An integral part of society and culture since the dawn of time, music is intrinsically tied to politics, fashion, film, television, current events and our everyday lives. There are some songs that become so tied to a particular year that they end up topping the charts, soundtracking everything from workouts and parties to road trips and births.
Since 1946, Billboard has published year-end charts to denote the top song of each year as determined by its performance on the publication’s charts. While there are dozens of Billboard charts — for pop, country, R&B and genres you haven’t even heard of — we took a look at the year-end chart for all popular music to see what songs dominated the pop culture for the year you were born.
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Written in 1931 by Leo Robin and originally sung by Russ Columbo, the 1946 version of “Prisoner of Love” was sung by another Italian-American singer, Perry Como, also known as “Mr. C.” Como’s version of the song is the one that made it to the soundtrack of the 1980 hit film “Raging Bull,” starring Robert De Niro.
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The first Billboard No. 1 hit to come out of Nashville, Tennessee, Francis Craig sang and wrote the music for “Near You,” with lyrics penned by Kermit Goell. Five other versions of the song also charted that same year, sung by the Andrews Sisters, Elliot Lawrence, Larry Green, Two Ton Baker and Alvino Rey.
The composition for Euday L. Bowman’s “Twelfth Street Rag” was first published in 1914, with Bowman taking more than 15 years to write the ragtime song down after first composing it. Multiple musicians have played and recorded it in the years since, but it was jazz musician Pee Wee Hunt’s 1948 version of the song that sold more than 3 million copies when released.
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Named the best Western song of all time by members of the Western Writers of America in 2010, “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky: A Cowboy Legend” was written in 1948 by Stan Jones, with multiple versions of the song by various artists charting the next year. The most successful of these, however, was by singer, trumpeter and big band leader, Vaughn Monroe.
First recorded in 1933 by folk and blues musician Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, “Goodnight, Irene” is a traditional folk song about lost love. The Weavers recorded their own version in 1950, with Gordon Jenkins arranging the orchestra. This group chose to leave out some of the more controversial lyrics of the song, particularly a reference to suicide.
Legendary jazz singer and pianist Nat King Cole recorded “Too Young” in February of 1951, interpreting music by Sidney Lippman and lyrics written by Sylvia Dee. Cole later stated that of all of his songs, “Too Young” was one of his top three favorites, and the song went on to be covered by many artists over the years that followed, including Sam Cooke, Richard Hayes and Michael Jackson.
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Leroy Anderson, renowned light concert music composer, wrote the instrumental “Blue Tango” as an orchestra piece in 1951, but the song was published and became a hit in 1952. Later that year, a version with lyrics added by Mitchell Parish was also recorded.
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“Song From Moulin Rouge” shot to the top of the charts after the release of the 1952 iteration of “Moulin Rouge,” starring Zsa-Zsa Gabor and José Ferrer. Called “It’s April Again” in the film, the original French song’s lyrics were written by Jacques Larue, while the English version was written by William Engvick, keeping the music by French composer Georges Auric. The version of this track that hit the charts was a cover recorded in January 1953 by orchestrator Percy Faith with Felicia Sanders on vocals.
Big band swing singer Kitty Kallen proved her ability to transition to post-war modern pop music with her recording of “Little Things Mean a Lot,” which contributed to her being voted most popular singer in 1954 according to polls conducted by both Billboard and Variety. Written by Edith Lindeman and composed by Carl Stutz, the song extols the virtues of small gestures in a relationship.
Cuban bandleader and “King of the Mambo” Pérez Prado’s recording of “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” alongside his orchestra is the most popular version of the French song “Cerisiers Roses et Pommiers Blancs,” written in 1950 by Louiguy. An instrumental, cha-cha-chá take on the song, it became a gold record and was particularly praised for trumpeter Billy Regis’ performance.
