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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.

91

Elvis Presley, ‘Suspicious Minds’

Writer: Mark James
Producers: Chips Moman, Felton Jarvis, Presley
Released: Sept. '69, RCA
15 weeks; No. 1

When Moman presented this song to Presley in 1969, the singer was, as the lyrics put it, "caught in a trap" — a cash cow being milked dry by his label and hangers-on. That might be why Presley was convinced he could turn the song into a deep-soul hit, even though it had flopped in 1968 for singer-songwriter Mark James. Recorded between four and seven in the morning, during the landmark Memphis session that helped return the King to his throne, "Suspicious Minds" — the final Number One single of his lifetime — is Presley's masterpiece: He sings so intensely through the fade-out that his band returns for another minute of the tear-stained chorus.

Appears on: Elvis 30 #1 Hits (RCA) 

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90

The Five Satins, ‘In the Still of the Night’

Writer: Fred Parris
Producers: The Five Satins
Released: Sept. '56, Standord
19 weeks; No. 24

Five Satins frontman Parris wrote the song while on guard duty in the Army, and the group recorded it in the basement of a church in Parris' hometown of New Haven, Connecticut. The roughness shows: The drums and piano are muffled, the alto sax cracks during the solo, and the backing vocals wander off-key. But the primitive sound — and the fact that only four of the Five Satins were even present for the session — can't keep "In the Still of the Night," originally released as a B side, from being a sublime, definitive piece of doo-wop.

Appears on: The Five Satins: Their Greatest Hits (Collectables) 

89

The Mamas and the Papas, ‘California Dreamin”

Writers: John and Michelle Phillips
Producer: Lou Adler
Released: Dec. '65, Dunhill
17 weeks; No. 4

One frigid winter in Manhattan, a song came to John Phillips in the middle of the night. He woke up his young wife, Michelle, who was homesick for the West Coast, to help him finish writing "California Dreamin'," one of the all-time sunniest songs of longing. The tune was first recorded by Phillips' folk group the New Journeymen and later given to Barry McGuire as a thank-you after McGuire, riding high with "Eve of Destruction," introduced the group to producer Lou Adler, who convinced the Mamas and the Papas to cut it themselves.

Appears on: If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears (MCA) 

88

The Temptations, ‘My Girl’

Writers: Smokey Robinson, Ronald White
Producers: Robinson, White
Released: Jan. '65, Gordy
13 weeks; No. 1

The Temptations were sharing a bill with Robinson and his group the Miracles at Harlem's Apollo Theater when Robinson took time out to cut the rhythm track for a new song. After they heard it, the Tempts begged him to let them record the song rather than the Miracles, as he had been planning. Robinson relented and chose the throaty tenor David Ruffin to sing lead, the first time he had done so with the group. The Tempts rehearsed the song that week at the Apollo, then recorded it back home in Detroit on December 21st, 1964.

Appears on: The Temptations Sing Smokey (Motown) 

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87

Johnny Cash, ‘Ring of Fire’

Writers: June Carter, Merle Kilgore
Producer: Don Law
Released: May '63, Columbia
13 weeks; No. 17

Carter wrote this song while driving around aimlessly one night, worried about Cash's wildman ways — and aware that she couldn't resist him. "There is no way to be in that kind of hell, no way to extinguish a flame that burns, burns, burns," she wrote. Not long after hearing June's sister Anita's take on the song, Cash had a dream that he was singing it with mariachi horns. Cash's version became one of his biggest hits (inspiring cover versions by everyone from Frank Zappa to Adam Lambert), and his marriage to June four years later helped save his life.

Appears on: The Man in Black: His Greatest Hits (Columbia) 

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86

Bruce Springsteen, ‘Thunder Road’

Writer: Springsteen
Producers: Springsteen, Jon Landau, Mike Appel
Released: Aug. '75, Columbia
Non-single

"We decided to make a guitar album, but then I wrote all the songs on piano," Springsteen said of his third album, Born to Run. "Thunder Road," its opening track, is a cinematic tale of redemption with a title borrowed from a 1958 hillbilly noir starring Robert Mitchum as a bootlegger with a car that can't be beat (though the Boss had never actually seen the movie). An early title for the song was "Wings for Wheels," which resurfaced as the name of a Born to Run documentary. Decades later, Springsteen would marvel that he wrote the line "You're scared, and you're thinking that maybe we ain't that young anymore" when he was all of 24 years old.

Appears on: Born to Run (Columbia) 

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85

Patsy Cline, ‘Crazy’

Writer: Willie Nelson
Producer: Owen Bradley
Released: Oct. '61, Decca
11 weeks; No. 9

Cline wasn't impressed when her husband, Charlie Dick, brought home a demo by a 28-year-old rookie Nashville songwriter named Willie Nelson. Told that the song's title was "Crazy," she responded, "It sure is." But Bradley helped Cline make the song her own with a lush arrangement and understated backing vocals from gospel group the Jordanaires. Cline's vocals, cut in one take, infused Nelson's lyrics with slow-burn sex appeal. "Crazy" set the stage for a sophisticated new phase of the C&W sound known as "countrypolitan," although Cline herself wouldn't be around to shape it: She died in a plane crash less than two years later.

