Hit Songs That Were Almost Left Off The Album

Some songs are expected to become hits before they're ever released, while others make their way to the top of the charts even though they were almost never included on the albums for which they were intended.

Imagine songs like Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” or Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” never coming to fruition. Bob Dylan even won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016 - not for a novel, but for the meaningful and lasting impact of his lyrics. 

Some of the most iconic songs would have been left off their albums, or not produced at all if it weren’t for the dogged determination of those that believed so passionately in their songs' worth and artistic impact. Had those songs not been released, some massive artists' lives would have been very different - maybe they wouldn't even be famous at all.

  • 'Billie Jean' By Michael Jackson
    Photo: White House Photo Office / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Michael Jackson was one of the larger-than-life stars who came out of the 20th century. He's known for countless hits, mesmerizing dance moves, and iconic style. While he started as a lead vocalist of the Jackson 5 with his siblings, his transition into music from kid to adult was difficult.

    It wasn't until his sixth album that he truly gained notoriety with "Billie Jean." The song was tough for Jackson to talk about - given the context - and the tune and music video altered his look and the music industry altogether. He seemed to know it would, too, because he was so enraptured by the melody in his head one day on the highway that he didn't notice his car was smoking. 

    Quincy Jones wasn't so easily convinced of its potential success. He argued that he disliked the intro, bassline, and title. Jackson ultimately won the battle and the public was gifted the Grammy Award-winning song.

  • '(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction' By The Rolling Stones
    Photo: Jim Pietryga / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Keith Richards woke up in the middle of the night with a melody in his head and his guitar was on the bed near him. After fumbling around in the dark for his portable cassette recorder and pushing the record button, he began playing the eight-note riff he awoke to. He mumbled the vocals, “I can’t get no satisfaction,” before falling back asleep with the rest of the recording being Richards's snoring.

    After working on the song further, the group settled, temporarily, on an acoustic version of “Satisfaction” that some described as sounding like a Bob Dylan song. However, after changing the sound to match the sexy swagger the Rolling Stones are known for, the finished version had no further issues making the album.

  • 'Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)' By Eurythmics
    Photo: Helge Øverås / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox, better known by their band name Eurythmics, were having a difficult time making it in the music business. Well, this may be an understatement, but redemption was coming. Stewart said of the situation:

    By this point, Annie was totally depressed. She was curled up on the floor in the foetal position when I managed to produce this beat and riff. She suddenly went: "What the hell is that?" and leapt up and started playing the other synthesiser. Between the two duelling synths we had the beginnings of "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)." It was a juggernaut rhythm, but it wasn’t a song. Quickly, Annie did this startling rant which began: "Sweet dreams are made of this..." It was mind-blowing, but depressing, so I suggested the "hold your head up, moving on" bit to make it more uplifting.

    They thought they had done something great - but the record company disagreed, saying there wasn’t a chorus and they didn’t see it working out as a single. After a DJ gained success playing it in his playlist, the label relented and the song found its way onto the album, quickly becoming a global hit and topping the charts in the US.

  • 'The Boys Are Back in Town' By Thin Lizzy
    Photo: Helge Øverås / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    'The Boys Are Back in Town' By Thin Lizzy

    Thin Lizzy's "The Boys Are Back in Town" was one of 1976’s biggest hits, but the song almost didn't make the cut for their Jailbreak album.

    Guitarist Scott Gorham told Louder in a 2015 interview:

    We weren’t initially going to put "The Boys Are Back in Town" on the Jailbreak album at all. Back then you picked 10 songs and went with those because of the time restrictions of vinyl. We recorded 15 songs, and of the 10 we picked, that wasn’t one of them. But then management heard it and said, "No, there’s something really good about this song." Although back then, it didn’t yet have the twin guitar parts on it.

    And management was right; it became Thin Lizzy’s flagship song and fans are still crazy about it today. 

  • 'Bohemian Rhapsody' By Queen 
    Photo: Eleonora Pradella / Wikipedia / Public Domain

    Freddie Mercury and his legendary rock band Queen were known for pushing musical boundaries and produced some the true rock classics - like “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Love it or not, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is unlike any other song. Its overture is distinguished and memorable, followed by operatic crescendos, a plethora of instrumentals, and the unmistakable voices of Freddie and his bandmates. But this six-minute-long rock mega-hit almost didn’t make the album. 

    Mercury wasn’t all that fond of his own creation initially. At the time, Queen had already achieved success and Mercury wasn’t convinced the song was worthy enough to make the group’s 1975 album, A Night at the Opera. Mercury eventually decided to leave it on the album, and it was perhaps the single best decision he ever made for the band, as the song is now widely considered one of the greatest masterpieces in rock.

  • 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' By Nirvana
    Photo: Julie Kramer / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

    “Smells Like Teen Spirit” nearly didn’t make it on Nirvana’s final album. Kurt Cobain felt as if the song was something the Pixies might produce, a band which he admired. In fact, it was almost tossed out for good since Cobain felt it just seemed too much like the Pixies.

    Months after "Smells Like Teen Spirit" had been recorded, Cobain remained concerned it sounded too much like a Pixies rip-off. Probably unintentionally, Cobain took inspiration for the main riff from Boston's "More Than a Feeling," as well. 

    The song has been described as an anthem for Generation X, but ultimately it isn’t a song about Gen X - it's a song about Cobain and a season of his life.

    Charles R. Cross was given unparalleled access to Cobain's private journals, and in his book, he writes:

    Though Kurt never specifically addressed it, his most famous song, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," could not have been about anyone else, with the lyrics "she's over-bored and self-assured." "Teen Spirit" was a song influenced by many things - his anger at his parents, his boredom, his eternal cynicism - yet several individual lines resonate with Tobi [Vail]'s presence. He wrote the song soon after their split, and the first draft included a line edited from the final version: "Who will be the king and queen of the outcast teens?" The answer, at one point in his imagination, had been Kurt Cobain and Tobi Vail.