The saxophone is one of the most versatile instruments to ever exist. It can take center stage just as well as it can play a supporting role. Generations of musicians and composers have interpreted it and reinterpreted it since its invention in 1846, making it a staple in nearly every genre of popular music to come about since.
This instrument has remained relevant in popular music until now, and songs with an excellent saxophone still get tons of radio play. Read on to check out some of the best saxophone songs of all time.
1. Careless Whisper — George Michael
Even if you couldn’t care less about saxophone music, you probably recognize the epic sax riff that drives this burning 80s pop ballad. “Careless Whisper” was released in 1984, but it went through several different iterations made by different studios since it was written in 1981. George Michael recorded the final, smash hit version of the song himself.
2. Moanin’ — Charles Mingus
The baritone sax’s distinctive growl is on full display in the funky, roots-based Charles Mingus version of this soulful, bluesy tune. As a jazz standard, it’s been interpreted in many different ways, and composer Mingus gave us a version that features a baritone sax.
3. Baker Street — Gerry Rafferty
The catchy, instantly recognizable sax riff in this soulful pop tune pushes the song from good to great. Gerry Rafferty, a Scottish songwriter, wrote and recorded the song in 1977, releasing it in 1978. The sax solo in the song was performed by Raphael Ravenscroft, who claims that he himself composed most of the riff instead of Rafferty.
4. Thrift Shop — Macklemore & Ryan Lewis Featuring Wanz
Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” builds its hype with a sax-based riff that’s catchy and hard to forget. The song was recorded in 2011 and released in 2012, and it’s an ode to the trend of thrift shopping for old, gaudy-yet-cool clothes, with some social critique about conspicuous consumption mixed in.
5. Donna Lee — Charlie Parker
“Donna Lee,” a famous jazz standard, is a great example of the jazz style that the renowned saxophonist and ingenious composer Charlie Parker practically invented as himself—bebop. Both the bebop style and the tune “Donna Lee” have been hugely influential on generations of jazz musicians.
6. Moondance — Van Morrison
This romantic, sultry, and seductive ballad is all about falling in love on an enchanted night, and what better way to express that feeling than a sax solo? Saxophonist Jack Schroer played on this track, which was recorded in 1969 and released in 1970.
7. Modern Love — David Bowie
This upbeat, sentimental new wave tune is accompanied by a horn section that keeps the rhythm driving and tight, and there’s a funky sax solo in the middle of the song. “Modern Love” was recorded in 1982 and released in 1983. David Bowie often used the song to close out his live performances. Though he himself played the saxophone, he only contributed vocals to the recording of the song.
8. Smooth Operator — Sade
This song is all about a cool, suave, seductive, and international playboy going from continent to continent and breaking hearts. Naturally, it features a sax solo. The song was recorded over the course of 1983 and 1984, and later, released in 1985. Multi-instrumentalist Stuart Mathewman contributed the sax solo for the song.
9. I Will Always Love You — Whitney Houston
The only instrument that could possibly follow up Whitney Houston belting out a heart-wrenching and iconic vocal line is the sax. Saxophonist Kirk Whalum provided the perfect compliment to the song with his smooth, melodic lines. Houston’s version of this song, which was originally composed and recorded in 1973 by Dolly Parton, was released in 1993.
10. Walk on the Wild Side — Lou Reed
An angular yet sweet and melodic sax solo closes out this classic counter-culture ballad that helped propel Lou Reed to fame. Ronnie Ross, coincidentally the same saxophonist who taught David Bowie during his youth, contributed the solo. “Walk On The Wild Side” was recorded and released in 1972.
11. Money — Pink Floyd
A bluesy, rocking sax solo is the perfect compliment to this angsty, anti-establishment song about the evils of capitalism. The song was recorded in 1972 and 1973, then released later in 1973. Saxophonist Dick Parry contributed the solo to this tune.
12. Too Hot — Kool & the Gang
This tune shows the smooth, sensitive, and soulful side of the typically raucous and roots-influenced Kool & The Gang. Nothing says sensitive and soulful like a great sax solo, and saxophonist Roland Bell can be heard performing an instrumental verse towards the end of the tune.
13. Who Can it Be Now? — Men at Work
Another sax melody that everyone knows, the classic lick from “Who Can It Be Now?” is nearly as iconic as “Baker Street” or “Careless Whisper.” It complements the song’s funky, frenetic, and anxious feeling, and it’s somehow catchy and fun to sing yet dissonant. Men At Work recorded “Who Can It Be Now?” in 1981.
14. Deacon Blues — Steely Dan
A song about a lonely hipster who “learn[s] to work the saxophone” and “play[s] just what he feels,” “Deacon Blues” is an ode to all the lonely sophisticated types in the world. True to its lyrics, it has a great saxophone solo that was contributed by Pete Christlieb.
15. Yakety Sax — Boots Randolph
This goofy, upbeat novelty song is another sax tune that just about everyone recognizes, and it’s often used as a comedic interlude or as a gag in itself. It was composed by pop songwriter James Q. “Spider” Rich and Saxophonist Boots Randolph, and the title comes from the song “Yakety Yak,” which features a sax solo that inspired “Yakety Sax.”
16. Alright — Kendrick Lamar
An anthem for both personal struggles and societal struggles, “Alright” uses a free-form cacophony of saxophones in some of its instrumental breaks and has a constant background of saxophone licks throughout the verses. “Alright” was part of Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 opus album To Pimp a Butterfly, and features vocals from Pharell Williams, though he received no official credit for them.
