Like his ambiguous alias, The Weeknd’s music revels in vivid tales of late-night debauchery before facing up to their sobering aftermaths. In the past decade, the Canadian artist (born Abel Tesfaye) has risen from the underground to become one of the biggest stars in the world. After dropping a string of mixtapes and joining a new class of R&B renegades, The Weeknd entered the pop fray – teaming up with Swedish super-producer Max Martin and others on the way to becoming the global superstar we know today. With every incarnation, however, The Weeknd’s lyrical themes have never strayed: he remains a keen chronicler of sex, drugs, and emotional extremes. His innate ability to not only stay ahead of the curve but actually be the curve has made him one of pop’s greatest disruptors, while his music continues to shape the pop landscape. The best Weeknd songs, below, offer a glimpse into his extraordinary ascent.
“Heartless” was the first taste of The Weeknd’s After Hours era, introducing fans to that chaotic, raunchy energy that would go on to define his most successful era to date. The chorus is a thesis statement of sorts for After Hours as Abel sings, “Why? ‘Cause I’m heartless/ And I’m back to my ways ’cause I’m heartless/ All this money and this pain got me heartless/ Low life for life ’cause I’m heartless.”
26: Phantom Regret By Jim
Look, “Phantom Regret By Jim” isn’t necessarily a Weeknd track, but his brilliant decision to use actor Jim Carrey to narrate the album’s end makes the album closer all the more impactful. Over a song co-written in part by Oneohtrix Point Never, Carrey muses on life and death, asking, “And how many grudges did you take to your grave?/ When you weren’t liked or followed, how did you behave?/ Was it often a dissonant chord you were strumming?/ Were you ever in tune with the song life was humming?” It’s a fascinating way to end the album, and the sort of risk only a revolutionary artist like The Weeknd could pull off.
25: House Of Balloons/Glass Table Girls
Essentially two songs in one, “House Of Balloons/Glass Table Girls” opens with a spacey synth intro before building into an electrifying second half, giving us two contrasting sides to the party scene. The Weeknd is no stranger using two-part structures, or even songs that serve as a call-and-response for one another, and “House Of Balloons/Glass Table Girls” is the perfect example of his innate narrative skills, as he chronicles a party that turns dark over a Siouxsie And The Banshees sample.
24: The Fall
The Weeknd steps into fearlessness on this track from Echoes Of Silence, letting us know he “ain’t scared of the fall.” The artist’s brave assertion of being unafraid of failure makes his verses about stardom and blowing through money hit harder. He’s insistent on living in the moment – one of the best qualities of a singer who deals in the ephemerality of the present moment.
23: Drunk In Love (Remix)
Remember when every artist was churning out remixes of Beyoncé’s “Drunk In Love”? Tesfaye threw his hat in the ring in 2014, and his voice fit the track like a glove. The R&B crooner makes the song uniquely his own by leaning more into the drunk aspect than the “love” part, showing that he can spin a web, even on a song that wasn’t originally his.
22: One Right Now (with Post Malone)
Once The Weeknd and Post Malone started teasing a collaborative track, it was bound to be a hit. Two of the biggest stars in the world linked up for a massive anthem, set to dominate the charts from sheer wattage alone. Luckily for us, the song is an absolute classic from the duo, built around their personalities but with enough tricks and flair to be entirely fresh.
21: High For This
“High For This” ushered listeners into Tesfaye’s world as the opening track on House Of Balloons, a perfectly brooding, thunderous intro that readies you for a rollercoaster of emotions. On this song, he’s comforting a woman while she parties – something The Weeknd is no stranger to.
20: Wasted Times
“Wasted Times” is frequently referred to as one of The Weeknd’s best songs. Featured on his 2018 EP, My Dear Melancholy, the song shows a different side to the R&B artist’s romantic life, in which he laments his actions in a more mature way. The production is heavily reminiscent of House Of Balloons, but with an added layer of depth and insight into The Weeknd’s personal life.
