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.


The Animals, ‘The House of the Rising Sun’

Writer: Alan Price
Producer: Mickie Most
Released: July '64, MGM
11 weeks; No. 1

"We were looking for a song that would grab people's attention," said Animals singer Eric Burdon. They found it with the old U.S. folk ballad "The House of the Rising Sun." In 1962, Bob Dylan had sung this grim tale of a Southern girl trapped in a New Orleans whorehouse. The Animals, from the English coal town of Newcastle, changed the gender in the lyrics, and keyboardist Price created the new arrangement (and grabbed a composer's credit). Price also added an organ solo inspired by Jimmy Smith's hit "Walk on the Wild Side."

Appears on: The Best of the Animals (ABKCO)


Ben E. King, ‘Stand By Me’

Writers: King, Elmo Glick, Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller
Producers: Leiber, Stoller
Released: April '61, Atco
14 weeks; No. 4

Ben E. King wrote "Stand By Me" when he was still the lead singer of the Drifters — but the group didn't want it. As King recalled, the Drifters' manager told him, "Not a bad song, but we don't need it." But after King went solo, he revived "Stand By Me" at the end of a session with Leiber. "I showed him the song," King said. "Did it on piano a little bit, he called the musicians back into the studio, and we went ahead and recorded it." "Stand By Me" has been a pop-soul standard ever since, covered by everyone from John Lennon to Green Day.

Appears on: The Very Best of Ben E. King (Rhino)


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: The Drifters


The Jackson 5, ‘I Want You Back’

Writers: Freddie Perren, Fonce Mizell, Deke Richards, Berry Gordy Jr.
Producers: Perren, Mizell, Richards, Gordy
Released: Nov. '69, Motown
19 weeks; No. 1

"I Want You Back" was the song that introduced Motown to the futuristic funk beat of Sly Stone and James Brown. It also introduced the world to an 11-year-old Indiana kid named Michael Jackson. The five dancing Jackson brothers became stars overnight; "ABC," "The Love You Save" and "I'll Be There" followed in rapid succession on the charts, but none matched the boyish fervor of "Back." It remains one of hip-hop's favorite beats, sampled everywhere from Kris Kross' "Jump" to Jay-Z's "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)."

Appears on: The Ultimate Collection (Motown) 


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Michael Jackson

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson at 50: Rare Early Photos, Plus A Survey of His Recent Ups and Downs


The Isley Brothers, ‘Shout (Parts 1 and 2)’

Writers: Rudolph Isley, Ronald Isley, O'Kelly Isley
Producers: Hugo Peretti, Luigi Creatore
Released: Sept. '59, RCA
11 weeks; No. 47

The five-minute-long workout "Shout" was a modest hit upon its original release in 1959, but it's perhaps better remembered for its appearance in the 1978 movie Animal House, where the fictional Otis Day and the Knights (with a young Robert Cray on bass) played an almost note-for-note copy of the Isley Brothers' original. As O'Kelly Isley, who helped found the group in the mid-Fifties, noted, the world was just coming around to the Isley Brothers' original sound. "People have been playin' our music in bars and discotheques for years," he told Rolling Stone in 1975, "''cause it's danceable, man."

Appears on: The Isley Brothers Story, Vol. 1: Rockin' Soul (Rhino) 


Beyonce feat. Jay-Z, ‘Crazy in Love’

Writers: Rich Harrison, Beyonce, Jay-Z
Producers: Harrison, Beyonce
 Released: May '03, Columbia
27 weeks; No. 1

Those horns weren't a hook; they were a herald: Pop's new queen had arrived. Beyoncé's debut solo smash, powered by a brass blast sampled from the Chi-Lites' "Are You My Woman (Tell Me So)," announced her liberation from Destiny's Child and firmly established her MO: She'd best the competition by doing everything sassier, bigger, crazier. Her future husband, Jay-Z, stepped up, too — it took him just 10 minutes to create (he writes nothing down) and record his typically braggadocious cameo.

Appears on: Dangerously in Love (Columbia)


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Jay-Z

Hip-Hop Royalty: How Jay-Z and Beyoncé Run This Town


Al Green, ‘Take Me to the River’

Writers: Green, Mabon Hodges
Producer: Willie Mitchell
Released: Nov. '74, Hi

Al Green and Hi Records house guitarist Mabon "Teenie" Hodges wrote "Take Me to the River" not by a river but by a lake: They holed up in a rented house at Lake Hamilton in Hot Springs, Arkansas, for three days in 1973 to come up with new material. "I was trying to get more stability in my life," said Green, who has famously struggled at balancing his gospel and sexy, earthier sides. "I wrote, 'Take me to the river/Wash me down/Cleanse my soul.'" When it became the first Top 40 hit for Talking Heads in late 1978, "River" gained a whole new audience.

