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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.

182

OutKast, ‘Hey Ya!’

Writer: André 3000
Producer: André 3000
Released: Sept. '03, LaFace
32 weeks; No. 1

Not a likely recipe for a hit: a rock song with a bizarre 11/4 time signature by half of a hip-hop duo. Dré played almost all the instruments on this irresistible party jam — he said that its guitar chords, the first he ever learned, were inspired by "the Ramones, the Buzzcocks, the Smiths." Fun fact: The "ladies" who cheer halfway in are one lone woman, engineer Rabeka Tuinei.

Appears on: Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (LaFace/Arista)

181

Joy Division, ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’

Writers: Ian Curtis, Peter Hook, Stephen Morris, Bernard Sumner
Producers: Martin Hannett
Released: April '80, Enigma
Did not chart

Singer Ian Curtis did not live to see this Manchester, England, band's best single become a hit. He committed suicide in May 1980, two days before a scheduled American tour. "Ian's influence seemed to be madness and insanity," said guitarist Bernard Sumner. After Curtis' death, Joy Division carried on under the name New Order.

Appears on: Substance 1977-1980 (Qwest)

180

Big Star, ‘September Gurls’

Writer: Alex Chilton
Producers: Big Star
Released: May '74, Ardent
Did not chart

Big Star were totally unfashionable in their day – early-Seventies Memphis rockers inspired by Sixties British Invasion pop. A nonhit from the band's second LP, Radio City, "September Gurls" is now revered as a power-pop classic. "They were fairly dark records wrapped in a pop package," drummer Jody Stephens said of Big Star's now-adored catalog. "Maybe that's what's made them enduring."

Appears on: Radio City (Stax)

179

Tom Petty, ‘Free Fallin”

Writers: Petty, Jeff Lynne
Producer: Lynne
Released: June '89, MCA
21 weeks; No. 7

Petty and Lynne wrote and recorded "Free Fallin' " in just two days, the first song completed for Petty's solo LP Full Moon Fever. The label initially rejected the album because of a lack of hits. "So I waited six months and brought the same record back," Petty said. "And they loved it."

Appears on: Full Moon Fever (MCA)

178

The Beach Boys, ‘Don’t Worry Baby’

Writers: Brian Wilson, Roger Christian
Producer: Wilson
Released: May '64, Capitol
10 weeks; No. 24

Wilson, who listened to the Ronettes' "Be My Baby" so much he wore out the grooves, wrote "Don't Worry Baby" for Ronnie Bennett. From the opening drum riff, "Don't Worry Baby" is sheer homage but also vintage Beach Boys, with one of Wilson's finest falsetto-laden vocals.

Appears on: Sounds of Summer (Capitol)

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177

The Bobby Fuller Four, ‘I Fought the Law’

Writers: Sonny Curtis, Fuller
Producer: Bob Keane
Released: Feb. '66, Mustang
11 weeks; No. 9

Singing in his Texas drawl, Fuller seemed to channel his idol, Buddy Holly, on this tune penned by the Crickets' Curtis. "I Fought the Law" was a bracing hybrid of outlaw romanticism, garage rock, surf music, Wall of Sound and British Invasion energy. Keane created the track's rich reverb by using the vault of a bank next door to the L.A. studio as an echo chamber.

Appears on: I Fought the Law: The Best of the Bobby Fuller Four (Rhino)

176

The Rolling Stones, ‘Paint it Black’

Writers: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards
Producer: Andrew Loog Oldham
Released: May '66, London
11 weeks; No. 1

Brian Jones plucked the haunting sitar melody at the 1966 L.A. session for this classic. Bill Wyman added klezmer-flavored organ; studio legend Jack Nitzsche played the gypsy-style piano. "Brian had pretty much given up on the guitar by then," said Richards. "If there was [another] instrument around, he had to be able to get something out of it. It gave the Stones on record a lot of different textures." 

Appears on: Aftermath (ABKCO)

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175

The Sex Pistols, ‘God Save the Queen’

Writers: Johnny Rotten, Steve Jones, Glen Matlock, Paul Cook
Producer: Chris Thomas
Released: May '77, Warner Bros.
Did not chart 

Banned by the BBC for "gross bad taste," this blast of nihilism savaged the pomp of Queen Elizabeth II's silver jubilee and came in a sleeve showing Her Majesty with a safety pin through her lip. "As far as I'm concerned, she ain't no human being," sneered singer Rotten. "She's a piece of cardboard they drag around on a trolley."

Appears on: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols (Warner Bros.)

174

Abba, ‘Dancing Queen’

Writers: Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus, Stig Anderson
Producers: Andersson, Ulvaeus
Released: Nov. '76, Atlantic
22 weeks; No. 1

When Benny Andersson auditioned the song for his fiancee and band member Anni-Frid Lyngstad, she was moved to tears. Sweden's biggest musical export debuted "Queen" in 1976 at a ball for King Carl Gustaf on the eve of his wedding. The song, a disco-flavored dessert of sublime melody and pop-operatic harmonies, became the group's only U.S. Number One.

Appears on: Arrival (Polydor)

173

Aerosmith, ‘Dream On’

Writer: Steven Tyler
Producer: Arian Barber
Released: June '73, Columbia
9 weeks; No. 59

Tyler began writing this power ballad in his late teens. He was still at it in Aerosmith's early days, pounding a piano in the basement of the group's living quarters. "Dream On" was a huge regional hit in Boston when it was first released in 1973 but never made the national Top 40. An edited version finally reached the Top 10 in 1976, giving the band its breakthrough hit.

Appears on: Aerosmith (Columbia)

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172

Jay-Z, ’99 Problems’

Writers: Jay-Z, Rick Rubin
Producer: Rubin
Released: Nov. '03, Roc-a-Fella
12 weeks; No. 30

Jigga's decade-long run reached its crescendo with this Black Album smash. Mixing an old Ice-T hook with an intense, clanging groove –