This is it. The biggest of the big time. You’ve seen the top 10 singers, you’ve debated the best bands, you’ve scripted rants in your head that we only have to wait a short while before they show up in our inbox.
That’s one of the most enjoyable aspect of music. It’s about more than just listening to it or lip-syncing the words in front of the bathroom mirror. Nailing the dance moves can be satisfying and perusing the liner notes of your favorite albums can prove a riveting read but where music really pays off? The debates!
That said, we don’t like to leave these matters solely up to opinion. So, we’ve run the numbers. First, we looked at some of the bestselling artists of all time, then we took what we feel is the most significant song from their biggest album. That’s what we’re here for, so sit back, relax, make sure you have your own opinions on hand to let us know just how wrong you think we are, and check out the top 10 songs of all time.
#10 U2 – With or Without You
Streams (Spotify): 902.0 Million
We warned you. We aren’t messing around with this list. Too much is at stake! Which is why, despite being the lead single off U2’s 1987 monster album The Joshua Tree, “With or Without You” appears at the bottom.
The album itself is a stone-cold, certified classic, selling an eye-watering 25 million copies worldwide, storming charts all over the globe, being named by the BBC as the defining album of the ‘eighties ’80s, and confirming the Irish band as superstars. Simply put, albums don’t come much bigger.
The song itself, which became the band’s first US #1, is big. Bigger than big. If E.T. landed tomorrow with an unquenchable thirst to understand Earth’s culture, you could probably use this song as the blueprint for stadium rock. It’s U2 in distilled form, with Bono switching between his distinctive croon and his equally distinctive wail at will, all the while delivering a particularly compelling lyric about, what else, a complicated love story. The band is in widescreen mode, filling your eardrums, whatever room you happen to be in and probably the horizon with that deceptively simple staccato style.
Trivia: The song also has an oddly prominent standing in the world of television sitcoms, appearing in both “Friends” and “The Office” (US).
#9 Elton John – Bennie and the Jets
Streams (Spotify): 395.8 Million
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is, without a doubt, Elton John’s biggest and best album, with over 31 million units sold. This is why his second Billboard Hot 100 #1 comes in at #9.
The album is a Grammy Hall of Fame member since 2003, and includes such singles as “Candle in the Wind” and “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)” but we opted to highlight “Bennie and the Jets”. It’s a big glittery slab of glam-rock as translated through the prism that is Elton John. The song in anyone else’s hands would come off as silly and negligible. But not when Sir Elton delivers its words. Its commercial popularity is backed by industry-wide respect, with Axl Rose name-checking it as a key inspiration, and everyone from Lady Gaga to A Tribe Called Quest covering or sampling it. Not bad for a song that long-time collaborator Bernie Taupin claimed was inspired by Orwellian science-fiction and a drug-fueled viewing of 2001: A Space Odyssey. No, really.
Trivia: The crowd sounds heard throughout are lifted from two concerts, one of Elton John’s own, and another from Jimi Hendrix.
#8 The Rolling Stones – Paint It, Black
Streams (Spotify): 980 Million
Question 1: Are the Rolling Stones the world’s greatest singles band? It seems disrespectful to even pose the question of a band that have to their name such classic LPs as Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street and Let it Bleed, but when you consider the success enjoyed by their compilations, perhaps it’s not such a baseless question after all. Their first collection, 1971’s Hot Rocks 1964-1971, is their biggest seller and covers everything from “Brown Sugar” to “Sympathy for the Devil”. But even among such singles royalty, “Paint It, Black” stands out.
Question 2: Did Charlie Watt ever sound better than this? Almost certainly not. The song gallops and rattles along as Mick Jagger implores the world to join him in his misery. The result is an odd yet distinct separation in tone between the instrumentation and vocals. The song is ubiquitous, cropping up everywhere from Full Metal Jacket to Westworld, which features Ramin Djawadi’s breathtaking instrumental reimagining of the song.
Trivia: The sitar on the track was one of Brian Jones’ final significant contributions to the band before his drug use led to his expulsion and, ultimately, his untimely death. His fate lends a funereal feel to the track in hindsight.
#7 Led Zeppelin – Stairway to Heaven
Streams (Spotify): 870.6 Million
Led Zeppelin are a band that trades on their mystique almost as much as their music. From the Olympian—and strongly refuted—tales committed to print in the salacious (and very addictive) 1985 book, Hammer of the Gods to the frequent and adoring references to them in film and TV, including Wayne’s World, Almost Famous and, of course, This is Spinal Tap, they cast a huge shadow.
All that hype started in earnest with the release of their fourth album, IV, or Four Symbols. It was produced by guitarist Jimmy Page and bears a cover with no name or signifier other than a mystic symbol to represent each band member. The inscrutability was deliberate, with the band inviting criticism from the music cognoscenti whose reception of the band had been lukewarm at best. This time round, however, the critics would have to take notice; Page and co. knew they had a masterpiece on their hands.
