1. UB40, “Red Red Wine”
UB40’s fourth studio album, Labour Of Love, found the UK reggae act paying tribute to its influences by reviving songs from The Melodians, Jimmy Cliff, and others. Among its tracks: a Neil Diamond song called “Red Red Wine” that had been a reggae hit for Tony Tribe in 1969. UB40’s version went over big in the UK and elsewhere in 1984, but just cracked the Top 40 in the U.S. That changed in 1988 when, after getting revived in an Atlanta club, the song caught fire again, becoming an inescapable No. 1 hit (and the only UB40 song most Americans can name).
2. The Psychedelic Furs, “Pretty In Pink”
British band The Psychedelic Furs re-recorded its 1981 single “Pretty In Pink” for the soundtrack to the John Hughes movie that swiped its name. Though much has been made about the brighter sound (including sax) of the later version, they’re very much in the same dark spirit. And the 1986 “Pretty In Pink” found many more ears for a great song, so that’s a plus.
3. Gary Jules, “Mad World”
Gary Jules’ cover of Tears For Fears’ “Mad World” cleaned off the production gunk—Gary Numan buzz and messy horns—and stripped it down into a tasteful solo ballad that worked perfectly for the closing montage of Donnie Darko. It took a couple of years for Richard Kelly’s movie to go from Sundance flop to cult hit, but its success forced Jules to release the song as a single a couple of years later. Since then, it’s become arguably better known than Tears For Fears’ version, used in commercials for Gears Of War, as the closing number of a Nathan Lane Broadway musical, and by Adam Lambert on American Idol.
4. Nick Drake, “Pink Moon”
After his 1974 death, it seemed like British singer-songwriter Nick Drake was destined to be lost to history, a footnote at best. But other musicians found inspiration in Drake’s catalog—just three albums deep—and cited his influence. That wasn’t enough to bring one of his greatest songs, the spare, gorgeous “Pink Moon,” to the general public. It took a Volkswagen commercial in 2000 to make the song a hit, or at least something resembling one.
5. The Beatles, “Twist And Shout”
It’d be easy to argue that most of The Beatles’ catalog never left the public consciousness for long, but the Fab Four’s version of “Twist And Shout” got a shot in the arm—and another chart placement—in 1986 due to a high-school kid named Ferris Bueller. After Matthew Broderick lip-synched the song in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the song took off again. And now we can’t think of it without seeing Broderick ham it up on a parade float while Cameron and Sloane look on. Oh well.
6. Suzanne Vega, “Tom’s Diner”
This one’s a bit of a cheat, because the version of “Tom’s Diner” that Suzanne Vega originally released (first as part of a compilation in 1984, then on Solitude Standing in 1987) was substantially different than the version that the world knows, from 1990. Vega’s original was a cappella, while the initially unauthorized DNA remix added beats and keys, and placed Vega’s singsong chorus (“do-do-do-do”) throughout the song instead of just at the end. Though they hadn’t been given permission to use the track, remix duo DNA made out just fine: Instead of suing them, Vega’s label decided to release their version, giving her probably her biggest hit ever—nine years after it was written.
7. Queen, “Bohemian Rhapsody”
In a way, Queen’s six-minute magnum opus lived three lives: It was a surprise commercial success as a single off 1975’s A Night At The Opera, lasting nine weeks at the top of the UK singles chart; it had a resurgence in 1991 after frontman Freddie Mercury died of an AIDS-related illness; and it was introduced to a new generation of Americans after being prominently placed in Wayne’s World. Mike Myers fought to use the song in the movie, but reportedly became increasingly difficult and grouchy about having to endure take after take of incessant head-banging along to it, while Dana Carvey was so unfamiliar with it that he had to fake his way through lip-synching along. The British band benefited from their suffering, though, with the song once again ascending the U.S. and UK charts. Had Mercury still been alive, he might have offered an appreciative, “Party on, Wayne!” or at least endured an uncomfortable MTV Movie Awards sketch in which Wayne and Garth chanted about their unworthiness.
