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 B-52’s, ‘Rock Lobster’

Writers: Fred Schneider, Ricky Wilson
Producer: Chris Blackwell
Released: July '79, Warner Bros.
8 weeks; No. 56

A self-described "quirky little dance band," the B-52's invented New Wave weirdness with this slice of bouffant pop topped with Farfisa organ, Yoko Ono-ish vocals and Schneider's creepy speak-singing about a bizarro seaside scene. "I was at a disco that had pictures of lobsters and children playing ball," he said. " 'Rock Lobster' sounded like a good title for a song."

Appears on: The B-52's (Warner Bros.)


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)


The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Sly and the Family Stone's Stand!

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Sly and the Family Stone


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)


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: The Ramones

100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: Johnny Ramone


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.)


The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Prince

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Prince


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)


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: James Brown

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: James Brown


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)


Led Zeppelin, ‘Kashmir’

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

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)


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Led Zeppelin

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Robert Plant

The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: Jimmy Page


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)


The Lost Beatles Photographs


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)


The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Sly Stone


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)


The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: The Beatles' Revolver

The Lost Beatles Photos: Rare Shots from 1944 – 1966


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)


The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Elton John

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Elton John


The Beatles, ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’

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

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)


The Top Ten Beatles Songs of All Time


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)


The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Wilson Pickett


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)


The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: The Who's Who's Next

Woodstock in Photos: RS Looks Back at the Festival That Defined a Generation


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)


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Bo Diddley

The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: Bo Diddley


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)


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: U2

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: U2's The Joshua Tree

U2's Rolling Stone Cover Shoot: On the Set with Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr.


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)


The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Rod Stewart

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Rod Stewart's Every Picture Tells a Story


Steppenwolf, ‘Born to Be Wild’

Writer: Mars Bonfire
Producer: Gabriel Mekler
Released: Jan. '68, Dunhill 
13 Weeks; No. 2  

The first two singles from Steppenwolf's 1968 debut stiffed; the third was "Born to Be Wild." It hit Number Two on the Billboard charts in the summer of '68, a year before Dennis Hopper used it in a rough cut of the movie Easy Rider, where it was originally just a place holder – actor-producer Peter Fonda had asked Crosby, Stills and Nash to do the soundtrack. But "Born to Be Wild" stayed. "Every generation thinks they're born to be wild," said frontman John Kay, "and they can identify with that song as their anthem." The line "Heavy-metal thunder" would help give a new genre its name.

Appears on: Steppenwolf (MCA)


Chuck Berry, ‘Rock & Roll Music’

Writer: Berry 
Producers: Phil and Leonard Chess
Released: Sept. '57, Chess
19 Weeks; No. 8

This was a manifesto. "I was heavy into rock & roll and had to create something that hit the spot without question," Chuck Berry wrote in his autobiography. "I wanted the lyrics to define every aspect of its being." Set to a jolting rumba rhythm, "Rock & Roll Music" features Berry's genre-defining guitar licks and bass work from the legendary Willie Dixon. Berry's original made the Billboard Top 10, and the Beatles and the Beach Boys cut popular versions as well. For years it was this simple: If you played rock & roll, you knew this song.  

Appears on: Johnny B. Goode: His Complete '50s Chess Recordings (Chess/Hip-O Select) 


The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Chuck Berry

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Chuck Berry

The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: Chuck Berry





David Bowie, ‘Changes’

Writer: Bowie
Ken Scott
Dec. '71, RCA
11 Weeks;
No. 41

The keynote from David Bowie's 1971 album Hunky Dory, "Changes" challenged rock audiences to "turn and face the strange." But the song originally stalled on the charts in both Britain and the United States, and it didn't really take off until after the commercial success of 1972's Ziggy Stardust. Eventually, Bowie fans adopted it as the theme song for the man who'd already given them Hippie Bowie, Mod Bowie and Bluesy Bowie. As it turned out, he had barely begun to show the world his wardrobe of disguises. The poignant sax solo at the end is played by Bowie himself.

Appears on: Hunky Dory (Virgin)


The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: David Bowie

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: David Bowie



Big Joe Turner, ‘Shake, Rattle & Roll’

Writer: Charles Calhoun
Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler
April '54, Atlantic
Predates chart

Atlantic Records' contribution to the birth of rock & roll (Wexler and Ertegun even sang backup), "Shake, Rattle & Roll" was written specifically for big-voiced blues singer Turner, one of the label's early stars. "Everybody was singing slow blues when I was young, and I thought I'd put a beat to it and sing it uptempo," Turner said. This track, with its big bounce and raunchy lyrics ("I'm like a one-eyed cat peepin' in a seafood store"), topped the R&B charts; typical of the times, a sanitized cover by Bill Haley and the Comets got white America bopping. 

Appears on: The Very Best of Big Joe Turner (Rhino)


Wex on Wax: Twenty Essential Jerry Wexler Productions




The Shirelles, ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’

Writers: Gerry Goffin, Carole King
Producer: Luther Dixon
Released: Nov. '60, Scepter
19 weeks; No. 1

After a few minor Shirelles hits, Scepter Records founder Florence Greenberg asked King and Goffin to write the group a song. On the piano in Greenberg's office, King finished a song the team had been working on. "I remember giving her baby a bottle while Carole was writing the song," Greenberg said. Lead singer Shirley Owens initially found "Tomorrow" too countryish for the group, but Dixon's production changed her mind. King's devotion to the song was so strong she replaced a subpar percussionist and played kettledrum herself. With its forthright depiction of a sexual relationship, it became the first girl-group record to go Number One.

Appears on: Girl Group Greats (Rhino)


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: The Shirelles

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: The Best of the Girl Groups Volumes 1 and 2 – Various Artists


The Rolling Stones, ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’

Writers: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards
Producer: Jimmy Miller
Released: May '68, London
12 weeks; No. 3

Keith Richards was on a historic run in 1968, exploring the open-D blues-guitar tuning for the first time and coming up with some of his most dynamic riffs. He overheard an organ lick that bassist Bill Wyman was fooling around with in a London studio and turned it into the unstoppable, churning pulse of "Jumpin' Jack Flash." The lyric was inspired by Richards' gardener, Jack Dyer, who slogged past as the guitarist and Jagger were coming to the end of an all-night session. "Who's that?" Jagger asked. "Jumpin' Jack," Richards answered. The song evolved into supernatural Delta blues by way of Swinging London. The Stones first performed it at their final show with Brian Jones.

Appears on: Forty Licks (Virgin)


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: The Rolling Stones

The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: Keith Richards

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Mick Jagger

Photos: Rare and Intimate Pictures of the Rolling Stones


James Brown, ‘It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World’

Writers: Brown, Betty Jean Newsome
Producer: Brown
Released: April '66, King
9 weeks; No. 8

James Brown had been tinkering with the building blocks to this song for years — his singer Tammy Montgomery (who would become Tammi Terrell) had recorded the sound-alike "I Cried" in 1963. But Brown's recording of "Man's World" — a play on the 1963 cross-country chase comedy It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World — was a stunningly dramatic record. Amid swooping strings, Brown's abject singing makes the biblically chauvinistic lyrics ("Man made the boat for the water, like Noah made the ark") sound genuinely humane.

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


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: James Brown

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: James Brown

James Brown, 1933-2006


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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