This Was Most Likely the Prom Song the Year You Graduated High School
FROM THE BEATLES TO WHITNEY HOUSTON TO ED SHEERAN, THESE WERE THE PROM SONGS YOU DANCED TO.
High school proms have come a long way from their debutante ball origins, but some things about them never change. Whether you did the twist, danced the "Macarena," or twerked at yours, the second your dance's DJ dropped the BPMs, you knew exactly who you wanted to be holding you for that special song. Prom kings, queens, and wallflowers alike can all recall their prom song. But if your memory of that magic evening has gotten a bit fuzzy over time, maybe this list will help jog your memory. Besides, scrolling through these classic tunes is a much easier way to reminisce than trying to squeeze into a decades-old dress or tux.
1955: "Unchained Melody," Les Baxter
Before it was covered by the Righteous Brothers, who made it the song we all know and love, "Unchained Melody" had already spent a decade as a popular romantic single. Originally commissioned for the 1955 prison film Unchained, the song quickly topped the charts, becoming an instant slow dance favorite, and later earning an Oscar nom.
1956: "The Great Pretender," The Platters
You'd have to be pretty great at pretending to convince us "The Great Pretender" doesn't have a special place in your heart. The Platters' hit single was all over the radio airwaves in '56, and had a bit of a renaissance when Freddie Mercury covered it in 1987. It also happens to be the canonical favorite song of The Fonz on Happy Days.
1957: "Young Love," Tab Hunter
You couldn't get more on the nose for a prom song than one titled "Young Love," so it's no wonder popular film actor Tab Hunter's cover of Ric Cartey and Carole Joyner's track from the previous year became such a hit with the teens. He wasn't the only one trying to make it his own, however. Country singer Sonny James and vocal quartet The Crew-Cuts released their own successful versions of the song around the same time.
1958: "All I Have to Do Is Dream," The Everly Brothers
Famously recorded by The Everly Brothers in just two takes, "All I Have to Do Is Dream" was soon No. 1 across all Billboard singles charts, and went on to become a global success, speaking to wistful lovers everywhere.
1959: "Come Softly to Me," The Fleetwoods
EMI Records USA
This song's original title, "Come Softly," was changed by a record executive who rightly worried it might be misconstrued or joked about as being too bawdy a phrase. Funnily enough, the alternate he went with, "Come Softly to Me," never actually shows up in the song lyrics.
1960: "Teen Angel," Mark Dinning
Despite some radio stations quaintly banning it from the air for being too much of a bummer, "Teen Angel" continued to gain popularity and climb the charts. It probably says something about the emotional subtext of the era that the most likely prom slow dance song of 1960 was about a girl who is run over by a train.
1961: "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," The Shirelles
Though presented in a radio-friendly euphemism, "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" posits a timeless question about whether or not someone has pure intentions, or is simply spitting game to try to get lucky. One can only hope the message gave a few prom-goers pause as they danced to it back in '61.
1962: "Duke of Earl," Gene Chandler
It's hard enough to remember where dukes and earls rank in the monarchistic pecking order without a song title like "Duke of Earl" muddying the waters. It turns out that Gene Chandler's best known song actually came from a gibberish vocal warm-up, so try to not overthink its relevance to actual royalty.
1963: "Hey Paula," Paul & Paula
There are probably better ways to propose than with "hey, hey, Paula, I wanna marry you," and more appropriate times to do it than while still in high school, but the early '60s were a different era. "Hey Paula" was downright romantic for its time and thus, a school dance staple.
1964: "I Want to Hold Your Hand," The Beatles
You've probably heard of these Liverpool lads. In fact, it'd be hard to overstate just how much of a seismic change in the pop music landscape the Fab Four's U.S. breakthrough represented. "I Want to Hold Your Hand" was merely the first of a decades-long string of chart-toppers for the Beatles, but it's also the one that best encapsulates the innocence of youthful crushes.
1965: "My Girl," The Temptations
One of the more noteworthy successes of Motown singer Smokey Robinson's storied career is one many may not even associate with him. Originally performed with his band, The Miracles, it was The Temptations' cover of Smokey's ode to his wife that helped bring "My Girl" to the greater masses and helped secure its place in music history.
1966: "When a Man Loves a Woman," Percy Sledge
"When a Man Loves a Woman" came out of the gate hot and immediately cemented itself as an adult contemporary classic. And though it's been covered by the likes of Bette Midler, Michael Bolton, Gregg Allman, Art Garfunkel, and countless other talents, there's no topping the soulful crooning of Percy Sledge's original rendition.
