The world changed dramatically during the second half of the Twentieth Century, as the United States became the most powerful nation both politically and culturally. One American phenomenon that has left its mark in all corners of the world is pop music. Here is my list of the most important pop songs of the Twentieth Century, in chronological order. Perhaps they were not the first, the best or the most original, but they were the right thing at the right time, and they changed history.
1. “Rock Around the Clock,” (1954). Bill Haley and the Comets. In the early years of Rock music, the inclusion of this song would be a no brainer. It was the first great Rock and Roll hit, selling 25 million copies. Nowadays, we may have a desire to right the record, and say that black performers like Big Joe Turner, Bo Diddley and Ike Turner were the real originators of the style, but the fact is that in the segregated atmosphere of that time, it was necessary for a talented white group to champion the music to a larger audience. The Comets were able to rise to the occasion.
2. “Only You,” (1955). The Platters. They became the personification of the emerging doo-wop style which was a blend of rock and roll combos and vocal styling that can be traced back to the Ink Spots and other performers of the Big Band era. Doo-wop was first successfully introduced by the Penguins a year earlier, with “Earth Angel,” but it was The Platters, a classy act from the West Coast that really established the genre. Their many hits, such as “The Great Pretender” and “My Prayer,” served as a standard of quality for other groups to strive for. With its popularity in the multi-ethnic society of the Northeast, doo-wop was the first racially integrated style, and it still has a devoted following to this day, thanks to the many brilliant vocal performances.
3. “Hound Dog,” (1956). Elvis Presley. In that year Elvis exploded on the scene with this hit, plus “Blue Suede Shoes”, “Heartbreak Hotel” and others. He was revolutionary in the McCarthy era age of conformity. The influence of Elvis Presley cannot be underestimated: he introduced national audiences to rockabilly music, white audiences to black rock and roll and his on-stage persona made venues accessible for the even more flamboyant acts like Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. He created the Rock and roll version of the teen idol, updating the image from Frank Sinatra’s time.
4. “La Bamba,” (1958). Ritchie Valens. This song is important on two counts: it brought the Spanish language and Mexican tradition into the mainstream of Rock music. The opening phrase, “Para bailar la Bamba,” sounds like an historic cry, “un grito.” It is also important because it launched the fad of dance songs that conceived of dance as an expression of the inner self, rather than a dating ritual. “In order to dance the Bamba, you have to have a touch of grace,” and listeners began to see dancing in a new light, as communication with their own bodies.
5. “Shop Around,” (1960). Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. A perfectly crafted blend of doo-wop vocals and driving rock and roll beats, this is the recording that launched Motown. The Shirelles, a New York “girl group” had scored a hit a few months earlier with “Dedicated to the One I Love,” (1959), thus establishing the genre. The Shirelles were trailblazers, building on the success of the earlier doo-wop oriented Chantels and leading to many other girl groups, but it was Motown that became the spiritual home of this new musical style that eventually came to be called “soul music,” and so the Motown recording is the one that made history. Motown was one of the richest veins of pop music of this entire period, culminating in the landmark recording, “Papa was a Rollin’ Stone,” (1972) by the Temptations. By that point the cultural revolution that was the 1960s had transformed the Motown sound into something completely different.
6. “At Last,” (1961). Etta James. Mixed the styles of raucous R and B, Rock and roll and the female slow groove. She did not have the jazz cachet of her contemporary Dinah Washington, instead she represented a new, rebellious era of earthy hedonism. She opened the way for the acceptance of other iconoclastic female performers like Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin (with her distinctive version of “Summertime”). It proved to be fertile ground for male singers, as well, notably, Percy Sledge with “When a Man Loves a Woman,” (1969).
7. “She Loves You,” (1963). The Beatles. Though not an American group, they had an enormous influence on the history of American music and the pop culture of the 1960s. “I Wanna Hold your Hand” was their first U.S. hit in January, 1964, and was followed almost immediately by this song. The two songs taken together illustrate the innovative quality of the Beatles in terms of melody, song structure and vocal harmonic style. “She Loves You,” however, was the more iconic of the two, with its “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” refrain that came to symbolize this genre. The British Invasion that followed changed music history.
8. “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” (1965). The Rolling Stones. The Beatles were soon followed across the Atlantic by their bizarro-world evil twins, the Rolling Stones. If the Beatles had little halos, the Stones had horns. Their spirit of rebelliousness would find fertile ground in the atmosphere of the 1960s. They stayed true to their heavy guitar based genre, even as the Beatles became more cerebral and psychedelic. The Rolling Stones can be seen as the fathers of Heavy Metal, and through their influence on groups like the Velvet Underground, the spiritual fathers of Alternative Rock.
9. “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” (1965). Bob Dylan. As a singer of protest songs, Bob Dylan had been one of the leading performers of the early 1960s folk movement. His move to “folk rock” in 1965 was shocking to his fan base, and when he appeared on stage at the Newport Folk Festival with an electric guitar, he was vigorously booed, in one of the most famous incidents of the period. This song was revolutionary not only for its innovative blend of musical styles, but also for its new use of language. The intensity of imagery was something that had never been heard before in pop music and would not be equaled again until Grand Master Flash and “The Message” of 1982. (See below).
10. “White Rabbit” (1967). Jefferson Airplane. This was their second hit song to come out of the album “Surrealistic Pillow,” after “Don’t You Want Somebody to Love.” “White Rabbit” really exemplified the West Coast psychedelic style of the 1967 Summer of Love, with its surrealistic lyrics and mindblowing crescendo. Grace Slick single handedly invented the concept of the powerhouse rocker female. Other important West Coast groups at this time were the Doors with “Light My Fire,” and the Byrds, with their cover of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Anybody going to San Francisco?
11. “Hey, Joe,” (1967). Jimi Hendrix. Working mainly in New York and London, he represents the Atlantic variant of the psychedelic rock scene. His guitar work and his performance style made him a trailblazer of that period, along with the Who and Cream. He is a giant of pop music history because he bridged black and white musical styles so successfully, and with his creativity helped to launch both the Heavy Metal style and the Funk style of the 1970s.
12. “Respect” (1968). Aretha Franklin. With the overwhelming impact of the British Invasion and the psychedelic styles, soul music had lost its luster as a vanguard form of pop music. Aretha changed that with her infusion of gospel and driving rhythms to the old formulas of Motown music, bringing the music back to its African-American roots. Respect is a perfectly appropriate title for this achievement, because suddenly the centrality of black music to the creative spirit of American pop music became indisputable.
13. “Living for the City,” (1973). Stevie Wonder. Profoundly significant both from a musical and a social perspective. The use of synthesizers and the spoken interlude in the song gave it an innovative structure. The social commentary and spoken dialog led the way for the development of rap music later in the decade.
14. “I Will Survive,” (1978). Gloria Gaynor. It is the anthem of the disco mania of the 1970s. Previous disco hits had been “The Hustle,” (1975) by Van McCoy and the Soul City Symphony, and “Tangerine,” (1976) by Salsoul Orchestra. These instrumentals allowed dancers to focus on the rhythms and steps as they learned the new dance crazes of the period, be they partner dances, like the Latin Hustle, or line dances like the Bus Stop. The 1977 film, “Saturday Night Fever” included songs with vocal parts by the BeeGees (Stayin’ Alive) and the Trammps, “Disco Inferno.” However, the lyrics to these songs were always secondary and usually barely intelligible. With the soaring vocal performance of Gloria Gaynor on this song, and the message in the lyrics, the hustle finally found its voice and came alive.
15. “Rapper’s Delight,” (1979). Sugar Hill Gang. This song marked the beginning of rap music. It is a moment of pop music history every bit as significant as anything done by Elvis or the Beatles. The rap style was soon perfected and packaged by other groups, notably Run-DMC, and went on to permeate Western pop music in the following decades.
16. “The Message” (1982). Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five. By infusing their verses with such powerful social commentary, they demonstrated the immense power of the rap style. The syncopated line of monosyllables, “Don’t push me ’cause I’m close to the edge, I’m try-in’ not to lose my head,” was unprecedented, and the little laugh that followed it was truly haunting. With their virtuoso command of language, they did for rap music what Bob Dylan did for folk rock. The form was brought to complete commercial fruition 13 years later with Coolio’s “Gangster’s Paradise,” (1995).
17. “Thriller,” (1982). Michael Jackson. A huge event. Musically, it was a synthesis of many styles that came before: funk, rock, r n b, disco, novelty song, but it was so much more than its parts, as it seamlessly fused these styles together. It was also the prototypical music video, a visual accomplishment that has never been duplicated. The album is the best selling album of all time.
18. “Like a Virgin,” (1984). Madonna. Both she and Cyndi Lauper crashed onto the music scene at the same time in 1983, as the first female performers to create every aspect of their onstage personas and to present themselves as performance artists rather than simply artists who perform. However, Lauper’s style remained idiosyncratic and inimitable, but Madonna’s style became a genre. She created the sexy, leggy female pop idol, in the tradition of male performers like Michael Jackson and Prince, and she was followed by an endless string of other women, some imitators, some artists in their own right.
19. “Conga,” (1985). Miami Sound Machine. It introduced English speaking music lovers to the Caribbean Hispanic style that had been percolating on the East coast for the previous two decades. Gloria Estefan’s clipped phrasing even gave the English lyrics a Spanish feeling. She matched or even surpassed this achievement with “Oye Mi Canto” in 1989. World Music and Latin fusion are concepts that began to take their present form here.
20. “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” (1991). Nirvana. The grunge style of the 1990s got its most iconic performance in this. Kurt Cobain’s stage persona and aesthetics have influenced all the alternative rock singers that have come after him, giving them an alternative to the fake cockney whines that had dominated before. The members of Nirvana were particularly articulate through their music and artistic statements, thus codifying the characteristics of this new style.
This is a list of twenty very different and unique songs, but there are certain characteristics. One striking thing is the low number of women on this list (six, including Grace Slick and Gloria Estefan). It seems that women have had a hard time being seen as innovators and being given the opportunity to take a lead role. An example of this double standard can be seen in the way that Mick Jagger, with his middle class British background from the opposite end of the English speaking world, never faced serious questioning about his embracing of black performance and musical styles, but Janis Joplin, born and raised in the Deep South, was criticized as being derivative or worse, and her reputation suffered for many years because of this. A clear division of styles along racial lines is, in fact, one of the most persistent traits of pop music even to this day. However, if such divides are normally seen as polarizing and undesirable elsewhere, that is not necessarily the case in pop music.
Here, they have created the terrain for multi-faceted and rich traditions that thrive on cross-pollination, and when we allow performers to bridge these gaps with their creativity, we get some of the greatest performers, such as Elvis Presley and Jimi Hendrix. As American pop music has grown in complexity, the opportunities have emerged for more productive mixtures, but the innovative spirit seems to have hit a dry patch. It remains to be seen where the next great song will come from; it’s been a long time coming.