Home Music Music Lists

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.

384

Pink Floyd, ‘Another Brick in the Wall Part 2’

Writer: Roger Waters
Producers: Bob Ezrin, Waters, David Gilmour
Released: Nov. '79, Columbia
25 weeks; No. 1

Waters' attack on teachers who practice "dark sarcasm in the classroom" was inspired by his own schoolmasters. "The school I was at — they were really like that," Waters said. "[All] they had to offer was their own bitterness and cynicism." There are three versions of "Another Brick" on The Wall, but "Part 2" was the hit.

Appears on: The Wall (Capitol)

RELATED:

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

100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: David Gilmour

383

Chuck Berry, ‘Brown Eyed Handsome Man’

Writer: Berry
Producer: Leonard Chess, Phil Chess
Released: Sept. '56, Chess
Did Not Chart

Berry was inspired to write this song while he was touring through heavily black and Latino areas of California. As Berry put it, "I didn't see too many blue eyes." He did see a good-looking Chicano nabbed for loitering until "some woman came up shouting for the policeman to let him go." Over a manic guitar lick, the song spins a riotous tale about a dark-eyed loverman.

Appears on: The Anthology (Chess)

RELATED:

100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Chuck Berry 

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Chuck Berry 

100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: Chuck Berry

382

Sam Cooke, ‘Wonderful World’

Writers: Cooke, Herb Alpert, Lou Adler
Producers: Cooke, Adler
Released: May '60, RCA
15 weeks; No. 12

Cooke was rooming with Adler, who had already finished this song when Cooke came up with the academic conceit that made it work. Cut while Cooke was still signed to Keen, it sat around until he'd moved to RCA — then sold a million. Before it came out, Cooke liked to sing it for women he met, telling them he'd made it up on the spot just for them.

Appears on: Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964 (ABKCO)

RELATED:

100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Sam Cooke 

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Sam Cooke 

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Sam Cooke's Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964

381

Television, ‘Marquee Moon’

Writer: Tom Verlaine
Producer: Andy Johns
Released: Feb. '77, Elektra
Did Not Chart

"Marquee Moon" is Television's guitar epic; Verlaine and Richard Lloyd stretch out for 10 minutes of urban paranoia. "I would play until something happened," Verlaine said. "That comes from jazz, or even the Doors, or the Five Live Yardbirds album — that kinda rave-up dynamics."

Appears on: Marquee Moon (Elektra)

RELATED:

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Television's Marquee Moon 

100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: Tom Verlaine

380

The Who, ‘I Can’t Explain’

Writer: Pete Townshend
Producer: Shel Talmy
Released: March '65, Decca
2 weeks; No. 93

For their debut single, the Who recorded Townshend's alleged answer to the Kinks' blazing "You Really Got Me." The Who even hired that song's producer, Talmy, who recruited additional players for the recording, among them Jimmy Page, who contributed rhythm guitar.

Appears on: The Ultimate Collection (MCA)

RELATED:

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: The Who 

100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: Pete Townshend 

100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Roger Daltrey

379

The Jimi Hendrix Experience, ‘The Wind Cries Mary’

Writer: Hendrix
Producer: Chas Chandler
Released: May '67, Reprise
8 weeks; No. 65

A dish-smashing argument with his girlfriend left Hendrix alone to scrawl the words to "The Wind Cries Mary" in January 1967. A few days later, the guitarist taught the uncharacteristically tender ballad — built around a gentle riff inspired by soul man Curtis Mayfield — to the Experience. The trio knocked out the track in 20 minutes.

Appears on: Are You Experienced? (MCA)

RELATED:

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Jimi Hendrix 

100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: Jimi Hendrix 

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: The Jimi Hendrix Experience's Are You Experienced?

378

Bo Diddley, ‘I’m a Man’

Writer: Diddley
Producer: Leonard Chess
Released: June '55, Checker
Did Not Chart

The B side of Diddley's first single was built around a four-note guitar stomp that was a trademark of mid-Fifties Chicago blues. Songwriter Willie Dixon, who supervised the 1955 session, said it was Diddley's sense of rhythm that set him apart from everyone else at Chess: "The drums are speaking, and he'll tell you what the drums are saying."