1967: "Somethin' Stupid," Frank Sinatra and Nancy Sinatra
There's no denying Frank and Nancy Sinatra are in peak form as they croon "Somethin' Stupid" together, but it's best to not think too much about who's singing this one. While the father and daughter may not be singing about each other, the familial pairing is certainly an odd choice for a love duet.
1968: "Love Is Blue," Paul Mauriat
Originally sung in French by Greek-born, German-residing singer Vicky Leandros for Luxembourg's 1967 Eurovision entry, "L'amour est Bleu" ditched the lyrics and European backstory for the orchestral version that would become a U.S. hit. The combination of harpsichord and guitar in Paul Mauriat's take was a relatively novel sound for American ears, but one they would soon be hearing frequently.
1969: "Crimson and Clover," Tommy James and the Shondells
Wanting to change up their sound from the bubblegum pop that brought them success with "Mony Mony" to something more of the times, Tommy James and the Shondells took things in a trippy direction for "Crimson and Clover," messing around in the studio with tremolo effects for the song's guitar and vocal tracks. Those looking for deeper meaning in the titular lyrics may be disappointed, however. They're just Tommy's favorite color and flower, and he thought they sounded cool. He wasn't exactly wrong about that.
1970: "I Want You Back," The Jackson 5
Music execs tend to know a hit when they hear one, and it was immediately clear to many that they had something special with the Jackson family's first single, despite its main theme of regret over a prematurely ended relationship being sung by a child. "I Want You Back" helped catapult the sibling Motown act to stardom, and has served as a relationship regret anthem ever since.
1971: "Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)," The Temptations
Sure, the central love story of this song, replete with marriage and multiple children, is a fiction concocted by a man obsessing over a woman who does not even know he exists, but we somehow let those red flags slide at the time. Fortunately for "Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)," the track sounds pleasant enough to earn itself a pass.
1972: "Let's Stay Together," Al Green
One can only imagine how many college-bound teens slow-dancing to Al Green's seminal soul track got caught up in the emotion of the song and decided to give long-distance dating a go. Regardless of how those relationships fared, "Let's Stay Together" has stood the test of time and earned its place in the pantheon of love songs.
1973: "Killing Me Softly With His Song," Roberta Flack
Before the Fugees took the song and made it their own in the '90s, and before Roberta Flack's melancholic coos brought it initial mainstream popularity, "Killing Me Softly With His Song" was written by singer-songwriter Lori Lieberman after she caught a particularly moving Don McLean performance. It only took decades and a litany of legal battles for her to finally get her due credit.
1974: "The Way We Were," Barbra Streisand
If you're reading this list, you probably already know a thing or two about nostalgic reflection, but any time you need that feeling recharged, just give Barbra Streisand's hit track another listen. And if you're wondering how she could be so wistful all the way back in 1974, it may shock you to learn that "The Way We Were" came from Babs' 15th album, when she was in her early 30s with a ton of career and lost love already behind her.
1975: "Best of My Love," Eagles
By the mid-'70s, rock had reached its softness apex and Don Henley and company's funky classic, "Best of My Love," was the subgenre's poster child. Heard everywhere from nightclubs to roller rinks to high school dances, it was the song that made you stop and ponder what, conversely, getting the worst of someone's love might entail.
1976: "Silly Love Songs," Wings
Given the breadth of their body of work, it's easy to forget that the Beatles were only together for eight years from 1962 to 1970. Thankfully, the members each found varying degrees of success with solo projects, including this defense of sappiness by Paul and Linda McCartney. "Silly Love Songs" was originally penned as a response to criticisms of Paul's songwriting skills, but soon proved catchy enough to become a hit without any of that context.
1977: "Tonight's the Night (Gonna Be Alright)," Rod Stewart
Warner Bros. Records
Sexy flange effects, a sax solo, and a French spoken-word interlude? Songs rarely get steamier than "Tonight's the Night (Gonna Be Alright)." In fact, some stations deemed it too steamy for airplay unedited.
1978: "How Deep is Your Love," Bee Gees
With three No. 1 singles that year, it's safe to say that 1978 belonged to the Bee Gees. "How Deep is Your Love" dropped the year before, but by prom time the following spring, the earworm had climbed the charts and burrowed its way through all that feathered hair into every teen's brain.
1979: "Reunited," Peaches & Herb
Breaking up and getting back together is a hallmark of young romance, and who better to convey the unique feeling of such a reunion to the youth than a duo in their 30s? The themes of this Herb Fame and Linda Greene duet proved to transcend age, of course, and by summer of '79, reconciled partners of all life stages were singing along with "Reunited."
