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.


Dr. Dre, ‘Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang’

Writer: Snoop Dogg
Producer: Dr. Dre
Released: Jan. '93, Death Row
27 weeks; No. 2

Dre's debut solo single sampled the bass line from Leon Haywood's '75 hit "I Want'a Do Something Freaky to You." The mastermind on his working methods: "I sit around by myself in the studio at home, push buttons and see what happens."

Appears on: The Chronic (Death Row)


100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Dr. Dre 

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Dr. Dre's The Chronic


Crosby, Stills and Nash, ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’

Writer: Stephen Stills
Producers: David Crosby, Stills, Graham Nash
Released: June '69, Atlantic
12 weeks; No. 21

Written by Stills for ex-girlfriend Judy Collins, this epic harmony showcase kicked off CSN' s debut album. Stills played most of the instruments, but as Nash told Rolling Stone, "The three-part vocal blend was fucking fantastic."

Appears on: Crosby, Stills and Nash (Atlantic)


500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Crosby, Stills and Nash's Crosby, Stills and Nash 

100 Greatest Guitarists: Stephen Stills


N.W.A, ‘Fuck tha Police’

Writers: Ice Cube, MC Ren
Producers: Dr. Dre, Yella
Released: Jan. '89, Priority

With one song, N.W.A brought the battle between rappers and cops to a new level. On August 1st, 1989, the FBI sent a bulletin to Priority Records, the group's label, denouncing this song. According to the feds, "Fuck tha Police" "encourages violence against, and disrespect for, the law-enforcement officer." The publicity established N.W.A as hip-hop's bad boys.

Appears on: Straight Outta Compton (Priority)


100 Greatest Artists of All Time: N.W.A 

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: N.W.A's Straight Outta Compton


The Notorious B.I.G., ‘Juicy’

Writer: The Notorious B.I.G.
Producers: Sean "Puffy" Combs, Poke
Released: Aug '94, Bad Boy
20 weeks; No. 27

Biggie's debut single chronicled the rapper's rise from "a common thief to up close and personal with Robin Leach." He rhymes about his childhood poverty growing up in the Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn (although he claimed to be from Bed-Stuy) — despite protests from his mom. "I told him, 'No landlord dissed us!'" said Voletta Wallace. "He said, 'Mom, I was just writing a rags-to-riches kinda story.'"

Appears on: Ready to Die (Bad Boy)


500 Greatest Albums of All Time: The Notorious B.I.G.'s Ready to Die


Don Henley, ‘The Boys of Summer’

Writers: Henley, Mike Campbell
Producers: Henley, Campbell, Danny Kortchmar, Greg Ladanyi
Released: Nov. '84, Geffen
22 weeks; No. 5

Henley gave California rock a stylish Eighties makeover with this poignant lament for his generation, featuring the famous line "Out on the road today/I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac." When the Ataris did their hit punk-rock cover version in 2003, they changed it to a Black Flag sticker — but the sentiment was the same.

Appears on: Building the Perfect Beast (Geffen)


100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Don Henley 

100 Best Album of the Eighties: Don Henley's Building the Perfect Beast


The Four Tops, ‘Can’t Help Myself’

Writers: Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier, Brian Holland
Producers: Holland, Dozier, Holland
Released: June '65, Motown
14 weeks; No. 1

"My real style of singing is just a natural thing," said Four Tops frontman Levi Stubbs. "What I mean by that is I don't consider myself as being a heck of a singer, man. I'm more of a stylist, if you will." His soul stylings sent this Tops classic to Number One — after the four original members had already been performing together for 10 years.

Appears on: The Ultimate Collection (Motown)


100 Greatest Artists of All Time: The Four Tops


The Coasters, ‘Young Blood’

Writers: Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, Doc Pomus
Producers: Leiber, Stoller
Released: May '57, Atco
11 weeks; No. 1

The Coasters were named after the West Coast, home turf of the four singers. After evolving from the doo-wop group the Robins, the Coasters had a couple of small R&B hits, "Down in Mexico" and "Turtle Dovin'." But after almost a year away from the studio, the group relocated to New York and cut its first blockbuster.