Appears on: His Best: The Chess 50th Anniversary Collection (Chess)

RELATED:

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Bo Diddley 

100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: Bo Diddley

377

Depeche Mode, ‘Personal Jesus’

Writer: Martin Gore
Producers: Depeche Mode, Flood
Released: Nov. '89, Sire
20 weeks; No. 28

Depeche Mode's breakthrough single was based on a surprising source: Priscilla Presley's book Elvis and Me. "It's about how Elvis was her man and her mentor and how often that happens in love relationships," Gore said. "How everybody's heart is like a god in some way."

Appears on: Violator (Sire)

RELATED:

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Depeche Mode's Violator

376

Cream, ‘White Room’

Writers: Pete Brown, Jack Bruce
Producer: Felix Pappalardi
Released: Aug. '68, Atco
11 weeks; No. 6

Powered by Eric Clapton's wah-wah work, the song's unnerving psychedelic imagery came from Brown, emerging from a period of drug and alcohol excess. "It was in my white-painted room that I had the horrible drug experience that made me want to stop everything," he said.

Appears on: Wheels of Fire (Polygram)

RELATED:

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Cream 

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Cream's Wheels of Fire

375

Bee Gees, ‘How Deep Is Your Love’

Writers: Bee Gees
Producers: Bee Gees, Karl Richardson, Albhy Galuten
Released: Sept. '77, RSO
33 weeks; No. 1 

The first single from Saturday Night Fever wasn’t a disco track but this slow jam. It went to Number One in December 1977, and the Bee Gees then controlled the top spot for 15 of the next 20 weeks. The song was originally intended for Yvonne Elliman, who had her own Number One with “If I Can’t Have You.”

Appears on: Saturday Night Fever (Polygram)

374

The Righteous Brothers, ‘Unchained Melody’

Writers: Alex North, Hy Zaret
Producer: Phil Spector
Released: July '65, Philles
13 weeks; No. 4

This song first hit the charts in 1955, when three different versions of it landed in the Top 10. The Righteous Brothers picked up the torch in 1965, making it the B side to their single "Hung on You." When DJs began playing "Unchained Melody" instead, Spector decided the duo should put out only covers of pre-rock pop songs as its singles; their version of Sinatra’s "Ebb Tide" also hit big.

Appears on: Anthology 1962-1974 (Rhino)

373

Bob Dylan, ‘Highway 61 Revisited’

Writer: Dylan
Producer: Bob Johnston
Released: Aug. '65, Columbia
Did not chart

"Highway 61 begins about where I came from," Dylan writes in Chronicles. "Duluth, to be exact." The road runs through the heart of America — and so does the song. It’s Dylan at his wildest, both musically and lyrically, topping the band's roadhouse stomp with his surreal cosmic jokes. The police-siren whistle was courtesy of session man Al Kooper.

Appears on: Highway 61 Revisited (Columbia)

RELATED:

The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time: Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Bob Dylan

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Bob Dylan

372

The Box Tops, ‘The Letter’

Writer: Wayne Carson Thompson
Producer: Dan Penn
Released: July '67, Mala
16 weeks; No. 1

On "The Letter," Alex Chilton moans like a gruff soul man, though he was just 16. He credited the performance to his producer, Memphis legend Penn. "[He] coached me pretty heavily on singing anything we ever did," Chilton said. “In a lot of cases, it sounds more like him singing than it sounds like me.” Chilton went on to front Big Star but participated in Box Tops reunion tours until his death in 2010.

Appears on: The Letter (Sundazed)

371

The Clash, ‘Complete Control’

Writers: Mick Jones, Joe Strummer
Producer: Lee "Scratch" Perry
Released: July '79, Epic
Non-single 

The Clash were hardcore reggae fans, so it was natural they would want to work with legendary dub producer Perry. But the resulting single wasn’t dub at all — it was the Clash’s toughest, noisiest punk anthem, with Mick Jones cranking the guitar to ear-bleeding levels. "Complete Control," a U.K. hit in the fall of 1977, was appended to the American version of the band's debut album.

