What are the 15 songs with the most well-known lyrics? I’m glad you asked! Otherwise I wouldn’t be here. Below, I have made a list of 15 songs to which I believe ALL (or at least 85%-90%) of the original lyrics are widely known; as opposed to a list entitled, “15 Most Well-Known Song Choruses”. If I had gone with the latter, we would have had a mouthful of ‘80s stadium-style rock hits and weepy graduation party ballads.

When composing the list, I had to set a few additional guidelines for myself (I know—boring!), which I have listed below. Some of you may call them arbitrary. But whatever: my game, my rules.

    • I did not include the “Star-Spangled Banner”. Why?  Because it seemed to me that quite frankly, our national anthem should be above such lists (she said smugly). I assume that all Americans already know the lyrics to that fair tune and if for some reason you don’t, you should seriously get on that.
    • I automatically discredited songs written expressly for infants & toddlers. No disrespect to the little ones, I just think that would have been cheating. I’m sorry, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”. You were actually quite good to me in my formative years.
    • Lastly, these are meant to be songs known by people of different ages and backgrounds. Not simply songs limited to people of my specific age and socioeconomic background. That is why I tapped a variety of friends and colleagues for their points of view. So if you disagree with any of the choices below…you should really blame them.

Let’s begin!

15. “Baby Got Back” by Sir Mix-a-Lot

Yeah. Let’s start this off right. Be honest: with just the mere mention of this song title, did you or did you not start mouthing, “I like big butts and I cannot lie/ You other brothers can’t deny…”? There’s no shame in admitting it. Now, some like this song in earnest (gross), while others like it simply for the comedic effect it provides in a surprising number of settings. For example: watch renowned historian David McCullough on The Colbert Report starting at the 4:56 mark of the video below.

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Notable Lyrics

I like big butts and I cannot lie
You other brothers can’t deny
When a girl walks in with an itty-bitty waist
And a round thing in your face you get sprung

14. “Don’t Stop Believin” by Journey

This is the beloved ‘80s song that keeps on giving. Whether it is being used as backdrop to the controversial final scene of The Sopranos, getting the Glee treatment, or being rocked out during the hit musical (and forthcoming movie) Rock of Ages, it’s a classic. Just try getting it out of your head. I dare you.

Notable Lyrics

Strangers waiting
Up and down the boulevard
Their shadows searching in the night
Streetlight people
Living just to find emotion
Hiding somewhere in the night

13. “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” by Beyonce

Yes, this is certainly the youngest song on the list. The others have had more time to marinate in our collective musical discourse and make their mark. But I challenge you to find anyone over the age of 13 (maybe younger?) who doesn’t know this song. This song was EVERYWHERE. But for good reason: it has an amazing hook, a great dance beat, playful exuberance, and a clear point of view (a refreshing one, too). Not to mention that the song’s one-shot music video, with amazing choreography by Frank Gatson and JaQuel Knight, was killer. And lest we forget, the song also gave us this lovely SNL gem featuring Justin Timberlake.

 

Notable Lyrics

Cause if you liked it then you should have put a ring on it
If you liked it then you shoulda put a ring on it
Don’t be mad once you see that he want it
If you liked it then you shoulda put a ring on it
Oh, oh, oh

12. “Auld Lang Syne”, poem by Robert Burns 

This song came about when the original poem by Robert Burns (written in 1788) was set to a traditional folk tune. Sure, most of us don’t actually know what this song means (as Billy Crystal so wonderfully articulated in the film When Harry Met Sally). But we all know the lyrics (well, at least the first two verses). I guess it could be considered a Christmas song (See: It’s a Wonderful Life), but nowadays it is the go-to song for New Year’s Eve celebrations. So it makes the cut. May you have someone to kiss as it plays.

Notable Lyrics

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne?

11. “Like a Prayer” by Madonna

The lady knew how to write and deliver a pop song, especially a controversial one. This was possibly her best. It has also been covered by the cast of Glee.

Notable Lyrics

When you call my name it’s like a little prayer
I’m down on my knees, I wanna take you there
In the midnight hour I can feel your power
Just like a prayer you know I’ll I take you there

10. “… Baby One More Time” by Britney Spears

This late ‘90s song sensation announced the arrival of Britney Spears, who broke into the pop scene that was largely a boys club at the time.  This song quickly blew up upon its release; people lost their minds when “…Baby One More Time” – or really any early Britney—came on. And I mean lost. Their. Minds. Everyone knew the lyrics. And everyone certainly knew the video.

 

 

Notable Lyrics

My loneliness is killin’ me
I must confess I still believe
When I’m not with you I lose my mind
Give me a sign, hit me baby one more time

9. “Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison

A classic pop song that has been played at every school dance, Bat Mitzvah, Sweet 16 party, and/or wedding ever since it was first recorded back in 1967. There’s no denying this song is has become part of our culture’s collective musical subconscious.

Fun fact!  This song was originally entitled, “Brown-Skinned Girl”.

Notable Lyrics

Cast my memory back there Lord
Sometimes I’m overcome thinkin’ ‘bout it
Makin’ love in the green grass
Behind the stadium
With you, my brown eyed girl
You my, brown eyed girl

8. “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band 

In my humble opinion, this is the greatest rock anthem of all time. You can disagree with me but this is my list so, for now, you can suck it.  You may remember Jimmy Fallon’s awesome performance of the song (with help from Tina Fey, Jon Hamm, Joel McHale, and the cast of Glee) when he hosted the Emmys in 2010. So don’t deny the fact that you know the lyrics.  After all, “…Tramps like us/Baby we were born to run”.

