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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.

413

Bob Dylan, ‘Visions of Johanna’

Writer: Dylan
Producer: Bob Johnston
Released: May '66, Columbia
Non-Single

"It's easier to be disconnected than connected," Dylan confessed in late 1965. "I've got a huge hallelujah for all the people who're connected, that's great, but I can't do that." He never sounded lonelier than in this seven-minute ballad, originally titled "Seems Like a Freeze-Out." Dylan cut it in a single take on Valentine's Day 1966, with Al Kooper on Hammond B3 organ.

Appears on: Blonde on Blonde (Columbia)

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412

Rihanna Featuring Jay-Z, ‘Umbrella’

Writers: The-Dream, Kuk Harrell, Jay-Z, Christopher "Tricky" Stewart
Producers: Harrell, Stewart
Released: March' 07, Def Jam
27 weeks; No. 1

The songwriters initially offered the track to Britney Spears, whose career was spiraling out of control. "We thought, 'Let's save our friend,' " the-Dream says. But Spears' management brushed them off. "I'm so thankful for it," Rihanna said. "I prayed for this song."

Appears on: Good Girl Gone Bad (Def Jam)

411

Eddie Cochran, ‘C’mon Everybody’

Writers: Cochran, Jerry Capehart
Producer: Capehart
Released: Oct. '58, Liberty
12 weeks; No. 35

Cochran was paid $82.50 for the three-hour session that produced this classic rockabilly track. The follow-up to his smash "Summertime Blues," "C'mon" is a good-natured bad-boy tune powered by heavy strumming on his Martin guitar. Although he died at age 21, in a 1960 car crash that also seriously injured rockabilly pioneer Gene Vincent, Cochran became a huge influence in England.

Appears on: Something' Else (Razor and Tie)

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410

Sly and the Family Stone, ‘Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)’

Writer: Sly Stone
Producer: Stone
Released: Jan. '70, Epic
13 weeks; No. 1

The double-sided smash "Thank You"/"Everybody Is a Star" was Sly's sole new release in 1970. "Thank You" rode on the finger-popping bass of Larry Graham, who played like that in a duo with his organist mother. "I started to thump the strings with my thumb," he said, "to make up for not having a drummer."

Appears on: Anthology (Epic)

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409

The Shirelles, ‘Tonight’s the Night’

Writers: Luther Dixon, Shirley Owens
Producer: Dixon
Released: Sept. '60, Scepter
12 weeks; No. 39

The Shirelles, who originally called themselves the Pequellos, formed while at their Passaic, New Jersey, high school. Lead singer Owens was only 19 when she co-wrote this hit about romantic surrender, full of Latin-style syncopation and soulful yearning.

Appears on: 25 All-Time Greatest Hits (Varèse Fontana)

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408

Metallica, ‘Enter Sandman’

Writers: James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett
Producers: Bob Rock, Hetfield, Ulrich
Released: July '91, Elektra
20 weeks; No. 16

Thanks to producer Rock, the coiled, brooding "Enter Sandman" was the first Metallica tune that sounded perfect for the radio. As drummer Ulrich pointed out in 1991, "The whole intro, the verse, the bridge, the chorus — it's the same riff."

Appears on: Metallica (Elektra)

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407

Lynyrd Skynyrd, ‘Sweet Home Alabama’

Writers: Ed King, Gary Rossington, Ronnie Van Zant
Producer: Al Kooper
Released: April '74, MCA
17 weeks; No. 8

Van Zant sang this pissed-off answer to Neil Young's "Southern Man," and even Young loved it. "I'd rather play 'Sweet Home Alabama' than 'Southern Man' anytime," Young said. The admiration was mutual; Van Zant wore a Young T-shirt on the cover of Skynyrd's final album, Street Survivors, and according to legend, he is buried in the shirt.

Appears on: Second Helping (MCA)

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406

Big Star, ‘Thirteen’

Writers: Alex Chilton, Chris Bell
Producer: John Fry
Released: April '72, Ardent
Non-Single

Chilton wrote this acoustic ballad about two kids in love with rock & roll, featuring the deathless couplet "Won't you tell your dad, 'Get off my back'/Tell him what we said about 'Paint It Black.'" It's simple musically; as Chilton said, "I was still learning to play and stuff." It never came out as a single or got any radio play, but "Thirteen" is one of rock's most beautiful celebrations of adolescence.

Appears on: #1 Record/Radio City (Fantasy)

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405

Blue Öyster Cult, ‘(Don’t Fear) the Reaper’

Writer: Donald Roeser
Producers: Murray Krugman, Sandy Pearlman, David Lucas
Released: July '76, Columbia
14 weeks; No. 12

This Long Island band's death trip was picked by Rolling Stone critics as the best rock single of 1976. With its ghostly guitars and cowbell, "Reaper" has added chills to horror flicks from Halloween to The Stand. Bonus points for the crackpot theology about how "40,000 men and women every day" join Romeo and Juliet in eternity.

Appears on: Agents of Fortune (Columbia)

404

The Shangri-Las, ‘Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand)’

Writer: George "Shadow" Morton
Producer: Morton
Released: Aug. '64, Red Bird
11 weeks; No. 5

The Shangri-Las, two sets of sisters from Queens, were in high school when producer Morton hired them to record "Remember" — a tune he claimed to have written in 20 minutes on the way to the studio. One story has it that a 15-year-old Billy Joel played piano on the session. Morton went on to produce the New York Dolls.

Appears on: The Best of the Shangri-Las (Mercury)

403

Elvis Presley, ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’

Writers: George Weiss, Hugo Peretti, Luigi Creatore
Producer: Joseph Lilley
Released: Oct. '61, RCA
14 weeks; No. 1

This adaptation of Giovanni Martini's 18th-century song "Plaisir d'Amour" was given to Elvis for his movie Blue Hawaii — hence the Hawaiian steel guitar. But this was no vacation for Presley: It took him 29 takes to nail his exquisitely gentle vocals. The song became the closing number for most of his Seventies concerts.

Appears on: Elvis 30 #1 Hits (RCA)

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402

The Five Stairsteps, ‘O-o-h Child’

Writer: Stan Vincent
Producer: Vincent
Released: April '70, Buddha
16 weeks; No. 8

"O-o-h Child" gave the Five Stairsteps — four brothers and a sister from Chicago — a pop-soul classic that rivaled the hits of another sibling gang, the Jackson 5. The children of police detective Clarence Burke, the Five Stairsteps, who played their own instruments as well as sang, ranged in age from 13 to 17 when Curtis Mayfield signed them to his Windy C label.

Appears on: Soul Hits of the '70s: Didn't It Blow Your Mind! Vol. 2 (Rhino)

401

The Lovin’ Spoonful, ‘Summer in the City’

Writers: John Sebastian, Steve Boone, Mark Sebastian
Producer: Erik Jacobsen
Released: June '66, Kama Sutra
11 weeks; No. 1

"Summer in the City" was a stylistic turn for the Lovin' Spoonful — tougher and less daydreamy. "We felt the only way we could stick out would be to sound completely different from one single to another," said John Sebastian. With a barrage of car horns on the bridge, the record evoked its subject with urban grit and Gershwin-esque grandeur.

Appears on: The Lovin' Spoonful Greatest Hits (Buddha)

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