30 Songs That Changed Music Forever
Music can be very powerful. Out of all of the music made over the last 70 years, some songs were powerful enough to influence important political and cultural movements.
When enough people can relate to a song's message and sound in a similar way, history's made and icons are born. Check out these 30 songs that have made a huge impact from the moment they first hit the airwaves.
Bill Haley, “Rock Around the Clock” (1954)
Bill Haley has the distinction of being the first musician to popularize rock and roll in the '50s. His band, Bill Haley & His Comets, sold over 60 million records worldwide thanks to hits like "Shake, Rattle and Roll" and "See You Later, Alligator".
Chuck Berry, “Johnny B. Goode” (1958)
Berry's 'Johnny B. Goode' told the story of a boy from New Orleans who grew up to lead a rock band. In reality, Berry used "Johnny" to sing about his own rebellious experiences as one of the world’s first rock stars. It was the first taste of musicians singing about the extravagant lifestyle that accompanies famous singers.
Ritchie Valens, “La Bamba” (1958)
Originally a Mexican folk song, Valens added a rock and roll rhythm to the lyrics and turned it into an instant crossover hit. It was the first fully Spanish rock song to perform well on the Billboard charts at the time.
Ray Charles, “What’d I Say” (1959)
Widely credited as one of the first soul songs, “What’d I Say” started out as an improvisation during a concert. With a little time left during a set, the enthusiastic crowd encouraged Charles and the band to keep playing (and to record the excitable energy).
Sam Cooke, “A Change is Gonna Come” (1964)
This powerful song written by Cooke was a response to the struggles faced by him and those around him during the Civil Rights Movement. Furious with the way his friends and family were being treated, and after hearing Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind," Cooke added his take on the injustices towards African Americans.
The Beatles, “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” (1964)
After John F. Kennedy's assassination, the country was in a collective lull. Out of nowhere, Brit-pop phenomenon the Beatles crossed over to the United States with upbeat, positive sounds. The world was ready to feel happy again when The Beatles stepped out on the scene.
The Mamas and The Papas, “California Dreamin’” (1965)
The groovy foursome was a leader in the countercultural movement of the ‘60s, blending folk and gospel with rock music. "California Dreamin’" was the upbeat song that channeled America's collective longing for change during a time of revolutionary challenges to the country.
Aretha Franklin, “Respect” (1967)
When you first hear Franklin’s voice on this track, you know you're about to hear a legend sing. Franklin's "Respect” was a landmark song for the feminist movement. The empowering command for equality is largely considered to be the best R&B song of all time.
Jefferson Airplane, “White Rabbit” (1967)
This song was the perfect representation of the end of the innocence of the '60s. The band's tongue-in-cheek retelling of the children's story Alice in Wonderland mixed with a lot of double entendre made this far-out song an instant classic.
David Bowie, “Rebel Rebel” (1974)
As punk and arena rock were still gaining steam, glam rock was a force in the ‘70s, and Bowie was its fearless leader. Bowie was the first headlining music artist to experiment with personas and gender-bending. Throughout his legendary career, Bowie continued to push boundaries.
Queen, “Bohemian Rhapsody” (1975)
The epic rock ballad is one of the highest selling songs ever and perfectly encapsulated the hard guitar sounds that were popular at the time. Queen was able to distinguish their sound from contemporaries like Led Zeppelin, Heart, and Pink Floyd with songs like "Bohemian Rhapsody".
Donna Summer, “I Feel Love” (1977)
Summer's "I Feel Love" was one of the most popular songs of the disco era of the '70s. While there are many other songs that are classics from the disco era, the Library of Congress added “I Feel Love” to the National Recording Registry as "culturally, historically, or aesthetically important."
Sex Pistols, “God Save The Queen” (1977)
"God Save the Queen" is the national anthem of the United Kingdom. The Sex Pistols song of the same name is largely credited as the best punk single of all time. It's no surprise they named the song the way they did, as they unapologetically opposed the British Monarchy.
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, “The Message” (1982)
“The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five is considered to be one of the first rap songs ever made. As rap music was finding its footing, most early rap songs consisted of boasting about success or a series of party chants.
Michael Jackson, “Billie Jean” (1983)
After the success of his album Off the Wall, Jackson’s second single from his follow up album Thriller was incredibly successful on the radio as well as on the budding MTV network. It was the first music video of a black musician to be aired on rotation on MTV.
Madonna, “Like a Virgin” (1984)
While Madonna was already known for her upbeat dance music, "Like a Virgin" was the first song in Madonna’s catalog to top the charts. Through frequent album and video releases, Madonna created a whole new kind of female superstar. This song in particular also launched her career-spanning commitment to blend religion with sexuality.
