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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.

60

Al Green, ‘Let’s Stay Together’

Writers: Al Green, Al Jackson Jr., Willie Mitchell
Producer: Mitchell
Released: Dec. '71, Hi
16 weeks; No. 1

After Mitchell gave Green a rough mix of a tune he and drummer Jackson had worked out, Green wrote the lyrics in five minutes. Still, Green didn't want to record the song and fought with Mitchell for two days before finally agreeing to cut it. The recording was finished late on a Friday night in the fall of 1971; Mitchell pressed the single on Monday, and by Thursday Green was told that "Let's Stay Together" would be entering the charts at Number Eight. Within two weeks, it had reached Number One on the R&B charts, and in February 1972, the warm, buoyant love song gave Green his only Number One pop hit.

Appears on: Let's Stay Together (The Right Stuff)

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59

Bob Dylan, ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’

Writer: Dylan
Producer: Bob Johnston
Released: Jan. '64, Columbia
Did not chart 

"I wanted to write a big song, some kind of theme song, with short, concise verses that piled up on each other in a hypnotic way," said Dylan. "This is definitely a song with a purpose." Inspired by Scottish and Irish folk ballads and released less than two months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, "The Times They Are A-Changin'" became an immediate Sixties anthem and was covered by artists ranging from the Byrds to Cher to Eddie Vedder. Said Dylan, "I knew exactly what I wanted to say and who I wanted to say it to."

Appears on: The Times They Are A-Changin' (Columbia)

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58

Michael Jackson, ‘Billie Jean’

Writer: Jackson
Producers: Jackson, Quincy Jones
Released: Jan. '83, Epic
7 weeks; No. 1

Sinuous, paranoid and omnipresent: The single that made Jackson the biggest star since Elvis was a denial of a paternity suit, and it spent seven weeks at Number One on the pop charts. Jackson came up with the irresistible rhythm track on his home drum machine and he nailed the vocals in one take. "I knew the song was going to be big," Jackson said. "I was really absorbed in writing it." How absorbed? Jackson said he was thinking about "Billie Jean" while riding in his Rolls-Royce down the Ventura Freeway in California — and didn't notice the car was on fire.

Appears on: Thriller (Sony)

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57

Procol Harum, ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’

Writers: Keith Reid, Gary Brooker
Producer: Denny Cordell
Released: June '67, A&M
12 weeks; No. 5

A somber hymn supported by an organ theme straight out of Bach ("Air on the G String," from the "Suite No. 3 in D Major"), Procol Harum's "Whiter Shade of Pale" was unlike anything else on the radio in 1967. Reid got the idea for the song when he overheard someone at a party tell a woman, "You've gone a whiter shade of pale." The track was also the only one recorded by the initial lineup of Procol Harum, which started as a British band, the Paramounts, in 1963. A worldwide smash that sold more than 6 million copies and quickly found its way into wedding ceremonies (and, later, the Big Chill soundtrack), "Pale" helped kick-start the classical-rock boomlet that gave the world the Moody Blues.

Appears on: Greatest Hits (A&M)

56

The Sex Pistols, ‘Anarchy in the U.K.’

Writers: Paul Cook, Steve Jones, Glen Matlock, Johnny Rotten
Producers: Chris Thomas, Bill Price
Released: Nov. '77, Warner Bros.
Non-single

This is what the beginning of a revolution sounds like: an explosion of punk-rock guitar noise and Johnny Rotten's evil cackle. The Sex Pistols set out to become a national scandal in the U.K., and they succeeded with their debut single. Jones made his guitar sound like a pub brawl, while Rotten snarled, spat and snickered, declaring himself an antichrist and ending the song by urging his fans, "Get pissed/Destroy!" EMI, the Sex Pistols' record label, pulled "Anarchy in the U.K." and dropped them, which just made them more notorious. "I don't understand it," Rotten said in 1977. "All we're trying to do is destroy everything."

Appears on: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols (Warner Bros.) 

