This is it. The biggest of the big time. You’ve seen the top ten singers, you’ve debated the best bands, hell, you’ve probably written strongly worded responses in your head to tell us that we’re crazy.
That’s the best thing about music, see. It’s not just listening to it, practicing the lyrics in your bathroom mirror, getting the dance moves nailed and reading the liner notes until every aspect of your favorite tunes is imprinted in your mind’s eye, ready to be recalled any time you need cheering up. No! It’s the debates!
Now, we like to make sure we can back ourselves up, so we’ve run the numbers. First, we looked at some of the best-selling 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 ten songs of all time.
#10 U2 – With or Without You
Streams (Spotify): 787 Million
We did warn you we weren’t messing about with this one. After all, what is there to say when the lead single of U2’s 1987 monster album, ‘The Joshua Tree’, is at the bottom of the list?
The album itself is a stone-cold, certified classic, selling an eye-watering 25 million copies worldwide, storming charts all over the place, being named by the BBC as the defining album of the eighties and confirming the Irish band as global superstars. Simply put, albums don’t come much bigger.
The song itself, which became the band’s first US number one, 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 sit-coms, appearing in both F.R.I.E.N.D.S and The Office (US).
#9 Elton John – Bennie and the Jets
Streams (Spotify): 335 Million
‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ is, without a doubt, Elton John’s biggest and best album, with over 31 million units sold. So although you could make a convincing argument for him having better or more noteworthy singles, we’ve gone with this, his second Billboard Hot 100 No.1, as our pick.
A Grammy Hall of Fame inductee since 2003, and including singles such as ‘Candle in the Wind’ and ‘Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)’ as well as some incredible album tracks, do yourself a favor and check this out. The bona fides of ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ are not in question.
‘Bennie and the Jets’ is a big glittery slab of glam-rock as translated through the inimitable prism of Elton John. It would probably sound more than a bit silly if anyone else tried it, but there’s absolutely nothing silly about this. Its commercial popularity is backed up by industry-wide respect, from Axl Rose name-checking it as a key inspiration, to everyone from Lady Gaga and P!nk to Biz Markie and 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 watching ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ while on drugs. 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 Led Zeppelin – Stairway to Heaven
Streams (Spotify): 769 Million
Led Zeppelin is a band that trades on their aura 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.
It can be argued that all that hype started for real with the release of their fourth album, ‘IV’, or ‘Four Symbols’. Produced by guitarist Jimmy Page, and bearing a cover with no name or signifier other than a mystic symbol to represent each band member, which was intended to invite attention from critics that had so far treated the band lukewarmly at best, ‘IV’ is simply one of the biggest albums ever.
‘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 of the thing. The scourge of guitar teachers everywhere, this song is part of the firmament of rock music.
Trivia: Despite not being released as a single, and at almost eight minutes long, who could blame them, it was claimed that the song had received nearly three million radio plays, or forty-four years of airtime, by its 20th anniversary.
#7 Pink Floyd – Money
Streams (Spotify): 394 Million
‘Dark Side of the Moon’ is the very definition of a classic album, shipping a barely believable 50 million copies and gaining recognition as the best-selling album from the whole decade of the ’70s. There is very little to be said about the album that hasn’t been said before, and probably more eloquently at that. But please, if you haven’t heard it, or haven’t heard it recently, do yourself a favor and go play it through the best speakers you have available. Go on, we’ll wait.
‘Money’, the album’s lead single, is an astonishing piece of work. A commentary on the insatiable greed for wealth set over a six-minute funk workout, complete with looped sound effects, guitar lines and interviews with the band’s crew and staff, the track is underpinned by one of the all-time great guitar recordings. On paper it sounds, at best, baffling, or, at worst, unlistenable. What really sets it apart, and proves beyond any doubt that this is a work of genius, is that it not only works, but also reaches pop-music levels of approachability. Come in, welcome to high life, don’t worry about all that chaos in the background, just groove out. It’s just ‘Money’, baby.
Trivia: The album’s popularity is so huge, 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.
#6 The Rolling Stones – Paint It, Black
Streams (Spotify): 812 Million
Question one: are The Rolling Stones the world’s greatest singles band? Considering the band has released classic LPs such as ‘Sticky Fingers’, ‘Exile on Main Street’ and ‘Let it Bleed’, it seems disrespectful to say the least, but when you consider that the albums at first and third on their all-time sales list are compilations, then a picture starts to form. Make no mistake though, this isn’t a slight on the band, more of a suggestion that their prolific and decades-long output is tough to pin down to a single album. 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 amongst all those, ‘Paint It, Black’ stands out.
Question two: did Charlie Watt ever sound better than this? Almost certainly not. The song gallops and rattles along underneath Mick Jagger’s imploring lyric that the whole world joins in on his misery, creating an oddly distinct separation in tone between the instrumentation and vocals. The song has rightly been recognized and embraced widely, cropping up everywhere from ‘Full Metal Jacket’ to ‘Westworld’ where Ramin Djawadi’s breathtaking instrumental reimagined the song altogether.
