500 Greatest Songs of All Time - Rolling Stone
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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.


Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, ‘Ooo Baby Baby’

Writers: Robinson, Warren Moore
Producer: Robinson
Released: March '65, Tamla
11 weeks; No. 16

Robinson called this ballad his "national anthem," noting, "Wherever we go, it’s the one song that everybody asks for." "Baby" has what may be his most delicate and wounded vocal. When Robinson sighs the line "I’m crying," it’s a reminder that no matter how many vocalists keep covering his songs, nobody sings Smokey like Smokey.

Appears on: Ooo Baby Baby: The Anthology (Motown)


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Smokey Robinson

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Smokey Robinson


Stevie Wonder, ‘Higher Ground’

Writer: Wonder
Producer: Wonder
Released: Aug. '73, Tamla
14 weeks; No. 4

Wonder wrote, produced and played every instrument on "Higher Ground," which was recorded just before he was involved in a near-fatal car accident in August '73 — no, he wasn’t driving — that left him in a coma. Early in Wonder’s recovery, his road manager tried to revive him by singing the melody of "Ground" into the singer’s ear; Wonder responded by moving his fingers with the music.

Appears on: Innervisions (Motown)


The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Stevie Wonder's Innversions

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Stevie Wonder

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Stevie Wonder


Jeff Buckley, ‘Hallelujah’

Writer: Leonard Cohen
Producer: Andy Wallace
Released: Aug. '94, Columbia

During his famed early gigs at the New York club Sin-é, Buckley used to break hearts with his version of this Cohen prayer. Buckley called it a homage to "the hallelujah of the orgasm" and had misgivings about his sensuous rendition: "I hope Leonard doesn’t hear it." On his posthumous live album Mystery White Boy, Buckley turns "Hallelujah" into a medley with the Smiths' "I Know It’s Over."

Appears on: Grace (Columbia)


The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Jeff Buckley's Grace

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Jeff Buckley


The Dells, ‘Oh, What A Night’

Writers: Marvin Junior, John Funches
Producer: Bobby Miller
Released: Aug. '69, Cadet
11 weeks; No. 10

Pioneering Chicago R&B quintet the Dells scored a regional hit with this song in 1956. But bass vocalist Chuck Barksdale wasn’t on the record, so 13 years later, he persuaded the group to remake "Night" — and included his own opening monologue, along with a more sumptuous groove, an eerie guitar stab and heart-stopping strings. "I think a little ego got involved there," he said.

Appears on: Ultimate Collection (Hip-O)


The Who, ‘I Can See For Miles’

Writer: Pete Townshend
Producer: Kit Lambert
Released: Oct. '67, Decca
11 weeks; No. 9

"I sat down and made it good from the beginning," Townshend said of the Who’s most volcanic studio single in his first Rolling Stone interview. Written in 1966, "Miles" was painstakingly built in London and L.A. on rare days off from touring in the summer of '67, with Townshend piling on multiple guitars to replicate his onstage amp howl. That fury powered the song into the U.S. Top 10.

Appears on: The Who Sell Out (MCA)


The Troggs, ‘Wild Thing’

Writer: Chip Taylor
Producer: Larry Page
Released: June '66, Atco/Fontana
11 weeks; No. 1

When Taylor demo’d this three-chord monster in 1965, he didn’t take it too seriously: "I was on the floor laughing when I was through." But after a new U.K. band called the Troggs got hold of it, "Wild Thing" became a bar-band standard. Said Taylor, "It’s still inspired, even in its own dumbness."

Appears on: Greatest Hits (Prime Cuts)


Bob Dylan, ‘Mississippi’

Writer: Dylan
Producer: Jack Frost
Released: Sept. '01, Columbia

Dylan first recorded "Mississippi" for 1997’s Time Out of Mind, but he hated producer Daniel Lanois’ busy arrangement. This version, produced pseudonymously by Dylan, has a sturdy, straightforward groove. "Polyrhythm doesn’t work for knifelike lyrics about majesty and heroism," he said.

Appears on: Love and Theft (Columbia)


The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Bob Dylan's Love and Theft

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Bob Dylan

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Bob Dylan


Blondie, ‘Heart of Glass’

Writers: Deborah Harry, Chris Stein
Producer: Mike Chapman
Released: Sept. '78, Chrysalis
21 weeks; No. 1 

Blondie singer Harry and guitarist Stein, her boyfriend, wrote the song as "Once I Had a Love" in their dingy New York apartment; keyboardist Jimmy Destri provided the synthesizer hook. The result brought punk and disco together on the dance floor. "Chris always wanted to do disco," Destri said. Not all of their rock fans agreed. "We used to do 'Heart of Glass' to upset people," he added.

