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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.

163

Johnny Cash, ‘Folsom Prison Blues’

Writer: Cash
Producer: Sam Phillips
Released: Jan. '56, Sun
18 weeks; No. 32

Cash first recorded "Folsom Prison Blues," one of his earliest songs, for Sun in 1956. But it was the thrilling, electric '68 version, live at the prison, that defined his outlaw persona. Cash said he wrote the line "I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die," while "trying to think of the worst reason . . . for killing another person." He added, "It did come to mind quite easily, though."

Appears on: The Essential Johnny Cash (Columbia)

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162

Public Enemy, ‘Bring the Noise’

Writers: Carlton Ridenhour, Eric Sadler, Hank Shocklee
Producers: Rick Rubin, Carl Ryder
Released: April '88, Def Jam
Did not chart

"We were the first rap group to really tempo it up," Chuck D said. Over the Bomb Squad's souped-up horn riffs from Marva Whitney's "It's My Thing," PE showed how far-reaching its sound and political ambitions were, name-checking everyone from Yoko Ono and Anthrax (who later remade the song with Chuck D) to Louis Farrakhan.

Appears on: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (Def Jam)

RELATED:

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161

The Velvet Underground, ‘I’m Waiting for the Man’

Writer: Lou Reed
Producers: Andy Warhol, Tom Wilson
Released: March '67, Verve
Non-single

Originally a rootsy Dylan hommage, the song evolved into a proto-punk classic steeped in New York grit. The Velvets mixed R&B rhythm-guitar workout, blues-piano stomp and dreamy art drone, as Reed deadpans a story about scoring $26 worth of heroin in Harlem. "Everything about that song holds true," said Reed, "except the price."

Appears on: The Velvet Underground and Nico (Polygram)

160

U2, ‘Moment of Surrender’

Writers: Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen Jr.
Producers: Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois
Released: March '09, Interscope
Non-single

The most devastating U2 ballad since "One" sets lush, gospel-tinged music – much of it improvised live in the studio – against dark subject matter: It's about a junkie riding the subway. 

Appears on: No Line on the Horizon (Interscope)

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159

Bill Haley and His Comets, ‘(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock’

Writers: Jimmy DeKnight, Max Freedman
Producer: Milt Gabler
Released: May '54, Decca
24 weeks; No. 1

Haley began his career as a country yodeler before converting to rock & roll. "Clock" was a modest hit until it played during the opening credits of The Blackboard Jungle and shot to Number One.

Appears on: The Best of Bill Haley and His Comets (MCA)

158

The Flamingos, ‘I Only Have Eyes for You’

Writer: Harry Warren
Producer: George Goldner
Released: April '59, End
13 weeks; No. 11

Dubbed "The Sultans of Smooth," this Chicago quintet honed their harmonies singing in a black Jewish temple choir and scored its best-known song with "I Only Have Eyes for You," originally a hit for crooner Ben Selvin in 1934. The Flamingos take the song all the way to Venus with elegant vocalizations and the otherworldly doo-bop-sh-bop.

Appears on: The Best of the Flamingos (Rhino)

157

Simon and Garfunkel, ‘The Sounds of Silence’

Writer: Paul Simon
Producer: Tom Wilson
Released: Nov. '65, Columbia 
14 weeks; No. 1

Simon wrote this as an acoustic ballad, but  Simon and Garfunkel's first single version died. While Simon was in England, Wilson, who was producing Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone," asked members of Dylan's studio band to add electric guitar and drums. Columbia released the amplified "Silence," which became a hit before Simon and Garfunkel had even heard it.

Appears on: Sounds of Silence (Columbia)

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156

Creedence Clearwater Revival, ‘Proud Mary’

Writer: John Fogerty
Producer: Fogerty
Released: Jan. '69, Fantasy
14 weeks; No. 2

"It was, like, the first really good song I ever wrote," Fogerty said of "Proud Mary," which began a run of five consecutive Top Three singles for CCR. He wrote the song, later unforgettably covered by Ike and Tina Turner, after his Army discharge: "I was fooling with the chord changes and started singing about the river. I realized, 'Well, maybe if I make it about the boat.' "     

Appears on: Bayou Country (Fantasy)

 

155

Buddy Holly and the Crickets, ‘Rave On’

Writers: Sonny West, Bill Tilghman, Norman Petty
Producer: Petty
Released: April '58, Coral
10 weeks; No. 37

West recorded his own version of "Rave On" at the New Mexico studio where Holly laid down most of his hits. Petty wanted to give it to another band, but Holly said, "No way. I've got to have this song." 

Appears on: Buddy Holly: Greatest Hits (MCA)

RELATED:

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154

The Beatles, ‘A Hard Day’s Night’

Writers: John Lennon, Paul McCartney
Producer: George Martin
Released: July '64, Capitol
13 weeks; No. 1

The title comes from a Ringo Starr malapropism, the product of a marathon recording session. Lennon was fond of these Ringoisms and wrote the song overnight. Said Lennon, "The only reason [Paul] sang on it was because I couldn't reach the notes."

Appears on: A Hard Day's Night (Capitol)

RELATED:

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153

The Jimi Hendrix Experience, ‘Foxey Lady’

Writer: Hendrix
Producer: Chas Chandler
Released: Aug. '65, Reprise
4 weeks; No. 67

Heather Taylor, the future wife of the Who's Roger Daltrey, was said to have inspired this lip-smacking ode as Hendrix was gathering songs in London for his 1967 debut LP, Are You Experienced? Hendrix scrapes his pick down a guitar string, literally making it tremble with anticipation, before exploding into an indelibly dirty rift. "I'm comin' to getcha," he promises – and he did.

Appears on: Are You Experienced? (MCA)

RELATED:

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152

The Penguins, ‘Earth Angel’

Writers: Jesse Belvin, Curtis Williams
Producer: Dootsie Williams
Released: Dec. '54, Dootone
15 weeks; No. 8

Crudely recorded in a garage and released on a small label, "Earth Angel" turned out to be a pivotal record in the early development of rock & roll. The artless, unaffected vocals of the Penguins, four black high schoolers from L.A., defined the street-corner elegance of doo-wop. The Penguins' version also outsold a sanitized, big-label cover by schmaltzy white group the Crew-Cuts.

Appears on: Earth Angel (Ace)

151

The Byrds, ‘Eight Miles High’

Writers: Gene Clark, Roger McGuinn, David Crosby
Producer: Allen Stanton
Released: April '66, Columbia
9 weeks; No. 14

A rare collaboration between three Byrds, it was supposedly about an airplane flight. McGuinn's 12-string solo was inspired by John Coltrane's sax playing and Rod Argent's piano on the Zombies' "She's Not There." "Of course it was a drug song," Crosby said. "We were stoned when we wrote it. But it was also about the [plane] trip to London."

Appears on: Fifth Dimension (Legacy)

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