1980: "Do That To Me One More Time," Captain & Tennille
Believe it or not, the husband of this married act went a less flamboyant route when choosing "Captain" as his stage name. The guy's legal name was Daryl Dragon! When you consider the mellow body of work he made with his wife, Toni Tenille, including their digital pan flute-packed "Do That to Me One More Time," it seems like he made the right call.
1981: "Bette Davis Eyes," Kim Carnes
With her enthralling, husky voice, Kim Carnes ushered in pop's fusion with new wave with "Bette Davis Eyes," her ode to a film star of a bygone era. Bette Davis herself, 73 at the time of the song's release, even wrote to Carnes to express her delight at being featured in the song.
1982: "Waiting for a Girl Like You," Foreigner
A dearth of lovey-dovey tunes in the front half of '82 means that the likeliest candidate for the year's prom slow song is the Foreigner track that stayed at No. 2 for eight weeks in the fall of '81. That's no knock against the amorous powers of "Waiting for a Girl Like You." Lou Gramm's plaintive vocals coupled with Thomas Dolby's distinctive synth hook still ooze seduction.
1983: "Baby, Come to Me," Patti Austin and James Ingram
It wasn't until the soap opera General Hospital began using this 1981 track as the theme for one of its characters that "Baby, Come to Me" shot to No. 1 on the Billboard charts, well past its prior peak of No. 73. The duet would prove to be the biggest hit for its singers, but we're willing to bet there are a bunch of 36- and 37-year-olds out there today serving as more tangible evidence of the song's impact than the brief window it topped the charts.
1984: "Time After Time," Cyndi Lauper
If Cyndi Lauper's quintessential slow dance song didn't prominently feature at your '84 prom, you may want to look into getting a refund. "Time After Time" has become so synonymous with school dances of a certain era that it's been the backing track for such scenes in Stranger Things, Napoleon Dynamite, and Romy and Michele's High School Reunion.
1985: "Careless Whisper," George Michael
To younger crowds who don't even know the song's title, "Careless Whisper" is all about that sexy sax riff. But if you grew up with it, you know there's some real pathos in George Michael's lyrical regret about two-timing his way out of a beautiful relationship, as the song was inspired by his real-life infidelity.
1986: "Greatest Love of All," Whitney Houston
Not many love songs are about self-love and even fewer begin with an assertion about children being the future, so it's a testament to Whitney Houston's raw talent that she was able to make such a powerful impact with "Greatest Love of All," taking the 1977 George Benson song and undeniably claiming it as her own with the cover.
1987: "(I Just) Died in Your Arms," Cutting Crew
"(I Just) Died In Your Arms" began as all great love songs do: a moment of intimacy. Cutting Crew's Van Eede has said that the opening phrase of the tune came to him at a particularly appropriate time, as he pondered the French term la petite mort. (You can look that one up.)
1988: "Heaven Is a Place on Earth," Belinda Carlisle
Reaching No. 1 in Dec. 1987 means it's likely the "Heaven is a Place on Earth" was still fresh in the hearts and minds of high school seniors as their primary education came to an end the following year. Over the years, Belinda Carlisle's anthem has morphed away from love song into something of a karaoke belting standard.
1989: "When I'm With You," Sheriff
With the power ballad era in full swing, Canadian soft rockers Sheriff were poised to take the slow dance crown for the final year of the decade. This song is notable, in part, for lead vocalist Freddy Curci holding the final note for a staggering 19.3 seconds.
1990: "Nothing Compares 2 U," Sinéad O'Connor
Sinéad O'Connor's breakout, heart-wrenching hit clearly works its magic best as a break-up song listened to while seated on the tile of a running shower, but we're willing to put good money on a few of your prom DJs not figuring that out and trying to get people dancing to "Nothing Compares 2 U" anyway.
1991: "The First Time," Surface
In its early '90s heyday, "The First Time" was something of a return to form for the classic slow dance song, but it never quite punctuated the zeitgeist the way many of the others on this list have. In fact, for many of you, this may be the first time you've encountered "The First Time."
1992: "(Everything I Do) I Do It For You," Bryan Adams
A&M Records/Morgan Creek Records
As many of the coming '90s songs on this list will show, the decade was chock full of love songs that started on movie soundtracks and broke through to mainstream success. While most would pick Batman Forever's "Kiss From a Rose" as the best romantic track with the weirdest film origin, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves' "(Everything I Do) I Do It For You" gives it a run for its money.
