figure in rock and roll, but his eventual solo career had some glorious pop moments. The best of the lot is easily his most recognized song, “Maggie May.” The beautiful folksy tune, featuring Ronnie Wood on guitar, is pleasantly melody-driven and and unconventionally climaxes in a mandolin solo. The track may be over 5 minutes in length, but every moment feels intentional and tactful. Even radio hasn’t had the balls to edit it down.
65. “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)”
Hall & Oates
Daryl Hall & John Oates are one of the few acts that really doubled as superstars in both a more music-oriented world and a pop world. They were superstars in their hey-day just as much as they were lauded by critics for their soul and rock-tinged classics. Amongst their best line-splitting hits is “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do),” a simple update on a classic sound. The intricate chorus is masterful, but nothing sticks out more than the incredible arrangement.
Janet Jackson is a pop star through to the core, and her string of R&B-infused hits throughout the 80s and 90s really set her on a pedestal amongst the elite. There’s not a better “pop” single in her catalog quite as ferocious as “Nasty,” one of her breakthrough hits. The hip hop-lite track sees Janet in full control, giving us one-liner after one-liner, including the immortal, “No my first name ain’t ‘Baby,’ it’s ‘Janet,’ ‘Ms. Jackson’ if you’re nasty.” It would still be a hit today.
Santana featuring Rob Thomas
This might just be the greatest late-in-career comeback hit of all time. Santana’s enormous megahit “Smooth” was inescapable for a solid year, but it was certainly one glorious year. Featuring matchbox 20’s Rob Thomas on vocals, the track had all of the makings of a brilliant latin-infused pop rock song and then some. “Smooth” bridges generation gaps and genre distinctions, and somehow manages to hold its “classic Santana” integrity with his mindblowing guitar skills.
62. “Because The Night”
Patti Smith Group
Springsteen-penned, Patti Smith-performed. What could be better than that? It’s incredible just how undeniably “pop” the outcome was with these two artists involved. “Because The Night” is a classic song on all accounts, but most notably for its disgustingly catchy and explosive chorus, and it’s equally as memorable bridge. It’s almost as though the track is determined to be as rock and roll as possible, but it can’t contain itself. There’s nothing guilty about it.
61. “Let It Be”
It was the song that fittingly defined The Beatles’ breakup. As the title track to their final (psuedo-postumous) studio album, “Let It Be” was one of the group’s finest works. The piano-led McCartney track has one of the sweetest melodies in pop history that builds into such explosive choruses that you’re either going to grow goosebumps or shed tears, but most likely both, every time. This is a fitting ballad to wrap up everything The Beatles meant to the world at large.
The 1980s was a decade of superstars, and no one can deny that George Michael was one of them. Following his successful tenure with Wham!, he took his skills as a singer, perfomer, and songwriter to the next level with his lauded Faith album. The title track remains his signature tune thank to its jangling guitar riff, and minimal, concise hook. From the melody to the arrangement, there’s nothing overcomplicated about “Faith,” but that’s easily its most endearing quality.
59. “Good Times”
This is probably the most influential bass line in history. “Rappers Delight” sampled it, “Another One Bites The Dust” emulated it, and dance floors all over the world are still being summoned by it. Chic’s “Good Times” was a rare diamond in a pile of disco rough that helped solidify Nile Rodgers as an icon and a highly sought after producer. The track is deliriously fun and carefree on the surface, which helped it become a pop gem, but it’s quite complex in actuality.
58. “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher And Higher”
There are very few voices in the history of soul that even come close to touching Jackie Wilson’s. The artist was a crucial figure in the development of rock and roll as we know it today, but no other song of his had quite the same lasting impact as the immortal “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.” The track epically pins the lead vocals against the backing against the heralding horns, and the final product is a pop masterwork designed to make you feel good.
Of all Madonna’s iconic moments, none had a greater visual impact than “Vogue.” Introducing a distinct style of dancing (borderline posing) to the masses via one of the greatest music videos ever made, the song itself could have easily gotten overshadowed, but never did. The track is dancy, sexy, and uplifting with a distinctive plunking piano line and catchy chorus, but the overall effect is far greater than any one component or atmospheric nuance.
