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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.


Justin Timberlake, ‘Cry Me a River’

Writers: Timbaland, Scott Storch, Timberlake
Producer: Timbaland
Released: Nov. '02, Jive
20 weeks; No. 3

This breakup aria marked the formation of the TimberlakeTimbaland team, a match made in pop heaven. The stunning video — in which Justin stalks an actress dressed to look like his ex Britney Spears — made clear the inspiration for "River." "It's a good-ass video," Timberlake told Rolling Stone. "I didn't want anyone to come off smelling like roses."

Appears on: Justified (Jive)


Jefferson Airplane, ‘White Rabbit’

Writer: Grace Slick
Producer: Rick Jarrard
Released: Sept. '67, RCA
10 weeks; No. 8

"White Rabbit" was a trippy rock & roll bolero written by Airplane vocalist Slick. "Our parents read us stories like Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz," Slick said. "They all have a place where children get drugs, and are able to fly or see an Emerald City or experience extraordinary animals and people… And our parents are suddenly saying, 'Why are you taking drugs?' Well, hello!"

Appears on: Surrealistic Pillow (RCA)


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Kelly Clarkson, ‘Since U Been Gone’

Writers: Dr. Luke, Max Martin
Producers: Dr. Luke, Martin
Released: Nov. '04, RCA
46 weeks; No. 2

Pop gurus Max Martin and Lukasz "Dr. Luke" Gottwald wrote this indignant track with Pink in mind, but Clarkson's A&R rep snatched it up for the first-ever American Idol. The result was a career-making hit that gave teen pop a feisty new template. "I went to see Foo Fighters when I was off in Texas," Clarkson said, "and the first thing Dave Grohl said to me was, 'I love that song!' "

Appears on: Breakaway (RCA)


Rick James, ‘Super Freak’

Writers: James, Alonzo Miller
Producer: James
Released: Aug. '81, Gordy
24 weeks; No. 16

James wasn't exactly modest about his ambitions. As he declared in 1981, "I wanna make Paul McCartney white-boy money!" He got it with the self-described "punk funk" of "Super Freak," from his breakthrough album, Street Songs. James enlisted the Temptations for background vocals. The song got a second life when MC Hammer jacked it for the 1990 megasmash "U Can't Touch This."

Appears on: Street Songs (Motown)


Beastie Boys, ‘Sabotage’

Writers: Beastie Boys
Producers: Beastie Boys, Mario Caldato Jr.
Released: May '94, Grand Royal
Did Not Chart

Adam "MCA" Yauch came up with the killer fuzz-bass riff at Manhattan's Tin Pan Alley studio, but it wasn't until a year later that the song was finished in L.A. With two weeks to go before Ill Communication was completed, Adam "Ad-Rock" Horovitz got all hot and bothered about paparazzi on the mike and came out of the song's breakdown with a scream for the ages.

Appears on: Ill Communication (Capitol)


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