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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.

96

Jerry Lee Lewis, ‘Great Balls of Fire’

Writers: Otis Blackwell, Jack Hammer
Producer: Sam Phillips
Released: Nov. '57, Sun
21 weeks; No. 2

With Lewis pounding the piano and leering, "Great Balls of Fire" was full of Southern Baptist hellfire turned into a near-blasphemous ode to pure lust. Lewis, a Bible-college dropout and cousin to Jimmy Swaggart, refused to sing it at first and got into a theological argument with Phillips that concluded with Lewis asking, "How can the devil save souls?" But as the session wore on and the liquor kept flowing, Lewis' mood changed considerably — on bootleg tapes he can be heard saying, "I would like to eat a little pussy if I had some." Goodness gracious, great balls of fire, indeed.

Appears on: Original Sun Greatest Hits (Rhino) 

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95

Carl Perkins, ‘Blue Suede Shoes’

Writer: Perkins
Producer: Sam Phillips
Released: Feb '56, Sun
21 weeks; No. 2

Johnny Cash had already given Perkins the phrase "blue suede shoes" as an idea for a song. But when he overheard a Tennessee hepcat who was trying to keep the girl he was dancing with from scuffing up his new kicks, Perkins was inspired to write the song that would be his Sun debut. It was the first single to crack the pop, R&B and country charts, and Perkins was driving to New York to perform the song on The Perry Como Show when his car crashed into a poultry truck, laying him up for weeks. He could only sit home and watch while "Blue Suede Shoes" was performed on The Milton Berle Show — sung by Elvis Presley, who would later admit he couldn't top Perkins' original.

Appears on: Original Sun Greatest Hits (Rhino) 

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94

Little Richard, ‘Good Golly, Miss Molly’

Writers: Robert "Bumps" Blackwell, John Marascalco
Producer: Blackwell
Released: Feb. '58, Specialty
15 weeks; No. 10

Little Richard first heard the phrase "Good golly, Miss Molly," from a Southern DJ named Jimmy Pennick. He turned the words into perhaps his most blatant assault on American propriety: "Good golly, Miss Molly/You sure like to ball." He swiped the music from Ike Turner's piano intro to Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88," recorded by Sam Phillips in Memphis seven years earlier. "I always liked that record," Richard recalled, "and I used to use the riff in my act, so when we were looking for a lead-in to 'Good Golly, Miss Molly,' I did that and it fit." Richard had renounced rock & roll the previous year, but Specialty couldn't leave this classic in the vaults.

Appears on: The Georgia Peach (Specialty)

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93

U2, ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’

Writer: Bono
Producers: Daniel Lanois, Brian Eno
Released: May '87, Island
17 weeks; No. 1

"The music that really turns me on is either running toward God or away from God," Bono told Rolling Stone. U2's second Number One single revels in ambivalence — "an anthem of doubt more than faith," Bono has called it. The song was typical of the arduous sessions for The Joshua Tree: Originally called "Under the Weather," it began, like most U2 songs, as a jam. "It sounded to me a little like 'Eye of the Tiger' played by a reggae band," the Edge recalled. "It had this great beat," Lanois said. "I remember humming a traditional melody in Bono's ear. He said, 'That's it! Don't sing any more!' — and went off and wrote the melody as we know it."

Appears on: The Joshua Tree (Island) 

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92

Ramones, ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’

Writers: The Ramones
Producer: Craig Leon
Released: May '76, Sire
Did not chart

In less than three minutes, this song threw down the blueprint for punk rock. It's all here on the opening track of the Ramones' debut: the buzz-saw chords, which Johnny played on his $50 Mosrite guitar; the snotty words, courtesy of drummer Tommy (with bassist Dee Dee adding the brilliant line "Shoot 'em in the back now"); and the hairball-in-the-throat vocals, sung by Joey in a faux British accent. Recorded on the cheap at New York's Radio City Music Hall, of all places, "Blitzkrieg Bop" never made the charts; instead, it almost single-handedly created a world beyond the charts. The kick-off chant "Hey! Ho! Let's go!" meanwhile, is now an anthem of its own at sporting events nationwide.

