A new year always means at least one thing: everyone and everything is getting older. That also applies to the art that we may have loved, or perhaps just lingers in our collective memory. Thankfully, there are plenty of obvious benchmarks, from the turn of the century to Wilford Brimley’s age in Cocoon, to keep us writhing in agony; meanwhile, less obvious are the pop songs that have seemed to exist forever, whether or not we were old enough to hear them when they first debuted.
Looking back at the past quarter-century, we decided to stick that knife in nice and slow with a list of 25 songs that are turning 25 in 2022. Enjoy the trip down memory lane, and try not to immediately dry up into a mummified husk.
1. Aqua // "Barbie Girl"
The Scandinavian invasion hadn’t fully happened even by the late ‘90s, but Aqua’s biggest (and basically only) hit certainly hastened that movement. As big as his dance-pop song was, its merits didn’t especially endure off the pop charts, which have often gravitated toward mindless and yet irresistible lyrics; in fact, Mattel, the manufacturer of Barbie dolls, actually sued the band for copyright infringement and eventually defamation, which resulted in lots of legal fees and a judge’s verdict that sided with the artist and concluded "the parties are advised to chill."
2. Blackstreet // "No Diggity"
In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Teddy Riley was a producer’s producer, effectively codifying the R&B genre of “New Jack Swing” while working as a member of chart-topping bands like Guy and Wreckx-n-Effect (formerly known as Wrecks-n-Effect). Riley formed Blackstreet in 1991, but after writing this instant dancefloor classic in 1996, neither Guy nor its lead singer Aaron Hall wanted to perform it. Even Blackstreet didn’t want it, which is why Riley ended up singing the first verse. Meanwhile, Riley is credited as producer, but he actually secretly bought the instrumental from Dr. Dre as he attempted to extricate himself from his Death Row deal, while also paving the way for Dre’s piano-heavy sound on 2001.
3. Meredith Brooks // "Bitch"
Alanis Morissette spawned a lot of imitators, fierce young women who were determined to stake their claim with catchy melodies and unsparing indictments of their male counterparts—not to mention those counterparts’ perception of them. Meredith Brooks earned a Grammy nomination for this defiant anthem, which her label Capitol was initially reluctant to release as a single due to the profanity in the title. But the tune actually helped women reclaim a pejorative word and, perhaps more importantly, remind the world that even the angriest and most disgruntled individuals contain multitudes.
4. Chumbawumba // "Tubthumping"
British rock band Chumbawumba had been together 15 (!) years by the time they earned their first major worldwide hit, and boy were its members ready. Initially inspired by punk rock, and later, rave culture, the group shuffled through identities until those influences came together quite brilliantly with “Tubthumping.” From its hip-hop beats to its hooligan-chant chorus, the track was instantly catchy, and if they never achieved that level of success again, it kept them going for another 15 years afterward.
5. Paula Cole // "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?"
Paula Cole struck pop paydirt with this propulsive song about a tragic romance, the lead-off single from her second album. The track earned her three Grammy nominations and her first (and only) Top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart before she sang her way into true immortality with “I Don’t Want To Wait,” which of course became the theme song for Dawson’s Creek.
6. Cornershop // "Brim Full of Asha"
Suffice it to say that Indian culture was not an especially commercially viable subject in 1997, but Tjinder Singh and his band carved out a niche with the breakthough single “Brimful of Asha,” a mercilessly catchy tune based on the history of Indian cinema. It certainly didn’t hurt that Norman Cook a.k.a. Fatboy Slim remixed it into another stratosphere, but among the outliers claiming space on the Billboard charts 25 years ago, this is one of the few that not only deserved to endure but inspired more exploration from listeners than what was the next track on the radio.
7. Daft Punk // "Around the World"
For better or worse, Daft Punk’s debut album Homework was still lodged in the past—of electronic music, if nowhere else. The tracks, including its debut single “Da Funk,” all ran extremely long for any other purpose than filling a dance floor, which may account for its comparatively muted acclaim in comparison to their explosively popular sophomore effort Discovery. But the gem that made that masterpiece possible was “Around the World,” which is still one of the catchiest dance singles of the past three decades—and still holds up just as well today as when it made us all start dancing back then.
8. Celine Dion // “My Heart Will Go On”
There’s probably a math equation you can do with song that will make you feel extremely old, or somehow pair up with the wait involved between the first Avatar and James Cameron’s long-delayed sequels. But like Titanic, the film that inspired it, this ballad only gained commercial steam after the movie was released in December 1997, not only becoming one of the best-selling singles of all time but winning an Academy Award and multiple Grammys. For better or worse, it’s a real time capsule of a song that may either bring back fond memories or remind you how much you hate it; in other words, it really will go on (and on and on ...).
9. Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott // “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)”
Timbaland was already an established presence by 1997 thanks to his work for Aaliyah (“If Your Girl Only Knew”) and Ginuwine (“Pony”). But this debut single by Elliott, herself a songwriter for Aaliyah, seemed to transform the landscape of R&B almost overnight. Strictly speaking, Missy Elliott sort of straddles R&B and hip-hop, but that was also Timbaland’s sweet spot, and this loose cover of Ann Peebles’ “I Can’t Stand The Rain” took listeners on a trip to a future where the two of them seemed to be writing as they went along—and we’re still trying to catch up.
10. Hanson // “MMMBop”
At approximately the same time that boy bands were making a comeback and dominating the pop charts, this sibling trio merged the DIY aesthetic of grunge and the sunny harmonies of forebears from the Beach Boys to the Jackson Five. Credit for its success actually goes to cult producers and Beastie Boys and Beck collaborators the Dust Brothers, who sped up the song for the group’s major-label debut, creating an earworm guaranteed to drive anyone over the age of 14 absolutely (if perhaps cheerfully) mad.
11. Harvey Danger // “Flagpole Sitta”
Alt-rock band Harvey Danger didn’t stick around for long, perhaps due to the fact that its bestselling single was essentially written in response to (rather than, say, in acquiescence of) the impact of the ‘90s Seattle music scene on mainstream culture. Meanwhile, its other influences were kind of charmingly eclectic, drawing the song’s title from a line in a Marx Brothers movie about the 1920s flagpole-sitting trend and spelling sitter with an "a" rather than an “er” because it’s what both indie rock band Pavement and rap group N.W.A. did.
12. Elton John // “Candle In The Wind 1997”
Diana, Princess of Wales died on August 31, 1997—shocking the world, and especially Elton John, who was one of her close friends. John reconnected with his longtime songwriting partner Bernie Taupin to adapt the lyrics of his 1973 chart-topper— itself a tribute to Marilyn Monroe—to pay tribute to Princess Diana's her life and death. The track went on to become the second-highest-selling physical single of all time (just behind Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas”), and after 15 years raised $176.7 million, entirely for charities that were important to the dignitary.
13. K-Ci & JoJo // “All My Life”
Along with Boyz II Men and a handful of other bands, Jodeci brought R&B balladeering back with a vengeance (and some less innocent intentions) in the early ‘90s. Within five years of the release of the group’s debut, Jodeci band members K-Ci and JoJo would break off to form their own group, and this song actually reclaims the romantic longing that was such an indelible part of the group’s early songs.
14. Los Del Río // “Macarena”
VH1 called this song the “greatest one-hit wonder of all time” in 2002, and the music video network is probably right: "Macarena" is instantly familiar, it comes with a catchy dance, and the group behind it is virtually invisible to most listeners. The Latin pop and dance duo behind the song formed in 1962 and recorded at least five different versions of the song over six full-length albums; still, it wasn’t until the Bayside Boys remixed it in English that it blew up into the 14-week Billboard Hot 100 number one song that danced its way into listeners’ hearts and heads (for better or worse).
15. Marcy Playground // “Sex and Candy”
Marcy Playground’s self-titled debut album signaled the death knell for grunge; the disgruntled restlessness of breakthrough bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam yielded to slicker, more immediately commercial fare like this song, whose aloofness felt much more studied. Yet the band became a huge phenomenon in late 1997 and 1998 thanks to this song that lead singer John Wozniak once claimed was about love but later admitted he had no idea what it was about.
16. Mark Morrison // “Return of the Mack”
If you were told that Mark Morrison never recorded another song after “Return of the Mack,” would you be surprised? It isn’t true—he released another album and two EPs between 1996 and 2014—but the enormous success of this hit single practically defines the term “one-hit wonder.” That said, it is an absolutely evergreen banger thanks to its deft mix of samples that start with a drumbeat from Tom Tom Club’s iconic “Genius of Love,” and it continues to epitomize the unique transition R&B was making from its New Jack era to the nu-soul that would define much of the late 1990s.
17. The Prodigy // “Smack My Bitch Up”
By the time Prodigy released the third single from their 1997 album Fat of the Land, the electronic group had already become international superstars, even while turning up their noses at anything even resembling commercial capitulation. So it came as no surprise that this song followed “Firestarter” and “Breathe” into the pantheon of absolute barn-burners while courting the controversy of its lyrics, cribbed from an Ultramagnetic MCs song and recontextualized into meaningless chatter, despite critics insisting that the group was advocating physical violence against women.
