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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.

227

James Taylor, ‘Fire and Rain’

Writer: Taylor
Producer:
Peter Asher
Released:
Feb. '70, Warner Bros.
16 weeks; No. 3

Taylor wrote the three verses of this song in three phases following the breakup of his band the Flying Machine. The first came in a London flat while he was signed to the Apple label, the second in a New York hospital as he kicked heroin and the third during a stay in a Massachusetts psychiatric facility. "It's like three samplings of what I went through," he said.

Appears on: Sweet Baby James (Warner Bros.)

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226

Muddy Waters, ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’

Writer: Willie Dixon
Producers:
Leonard and Phil Chess, Dixon
Released:
Jan. '54, Chess
Did not chart

Waters tested this out at the Chicago blues club Zanzibar. Dixon gave him some advice: "Well, just get a little rhythm pattern," he said. "Do the same thing over again, y'know." Waters cut it a couple of weeks later, with Dixon on bass.

Appears on: The Anthology (Chess/MCA)

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225

Sly and the Family Stone, ‘Dance to the Music’

Writer: Sylvester Stewart (Sly Stone)
Producer:
Stone
Released:
Jan. '68, Epic
15 weeks; No. 8

Saxman Jerry Martini claims Stone did this song just to satisfy CBS executives' desire for a hit. "He hated it," Martini said. "It was so unhip to us. The beats were glorified Motown beats." But "Dance" fit Stone's vision for the band: "I wanted everyone to get a chance to sweat."

Appears on: Dance to the Music (Sony)

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224

Roy Orbison, ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’

Writers: Orbison, Billy Dees
Producer:
Wesley Rose
Released:
Aug. '64, Monument
15 weeks; No. 1

Orbison told Dees to "get started writing by playing anything that comes to mind….My wife came in and wanted to go to town to get something." Orbison asked if she needed money. Dees then cracked, "Pretty woman never needs any money." The rest was easy.

Appears on: For the Lonely: 18 Greatest Hits (Rhino)

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223

Lou Reed, ‘Walk on the Wild Side’

Writer: Reed
Producers:
David Bowie, Mick Ronson, Reed
Released:
Dec. '72, RCA
14 weeks; No. 16

Reed was asked to write songs for a musical based on the novel A Walk on the Wild Side. The show fizzled, but Reed kept the title. "I thought it would be fun to introduce people you see at parties but don't dare approach," he said.

Appears on: Transformer (RCA)

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222

The Left Banke, ‘Walk Away Renee’

Writers: Michael Brown, Bob Calilli, Tony Sansone
Producer:
Harry Lookofsky
Released:
Sept. '66, Smash
13 weeks; No. 5

In 1965, Brown was a 16-year-old keyboard prodigy with a crush on a bandmate's girlfriend – bassist Tom Finn had introduced Renee Fladen to the group. Brown wrote three songs about her, including "Walk Away Renee." He quit the Left Banke before they finished recording "Renee" but returned after the song became a hit a year later.

Appears on: There's Gonna Be a Storm (Mercury)

221

Howlin’ Wolf, ‘Spoonful’

Writer: Willie Dixon
Producers: Leonard and Phil Chess
Released:
June '60, Chess
Did not chart

Chess do-it-all Dixon wrote "Spoonful" for Howlin' Wolf in 1960. "It doesn't take a large quantity of anything to be good," explained Dixon. The Wolf, however, did not cheat on the heavy manners when he devoured the song in the studio with his mad-animal growl. What's more, he often performed the song – later covered by Cream – waving a large cooking spoon in front of his genitalia.

Appears on: Anniversary Collection (Chess)

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220

John Lee Hooker, ‘Boom Boom’

Writer: Hooker
Producer:
Calvin Carter
Released:
Feb. '62, Vee-Jay
10 weeks; No. 60

Keith Richards said of Hooker, "Even Muddy Waters was sophisticated next to him." That was a compliment. With his gruff voice, the Hook put boogie to the blues, inspiring a generation of British blues acts, including the Animals, who covered this song to great effect. "Boom-boom," by the way, came from an affectionate greeting offered to Hooker by a female bartender in Detroit.

Appears on: The Very Best of John Lee Hooker (Rhino)

219

Dolly Parton, ‘Jolene’

Writer: Parton
Producer:
Bob Ferguson
Released:
Jan. '74, RCA
8 weeks; No. 60

When Parton recorded "Jolene" in 1974, she was chiefly known as Porter Wagoner's TV partner, although she had written the hit "Coat of Many Colors." "Jolene" showed how she could put her stamp on traditional country, buffing an old-time-y groove and belting a tale of romantic rivalry. It became a Number One country single and has been covered with extra menace by the White Stripes.

