Though much of graduation season is soundtracked by the Pomp and Circumstance Marches, the stuffy layer of tradition is occasionally punctured by pop hits that strike the right emotional chord. Over the past few decades, a select number of songs have captured the proper feelings of pride, nostalgia, excitement and sadness that accompany such a rite of passage. As this year’s class figures out how to celebrate amid a global health crisis, here are the 20 best graduation songs to celebrate one of life’s pivotal milestones.
Quite a few people tossing their mortarboards this summer will have grown up with Miley Cyrus — from her Hannah Montana days to her rebellious twerk era to her very grown string of backyard shows alongside the likes of Joan Jett. This 2009 country-pop ballad from the first Hannah flick lays out some ups and downs that resonated far beyond the Hannah fanbase: “It went on. . .every different kind of radio,” Cyrus said in a 2010 interview. “I met everyone. I met 3-year-olds, I met 30-year-olds, I met 80-year-olds. . . .I got so many different fans.”
The biggest of the jaw-dropping seven hit singles from Nickelback’s 2005 blockbuster All the Right Reasons, “Photograph” is a power ballad custom-made for flipping through yearbooks and reminiscing about your first kiss. But it also shows a playful side of the band in the song’s goofy opening verse, with allusions to the kind of recreational activity that makes your eyes red, and the immortal pop question, “What the hell is on Joey’s head?”
“It’s a celebration every time we link up/We done did everything they could think of/Greatness is what we on the brink of,” Nicki Minaj raps on this lush track from her 2010 debut Pink Friday, the verses of which could be mistaken for a commencement address. In a blog post, Minaj explained that “Moment” was about two childhood neighbors who dreamed of becoming MCs when they grew up. “They laughed together, they cried together,” Minaj wrote. “One day they realize that their dreams have come to fruition. Though they know all things come to an end, they celebrate.”
New Jersey quintet My Chemical Romance didn’t become one of emo’s biggest crossover bands by shying away from big feelings. And “Sing,” the biggest hit from what wound up their final album, 2010’s Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys, was such a big-hearted singalong that it made its way onto both adult contemporary stations and an episode of Glee. But the lyrics, which balance a hope for “what tomorrow brings” with a desire to leave behind the ones that hate your guts, sound like they’re meant for teens who are more than happy to graduate and get far, far away from high school.
This wistful, sprawling 2007 song by New York post-punk lights LCD Soundsystem is about winding nights and the friendships formed during them. Though about more adult existential crises, it still works alongside the many last hurrahs in the run-up to graduation. Its simple opening piano riff grows in unexpected ways that echo those adventures.
So far, 2015’s biggest contribution to the graduation canon is the current Hot 100 chart-topper, Furious 7 soundtrack single “See You Again.” It became a smash hit largely thanks to a video that drew connections between Wiz Khalifa’s sentimental lyrics and the untimely death of the action franchise’s star Paul Walker. But the song functions more broadly as a farewell to good friends.
A choice for the more apocalypse-minded graduates out there, this chugging track from 2007’s Exile on Mainstream offers a driving order to look back at the past on its chorus. It’s such an effective trigger for reflection that the New York Mets used it in video packages commemorating their final season at Shea Stadium.
Lee Ann Womack thought of her daughters when singing her 2000 crossover smash “I Hope You Dance,” a feel-good ballad full of advice for someone heading out into the world. The song featured backing vocals from Drew and Tim Womack of the Texas group Sons of the Desert, who, surprisingly, are not related to Lee Ann and were merely her labelmates at the time.
“I’m not sad anymore/I’m just tired of this place,” Wonder Years singer Dan “Soupy” Campbell sings at the opening of this 2010 track about wanting to get as far from his school daze as humanly possible. The flip side of the graduation songs that promise eternal friendship (“No one wants to hear your sappy bullshit”), “My Last Semester” is a prideful kiss-off to a school’s wider populace, from the “fake-tan girls” to the “kids outside with guitars hoping for someone to notice.”
Nico & Vinz, a pair of Norway-based singers who bonded over shared West African roots, had a worldwide hit last year with the Afrobeat-influenced pop of "Am I Wrong." And while it's clear what lyrics about thinking outside the box and reaching unseen summits mean to the group's story, they also connected with a generation of ambitious graduates.
