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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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100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Sly and the Family Stone

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)

RELATED:

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Roy Orbison

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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 w