8. The Proclaimers, “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)”
The Proclaimers’ only real hit, “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” has popped into the public consciousness (and the charts) several times. (You know it: “When I wake up / Well, I know I’m gonna be / I’m gonna be the man who wakes up next to you.”) The song made a fairly sizeable splash upon its initial release in the late ‘80s, though more in the band’s native Scotland than the rest of the world. The minor Johnny Depp vehicle Benny & Joon changed things in the U.S., though—the song’s inclusion over the movie’s opening credits launched the song onto American charts in 1993. Since then, it’s been unstoppable worldwide—even a parody version for Comic Relief resparked interest in the original, which charted again in Britain in 2007.
9. Simon & Garfunkel, “The Sounds Of Silence”
Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel had already broken up twice before they had their first hit. First making a go of it in the ’50s as Tom And Jerry, they tried their hand at the folk revival under their own names in the 1960s. The duo’s 1964 debut Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. didn’t make much of a first impression, so Simon split for London to work on his own. He got called back, however, thanks to “The Sounds Of Silence,” which first became a regional hit, then, after getting a remix that added electric guitars, topped the charts as 1965 rolled into 1966. Simon rejoined Garfunkel and more hits followed, as did nearly as many break-ups and reunions. (And yes, you may know the song as “The Sound Of Silence.” It’s been released under both names.)
10. Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, “The Tears Of A Clown”
Smokey Robinson already had one eye pointed at the exit door when “Tears Of A Clown,” originally released in 1967, became a fluke hit. Revived in 1970, first in the UK, then around the world, the smash kept him with The Miracles (and away from a solo career) for two more years. Listening to it, it’s almost as hard to imagine why it didn’t catch on the first time as to figure out why it made such an impression in 1970. At the turn of the decade, it already sounded like a throwback to the classic Motown sound at a time when the label had started to move on to the bubblegum soul of The Jackson 5, the funk rock of Rare Earth, and the psychedelic soul of the Norman Whitfield-produced Temptations. It became one of the biggest hits for The Miracles and Motown, but it also served as a last stand for the old-school way of making music.
11. The Zombies, “Time Of The Season”
The Zombies didn’t have a lot of life left in them when they recorded Odessey And Oracle in 1967, and even less after the album—now rightly regarded as a classic—flopped upon its 1968 release. Odessey, misspelling and all, barely even made it to stores in America, where The Zombies had always been more popular than in their native UK. But a funny thing happened once radio got its hands on “Time Of The Season” in 1969: It became a huge hit. Too bad there were no Zombies left to tour behind it, as all the members had moved on to other projects. Filling the gap: a lot of bands who toured as The Zombies, to easily fooled crowds.
12. Ben E. King, “Stand By Me”
It’s one of the most recognized songs of the 20th century—so familiar that its C-Am-F-G chord changes are colloquially known among musicians as the “Stand By Me” progression—but Ben E. King’s testament to togetherness almost didn’t exist. The Drifters passed on recording it, and King only put it on tape because he had studio time left over after cutting “Spanish Harlem.” But “Stand By Me” is a song that refuses to die—not only via covers like John Lennon’s hit 1975 version, or Sean Kingston’s appropriation in “Beautiful Girls”—but also in its original form, thanks to its timeless sentiments and its indelible associations with the 1950s. Unquestionably, its biggest renaissance was due to the 1986 film of the same name, which generated a renewed interest in the song that propelled it back to No. 9 on the charts, and had everyone reliving those cherished childhood memories of that one summer they spent picking leeches out of their underwear and racing Kiefer Sutherland to find a dead body.
13. Mickey & Sylvia, “Love Is Strange”
Though only a one-hit wonder, Mickey & Sylvia influenced countless people with their snaky, sensuous hit “Love Is Strange,” creating a brightly melodic guitar riff and distinctive vocal melody that was almost immediately echoed in songs by The Beatles and Buddy Holly. The song even had such an impact that it was name-checked by artists as diverse as Elvis Presley, Pet Shop Boys, and The New York Dolls. But it’s arguable that, to a certain generation, the performers most readily associated with the song are Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey, who turned its coy call-and-response into a horny pantomime midway through Dirty Dancing. While their flirtatious lip-synching didn’t result in chart resurgence for Mickey & Sylvia, it did relaunch the song into the national consciousness—to the point where it’s impossible to hear that guitar lick without imagining Swayze on his knees, determinedly humping those pesky class barriers out of the air.
