Which No. 1 Song Is the Greatest of All Time?
Before streaming, the charts were the arbiters of popular taste, with the luckiest few scoring a “number one” hit song.
Which No. 1 Song Is the Absolute Best?
For lack of a better word, popular music is the soundtrack to our lives. A great song can take you back to a time, place and even a special person more than a photograph can, which is at least one reason why we have such nostalgia for songs of years past. Before streaming, the charts were the arbiters of popular taste, with the luckiest few scoring a “number one” hit song. Some stayed atop the heap for weeks or even months, while others quickly faded.
There has been an incredible variety of No. 1 songs since the charts started keeping score in the last century. We’ve decided to go through all of those many numero unos and pick out the 30 best.
30. (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction
Artist: The Rolling Stones
Album: Out of Our Heads
Year released: 1965
What Makes (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ So Great
The Stones had been a blues cover band for three years when manager Andrew Loog Oldham locked Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in a room together, demanding that they write something original. Anything.
The result of that sequestration was “Satisfaction,” which became a generation-defining scream of angst and sexual frustration. It was the first of many, many, many compositions credited to the Jagger-Richards songwriting team, who somehow still have it going nearly 60 years later. (RIP, Charlie Watts.)
29. Shape of You
Artist: Ed Sheeran
Year released: 2017
What Makes ‘Shape of You’ So Great
Division was never much fun in math class, but thanks to the English singer Ed Sheeran, the album of the same name gave us all a ton of joy thanks primarily to the runaway hit “Shape of You.”
The song was top of the charts in over 30 countries, and for a time, it was even more streamed than Drake’s “One Dance,” which was quite a feat considering Drake’s popularity. How popular? Well, the song was streamed on Spotify some 2.4 billion times!
28. American Pie
Artist: Don McLean
Album: American Pie
Year released: 1971
What Makes ‘American Pie’ So Great
On Feb. 3, 1959, Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Richie Valens were all killed in a plane crash in Iowa, and it was widely regarded as the end of rock ‘n’ roll “innocence,” such as it was. “American Pie” may be the most upbeat song ever written about such an extremely sad event.
Singer-songwriter Don McLean used the tragedy as the launchpad for a study of what he felt was wrong with America, including his jaundiced view of rock’s “second wave.” It’s an amazing piece of musical poetry, then and now.
27. The Twist
Artist: Chubby Checker
Album: Twist With Chubby Checker
Year released: 1960
What Makes ‘The Twist’ So Great
Hank Ballard and the Midnighters recorded “The Twist” in 1958, but it was the great Chubby Checker who gave it a new, much bigger life in 1960 with his toe-tapping rendition. “The Twist” simply wouldn’t go away and continued to have both airplay and chart success for several years.
The song would go on to be No. 1 in two different “hit parades” at the same time, a feat that wouldn’t be replicated for six decades. Go ahead, try and resist “The Twist” the next time it comes on!
26. Hey Jude
Artist: The Beatles
Album: Hey Jude
Year released: 1968
What Makes ‘Hey Jude’ So Great
Some of the Fab Four’s greatest work came about when the band was in utter turmoil and seemed on the verge of splitting up almost daily. And on the nonmusical front, John Lennon had recently split with wife Cynthia in favor of Yoko Ono, devastating the family.
Paul McCartney, no stranger to tragedy himself, wrote “Hey Jude” for Lennon’s son Julian, essentially as a musical hug — as if to say, “It’ll be OK, kid.” Not even two years later, the Beatles were finished as a group, but “Hey Jude,” and its legacy, live on.
25. When Doves Cry
Artist: Prince and the Revolution
Album: Purple Rain
Year released: 1984
What Makes ‘When Doves Cry’ So Great
“Purple Rain” was not just an album but a cultural phenomenon. There was the record itself, and then there was the film starring Prince and his backup band as fictionalized versions of themselves.
Songs “Purple Rain,” “I Would Die 4 U” and “Let’s Go Crazy” were each hits, but they were all outdone by “When Doves Cry,” which became the Purple One’s first No. 1 hit, both in America and around the world. (And the less said about how MC Hammer “sampled” the song in 1990, the better.)
24. Blank Space
Artist: Taylor Swift
Year released: 2014
What Makes ‘Blank Space’ So Great
Tay-Tay named her fifth studio album after the year of her birth, and the then-25-year-old artist was absolutely golden with hits on “1989.” “Blank Space” was top of the bunch, reigning for T-Swift on the charts thanks not only to continuous airplay but also a very popular music video.
