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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.

198

Guns n’ Roses, ‘Sweet Child O’Mine’

Writers: Guns n' Roses
Producer: Mike Clink
Released: Aug. '87, Geffen
24 weeks; No. 1

Axl Rose wrote this love letter to his girlfriend, Erin Everly (daughter of Don). Slash said he was just "fucking around with the intro riff, making a joke"; he didn't think much of it, but Rose knew better. Rose and Erin were later married – for all of one month.

Appears on: Appetite for Destruction (Geffen)

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197

Buddy Holly, ‘Peggy Sue’

Writers: Jerry Allison, Holly, Norman Petty
Producer: Petty
Released: Sept. '57, Coral
22 weeks; No. 3

When the Crickets first played a new song called "Cindy Lou," Allison's snare drum was so loud that Petty told him to play in the studio's reception area. To placate his exiled drummer, Holly changed the title to "Peggy Sue," after Allison's girlfriend.

Appears on: Greatest Hits (MCA)

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196

The Drifters, ‘There Goes My Baby’

Writers: Benjamin Nelson, Lover Patterson, George Treadwell
Producers: Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller
Released: May '59, Atlantic
19 weeks; No. 2

Leiber and Stoller wanted a striking sound to match new vocalist Ben E. King's majestic voice. The odd arrangement featured out-of-tune timpani and strings that seemed to quote Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture." "It sounded like a radio caught between two stations," wrote Atlantic's Jerry Wexler. But King's croon soared above it all.

Appears on: The Very Best of the Drifters (Rhino)

195

Glen Campbell, ‘Wichita Lineman’

Writer: Jimmy Webb
Producer: Al De Lory
Released: Nov. '68, Capitol
15 weeks; No. 3

Inspired by the isolation of a telephone-pole worker he saw on the Kansas-Oklahoma border, Webb wrote this in 1968 for Campbell, who had asked if Webb could come up with another "By the Time I Get to Phoenix." Campbell changed a guitar part and kept the keyboard from Webb's demo; the chiming sound at the fade, evoking telephone signals, was done on a massive church organ.

Appears on: Wichita Lineman (Capitol)

194

Amy Winehouse, ‘Rehab’

Writer: Winehouse
Producer: Mark Ronson
Released: March '07, Universal Republic
20 weeks; No. 9

Drawing on Winehouse's real-life struggles, this cheeky, sonically perfect salvo made the London diva a worldwide star. The huge, Motown-inspired beat featured Brooklyn throwback R&B band the Dap-Kings. "One of the best recordings ever," said Roots drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson. "She's coming from Fifties and Sixties doo-wop, and they nailed that sound exactly."

Appears on: Back to Black (Universal Republic)

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193

Lynyrd Skynyrd, ‘Free Bird’

Writers: Allen Collins, Ronnie Van Zant
Producer: Al Kooper
Released: Sept. '73, MCA
12 weeks; No. 19

"What song is it you want to hear?" asks Van Zant on the definitive, 14-minute live version on One More From the Road. But audiences initially didn't want to hear "Free Bird" — dedicated to Duane Allman — until Collins added an uptempo section to the end of the ballad and the overlapping guitars started to boogie.

Appears on: One More From the Road (MCA)

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Bob Dylan, The Band, Madison Square Garden
192

Bob Dylan, ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’

Writer: Dylan
Producer: Gordon Carroll
Released: July '73, Columbia
16 weeks; No. 12

Three years had passed since his last studio album, and Dylan seemed at a loss. So he accepted an invitation to go to Mexico for Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, for which he shot a bit part (in the role of "Alias") and did the soundtrack. For a death scene, Dylan delivered this tale of a dying sheriff, who wants only to lay his "guns in the ground."

Appears on: The Essential Bob Dylan (Sony)

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191

Bee Gees, ‘Stayin’ Alive’

Writers: Robin Gibb, Barry Gibb, Maurice Gibb
Producers: Barry Gibb, Robin Gibb, Maurice Gibb, Karl Richardson, Albhy Galuten
Released: Nov. '77, RSO
27 weeks; No. 1

This disco classic was written when Robert Stigwood approached the Bee Gees for music for a film based on the Brooklyn club scene. He needed a groove for an eight-minute John Travolta dance sequence. The Gibbs wrote the song on the staircase of a French chateau that served as the setting for several porn flicks. 

Appears on: Saturday Night Fever (Polydor)

190

AC/DC, ‘Back in Black’

Writers: Angus Young, Malcolm Young, Brian Johnson
Producer: Mutt Lange
Released: July '80, Atlantic
15 weeks; No. 37

When frontman Bon Scott drank himself to death in 1980, AC/DC didn't retreat — they brought in a new singer, Brian Johnson. "Malcolm asked me if this riff he had was too funky," said Angus. "And I said, 'Well, if you're gonna discard it, give it to me!' "

Appears on: Back in Black (Sony)

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189

Aretha Franklin, ‘I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)’

Writer: Ronny Shannon
Producer: Jerry Wexler
Released: March '67, Atlantic
11 weeks; No. 9

Franklin went to Fame Studios to cut her soul-stirring take on Shannon's you done-me-wrong lament with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section – "Alabama white boys who took a left turn at the blues," as Wexler described them.