56. “La Bamba”
Ritchie Valens’ adaptation of the Mexican folk song “La Bamba” was a surprise hit, but it made quite an impact on the early formation of rock and roll. The track, sung entirely in Spanish (an extremely rare occurrence for the time) brings a notable, albeit musically subtle Latin flair to the growing genre. It was an extremely risky move to take a folk song and give it a complete rock and roll make over, but it worked flawlessly and easily translated into a pop hit to boot.
55. “Little Red Corvette”
Only Prince could get away with sending a track this intricately innuendoed to pop radio without anyone really catching on. Yes, the metaphors are easy to decipher, but “Little Red Corvette” is more of a “smoke and mirrors” trick than anything else; he distracts us with the music. The song is so impeccably written and recorded that it’s hard not to get sucked into its undeniable sense of fun. This made it clear to everyone that Prince was a force of nature, not a freak of one.
54. “Get Lucky”
Daft Punk featuring Pharrell and Nile Rodgers
There’s no easy way to comprehend just how “Get Lucky” came together so well. All three artists, Daft Punk, Pharrell, and Nile Rodgers, are irrefutable legends in their own right. Their three-way collaboration, as unexpected as it may be, is cosmic. “Get Lucky” is simple, it’s catchy, it’s groovy, and it’s authentic. Daft Punk knew exactly what they were doing, and it resulted in an enormous pop hit all over the world, and it will go down in history as a monumental track.
53. “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay”
There’s a bittersweet sentiment surrounding Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay.” Recorded just prior to his death, and released shortly after, the track’s reflective lyrics cast and eerie foreshadow over the legend’s passing that still remains a bit unsettling even today. On the sweeter side, the song is hands down one of the best ever made. Even aside from the circumstances surrounding its release, it briefly made Otis Redding a full fledged pop star.
52. “Heart Of Glass”
Blondie’s “Heart Of Glass” was the perfect bridge between disco’s reign of terror and new wave’s injection of hope. Their signature hit had all the makings of a brilliant pop track done entirely on their terms. Somehow, they figured out a way to make disco music for the punk crowd, and still actually be cool to openly like. Debbie Harry’s dreamy vocals are the standout star of the track, delivering verses far more memorable than its refrain, but it’s all part of what makes it cool.
51. “With Or Without You”
The release of The Joshua Tree made U2 the biggest band in the world, and they’ve never looked back since. The album’s lead single, “With Or Without You,” was far more the payoff than the catalyst (that honor belongs to “Pride,”) but it remains the brightest pop moment in their catalog. The track is notable for its build of intensity that launches into a soaring climax. Still, it stays powerfully restrained, something unconventional for both a radio staple and a live anthem.
“Wonderwall” is the kind of song that stops the world from spinning. Oasis has always been in Britpop limbo, walking the tightrope between alternative rock and pop stars in their native UK, but this track gave them a brief glimpse of the latter the world over. The beautifully melodic and lyrically sweet track has equally as catchy verses as it does choruses, making for one of the biggest sing-a-longs ever. “Wonderwall” is the track that made everyone feel cool for knowing it.
49. “I Want It That Way”
The Backstreet Boys are the boy bandiest boy band of all time, and nothing was more exemplary of that than their inescapable hit, “I Want It That Way.” The track itself is actually a brilliantly constructed pop song, where the Boys showcase their legitimate vocal chops. From start to finish, the song presents one melodic and memorable hook after another, each one masterfully bigger and catchier than the one before. What the song is actually about, though, is anyone’s guess.
48. “Love Shack”
“Love Shack” is one of the greatest party anthems of all time, if not the greatest. The B-52s’ signature song is not only deliriously fun and exciting, it’s actually bonkers. The co-lead vocal technique made famous by Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson pairs incredibly with Fred Schneider’s iconic sing-talking, creating a carefree sensibility that welcomes everyone to the party. Even after all these years, “Love Shack” continues to be a staple of party pop, and will forever.
