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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.

30

Johnny Cash, ‘I Walk the Line’

Writer: Cash
Producer: Sam Phillips
Released: Aug. '56, Sun
22 weeks; No. 17 

Cash began work on this track while he was in Germany with the Air Force, years before he would ever enter a studio. He returned to it after he hit with "Folsom Prison Blues," only to find that the original tape had gotten mangled. But Cash liked the strange sound and added a click-clack rhythm by winding a piece of wax paper through his guitar strings. Phillips then had him speed up the song, originally a ballad, to a driving rumble. "It was different than anything else you had ever heard," Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone. "A voice from the middle of the Earth."

Appears on: The Complete Original Sun Singles (Varese Sarabande)

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29

The Beatles, ‘Help!’

Writers: John Lennon, Paul McCartney
Producer: George Martin
Released: July '65, Capitol
13 weeks; No. 1 

"Most people think it's just a fast rock & roll song," Lennon said. "Subconsciously, I was crying out for help. I didn't realize it at the time; I just wrote the song because I was commissioned to write it for the movie." Overwhelmed by Beatlemania, Lennon was eating "like a pig," drinking too much and "smoking marijuana for breakfast" — only 24 years old, he was already expressing nostalgia for his lost youth. "I don't like the recording that much," Lennon would later tell Rolling Stone. "We did it too fast, to try and be commercial."

Appears on: Help! (Capitol) 

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28

The Beatles, ‘A Day in the Life’

Writers: John Lennon, Paul McCartney
Producer: George Martin
Released: June '67, Capitol
Non-single 

"A Day in the Life" was one of the last true Lennon-McCartney collaborations: Lennon wrote the opening and closing sections, and McCartney contributed the "Woke up/Fell out of bed" middle. For the climax, they hired 40 musicians, dressed them in tuxedos and funny hats, and told them they had 15 bars to ascend from the lowest note on their instruments to the highest. "Listen to those trumpets — they're freaking out," McCartney said. The final piano chord concluded Sgt. Pepper and made rock's possibilities seem infinite.

Appears on: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Capitol)

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