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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.

293

Run-DMC, ‘Walk This Way’

Writers: Steven Tyler, Joe Perry
Producers: Rick Rubin,Russell Simmons
Released: May '86, Profile
16 weeks; No. 4

Run-DMC pioneered the use of rock guitar in hip-hop with the tracks "Rock Box" and "King of Rock." But this Aerosmith cover — with help from Tyler and Perry — was a crossover smash, establishing a blueprint for scores of metal-rap mash-ups. For Run, though, it was just another day rhyming. "I made that record because I used to rap over it when I was 12," he told Rolling Stone.

Appears on: Raising Hell (Arista)

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292

Pavement, ‘Summer Babe (Winter Version)’

Writer: Stephen Malkmus
Producers: Malkmus, Scott Kannberg
Released: April '92, Drag City
Did not chart

Malkmus and Kannberg cut this tender pop tune about a summer crush in the garage studio of their hippie drummer, Gary Young. "We didn’t know how to record," Malkmus confessed. "We used reverb on the drums — the cheapest, worst reverb ever." Malkmus said he was trying to sound like Lou Reed, singing about "sad boy stuff."

Appears on: Slanted and Enchanted (Matador)

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291

Howlin’ Wolf, ‘Smokestack Lightning’

Writer: Chester Burnett
Producers: Leonard and Phil Chess, Willie Dixon
Released: March '56, Chess
Did not chart 

This was based on Wolf’s "Crying at Daybreak," recorded years earlier and itself modeled on Charley Patton’s "Moon Going Down." The inspiration, said Wolf, was watching trains cut through the night: "We used to sit out in the country and see the trains go by, watch the sparks come out of the smokestack. That was smokestack lightning."

Appears on: His Best (Chess)

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290

Elvis Costello and the Attractions, ‘(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding’

Writer: Nick Lowe
Producer: Lowe
Released: Jan. '79, Columbia
Non-single

"What’s So Funny" was written by Lowe, Costello’s pal and producer. The original, by Lowe’s country-rock band Brinsley Schwartz, was mellow and cute, but Costello snarls the song intensely enough to make the title question seem brand-new, with thundering drums and droning piano. It’s like Abba playing punk rock.

Appears on: Armed Forces (Rhino)

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289

Blondie, ‘Call Me’

Writers: Giorgio Moroder, Deborah Harry
Producer: Moroder
Released: Feb. '80, Chrysalis
25 weeks; No. 1 

The main reason Blondie recorded "Call Me" for the Richard Gere flick American Gigolo was to work with their hero, Euro-disco producer Moroder. "He was the king of disco," Harry said. "And we were still the anti-establishment invaders." Moroder’s first choice for a vocalist was Stevie Nicks, but Harry’s New Wave edge helped make the song the biggest seller of 1980.

Appears on: Best of Blondie (Chrysalis)

288

Joni Mitchell, ‘Help Me’

Writer: Mitchell
Producer: Mitchell
Released: Feb. '74, Asylum
19 weeks; No. 7

"I had attempted to play my music with rock & roll players," Mitchell said in 1979. "They’d laugh, 'Aww, isn’t that cute? She’s trying to tell us how to play.'" It took a jazz group — Tom Scott’s L.A. Express — to realize her biggest hit, a swooning confession of love trouble complete with swirling sax break. One rocker, Prince, loved the song so much he quoted it on "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker."

Appears on: Court and Spark (Elektra)

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287

Stevie Wonder, ‘You Are the Sunshine of My Life’

Writer: Wonder
Producer: Wonder
Released: Nov. '72, Tamla
17 weeks; No. 1

Wonder originally wrote and recorded "Sunshine" while he was finishing his 1972 LP Music of My Mind, but he decided to hang on to it until his next album, Talking Book. He had written the song for future wife Syreeta Wright, who had met Wonder at the Motown offices, where she was a secretary. The cut was Talking Book’s second Number One hit, following "Superstition."

Appears on: Talking Book (Tamla)

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286

The White Stripes, ‘Seven Nation Army’

Writer: Jack White
Producer: White
Released: April '03, V2/Third Man

Jack White used an effects pedal to make his guitar sound like a bass for this howling anthem about rage and paranoia. The result was the greatest riff of the 2000s and a massive, career-changing hit that has been covered by everyone from Metallica to the University of South Alabama marching band. As for the title, "That’s what I called the Salvation Army when I was a kid," White told Rolling Stone.

Appears on: Elephant (V2/Third Man)

285

Bill Withers, ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’

Writer: Withers
Producer: Booker T. Jones
Released: July '71, Sussex
16 weeks; No. 3

When the 31-year-old Withers recorded "Sunshine," he was still working at a factory making toilet seats for 747s. He intended to write more lyrics for the part where he repeats the phrase "I know" 26 times, but the other musicians told him to leave it.

Appears on: Lean on Me: The Best of Bill Withers (Columbia/Legacy)

284

The Dixie Cups, ‘Chapel of Love’

Writers: Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich, Phil Spector
Producers: Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, Barry, Greenwich
Released: June '64, Red Bird
13 weeks; No. 1

Spector took two cracks at recording "Chapel," but the Ronettes and Crystals left him flat. Leiber and Stoller took it to the novice Dixie Cups; the hopeful harmonies were just what the nuptial ditty called for.