Appears on: Parallel Lines (Capitol)


The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Blondie's Parallel Lines


AC/DC, ‘Highway to Hell’

Writers: Angus Young, Malcolm Young, Bon Scott
Producer: Robert John Lange
Released: Aug. '79, Atlantic
10 weeks; No. 47 

"I’ve been on the road for 13 years," AC/DC singer Scott said in 1978. "Planes, hotels, groupies, booze . . . they all scrape something from you." Pumped up by producer "Mutt" Lange, "Highway" is the last will and testament of Scott: When he yells, "Don’t stop me," right before Angus Young’s guitar solo, it’s clear that no one could – he drank himself to death in 1980.

Appears on: Highway to Hell (Atlantic)


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: AC/DC


Radiohead, ‘Paranoid Android’

Writer: Thom Yorke
Producers: Nigel Godrich, Radiohead
Released: May '97, Capitol
Did not chart 

"'Paranoid Android' is about the dullest fucking people on Earth," said singer Yorke, referring to lyrics such as "Squealing Gucci little piggy," about a creepy coked-out woman he once spied at an L.A. bar. The sound was just as unnerving: a shape-shifting three-part prog-rock suite. Spooky fact: It was recorded in actress Jane Seymour’s 15th-century mansion, a house that Yorke was convinced was haunted.

Appears on: OK Computer (Capitol)


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Radiohead

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Radiohead's OK Computer


Mott the Hoople, ‘All the Young Dudes’

Writer: David Bowie
Producer: Bowie
Released: July ’72, Columbia
11 weeks; No. 37 

U.K. hard-rock band Hoople had already passed up "Suffragette City," so they didn’t say no when Bowie offered to let them record "Dudes," the ultimate glam-rock hymn. "I’m thinking, 'He wants to give us that?'" said drummer Dale Griffin. "'He must be crazy!'" Ian Hunter made it anthemic, contrary to the writer’s apocalyptic intent. "[It’s] about the news," Bowie told RS. "It’s no hymn to the youth."

Appears on: All the Young Dudes (Columbia)


The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Mott the Hoople's All the Young Dudes


Bobby Darin, ‘Mack the Knife’

Writers: Marc Blitzstein, Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill
Producer: Ahmet Ertegun
Released: March '59, Atco
26 weeks; No. 1 

Darin first hit in 1958 with the rock & roll bathtub classic "Splish Splash." But he changed his image with this hepcat version of a morbid tale from Weill’s Threepenny Opera, which dates back to 1928. Darin came on as a finger-snapping sophisticate at home in the cocktail lounge, scatting over a jazzy groove; it was easy to forget he was singing about a bloodthirsty Berlin gangster.

Appears on: That’s All (Atlantic)


The Drifters, ‘Money Honey’

Writer: Jesse Stone
Producers: Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler
Released: Sept.'53, Atlantic

The Drifters were a tough R&B group led by the great soul singer Clyde McPhatter. After McPhatter got drafted in 1954, the Drifters enjoyed pop success with a totally different lineup. Sadly, McPhatter drank himself to death in 1972, before reaching 40.

Appears on: Greatest Hits (Curb)


Black Sabbath, ‘Paranoid’

Writers: Geezer Butler, Tony Iommi, Ozzy Osbourne, William Ward
Producer: Rodger Bain
Released: Nov. '70, Warner Bros.
8 weeks; No. 61 

After Sabbath’s first U.S. tour, Iommi was at Regent Studios in London trying to write one more song for their next album. "I started fiddling about on the guitar and came up with this riff," he said. "When the others came back [from lunch], we recorded it on the spot."

Appears on: Paranoid (Castle)


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Black Sabbath


Aretha Franklin, ‘Chain of Fools’

Writer: Don Covay
Producer: Jerry Wexler
Released: Nov. '67, Atlantic
12 weeks; No. 2 

The second of four hits from 1968’s Lady Soul, this kissoff was written by Covay as a straight blues about field hands in the South. Covay reworked the lyrics for Franklin; producer Wexler cooked up the propulsive stomp. When songwriter Ellie Greenwich heard the track in Wexler’s office, she suggested an extra vocal-harmony part, which Wexler got her to sing on the final master.

Appears on: Lady Soul (Rhino)


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Aretha Franklin


Sugarhill Gang, ‘Rapper’s Delight’

Writers: S. Robinson, H. Jackson, M. Wright, G. O’Brien
Producer: Sylvia Robinson
Released: Oct. '79, Sugar Hill
12 weeks; No. 36 

Master Gee, Wonder Mike and Big Bank Hank were a pure studio creation, a trio of unknown MCs recruited by Sugar Hill’s Sylvia Robinson to make rap’s first radio hit. Based on a sample of Chic’s "Good Times," the track — with raps about bad food instead of boasting — kept going hip-hop, hippity-to-the-hop for 15 minutes.

Appears on: Rappers Delight: The Best of Sugarhill Gang (Rhino)

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