500 Greatest Songs of All Time – Rolling Stone
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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.


Cheap Trick, ‘Surrender’

Writer: Rick Nielsen
Producer: Tom Werman
Released: May '78, Epic
8 weeks; No. 62

Cheap Trick provided the ultimate Seventies teen anthem in "Surrender," with a verse about a kid who catches his parents making out and gets stoned to his Kiss records. Guitarist- songwriter Nielsen's secret? "I [had] to go back and put myself in the head of a 14-year-old."

Appears on: Heaven Tonight (Epic)


The Four Tops, ‘Standing in the Shadows of Love’

Writers: Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, Eddie Holland
Producers: Brian Holland, Dozier
Released: Dec. '66, Motown
10 weeks; No. 6

Like so many other Motown hits, "Standing" features the popping bass of James Jamerson. He was such a monster player, his fellow musicians called him "Igor"; Marvin Gaye called him a genius.

Appears on: The Ultimate Collection (Motown)


100 Greatest Artists of All Time: The Four Tops


The Beatles, ‘Rain’

Writers: John Lennon, Paul McCartney
Producer: George Martin
Released: June ’66, Capitol
7 weeks; No. 23

The B side of “Paperback Writer” was Lennon‘s response to people moaning about the wet British weather. It featured one of the earliest uses of backward tape, which Lennon said was the result of being stoned and spooling up the tape wrong. It also included virtuoso drumming from Ringo Starr. “I feel as though that was someone else playing,” Starr said. “I was possessed!”

Appears on: Past Masters (Capitol/Apple)


100 Greatest Artists of All Time: The Beatles


The Staple Singers, ‘Respect Yourself’

Writers: Luther Ingram, Mack Rice
Producer: Al Bell
Released: Oct. '71, Stax
14 weeks; No. 12

Stax singer Ingram, frustrated with the state of the world, told house songwriter Rice that "black folk need to learn to respect themselves." Rice liked the comment so much that he built a funk groove around it, then gave the song to the Staples. "This is the song I've been waiting [for]," said producer Bell, who laid it down with the famous Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section.

Appears on: Bealtitude: Respect Yourself (Stax)


100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Mavis Staples


Jay-Z Featuring UGK, ‘Big Pimpin”

Writers: Jay-Z, Bun B, Pimp C, Timbaland, Kyambo Joshua
Producer: Timbaland
Released: Dec. '99, Roc-A-Fella
20 weeks; No. 18

For this thumping ode to conspicuous consumption, the king of New York rap hooked up with Houston rap dons UGK over a beat that sounds like it was cut in Cairo. Timbaland allegedly based the melody on a 1957 song by Egyptian Abdel Halim Hafez.

Appears on: Vol. 3: Life and Times of S. Carter (Roc-A-Fella)


Missy Elliott, ‘Get Ur Freak On’

Writers: Elliott, Timbaland
Producer: Timbaland
Released: March '01, Gold Mind/Elektra
25 weeks; No. 7

Elliott was convinced that Miss E needed one more track. So Timbaland cooked up a stuttering, tabla-laden beat based on bhangra, an Indian dance genre he heard while traveling, and plucked out the signature six-note riff on a tumbi, a one-stringed Punjabi guitar.

Appears on: Miss E … So Addictive (Atlantic/ATG)


Muddy Waters, ‘Rollin’ Stone’

Writer: McKinley Morganfield
Producers: Leonard and Phil Chess
Released: 1948, Chess
predates chart

For Chess Records' first single, Waters turned Mississippi bluesman Robert Petway's "Catfish Blues" into a spare track he named "Rollin' Stone." "We wouldn't do it exactly like those older fellows," Waters said. "We put the beat with it, put a little drive to it." The Rolling Stones took their name from it, as did, in part, this magazine.

Appears on: The Anthology: 1947-1972 (Chess/MCA)


100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Muddy Waters 

100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Muddy Waters


Prince and the Revolution, ‘Kiss’

Writers: Prince and the Revolution
Producers: Prince and the Revolution
Released: Feb. '86, Paisley Park
18 weeks; No. 1

The Paisley Park band Mazarati asked Prince for a song, so he dashed off a bluesy acoustic demo for them. Mazarati added a funk groove, and Prince was smart enough to take the song back.