Appears on: The Very Best of the Coasters (Rhino)


Little Richard, ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’

Writer: Bobby Troup
Producer: Robert "Bumps" Blackwell
Released: Jan. '57, Specialty
8 weeks; No. 49

Richard screamed the theme from one of the first great rock movies, starring Jayne Mansfield. "She was a wonderful person," Richard said. "Her breasts were 50 inches, and she didn't wear a brassiere. They didn't hang down."

Appears on: The Georgia Peach (Specialty)


100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Little Richard 

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Little Richard


Bobbie Gentry, ‘Ode to Billie Joe’

Writer: Gentry
Producers: Kelly Gordon, Bobby Paris
Released: July '67, Capitol
14 weeks; No. 1

Once and for all: Exactly what did Billie Joe throw off the Tallahatchee Bridge? Gentry never revealed the secret of this spooky country blues. "The real message," she said, "revolves around the way the nonchalant family talks about the suicide."

Appears on: Greatest Hits (Curb)


Donna Summer, ‘I Feel Love’

Writers: Summer, Giorgio Moroder, Pete Bellotte
Producers: Moroder, Bellotte
Released: May '77, Casablanca
23 weeks; No. 6

Summer would dismiss "I Feel Love" as a "popcorn track," but its impact on dance music is incalculable. When Brian Eno first listened to this, he told David Bowie, "I've heard the sound of the future." Thanks to Moroder's throbbing Moog synthesizers and Summer's epic-orgasm vocals, "I Feel Love" claimed tomorrow in the name of disco.

Appears on: The Donna Summer Anthology (Casablanca)


Pixies, ‘Monkey Gone to Heaven’

Writer: Black Francis
Producer: Gil Norton
Released: March '89, Elektra
Did Not Chart

Numerology, sludge in the ocean, a hole in the sky — what's it all supposed to mean? Said Francis (a.k.a. Frank Black), "The phrase 'monkey gone to heaven' just sounds neat." Norton cleaned up the band's sound, adding the eerie strings, but the Pixies didn't bother to try for pop appeal. Said Francis, "It wasn't like we thought we'd get played on the radio."

Appears on: Doolittle (4 AD/Elektra)


500 Greatest Albums of All Time: The Pixies' Doolittle


Aerosmith, ‘Sweet Emotion’

Writers: Steven Tyler, Tom Hamilton
Producer: Jack Douglas
Released: April '75, Columbia
8 weeks; No. 36

As the sessions for Toys in the Attic, Aerosmith's third studio album, reached the 11th hour at the Record Plant in New York, producer Douglas called out for ideas. Bassist Hamilton resurrected a riff that had been germinating for several years, and it was outfitted with bass marimba and Joe Perry's voice-box recitation of the song title. A few months later, Aerosmith had their first Top 40 single.

Appears on: Toys in the Attic (Sony)


100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Aerosmith 

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Aerosmith's Toys in the Attic 

100 Greatest Guitarists: Joe Perry 

100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Steven Tyler


Nirvana, ‘In Bloom’

Writer: Kurt Cobain
Producer: Butch Vig
Released: Sept. '91, DGC

"I don't like rednecks, I don't like macho men," Cobain once said. This track about a guy who "loves to shoot his gun" would become one of Nirvana's biggest live anthems. It started out as more of a hardcore rant. "It sounded like a Bad Brains song," said Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic. Then, "One day Kurt called me and started singing. It was the 'In Bloom' of Nevermind, more of a pop thing."

Appears on: Nevermind (Geffen)


100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Nirvana 

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Nirvana's Nevermind


Carpenters, ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’

Writers: Paul Williams, Roger Nichols
Producer: Jack Daugherty
Released: Sept. '70, A&M
17 weeks; No. 2

"Begun" began life as a TV jingle for a California bank that caught Richard Carpenter's ear. He called Williams to see if there was an actual song attached to the short bit he'd heard. "I assumed that it would never, ever get cut again," Williams said. He wrote several hits for the Carpenters, but this soft-rock ode remains the watershed. Richard later called it "our best single."