This kid-assisted track from Nas’s 2002 album God’s Son is half uplifting chant, half cautionary tale, with Nas instructing “ghetto children [to] do your thing” while outlining African history. “A song like that helped me because I have a daughter,” Nas told Rolling Stone in 2007, “and because I make so much music that, when she was younger, I didn’t want her to listen to, I owed her and other kids something, something real, something real that’s up their alley, to show that I cared, that I’m a human being, that I’m not just about giving you a tune about what happens in the ‘hood and all that every day.”
A year after Natasha Bedingfield broke through in her native England, the title track from her debut album, Unwritten, became her first Top 10 hit in the United States, with an inspiring gospel-choir refrain about the wide-open potential of the future. Bedingfield co-wrote “Unwritten” with Danielle Brisebois, who’d already contributed another song to the commencement canon as a member of the New Radicals, the band behind “You Get What You Give.”
The title track from Kelly Clarkson’s second album is a tale of realizing small-town dreams, an ideal that the inaugural American Idol winner could embody all too well — even if the 2004 track was originally written for Avril Lavigne. As is the case with all of Clarkson’s song, the chorus, complete with lyrics about spreading wings and taking chances, becomes exponentially more fun to sing along with as more people join in.
A few years after striking out as the singer of the alt-rock band Eve’s Plum, New Jersey singer Colleen Ann Fitzpatrick rebooted her career as the orange-haired dance pop star Vitamin C. Her self-titled 1999 debut yielded a couple Top 40 hits, the latter of which, “Graduation (Friends Forever),” sampled a classical commencement ceremony staple, Pachelbel’s Canon In D, to pull on the heartstrings of seniors. The song peaked on the charts in May 2000, just in time for graduation.
“I am proud of every part of my past and I’m excited for this song to find a place in your life as well,” Drake wrote in the 2013 blog post premiering “Started From the Bottom,” his look back at his journey from childhood to megastardom. Drake’s infectious ode to growth and keeping one’s friends close is also really easy to shout along with during those moments of grad-party bliss.
Sarah McLachlan was not yet a household name when she wrote “I Will Remember You” for the 1995 indie movie The Brothers McMullen. But it ultimately became one of her signature songs when it appeared on her multi-platinum 1999 live album Mirrorball, and grew into a ballad that’s touched the hearts of countless departing graduates.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the class of ’97: Wear sunscreen.” During the dialup era, a commencement speech opening with that sage bit of advice made the online rounds, attributed to sci-fi genius Kurt Vonnegut. The speech was actually written by the Chicago Tribune‘s Mary Schmich, who used a 1997 column to opine on what her ideal graduation address would sound like. When maximalist director-composer Baz Luhrmann’s inbox was graced with the piece, he took to it so deeply that he decided to incorporate it into his remix of Rozalla’s 1991 club hit “Everybody’s Free (To Feel Good)” — and he properly credited Schmich, thus proving that even in the old days of the Internet, a little research could debunk an urban legend.
The third single in Katy Perry’s unprecedented run of six consecutive Number One hits from 2010’s Teenage Dream was its biggest and most enduring, perhaps because the lyrics are durable enough to suit many situations. In addition to being heard frequently at graduations, “Firework” has become a 4th of July staple and an unofficial anthem of the LGBT activism movement It Gets Better.
The concept of “YOLO” took hold in youth culture in 2011 thanks to Drake’s song “The Motto.” But the triumphant chorus of fun.’s end-of-the-night breakthrough hit — “Tonight/We are young/So let’s set the world on fire” — poetically encapsulated the idea of living for now with singalong gusto. “The lyrics came after my worst drinking night of all time,” Ruess told Rolling Stone shortly after the song blew up. “Have you ever been kicked out of a cab for puking all over the place? I have. The cabbie was demanding all this money, and all I could do was stand on the corner with my head against the wall. It took me another day before I was a functioning adult and could actually write down the verses.”
“That was really the first time we attempted a ballad,” Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong told SPIN in 2010. “The first time we ever played that song was during an encore in New Jersey — I had to pound a beer backstage to get up the courage. I knew we were gonna take a tomato to the face.” The snotty punks left this tune off their 1994 breakthrough, Dookie, for sounding too different from the rest of their repertoire, but it was eventually released on the 1997 album Nimrod and quickly became a pop culture touchstone, soundtracking Seinfeld‘s 1998 farewell broadcast as well as countless graduation ceremonies.