Appears on: Patsy Cline's Greatest Hits (MCA) 

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84

The Police, ‘Every Breath You Take’

Writer: Sting
Producer:
Hugh Padgham
Released: May '83, A&M
22 weeks; No 1

For their biggest hit, the Police went back to basics, junking an elaborate synth part that distracted from the song's hypnotic bass line in favor of a lick that guitarist Andy Summers recorded in one live take. Sting admitted that the lyrics — which sounded tender but were actually bitter — were pulled from the rock & roll cliche handbook. "'Every Breath You Take' is an archetypal song," he told Rolling Stone. "If you have a major chord followed by a relative minor, you're not original." Following Sting's unoriginal-and-proud manifesto, Puff Daddy would sample "Breath" extensively 14 years later for his own huge hit, the Notorious B.I.G. tribute "I'll Be Missing You."

Appears on: Synchronicity (Interscope) 

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83

The Beatles, ‘Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)’

Writers: John Lennon, Paul McCartney
Producer: George Martin
Released: Dec. '65, Capitol 
Non-single

This wry, wistful folk ballad was among the first of the Beatles' revolutionary studio experiments. The inclusion of the sitar, an instrument that George Harrison had recently discovered, was groundbreaking. The song, written by Lennon, is the tale of a late-night tryst — although it's electric with sexual possibility, the bemused cad ends up sleeping in the bathtub (and maybe takes his revenge by burning the place down the next morning). Lennon said that the lyrics disguised an actual affair: "I was very careful and paranoid because I didn't want my wife, Cyn, to know that there was something going on."

Appears on: Rubber Soul (Capitol)

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82

Fats Domino, ‘Blueberry Hill’

Writers: Al Lewis, Larry Stock, Vincent Rose
Producer: Dave Bartholomew
Released: Oct. '56, Imperial 
27 weeks; No. 2

"Blueberry Hill" was first recorded in 1940 by several artists, including Gene Autry and Glenn Miller. But Domino drew on the 1949 Louis Armstrong version when he had run out of material at a session. Producer Bartholomew thought it was a terrible idea but lost the argument. Good thing, too. It ended up being Domino's biggest hit and broadened his audience once and for all. As Carl Perkins later said, "In the white honky-tonks where I was playin', they were punchin' 'Blueberry Hill.' And white cats were dancin' to Fats Domino."

Appears on: The Fats Domino Jukebox (Capitol) 

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81

Marvin Gaye, ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’

Writers: Barrett Strong, Norman Whitfield
Producer: Whitfield
Released: Oct. '68, Tamla 
15 weeks; No. 1

Motown producer Whitfield had a reputation for recording the same song with a number of acts, changing the arrangement each time. This irritated some of the label's artists, but every now and then he would get a golden idea — as happened with Gaye's 1968 version of "Grapevine," which had been a hit the year before for Gladys Knight. Whitfield and co-writer Strong set the track in a slower, more mysterious tempo, and the song — which Gaye initially resisted recording — became the bestselling Motown single of the decade.

Appears on: Every Motown Hit (Motown) 

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80

The Kinks, ‘You Really Got Me’

Writer: Ray Davies
Producer: Shel Talmy
Released: Sept. '64, Reprise 
15 weeks; No. 7

Convinced that the band's previous two singles had flopped because they were too pristine, the Kinks went into the studio in the summer of 1964 to record this deliberately raw rave-up, written by Ray Davies on the piano in his parents' living room. But the original recording still felt too shiny, and the band had to borrow 200 pounds to cover the cost of another session. Seventeen-year-old guitarist Dave Davies took a razor to the speaker cone on his amp to get the desired dirty sound for that immortal, blistering riff. "The song came out of a working-class environment," Dave recalled. "People fighting for something." A month later, the proto-heavy-metal song went straight to the top of the British charts.

Appears on: Kinks (Castle) 

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79

The Byrds, ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’

Writer: Bob Dylan
Producer: Terry Melcher
Released: May '65, Columbia
13 weeks; No. 1

The only Byrd to play on the band's first hit was Roger McGuinn, whose chiming 12-string Rickenbacker guitar became folk rock's defining sound. Everything else came from L.A. session players, including drummer Hal Blaine and bassist Larry Knechtel of Phil Spector's Wrecking Crew. But the rest of the Byrds soon caught up, and as the song was breaking, a curious Dylan checked out the band at Ciro's, a Los Angeles club. Reportedly, he didn't recognize some of his own songs in their electrified versions.

Appears on: Mr. Tambourine Man (Columbia/Legacy)

78

James Brown, ‘I Got You (I Feel Good)’

Writer: Brown
Producer: Brown
Released: Nov. '65, King
12 weeks; No. 3

The same year he hit with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," Soul Brother Number One scored his biggest pop success with "I Got You." It was a sped-up, hyped-up new version of a song called "I Found You" that Brown had written a few years previous for one of his early proteges, James Brown Revue singer Yvonne Fair. "I Got You" received some help on the pop charts from a most unlikely source; a few months before the single was released, Brown performed the song in the Frankie Avalon teen flick Ski Party.

Appears on: James Brown 50th Anniversary Collection (UTV/Polydor) 

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James Brown, 1933-2006

77

Elvis Presley, ‘Mystery Train’

Writer: Junior Parker, Sam Phillips
Producer: Phillips
Released: Sept. '55, Sun
Did not chart

"Mystery Train" is one of Presley's most haunting songs, a stark blues number that sounds ancient but was actually first cut only two years before by Memphis blues singer Junior Parker. Presley recorded it with the groove from the flip side of the same Parker single, "Love My Baby," and Sun producer Phillips' ta