The write-up for this song is going to turn out very different than I thought it would. If you know the story already, nothing about this is going to be surprising to you, but it was surprising to me.
This was a huge breakout hit for the Verve. It took them from the territory of modestly successful British indie band into the realms of worldwide stardom. It appears on a variety of critical hit lists. All of this because (in my opinion) at the opening strains, it is simply the most awesome thing you have ever heard. It's just totally epic. Nothing else has to happen to make this song a hit, and nothing else does. There's nothing special about the lyrics (nothing wrong with them either, they just are what they are), there's no chorus or bridge--this song is basically just one long verse. The beats are even kind of a misstep--they kind of trip rather than flow. This song is a one-trick pony. But holy hell, it's a good trick.
There's a 1965 song by the Rolling Stones called The Last Time. In 1966 their original manager, Andrew Oldham, recorded an album with his orchestra called Rolling Stones Songbook which included an orchestral version of "The Last Time". It is from this orchestral version that Richard Ashcroft, lead singer of The Verve, sampled the strings for "Bittersweet Symphony" (though it's not a true sample per se, as the concertmaster violin line doesn't exist in the original). At the time of the song's release, The Verve negotiated a 50/50 split of composer rights with ABKCO, the holder of the Rolling Stones' song rights, for the use of the sample in the song. When the song became an enormous hit, ABKCO sued The Verve, arguing (presumably in a more legalese-y fashion) that they had used "too much" of the sample. The case settled with 100% of the composer rights going to ABKCO and The Rolling Stones. One hundred percent. According to copyright law, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger wrote "Bittersweet Symphony."
I'll gladly listen to arguments that Andrew Oldham wrote 50% of "Bittersweet Symphony" (I think that's my opinion on the matter, actually). I will also gladly listen to arguments that The Rolling Stones have better lawyers than The Verve. But the notion that Keith Richards and Mick Jagger wrote "Bittersweet Symphony"...well, the law is just complete crap sometimes. A bunch of clever lawyers took a song and awarded its composers' rights and all of the royalties to two people (and, more importantly, the company that administers their catalog) who didn't write the lyrics, who didn't write the chord progression, and who didn't write the melody.
Lesson: one, single, perfect compositional trick can bring you everything. And also, you know, take it away.