Appears on: Jolene (Buddha/BMG)

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218

The Lovin’ Spoonful, ‘Do You Believe in Magic’

Writer: John Sebastian
Producer:
Erik Jacobsen
Released:
July '65, Kama Sutra
13 weeks; No. 9

The first single by the Lovin' Spoonful went Top 10 and, in a sense, never went away. While rehearsing the song, Sebastian affixed a contact mike to his autoharp, and in combination with Zal Yanovsky's electric guitar, they hit on a unique sound. Sebastian said "Magic" was rooted in "the chord progressions coming out of Motown at the time."

Appears on: Do You Believe in Magic (Buddha)

217

Hank Williams, ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’

Writers: Williams, Fred Rose
Producer:
Rose
Released:
Jan. '53, MGM
Predates pop charts

Legend has it that this song came to Williams when he was thinking about his first wife while driving around with his second; she wrote down the lyrics for him in the passenger seat. After polishing it with Rose, Williams recorded "Your Cheatin' Heart" during the last sessions he ever did, on September 23rd, 1952. He told a friend, "It's the best heart song I ever wrote."

Appears on: The Ultimate Collection (Mercury Nashville)

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216

Neil Young, ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’

Writer: Young
Producers:
Niko Bolas, Young
Released:
Oct. '89, Reprise
Non-single

"Don't feel like Satan/But I am to them," Young spat in this raucously ambivalent song about the pride and guilt of being an American. It was inspired by a remark from a member of Crazy Horse, who said gigs were safer in Europe than in the Middle East: "It's better to keep rockin' in the free world." "It was such a cliché," Young said. "I knew I had to use it."

Appears on: Freedom (Reprise)

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215

Prince, ‘1999’

Writer: Prince
Producer:
Prince
Released:
Oct. '82, Warner Bros.
27 weeks; No. 12

When Prince recorded 1999, he would go all day and all night without rest and turn down food since he felt eating would make him sleepy. The opening verse was originally recorded in three-part harmony; Prince split up the vocals, and the harmony parts became a new, odd melody. The single's first release didn't make the Top 40, but Prince put it out again after "Little Red Corvette," and it was finally a hit.

Appears on: 1999 (Warner Bros.)

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214

The Beach Boys, ‘Caroline, No’

Writers: Brian Wilson, Tony Asher
Producer:
Wilson
Released:
March '66, Capitol
7 weeks; No. 32

Wilson ditched the other Beach Boys and used studio pros like "Be My Baby" drummer Hal Blaine on what was initially released as Brian's first solo single. It was largely the result of a misheard lyric. Wilson told Asher about a girl he'd liked in high school named Carol, and Asher responded with "Oh, Carol, I know." But Wilson heard it as "Caroline, no" and dashed off the rest of the song while stoned.

Appears on: Pet Sounds (Capitol)

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213

? and the Mysterians, ’96 Tears’

Writer: Rudy Martinez
Producer:
Martinez
Released:
Sept. '66, Pa-Go-Go
15 weeks; No. 1

The band, all Mexican-Americans living in Michigan, cut "96 Tears" in their manager's living room, and ? promoted the single throughout the state, all without ever revealing his real name (Rudy Martinez) or removing his sunglasses. That organ figure put the Farfisa company on the map (? later claimed they had used a Vox). The original has never been released on CD; all the CD versions are rerecordings.

Appears on: More Action (Cavestomp)

212

The Beach Boys, ‘In My Room’

Writers: Brian Wilson, Gary Usher
Producer:
Wilson
Released:
Sept. '63, Capitol
11 weeks; No. 23

"Brian was always saying that his room was his whole world," said Usher, who wrote the lyrics based on Wilson's idea. The three-part harmony on the first verse that Wilson sang with his brothers Carl and Dennis recalled the vocal bits that Brian taught them when they shared a childhood bedroom. As the Beatles had done with some hits, the Boys cut a version in German.

Appears on: Surfer Girl/Shut Down, Volume 2 (Capitol)

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211

Them, ‘Gloria’

Writer: Van Morrison
Producer:
Tommy Scott
Released: March '65, Parrot

1 week; No. 95

When Morrison wrote his first hit, "Gloria," he was just another hungry young rocker, with the Belfast garage band Them. "I was just being me, a street cat from Belfast," Morrison said. "Probably like thousands of kids from Belfast who were in bands." A Chicago group called Shadows of Knight hit with a more cautious version in 1966; Morrison later complained that "Gloria" was "capitalized on a lot."

Appears on: The Story of Them (Polydor)

210

The Everly Brothers, ‘Bye Bye Love’

Writers: Boudleaux and Felice Bryant
Producer:
Archie Bleyer
Released:
May '57, Cadence
27 weeks; No. 2

 "Bye Bye Love" had been turned down by 30 artists before Bleyer offered it to the Everlys for their first single. Phil and Don took it happily, if for no other reason than the $64 they would each earn for making it. The guitar intro was borrowed from a song Don had written called "Give Me a Future."

