Some songs stay in your head forever. Here are 50 chart-topping singles that run the gamut from pop to R&B to straight-ahead rock and roll. The list starts, appropriately enough, with Carole King, who wrote well over 100 hit songs between the 1950s and the end of the last century.
“It’s Too Late" / "I Feel the Earth Move” — Carole King (1971)
"It used to be so easy, livin' here with you / You were light and breezy, an' I knew just what to do / Now you look so unhappy, and I feel like a fool"
“Bridge Over Troubled Water” — Simon & Garfunkel (1970)
"I'm on your side / Oh, when times get rough / And friends just can't be found / Like a bridge over troubled water / I will lay me down"
Paul Simon originally thought it would be "a little hymn," but this Grammy-winning song developed into a major production reminiscent of Phil Spector's Wall of Sound.
"Superstition" — Stevie Wonder (1973)
"When you believe in things that you don't understand / Then you suffer / Superstition ain't the way"
Love that keyboard.
“You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” — The Righteous Brothers (1965)
"You never close your eyes anymore when I kiss your lips / And there's no tenderness like before in your fingertips / You're trying hard not to show it / But baby, baby, I know it"
Speaking of Phil Spector's Wall of Sound, here's a prime example.
“Respect” — Aretha Franklin (1967)
"What you want / Baby, I got it / What you need / Do you know I got it / All I'm askin' / Is for a little respect when you get home"
By tweaking the lyrics with a different point of view, Aretha turned Otis Redding's soul song into a feminist anthem.
“Call Me” — Blondie (1980)
"Cover me with kisses, baby / Cover me with love / Roll me in designer sheets / I'll never get enough"
Anytime, anyplace, anywhere, any way—the "American Gigolo" theme was the year's top-selling single.
“Hound Dog” — Elvis Presley (1956)
"You ain't nothin' but a hound dog / Cryin' all the time / You ain't nothin' but a hound dog / Cryin' all the time / Well, you ain't never caught a rabbit and you ain't no friend of mine"
The King's all-time biggest seller, a double-sided single with "Don't Be Cruel," held fast at No. 1 for 11 weeks.
“Another One Bites the Dust” — Queen (1980)
"Steve walks warily down the street / With the brim pulled way down low / Ain't no sound but the sound of his feet / Machine guns ready to go"
Michael Jackson suggested that Queen release this track from "The Game" as a single, and it went on to sell more than 7 million copies.
“I Want to Hold Your Hand” — The Beatles (1963)
"And when I touch you / I feel happy inside / It's such a feelin' that my love / I can't hide"
The song that ushered in Beatlemania.
“Oh Pretty Woman” — Roy Orbison (1964)
"Pretty woman, walkin' down the street / Pretty woman, the kind I like to meet / Pretty woman—I don't believe you, you're not the truth / No one could look as good as you"
"I Heard It Through the Grapevine" — Marvin Gaye (1968)
"You could have told me yourself / That you loved someone else / Instead I heard it through the grapevine / Not much longer would you be mine"
The Miracles and Gladys Knight and the Pips recorded this Motown classic before Marvin Gaye released the definitive version.
“You’re No Good” — Linda Ronstadt (1975)
"Feeling better, now that we're through / Feeling better 'cause I'm over you / I learned my lesson, it left a scar / Now I see how you really are"
Ronstadt added this song by Clint Ballard Jr. to her album "Heart Like a Wheel" at the last minute. Good move.
“Honky Tonk Women” — The Rolling Stones (1969)
"I met a gin-soaked bar-room queen in Memphis / She tried to take me upstairs for a ride / She had to heave me right across her shoulder / 'Cause I just can't seem to drink you off my mind"
There's a country version of this song on "Let It Bleed," but the one everybody remembers is the single, which owes a lot to guitarist Mick Taylor, who'd just replaced Brian Jones.
