Music Lists #15: The Top 40 Perfect Pop Songs

When making these music lists, it's important to set the ground rules.  Too many times I've seen magazines just launch rabidly into their stupid lists with not so much as a sentence of explanation.  So, let me clarify what I'm looking for in a pop song that would qualify it as "perfectt".

1. Accessibility

This is not a list of the greatest songs of all time; this is pop music, which means they are easily digestible to your average listeners. We're talkin' McNuggets here, not foie gras  For instance, Procol Harum's "Salty Dog" is a masterpiece, but not even close to the strict definition of a POP song.

I can hear it now "Why isn't 'Strawberry Fields' on the list? Are you some kind of retard?" Keep in mind: I'm looking for music that is simply easy and pleasurable to listen to, which has nothing to do with artistic depth.

2. The Right Ingredients

The perfect pop song is nothing more than a joyful auditory nugget.  It doesn't need to be "bubblegum", but it can't meander or get carried away either.  "Hey Jude" and "My Sweet Lord" may be pinnacles in the history of popular music, but they're hardly tightly constructed with their long symphonic stretches. And Dylan had some historic lyrics, but these ingredients for a pop gem just aren't there:
A. Pleasant non repetitive verse
B. Melodic Chorus (see criteria #3)
C. Bridge - a tightly constructed pop song has a seamless bridge
D. The Middle Eight - the perfect pop gem breaks things up after the second chorus with a 3rd melodic part
E. Key Change - listener's attention span begins to waiver without this pop necessity
F. Coda - you can't just end it abruptly or fade out; that's for the lightweights.   
Now, not all my top ten meet these ingredients to the letter, but this is a good guide to cooking the perfect pop nugget.

3. Melody

The perfect pop song has a catchy melody without being just a jingle.  This is perhaps the most abstract qualification of all because you can't verbalize what makes certain chords, sounds, harmonies resonate with the human mind, while others do not. There's been tens of thousands of pop songs released over the years, but only a select few that literally "strike a chord" in the auditory center of your brain.  It's fresh sounding, a slightly novel melody, but at the same time it's by no means 'prog'.

And lastly, this is only a top 40 because - who gives a damn what my 179th greatest pop gem is? This is the type of list that could quickly turn into a boring reproduction of the top forty charts over the years.  No - let's keep it to the best of the best.  I relish your input - please let me know of any unconscionable oversights.

So, now that we got that out of the way, on with the list!

  1. I'm a Believer by The Monkees/ Neil Diamond
  2. Love Will Keep Us Together by Captain & Tennille/ Neil Sedaka
  3. Good Vibrations by The Beach Boys
  4. I Feel Fine by The Beatles
  5. Tears of a Clown by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles
  6. We Can Work It Out by The Beatles
  7. God Only Knows by The Beach Boys
  8. Dancing Queen by ABBA
  9. Sugar, Sugar by The Archies/ Neil Diamond
  10. Don't Go Breakin' My Heart by Elton John & Kiki Dee
  11. I Love You by The Climax Blues Band
  12. If I Can't Have You by Yvonne Elliman/ The Bee Gees
  13. Cuddly Toy by The Monkees/ Harry Nilsson
  14. Heart of Glass by Blondie
  15. Lola by The Kinks
  16. Our Lips Are Sealed - The Go-Gos
  17. If You Leave Me Now by Chicago
  18. The Things We Do Love by 10cc
  19. Call Me by Petula Clarke/Nancy Wilson
  20. Uptown Girl by Billy Joel
  21. Everybody Wants to Rule the World by Tears for Fears
  22. Rich Girl by Hall and Oates
  23. Never My Love by The Association
  24. Take a Chance on Me by ABBA
  25. Day After Day by Badfinger
  26. Day Tripper by The Beatles
  27. Reminiscing by The Little River Band
  28. Sail On by The Commodores
  29. It Don't Matter to Me by Bread
  30. (Don't You) Forget About Me by Simple Minds
  31. Shambala by Three Dog Night
  32. Here Comes the Sun by The Beatles
  33. Head Over Heels by The Go Gos
  34. Call Me by Blondie
  35. Hello Goodbye by The Beatles
  36. Thunder Island by Jay Ferguson
  37. Downtown by Petula Clark
  38. Happy Together by The Turtles
  39. I Melt With You by Modern English
  40. To Sir, With Love by Lulu


