The best throwback songs can take you time-traveling and bring back memories of an earlier era, usually 15-20 years before.
Throwback songs are those that it seems everyone can sing along with that instantly make you think of the time you first heard them played on the radio.
“1985” by Bowling for Soup
Song Year: 2004
This song is easily one of the best throwback songs of all time because it's a song with specific mentions of the past.
The song references the year 1985 and the general time with references to several popular musical artists like Duran Duran, Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, and several others.
They reference some of the most iconic movies of the 80s, like Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club.
“1985” uses one character to illustrate the disappointment of people who were teenagers during the 80s and came of age during the MTV era. The character in the song can't stop thinking about the 80s and how much better life was back then.
Growing up doesn't often go as people plan when they're kids with big dreams. It's common to be attached to the teenage years and stay fans of things loved during those years.
This universal feeling that some dreams have to go makes the song relatable for most people. It's sad but fun to listen to because of all the nostalgic references.
“Mr. Brightside” by The Killers
Song Year: 2003
Anyone who's ever had a boyfriend, girlfriend, or spouse who cheated on them can relate to this song about finding a girlfriend cheating with another man.
Since its release, this song has stayed on the UK music charts and was the most-streamed song released before 2010.
Brandon Flowers wrote the song about an experience he had when he was 19 and discovered his girlfriend cheating on him in a club.
The song does such a good job of expressing how awful betrayal feels that it's not likely to drop off the charts for another 20 years.
“I'm a Believer” by Smash Mouth
Song Year: 2001
This cover of one of The Monkees' greatest hits appeared on the official motion picture soundtrack for the 2001 film Shrek.
Shrek is about an ogre who wanted to live in a swamp and be left alone. He falls in love with Fiona, a princess who reverts to her ogre form every night.
The song, about not believing in love until meeting the right person, was a perfect fit for the movie's theme. Its use in the film helped put the song back on the charts.
Superstar Neil Diamond wrote this song that became the biggest hit for The Monkees, spending two months at #1 on the charts. “I'm a Believer” was the biggest selling song in 1966 when The Monkees released it.
“Everybody (Backstreet's Back)” by the Backstreet Boys
Song Year: 1997
This song by the Backstreet Boys has a simple sound and rhythm that's easy to dance to and catchy enough to sing.
Most people today think of One Direction when they think of boy bands, but Backstreet Boys are still the bestselling boy band with over 110 million album sales.
The popularity of videos still lingering from MTV's heyday helped this song with a video that seems inspired by Michael Jackson's iconic “Thriller” video.
A haunted house of horrors setting and lots of time spent on the band members dancing made one of the most popular videos of its era, which added to the song's success.
“U Can't Touch This” by MC Hammer
Song Year: 1990
This funky dance beat song by rapper MC Hammer uses the opening riff from the Rick James classic song “Superfreak” to create one of the most recognizable song openings in modern music.
This song made history in a couple of notable ways. MC Hammer's album with this song became the first hip-hop album to sell 10 million copies in the US and get diamond-certified.
The song is still popular enough to appear in commercials, like a Cheetos commercial during the 2020 Super Bowl. It's referenced regularly in pop culture.
“… Baby One More Time” by Britney Spears
Song Year: 1998
This song was Britney Spears' first single released from her debut album in 1999 with the same name. It jumped to the top of the charts in almost two dozen countries,
Spears' first hit of many became the bestselling single in the UK that year and is one of the bestselling songs in history with over 10 million copies sold.
This song put her on the map and made her an instant hit worldwide, starting a career that has produced nine albums and over 150 million sales. She also performed on ten world tours and had a four-year concert residency at Planet Hollywood.
Spears has one Grammy Award and many other music awards. She's known as the Princess of Pop.
“Ice Ice Baby” by Vanilla Ice
Song Year: 1990
With its opening iconic guitar riff, this song became the first hip-hop song to hit #1 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart. It also made the white rapper Vanilla Ice a well-known artist.
Ice sampled Queen's song “Under Pressure” to create the opening bass of this song.
Interestingly, another top hip-hop song the same year, MC Hammer's “U Can't Touch This,” sampled the Rick James song “Superfreak” for its opening sound.
Vanilla Ice wrote the song when he was 16 in 1983 about a shooting in Florida. The song topped the charts in six other countries, including the UK and Australia.
“Don't Speak” by No Doubt
Song Year: 1995
This song, written by lead singer Gwen Stefani and her brother Eric, a former member of the band, became No Doubt's biggest international hit at the time of its release.
Originally a love song, the song channeled Stefani's heartbreak from a recent breakup when she changed the lyrics. The song charted in many countries, though not the US, because of the single release rules the label didn't follow.
No Doubt earned two Grammy Award nominations for the song and their performance of it. The band released the single from their third studio album, Tragic Kingdom, that went on to earn diamond-certified status.
No Doubt later won two Grammy Awards, and Stefani earned a Grammy as a solo artist.
