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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.

236

M.I.A., ‘Paper Planes’

Writers: M.I.A., Diplo
Producers:
Diplo, Switch
Released:
August '07, Interscope
21 weeks; No. 4

Maya Arulpragasam cheerfully threatens to steal your money, over a sample of the Clash's "Straight to Hell." The unlikely hit took off thanks to its inclusion in the Pineapple Express trailer. "The other songs on the chart were Katy Perry and the Jonas Brothers," says M.I.A. "Then you saw 'Paper Planes' and it's cool because there's hope: 'Thank God the future's here.'"

Appears on: Kala (Interscope)

235

The Animals, ‘We Gotta Get Out of This Place’

Writers: Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil
Producer:
Mickie Most
Released:
Aug. ’65, MGM
11 weeks; No. 13

Born in the Brill Building song factory and originally intended for the Righteous Brothers, it got a harsh white-blues treatment from the Animals. As singer Eric Burdon put it, “Whatever suited our attitude, we just bent to our own shape.” Its desperate intensity made the song a huge hit with U.S. soldiers in Vietnam and, a generation later, coalition forces in Iraq.

Appears on: Retrospective (ABKCO)

234

Roy Orbison, ‘Only the Lonely’

Writers: Joe Melson, Orbison
Producer:
Fred Foster
Released:
May '60, Monument
21 weeks; No. 2

Orbison intended to offer this song to either Elvis Presley (also a Sun Records alumnus) or the Everly Brothers, who had cut the Orbison song "Claudette." But Orbison's falsetto made the loneliness real. "For a baritone to sing as high as I do," he said, "is ridiculous."

Appears on: For the Lonely: 18 Greatest Hits (Rhino)

RELATED:

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100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Roy Orbison

233

Marvin Gaye, ‘Sexual Healing’

Writers: Gaye, Odell Brown, David Ritz
Producer:
Gaye
Released:
Oct. '82, Columbia
21 weeks; No. 3

In April 1982 Gaye was living in exile in Brussels and suffering writer's block. "I suggested that Marvin needed sexual healing," Ritz, his biographer, later wrote. Gaye put the idea to a reggae-style beat by sideman Brown. The result: Gaye's last Top Five hit.

Appears on: Midnight Love (Columbia)

RELATED:

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232

Bob Dylan, ‘Just Like a Woman’

Writer: Dylan
Producer:
Bob Johnston
Released:
May '66, Columbia
6 weeks; No. 33

Dylan wrote this on Thanksgiving Day 1965 – three days after marrying Sara Lowndes – while on tour in Kansas City. His nonstop creative rush was taking a big toll. "I don't consider myself outside of anything," he said at the time. "I just consider myself not around." He turned his torment into this song, allegedly inspired by his recently ended affair with doomed Andy Warhol starlet Edie Sedgwick.

Appears on: Blonde on Blonde (Columbia)

RELATED:

100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Bob Dylan

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231

Van Morrison, ‘Moondance’

Writer: Morrison
Producer: Morrison
Released: Feb. '70, Warner Bros.
4 weeks; No. 92

The title song of Morrison's first self-produced album started "as a saxophone solo," he said. "I used to play this sax number over and over, anytime I picked up my horn." He played the sax solo on this recording, which combined the bucolic charm of his life in Woodstock, New York ("the cover of October skies"), with his love of the sophisticated jazz and R&B of Mose Allison and Ray Charles.

Appears on: Moondance (Warner Bros.)

RELATED:

100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Van Morrison

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230

Muddy Waters, ‘Mannish Boy’

Writers: McKinley Morganfield, Mel London, Ellas McDaniel
Producers:
Leonard and Phil Chess, Willie Dixon
Released:
May '55, Chess
Did not chart

After Waters heard Bo Diddley audition "I'm a Man" for Chess, he replied with "Mannish Boy." (Diddley got a credit as McDaniel, his real name.) Both songs were issued in 1955 and shot into the R&B Top 10. "When I heard him, I realized the connection between all the music I heard," Keith Richards said of Waters. "He was like the code book."

Appears on: The Anthology (MCA/Chess)

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229

Chic, ‘Good Times’

Writers: Nile Rodgers, Bernard Edwards
Producers:
Rodgers, Edwards
Released:
June '79, Atlantic
19 weeks; No. 1

The tone was half-ironic when Chic released "Good Times," a hedonistic roller-disco tune, during the Seventies recession. The other half was pure joy, and Edwards' bass line – bouncing on one note, then climbing – proved too snappy for just one song. Queen borrowed it for "Another One Bites the Dust"; in the South Bronx, the Sugarhill Gang put it under "Rapper's Delight."

Appears on: Risqué (Atlantic)

228

The Clash, ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’

Writers: The Clash
Producer:
Glyn Johns
Released:
May '82, Epic
13 weeks; No. 45

"My main influences," Mick Jones said, "are Mott the Hoople, the Kinks and the Stones" – which explains this choppy riff. Jones yells "Split!" because Joe Strummer snuck up behind him while he was recording his vocals. The chorus hints at the band's end: At the time, "none of us were really talking to each other," said Paul Simonon. The original four were soon no more.

Appears on: Combat Rock (Sony)

227

James Taylor, ‘Fire and Rain’

Writer: Taylor
Producer:
Peter Asher
Released:
Feb. '70, Warner Bros.
16 weeks; No. 3

Taylor wrote the three verses of this song in three phases following the breakup of his band the Flying Machine. The first came in a London flat while he was signed to the Apple label, the second in a New York hospital as he kicked heroin and the third during a stay in a Massachusetts psychiatric facility. "It's like three samplings of what I went through," he said.

Appears on: Sweet Baby James (Warner Bros.)

RELATED:

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226

Muddy Waters, ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’

Writer: Willie Dixon
Producers:
Leonard and Phil Chess, Dixon
Released:
Jan. '54, Chess
Did not chart

Waters tested this out at the Chicago blues club Zanzibar. Dixon gave him some advice: "Well, just get a little rhythm pattern," he said. "Do the same thing over again, y'know." Waters cut it a couple of weeks later, with Dixon on bass.

Appears on: The Anthology (Chess/MCA)

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225

Sly and the Family Stone, ‘Dance to the Music’

Writer: Sylvester Stewart (Sly Stone)
Producer:
Stone
Released:
Jan. '68, Epic
15 weeks; No. 8

Saxman Jerry Martini claims Stone did this song just to satisfy CBS executives' desire for a hit. "He hated it," Martini said. "It was so unhip to us. The beats were glorified Motown beats." But "Dance" fit Stone's vision for the band: "I wanted everyone to get a chance to sweat."

Appears on: Dance to the Music (Sony)

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100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Sly and the Family Stone

224

Roy Orbison, ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’

Writers: Orbison, Billy Dees
Producer:
Wesley Rose
Released:
Aug. '64, Monument
15 weeks; No. 1

Orbison told Dees to "get started writing by playing anything that comes to mind….My wife came in and wanted to go to town to get something." Orbison asked if she needed money. Dees then cracked, "Pretty woman never needs any money." The rest was easy.

Appears on: For the Lonely: 18 Greatest Hits (Rhino)

RELATED:

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223

Lou Reed, ‘Walk on the Wild Side’

Writer: Reed
Producers:
David Bowie, Mick Ronson, Reed
Released:
Dec. '72, RCA
14 weeks; No. 16

Reed was asked to write songs for a musical based on the novel A Walk on the Wild Side. The show fizzled, but Reed kept the title. "I thought it would be fun to introduce people you see at parties but don&apos