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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.

112

Hank Williams, ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’

Writer: Williams
Producer: Fred Rose
Released: Nov. '49, Sterling
Did not chart

This track — a vision of lonesome Americana over a steady beat — was Williams' favorite out of all the songs he wrote. But he worried that the lyrics about weeping robins and falling stars were too artsy for his rural audience, which might explain why the track was buried on the B side of "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It." "Lonesome" didn't catch much attention, but after Williams' death it came to symbolize his whiskey-soaked life, and artists such as Willie Nelson resurrected it, setting the mood for much of the country music that followed.

Appears on: The Ultimate Collection (Universal) 

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111

Otis Redding, ‘I’ve Been Loving You too Long (to Stop Now)’

Writers: Jerry Butler, Redding
Producers: Jim Stewart, Steve Cropper
Released: April '65, Volt
11 weeks; No. 21

Redding and soul balladeer "Iceman" Butler were hanging out in Redding's hotel room in Buffalo, New York, after a gig when Butler sang a half-finished song he had been working on. "Hey, man, that's a smash," Redding said. "Let me go mess around with it. Maybe I'll come up with something." Sure enough, "I've Been Loving You Too Long" became Redding's first Top 40 single, in June 1965. And when Redding performed a scorching drawn-out version at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 — in front of the audience he called "the love crowd" — the single made the transition from hit to legend.

Appears on: Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul (Atco) 

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110

Van Morrison, ‘Brown Eyed Girl’

Writer: Morrison
Producer: Bert Berns
Released: June '67, Bang
16 weeks; No. 10

The cheery "sha-la-la" chorus of "Brown Eyed Girl," originally titled "Brown Skinned Girl," brought Morrison to the top of the pop charts, even though he didn't much like the record and recently said he doesn't even consider it one of his best 300 songs. "The record came out different," Morrison said. "This fellow, Bert, he made it the way he wanted it, and I accepted the fact that he was producing it, so I just let him do it." After its smash success, Morrison turned his back on mainstream pop. "It just put me in some awkward positions," he said. "Like lip-syncing on a television show. I can't lip-sync." His next album, the masterful Astral Weeks, was a personal acoustic song cycle that sold practically nothing.

Appears on: Blowin' Your Mind (Sony) 

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109

Prince, ‘Little Red Corvette’

Writer: Prince
Producer: Prince
Released: March '83, Warner
22 weeks; No. 6

A horse-racing metaphor, a car metaphor and, probably, a clitoris metaphor: Prince didn't scrimp on literary possibilities in coming up with what would be his first Top 10 hit. In 1982, Prince had a 24-track studio installed in his basement; by 6 p.m. the day after it was set up, he had recorded "Little Red Corvette." The song is an almost perfect erotic fusion of rock and funk that builds slowly until exploding into a guitar solo. Fittingly, Prince wrote the lyrics in the back seat of a car, but not a red Corvette: It was a bright-pink Ford Edsel belonging to Revolution keyboardist Lisa Coleman.

Appears on: 1999 (Warner Bros.) 

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108

Buddy Holly and the Crickets, ‘Not Fade Away’

Writers: Holly, Norman Petty
Producer: Petty
Released: Oct. '57, Brunswick
20 weeks; No. 10

Recorded in Clovis, New Mexico, in May 1957, "Not Fade Away" was originally the B side to Holly's hit "Oh, Boy!" The Crickets were no strangers to the Bo Diddley beat — they had already covered "Bo Diddley" — but with "Not Fade Away" they made the rhythm their own, thanks to drummer Jerry Allison, who pounded out the beat on a cardboard box. Allison, Holly's best friend, also claims to have written most of the lyrics, though his name never appeared in the songwriting credits. In 1964, the song became the Rolling Stones' first release in the U.S.

Appears on: Greatest Hits (MCA) 

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107

Bob Dylan, ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’

Writer: Dylan
Producer: Tom Wilson
Released: March '65, Columbia
Non-single

Inspired by Bruce Langhorne — a session guitarist who played on several Dylan records — "Mr. Tambourine Man" is the tune that elevated Dylan from folk hero to bona fide star. "[Bruce] was one of those characters….He had this gigantic tambourine as big as a wagon wheel," Dylan said. "The vision of him playing just stuck in my mind." Written partly during a drug-fueled cross-country trek in 1964, the song was recorded on January 15th, 1965; five days later, based on a demo (which Dylan cut with Ramblin' Jack Elliott) they'd heard, the Byrds recorded their own electrified version. "Wow, man," said Dylan, "you can even dance to that!"

