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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.

276

The Beach Boys, ‘Sloop John B’

Writer: Traditional, Brian Wilson
Producer: Wilson
Released: March '66, Capitol
11 weeks; No. 3

Wilson got turned onto the Bahamian folk song "The Wreck of the John B." by Al Jardine. For the Boys' version, Wilson added elaborate vocals and Billy Strange's 12-string-guitar part. He also changed "This is the worst trip since I’ve been born" to ". . . I’ve ever been on" — a wink to acid culture.

Appears on: Pet Sounds (Capitol)

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275

George Jones, ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’

Writers: Bobby Braddock,Curly Putnam
Producer: Billy Sherrill
Released: March '80, Epic
Did not chart 

Dogged by alcohol problems, debt and a messy divorce, former country star Jones was set for a comeback after he left rehab in 1980. So he recorded one of his great heartbreak ballads, a tune about a man whose devotion ends with his death. Jones' nuanced performance was a hit on the country charts and won him a Grammy.

Appears on: I Am What I Am (Epic/Legacy)

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274

The Modern Lovers, ‘Roadrunner’

Writer: Jonathan Richman
Producer: John Cale
Released: Oct. '76, Beserkley
Did not chart 

Boston native Richman was obsessed with the Velvet Underground; when he started his own band, he rewrote the Velvets' "Sister Ray" into an ecstatic two-chord tribute to cruising down the highway with the radio on. This 1972 recording (featuring future members of Talking Heads and the Cars) wasn’t released for more than three years – whereupon English punks fell in love with it.

Appears on: The Modern Lovers (Rhino)

273

Kanye West, ‘Jesus Walks’

Writers: Kanye West, Rhymefest
Producer: West
Released: Feb. '04, Roc-a-Fella
25 weeks; No. 11

"If I talk about God, my record won’t get played," West rapped on "Jesus Walks," a gospel testimonial that samples the ARC Choir, a Harlem group composed of recovering drug addicts. Kanye was wrong: The song, in which the colossally cocky West admits that he needs Jesus "like Kathie Lee needs Regis," blew up on the charts, making it the rare pop hit to name-check the Messiah.

Appears on: The College Dropout (Roc-a-Fella)

272

U2, ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’

Writers: Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen Jr.
Producer: Steve Lillywhite
Released: March '83, Island
Did not chart 

This rallying cry set to a military beat was inspired by two Sunday massacres in the ongoing civil war between Irish Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. The band changed the song’s opening line from "Don’t talk to me about the rights of the IRA" to "I can’t believe the news today" out of fear that its plea for peace would be misconstrued.

Appears on: War (Island)

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271

New York Dolls, ‘Personality Crisis’

Writers: David Johansen, Johnny Thunders
Producer: Todd Rundgren
Released: Aug. '73, Mercury
Did not chart

No song better captured the New York Dolls' glammed-out R&B than "Personality Crisis," the opening track on the group’s debut. Produced by Todd Rundgren during an eight-day session, "Crisis" was the trashy sound of a meltdown ("Frustration and heartache is what you got"); soon after, the Dolls fell victim to one themselves and dissolved amid a haze of drugs.

Appears on: New York Dolls (Mercury)

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270

Archie Bell and The Drells, ‘Tighten Up’

Writers: Bell, Billy Butler
Producer: Skipper Lee Frazier
Released: March '68, Atlantic
15 weeks; No. 1

After Bell got his draft notice in May '67, he wanted to record with his group, the Drells, before he got shipped off to Vietnam. He pulled out "Tighten Up," one of the group’s old demos. Bell got shot in the leg in Vietnam; the record went to Number One while he was in a military hospital, trying to convince people the song on the radio was his.

Appears on: Tightening It Up: The Best of Archie Bell and the Drells (Rhino)

269

The Ronettes, ‘Walking in the Rain’

Writers: Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, Phil Spector
Producer: Spector
Released: Oct. '64, Philles
11 weeks; No. 23

Just as the first wave of British Invasion bands threatened to overtake Spector at the top of the pop charts, the producer responded with "Walking in the Rain." The dreamy ballad features Veronica "Ronnie" Bennett singing lead. She nailed the vocal on the first take — unheard of in Spector’s world. Bennett and Spector were married two years later.

Appears on: The Best of the Ronettes (ABKCO)

268

Randy Newman, ‘Sail Away’

Writer: Newman
Producer: Lenny Waronker
Released: June '72, Reprise
Did not chart

Singers from Ray Charles to Etta James covered this portrait of America from the perspective of a slave trader. As usual for Newman, it combines lush melody with painful satire. "One thing with my music," he said, "you can’t sit and eat potato chips, and have it on in the background at a party."

Appears on: Sail Away (Rhino)

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267

The Crystals, ‘He’s A Rebel’

Writer: Gene Pitney
Producer: Phil Spector
Released: Aug. '62, Philles
18 weeks; No. 1

The Crystals were from Brooklyn, but Spector was in Los Angeles to record "He’s a Rebel." So he recorded this celebration of teenage bad boys with Darlene Love and the Blossoms under the Crystals name. A sobering footnote: Spector was just 21 years old.

Appears on: Best of the Crystals (ABKCO)

266

Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, ‘Ooo Baby Baby’

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

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

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

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265

Stevie Wonder, ‘Higher Ground’

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

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

Appears on: Innervisions (Motown)

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264

Jeff Buckley, ‘Hallelujah’

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

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

Appears on: Grace (Columbia)

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263

The Dells, ‘Oh, What A Night’

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

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

Appears on: Ultimate Collection (Hip-O)

262

The Who, ‘I Can See For Miles’

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

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

Appears on: The Who Sell Out (MCA)

261

The Troggs, ‘Wild Thing’

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

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

Appears on: Greatest Hits (Prime Cuts)

260

Bob Dylan, ‘Mississippi’

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

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

Appears on: Love and Theft (Columbia)

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259

Blondie, ‘Heart of Glass’

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

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

Appears on: Parallel Lines (Capitol)

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258

AC/DC, ‘Highway to Hell’

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

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

Appears on: Highway to Hell (Atlantic)

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257

Radiohead, ‘Paranoid Android’

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

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

Appears on: OK Computer (Capitol)

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256

Mott the Hoople, ‘All the Young Dudes’

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

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

Appears on: All the Young Dudes (Columbia)

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255

Bobby Darin, ‘Mack the Knife’

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

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

Appears on: That’s All (Atlantic)

254

The Drifters, ‘Money Honey’

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

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

Appears on: Greatest Hits (Curb)

253

Black Sabbath, ‘Paranoid’

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

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

Appears on: Paranoid (Castle)

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252

Aretha Franklin, ‘Chain of Fools’

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

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

Appears on: Lady Soul (Rhino)

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251

Sugarhill Gang, ‘Rapper’s Delight’

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

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

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

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