Prior to “1989,” Swift had been largely considered a country or crossover artist, but “Blank Space” and its musical siblings helped make her one of the queens of music ever since.
23. One Sweet Day
Artist: Boyz II Men and Mariah Carey
Year released: 1995
What Makes ‘One Sweet Day’ So Great
Mariah Carey was on a serious mid-’90s roll, with blockbuster back-to-back albums in “Music Box” and “Daydream.” And when you’re Mariah Carey, you can pretty much call up just about anyone in the business to collaborate on a new song, so why not Boyz II Men?
The two acts together penned “One Sweet Day,” a dulcet tune that bore more than a hint of gospel — and it waltzed its way to the top of the charts for an unprecedented 16 weeks.
22. (Everything I Do) I Do It for You
Artist: Bryan Adams
Album: Waking Up the Neighbors; “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” soundtrack
Year released: 1991
What Makes ‘(Everything I Do) I Do It for You’ So Great
Incredibly, it’s been 30 years since Kevin Costner made an attempt at an English accent (which was much mocked, including by other actors) for the smash-hit film “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.” Canada’s own Bryan Adams got in on the proceedings, writing and recording a love song that featured not only on his own album but also on the “Prince of Thieves” soundtrack.
“Everything I Do” became the first wedding dance song for years afterward, and almost certainly paid for another floor or two on Adams’ home.
21. I Will Always Love You
Artist: Whitney Houston
Album: “The Bodyguard” soundtrack
Year released: 1992
What Makes ‘I Will Always Love You’ So Great
Dolly Parton wrote “I Will Always Love You” in 1973, essentially to break up with her manager at the time. When Whitney Houston was cast alongside Kevin Costner in “The Bodyguard,” naturally her voice would be on the soundtrack, too.
Houston reinvisioned Parton’s song, starting off with just her voice for over a minute before the instruments kicked in. Record producers thought she was nuts; record buyers heartily disagreed and bought it in droves. The song spent 14 weeks at No. 1, a record for that time.
Year released: 1998
What Makes ‘Believe’ So Great
Although Cher and Sonny Bono had long since divorced by 1998, the singer was nonetheless devastated when her longtime partner, and father of their child, tragically died during a skiing accident. Cher tearfully spoke at the funeral for the congressman and former mayor of Palm Springs — to say nothing of his time singing with Cher.
Months later Cher was in the studio, and the result was “Believe,” which is about hope in the face of lost love. Even if the lyrics weren’t specifically about Bono, his spirit was in the song.
19. Gangsta’s Paradise
Album: Gangsta’s Paradise; I Am L.V.; “Dangerous Minds” soundtrack
Year released: 1995
What Makes ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ So Great
Do you remember Coolio, the hip-hop artist with the oh-so-amazing hair? Well, what about his dark journey into the streets, “Gangsta’s Paradise,” featured in the 1995 Michelle Pfeiffer film “Dangerous Minds”?
He sampled the beat from Stevie Wonder’s 1976 song “Pastime Paradise,” and Coheolio also got R&B singer L.V. in for the recording; L.V. sang on the verses in counterpart to Coolio’s rap. Millions of people got “Paradise” fever, making Coolio’s song the year’s top single.
Artist: Los del Río
Album: Viva Evita/Macarena: The Hit Album
Year released: 1995
What Makes ‘Macarena’ So Great
Forgot about this one, didn’t you? That’s why we’re here. The original “Macarena” by Los del Río came out in 1993, but thanks to the “Bayside Boys mix” of 1995, pretty much everyone was doing the dance in the mid-’90s.
You know the one: left hand out, right hand out, left palm up, right palm up. Repeat. And repeat. And repeat again and again. Ten to one odds it’s on the playlist for your next high school reunion.
17. Lose Yourself
Album: 8 Mile: Music from and Inspired by the Motion Picture
Year released: 2002
What Makes ‘Lose Yourself’ So Great
By the turn of the millennium, Marshall Mathers, aka Eminem, had proved himself as a songwriter — and again showed that the genre of hip hop is, and should be, colorblind. (After all, Dr. Dre “discovered” him.)