Appears on: All-Time Original Hits (Rhino)

209

The Four Tops, ‘Reach Out, I’ll Be There’

Writers: Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier, Brian Holland
Producers:
Holland, Dozier, Holland
Released:
Aug. '66, Motown
15 weeks; No. 1

 HDH pumped out Tops hits at a breakneck pace. "They were over so fast I can't remember them at all," said Dozier. Phil Spector called "Reach Out, I'll Be There," their second Number One, "black Dylan."

Appears on: The Ultimate Collection (Motown)

208

Bill Withers, ‘Lean on Me’

Writer: Withers
Producer:
Withers
Released:
June '72, Sussex
19 weeks; No. 1

Growing up as one of six kids in the coal-mining town of Slab Fork, West Virginia, Withers learned a lot about helping family and neighbors when they needed you. After a dislocating move to L.A., the bonds he built with co-workers manufacturing airplane toilets reminded him of the tightknit community he'd left back home, providing the inspiration for the plain-spoken "Lean on Me," his biggest hit.

Appears on: Lean on Me (Sony)

207

Otis Redding, ‘Try a Little Tenderness’

Writers: Jimmy Campbell, Reginald Connelly, Harry Woods
Producers:
Steve Cropper, Jim Stewart
Released:
Dec. '66, Stax
10 weeks; No. 25

On his own, drummer Al Jackson Jr. switched to double-time on the second verse, for the high-energy climax. "We didn't know he was gonna do that," said bassist Duck Dunn. "It was amazing."

Appears on: Very Best of Otis Redding (Rhino)

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206

Bob Dylan, ‘Positively 4th Street’

Writer: Dylan
Producer: Bob Johnston
Released: Sept. '65, Columbia
9 weeks; No. 7

In whose direction did Dylan aim this? Most likely, "4th Street," the follow-up to "Like a Rolling Stone," is about the people he met in Greenwich Village (when he lived on West 4th) and on fraternity row at the University of Minnesota (on 4th Street in Minneapolis).

Appears on: The Essential Bob Dylan (Sony)

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205

The Beatles, ‘Come Together’

Writers: John Lennon, Paul McCartney
Producer: George Martin
Released: Sept. '69, Apple
16 weeks; No. 1

Timothy Leary was running for governor of California and asked Lennon to write a campaign song for him. The tune was not politically useful, so Lennon brought it to the Abbey Road sessions. "I said, 'Let's slow it down with a swampy bass-and-drums vibe,'" said McCartney. "I came up with a bass line, and it all flowed from there." It was the last song all four Beatles cut together.

Appears on: Abbey Road (Apple)

204

New Order, ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’

Writers: Bernard Albrecht, Gillian Gilbert, Peter Hook, Stephen Morris
Producers: New Order
Released: Oct. '86, Qwest
2 weeks; No. 98

After the death of Joy Division's Ian Curtis, his band became New Order. "There's life, and there's death," drummer Morris said in 1983. "We were still alive, so we thought we'd carry on doing it." New Order wrote their synth-pop hits in a Manchester rehearsal room next to a cemetery. Said Morris, "Fate writes the lyrics, and we do the rest."

Appears on: Substance (Qwest)

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203

Beck, ‘Loser’

Writer: Beck Hansen
Producer: Karl Stephenson
Released: 1993, Bong Load   
24 weeks; No. 10

In 1992, 22-year-old Beck Hansen was scraping by as a video-store clerk while performing bizarro folk songs at L.A. coffeehouses. After friends offered to record some songs, Beck cut "Loser" in his producer's kitchen. It became the centerpiece of an album (1994's Mellow Gold) that cost $200 to make.

Appears on: Mellow Gold (Geffen)

202

Parliament, ‘Flash Light’

Writers: George Clinton, Bernie Worrell, Bootsy Collins
Producer: Clinton
Released: Dec. '77, Casablanca
16 weeks; No. 16

"Flash Light" is the P-Funk Nation's groove manifesto. "We're going to get the message out," Clinton declared in 1978. "We want to put the show on Broadway – tell the story straightforward so people understand that funk mean funk."

Appears on: Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome (Mercury)

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201

The Jimi Hendrix Experience, ‘Hey Joe’

Writer: William Roberts
Producer: Chas Chandler
Released: Dec. '66, Reprise
Did not chart

Thismurder ballad was the Experience's first single, recorded two weeks after their live debut. Hendrix was so shy about his voice that manager Chandler even hired a female vocal group, the Breakaways, for backup. The song had already been recorded by the Byrds, Love, the Standells and many other bands, but Hendrix learned it from folkie Tim Rose's version.

Appears on: Are You Experienced? (MCA)

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