Should it stir the heart more than the intellect? How much do the words matter? - does their appeal have to have direct, or viscereal? How do you compare anguish with joy? How much does one infuse accepted wisdom and deem a song great simply because others do? And what about a great groove?
A poll will conflate all these issues. I can attempt to separate some of them in a set of personal lists, but one overarching list is too much.
I find the songs that appeal to me on a lasting basis are those that move me emotionally, whatever the reason and whatever the emotion. Sometimes it's an especially strong, expressive peak that captivates me (Pagliacci, Forbi, Sarajevo); sometimes it's multiple peaks (Unforgettable fire, Last goodbye); sometimes it's the overall effect (Ship song)
So here's 10 songs that move me. Sometimes because of the sentiment expressed, sometimes the stirring music, and sometimes the impressionistic value of the whole. It's hard to say they're well ordered, because again it's scarcely comparing like with like.
- Jeff Buckley - The last goodbye [from Grace]- dripping with emotion, words, melody and vocal expression are all indispensible
- Pavarotti - No, Pagliaccio non son (from Leoncavello's Pagliacci) - a song that by turns is anger and anguish; it's in my list for a peak: where he sings, "go, you are not worth my grief...". No other version of this song can compare.
- U2/Pavarotti - Miss Sarajevo [from Passengers' Original Soundtracks] - again, it's here for a high point: Pavarotti's part is made the greater by contrast with Bono's singing, peaks at "love will come..."
- Jessi Bjorling - Forbi Forbi (Lensky's aria fromTchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, sung in Swedish)
- U2 - The unforgettable fire - it's about the Hiroshima/Nagasaki victims, although you wouldn't know from the words
- Sundays - Here's where the story ends [from Reading, Writing, Arithmetic] - the best from the album: wistful, with a voice laden with beauty and expression. I pretend their other albums are laudible, but they're not the same
- Four Tops - Baby I need your loving
- Art Garfunkel - Travelling boy [Angel Clare]
- House Of Love - Call me [Audience with the mind]
- Nick Cave - Ship song [The good son] (albeit Cave has a number of stirring songs in his catalogue - as does U2)
- Jack Frost - Cousin/Angel [Snow Job] (and the day jobs of collaborators Kilbey and McLennan - The Church and Go-Betweens - produced much of beauty too)
- This Mortal Coil - Tarantula [Filigree and Shadow]
I will likely alter/add to this list. Other songs make it to different lists for other reasons, such as raw power (No love lost), groove (Hot love to To the river), or guitar-as-meditation (Theresa's sound world - and much by Sonic Youth, Duane Allman, Neil Young, Clean, Durutti Column).