Appears on: Al Green Explores Your Mind (The Right Stuff) 


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Al Green

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Al Green


The Rolling Stones, ‘Honky Tonk Women’

Writers: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards
Producer: Jimmy Miller
Released: July '69, London
15 weeks; No. 1

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards came up with "Honky Tonk Women" on a South American vacation, using their girlfriends at the time, Marianne Faithfull and Anita Pallenberg, as sounding boards. Returning to the recording studio in May 1969 with pure-rock lyrics such as "I met a gin-soaked barroom queen in Memphis," the Rolling Stones recorded the song in five hours. "Honky Tonk Women" marked the debut of guitarist Mick Taylor, who overdubbed in his part; producer Jimmy Miller added some crucial cowbell, which pounded home "Honky Tonk's" strip-club bump and grind.

Appears on: Let It Bleed (ABKCO)


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: the Rolling Stones

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Mick Jagger

The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: Keith Richards

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Let It Bleed

Photos: Rare and Intimate Pictures of the Rolling Stones


Sam Cooke, ‘You Send Me’

Writer: Cooke
Producer: Richard "Bumps" Blackwell
Released: Oct. '57, Keen
26 weeks; No. 1 

The plan was to remake gospel star Cooke as a secular singer. But Specialty Records owner Art Rupe objected so strongly to Blackwell's use of white female backing vocalists for a session — Rupe thought that Cooke was watering his sound down too much — that he released Cooke from his contract. Major-label scouts were confused by the record, too, thinking it was too soft for R&B but too gritty for the pop charts. Then Blackwell took the tapes to Keen Records' Bob Keane, who had signed Ritchie Valens and who smelled another winner. "I said, 'Screw the black market,'" Keane said. "'This is a pop record, daddy-o!'"

Appears on: Greatest Hits (RCA) 


The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Sam Cooke

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Sam Cooke


The Drifters, ‘Up on the Roof’

Writers: Gerry Goffin, Carole King
Producers: Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller
Released: Nov. '62, Atlantic
20 weeks; No. 5

"Up on the Roof" — a breezy summertime song for city dwellers whose only getaways were the tar beaches at the top of their buildings — was written by the husband-and-wife team of Goffin and King, rising stars on New York's Tin Pan Alley scene who had broken through with the Shirelles' "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" and had already written one Drifters hit ("Some Kind of Wonderful"). It was sung by Rudy Lewis, the third in the Drifters' cavalcade of great lead voices; in 1970, King reclaimed the song as a recording artist with a wistful, downtempo version.

Appears on: The Very Best of the Drifters (Rhino) 


Elvis Presley, ‘That’s All Right’

Writer: Arthur Crudup
Producer: Sam Phillips
Released: Aug. '54, Sun
Did not chart

Presley was halfway into his first recording session, with Sun Records' Sam Phillips, when Presley pulled out "Big Boy" Crudup's 1946 blues obscurity "That's All Right," and the world changed. Recorded in a shockingly fast, lusty new style, the single was the place where race and hillbilly music collided and became rock & roll. Presley would cover two more Crudup tunes in 1956: "My Baby Left Me" and "So Glad You're Mine." Presley would remember, "I said if I ever got to the place where I could feel all old Arthur felt, I'd be a music man like nobody ever saw."

Appears on: Sunrise (RCA) 


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Elvis Presley

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Elvis Presley


Hank Williams, ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’

Writer: Williams
Producer: Fred Rose
Released: Nov. '49, Sterling
Did not chart

This track — a vision of lonesome Americana over a steady beat — was Williams' favorite out of all the songs he wrote. But he worried that the lyrics about weeping robins and falling stars were too artsy for his rural audience, which might explain why the track was buried on the B side of "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It." "Lonesome" didn't catch much attention, but after Williams' death it came to symbolize his whiskey-soaked life, and artists such as Willie Nelson resurrected it, setting the mood for much of the country music that followed.

