70. Mr Bloe – Groovin’ With Mr Bloe (1970)
The perfect one-hit-wonder single: an obscure American harmonica instrumental B-side re-recorded by Elton John’s backing musicians. With a touch of ersatz northern soul about the arrangement and a glam-presaging stompiness to the drums, Groovin’ With Mr Bloe is the sound of a 1970 youth club disco and a total delight.
69. Spice Girls – Stop (1998)
The Spice Girls’ legacy rests more on their empowering impact on young girls than their music, but there is a handful of punchily undeniable pop songs at the core of their appeal, among them Stop’s charming Motown pastiche – a brief dip into the kind of retromania that surrounded Britpop.
68. Rod Stewart – The Killing of Georgie Parts 1 & 2 (1976)
The Killing of Georgie – a rare self-penned Rod Stewart hit – is a remarkable single, particularly for 1976: a tender paean to a gay friend that turns into an unflinching depiction of his homophobic murder, then transforms itself into a lengthy, heartbroken coda (its melody pinched – as John Lennon noted – from the Beatles’ Don’t Let Me Down).
67. Yazoo – Only You (1982)
Yazoo were not a band built to last – they split before their second album had even been released – but they left a lasting impression: their blend of gutsy, soulful vocals and electronics was massively influential, not least on house music. Their debut single’s icy synth only accentuates the power of Alison Moyet’s emotive vocal: a genuine tearjerker.
66. CeCe Peniston – Finally (1992)
House music as pure pop-soul, Finally was a hymn to an idealised boyfriend sung by a former Miss Black Arizona. Originally released in 1991, it was a remix by New York DJ David Morales that toughened up the beats for the dancefloor, only to be kept off No 1 by Shakespears Sister’s Stay.
65. Rachel Stevens – Some Girls (2004)
It is tempting to give producer Richard X all the credit for Some Girls’ ferocious electronic update of 70s glam, but the choice of vocalist was perfect: getting the former S Club 7 star and lads’ mag favourite Rachel Stevens to sing a song about how seedy and demeaning life as a manufactured female pop star can be is genuinely inspired.
64. Donovan - Sunshine Superman (1966)
Recorded in December 1965, Sunshine Superman could have been the first psychedelic pop single – it was taped five weeks before the Byrds recorded Eight Miles High – but it wasn’t released for another seven months, by which time everyone else had caught up. It’s still a fabulous song: heavy-lidded, but dripping with the hip arrogance of the acid initiate.
63. Oasis – Wonderwall (1995)
Wonderwall has suffered a little from 27 years of omnipresence – you’re never that far away from hearing a busker belting it out – but it’s worth remembering that it became omnipresent for a reason, largely due to the power with which Liam Gallagher belts it out, somehow managing to invest its nonsensical lyrics with emotional heft.
62. Space – Magic Fly (1977)
From a 21st-century perspective, Space look like Daft Punk’s dads: anonymous, spacesuit-clad, helmet-wearing exponents of electronic French disco. They were a better band than their novelty act status suggests, but as novelty hits go, Magic Fly is pretty spectacular, boasting a slightly unnerving, ghostly quality.
61. Beyoncé ft Sean Paul – Baby Boy (2003)
Whatever single followed up the 10m-selling Crazy in Love was always going to exist in its shadow, but Baby Boy, a US platinum-seller in its own right, deserves some shine: its blend of Bollywood strings, tabla drums and dancehall rhythms is a fine example of R&B blue-sky thinking.
60. Candi Staton – Young Hearts Run Free (1976)
Ah, the emotional tension at the heart of the best disco. Young Hearts Run Free sounds blissful – as if specifically designed to waft out of radios during the sweltering summer of 1976 – but the lyrics are a rueful, downcast cautionary tale of “lost and lonely” marital discord and years “filled with tears”.
59. Adam and the Ants – Kings of the Wild Frontier (1981)
The single that launched Adam and the Ants v2.0 remains one of history’s flat-out weirdest bids for screamy teen stardom: the lyrics beckon new fans in – “a wild nobility, we are the family” – set to a cacophony of thunderous drums, shouting, whooping, feedback and Duane Eddy-style guitar. It is unbelievably exciting.
