The Definitive Ranking of the Top 12 Hamilton Songs
In honor of the fact that I get to see Hamilton TOMORROW, there has for multiple fortnights been a deep stirring within me to give the world THE definitive Top 12 songs list of the musical that became the soundtrack to my first year of grad school (among other accolades).
If you’re reading this, you are likely aware that the show is truly a masterpiece – Michelle Obama called it “the best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen in my life.” It won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2016, along with 11 Tony awards. Listening to the show all the way through is truly akin to peering face-to-face at Michelangelo’s breathtaking David or working your way through a thick Shakespeare tome. It’s difficult to actually imagine someone envisioning, creating, articulating everything Miranda has done in such a beautiful, thorough and connected way.
One of the reasons the show has been such a revelation is because of the cast: the founding fathers are portrayed largely by people of color. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who created the show, describes it as “America then, told by America now.” He has also said, “American history can be told and retold, claimed and reclaimed, even by people who don’t look like George Washington and Betsy Ross.” Daveed Diggs, the actor who portrays Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson, said that seeing a black man play Jefferson or Madison or Washington when he was a kid in Oakland might have changed his life.
This piece, including the quotes above, are highly influenced by Jeremy McCarter’s book Hamilton: The Revolution, which was co-written with Miranda. The book takes readers through the entire journey of the show, including lyrics and footnotes to each and every song. One of the things I want to point out about this book – other than the fact that you should go purchase it right now – is how heavily Miranda was influenced by the great artists, themes, and rhythms of hip-hop. A DMX reference here; A Mobb Deep and Biggy Smalls inspiration that found its way into the show there. He even discusses stealing a line from Jason Robert Brown at the end of the song “Say No to This,” and how he frantically called and asked permission to use it because the line (“Nobody needs to know”) fit so perfectly in the end of the song. Great writers and artists borrow, steal, and stand on the shoulders of those who came before them. They do so honestly, respectfully, deferentially. This is inspiring and encouraging to me, because today, you and I have access to more great art than ever before, and we have the chance to let it guide our own work – whatever form that may take.
Before we begin the list, let me address some questions you are probably – dareisay certainly – asking:
Matt, wow – so cool that you’re doing this. I’ve always wanted to listen to Hamilton, but didn’t know what the best 12 songs were in order, so from the bottom of my heart, thank you! You’ve given me a great place to start.
That’s not a question, but thank you.
Isn’t something like this extremely subjective?
So, you’re saying, this is THE definitive list of the top 12 Hamilton songs?
How can you be sure this is THE definitive, objective ranking?
Easy. I’ve developed a simple algorithm that takes into account every major component of what makes a song great. You simply answer the following questions:
(Q1) Does the song reveal something particularly important to the show’s narrative?
(Q2) Does the song contain any particularly powerful or beautiful singing performances?
(Q3) Does the song contain any particularly dope bars or mic drop lines?
(Q4) Is the song epic?
(Q5) How many times did I weep during the song?
You simply take the answers to (Q1) and (Q2) (A yes is worth 5.0, and a no is worth -3.0) and divide that answer by the cosine of the product of (Q3 x Q4 x Q5). Once you calculate this, you then divide by the girth of (Q4 – Q3) (Girth = difference between (Q3/i) and (Q1 + Q2)). Once you have this answer, divide the result by 3.14 (not pi, just this number to the hundredths decimal) and you arrive at your Matt Cambridge Clear Hamilton Ideological Count of Knighthood Exact Number, or McCHICKEN score. (A quick apology to my non-math oriented readers – I took pre-calc, so sometimes it’s hard to turn it off.) If the McCHICKEN score is greater than or equal to 95.3, the song belongs in the top-12 pantheon.
But isn’t the whole thing great?
