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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.

255

Bobby Darin, ‘Mack the Knife’

Writers: Marc Blitzstein, Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill
Producer: Ahmet Ertegun
Released: March '59, Atco
26 weeks; No. 1 

Darin first hit in 1958 with the rock & roll bathtub classic "Splish Splash." But he changed his image with this hepcat version of a morbid tale from Weill’s Threepenny Opera, which dates back to 1928. Darin came on as a finger-snapping sophisticate at home in the cocktail lounge, scatting over a jazzy groove; it was easy to forget he was singing about a bloodthirsty Berlin gangster.

Appears on: That’s All (Atlantic)

254

The Drifters, ‘Money Honey’

Writer: Jesse Stone
Producers: Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler
Released: Sept.'53, Atlantic

The Drifters were a tough R&B group led by the great soul singer Clyde McPhatter. After McPhatter got drafted in 1954, the Drifters enjoyed pop success with a totally different lineup. Sadly, McPhatter drank himself to death in 1972, before reaching 40.

Appears on: Greatest Hits (Curb)

253

Black Sabbath, ‘Paranoid’

Writers: Geezer Butler, Tony Iommi, Ozzy Osbourne, William Ward
Producer: Rodger Bain
Released: Nov. '70, Warner Bros.
8 weeks; No. 61 

After Sabbath’s first U.S. tour, Iommi was at Regent Studios in London trying to write one more song for their next album. "I started fiddling about on the guitar and came up with this riff," he said. "When the others came back [from lunch], we recorded it on the spot."

Appears on: Paranoid (Castle)

RELATED:

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Black Sabbath

252

Aretha Franklin, ‘Chain of Fools’

Writer: Don Covay
Producer: Jerry Wexler
Released: Nov. '67, Atlantic
12 weeks; No. 2 

The second of four hits from 1968’s Lady Soul, this kissoff was written by Covay as a straight blues about field hands in the South. Covay reworked the lyrics for Franklin; producer Wexler cooked up the propulsive stomp. When songwriter Ellie Greenwich heard the track in Wexler’s office, she suggested an extra vocal-harmony part, which Wexler got her to sing on the final master.

Appears on: Lady Soul (Rhino)

RELATED:

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Aretha Franklin

251

Sugarhill Gang, ‘Rapper’s Delight’

Writers: S. Robinson, H. Jackson, M. Wright, G. O’Brien
Producer: Sylvia Robinson
Released: Oct. '79, Sugar Hill
12 weeks; No. 36 

Master Gee, Wonder Mike and Big Bank Hank were a pure studio creation, a trio of unknown MCs recruited by Sugar Hill’s Sylvia Robinson to make rap’s first radio hit. Based on a sample of Chic’s "Good Times," the track — with raps about bad food instead of boasting — kept going hip-hop, hippity-to-the-hop for 15 minutes.

Appears on: Rappers Delight: The Best of Sugarhill Gang (Rhino)

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