500 Greatest Songs of All Time – Rolling Stone
Home Music Music Lists

500 Greatest Songs of All Time

Rolling Stone’s definitive list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.

By Jay-Z

A great song doesn’t attempt to be anything — it just is.

When you hear a great song, you can think of where you were when you first heard it, the sounds, the smells. It takes the emotions of a moment and holds it for years to come. It transcends time. A great song has all the key elements — melody; emotion; a strong statement that becomes part of the lexicon; and great production. Think of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” by Queen. That song had everything — different melodies, opera, R&B, rock — and it explored all of those different genres in an authentic way, where it felt natural.

When I’m writing a song that I know is going to work, it’s a feeling of euphoria. It’s how a basketball player must feel when he starts hitting every shot, when you’re in that zone. As soon as you start, you get that magic feeling, an extra feeling. Songs like that come out in five minutes; if I work on them more than, say, 20 minutes, they’re probably not going to work.

Read Jay-Z’s full essay here.


Sly and the Family Stone, ‘Hot Fun in the Summertime’

Writer: Sly Stone
Aug. '69, Epic
16 weeks; No. 2

Summer was already under way when Stone handed in this heavenly soul ballad to Epic, which was wary of releasing a summer song in August – but it was a smash anyway. The single came out just before the Family Stone performed at Woodstock – they were the first band to sign up for the historic festival. Michael Jackson later bought the rights to the song.

Appears on: Greatest Hits (Epic)


100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Sly and the Family Stone


The Band, ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’

Writer: Robbie Robertson
John Simon, the Band
Sept. '69, Capitol

Robertson, a Canadian, vividly depicted the Civil War-era South in this moving dirge. "I remember taking him to the library so he could research the history and geography," said Levon Helm, the Band's only American, whose gritty vocal evoked the interior struggle of someone trying to make sense of a lost cause – like, in 1969, the war in Vietnam.

Appears on: The Band (Capitol)


500 Greatest Albums of All Time: The Bands’ The Band


Jackie Wilson, ‘(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher’

Writers: Gary Jackson, Raynard Miner, Carl Smith
Carl Davis
Aug. '67, Brunswick
12 weeks; No. 6

At first, he sang it like a ballad. But Wilson hit the right gallop after producer Davis told him "to jump and go along with the percussion." Motown bassist James Jamerson played down below, along with several other moonlighting members of the Funk Brothers band.

Appears on: The Very Best of Jackie Wilson (Rhino)


100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Jackie Wilson

100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Jackie Wilson


The Spencer Davis Group, ‘Gimme Some Lovin”

Writers: Davis, Steve Winwood, Muff Winwood
Jimmy Miller
Dec. '66, United Artists
13 weeks; No. 7

Teenage singer Steve Winwood provided the impossibly raw vocals. "Steve had been singing, 'Gimme some lovin',' just yelling anything," said bassist-brother Muff. "It took about an hour to write, then down the pub for lunch."

Appears on: Gimme Some Lovin' (Sundazed)


100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Steve Winwood


The B-52’s, ‘Love Shack’

Writers: Kate Pierson, Fred Schneider, Keith Strickland, Cindy Wilson
Don Was, Nile Rodgers
June '89, Reprise
27 weeks; No. 3

The B-52's had few reasons to party in 1989: Guitarist Ricky Wilson had died; their previous album had flopped. But with production by dance-rock master Don Was, they slapped smiles and Dixie New Wave glitter all over this bouncing beauty.

Appears on: Cosmic Thing (Reprise)


Elton John, ‘Rocket Man’

Writers: John, Bernie Taupin
Gus Dudgeon
May '72, Uni
15 weeks; No. 6

A perfect song for the age of moonwalks, this star trek was the elegiac tale of an astronaut lost in space, light-years from home. Taupin wrote it on the way to visiting his own family. "I got inside," he said, "and had to rush to write it all down before I'd forgotten it." Taupin was accused of ripping off Bowie's "Space Oddity," but he was actually thinking of "Rocket Man," by acid-folkies Pearls Before Swine.

Appears on: Honky Chateau (Island)


100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Elton John

100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Elton John


Sly and the Family Stone, ‘Stand!’

Writer: Sly Stone
April '69, Epic
8 weeks; No. 22

The title song from Stone's classic black-rock LP became a civil rights anthem. But when a test pressing got a muted reaction on San Francisco radio, Stone added the funky coda, played by what his A&R man Stephen Paley called "old-men horn players," since the Family was unavailable. "He wrote out parts for the horn players and even passed out W-4 forms," said Paley. "He was that together."

Appears on: Stand! (Sony)


500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Sly and the Family Stone’s Stand!