58. Kylie Minogue – Confide in Me (1994)
Kylie’s attempts to reinvent herself as a more “mature” artist were ill fated – she eventually went back to what she excelled at, which was pure pop – but they produced one indelible single. Confide in Me was atmospheric, sultry, bolstered by strings playing the melody of Jane’s 1983 indie hit It’s a Fine Day.
57. Elvis Costello – Oliver’s Army (1979)
Its use of a racial slur may have doomed it in terms of latterday radio play, but Costello’s biggest hit was a fabulous piece of sleight of hand: its buoyant poppiness – complete with plangent piano hook inspired by Abba’s Dancing Queen – hides a furious lyric about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, imperialism and mercenaries.
56. Eurythmics – Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) (1983)
A song without a chorus, its lyrics concerning Eurythmics’ commercial failure prior to the release of breakthrough hit Love Is a Stranger, Sweet Dreams’s stentorian, instantly recognisable synth riff transformed misery into iconic 80s pop, covered by both Marilyn Manson and Lorde, sampled repeatedly by rappers, dance producers and Britney Spears alike.
55. Phil Collins – In the Air Tonight (1981)
Phil Collins would become the undisputed king of 80s boomer divorce energy, releasing ballads that felt like intemperate messages left on a ex’s phone. But In the Air Tonight is magnificent, a creepy ooze of electronic malevolence that suddenly explodes three and a half minutes in with one of the all-great drum fills.
54. Rihanna – SOS (2006)
In theory, Soft Cell’s Tainted Love should be too familiar to work as a sample, but making gold out of stuff other producers would have dismissed as too obvious was producer JR Rotem’s speciality. And SOS just slaps, Rihanna’s busy vocal weaving expertly around an instantly familiar riff.
53. INXS – Need You Tonight (1987)
Need You Tonight was the moment where INXS appeared to have it all, an unnecessarily handsome and charismatic frontman performing a song that perfectly updates the swagger of prime-time Rolling Stones for a different, more electronic era. Of course, it all eventually went disastrously wrong, but Need You Tonight’s sweaty stop-start lubriciousness still hits.
52. Blondie – Dreaming (1979)
Overshadowed by Blondie’s chart toppers, Dreaming is every bit their equal: a perfect pop song, delivered with diffident elan by Debbie Harry, powered by raging guitars and – most importantly – the sound of Clem Burke playing as though under the impression the whole song is supposed to be a drum solo.
51. Salt-N-Pepa – Push It (1988)
Push It was originally a B-side that first became a minor hit, then became a huge hit after it was performed at Nelson Mandela’s 7oth-birthday concert. You could argue there were edgier things happening in hip-hop in 1988 and you’d have a point: whether any of them had Push It’s jubilant party-starting power is a more moot point.
50. Corona – The Rhythm of the Night (1994)
Nineties Euro pop-house was seldom a finely wrought artistic enterprise, but just occasionally, it hit on something incredible. The work of shadowy Italian producers and British songwriters for hire, promoted by a “singer” who didn’t appear on the song itself, The Rhythm of the Night perfectly captures the anticipatory excitement of night out about to happen.
49. Britney Spears – Piece of Me (2007)
The grimmest irony of Britney Spears’ tawdry saga is that she made her greatest music while apparently at her lowest ebb: the amazing Piece of Me is both a rejection of her clean-cut image – “I’m Miss American Dream since I was 17” – and a snarling, distorted electronic screw-you to the press and her detractors.
48. Slade – Gudbuy T’Jane (1972)
Their string of No 1s are more ubiquitous, but Gudbuy T’Jane may be Slade’s greatest single, the perfect expression of their ruthlessly fat-free approach to songwriting: every second of it is occupied by a hook. Its lyric, meanwhile, delivers Slade’s solitary flirtation with glam’s gender confusion: is its heroine a masculine woman or a “queen”?
