Music often leaves a deep mark on its era. Songs become embedded in our consciousness through their ability to perfectly capture a moment. They are burned even deeper into history through stories, newsreels and documentary footage, circulated by word-of-mouth as well as official documentation.
For this reason, music gets mixed up somewhere between ourselves and our collective understanding. Music becomes part of intimate memory as well as public record. In this sense, certain songs transcend a moment as well as embody it.
Music also does so in less-than-obvious ways. Music is more than the iconic tracks, the songs of summer and the anthems of the age. There are many layers to history—different genres, different moments, different senses of what it all means. At its best, music becomes a means for figuring out what it all meant after the dust finally settles.
In this list, we take a look at those bits of music that cling to us like memories, from the generation-defining tracks and testaments to the moment to those songs that tether us to the past on a personal level. Here are 11 songs that define their moment.
Janis Joplin – “Me And Bobby McGee”
Janis Joplin is one of the most influential artists in rock music, period. Her stage presence and soulful voice—oscillating between anguish and tenderness depending on the song—resonate with many to this day. Her death is one of music’s saddest losses. Hitting No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 after her passing, “Me And Bobby McGee” quickly became Joplin’s signature song, and for good reason. She turned Kris Kristofferson’s road tune into a rousing musical journey until the last note. You can even hear some of her influence in Kesha’s 2017 song “Spaceship.”
The Jimi Hendrix Experience – “Purple Haze”
“Purple Haze all in my brain/Lately things don’t seem the same/Actin’ funny, but I don’t know why/Scuse’ me while I kiss the sky.” These lyrics are ingrained in the hallowed halls of rock ’n’ roll history. For good reason, too. This 1967 song would become a beloved classic by one of music’s greatest guitar players. Arguably the best guitar player period, but this isn’t the time for that debate. According to Jimi Hendrix, the song is partially in reference to the science fiction story, Night of Light by Philip José Farmer. In the story, “purple haze” refers to the disorienting effect that sunspot activity has on the inhabitants of a planet called Dante’s Joy.
Aretha Franklin – “Respect”
Though “Respect” isn’t an Aretha Franklin original, she more than made it her own with her formidable voice and commanding presence. The song comes from Otis Redding, written and recorded by the soul singer in 1965. However, once The Queen of Soul got her hands on it in 1967, she more than earned the right to claim it as her signature track. Both versions of the song are amazing, but there’s something so empowering about Franklin putting her foot down with all the might of a woman who’s been through too much to put up with anything else when we get to the iconic bridge.
Prince – “Purple Rain”
The Purple One has been gone for over five years, and many still aren’t over it. Thankfully, there will always be the art he left behind to reconnect us all to the magic he brought to this world. There’s no song in his repertoire more well known than “Purple Rain.” Both the song and the movie have been a mainstay since they first hit in 1984. In the movie, the song is a hybrid of The Kid’s grief over losing his father and reconnecting with his lover, Apollonia. However, in real life, Prince spoke of the song being about the end of the world and spending those last moments with the one you love. Revolution bandmate Lisa Coleman had a different take, speaking of the purple signifying “the sky at dawn, rain, the cleansing factor.” Whichever meaning you find more fitting, the song is the definitive Prince power ballad.
Mötley Crüe – “Kickstart My Heart”
Who knew a song about death and revival could be so punk rock? The second single from Mötley Crüe’s fifth studio album, the song was written about bassist Nikki Sixx’s heroin overdose in 1987. He was revived after two adrenaline shots to the heart. The song acted as a way for Sixx to describe the intense experience, ultimately becoming their most popular song.
Nirvana – “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
Nirvana are to grunge what Beethoven is to classical or what Selena is to Tejano music. The late great Kurt Cobain became the voice for an entire generation of people who felt ignored by society, jaded with life and shut out by their peers. In that vein, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is the anthem for many a grunge kid, both in the ’90s and beyond. Unfortunately, after performing the song so many times, Cobain grew tired of it and removed it from the band’s live sets as often as possible. What’s iconic to a fanbase can be stifling for the artist, after all.
Erykah Badu – “On & On”
From the first second of “On & On,” it’s clear what Erykah Badu is going for. The laid-back style of her delivery, the cool melody that flows throughout each moment of the instrumental. “On & On” is a neo-soul standard, and as the Queen of Neo-Soul, Badu has more than staked her claim. Badu studied the teachings of the Nation of Gods and Earths and even references the group’s theology of Supreme Mathematics. If you’re ever in need of a song to sip wine and read a novel to, look no further. This is one of the ultimate kickback songs.
Panic! At The Disco – “I Write Sins Not Tragedies”
Every alternative, scene, and goth kid from the 2000s knows it’s time to rage when you hear, “Oh well, imagine/As I’m pacing the pews in a church corridor.” The song is not only massive among the Myspace generation, but it’s transcended beyond its original audience due to memes and especially the YouTube reaction channels just getting to know P!ATD. Though it weaves a tale of infidelity and betrayal, it’s impossible not to crack a smile when those first notes of cello hit your ears.
My Chemical Romance – “Teenagers”
If “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is the national anthem for alternative kids, then “Teenagers” is the call to arms, the rallying cry for misfits and disenfranchised youth. MCR lead singer Gerard Way wrote the song in reaction to his own teenage years and feeling the prejudice from older people against his age group. “Teenagers” perfectly calls out the apprehension that adults have toward teenagers and how as an adult himself, Way felt that same apprehension. So while many teenagers, and teens at heart, see the empowerment in the song, it’s also touching that Way was able to point out that he’d fallen victim to the same prejudices he’d felt as a teenager.
A Tribe Called Quest – “Scenario” (feat. Leaders Of The New School)
One of the most celebrated ensemble cuts in hip-hop, “Scenario” features A Tribe Called Quest and Leaders Of The New School putting on a tour de force of equally amazing rhymes and beats. The Low End Theory song also marks the breakout of Busta Rhymes, whose verse isn’t only historic in hip-hop but has been referenced by other rappers such as Nicki Minaj in “Roman’s Revenge.”
Beyoncé – “Formation”
Bravado and self-assurance ring throughout “Formation” as Beyoncé puts her foot down and makes a statement in all the best ways. The song is a Black power anthem that came out at a time when the Black community needed it. Even its release date is meaningful in terms of Black history. “Formation” dropped one day after what would have been Trayvon Martin’s 21st birthday and one day before what would have been Sandra Bland’s 29th birthday. Both Martin and Bland’s deaths are catalysts for the Black Lives Matter movement.