17. I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do) — Hall & Oates
This soft, bouncing early 80s pop tune is perfectly complemented by a ripping sax solo from Charles DeChant in the middle of the tune. The song was recorded and released in 1981, and it’s one of the most successful songs of all time in terms of radio play, proving that songs with a great saxophone can dominate popular music.
18. Here’s that Rainy Day — Stan Getz
Master saxophonist Stan Getz’s interpretation of this jazz standard, originally written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke, will bring a tear to your eye with its overwhelming beauty and emotional complexity. It was released and recorded in 1964 as part of the album Getz Au Go Go, which featured singer, Astrud Gilberto.
19. Us and Them — Pink Floyd
A spacey, sometimes light and airy, but other times dark and serious ballad, “Us and Them” is about a young generation’s experience of war, social unrest, and struggles over prejudice. It features an entrancing sax solo at the beginning and the end of the song, both of which complement its airy, contemplative feel.
20. Sir Duke — Stevie Wonder
This legendary pop-funk song is one of those rare songs with huge commercial appeal and success while also being musically sophisticated, garnering respect from jazz musicians. The song has two iconic licks played by a horn section of trumpets and saxophone, which makes it one of the best saxophone songs out there.
21. Born to Run — Bruce Springsteen
This American anthem has a rollicking, bluesy, and upbeat sax solo in the middle of it, and the sax’s backup lines contribute to the wall-of-sound feeling that carries on throughout it. The song was recorded in 1974 and released in 1975. Clarence Clemons, a veteran sideman saxophonist, contributed the song’s sax solo.
22. Just the Two of Us — Grover Washington Jr. Featuring Bill Withers
Lots of musical talent came together to create this heartfelt and romantic yet funky and laid-back song. It features one of the composers, Grover Washington Jr. on saxophone, who takes a couple of memorable solos and plays some smooth licks on the track. Washington Jr. composed it with the help of William Salter and Ralph MacDonald and recruited Bill Withers for vocals.
23. Urgent — Foreigner
“Urgent” is a funky, hard-driving song with powerful vocals and an even more powerful sax solo that puts the proverbial cherry on top of this already deliciously good song. It was recorded and released in 1981, and Mick Jones called in famous producer Robert “Mutt” Lange for this. Saxophonist Junior Walker contributed the solo.
24. She Works Hard for the Money — Donna Summer
This 80s bop is dedicated to hardworking gals everywhere, and its driving, danceable, and funky beat is complemented by a horn section and a great solo by Gary Herbig. The sax trades verses with overdriven guitar solos, proving that the sax holds its own in any genre. “She Works Hard For The Money” came out in 1983 and epitomized the new wave style of the time.
25. Only The Good Die Young — Billy Joel
This Billy Joel song was inspired by his high school crush, Virginia Callahan. It was recorded in 1977 and released the same year. Originally, it was supposed to be played as reggae, but Joel’s drummer recommended using a jaunty rhythm. Multi-instrumentalist Richie Cannata contributed the sax solo.
26. Midnight City — M83
Saxophone solos can work in electronic dance grooves too, and “Midnight City” is proof. This anthemic, danceable, and hard-driving pop groove features a sax solo from James King, a member of Fitz And The Tantrums. The song came out in 2011 and the recording began the previous year.
27. Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.) — Katy Perry
Another testament to the versatility of the saxophone, this 2010s teen party banger features a hard-driving, fun sax solo by the famous smooth jazz icon Kenny G. The song was released in 2011 and took over pop charts worldwide.
28. Tequila — The Champs
This song has a sax melody so catchy that the song doesn’t need any more vocals than just a single repeated word from the band—”Tequila.” The song is somewhere between 50s rock and roll, surf rock, and Latin rock, and it was first recorded in 1957 and released in 1958.
29. New York’s Alright if You Like Saxophones — Fear
This song is a frantic, hilarious genre collision that’s hard to classify and has rarely been repeated, and it’s something like a novelty song. It features shouted, rough lyrics that sound almost like Henry Rollins-esque spoken word vocals, a booming, driving punk beat, and angular, free jazz-style saxophone licks from multi-instrumentalist Derf Scratch.
30. Just Friends — Charlie Parker
Late in his career, Charlie Parker started to record with a backing string section for a more orchestrated, lush sound. His version of “Just Friends” from this era is an example of the better results he got from this arrangement, and it features Parker’s virtuosity against a calming yet emotionally complex arrangement of the classic jazz standard.
31. Caribbean Queen (No More Love on the Run) — Billy Ocean
This funky 80s bop has a great Michael Jackson-esque hook and a great vocal performance by Billy Ocean. All this is topped off by a bluesy, rhythmically tight, and melodic sax solo by Vernon Jeffery Smith. The song came out in 1984, and you can hear the decade it came out just from the first ten seconds of the song—it’s quintessential 80s pop.
32. Prelude to a Kiss — Duke Ellington Featuring Johnny Hodges
Two jazz giants—Duke Ellington himself and master saxophonist Johnny Hodges—make this song one of the most heart-wrenching portrayals of romance in music ever. Hodges’ sonorous, opera-like sax tone and beautiful phrasing define the song.
33. Songbird — Kenny G
No list of songs with a great saxophone hook could be complete without the iconic Kenny G, and his distinctive soprano sax stylings are on full display in this 1987 instrumental ballad that features him as the main attraction.