47. “Rolling In The Deep”
It was the song that launched a year-long reign for Adele that will be referenced by pop historians forever. “Rolling In The Deep” is the ultimate crowd pleaser simply because it appeals to every demographic in one way or another. The bitter breakup song showcases the artist’s unparalleled vocal ability, which ends up being so captivating that by the time the thundering bass kicks in for the chorus, we’re putty in her hands. Time will remember the track as a classic.
46. “Losing My Religion”
R.E.M. is (paradoxically) one of the biggest alternative bands in the history of rock, aided strongly by their enormous hit, “Losing My Religion.” The track basically became a hit because it was simply too good to ignore, but it simultaneously exemplified just how magnificently art-driven pop music can be when it wants to. Between the two chorus approach and the unconventional decision to use a mandolin as the lead instrument, the track is breathtakingly genius.
45. “West End Girls”
Pet Shop Boys
“West End Girls,” the debut single from the legendary British pop duo the Pet Shop Boys, was a landmark moment. Everything about the track is flawless, from Neil Tennant’s borderline-rapped verses, to Nick Lowe’s powerful landscape of synthesizers and EDKs. For as unconventional as it is, there’s something undeniably memorable about the song that still keeps people coming back for more. Even today, “West End Girls” sounds ridiculously fresh and relevant.
44. “Da Doo Ron Ron”
The Crystals were one of the essential girl groups of their era. The faceless lineup of girls, sometimes even credited for Darlene Love’s recordings, had several hits, but none were as delectable as “Da Doo Ron Ron.” The Phil Spector classic has all of the makings of a legendary pop tune. The melody is memorable and catchy, the lyrics are simple, the wall of sound is as powerful as ever, and the vocals are stellar. This is one of Phil’s crowning all-around achievements.
The super-duo of Cee Lo Green and Danger Mouse, better known as Gnarls Barkley, was a short-lived project, but their debut single, “Crazy” made a lasting impact. The track has such widespread appeal that, upon its release, we were all drawn to it. In a strictly pop context, what makes “Crazy” so incredible is how much it rejects all of the cheap tricks and routine nuances we’re all used to, but still allows us to walk away with something memorable stuck in our brains.
42. “Suspicious Minds”
Known simply as “The King,” Elvis Presley was an essential, larger than life figure in the development of rock and roll. However, it wasn’t until late in his career that he recorded his best track, “Suspicious Minds.” Bedazzled with powerful backing vocals and blaring horns, Elvis’ iconic charisma turns the track into a tour de force we’re still gawking at today. It sticks out as the brightest jewel in his dense catalog, but partially because of its counter-intuitive pop sensibility.
41. “Time After Time”
Once she opened her mouth to sing, it was abundantly clear that Cyndi Lauper wasn’t that unusual after all. In fact, she easily has one of the best voices in pop history. Cyndi’s megahit “Time After Time,” which she co-wrote with The Hooters’ Rob Hyman, is a masterclass in simplicity. The heartfelt ballad doesn’t rely on height to strike a chord with the listener, but instead lures us in with its lyrical content and spacious delivery, all of which resonate powerfully.
40. “Where Did Our Love Go?”
“Where Did Our Love Go?,” the breakout number one hit for The Supremes was audibly the beginning for something special. The Diana Ross-led trio went on to become the most important all-female assemblage in music history, largely due in part to this impeccably crafted hit. The progression is simple and circular and the instrumentation is intentionally basic, but there’s so much charisma resonating from it that, altogether, you have a total pop masterpiece.
39. “Every Breath You Take”
Yes, it’s a song essentially about being a stalker, but The Police’s legendary mega hit really comes across quite welcomingly. On the whole, “Every Breath You Take” is a simple song whose verses are equally as hook-oriented as the chorus, if not more. With a repetitious bass line and atmospheric arrangement, this is the kind of track that you’ll see people slow dancing to forever. This was a fantastic pop moment for a trio so determined to be successful on their own terms.
