500 Greatest Songs of All Time - Rolling Stone
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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.


The Mamas and the Papas, ‘California Dreamin”

Writers: John and Michelle Phillips
Producer: Lou Adler
Released: Dec. '65, Dunhill
17 weeks; No. 4

One frigid winter in Manhattan, a song came to John Phillips in the middle of the night. He woke up his young wife, Michelle, who was homesick for the West Coast, to help him finish writing "California Dreamin'," one of the all-time sunniest songs of longing. The tune was first recorded by Phillips' folk group the New Journeymen and later given to Barry McGuire as a thank-you after McGuire, riding high with "Eve of Destruction," introduced the group to producer Lou Adler, who convinced the Mamas and the Papas to cut it themselves.

Appears on: If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears (MCA) 


The Temptations, ‘My Girl’

Writers: Smokey Robinson, Ronald White
Producers: Robinson, White
Released: Jan. '65, Gordy
13 weeks; No. 1

The Temptations were sharing a bill with Robinson and his group the Miracles at Harlem's Apollo Theater when Robinson took time out to cut the rhythm track for a new song. After they heard it, the Tempts begged him to let them record the song rather than the Miracles, as he had been planning. Robinson relented and chose the throaty tenor David Ruffin to sing lead, the first time he had done so with the group. The Tempts rehearsed the song that week at the Apollo, then recorded it back home in Detroit on December 21st, 1964.

Appears on: The Temptations Sing Smokey (Motown) 


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: The Temptations


Johnny Cash, ‘Ring of Fire’

Writers: June Carter, Merle Kilgore
Producer: Don Law
Released: May '63, Columbia
13 weeks; No. 17

Carter wrote this song while driving around aimlessly one night, worried about Cash's wildman ways — and aware that she couldn't resist him. "There is no way to be in that kind of hell, no way to extinguish a flame that burns, burns, burns," she wrote. Not long after hearing June's sister Anita's take on the song, Cash had a dream that he was singing it with mariachi horns. Cash's version became one of his biggest hits (inspiring cover versions by everyone from Frank Zappa to Adam Lambert), and his marriage to June four years later helped save his life.

Appears on: The Man in Black: His Greatest Hits (Columbia) 


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Johnny Cash

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Johnny Cash

Photos: Intimate, All-Access Shots of Johnny Cash


Bruce Springsteen, ‘Thunder Road’

Writer: Springsteen
Producers: Springsteen, Jon Landau, Mike Appel
Released: Aug. '75, Columbia

"We decided to make a guitar album, but then I wrote all the songs on piano," Springsteen said of his third album, Born to Run. "Thunder Road," its opening track, is a cinematic tale of redemption with a title borrowed from a 1958 hillbilly noir starring Robert Mitchum as a bootlegger with a car that can't be beat (though the Boss had never actually seen the movie). An early title for the song was "Wings for Wheels," which resurfaced as the name of a Born to Run documentary. Decades later, Springsteen would marvel that he wrote the line "You're scared, and you're thinking that maybe we ain't that young anymore" when he was all of 24 years old.

Appears on: Born to Run (Columbia) 


The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Bruce Springsteen

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Bruce Springsteen

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Born to Run


Patsy Cline, ‘Crazy’

Writer: Willie Nelson
Producer: Owen Bradley
Released: Oct. '61, Decca
11 weeks; No. 9

Cline wasn't impressed when her husband, Charlie Dick, brought home a demo by a 28-year-old rookie Nashville songwriter named Willie Nelson. Told that the song's title was "Crazy," she responded, "It sure is." But Bradley helped Cline make the song her own with a lush arrangement and understated backing vocals from gospel group the Jordanaires. Cline's vocals, cut in one take, infused Nelson's lyrics with slow-burn sex appeal. "Crazy" set the stage for a sophisticated new phase of the C&W sound known as "countrypolitan," although Cline herself wouldn't be around to shape it: She died in a plane crash less than two years later.