Dion, ‘The Wanderer’

Writer: Ernie Maresca
Gene Schwartz
Dec. '61, Laurie
18 weeks; No. 2

Dion DiMucci's trademark hit – originally the B side to a single called "The Majestic," until DJs began flipping the record over – was a swaggering shuffle about a real-life hard-ass who wore tattoos of his girlfriends' names on his arms. "You say to a chick, 'Stay away from that guy,' " Dion said in 1976, when "The Wanderer" was a Top 20 hit again in the U.K. "And she would say, 'What guy?' Chicks loved a rebel."

Appears on: Runaround Sue (Capitol)


100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Dion


Dusty Springfield, ‘Son of a Preacher Man’

Writers: John Hurley, Ronnie Wilkins
Jerry Wexler
Nov. '68, Atlantic
12 weeks; No. 10

Springfield was white and English but sang as if born with black American soul. In 1968, newly signed to Atlantic and under the tutelage of its star producer Wexler, she went to the mecca of Dixie R&B to record the gospel-tinged Dusty in Memphis. She ended up doing her vocals in New York, but no matter: Her deep, heated voice captured the carnal fire of the South

Appears on: Dusty in Memphis (Rhino)


100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Dusty Springfield


Patsy Cline, ‘I Fall to Pieces’

Writer: Hank Cochran
Owen Bradley
Jan. '61, Decca
20 weeks; No. 12

Cline was reluctant to record this ballad, which had been turned down by Brenda Lee, until Bradley coaxed her into it. Seven months pregnant when she cut it, Cline belted the ending the first time through, but the magic happened when she dropped to her lower register on her second try.

Appears on: 12 Greatest Hits (MCA)


100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Patsy Cline


Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force, ‘Planet Rock’

Writers: Bambaataa, John Robie, the Soul Sonic Force
Bambaataa, Arthur Baker
July '82, Tommy Boy
11 weeks; No. 48

"Can you play stuff like Kraftwerk?" asked Bam, who played their records at DJ gigs. Baker worried about stealing the melody from "Trans-Europe Express," but Robie said, "I'll tear that shit up."

Appears on: Looking for the Perfect Beat 1980-1985 (Tommy Boy)


Ray Charles, ‘I Got a Woman’

Writers: Charles, Renald Richard
Jerry Wexler
Nov. '54, ABC-Parliament
Predates chart

Charles was riding through Indiana one night in 1954 with his musical director Richard when they began singing along to a gospel tune on the radio. "Ray sang something like, 'I got a woman,'" said Richard. "I answered, 'Yeah, she lives across town.'" He finished the song the next day, and Charles cut it at an Atlanta radio station – a session now recognized as the birth of soul.

Appears on: Atlantic Singles (Rhino)


100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Ray Charles

100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Ray Charles


Buddy Holly and the Crickets, ‘Everyday’

Writers: Charles Hardin, Norman Petty
Sept. '57, Coral a
Did not chart

The flip side to "Peggy Sue," "Everyday" features the celesta, a keyboard with a glockenspiel-like tone that Petty kept in his New Mexico studio. The percussion is drummer Jerry Allison keeping time by slapping his knees. For legal reasons, Holly changed his songwriting credit to Charles Hardin, his real first and middle names.

Appears on: Best of Buddy Holly (Universal)


100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Buddy Holly

100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Buddy Holly


The Byrds, ‘I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better’

Writer: Gene Clark
Terry Melcher
June '65, Columbia
Did not chart

The Byrds championed the songs of Bob Dylan, who in turn praised the exotic balladry of Byrd Gene Clark. "I remember him saying, 'Gene is really interesting to me,'" said bassist Chris Hillman. Clark wrote this about a girlfriend from their days at the L.A. club Ciro's. "She was a funny girl, and she started bothering me," he said. "I wrote the whole song within a few minutes."

Appears on: Mr. Tambourine Man (Columbia)


M.I.A., ‘Paper Planes’

Writers: M.I.A., Diplo
Diplo, Switch
August '07, Interscope
21 weeks; No. 4

Maya Arulpragasam cheerfully threatens to steal your money, over a sample of the Clash's "Straight to Hell." The unlikely hit took off thanks to its inclusion in the Pineapple Express trailer. "The other songs on the chart were Katy Perry and the Jonas Brothers," says M.I.A. "Then you saw 'Paper Planes' and it's cool because there's hope: 'Thank God the future's here.'"

Appears on: Kala (Interscope)


The Animals, ‘We Gotta Get Out of This Place’

Writers: Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil
Mickie Most
Aug. ’65, MGM
11 weeks; No. 13

Born in the Brill Building song factory and originally intended for the Righteous Brothers, it got a harsh white-blues treatment from the Animals. As singer Eric Burdon put it, “Whatever suited our attitude, we just bent to our own shape.” Its desperate intensity made the song a huge hit with U.S. soldiers in Vietnam and, a generation later, coalition forces in Iraq.

Appears on: Retrospective (ABKCO)


Roy Orbison, ‘Only the Lonely’

Writers: Joe Melson, Orbison
Fred Foster
May '60, Monument
21 weeks; No. 2

Orbison intended to offer this song to either Elvis Presley (also a Sun Records alumnus) or the Everly Brothers, who had cut the Orbison song "Claudette." But Orbison's falsetto made the loneliness real. "For a baritone to sing as high as I do," he said, "is ridiculous."

