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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.

146

Sly and the Family Stone, ‘Everyday People’

Writer: Sly Stone
Producer: Stone
Released: Nov. '68, Epic
19 weeks; No. 1

"Everyday People" appeared on Sly and the Family Stone's fourth LP, Stand!, which explored everything from hot funk to cool pop. Stone, a former DJ in San Francisco who also produced the hits "Laugh, Laugh" and "Just a Little" for the white pop group the Beau Brummels, seemed blind to the lines between musical genres. "I was into everyone's records," he said of his radio days. "I'd play Dylan, Hendrix, James Brown back to back, so I didn't get stuck in any one groove." As the song was going to Number One, Sly canceled three months of bookings, including a slot on The Ed Sullivan Show, when trumpeter Cynthia Robinson needed emergency gallbladder surgery. Hits were nice, but family came first.

Appears on: Stand! (Sony)

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145

Ramones, ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’

Writers: Ramones
Producer: Tommy Erdelyi, Ed Stasium
Released: Oct. '78, Sire
Did not chart

The greatest God-does-the-road-ever-suck song, "I Wanna Be Sedated" was written by Joey Ramone, who at the time was suffering from severe teakettle burns and was upset about having to fly to London for a gig. Plagued by obsessive-compulsive disorder and various other ailments, Joey always had a rough time touring. "Put me in a wheelchair/And get me to the show/Hurry, hurry, hurry/Before I go loco!" he rants. Johnny's guitar solo – the same note, 65 times in a row – is the ultimate expression of his anti-artifice philosophy; the bubblegum-pop key change that follows it, though, is pure Joey.

Appears on: Road to Ruin (Rhino)

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144

Prince and the Revolution, ‘Purple Rain’

Writer: Prince
Producer: Prince
Released: June '84, Warner Bros.
16 weeks; No. 2

Bobby Z of the Revolution recalled the first time he heard Prince play "Purple Rain": "It was almost country. It was almost rock. It was almost gospel." The basic tracks were recorded live at a 1983 club date in Minneapolis, benefiting the Minnesota Dance Theater. But the seeds came from Prince's 1999 tour; Bob Seger was touring at the same time, and Prince decided to try writing a song in the same anthemic vein.

Appears on: Purple Rain (Warner Bros.)

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143

James Brown and His Famous Flames, ‘Please, Please, Please’

Writers: Brown, Johnny Terry
Producer: Ralph Bass
Released: Feb. '56, Federal
2 weeks; No. 95

On parole after three years in a Georgia juvenile pen, Brown hooked up with the Famous Flames for his debut single: a screaming burst of R&B. It had been in the Flames' act for two years before they put down a demo, which caught the ear of talent scout Bass. He signed the group to King/Federal Records, despite label head Syd Nathan's opinion that the song was "a piece of shit." Kicking off with Brown's shriek, the single drove women wild and became his set-closer, but the Flames, feeling upstaged, quit the act a year later.

Appears on: 50th Anniversary Collection (UTV/Polydor)

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142

The Everly Brothers, ‘All I Have to Do Is Dream’

Writers: Boudleaux and Felice Bryant
Producer: Archie Bleyer
Released: May '58, Cadence
11 weeks; No. 21

Although Don Everly had a contract to work as a songwriter before he and his brother Phil began their hitmaking, their first three big singles were all written by the husband-and-wife songwriting team of Boudleaux and Felice Bryant. "I would go to them for lovelorn advice when I was young, and divorce advice when I was older," Phil said. "All I Have to Do Is Dream," with Chet Atkins' innovative tremolo chording backing the brothers' high-lonesome harmonies, went to Number One on not just the pop chart but the R&B chart as well.