19: Wicked Games
Many Weeknd fans credit “Wicked Games” as their first exposure to the artist. The song’s sentiments play into a palpable loneliness and offer up sexual gratification as a very temporary fix. The black-and-white music video lends narrative to the loneliness as well, with The Weeknd singing to the camera with a mostly barren background. Needless to say, many could relate to his emotions, and we’ve been coming back for more ever since.
Sexual rendezvous and drug use are a recurring theme in The Weeknd’s songs, and on “Often” he exudes a cavalier attitude about both. The moments between night and morning seem to be a blur, marked by ambiguous lyrics and braggadocious references. The lifestyle may be out of our element but, for him, this is just another day. One of the breakout hits of his sophomore studio album, Beauty Behind The Madness, “Often” went triple-platinum in the US and gold in his native Canada.
17: Take My Breath
On “Take My Breath,” Abel Tesfaye enters an alternate universe where his go-to sound is inspired by the 70s and his energy is honed in on heating up the dance floor. Of course, The Weeknd can do this with his one-of-a-kind post-R&B, but on “Take My Breath” he breaks out the bellbottom pants and emerges from his disco nap ready to party.
16: Can’t Feel My Face
The Weeknd has always cited Michael Jackson as a musical influence, and that fully comes through in “Can’t Feel My Face.” Perhaps his most recognizable tune, “Can’t Feel My Face” shot straight to No.1 thanks to its disco-funk-fuelled sound and infectious chorus. In the music video, The Weeknd is on stage doing his best Jackson moves and getting booed during karaoke – a funny side you don’t often see in the singer’s moody visuals.
15: The Hills
“The Hills” is yet another chart-topping hit from Beauty Behind The Madness. The song peaked at No.1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and held a Top 10 slot in five other countries. The hypnotizing lyrics, “When I’m f__ked up/That’s the real me,” were on the tips of everyone’s tongues in 2015, and the bass-boosted track went on to earn diamond certification, making it one of the most successful Weeknd songs of his career.
14: Earned It
This Grammy-winning single took the radio by storm in 2015. Another Beauty Behind The Madness cut, the song also featured in the Fifty Shades Of Grey soundtrack, thrusting Tesfaye into the mainstream. The singer’s seductive voice took center stage on the film’s soundtrack, and “Earned It” became the Canadian singer’s first Top 5 single, peaking at No.3 on the Billboard Hot 100. The accompanying NSFW visual both matched the provocative film and intensely carnal nature of the song.
13: The Zone (featuring Drake)
The Weeknd and Drake have worked on and off with each other since 2011, when Drake put the emerging singer on the map with a guest spot on his Take Care album. Drizzy returned the favor and jumped on “The Zone,” off The Weeknd’s 2011 mixtape, Trilogy. The downtempo single lays bare a narrative in which Tesfaye intends to sleep with a girl, but is thinking of someone else. The message isn’t necessarily new, but the singer has a way of expressing vulnerability in a startling way, keeping his fans coming back for more.
12: Loft Music
Nearly every party in 2011 was soundtracked by House Of Balloons, and the lyrics to “Loft Music” had everyone in a chokehold. The song samples “Gila” by Beach House, and flips into a racy fantasy world in which waking life and drug use seem like a lucid dream. No one knows how to sing about reckless moments of youth like The Weeknd, and this bold track put everyone on high alert for more to come from the talented singer.
11: Tell Your Friends
This Kanye-produced addition to Beauty Behind The Madness is a stunning piano-driven track detailing Tesfaye’s experiences with fame. The lyrics are particularly vulnerable in a new way, helping the album become The Weeknd’s best-selling record to date. Instead of the usual moody synths, Tesfaye applies his silky falsetto over a classic soul sample, courtesy of “Can’t Stop Loving You” by Soul Dog. The single achieved platinum certification and spent a considerable amount of time on the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B charts.
10: Save Your Tears
The Weeknd has an inimitable ability to conjure catharsis from the subtlest accents. In “Save Your Tears,” it’s the descending synth line in the chorus that emphasizes his laments, as he sings, “You could’ve asked me why I broke your heart/ You could’ve told me that you fell apart/ But you walked past me like I wasn’t there/ And just pretended like you didn’t care.” Like all of the best Weeknd songs, Tesfaye manages to make himself the hero and villain at the same time.