Appears on: I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You) (Rhino)

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188

Creedence Clearwater Revival, ‘Who’ll Stop the Rain’

Writer: John Fogerty
Producer: Fogerty
Released: Jan. '70, Fantasy
Did not chart

Fogerty told Rolling Stone in 1970, "[Listeners] put too much weight on political references in songs. They think a song will save the world. It's absurd." Veiled allusions to FDR and Stalin in "Rain" suggest that politics was on his mind, but Fogerty insists he wanted to be symbolic, not specific to Vietnam, Woodstock or 1969. "As a result," he said, "the song is timeless."

Appears on: Cosmo's Factory (Fantasy)

187

Bob Dylan, ‘Desolation Row’

Writer: Dylan
Producer: Bob Johnston
Released: Aug. '65, Columbia
Non-single

In 1969, Dylan told Rolling Stone that he wrote this song in the back of a New York cab. Since it has 659 words and clocks in at more than 11 minutes, that's one long cab ride. Dylan scrapped an electric, full-band version of the song at the last minute, and rerecorded it on acoustic guitar. The final version was spliced together from two consecutive takes during the last sessions for Highway 61.

Appears on: Highway 61 Revisited (Columbia)

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186

The Beatles, ‘Please Please Me’

Writers: John Lennon, Paul McCartney
Producer: George Martin
Released: Feb. '64, Vee-Jay
13 weeks; No. 3

"It was my attempt at writing a Roy Orbison song," Lennon said of "Please Please Me." He originally penned a yearning ballad while listening to Orbison in a bedroom at his aunt's house, but Martin suggested it would sound better sped up. Said Lennon, "By the time the session came around, we were so happy with the result, we couldn't get it recorded fast enough."

Appears on: Please Please Me (Capitol)

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185

B.B. King, ‘The Thrill is Gone’

Writers: Roy Hawkins, Rick Darnell
Producer: Bill Szymczyk
Released: Dec. '69, BluesWay
14 weeks; No. 15

"It was a different kind of blues ballad, and I carried it around in my head for years," King said of the song, which dated to 1951. The 44-year-old King's career reached its zenith with an inspired performance during a 1969 session in which, as King put it, "all the ideas came together."

Appears on: Greatest Hits (MCA)

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184

The Drifters, ‘Save the Last Dance for Me’

Writers: Doc Pomus, Mort Shuman
Producers: Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller
Released: Sept. '60, Atlantic
18 weeks; No. 1

As Billy Joel said, before the Drifters, the last dance was the one nobody stuck around for. But this elegant R&B ballad made the end of the party sound like the essence of true romance. Lead vocalist Ben E. King later sang "Stand by Me."

Appears on: The Drifters' Golden Hits (Atlantic)

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183

Booker T. and the MG’s, ‘Green Onions’

Writers: Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, Lewis Steinberg, Al Jackson
Producer: Jim Stewart
Released: Oct. '62, Stax
16 weeks; No. 3

The Stax house band had never considered making its own hits until it cooked up this simmering jam in a half-hour before a jingle session. "I said, 'Shit, this is the best damn instrumental I've heard since I don't know when,' " guitarist Cropper recalled. As for the onions, he explained that "we were trying to think of something that was as funky as possible."

Appears on: Green Onions (Atlantic)

182

OutKast, ‘Hey Ya!’

Writer: André 3000
Producer: André 3000
Released: Sept. '03, LaFace
32 weeks; No. 1

Not a likely recipe for a hit: a rock song with a bizarre 11/4 time signature by half of a hip-hop duo. Dré played almost all the instruments on this irresistible party jam — he said that its guitar chords, the first he ever learned, were inspired by "the Ramones, the Buzzcocks, the Smiths." Fun fact: The "ladies" who cheer halfway in are one lone woman, engineer Rabeka Tuinei.

Appears on: Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (LaFace/Arista)

181

Joy Division, ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’

Writers: Ian Curtis, Peter Hook, Stephen Morris, Bernard Sumner
Producers: Martin Hannett
Released: April '80, Enigma
Did not chart

Singer Ian Curtis did not live to see this Manchester, England, band's best single become a hit. He committed suicide in May 1980, two days before a scheduled American tour. "Ian's influence seemed to be madness and insanity," said guitarist Bernard Sumner. After Curtis' death, Joy Division carried on under the name New Order.

