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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.

379

The Jimi Hendrix Experience, ‘The Wind Cries Mary’

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

A dish-smashing argument with his girlfriend left Hendrix alone to scrawl the words to "The Wind Cries Mary" in January 1967. A few days later, the guitarist taught the uncharacteristically tender ballad — built around a gentle riff inspired by soul man Curtis Mayfield — to the Experience. The trio knocked out the track in 20 minutes.

Appears on: Are You Experienced? (MCA)

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378

Bo Diddley, ‘I’m a Man’

Writer: Diddley
Producer: Leonard Chess
Released: June '55, Checker
Did Not Chart

The B side of Diddley's first single was built around a four-note guitar stomp that was a trademark of mid-Fifties Chicago blues. Songwriter Willie Dixon, who supervised the 1955 session, said it was Diddley's sense of rhythm that set him apart from everyone else at Chess: "The drums are speaking, and he'll tell you what the drums are saying."

Appears on: His Best: The Chess 50th Anniversary Collection (Chess)

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377

Depeche Mode, ‘Personal Jesus’

Writer: Martin Gore
Producers: Depeche Mode, Flood
Released: Nov. '89, Sire
20 weeks; No. 28

Depeche Mode's breakthrough single was based on a surprising source: Priscilla Presley's book Elvis and Me. "It's about how Elvis was her man and her mentor and how often that happens in love relationships," Gore said. "How everybody's heart is like a god in some way."

Appears on: Violator (Sire)

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