Absolutely. There are so many songs in the show, and even the worst one is unbelievable. Respect to Lin-Manuel, my boy, and cheers to this genius work of art. Being left out of this list would be like being the first person cut from a nationally televised, world-class hot-dog eating competition. You didn’t make it, but you’re still super amazing. Ok, it’s nothing like that. You get it.
What happens if I disagree?
You can post a comment on here, or on Facebook, or on Snapchat (God help you) and I will skillfully and artistically destroy your argument, Hamilton-in-Cabinet-Battle-Number-One style. But by all means, I’d LOVE to hear your thoughts.
Haven’t other people done this already?
Yes. Buzzfeed did a complete ranking, and didn’t even come close. I was damn near crying by the end, not like the beautiful, salty tears I’ll probably weep when I finally see the show live tomorrow, but the kind of tears fathers probably weep when they witness their daughters leaving the house in slutty Halloween costumes for the first time. It was horrible, and I hope I never have to re-live it. I wouldn’t wish it upon you either.
Can’t we start already? I don’t have all the time in the world.
You’ve read this far already, sheesh. What else would you be doing right now if you weren’t reading this?! Catching up on Breaking Bad? Spoiler alert, Walt dies. Sorry not sorry, it’s been five years. Seriously, WHAT ELSE would you be doing right now? Scrolling through a bunch of Snapchat stories of people you don’t actually care about? Let me fill you in: Karen is still playing with her stupid puppy, and Jake is still taking dumb selfies of himself with no shirt on like he’s Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. All caught up! Believe me, I’m doing you a favor. Please sit back and enjoy, because I’ve poured my heart and soul into this piece and I’m very proud of it.
12. Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story
McCHICKEN Score: 95.32
MVP Line: When you’re gone, who remembers your name? Who keeps your flame? Who tells your story?
The final song of Hamilton was one of the first I listened to, like a seventh grader impatiently thumbing his way to the ending of a chapter book for the ending rather than reading the whole thing. I needed to know how the show ends. I don’t really know why; I’m typically not the needs-to-know-the-ending guy, and this show isn’t one where the ending is a secret. For whatever reason, I thought the show would end with a bang.
The show ends very softly, with melancholy, the cast asking the audience a simple question: Who tells your story? Throughout the show audiences are reminded that history will have its eyes on us, yet, simultaneously, asks us to consider that we ultimately don’t control the narrative once we’re gone. It’s up to those who love and survive us to tell our story, as Eliza has done for Hamilton. I think Miranda saw in Hamilton’s life an untold story that deserved to be told, and he took it upon himself to tell it.
Who tells your story? Or maybe better yet, whose story will you tell?
11. Alexander Hamilton
McCHICKEN Score: 95.89
MVP Line: There’s a million things I haven’t done, but just you wait
This song is in the Pantheon simply because it is the opener and there is some amazing storytelling. It begins the series of run-on, paragraph-formatted questions that the show aims to answer over the course of the show. In it, we get to meet every character – Burr, who will be our storyteller; Washington, who was larger than life; the amazing women (we get to meet them even before Hamilton does); the men who fought with him and died for him and the women who loved him. It’s the epic beginning of an epic story--a microcosm of the entire show. The sheer amount of storytelling that takes place in just under 4 minutes is mind-boggling.
10. Dear Theodosia
McCHICKEN Score: 97.20
MVP Line: If we lay a strong enough foundation…
Jeremy McCarter, co-author of Hamilton: The Revolution, spoke recently at Calvin College and I was fortunate enough to be there. He’s been intimately involved with the show dating back to its “pre-history.” He said he believes this song is the heart of the show: two men singing to their infant children, where the situation is much more real and raw than the tender metaphors we have created for the founding of this country, where there is a real chance they will not succeed. He discussed the MVP line listed above, and how the word “foundation” really pops for him nowadays, how the founding fathers knew that what they were doing was only the groundwork, something that others would have to build on. The word “If,” to him, was likewise essential to the song; the revolution was far from a guaranteed victory, and the successful, aligned founding of the country was perhaps more far-fetched. This reminds me of times in life when great risks are taken, when we’re not sure what a particular outcome will be. A new job, a move to a new city, joining a new group or a new school where we are, as of yet, alone and unknown. These moments, though not as dramatic as founding a new country, require great courage, stepping forward into a future that is made up of only bleak sketches and outlines and where we must wait to see the color.