Appears on: The Clash (Epic)

RELATED:

The Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: The Clash's The Clash

370

The Beatles, ‘All You Need is Love’

Writers: John Lennon, Paul McCartney
Producer: George Martin
Released: July '67, Capitol
11 weeks; No. 1

Twenty-four days after the release of Sgt. Pepper, the Beatles represented England on the six hour TV show Our World, a satellite broadcast seen by 400 million. "All You Need Is Love" was the simple message they wanted to send to the world. "It was for love and bloody peace," Ringo Starr said. The backing choir on the single included Mick Jagger, Keith Moon and Donovan.

Appears on: Magical Mystery Tour (Capitol)

369

Roberta Flack, ‘Killing Me Softly With His Song’

Writers: Norman Gimbel, Charles Fox
Producer: Joel Dorn
Released: Jan '73, Atlantic
16 weeks; No. 1

Inspired by a Don McLean gig at L.A.'s Troubadour, folk singer Lori Lieberman took her idea for the song to Gimbel and Fox. Flack later heard Lieberman’s recording on an in-flight radio station and "absolutely freaked," she said.

Appears on: Killing Me Softly (Atlantic)

368

Muddy Waters, ‘Got My Mojo Working’

Writer: Preston Foster
Producers: Phil Chess, Leonard Chess, Willie Dixon
Released: 1957, Chess
Did not chart

Waters made his version of "Mojo" after hearing R&B singer Ann Coleper form it while they toured together in 1956. He retooled the rhythm and lyrics, turning it into a speedy howl about voodoo and sexual power.

Appears on: The Anthology (Chess/MCA)

RELATED:

The Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Muddy Waters' The Anthology

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Muddy Waters

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Muddy Waters

367

Martha and the Vandellas, ‘Nowhere to Run’

Writers: Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, Eddie Holland
Producers: Brian Holland, Dozier
Released: Feb. '65, Gordy
11 weeks; No. 8

Martha Reeves was working as a secretary for A&R man Mickey Stevenson at Motown when Mary Wells missed a session date; Reeves stepped in for her and eventually became a star. Her wail makes "Nowhere to Run" a scary tale of obsessive love; the heavy percussion was enhanced with snow chains.

Appears on: The Ultimate Collection (Motown)

RELATED:

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Martha and the Vandellas

366

The Jimi Hendrix Experience, ‘Little Wing’

Writer: Hendrix
Producer: Chas Chandler
Released: Feb. '68, Reprise
Non-single

Blissed out from his appearance at Monterey Pop, Hendrix brought a delicate touch to this ballad at a 1967 London session. In a mere 145 seconds, he conjured a gossamer reverie. Hendrix played one of his most lyrical solos through a Leslie speaker cabinet (creating an oscillating sound) and later added glockenspiel to complete the mood.

Appears on: Axis: Bold as Love (Experience Hendrix/MCA)

RELATED:

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: The Jimi Hendrix Experience's Axis: Bold as Love

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Jimi Hendrix

The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: Jimi Hendrix

365

Eurythmics, ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)’

Writers: Annie Lennox, Dave Stewart
Producer: Stewart
Released: April '83, RCA
26 weeks; No. 1

"Sweet Dreams" was a deceptively catchy single from two former lovers. "The day Dave and I ended our romance, Eurythmics began," Annie Lennox told Rolling Stone. But the tense sessions for "Sweet Dreams" nearly ended their musical partnership. "I was curled up in the fetal position," Lennox said. "He programmed this rhythm. It sounded so good. In the end I couldn't resist it."

