My Completely Uninformed Take on the 10 Most Consequential Songs of the Past 30 Years
Picking up on last Friday’s blog, let’s now turn from movies to music. So today’s question is: what are the most consequential songs of the past 30 or so years? Or, to repeat from the movie post, what songs would you put in a time capsule for future listeners to understand our era?
As with movies, here I’m not talking about the best or most popular songs. Although in compiling my list, I found myself waffling between memorable, iconic, and influential, and even further between defining influence in terms of pop culture versus in terms of social change. You may be able to infer from my list what weight I assign to each such characteristic. (You will also pick up a very strong bias towards hip hop, which is an homage to my younger days.)
I also assigned some significance to the music video and not just the song in isolation, since part of a song having influence is that people are consuming the visual version of it. But, ultimately, the song had to stand alone and have influence apart from the video.
As with movies, I am speaking from a place of extreme ignorance. If it is even possible, my consumption of music is even less than movies, especially when graded on a curve. But this never stopped me from having an opinion, especially if it yields discussion and suggestions that leave me richer. So please weigh in on what would be on your list.
Before I get to my list, though, I must say it was a little surprising to me how hard it was to make it. If I were to go back another 30 years, I would’ve easily called to mind many 60’s and 70’s protest songs as well as the good stuff from the angsty early 80’s. But the 90’s and the 2000’s, not so much. Any thoughts as to why that is? Or did I just miss a bunch of obvious ones?
At any rate, enjoy my list and weigh in with yours!
1. This is America, Childish Gambino (2018). A scathing and visually multi-layered commentary on our country.
2. Bodak Yellow, Cardi B (2017). Heralding the arrival of a megastar as well as of a confident women’s empowerment movement.
3. Alright, Kendrick Lamar (2015). An important anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement.
4. Hey Ya, Outkast (2003). Catchy and popular as hell, but also significant for moving hip hop out of the East Coast / West Coast era.
5. Mo Money Mo Problems, Notorious B.I.G. (1997). The most iconic of the many songs of this era that spoke to a bold and materialistic aesthetic in hip hop culture.
6. All Together Now, The Farm (1991). With lyrics like “A spirit stronger than war,” this song has been taken up by countless groups.
7. Smells Like Teen Spirit, Nirvana (1991). This song epitomized the mood of the 90’s.
8. Nothing Compares 2 U, Sinead O’Connor (1990). Hauntingly beautiful in sound and powerfully minimalist in imagery.
9. Fight the Power, Public Enemy (1989). Broadcasting the summering urban rage that would boil over after the Rodney King trial.
10. F**k the Police, NWA (1988). Crazy how ahead of its time this song was.
Honorable Mention: Born This Way (Lady Gaga (2011); Paper Planes, M.I.A. (2008); 99 Problems, Jay-Z (2004); Beautiful, Christina Aguilera (2002); Lose Yourself, Eminem (2002); Baby One More Time, Britney Spears (1999); Zombie, The Cranberries (1994); Wake Up, Rage Against the Machine (1992); Losing My Religion, REM (1991); Rhythm Nation, Janet Jackson (1989).