Elvis Presley’s first big hit was released in January 1956, after the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll was approached to record “Heartbreak Hotel," by Mae Boren Axton — who co-wrote the song with Tommy Durden — at a Nashville country music convention. Inspired by a newspaper article about a man who committed suicide by jumping from a hotel window, “Heartbreak Hotel” was named one of the “500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll," by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, the same year that Rolling Stone ranked it No. 45 on its list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”
The very next year, Presley topped the year-end charts again with “All Shook Up,” which was also later ranked No. 352 on Rolling Stone’s “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” The song was written and composed by Otis Blackwell and previously recorded by another artist before Blackwell agreed to let Presley re-write some of the lyrics for his own version.
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More commonly known as “Volare,” the international Italian hit song “Nel Blu, Dipinto Di Blu” (“In the blue [sky], painted blue”) was co-written by Domenico Modugno, Italy’s first internationally renowned singer-songwriter, and Franco Migliacci, whose inspiration from the song came from a combination of a wine-fuelled dream and two Marc Chagall paintings that were hanging on the wall where he woke up. The song’s international popularity came after it won third place in the 1958 Eurovision Song Contest, and it remains one of the most popular Eurovision songs of all time, as well as the only foreign-language recording to win Record of the Year or Song of the Year at the Grammy Awards, which it did at the first-ever Grammys in 1959.
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A comical retelling of the 1815 Battle of New Orleans, folk singer Jimmy Driftwood’s original song was written during his time as a school principal in Arkansas in an attempt to garner more interest in history among his students. The song’s success reached far past the classroom walls, with many artists covering the song, the most successful being Johnny Horton’s in 1959, which leaves out the mild expletives in the song as well as some historical references.
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Composed by Max Steiner, a cover of the instrumental theme of the 1959 film “A Summer Place” by Percy Faith and his orchestra topped the charts in 1960. A love theme within the movie that was originally known as the “Molly and Johnny Theme,” the film version was recorded by Hugo Winterhalter, but Faith’s version was the one that went on to win a 1961 Grammy Award for Record of the Year, the first movie theme and first instrumental to win it.
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Written by Ritchie Adams and Malou Rene, Bobby Lewis’ “Tossin’ and Turnin’” is a classic R&B hit that appears on many oldies collections. Billboard ranked it the 36th biggest song of all time to chart on its Hot 100 in 2018, the chart’s 60th anniversary.
Backed by the Leon Young String Chorale, Acker Bilk’s clarinet instrumental “Stranger on the Shore” was originally named “Jenny,” after the daughter he had written it for before it was used as the theme for “Stranger on the Shore,” a BBC children’s TV drama. The hit single was the first British song to reach No. 1 on the Billboard 100, but its popularity went truly out of this world in May 1969 when the Apollo 10 crew took it with them on a cassette tape that they played on their mission to orbit the moon.
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Recorded by New Mexico-based rock ‘n’ roll group Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs, “Sugar Shack” was written by Texan singer-songwriter Keith McCormack. The song describes a “cute little girlie” with “a black leotard and her feet are bare,” but while writing, McCormack had to ask his aunt, Faye Voss, what “those tight pants that girls wear” are called. Upon being informed by Voss that they were referred to as leotards, McCormack included her in the songwriting credits.
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Beatlemania broke in America with “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” a lyrical collaboration between Paul McCartney and John Lennon that went on to become the 48th biggest hit of all time on the Billboard Hot 100 as of 2018. Selling more than 12 million copies, the song remains the Beatles’ best-selling single worldwide.
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“Wooly Bully” was named the No. 1 song of 1965 by Billboard, despite never actually reaching the top spot on a weekly Hot 100 chart, a feat that has only been achieved twice more since. Dallas-based Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs added some Mexican conjunto music to the British rock that was popular at the time, and thus managed to have the first American record to sell 1 million copies during the British Invasion.
Staff Sgt. Barry Sandler began writing “The Ballad of the Green Berets” while training as a Special Forces medic; Robin Moore, author of the book “The Green Berets,” later helped Sandler with the lyrics and a recording contract. The song was partially written in honor of U.S. Army Specialist 5 James Gabriel Jr., who was killed during a training mission with the South Vietnamese Army in April of 1962. Notably, this single is one of the few positive songs about the military from the Vietnam era.
