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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.

460

George Harrison, ‘My Sweet Lord’

Writer: Harrison
Producers: Harrison, Phil Spector
Released: Nov. '70, Apple
14 weeks; No. 1

The first hit for an ex-Beatle, it features Harrison's teardrop slide licks and a melody virtually identical to the Chiffons' "He's So Fine." After a lawsuit, Harrison had to pay $587,000 to his former manager Allen Klein, who then owned the rights to "He's So Fine." "It made me so paranoid about writing," Harrison said. "I thought, 'I don't even want to touch the guitar, in case I'm touching somebody's note.'"

Appears on: All Things Must Pass (Capitol)

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459

Guns N’ Roses, ‘Paradise City’

Writers: Guns n' Roses
Producer: Mike Clink
Released: Aug. '87, Geffen
17 weeks; No. 5

For nearly seven minutes, Axl Rose expounds on the joys of green grass, pretty girls and toxic chemicals. The song was written in the back of a van as the band drove home to L.A. after a gig in San Francisco, with all the members tossing in lines. In a typically tasteful G n' R move, the video has footage of the band's 1988 gig at Castle Donington in the U.K. — where two fans were crushed to death.

Appears on: Appetite for Destruction (Geffen)

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458

Sam Cooke, ‘Cupid’

Writer: Cooke
Producers: Cooke, Hugo and Luigi
Released: July '61, RCA
17 weeks; No. 12

Cooke's producers had asked him to write a song for a girl they had seen on a Perry Como TV show — but once they heard her sing, they kept "Cupid" for Cooke to do himself. It was Cooke's idea to drop in the sound of an arrow being fired "straight to my lover's heart."

Appears on: Greatest Hits (RCA)

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457

Chubby Checker, ‘The Twist’

Writer: Hank Ballard
Producer: Karl Mann
Released: Aug. '60, Parkway
39 weeks; No. 1

"The Twist" began as a B side for Ballard and the Midnighters in 1958. But in 1960, former chicken plucker Checker covered it at Dick Clark's suggestion. "Going crazy is what I was looking for — where the music is so good you lose control," Checker said. " 'The Twist' did that."

Appears on: Greatest Hits (Prime Cuts)

456

The Beatles, ‘Penny Lane’

Writers: John Lennon, Paul McCartney
Producer: George Martin
Released: Feb. '67, Capitol
10 weeks; No. 1

After Lennon composed "Strawberry Fields Forever," McCartney wrote his own snappy memoir. Penny Lane was a Liverpool bus stop where Lennon and McCartney often met. "John came over and helped me with the third verse, as was often the case," McCartney said. "We were writing recently faded memories from eight or 10 years before."

Appears on: Magical Mystery Tour (Capitol/Apple)

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455

The Velvet Underground, ‘Heroin’

Writer: Lou Reed
Producers: Andy Warhol, Tom Wilson
Released: March '67, Verve
Non-Single

This seven-minute, two-chord track spiked out its territory with lyrics about shooting up until you felt like Jesus' son. "It wasn't pro or con," Reed said. "It was about taking heroin from the point of view of someone taking it. I'm still not sure what was such a big deal. So there's a song called 'Heroin.' So what?" Drummer Moe Tucker disagreed: "I consider it our greatest triumph."

Appears on: The Velvet Underground and Nico (Polydor)

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454

The Shangri-Las, ‘Leader of the Pack’

Writers: George "Shadow" Morton, Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich
Producers: Morton, Barry, Greenwich
Released: Oct. '64, Red Bird
12 weeks; No. 1

Morton found the inspiration for this song at a diner in Hicksville, New York. "Bikers, hot rodders, gum-smacking ladies," he said, "not careful at all about their language." He brought a bike into the studio for the motorcycle sounds.

Appears on: Myrmidons of Melodrama: Definitive Collection (RPM)

453

Toots and the Maytals, ‘Pressure Drop’

Writer: Toots Hibbert
Producer: Leslie Kong
Released: Feb. '73, Mango
Did Not Chart

Toots and the Maytals were already reggae stars — they coined the word on 1968's "Do the Reggay" — before "Pressure Drop." They were rumored to be Chris Blackwell's choice over Bob Marley and the Wailers when he wanted a group for his Island label.

Appears on: The Harder They Come (Hip-O)

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452

Nirvana, ‘Come As You Are’

Writers: Kurt Cobain, Nirvana
Producers: Butch Vig, Nirvana
Released: Sept. '91, Geffen
18 weeks; No. 32

"It's just about people and what they're expected to act like," Cobain said. "The lines in the song are really contradictory. They're kind of a rebuttal to each other." The song is driven by a simple riff that Vig goosed with a flanged, subaquatic guitar effect. Cobain apparently lifted it from a 1985 song by U.K. art-metal band Killing Joke, whom Dave Grohl paid back 12 years later by drumming on their 2003 album.

Appears on: Nevermind (Geffen)

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451

Sonny and Cher, ‘I Got You Babe’

Writer: Sonny Bono
Producer: Bono
Released: July '65, Atco
14 weeks; No. 1

Late one night, while Sonny and Cher were living in their manager's house, Bono woke up Cher and asked her to listen to "I Got You Babe" and to sing the lyrics, which he had written on a piece of shirt cardboard. She thought it was OK but really wanted a song that modulated. So he changed the key at the bridge and woke Cher up again hours later to hear it; she was delighted.

Appears on: The Beat Goes On: The Best of Sonny and Cher (Atlantic)

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