“You’re So Vain” — Carly Simon (1973)
"You had me several years ago / When I was still naive / Well, you said that we made such a pretty pair / And that you would never leave / But you gave away the things you loved / And one of them was me"
Carly Simon acknowledged in 2015 that those lines are about Warren Beatty, but what about the rest of the song? Oddly, she whispered three names to Howard Stern, who has kept her secret except to say of one of them, "There is an odd aspect to it—he's not that vain."
“Time in a Bottle” — Jim Croce (1973)
"But there never seems to be enough time / To do the things you want to do / Once you find them / I've looked around enough to know / That you're the one I want to go / Through time with"
Written after his wife told him she was pregnant, this single was a posthumous hit, topping the Billboard Hot 100 three months after Jim Croce died in a plane crash.
“(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” — Otis Redding (1968)
"Sittin' here resting my bones / And this loneliness won't leave me alone / It's 2,000 miles I roamed / Just to make this dock my home"
Redding wrote this song on a houseboat in Sausalito, just weeks after his famous performance at the Monterey Pop Festival and a few months before his death in a plane crash.
“Me and Bobby McGee” — Janis Joplin (1971)
"Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose / Nothing, and that's all that Bobby left me / Feeling good was easy, Lord, when he sang the blues / You know feeling good was good enough for me"
Yet another posthumous hit. Her ex, Kris Kristofferson, wrote the song, but Pearl made it her own.
"Every Breath You Take" — The Police (1983)
"Every breath you take / Every move you make / Every bond you break / Every step you take / I'll be watching you"
The band's signature song became a popular tune to play at weddings. Apparently, many fans hadn't paid close attention to its lyrics, which suggest the dark obsession of a stalker.
“The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” — Roberta Flack (1972)
"The first time ever I saw your face / I thought the sun rose in your eyes / And the moon and the stars were the gifts you gave / To the dark and the endless skies"
Hard to believe this soulful ballad started as a folk song performed by Peggy Seeger (Pete's half-sister). Flack's single is the definitive version.
“I’m a Believer — The Monkees (1966)
"What's the use in tryin' / All you get is pain / When I wanted sunshine I got rain / Then I saw her face, now I'm a believer / Not a trace of doubt in my mind"
The band's biggest hit, it topped the Billboard Hot 100 for seven weeks.
“My Sharona” — The Knack (1979)
"Oh my little pretty one, pretty one / When you gonna give me some time, Sharona / When you make my motor run, my motor run / Gun it coming off the line, Sharona"
Inspired by the first time singer Doug Fieger laid eyes on Sharona Alperin, who ended up modeling for the sleeve of this single: "It was like getting hit in the head with a baseball bat; I fell in love with her instantly." Alperin became his girlfriend, and although they broke up a few years later, they remained friends until Fieger died of cancer in 2010.
"I Got You Babe" — Sonny & Cher (1965)
"They say we're young and we don't know / We won't find out until we grow / Well I don't know if all that's true / 'Cause you got me, and baby I got you"
Sonny Bono's sweetly romantic retort to Dylan's "It Ain't Me Babe" became the hippie husband-and-wife duo's signature song.
“(They Long to Be) Close to You” — The Carpenters (1970)
"Why do stars fall down from the sky / Every time you walk by? / Just like me, they long to be / Close to you"
The Carpenters' breakthrough hit. Long forgotten is the original version recorded by Richard Chamberlain in 1963, back when he was best know as Dr. Kildare.
“In the Summertime” — Mungo Jerry (1970)
"In the summertime when the weather is hot / You can stretch right up and touch the sky / When the weather's fine / You got women, you got women on your mind"
A spirited and carefree celebration of summer. Frontman Ray Dorset claimed that he wrote the song in 10 minutes.
“You’re the One That I Want” — John Travolta & Olivia Newton-John (1978)
"You better shape up / 'Cause I need a man / And my heart is set on you "
One of the best-selling singles ever, this song from the movie version of "Grease" sold an estimated 15 million copies worldwide.
