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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.

430

Elvis Presley, ‘Blue Suede Shoes’

Writer: Carl Perkins
Producer: Steve Sholes
Released: March '56, RCA
12 weeks; No. 20

The day after Presley made his television debut, on Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey's Stage Show, he went into a studio in New York, kicking off the session with "Blue Suede Shoes"; Perkins' original was still climbing the charts. Despite 13 takes, Presley and Sholes felt they hadn't matched it. Maybe they were right: Perkins' single got to Number Two, but Presley's peaked at Number 20.

Appears on: 2nd to None (BMG Heritage)

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429

Billy Joel, ‘Piano Man’

Writer: Joel
Producer: Michael Stewart
Released: Nov. '73, Columbia
14 weeks; No. 25

Joel grew up playing in rock bands, but a California hiatus as a lounge pianist (under the name Bill Martin) saw him pecking out standards for lost souls. "It was all right," he said. "I got free drinks and union scale, which was the first steady money I'd made in a long time."

Appears on: Piano Man (Columbia)

428

The Isley Brothers, ‘It’s Your Thing’

Writers: Rudolph Isley, Ronald lsley, O'Kelly Isley
Producers: R. Isley, R. Isley, O. Isley
Released: Feb. '69, T-Neck
14 weeks; No. 2

In 1969, the Isleys fled Motown and revived their own T-Neck Records, where they unleashed the free-will funk of "It's Your Thing." Their biggest hit, it earned a lawsuit from Berry Gordy, who claimed he owned the song.

Appears on: The Ultimate Isley Brothers (Legacy)

427

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)

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426

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)

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425

N.W.A, ‘Fuck tha Police’

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

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)

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424

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)

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423

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)

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422

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)

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421

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)

420

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)

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419

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)

418

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)

417

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)

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416

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)

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415

Nirvana, ‘In Bloom’

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

"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)

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414

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)

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413

Bob Dylan, ‘Visions of Johanna’

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

"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)

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412

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)

411

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)

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410

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)

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409

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)

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408

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)

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407

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)

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406

Big Star, ‘Thirteen’

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

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)

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405

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)

404

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)

403

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)

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402

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)

401

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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