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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.

439

Gladys Knight and the Pips, ‘Midnight Train to Georgia’

Writer: Jim Weatherly
Producer: Tony Camillo
Released: Sept. '73, Buddah
19 weeks; No. 1

Originally titled "Midnight Plane to Houston," the ode to long-distance romance from Mississippi songwriter Weatherly (who also wrote Knight's "Neither One of Us") became the biggest hit ever for Gladys Knight and the Pips. Cissy Houston had an R&B hit with it first, before Knight rode it to the top of the pop charts.

Appears on: Essential Collection (Hip-O)

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438

Fats Domino, ‘Ain’t It a Shame’

Writers: Dave Bartholomew, Domino
Producer: Bartholomew
Released: July '55, Imperial
13 weeks; No. 10

In the summer of 1955, "Ain't It a Shame" became Domino's first pop smash, after a string of R&B hits. Pat Boone's whitebread cover (retitled "Ain't That a Shame" — though Boone allegedly wanted it to be "Isn't That a Shame") reached Number One, but as Jerry Wexler put it, "Fats Domino is still the thing. Who cares about what's his name with the white buck shoes?"

Appears on: The Fats Domino Jukebox: 20 Greatest Hits (Capitol)

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437

The Clash, ‘(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais’

Writers: Mick Jones, Joe Strummer
Producers: The Clash
Released: July '79, Epic
Did Not Chart

"We can't play reggae," Strummer said in 1977. But the Clash invented a skank of their own, toasting the solidarity they saw between punks and Rastas. The anti-racist fusion of "Hammersmith Palais" also skewered sellouts in both scenes. "I was trying to talk about revolution and how we weren't ever gonna have one," he said.

Appears on: The Clash (Epic)

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436

Solomon Burke, ‘Everybody Needs Somebody to Love’

Writers: Burke, Bert Berns, Jerry Wexler
Producer: Berns
Released: July '64, Atlantic
8 weeks; No. 58

Philadelphia-born Burke started preaching at the age of seven and often recorded his vocals from behind a pulpit. He attacks this song in the style of a fire-and-brimstone Southern preacher, calling out for a witness and testifying to the power of love. In the congregation: the Rolling Stones, who covered it in 1965.

Appears on: The Very Best of Solomon Burke (Rhino)

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435

U2, ‘New Year’s Day’

Writers: Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen Jr.
Producer: Steve Lillywhite
Released: April '83, Island
12 weeks; No. 53

"New Year's Day" lifted U2 out of the rock underground for good. As he often did, Bono made up his lyrics on the spot. "We improvise, and the things that came out, I let them come out," he said. "I must have been thinking about Lech Walesa being interned. Then, when we'd recorded the song, they announced that martial law would be lifted in Poland on New Year's Day. Incredible."

Appears on: War (Island)

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434

Deep Purple, ‘Smoke on the Water’

Writers: Ritchie Blackmore, Ian Gillian, Roger Glover, Jon Lord, Ian Paice
Producers: Deep Purple
Released: May '73, Warner Bros.
16 weeks; No. 4

Keyboardist Lord claimed that the working title for this song was "Durh Durh Durh" — a transliteration of the riff that some beginner guitarist is probably trying out for the first time right now. The lyrics tell the story of a fan shooting a flare gun during a 1971 Frank Zappa show at the Casino in Montreux, Switzerland, setting the venue ablaze.

Appears on: Machine Head (Rhino)

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433

Rolling Stones, ‘Tumbling Dice’

Writers: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards
Producer: Jimmy Miller
Released: April '72, Rolling Stones
10 weeks; No. 7

Originally titled "Good Time Women" (an early take is on the recent Exile on Main Street reissue), "Tumbling Dice" had numerous faster incarnations before it was recorded at Richards' villa, Nellcôte. "I remember writing the riff upstairs in the very elegant front room," said Richards, "and we took it downstairs the same evening, and we cut it." Since Bill Wyman wasn't around, Mick Taylor played bass.

Appears on: Exile on Main Street (Virgin)

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432

Green Day, ‘American Idiot’

Writers: Green Day
Producers: Rob Cavallo, Green Day
Released: Oct. '04, Reprise
20 weeks; No. 61

No song captured the rancid zeitgeist of the Bush era like this Clash-style rave-up, which bashed the USA's "redneck agenda." The starting point for Green Day's punk opera, later a Broadway musical, "Idiot" signaled the band's evolution into righteously angry political rockers. "We did everything we could to piss people off," said Billie Joe Armstrong, who often performed the song in a George W. Bush mask.

Appears on: American Idiot (Reprise)

431

The Smiths, ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’

Writers: Johnny Marr, Morrissey
Producer: John Porter
Released: Aug. '84, Sire
Did Not Chart

Asked in 1984 who was the last person to see him naked, Morrissey replied, "Almost certainly the doctor who brought me into this cruel world." But like many of the Smiths' early singles, "William" is a tale of traumatic teen sex, in this case a tragic love triangle in a humdrum town. OutKast's André 3000, a huge Smiths fan, once named "William" as his absolute favorite.

Appears on: Louder Than Bombs (Sire)

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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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