Although opinions vary on different songs and artists, almost everyone can agree that music, in general, is a source of joy and inspiration. Throughout the years, there have been hundreds of incredible songs that have influenced American pop culture. Here are 12 of the greatest and most iconic songs from the 1960s to today:
12 Songs You Must Hear, Now
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Hey Jude – The Beatles (1968)
Hey Jude, don’t be afraid
You were made to go out and get her
The minute you let her under your skin
Then you begin to make it better
The Beatles are arguably the most famous band of all time, and Hey Jude is one of their most popular songs, topping the charts for nine weeks when it was released. The 1960s were a turbulent time in American history, and the song was released around the same time as the protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where Americans were intensely divided on their political opinions. Hey Jude’s positive and reassuring message brought people together.
The Boxer – Simon & Garfunkel (1969)
In the clearing stands a boxer
And a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders
Of every glove that laid him down
“The Boxer” is an iconic folk-rock ballad that is still frequently referenced today. More than a dozen popular artists have covered the song, including Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond, and Mumford & Sons, and Paul Simon still performs the song today. It tells the story of a man facing poverty and loneliness in New York City, and the lyrics and the music combine to make it an emotional yet beautiful song.
Stairway to Heaven – Led Zeppelin (1971)
But in the long run
There’s still time to change the road you’re on
And it makes me wonder
Many music enthusiasts recognize “Stairway to Heaven” as the best rock song of all time. The eight-minute song transitions from a slow acoustic ballad to a fast rock song. It has been played on the radio more than three million times, which amounts to more than 45 years if played back-to-back. Read other Led Zeppelin songs.
American Pie – Don McLean (1971)
The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died
“American Pie” was released in the same month as “Stairway to Heaven”, and it stayed at number one on the U.S. charts for four weeks. McLean wrote the song as a response to Buddy Holly’s death in a plane crash, and fans of the song have written hundreds of analyses about the specific meaning of the lyrics. Many people believe the song to be about the loss of innocence in America, an idea that many younger adults struggled with in the 1960s and early 70s.
Bohemian Rhapsody – Queen (1975)
Too late, my time has come
Sends shivers down my spine
Body’s aching all the time
Goodbye, everybody, I’ve got to go
“Bohemian Rhapsody” was instantly popular when it was released, and although it faced some disapproval from critics, it remains one of the most popular songs ever created to this day. It has been covered by several other bands and has been referenced numerous times in pop culture. The song broke many of the rules of pop and rock songwriting, and it inspired many artists to take a more experimental approach to songwriting rather than follow a normal structure. Read other Queen songs.
Video Killed the Radio Star – The Buggles (1979)
We can’t rewind we’ve gone too far
Pictures came and broke your heart
Put the blame on VCR
You are a radio star
“Video Killed the Radio Star” is usually not considered iconic because of the song itself, but because it was the first music video ever played on MTV. The video aired at 12:01 a.m. on August 1, 1981, as MTV made its debut, and it started the rise in popularity of music videos as a source of entertainment.
Billie Jean – Michael Jackson (1982)
Billie Jean is not my lover
She’s just a girl who claims that I am the one
But the kid is not my son
Michael Jackson was the most famous pop star in the 1980s, and most people agree that his work changed the music world. The song topped the U.S. charts for over two months and was one of the main reasons the Thriller album became the best-selling album of all time. The song’s music video was a driving force behind MTV’s rise in popularity, and it introduced the idea that all hit songs should be accompanied by music videos.
Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana (1991)
I’m worse at what I do best
And for this gift, I feel blessed
Our little group has always been
And always will until the end
Nirvana was one of the biggest bands of the 1990s and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” sparked the rise in popularity of grunge music for the rest of the decade. It reached the top 10 in the charts in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and many European countries. Several bands with a similar grunge style found success throughout the 90s, and many people attribute the success of those bands to Nirvana.
Wannabe – The Spice Girls (1996)
Make it last forever, friendship never ends
If you wanna be my lover, you have got to give
Taking is too easy, but that’s the way it is
“Wannabe” was the Spice Girls’ first single, and its “girl power” theme became an important symbol for female empowerment. The song was a huge hit in the U.S. and in many European countries, and its popularity continued throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s.
American Idiot – Green Day (2004)
Welcome to a new kind of tension
All across the alien nation
Where everything isn’t meant to be okay
“American Idiot” is one of the most famous punk rock songs that was released in the 2000s. Many of the lyrics are harsh and political, which most artists tend to avoid. Green Day, however, embraces the song’s meaning. American Idiot is probably Green Day’s most well-known song, and it is one of the most defining songs of the punk rock genre in the 2000s.
Halo – Beyoncé (2008)
Everywhere I’m looking now
I’m surrounded by your embrace
Baby, I can see your halo
You know you’re my saving grace
Beyoncé is one of the most well-loved musical artists of the 2000s and 2010s. Her music is a great reflection of current pop music, and Halo is one of her most popular songs. It spent several months on both the U.S. and U.K. charts, and when it was released, most music critics praised the song.
Hello – Adele (2015)
Hello from the other side
I must’ve called a thousand times
To tell you I’m sorry
For everything that I’ve done
Adele has been one of the most iconic singers and pop culture figures in the past five or six years. Hello was praised for its powerful vocals and theme, and the music video broke Vevo’s record for the shortest time to reach 100 million views. Almost all fans of pop music enjoy Adele’s songs, and the singer is a great representation of American pop, soul, and R&B music today.
Listen to our songs you must hear playlist on Spotify.
There are hundreds of new incredible songs released every year, and it would be impossible to mention every song that has impacted pop culture. Music is an integral part of American culture, and it often reflects the trends, popular opinions, and issues facing society at the time. These songs all reflect a piece of American pop culture, and even though many of them were released decades ago, they will always be remembered.
Other great songs list to read:
- Greatest Wedding Songs Of All-Time
- Greatest Women Wedding Musicians
- 100 Greatest Music Artists All-Time