The Top 25 Songs From The 80’s, 90’s, & 00’s

FROM THE 80’s, 90’s, & 00’s

Videos by American Songwriter

Selected by the American Songwriter Staff

Coming up with a list of favorite songs spanning a 25-year spectrum is far from easy, but it’s also a lot of fun. Thinking about songs we listened to on the radio (when we turned 16, before CD players were standard and before satellite radio), songs we danced to (sometimes with someone special, sometimes completely solo), learned how to play on guitar (not deftly by any means) and songs we sang along to (words memorized and belted way out of tune) ushered in countless memories. The process brought us together as a staff, just sitting around talking about the songs we love, while at the same time it affirmed the amazing songwriting that’s taken place between 1984 and 2010.


“The Dance”
Garth Brooks
Garth Brooks (1989)
Written by Tony Arata

Brooks’ delicate vocals match the tone of the poignant lyrics. The song’s got love, dreams, loss, pain, hope and life in one tight package; it can leave you crying for all the right reasons.


“Fast Car”
Tracy Chapman
Tracy Chapman (1988)
Written by Tracy Chapman

The song that put Ms. Chapman on the map blends the hard-knocks realities of poverty in America with a timeless sense of urgency and hope.


“Sweet Child O’ Mine”
Guns N’ Roses
Appetite for Destruction (1987)
Written by W. Axl Rose, Michael McKagan, Steven Adler, Saul Hudson and Jeffrey Isbell

What started as a joke, with Slash noodling on his guitar, turned out to be ‘80s rock songwriting gold. Axl’s ear-splitting vocals put “Sweet Child” over the top.


“When Doves Cry”
Purple Rain (1984)
Written by Prince

A dance-pop masterpiece that’s spurred a generation of awkward white kids to attempt to dance and sing falsetto-don’t go off to college without it.


“Wagon Wheel”
Old Crow Medicine Show
O.C.M.S. (2004)
Written by Bob Dylan and Ketch Secor

The best way to co-write with Dylan: find the scrap of an unreleased song and turn it into something wholly your own…well, Dylan still owns 50 percent, but you get the picture. Secor and Old Crow created a classic song that never gathers dust in our office.


“Sticks that Made Thunder”
The SteelDrivers
The SteelDrivers (2008)
Written by Mike Henderson and Chris Stapleton

A somber, chilling bluegrass number about…well…a tree. To be specific, a tree observing a Civil War battle-not many folks can pull a song like this off.


Mellow Gold (1994)
Written by Beck Michael Hanson and Carl F. Stephenson

Remember trying to memorize the words to this? Remember trying to figure out the chorus when the song first came out? If Beck is a loser, we don’t want to win.


“First Day of My Life”
Bright Eyes
I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning (2005)
Written by Conor Oberst

Oberst’s song is a wonderful, plain-spoken poetic statement on modern love. It’s simple, delicate and feels new every time you play it for that special someone.


“Karma Police”
OK Computer (1997)
Written by Colin Greenwood, Jonny Greenwood, Ed O’Brien, Phil Selway and Thom Yorke

Radiohead bring the paranoia and chaos in this creepy classic. But the song’s life-affirming coda (“for a minute there, I lost myself”) is like a shot of adrenaline.


“Mr. Jones”
Counting Crows
August and Everything After (1993)
Written by Steve Bowman, David Bryson, Adam Duritz, Charlie Gillingham, Matt Malley

We all wanted to be big stars, and who among us doesn’t want to be Bob Dylan? An inescapable hook and chorus just never lets this song grow stale. Sha-la-la-la-la indeed.



Bon Iver
For Emma, Forever Ago (2007)
Written by Justin Vernon

An eerie, lyrically vague number that swept us off our feet and dropped us in the Wisconsin wilderness. Vernon’s DIY recordings from his cabin in the woods resonate and inspire.


“Independence Day”
Martina McBride
The Way That I Am (1993)
Written by Gretchen Peters

Our kind of patriotic song! It gets you all fired up about standing up for yourself in the face of something wrong-behind closed doors or in the streets. It’s a must for any jukebox.


Andrew Bird
Armchair Apocrypha (2007)
Written by Andrew Bird

Not only does he whistle and play the violin like a mofo-Bird writes beautiful, endlessly unfolding tunes that make your soul ache with their loveliness.


Bob Dylan
Love and Theft (2001)
Written by Bob Dylan

Leave it to Bob Dylan to stay in Mississippi a day too long, write a song about it, and have said song be as deep and as powerful as the river it shares a name with.


“Smells Like Teen Spirit”
Nevermind (1991)
Written by Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic

Whether it’s a lightning rod anthem for apathetic youth or one the best frickin’ rock songs ever (or both), this tune will forever be one of our faves. Cobain ushered in the Grunge era with these contradictory lyrics, howling screams and potent guitar fuzz.