Appears on: Singles 1969-1981 (Interscope)


100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Karen Carpenter


Bob Dylan, ‘Visions of Johanna’

Writer: Dylan
Producer: Bob Johnston
Released: May '66, Columbia

"It's easier to be disconnected than connected," Dylan confessed in late 1965. "I've got a huge hallelujah for all the people who're connected, that's great, but I can't do that." He never sounded lonelier than in this seven-minute ballad, originally titled "Seems Like a Freeze-Out." Dylan cut it in a single take on Valentine's Day 1966, with Al Kooper on Hammond B3 organ.

Appears on: Blonde on Blonde (Columbia)


100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Bob Dylan 

100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Bob Dylan 

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde 


Rihanna Featuring Jay-Z, ‘Umbrella’

Writers: The-Dream, Kuk Harrell, Jay-Z, Christopher "Tricky" Stewart
Producers: Harrell, Stewart
Released: March' 07, Def Jam
27 weeks; No. 1

The songwriters initially offered the track to Britney Spears, whose career was spiraling out of control. "We thought, 'Let's save our friend,' " the-Dream says. But Spears' management brushed them off. "I'm so thankful for it," Rihanna said. "I prayed for this song."

Appears on: Good Girl Gone Bad (Def Jam)


Eddie Cochran, ‘C’mon Everybody’

Writers: Cochran, Jerry Capehart
Producer: Capehart
Released: Oct. '58, Liberty
12 weeks; No. 35

Cochran was paid $82.50 for the three-hour session that produced this classic rockabilly track. The follow-up to his smash "Summertime Blues," "C'mon" is a good-natured bad-boy tune powered by heavy strumming on his Martin guitar. Although he died at age 21, in a 1960 car crash that also seriously injured rockabilly pioneer Gene Vincent, Cochran became a huge influence in England.

Appears on: Something' Else (Razor and Tie)


100 Greatest Guitarists: Eddie Cochran


Sly and the Family Stone, ‘Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)’

Writer: Sly Stone
Producer: Stone
Released: Jan. '70, Epic
13 weeks; No. 1

The double-sided smash "Thank You"/"Everybody Is a Star" was Sly's sole new release in 1970. "Thank You" rode on the finger-popping bass of Larry Graham, who played like that in a duo with his organist mother. "I started to thump the strings with my thumb," he said, "to make up for not having a drummer."

Appears on: Anthology (Epic)


100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Sly Stone

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Sly and the Family Stone


The Shirelles, ‘Tonight’s the Night’

Writers: Luther Dixon, Shirley Owens
Producer: Dixon
Released: Sept. '60, Scepter
12 weeks; No. 39

The Shirelles, who originally called themselves the Pequellos, formed while at their Passaic, New Jersey, high school. Lead singer Owens was only 19 when she co-wrote this hit about romantic surrender, full of Latin-style syncopation and soulful yearning.

Appears on: 25 All-Time Greatest Hits (Varèse Fontana)


100 Greatest Artists of All Time: The Shirelles


Metallica, ‘Enter Sandman’

Writers: James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett
Producers: Bob Rock, Hetfield, Ulrich
Released: July '91, Elektra
20 weeks; No. 16

Thanks to producer Rock, the coiled, brooding "Enter Sandman" was the first Metallica tune that sounded perfect for the radio. As drummer Ulrich pointed out in 1991, "The whole intro, the verse, the bridge, the chorus — it's the same riff."