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The theme song for the British film of the same name starring Sidney Poitier, “To Sir with Love” was written by Mark London and Don Black, the latter being an acclaimed British lyricist known for his work with Andrew Lloyd Webber and for writing multiple James Bond theme songs. The song was performed by Scottish singer-songwriter Lulu, who made her acting debut in the film.
Although credited as yet another Lennon–McCartney collaboration, “Hey Jude” was originally written as “Hey Jules,” which Paul McCartney wrote to comfort John Lennon’s son Julian in the wake of his parents’ divorce and his father’s relationship with Yoko Ono. In 2018, Billboard ranked “Hey Jude” the 12th biggest song to ever hit the Hot 100, and it has also been named one of the “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll” by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Rolling Stone placed “Hey Jude” at No. 8 on its 2004 list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time,” the highest ranking of any Beatles song.
At the height of bubblegum pop’s prominence in the music scene, a cartoon band came out with the most successful song of the genre. Featured in “The Archie Show,” an animated TV series based on the Archie comics, The Archies released “Sugar, Sugar” on the second of their seven albums. Written by Jeff Barry and Andy Kim, the song features lead vocals by Ron Dante and backup vocals by Toni Wine and Andy Kim. To date, it remains the only time that a fictional band has topped the Billboard year-end charts.
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Quite possibly the most famous song by Queens-based folk rock duo Simon & Garfunkel, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” took home five Grammy Awards in 1971, including Record of the Year and Song of the Year. The song, which was written by Paul Simon and sung solo by Art Garfunkel, has been covered by more than 50 artists, including Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley and Willie Nelson. On Rolling Stone’s list of “500 Greatest Songs of All Time,” it was ranked at No. 48.
All seven members of Los Angeles rock band Three Dog Night contributed vocals to “Joy to the World,” rather than just the typical three main singers. Songwriter Hoyt Axton is the son of Mae Axton, co-writer of Heartbreak Hotel, making the duo the first mother and son to have each written a No. 1 pop single.
First written in 1957 by British folk singer Ewan MacColl, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” has been covered by many artists including Elvis Presley, The Temptations, Johnny Cash, Lauryn Hill and Peter, Paul and Mary, among others. It was Roberta Flack’s 1972 cover, however, that made the song an international hit and won a Grammy for both Record of the Year and Song of the Year.
After being turned down and told their song was “ridiculous," by an Apple Records executive when they offered the song to Ringo Starr, co-writers Irwin Levine and L. Russell Brown were redeemed with the worldwide success of “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Old Oak Tree.” The song’s origins lie in the practice of wearing or putting up a yellow ribbon as a symbol that a loved one in the military or in jail would be welcomed home when they return, with the song’s lyrics depicting a man telling his beloved to tie one around the oak tree in front of their house if she wants him to return home, or else he’ll stay on his bus. The song’s ending, which proclaims that 100 ribbons are tied around the tree, is quite memorable, and many other artists have covered the tune, including Johnny Carver, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Dolly Parton.
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The theme song for the 1973 romance film of the same name starring Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford, “The Way We Were” won the Oscar for Best Original Song at the 1973 Grammy Awards, with lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman and Marvin Hamlisch, the latter of whom also won the Oscar for Best Original Dramatic Score for his work on the soundtrack. The song was originally written for Barbra Streisand’s 15th studio album, also of the same name, and is considered by many to have revived the pop icon’s career. “The Way We Were” also went on to be inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998 and was ranked No. 8 by the American Film Institute on their “100 Years… 100 Songs” list in 2004.
First recorded in 1973 by Neil Sedaka, who co-wrote the song with Howard Greenfield, “Love Will Keep Us Together” didn’t become a hit in America until it was covered by pop duo Captain & Tennille on their debut album of the same name. The song went on to win the 1976 Grammy Award for Record of the Year, also earning Sedaka and Greenfield a nomination for Song of the Year.