14. Elvis Presley, “A Little Less Conversation”
A more-or-less throwaway track recorded for a more-or-less throwaway film, “A Little Less Conversation” was the lead single for Elvis’ unloved 1968 musical Live A Little, Love A Little, both the King’s first dalliance in “mature” films (meaning it featured drugs, sex, and profanity) and the beginning of the end for his movie-star days. Though he re-recorded it for his famous Comeback Special later that year, giving it a much-needed public reappraisal, the song was still only a middling success. It wasn’t until 2002, when Elvis’ original vocals were laid over slamming techno beats by Junkie XL for the Nike’s World Cup ad campaign, that it finally became a No. 1 hit. The remix’s success propelled a renewed interest in Presley that gave the original song—along with all the other tracks on that year’s ELV1S: 30 #1 Hits—a little more time on the throne.
15. Marvin Gaye, “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”
Perhaps the song most indelibly associated with Motown, “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” led various lives before Marvin Gaye’s definitive recording, thanks to early versions by The Miracles and Gladys Knight And The Pips. But while the song had an active childhood, and even survived long after the Motown sound became passé—when it was rehashed both reverently and ironically by bands like Creedence Clearwater Revival and Tuxedomoon—it found true rebirth just as Boomer nostalgia was establishing its first stranglehold on society, thanks to the film that arguably dug us into that whole miasma: 1983’s yuppies-in-crisis drama The Big Chill. Gaye’s plaintive cries about his woman’s infidelity—played over the opening credits, as the film’s ex-hippies receive the news that their ex-hippie friend committed suicide, and now the ’60s are really over, and what happened to our ideals, man, waah waah—soon became the de facto sound of an entire navel-gazing generation, and shortly thereafter, it began popping up in countless commercials throughout the decade (none more memorable than The California Raisins ads) and on into perpetuity.
16. The Knack, “My Sharona”
With all its references to Schoolhouse Rock, One Day At A Time, and Squeeze, Ben Stiller’s generation-defining (and subsequently self-loathing) comedy Reality Bites is one long ode to nostalgia, a portrait of people so caught up in the comfort of childish things that they can’t function as adults. But rather than serving as a dire warning about the paralyzing effects of getting too hung up on the past, it sparked a new wave of ’70s fetishism, encapsulated in the renewed interest generated around The Knack’s 1979 hit “My Sharona.” Its re-release as a single from the film’s soundtrack landed the song back on the Billboard charts (at No. 91) and saw it entering heavy rotation in MTV, where vintage footage of the band performing was cut together with scenes of Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke, and Janeane Garofalo hanging out and just generally being all, like, whatever.
17. Leonard Cohen, “Hallelujah”
It’s hard to believe, what with its status as one of the most-covered songs in modern music, but Leonard Cohen’s seminal 1984 song “Hallelujah” didn’t see any chart success until 24 years after it was recorded. It shook up the UK charts in December 2008, when a cover version of the song from The X Factor winner Alexandra Burke reached No. 1. Surprisingly, though, that track’s success gave a boost not only to Jeff Buckley’s popular 1994 version, which turned up at No. 2—the first time in 51 years that the same song held the top two spots on the UK charts—but also Cohen’s original, which popped up at No. 36. This confluence gave Cohen the first singles-chart success of his storied career, but the proliferation of his signature song throughout the pop-culture landscape in recent years—from American Idol to Shrek to Watchmen—proves that, regardless of copies sold, “Hallelujah” is a part of our collective musical vocabulary.
18. The Righteous Brothers, “Unchained Melody”
If nothing else, the 1990 weeper Ghost will be remembered for a love scene where Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore get it on by her pottery wheel. Soundtracking the passionate messiness was “Unchained Melody,” a 1965 hit by The Righteous Brothers, produced by Phil Spector. Unsurprisingly, its appearance in the second-highest-grossing film of the year—Home Alone took the top spot—gave new life to the song, earning it tons of radio play and a position on the Billboard charts. The Righteous Brothers released a quickie re-recorded version once it caught on, but the 1965 original received the most attention and airplay.