Appears on: Ramones (Rhino)

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91

Elvis Presley, ‘Suspicious Minds’

Writer: Mark James
Producers: Chips Moman, Felton Jarvis, Presley
Released: Sept. '69, RCA
15 weeks; No. 1

When Moman presented this song to Presley in 1969, the singer was, as the lyrics put it, "caught in a trap" — a cash cow being milked dry by his label and hangers-on. That might be why Presley was convinced he could turn the song into a deep-soul hit, even though it had flopped in 1968 for singer-songwriter Mark James. Recorded between four and seven in the morning, during the landmark Memphis session that helped return the King to his throne, "Suspicious Minds" — the final Number One single of his lifetime — is Presley's masterpiece: He sings so intensely through the fade-out that his band returns for another minute of the tear-stained chorus.

Appears on: Elvis 30 #1 Hits (RCA) 

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90

The Five Satins, ‘In the Still of the Night’

Writer: Fred Parris
Producers: The Five Satins
Released: Sept. '56, Standord
19 weeks; No. 24

Five Satins frontman Parris wrote the song while on guard duty in the Army, and the group recorded it in the basement of a church in Parris' hometown of New Haven, Connecticut. The roughness shows: The drums and piano are muffled, the alto sax cracks during the solo, and the backing vocals wander off-key. But the primitive sound — and the fact that only four of the Five Satins were even present for the session — can't keep "In the Still of the Night," originally released as a B side, from being a sublime, definitive piece of doo-wop.

Appears on: The Five Satins: Their Greatest Hits (Collectables) 

89

The Mamas and the Papas, ‘California Dreamin”

Writers: John and Michelle Phillips
Producer: Lou Adler
Released: Dec. '65, Dunhill
17 weeks; No. 4

One frigid winter in Manhattan, a song came to John Phillips in the middle of the night. He woke up his young wife, Michelle, who was homesick for the West Coast, to help him finish writing "California Dreamin'," one of the all-time sunniest songs of longing. The tune was first recorded by Phillips' folk group the New Journeymen and later given to Barry McGuire as a thank-you after McGuire, riding high with "Eve of Destruction," introduced the group to producer Lou Adler, who convinced the Mamas and the Papas to cut it themselves.

Appears on: If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears (MCA) 

88

The Temptations, ‘My Girl’

Writers: Smokey Robinson, Ronald White
Producers: Robinson, White
Released: Jan. '65, Gordy
13 weeks; No. 1

The Temptations were sharing a bill with Robinson and his group the Miracles at Harlem's Apollo Theater when Robinson took time out to cut the rhythm track for a new song. After they heard it, the Tempts begged him to let them record the song rather than the Miracles, as he had been planning. Robinson relented and chose the throaty tenor David Ruffin to sing lead, the first time he had done so with the group. The Tempts rehearsed the song that week at the Apollo, then recorded it back home in Detroit on December 21st, 1964.

Appears on: The Temptations Sing Smokey (Motown) 

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87

Johnny Cash, ‘Ring of Fire’

Writers: June Carter, Merle Kilgore
Producer: Don Law
Released: May '63, Columbia
13 weeks; No. 17

Carter wrote this song while driving around aimlessly one night, worried about Cash's wildman ways — and aware that she couldn't resist him. "There is no way to be in that kind of hell, no way to extinguish a flame that burns, burns, burns," she wrote. Not long after hearing June's sister Anita's take on the song, Cash had a dream that he was singing it with mariachi horns. Cash's version became one of his biggest hits (inspiring cover versions by everyone from Frank Zappa to Adam Lambert), and his marriage to June four years later helped save his life.