Appears on: The Ultimate Collection (Universal) 


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Hank Williams

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Hank Williams


Otis Redding, ‘I’ve Been Loving You too Long (to Stop Now)’

Writers: Jerry Butler, Redding
Producers: Jim Stewart, Steve Cropper
Released: April '65, Volt
11 weeks; No. 21

Redding and soul balladeer "Iceman" Butler were hanging out in Redding's hotel room in Buffalo, New York, after a gig when Butler sang a half-finished song he had been working on. "Hey, man, that's a smash," Redding said. "Let me go mess around with it. Maybe I'll come up with something." Sure enough, "I've Been Loving You Too Long" became Redding's first Top 40 single, in June 1965. And when Redding performed a scorching drawn-out version at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 — in front of the audience he called "the love crowd" — the single made the transition from hit to legend.

Appears on: Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul (Atco) 


The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Otis Redding

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Otis Redding

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Otis Blue


Van Morrison, ‘Brown Eyed Girl’

Writer: Morrison
Producer: Bert Berns
Released: June '67, Bang
16 weeks; No. 10

The cheery "sha-la-la" chorus of "Brown Eyed Girl," originally titled "Brown Skinned Girl," brought Morrison to the top of the pop charts, even though he didn't much like the record and recently said he doesn't even consider it one of his best 300 songs. "The record came out different," Morrison said. "This fellow, Bert, he made it the way he wanted it, and I accepted the fact that he was producing it, so I just let him do it." After its smash success, Morrison turned his back on mainstream pop. "It just put me in some awkward positions," he said. "Like lip-syncing on a television show. I can't lip-sync." His next album, the masterful Astral Weeks, was a personal acoustic song cycle that sold practically nothing.

Appears on: Blowin' Your Mind (Sony) 


The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Van Morrison

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Van Morrison

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Astral Weeks


Prince, ‘Little Red Corvette’

Writer: Prince
Producer: Prince
Released: March '83, Warner
22 weeks; No. 6

A horse-racing metaphor, a car metaphor and, probably, a clitoris metaphor: Prince didn't scrimp on literary possibilities in coming up with what would be his first Top 10 hit. In 1982, Prince had a 24-track studio installed in his basement; by 6 p.m. the day after it was set up, he had recorded "Little Red Corvette." The song is an almost perfect erotic fusion of rock and funk that builds slowly until exploding into a guitar solo. Fittingly, Prince wrote the lyrics in the back seat of a car, but not a red Corvette: It was a bright-pink Ford Edsel belonging to Revolution keyboardist Lisa Coleman.

Appears on: 1999 (Warner Bros.) 


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Prince

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Prince

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: 1999


Buddy Holly and the Crickets, ‘Not Fade Away’

Writers: Holly, Norman Petty
Producer: Petty
Released: Oct. '57, Brunswick
20 weeks; No. 10

Recorded in Clovis, New Mexico, in May 1957, "Not Fade Away" was originally the B side to Holly's hit "Oh, Boy!" The Crickets were no strangers to the Bo Diddley beat — they had already covered "Bo Diddley" — but with "Not Fade Away" they made the rhythm their own, thanks to drummer Jerry Allison, who pounded out the beat on a cardboard box. Allison, Holly's best friend, also claims to have written most of the lyrics, though his name never appeared in the songwriting credits. In 1964, the song became the Rolling Stones' first release in the U.S.

Appears on: Greatest Hits (MCA) 


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Buddy Holly

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Buddy Holly


Bob Dylan, ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’

Writer: Dylan
Producer: Tom Wilson
Released: March '65, Columbia

Inspired by Bruce Langhorne — a session guitarist who played on several Dylan records — "Mr. Tambourine Man" is the tune that elevated Dylan from folk hero to bona fide star. "[Bruce] was one of those characters….He had this gigantic tambourine as big as a wagon wheel," Dylan said. "The vision of him playing just stuck in my mind." Written partly during a drug-fueled cross-country trek in 1964, the song was recorded on January 15th, 1965; five days later, based on a demo (which Dylan cut with Ramblin' Jack Elliott) they'd heard, the Byrds recorded their own electrified version. "Wow, man," said Dylan, "you can even dance to that!"

Appears on: Bringing it All Back Home (Columbia) 


The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Bob Dylan

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan at 70: His Greatest Songs, Classic Features, Photos and More


Simon and Garfunkel, ‘The Boxer’

Writer: Paul Simon
Producers: Roy Halee, Simon, Art Garfunkel
Released: April '69, Columbia
10 weeks; No. 7

"The Boxer" is about a New York kid who can't find love, a job or a home — just those whores on Seventh Avenue. "I was reading the Bible," Simon said of the song's genesis. "That's where 'workman's wages' came from." He sang the song as a tribute to New York on the first Saturday Night Live after 9/11.

