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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.

7

Chuck Berry, ‘Johnny B. Goode’

Writer: Chuck Berry
Producers: Leonard and Phil Chess
Released: April '58, Chess
15 weeks; No. 8

"Johnny B. Goode" was the first rock & roll hit about rock & roll stardom. It is still the greatest rock & roll song about the democracy of fame in pop music. And "Johnny B. Goode" is based in fact. The title character is Chuck Berry — "more or less," as he told Rolling Stone in 1972. "The original words [were], of course, 'That little colored boy could play.' I changed it to 'country boy' — or else it wouldn't get on the radio." Berry took other narrative liberties. Johnny came from "deep down in Louisiana, close to New Orleans," rather than Berry's St. Louis. And Johnny "never ever learned to read or write so well," while Berry graduated from beauty school with a degree in hairdressing and cosmetology.

But the essence of Berry's tale — a guitar player with nothing to his name but chops goes to the big city and gets his name in lights — is autobiographical. In 1955, Berry was working as a beautician in St. Louis when he met Chess Records' biggest star, Muddy Waters, who sent him to the label's co-founder Leonard Chess. By 1958, Berry was rock & roll's most consistent hitmaker after Elvis Presley. Unlike Presley, Berry wrote his own classics. "I just wish I could express my feelings the way Chuck Berry does,"' Presley once confessed.

"Johnny B. Goode" is the supreme example of Berry's poetry in motion. The rhythm section rolls with freight-train momentum, while Berry's stabbing, single-note lick in the chorus sounds, as he put it, "like a-ringin' a bell" — a perfect description of how rock & roll guitar can make you feel on top of the world.

Appears on: The Anthology (Chess)

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6

The Beach Boys, ‘Good Vibrations’

Writers: Brian Wilson, Mike Love
Producer: Wilson
Released: Oct. '66, Capitol
14 weeks; No. 1

"It scared me, the word 'vi-brations,'" Brian Wilson once said, remembering how, when he was a boy, his mother, Audree, tried to explain why dogs barked at some people and not others. "A dog would pick up vibrations from these people that you can't see but you can feel. And the same thing happened with people." "Good Vibrations" harnessed that energy and turned it into eternal sunshine. "This is a very spiritual song," Wilson said after its release, "and I want it to give off good vibrations."

Wilson, then 24, also had another goal in mind: "I said, 'This is going to be better than "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'.'"

Wilson was still working on his long-playing magnum opus, Pet Sounds, when he started "Good Vibrations" late on the night of February 17th, 1966, at Gold Star Recorders in Los Angeles. During the next seven months, in four studios, at a cost of more than $50,000 (at that point the greatest sum ever spent on a single), Wilson built "Good Vibrations" in sections, coloring the mood swings with locomotive cello, saloon piano and the spectral wail of a theremin. "We didn't think about doing it in pieces at first," Wilson says now, "but after the first few bars in the first verse, we realized that this was going to be a different kind of record." Very different. Wilson — free to experiment while the other Beach Boys were on tour — could not stop wrestling with combinations of instruments and rhythmic approaches. One discarded version of the song had an R&B backbeat.

"Good Vibrations" became the Beach Boys' third Number One hit, but it was a short window of glory — for the Beach Boys commercially, for Wilson creatively and emotionally. The song was intended to appear on the group's Smile album, but Wilson — suffering from depression and battling the other Beach Boys over the group's direction — abandoned Smile in May 1967, eventually completing the record, and performing it on tour, in 2004. "'Good Vibrations' now is the best it's ever been," Wilson said that year. "It went to Number One in 1966, and now we get standing ovations every time we play it live. It's incredible to me."

Appears on: Smiley Smile/Wild Honey (Capitol) 

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5

Aretha Franklin, ‘Respect’

Writer: Otis Redding
Producer: Jerry Wexler
Released: April '67, Atlantic
12 weeks; No. 1

Otis Redding wrote "Respect" and recorded it first, for the Volt label in 1965. But Aretha Franklin took possession of the song for all time with her definitive cover, made at Atlantic's New York studio on Valentine's Day 1967. "Respect" was her first Number One hit and the single that established her as the Queen of Soul. In Redding's reading, a brawny march, he called for equal favor with volcanic force. Franklin wasn't asking for anything. She sang from higher ground: a woman calling an end to the exhaustion and sacrifice of a raw deal with scorching sexual authority. In short, if you want some, you will earn it.

"For Otis, respect had the traditional connotation, the more abstract meaning of esteem," Franklin's producer, Jerry Wexler, said in his autobiography, Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music. "The fervor in Aretha's voice demanded that respect; and more respect also involved sexual attention of the highest order. What else would 'Sock it to me' mean?"

