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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.

278

The Beatles, ‘Something’

Writer: George Harrison
Producer: George Martin
Released: Oct. '69, Apple
16 weeks; No. 3

Harrison wrote “Something” near the end of the White Album sessions (one placeholder lyric: "Something in the way she moves/Attracts me like a cauliflower"). It was too late to squeeze it onto the disc, so he gave it to Joe Cocker. The Beatles cut a new version the next year with a string section, which would become a standard recorded by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Ray Charles.

Appears on: Abbey Road (Apple)

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277

Chuck Berry, ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’

Writer: Berry
Producers: Leonard and Phil Chess
Released: Jan. '58, Chess
16 weeks; No. 2

"Sixteen" celebrated kids, America, and the power of rock & roll — an ode to an underage rock fan in high-heeled shoes that included a roll call of U.S. cities. The Beach Boys fitted the song with new words and called it "Surfin’ U.S.A."; Berry threatened to sue and won a writing credit.

Appears on: The Anthology (Chess)

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The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Chuck Berry

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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)

RELATED:

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: George Jones

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)