19. Journey, “Don’t Stop Believing”
Journey’s biggest hit, “Don’t Stop Believing,” has never been a stranger to pop culture. Since its release in 1981 as a single from the album Escape (when it peaked at No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100), the song has been featured in a number of movies and television shows, sometimes sincerely, sometimes not. It was the unofficial theme song for the Chicago White Sox during the 2005 World Series, with Steve Perry even stopping by to sing a couple of verses with the team after they swept the Houston Astros. But “Believing” reached pop-culture critical mass again when David Chase chose to use it in the final scene of The Sopranos. The blindly optimistic power ballad was as appropriate a note as any to bring down the curtain on Chase’s masterpiece. The episode brought in 11.9 million viewers, and when the show ended (appropriately enough, after Perry sings, “Don’t stop”), it inspired outrage, dissection, and debate; it also got the tune stuck in a whole lot of heads, and made it, for a few months at least, nearly inescapable.
20. The Shins, “New Slang”
The life cycle of The Shins’ 2001 debut album Oh, Inverted World was pretty much over by the time Zach Braff used “New Slang” to break the ice between himself and Natalie Portman in 2004’s Garden State. It was a minor indie hit, and the band had already released an excellent follow-up, Chutes Too Narrow. But the treacly movie—and specifically the promise that hearing the song would change Braff’s character’s life—gave it a shot in the arm and goosed sales of Inverted World like crazy. When the band appeared on Saturday Night Live in 2007, it played two songs—one from the then-current album Wincing The Night Away, and “New Slang,” a.k.a. the one everybody knows.
21. Gary Glitter, “Rock And Roll Part 2”
If people know the name Gary Glitter these days, it’s probably for his conviction for child sexual abuse, but chances are they know this song because it’s inescapable at sporting events. Originally released on 1972’s Glitter, the song comes in two parts: one with vocals (Part 1) and one without (Part 2). The second part—referenced as “The Hey Song” on Wikipedia—became popular at sporting events after the old Colorado Rockies NHL franchise started playing it at games in the late ’70s. (The Denver Broncos also played it after touchdowns.) Upon Glitter’s conviction, the NFL asked teams to stop playing it—though a cover version by Tube Tops 2000 was allowed.
22. Scott Joplin, “The Entertainer”
Ragtime peaked in the early 1900s, and Scott Joplin (1867-1917) was the king, responsible for 44 original tunes (including the popular “The Maple Leaf Rag”), a ballet, and two operas. But when ragtime faded from popular view, so did Joplin. In 1970, Joshua Rifkin put out a bestselling record of some of Joplin’s greatest work called Scott Joplin Piano Rags, and started the ball rolling on getting the composer the attention he deserved. The public at large caught on when Marvin Hamlisch used Joplin compositions exclusively as the score for the 1973 Paul Newman-Robert Redford vehicle The Sting. The film’s Depression-era con-man antics actually take place a decade after the height of ragtime’s fame, but the catchy, cheerfully melancholy music still seems appropriate, giving the complicated story a literate, timeless feel. Joplin’s rise to fame in the ’70s earned him a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1976, and the opening notes of “The Entertainer,” the most recognizable of Joplin’s tunes used in the film, are still familiar to movie fans everywhere.
23. Elton John, “Candle In The Wind”
“Candle In The Wind” has not only been one of Elton John’s most durable (and recurring) hits, it’s also proven to be surprisingly versatile as a tribute to blonde female celebrities who died before their time. When John wrote the song with lyricist Bernie Taupin for 1973’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, it was about Marilyn Monroe, and explicitly referenced her untimely death via drug overdose at the age of 36. It was released as a single in the UK in 1974, and just missed the Top 10. Fourteen years later, a live version recorded for Live In Australia With The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra did better, reaching the Top 10 in the U.S. and Great Britain. But that’s nothing compared to how “Candle In The Wind” did on its third trip to the charts in 1997, when John re-recorded the song (calling it “Candle In The Wind 1997”) after the death of Princess Diana. This version went to No. 1 in several countries, and according to Guinness, it’s the best-selling music single ever.