47. Petula Clark – Downtown (1964)
A star since the second world war, Petula Clark should have been on the wrong side of the divide in the 60s charts caused by pop’s lightning-speed progress. But if Downtown is middle of the road, then it’s MOR of the most undeniable kind, an explosion of beautifully orchestrated joy that punches through the boundaries between adult easy listening and younger thrills.
46. Squeeze – Up the Junction (1979)
A kitchen sink drama – youthful romance and parenthood slowly undermined by penury and alcoholism – brilliantly compressed into three chorus-free minutes. You could suggest it’s an anomaly of the post-punk pop charts that something so bleak was such a big hit, but Up the Junction is compelling and its descending melody is yearningly gorgeous.
45. Dave ft Stormzy – Clash (2021)
Prior to Clash’s release, Dave and Stormzy addressed the nation on ITV, before England’s Euros semi-final. If you wanted more proof of the central place UK rap has taken in British culture, consider how coolly understated the drill-infused single the pair then put out was: filled with sharp, smart lines, it became a huge hit.
44. Sweet Female Attitude – Flowers (2000)
Sweet Female Attitude never had another hit, but sometimes one hit is all you need, at least if it’s as charming as the summer’s day soundtrack of Flowers. Recently, its toothsome pop-soul approach to UK garage has proved hugely influential: you can hear its strains everywhere from PinkPantheress to ArrDee.
43. Roxy Music – Love Is the Drug (1975)
The definitive mid-70s Roxy Music strut: confident, insouciant, a song that sounds like it just walked into the party like it was walking on to a yacht, to borrow a phrase. The brass and the hint of disco suggests a humid atmosphere, but Bryan Ferry remains ice-cool, even when claiming to be wracked with lust.
42. Lil’ Louis – French Kiss (1989)
The UK charts took quickly to house music: Steve “Silk” Hurley’s Jack Your Body made No 1 long before acid house’s Second Summer of Love, paving the way for umpteen other hits. French Kiss is pure, raw, sexy, Chicago house: the cutting edge on release, it still declines to date.
41. Ariana Grande – No Tears Left to Cry (2018)
You couldn’t help but project recent events – not least the bombing at her Manchester Arena show that left 22 dead – on to Ariana Grande’s No Tears Left to Cry. It starts like a ballad, then turns into something softly but powerfully optimistic, beautifully sung and powered by a beat that nods towards UK garage.
40. Whitney Houston – My Love Is Your Love (1999)
It almost definitely couldn’t have been written had Bob Marley not already written No Woman, No Cry, but My Love Is Your Love remains a fantastic song, projecting a warmth and intimacy so infectious that Houston dialled down the vocal fireworks to sing it.
39. Kanye West ft Jamie Foxx – Gold Digger (2005)
Given recent events it is worth reminding yourself of why anyone cared about Kanye West in the first place. One of his most impermeable hits, Gold Digger’s brilliant flipping of a sample from Ray Charles’s I Got a Woman in service to a song about a disastrous romantic entanglement should do the trick.
38. Sparks – This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us (1974)
Sparks were the band that launched a thousand cries of “Mum! Dad! Hitler’s on Top of the Pops!”, but even if you hadn’t clocked Ron Mael’s striking appearance, This Town … was like a three-minute warning that Sparks were a band different from any other: octave-leaping vocals, gunshots, incomprehensible lyrics and an unrelenting sense of drama.
37. Stevie Wonder – Sir Duke (1977)
Stevie Wonder’s tribute to his jazz-playing forebears – Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong and “the king of all”, Duke Ellington. “You can feel it all over”, he keeps singing: the perfect description of the untrammelled joy-bringing quality possessed by the freewheeling Sir Duke itself, with its effervescent brass riff.
36. Madonna – Ray of Light (1998)
You could have picked Holiday, Borderline, Crazy for You, Justify My Love, or, if you really must, Hanky Panky – No 2 hits all – but let’s plump for Ray of Light, the fabulous, if deeply improbable sound of Madonna turning a track by the obscure proggy folk duo Curtiss Maldoon into euphoric pop-trance.
35. The Troggs – Wild Thing (1966)
The Troggs were appropriately named: if their approach to music had been any more primitive, it would have involved banging animal bones together in a cave. Wild Thing is 60s pop at its most basic, feral and raw: that vocalist Reg Presley sounded like a sexually predatory farmhand only added to its startling effect.