Appears on: Bringing it All Back Home (Columbia) 

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106

Simon and Garfunkel, ‘The Boxer’

Writer: Paul Simon
Producers: Roy Halee, Simon, Art Garfunkel
Released: April '69, Columbia
10 weeks; No. 7

"The Boxer" is about a New York kid who can't find love, a job or a home — just those whores on Seventh Avenue. "I was reading the Bible," Simon said of the song's genesis. "That's where 'workman's wages' came from." He sang the song as a tribute to New York on the first Saturday Night Live after 9/11.

Appears on: Bridge Over Troubled Water (Columbia)

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105

Stevie Wonder, ‘Living for the City’

Writer: Wonder
Producer: Wonder
Released: August '73, Tamla
17 weeks; No. 8

Wonder went epic with "Living for the City," a bleak seven-minute narrative about the broken dreams of black America that was so powerful, Richard Pryor later recorded the lyrics delivered as a church sermon. Wonder sings about a boy growing up in the mythical town of Hard Times, Mississippi, surrounded by poverty and racism. When he takes the bus to New York in search of a better life, he gets set up for a drug bust and goes to jail. Wonder filled the song with cinematic dialogue, even recruiting one of the janitors at the recording studio to play the white prison guard who mutters, "Get into that cell, nigger." Public Enemy sampled the line years later on It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.

Appears on: Innervisions (Motown) 

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104

Donna Summer, ‘Hot Stuff’

Writers: Pete Bellotte, Harold Faltermeyer, Keith Forsey
Producer: Giorgio Moroder, Bellotte
Released: April '79, Casablanca
21 weeks; No. 1

The Rolling Stones' "Miss You" and Rod Stewart's "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy" approached disco from the world of rock. Now Summer and producer Moroder wanted to return the favor. Setting a thumping kick-drum pulse against a raunchy guitar solo from Doobie Brother (and disco hater) Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, they paved the way for such hybrids as Michael Jackson's "Beat It." The Queen of Disco snarled with an assertiveness rarely heard on her earlier Euro-disco hits. The 12-inch memorably segues directly into Summer's follow-up, "Bad Girls."

Appears on: Bad Girls (Mercury/Chronicles) 

103

Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps, ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’

Writers: Vincent, Bill Davis
Producer: Ken Nelson
Released: May '56, Capitol
20 weeks; No. 7

With Vincent's echo-soaked voice, Cliff Gallup's high-reverb guitar and 15-year-old drummer Dickie Harrell's wildcat screams, "Be-Bop-A-Lula" went to Number Seven in 1956. Vincent signed to Capitol, which had been hunting for its own Elvis-type singer. A restless sort, Vincent joined the Navy while still underage and nearly had his leg amputated after a motorcycle crackup. He reportedly wrote "Be-Bop-A-Lula" with a fellow patient while recuperating at a naval hospital.

Appears on: The Screaming End: The Best of Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps (Razor and Tie) 

102

The Jimi Hendrix Experience, ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’

Writer: Jimi Hendrix
Producer: Chas Chandler
Released: Oct. '68, Reprise
Non-single

After a night of partying in New York on May 2nd, 1968, Hendrix, Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell, Traffic's Stevie Winwood and Jefferson Airplane's Jack Casady returned to Electric Ladyland studio and cut "Voodoo Chile," a 15-minute take on Muddy Waters' "Rolling Stone." Later that day, Hendrix, Mitchell and bassist Noel Redding were being filmed by a TV crew. Hendrix improvised the staggering wah-wah guitar riff that kicks off the apocalyptic blues "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" on the spot. "It was like, 'OK, boys, look like we're recording,'" Hendrix said. "We weren't thinking about what we were playing."

Appears on: Electric Ladyland (MCA) 

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101

The Rolling Stones, ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’

Writers: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards
Producer: Jimmy Miller
Released: July '69, London
8 weeks; No. 42

After a November 1968 recording session, Al Kooper asked Jagger if he could take a stab at a horn chart for a new song. Kooper got his wish, but only his French horn made the final mix, providing "You Can't Always Get What You Want" with its signature intro. The song's piano groove was based on an Etta James record, and producer Miller — "Mr. Jimmy" in the Jagger lyric — subbed for Charlie Watts when the Stones drummer had difficulty mastering the tricky groove. Phil Spector accomplice Jack Nitzsche provided the crowning touch in March 1969, orchestrating the London Bach Choir into a towering backing chorus. A grandiose finale for a landmark album.

Appears on: Let It Bleed (ABKCO) 

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