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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.

481

Rick James, ‘Super Freak’

Writers: James, Alonzo Miller
Producer: James
Released: Aug. '81, Gordy
24 weeks; No. 16

James wasn't exactly modest about his ambitions. As he declared in 1981, "I wanna make Paul McCartney white-boy money!" He got it with the self-described "punk funk" of "Super Freak," from his breakthrough album, Street Songs. James enlisted the Temptations for background vocals. The song got a second life when MC Hammer jacked it for the 1990 megasmash "U Can't Touch This."

Appears on: Street Songs (Motown)

480

Beastie Boys, ‘Sabotage’

Writers: Beastie Boys
Producers: Beastie Boys, Mario Caldato Jr.
Released: May '94, Grand Royal
Did Not Chart

Adam "MCA" Yauch came up with the killer fuzz-bass riff at Manhattan's Tin Pan Alley studio, but it wasn't until a year later that the song was finished in L.A. With two weeks to go before Ill Communication was completed, Adam "Ad-Rock" Horovitz got all hot and bothered about paparazzi on the mike and came out of the song's breakdown with a scream for the ages.

Appears on: Ill Communication (Capitol)

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479

Foreigner, ‘I Want to Know What Love Is’

Writer: Mick Jones
Producers: Jones, Alex Sadkin
Released: Nov. '84, Atlantic
21 weeks; No. 1

This gospel-rock hymn featured Dreamgirls star Jennifer Holliday, one of the Thompson Twins and, most notably, the New Jersey Mass Choir. Said Jones, "I'll always remember them getting in a circle before we did it and everyone saying the Lord's Prayer." That probably didn't happen for "Hot Blooded" — but this soaring ballad became Foreigner's biggest hit.

Appears on: Agent Provocateur (Atlantic)

478

The Strokes, ‘Last Nite’

Writer: Julian Casablancas
Producer: Gordon Raphael
Released: Aug. '01, RCA
Did Not Chart

Youthful angst on the Lower East Side: Lou Reed vocals and cool confusion, driven by the surging, garage-band sound that would go on to define early-2000s rock. The Strokes supposedly nicked the opening riff from Tom Petty's "American Girl." "I saw an interview with them where they admitted it," Petty told Rolling Stone. "I was like, 'OK, good for you.' It doesn't bother me."

Appears on: Is This It (RCA)

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477

The Smiths, ‘How Soon Is Now?’

Writers: Johnny Marr, Morrissey
Producer: John Porter
Released: Feb. '85, Sire
Did Not Chart

Morrissey cribbed lyrics from George Eliot, but guitarist Marr cited another reference: Derek and the Dominos. "I wanted an intro that was almost as potent as 'Layla,'" he said. "When [it] plays in a club or a pub, everyone knows what it is."

Appears on: Meat Is Murder (Warner Bros.)

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476

Aretha Franklin, ‘Do Right Woman — Do Right Man’

Writers: Chips Moman, Dan Penn
Producer: Jerry Wexler
Released: March '67, Atlantic
11 weeks; No. 9

Franklin disappeared after a 1967 session in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, leaving this simmering ballad unfinished. A few weeks later, she resurfaced in New York. The resulting vocal, said producer Wexler, was "perfection."

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

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475

The Supremes, ‘Where Did Our Love Go’

Writers: Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, Eddie Holland
Producers: Brian Holland, Dozier
Released: June '64, Motown
14 weeks; No. 1

After eight flop singles, the trio were known as the "No-Hit Supremes." The Marvelettes — Motown's top girl group at that point — passed on this song, and the Supremes didn't like their own recording. Until it hit Number One, that is. That foot-stomping beat is actually two