Appears on: Metallica (Elektra)


500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Metallica's Metallica


Lynyrd Skynyrd, ‘Sweet Home Alabama’

Writers: Ed King, Gary Rossington, Ronnie Van Zant
Producer: Al Kooper
Released: April '74, MCA
17 weeks; No. 8

Van Zant sang this pissed-off answer to Neil Young's "Southern Man," and even Young loved it. "I'd rather play 'Sweet Home Alabama' than 'Southern Man' anytime," Young said. The admiration was mutual; Van Zant wore a Young T-shirt on the cover of Skynyrd's final album, Street Survivors, and according to legend, he is buried in the shirt.

Appears on: Second Helping (MCA)


100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Lynyrd Skynyrd


Big Star, ‘Thirteen’

Writers: Alex Chilton, Chris Bell
Producer: John Fry
Released: April '72, Ardent

Chilton wrote this acoustic ballad about two kids in love with rock & roll, featuring the deathless couplet "Won't you tell your dad, 'Get off my back'/Tell him what we said about 'Paint It Black.'" It's simple musically; as Chilton said, "I was still learning to play and stuff." It never came out as a single or got any radio play, but "Thirteen" is one of rock's most beautiful celebrations of adolescence.

Appears on: #1 Record/Radio City (Fantasy)


500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Big Star's #1 Record


Blue Öyster Cult, ‘(Don’t Fear) the Reaper’

Writer: Donald Roeser
Producers: Murray Krugman, Sandy Pearlman, David Lucas
Released: July '76, Columbia
14 weeks; No. 12

This Long Island band's death trip was picked by Rolling Stone critics as the best rock single of 1976. With its ghostly guitars and cowbell, "Reaper" has added chills to horror flicks from Halloween to The Stand. Bonus points for the crackpot theology about how "40,000 men and women every day" join Romeo and Juliet in eternity.

Appears on: Agents of Fortune (Columbia)


The Shangri-Las, ‘Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand)’

Writer: George "Shadow" Morton
Producer: Morton
Released: Aug. '64, Red Bird
11 weeks; No. 5

The Shangri-Las, two sets of sisters from Queens, were in high school when producer Morton hired them to record "Remember" — a tune he claimed to have written in 20 minutes on the way to the studio. One story has it that a 15-year-old Billy Joel played piano on the session. Morton went on to produce the New York Dolls.

Appears on: The Best of the Shangri-Las (Mercury)


Elvis Presley, ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’

Writers: George Weiss, Hugo Peretti, Luigi Creatore
Producer: Joseph Lilley
Released: Oct. '61, RCA
14 weeks; No. 1

This adaptation of Giovanni Martini's 18th-century song "Plaisir d'Amour" was given to Elvis for his movie Blue Hawaii — hence the Hawaiian steel guitar. But this was no vacation for Presley: It took him 29 takes to nail his exquisitely gentle vocals. The song became the closing number for most of his Seventies concerts.

Appears on: Elvis 30 #1 Hits (RCA)


100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Elvis Presley 

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Elvis Presley


The Five Stairsteps, ‘O-o-h Child’

Writer: Stan Vincent
Producer: Vincent
Released: April '70, Buddha
16 weeks; No. 8

"O-o-h Child" gave the Five Stairsteps — four brothers and a sister from Chicago — a pop-soul classic that rivaled the hits of another sibling gang, the Jackson 5. The children of police detective Clarence Burke, the Five Stairsteps, who played their own instruments as well as sang, ranged in age from 13 to 17 when Curtis Mayfield signed them to his Windy C label.

Appears on: Soul Hits of the '70s: Didn't It Blow Your Mind! Vol. 2 (Rhino)


The Lovin’ Spoonful, ‘Summer in the City’

Writers: John Sebastian, Steve Boone, Mark Sebastian
Producer: Erik Jacobsen
Released: June '66, Kama Sutra
11 weeks; No. 1

"Summer in the City" was a stylistic turn for the Lovin' Spoonful — tougher and less daydreamy. "We felt the only way we could stick out would be to sound completely different from one single to another," said John Sebastian. With a barrage of car horns on the bridge, the record evoked its subject with urban grit and Gershwin-esque grandeur.

Appears on: The Lovin' Spoonful Greatest Hits (Buddha)

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