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Former Beatle Paul McCartney formed a band in 1971 with his wife Linda and guitarist Denny Laine that changed lineups multiple times but included Joe English on the drums when the group, known as Wings, recorded “Silly Love Songs” in 1976. Written by the husband and wife duo, the song was a response to his former bandmate John Lennon and other critics who had criticized McCartney for writing only “silly love songs.”
British rock icon Rod Stewart created quite a bit of controversy with “Tonight’s the Night,” and the song was even banned by some radio stations due to its suggestive lyrics, such as “C’mon, angel, my hearts on fire/Don’t deny your man’s desire.” Written by Stewart in 1976, the song features a spoken part in French that is performed by Stewart’s then-girlfriend, actress and former Bond girl Britt Ekland.
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English singer-songwriter Andy Gibb wrote “Shadow Dancing” with the help of his older brothers Barry, Maurice and Robin, better known as the Bee Gees. The disco track went on to go platinum, and featured Barry Gibb on background and harmony vocals.
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The Knack’s debut single “My Sharona” was written by lead singer Doug Fieger, with the help of lead guitarist Berton Averre, about his then-girlfriend Sharona Alperin, the inspiration of many songs by Fieger. Although he met Sharona when he was 25, the song is written from the perspective of a 14-year-old boy. In 2018, Billboard listed the song at No. 95 on its list of top all-time singles.
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New wave band Blondie’s lead singer Debbie Harry worked with Italian producer and “Father of Disco” Giorgio Moroder to write “Call Me” as the theme for 1980 film American Gigolo. One of Blondie’s biggest hits, the song went on to be listed at No. 57 in Billboard’s “All Time Top 100 Songs” as well as Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”
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Originally sung by singer-songwriter Jackie DeShannon, who co-wrote the song with Donna Weiss in 1974, “Bette Davis Eyes” was made popular by the Kim Carnes’ 1981 cover that was later listed at No. 17 on Billboard’s 60th anniversary Hot 100 chart. At the 1982 Grammy Awards, Carnes won Record of the Year for the song, which also earned DeShannon and Weiss a win for Song of the Year. After the wins, Bette Davis herself sent all three artists roses in appreciation.
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When Olivia Newton-John agreed to record “Physical” after Tina Turner turned the tune down, she fully ensured her status as a pop superstar and left behind her squeaky-clean persona for a more suggestive one. The song’s lyrics, penned by Steve Kipner and Terry Shaddick, and somewhat racy music video earned it a ban in some markets, as well as the top spot on Billboard’s “Top 50 Sexiest Songs of All Time” and tenth place on its “All Time Top 100.”
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Despite popular belief, The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” is not meant to be a romantic song, but is rather written from the point of view of a possessive and jilted lover. Lead singer Sting, who penned the lyrics, told BBC Radio 2, that he felt the song was “very, very sinister and ugly and people have actually misinterpreted it as being a gentle little love song, when it’s quite the opposite.” Yet another one of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll,” “Every Breath You Take” also scored the No. 31 spot on Billboard’s 50th anniversary chart of all-time top hits.
Prince’s first No. 1 single in America came from his sixth studio album, “Purple Rain.” “When Doves Cry” was written as the theme for the film “Purple Rain” and is said to have been inspired by the singer’s relationship with fellow musician Susan Moonsie. The iconic Prince song was the second highest 1980s song to make Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list, coming in at No. 52, and was also named one of the “500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll” by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
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George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley made up one of the most successful 1980s pop acts, Wham, and the two made a rare lyrical collaboration on “Careless Whisper” when they were just 17 years old. Three years later, the song was released on their 1984 sophomore album, and the song went on to top the charts in almost 25 countries.
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Rod Stewart was the first to record “That’s What Friends Are For” in 1982, but the song, which was written by Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager, gained far more popularity when it was recorded in 1985 by Dionne Warwock, Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight — credited as Dionne & Friends — to raise money for the American Foundation for AIDS Research. In addition to raising more than $3 million for the cause, the song won Bacharach and Sager a Grammy for Song of the Year, while Dionne & Friends were awarded the Grammy for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals.