“Maggie May” — Rod Stewart (1971)
"Wake up, Maggie, I think I got something to say to you / It's late September and I really should be back at school / I know I keep you amused, but I feel I'm being used / Oh, Maggie, I couldn't have tried any more"
It was originally released as the B-side to "Reasons to Believe," but radio stations gave more airtime to "Maggie May," turning it into a chart-topping hit.
"Wild Thing" — The Troggs (1966)
"Wild thing, you make my heart sing"
Amid a dispute over distribution, this garage rock classic was released by both Atco and Fontana Records. It's the only single ever to reach No.1 on two labels.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” — Nirvana (1991)
"With the lights out, it's less dangerous / Here we are now, entertain us"
Kurt Cobain said he set out to write "the ultimate pop song" and it evolved into this enduring grunge anthem.
“Hotel California” — The Eagles (1977)
"Last thing I remember / I was running for the door / I had to find the passage back to the place I was before / 'Relax,' said the night man / 'We are programmed to receive / You can check out any time you like / But you can never leave'"
Although many found the lyrics cryptic, Don Henley said the band's best-known single is simply about "a journey from innocence to experience."
"What's Love Got to Do With It" — Tina Turner (1984)
"It may seem to you that I'm acting confused / When you're close to me / If I tend to look dazed, I've read it someplace / I've got cause to be"
Her triumphant comeback song, released eight years after she filed for divorce and quit the Ike & Tina Turner Revue.
"Bette Davis Eyes" — Kim Carnes (1981)
"Her hair is Harlow gold / Her lips are sweet surprise / Her hands are never cold / She's got Bette Davis eyes"
Bette Davis, who was 73 when this song was released, sent a note to Carnes, thanking her for making the Golden Age actress "a part of modern times."
“Night Fever” — The Bee Gees (1977)
"Listen to the ground / There is movement all around / There is something goin' down / And I can feel it"
That somethin' going down was disco, a trend that gave the Bee Gees eight No. 1 singles in the second half of the '70s, including this one.
"Like a Virgin" — Madonna (1984)
"Like a virgin / Touched for the very first time / Like a virgin / When your heart beats / Next to mine"
The first of Madonna's 12 No. 1 singles. It became one of a back-to-back pair of signature songs—the other being "Material Girl," which she found ironic. "I am not a materialistic person, and I certainly wasn't a virgin," Madonna noted, but she liked the clever, provocative lyrics nonetheless.
“Bad Girls” — Donna Summer (1979)
"Friday night and the strip is hot / Sun's gone down and they're out to trot / Spirit's high and legs look hot / Do you wanna get down"
The disco legend—who sold more than 140 million records worldwide—wrote this song after New York City cops mistook her assistant for a prostitute.
“Fame” — David Bowie (1975)
"Fame, what you like is in the limo / Fame, what you get is no tomorrow"
Bowie's first No. 1 hit single was co-written by John Lennon (who provides falsetto backing vocals).
"Billie Jean" — Michael Jackson (1982)
"People always told me, be careful of what you do / And don't go around breaking young girls' hearts / And mother always told me, be careful of who you love / And be careful of what you do 'cause the lie becomes the truth"
The King of Pop said he wrote this song—which helped "Thriller" to become the best-selling album of all time—about groupies who hovered around him and his brothers during the heyday of the Jackson 5.
"Dancing Queen" — ABBA (1976)
"Friday night and the lights are low / Looking out for a place to go / Where they play the right music / Getting in the swing / You come to look for a king"
The Swedish pop group's only No. 1 hit in the U.S. resurfaced at the end of the century in the jukebox musical "Mama Mia!"
"The Twist" — Chubby Checkers (1960 and 1962)
"My daddy is sleepin' / And mama ain't around / Yeah, daddy's just sleepin' / And mama ain't around / We're gonna twisty, twisty, twisty / Till we tear the house down"
The decade was barely 6 months old when Chubby Checker released what would be its biggest hit single. And "The Twist" has another distinction: It's the only song ever to reach No. 1 in two separate years, topping the Billboard Hot 100 first in 1960 and again in 1962.