“Stairway” is a perfect illustration of what made the band so irresistible in their early days. John Paul Jones’ keyboard and bass lines would become more of a fixture on subsequent albums, but this is Page and singer Robert Plant at their most regal. The song is effectively split into two parts; the first is a folksy, mystical ode to an unnamed wise woman, while the second part, ushered in by an unusually restrained drum fill by John Bonham, sees Plant transition from cosmic narrator to winking collaborator before Page blows the roof off the thing. The scourge of guitar teachers and music-instrument staff everywhere, this song is part of the firmament of rock music.
Trivia: Despite not being released as a single, and at almost eight minutes in length, the song nevertheless received nearly three million radio plays—or 44 years of airtime—by its 20th birthday.
#6 Pink Floyd – Money
Streams (Spotify): 448.8 Million
Dark Side of the Moon is the very definition of a classic album, shipping a barely believable 50 million copies, making it the bestselling album of the ’70s. It is the reason high fidelity sound systems exist.
“Money”, the album’s lead single, is an astonishing piece of work—a commentary on insatiable greed set to a six-minute funk workout, complete with looped sound effects, guitar lines and interviews with the band’s crew and staff. On paper it sounds, at best, baffling; at worst, unlistenable. But it works, even reaching pop-music levels of approachability. “Come in,” it seems to say to its listeners. “Welcome to the high life, don’t worry about all that chaos in the background, just groove out. It’s just ‘Money’, baby.”
Trivia: The album is so popular and such a cornerstone of recording and production techniques, that an entire factory in Germany was dedicated to pressing copies of it following the transition from vinyl and cassette to CDs.
#5 Madonna – Papa Don’t Preach
Streams (Spotify): 113.6 Million
Madonna’s third album True Blue marked the singer’s ascent to superstardom, to join the ranks of eventual pop icons Prince and Michael Jackson. She co-wrote and co-produced all nine tracks on the album, five of which hit the Billboard top five, including three #1s, proving to the world that the Material Girl was no flash in the pan. The album would go on to sell 25 million copies and ushered in a new phase in her career.
“Papa Don’t Preach”, from the dramatic strings of the opening and the Prince-flavored bass line, to the bone-dry snare and Latin-flavored guitar lines, is ’80s pop at its catchiest. Madonna’s vocal range is also at its most expansive as it narrates the story of a ‘girl in trouble’, confessing her pregnancy to her conservative father. The emotive lyrics and serious subject matter elevate what was already a funky pop gem into something altogether more significant, much like what Madonna was doing with her own career.
Trivia: Danny Aiello, who played the father in the music video, actually recorded an in-character song in response, ‘Papa Wants the Best For You.’ It was… Well, let’s just say it was not quite as good.
#4 Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody
Streams (Spotify): 2.2 Billion
So, were the Rolling Stones the greatest singles band ever? No. That honor goes to Queen. The band’s first (of many) ‘Greatest Hits’ collections, released in 1981, is one of the top 50 bestselling albums of all time and feels like it belongs in the jukebox in heaven. Including “Another One Bites the Dust”, “We Are the Champions”, “Killer Queen”, and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”, it is a majestic—even silly at times—compendium of ’70s rock.
Standing proud at center stage is the oversized jewel in the crown: “Bohemian Rhapsody”. At six minutes, the song is sheer aural excess conceived so singularly by band leader and possible extraterrestrial Freddie Mercury that the rest of the band referred to it during rehearsal simply as “Fred’s Thing.” And what a thing it is. We will not waste your time doing an injustice to this song by trying to describe it in words. But we will make a point of saying that it is one of the most perfectly titled pieces of art we know of:
Bohemian – a person (such as a writer or artist) living an unconventional life usually in a colony with others
Rhapsody – an epic poem adapted for recitation
See? Why would we need to tell you anything when it’s all right there in the name?
Trivia: Star Mike Myers threatened to quit production of Wayne’s World over quibbles about swapping the song out for the now-iconic car scene for something by the more contemporary Guns N’ Roses.
#3 Elvis Presley – Suspicious Minds
Streams (Spotify): 405.9 Million
“Suspicious Minds” was actually written by Mark James, a hitmaker based in Elvis’s hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. (James was also responsible for another of Elvis’s signature pieces, “Always on My Mind”.) It was released to commercial indifference in 1968. The next year, during sessions at the American Sound Studio, which resulted in the album From Elvis in Memphis, James played the song for Presley, who thought it might make a hit and quickly recorded a version of his own. The song debuted at the Las Vegas International Hotel before being released as a single a few weeks later. It is a mark of Presley’s singularity as a performer that he could transform a straightforward maudlin ballad into a bona fide classic.
