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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.

390

Elton John, ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’

Writers: John, Bernie Taupin
Producer: Gus Dudgeon
Released: Sept. '73, MCA
17 weeks; No. 2

Inspired by the Rolling Stones' Goats Head Soup, John and lyricist Taupin went to Kingston, Jamaica, to record John's sixth album. "The studio was surrounded by barbed wire," said Taupin, "and there were guys with machine guns." Too scared to leave their hotel, the duo wrote 21 songs in three days, including "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road."

Appears on: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (Island)

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389

R.E.M., ‘Radio Free Europe’

Writers: R.E.M.
Producers: Mitch Easter, Don Dixon
Released: July '83, I.R.S.
5 weeks; No. 78

"We hated it," said Peter Buck of the sound on the first version of "Europe," on indie label Hib-Tone. "It was mastered by a deaf man, apparently." R.E.M. rerecorded it for Murmur, with a richer melody and tighter rhythm — "like Motown," Buck recalled. Michael Stipe mumbled his lyrics — a vague riff on U.S. cultural imperialism — because he hadn't finished writing them when it was time to record.

Appears on: Murmur (A&M)

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388

U2, ‘Pride (In the Name of Love)’

Writers: Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen Jr.
Producers: Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois
Released: Oct. '84, Island
15 weeks; No. 33

The chords came from a 1983 soundcheck in Hawaii; the lyrics about Martin Luther King Jr. were inspired by an exhibit at Chicago's Peace Museum. With backing vocals by Pretenders singer Chrissie Hynde (credited as Mrs. Christine Kerr; she was married to Jim Kerr of Simple Minds at the time), the result was the band's first Top 40 hit.

Appears on: The Unforgettable Fire (Island)

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387

Ray Charles, ‘Hit the Road Jack’

Writer: Percy Mayfield
Producer: Sid Feller
Released: Sept. '61, ABC-Paramount
11 weeks; No. 1

Charles asked Mayfield, a one-time R&B hitmaker whose performing career was curtailed by a car accident in 1952, if he had any songs for Charles to record. Mayfield offered up "Hit the Road Jack." The snarling female vocal was provided by Margie Hendricks of the Raelettes. Hendricks' affair with Charles produced a son in 1959; Charles fired her from the Raelettes in 1964.

Appears on: Ultimate Hits Collection (Rhino)

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386

Yeah Yeah Yeahs, ‘Maps’

Writers: Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Producer: David Andrew Sitek
Released: Feb. '04, Interscope
13 weeks; No. 87

"Maps" is both a soul ballad and an art-punk classic, with torrents of jagged guitar noise and thundering drums backing up Karen O's lovesick wail. The YYY's breakthrough hit was inspired by a case of real-life rock & roll romance: The Divine Miss O (real name Karen Orzolek) wrote the song about being on tour and missing her boyfriend, Angus Andrew, singer for fellow New York band Liars.

Appears on: Fever to Tell (Interscope)

385

Radiohead, ‘Fake Plastic Trees’

Writers: Radiohead
Producer: John Leckie
Released: March '95, Capitol
4 weeks; No. 65

Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke would describe "Fake Plastic Trees" as the song on which he found his lyrical voice. He cut the vocal, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, in one take, then the band filled in its parts around him. Yorke said the song began as "a very nice melody which I had no idea what to do with, then you wake up and find your head singing some words to it."

Appears on: The Bends (Capitol)

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384

Pink Floyd, ‘Another Brick in the Wall Part 2’

Writer: Roger Waters
Producers: Bob Ezrin, Waters, David Gilmour
Released: Nov. '79, Columbia
25 weeks; No. 1

Waters' attack on teachers who practice "dark sarcasm in the classroom" was inspired by his own schoolmasters. "The school I was at — they were really like that," Waters said. "[All] they had to offer was their own bitterness and cynicism." There are three versions of "Another Brick" on The Wall, but "Part 2" was the hit.

Appears on: The Wall (Capitol)

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383

Chuck Berry, ‘Brown Eyed Handsome Man’

Writer: Berry
Producer: Leonard Chess, Phil Chess
Released: Sept. '56, Chess
Did Not Chart

Berry was inspired to write this song while he was touring through heavily black and Latino areas of California. As Berry put it, "I didn't see too many blue eyes." He did see a good-looking Chicano nabbed for loitering until "some woman came up shouting for the policeman to let him go." Over a manic guitar lick, the song spins a riotous tale about a dark-eyed loverman.