He was referring to the knockout sound of Franklin's backup singers — her sisters Carolyn and Erma — chanting "Sock it to me" at high speed, which Aretha and Carolyn cooked up for the session. The late Tom Dowd, who engineered the date, credited Carolyn with the saucy breakdown in which Aretha spelled out the title: "I fell off my chair when I heard that!" And since Redding's version had no bridge, Wexler had the band — the legendary studio crew from Muscle Shoals, Alabama — play the chord changes from Sam and Dave's "When Something Is Wrong With My Baby" under King Curtis' tenor-sax solo.

There is no mistaking the passion inside the discipline of Franklin's delivery; she was surely drawing on her own tumultuous marriage at the time for inspiration. "If she didn't live it," Wexler said, "she couldn't give it." But, he added, "Aretha would never play the part of the scorned woman….Her middle name was Respect."

Appears on: I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (Atlantic)

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4

Marvin Gaye, ‘What’s Going On’

Writers: Gaye, Renaldo Benson, Al Cleveland
Producer: Gaye 
Released: Feb. '71, Tamla
13 weeks; No. 2

"What's Going On" is an exquisite plea for peace on Earth, sung by a man at the height of crisis. In 1970, Marvin Gaye was Motown's top male vocal star, yet he was frustrated by the assembly-line role he played on his own hits. Devastated by the loss of duet partner Tammi Terrell, who died that March after a three-year battle with a brain tumor, Gaye was also trapped in a turbulent marriage to Anna Gordy, Motown boss Berry Gordy's sister. Gaye was tormented, too, by his relationship with his puritanical father, Marvin Sr. "If I was arguing for peace," Gaye told biographer David Ritz, "I knew I'd have to find peace in my heart."

Not long after Terrell's passing, Renaldo Benson of the Four Tops presented Gaye with a song he had written with Motown staffer Al Cleveland. But Gaye made the song his own, overseeing the arrangement and investing the topical references to war and racial strife with private anguish. Motown session crew the Funk Brothers cut the stunning, jazz-inflected rhythm track (Gaye joined in with cardboard-box percussion). Then Gaye invoked his own family in moving prayer: singing to his younger brother Frankie, a Vietnam veteran ("Brother, brother, brother/There's far too many of you dying"), and appealing for calm closer to home ("Father, father, father/We don't need to escalate").

Initially rejected as uncommercial, "What's Going On" (with background vocals by two players from the Detroit Lions) was Gaye's finest studio achievement, a timeless gift of healing. But for Gaye, the peace he craved never came: On April 1st, 1984, he died in a family dispute — shot by his father.

Appears on: What's Going On (Tamla)

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3

John Lennon, ‘Imagine’

Writer: John Lennon
Producers: Lennon, Phil Spector, Yoko Ono
Released: Oct. '71, Apple
9 weeks; No. 3

John Lennon wrote "Imagine," his greatest musical gift to the world, one morning early in 1971 in his bedroom at Tittenhurst Park, his estate in Ascot, England. His wife, Yoko Ono, watched as Lennon sat at the white grand piano now known around the world from films and photographs of the sessions for his Imagine album and virtually completed the song: the serene melody; the pillowy chord progression; that beckoning, four-note figure; and nearly all of the lyrics, 22 lines of graceful, plain-spoken faith in the power of a world, united in purpose, to repair and change itself.

"It's not like he thought, 'Oh, this can be an anthem,'" Ono said, looking back at that morning 30 years later. "Imagine" was "just what John believed: that we are all one country, one world, one people. He wanted to get that idea out."

The idea was not his alone: Ono's own art, before and after she met Lennon in 1966, celebrated the transformative power of dreams. The first line of "Imagine" — "Imagine there's no heaven" — is a direct descendant of the interactive pieces in Ono's 1964 book, Grapefruit ("Imagine letting a goldfish swim across the sky"). But Lennon, as a former Beatle, was an expert in the pop vernacular. He once admitted that "Imagine" — an absolute equality created by the dissolution of governments, borders, organized religion and economic class — was "virtually the Communist Manifesto." But the elementary beauty of his melody, the warm composure in his voice and the poetic touch of co-producer Phil Spector — who bathed Lennon's performance in gentle strings and summer-breeze echo — emphasized the song's fundamental humanity.

Lennon knew he had written something special. In one of his last interviews, he declared "Imagine" to be as good as anything he had written with the Beatles. We know it's better than that: an enduring hymn of solace and promise that has carried us through extreme grief, from the shock of Lennon's own death in 1980 to the unspeakable horror of September 11th. It is now impossible to imagine a world without "Imagine." And we need it, more than he ever dreamed.

Appears on: Imagine (Capitol/Apple) 

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2

The Rolling Stones, ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’

Writer: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards
Producer:
Andrew Loog Oldham
Released:
May '65, London
14 weeks; No. 1 

 "It's the riff heard round the world," says Steve Van Zandt, guitarist for the E Street Band. "And it's one of the earliest examples of Dylan influencing the Stones and the Beatles — the degree of cynicism, and the idea of bringing more personal lyrics from the folk and blues tradition into popular music."