38. “Nothing Compares 2 U”
“Nothing Compares 2 U” was a defining moment of the 1990s. Sinéad O’Connor’s show-stopping cover of the Prince-penned masterpiece was so undeniably beautiful that it launched her into a brief period of intense commercial success. Despite having a loyal fanbase, many would consider Sinéad to be a one hit wonder, but, in actuality, she’s just an alternative artist who audaciously tackled a song and made it so impeccably gorgeous that no one could resist.
37. “California Dreamin'”
The Mamas & The Papas
At a time when the counterculture was emerging, there was an enormous, now legendary shift in the music scene. Right at the forefront of it all was The Mamas & The Papas, whose breakout hit, “California Dreamin'” remains an anthemic snapshot of a powerful time and place. The intricately harmonized tune is ingeniously structured with a killer progression and even stops for a flute solo. The psychedelic pop record is unanimously considered one of the best songs ever crafted.
36. “Go Your Own Way”
No matter what anyone says, when Fleetwood Mac’s revolving door of members finally landed on the classic lineup we all know and love, they became a pop act. Their Rumours LP is, across the board, considered one of the best albums ever made, and right at the center of it lies one of their most popular tunes, “Go Your Own Way.” The Lindsey Buckingham-led track is a lush, powerful burst of energy and emotion that’s almost impossible not to fully immerse yourself in.
35. “Crazy In Love”
Beyoncé featuring Jay-Z
Beyoncé’s breakout solo single “Crazy In Love” was one of pop music’s most important moments of the last 20 years. Featuring now-husband Jay-Z, the track is built around a rousing horn sample, frenzied beat, and hook-after-hook(-after-hook) structure, but it’s Beyoncé’s fearless control that is the biggest draw. “Crazy In Love” is the kind of pop song geared to appeal to the R&B crowd, but it’s so flawless that it ends up appealing to pretty much everyone.
34. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”
Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell
Very few collaborators had chemistry on the same level of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. The Motown power-duo made several hits together, but one in particular shone a little brighter than the rest. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” actually saw bigger commercial success with Diana Ross’ heavily revised solo version, but Marvin and Tammi’s original has stood the test of time as a legendary pop classic you’ll be hearing at weddings for years to come.
33. “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head”
Australia’s greatest pop export, Kylie Minogue (often considered the Princess of Pop,) rightfully took the whole world by storm with her unstoppable megahit “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head.” The pulsing, simplistic, robot-like dance pop track is one of the most perfectly constructed records in the history of the genre, and Kylie’s sultry, breathy delivery sticks out as the driving force behind it all. The “la la la” hook alone is enough to make you surrender to its glory.
32. “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”
“Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” was the true beginning of Michael Jackson’s King of Pop reign. As his first non-Motown solo single, the track was a major renaissance for the artist clearly eager to conquer the world with his music. The song caught the tail end of the disco craze, and while the influence is clearly infused, the record’s quality is far beyond the contrived hits that had been pouring out. This was a game-changing record for a game-changing artist.
Roy Orbison’s country-lite ballad “Crying” continues to go down as one of the best songs in the history of rock and roll. His vocal command, toggling between country western superstar and opera virtuoso, is astounding. In a time where the pieces of rock and roll were still coming together, this pop ballad was more complex than anything his peers were attempting. As the melody continues to escalate, Roy buckles us in and takes us on one hell of an emotional loop.
30. “I Will Always Love You”
For as much as Whitney Houston was a renowned R&B powerhouse vocalist, she was a legitimate pop star. There’s not a person on the planet who doesn’t know her cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” which, upon release, quickly became one of the biggest selling singles of all time. The tear-inducing ballad never properly conforms to a genre, instead giving us the opportunity to focus intently on Whitney’s “goosebumps every time” vocals.