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, lending the funereal theme a greatly increased sense of significance.
#5 Madonna – Papa Don’t Preach
Streams (Spotify): 89 Million
Madonna’s third album ‘True Blue’ marked the beginning of her deliberate ascent from critical indifference to superstardom and the kind of crossover respect reserved for contemporaries such as Prince and Michael Jackson. That she co-wrote and co-produced all nine tracks on the album, five of which hit the Billboard top five, including three number ones, shows that the beginning of her imperial phase was no fluke. The album sold 25 million copies, making the case that she absolutely deserved to be taken as seriously as she was obviously taking herself.
As for ‘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, this is eighties pop at its best and catchiest. Madonna’s vocal range is also on full display, as the fictional narrator describes a ‘girl in trouble’, confessing her pregnancy to her presumably stone-faced father. The emotive lyrics and serious subject elevate what could have gone down in history as a funky, eighties pop gem into something altogether more significant, much as Madonna was in the process of 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): 2.0 Billion
With all due respect to the Rolling Stones, the real answer to the greatest ever singles band question posed above is no. Because Queen is. They embodied the very definition of words like bombast and theatrical. The tracklist of Queen’s first (of many) ‘Greatest Hits’ collections released in 1981, one of the top 50 best-selling albums of all time in its own right, reads like the kind of thing you’d find on the jukebox of God’s own lounge. From ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ to ‘We Are the Champions’ via ‘Killer Queen’ and ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’, it is a collection bordering, teetering, very happily verging on the absolutely ridiculous.
Standing proud at center stage, the oversized jewel in the crown, is ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. A moment of sheer aural excess written, composed, and dare we say 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 – a portion of 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: We sincerely hope you don’t need us to tell you about the ‘Wayne’s World’ sing-along scene, but we do think it’s noteworthy that Mike Myers threatened to quit the production over quibbles about swapping the song out for something by the more contemporary Guns N’ Roses.
#3 Elvis Presley – Suspicious Minds
Streams (Spotify): 347 Million
Hail to the King. Go, if you have neglected to do so already, and watch the movie, then track down the career highlights and recordings that are faithfully recreated to make up the bulk of the movie. Then listen to the original recordings of the songs that make up the soundtrack. Then, once you’ve been properly informed, go and watch the movie again. If, at this point, you are not moved by his majesty, then check yourself in for some much-needed medical attention, please. We have selected, for your consideration, Elvis’ eighteenth and final number one hit. Although almost anything from his ’30 #1 Hits’ collection from 2002 would do very nicely.
‘Suspicious Minds’ was actually first written and released to commercial indifference in 1968 by Mark James, a hitmaker based in Elvis’ hometown of Memphis, Tennessee,who was also responsible for ‘Always on My Mind.’ The next year, during sessions at the American Sound Studio which ultimately 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 uniqueness as a performer that he transformed what could well have been seen as a straightforward maudlin ballad into a bona fide classic.
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 Michael Jackson – Billie Jean
Streams (Spotify): 1.3 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 from ’79’s ‘Off the Wall’, Jackson set out to make an album where every song was a hit, at the same time moving away from disco. While style and genre can always be discussed, he almost certainly succeeded. 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 certainly gets her claws into the listener. This is pop music in excelsis, with Jackson’s trademark vocal tics and flairs adding another layer of instrumentation to a layered sonic cocktail. The song kickstarted the album’s storming success after the first single, ‘The Girl is Mine’, failed to set the world alight despite charting well. ‘Billie Jean’ also provided the backdrop to the infamous ‘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.
#1 The Beatles – A Day In The Life
Streams (Spotify): 125 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 in the popular conscience. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that without the Fab Four squaring their collective shoulders after retiring permanently from touring in 1966 and setting about to prove that the only limits to what you can achieve in popular music are set by your own imagination, at least half of this list wouldn’t exist either. ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ is regarded not only as a 32 million copy-selling classic in its own right, but also as a precursor to prog and concept albums, as well as a leap forward in the limits of possibility in terms of recording and design.
The song itself sums up everything that’s great about the album, and 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 was, as many contemporary commentators suggested, including the band themselves, the moment they left their clean-cut young men image behind and stepped into the future, then this song could well be the postcard they left behind, asking the world at large to catch them if they could.
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.
There we have it. With a combined total of more than six billion Spotify hits, amongst more accolades, units sold, end-of-year lists, critical and commercial acclaim and soundtrack features than it’s possible to reasonably count, these are, without doubt, ten of 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.
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.
|1||A Day In The Life||The Beatles||125 Million|
|2||Billie Jean||Michael Jackson||1.3 Billion|
|3||Suspicious Minds||Elvis Presley||347 Million|
|4||Bohemian Rhapsody||Queen||2.0 Billion|
|5||Papa Don’t Preach||Madonna||89 Million|
|6||Paint It, Black||The Rolling Stones||812 Million|
|7||Money||Pink FLoyd||394 Million|
|8||Stairway to Heaven||Led Zeppelin||769 Million|
|9||Bennie and the Jets||Elton John||335 Million|
|10||With or Without You||U2||787 Million|