Retrospace doesn't touch anything from the 1990s and later; but, if I had to throw a few out there I might choose "There She Goes" by The Las, "Crash" by The Primitives or "Son of Sam" by Elliot Smith

I know there's nothing particularly obscure in this list. Quite frankly, the very nature of being the perfect pop song means you are going to instantly resonate with listeners.... a perfect pop song will not be hidden for long.


  1. I would have swapped "Pleasant Valley Sunday" for "I'm A Believer" but I understand your average Joe will be more likely to start dancing and waving their arms around to "I'm A Believer". "Good Vibrations" succeeds as both an artistic statement and a pop song, as does my own personal choice for the greatest pop song ever recorded: "Eloise" by Barry Ryan. Everything about that song is amazing.

  2. This is a great list- Love me some Jay Ferguson- shakedown cruise would be on my list too- maybe a little too deep of a cut. Easy by the Commodores comes to mind too but that is picking knits

    1. oh and Shannon by Henry Gross- its about his dead dog fer christ sakes!

    2. It's actually about the dead dog of Carl Wilson of The Beach Boys. But that is picking knits.... or fleas in this case.

    3. And it makes me sad every time I hear it, thinking of that poor doggie swimming away, then getting lost at sea or eaten by a goddamn shark.

  3. I once read a sentence that part of it said "...that cheap thrill you get when your favorite song comes on the radio." That's where I thought you were going. But, I have to admit to being a bit confused. From your description of what qualifies and then from the Beach Boys you pick from the more arty Pet Sounds, not the more accessible earlier stuff. Good Vibrations is the one Beach Boys song guaranteed I'll change the station. It never goes anywhere and it never ends. But, there are some great songs here that get stuck in your head.

    Personally, my list would lean earlier. But I love, love, love If I Can't Have You by Yvonne Elliman.

    1. Paul McCartney has said "God Only Knows" is the greatest pop song ever recorded. And I think "Good Vibrations" fits my ingredients criteria better than perhaps any song ever written. It's more artsy than "Help Me Rhonda" to be sure, but that's the genius of it - it has artistic merit and it's a candy coated pop song.

    2. I agree with you about "Good Vibrations." A similar tune, though more obscure, is "Tell Her She's Lovely" by El Chicano (1973). Honorable mention perhaps?

    3. Just because Paul McCartney says so don't make it so. ;-}

  4. One song I would have included is "I Love You More Today Than Yesterday" (1967 or '68?) by Spiral Staircase. IMHO, that's one of the most perfect pop songs ever. Very catchy tune, too.

    1. I'd have to agree. Good recommendation.

    2. Pretty good list. Of course it's always going to be subjective, and reflective of each listener. I don't know if they fit all your rules but for me, I've always been partial to "Werewolves of London" by Warren Zevon. That's a fun, weird, catchy pop gem. "My Sharona" by the Kinks would be there, too, so accessible. "Oh, Pretty Woman" by Roy Orbison.
      I know it's from after the 90's and therefore forbidden but Cake's "the Distance" would be on my list, too. Weird instrumental mix for a pop gem but it succeeds despite itself.

    3. Oops, that was supposed to be a post, not a reply. Damn internets!!

    4. Surely you must mean "My Sharona" by the Knack, right?

    5. I thought about "My Sharona" but it's a little long and its riff is a little too jarring to be a perfect pop song.

    6. "My Sharona" is pure pop perfection. I get where you're coming from and why you didn't put it on the list, but it is, in my humble opinion, the most perfect pop song that was ever written. Again, I get where you're coming from and I can't complain if you put "I'm A Believer" at the top spot. After all, Micky D is my boss.