Appears on: The Best of the Girl Groups, Vol. 1 (Rhino)

283

The Cure, ‘Pictures of You’

Writers: Robert Smith, Simon Gallup, Boris Williams, Porl Thompson, Roger O'Donnell, Lol Tolhurst
Producers: Smith, David M. Allen
Released: May '89, Elektra
8 weeks; No. 71

"Most love songs are just calculated attempts at commercial exploitation — they’re not anything to do with love as I understand it," said Cure leader Smith. After the relatively cheerful pop songs of Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, he wanted to write the Cure’s heaviest songs yet. With this epic of cascading synths and broken dreams, he succeeded.

Appears on: Disintegration (Elektra)

282

David Bowie, ‘Ziggy Stardust’

Writer: Bowie
Producers: Ken Scott, Bowie
Released: June '72, RCA
Non-single

"I wasn’t at all surprised 'Ziggy Stardust' made my career," Bowie told Rolling Stone. "I packaged a totally credible plastic rock star." This glam power ballad told the story of his most famous alter ego over Mick Ronson’s flash guitars. Bowie and Ziggy became so inextricably linked that Bowie’s over-the-top manager, Tony Defries, demanded that all his employees get Ziggy haircuts.

Appears on: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (Virgin)

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281

The Staple Singers, I’ll Take You There

Writer: Alvertis Isbell (Al Bell)
Producer: Bell
Released: June '72, Stax
15 weeks; No. 1

It was a good day’s work at Stax in 1971 when the Staples cut both "Respect Yourself" and "I’ll Take You There." The latter — a funk vamp promising heavenly or sexual devotion, depending on your perspective — was "written on the spot," said bassist David Hood. "We always tried to do material that was inspirational," said Roebuck "Pop" Staples, "in addition to whatever else it was."

Appears on: Bealtitude: Respect Yourself (Stax)

280

Bruce Springsteen, ‘Born in the U.S.A.’

Writer: Springsteen
Producers: Springsteen, Jon Landau, Chuck Plotkin, Steve Van Zandt
Released: June '84, Columbia
17 weeks; No. 9

Before it became the centerpiece of Springsteen’s biggest album, "U.S.A." was an acoustic protest song meant for Nebraska. But when Springsteen revived it with the E Street Band, Roy Bittan came up with a huge synth riff, and Max Weinberg hammered out a beat like he was using M-80s for drumsticks. "We played it two times, and our second take is the record," Springsteen said.

Appears on: Born in the U.S.A. (Columbia)

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279

Jefferson Airplane, ‘Somebody to Love’

Writer: Darby Slick
Producer: Rick Jarrard
Released: Feb. '67, RCA
15 weeks; No. 5

"Somebody" was about "doubt and disillusionment," according to Darby Slick, who wrote it in the Great Society. His sister-in-law Grace brought the song to the Airplane, whose hard-edged rendition became one of the S.F. scene’s first hits. The Airplane made buttons that read jefferson airplane loves you; Great Society countered with ones that said the great society really doesn’t like you much at all.

Appears on: Surrealistic Pillow (RCA)

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278

The Beatles, ‘Something’

Writer: George Harrison
Producer: George Martin
Released: Oct. '69, Apple
16 weeks; No. 3

Harrison wrote “Something” near the end of the White Album sessions (one placeholder lyric: "Something in the way she moves/Attracts me like a cauliflower"). It was too late to squeeze it onto the disc, so he gave it to Joe Cocker. The Beatles cut a new version the next year with a string section, which would become a standard recorded by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Ray Charles.

Appears on: Abbey Road (Apple)

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277

Chuck Berry, ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’

Writer: Berry
Producers: Leonard and Phil Chess
Released: Jan. '58, Chess
16 weeks; No. 2

"Sixteen" celebrated kids, America, and the power of rock & roll — an ode to an underage rock fan in high-heeled shoes that included a roll call of U.S. cities. The Beach Boys fitted the song with new words and called it "Surfin’ U.S.A."; Berry threatened to sue and won a writing credit.

Appears on: The Anthology (Chess)

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276

The Beach Boys, ‘Sloop John B’

Writer: Traditional, Brian Wilson
Producer: Wilson
Released: March '66, Capitol
11 weeks; No. 3

Wilson got turned onto the Bahamian folk song "The Wreck of the John B." by Al Jardine. For the Boys' version, Wilson added elaborate vocals and Billy Strange's 12-string-guitar part. He also changed "This is the worst trip since I’ve been born" to ". . . I’ve ever been on" — a wink to acid culture.

Appears on: Pet Sounds (Capitol)

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275

George Jones, ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’

Writers: Bobby Braddock,Curly Putnam
Producer: Billy Sherrill
Released: March '80, Epic
Did not chart 

Dogged by alcohol problems, debt and a messy divorce, former country star Jones was set for a comeback after he left rehab in 1980. So he recorded one of his great heartbreak ballads, a tune about a man whose devotion ends with his death. Jones' nuanced performance was a hit on the country charts and won him a Grammy.

Appears on: I Am What I Am (Epic/Legacy)

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274

The Modern Lovers, ‘Roadrunner’

Writer: Jonathan Richman
Producer: John Cale
Released: Oct. '76, Beserkley
Did not chart 

Boston native Richman was obsessed with the Velvet Underground; when he started his own band, he rewrote the Velvets' "Sister Ray" into an ecstatic two-chord tribute to cruising down the highway with the radio on. This 1972 recording (featuring future members of Talking Heads and the Cars) wasn’t released for more than three years – whereupon English punks fell in love with it.

Appears on: The Modern Lovers (Rhino)