9: The Morning
“The Morning” still ranks as one of the best Weeknd songs, and its impact on his career is unparalleled. The subject matter of this one is pretty clear: sex, drugs, traveling, and the rock star lifestyle set to hazy synths and woozy blues riffs. With “The Morning,” Tesfaye created a new subset of R&B: hangover jams. The song also got play in the 2019 film Uncut Gems, when The Weeknd (playing himself) performs it a darkened nightclub.
8: Rolling Stone
Taken from his trilogy of mixtapes, “Rolling Stone” saw the enigmatic singer drop his guard ever so slightly, dedicating the music video to his fans and accompanying it with an open letter. “Because I am a man of few words, I chose to make a video to show you how I felt and where I stand. I usually don’t like to ‘spoon feed’ my audience because I grew up idolizing storytellers who tell stories using symbolism, so it was in my nature to do the same.” The singer gets reflective, as he addresses the camera over a simple guitar melody.
7: The Birds Pt.2
Well, she didn’t heed his warning, and now she’s shooting a gun. The combination of crying, gunshots and crows cawing at the beginning of “The Birds Pt.2” paints an eerie picture. This dark track illustrates Tesfaye’s craftsmanship when it comes to storytelling, making it one of The Weeknd’s best songs in a roster of hits.
6: The Birds Pt.1
The Weeknd often muses about his difficulty with relationships and here offers a literal warning not to fall in love with him. On “The Birds Pt.1,” Tesfaye goes as far as to describe falling in love with him as “falling to the point of no return”; by the end of the track, you’re practically praying that every woman who listens takes heed. But then what would happen to the music?
5: Starboy (featuring Daft Punk)
“Starboy” finds The Weeknd stepping into his fame and revelling in his own talent. The accompanying video shows him walking through an immaculate mansion and smashing his own record plaques. The single and platinum-selling album of the same name also represented The Weeknd star-walking over the threshold of fame and into a new chapter of his music. A collaboration with French electronic music duo Daft Punk, the synth-laden track went seven-times platinum in the US and peaked at No.1 on both Billboard’s Hot 100 and Hot R&B/Hip-Hop charts.
Among the many songs on The Weeknd’s semi-concept album, Dawn FM, there are plenty of standouts. But this Swedish House Mafia co-production might just be the finest. “Sacrifice” shows what The Weeknd does best, never straying far from his patented formula. The track begins with lines so epic, they may end up on his Hall of Fame bust: “I was born in a city/ Where the winter nights don’t ever sleep/ So this life’s always with me/ The ice inside my veins will never bleed.”
3: King Of The Fall
Tesfaye drops a little well-earned braggadocio on plenty of his tracks, but “King Of The Fall” has some of his most potent verses. Once again, the singer shares his perspective as the protagonist of his own hedonistic debauchery and speeds up his usual languid delivery. It was released as a standalone track ahead of his King Of The Fall Tour in 2014 and served as a precursor to Beauty Behind The Madness, which dropped the following year.
2: Coming Down
The House Of Balloons mixtape was a grand introduction to The Weeknd’s push-and-pull narrative about relationships. On “Coming Down,” the artist sings about his feelings surrounding a relationship while under the influence, apologising (but not really) for things he did when he was high. The track creates the hazy atmosphere of coming down from an intense high and coming face-to-face with the harsh reality.
1: Blinding Lights
“Blinding Lights” isn’t only one of the Weeknd’s best songs, it’s one of the great pop moments of the 21st century. The synth line sounds like it was taken from an 80s video game and the drums thump in your chest like that sensation after one too many cups of coffee. It’s an exhilarating performance, and Abel Tesfaye manages to build and strip back tension with the snap of a finger. “Blinding Lights” is a masterclass in pop songwriting and showcases The Weeknd at the absolute top of his game.
Blurbs by Alyson Lewis and Sam Armstrong.
Think we missed one of the best Weeknd songs? Let us know in the comments below!