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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.

5

Aretha Franklin, ‘Respect’

Writer: Otis Redding
Producer: Jerry Wexler
Released: April '67, Atlantic
12 weeks; No. 1

Otis Redding wrote "Respect" and recorded it first, for the Volt label in 1965. But Aretha Franklin took possession of the song for all time with her definitive cover, made at Atlantic's New York studio on Valentine's Day 1967. "Respect" was her first Number One hit and the single that established her as the Queen of Soul. In Redding's reading, a brawny march, he called for equal favor with volcanic force. Franklin wasn't asking for anything. She sang from higher ground: a woman calling an end to the exhaustion and sacrifice of a raw deal with scorching sexual authority. In short, if you want some, you will earn it.

"For Otis, respect had the traditional connotation, the more abstract meaning of esteem," Franklin's producer, Jerry Wexler, said in his autobiography, Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music. "The fervor in Aretha's voice demanded that respect; and more respect also involved sexual attention of the highest order. What else would 'Sock it to me' mean?"

He was referring to the knockout sound of Franklin's backup singers — her sisters Carolyn and Erma — chanting "Sock it to me" at high speed, which Aretha and Carolyn cooked up for the session. The late Tom Dowd, who engineered the date, credited Carolyn with the saucy breakdown in which Aretha spelled out the title: "I fell off my chair when I heard that!" And since Redding's version had no bridge, Wexler had the band — the legendary studio crew from Muscle Shoals, Alabama — play the chord changes from Sam and Dave's "When Something Is Wrong With My Baby" under King Curtis' tenor-sax solo.

There is no mistaking the passion inside the discipline of Franklin's delivery; she was surely drawing on her own tumultuous marriage at the time for inspiration. "If she didn't live it," Wexler said, "she couldn't give it." But, he added, "Aretha would never play the part of the scorned woman….Her middle name was Respect."

Appears on: I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (Atlantic)

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4

Marvin Gaye, ‘What’s Going On’

Writers: Gaye, Renaldo Benson, Al Cleveland
Producer: Gaye 
Released: Feb. '71, Tamla
13 weeks; No. 2

"What's Going On" is an exquisite plea for peace on Earth, sung by a man at the height of crisis. In 1970, Marvin Gaye was Motown's top male vocal star, yet he was frustrated by the assembly-line role he played on his own hits. Devastated by the loss of duet partner Tammi Terrell, who died that March after a three-year battle with a brain tumor, Gaye was also trapped in a turbulent marriage to Anna Gordy, Motown boss Berry Gordy's sister. Gaye was tormented, too, by his relationship with his puritanical father, Marvin Sr. "If I was arguing for peace," Gaye told biographer David Ritz, "I knew I'd have to find peace in my heart."

Not long after Terrell's passing, Renaldo Benson of the Four Tops presented Gaye with a song he had written with Motown staffer Al Cleveland. But Gaye made the song his own, overseeing the arrangement and investing the topical references to war and racial strife with private anguish. Motown session crew the Funk Brothers cut the stunning, jazz-inflected rhythm track (Gaye joined in with cardboard-box percussion). Then Gaye invoked his own family in moving prayer: singing to his younger brother Frankie, a Vietnam veteran ("Brother, brother, brother/There's far too many of you dying"), and appealing for calm closer to home ("Father, father, father/We don't need to escalate").

Initially rejected as uncommercial, "What's Going On" (with background vocals by two players from the Detroit Lions) was Gaye's finest studio achievement, a timeless gift of healing. But for Gaye, the peace he craved never came: On April 1st, 1984, he died in a family dispute — shot by his father.

Appears on: What's Going On (Tamla)

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3

John Lennon, ‘Imagine’

Writer: John Lennon
Producers: Lennon, Phil Spector, Yoko Ono
Released: Oct. '71, Apple
9 weeks; No. 3

John Lennon wrote "Imagine," his greatest musical gift to the world, one morning early in 1971 in his bedroom at Tittenhurst Park, his estate in Ascot, England. His wife, Yoko Ono, watched as Lennon sat at the white grand piano now known around the world from films and photographs of the sessions for his Imagine album and virtually completed the song: the serene melody; the pillowy chord progression; that beckoning, four-note figure; and nearly all of the lyrics, 22 lines of graceful, plain-spoken faith in the power of a world, united in purpose, to repair and change itself.

"It's not like he thought, 'Oh, this can be an anthem,'" Ono said, looking back at that morning 30 years later. "Imagine" was "just what John believed: that we are all one country, one world, one people. He wanted to get that idea out."

The idea was not his alone: Ono's own art, before and after she met Lennon in 1966, celebrated the transformative power of dreams. The first line of "Imagine" — "Imagine there's no heaven" — is a direct descendant of the interactive pieces in Ono's 1964 book, Grapefruit ("Imagine letting a goldfish swim across the sky"). But Lennon, as a former Beatle, was an expert in the pop vernacular. He once admitted that "Imagine" — an absolute equality created by the dissolution of governments, borders, organized religion and economic class — was "virtually the Communist Manifesto." But the elementary beauty of his melody, the warm composure in his voice and the poetic touch of co-producer Phil Spector — who bathed Lennon's performance in gentle strings and summer-breeze echo — emphasized the song's fundamental humanity.

Lennon knew he had written something special. In one of his last interviews, he declared "Imagine" to be as good as anything he had written with the Beatles. We know it's better than that: an enduring hymn of solace and promise that has carried us through extreme grief, from the shock of Lennon's own death in 1980 to the unspeakable horror of September 11th. It is now impossible to imagine a world without "Imagine." And we need it, more than he ever dreamed.

Appears on: Imagine (Capitol/Apple) 

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Photos: John Lennon and Yoko Ono in New York