34. M – Pop Muzik (1979)
Made by Malcolm McLaren’s friend and fellow art school provocateur Robin Scott, who presented M as a corporation, not a band, perhaps Pop Muzik was intended as cynical commentary on its titular subject’s trashy meaninglessness. If it was, it was a remarkable double bluff: it is dementedly catchy, its synth-disco backing irresistible.
33. Underworld – Born Slippy .NUXX (1996)
We have heard a lot this year about the ability of soundtracks to make hits out of unlikely songs, but it’s really nothing new. Would Underworld’s brilliant, but brutal-sounding Born Slippy – a punishing kick drum; distorted, ranting vocals; three synth chords – have got to No 2 were it not for its use in Trainspotting?
32. Girls Aloud – Love Machine (2004)
The best British pop band of the last 30 years was effectively born out of neglect. Manager Louis Walsh was uninterested enough to let production team Xenomania do what they wanted, resulting in a series of exploratory, rule-breaking singles: the rockabilly-infused Love Machine is just great.
31. Mark Ronson ft Amy Winehouse – Valerie (2007)
The genius of Mark Ronson’s cover of a then-recent hit by the Zutons lies partly in the vintage soul arrangement, but mostly with vocalist Amy Winehouse’s decision not to change the gender of the narrator: a song from the standard perspective of a lovelorn boy suddenly becomes something else and crackles with energy.
30. Sweet – Teenage Rampage (1974)
Any of Sweet’s No 2 singles could be in this list: Hell Raiser, Fox on the Run, The Ballroom Blitz, all songs as viscerally thrilling as anything to which the charts have ever played host. But let’s go with Teenage Rampage, an awesome, hysterical explosion of chanting, stamping, crunching guitars and adolescent rebellion: low glam in a nutshell.
29. Minnie Riperton – Lovin’ You (1975)
There is almost nothing to Lovin’ You: electric piano (played by Stevie Wonder), acoustic guitar, some birds tweeting and Riperton’s admittedly extraordinary voice, singing a melody she had devised to lull her baby daughter to sleep. It is a song that grabs the listener with its tenderness, its sweet power undiminished by nearly 50 years of familiarity.
28. Pet Shop Boys and Dusty Springfield – What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1987)
Dusty Springfield hadn’t troubled the Top 10 for 19 years before the Pet Shop Boys sought her out, against their record company’s wishes. The resulting duet – the saga of a jaded couple in a disintegrating relationship – plays on Springfield and Neil Tennant’s vocal idiosyncrasies to authentically heart-rending effect.
27. Billie Eilish – Bad Guy (2019)
Billie Eilish transformed from tweenage phenomenon to lauded pop auteur thanks to songs like Bad Guy. In an increasingly cookie-cutter climate, here was pop that was dark, clever, witty – “I’m the might-seduce-your-dad type” – and snottily dismissive (“duh!”), and that, moreover, didn’t sound like anyone else.
26. Destiny’s Child – Lose My Breath (2004)
Their last great single – from their so-so final album Destiny Fulfilled – Lose My Breath is imperial-phase Destiny’s Child in a nutshell: audacious (a clattering rhythm that’s equal parts batucada and military tattoo; wildly dramatic synth stabs; unexpected mood-shifting chord changes) relentless, overwhelming, very classy and extraordinarily impressive.
25. Prince – 1999/Little Red Corvette (1985)
No single, even a double A-side, was ever going to capture the breadth of Prince’s genius, but the belated post-Purple Rain re-release of two tracks from 1982 – apocalyptic-but-dancefloor-erupting synth-funk on one side; perfectly done pop-rock on the other – makes clear that this was an artist entirely different from his peers.
24. Taylor Swift – Love Story (2008)
The first sign that Taylor Swift was something genuinely special, the self-penned Love Story takes a soaring, Springsteen-esque “let’s quit this dead-end town” narrative and views it from the perspective of a high-school girl. And the clumsiness of its references to Shakespeare make it sound believeably teenage.