Appears on: Patsy Cline's Greatest Hits (MCA) 


The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Patsy Cline


The Police, ‘Every Breath You Take’

Writer: Sting
Hugh Padgham
Released: May '83, A&M
22 weeks; No 1

For their biggest hit, the Police went back to basics, junking an elaborate synth part that distracted from the song's hypnotic bass line in favor of a lick that guitarist Andy Summers recorded in one live take. Sting admitted that the lyrics — which sounded tender but were actually bitter — were pulled from the rock & roll cliche handbook. "'Every Breath You Take' is an archetypal song," he told Rolling Stone. "If you have a major chord followed by a relative minor, you're not original." Following Sting's unoriginal-and-proud manifesto, Puff Daddy would sample "Breath" extensively 14 years later for his own huge hit, the Notorious B.I.G. tribute "I'll Be Missing You."

Appears on: Synchronicity (Interscope) 


The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Synchronicity


The Beatles, ‘Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)’

Writers: John Lennon, Paul McCartney
Producer: George Martin
Released: Dec. '65, Capitol 

This wry, wistful folk ballad was among the first of the Beatles' revolutionary studio experiments. The inclusion of the sitar, an instrument that George Harrison had recently discovered, was groundbreaking. The song, written by Lennon, is the tale of a late-night tryst — although it's electric with sexual possibility, the bemused cad ends up sleeping in the bathtub (and maybe takes his revenge by burning the place down the next morning). Lennon said that the lyrics disguised an actual affair: "I was very careful and paranoid because I didn't want my wife, Cyn, to know that there was something going on."

Appears on: Rubber Soul (Capitol)


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: The Beatles

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: John Lennon


Fats Domino, ‘Blueberry Hill’

Writers: Al Lewis, Larry Stock, Vincent Rose
Producer: Dave Bartholomew
Released: Oct. '56, Imperial 
27 weeks; No. 2

"Blueberry Hill" was first recorded in 1940 by several artists, including Gene Autry and Glenn Miller. But Domino drew on the 1949 Louis Armstrong version when he had run out of material at a session. Producer Bartholomew thought it was a terrible idea but lost the argument. Good thing, too. It ended up being Domino's biggest hit and broadened his audience once and for all. As Carl Perkins later said, "In the white honky-tonks where I was playin', they were punchin' 'Blueberry Hill.' And white cats were dancin' to Fats Domino."

Appears on: The Fats Domino Jukebox (Capitol) 


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Fats Domino


Marvin Gaye, ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’

Writers: Barrett Strong, Norman Whitfield
Producer: Whitfield
Released: Oct. '68, Tamla 
15 weeks; No. 1

Motown producer Whitfield had a reputation for recording the same song with a number of acts, changing the arrangement each time. This irritated some of the label's artists, but every now and then he would get a golden idea — as happened with Gaye's 1968 version of "Grapevine," which had been a hit the year before for Gladys Knight. Whitfield and co-writer Strong set the track in a slower, more mysterious tempo, and the song — which Gaye initially resisted recording — became the bestselling Motown single of the decade.

Appears on: Every Motown Hit (Motown) 


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Marvin Gaye

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Marvin Gaye


The Kinks, ‘You Really Got Me’

Writer: Ray Davies
Producer: Shel Talmy
Released: Sept. '64, Reprise 
15 weeks; No. 7

Convinced that the band's previous two singles had flopped because they were too pristine, the Kinks went into the studio in the summer of 1964 to record this deliberately raw rave-up, written by Ray Davies on the piano in his parents' living room. But the original recording still felt too shiny, and the band had to borrow 200 pounds to cover the cost of another session. Seventeen-year-old guitarist Dave Davies took a razor to the speaker cone on his amp to get the desired dirty sound for that immortal, blistering riff. "The song came out of a working-class environment," Dave recalled. "People fighting for something." A month later, the proto-heavy-metal song went straight to the top of the British charts.

Appears on: Kinks (Castle) 


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: The Kinks

The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: Dave Davies


The Byrds, ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’

Writer: Bob Dylan
Producer: Terry Melcher
Released: May '65, Columbia
13 weeks; No. 1

The only Byrd to play on the band's first hit was Roger McGuinn, whose chiming 12-string Rickenbacker guitar became folk rock's defining sound. Everything else came from L.A. session players, including drummer Hal Blaine and bassist Larry Knechtel of Phil Spector's Wrecking Crew. But the rest of the Byrds soon caught up, and as the song was breaking, a curious Dylan checked out the band at Ciro's, a Los Angeles club. Reportedly, he didn't recognize some of his own songs in their electrified versions.