Prince, “Purple Rain” (1984)
The eponymous movie, soundtrack, and song are the greatest opportunity fans will likely ever have to know the man behind the legend. Purple Rain was the only film that Prince starred in but did not direct, but it was still his most revealing artistic moment. Historically, it was the first, full-length autobiographical rock musical film to further launch its star’s career.
Public Enemy, “Fight The Power” (1989)
"Fight the Power" incorporates various samples and references to African American culture, social injustices, and black church services. The song's lyrics contain revolutionary rhetoric calling the listener to “fight the powers that be." It became a successful hit that called on the black community to become more politically active.
Nirvana, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (1991)
In the late '80s and early '90s, arena rock was full of instrumental theatrics and big-haired band members. And then came Nirvana with "Smells Like Teen Spirit" which is credited as the first alternative song to cross into mainstream success.
Whitney Houston, “I Will Always Love You” (1992)
Houston's cover of Dolly Parton’s country song remains the best-selling single by a woman in music history. Pop music got a taste of gospel with Houston’s booming voice and haunting tone. The instantly recognizable ballad solidified her as a legend, and The Bodyguard Soundtrack remains one of the most successful soundtrack albums of all time.
Pulp, “Common People” (1995)
The Britpop invasion of the mid-nineties consisted of rock bands like Oasis, Blur and Radiohead. Their popular songs were often either upbeat songs about being rock stars or haunting alt-rock ballads. But no other song is a better representation of this era and its radical listeners than Pulp’s “Common People”.
Backstreet Boys, “I Want It That Way” (1999)
At the end of the ‘90s, people grew weary of alternative/grunge music and wanted to feel happy again. Enter the era of bubblegum pop. Songs about love and dancing were all over the radio from musical acts like The Spice Girls, Ricky Martin, N*Sync and Britney Spears.
Christina Aguilera, “Beautiful” (2002)
Aguilera’s Stripped, the follow up album to her bubblegum pop debut, was a sharp contrast to the manufactured, innocent image that many pop stars had at the time. She combined her pop roots with soul, hip hop, metal, rock and roll, gospel and Latin into her album. After denouncing her manufactured innocence with her outrageous "Dirrty" video, Aguilera was ready to get serious.
Beyonce ft. Jay-Z, “Crazy in Love” (2003)
This is the song that launched Beyoncé into her own field after leaving Destiny’s Child. The song, which samples The Chi-Lites's 1970 song "Are You My Woman (Tell Me So)", "Crazy in Love" is a contemporary R&B and pop love song that incorporates elements of hip hop, soul, and 1970s-style funk music.
Gnarls Barkley, “Crazy” (2006)
"Crazy" is widely credited as the first universal hit song in the new millennium. It blended pop, rock, hip-hop, alternative and many other genres to become one of the most radio-friendly songs across all genres. This is especially impressive because, after the new millennium, the internet gave people the power to explore genres rarely played on the radio.
Amy Winehouse, “Rehab” (2006)
At a time when the internet and photographers had the power to extensively track the lives of celebrities and musicians, Winehouse’s tragic but celebratory song “Rehab” came out. Not only did it reintroduce Motown and soul sounds to mainstream radio for years to come, but it openly addressed the singer’s personal struggle with drugs and alcohol.
M.I.A., “Paper Planes” (2008)
A surprise hit for Sri-Lankan rapper M.I.A, "Paper Planes" received praise for covering subject matter often ignored on mainstream radio stations. The song and accompanying video satirize American perceptions of visa-seeking foreigners and immigrants from Third World nations.
Kanye West, “Monster” (2010)
This particular track from West’s celebrated Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy album is notable for corralling as many powerhouses as possible onto one song. West included artists from different genres like Jay-Z, Bon Iver, Rick Ross, and introduced the world to Nicki Minaj.
Rihanna featuring Calvin Harris, “We Found Love” (2011)
Rihanna’s career was already full of hits that helped bring Caribbean rhythms back onto the charts. Her foray into dance music, however, became a chart-topping representation of the early '10s. In this time period, music producers and DJs gained power and name recognition as E.D.M. became more popular.
Childish Gambino, “This is America” (2018)
Purposeful rap was back in a big way in 2018. Gambino's rap/gospel song became an instant protest anthem, covering gun violence and mass shootings, along with longstanding racism and discrimination against African Americans. Gambino brought several rappers into the song, including 21 Savage, Young Thug, Quavo and others.