The Nine Most Popular Songs of the Last Millennium


This list is a little too late, as it was in December 1999 when radio stations, magazines, and MTV "counted down" the most popular tunes of recent times, calling them "the top 50 songs of the millennium". It was a misnomer: such countdowns never included a song before 1950 (if that). I do not believe that Michael Jackson's "Beat It" and Van Halen's "Jump" adequately represent a thousand years of human existence, so I offer up this list as something a little more appropriate, though these are just the biggest hits in the Western world. I'm also discounting hymns and national anthems.

  1. "Greensleeves" (mid-1500s, author unknown). Though the melody is usually sung in America as the Christmas carol "What Child Is This", the original medieval love song is the granddaddy of popular music, composed in the 16th century somewhere in England. Legend has it that King Henry VIII wrote it in 1530, but I'm not buying it.
  2. "Happy Birthday" (1935, Mildred and Patty Hill). A comparatively new tune on this list, but possibly the most recognized song in the entire world. Millions sing it every day, and they all have these two old sisters to thank. Mildred wrote the melody back in the 1890s; Patty added the lyrics, which were at first "Good morning to you" and then, 40 years later, "Happy birthday to you". Incredibly, the song that belongs to everyone is copyrighted (it expires in 2011, at least until somebody tweaks the law again), and if you want to use it in a film or even have waiters sing it in your restaurant, you have to pay steep licensing fees to Warner Communications (who shelled out $25 million for the rights in 1988) or get sued.
  3. "Ah, vous Dirai-je, maman" (mid-1700s, author unknown). Though the French translation is "Should I tell you, mother?" you probably know this as "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" or "Baa Baa Black Sheep" or "The Alphabet Song". In truth, it's an old French folk song that was first written down in 1761 by one M. Bouin, though it probably existed beforehand. However, it was a 26-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart who cemented the melody's popularity with his twelve variations (written as lessons for his students) in 1782.
  4. "Three Blind Mice" (1609, author unknown). Another oldie but a goodie, this popular nursery rhyme began, like many nursery rhymes, as political satire: The "farmer's wife" is said to refer to England's Queen Mary I ("Bloody Mary"), who executed three lords of her estates (the "mice"). This would make sense, as the beloved Elizabeth I had recently died and it was quite fashionable to mock her late sister. The tune has stayed with us, and some say the three notes you hear on your standard touchtone phone were suggested by this tune.
  5. "Home, Sweet Home!" (1823, Sir Henry Bishop & John Howard Payne). "Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home." This little homily got its start as an operatic aria by British composer Sir Henry Bishop. It was first warbled in his opera Clari, or the Maid of Milan, with words written by the American Payne. The song has great historical significance, too: for centuries, popular songs were never written down, and there was no means of mass distribution. "Home, Sweet Home!" was the first to obtain such distribution, and the first to be marketed as something to be played at home. It was an enormous success; the better-remembered composer Rossini even used it in The Barber of Seville.
  6. "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" (1709? 1722?, author unknown). Another French folk song that got transformed in English-speaking lands. Originally called "Malbrouck s'en va-t-en guerre", named after the Duke of Marlborough, who fought France until his death in 1705, it was known first in the US as "The Bear Went Over the Mountain" and in England by this title.
  7. "Are You Sleeping" (1811, author unknown) As "Frère Jacques", this is the one song that American children hear more often in French than in English (where it's known as "Brother John"), though the song remains popular in several languages throughout the world - "Bruder Jakob" in German, "Panie Janie" in Polish, etc. By the way, the "brother" is not a sibling but a monk.
  8. "Auld Lang Syne" (1788, Robert Burns). Scottish poet Burns attached his name to this iconic new year's anthem, though historians believe the song predated Burns by many years (possibly as early as 1700); he himself claimed to have transcribed it from "an old man's singing" but made enough changes to call it his own. The Scottish words "auld lang syne" directly translate to "old long ago" or "times gone by".
  9. "Comin' Thro' the Rye" (1792?, Robert Burns). Burns again! This little ditty - "Gin a body meet a body, comin' thro' the rye" - deserves its place on this list not only for its recognizable melody, but also because it lies at the center of one of American literature's greatest books, The Catcher in the Rye, as well as being heard millions of times each day throughout Japan, as an electronic alarm at pedestrian crossing signals across the country.