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55

Little Richard, ‘Long Tall Sally’

Writers: Robert "Bumps" Blackwell, Enotris Johnson, Little Richard
Producer: Blackwell
Released: March '56, Specialty
19 weeks; No. 6 

Half of a double-sided hit (the flip was "Slippin' and Slidin' [Peepin' and Hidin']"), "Long Tall Sally" was aimed squarely at pop singer Pat Boone. "The white radio stations wouldn't play Richard's version of 'Tutti-Frutti' and made Boone's cover Number One," recalled Blackwell. "So we decided to up the tempo on the follow-up and get the lyrics going so fast that Boone wouldn't be able to get his mouth together to do it!" "Long Tall Sally" proved to be Little Richard's biggest hit. Unfazed, Boone also recorded the song, taking it to Number Eight.

Appears on: The Georgia Peach (Specialty)

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54

The Kingsmen, ‘Louie Louie’

Writer: Richard Berry
Producer: Ken Chase
Released: June '63, Jerden
16 weeks; No. 2 

A blast of raw guitars and half-intelligible shouting recorded for $52, the Kingsmen's cover of Richard Berry's R&B song hit Number Two in 1963 — thanks in part to supposedly pornographic lyrics that drew the attention of the FBI. The Portland, Oregon, group accidentally rendered the decidedly noncontroversial lyrics (about a sailor trying to get home to see his lady) indecipherable by crowding around a single microphone. "I was yelling at a mike far away," singer Jack Ely told Rolling Stone. "I always thought the controversy was record-company hype."

Appears on: The Best of the Kingsmen (Rhino) 

53

Percy Sledge, ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’

Writers: Calvin Lewis, Andrew Wright
Producers: Marlin Greene, Quin Ivy
Released: March '66, Atlantic
13 weeks; No. 1 

Sledge was touring the South with an R&B combo called the Esquires when producer Ivy heard him belt out an intense, pleading ballad at the local Elks Club. Sledge had recently lost both his construction job and his girl, who'd taken off for L.A. to pursue a modeling career. "I didn't have any money to go after her, so there was nothing I could do to try and get her back," he later recalled. Ivy had the lyrics rewritten, and Sledge quit the Esquires to cut his first solo side, the immortal "When a Man Loves a Woman." When Atlantic's Jerry Wexler heard the song, he told partner Ahmet Ertegun, "Our billing for the summer is in the bag."

Appears on: It Tears Me Up: The Best of Percy Sledge (Rhino)

52

Prince, ‘When Doves Cry’

Writer: Prince
Producer: Prince
Released: June '84, Warner Bros.
21 weeks; No. 1 

The Purple Rain soundtrack album was completed, and so was the movie. But Prince just couldn't stop making music. And at the very last minute, he added a brand-new song: "When Doves Cry." Even by Prince standards, it's eccentric; after single-handedly recording the stark, broken-hearted song in the studio, he decided to erase the bass track from the final mix. According to the engineer, Prince said, "Nobody would have the balls to do this. You just wait — they'll be freaking." He was right. Prince made it the soundtrack's first single — and 1984's most avant-garde pop record became his first American Number One hit, keeping Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark" out of the top spot.

Appears on: Purple Rain (Warner Bros.) 

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51

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, ‘The Message’

Writers: Duke Bootee, Melle Mel
Producer: Sylvia Robinson
Released: May '82, Sugar Hill
7 weeks; No. 62 

"The Message" was a breakthrough in hip-hop, taking the music from party anthems to street-level ghetto blues. It began as a poem by schoolteacher Bootee; Sugar Hill boss Robinson decided to make it a rap record with Melle Mel of the Furious Five. Said Flash in 1997, "I hated the fact that it was advertised as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, because the only people on the record were Mel and Duke Bootee." But the song, driven by its signature future-shock synth riff and grim lyrics about urban decay, became an instant sensation on New York's hip-hop radio. "It played all day, every day," Flash said. "It put us on a whole new level."

Appears on: The Best of Sugar Hill Records (Rhino) 

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