Appears on: Sweet Dreams (RCA)

364

Creedence Clearwater Revival, ‘Bad Moon Rising’

Writer: John Fogerty
Producer: Fogerty
Released: April '69, Fantasy
14 weeks; No. 2

"This song is definitely not about astrology," Fogerty once joked. "[It’s] scary, spooky stuff." With violence at home and a war abroad, there was a bad moon on the rise, and CCR effortlessly tapped into the darkening national mood. The song had one of CCR’s catchiest swamp-rock riffs, an homage to Elvis Presley’s guitarist Scotty Moore that Fogerty wrote in high school.

Appears on: Green River (Fantasy)

RELATED:

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Creedence Clearwater Revival's Green River

363

Elvis Costello, ‘Watching the Detectives’

Writer: Costello
Producer: Nick Lowe
Released: Nov. '77, Columbia
Did not chart

In the summer of 1977, Costello was still an aspiring songwriter when he took the Clash’s debut back to his London flat and "listened to it for 36 hours straight," he recalled. "And I wrote 'Watching the Detectives.'" Still, he maintained, "I was never part of any punk-rock thing. I couldn't afford to go to nightclubs at night. I had a wife and kid, and I had to go to work."

Appears on: My Aim Is True (Rhino)

RELATED:

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

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Elvis Costello

362

Eric Clapton, ‘Tears in Heaven’

Writers: Clapton, Will Jennings
Producer: Russ Titelman
Released: Jan. '92, Duck/Reprise
26 weeks; No. 2

On March 20th, 1991, four-year old Conor Clapton died in a fall from an apartment window in New York. His father wrote the heartrending "Tears in Heaven" and "The Circus Left Town" for his son. "They’re sweet little songs, almost like folk songs, and I feel the need to have people hear them," he told Rolling Stone. "Tears" anchored his 1992 MTV Unplugged set.

Appears on: "Rush" Soundtrack (Warner Bros.)

RELATED:

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Eric Clapton

The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: Eric Clapton

361

Elvis Presley, ‘All Shook Up’

Writers: Otis Blackwell, Presley
Producers: Steve Sholes
Released: March '57, RCA
30 weeks; No. 1

Songwriter Al Stanton walked up to Blackwell one day shaking a bottle of Pepsi and challenged him to write a song called "All Shook Up." Presley fell in love with the tune the first time he heard it and gave it the same freewheeling charm he had brought to Blackwell’s "Don’t Be Cruel," even reprising the guitar-backslapping trick he’d used on that track. It worked: The song went on to sell 2 million copies.

Appears on: Elvis 30 #1 Hits (RCA)

RELATED:

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Elvis Presley

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Elvis Presley

360

The Platters, ‘The Great Pretender’

Writer: Buck Ram
Producer: Ram
Released: Dec. '55, Mercury
24 weeks; No. 1

Heirs to the crooning style of the Ink Spots and the Mills Brothers, the Platters became the first R&B vocal group to top the pop charts, heralding the arrival of doo-wop. Ram, who also co-wrote "Only You" and "Twilight Time," was pushing 50 when "Pretender" hit.

Appears on: The Magic Touch: An Anthology (Mercury)

359

Little Eva, ‘The Loco-Motion’

Writers: Gerry Goffin, Carole King
Producer: Goffin
Released: June '62, Dimension
16 weeks; No. 1

At 17, Eva Boyd was hired to baby-sit King and Goffin’s newborn during recording sessions. One day they asked her to cut a demo for this song. "There never was a dance called the loco-motion until it was a hit," King said. "So Little Eva had to make up a dance."

Appears on: The Loco-Motion (Rhino)

358

Ben E. King, ‘Spanish Harlem’

Writers: Phil Spector, Jerry Leiber
Producers: Mike Stoller, Leiber
Released: Dec. '60, Atco
16 weeks; No. 10

Just split from the Drifters, King was eager to make an auspicious solo debut and insisted on cutting this rare collaboration between Spector and Leiber. (King grew up mere blocks from Spanish Harlem.) Spector said this was Lenny Bruce’s favorite song.