9. My Shot
McCHICKEN Score: 97.36
MVP Line: Hey yo I’m just like my country, I’m young scrappy and hungry, and I’m not throwing away my shot!
According to McCarter, every show needs to have an “I Want” song, a song that powerfully tells the audience what the main character is fighting for. This is that song. Donald Miller defines story as “A character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.” My Shot is where Miranda establishes the “wants something” portion of the story.
It took Miranda a YEAR to write the song. It takes seven years to write a musical, he said when he hosted SNL last year. This thing is a lyrical revelation, and it is fittingly the song the musical is publicly known for. Manuel has spoken publicly about how Alexander Hamilton was lyrically on another level and he wanted this song to encapsulate that. Mission accomplished.
McCHICKEN Score: 98.73
MVP Line: I was chosen for the Constitutional Convention!!! (Just kidding. Too many MVP lines to count in this song. He weaves every theme of the show together in this song and it’s amazing.)
I didn’t like this song initially, because I didn’t like how the first line sounded. Then I kept listening to it, and that changed quickly. How silly I was. This is the Defying Gravity of Hamilton, and I simply cannot wait to see it live.
7. It’s Quiet Uptown
McCHICKEN Score: 98.74
MVP Line: There are moments that the words don’t reach.
That’s sort of how I feel about writing about Hamilton. There are moments where even the most articulate, thoughtful prose simply fall short. Here’s a quote from McCarter:
“Actors cried while singing it, the production team cried while listening to it, [the choreographer] couldn’t bear to choreograph it."
This song is beautiful, and devastating. It's devastating for obvious reasons, and beautiful because it opens the door for forgiveness amidst deep grief. Anything more I have to say will, likewise, fall short.
McCHICKEN Score: 98.94
MVP Line: The feeling of freedom, of seein' the light, it's Ben Franklin with a key and a kite! You see it, right?
Miranda called this song “the most ambitions tune in the show.” I’m sure this is one of those songs where seeing it live really brings it to life, but you can sort of hear the magic – Angelica’s quick bars of rapping, the rewinding, the heart and wisdom of Angelica in letting Hamilton go. This song is absolutely brilliant. I’m guessing the most pushback I’ll get is for this song not being higher.
6. Helpless (TIE)
McCHICKEN Score: 98.97
MVP Line: My father makes his way across the room to you. I panic for a second thinking we're through. But then he shakes your hand and says, "be true."
Imagine, if you will, a simpler time – a time when we didn’t rely on the world of social media for our worth, a time when a loaf of bread cost a mere $.80. In this simpler time, Lin recorded this song, Helpless, essentially as it is today. Himself. In falsetto. How much would you pay for that recording? This is another one where there is so much storytelling in such a short amount of time and it’s brilliant.
Helpless and Satisfied are two sides of the same story – we hear it from Eliza in Helpless, and then from Angelica in Satisfied. I love how they’re back-to-back in the show, so they stay back-to-back here.
4. Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)
McCHICKEN Score: 99.00
MVP Line: Immigrants, we get the job done
So I’ve cheated and seen this song live, albeit only on TV (it was performed at the Tony’s in 2016). So this one is partially skewed by the fact that I know what the staging looks like and how epic it is; but this song was my first favorite, one that I listened to the most last year when I first found Hamilton. It’s arguably the most epic song in the show, the song with the highest stakes and the largest moment of triumph for our heroes. It’s very close to perfect, as far as I’m concerned. Still, there are three songs that are better on the McCHICKEN scale.
