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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.

25

The Beach Boys, ‘God Only Knows’

Writers: Brian Wilson, Tony Asher
Producer: Wilson
Released: May '66, Capitol
8 weeks; No. 39 

"It's very emotional, always a bit of a choker with me," said Paul McCartney of this Pet Sounds ballad. The night McCartney and John Lennon first heard Pet Sounds, at a London party, they wrote "Here, There and Everywhere," which is influenced by "God Only Knows." Carl Wilson's understated lead vocal is note-perfect, but it's the arrangement of horns, sleigh bells, strings and accordion that gives "God" its heavenly feel. Brian Wilson was fascinated by spirituality and said this song came out of prayer sessions in the studio. "We made it a religious ceremony," he said of recording Pet Sounds. The only problem: The use of the word "God" in the title scared off some radio programmers.

Appears on: Pet Sounds (Capitol) 

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24

The Impressions, ‘People Get Ready’

Writer: Curtis Mayfield
Producer: Johnny Pate
Released: Jan. '65, ABC-Paramount
8 weeks; No. 14 

"It was warrior music," said civil rights activist Gordon Sellers. "It was music you listened to while you were preparing to go into battle." Mayfield wrote the gospel-driven R&B ballad, he said, "in a deep mood, a spiritual state of mind," just before Martin Luther King Jr.'s march on the Impressions' hometown of Chicago. Shortly after "People Get Ready" was released, churches in Chicago began including their own version of it in songbooks. Mayfield's version of the song ended with "You don't need no ticket/You just thank the Lord," but the churches' rendition, ironically, made the lyrics less Christian and more universal: "Everybody wants freedom/This I know."

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

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23

The Beatles, ‘In My Life’

Writers: John Lennon, Paul McCartney
Producer: George Martin
Released: Dec. '65, Capitol
Non-single 

"''In My Life' was, I think, my first real, major piece of work," John Lennon said. "Up until then it had all been glib and throwaway." The ballad reflects the serious turn the Beatles took with Rubber Soul, but it specifically arose from a journalist's challenge: Why don't you write songs about your life? The original lyrics put Lennon on a bus in Liverpool, "and it was the most boring sort of 'What I Did on My Holidays Bus Trip' song," he said. So Lennon rewrote the lyrics, changing the song into a gorgeous reminiscence about his life before the Beatles. The distinctive "harpsichord" solo near the song's end is actually an electric piano played by Martin and sped up on tape.

Appears on: Rubber Soul (Capitol) 

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22

The Ronettes, ‘Be My Baby’

Writers: Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich, Phil Spector
Producer: Spector
Released: Aug. '63 
13 weeks; No. 2 

Phil Spector rehearsed this song with Ronnie Bennett (the only Ronette to sing on it) for weeks, but that didn't stop him from doing 42 takes before he was satisfied. Aided by a full orchestra (as well as a young Cher, who sang backup vocals), Spector created a lush, echo-laden sound that was the Rosetta stone for studio pioneers such as the Beatles and Brian Wilson, who calls this his favorite song. "The things Phil was doing were crazy and exhausting," said Larry Levine, Spector's engineer. "But that's not the sign of a nut. That's genius."

Appears on: The Best of the Ronettes (ABKCO)

21

Bruce Springsteen, ‘Born to Run’

Writer: Springsteen
Producers: Springsteen, Mike Appel
Released: Aug. '75, Columbia
11 weeks; No. 23

This song's four and a half minutes took three and a half months to cut. Aiming for the impact of Phil Spector's Wall of Sound, Springsteen included strings, glockenspiel, multiple keyboards — and more than a dozen guitar tracks. "I had enormous ambitions for it," said Springsteen. "I wanted to make the greatest rock record I'd ever heard." Springsteen's lyrics told a story of young lovers on the highways of New Jersey. "I don't know how important the settings are," Springsteen said. "It's the idea behind the settings. It could be New Jersey, it could be California, it could be Alaska."

Appears on: Born to Run (Columbia)

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20

The Beatles, ‘Let It Be’

Writers: John Lennon, Paul McCartney
Producer: George Martin
Released: March '70, Apple
14 weeks; No. 1

Inspired by the church-born soul of Aretha Franklin, an anxious Paul McCartney started writing "Let It Be" in 1968, during the contentious sessions for the White Album. His opening lines — "When I find myself in times of trouble/Mother Mary comes to me" — were based on a dream in which his own late mother, Mary, offered solace during a tumultuous time for both the band and the culture, assuring him that everything would turn out fine. "I'm not sure if she used the words 'Let it be,'" McCartney recalled, "but that was the gist of her advice." McCartney unveiled a skeletal version of "Let It Be" to the other Beatles at an even worse time: during the initial, disastrous Let It Be rehearsals in January 1969. John Lennon, the group's resident heretic, was brutally dismissive, mistaking McCartney's secular humanism for self-righteous piety. Yet the Beatles put special labor into the song, getting the consummate take on January 31st — the day after their last live performance, on the roof of their Apple offices in London. (R&B musician Billy Preston, a friend of the band's from its early days, contributed the gospel-flavored organ part.) George Harrison later took a couple of cracks at adding a guitar solo: The single version features his solo from April 30th, 1969, and the album cut's solo was taped at the final Beatles recording session, on January 4th, 1970. Released four months later, "Let It Be" effectively became an elegy for the band that had defined the Sixties.

Appears on: Let It Be (Capitol/Apple)

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19

Elvis Presley, ‘Hound Dog’

Writers: Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller
Producer: Steve Sholes
Released: July '56, RCA
28 weeks; No. 1

"Hound Dog" was a hit before Elvis Presley sang it, and he was famous for singing it before he recorded it. Written in 1952 by white teenagers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller for R&B singer Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton, it was a smash for her, and was immediately covered by a handful of country acts. (The chorus, Leiber noted in 1987, was code for "You ain't nothin' but a motherfucker.") Presley, always on the lookout for hillbilly/R&B crossover possibilities, added the song to his stage act in the spring of 1956, after hearing Freddie Bell and the Bellboys sing it in Las Vegas. On June 5th of that year, his hip-swiveling performance of "Hound Dog" on The Milton Berle Show became an instant sensation — notorious enough that on his next TV appearance, he crooned the song to a top-hatted basset hound. The next morning, Presley and his band got deadly serious about "Hound Dog," perfecting it over 31 takes at New York's RCA Studios. With snarling vocal authority, D.J. Fontana's tommy-gun drumrolls and slashing guitar by Scotty Moore, Presley transformed the song's blues changes and put-down rhymes into a declaration of independence from his generation's cold, rigid elders. "Hound Dog" was the flip side of "Don't Be Cruel," Presley's third RCA single. It was also the song in which he told the world: Like it or not, rock & roll is here to stay.

Appears on: Elvis 30 #1 Hits (RCA) 

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18

Chuck Berry, ‘Maybellene’

Writer: Berry
Producers: Leonard and Phil Chess
Released: July '55, Chess
11 weeks; No. 5

Rock & roll guitar starts here. The pileup of hillbilly country, urban blues and hot jazz in Chuck Berry's electric twang is the primal language of pop- music guitar, and it's all perfected on his first single. The entire song is a two-minute chase scene packed with car-culture vernacular and Berry's hipster-lingo inventions ("As I was motorvatin' over the hill. . . ."). Its groove comes from "Ida Red," a 1938 recording by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys (of a song that dates back to the 19th century). By the time of the May 21st, 1955, session, Berry had been playing country tunes for black audiences for a few years — "After they laughed at me a few times, they began requesting the hillbilly stuff," he has said. Leonard Chess came up with the title, inspired by a Maybelline mascara box lying on the floor at the Chess studio. DJ Alan Freed had nothing to do with writing "Maybellene," although he got co-credit and royalties for years in return for radio airplay: payola in all but name.

Appears on: The Anthology (Chess) 

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17

The Jimi Hendrix Experience, ‘Purple Haze’

Writer: Hendrix
Producer: Chas Chandler
Released: March '67, Reprise
8 weeks; No. 65

It is one of the unforgettable opening riffs in rock: a ferocious, stomping guitar march, scarred with fuzz and built around the dissonant "devil's interval" of the tritone. And it launched not one but two revolutions: late-Sixties psychedelia and the unprecedented genius of Jimi Hendrix. For the first time, Hendrix, bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell got to show off their acrobatic onstage chemistry on record — and they somehow managed to condense it to an under-three-minute blaze of overdubbed guitar sorcery. (The first chord of its main riff has come to be known among guitarists as the "Hendrix chord.") The song, which Hendrix wrote on December 26th, 1966, in the dressing room of a London club, also served as a showcase for his brilliant, often contradictory lyrical gifts (boiled down from a much longer initial draft called "Purple Haze — Jesus Saves"). He spiked the surging rhythmic confidence of the Experience with intimate pictorial tension: "Actin' funny, but I don't know why/'Scuse me while I kiss the sky." (Hendrix later said that he had written the lyrics after he'd had a dream in which he could walk underwater.) The Experience recorded "Purple Haze" across a series of sessions in January and February, 1967, experimenting with recording techniques such as the blitzed-out distortion on Hendrix's guitar — when the master tape was sent to their American record label, an enclosed note diligently pointed out that the distorted sound of the song was deliberate. In the closing solo, Hendrix echoed his screaming Strat with an additional shrieking guitar put through a new harmonic-manipulation device called an Octavia and played back at double speed. "Purple Haze" — the opening track on the U.S. version of his debut LP, Are You Experienced? — captured the liberating rush of Day-Glo culture just in time for the Summer of Love.

