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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.


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)


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Patti Smith

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Patti Smith


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)


The Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Public Enemy


Neil Young, ‘Cortez the Killer’

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

"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)


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Neil Young

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Neil Young

The 100 Greatest Guitars of All Time: Neil Young


Led Zeppelin, ‘Heartbreaker’

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

"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)


The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Led Zeppelin's II

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Led Zeppelin


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)


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.)


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)


Pink Floyd, ‘Wish You Were Here’

Writers: David Gilmour, Roger Waters
Producers: Pink Floyd
Released: Sept. '75, Columbia

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)


The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here


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)


The Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Elvis Costello's My Aim Is True

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Elvis Costello


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)


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)


The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Pink Floyd's The Wall


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)


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)


The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Roy Orbison

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Roy Orbison


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)


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.)


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Black Sabbath


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)


The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Jackie Wilson

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Jackie Wilson


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)


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)


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)


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: James Brown

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: James Brown


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

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

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)


The Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band


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)


The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: The Rolling Stones' Between the Buttons

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: The Rolling Stones


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)


The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Willie Nelson


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.)


The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Rod Stewart


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)


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.)


The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Madonna's Like A Prayer

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Madonna


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)


The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Blondie's Parallel Lines


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.)


The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Prince's Sign 'O' the Times

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Prince

The Top 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Prince


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.)


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Neil Young

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Neil Young

The 100 Greatest Guitars of All Time: Neil Young


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)


The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Bob Marley's Legend

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Bob Marley

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Bob Marley


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)


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: The Rolling Stones

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