The riff came to Keith Richards in a dream one night in May 1965, in his motel room in Clearwater, Florida, on the Rolling Stones' third U.S. tour. He woke up and grabbed a guitar and a cassette machine. Richards played the run of notes once, then fell back to sleep. "On the tape," he said later, "you can hear me drop the pick, and the rest is snoring."

That spark in the night — the riff that opens and defines "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" — transformed the rickety jump and puppy love of early rock & roll into rock. The primal temper of Richards' creation, played through a Gibson Fuzz Box; the sneering dismissal in Mick Jagger's lyrics; the strut of rhythm guitarist Brian Jones, bassist Bill Wyman and drummer Charlie Watts: It was the sound of a generation impatient to inherit the Earth.

Two decades later, Jagger admitted that "Satisfaction" was "my view of the world, my frustration with everything." Inspired by that riff and the title line, also Richards' idea, Jagger wrote the words — a litany of disgust with "America, its advertising syndrome, the constant barrage" — in 10 minutes, by the motel pool the day after Richards' dream. They tried to cut the song a few days later, on May 10th at the Chess studios in Chicago. Two days after that, they finished it at RCA Studios in Hollywood, with the vital addition of that fuzz. "That riff needed to sustain itself," Richards said, "and Gibson had just brought out these little boxes."

"Satisfaction" was rock of the Stones' own bold design — although Richards may also have been dreaming of Chuck Berry that night in Clearwater. Jagger later suggested that Richards unconsciously got the hook for "Satisfaction" from a line in Berry's 1955 single "30 Days" ("I don't get no satisfaction from the judge"). "It's not any way an English person would express it," Jagger noted. "I'm not saying that he purposely nicked anything, but we played those records a lot."

Appears on: Out of Our Heads (ABKCO)

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1

Bob Dylan, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’

Writer: Dylan
Producer: Tom Wilson 
Released: July '65, Columbia
12 weeks; No. 2

"I wrote it. I didn't fail. It was straight," Bob Dylan said of his greatest song shortly after he recorded it in June 1965. There is no better description of "Like a Rolling Stone" — of its revolutionary design and execution — or of the young man, just turned 24, who created it.

Al Kooper, who played organ on the session, remembers today, "There was no sheet music, it was totally by ear. And it was totally disorganized, totally punk. It just happened."

The most stunning thing about "Like a Rolling Stone" is how unprecedented it was: the impressionist voltage of Dylan's language, the intensely personal accusation in his voice ("Ho-o-o-ow does it fe-e-e-el?"), the apocalyptic charge of Kooper's garage-gospel organ and Mike Bloomfield's stiletto-sharp spirals of Telecaster guitar, the defiant six-minute length of the June 16th master take. No other pop song has so thoroughly challenged and transformed the commercial laws and artistic conventions of its time, for all time.

Just a few weeks earlier, as he was finishing up the British tour immortalized in D.A. Pennebaker's documentary Don't Look Back, Dylan began writing an extended piece of verse — 20 pages long by one account, six in another — that was, he said, "just a rhythm thing on paper all about my steady hatred, directed at some point that was honest." Back home in Woodstock, New York, over three days in early June, Dylan sharpened the sprawl down to that confrontational chorus and four taut verses bursting with piercing metaphor and concise truth. "The first two lines, which rhymed 'kiddin' you' and 'didn't you,' just about knocked me out," he confessed to Rolling Stone in 1988, "and when I got to the jugglers and the chrome horse and the princess on the steeple, it all just about got to be too much."

The beginnings of "Like a Rolling Stone" can be seen in a pair of offstage moments in Don't Look Back. In the first, sidekick Bob Neuwirth gets Dylan to sing a verse of Hank Williams' "Lost Highway," which begins, "I'm a rolling stone, I'm alone and lost/For a life of sin I've paid the cost." Later, Dylan sits at a piano, playing a set of chords that would become the melodic basis for "Like a Rolling Stone," connecting it to the fundamental architecture of rock & roll. Dylan later identified that progression as a chip off of Ritchie Valens' "La Bamba."

Yet Dylan obsessed over the forward march in "Like a Rolling Stone." Before going into Columbia Records' New York studios to cut it, he summoned Bloomfield, the guitarist in the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, to Woodstock to learn the song. "He said, 'I don't want you to play any of that B.B. King shit, none of that fucking blues,' " recalled Bloomfield (who died in 1981). " 'I want you to play something else.' " Dylan later said much the same thing to the rest of the studio band, which included pianist Paul Griffin, bassist Russ Savakus and drummer Bobby Gregg: "I told them how to play on it, and if they didn't want to play it like that, well, they couldn't play with me."

Just as Dylan bent folk music's roots and forms to his own will, he transformed popular song with the content and ambition of "Like a Rolling Stone." And in his electrifying vocal performance, his best on record, Dylan proved that everything he did was, first and always, rock & roll. " 'Rolling Stone' 's the best song I wrote," he said flatly at the end of 1965. It still is.

Appears on: Highway 61 Revisited (Columbia)

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