18. Puff Daddy featuring Faith Evans and 112 // "I’ll Be Missing You"
By 1997, Puff Daddy had shepherded—or, depending on how you looked at it, ridden the coattails of—a stable of artists at Bad Boy Records and creating an empire while commercializing hip-hop loose from its street-level roots. This tribute single, which sampled The Police’s “I’ll Be Watching You,” drove a few extra nails into that coffin music critics were preparing for the genre, but Sean Combs received at least a portion of the justice he deserved: Because he didn’t clear the sample before he used it, songwriter Sting received—and continues to receive—100 percent of the royalties for the song, which reportedly earns the former Police frontman an estimated $2000 per day.
19. Radiohead // “Karma Police"
When Radiohead’s Pablo Honey was released, “Creep” felt destined to become the one hit of a one-hit wonder band, thanks to its distinctive but kinda post-Beck’s “Loser” singularity of focus. The group’s second album The Bends didn’t blaze much of a trail for most radio listeners, but this second single from OK Computer announced the group as a creative force that wasn’t content to be just another disaffected alt-rock band working its way through the grunge playbook. Singer Thom Yorke’s voice came through loud and clear over the band’s icy musicianship, produced by Nigel Godrich, and highlighting a journey they wanted to take whether anyone else followed.
20. Savage Garden // “Truly Madly Deeply”
Savage Garden, a band for people who thought Simply Red’s “Holding Back The Years” was a little too hard, released its debut album in March 1997. This ballad was the third single released, and the group’s first Number One, spending 123 weeks on the Billboard charts, which set a new record for any single. The band held onto that record until 2002, when another Savage Garden tune, "I Knew I Loved You," swooped in and stole it.
21. Sneaker Pimps // “6 Underground”
Where did you first hear Sneaker Pimps’ “6 Underground?” Val Kilmer’s big screen adaptation of The Saint? The revisionist teen comedy Can’t Hardly Wait? The Dangerous Liaisons remake Cruel Intentions? Once you heard its dreamy John Barry samples, you never forgot them, which might be why so many filmmakers utilized it over and over again—and effectively. As part of the mid-'90s explosion of electronic music, this was one of the pop breakthroughs that still endures today.
22. Sugar Ray // “Fly”
Add Sugar Ray to a surprisingly big number of artists—including many on this list—who achieved fame off of an outlier song instead of something truer to the band’s original identity. “Fly” came along at the perfect time for the former nu-metal band, giving them cuddly pop credibility embodied by a good-looking frontman, Mark McGrath, who further pushed Sugar Ray’s sound toward the pop charts on their follow-up to Floored—a slight irony given the coming wave of Nu-Metal bands that were about to break through without softening their sound.
23. Third Eye Blind // “Semi-Charmed Life”
Not unlike Marcy Playground, Third Eye Blind was a band that arrived on the second (or possibly third) wave of grunge, when most of what made the genre so distinctive had been boiled down to a commercial formula, and sanded of its rough edges. Even so, this lead single from the group’s debut studio album was not without its scruffy charms, thanks to frontman Stephan Jenkins’ petulant delivery and a raucous drumbeat that reportedly went through five iterations before the group arrived at the infectious final version.
24. The Verve // “Bitter Sweet Symphony”
It’s hard to think of a hit song that screwed its creators harder than “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” but perhaps The Verve should have seen it coming. By the time Richard Ashcroft and his bandmates sampled Andrew Oldham Orchestra’s recording of the Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time,” there had already been several high-profile lawsuits filed over using music that didn’t belong to the artist that was recontextualizing it. But even if the song propelled the band to enormous international success, the recipients of songwriting credits (and the profits attached to them) were Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, while its royalties went to former Stones manager Allen Klein. Jagger and Richards actually ceded their rights to the song to Ashcroft in 2019, but not before more than two decades of legal acrimony.
25. White Town // “Your Woman”
Thanks to the advent of multi-track recording technology and the du jour sound of electronic pop, one-man-bands had become popular, especially in Europe, by 1997. This track feels almost forgotten in comparison to some of the songs on this list, but it takes only a few seconds of that muted trumpet to send the listener flying back to some basement house party or sweaty dance floor where you swayed to its hypnotic beat. The fact that Jyoti Mishra created a song whose themes covered nonbinary romance, political affiliations, and philosophical quandaries has only added to its luster, long after it disappeared from those parties and dance floors.