A couple of months back, we ran a pretty extensive list of songs that are guaranteed to make you cry. The feature got plenty of feedback and suggestions from our readers, and now it’s time to provide the logical corollary: happy songs! Or, at least, songs that we reckon will make you smile, because they’re not necessarily quite the same thing. Anyway, again, here’s an epic selection of 50 songs that we think fit the bill — let us know if you have any to add!
Stevie Wonder — “Sir Duke”
If the sheer exuberance of Wonder’s tribute to the greats who had gone before him — including “the king of all, Sir Duke [Ellington] — and to the power of music to move and inspire doesn’t bring a smile to your face, well, you’ve got a cold, cold heart.
Nelly — “Hot in Herre”
A confession: as you’ll see as this list progresses, I have something of a weakness for silly hip hop party songs — and really, there aren’t any finer than this. It’s unabashedly randy — the chorus is hilarious, honestly — but ultimately, it’s an ode to enjoying life, something that saves it from being more creepy than enjoyable.
Young MC — “Bust a Move”
Look, I still think “You say ‘Neat-o,’ check your libido/ And roll to the church in your new tuxedo” is a strong contender for the title of Best Rhyme Ever.
Le Tigre — “Hot Topic”
The breezy latter-day yé-yé stylings of this are smile-inducing enough, but the song’s even better when you listen carefully and realize that Kathleen Hanna’s lyric is basically giving you a convenient syllabus for Feminism 101.
France Gall — “Laisser Tomber Les Filles”
And speaking of yé-yé, the entire genre is basically designed for lifting the spirits, so you really can’t go wrong. More awful people than me might suggest the amusingly questionable “Les Sucettes,” the story of which we told here, but let’s go with the enduringly effervescent “Laisser Tomber Les Filles,” a song that can’t help be uplifting, even if it is about getting your heart broken. (You could also go with April March’s English-language version “Chick Habit.”)
Toots and the Maytals — “Sweet and Dandy”
Possibly the most genuinely joyous song in your correspondent’s iTunes: the story of a small-town wedding in Jamaica, where the bride and groom are nervous but excited, the cola wine is flowing, and a rollicking good time is had by all. It features on the wonderful soundtrack to The Harder They Come, and is arguably the finest moment of Toots Hibbert’s long and distinguished career.
OutKast — “Hey Ya!”
OK, the lyrics aren’t actually all that uplifting, but c’mon.
Ramones — “Teenage Lobotomy”
Curiously, it was often the Ramones’ most downbeat lyrics that also had the most comedy value (“Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment,” “Now I Wanna Be Sedated,” “Beat on the Brat,” etc). This one, though, takes the cake, if only for the immortal couplet, “Now I guess I’ll have to tell ’em/ That I got no cerebellum.”
The Spazzys — “I Wanna Cut My Hair Like Marky Ramone”
And meanwhile, here’s three Australian girls whose band was basically dedicated to LARPing the Ramones, an idea that reached its apogee with this ode to Marky’s haircut. The lyrics are hilarious: “I think I must be fucking dud/ ‘Cos Marky really ain’t no stud,” and even better, the band actually got to play with their hero when he toured Australia. Sometimes things just turn out right.
Right Said Fred — “I’m Too Sexy”
Weezer — “Pork and Beans”
Rivers Cuomo’s great ode to giving precisely no fucks what anybody else thinks of you. The deadpan lyric is both uplifting and amusing, but if that’s not enough to make you crack a smile, then surely the meme-tastic video should do the trick.
Plastic Bertrand — “Ça Plane Pour Moi”
True story: the lyrics involve Plastic Bertrand’s cat drinking all his whiskey, a cellophane puppet with “Chinese hair,” and something about “touching my planet.” And anyway, quite apart from that, this song is all kinds of awesome — as, indeed, is Bertrand himself.
Digital Underground — “The Humpty Dance”
Shock G always had a way with an amusingly risqué rhyme, and this was the crowning glory of his Humpty Hump character, an endearing lothario whose attempts to get it on with the ladies were entirely unhindered by his silly-nose-and-glasses combo. (To wit; his claim that “In the 69, my nose will tickle your rear/ My nose is big!/ I’m not ashamed/ Big like a pickle, and I’m still getting paid!” Good for you, Humpty.)
