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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.

344

Michael Jackson, ‘Beat It’

Writer: Jackson
Producer: Quincy Jones
Released: Dec. '82, Epic
25 weeks; No. 1 

"I wanted to write the type of rock song that I would go out and buy," said Jackson, "but also something totally different from the rock music I was hearing on Top 40 radio." The result was a throbbing dance single with a fingers-flying guitar solo provided by Eddie Van Halen. "I’m not gonna sit here and tell you what to play," Jones instructed Van Halen. "The reason you’re here is because of what you do play."

Appears on: Thriller (Epic)

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343

The Rolling Stones, ‘Wild Horses’

Writers: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards
Producer: Jimmy Miller
Released: April '71, Rolling Stones
8 weeks; No. 28

Richards wrote this acoustic ballad about leaving his wife, Anita, and young son Marlon as the Stones prepared for their first American tour in three years. Stones sidekick Ian Stewart refused to play the minor chords required, so Memphis musical maverick Jim Dickinson filled in on upright piano at the Muscle Shoals, Alabama, recording session. Jagger’s ex-wife Jerry Hall calls it her favorite Stones song.

Appears on: Sticky Fingers (Virgin)

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342

The Velvet Underground, ‘Sweet Jane’

Writer: Lou Reed
Producers: The Velvet Underground, Shel Kagan, Geoffrey Haslam
Released: Aug. '70, Cotillion
Non-single

After Reed quit the band, a wistful coda was chopped out of this song. "How could anyone be that stupid?" Reed asked RS in 1987. "If I could have stood it, I would have stayed with them and showed them what to do." For years, the only available version of the coda was on the 1969 live LP, but the full "Jane" appears on recent reissues.

Appears on: Loaded (Fully Loaded Edition) (Rhino)

341

Norman Greenbaum, ‘Spirit in the Sky’

Writer: Greenbaum
Producer: Erik Jacobsen
Released: Feb. '70, Reprise
15 weeks; No. 3

"I’m just some Jewish musician who really dug gospel music," Greenbaum said. "I decided there was a larger Jesus gospel market out there than a Jehovah one." The crunchy guitar sound came when a friend built a small fuzzbox right into the body of Greenbaum’s Fender Telecaster.

Appears on: Spirit in the Sky (Varese)

340

Bob Dylan, ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’

Writer: Dylan
Producer: Tom Wilson
Released: March '65, Columbia
8 weeks; No. 39

"It’s from Chuck Berry, a bit of 'Too Much Monkey Business' and some of the scat songs of the Forties," Dylan said. John Lennon once said of the track that it was so captivating it made him wonder how he could ever compete.

Appears on: Bringing It All Back Home (Sony)

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339

Bonnie Raitt, ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me’

Writers: Mike Reid, Allen Shamblin
Producers: Don Was, Raitt
Released: Nov. '91, Capitol
20 weeks; No. 18

Raitt was a Seventies blues prodigy who didn’t break through until 1989’s Nick of Time. Two years later came this clear eyed song about love gone cold. Co-author Reid was a defensive tackle for the Cincinnati Bengals before heading off to Nashville. "Of all the songs in my career, that one is the greatest gift," Raitt said. "I think it stands among the best songs ever written."

Appears on: Luck of the Draw (Capitol)

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338

Queen, ‘We Will Rock You’

Writers: Brian May, Mike Stone
Producers: Queen
Released: Oct. '77, Elektra
14 weeks; No. 52

In 1977, Sid Vicious wandered into the wrong recording studio and ran into Freddie Mercury sitting at his piano. "Still bringing ballet to the masses, are you?" snarked Sid. "Oh, yes, Mr. Ferocious, dear," Freddie replied. "We are doing our best." Queen soon one-upped the punks with this foot-stomping, conquering-army smash, the B side of "We Are the Champions."

Appears on: News of the World (Hollywood)

337

Earth, Wind and Fire, ‘Way of the World’

Writers: Maurice White, Verdine White, Charles Stepney
Producer: Maurice White
Released: March '75, Columbia
16 weeks; No. 12

"Way of the World" was the title song of a little-seen movie starring Harvey Keitel as an idealistic label exec and EWF as the band he wants to produce, rather than white-bread pop acts. The movie was rereleased as Shining Star in 1977, and it flopped again. The song, however, was a Top Five R&B hit in 1975.

