Lives are made up of memories, and many of those are attached to the music we were listening to at that time. Of course, not all songs from our past are attached to meaningful memories—some of them just plain hit right! If the newest songs don’t match your tastes, sometimes, you just gotta take it back to the originals—the tunes that you loved as a kid, that your parents played, or that remind you of that first album you bought.
Got a nostalgia itch? Check out our list of the 55 best throwback songs to scratch it.
1. Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana
Whether or not you were around in the 90s, you’ve no doubt seen the iconic Nirvana video, featuring a scorching live performance taking place in an “all-American” high school. They gave voice to the roller coaster of emotions that come with growing up; “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is every bit as relevant today as it was at its release.
2. Don’t You (Forget About Me) – Simple Minds
Here’s another song to take it way back—to the 80s to be precise. Simple Minds shot to the top of the charts with “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” a heart-wrenching ode to loneliness, which was featured in the iconic 80s John Hughes film, The Breakfast Club.
3. Hollaback Girl – Gwen Stefani
From her ska band roots to her current incarnation as a pop diva and TV reality star, Gwen Stefani has always known what she wanted. The song “Hollaback Girl” is a no-holds-barred ode to staying at the forefront and making your voice heard. Interestingly, 35-year-old Gwen played a convincing cheerleader in the high-school-themed video.
4. Wannabe – Spice Girls
The Spice Girls were the quintessential late 90s band, playing off the boy-band craze to bring the world a unique brand of girl power. The song “Wannabe” was written by all five members, who later stated that the mega-hit had taken them only 30 minutes to create.
5. Milkshake – Kelis
It was hard to go anywhere in 2004 without hearing Kelis’ iconic song, “Milkshake.” The song was featured in several movies and television shows, including Dodgeball, Nip/Tuck, Mean Girls, and even The Simpsons.
6. …Baby One More Time – Britney Spears
There might be no other artist who encapsulates the late 90s and early 2000s like Britney Spears. She burst onto the music scene with her high-school-cute looks, catchy lyrics, and choreographed dance numbers. She was only 16 when she released “…Baby One More Time,” a song she has often cited as one of her favorites.
7. Don’t Stop Believin’ – Journey
“Don’t Stop Believin'” has proved to be one of the iconic rock band Journey’s most enduring hits; it’s next to impossible to find someone who doesn’t know the words to the catchy chorus. In fact, it’s partly the song’s unique structure that makes it so different that it sticks out in people’s memories.
8. Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It) – Beyoncé
Beyoncé knew what she was up to when she created this iconic song, which inspired a slew of dances and reaction videos. Released in 2009, the music video for “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It),” which features Beyoncé and backup dancers, has more than 477 million views.
9. Highway to Hell – AC/DC
AC/DC’s brand of hard rock is one that has stood the test of time. Despite an early personnel change in the band, the rest of the guys have continued producing music and touring through the decades. It was this song, “Highway To Hell,” that introduced the band to America. They sold more than 7 million copies of the album of the same name.
10. You’re the One That I Want – Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta
If you are like most kids from the 80s (hello, Gen X!) and beyond, you’ve probably sung along to the Grease soundtrack. We can’t help but get down to the wide variety of fifties-inspired/seventies-flavored songs. But it’s this climactic song that really captures the energy of youth and the joyful ending of the film.
11. Without Me – Eminem
Marshall Mathers, better known as Eminem, is a Detroit rapper who famously got his start participating in rap battles in Detroit, Michigan. “Without Me” is a single from his 2002 album, The Eminem Show, and received high marks from critics and fans alike.
12. I Got You (I Feel Good) – James Brown
The Godfather of Soul’s trademark song, “I Got You (I Feel Good),” will get everyone out on the dance floor. Released in 1964, it’s his highest-charting single and, arguably, his best-known song, having appeared in dozens of films, television shows, and commercials through the years.
13. Respect – Aretha Franklin
Although the song “Respect” was originally recorded by Otis Redding in 1965, the Queen of Soul made the song her own in 1967. Aretha Franklin created a brand new musical arrangement from Otis’ original and the rest is history. This can’t-miss ode to “taking care of business” earned the top spot on the Billboard Top 500 Songs of All Time list in 2021.
14. Baby Got Back – Sir Mix-A-Lot
Sir Mix-A-Lot’s one-hit wonder, “Baby Got Back,” shot all the way to number one on the charts in 1992, making it his only top 10 hit. He has been quoted saying that the song, while silly on the surface, is actually about something deeper—the acceptance of curvier women within U.S. beauty standards.
