It’s long been acknowledged that “Smells Like Spirit” is one of the most powerful songs in the history of rock. Now a data scientist has declared it to be “the most iconic song of all time.” Not just among rock songs but all songs.
Commissioned by car marker Fiat to find a song to market the newest Fiat 500, Dr. Mick Grierson did a deep-dive into all the songs featured on a series of “all-time best” lists culled from Rolling Stone, Q, The NME, and other publications. He then used special analytical software to deconstruct about the best-placing songs into their constituent parts: key, beats per minute, chord variety, lyrics, timbral variety, and sonic variance.
When the results came back, “Teen Spirit” was found to have ticked the most boxes. It was followed by “Imagine” by John Lennon, U2’s “One,” Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” from Queen.
What else did we learn?
- Most hits run at about 120-125 BPM and don’t bother with too many chords (six to eight)
- The songs use a “high level of tonal variation” but stick to similar keys.
- About 80% of the 50 songs on this final list were in a major key.
- About 80% were in the keys of A, E, C, or G.
- The most commonly used lyrics? “Baby,” “Feel,” “Love,” and “Nah.”
- These words were also common: “Generation,” “hallelujah,” “every breath” and “queen.”
Dr. Grierson was upfront about a few things. “Ultimately there is no ‘formula’ for this, other than to make your song sound as different, diverse and exciting as possible. Even by applying scientific process, what is considered iconic is ultimately up to the individual. My conclusion is that if you want a formula for creating great music, there is one: you just have to make something that sounds great.”
Here’s the full list:
1. Smells Like Teen Spirit, Nirvana
2. Imagine, John Lennon
3. One, U2
4. Billie Jean, Michael Jackson
5. Bohemian Rhapsody, Queen
6. Hey Jude, The Beatles
7. Like A Rolling Stone, Bob Dylan
8. I Can’t Get No Satisfaction, Rolling Stones
9. God Save The Queen, Sex Pistols
10. Sweet Child O’Mine, Guns N’ Roses
11. London Calling, The Clash
12. Waterloo Sunset, The Kinks
13. Hotel California, The Eagles
14. Your Song, Elton John
15. Stairway To Heaven, Led Zeppelin
16. The Twist, Chubby Checker
17. Live Forever, Oasis
18. I Will Always Love You, Whitney Houston
19. Life On Mars? David Bowie
20. Heartbreak Hotel, Elvis Presley
21. Over The Rainbow, Judy Garland
22. What’s Goin’ On, Marvin Gaye
23. Born To Run, Bruce Springsteen
24. Be My Baby, The Ronettes
25. Creep, Radiohead
26. Bridge Over Troubled Water, Simon & Garfunkel
27. Respect, Aretha Franklin
28. Family Affair, Sky And The Family Stone
29. Dancing Queen, ABBA
30. Good Vibrations, The Beach Boys
31. Purple Haze, Jimi Hendrix
32. Yesterday, The Beatles
33. Jonny B Good, Chuck Berry
34. No Woman No Cry, Bob Marley
35. Hallelujah, Jeff Buckley
36. Every Breath You Take, The Police
37. A Day In The Life, The Beatles
38. Stand By Me, Ben E King
39. Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag, James Brown
40. Gimme Shelter, The Rolling Stones
41. What’d I Say, Ray Charles
42. Sultans Of Swing, Dire Straits
43. God Only Knows, The Beach Boys
44. You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling, The Righteous Brothers
45. My Generation, The Who
46. Dancing In The Street, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas
47. When Doves Cry, Prince
48. A Change Is Gonna Come, Sam Cooke
49. River Deep Mountain High, Ike and Tina Turner
50. Best Of My Love, The Emotions
Discuss. More at The Daily Mail.