Appears on: Mr. Tambourine Man (Columbia/Legacy)


James Brown, ‘I Got You (I Feel Good)’

Writer: Brown
Producer: Brown
Released: Nov. '65, King
12 weeks; No. 3

The same year he hit with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," Soul Brother Number One scored his biggest pop success with "I Got You." It was a sped-up, hyped-up new version of a song called "I Found You" that Brown had written a few years previous for one of his early proteges, James Brown Revue singer Yvonne Fair. "I Got You" received some help on the pop charts from a most unlikely source; a few months before the single was released, Brown performed the song in the Frankie Avalon teen flick Ski Party.

Appears on: James Brown 50th Anniversary Collection (UTV/Polydor) 


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: James Brown

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: James Brown

James Brown, 1933-2006


Elvis Presley, ‘Mystery Train’

Writer: Junior Parker, Sam Phillips
Producer: Phillips
Released: Sept. '55, Sun
Did not chart

"Mystery Train" is one of Presley's most haunting songs, a stark blues number that sounds ancient but was actually first cut only two years before by Memphis blues singer Junior Parker. Presley recorded it with the groove from the flip side of the same Parker single, "Love My Baby," and Sun producer Phillips' taut, rubbery echo effect made guitarist Scotty Moore's every note sound doubled. Presley added a final verse — "Train . . . took my baby, but it never will again" — capped by a celebratory falsetto whoop that transformed a pastoral about death into a song about the power to overcome it.

Appears on: Sunrise (RCA) 


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Elvis Presley

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Elvis Presley


The Beatles, ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’

Writers: John Lennon, Paul McCartney
Producer: George Martin
Released: Feb. '67, Capitol
9 weeks; No. 8

Lennon often considered "Strawberry Fields Forever" his greatest accomplishment with the Beatles. The song, a surreal kaleidoscope of sound, was the first track recorded for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (although it was released as a single instead). The lyrics are a nostalgic look at Lennon's Liverpool childhood and an expression of his own pride. Said Lennon, "The second line goes, 'No one I think is in my tree.' Well, what I was trying to say in that line is, 'Nobody seems to be as hip as me, therefore I must be crazy or a genius.'"

Appears on: Magical Mystery Tour (Capitol)  


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: The Beatles

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: John Lennon

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band


Led Zeppelin, ‘Whole Lotta Love’

Writers: Willie Dixon, Led Zeppelin
Producer: Jimmy Page
Released: Oct. '69, Atlantic
15 weeks; No. 4

The members of Led Zeppelin first got their sound together by jamming on blues standards, stretching them out into psychedelic orgies. "Whole Lotta Love" was a tribute to Chicago blues songwriter Willie Dixon, based on his "You Need Love," a Muddy Waters single from 1962 (though Robert Plant also threw in quotes from songs Dixon wrote for Howlin' Wolf). The copyright issues weren't sorted out until 1985, when Dixon brought legal action and got his rightful share of the credit for "Whole Lotta Love." "Page's riff was Page's riff," Plant said. "I just thought, 'Well, what am I going to sing?' That was it, a nick. Now happily paid for." Said Page, "Usually my riffs are pretty damn original. What can I say?"

Appears on: Led Zeppelin II (Atlantic) 


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Led Zeppelin

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Led Zeppelin II

The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: Jimmy Page

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Robert Plant

Classic Led Zeppelin: Onstage and Behind the Scenes 1969-1985


Eddie Cochran, ‘Summertime Blues’

Writers: Cochran, Jerry Capehart
Producer: Capehart
Released: July '58, Liberty
16 weeks; No. 8

Cochran's label tried molding him into a crooning teen idol, but he made his mark with a string of rockabilly ravers written with partner Capehart. Explaining the inspiration for this classic, Capehart said, "There had been a lot of songs about summer, but none about the hardships of summer." With that idea and a guitar lick from Cochran, they knocked out the song in 45 minutes.