Appears on: Are You Experienced? (Experience Hendrix) 

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16

The Beatles, ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’

Writers: John Lennon, Paul McCartney
Producer: George Martin
Released: Dec. '63, Capitol
15 weeks; no. 1

As a young, struggling beat group, playing grueling gigs at grubby bars, the Beatles had an in-joke to cheer themselves up: declaring that they were going "to the toppermost of the poppermost." By 1963, they meant it enough to issue an ultimatum. "We said to [manager] Brian Epstein, 'We're not going to America till we've got a Number One record,'" Paul McCartney said. So he and John Lennon went to the home of the parents of Jane Asher, McCartney's girlfriend, where — "one on one, eyeball to eyeball," as Lennon put it — they wrote "I Want to Hold Your Hand," an irresistibly erotic come-on framed as a chaste, bashful request. The lightning-bolt energy of their collaboration ran through the band's performance, taped October 17th, 1963. It lunges out of the speakers with a rhythm so tricky that the first wave of bands to cover the song often couldn't figure it out; Lennon and McCartney constantly switch between unison and harmonies, both of them snapping and whooping like they own the melody. Every element of the song is a hook, from Lennon's Chuck Berry riffing to George Harrison's string-snapping guitar fills to the quartet's syncopated hand claps. With advance orders at a million copies, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" was released in the U.K. in late November, and promptly bumped the band's own "She Loves You" from the top of the charts.

After 15-year-old Marsha Albert convinced a Washington, D.C., DJ to seek out an imported copy of the single, it quickly became a hit on the few American stations that managed to score a copy. Rush-released in America the day after Christmas, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" hit Number One in the States on February 1st, 1964. When the bandmates got the news in Paris, during a three-week stand there, they partied all night. The single was certified gold two days later, and four days after that, the Beatles landed in New York the way they'd wanted: toppermost of the poppermost.

Appears on: Meet the Beatles! (Capitol/Apple) 

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15

The Clash, ‘London Calling’

Writers: Mick Jones, Joe Strummer
Producer: Guy Stevens
Released: Jan. '80, Epic
Did not chart

Named after the call signal of the BBC's World Service broadcasts, the title alarm of the Clash's third album was an SOS from the heart of darkness. When they recorded the song, the Clash — British punk's most political and uncompromising band — were without management and sinking in debt. Around them, Britain was suffocating in crisis: soaring unemployment, racial conflict, widespread drug use. "We felt that we were struggling," Joe Strummer said, "about to slip down a slope or something, grasping with our fingernails. And there was no one there to help us."

Strummer and guitarist Mick Jones channeled that trial and worry into a song, produced with hellbent atmosphere by Guy Stevens, that sounded like the Clash marching into battle: Strummer and Jones punching their guitars in metallic unison with Paul Simonon's thumping bass and Topper Headon's rifle-crack drumming. Over that urgency, Strummer howled through a catalog of disasters, real and imagined. The "nuclear error" referred to the March 1979 meltdown of a reactor at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. The line "London is drowning/And I live by the river" — Don Letts' video of the Clash shows them playing the song on a boat on the Thames in drenching rain — was based on local folklore. "They say that if the Thames ever flooded, we'd all be underwater," Jones said — except Strummer was living in a high-rise flat at the time, "so he wouldn't have drowned."

Appears on: London Calling (Epic) 

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14

Bob Dylan, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’

Writer: Dylan
Producer: John Hammond
Released: May '63, Columbia
Did not chart

In April 1962, at Gerde's Folk City in New York's Greenwich Village, 20-year-old Bob Dylan gave a quick speech before playing one of his new songs: "This here ain't no protest song or anything like that, 'cause I don't write no protest songs," he said. Then he sang the first and third verses of the still-unfinished "Blowin' in the Wind." Published in full a month later in the folk journal Broadside and recorded on July 9th, 1962, for his second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, "Blowin' in the Wind" was Dylan's first important composition. It is also the most famous protest song ever written.

The Chad Mitchell Trio were the first to release a recording of it, and Peter, Paul and Mary turned it into an enormous hit in the summer of 1963. Still, everyone knew the song belonged to the burning-eyed young man who ruled New York's folk scene, and whose recording of it — just his brambly voice and fleet-fingered acoustic-guitar playing — was definitive. It probably remains Dylan's most covered song, an all-purpose progressive anthem suggesting that things must and will change. The song's melody borrows from the slavery-era folk song "No More Auction Block for Me," and its language is rooted as much in Woody Guthrie's earthy vernacular as in biblical rhetoric. But in a decisive break with the current-events conventions of topical folk songs, Dylan framed the crises around him in a series of fierce, poetic questions that addressed what he believed was man's greatest inhumanity to man: indifference. "Some of the biggest criminals are those that turn their heads away when they see wrong," he declared in the Freewheelin' liner notes.

Later, Dylan revealed more about the mechanics of writing the song: "I wrote 'Blowin' in the Wind' in 10 minutes, just put words to an old spiritual, probably something I learned from Carter Family records. That's the folk tradition. You use what's been handed down."

Appears on: The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (Columbia) 

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13

The Beatles, ‘Yesterday’

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

Paul McCartney's greatest ballad holds a Guinness World Record as the most recorded song of all time; seven years later, there were 1,186 versions by artists as varied as Frank Sinatra, Otis Redding and Willie Nelson. But McCartney's original reading — cut on June 14th, 1965, at EMI's Abbey Road studios in London — remains the most beautiful and daring of all: a frank poem of regret scored and sung with haunted elegance. There are no other Beatles on the record. None were needed. George Martin's arrangement for a string quartet emphasized lower-octave melancholy, while McCartney's almost whispered vocal reverberated with longing in the big, dark spaces where drums and electric guitars would have been. The melody, he said, came to him in a dream: "My dad used to know a lot of old jazz tunes, I thought maybe I'd just remembered it from the past." McCartney auditioned the song for Martin, with the working title "Scrambled Eggs," in a hotel room in Paris in January 1964 — before the Beatles had even landed in America — but would not record it for another year and a half. "We were a little embarrassed about it," McCartney confessed. "We were a rock & roll band." A Number One single in America, "Yesterday" was, in his own words, "the most complete song I have ever written."

Appears on: Help! (Capitol/Apple)

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12

Sam Cooke, ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’

Writer: Cooke
Producers: Hugo Peretti, Luigi Creatore
Released: Dec. '64, RCA
7 weeks; No. 31

In 1963, Sam Cooke — America's first great soul singer and one of the most successful pop acts in the nation, with 18 Top 30 hits since 1957 — heard a song that profoundly inspired and disturbed him: Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind." What struck Cooke was the challenge implicit in Dylan's anthem. "Jeez," Cooke mused, "a white boy writing a song like that?"

Cooke's response, "A Change Is Gonna Come," recorded on January 30th, 1964, with a sumptuous orchestral arrangement by Rene Hall, was more personal — in its first-person language and the experiences that preceded its creation. On October 8th, 1963, while on tour, Cooke and members of his entourage were arrested in Shreveport, Louisiana, for disturbing the peace after they tried to register at a white motel — an incident reflected in the song's third verse. And Cooke's mourning for his 18-month-old son, Vincent, who drowned that June, resonates in the last verse: "There have been times that I thought/I couldn't last for long."

On December 11th, 1964, a year after he recorded it, Cooke was fatally shot at an L.A. motel. Two weeks later, "A Change Is Gonna Come" was released, becoming Cooke's farewell address and an anthem of the civil rights movement.

Appears on: Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964 (ABKCO) 

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11

The Who, ‘My Generation’

Writer: Pete Townshend
Producer: Shel Talmy
Released: Nov. '65, Decca
5 weeks; No. 74

The Who's guitarist, Pete Townshend, supposedly wrote "My Generation," his immortal fuck-off to the elders in his way, on his 20th birthday, May 19th, 1965, while riding a train from London to Southampton for a television appearance. The song wasn't intended as a youth-mutiny anthem at first. It was a Jimmy Reed-style blues, reflecting Townshend's fears about the impending strictures of adult life, famously captured in the line "Hope I die before I get old." "My Generation' was very much about trying to find a place in society," he told Rolling Stone in 1987. "I was very, very lost. The band was young then. It was believed that its career would be incredibly brief." Instead, "My Generation" became the Who's ticket to legend — their first British Top Five hit, and a battle cry for young mod rebels — and it established Townshend as a fearless and eloquent songwriter. "My Generation" went through months of arranging and rerecording before the Who got it right, in two takes, on October 13th, 1965. Townshend opened the song with a two-chord assault that beat punk rock to the punch by more than a decade. Bassist John Entwistle took the solo breaks with crisp, grunting aggression — he had to buy three new basses to finish the recording, since his Danelectro's strings kept breaking and replacement strings weren't available. (He ended up playing the song on a Fender.) Roger Daltrey's stuttering, howling performance, Townshend and Entwistle's R&B-inspired backing vocals, and the upward key changes created a vivid, mounting anxiety that climaxed with a studio re-creation of the Who's live gear-trashing finales, with Townshend spewing feedback all over Keith Moon's avalanche drumming. Four decades later, Townshend and Daltrey are all that remain of the original Who, and they still play "My Generation" at every show — now with the fire and wisdom of age.

Appears on: My Generation (Universal) 

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10

Ray Charles, ‘What’d I Say’

Writer: Charles
Producers: Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler
Released: June '59, Atlantic
15 weeks; No. 6

"The people just went crazy, and they loved that little ummmmh, unnnnh," Ray Charles told Rolling Stone in 1978, describing the instant genesis of "What'd I Say," his first Top 10 pop single and the greatest feel-good song in rock & roll. "Later on, people said it was vulgar," Charles continued, referring to that irresistible, sexually heated vocal bridge. "But, hell, let's face it, everybody knows about the ummmmh, unnnnh. That's how we all got here."

The man they called "The Genius" literally wrote "What'd I Say" in front of an audience, in late 1958 or early '59. He and his crack R&B orchestra, newly supplemented by a female vocal group, the Raelettes, were playing a marathon dance show in a small town near Pittsburgh. When Charles ran out of repertoire late in the second set, he kicked into an uphill bass-note arpeggio on the piano, told the band to follow along and instructed the Raelettes, "Whatever I say, just repeat after me." Afterward, Charles said, dancers rushed up to him and asked, "Where can I buy that record?"

"What'd I Say" may not have been much of a song — a handful of short, unconnected verses, the chorus and that bridge — when Charles cut it on February 18th, 1959, at Atlantic's New York studio. (The six-and-a-half-minute rave-up was masterfully edited and re-sequenced by the label's visionary engineer, Tom Dowd, from an even longer studio performance.) But out of necessity, that night on the bandstand Charles had turned to the black gospel experience he knew so well, the shared, mounting ecstasy of call-and-response. "Church was simple," he said in his autobiography Brother Ray. "Preacher sang or recited, and the congregation sang right back at him."

That is exactly how Charles recorded "What'd I Say," with a torrid secular spin heightened by the metallic attack of his Wurlitzer electric piano. Charles' grunt-'n'-groan exchanges with the Raelettes were the closest you could get to the sound of orgasm on Top 40 radio during the Eisenhower era. Forty-five years later, they still give sweet release.

Appears on: The Ultimate Hits Collection (Rhino)

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9

Nirvana, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’

*

Writer: Kurt Cobain
Producer: Butch Vig
Released: Sept. '91, DGC
20 weeks; No. 6

Producer Butch Vig first heard "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in early 1991, on a boombox cassette recorded by bassist Krist Novoselic, drummer Dave Grohl and singer-guitarist-songwriter Kurt Cobain in a barn in Tacoma, Washington. The fidelity was abysmal. Vig — about to work with Nirvana on their major-label debut, Nevermind — could not tell that the song would soon make underground Seattle rock the new mainstream and catapult Cobain, a troubled young man with strict indie-culture ethics, into megacelebrity. "I could sort of hear the 'Hello, hello' part and the chords," Vig said years later. "But it was so indecipherable that I had no idea what to expect."

Nor did anyone else. A shock wave of big-amp purity, "Teen Spirit" wiped the lingering jive of the Eighties off the pop map overnight. "The song was a call to consciousness," Novoselic said in 2000 — Cobain's avenging grenade against the corporate invasion of youth culture, spiked with the demanding venom of the sneering chorus: "Here we are now/Entertain us." The phrase was something Cobain used to say at parties — "to break the ice," he said. "That could have been him watching TV," said Novoselic, "aghast at popular culture."

"Teen Spirit," named after a brand of deodorant for girls, was Cobain's attempt to "write the ultimate pop song," he said, using the soft-loud dynamic of his favorite band, the Pixies. The insidious hooks also showed his admiration for John Lennon. Cobain "had that dichotomy of punk rage and alienation," Vig said, "but also this vulnerable pop sensibility. In 'Teen Spirit,' a lot of that vulnerability is in the tone of his voice."

Sadly, by the time of Nirvana's last U.S. tour, in late '93, Cobain was tortured by the obligation to play "Teen Spirit" every night. "There are many other songs that I have written that are as good, if not better," he claimed. He finally stopped playing "Teen Spirit" for good — taking his own life on April 5th, 1994.

Appears on: Nevermind (DGC) 

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8

The Beatles, ‘Hey Jude’

Writers: John Lennon, Paul McCartney
Producer: George Martin
Released: Aug. '68, Apple
19 weeks; No. 1

The Beatles' biggest U.S. single — nine weeks at Number One — was also their longest, at seven minutes and 11 seconds. During the recording sessions, producer George Martin objected to the length, claiming DJs would not play the song. "They will if it's us," John Lennon shot back. Paul McCartney wrote "Hey Jude" in June 1968, singing to himself on his way to visit Lennon's soon-to-be-ex-wife, Cynthia, and their son, Julian. The opening lines were, McCartney once said, "a hopeful message for Julian: 'Come on, man, your parents got divorced. I know you're not happy, but you'll be OK.'" McCartney changed "Jules" to "Jude" — a name inspired by Jud from the musical Oklahoma! — and presented a demo tape to Lennon, who loved the song. He also thought McCartney was singing to him, about his relationship with Yoko Ono and the strains on the Lennon-McCartney partnership. But his self-centered reading underscored the universal comfort in McCartney's lyrics and the song's warm, rolling charm, fortified in the fade-out by a 36-piece orchestra whose members (with one grumpy exception) also clapped and sang along — for double their usual fee.

Appears on: 1 (Capitol/Apple) 

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7

Chuck Berry, ‘Johnny B. Goode’

Writer: Chuck Berry
Producers: Leonard and Phil Chess
Released: April '58, Chess
15 weeks; No. 8

"Johnny B. Goode" was the first rock & roll hit about rock & roll stardom. It is still the greatest rock & roll song about the democracy of fame in pop music. And "Johnny B. Goode" is based in fact. The title character is Chuck Berry — "more or less," as he told Rolling Stone in 1972. "The original words [were], of course, 'That little colored boy could play.' I changed it to 'country boy' — or else it wouldn't get on the radio." Berry took other narrative liberties. Johnny came from "deep down in Louisiana, close to New Orleans," rather than Berry's St. Louis. And Johnny "never ever learned to read or write so well," while Berry graduated from beauty school with a degree in hairdressing and cosmetology.

But the essence of Berry's tale — a guitar player with nothing to his name but chops goes to the big city and gets his name in lights — is autobiographical. In 1955, Berry was working as a beautician in St. Louis when he met Chess Records' biggest star, Muddy Waters, who sent him to the label's co-founder Leonard Chess. By 1958, Berry was rock & roll's most consistent hitmaker after Elvis Presley. Unlike Presley, Berry wrote his own classics. "I just wish I could express my feelings the way Chuck Berry does,"' Presley once confessed.

"Johnny B. Goode" is the supreme example of Berry's poetry in motion. The rhythm section rolls with freight-train momentum, while Berry's stabbing, single-note lick in the chorus sounds, as he put it, "like a-ringin' a bell" — a perfect description of how rock & roll guitar can make you feel on top of the world.

Appears on: The Anthology (Chess)

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6

The Beach Boys, ‘Good Vibrations’

Writers: Brian Wilson, Mike Love
Producer: Wilson
Released: Oct. '66, Capitol
14 weeks; No. 1

"It scared me, the word 'vi-brations,'" Brian Wilson once said, remembering how, when he was a boy, his mother, Audree, tried to explain why dogs barked at some people and not others. "A dog would pick up vibrations from these people that you can't see but you can feel. And the same thing happened with people." "Good Vibrations" harnessed that energy and turned it into eternal sunshine. "This is a very spiritual song," Wilson said after its release, "and I want it to give off good vibrations."

Wilson, then 24, also had another goal in mind: "I said, 'This is going to be better than "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'.'"

Wilson was still working on his long-playing magnum opus, Pet Sounds, when he started "Good Vibrations" late on the night of February 17th, 1966, at Gold Star Recorders in Los Angeles. During the next seven months, in four studios, at a cost of more than $50,000 (at that point the greatest sum ever spent on a single), Wilson built "Good Vibrations" in sections, coloring the mood swings with locomotive cello, saloon piano and the spectral wail of a theremin. "We didn't think about doing it in pieces at first," Wilson says now, "but after the first few bars in the first verse, we realized that this was going to be a different kind of record." Very different. Wilson — free to experiment while the other Beach Boys were on tour — could not stop wrestling with combinations of instruments and rhythmic approaches. One discarded version of the song had an R&B backbeat.

"Good Vibrations" became the Beach Boys' third Number One hit, but it was a short window of glory — for the Beach Boys commercially, for Wilson creatively and emotionally. The song was intended to appear on the group's Smile album, but Wilson — suffering from depression and battling the other Beach Boys over the group's direction — abandoned Smile in May 1967, eventually completing the record, and performing it on tour, in 2004. "'Good Vibrations' now is the best it's ever been," Wilson said that year. "It went to Number One in 1966, and now we get standing ovations every time we play it live. It's incredible to me."

Appears on: Smiley Smile/Wild Honey (Capitol) 

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5

Aretha Franklin, ‘Respect’

Writer: Otis Redding
Producer: Jerry Wexler
Released: April '67, Atlantic
12 weeks; No. 1

Otis Redding wrote "Respect" and recorded it first, for the Volt label in 1965. But Aretha Franklin took possession of the song for all time with her definitive cover, made at Atlantic's New York studio on Valentine's Day 1967. "Respect" was her first Number One hit and the single that established her as the Queen of Soul. In Redding's reading, a brawny march, he called for equal favor with volcanic force. Franklin wasn't asking for anything. She sang from higher ground: a woman calling an end to the exhaustion and sacrifice of a raw deal with scorching sexual authority. In short, if you want some, you will earn it.

"For Otis, respect had the traditional connotation, the more abstract meaning of esteem," Franklin's producer, Jerry Wexler, said in his autobiography, Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music. "The fervor in Aretha's voice demanded that respect; and more respect also involved sexual attention of the highest order. What else would 'Sock it to me' mean?"

He was referring to the knockout sound of Franklin's backup singers — her sisters Carolyn and Erma — chanting "Sock it to me" at high speed, which Aretha and Carolyn cooked up for the session. The late Tom Dowd, who engineered the date, credited Carolyn with the saucy breakdown in which Aretha spelled out the title: "I fell off my chair when I heard that!" And since Redding's version had no bridge, Wexler had the band — the legendary studio crew from Muscle Shoals, Alabama — play the chord changes from Sam and Dave's "When Something Is Wrong With My Baby" under King Curtis' tenor-sax solo.

There is no mistaking the passion inside the discipline of Franklin's delivery; she was surely drawing on her own tumultuous marriage at the time for inspiration. "If she didn't live it," Wexler said, "she couldn't give it." But, he added, "Aretha would never play the part of the scorned woman….Her middle name was Respect."

Appears on: I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (Atlantic)

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4

Marvin Gaye, ‘What’s Going On’

Writers: Gaye, Renaldo Benson, Al Cleveland
Producer: Gaye 
Released: Feb. '71, Tamla
13 weeks; No. 2

"What's Going On" is an exquisite plea for peace on Earth, sung by a man at the height of crisis. In 1970, Marvin Gaye was Motown's top male vocal star, yet he was frustrated by the assembly-line role he played on his own hits. Devastated by the loss of duet partner Tammi Terrell, who died that March after a three-year battle with a brain tumor, Gaye was also trapped in a turbulent marriage to Anna Gordy, Motown boss Berry Gordy's sister. Gaye was tormented, too, by his relationship with his puritanical father, Marvin Sr. "If I was arguing for peace," Gaye told biographer David Ritz, "I knew I'd have to find peace in my heart."

Not long after Terrell's passing, Renaldo Benson of the Four Tops presented Gaye with a song he had written with Motown staffer Al Cleveland. But Gaye made the song his own, overseeing the arrangement and investing the topical references to war and racial strife with private anguish. Motown session crew the Funk Brothers cut the stunning, jazz-inflected rhythm track (Gaye joined in with cardboard-box percussion). Then Gaye invoked his own family in moving prayer: singing to his younger brother Frankie, a Vietnam veteran ("Brother, brother, brother/There's far too many of you dying"), and appealing for calm closer to home ("Father, father, father/We don't need to escalate").

Initially rejected as uncommercial, "What's Going On" (with background vocals by two players from the Detroit Lions) was Gaye's finest studio achievement, a timeless gift of healing. But for Gaye, the peace he craved never came: On April 1st, 1984, he died in a family dispute — shot by his father.

Appears on: What's Going On (Tamla)

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3

John Lennon, ‘Imagine’

Writer: John Lennon
Producers: Lennon, Phil Spector, Yoko Ono
Released: Oct. '71, Apple
9 weeks; No. 3

John Lennon wrote "Imagine," his greatest musical gift to the world, one morning early in 1971 in his bedroom at Tittenhurst Park, his estate in Ascot, England. His wife, Yoko Ono, watched as Lennon sat at the white grand piano now known around the world from films and photographs of the sessions for his Imagine album and virtually completed the song: the serene melody; the pillowy chord progression; that beckoning, four-note figure; and nearly all of the lyrics, 22 lines of graceful, plain-spoken faith in the power of a world, united in purpose, to repair and change itself.

"It's not like he thought, 'Oh, this can be an anthem,'" Ono said, looking back at that morning 30 years later. "Imagine" was "just what John believed: that we are all one country, one world, one people. He wanted to get that idea out."

The idea was not his alone: Ono's own art, before and after she met Lennon in 1966, celebrated the transformative power of dreams. The first line of "Imagine" — "Imagine there's no heaven" — is a direct descendant of the interactive pieces in Ono's 1964 book, Grapefruit ("Imagine letting a goldfish swim across the sky"). But Lennon, as a former Beatle, was an expert in the pop vernacular. He once admitted that "Imagine" — an absolute equality created by the dissolution of governments, borders, organized religion and economic class — was "virtually the Communist Manifesto." But the elementary beauty of his melody, the warm composure in his voice and the poetic touch of co-producer Phil Spector — who bathed Lennon's performance in gentle strings and summer-breeze echo — emphasized the song's fundamental humanity.

Lennon knew he had written something special. In one of his last interviews, he declared "Imagine" to be as good as anything he had written with the Beatles. We know it's better than that: an enduring hymn of solace and promise that has carried us through extreme grief, from the shock of Lennon's own death in 1980 to the unspeakable horror of September 11th. It is now impossible to imagine a world without "Imagine." And we need it, more than he ever dreamed.

Appears on: Imagine (Capitol/Apple) 

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2

The Rolling Stones, ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’

Writer: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards
Producer:
Andrew Loog Oldham
Released:
May '65, London
14 weeks; No. 1 

 "It's the riff heard round the world," says Steve Van Zandt, guitarist for the E Street Band. "And it's one of the earliest examples of Dylan influencing the Stones and the Beatles — the degree of cynicism, and the idea of bringing more personal lyrics from the folk and blues tradition into popular music."