However, Eminen also showed that he had some decent acting chops with the semi-autobiographical film “8 Mile,” in which the climax involves his character stealing the show at a rap battle. For the film Eminem wrote “Lose Yourself,” which ruled the charts for an impressive 12 weeks.
16. In Da Club
Artist: 50 Cent
Album: Get Rich or Die Tryin’
Year released: 2003
What Makes ‘In Da Club’ So Great
That beat, oh man, that beat! Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson knows an insanely catchy tempo when he hears one, and he spread the “word” in 2003 with “In Da Club,” a paean to all things dance and partying.
Two versions were produced — one for radio and one certainly not intended for innocent ears. The production and recording on “In Da Club” are first-rate, which is no surprise at all considering that Dr. Dre was one of the song’s producers.
Year released: 2004
What Makes ‘Yeah!’ So Great
The early 2000s were a banner for hip-hop No. 1 songs, not the least of which was Usher’s deceptively simple “Yeah!” The song entails only a few chords played over and over in electronic form, but that shouldn’t detract from the fact that Usher was at the top of his game as a lyricist — many of which are just this side of naughty to have gotten past the censors.
Critics and fans couldn’t get enough “Yeah!” in their lives, and whenever it comes on the “nostalgia” channels (best not to do the math on the song’s age), you can’t help but dance yet again.
14. Hey Ya!
Album: Speakerboxxx/The Love Below
Year released: 2003
What Makes ‘Hey Ya!’ So Great
Georgia rappers André 3000 and Big Boi hit some serious artistic and commercial paydirt when dance clubs, wedding halls and karaoke fans the world over were belting out “Hey Ya!” Like many great songs out there, the lyrics to the R&B staple center around, uh, courtship but done so enough in code that it could be played on the radio in somewhat censored form.
And thank you André 3000 for introducing into the English language the phrase “shake it like a Polaroid picture” — which is something you might have to explain to Gen Zers.
13. I Gotta Feeling
Artist: Black Eyed Peas
Album: The E.N.D.
Year released: 2009
What Makes ‘I Gotta Feeling’ So Great
Fergie, will.i.am and the rest of the crew were on hand for this danceable extravaganza, which went to the top of the charts in 20 countries, with fans everywhere screaming that “tonight’s gonna be a good night.” Actually, the Black Eyed Peas had crowds screaming out joyous words in several languages, thanks to the lyrics including the ancient Hebrew wishes for good luck, “mazel tov.”
This shows again that music not only has so many influences but brings them all together in new and ever-unexpected ways.
12. TiK ToK
Year released: 2009
What Makes ‘TiK ToK’ So Great
You can indeed be forgiven if the first thing that sprang to mind in 2021 is the ubiquitous app that is seemingly everywhere. But let’s talk about something far more fun: the artist known as Kesha.
In 2009, for her debut album “Animal,” Kesha wasted no time announcing her arrival on the scene with “TiK ToK,” an electronic ditty that advises listeners and DJs everywhere to “don’t stop” now or ever. All these years later, we sure as heck haven’t yet done so.
11. Born This Way
Artist: Lady Gaga
Album: Born This Way
Year released: 2011
What Makes ‘Born This Way’ So Great
There are some people who believe that all behaviors are “learned” and some folks who insist that they are innate right from the getgo — in other words, they were born this way. Lady Gaga co-wrote this song as an empowerment anthem, encouraging her fans (known as “Little Monsters”) to accept themselves just as they are, and to hell with whatever other people might say.
And in addition to its wokeness, “Born This Way” sports an incredibly upbeat sound, making it toe-tapping goodness.
10. One More Night
Artist: Maroon 5
Year released: 2012
What Makes ‘One More Night’ So Great
Maroon 5 can be rather divisive: People either love them or wish to never hear from them again. This might make the band “sad,” so much so they have been crying all the way to the bank for years thanks to the runaway success of “One More Night.”
Written by Adam Levine and Co., “One More Night” melded pop and reggae sounds in a catchy song that sold 7 million copies. Haters gonna hate, but Maroon 5 gonna keep on making money.
9. The Hills
Artist: The Weeknd
Album: Beauty Behind the Madness
Year released: 2015
What Makes ‘The Hills’ So Great
Canadian rapper The Weeknd is having quite a run of success, with or without the third “E” in his name. “The Hills” went to the top of the charts not only in Canada but in many other worldwide markets as well, eventually giving the song enough cred to be certified as a diamond record.