Appears on: The Very Best of Ben E. King (Rhino)

357

The Isley Brothers, ‘That Lady (Part 1 and 2)’

Writers: The Isley Brothers
Producers: The Isley Brothers
Released: July '73, T-Neck
20 weeks; No. 6

In 1969, the Isleys added younger brothers Ernie and Marvin, who had been put through music school by their older brothers. Ernie repaid the debt on "That Lady" with a guitar solo recalling onetime Isleys sideman Jimi Hendrix.

Appears on: The Essential Isley Brothers (Legacy)

356

Elton John, ‘Candle in the Wind’

Writers: John, Bernie Taupin
Producer: Gus Dudgeon
Released: Oct. '73, MCA

John’s Marilyn Monroe tribute was a U.K. hit in 1973, but in the U.S. the single release was canceled when DJs began playing "Bennie and the Jets" instead. A live version with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra recorded in 1986 finally reached the U.S. charts, and a 1997 rerelease with new lyrics in honor of Princess Diana became the biggest-selling single of the 20th century.

Appears on: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (Island)

RELATED:

The Top 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Elton John

The Top 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Elton John

355

Dr. Dre and 2Pac, ‘California Love’

Writers: Dr. Dre, Chris Stainton, Roger Troutman, Larry Troutman, 2Pac
Producer: Dr. Dre
Released: Feb. '96, Death Row
24 weeks; No. 6

When 2Pac left jail in October 1995, after serving eight months for a sexual-assault conviction, Dre had a hit ready for him: a slice of West Coast funk, built around a Joe Cocker sample and a vocal from Zapp frontman Roger Troutman. “I don’t want it to be about violence,” 2Pac said seven months before he was shot dead. “I want it to be about money.”

Appears on: Greatest Hits (Death Row)

354

Ritchie Valens, ‘La Bamba’

Writer: William Clauson
Producer: Bob Keane
Released: Oct. '58, Del-Fi
15 weeks; No. 22

Valens' version of this traditional Mexican wedding song was originally the B side to his first hit, "Donna." "La Bamba" entered the Top 40 two weeks before the 17-yearold died in the same plane crash that killed Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper.

Appears on: The Ritchie Valens Story (Rhino)

353

Big Brother and the Holding Company, ‘Piece of My Heart’

Writers: Bert Berns, Jerry Ragovoy
Producer: John Simon
Released: Aug. ’68, CBS
12 weeks; No. 12

The original was sung by Erma Franklin, Aretha’s sister. "Erma’s 'Piece of Heart' had a delicacy and a sense of mystery that was just beyond us," said guitarist Sam Andrew. But what Big Brother did have was a raw, fearless singer named Janis Joplin.

Appears on: Cheap Thrills (Columbia)

RELATED:

The Top 500 Greatest Albums of All time: Big Brother and the Holding Company's Cheap Thrills

352

Lavern Baker, ‘Jim Dandy’

Writer: Lincoln Chase
Producers: Ahmet Ertegun,Jerry Wexler
Released: Dec. '56, Atlantic
19 weeks; No. 17

Baker was a Chicago singer with a pedigree — her aunt was blues singer Memphis Minnie. Her big voice helped usher in the rock era on songs like "Soul on Fire." When white covers outsold her originals, she was so infuriated she wrote her congressman and even filed a lawsuit (neither worked). The swinging "Jim Dandy" was one of her sweetest hits.

Appears on: Soul on Fire: The Best of LaVern Baker (Atlantic)

351

Dion, ‘Runaround Sue’

Writers: Dion DiMucci, Ernie Maresca
Producer: Gene Schwartz
Released: Sept. '61, Laurie
14 weeks; No. 1

Dion was a country-music fan and member of a gang called the Fordham Baldies when a family friend got him his first record deal. "'Runaround Sue' was created at a neighborhood party," said Dion. This bluesy doo-wop single was Dion’s only Number One. For 47 years, he’s been married to his high school girl, Susan, but he claims the runaround girl was really named Roberta.

Appears on: Runaround Sue (Capitol)

RELATED:

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Dion

Show Comments