Army of Lovers — “Crucified”
Look, they did things differently in the early ’90s.
Kenneth Williams — “Ma Crepe Suzette”
I’ve generally left comedy songs out of this list because they’re a whole separate genre, but the great Kenneth Williams’ affectionate lampooning of Aznavour-esque French chanteurs is just too good to omit. Salon! Par avion! Petula Clark!
X-Ray Spex — “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!”
Like “Pork and Beans,” this is an anthem to personal (and specifically female) liberation, and the song itself is just as pleasing as the sentiment. It also comes with one of the greatest and most pleasantly bratty intros ever.
Sisqó — “The Thong Song”
She had dumps like a truck. Truck. Truck.
Curtis Mayfield — “Move On Up”
Mayfield specialized in marrying uncompromising urban narratives to unfeasibly beautiful tunes, and singing his stories in the sweetest, most soulful voice you’ll ever hear. This, however, is an ode to hope and the faith that things would be better in the future. Its sentiment is as infectious as its melody.
They Might Be Giants — “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”
Your tolerance for this will be largely dictated by your tolerance for quirkiness, and also by how many times you’ve heard this already. But still, if nothing else, lyrics like, “Why did Constantinople get the works?/ It’s nobody’s business but the Turks” should elicit a smile and a quiet chuckle, no?
Bob Marley and the Wailers — “Three Little Birds”
As far as sentiments go, they really don’t come any more simple than, “Baby, don’t worry about a thing/ Because every little thing’s gonna be alright.” But sometimes, that’s really all you need to hear.
Alice Cooper — “School’s Out”
Even if you’ve never seen Dazed and Confused, the sheer brattish exuberance of this song should be enough to recall the joy of realizing that school’s over and that you have precisely nothing you have to do for the next couple of months — or, if it’s the last day of high school, FOREVER.
Insane Clown Posse — “Miracles”
Fuckin’ magnets etc etc.
The Sundays — “Summertime”
Harriet Wheeler’s voice alone is generally enough to bring a smile to this writer’s face, but even if you’re not a Sundays fan, it’s hard not not to be charmed by this, perhaps their best-known song. As with a lot of music, there’s an undercurrent of doubt and melancholy to it, but the chorus really is like the sun poking through the clouds.
Royksopp — “Epie”
An instrumental, but there’s something about its breezy melody that brings levity to a miserable, gray winter’s day.
The B-52’s — “Love Shack”
The Love Shack sounds like a pretty great place to be, even if the tin roof is rusted.
Tom Tom Club — “Genius of Love”
It’s like Tina Weymouth and co. somehow managed to bottle the ambiance of Compass Point Studios and then transfer it to record. As with several of the entries on this list, the song isn’t entirely upbeat (it describes the narrator’s boyfriend taking off and leaving her), but as the lyric concludes, “Who needs to think when your feet just go?” See also: “Genius Rap.”
L7 — “Shitlist”
The song to bring a smile to your face, even (or, perhaps, especially) if you’re in a particularly shitty mood. Also, keeping an actual shitlist is surprisingly rewarding. Try it some time.
Althea and Donna — “Uptown Top Ranking”
As an unlikely chart-topper by two unheralded Jamaican teenagers sung entirely in patois, the existence of this song is smile-inducing enough. And then there’s the sassiness of the lyrics — “See mi in a halter back/ Sey mi gi’ you heart attack” — and the infectiously jaunty tune.
OMC — “How Bizarre”
Aw, remember this? There surely can’t be many more uplifting songs about getting pulled over and harassed by the cops, eh? Sadly, singer Pauly Fuemana died a couple of years ago, eight days short of his 41st birthday.
Scissor Sisters — “Take Your Mama”
A tale of coming out to your parents, reclaiming what was clearly a stressful and awful experience, and turning it into the best party tune of the ’00s.