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Akron, Ohio, native and music producer Liam Sternberg was inspired to write “Walk Like an Egyptian” when he saw people trying to keep their balance while walking on a ferry, which made him think of Ancient Egyptian art. The song was recorded by pop rock band The Bangles and released on their 1986 album “Different Light,” and when it topped the Billboard charts, it became the first song to do so that was performed by an all-female group playing their own instruments.
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The title track of George Michael’s 1987 debut solo album, “Faith” was written and composed with a more rock ‘n’ roll sound than the pop star had previously employed. Considered one of George Michael’s most famous songs, it’s been covered by many artists, such as John Mayer with Keith Urban and rap-rock group Limp Bizkit.
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Once a political rock band, Chicago took on a softer, more pop-friendly sound in the 1980s, rounding out the decade with a top hit about a lost love. Written by Diane Warren, “Look Away” is the band’s only No. 1 single after the departure of bassist Peter Cetera and doesn’t include the band’s signature use of horns.
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“Hold On” kicked off the ‘90s as the lead single from the debut self-titled album by Wilson Phillips, a pop rock group that consisted of Carnie and Wendy Wilson, daughters of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, and Chynna Philis, daughter of John and Michelle Philips of The Mamas & The Papas. Listed at No. 15 on Billboard’s “100 Greatest Girl Group Songs of All Time,” the track received a 1991 Grammy Awards nomination for Song of the Year
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Featured on the soundtrack for the 1991 film “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” as well as on Bryan Adams’ album “Waking Up the Neighbours,” released the same year. Adams co-wrote the song with Michael Kamen and Robert John “Mutt” Lange, and the three won a Grammy Award the next year for Best Song Written Specifically for a Motion Picture or Television. Having sold more than 15 million copies worldwide, “I Do It for You” is one of the best-selling singles of all time.
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Considered one of the most successful songs of all time, R&B group Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road” topped charts around the world in 1992 and was ranked No. 55 on Billboard’s “All Time Top 100 Songs.” Released on the soundtrack album of the Eddie Murphy film “Boomerang,” the song won two Grammy Awards in 1993 for Best R&B Song and Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals. It was written and produced by Babyface, L.A. Reid and Daryl Simmons.
Originally written and recorded by Dolly Parton as a country track in 1973, “I Will Always Love You” was released as a soul ballad by Whitney Houston for her film debut in the 1992 romantic thriller “The Bodyguard.” The song won Record of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance at the 1994 Grammy Awards, and was later listed at No. 65 on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years… 100 Songs” list, as well as No. 6 on Billboard’s “Top 50 Love Songs of All Time.” Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” continues to hold the record for best-selling single by a woman, and the soundtrack for “The Bodyguard” also continues to be the best-selling soundtrack of all time.
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While they were working on their debut album “Happy Nation,” Swedish pop group Ace of Base’s American record label decided to add a few extra tracks, including “The Sign,” which the band had written for their subsequent album. The song, which ended up sharing its title with the North American version of the album, became an international hit, mixing Eurodance and reggae. It was later listed on Rolling Stone’s list of “50 Best Songs of the Nineties” and made it to the No. 65 spot on Billboard’s 2018 update of “All-Time Top 100 Songs.”
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Sampling Stevie Wonder’s 1976 song “Pastime Paradise” as its hook, “Gangsta’s Paradise” was the first rap song to become a year-end chart-topper on the Billboard Hot 100. The single was first released on the soundtrack of the 1995 film “Dangerous Minds” starring Michelle Pfeiffer and went on to top the pop charts in 16 countries, as well as win a Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance.
The world in the late 1990s was taken over by a dance craze that’s still popular at weddings, sports games and family-friendly parties to this day: the Macarena. The song that the famous dance accompanied was first released in 1993 by Spanish pop duo Los del Río, but it was the 1996 remix by the Bayside Boys that added English lyrics and made the song a worldwide hit. Ranked the top Latin song of all time by Billboard in 2009, as well as placed at No. 8 on Billboard’s 2012 list of the “All Time Top 100,” “Macarena” was also named the greatest one-hit wonder of all time by VH1 in 2002.
