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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.

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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