29. “The Tracks Of My Tears”
Smokey Robinson & The Miracles
Some will argue that “The Tracks Of My Tears” is the greatest single to come out of Motown, and it’s a fairly sound argument. Not only is the track somewhat of an “a-ha!” moment when it comes to Motown production, but it’s one of Smokey Robinson’s finest works as both a vocalist and a songwriter. The soulful ballad has a chorus most artists can only dream of tackling, and the climax at the end is so powerful that we’re all destined to cry tears of our own.
28. “Last Dance”
It’s the song that ended every party for years, and still continues to do so to this day. Donna Summer’s “Last Dance” wasn’t her first pop hit, but it was her first hit that felt shamelessly pop (in her own way, of course.) Instead of following your standard verse-chorus routine, the whole song feels like one giant chorus, leaving ample room for Donna to showcase her pipes and declare her rightful spot atop her throne as the Queen of Disco in addition to being a pop legend.
27. “Hey Ya!”
Every now and then a song comes along that becomes instantly definitive of a time and place; OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” was just that track. At a time when hip hop’s reign as pop’s driving force was in full-swing, the duo decided to avoid any contrived sensibility in their work. This one-of-a-kind record delivers iconic hook after iconic hook laid on top of a bubbly backing track of simplified guitars and repetitious beats, and the end result is unconventional, but completely legendary.
26. “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)”
There’s something strikingly nightmarish about the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)” intertwined with an undeniable landscape of beauty. The track has one of the most memorable synth lines in this history of pop that acts as a refuge for Annie Lennox’s distantly possessed vocals. Through it all, “Sweet Dreams” is one of the catchiest songs to emerge from the entirety of the 1980s, and is thus a landmark in experimental pop that artists today are trying to emulate.
Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” is one of those songs that actually sounds a little too good to fall under the “pop music” umbrella, but there’s realistically nothing about it that shouldn’t. In hindsight, this record is textbook Wonder, which, by definition, makes it a masterwork equipped with a dazzling hook, a funky bass line, and an uplifting arrangement; “Superstition” is all that and more. Through all of its mass appeal, though, it’s one of the best songs ever made.
24. “Poker Face”
Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” changed the state of pop music as we know it. Her infiltration was subtle (unlike her outfits,) but, looking back, there’s a very clear pre-Gaga and post-Gaga division; this was the song that made “EDM” the top-40 mainstay it is today. The hook-filled track proudly embraces a not-so-cryptic set of lyrics that are actually brilliant, especially when paired with RedOne’s euphoric production. “Poker Face” is proof that dance pop can be powerful.
23. “Your Song”
There are very few romantic ballads quite as brilliant as “Your Song.” One of the greatest creations by Elton John and his lyricist Bernie Taupin, the piano-driven piece embraces romance without succumbing to the downfalls of sappiness. The beautiful lyrics interlock with the melody so perfectly that there’d be no reason to surround them with distracting fluff. Thankfully, Elton uncharacteristically set the excess aside in exchange for something tactfully delicate.
22. “Stand By Me”
Ben E. King
What makes “Stand By Me” a great pop song is very different from what makes it a great R&B record. From a strictly “pop” perspective, the track has everything you need for a classic. The melody is insanely catchy, the progression is easy to follow, and the lyrics are beyond melodic. However, the instrumentation is what makes it a bonafide classic. The bass line is the stand out star here, with an array of strings acting as a glue, and Ben E. King’s vocals are predictably stellar.
21. “Brown Eyed Girl”
Irish singer-songwriter Van Morrison’s signature song, “Brown Eyed Girl” is that go-to track that no one ever has to feel guilty about. Yes, it’s become something of a cliché, but it’s difficult to deny its joyous pop sensibility. The memorable, nonsensical hook alone is enough to call the track a success, but the thundering bass line and airy guitar riff that sandwich the vocals really take it to a whole different level. Somehow, after all these years, “Brown Eyed Girl” keeps getting better.
20. “The Twist”
Dance crazes have been a mainstay of pop music, but none has ever been more culturally significant than “The Twist.” The song itself is so much more than a definitive piece of pop culture, or even of early rock and roll. Chubby Checker’s megahit is an incredible masterclass in mass appeal. It didn’t matter who you were, this song was irresistible. It’s what pop music is all about, and very few songs in the history of rock and roll truly had this much allure. It’s still going strong today.
