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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.

9

Nirvana, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’

*

Writer: Kurt Cobain
Producer: Butch Vig
Released: Sept. '91, DGC
20 weeks; No. 6

Producer Butch Vig first heard "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in early 1991, on a boombox cassette recorded by bassist Krist Novoselic, drummer Dave Grohl and singer-guitarist-songwriter Kurt Cobain in a barn in Tacoma, Washington. The fidelity was abysmal. Vig — about to work with Nirvana on their major-label debut, Nevermind — could not tell that the song would soon make underground Seattle rock the new mainstream and catapult Cobain, a troubled young man with strict indie-culture ethics, into megacelebrity. "I could sort of hear the 'Hello, hello' part and the chords," Vig said years later. "But it was so indecipherable that I had no idea what to expect."

Nor did anyone else. A shock wave of big-amp purity, "Teen Spirit" wiped the lingering jive of the Eighties off the pop map overnight. "The song was a call to consciousness," Novoselic said in 2000 — Cobain's avenging grenade against the corporate invasion of youth culture, spiked with the demanding venom of the sneering chorus: "Here we are now/Entertain us." The phrase was something Cobain used to say at parties — "to break the ice," he said. "That could have been him watching TV," said Novoselic, "aghast at popular culture."

"Teen Spirit," named after a brand of deodorant for girls, was Cobain's attempt to "write the ultimate pop song," he said, using the soft-loud dynamic of his favorite band, the Pixies. The insidious hooks also showed his admiration for John Lennon. Cobain "had that dichotomy of punk rage and alienation," Vig said, "but also this vulnerable pop sensibility. In 'Teen Spirit,' a lot of that vulnerability is in the tone of his voice."

Sadly, by the time of Nirvana's last U.S. tour, in late '93, Cobain was tortured by the obligation to play "Teen Spirit" every night. "There are many other songs that I have written that are as good, if not better," he claimed. He finally stopped playing "Teen Spirit" for good — taking his own life on April 5th, 1994.

Appears on: Nevermind (DGC) 

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8

The Beatles, ‘Hey Jude’

Writers: John Lennon, Paul McCartney
Producer: George Martin
Released: Aug. '68, Apple
19 weeks; No. 1

The Beatles' biggest U.S. single — nine weeks at Number One — was also their longest, at seven minutes and 11 seconds. During the recording sessions, producer George Martin objected to the length, claiming DJs would not play the song. "They will if it's us," John Lennon shot back. Paul McCartney wrote "Hey Jude" in June 1968, singing to himself on his way to visit Lennon's soon-to-be-ex-wife, Cynthia, and their son, Julian. The opening lines were, McCartney once said, "a hopeful message for Julian: 'Come on, man, your parents got divorced. I know you're not happy, but you'll be OK.'" McCartney changed "Jules" to "Jude" — a name inspired by Jud from the musical Oklahoma! — and presented a demo tape to Lennon, who loved the song. He also thought McCartney was singing to him, about his relationship with Yoko Ono and the strains on the Lennon-McCartney partnership. But his self-centered reading underscored the universal comfort in McCartney's lyrics and the song's warm, rolling charm, fortified in the fade-out by a 36-piece orchestra whose members (with one grumpy exception) also clapped and sang along — for double their usual fee.

Appears on: 1 (Capitol/Apple) 

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7

Chuck Berry, ‘Johnny B. Goode’

Writer: Chuck Berry
Producers: Leonard and Phil Chess
Released: April '58, Chess
15 weeks; No. 8

"Johnny B. Goode" was the first rock & roll hit about rock & roll stardom. It is still the greatest rock & roll song about the democracy of fame in pop music. And "Johnny B. Goode" is based in fact. The title character is Chuck Berry — "more or less," as he told Rolling Stone in 1972. "The original words [were], of course, 'That little colored boy could play.' I changed it to 'country boy' — or else it wouldn't get on the radio." Berry took other narrative liberties. Johnny came from "deep down in Louisiana, close to New Orleans," rather than Berry's St. Louis. And Johnny "never ever learned to read or write so well," while Berry graduated from beauty school with a degree in hairdressing and cosmetology.

But the essence of Berry's tale — a guitar player with nothing to his name but chops goes to the big city and gets his name in lights — is autobiographical. In 1955, Berry was working as a beautician in St. Louis when he met Chess Records' biggest star, Muddy Waters, who sent him to the label's co-founder Leonard Chess. By 1958, Berry was rock & roll's most consistent hitmaker after Elvis Presley. Unlike Presley, Berry wrote his own classics. "I just wish I could express my feelings the way Chuck Berry does,"' Presley once confessed.

"Johnny B. Goode" is the supreme example of Berry's poetry in motion. The rhythm section rolls with freight-train momentum, while Berry's stabbing, single-note lick in the chorus sounds, as he put it, "like a-ringin' a bell" — a perfect description of how rock & roll guitar can make you feel on top of the world.

Appears on: The Anthology (Chess)

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6

The Beach Boys, ‘Good Vibrations’

Writers: Brian Wilson, Mike Love
Producer: Wilson
Released: Oct. '66, Capitol
14 weeks; No. 1

"It scared me, the word 'vi-brations,'" Brian Wilson once said, remembering how, when he was a boy, his mother, Audree, tried to explain why dogs barked at some people and not others. "A dog would pick up vibrations from these people that you can't see but you can feel. And the same thing happened with people." "Good Vibrations" harnessed that energy and turned it into eternal sunshine. "This is a very spiritual song," Wilson said after its release, "and I want it to give off good vibrations."