Biz Markie — “Just a Friend”
These days this would be called “Friend Zone” and recorded by some sort of awful refugee from r/mra. Back in more innocent days, it was a surprisingly big hit for the hitherto strictly-from-the-underground Biz Markie. And honestly, pretty much everyone can relate to the scenarios described herein — it’s pretty much guaranteed to raise a smile, albeit perhaps a rueful one.
James — “Laid”
A tale of love and obsession and impromptu demolition, all furnished with the sort of chorus that has destroyed many an ambitious karaoke singer. (Also, Tim Booth looks rather fetching in a dress.)
The Kinks — “Waterloo Sunset”
This song was partially inspired by Ray Davies’ experiences of looking down at Waterloo Bridge from his bed in St. Thomas’ Hospital, and catalogs a lonely narrator watching a young couple on the bridge and imagining what their lives might be like. It’s melancholy and beautiful — and not all smiles are 100% happy, y’know.
Hanson — “MMMBop”
Yeah, OK, I was way too cool to like this when it was released. But in retrospect, it’s pretty much the best song the Jackson Five never wrote. Speaking of whom…
The Jackson Five — “ABC”
Michael Jackson sang this lead vocal at the age of 11. Eleven years old. It’s hard not to hear this without thinking about what came of its star, but you can still appreciate it for what it is — a slice of exuberant pop music that lifts even the most downcast of souls.
Whitney Houston — “I Want to Dance With Somebody”
Aw, young Whitney. Like the Jacksons, there’s nothing smile-inducing about the trajectory her life took in her final years, but again, there’s something bittersweet about remembering her the way she was at her peak: carefree, young and hyper-talented.
Dee-Lite — “Groove Is In the Heart”
Fact: the bass riff at the start has been clinically proven to be just as effective against symptoms of depression as a page full of cat GIFs.
James Brown — “I Got You (I Feel Good)”
I knew that I would!
ODB — “Got Your Money”
The late and lamented ODB’s finest moment. You can certainly quibble with the pimp-centric lyrical content, but honestly, the man was so endearingly batshit crazy that it’s hard not to like him regardless. And also, there’s, “I don’t have no problem with you fucking me/ But I have a little problem with you not fucking me,” one of the great couplets of our time.
Neutral Milk Hotel — “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”
Can you cry and smile at the same time? Sure you can.
Shaggy — “Boombastic”
True story: apparently this was inspired by Shaggy’s time in Iraq. Being in the army must be more fun than it looks. (Apart from the whole being-shot-at-and-being-forced-to-kill-people bit, of course.)
Super Furry Animals — “The Man Don’t Give a Fuck”
It contains the word “fuck” 50 times! It makes me smile!
Coolio — “Fantastic Voyage”
An uplifting thought for us all: a man with hair like Coolio’s can still be furnished with a magic car and wind up on a beach surrounded by unfeasibly attractive women. Also: that bassline!
Salt-N-Pepa — “Shoop”
Salt-N-Pepa, of course, had impeccable hair and didn’t need no damn magic car to get to the beach. Shoop shoop a-doobie like Scooby Dooby Doo, indeed.
Katrina and the Waves — “Walking on Sunshine”
Truly, this song used to make me somehow suspicious as a kid: is anybody actually this happy?
ELO — “Mr. Blue Sky”
One of those songs you find that you know even if you have always regarded the output of bands like ELO with suspicion. It’s so ubiquitous that it’s apparently been played in space, and it was apparently inspired by seeing the sun for the first time after being stuck in a mountain cabin for two weeks, an experience that would indeed have you grinning like a loon.
Frank Zappa — “Titties and Beer”
Well, more a sort of frat-boy giggle than a smile, but still.
The Polyphonic Spree — “Reach for the Sun”
Sure, there’s something a bit creepy about them, but at the same time, there’s something genuinely uplifting about the Polyphonic Spree’s music. And if you listen to this on a sunny spring morning, when the air’s suddenly warm and there’s a breeze in the trees and you’re thinking, hey, maybe this could even be a beach day — well, yeah, suddenly you might be just about ready to drink the Kool-Aid.
Louis Armstrong — “What a Wonderful World”
Leonard Cohen — “Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On”
And finally: damn straight I can get Leonard Cohen onto this list.