It’s difficult to really call “Yesterday” a proper Beatles song, as Paul McCartney is the only member of the Fab Four actually featured on the track, not to mention the lone songwriter. However it was billed, the song is a lesson in how beautiful simple pop music can be. With one of the most memorable progressions in the history of rock and roll, it’s no surprise that “Yesterday” became an enormous hit, and some make the claim that it’s the most covered song ever.
18. “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?”
Almost all of the greatness in “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” can be found within the songwriting. As one of Carole King and David Goffin’s many opuses (some will argue this is their magnum,) the track has a poetic finesse about it that is equally as sweet as it is heartbreaking. Add to that the girl group charm of the incredible Shirelles and a predictably masterful production job from Phil Spector, and you’ve got yourself a dazzlingly pop creation to ink in the history books.
17. “Like A Virgin”
“Like A Virgin” was the game-changer for Madonna’s unparalleled career. This was the song that upgraded her from the average, moderately successful pop star to the biggest pop star in the world, which, as we all know, led to her being crowned the Queen of Pop. “Like A Virgin” is the kind of pop song that comes around only ever so often. It’s edgy and witty, but completely harmless on the surface; you’re always too busy dancing to even notice that slight of hand.
16. “…Baby One More Time”
“…Baby One More Time” would have been a hit no matter who recorded it; the song is just that good. The arrangement is superb, the lyrics are inconspicuously deep, and the candy coated chorus is guiltlessly euphoric. Outside of being the pop song of the 1990s, there was something intriguing and endearing enough about the young Britney Spears to catalyze her career. With a song as mindblowing as “…Baby One More Time,” we couldn’t help but pay attention.
15. “Dancing In The Street”
Martha & The Vandellas
Another one of those time-withstanding Motown gems, “Dancing In The Street” is a song that has been referenced and rehashed on countless occasions, but nothing has ever lived up to the original. Martha Reeves & The Vandellas delivered something particularly special in a sea of upbeat, joyous soulful pop tunes that really cut through the pack. Co-written by Marvin Gaye, the track is plain, simple, and to the point, but there’s something undeniably amazing about it.
14. “Dancing Queen”
There has never been a pure pop group in the history music as important as ABBA. The Swedish quartet has cranked out some of the most guiltless, euphoric slices of pop heaven over their tenure, none more recognizable than “Dancing Queen.” The song has been thoroughly recognized for it’s importance, mostly because of how well everything comes together. Between the co-lead vocals, uplifting piano line, and memorable melody, the song is a juggernaut.
13. “Stayin’ Alive”
The Bee Gees are amongst the finest crafters of pop music in the history of rock and roll, and no other hit of theirs was more notable than “Stayin’ Alive.” One of the many mega-hits lifted from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, the song is built around a funky bass line and a breathy, squawking hook that shouldn’t be taken nearly as seriously as it is. The trio of Gibbs really made a defining piece of pop culture with this track, but it seems to be getting better with age.
John Lennon had a strikingly relevant post-Beatles career that is still heavily lauded to this day. Without a doubt his magnum opus was “Imagine,” a song that grew further into importance following his assassination. The piano driven ballad is really notable for its highly pensive lyrical content, but its repetitive melody is brilliantly memorable, albeit simple, helping to making the final product a beautiful, memorable, and all-around legendary piece of pop history.
11. “Be My Baby”
The Ronettes weren’t like the other girl groups at the time, which is partially why so many people were paying attention to them. They always had the talent to back up their allure, though, as exemplified in their biggest hit, the immortal “Be My Baby.” One of Phil Spector’s brightest achievements, the track is a pop masterpiece that is so intricately laced together, artists have been referencing it ever since. There isn’t a single element to it that it’s flawlessly executed.