1993: "I Will Always Love You," Whitney Houston
On the flip side, you don't get a more straightforwardly beautiful love song from a film soundtrack than The Bodyguard's "I Will Always Love You." The song absolutely destroyed the charts, and has been destroying the vocal cords of everyone foolish enough to attempt those high notes during karaoke ever since.
1994: "The Power of Love," Céline Dion
Before the Titanic soundtrack officially canonized her as the patron saint of hopeless romantics, Québécois crooner Céline Dion spent her early years toiling away in the love song fields, belting out a formidable number of radio hits, including "The Power of Love."
1995: "On Bended Knee," Boyz II Men
The Philly boys of Boyz II Men smartly veered away from new jack swing to silky-smooth R&B for their forgiveness-begging bop "On Bended Knee," and earned themselves a No. 1 spot on the charts for it. Despite the lyrical content, it makes for a great slow dance. Just try to not chuckle during the spoken word part.
1996: "Because You Loved Me," Céline Dion
Produced for the Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert Redford drama Up Close and Personal, Céline got a taste of soundtrack stardom with "Because You Loved Me." It's hard enough to not get swept up in the grand emotions of the song listening to it on the radio, so we can't even begin to imagine how many hearts were melting as it played as the closing song of your prom.
1997: "Un-Break My Heart," Toni Braxton
Who among us can't relate with the desire to have the pain of a breakup magically mitigated? Apparently Toni Braxton: According to songwriter Diane Warren, she needed a bit of convincing to sing "Un-Break My Heart" when the song was first sent her way. Fortunately for her and us, she eventually came around and delivered one of the most heart-wrenching performances of the era.
1998: "All My Life," K-Ci & JoJo
So many millennials have awkwardly danced with their crushes to "All My Life" that simply hearing the opening piano notes can trigger a Pavlovian response where they think they're smelling CK One and the mini Old Spice deodorants handed out in health class.
1999: "Angel of Mine," Monica
Like so many songs of this list, the best known iteration of "Angel of Mine" is a cover. Originally performed by British R&B group Eternal, it was American R&B artist Monica's take that rocketed to the top of the charts. Adding to the romance of the lyrics, Monica got her then-boyfriend Tyrese Gibson featured in the song's music video. What has your significant other done for you lately?
2000: "Amazed," Lonestar
BNA Records Label
Country music had spent the better part of a decade sidling its way into mainstream music, so it was only a matter of time before a slow, twangy love song punched through and became a prom staple. Hats off to Lonestar for grabbing that brass ring with "Amazed." Remixing the original version of the song into something more palatable for mainstream radio proved to be a wise and profitable decision, and the song has been a staple of school, wedding, and other dances ever since.
2001: "Drops of Jupiter (Tell Me)," Train
People like to make fun of Train for being inoffensive, watered-down radio rock, but it's no small feat to make a Top 10 song about your mom dying of cancer, and that's exactly what "Drops of Jupiter (Tell Me)" is. And let's be real. You'd much rather slow dance to a song about the death of a parent than listen to "Hey, Soul Sister" ever again.
2002: "Wherever You Will Go," The Calling
It was a weird time for love songs in the early years of the new millennium. The country was experiencing a period of intense strife and transition, which is perhaps the best explanation for the success of "Wherever You Will Go." And lest you think that's a stretch, songwriter Aaron Kamin invoked the Sept. 11 attacks in explaining the song's appeal, saying that "Wherever You Will Go" had "become more relevant in our lives as the world has changed recently."
2003: "Miss You," Aaliyah
Blackground Records/Universal Records
One of the more tragic entries here, Aaliyah's single "Miss You" was shelved after its recording in 1998, only to be released posthumously after the singer died in a 2001 plane crash. Hopefully, if they played this at your prom, you were too caught up in swaying with your crush to think about the bittersweet reality of what you were dancing to.
2004: "If I Ain't Got You," Alicia Keys
Hope you weren't done dancing with tears in your eyes. According to Alicia Keys, "If I Ain't Got You" was also inspired by Aaliyah's death.
2005: "We Belong Together," Mariah Carey
After some album flops and Glitter bombing, Mariah Carey needed a win. Luckily, her 10th studio album, The Emancipation of Mimi, came packed with hits ready to put some wind back in her sails and give her the comeback she'd been dreaming of. "We Belong Together" lived up to the album title and truly set her free.
