As much as we here at Billboard missed live music in the thick of the pandemic, another cultural loss was just as devastating to our day-to-day lives: the shutdown of karaoke. Concerts were how we connected best with our favorite artists, but karaoke is how we really bonded with our favorite songs. Whether at a solo mic on stage in a strange and sparsely populated bar or packed in a room with a dozen of our closest and most animated friends, karaoke allowed us pop music lovers the opportunity to not just celebrate those tunes but to crawl inside them, to become an essential part of them. Throw in a cheaply made non-sequitur music video, a pitcher of domestic beer and a tambourine, and any random Thursday night downtown could turn into the most transcendent musical experience of your entire year.
With karaoke now finally back in full effect — and please, continue to practice safe singing, everyone — Billboard wanted to celebrate the art form that’s given us countless instances of incomparable joy and similarly peerless hangovers over the years. Today, we present our list of the 100 greatest karaoke songs of all time, a road-tested set of classics you can find in most karaoke songbooks that are guaranteed to set the room on fire. (And if not, surely it’s the room’s fault.) In addition to our own staff’s hard-earned wisdom, gleaned through decades of empty orchestra trial and error, we called in some ringers — karaoke jockeys, bartenders and owners from around the country — for their own heard-it-all expert commentary, which you’ll find sprinkled throughout our list.
So what makes a great karaoke song? Well, there’s definitely no one-size-fits-all answer to that question — a classic sing-along for some is a compulsory bathroom break for others, and a great performer can make a controversial choice seem inspired as easily as a lackluster performer can flop with a can’t-miss pick. What’s more, the most beloved pop artists are not always the safest karaoke go-tos: Our list has plenty of one-hit wonders and other top 40 curiosities, but no songs by such obvious icons as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Prince, Mariah Carey, Justin Bieber, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Christina Aguilera, Guns N’ Roses or Rihanna. Some are missing because their vocals are too challenging or inimitable, some because they don’t have That One Karaoke Song to tower over the rest, some just because 100 is a small number and it felt more appropriate to use the room for artists like 4 Non Blondes and Biz Markie, whose karaoke presence remains eternal despite being tied to a single song.
Anyway, look at our list and similar characteristics will emerge: More often than not, our favorite karaoke songs are familiar, accessible, simple without being predictable, and reminiscent of a specific time and place without being hopelessly stuck there. Most importantly, they all sound great at loud volume and questionable pitch, and they all invite you to join in the fun with them. Here are our selections for the 100 true all-timers — with a little help from our friends in the industry — and please, don’t hesitate to pick up that spare mic still sitting on the speaker. We can always use the help on harmonies and backing vocals.
Additional reporting by Katie Atkinson, Katie Bain, Hannah Dailey Johnson, Jessica Nicholson, Danielle Pascual, Jessica Roiz and Christine Werthman.