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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.

325

Jimmy Cliff, ‘Many Rivers to Cross’

Writer: Cliff
Producer: Cliff
Released: Dec. '69, A&M
Did not chart

When Jamaican filmmaker Percy Henzell heard "Many Rivers to Cross," a ballad Jimmy Cliff wrote in 1969, he ordered Cliff the lead in his film The Harder They Come. The song, a hymn about struggle and perseverance, summed up the outlaw mood of early reggae. On the strength of his songs and acting in the film,Cliff became one of reggae’s first international stars.

Appears on: Wonderful World, Beautiful People (A&M)

324

Pink Floyd, ‘Wish You Were Here’

Writers: David Gilmour, Roger Waters
Producers: Pink Floyd
Released: Sept. '75, Columbia
Non-single

While Pink Floyd were recording this elegy for burned-out ex-frontman Syd Barrett, he mysteriously appeared in the studio in such bad shape that, at first, nobody in the band recognized him. "He stood up and said, 'Right, when do I put my guitar on?'" keyboardist Rick Wright recalled. "And of course, he didn’t have a guitar with him. And we said, 'Sorry, Syd, the guitar’s all done.'"

Appears on: Wish You Were Here (Capitol)

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323

Elvis Costello, ‘Alison’

Writer: Costello
Producer: Nick Lowe
Released: Nov. '77, Columbia
Did not chart

Some people think "Alison" is a murder ballad. "It isn’t," Costello told Rolling Stone in 2002. "It’s about disappointing somebody. It’s a thin line between love and hate, as the Persuaders sang." Costello’s backup band was Huey Lewis' outfit Clover; Lewis himself didn’t play on the album, presumably because Costello didn’t need any harmonica players.

Appears on: My Aim Is True (Rhino)

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