“A Thousand Miles” by Vanessa Carlton
Song Year: 2001
The bouncy piano score makes this song immediately recognizable when it starts. It was Vanessa Carlton's debut single and her only song to reach the Billboard Hot 100's top ten.
Nearly a dozen other artists have recorded or sampled the song on their albums. It reached the top of the charts in several countries and is Carlton's biggest hit.
The song earned three Grammy Award nominations and appeared on the Legally Blonde film soundtrack.
“You're Still the One” by Shania Twain
Song Year: 1998
Country singer Shania Twain released this song as her first pop crossover and hit #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, making it her first US top-ten hit.
She and her then-husband and manager, Robert John “Mutt” Lange, wrote the song. It earned four Grammy Award nominations and won two, including Best Country Song. It regularly appears in lists of the best songs of the 1990s.
The song came from Twain's third studio album, Come On Over, which sold over 40 million copies. It's one of the best throwback songs with country roots.
It earned a Guinness World Record for the most weeks on the US Country Albums chart in the #1 position with 50 weeks in the top spot.
“Tubthumping” by Chumbawamba
Song Year: 1997
This song became Chumbawamba's biggest hit, hitting #2 in the UK and topping charts in several countries, including two niche US charts. Song sales reached over 880,000 copies in the United Kingdom alone.
The single came from their eighth studio album and first with a major label. It's about overcoming adversity and getting back up when life knocks you down.
Tubthumping means to voice your opinions wildly, and sometimes politicians in the UK are called tub thumpers.
“MMMBop” by Hanson
Song Year: 1997
This bright and cheerful pop song was the first single from Hanson's debut album. The album earned three Grammy nominations and led the three brothers in the band to sell over 16 million albums worldwide. They had eight hits that charted in the UK Top 40 and three that made the US Top 20.
Zachary, who played drums, was only 11 when they released this song and became famous. He's the youngest songwriter ever nominated for a Grammy and the sixth-youngest nominee of all time.
Hanson eventually began recording under their independent label and still performs today.
“One Week” by Barenaked Ladies
Song Year: 1998
This song topped the US Billboard Hot 100 chart the year of its release and became Canadian rock band Barenaked Ladies' biggest hit.
It references so many things in pop culture at the time, like LeAnn Rimes, the X-Files, Harrison Ford, and Sting.
The song is ultimately about knowing you've done something wrong and being unwilling to ask for forgiveness.
Though the song is 25 years old, an episode of the hit vampire mockumentary series What We Do in the Shadows referenced it. A vampire explained that he must be human because he knows all the lyrics.
“Waterfalls” by TLC
Song Year: 1994
Tionne Watkins and Rozonda Thomas are the surviving members of TLC, a group formed in 1990. Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes died in a car crash in 2002.
“Waterfalls” became TLC's signature song, released off their second album CrazySexyCool. It hit the top of the charts in the US, New Zealand, and several other countries.
The Grammy-nominated song was one of the first songs to directly reference the AIDS crisis by warning the listener to avoid promiscuity and drugs. The video led TLC to become the first black group to win Video of the Year from MTV.
This song is one of the best throwback songs often referenced in films like We're the Millers. TLC is the bestselling girl group in history, with over 90 million records sold and four Grammy Awards.
“All Star” by Smash Mouth
Song Year: 1999
Before they had a hit with “I'm a Believer,” Smash Mouth released this song, which became their signature song and the one that catapulted them into worldwide fame.
The Grammy-nominated song released from their second album became a favorite one played at sports stadiums. It peaked at #4 on the US Hot 100 chart, and their next album went triple-platinum.
The song appeared in several films, most notably alongside “I'm a Believer” in the movie Shrek.
Bye Bye Bye NSYNC
Song Year: 2000
“Bye Bye Bye” was one of the biggest hits for worldwide sensation boy band NSYNC. It appeared on their third album and told the tale of the end of a romantic relationship.
The Grammy-nominated song charted in the top 10 in multiple countries and peaked at #4 on the Hot 100 chart in the US. The band earned eight Grammy nominations and performed on five nationwide tours.
Album sales of over 70 million make them one of the top boy bands in history. After the band went on hiatus in 2002, lead singer Justin Timberlake started a solo career that has earned him ten Grammy Awards so far.
Sk8er Boi Avril Lavigne
Song Year: 2002
Avril Lavigne has earned eight Grammy nominations in her career, sold over 40 million albums, and ranks at #3 on the list of the top-selling Canadian female artists.
She's also sold over 50 million singles, including millions of copies of this song about a teenage girl who dances ballet and falls for a streetwise boy who skateboards.
Lavigne has seven studio albums and has done acting work, including voice acting in the animated film Over the Hedge.
Best Throwback Songs Ever, Final Thoughts
Whether you like pop, rock, or country, you can find throwback songs that will take you back to when you heard them on the radio constantly. Sometimes they remind you of when you first heard them.
Throwback songs will always be part of pop culture, making them unlikely to fade from memory. It's fun to listen to current music and guess which songs will be classic hits that people will call the best throwback songs in two decades.