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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.

284

The Dixie Cups, ‘Chapel of Love’

Writers: Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich, Phil Spector
Producers: Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, Barry, Greenwich
Released: June '64, Red Bird
13 weeks; No. 1

Spector took two cracks at recording "Chapel," but the Ronettes and Crystals left him flat. Leiber and Stoller took it to the novice Dixie Cups; the hopeful harmonies were just what the nuptial ditty called for.

Appears on: The Best of the Girl Groups, Vol. 1 (Rhino)

283

The Cure, ‘Pictures of You’

Writers: Robert Smith, Simon Gallup, Boris Williams, Porl Thompson, Roger O'Donnell, Lol Tolhurst
Producers: Smith, David M. Allen
Released: May '89, Elektra
8 weeks; No. 71

"Most love songs are just calculated attempts at commercial exploitation — they’re not anything to do with love as I understand it," said Cure leader Smith. After the relatively cheerful pop songs of Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, he wanted to write the Cure’s heaviest songs yet. With this epic of cascading synths and broken dreams, he succeeded.

Appears on: Disintegration (Elektra)

282

David Bowie, ‘Ziggy Stardust’

Writer: Bowie
Producers: Ken Scott, Bowie
Released: June '72, RCA
Non-single

"I wasn’t at all surprised 'Ziggy Stardust' made my career," Bowie told Rolling Stone. "I packaged a totally credible plastic rock star." This glam power ballad told the story of his most famous alter ego over Mick Ronson’s flash guitars. Bowie and Ziggy became so inextricably linked that Bowie’s over-the-top manager, Tony Defries, demanded that all his employees get Ziggy haircuts.

Appears on: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (Virgin)

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281

The Staple Singers, I’ll Take You There

Writer: Alvertis Isbell (Al Bell)
Producer: Bell
Released: June '72, Stax
15 weeks; No. 1

It was a good day’s work at Stax in 1971 when the Staples cut both "Respect Yourself" and "I’ll Take You There." The latter — a funk vamp promising heavenly or sexual devotion, depending on your perspective — was "written on the spot," said bassist David Hood. "We always tried to do material that was inspirational," said Roebuck "Pop" Staples, "in addition to whatever else it was."

Appears on: Bealtitude: Respect Yourself (Stax)

280

Bruce Springsteen, ‘Born in the U.S.A.’

Writer: Springsteen
Producers: Springsteen, Jon Landau, Chuck Plotkin, Steve Van Zandt
Released: June '84, Columbia
17 weeks; No. 9

Before it became the centerpiece of Springsteen’s biggest album, "U.S.A." was an acoustic protest song meant for Nebraska. But when Springsteen revived it with the E Street Band, Roy Bittan came up with a huge synth riff, and Max Weinberg hammered out a beat like he was using M-80s for drumsticks. "We played it two times, and our second take is the record," Springsteen said.

Appears on: Born in the U.S.A. (Columbia)

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279

Jefferson Airplane, ‘Somebody to Love’

Writer: Darby Slick
Producer: Rick Jarrard
Released: Feb. '67, RCA
15 weeks; No. 5

"Somebody" was about "doubt and disillusionment," according to Darby Slick, who wrote it in the Great Society. His sister-in-law Grace brought the song to the Airplane, whose hard-edged rendition became one of the S.F. scene’s first hits. The Airplane made buttons that read jefferson airplane loves you; Great Society countered with ones that said the great society really doesn’t like you much at all.

Appears on: Surrealistic Pillow (RCA)

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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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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: