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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.

41

The Band, ‘The Weight’

Writer: Robbie Robertson
Producer: John Simon
Released: Aug. '68, Capitol
7 weeks; No. 63

The Band was chiefly known as Bob Dylan's touring group when it retreated to a pink house in Woodstock, New York, to record its debut, Music From Big Pink. The album was centered by "The Weight," an oddball fable of debt and burden driven by an indelible singalong chorus ("Take a load off, Fanny. . . ."). Robertson said he was inspired to write the song after watching director Luis Bunuel's films about "the impossibility of sainthood," but characters such as Crazy Chester (who tries to pawn his dog off on the narrator) could have walked straight out of an old folk song. As for the biblical-sounding line "pulled into Nazareth," it refers to Nazareth, Pennsylvania, home of the Martin Guitar factory.

Appears on: Music From Big Pink (Capitol)

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40

Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, ‘Dancing in the Street’

Writers: Marvin Gaye, Ivy Hunter, William "Mickey" Stevenson
Producer: Stevenson Released: Sept. '64
14 weeks; No. 2

Gordy Stevenson, who gave Martha Reeves her first job, as his secretary, approached the group with this song after it was turned down by Motown labelmate (and future Mrs. Stevenson) Kim Weston. The trio agreed to record "Dancing in the Street" as a demo with its songwriters singing background. "When Martha got into the song," Stevenson said, "that was the end of the conversation!" Against a backbeat that cracks like a gunshot, Reeves reinvents the world as a giant block party.

Appears on: The Ultimate Collection (Motown)

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39

Buddy Holly and the Crickets, ‘That’ll Be the Day’

Writers: Jerry Allison, Holly, Norman Petty
Producer: Petty
Released: May '57, Brunswick
1 week; No. 1

Recorded in Clovis, New Mexico, in February 1957, the song took its title from a recurring line in the John Wayne movie The Searchers. "We were cutting 'That'll Be the Day' just as a demo to send to New York, just to see if they liked the sound of the group — not for a master record," recalled Crickets drummer Allison. "So we just went in and set up and sort of shucked through the song." Allison credits Holly's guitar-picking on "That'll Be the Day" to the influence of New Orleans bluesman Lonnie Johnson.

Appears on: Greatest Hits (MCA) 

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38

The Rolling Stones, ‘Gimme Shelter’

Writers: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards
Producer: Jimmy Miller
Released: April '69, London
11 weeks; No. 21 

The Stones channeled the emotional wreckage of the late Sixties on a song that Richards wrote in 20 minutes. The intro, strummed on an electric-acoustic guitar modeled on a Chuck Berry favorite, conjures an unparalleled aura of dread. Singer Merry Clayton brings down Armageddon with a soul-wracked wail: "Rape, murder, it's just a shot away." The song surfaced days after Meredith Hunter's murder at Altamont. "That's a kind of end-of-the-world song, really," Jagger said in 1995. "It's apocalypse." Richards later said that his guitar fell apart on the last take, "as if by design."

Appears on: Let It Bleed (ABKCO) 

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37

Bob Marley, ‘No Woman, No Cry’

Writers: Vincent Ford, Marley
Producers: Chris Blackwell, Marley and the Wailers
Released: May '75, Island
Did not chart

The uptempo version on 1975's Natty Dread is forgettable, but the swaying, incantatory take on 1975's Live! remains one of the reggae legend's most beloved performances. The "government yard in Trench Town" refers to the Jamaican public-housing project where Marley lived in the Fifties. He gave a songwriting credit to childhood friend Vincent "Tata" Ford to help keep Ford's Kingston soup kitchen running.

Appears on: Natty Dread (Island)

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36

U2, ‘One’

Writers: Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen Jr.
Producers: Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois
Released: Nov. '91, Island
20 weeks; No. 10 

Achtung Baby was the album on which U2 traded in a decade of earnestness for irony, but the new approach resulted in their most moving single ever. "One" was spun off from another song, "Mysterious Ways," when the Edge came up with two ideas for the bridge, and Bono so liked one of them that he wrote a new set of lyrics. Though some hear it as a love song, the words are full of hurt and ambiguity. "People have told me they play it at their wedding," the Edge said. "And I think, 'Have you listened to the lyrics? It's not that kind of a song.'"

Appears on: Achtung Baby (Island) 

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35

The Doors, ‘Light My Fire’

Writers: Robby Krieger, John Densmore, Jim Morrison, Ray Manzarek
Producer: Paul Rothchild
Released: June '67, Elektra
17 weeks; No. 1 

It was the first song Krieger ever wrote — with additional lyrics from Morrison and arrangements from the rest of the band. "It's like I'd saved up all [these ideas] in my mind and got them out all at once," Krieger said. The song catapulted the Doors to overnight fame, which Krieger says was part of Morrison's plan: "Jim had this idea of the band being a shooting star," Krieger said. "Fire" ran for seven minutes on the LP and was cut down to three, with Krieger's and keyboardist Manzarek's solos excised, on the single.

Appears on: The Doors (Elektra)

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34

The Righteous Brothers, ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin”

 Writers: Phil Spector, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil
Producer: Spector
Released: Dec. '64, Philles
16 weeks; No. 1 

Spector was conducting the musicians for a Ronettes show in San Francisco when he decided to sign the Righteous Brothers, who were on the bill. He then asked Mann and Weil to come up with a hit for them. Bill Medley's intro sounds impossibly deep. "When Phil played it for me," Mann recalled, "I said, 'Phil, you have it on the wrong speed!'" Bobby Hatfield was puzzled by his partner's opening solo: "What do I do while he's singing the entire first verse?" he asked Spector, who answered, "You can go directly to the bank."

Appears on: Anthology 1962-1974 (Rhino)

The Righteous Brothers Photos

33

Ike and Tina Turner, ‘River Deep – Mountain High’

Writers: Phil Spector, Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich
Producer: Spector
Released: May '66, Philles
4 weeks; No. 88 

Spector heard the Ike and Tina Turner Revue at a Hollywood club at a time when their recording career had stalled after a handful of R&B hits in the early 1960s. Spector had a song called "River Deep — Mountain High" that he was sure was going to be huge, and he wanted Tina to sing it, though he forbade Ike from even coming to the sessions. "I must have sung that 500,000 times," Tina later said. "I was drenched with sweat. I had to take my shirt off and stand there in my bra to sing."

Appears on: Proud Mary: The Best of Ike and Tina Turner (EMI)

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32

The Rolling Stones, ‘Sympathy for the Devil’

Writers: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards
Producer: Jimmy Miller
Released: Dec. '68, London
Non-single

The inspiration for this hellish detour came from Soviet writer Mikhail Bulgakov's novel The Master and Margarita, which depicts Satan having his way in 1930s Moscow. Richards struggled to find the right backing for Jagger's menacing Dylan-esque lyrics, unsure "whether it should be a samba or a goddamn folk song," he recalled. The Stones ended up giving the devil one of their best grooves, built on Rocky Dijon's congas and Bill Wyman's Bo Diddley-ish maracas. "Before, when we were just innocent kids out for a good time [the media said], 'They're evil, they're evil,'" Richards said. "So that makes you start thinking about evil. . . . Everybody's Lucifer."

Appears on: Beggar's Banquet (ABKCO) 

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31

Led Zeppelin, ‘Stairway to Heaven’

Writers: Jimmy Page, Robert Plant
Producer: Page
Released: Nov. '71, Atlantic
Non-single

All epic anthems must measure themselves against "Stairway to Heaven," the cornerstone of Led Zeppelin IV. The acoustic intro sounds positively Elizabethan, thanks to John Paul Jones' recorder solo and Plant's fanciful lyrics, which were partly inspired by Lewis Spence's historical tome Magic Arts in Celtic Britain. Over eight minutes, the song morphs into a furious Page solo that storms heaven's gate. Page said the song "crystallized the essence of the band. It had everything there and showed us at our best. It was a milestone. Every musician wants to do something of lasting quality, something which will hold up for a long time. We did it with 'Stairway.'"

Appears on: Led Zeppelin IV (Atlantic) 

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30

Johnny Cash, ‘I Walk the Line’

Writer: Cash
Producer: Sam Phillips
Released: Aug. '56, Sun
22 weeks; No. 17 

Cash began work on this track while he was in Germany with the Air Force, years before he would ever enter a studio. He returned to it after he hit with "Folsom Prison Blues," only to find that the original tape had gotten mangled. But Cash liked the strange sound and added a click-clack rhythm by winding a piece of wax paper through his guitar strings. Phillips then had him speed up the song, originally a ballad, to a driving rumble. "It was different than anything else you had ever heard," Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone. "A voice from the middle of the Earth."

Appears on: The Complete Original Sun Singles (Varese Sarabande)

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29

The Beatles, ‘Help!’

Writers: John Lennon, Paul McCartney
Producer: George Martin
Released: July '65, Capitol
13 weeks; No. 1 

"Most people think it's just a fast rock & roll song," Lennon said. "Subconsciously, I was crying out for help. I didn't realize it at the time; I just wrote the song because I was commissioned to write it for the movie." Overwhelmed by Beatlemania, Lennon was eating "like a pig," drinking too much and "smoking marijuana for breakfast" — only 24 years old, he was already expressing nostalgia for his lost youth. "I don't like the recording that much," Lennon would later tell Rolling Stone. "We did it too fast, to try and be commercial."

Appears on: Help! (Capitol) 

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28

The Beatles, ‘A Day in the Life’

Writers: John Lennon, Paul McCartney
Producer: George Martin
Released: June '67, Capitol
Non-single 

"A Day in the Life" was one of the last true Lennon-McCartney collaborations: Lennon wrote the opening and closing sections, and McCartney contributed the "Woke up/Fell out of bed" middle. For the climax, they hired 40 musicians, dressed them in tuxedos and funny hats, and told them they had 15 bars to ascend from the lowest note on their instruments to the highest. "Listen to those trumpets — they're freaking out," McCartney said. The final piano chord concluded Sgt. Pepper and made rock's possibilities seem infinite.

Appears on: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Capitol)

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27

Derek and the Dominos, ‘Layla’

Writers: Eric Clapton, Jim Gordon
Producers: Tom Dowd, the Dominos
Released: Nov. '70, Atco
15 weeks; No. 10 

Embroiled in a love triangle with George and Patti Boyd Harrison, Clapton took the title for his greatest song from the Persian love story "Layla and Majnoun." Recorded by the short-lived ensemble Derek and the Dominos, "Layla" storms with aching vocals and crosscutting riffs from Clapton and contributing guitarist Duane Allman, then dissolves into a serene, piano-based coda. "It was the heaviest thing going on at the time," Clapton told Rolling Stone in 1974. "That's what I wanted to write about most of all."

Appears on: Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (Polydor)

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