Appears on: That’s the Way of the World (Columbia)

336

The Doors, ‘The End’

Writers: John Densmore, Robbie Krieger, Ray Manzarek, Jim Morrison
Producer: Paul Rothchild
Released: March '67, Elektra
Non-single

Morrison had worked on a student production of Oedipus Rex at Florida State. But his exploration of its sexual taboos took on bold new life in the 11 minutes of "The End," which evolved during the Doors' live shows at L.A.’s Whisky-A-Go-Go. "Every time I hear that song, it means something else to me," Morrison said in 1969. "It could be goodbye to a kind of childhood."

Appears on: The Doors (Elektra)

335

Jerry Butler and The Impressions, ‘For Your Precious Love’

Writers: Arthur Brooks, Butler
Producer: Calvin Carter
Released: June '58, Falcon
12 weeks; No. 11

The spiritual tenor of the vocals came from the Impressions' church roots; Butler and Curtis Mayfield had sung together in the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers. The lyrics were drawn verbatim from a poem Butler had written in high school. The single’s credit — "Jerry Butler and the Impressions" — caused friction in the group, which Butler soon left.

Appears on: Greatest Hits (Curb)

334

James Brown, ‘Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine’

Writers: Brown, Bobby Byrd,Ron Lenhoff
Producer: Brown
Released: July '70, King
9 weeks; No. 15

Engineer Lenhoff got co-writing credit mostly because he got out of bed and drove five hours to Nashville to record this duet with former Famous Flame Byrd, which Brown wanted cut pronto.

Appears on: 50th Anniversary Collection (UTV/Polydor)

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333

The Young Rascals, ‘Good Lovin”

Writers: Rudy Clark, Arthur Resnick
Producers: Tom Dowd, Arif Mardin
Released: March '66, Atlantic
14 weeks; No. 1 

A soulful New York bar band, the Rascals tried to replicate their jacked-up live rendition of the Olympics' "Good Lovin'" in the studio. "We weren’t too pleased with our performance," singer Felix Cavaliere admitted. "It was a shock to us when it went to the top of the charts."

Appears on: The Very Best of the Rascals (Rhino)

332

The Supremes, ‘Baby Love’

Writers: Brian Holland,Lamont Dozier, Eddie Holland
Producers: Brian Holland, Dozier
Released: Sept. '64, Motown
13 weeks; No. 1

Diana Ross wasn’t the strongest vocalist in the Supremes, but as the Motown production team discovered, when she sang in a lower register, her voice worked its sultry magic. When this song was finished, Berry Gordy thought it wasn’t catchy enough and sent the group back into the studio. The result: the smoky "Oooooh" right at the start.

Appears on: The Ultimate Collection (Motown)

331

Patti Smith Group, ‘Dancing Barefoot’

Writers: Smith, Ivan Kral
Producer: Todd Rundgren
Released: May '79, Arista
Did not chart

Smith started as a poet and Rolling Stone writer before finding fame as a New York punk priestess. "Dancing Barefoot" is her mystical ode to sexual rapture. "I think sex is one of the five highest sensations one can experience," she said in 1978. "A very high orgasm is a way of communion with our creator." She added that she masturbated to her own album-cover photo, as well as to the Bible.

Appears on: Wave (Arista)

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330

Public Enemy, ‘Fight the Power’

Writers: Chuck D, Eric Sadler, Hank Shocklee, Keith Shocklee
Producers: Sadler, Hank Shocklee
Released: June '89, Def Jam
Did not chart

The opening credits of Spike Lee’s 1989 Do the Right Thing feature a masterpiece from the Bomb Squad production team: a dissonant call to revolution, with a title borrowed from an Isley Brothers funk hit and a groove lifted from the 1972 B side "Hot Pants Road" by the J.B.’s. Public Enemy direct their rage at Elvis Presley, John Wayne and, er, Bobby McFerrin.

Appears on: Fear of a Black Planet (Def Jam)

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329

Neil Young, ‘Cortez the Killer’

Writer: Young
Producers: Young, David Briggs
Released: Nov. '75, Reprise
Non-single

"It’s weird," Young mused to Rolling Stone in 1975. "I’ve got all these songs about Peru, the Aztecs and the Incas. Time travel stuff." Over a slow, rambling Crazy Horse guitar jam, he mourns the Aztec civilization destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors. The song ends after seven and a half minutes, onlybecause a circuit blew on the recording console. The band went on for another verse.