Appears on: Bridge Over Troubled Water (Columbia)


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Simon and Garfunkel

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Art Garfunkel

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Bridge Over Troubled Water


Stevie Wonder, ‘Living for the City’

Writer: Wonder
Producer: Wonder
Released: August '73, Tamla
17 weeks; No. 8

Wonder went epic with "Living for the City," a bleak seven-minute narrative about the broken dreams of black America that was so powerful, Richard Pryor later recorded the lyrics delivered as a church sermon. Wonder sings about a boy growing up in the mythical town of Hard Times, Mississippi, surrounded by poverty and racism. When he takes the bus to New York in search of a better life, he gets set up for a drug bust and goes to jail. Wonder filled the song with cinematic dialogue, even recruiting one of the janitors at the recording studio to play the white prison guard who mutters, "Get into that cell, nigger." Public Enemy sampled the line years later on It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.

Appears on: Innervisions (Motown) 


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Stevie Wonder

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Stevie Wonder

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Innervisions


Donna Summer, ‘Hot Stuff’

Writers: Pete Bellotte, Harold Faltermeyer, Keith Forsey
Producer: Giorgio Moroder, Bellotte
Released: April '79, Casablanca
21 weeks; No. 1

The Rolling Stones' "Miss You" and Rod Stewart's "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy" approached disco from the world of rock. Now Summer and producer Moroder wanted to return the favor. Setting a thumping kick-drum pulse against a raunchy guitar solo from Doobie Brother (and disco hater) Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, they paved the way for such hybrids as Michael Jackson's "Beat It." The Queen of Disco snarled with an assertiveness rarely heard on her earlier Euro-disco hits. The 12-inch memorably segues directly into Summer's follow-up, "Bad Girls."

Appears on: Bad Girls (Mercury/Chronicles) 


Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps, ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’

Writers: Vincent, Bill Davis
Producer: Ken Nelson
Released: May '56, Capitol
20 weeks; No. 7

With Vincent's echo-soaked voice, Cliff Gallup's high-reverb guitar and 15-year-old drummer Dickie Harrell's wildcat screams, "Be-Bop-A-Lula" went to Number Seven in 1956. Vincent signed to Capitol, which had been hunting for its own Elvis-type singer. A restless sort, Vincent joined the Navy while still underage and nearly had his leg amputated after a motorcycle crackup. He reportedly wrote "Be-Bop-A-Lula" with a fellow patient while recuperating at a naval hospital.

Appears on: The Screaming End: The Best of Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps (Razor and Tie) 


The Jimi Hendrix Experience, ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’

Writer: Jimi Hendrix
Producer: Chas Chandler
Released: Oct. '68, Reprise

After a night of partying in New York on May 2nd, 1968, Hendrix, Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell, Traffic's Stevie Winwood and Jefferson Airplane's Jack Casady returned to Electric Ladyland studio and cut "Voodoo Chile," a 15-minute take on Muddy Waters' "Rolling Stone." Later that day, Hendrix, Mitchell and bassist Noel Redding were being filmed by a TV crew. Hendrix improvised the staggering wah-wah guitar riff that kicks off the apocalyptic blues "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" on the spot. "It was like, 'OK, boys, look like we're recording,'" Hendrix said. "We weren't thinking about what we were playing."

Appears on: Electric Ladyland (MCA) 


The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: Jimi Hendrix

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Jimi Hendrix

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Electric Ladyland


The Rolling Stones, ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’

Writers: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards
Producer: Jimmy Miller
Released: July '69, London
8 weeks; No. 42

After a November 1968 recording session, Al Kooper asked Jagger if he could take a stab at a horn chart for a new song. Kooper got his wish, but only his French horn made the final mix, providing "You Can't Always Get What You Want" with its signature intro. The song's piano groove was based on an Etta James record, and producer Miller — "Mr. Jimmy" in the Jagger lyric — subbed for Charlie Watts when the Stones drummer had difficulty mastering the tricky groove. Phil Spector accomplice Jack Nitzsche provided the crowning touch in March 1969, orchestrating the London Bach Choir into a towering backing chorus. A grandiose finale for a landmark album.

Appears on: Let It Bleed (ABKCO) 


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: the Rolling Stones

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Mick Jagger

The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: Keith Richards

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Let It Bleed

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