Appears on: All-Time Original Hits (Rhino)

141

Led Zeppelin, ‘Kashmir’

Writers: John Bonham, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant
Producer: Page
Released: March '75, Swan Song
Non-single

While vacationing in southern Morocco, Plant conjured the lyrics for Led Zeppelin's most ambitious experiment, the centerpiece of 1975's Physical Graffiti. As he traveled the desert in northwest Africa, Plant envisioned himself driving straight through to Kashmir, on the India-China border. Meanwhile, back in the band's studio in rural England, Page and Bonham began riffing on an Arabic-sounding set of chords that would perfectly match Plant's desert vision. "The song was bigger than me," said Plant. "I was petrified. I was virtually in tears." John Paul Jones' string arrangement provided the crowning touch, ratcheting up the song's grandeur to stadium-rock proportion.

Appears on: Physical Graffiti (Atlantic)

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140

The Beatles, ‘I Saw Her Standing There’

Writers: John Lennon, Paul McCartney
Producer: George Martin
Released: Jan. '64, Capitol
11 weeks; No. 14

"One, two three, fah!" The B side to the band's American breakthrough single, "I Want to Hold Your Hand," this song had been written by McCartney two years earlier. After penning the first line  - "She was just 17" – McCartney wanted to avoid completing the rhyme with "beauty queen." He and Lennon had "started to realize that we had to stop at these bad lines or we were only going to write bad songs," he said. "So we went through the alphabet: between, clean, lean, mean." With "you know what I mean," he was on his way.

Appears on: Please Please Me (Capitol)

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139

Sly and the Family Stone, ‘Family Affair’

Writer: Sly Stone
Producer: Stone
Released: Oct. '71, Epic
14 weeks; No. 1

When There's a Riot Goin' On came out in 1971, a Rolling Stone reporter mentioned the rumor that Stone had played all the instruments himself, and he asked Sly just how much he played. "I've forgotten, man," Stone said. "Whatever was left." The leadoff single, the aquatic funk number "Family Affair," was widely considered to be about his relationships with his band, family and the Black Panthers. "Well," Stone said, "they may be trying to tear me apart; I don't feel it. Song's not about that. Song's about a family affair, whether it's a result of genetic processes or a situation in the environment."

Appears on: There's a Riot Goin' On (Sony)

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138

The Beatles, ‘Eleanor Rigby’

Writers: John Lennon, Paul McCartney
Producer: George Martin
Released: Aug. '66, Capitol
8 weeks; No. 11 

When McCartney first played the song for neighbor Donovan, the words were "Ola Na Tungee/Blowing his mind in the dark/With a pipe full of clay." McCartney fumbled around with the lyrics until he landed on the line "Picks up the rice in a church where a wedding has been." It was only then that he realized he was writing about the loneliness of old age. "Father McKenzie" was originally "Father McCartney"; Ringo chipped in the line "darning his socks in the night." The character sketch was fleshed out by the Beatles' vocals, but the backing music was the sole product of an eight-man string section, working from a George Martin score.

Appears on: Revolver (Capitol)

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137

Elton John, ‘Your Song’

Writers: Bernie Taupin, John
Producer: Gus Dudgeon
Released: Nov. '70, Uni
14 weeks; No. 8 

Taupin has often claimed that a song should never take more than a half-hour to write. His first classic took all of 10 minutes. In 1969, Taupin and John were sharing a bunk bed at Elton's mom's house when Taupin wrote the words to "Your Song" one morning at the breakfast table. The soaring piano ballad would become the breakthrough single that introduced John to America. Although John insisted that the song was inspired by an old girlfriend of Taupin's, the lyricist maintains that it was aimed at no one in particular. "The early ones were not drawn from experience but imagination," Taupin said. " 'Your Song' could only have been written by a 17-year-old who'd never been laid in his life." 

Appears on: Greatest Hits (Island)

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136

The Beatles, ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’

Writer: George Harrison
Producer: George Martin
Released: Nov. '68, Apple
Non-single 

One of Harrison's greatest songs was conceived during a visit to his parents' home. Having studied the Chinese fortune-telling book the I Ching, Harrison decided he should surrender to chance. "I picked up a book at random, opened it, saw 'gently weeps,' then laid the book down again and started the song," he said. Dissatisfied with the Beatles' recording of the song, he invited Eric Clapton to play the guitar solo. "It was good because that then made everyone act better," Harrison recalled. "Paul got on the piano and played a nice intro, and they all took it more seriously." Although Martin was the credited producer, the session tape box read "Produced by the Beatles."

