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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.

39

Buddy Holly and the Crickets, ‘That’ll Be the Day’

Writers: Jerry Allison, Holly, Norman Petty
Producer: Petty
Released: May '57, Brunswick
1 week; No. 1

Recorded in Clovis, New Mexico, in February 1957, the song took its title from a recurring line in the John Wayne movie The Searchers. "We were cutting 'That'll Be the Day' just as a demo to send to New York, just to see if they liked the sound of the group — not for a master record," recalled Crickets drummer Allison. "So we just went in and set up and sort of shucked through the song." Allison credits Holly's guitar-picking on "That'll Be the Day" to the influence of New Orleans bluesman Lonnie Johnson.

Appears on: Greatest Hits (MCA) 

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Buddy Holly

100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Buddy Holly

38

The Rolling Stones, ‘Gimme Shelter’

Writers: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards
Producer: Jimmy Miller
Released: April '69, London
11 weeks; No. 21 

The Stones channeled the emotional wreckage of the late Sixties on a song that Richards wrote in 20 minutes. The intro, strummed on an electric-acoustic guitar modeled on a Chuck Berry favorite, conjures an unparalleled aura of dread. Singer Merry Clayton brings down Armageddon with a soul-wracked wail: "Rape, murder, it's just a shot away." The song surfaced days after Meredith Hunter's murder at Altamont. "That's a kind of end-of-the-world song, really," Jagger said in 1995. "It's apocalypse." Richards later said that his guitar fell apart on the last take, "as if by design."

Appears on: Let It Bleed (ABKCO) 

RELATED:

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Mick Jagger

The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: Keith Richards

The Rolling Stones Live, 1964-2007

37

Bob Marley, ‘No Woman, No Cry’

Writers: Vincent Ford, Marley
Producers: Chris Blackwell, Marley and the Wailers
Released: May '75, Island
Did not chart

The uptempo version on 1975's Natty Dread is forgettable, but the swaying, incantatory take on 1975's Live! remains one of the reggae legend's most beloved performances. The "government yard in Trench Town" refers to the Jamaican public-housing project where Marley lived in the Fifties. He gave a songwriting credit to childhood friend Vincent "Tata" Ford to help keep Ford's Kingston soup kitchen running.

Appears on: Natty Dread (Island)

RELATED:

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Bob Marley

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Photos: Intimate Moments with Bob Marley During the Golden Age of Reggae

36

U2, ‘One’

Writers: Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen Jr.
Producers: Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois
Released: Nov. '91, Island
20 weeks; No. 10 

Achtung Baby was the album on which U2 traded in a decade of earnestness for irony, but the new approach resulted in their most moving single ever. "One" was spun off from another song, "Mysterious Ways," when the Edge came up with two ideas for the bridge, and Bono so liked one of them that he wrote a new set of lyrics. Though some hear it as a love song, the words are full of hurt and ambiguity. "People have told me they play it at their wedding," the Edge said. "And I think, 'Have you listened to the lyrics? It's not that kind of a song.'"

Appears on: Achtung Baby (Island) 

RELATED:

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35

The Doors, ‘Light My Fire’

Writers: Robby Krieger, John Densmore, Jim Morrison, Ray Manzarek
Producer: Paul Rothchild
Released: June '67, Elektra
17 weeks; No. 1 

It was the first song Krieger ever wrote — with additional lyrics from Morrison and arrangements from the rest of the band. "It's like I'd saved up all [these ideas] in my mind and got them out all at once," Krieger said. The song catapulted the Doors to overnight fame, which Krieger says was part of Morrison's plan: "Jim had this idea of the band being a shooting star," Krieger said. "Fire" ran for seven minutes on the LP and was cut down to three, with Krieger's and keyboardist Manzarek's solos excised, on the single.

Appears on: The Doors (Elektra)

RELATED:

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Jim Morrison

34

The Righteous Brothers, ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin”

 Writers: Phil Spector, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil
Producer: Spector
Released: Dec. '64, Philles
16 weeks; No. 1 

Spector was conducting the musicians for a Ronettes show in San Francisco when he decided to sign the Righteous Brothers, who were on the bill. He then asked Mann and Weil to come up with a hit for them. Bill Medley's intro sounds impossibly deep. "When Phil played it for me," Mann recalled, "I said, 'Phil, you have it on the wrong speed!'" Bobby Hatfield was puzzled by his partner's opening solo: "What do I do while he's singing the entire first verse?" he asked Spector, who answered, "You can go directly to the bank."

Appears on: Anthology 1962-1974 (Rhino)

The Righteous Brothers Photos

33

Ike and Tina Turner, ‘River Deep – Mountain High’

Writers: Phil Spector, Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich
Producer: Spector
Released: May '66, Philles
4 weeks; No. 88 

Spector heard the Ike and Tina Turner Revue at a Hollywood club at a time when their recording career had stalled after a handful of R&B hits in the early 1960s. Spector had a song called "River Deep — Mountain High" that he was sure was going to be huge, and he wanted Tina to sing it, though he forbade Ike from even coming to the sessions. "I must have sung that 500,000 times," Tina later said. "I was drenched with sweat. I had to take my shirt off and stand there in my bra to sing."

Appears on: Proud Mary: The Best of Ike and Tina Turner (EMI)

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32

The Rolling Stones, ‘Sympathy for the Devil’

Writers: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards
Producer: Jimmy Miller
Released: Dec. '68, London
Non-single

The inspiration for this hellish detour came from Soviet writer Mikhail Bulgakov's novel The Master and Margarita, which depicts Satan having his way in 1930s Moscow. Richards struggled to find the right backing for Jagger's menacing Dylan-esque lyrics, unsure "whether it should be a samba or a goddamn folk song," he recalled. The Stones ended up giving the devil one of their best grooves, built on Rocky Dijon's congas and Bill Wyman's Bo Diddley-ish maracas. "Before, when we were just innocent kids out for a good time [the media said], 'They're evil, they're evil,'" Richards said. "So that makes you start thinking about evil. . . . Everybody's Lucifer."

Appears on: Beggar's Banquet (ABKCO) 

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Photos: The Rolling Stones Live, 1964-2007