15. Dancing with Myself – Billy Idol
Here’s another 80s throwback that sounds just as good today as it did forty years ago. Billy Idol’s iconic bad-boy looks and slightly-suggestive lyrics made him a hit with teens, and his danceable synthesizer-fueled rock earned him mainstream success.
16. Girls Just Want To Have Fun – Cyndi Lauper
“Girls Just Want To Have Fun” was the first single released on Cyndi Lauper’s debut album, She’s So Unusual. Audiences immediately connected with her cutesy-punk looks and bubbly lyrical writing style. The song even inspired a music-centered teen comedy of the same name. This isn’t just a throwback, it’s an impossible-to-resist sing-along song.
17. Sugar, We’re Goin Down – Fall Out Boy
Part of the new wave of pop-punk meets emo, Fall Out Boy was on a roll when they released the song “Sugar, We’re Goin Down” in 2005. The band would go on to earn numerous awards, including Teen Choice Awards, AMAs, and MTV Best New Artists, among others.
18. Groove is in the Heart – Deee-Lite
The 90s were a weird time and Deee-Lite is here to prove it, with their bouncy, psychedelic trip through retro danceland. The one-hit wonder, “Groove Is In The Heart,” made such an impression on funk superstar, Bootsy Collins, that he arranged to fly in and play bass on the song.
19. Love Shack – The B-52’s
The B-52’s hometown of Athens, Georgia, (also home to REM) was a mecca of college indie music in the 80s and 90s. With the song “Love Shack,” the band gained nationwide fame, reaching number three on the Billboard Top 100 chart.
20. Like a Virgin – Madonna
Madonna introduced herself to the world with her debut album, Like A Virgin, which found almost immediate success. The song of the same name became the first of numerous number-one hits to follow.
21. Africa – Toto
The band Toto had enjoyed only minor success prior to the release of their fourth studio album, which featured the song “Africa.” It shot to number one on the charts, and the music video, which featured the band sitting in a library while presenting African cultural facts and performances, was wholly unique and earned the band a devoted fan base.
22. Hot in Herre – Nelly
Nelly may well have created the ultimate clubbing song with his 2002 Motown hit, “Hot In Herre.” The first single from his album, Nellyville, features a hook that pays tribute to the single, “Bustin’ Loose” by Chuck Brown.
23. Stand By Me – Ben E. King
You can tell a lot about a person by where they know the song “Stand By Me” from. A pop culture staple, this Motown-flavored hit has appeared in dozens of television shows and movies through the years, perhaps most famously, Stephen King’s movie of the same title.
24. Rapper’s Delight – Sugarhill Gang
This 1979 single from the Sugarhill Gang is widely regarded as one of the first big hip hop hits. “Rapper’s Delight” made it all the way to number four on the U.S. Hot Soul chart and 36 on the Billboard Hot 100 and is listed as one of Rolling Stone Magazine’s Greatest Songs of All Time.
25. Just a Friend – Biz Markie
We dare you to resist singing along to Biz Markie’s comedic hit, “Just A Friend.” Long before it was trendy for rappers to sing, he went all in with his tuneless chorus of this song. Although it didn’t break chart records upon its release, it enjoyed a 2009 resurgence in popularity when it appeared in a Heineken commercial.
26. Hey Ya! – Outkast
This song might top the list for the catchiest hook of all time. The rap duo known as Andre 3000 and Big Boi wrote the song in 1999 but it wasn’t released until 2003 when it spent nine weeks at the number one spot on the Hot 100. It was a crossover smash, climbing to the top of both R&B and pop charts.
27. California Love – 2Pac featuring Dr. Dre
This 1996 hit features two of rap’s top superstars extolling the virtues of the sunshine state to a catchy beats-laden backdrop. Interestingly, the samples of a famous 1972 Joe Cocker song, “Woman To Woman,” and the synthesized chorus were performed by Roger Troutman.
28. Sk8er Boi – Avril Lavigne
The power punk ballad, “Sk8er Boi,” by Avril Lavigne managed to cross genre boundaries by telling a classic tale of love gone wrong and high school social politics. The 2002 song reached the Top 10 around the world and brought a new generation into the punk music fold.
29. Boom Boom Pow – The Black Eyed Peas
This 2009 song was the first U.S. number-one song for the power-pop group, on the heels of moderate success from their first four full-length albums. The unique futuristic qualities of the instrumentation make it a standout tune with a strong dance beat.