2006: "You're Beautiful," James Blunt
The "Diet Coldplay" jokes were out in full force when "You're Beautiful" finally crossed the pond and hit U.S. audiences in 2006. You'll be chuffed to learn that this British one-hit wonder only gets more wonderful when you consider the undisputed rumor that Blunt wrote the song about a casting assistant for the Harry Potter film franchise.
2007: "Don't Matter," Akon
It don't matter what your school was like or what part of the country it was in, because if you graduated in 2007, there's a 100 percent chance your prom was playing the helium-voice-filled banger "Don't Matter" by Senegalese-American Akon.
2008: "Bleeding Love," Leona Lewis
J Records/Sony BMG Music Entertainment/Syco Music
This is one of those songs that, while good, sort of blended in with many others at the time, so nobody would hold it against you if you didn't know this song was titled "Bleeding Love." They probably wouldn't care if you didn't know its singer was named Leona Lewis. They absolutely wouldn't mind if you didn't know she was a British X Factor winner. But if you didn't get moving when this song started playing… people might have something to say about that.
2009: "Halo," Beyoncé
Columbia/Music World Music
Though "Halo" isn't what one typically thinks of as a quote-unquote prom song, there were few other contenders for this year, it got pretty high in the charts, and nobody has ever gone broke betting on Beyoncé.
2010: "The Only Exception," Paramore
Fueled By Ramen
Hayley Williams' vocals do most of the heavy lifting for this ethereal folk rock ditty. Our condolences to those whose sole prom slow dance was to "The Only Exception," but it's more likely that the DJ dipped into some of the aforementioned classics than offer nothing but this one.
2011: "Someone Like You," Adele
Perhaps the most jilted song on this list, Adele's piano and vocals-only powerhouse "Someone Like You" stunned music fans and execs alike as it rocketed up the charts. But maybe they shouldn't have been so shocked. The complicated pain of breaking up with someone you still care about is universal. Of course the song was going to be a hit.
2012: "We Found Love," Rihanna ft. Calvin Harris
Def Jam Recordings
EDM had already been rapidly permeating almost every nook and cranny of the music industry for the past couple years. Rihanna was merely co-signing its ascension when she partnered up with Calvin Harris for "We Found Love." The song was quickly woven into the sets of every festival and prom DJ. All the young couples dancing to it needed to remember was to stay hydrated.
2013: "Mirrors," Justin Timberlake
After bringing sexy back to the masses in 2006, Justin Timberlake took a well-earned hiatus to focus on family and his acting career. When he was finally ready to re-enter the music scene, he made sure to come prepared, and the first single off his third album proved just that. "Mirrors" traded the lasciviousness of his recent music for a refined version of the pop romance of his earliest work, and audiences were decidedly into it.
2014: "All of Me," John Legend
Dedicated to his better half, Chrissy Teigen, John Legend's sweet piano ballad seemed to have stalled out at No. 2 on the charts before finally hitting the No. 1 spot six weeks later. "All of Me" commemorated John's decade-long journey from first gracing the charts to finally topping them.
2015: "Love Me Like You Do," Ellie Goulding
Recorded for the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack, "Love Me Like You Do" wound up being one of the less risqué tunes on the album, thus making it the one most likely to get past school administrators who'd normally clutch pearls over S&M-adjacent content infiltrating a school function.
2016: "Closer," The Chainsmokers ft. Halsey
Disruptor Records/Columbia Records
If "We Found Love" signified the beginning of pop's collaboration with EDM, "Closer" signified EDM's ravenous complete consumption of pop and the corporate music industry. Don't know how you'd dance to this one, but you probably figured something out.
2017: "Shape of You," Ed Sheeran
The second British invasion was spearheaded by a friendly, tattooed redhead named Ed, who loves to drink, hang out with friends, and hold the hearts of millions of young girls in his hands. "Shape of You" is just one of many Ed Sheeran songs 2017 prom-goers were dancing to.
2018: "Perfect," Ed Sheeran
The kid has undeniable talent and range, so it should come as no shock that he has back-to-back tracks on this list. Where "Shape of You" played to the Timberlake gyration side of the slow dance spectrum, "Perfect" is of the more traditional hands-on-hips-and-neck persuasion.
2019: "Without Me," Halsey
After the success of "Closer," Halsey had a blank check and army of artists and execs working to give her whatever she needed to produce another hit. "Without Me" hit No. 1 on the Billboard 100, so it would seem that everyone got what they wanted from the arrangement. Is the song danceable? That's not a question for someone our age to answer. But if the kids are happy with it, that seems like enough.