“Free Fallin'”
Tom Petty
Full Moon Fever (1989)
Written by Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty

The early dreams of westward expansion meet the not-so-happy reality of the present in Petty’s tune, which namedrops L.A. streets and landmarks while echoing an urgency to flee. Doubt and heartbreak chased with a new dream of escape.


Alan Jackson
A Lot About Livin’ (and a Little ‘Bout Love) (1992)
Written by Alan Jackson and Jim McBride

This devilishly straightforward song preaches the gospel of learnin’, lovin’ and livin’ in the South. It’s one of those songs in which lines unsaid are as important as those sung. It remains one of our favorites to crank up on a summer Friday afternoon.


“Forever and Ever, Amen”
Randy Travis
Always and Forever (1987)
Written by Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz

Travis’ singing can’t be beat, while the songwriting team of Overstreet and Schlitz nail the earnest down-home sentimentality of a country boy on this one.


My Morning Jacket
It Still Moves (2003)
Written by Jim James

The guitar rambles and trots while James’ vocals softly glide over. The lyrics about bars, concerts, and rock stars, delivered by James’ alpine falsetto carry you off to a better place like a folk-rock lullaby.


“It’s a Great Day to be Alive”
Travis Tritt
Down the Road I Go (2000)
Written by Darrell Scott

An American anthem about taking things day by day and enjoying the simple, offbeat things in life. The optimism lifts us up, gets us thinking about going to get new tattoos, and growing facial hair.


“Copperhead Road”
Steve Earle
Copperhead Road (1988)
Written by Steve Earle

Earle’s song is a country-rock storytelling gem that’ll always shine through. His musing on a descendant of bootleggers turned dope-grower in the Tennessee hills after two tours in Vietnam is bittersweet and blood-boiling-and butt-kickin’ good.


Gillian Welch
Time (The Revelator) (2002)
Written by Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch

Sparse and elegant, “Revelator” has been hailed by some as one of greatest folk songs written in this century-we cannot disagree. The desperation, the wandering, and the abandonment found within are reminiscent of the mood and setting of a William Gay or Cormac McCarthy novel. Rawlings’ picking on his archtop adds to the stumbling visions of moving westward, leaving the world behind. And here, especially, Gil and Dave’s subtle vocal harmonies never fail to shiver spines and lift neck hairs.


“Ashes of American Flags”
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)
Written by Jay Bennett and Jeff Tweedy

Wilco are like an ATM machine of good songs. This one is filled with hundreds and twenties. For a small service fee, you too will come back new.


“Born in the U.S.A.”
Bruce Springsteen
Born in the U.S.A. (1984)
Written by Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen’s career reached critical mass with the Born in the U.S.A. album. The title song, deceptively simple yet decidedly complex, lodged him into our national consciousness for good, and helped turn the man from New Jersey into an American folk hero and protector of the people. Ronald Reagan famously misunderstood the intentions behind the Boss’s lyrics. But just because the chorus wasn’t meant to be patriotic doesn’t mean you can’t sing it with pride. As an electric rave-up or an acoustic blues, “Born in the U.S.A.” resonates almost as deeply as the American Dream.


Paul Simon
Graceland (1986)
Written by Paul Simon

Paul Simon considers this the greatest song he’s ever written, and he’s written a lot of great songs. Dealing in divorce, the holy road trip, and the ghost of Elvis, “Graceland” is based on a real journey Simon took with his young son, Harper. The song’s sad center anchors its optimistic exterior, and the music blends different cultures (South African, American) into a joyous cappuccino of sound. “There is a girl in New York City, who calls herself the human trampoline. And sometimes when I am bouncing, falling, and tumbling in turmoil, I say oh, so this is what she means. She means we are bouncing into Graceland.”


Leave a Reply
  1. Some really good stuff here. Obviously any list like this will leave plenty for debate. ( I think thats what makes it fun.) So for my part, I’d like to say to Mike and Kevin that I’m glad they left out U2. Maybe they did it because this is American Songwriter Magazine, and they are of course Irish. But I’m hoping they did it because U2 is the most over rated band since the Eagles.

    Whatever the reason, good job ASM!

  2. How can you start this list off with a Guy Clark logo-type thing up top and not include a Guy song? Steve Earle also has plenty of waaay better songs than Copperhead Road. Are you afraid to venture into the realm of the unknown to the reader? This is one reason why Americans are all tools…we only know what the radio and MTV show us. speaking of American songwriters…where’s Townes Van Zandt? This list should be retitled 25 Of Our Favorite Pop Songs From 1984-2009…try stepping out on a limb next time and put some songs in there that fewer people have heard…maybe someone will say “Hmm, I’ve never heard that….maybe I should check it out”

Leave a Reply

BOB McDILL: Bob McDill Just Keeps on Writing Those Hits

An Interview with Jon Bon Jovi: Opposite Methods Result In Hit Songs