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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.

47

The Jimi Hendrix Experience, ‘All Along the Watchtower’

Writer: Bob Dylan
Producer: Hendrix
Released: Sept. '68, Reprise
9 weeks; No. 20 

"All Along the Watchtower" had just been released on Dylan's John Wesley Harding when Hendrix began tinkering with the song at Electric Lady Studios in New York on January 21st, 1968. Using the line "And the wind began to howl" as a springboard, Hendrix constructed a tumultuous four-part solo that transformed Dylan's concise foreboding into an electric hurricane. Dylan acknowledged Hendrix's masterstroke: His subsequent versions of "All Along the Watchtower," including the treatment on his 1974 reunion tour with the Band and the live LP Before the Flood, emulated Hendrix's cover.

Appears on: Electric Ladyland (MCA) 

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Jimi Hendrix

100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: Jimi Hendrix

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Electric Ladyland

46

David Bowie, ‘Heroes’

Writers: Bowie, Brian Eno
Producer: Tony Visconti
Released: Sept. '77, RCA
Did not chart

After a coke-fried spell in Los Angeles, Bowie was detoxing in Berlin when he spied two lovers having a rendezvous by the Berlin Wall. Said Bowie, "I thought, of all the places to meet in Berlin, why pick a bench underneath a guard turret on the Wall?" Imagining the story behind their affair, Bowie wrote his most compassionate song ever. The song builds for six minutes, with Bowie setting his ragged, impassioned croon over a throbbing groove consisting of Eno's humming synths, Robert Fripp's guitar and producer Visconti banging on a metal ashtray that was lying around the studio. Bowie wails with crazed soul about two doomed lovers finding a moment of redemption together — just for one day.

Appears on: Heroes (Virgin) 

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45

Elvis Presley, ‘Heartbreak Hotel’

Writers: Mae Boren Axton, Tommy Durden, Presley
Producer: Steve Sholes
Released: Jan. '56, RCA
27 weeks; No. 1 

When RCA Records signed "hillbilly cat" Presley, they expected more songs like his rockabilly hits from Sun Records. Instead, for his first RCA single, Presley recorded this gloomy, downtempo number, co-written by Axton, his former publicist, and inspired by a Miami Herald report of a suicide note that consisted solely of the line "I walk a lonely street." But what Sun Records founder Sam Phillips called "a morbid mess" went on to become Presley's first Number One hit and million-selling single, thanks to Scotty Moore's steely guitar leads, a thumping bass line from Bill Black and the brilliant melodrama with which Elvis infused every line.

Appears on: Elvis 30 #1 Hits (RCA) 

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44

Ray Charles, ‘Georgia on My Mind’

Writers: Hoagy Carmichael, Stuart Gorrell
Producer: Sid Feller
Released: Sept. '60, ABC-Paramount
13 weeks; No. 1 

Charles' driver had heard him singing "Georgia on My Mind" in the car and suggested that Charles add that to the record he was working on, an album consisting of songs with place names in their titles. Once he recorded it, though, Charles said he thought of many ways his rendition could have been better. As the single was about to enter the charts, Charles introduced his version to America on Hugh Hefner's Playboy Penthouse, a syndicated show out of Chicago, with David "Fathead" Newman handling the string parts on flute.

Appears on: Ultimate Hits Collection (Rhino) 

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43

Little Richard, ‘Tutti-Frutti’

Writers: Dorothy La Bostrie, Richard Penniman, Joe Lubin
Producer: Robert "Bumps" Blackwell
Released: Dec. '55, Specialty
12 weeks; No. 17

"I'd been singing 'Tutti-Frutti' for years," said Richard, "but it never struck me as a song you'd record." Blackwell asked La Bostrie, a young songwriter who had been pestering him for work, to clean up the filthy original lyrics ("Tutti Frutti, good booty/If it don't fit, don't force it/You can grease it, make it easy"). "Fifteen minutes before the session was to end, the chick comes in and puts these little trite lyrics in front of me," said Blackwell. Richard cleaned up his own "Awop-bop-a-loo-mop a-good-goddamn" and loaded La Bostrie's doggerel with sexual dynamite.

Appears on: The Georgia Peach (Specialty)

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42

The Kinks, ‘Waterloo Sunset’

Writer: Ray Davies
Producer: Ray Davies
Released: Feb. '68, Reprise
Did not chart

The Davies brothers were in the middle of recording their band's fifth album, Something Else by the Kinks, when Ray played an early version of this delicate orchestral-pop ballad for Dave. "We started ad-libbing vocal parts around the chorus," Dave said. Ray recalled that he went home and revised "until [the song] became like a pebble which had been rounded off by the sea . . . perfectly smooth." But he initially held off sharing the lyrics — about a loner who "don't need no friends" — with the rest of the band. "I was embarrassed by how personal [the lyrics] were," he later wrote. "It was like an extract from a diary nobody was allowed to read."

Appears on: Something Else by the Kinks (Warner Bros.)

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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Photos: The Rolling Stones Live, 1964-2007