“Imagine” by John Lennon, Imagine (1971)
“You may say I’m a dreamer… but I’m not the only one.” John Lennon’s magically powerful single from 1971 is a truly historic song that in many ways embodied some of the time’s idealism.
“A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke, Ain’t That Good News (1964)
R&B legend Sam Cooke may not have made his catchiest song with “A Change Is Gonna Come” but he did make a song that defined an era. And if, like me, you can’t get enough of this song, it has a significant number of covers – including some by Beyonce, Otis Redding, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin and more.
“This Land Is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie (1944)
Arguably the best protest song of all time, “This Land Is Your Land” was written by Communist folk legend Woody Guthrie. Guthrie was upset with how unrealistic Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” was, so he wrote this beautiful song to ask in reply, “Was this land made for you and me?”
“What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On (1971)
Is anyone smoother than Marvin Gaye? I don’t think it’s possible. But the soul legend didn’t only use his voice for love songs; in 1971 he released the powerful “What’s Going On,” which was inspired by an incident of police brutality.
“American Pie” by Don McLean, American Pie (1971)
Singer-songwriter Don McLean brilliantly singing mysterious lyrics is as American as “American Pie.” (Okay, sorry for that one.) Supposedly, when McLean was asked about the meaning behind his cryptic song, he replied “It means I don’t ever have to work again if I don’t want to.” True.
“Straight Outta Compton” by N.W.A, Straight Outta Compton (1988)
So much of hip-hop culture today came “Straight Outta Compton,” thanks to the legendary gangsta hip-hop group N.W.A. Ice Cube with the opening verse, followed by MC Ren and then concluded by Eazy-E – the song is dope throughout. The song, and the group as a whole, completely revolutionized not only hip-hop, but our entire American culture.
“Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963)
In “Blowin’ in the Wind” singer-songwriter Bob Dylan asks questions more beautifully than anyone has since Socrates. Enlightening, confusing, ambiguous and yet undeniably enjoyable, Dylan’s famous song deserves its spot on this list.
“Lose Yourself” by Eminem, 8 Mile (2002)
The single off the original soundtrack for his movie 8 Mile won an Oscar – the first rap song to ever win. Having written and produced “Lose Yourself,” Marshall Mathers flawlessly rides from word to word in one of the most inspiring tracks of all time.
“In The Ghetto” by Elvis Presley (1969)
A powerful story about the devastating cycle of poverty, “In The Ghetto” is arguably the King’s most touching song.
“Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang (1979)
“I said a hip hop, the hippie, the hippie to the hip-hip-hop and you don’t stop.” That simple and catchy rhyme opened 1979’s “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang – which is considered to be the very first popular rap song. The originals deserve respect.