Appears on: Zuma (Reprise)

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328

Led Zeppelin, ‘Heartbreaker’

Writers: Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Bonham, John Paul Jones
Producer: Page
Released: Oct. '69, Atlantic
Non-single

"Heartbreaker," like much of Led Zeppelin II, was recorded hit-and-run style on Zep’s 1969 American tour. The awesome swagger captures the debauched mood of the band’s wild early days in L.A. "Nineteen years old and never been kissed," Plant recalled in 1975. "I remember it well. It’s been a long time. Nowadays we’re more into staying in our room and reading Nietzsche."

Appears on: Led Zeppelin II (Atlantic)

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327

Franz Ferdinand, ‘Take Me Out’

Writers: Alex Kapranos, Nick McCarthy
Producer: Tore Johansson
Released: Feb. '04, Domino
19 weeks; No. 66

"Take Me Out" put Franz Ferdinand at the head of a danceable rockwave. "Clubs [play] a mix of rock and electronic music," singer Kapranos said. "It makes you think that there’s no difference."

Appears on: Franz Ferdinand (Domino)

326

Alice Cooper, ‘School’s Out’

Writers: Michael Bruce, Glen Buxton, Cooper, Dennis Dunway, Neal Smith
Producer: Bob Ezrin
Released: May '72, Warner Bros.
13 weeks; No. 7

"The few minutes waiting for that final school bell to ring are so intense that when it happens, it’s almost orgasmic," said Cooper. Inspiredby a Forties Dead End Kids film series, the tune will live for as long as kids really, really hate school.

Appears on: School’s Out (Warner Bros.)

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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322

The Animals, ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’

Writers: Bennie Benjamin, Sol Marcus,Gloria Caldwell
Producer: Mickie Most
Released: Jan. '65, MGM
10 weeks; No. 15

The Animals’ reworking of this song radically departed from Nina Simone’s orchestrated down-tempo original version, recorded the year before. "It was never considered pop material, but it somehow got passed on to us and we fell in love with it," recalled Eric Burdon. Burdon would sometimes perform a slow, Simone-like rendition live.

Appears on: Retrospective (ABKCO)

321

Pink Floyd, ‘Comfortably Numb’

Writers: David Gilmour, Roger Waters
Producer: Bob Ezrin
Released: Dec. '79, Columbia
Did not chart

Roger Waters based one of the saddest drug songs ever written on a sleazy Philadelphia doctor who injected him with tranquilizers before a gig when he was suffering from hepatitis. "That was the longest two hours of my life," Waters said. "Trying to do a show when you can hardly lift your arm." Arguably the greatest cover of "Numb": Van Morrison’s 1990 version from The Wall: Live in Berlin concert.

Appears on: The Wall (Capitol)

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320

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, ‘I Put a Spell on You’

Writers: Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Herb Slotkin
Producer: Arnold Maxin
Released: Sept. '56, OKeh
Did not chart

Former boxer Jalacy J. Hawkins got loaded on muscatel before shrieking out the hoodoo of "Spell on You," and it took a healthy swig of J&B for him to re-create his studio performance onstage, where he climbed outof a coffin. The prop was Alan Freed’s brainstorm; when Hawkins resisted, Freed peeled off three $100 bills. "I said, 'Show me the coffin,'" the singer quipped.

Appears on: Voodoo Jive (Rhino)

319

Roy Orbison, ‘In Dreams’

Writers: Joe Melson, Orbison
Producer: Fred Foster
Released: Feb. '63, Monument
13 weeks; No. 7

Orbison claimed the lyrics came to him in a dream; he wrote the music once he woke up. It was a Top 10 hit in the U.S. but even bigger in England. The track made him so popular that Orbison toured the U.K. with an up and-coming opening act called the Beatles. Roy’s reaction: "I’ve never heard of them." Next, he’d tour Australia with the Rolling Stones.

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

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318

The Everly Brothers, ‘Wake Up Little Susie’

Writers: Felice Bryant, Boudleaux Bryant
Producer: Archie Bleyer
Released: Sept. '57, Cadence
26 weeks; No. 1

Though it sounds quaint today, "Wake Up Little Susie," the tale of a teen couple who fall asleep at a drive-in, stirred up controversy in 1957: It was banned in Boston but became the Everlys’ first Number One. In 2000, when candidate George W. Bush was asked by Oprah Winfrey what his favorite song was, he said, "'Wake Up Little Susie,' by Buddy Holly."