Wilson, then 24, also had another goal in mind: "I said, 'This is going to be better than "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'.'"

Wilson was still working on his long-playing magnum opus, Pet Sounds, when he started "Good Vibrations" late on the night of February 17th, 1966, at Gold Star Recorders in Los Angeles. During the next seven months, in four studios, at a cost of more than $50,000 (at that point the greatest sum ever spent on a single), Wilson built "Good Vibrations" in sections, coloring the mood swings with locomotive cello, saloon piano and the spectral wail of a theremin. "We didn't think about doing it in pieces at first," Wilson says now, "but after the first few bars in the first verse, we realized that this was going to be a different kind of record." Very different. Wilson — free to experiment while the other Beach Boys were on tour — could not stop wrestling with combinations of instruments and rhythmic approaches. One discarded version of the song had an R&B backbeat.

"Good Vibrations" became the Beach Boys' third Number One hit, but it was a short window of glory — for the Beach Boys commercially, for Wilson creatively and emotionally. The song was intended to appear on the group's Smile album, but Wilson — suffering from depression and battling the other Beach Boys over the group's direction — abandoned Smile in May 1967, eventually completing the record, and performing it on tour, in 2004. "'Good Vibrations' now is the best it's ever been," Wilson said that year. "It went to Number One in 1966, and now we get standing ovations every time we play it live. It's incredible to me."

Appears on: Smiley Smile/Wild Honey (Capitol) 

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5

Aretha Franklin, ‘Respect’

Writer: Otis Redding
Producer: Jerry Wexler
Released: April '67, Atlantic
12 weeks; No. 1

Otis Redding wrote "Respect" and recorded it first, for the Volt label in 1965. But Aretha Franklin took possession of the song for all time with her definitive cover, made at Atlantic's New York studio on Valentine's Day 1967. "Respect" was her first Number One hit and the single that established her as the Queen of Soul. In Redding's reading, a brawny march, he called for equal favor with volcanic force. Franklin wasn't asking for anything. She sang from higher ground: a woman calling an end to the exhaustion and sacrifice of a raw deal with scorching sexual authority. In short, if you want some, you will earn it.

"For Otis, respect had the traditional connotation, the more abstract meaning of esteem," Franklin's producer, Jerry Wexler, said in his autobiography, Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music. "The fervor in Aretha's voice demanded that respect; and more respect also involved sexual attention of the highest order. What else would 'Sock it to me' mean?"

He was referring to the knockout sound of Franklin's backup singers — her sisters Carolyn and Erma — chanting "Sock it to me" at high speed, which Aretha and Carolyn cooked up for the session. The late Tom Dowd, who engineered the date, credited Carolyn with the saucy breakdown in which Aretha spelled out the title: "I fell off my chair when I heard that!" And since Redding's version had no bridge, Wexler had the band — the legendary studio crew from Muscle Shoals, Alabama — play the chord changes from Sam and Dave's "When Something Is Wrong With My Baby" under King Curtis' tenor-sax solo.

There is no mistaking the passion inside the discipline of Franklin's delivery; she was surely drawing on her own tumultuous marriage at the time for inspiration. "If she didn't live it," Wexler said, "she couldn't give it." But, he added, "Aretha would never play the part of the scorned woman….Her middle name was Respect."

Appears on: I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (Atlantic)

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4

Marvin Gaye, ‘What’s Going On’

Writers: Gaye, Renaldo Benson, Al Cleveland
Producer: Gaye 
Released: Feb. '71, Tamla
13 weeks; No. 2

"What's Going On" is an exquisite plea for peace on Earth, sung by a man at the height of crisis. In 1970, Marvin Gaye was Motown's top male vocal star, yet he was frustrated by the assembly-line role he played on his own hits. Devastated by the loss of duet partner Tammi Terrell, who died that March after a three-year battle with a brain tumor, Gaye was also trapped in a turbulent marriage to Anna Gordy, Motown boss Berry Gordy's sister. Gaye was tormented, too, by his relationship with his puritanical father, Marvin Sr. "If I was arguing for peace," Gaye told biographer David Ritz, "I knew I'd have to find peace in my heart."

Not long after Terrell's passing, Renaldo Benson of the Four Tops presented Gaye with a song he had written with Motown staffer Al Cleveland. But Gaye made the song his own, overseeing the arrangement and investing the topical references to war and racial strife with private anguish. Motown session crew the Funk Brothers cut the stunning, jazz-inflected rhythm track (Gaye joined in with cardboard-box percussion). Then Gaye invoked his own family in moving prayer: singing to his younger brother Frankie, a Vietnam veteran ("Brother, brother, brother/There's far too many of you dying"), and appealing for calm closer to home ("Father, father, father/We don't need to escalate").

Initially rejected as uncommercial, "What's Going On" (with background vocals by two players from the Detroit Lions) was Gaye's finest studio achievement, a timeless gift of healing. But for Gaye, the peace he craved never came: On April 1st, 1984, he died in a family dispute — shot by his father.

Appears on: What's Going On (Tamla)

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