Appears on: Parade (Warner Bros.)


100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Prince

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Prince


Sam and Dave, ‘Soul Man’

Writers: Isaac Hayes, David Porter
Producers: Hayes, Porter
Released: Sept. '67, Stax
15 weeks; No. 2

For the follow-up to "Hold On, I'm Comin'," writer-producers Hayes and Porter decided to tinker with their formula: Porter asked singer Sam Moore to give him "the Bobby Bland squall," guitarist Steve Cropper came up with the licks that set up the familiar blast of the Memphis Horns, and — voilà! — another soul classic was born. "We had no idea how good we were," Hayes said of the partnership.

Appears on: Soul Men (Rhino)


Nirvana, ‘All Apologies’

Writer: Kurt Cobain
Producer: Steve Albini
Released: Sept. '93, Geffen
22 weeks; No. 45

Written in the L.A. apartment Cobain shared with Courtney Love, this haunting meditation on remorse was originally produced by punk malcontent Albini, but then R.E.M. producer Scott Litt was brought in to smooth it out — the original had a long stream of feedback on it. Cobain's shredded vocals maintain the punk edge in the hushed MTV Unplugged in New York rendition.

Appears on: In Utero (Geffen)


100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: Kurt Cobain 

100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Kurt Cobain 

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Nirvana 

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Nirvana's In Utero


Ramones, ‘Sheena Is a Punk Rocker’

Writers: Ramones
Producers: Tony Bongiovi, T. Erdelyi
Released: May '77, Sire
13 weeks; No. 81

This was cut twice: first as a single that was rushed to radio and became one of the Ramones' few modest hits, then in a slightly souped-up version for the band's album Rocket to Russia. "I combined Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, with the primalness of punk rock," said Joey Ramone. "It was funny, because all the girls in New York seemed to change their names to Sheena after that."

Appears on: Rocket to Russia (Rhino)


100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: Johnny Ramone

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: The Ramones

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Ramones's Rocket to Russia


George Harrison, ‘My Sweet Lord’

Writer: Harrison
Producers: Harrison, Phil Spector
Released: Nov. '70, Apple
14 weeks; No. 1

The first hit for an ex-Beatle, it features Harrison's teardrop slide licks and a melody virtually identical to the Chiffons' "He's So Fine." After a lawsuit, Harrison had to pay $587,000 to his former manager Allen Klein, who then owned the rights to "He's So Fine." "It made me so paranoid about writing," Harrison said. "I thought, 'I don't even want to touch the guitar, in case I'm touching somebody's note.'"

Appears on: All Things Must Pass (Capitol)


100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: George Harrison 

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: George Harrison's All Things Must Pass


Guns N’ Roses, ‘Paradise City’

Writers: Guns n' Roses
Producer: Mike Clink
Released: Aug. '87, Geffen
17 weeks; No. 5

For nearly seven minutes, Axl Rose expounds on the joys of green grass, pretty girls and toxic chemicals. The song was written in the back of a van as the band drove home to L.A. after a gig in San Francisco, with all the members tossing in lines. In a typically tasteful G n' R move, the video has footage of the band's 1988 gig at Castle Donington in the U.K. — where two fans were crushed to death.

Appears on: Appetite for Destruction (Geffen)


100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Guns n' Roses 

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Guns n' Roses's Appetite for Destruction 

100 Best Albums of the Eighties: Guns n' Roses's Appetite for Destruction


Sam Cooke, ‘Cupid’

Writer: Cooke
Producers: Cooke, Hugo and Luigi
Released: July '61, RCA
17 weeks; No. 12

Cooke's producers had asked him to write a song for a girl they had seen on a Perry Como TV show — but once they heard her sing, they kept "Cupid" for Cooke to do himself. It was Cooke's idea to drop in the sound of an arrow being fired "straight to my lover's heart."