Appears on: Substance 1977-1980 (Qwest)

180

Big Star, ‘September Gurls’

Writer: Alex Chilton
Producers: Big Star
Released: May '74, Ardent
Did not chart

Big Star were totally unfashionable in their day – early-Seventies Memphis rockers inspired by Sixties British Invasion pop. A nonhit from the band's second LP, Radio City, "September Gurls" is now revered as a power-pop classic. "They were fairly dark records wrapped in a pop package," drummer Jody Stephens said of Big Star's now-adored catalog. "Maybe that's what's made them enduring."

Appears on: Radio City (Stax)

179

Tom Petty, ‘Free Fallin”

Writers: Petty, Jeff Lynne
Producer: Lynne
Released: June '89, MCA
21 weeks; No. 7

Petty and Lynne wrote and recorded "Free Fallin' " in just two days, the first song completed for Petty's solo LP Full Moon Fever. The label initially rejected the album because of a lack of hits. "So I waited six months and brought the same record back," Petty said. "And they loved it."

Appears on: Full Moon Fever (MCA)

178

The Beach Boys, ‘Don’t Worry Baby’

Writers: Brian Wilson, Roger Christian
Producer: Wilson
Released: May '64, Capitol
10 weeks; No. 24

Wilson, who listened to the Ronettes' "Be My Baby" so much he wore out the grooves, wrote "Don't Worry Baby" for Ronnie Bennett. From the opening drum riff, "Don't Worry Baby" is sheer homage but also vintage Beach Boys, with one of Wilson's finest falsetto-laden vocals.

Appears on: Sounds of Summer (Capitol)

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177

The Bobby Fuller Four, ‘I Fought the Law’

Writers: Sonny Curtis, Fuller
Producer: Bob Keane
Released: Feb. '66, Mustang
11 weeks; No. 9

Singing in his Texas drawl, Fuller seemed to channel his idol, Buddy Holly, on this tune penned by the Crickets' Curtis. "I Fought the Law" was a bracing hybrid of outlaw romanticism, garage rock, surf music, Wall of Sound and British Invasion energy. Keane created the track's rich reverb by using the vault of a bank next door to the L.A. studio as an echo chamber.

Appears on: I Fought the Law: The Best of the Bobby Fuller Four (Rhino)

176

The Rolling Stones, ‘Paint it Black’

Writers: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards
Producer: Andrew Loog Oldham
Released: May '66, London
11 weeks; No. 1

Brian Jones plucked the haunting sitar melody at the 1966 L.A. session for this classic. Bill Wyman added klezmer-flavored organ; studio legend Jack Nitzsche played the gypsy-style piano. "Brian had pretty much given up on the guitar by then," said Richards. "If there was [another] instrument around, he had to be able to get something out of it. It gave the Stones on record a lot of different textures." 

Appears on: Aftermath (ABKCO)

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175

The Sex Pistols, ‘God Save the Queen’

Writers: Johnny Rotten, Steve Jones, Glen Matlock, Paul Cook
Producer: Chris Thomas
Released: May '77, Warner Bros.
Did not chart 

Banned by the BBC for "gross bad taste," this blast of nihilism savaged the pomp of Queen Elizabeth II's silver jubilee and came in a sleeve showing Her Majesty with a safety pin through her lip. "As far as I'm concerned, she ain't no human being," sneered singer Rotten. "She's a piece of cardboard they drag around on a trolley."

Appears on: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols (Warner Bros.)

174

Abba, ‘Dancing Queen’

Writers: Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus, Stig Anderson
Producers: Andersson, Ulvaeus
Released: Nov. '76, Atlantic
22 weeks; No. 1

When Benny Andersson auditioned the song for his fiancee and band member Anni-Frid Lyngstad, she was moved to tears. Sweden's biggest musical export debuted "Queen" in 1976 at a ball for King Carl Gustaf on the eve of his wedding. The song, a disco-flavored dessert of sublime melody and pop-operatic harmonies, became the group's only U.S. Number One.

Appears on: Arrival (Polydor)

173

Aerosmith, ‘Dream On’

Writer: Steven Tyler
Producer: Arian Barber
Released: June '73, Columbia
9 weeks; No. 59

Tyler began writing this power ballad in his late teens. He was still at it in Aerosmith's early days, pounding a piano in the basement of the group's living quarters. "Dream On" was a huge regional hit in Boston when it was first released in 1973 but never made the national Top 40. An edited version finally reached the Top 10 in 1976, giving the band its breakthrough hit.

Appears on: Aerosmith (Columbia)

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172

Jay-Z, ’99 Problems’

Writers: Jay-Z, Rick Rubin
Producer: Rubin
Released: Nov. '03, Roc-a-Fella
12 weeks; No. 30

Jigga's decade-long run reached its crescendo with this Black Album smash. Mixing an old Ice-T hook with an intense, clanging groove – including samples spliced in from Billy Squier's "The Big Beat" and Mountain's "Long Red" – it was the funkiest thing Rubin had touched since Licensed to Ill