30. Party in the U.S.A. – Miley Cyrus
Back before Miley Cyrus was known for her latest scandal, the song “Party In The U.S.A.” took the world by storm. A hit with all age groups, it was particularly popular with the teen and pre-teen set, which is no accident as Miley took the song—originally written by singer Jessie J—and changed the lyrics to better fit her audience.
31. Footloose – Kenny Loggins
The song “Footloose” was written for the Kevin Bacon-led film of the same name. Singer Kenny Loggins was tapped to write a song that would capture the idea of the movie and said, in no uncertain terms, that it must be a song that people would want to dance to. It seems that the instructions stuck, as, nearly forty years later, it still gets people out on the floor.
32. Good Riddance (Time of Your Life) – Green Day
33. I Want it That Way – Backstreet Boys
The Backstreet Boys led the larger boy band craze of the 90s and early 2000s. In fact, according to Billboard Magazine, they have sold more than 130 million records all over the world, which makes them the number-one-selling boy band of all time.
34. Sweet Caroline – Neil Diamond
No matter what age you are, you can, no doubt, sing along with this 1969 classic. Who can resist the horn-backed chorus of “Sweet Caroline”? Neil Diamond has famously changed his answers about the inspiration for the song, but whether it’s about his ex-wife or JFK’s daughter, we are still here for it.
35. Ice Ice Baby – Vanilla Ice
This song may be on our “guiltiest pleasures” list. While Vanilla Ice’s 1990 breakout hit is undeniably over-the-top and silly, it’s also infinitely danceable. And let’s face it, in 1990, the public didn’t find it so silly, as critics rallied around the newly-announced rap star’s catchiest and most famous song.
36. All Star – Smash Mouth
Smash Mouth has famously called their 1999 hit “an anthem for outcasts.” But the song’s popularity extended far beyond an audience of outcasts to become a pop culture staple. “All Star” continues to be played at sporting events like the Home Run Derby and has appeared in numerous films and television shows.
37. All the Small Things – Blink-182
The kings of pop-punk, Blink-182, wrote their song, “All The Small Things,” with the intention of making a radio-friendly, catchy tune—and boy, did it work. The song charted worldwide and has secured a place in every 90s kid’s heart.
38. I Love Rock ‘n Roll – Joan Jett
Joan Jett is one of the undeniable pioneers of female-driven rock. If rock n roll had a theme song, we suspect it would be her 1981 hit, “I Love Rock ‘N Roll,” a song that went platinum and helped earn her an induction into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame.
39. Uptown Funk – Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars
“Uptown Funk” is the song that launched a thousand (or many thousand) videos. This 2014 single became an instant classic, spurring fans from all over to create choreographed dances and videos to Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ dance-happy beat.
40. Hot N Cold – Katy Perry
We couldn’t make it to the end of a list of throwback songs without including Katie Perry. The Queen of Bubblegum pop ruled the airwaves of the early 2010s. Her second album, One Of The Boys, brought us the hits “Hot N Cold,” and the groundbreaking “I Kissed A Girl.” The former made it as far as number three on the Billboard Top 100, so you know that we were all singing along to it.
41. Take on Me – A-ha
Although they weren’t a one-hit wonder, there is little question that 80s sensation, A-ha, will be best remembered for the song “Take On Me.” The Norwegian band didn’t see much traction with the original song’s release in 1984 but became an overnight sensation when a new version—and its accompanying partly-animated music video—came out in 1985. The band has continued to play the song through the years and even released a haunting acoustic version in 2020.
42. Bye Bye Bye – *NSYNC
*NSYNC debuted in 1995, and while they may have started on the heels of the success of the Backstreet Boys, they quickly found their own style and their own fans. How could we leave this song off the list, when “Bye Bye Bye” was, for many of us, the introduction to the wonder that is Justin Timberlake?
43. September – Earth, Wind & Fire
“September” is one of the top feel-good songs of all time. We’d be hard-pressed to come up with another band that melded together multiple genres of music as well as Earth, Wind & Fire. Their unique sound incorporates elements of R&B, jazz, funk, disco, and pop into an undeniably dancy combination. It is a joyous ode to dancing and living life to the fullest.
44. Beverly Hills – Weezer
Nerd rockers Weezer have spent two decades bringing us their smirky-sweet takes on everything from love to drugs. But their song, “Beverly Hills,” with its understandable lament of what it would be like to be a celebrity with access, was what really hooked fans. The song spent multiple months on the Billboard Top 100 chart, topping out at number ten.