Critics and consumers dug “The Hills,” turning the song from a molehill into a mountain of success. (Oh, if you have a better metaphor, we’d love to hear it!)
Artist: Pharrell Williams
Album: Girl; “Despicable Me 2”: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Year released: 2013
What Makes ‘Happy’ So Great
So many people listened to this song because it, well, made them happy! And millions of fans were ready to be as joyous as Pharrell Williams was when the accolades — and the cash — just kept on rolling in for “Happy.”
The song was so popular that it was the top ditty of 2014, even a full year after its release. Its music video was also super popular and was nominated for two MTV awards. And thanks to its inclusion on the soundtrack of “Despicable Me 2,” toddlers were singing along, too.
7. Uptown Funk
Artist: Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars
Album: Uptown Special
Year released: 2014
What Makes ‘Uptown Funk’ So Great
It takes a very brave artist to rhyme “Mississippi” and “Skippy,” the peanut butter brand, but this R&B duo pulled it off with the insanely catchy “Uptown Funk.” It was even performed at the halftime show during Super Bowl 50 (the NFL wisely decided to use Arabic numerals just this one time, rather than the typical Roman numerals that have been ticked off since 1967).
Amazingly, this show might be the one and only time these days when pretty much everyone is tuned into the same channel.
Year released: 2006
What Makes ‘Irreplaceable’ So Great
“To the left, to the left: everything you own in a box to the left.” Admit it, you now can’t get that lyric out of your head, and Queen Bee herself was absolutely betting on that very thing in 2006 when she co-wrote and recorded the song “Irreplaceable.”
The diddy became Beyoncé’s fourth No. 1 in America and topped 200 million “impressions” upon its release, once again proving that Bee is the queen of the universe.
Artist: Luis Fonsi featuring Daddy Yankee
Year released: 2017
What Makes ‘Despacito’ So Great
This song was seriously everywhere a few years ago? — like everywhere. Puerto Rican artists Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee teamed up for this poppy, upbeat Spanish dance tune, which took the music world by storm.
The song was a major success the world over, not only in Latin America. In the United States the song played on both Latin and English radio stations and was a celebratory song played for all manner of occasions, because “this is how we do it down in Puerto Rico.”
Artist: Cardi B
Year released: 2020
What Makes ‘WAP’ So Great
If you don’t know what “WAP” stands for, well, we can’t really explain it to you in this family-friendly forum (but Google will happily help you). Suffice to say the lyrics are very, very naughty, but the beat and the energy brought to the proceedings by Cardi B are absolutely first-rate.
Had 2020 been less weird, it would have been all the rage at dance clubs the world over. But since we were all stuck at home, worldwide fans streamed “WAP” an inconceivable 26 million times in the first day!
3. Rolling in the Deep
Year released: 2010
What Makes ‘Rolling in the Deep’ So Great
In case you hadn’t heard, Adele has a new album out called “30” to coincide with the British songstress’ three decades on this planet — during which she has positively destroyed record after record when it comes to album sales at a time when streaming has all but taken away the “value” of physical media.
“Rolling in the Deep” has sold 8.7 million copies, helping turn the album “21” into a titan that stayed atop the albums chart for 24 weeks.
2. One Dance
Artist: Drake (feat. Wizkid & Kyla)
Year released: 2016
What Makes ‘One Dance’ So Great
When it comes to top sellers, nobody has surpassed the Canadian rapper Drake, who has racked up an incredible 163.5 million digital sales, making him the top seller of all time, according to the RIAA. “One Dance” is super catchy and has become a blockbuster song not just in the United States but in well over a dozen countries worldwide.
“One Dance” reigns as Spotify’s most streamed song of all time with well over (are you ready for this?) 1 billion streams!
1. Old Town Road
Artist: Lil Nas X (with Billy Ray Cyrus)
Year released: 2018
What Makes ‘Old Town Road’ So Great
Is it hip hop? Is it country? Yes, and yes again. “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X, a gay Black artist straddling multiple genres, is an absolute bonanza. After gaining an initial following, the song was remixed by Nas along with new material by Billy Ray Cyrus.
It became an entirely new tune — becoming the highest-ever certified song by the RIAA, going an incredible 15 times platinum and spending an astonishing 17 weeks at the top spot. It’s the longest-ever run atop the chart to date and unlikely to be toppled anytime soon.
Long may Nas reign.