The riff came to Keith Richards in a dream one night in May 1965, in his motel room in Clearwater, Florida, on the Rolling Stones' third U.S. tour. He woke up and grabbed a guitar and a cassette machine. Richards played the run of notes once, then fell back to sleep. "On the tape," he said later, "you can hear me drop the pick, and the rest is snoring."

That spark in the night — the riff that opens and defines "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" — transformed the rickety jump and puppy love of early rock & roll into rock. The primal temper of Richards' creation, played through a Gibson Fuzz Box; the sneering dismissal in Mick Jagger's lyrics; the strut of rhythm guitarist Brian Jones, bassist Bill Wyman and drummer Charlie Watts: It was the sound of a generation impatient to inherit the Earth.

Two decades later, Jagger admitted that "Satisfaction" was "my view of the world, my frustration with everything." Inspired by that riff and the title line, also Richards' idea, Jagger wrote the words — a litany of disgust with "America, its advertising syndrome, the constant barrage" — in 10 minutes, by the motel pool the day after Richards' dream. They tried to cut the song a few days later, on May 10th at the Chess studios in Chicago. Two days after that, they finished it at RCA Studios in Hollywood, with the vital addition of that fuzz. "That riff needed to sustain itself," Richards said, "and Gibson had just brought out these little boxes."

"Satisfaction" was rock of the Stones' own bold design — although Richards may also have been dreaming of Chuck Berry that night in Clearwater. Jagger later suggested that Richards unconsciously got the hook for "Satisfaction" from a line in Berry's 1955 single "30 Days" ("I don't get no satisfaction from the judge"). "It's not any way an English person would express it," Jagger noted. "I'm not saying that he purposely nicked anything, but we played those records a lot."

Appears on: Out of Our Heads (ABKCO)

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1

Bob Dylan, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’

Writer: Dylan
Producer: Tom Wilson 
Released: July '65, Columbia
12 weeks; No. 2

"I wrote it. I didn't fail. It was straight," Bob Dylan said of his greatest song shortly after he recorded it in June 1965. There is no better description of "Like a Rolling Stone" — of its revolutionary design and execution — or of the young man, just turned 24, who created it.

Al Kooper, who played organ on the session, remembers today, "There was no sheet music, it was totally by ear. And it was totally disorganized, totally punk. It just happened."

The most stunning thing about "Like a Rolling Stone" is how unprecedented it was: the impressionist voltage of Dylan's language, the intensely personal accusation in his voice ("Ho-o-o-ow does it fe-e-e-el?"), the apocalyptic charge of Kooper's garage-gospel organ and Mike Bloomfield's stiletto-sharp spirals of Telecaster guitar, the defiant six-minute length of the June 16th master take. No other pop song has so thoroughly challenged and transformed the commercial laws and artistic conventions of its time, for all time.

Just a few weeks earlier, as he was finishing up the British tour immortalized in D.A. Pennebaker's documentary Don't Look Back, Dylan began writing an extended piece of verse — 20 pages long by one account, six in another — that was, he said, "just a rhythm thing on paper all about my steady hatred, directed at some point that was honest." Back home in Woodstock, New York, over three days in early June, Dylan sharpened the sprawl down to that confrontational chorus and four taut verses bursting with piercing metaphor and concise truth. "The first two lines, which rhymed 'kiddin' you' and 'didn't you,' just about knocked me out," he confessed to Rolling Stone in 1988, "and when I got to the jugglers and the chrome horse and the princess on the steeple, it all just about got to be too much."

The beginnings of "Like a Rolling Stone" can be seen in a pair of offstage moments in Don't Look Back. In the first, sidekick Bob Neuwirth gets Dylan to sing a verse of Hank Williams' "Lost Highway," which begins, "I'm a rolling stone, I'm alone and lost/For a life of sin I've paid the cost." Later, Dylan sits at a piano, playing a set of chords that would become the melodic basis for "Like a Rolling Stone," connecting it to the fundamental architecture of rock & roll. Dylan later identified that progression as a chip off of Ritchie Valens' "La Bamba."

Yet Dylan obsessed over the forward march in "Like a Rolling Stone." Before going into Columbia Records' New York studios to cut it, he summoned Bloomfield, the guitarist in the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, to Woodstock to learn the song. "He said, 'I don't want you to play any of that B.B. King shit, none of that fucking blues,' " recalled Bloomfield (who died in 1981). " 'I want you to play something else.' " Dylan later said much the same thing to the rest of the studio band, which included pianist Paul Griffin, bassist Russ Savakus and drummer Bobby Gregg: "I told them how to play on it, and if they didn't want to play it like that, well, they couldn't play with me."

Just as Dylan bent folk music's roots and forms to his own will, he transformed popular song with the content and ambition of "Like a Rolling Stone." And in his electrifying vocal performance, his best on record, Dylan proved that everything he did was, first and always, rock & roll. " 'Rolling Stone' 's the best song I wrote," he said flatly at the end of 1965. It still is.

Appears on: Highway 61 Revisited (Columbia)

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