45. Hey There Delilah – Plain White T’s
“Hey There Delilah” is a simple song about missing a girlfriend and trying to maintain a relationship from a distance. But it’s partly that simplicity, and the universal feeling of loneliness that it conveys, that got us hooked. Whether we’re looking for a breakup cry-along song or a simple reminder of the sweetest kind of love, this does it for us.
46. Jump Around – House Of Pain
“Jump Around” was the first hit from the Boston-based band House Of Pain. Released in 1992, it became a number-one hit and was added to several notable best-of lists, including VH1’s Greatest Songs of Hip Hop. The song is notable for its sampled fanfare intro, taken from the Bob & Earl track, “Harlem Shuffle” and was produced by a member of Cypress Hill.
47. Rock the Casbah – The Clash
When The Clash released its album, Combat Rock, in 1984, they had already been leading the punk rock scene for nearly a decade. But it was the song “Rock The Casbah” that brought singer Joe Strummer and his crew to the mainstream.
48. Dancing Queen – Abba
Swedish disco superband, Abba, released multiple albums over its decades-long career. But they are probably best remembered for their worldwide dance hit, “Dancing Queen.” In 1976, the song was released as a Swedish single and quickly became a number-one U.S. hit. But even for those among us who weren’t around in 1976, its indelible imprint on pop culture can be felt and seen all around us. This genuinely joyous dance song will always be one of our top picks.
49. Purple Rain – Prince
Prince has always been regarded as one of the world’s best musicians. Fans cite his ability to play dozens of instruments and his incredible songwriting and composing skills, not to mention his breathtaking live performances. While the Purple One has released dozens of hits through the years, it is this song—the title track to the film Purple Rain—that brought him to the larger public and won him a piece of our hearts.
50. Billie Jean – Michael Jackson
“Billie Jean” was the first single released from Michael Jackson’s Thriller album in 1982. Despite having been a childhood star, it was this album that would propel him to the top of the charts, where it would stay for several years. Decades later, this album remains one of the best-selling records of all time, with worldwide sales of over 100 million. We’d bet that there isn’t a Gen Xer alive who can’t sing along to every song on the album.
51. Teenage Dirtbag – Wheatus
The band Wheatus released its debut album of the same title in 2000. It charted and went platinum all over Europe, but didn’t enjoy immediate success in the U.S. But, years later, the song enjoyed a resurgence on social media; maybe that’s because we can all relate to the singer’s lament about being judged on appearance.
52. My Hero – Foo Fighters
It’s hard to argue against Dave Grohl’s status as a solid-gold rock legend. But one of his most beloved songs is Foo Fighters’ “My Hero.” Released as a single from their 1997 album, The Colour And The Shape, the song got as far as number six on the Billboard alternative charts. It remains one of the group’s more iconic numbers and is included on the set list for every performance.
53. Iron Man – Black Sabbath
Black Sabbath’s place as the leaders of the original heavy metal music was secured by their iconic 70s song “Iron Man.” Despite its slightly nonsensical lyrics about robots and fantasy worlds, it has stood the test of time to remain a fan favorite.
54. Gives You Hell – The All-American Rejects
Here’s another pop-punk favorite for all the aughts fans out there. The 2008 song was the lead single from the band’s third album and quickly became not only their most well-known song but also the best critically received. Its catchy, relatable lyrics and bouncy pop-punk beat made it a hit that crossed over from the alternative charts to the mainstream top 40 and even the adult top 40 charts.
55. Bohemian Rhapsody – Queen
There’s no way that we could talk about throwback hits without bringing up Queen. Even with its epic six-minute runtime, the song “Bohemian Rhapsody” managed to become one of the most well-received songs of all time. There’s nothing quite like that iconic opening, soaring vocals, and unique structure of this song. While critics were not sure what to do with “Bohemian Rhapsody,” fans clearly did. They even ranked Freddy Mercury’s performance of the song as one of the best of all time, according to a Rolling Stones’ readers poll.
When you’re getting nostalgic, there’s nothing to bring that feeling home quite like music. So turn on a playlist of our favorite throwback songs and lose yourselves in the music.
As the Head Editor and Writer at Music Grotto, Liam helps write and edit content produced from professional music/media journalists and other contributing writers. He works closely with journalists and other staff to format and publish music content for the Music Grotto website. Liam is also the founding member of Music Grotto and is passionate in disseminating editorial content to its readers.
Liam’s lifelong love for music makes his role at Music Grotto such a rewarding one. He loves researching, writing and editing music content for Music Grotto.