Incidentally, if you have yet to do so, watch as many clips as you can of Elvis in concert. Then listen to the original recordings of the songs. Then rewatch those live clips and appreciate just how charismatic a performer Elvis truly was.
Trivia: The song’s distinctive fade-out and fade-in around the three-and-a-half-minute mark was due to a disgruntled producer tampering with the tape. Elvis famously incorporated the fade into his live performances.
#2 The Beatles – A Day In The Life
Streams (Spotify): 119.5 Million
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is not just an album; it is widely considered to be THE album, without which the entire format might not have taken root. Had the Fab Four not set out to prove that the only limits on popular music are set by the imagination of the songwriters, at least half of this list wouldn’t exist. Sgt. Pepper is regarded not only as a 32-million-selling classic in its own right, it serves as a precursor to prog and concept albums, as well as a leap forward in terms of recording and design.
The song itself “A Day in the Life” sums up everything that’s great about the album and indeed the band. It feels at once epic and pastoral, nostalgic and progressive, a head-spinning combination of the mundane and the extraordinary. If the album is, as many contemporary commentators (including the band themselves) claim, the moment they left their clean-cut image behind and stepped into the future, then this song could well be the Dear John letter in which they bid that world farewell and move on to greener, more exotic pastures.
Trivia: The movie referenced in the lyrics in which the English army won the war, pertains to the Richard Lester film How I Won the War, featuring John Lennon.
#1 Michael Jackson – Billie Jean
Streams (Spotify): 1.5 Billion
From the King to the Prince. The second single from the biggest-selling album worldwide of all time, Jackson’s 1982 magnum opus, Thriller. Reprising his relationship with production expert Quincy Jones, Jackson sought to move away from the disco sound of ’79’s Off the Wall and compose an album on which every track was a hit. He succeeded regardless of genre. This album, according to the Library of Congress, resides as a culturally significant artifact, and almost single-handedly rejuvenated pop music in a post-disco/pre-MTV America in the grip of a recession.
And what of the song itself? “Billie Jean” may not be his lover, but from the moment the snare kicks in and hardwires your head to bop uncontrollably, she is as entrancing as any lover. This is pop music in excelsis, with Jackson’s trademark vocal tics and flairs serving as another layer of instrumentation. The song kickstarted the album’s series of successful singles after its first—the duet with Paul McCartney, “The Girl is Mine”—failed to set the world alight. “Billie Jean” also provided the backdrop to the iconic ‘moonwalk’ performance at Motown 25, which would have ensured its place in pop-culture history even if it wasn’t the dictionary definition of a banger.
Trivia: Like Madonna’s entry on this list, “Billie Jean” inspired a reply, with Lydia Murdock assuming the character of Billie Jean for her 1983 club-stomp “Superstar”.
- I Will Always Love You by Whitney Houston – This ballad, showcased Houston’s powerful and emotive vocal performance, becoming one of the best-selling singles of all time (Streams:
- Don’t Stop Believin’ by Journey – A timeless anthem from the 80s rock band (Streams: 1.7 Billion)
- Hotel California by The Eagles – A true a fan favorite from the 70s (Streams: 1.4 Billion)
- Imagine by John Lennon – Imagine doesn’t need an introduction (Streams: 579.5 Million)
- Respect by Aretha Franklin – Known for her soulful vocals, this song by Aretha Franklin not only became an anthem for the civil rights movement but also a worldwide hit (Streams: Million)
- Like a Rolling Stone by Bob Dylan – This is one of the most popular songs from the influential musician (Streams: 310.8 Million)
- Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana – A song that defined a generation in the 90s (Streams: 1.7 Billion)
- Sweet Child O’ Mine by Guns N’ Roses – Known for its iconic guitar riff, this is one of the defining songs of the hair metal era (Streams: 1.6 Billion)
- Let It Be by The Beatles – A comforting ballad in times of distress, Let It Be resonates with listeners globally (Streams: 594.0 Million).
- My Way by Frank Sinatra – An iconic song from Frank Sinatra, “My Way” continues to resonate for its powerful message of individualism and personal strength (Streams: 392.5 Million)
- Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd – A classic staple of progressive rock, this song remains iconic to music fans (Streams: 190.6 Million)
- Halloweed Be Thy Name by Iron Maiden – The band’s most popular song according to their fandom (Streams 149.2 Million)
There we have it. With a combined total of more than ten billion Spotify streams, these are our choices for the most popular songs of all time. Please get in touch if the mood takes you, we love a debate here at Ledger Note, and tell us what you think we’ve missed.
And if you haven’t listened to these tracks, please do so (preferably before you write to us to complain of our choices.)
Top 10 Best Songs of All Time (2023 Update)
This is the table for the top 10 best songs of all time, containing the names, artist and Spotify streams.
|A Day In The Life
|Papa Don’t Preach
|Stairway to Heaven
|Paint It, Black
|The Rolling Stones
|Bennie and the Jets
|With or Without You