Appears on: The Best of the Everly Brothers (Rhino)

317

Black Sabbath, ‘Iron Man’

Writers: Black Sabbath
Producer: Roger Bain
Released: Feb. '71, Warner
10 weeks; No. 52

When an accident left guitarist Tony Iommi without the tips of two fingers, it seemed like the end of the road for Black Sabbath. But, inspired by the great, handicapped guitarist Django Reinhardt, Iommi fashioned thimbles out of plastic, and developed a heavy playing style that would define metal forever.

Appears on: Paranoid (Warner Bros.)

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315

Jackie Wilson, ‘Lonely Teardrops’

Writers: Berry Gordy, Gwen Gordy, Tyran Carlo
Producer: Dick Jacobs
Released: Nov. '58, Brunswick
21 weeks; No. 7 

One of the first hits written by Motown founder Gordy, "Lonely Teardrops" set Wilson’s pleading vocals over Latin rhythms. At a New Jersey casino in September 1975, Wilson collapsed from a heart attack on stage in the middle of singing "Lonely Teardrops" — right at the line "My heart is crying." He sank into a coma and died in 1984.

Appears on: The Greatest Hits of Jackie Wilson (Brunswick)

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314

Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers, ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love’

Writers: Lymon, Morris Levy
Producer: George Goldner
Released: Jan. '56, Gee
21 weeks; No. 6

Frankie Lymon was one of rock & roll’s first teen prodigies — and one of its earliest tragedies. Lymon wrote and sang this hit as a 13-year-old Harlem kid. But the writing credit — and money — went to his label boss, Levy, an associate of the Genovese family. Lymon died a penniless heroin addict in 1968 at the age of 25.

Appears on: The Best of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers (Rhino)

313

The Jam, ‘That’s Entertainment’

Writer: Paul Weller
Producers: Vic Coppersmith-Heaven, the Jam
Released: Nov. '80, Polydor
Non-single in the U.S.

The Jam had a long run of U.K. hits with their mod guitar flash – but they were too defiantly British for U.S. success. The lads hit hardest with this acoustic lament, with Weller brooding over the heartaches of everyday working-class life. His songwriting technique? "Coming home pissed from the pub and writing 'That’s Entertainment' in 10 minutes."

Appears on: Sound Affects (Polygram)

312

James Brown, ‘Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud’

Writers: Brown, Pee Wee Ellis
Producer: Brown
Released: Sept. '68, King
11 weeks; No. 10

In 1968, Brown traded his processed 'do for an Afro and started writing songs like this anthem. The real stars are Clyde Stubblefield on drums and the L.A. kids — mostly white and Asian-American — yelling, "I’mblack and I’m proud."

Appears on: 50th Anniversary Collection (UTV/Polydor)

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311

The Beatles, ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’

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

As fictional crooner Billy Shears, Ringo Starr delivers his most charming vocals on this tune. "Ringo’s got a great sentimental thing," McCartney said. "I suppose that’s why we write these sorts of songs for him."

Appears on: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Apple/Capitol)

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310

The Rolling Stones, ‘Ruby Tuesday’

Writers: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards
Producer: Andrew Loog Oldham
Released: Jan. '67, London
12 weeks; No. 1

At a session for Between the Buttons in November 1966, Richards drew this lyrical sketch of Linda Keith, his first serious girlfriend, and turned it into an uncharacteristically wistful ballad. Brian Jones played the recorder on the track, giving the song a madrigal feel. The countermelody was played by Bill Wyman, who fingered the strings on a cello while Richards bowed them.

Appears on: Between the Buttons (ABKCO)

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309

Willie Nelson, ‘Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain’

Writer: Fred Rose
Producer: Nelson
Released: July '75, Columbia
18 weeks; No. 21

Nelson had gotten his start writing hits like "Crazy" for Patsy Cline, but his own breakthrough was a cover of an old country standard written by Rose in 1945 and originally recorded by Roy Acuff. Delivered with Nelson’s jazz-singer phrasing, it’s the beating heart of Red Headed Stranger, his 1975 concept album about love and death in the Old West.