Appears on: For the Lonely: 18 Greatest Hits (Rhino)


100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Roy Orbison

100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Roy Orbison


Marvin Gaye, ‘Sexual Healing’

Writers: Gaye, Odell Brown, David Ritz
Oct. '82, Columbia
21 weeks; No. 3

In April 1982 Gaye was living in exile in Brussels and suffering writer's block. "I suggested that Marvin needed sexual healing," Ritz, his biographer, later wrote. Gaye put the idea to a reggae-style beat by sideman Brown. The result: Gaye's last Top Five hit.

Appears on: Midnight Love (Columbia)


100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Marvin Gaye

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Marvin Gaye


Bob Dylan, ‘Just Like a Woman’

Writer: Dylan
Bob Johnston
May '66, Columbia
6 weeks; No. 33

Dylan wrote this on Thanksgiving Day 1965 – three days after marrying Sara Lowndes – while on tour in Kansas City. His nonstop creative rush was taking a big toll. "I don't consider myself outside of anything," he said at the time. "I just consider myself not around." He turned his torment into this song, allegedly inspired by his recently ended affair with doomed Andy Warhol starlet Edie Sedgwick.

Appears on: Blonde on Blonde (Columbia)


100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Bob Dylan

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Bob Dylan


Van Morrison, ‘Moondance’

Writer: Morrison
Producer: Morrison
Released: Feb. '70, Warner Bros.
4 weeks; No. 92

The title song of Morrison's first self-produced album started "as a saxophone solo," he said. "I used to play this sax number over and over, anytime I picked up my horn." He played the sax solo on this recording, which combined the bucolic charm of his life in Woodstock, New York ("the cover of October skies"), with his love of the sophisticated jazz and R&B of Mose Allison and Ray Charles.

Appears on: Moondance (Warner Bros.)


100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Van Morrison

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Van Morrison


Muddy Waters, ‘Mannish Boy’

Writers: McKinley Morganfield, Mel London, Ellas McDaniel
Leonard and Phil Chess, Willie Dixon
May '55, Chess
Did not chart

After Waters heard Bo Diddley audition "I'm a Man" for Chess, he replied with "Mannish Boy." (Diddley got a credit as McDaniel, his real name.) Both songs were issued in 1955 and shot into the R&B Top 10. "When I heard him, I realized the connection between all the music I heard," Keith Richards said of Waters. "He was like the code book."

Appears on: The Anthology (MCA/Chess)


100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Muddy Waters

100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Muddy Waters

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Muddy Waters’ The Anthology


Chic, ‘Good Times’

Writers: Nile Rodgers, Bernard Edwards
Rodgers, Edwards
June '79, Atlantic
19 weeks; No. 1

The tone was half-ironic when Chic released "Good Times," a hedonistic roller-disco tune, during the Seventies recession. The other half was pure joy, and Edwards' bass line – bouncing on one note, then climbing – proved too snappy for just one song. Queen borrowed it for "Another One Bites the Dust"; in the South Bronx, the Sugarhill Gang put it under "Rapper's Delight."

Appears on: Risqué (Atlantic)


The Clash, ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’

Writers: The Clash
Glyn Johns
May '82, Epic
13 weeks; No. 45

"My main influences," Mick Jones said, "are Mott the Hoople, the Kinks and the Stones" – which explains this choppy riff. Jones yells "Split!" because Joe Strummer snuck up behind him while he was recording his vocals. The chorus hints at the band's end: At the time, "none of us were really talking to each other," said Paul Simonon. The original four were soon no more.

Appears on: Combat Rock (Sony)


James Taylor, ‘Fire and Rain’

Writer: Taylor
Peter Asher
Feb. '70, Warner Bros.
16 weeks; No. 3

Taylor wrote the three verses of this song in three phases following the breakup of his band the Flying Machine. The first came in a London flat while he was signed to the Apple label, the second in a New York hospital as he kicked heroin and the third during a stay in a Massachusetts psychiatric facility. "It's like three samplings of what I went through," he said.

Appears on: Sweet Baby James (Warner Bros.)


100 Greatest Artists of All Time: James Taylor

100 Greatest Singers of All Time: James Taylor


Muddy Waters, ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’

Writer: Willie Dixon
Leonard and Phil Chess, Dixon
Jan. '54, Chess
Did not chart

Waters tested this out at the Chicago blues club Zanzibar. Dixon gave him some advice: "Well, just get a little rhythm pattern," he said. "Do the same thing over again, y'know." Waters cut it a couple of weeks later, with Dixon on bass.

Appears on: The Anthology (Chess/MCA)


100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Muddy Waters

100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Muddy Waters

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Muddy Waters’ The Anthology