10. “Bridge Over Troubled Water”
Simon & Garfunkel
There’s a notable sense of awareness around Simon & Garfunkel’s opus, “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Yes, it feels like a grand finale or sorts, but it’s a unique fixture in their catalog. In place of Paul Simon’s acoustic guitar, we hear the heralding clunk of a grand piano, and instead of a run through of intricate harmony, Art Garfunkel takes full lead until the final verse for a brief few lines. The end result if one of the most beautiful ballads ever crafted.
09. “When Doves Cry”
We can all agree that Prince is a genius and a superstar, but there’s still quite a bit of mystery surrounding just how he was able to pull “When Doves Cry” off. Nevermind the fact that Prince recorded the track’s instrumentation and vocals solely by himself, he intentionally left out a bass line and focused heavily on sparsity and simplicity to drive the emotion. This would all normally be suicide for a pop track, but it translated into the biggest hit of his career.
08. “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'”
The Righteous Brothers
The Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” is the perfect pop song for so many reasons. When you have incredible vocalists like Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield, a producer like the incomparable Phil Spector, and a song penned by the legendary Barry Marr and Cynthia Weil, the end result is always destined to be incredible. Who would have thought that it would be arguably the greatest work any of the associated personnel were associated with, though?
07. “My Girl”
“My Girl” is just one of those classic songs that everybody knows, but there’s a good reason for it. The Smokey Robinson-penned track was a game-changer for both The Temptations and Motown, equally because of quality as success. The lyrics are perfect, the harmonies are tight, and David Ruffin’s lead vocal is awe-inspiring, but it’s the overall arrangement that makes it so classic. To this day, “My Girl” remains a classic example of just how brilliant pop can be.
06. “Good Vibrations”
The Beach Boys
To date, there are very few pop songs as successfully unconventional as The Beach Boys’ opus “Good Vibrations” that haven’t fully crossed over into “alternative” territory. The track is far more a mosaic of sounds and ideas than a seamless product, but what it lacks in cohesion it makes up for in intuition. The track is the culmination of everything The Beach Boys had been perfecting, and despite how cosmic it feels, the success of “Good Vibrations” involves no luck at all.
05. “I Want You Back”
Motown produced more legendary pop hits than is even fathomable, but their pinnacle was “I Want You Back.” The track, the debut single for the Jackson 5, is the kind of outright pop song that really sealed the deal for the label as a driving force in pop music just as much as soul. The lyrics are melodic, the instrumentation in supreme, and the chord progression is the greatest in the history of pop. The Jackson brothers simply took it to the next level with their confidence.
04. “I Want To Hold Your Hand”
The Beatles were just as much a pop group as they were a rock group. They had the Midas touch in the commercial realm from start to finish no matter how experimental and innovative they got, but their biggest “pop” moment was undoubtedly “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” The progression is simple, the melody is brilliant, and the lyrics are sweet, but there’s a spark in there that, even today, makes it abundantly clear just why The Beatles changed the world.
03. “Like A Prayer”
Madonna has more hits under her belt than she even knows what to do with (it’s why she’s the Queen of Pop,) but none has stood the test of time quite like “Like A Prayer.” Everything about the song is ingenious, from its double entendre-filled lyrics, unconventional song structure, and gobsmacking gospel choir climax, but it’s Madonna’s unrelenting command that truly seals the deal. Very few pop songs are quite this momentous and simultaneously well-executed.
Not many people realize that Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” is actually an Otis Redding cover. Whereas the original was loose and frenzied, Aretha transformed the song into a masterfully crafted pop tune that continues to go down in history as one of the finest recordings ever made. Between the newly-added wall of backing vocals and the iconic “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” hook, everything about this track is legendary, and it continues to go down in history as a landmark moment in rock and roll.
01. “Billie Jean”
Michael Jackson is the undisputed King of Pop for many reasons, but a good number of them have to do with “Billie Jean.” Even setting aside its barrier-breaking music video and iconic live performance, the song itself is a tour de force that sounds as fresh today as it did over 30 years ago. No other pop song in the history of rock and roll has ever been this innovative, exciting, and ingenious. Time and space have yet to define “Billie Jean,” and I doubt they ever will.