23. Manic Street Preachers – A Design for Life (1996)
The Britpop era is often decried as apolitical, but it did produce two of the most successful and enduring political pop songs of recent decades. A Design for Life is one of them: as straightforwardly anthemic as anything Oasis produced, but with a righteously furious examination of the British class system at its core.
22. Gloria Gaynor – Never Can Say Goodbye (1975)
An old Jackson 5 ballad expertly retooled into relentless, delirious early disco: the album version is part of a side-long mix, segued by pioneering producer Tom Moulton to mimic a DJ beat-mixing records in a club – a first – but even stripped of its context and edited down to single length, it is magnificent.
21. The Rolling Stones – 19th Nervous Breakdown (1966)
Surly, sneering, clangorous, supremely pissed off, apparently designed to annoy anyone in earshot over the age of 25, with a casual reference to LSD tucked away in its third verse, and a final bit of bass-playing that sounds as if you are being dive-bombed, 19th Nervous Breakdown is the mid-60s Stones at their dark, dismissive, deliberately parent-scaring best.
20. OutKast – Ms Jackson (2000)
Ms Jackson’s chorus is so familiar – “wooo!” – you can miss what a complex meditation on a failed relationship it is: addressed to an ex-partner’s mother, it is variously charming and exasperated, sad, angry, optimistic and fatalistic (“You can plan a pretty picnic but you can’t predict the weather, Ms Jackson”). And you can sing along to it.
19. Pulp – Common People (1995)
The second big hit of the Britpop era to concern itself with the class struggle; more specifically in this case, class tourism. It allies its fury to a massive singalong chorus and a succession of air-punch inducing surges. Pulp made for profoundly unlikely rock anthem providers, but a rock anthem is precisely what Common People has become.
18. Deee-Lite – Groove Is in the Heart (1990)
If they’d had another song remotely as good as Groove Is in the Heart’s stew of samples, effortless pop melodies and interjections from Bootsy Collins and Q-Tip, Deee-Lite would have been huge. They didn’t, but this joyous pop-disco classic will be played at parties for eternity.
17. The Beach Boys – God Only Knows (1966)
God Only Knows has belatedly become the most ubiquitous Beach Boys song – you hear it a lot more often than I Get Around or Good Vibrations – but never mind: the crystalline beauty of Carl Wilson’s vocal, the plaintive beauty of its tune, the idiosyncratic sumptuousness of its arrangement can still take your breath away.
16. David Bowie – The Jean Genie (1972)
The single that announced the arrival of Aladdin Sane: a sleazier, noisier, more decadent and chaotic take on glam than Ziggy Stardust. A paean to Iggy Pop that sounded less like the Stooges than the Velvet Underground playing the blues, this is as much guitarist Mick Ronson’s show as it is Bowie’s.
15. Elton John – Rocket Man (1972)
Released the year of the final manned moonshots, perhaps Rocket Man’s lyric reflects waning public interest in the space race: unlike Bowie’s celebrity Major Tom, its astronaut is a weary salaryman. But really, it’s all about Elton John’s extraordinarily rich melody, its effortless shifts from lonely introversion to mammoth, stadium-sized chorus.
14. The Who – My Generation (1965)
Decades as an acknowledged rock classic have slightly blunted My Generation’s power, but 57 years ago, the charts had never played host to anything so lyrically confrontational and sonically aggressive: it charges out of the speakers in a bug-eyed rage, its concluding 58 seconds are essentially the words “fuck off” in musical form.
13. Stardust – Music Sounds Better With You (1998)
Thomas Bangalter and collaborator Alan Braxe hone Daft Punk’s French house blueprint down to its barest essentials: a four-to-the-floor beat, a bassline, an old disco sample (from Chaka Khan’s Fate), two lines of vocals from singer Benjamin Diamond. As one reviewer put it: “It doesn’t do much … it doesn’t need to – it exists in a state of perfection.”
12. T Rex – Ride a White Swan (1970)
Where the 1970s began, albeit 10 months late: T Rex had yet to entirely shed the hippy trappings of their previous incarnation, Tyrannosaurus Rex, but Ride a White Swan sounded new, especially in a chart packed with novelty records, bubblegum and MOR ballads: electric, sexy, sparse, concise and bathed in 50s echo.