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Elton John and Bernie Taupin first wrote and recorded “Candle in the Wind” in 1973 in honor of Marilyn Monroe, who had passed away 11 years before. When Elton John’s good friend Princess Diana died in a car crash in 1997, the song was re-written and re-recorded in her memory. With global proceeds going toward the late princess’s charities, “Candle in the Wind 1997” went on to become the second best-selling single of all time behind Bing Crosby’s 1942 track “White Christmas” (making it the best-selling single on this list), as well as the first song to be certified Diamond in America. At the 40th Grammy Awards in 1998, the award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance was given to Elton John for the song, which he has only ever publicly performed at Diana’s funeral and has not released on any albums or compilations.
Minneapolis-based R&B group Next is best known for the second single off their debut album Rated Next, “Too Close.” The song, which includes a sample of Harlem rapper Kurtis Blow’s “Christmas Rappin,” regained attention in 2015 with the viral Vine video “Why You Always Lying” which parodies the song and was later turned into a full music video on YouTube.
The lead single from her 22nd album of the same name, Cher’s “Believe” was one of the pioneer uses of Auto-Tune to create a vocal distortion that made a semi-artificial voice sound effect which would later be referred to as the “Cher effect.” Taking on more of a dance sound in contrast to her previous pop rock music, Cher won a Grammy for Best Dance Recording for the track, which is credited with helping Cher re-invent and reinvigorate her career.
Written by fellow country music artists Stephanie Bentley and Holly Lamar, Faith Hill’s “Breathe” was only the second song to ever top a year-end chart despite never taking the No. 1 spot on the weekly charts, 35 years after Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs' “Wooly Bully.” Nominated for both Best Country Song and Song of the Year, the country pop track managed to win Hill a Best Female Country Vocal Performance nod at the 2000 Grammy Awards.
“Hanging by a Moment” is the third of only three songs to have topped the year-end charts despite never peaking on the weekly charts. Lifehouse lead singer Jason Wade claims he wrote the song in just five minutes, and the alternative band took on a post-grunge sound in its composition.
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Despite many critics and music fans disavowing the Canadian rock band in more recent years, Nickleback was all over the radio stations in the early aughts. According to Nielsen Soundscan, “How You Remind Me” was the most played song on U.S. radio in the first decade of the 21st century, with 1.2 million plays from its release in August 2001 until the end of 2009.
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Queens rapper 50 Cent shot to fame in 2003 with “In da Club,” the first single off his debut album “Get Rich or Die Tryin’.” It was nominated for Best Rap Song and Best Male Rap Solo Performance at the 46th Grammy Awards, where it lost to “Lose Yourself” by Eminem, who discovered 50 Cent and is featured in the music video alongside producer Dr. Dre. The song was listed on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time,” and many artists have made remixes of the song including Beyoncé, Lil Wayne, Mary J. Blige and P. Diddy.
Rapper Lil Jon incorporated both crunk and R&B music — a combination he dubbed “crunk&B” — when producing “Yeah!,” which served as the lead single for Usher’s fourth studio album, “Confessions.” Both Lil Jon and fellow rapper Ludacris are also featured on the song which won the trio Best Rap/Sung Collaboration at the 2005 Grammy Awards and went platinum in several countries.
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“We Belong Together” is credited by many with reviving Mariah Carey’s career after many considered it over due to a decline in popularity between 2001 and 2005. Declared the top song of the 2000s and 14th most popular song of all time by Billboard according to their chart history, the R&B ballad came off of her 10th studio album “The Emancipation of Mimi” and became the first to top nine different Billboard charts at the same time. Carey received eight Grammy nominations in 2006, four of which were for “We Belong Together” which won the award for Best R&B Song and Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. Moreover, this song is the soundtrack for many broken hearts, so turn up the volume and get ready to cry into a pint of the best ice cream you can find.
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