Appears on: The Beatles (Capitol)

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135

Wilson Pickett, ‘In the Midnight Hour’

Writers: Pickett, Steve Cropper
Producers: Jerry Wexler, Jim Stewart
Released: July '65, Atlantic
12 weeks; No. 21

Pickett's first two singles for Atlantic were recorded in New York, and they flopped. "I told Jerry Wexler I didn't want to be recorded this way anymore," Pickett said. "I said I heard a song by Otis Redding out of Memphis, and that's the direction I wanted to take." Pickett soon headed south. He and Cropper wrote "In the Midnight Hour" in the Lorraine Hotel, (where Martin Luther King, Jr. would later be assassinated), and while they were cutting the song, an idea shot Wexler out of his seat.

"I was shaking my booty to a groove made popular by the Larks' 'The Jerk,' a mid-Sixties hit," wrote Wexler. "The idea was to push the second beat while holding back the fourth." And a soul classic was born.

Appears on: The Very Best of Wilson Pickett (Rhino)

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134

The Who, ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’

Writer: Pete Townshend
Producers: Glyn Johns, the Who
Released: July '71, Decca
13 weeks; No. 15 

Townshend wrote this for an aborted concept album and film called Lifehouse. But many of that project's songs were resurrected for Who's Next, which started off with a week of demo sessions at Mick Jagger's country house, Stargroves. The synthesizer on "Won't Get Fooled Again" is from those demos. "Pete came up with sounds, synthesizer basics, for tracks which were just unbelievable," said producer Johns. "Nobody had done it before in that way."

"It's interesting it's been taken up in an anthemic sense," Townshend said of the song, "when in fact it's such a cautionary piece."

Appears on: Who's Next (MCA)

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133

Bo Diddley, ‘Who Do You Love?’

Writer: Ellas McDaniel
Producers: Phil and Leonard Chess
Released: March '57, Checker
Did not chart

Diddley's first band performed with a washtub-bass player and a guy who danced on a sand-covered board: These experiments with rhythmic possibilities kept him from lugging a drum set around town. "I'm a lover of basic bottom," he once said. "If the bottom is right, crazy." And there's plenty of bottom here – not much more, actually. Just Diddley playing his guitar like it's a drum, goosed by maracas and lyrics about chimneys made from human skulls and houses built from rattlesnake hide that reach back into voodoo mythology (the title is a pun on "hoodoo," a bad-luck charm). 

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

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132

U2, ‘With or Without You’

Writers: Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen Jr.
Producers: Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois 
Released: March '87, Island
18 weeks; No. 1

The Joshua Tree was U2's ode to America: Its songs were inspired by folk, gospel and roots music, and its lyrics, as the Edge noted, were sparked by civil rights heroes and the "new journalism" of the 1960s. Yet "With or Without You" – with its simple bass groove and ethereal guitar hum framing Bono's yearning vocals – was one of U2's most universal songs to date, a meditation on the painful ambivalence of a love affair. Bono insisted it was "about how I feel in U2 at times: exposed." It would turn out to be U2's first Number One hit in the U.S.

Appears on: The Joshua Tree (Island)

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131

Rod Stewart, ‘Maggie May’

Writers: Stewart, Martin Quittenton
Producer: Stewart
Released: June '71, Mercury
17 weeks; No. 1

Stewart plays a schoolboy in love with an older temptress in "Maggie May" — he claimed it was "more or less a true story about the first woman I had sex with." The song, a last-minute addition to Every Picture Tells a Story, was initially the B side of "Reason to Believe." Stewart has joked that if a DJ hadn't flipped the single over, he'd have gone back to his old job: digging graves. But the song's rustic mandolin and acoustic guitars — and Mickey Waller's relentless drum-bashing — were undeniable. The song became Stewart's first U.S. Top 40 hit — and first Number One.

Appears on: Every Picture Tells a Story (Mercury/Universal)<