Appears on: Red Headed Stranger (Sony)

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308

Rod Stewart, ‘Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?’

Writers: Stewart, Carmine Appice
Producer: Tom Dowd
Released: Dec. '78, Warner Bros.
21 weeks; No. 1

In that rock-disco moment that also yielded the Stones' "Miss You," Stewart's entry was a tale of lust at first sight with an irresistible hook. But that hook actually wasn’t by Stewart and Appice. It came from "Taj Mahal," by the Brazilian songwriter Jorge Ben. After Ben won a plagiarism lawsuit, royalties for the song went to UNICEF.

Appears on: Blondes Have More Fun (Warner Bros.)

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307

Daft Punk, ‘One More Time’

Writers: Thomas Bangalter, Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, Anthony Moore
Producer: Daft Punk
Released: Nov. '00, Virgin
16 weeks; No. 61

Some critics panned the use of a vocoder on this dance-floor epiphany, a tribute to '70s disco. But "One More Time" kicked off the Auto-Tune revolution that would dominate pop in the 2000s. "The healthy thing is that people either loved it or hated it,"said Daft Punk’s Bangalter. "The worst thing is when you make art and people are not moved."

Appears on: Discovery (Virgin)

306

Madonna, ‘Like A Prayer’

Writers: Madonna, Patrick Leonard
Producers: Madonna, Leonard
Released: March '89, Sire
16 weeks; No. 1

In a voice full of Catholic angst and disco thunder, Madonna turned 30 and closed the book on her first marriage. "I didn’t have the censors on me in terms of emotions or music," Madonna said. "I did take a lot more chances with this one, but obviously success gives you the confidence to do those things." The obligatory controversial video featured burning crosses, black lingerie and masturbation in church.

Appears on: Like a Prayer (Warner Bros.)

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305

Blondie, ‘One Way or Another’

Writers: Deborah Harry, Nigel Harrison
Producer: Mike Chapman
Released: Sept. '78, Chrysalis
14 weeks; No. 24

Blondie were already stars in Europe, but they didn’t blow up here until their hit-packed third disc. "One Way" was Harry’s ode to obsessive lust, mixing the girl-group sound with the attack of the Ramones.

Appears on:  Parallel Lines (Capitol)

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304

Prince, ‘Sign ‘O’ The Times’

Writer: Prince
Producer: Prince
Released: March '87, Paisley Park
14 weeks; No. 3

When Prince broke with his longtime group the Revolution, he aborted an ambitious, 18-song project called Dream Factory. One of the songs from those sessions served as the title track for Sign 'O' the Times. A stark socio-political talking blues written by Prince using the pre-programmed sounds on his synth, it brought Sly Stone-like realism to Eighties pop radio.

Appears on: Sign 'O' the Times (Warner Bros.)

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303

Neil Young, ‘Heart of Gold’

Writer: Young
Producers: Elliot Mazer, Young
Released: Feb '72, Reprise
14 weeks; No. 1

Before he started Harvest, in 1971, Young suffered a slipped disc and spent two years in and out of hospitals: "I couldn’t physically play an electric guitar," he told Rolling Stone. So he cut a collection of mellow tracks while he was in Nashville to appearon Johnny Cash’s variety show, with a crew of local session players. The yearning "Heart of Gold" is Young’s only Number One hit.

Appears on: Harvest (Warner Bros.)

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302

Bob Marley and the Wailers, ‘Get Up, Stand Up’

Writers: Bob Marley, Peter Tosh
Producer: Chris Blackwell
Released: Nov. '75, Island
Did not chart

The song’s chorus ("Stand up for your right . . ./Don’t give up the fight") sounds like a political anthem, which is how Amnesty International still employs it at rallies. But the lyrics are actually rooted in Rastafarian theology, about not being pacified by promises of the afterlife. The Wailers, of course, were far from placated, especially Tosh, who sings the fire-breathing final verse.

Appears on: Legend (Island)

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301

The Rolling Stones, ‘Street Fighting Man’

Writers: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards
Producer: Jimmy Miller
Released: Aug. '68, London
6 weeks; No. 48

The Stones' most political song came about after Jagger went to a March 1968 anti-war rally at London's U.S. embassy, with mounted police wading into a crowd of 25,000. The distorted drone was built on acoustic guitars pumped through a mono cassette recorder.

Appears on: Beggars Banquet (ABKCO)

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