3. Wait for It
McCHICKEN Score: 99.23
MVP Line: And if there’s a reason I’m still alive when everyone who loves me has died, I’m willing to wait for it
Leslie Odom Jr, who originated the role of Aaron Burr, loved this song the minute he heard it, and proclaimed, “I’ll sing it for the rest of my life.” He went on to say that the role of Burr is the best role for a male actor of color in the musical theater canon. He won a Tony for this role, and this is easily my favorite song of his. It is a wrestling song, where he wrestles with larger questions of life, death, and love – how much deeper can we get?
2. One Last Time
McCHICKEN Score: 99.56
MVP Line: If I say goodbye, the nation learns to move on
Oh my. I can’t even with this song. Chris Jackson’s vocal prowess on full display. A beloved president stepping down and paving the way for new leadership. This same beloved president admitting he’s capable of mistakes. Hamilton, our hero, penning the words that he will say to his people. It has everything.
On a totally different note, I always imagine Washington putting his index finger up to Hamilton’s lips when he shushes him. I don’t know if he does in the show (he probably doesn’t), but that’s how I envision it. Shhhhhh. Talk lesssssss.
I must include one final quote from the McCarter book here:
“Chris (Jackson) knows that plenty of people in America are uncomfortable with a black president. He also knows the symbolic power of Hamilton having three of them.”
1. Right Hand Man
McCHICKEN Score: 99.94
MVP Line: Dying is easy, young man, living is harder
It’s not the most lyrically sound, doesn’t have the best vocals or runs or story arc. But this song has always pumped me up, and it builds and builds and builds and ends with a bang. I’ve always had mad respect for songs that do that. It’s the heart of the show for me: in the middle of the chaos of the war, Washington is at his wit’s end and needs help, and Hamilton provides that help, even though it isn’t the way he had envisioned or dreamed. It's Hamilton continuing to build on his early promise that he won't throw away his shot, even if that "shot" continues to evolve in ways he didn't expect or want. It's a lesson in staying attuned to the opportunities that we are presented with, opportunities that may come in big moments that allow us to utilize the gifts we’ve been given. I absolutely love that.
Take A Break
McCHICKEN Score: 86.41
MVP Line: n/a
Major points for the Schuyler Sister’s big run at the end (Where we can STAAAAAAAAYYYYYY) – their voices are truly unbelievable. Points taken off for Philip’s “poem” I’m supposed to be impressed by. The kid is 9 years old and all he can come up with is “My name is Philip, I am a poet, I wrote this poem just to show it”?!? Snooze.
The Schuyler Sisters
McCHICKEN Score: 88.23
MVP Line: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. And when I meet Thomas Jefferson Imma compel him to include women in the sequel. WORK!
In this song we meet the strong, wise, powerful women that make up such a crucial part of the show. It’s an ode to Manuel-Miranda’s hometown and the greatest city in the world, New York City. He wrote, “This is our ‘One Short Day in the Emerald City.’” How lucky we are to be alive right now.
You’ll Be Back
McCHICKEN Score: 90.13
MVP Line: I will kill your friends and family… to remind you… of… my… LOVE.
Three cheers to Jonathan Groff and his wonderful voice, humor and charm. This is the first of three ballads from the King of England, King George, who is portrayed as a bumbling idiot. This one gets the nod over the others because it is first and has a line where he squeals, “EVERYBODYYYYYY!” and it reminds me of that song in Pippin where the audience gets to sing along and I just hope that’s the case here too. The show is now playing in London, to major acclaim. Pause and think about that for a second. The Brits are cheering the portrayal of their defeat and our mockery of their royalty eight times a week on the West End. What a time.
One of the coolest parts about the Hamilton experience so far is that 20,000 students from New York City public schools got the opportunity, through a grant, to see the show when it came out in 2015. Michelle Obama called them “some of the luckiest young people on the planet.”
As I have the chance to see the show tomorrow, I feel the same way.