11. The Jackson 5 – I Want You Back (1970)
Everyone knows how grim the background story of the Jackson 5 – and their appalling abusive father – was, which makes the infectiously carefree mood of I Want You Back all the more remarkable. It’s the kind of single you struggle to imagine anyone not liking; it sounds like happiness in musical form.
10. Laurie Anderson – O Superman (1981)
The least commercial No 2 of them all: eight and half minutes of single-note minimalism with vocoder-heavy vocals singing lyrics inspired by a 19th-century aria by Massenet, O Superman is hypnotic, eerie and strangely beautiful. It’s not impossible to imagine something equally weird being a hit now, given TikTok’s ability to make unlikely songs trend.
9. Jay-Z and Alicia Keys – Empire State of Mind (2009)
You could call Empire State of Mind hip-hop’s answer to New York, New York were it not for the fact that – start spreading the news – it’s a vastly better song, as thrilling and wondrous as your first cab ride from JFK to Manhattan.
8. George Michael – Outside (1998)
The finest screw-you reaction to being arrested for cottaging imaginable: release a gleeful disco single filled with police sirens, cascading strings and Chic-y guitar that unrepentantly promotes the very thing you’ve been nicked for and throws in a reference to your love of weed in for good measure. As both a statement and a single, it’s wonderful.
7. Kelis – Milkshake (2003)
Like O Superman or Born Slippy, Milkshake is a track so experimental that its hit status can beggar belief: R&B without a bassline, its backing made of fizzing, blaring noise and an Egyptian darbuka drum, its vocal alternately indifferent and sexy, it’s pop music designed to grab your attention with its sheer originality.
6. Sex Pistols – God Save the Queen (1977)
A song deemed so offensive that retailers displayed a blank space in the chart rather than horrify shoppers by showing its title. It all seems ridiculous now, but if God Save the Queen’s shock value has worn off, its sonic power and the oppressive nihilism of its “no future” refrain remains undimmed.
5. Diana Ross – Upside Down (1980)
The Chic Organisation at the peak of its astonishing powers, making disco that sounded like the musical equivalent of hugely expensive luxury goods. Upside Down is sophisticated, impeccable, impossibly funky pop music, so thick with hooks it feels like three different choruses welded together. And, of course, Diana Ross’s vocal is fantastic.
4. Elvis Presley – Heartbreak Hotel (1956)
In purely qualitative terms, there is a case for Elvis’s other No 2, Suspicious Minds, but Heartbreak Hotel was a seismic event. British listeners had already heard rock’n’roll but, by all accounts, they had never heard anything like this: its brooding, echo-smothered power must have sounded as if it had come from another planet.
3. The Beatles – Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever (1967)
The best Beatles single of them all: two acid-heightened bursts of childhood nostalgia – one side strange and ambiguous, the other warm and joyous – teeming with invention, daring and wit, stuffed with new musical and lyrical ideas. If you had to explain why the Beatles were special, playing this double A-side would be the perfect start.
2. Janet Kay – Silly Games (1979)
Lovers rock’s moment of chart glory, recently reanimated by Steve McQueen’s drama series Small Axe. Everything about Silly Games is perfect: its gently rolling rhythm, its beautiful melody, Dennis Bovell’s subtle production, Kay’s vocal that goes from understated to indelible, via the note Bovell knew “every girl in the dance would try and sing”.
1. The Kinks – Waterloo Sunset (1967)
The august rock critic Robert Christgau once suggested Waterloo Sunset is “the most beautiful song in the English language”: Pete Townshend compared it to a Turner painting. Even amid Ray Davies’ catalogue of songs, it stands out as a moment where lightning truly struck, causing him to create something almost supernaturally powerful. Deceptively simple by the psychedelic standards of 1967, it isn’t fully explicable why the lambent melancholy of its melody and lyrics – which find Davies, the eternal outsider at the swinging 60s party, observing a couple meeting by the tube – is so endlessly affecting, but it is.