    7. 1969 for the Spiral Staircase

  5. Do You Believe in Magic- The Lovin' Spoonful
    Come and Get Your Love- Redbone
    I Can Hear Music- The Beach Boys

    1. I'd have to agree that "Do You Believe in Magic" should be on here somewhere. Not sure where, but it's a definite oversight.

  6. I have to agree with 99.999% of your choices.
    I am not sure "Lola" should be considered a "pop" song,
    but that is as far as I go disagreeing with you.
    Great list.

    1. I'd replace it with I Want to Hold Your Hand, I Feel Fine or Ticket to Ride in pace of the other Beatles tunes. A post like this makes it meaningless to even bother to make a reply...

    2. I almost disqualified Lola because of its "troubling" content, but then I don't think most listeners caught on. Otherwise, it's about as catchy and "by the book" as a pop song gets.

    3. Back in the day they were more troubled about "Lola" mentioning Coca-Cola, so the Kinks had to rerecord that line.

  7. Sounds like a darn fine iPod playlist to me. Thanks!

  8. Great list, thanks.
    For what it's worth,
    1. Peg - Steely Dan
    2. Is That Love - Squeeze
    3. Flesh Number One (Beatle Dennis) - Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians
    (a bit more obscure, but a lovely, lovely pop song)

  9. Hang on sloopy by the McCoys I think is somewhat underrated as pure pop

  10. I could go on forever,however I feel that there's a lot of unsung acts,groups and records that haven't been mentioned. All kinds of pop genres have given us listeners some great enjoyment. What happened to Motown? The Four Tops,Temptations,Supremes,Stevie Wonder,Jackson Five,Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye all made superior pop songs. I think that the under-rated Power pop movement brought a lot of great gems by bands like;The Raspberries,Big Star,Dwight Twilley,Flamin' Groovies,The Nazz,and others. Also don't forget the Byrds,Creedence Clearwater Revival,and the British invaders like the Dave Clark Five,Hollies,Zombies and the Who. Budd

  11. I think you're very brave to even try compiling such a list!
    I'd put 'Echo Beach' by Martha and the Muffins and Herman Hermits version of 'I'm Into Something Good' forward for consideration but I'm going to stop now before I start compiling my own list of annoying ear-worms.


  12. I agree with a good chunk of what's on your list. This is the sort of discussion that could go on for days.

    I just started looking through my 60's and 70's iPod playlists and I could drop about 200 for all to ponder but a few jumped out that have to be Submitted for your approval (In no particular order)

    Nothin' from Nothin' - Billy Preston
    Will It Go Round in Circles - Billy Preston
    Superstition - Stevie Wonder
    Hooked on a Feeling - Blue Swede
    More Than A Feeling - Boston
    I Feel The Earth Move - Carole King
    Close to You - Carpenters
    Fame - David Bowie
    American Pie - Don McLean

    Yikes - I'm only through the first 40 songs of my 772 song 70's Pop list and haven't got to Eagles, ELO, Elton John (Bennie and the Jets?, Crocodile Rock?) Fleetwood Mac - skipped John Denver - yeah - this could go on for days

  13. May I recommend...

    "Be My Baby" - The Ronettes
    "Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)" - Edison Lighthouse
    "Wouldn't It Be Nice" - The Beach Boys
    "Goodbye" - Mary Hopkin
    "It's Not Unusual" - Tom Jones
    "True Love" - Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly
    "Long Live Love" - Sandie Shaw
    "I'll Never Find Another You" - The Seekers
    "I Want To Hold Your Hand" - The Beatles
    "Elenore" - The Turtles

  14. Though it really is 2 songs "No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature" (The Guess Who)would maybe be too rock, too FM, to be considered Pop, but it is the soul of cool to me and deserves a place on any list.