"Leader of the Pack" — The Shangri-Las (1964)
"He sort of smiled and kissed me goodbye / The tears were beginning to show / As he drove away on that rainy night / I begged him to go slow / Whether he heard, I'll never know (Look out! Look out! Look out!)"
Classic teen melodrama from an iconic girl group. Cashbox named them the best new R&B group, and the Shangri-Las shared stages with the Beatles, the Stones and James Brown—who was reportedly taken aback to discover that they were white.
"Where Did Our Love Go" — The Supremes (1964)
"I've got this burning, burning / Yearning feelin' inside me / Ooh, deep inside me / And it hurts so bad"
The most successful girl group ever, the Supremes had a dozen No. 1 hits. This one, released at the height of Beatlemania, was the first.
"Walk Like an Egyptian" (The Bangles, 1986)
"All the kids in the marketplace say / Ay oh whey oh, ay oh whey oh / Walk like an Egyptian"
The best-selling single of the year after its release, "Walk Like an Egyptian" was the first No. 1 song by an all-female band who played their own instruments. After 9/11, it appeared on a "list of records to be avoided" because of its light allusion to the Middle East.
“Careless Whisper” — George Michael (1984)
"Should've known better than to cheat a friend / And waste the chance that I've been given / So I'm never gonna dance again / The way I danced with you"
The Wham! duo George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley co-wrote this sentimental song when they were both 17, but it was released as Michael's first solo single.
“Le Freak” — Chic (1978)
"Aaaah, freak out! C'est chic."
Guitarist Nile Rodgers originally wrote the song as a protest against Studio 54 doormen who refused to let him into the club on December 31, 1977. Rodgers then cleaned up the lyrics and the result soared to No. 1 in time for the following New Year's Eve.
“(Everything I Do) I Do It for You” — Bryan Adams (1991)
"Look into my eyes / You will see / What you mean to me / Search your heart / Search for soul / And when you find me there, you'll search no more"
This single topped the Billboard Hot 100 for nine weeks and remained No. 1 in the U.K. longer than any other song in history
"I Will Always Love You" — Whitney Houston (1992)
"Bittersweet memories / That is all I'm taking with me / So goodbye / Please don't cry / We both know I'm not what you need"
Dolly Parton wrote this song to her longtime partner Porter Wagoner when she decided to go solo in the 1970s, and it became a No. 1 country hit. But Whitney Houston's cover took it to another level, becoming one of the best-selling singles of all time.
"Ode to Billie Joe" — Bobbie Gentry (1967)
"That nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by today / Said he'd be pleased to have dinner on Sunday, oh, by the way / He said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge / And she and Billy Joe was throwing somethin' off the Tallahatchie Bridge"
A haunting Southern Gothic tale that unfolds around a dinner table. A half-century later, we're still not entirely sure what the young couple was throwing off that bridge.
"Hey Jude" —The Beatles (1968)
"And anytime you feel the pain / Hey, Jude, refrain / Don't carry the world upon your shoulders / For well you know that it's a fool / Who plays it cool / By making his world a little colder"
Paul McCartney wrote this song, originally titled "Hey Jules," to 5-year-old Julian Lennon when his parents were going through a divorce. In an interview the year he died, John Lennon said he "always heard it as a song to me."
"I Love Rock 'n' Roll" — Joan Jett and the Blackhearts (1982)
"I love rock 'n' roll / So put another dime in the jukebox, baby"
Getting down to basics.
"It's Still Rock and Roll to Me" — Billy Joel (1980)
"Hot funk, cool punk, even if it's old junk / It's still rock and roll to me"
The Piano Man's response to the musical genres that became trendy in the late '70s.
“Candle in the Wind 1997” — Elton John
"Goodbye, England's rose / May you ever grow in our hearts / You were the grace that placed itself / Where lives were torn apart"
This tribute to Princess Diana—adapted from an earlier song about Marilyn Monroe—is listed in the "Guinness Book of Records" as the second-best-selling single of all time. (The first is Bing Crosby's "White Christmas.")
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