Appears on: The Anthology (Chess)

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382

Sam Cooke, ‘Wonderful World’

Writers: Cooke, Herb Alpert, Lou Adler
Producers: Cooke, Adler
Released: May '60, RCA
15 weeks; No. 12

Cooke was rooming with Adler, who had already finished this song when Cooke came up with the academic conceit that made it work. Cut while Cooke was still signed to Keen, it sat around until he'd moved to RCA — then sold a million. Before it came out, Cooke liked to sing it for women he met, telling them he'd made it up on the spot just for them.

Appears on: Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964 (ABKCO)

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381

Television, ‘Marquee Moon’

Writer: Tom Verlaine
Producer: Andy Johns
Released: Feb. '77, Elektra
Did Not Chart

"Marquee Moon" is Television's guitar epic; Verlaine and Richard Lloyd stretch out for 10 minutes of urban paranoia. "I would play until something happened," Verlaine said. "That comes from jazz, or even the Doors, or the Five Live Yardbirds album — that kinda rave-up dynamics."

Appears on: Marquee Moon (Elektra)

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380

The Who, ‘I Can’t Explain’

Writer: Pete Townshend
Producer: Shel Talmy
Released: March '65, Decca
2 weeks; No. 93

For their debut single, the Who recorded Townshend's alleged answer to the Kinks' blazing "You Really Got Me." The Who even hired that song's producer, Talmy, who recruited additional players for the recording, among them Jimmy Page, who contributed rhythm guitar.

Appears on: The Ultimate Collection (MCA)

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379

The Jimi Hendrix Experience, ‘The Wind Cries Mary’

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

A dish-smashing argument with his girlfriend left Hendrix alone to scrawl the words to "The Wind Cries Mary" in January 1967. A few days later, the guitarist taught the uncharacteristically tender ballad — built around a gentle riff inspired by soul man Curtis Mayfield — to the Experience. The trio knocked out the track in 20 minutes.

Appears on: Are You Experienced? (MCA)

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378

Bo Diddley, ‘I’m a Man’

Writer: Diddley
Producer: Leonard Chess
Released: June '55, Checker
Did Not Chart

The B side of Diddley's first single was built around a four-note guitar stomp that was a trademark of mid-Fifties Chicago blues. Songwriter Willie Dixon, who supervised the 1955 session, said it was Diddley's sense of rhythm that set him apart from everyone else at Chess: "The drums are speaking, and he'll tell you what the drums are saying."

Appears on: His Best: The Chess 50th Anniversary Collection (Chess)

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377

Depeche Mode, ‘Personal Jesus’

Writer: Martin Gore
Producers: Depeche Mode, Flood
Released: Nov. '89, Sire
20 weeks; No. 28

Depeche Mode's breakthrough single was based on a surprising source: Priscilla Presley's book Elvis and Me. "It's about how Elvis was her man and her mentor and how often that happens in love relationships," Gore said. "How everybody's heart is like a god in some way."

Appears on: Violator (Sire)

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376

Cream, ‘White Room’

Writers: Pete Brown, Jack Bruce
Producer: Felix Pappalardi
Released: Aug. '68, Atco
11 weeks; No. 6

Powered by Eric Clapton's wah-wah work, the song's unnerving psychedelic imagery came from Brown, emerging from a period of drug and alcohol excess. "It was in my white-painted room that I had the horrible drug experience that made me want to stop everything," he said.

Appears on: Wheels of Fire (Polygram)

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375

Bee Gees, ‘How Deep Is Your Love’

Writers: Bee Gees
Producers: Bee Gees, Karl Richardson, Albhy Galuten
Released: Sept. '77, RSO
33 weeks; No. 1 

The first single from Saturday Night Fever wasn’t a disco track but this slow jam. It went to Number One in December 1977, and the Bee Gees then controlled the top spot for 15 of the next 20 weeks. The song was originally intended for Yvonne Elliman, who had her own Number One with “If I Can’t Have You.”

Appears on: