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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.

155

Buddy Holly and the Crickets, ‘Rave On’

Writers: Sonny West, Bill Tilghman, Norman Petty
Producer: Petty
Released: April '58, Coral
10 weeks; No. 37

West recorded his own version of "Rave On" at the New Mexico studio where Holly laid down most of his hits. Petty wanted to give it to another band, but Holly said, "No way. I've got to have this song." 

Appears on: Buddy Holly: Greatest Hits (MCA)

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154

The Beatles, ‘A Hard Day’s Night’

Writers: John Lennon, Paul McCartney
Producer: George Martin
Released: July '64, Capitol
13 weeks; No. 1

The title comes from a Ringo Starr malapropism, the product of a marathon recording session. Lennon was fond of these Ringoisms and wrote the song overnight. Said Lennon, "The only reason [Paul] sang on it was because I couldn't reach the notes."

Appears on: A Hard Day's Night (Capitol)

RELATED:

 The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: The Beatles

153

The Jimi Hendrix Experience, ‘Foxey Lady’

Writer: Hendrix
Producer: Chas Chandler
Released: Aug. '65, Reprise
4 weeks; No. 67

Heather Taylor, the future wife of the Who's Roger Daltrey, was said to have inspired this lip-smacking ode as Hendrix was gathering songs in London for his 1967 debut LP, Are You Experienced? Hendrix scrapes his pick down a guitar string, literally making it tremble with anticipation, before exploding into an indelibly dirty rift. "I'm comin' to getcha," he promises – and he did.

Appears on: Are You Experienced? (MCA)

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152

The Penguins, ‘Earth Angel’

Writers: Jesse Belvin, Curtis Williams
Producer: Dootsie Williams
Released: Dec. '54, Dootone
15 weeks; No. 8

Crudely recorded in a garage and released on a small label, "Earth Angel" turned out to be a pivotal record in the early development of rock & roll. The artless, unaffected vocals of the Penguins, four black high schoolers from L.A., defined the street-corner elegance of doo-wop. The Penguins' version also outsold a sanitized, big-label cover by schmaltzy white group the Crew-Cuts.

Appears on: Earth Angel (Ace)

151

The Byrds, ‘Eight Miles High’

Writers: Gene Clark, Roger McGuinn, David Crosby
Producer: Allen Stanton
Released: April '66, Columbia
9 weeks; No. 14

A rare collaboration between three Byrds, it was supposedly about an airplane flight. McGuinn's 12-string solo was inspired by John Coltrane's sax playing and Rod Argent's piano on the Zombies' "She's Not There." "Of course it was a drug song," Crosby said. "We were stoned when we wrote it. But it was also about the [plane] trip to London."

Appears on: Fifth Dimension (Legacy)

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