Appears on: The Man in Black: His Greatest Hits (Columbia) 

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86

Bruce Springsteen, ‘Thunder Road’

Writer: Springsteen
Producers: Springsteen, Jon Landau, Mike Appel
Released: Aug. '75, Columbia
Non-single

"We decided to make a guitar album, but then I wrote all the songs on piano," Springsteen said of his third album, Born to Run. "Thunder Road," its opening track, is a cinematic tale of redemption with a title borrowed from a 1958 hillbilly noir starring Robert Mitchum as a bootlegger with a car that can't be beat (though the Boss had never actually seen the movie). An early title for the song was "Wings for Wheels," which resurfaced as the name of a Born to Run documentary. Decades later, Springsteen would marvel that he wrote the line "You're scared, and you're thinking that maybe we ain't that young anymore" when he was all of 24 years old.

Appears on: Born to Run (Columbia) 

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85

Patsy Cline, ‘Crazy’

Writer: Willie Nelson
Producer: Owen Bradley
Released: Oct. '61, Decca
11 weeks; No. 9

Cline wasn't impressed when her husband, Charlie Dick, brought home a demo by a 28-year-old rookie Nashville songwriter named Willie Nelson. Told that the song's title was "Crazy," she responded, "It sure is." But Bradley helped Cline make the song her own with a lush arrangement and understated backing vocals from gospel group the Jordanaires. Cline's vocals, cut in one take, infused Nelson's lyrics with slow-burn sex appeal. "Crazy" set the stage for a sophisticated new phase of the C&W sound known as "countrypolitan," although Cline herself wouldn't be around to shape it: She died in a plane crash less than two years later.

Appears on: Patsy Cline's Greatest Hits (MCA) 

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84

The Police, ‘Every Breath You Take’

Writer: Sting
Producer:
Hugh Padgham
Released: May '83, A&M
22 weeks; No 1

For their biggest hit, the Police went back to basics, junking an elaborate synth part that distracted from the song's hypnotic bass line in favor of a lick that guitarist Andy Summers recorded in one live take. Sting admitted that the lyrics — which sounded tender but were actually bitter — were pulled from the rock & roll cliche handbook. "'Every Breath You Take' is an archetypal song," he told Rolling Stone. "If you have a major chord followed by a relative minor, you're not original." Following Sting's unoriginal-and-proud manifesto, Puff Daddy would sample "Breath" extensively 14 years later for his own huge hit, the Notorious B.I.G. tribute "I'll Be Missing You."

Appears on: Synchronicity (Interscope) 

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83

The Beatles, ‘Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)’

Writers: John Lennon, Paul McCartney
Producer: George Martin
Released: Dec. '65, Capitol 
Non-single

This wry, wistful folk ballad was among the first of the Beatles' revolutionary studio experiments. The inclusion of the sitar, an instrument that George Harrison had recently discovered, was groundbreaking. The song, written by Lennon, is the tale of a late-night tryst — although it's electric with sexual possibility, the bemused cad ends up sleeping in the bathtub (and maybe takes his revenge by burning the place down the next morning). Lennon said that the lyrics disguised an actual affair: "I was very careful and paranoid because I didn't want my wife, Cyn, to know that there was something going on."

Appears on: Rubber Soul (Capitol)

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82

Fats Domino, ‘Blueberry Hill’

Writers: Al Lewis, Larry Stock, Vincent Rose
Producer: Dave Bartholomew
Released: Oct. '56, Imperial 
27 weeks; No. 2

"Blueberry Hill" was first recorded in 1940 by several artists, including Gene Autry and Glenn Miller. But Domino drew on the 1949 Louis Armstrong version when he had run out of material at a session. Producer Bartholomew thought it was a terrible idea but lost the argument. Good thing, too. It ended up being Domino's biggest hit and broadened his audience once and for all. As Carl Perkins later said, "In the white honky-tonks where I was playin', they were punchin' 'Blueberry Hill.' And white cats were dancin' to Fats Domino."

Appears on: The Fats Domino Jukebox (Capitol) 

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81

Marvin Gaye, ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’

Writers: Barrett Strong, Norman Whitfield
Producer: Whitfield
Released: Oct. '68, Tamla 
15 weeks; No. 1

Motown producer Whitfield had a reputation for recording the same song with a number of acts, changing the arrang