Appears on: Greatest Hits (RCA)


100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Sam Cooke 

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Sam Cooke


Chubby Checker, ‘The Twist’

Writer: Hank Ballard
Producer: Karl Mann
Released: Aug. '60, Parkway
39 weeks; No. 1

"The Twist" began as a B side for Ballard and the Midnighters in 1958. But in 1960, former chicken plucker Checker covered it at Dick Clark's suggestion. "Going crazy is what I was looking for — where the music is so good you lose control," Checker said. " 'The Twist' did that."

Appears on: Greatest Hits (Prime Cuts)


The Beatles, ‘Penny Lane’

Writers: John Lennon, Paul McCartney
Producer: George Martin
Released: Feb. '67, Capitol
10 weeks; No. 1

After Lennon composed "Strawberry Fields Forever," McCartney wrote his own snappy memoir. Penny Lane was a Liverpool bus stop where Lennon and McCartney often met. "John came over and helped me with the third verse, as was often the case," McCartney said. "We were writing recently faded memories from eight or 10 years before."

Appears on: Magical Mystery Tour (Capitol/Apple)


100 Greatest Artists of All Time: The Beatles


The Velvet Underground, ‘Heroin’

Writer: Lou Reed
Producers: Andy Warhol, Tom Wilson
Released: March '67, Verve

This seven-minute, two-chord track spiked out its territory with lyrics about shooting up until you felt like Jesus' son. "It wasn't pro or con," Reed said. "It was about taking heroin from the point of view of someone taking it. I'm still not sure what was such a big deal. So there's a song called 'Heroin.' So what?" Drummer Moe Tucker disagreed: "I consider it our greatest triumph."

Appears on: The Velvet Underground and Nico (Polydor)


100 Greatest Artists of All Time: The Velvet Underground 

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: The Velvet Underground's The Velvet Underground and Nico 

100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Lou Reed


The Shangri-Las, ‘Leader of the Pack’

Writers: George "Shadow" Morton, Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich
Producers: Morton, Barry, Greenwich
Released: Oct. '64, Red Bird
12 weeks; No. 1

Morton found the inspiration for this song at a diner in Hicksville, New York. "Bikers, hot rodders, gum-smacking ladies," he said, "not careful at all about their language." He brought a bike into the studio for the motorcycle sounds.

Appears on: Myrmidons of Melodrama: Definitive Collection (RPM)


Toots and the Maytals, ‘Pressure Drop’

Writer: Toots Hibbert
Producer: Leslie Kong
Released: Feb. '73, Mango
Did Not Chart

Toots and the Maytals were already reggae stars — they coined the word on 1968's "Do the Reggay" — before "Pressure Drop." They were rumored to be Chris Blackwell's choice over Bob Marley and the Wailers when he wanted a group for his Island label.

Appears on: The Harder They Come (Hip-O)


500 Greatest Albums of All Time: The Harder They Come


Nirvana, ‘Come As You Are’

Writers: Kurt Cobain, Nirvana
Producers: Butch Vig, Nirvana
Released: Sept. '91, Geffen
18 weeks; No. 32

"It's just about people and what they're expected to act like," Cobain said. "The lines in the song are really contradictory. They're kind of a rebuttal to each other." The song is driven by a simple riff that Vig goosed with a flanged, subaquatic guitar effect. Cobain apparently lifted it from a 1985 song by U.K. art-metal band Killing Joke, whom Dave Grohl paid back 12 years later by drumming on their 2003 album.

Appears on: Nevermind (Geffen)


100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: Kurt Cobain 

100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Kurt Cobain 

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Nirvana 

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Nirvana's Nevermind


Sonny and Cher, ‘I Got You Babe’

Writer: Sonny Bono
Producer: Bono
Released: July '65, Atco
14 weeks; No. 1

Late one night, while Sonny and Cher were living in their manager's house, Bono woke up Cher and asked her to listen to "I Got You Babe" and to sing the lyrics, which he had written on a piece of shirt cardboard. She thought it was OK but really wanted a song that modulated. So he changed the key at the bridge and woke Cher up again hours later to hear it; she was delighted.

Appears on: The Beat Goes On: The Best of Sonny and Cher (Atlantic)

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