  15. I wish there were at least one by Earth Wind and Fire: Reasons, or That's the Way Of The World. This is a very intelligent list though.

    1. "September" by Earth, Wind, & Fire could also qualify, IMHO.

  16. And Burt Bacharach! Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head is a perfect pop song. What The World Needs Now seems perfect too.

  17. Arrrrrgggg!!!!
    I've become infected!!!

    Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round The Old Oak Tree
    Knock Three Times On the Ceiling if You Want Me
    Hi Ho Sliver Lining
    Y Viva Espana
    Pretend (the Alvin Stardust Version)

    NURSE! quickly, the screens!


    1. If you want to include instrumentals, the song you celebrate--"Outa-Space" by Billy Preston would qualify.

  18. Your list of basic ingredients applies equally well to classical works, or to literary stuff like novels and movies.

    Pretty much the necessities for any piece of art that extends over a time interval. (i.e. not a painting or sculpture.)

  19. You Make Loving Fun by Fleetwood Mac. Those cascading harmonies at the end are like heroin.

  20. ...Can't believe no one commented on the "album cover" used for this post... Nice. :)

    1. It certainly features a right hand in the "I have no idea how to play guitar" position.


    2. I guess he heard you're supposed to slap a bass, but that's for the stand-up type.

  21. "Build Me Up Buttercup"(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QXJL5B3Lb3s) by the Foundations.

    "The Letter"(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BQaUs5J2wdI) by the Boxtops.

    I Think We're Alone Now" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IkMFLUXTEwM) by Tommy James and the Shondells.

  22. When I first saw the title of this post the songs that immediately came to mind were "Daydream Believer" by the Monkees and "To Sir With Love" by Lulu.

    While you missed "my" Monkees song, you did include 2 others; and Lulu made it at #40.

    Great list!! While it is easy to offer additions it is very difficult to pick anything that obviously deserves deletion.

  23. I cam agree with a lot on your list...but I vote for the original Chris Montez version of "Call Me" over the Clark or Wilson takes. I think you may not like the somewhat tuneless chorus going "La la la, la la" but in my opinion that makes the song.

    And don't forget "Cruel To Be Kind" by Nick Lowe...after all, he is a purveyor of Pure Pop for Now People.

  24. My contender for the best pop song ever:
    Teenage Dream -The Undertones

    Another good one:
    Ever fallen in Love -Buzzcocks

  25. AnonymousJune 24, 2012

    As a general rule, for these criteria, you can never go wrong with anything by the Turtles or Boyce and Hart. For those who never heard it, "Alice Long" is a pop masterpiece. Although it does have a fade-out and not a firm conclusion.

  26. How did September by Earth, Wind and Fire miss your list?... seems to meet all your elements, except the verse is a bit repetitive towards the end.

  27. Moon River by Jerry Butler may not have all the elements you suggest but has a beautiful melody, perfectly timed vocal and a guitar intro and fade out that sticks with you for ever. Two other favs that may fit better: Chad&Jerremy's Summer Song and Yesterday's gone.

  28. Art thou mad?

    The Dream Police by Cheap Trick certainly belongs in there. What about FM, or Reeling In The Years by Steely Dan? How about Saturday In The Park by Chicago?

  29. Build Me Up Buttercup, The Foundations. Offensively perfect.

  30. There was plenty of Perfect Pop that came out of Punk, as Anonymous' April 28th 2012 post showed.

    My 2 cents:

    Wire - Map Ref. 41°N 93°W
    The Who - I Can See For Miles

  31. Sunny 107.9 is hot! hot! hot! I love Adult Contemporary music and when my friend told me about the Sunny 107.9, I went bananas. I am now tuned in 24/7. At www.sunny1079.com , I am kept updated on the station’s latest promotions and community events. To date I have won several concert tickets and they love to give away cash! I’m so in love with the www.sunny1079.com

  32. Quit posting your promotional spam all over the internet, moron.