Notable Lyrics

Together Wendy we’ll live with the sadness
I’ll love you with all of the madness in my soul
Someday girl I don’t know when
We’re gonna get to that place
Where we really want to go
And we’ll walk in the sun
But ‘til then tramps like us
Baby we were born to run

7. “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor

This is a double platinum disco hit that has been covered by everyone from Diana Ross to Cake to Conan O’Brien. It is the go-to empowering anthem for recent breakups and the broken-hearted.

Notable Lyrics

Oh no not I, I will survive
Oh, as long as I know how to love
I know I’ll stay alive
I’ve got all my life to live
And I’ve got all my love to give,
And I’ll survive I will survive, hey hey

6. “Singin’ in the Rain” as recorded by Gene Kelly  

Though it’s unclear when the song was officially written, it is largely associated with the 1952 film of the same title. You may have also seen the “Singin’ in the Rain”/”Umbrella” mashup on Glee (Geez! Those kids are everywhere!). Nonetheless, it’s impossible to listen to this song and not smile. Try it. I dare ya. Listen to it for inspiration, grab an umbrella, and go tap dance in some puddles immediately! Weather permitting, of course.

Fun fact!  The American Film Institute voted it the #1 movie musical in American cinema (2006 voting).

Notable Lyrics

I’m singin’ in the rain, just singin’ in the rain
What a glorious feelin’, I’m happy again
I’m laughin’ at clouds, so dark up above
The sun’s in my heart and I’m ready for love

5. “What a Wonderful World” as recorded by Louis Armstrong

No less than a gentle tug at the heartstrings. The straightforward sincerity of this song gets me every time. Perhaps that’s what has made it so well known. There’s no ironic detachment, no tiptoeing. The simplicity of the song is almost a revolutionary act.

Notable Lyrics

I hear babies crying, I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more than I’ll ever know
And I think to myself,
‘What a wonderful world’
Yes I think to myself,
‘What a wonderful world’

4. “New York, New York” as recorded by Frank Sinatra 

A love song to, arguably, the greatest city in the world. Though this song is closely associated with Sinatra, it was originally composed for the Martin Scorsese film, New York, New York (music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb). True story. Of course, it was Ol’ Blue Eyes who made it famous. His version is played at the end of every Yankees home game and after the New Year’s Eve ball drop in Times Square, not to mention it’s used in countless movies and TV shows.

Notable Lyrics 

If I can make it there
I’ll make it anywhere
It’s up to you
New York, New York

3. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” by Judy Garland

Theme song to one of the most classic films ever made and sung by a legend, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” won the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1940. I doubt there is a person alive in this country who doesn’t know every word of this song. Whether you heard it in The Wizard of Oz, had it sung to you as a lullaby, or simply have a heartbeat: you know it.

Also worth mentioning: Israel Kamakawiwo’ole gave this piece a gorgeous ukulele treatment in 1993, along with the aforementioned song, “What a Wonderful World”.  If you haven’t been lucky enough to hear it, do yourself a favor and check it out here.

Notable Lyrics 

Somewhere over the rainbow
Skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true
If happy little bluebirds fly
Beyond the rainbow
Why, oh why, can’t I?

2. “All You Need is Love” by The Beatles 

Alright, alright. Arguably, I could have chosen any number of songs from The Beatles library for this list. We’re talking about The Beatles! They are legends and beloved by billions. There’s nothing I can say that can’t be said. And as much as I wanted to include either “Hey Jude” or “Yesterday”, I couldn’t honestly say they fit the criteria of this list. Unless you are a lover of the English rock band (or work for Rolling Stone), chances are you don’t know each and every word to the 7+ minutes of “Hey Jude” by heart. If I’m wrong: apologies. So in the end I went with “All You Need is Love.” Still a great song: simple and classic.

 

Notable Lyrics 

There’s nothing you can know that isn’t known
Nothing you can see that isn’t shown
There’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be
It’s easy
All you need is love
All you need is love
All you need is love, love
Love is all you need

1. “Imagine” by John Lennon

From the gentle piano chords providing the song’s heartbeat, to the delicate strings, to Lennon’s beautifully simple lyrics, this song has become virtually synonymous with “peace anthem”. It was written in 1971, amidst the Cold War and the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. The song is obviously colored with a political message; perhaps that it is why it has struck a chord with so many people the world over. Sure, in the past there were some who dismissed the song as strictly being a vehicle for Communist ideas, and those who were (or are) offended because they believed it to be promoting Atheism. Everyone is entitled to their opinions, but these come from a tragic (and strictly literal) misreading of the song. You have to really want it to draw those conclusions.  Yes, Lennon has said that the song is “virtually the Communist Manifesto”, but he immediately followed those words with, “even though I am not particularly a Communist and I do not belong to any movement.”  People often leave out the second half of the quote.  I would argue that “Imagine” is simply a stripped-down invitation to think about world different form the one in which we live: a world without conflict to divide us, one without strict adherence to fundamentalism of any kind, one where we live for the present, and a better one that is, indeed, possible.

The song was ranked #3 on Rolling Stone‘s list of “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” and has been covered by countless artists, including but limited to: Neil Young (recorded live at the benefit concert,“America:  A Tribute to Heroes” to raise money for the United Way September 11th Telethon Fund), Ray Charles, Joan Baez, Eva Cassidy, A Perfect Circle, Bon Jovi, Diana RossDave Matthews Band, Lady Gaga, Taio Cruz, Elton John, and Avril Lavigne (her verison is surprisingly good.  No, seriously.  I was surprised, too).

Notable Lyrics 

You may think that I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one