Appears on: Somethin' Else (Razor and Tie) 


The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: Eddie Cochran


Stevie Wonder, ‘Superstition’

Writer: Wonder
Producers: Wonder, Malcolm Cecil, Robert Margouleff
Released: Nov. '72, Tamla
16 weeks; No. 1

Wonder debuted this hard blast of funk live while opening for the Rolling Stones in the summer of 1972, intent on expanding his audience. The 22-year-old former child star had written it at the drum set, humming the other parts to himself. Wonder had initially intended for Jeff Beck to record the song, but Berry Gordy wouldn't let him give it away. It became the first single from Talking Book — and Wonder's first Number One hit in nearly a decade.

Appears on: Talking Book (Motown)


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Stevie Wonder

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Stevie Wonder

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Talking Book


The Beach Boys, ‘California Girls’

Writers: Brian Wilson, Mike Love
Producer: Wilson
Released: July '65, Capitol
11 weeks; No. 3

The first time Wilson took acid, he sat at the piano and wrote the brooding, beautiful opening bars to "California Girls." It was a breakthrough moment, Wilson has said, that led him to begin creating more complex, emotional music. The lyrics, written by Love, were inspired by Wilson's assertion that "everybody loves girls." And despite the teen-fantasy theme, the singing is tougher than earlier Beach Boys hits, with tightly wound harmonies and an aggressive lead vocal. "I taught Mike to sing with attitude," said Wilson. "I was trying to create a new Beach Boys sound."

Appears on: Sounds of Summer: The Very Best of the Beach Boys (Capitol)


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: The Beach Boys

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Brian Wilson


James Brown, ‘Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag’

Writer: Brown
Producer: Brown
Released: July '66, King

13 weeks; No. 8

In mid-1965, Brown was locked in a contract struggle with King Records, but when he learned King was nearly bankrupt, he threw the label a bone: a song he'd recorded a few months earlier, yelling, "This is a hit!" as the tape rolled. Arguably the first funk record, it's driven by the empty space between beats as much as by Brown's bellow and guitarist Jimmy Nolen's ice-chipper scratch. In a stroke of postproduction genius (you can hear the original recording on the Grammy-winning Star Time box set), Brown sliced off the intro to have the song start with a face-smashing horn blast, and sped it up just enough so it sounded like an urgent bulletin from the future.

Appears on: 50th Anniversary Collection (UTV/Polydor) 


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: James Brown

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: James Brown


Dionne Warwick, ‘Walk On By’

Writers: Burt Bacharach, Hal David
Producers: Bacharach, David
Released: April '64, Scepter
13 weeks, No. 6

Early in her career, Warwick was a back-up singer who also cut demos for Brill Building songwriters Bacharach and David. This forlorn classic solidified her stardom, capping a series of singles in which she played the pleading lover. A downcast ballad set to a bossa nova beat, it was originally relegated to the B side of "Any Old Time of the Day," until New York DJ Murray the K asked listeners to vote on the single's two sides. The winning cut scaled the charts during the heady exuberance of Beatlemania, which provided an unwitting foil for the understated perseverance of "Walk On By." "I didn't get the guy very often in those days," Warwick said.

Appears on: The Dionne Warwick Collection: Her All-Time Greatest Hits 


Roy Orbison, ‘Crying’

Writers: Joe Melson, Orbison
Producer: Fred Foster
Released: Aug. '61, Monument
16 weeks; No. 2

Orbison said he wrote this lush, dreamy ballad after an encounter with an old flame: "Whether I was physically crying or just crying inside is the same thing." His near-operatic performance culminated in a high, wailing note, which Orbison never lost the capacity to hit until his death in 1988. "He sounded like he was singing from an Olympian mountaintop and he meant business," Bob Dylan wrote in Chronicles. "He was now singing his compositions in three or four octaves that made you want to drive your car over a cliff. He sang like a professional criminal."

Appears on: For the Lonely: 18 Greatest Hits (Rhino)


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Roy Orbison

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Roy Orbison


Bob Dylan, ‘Tangled Up in Blue’

Writer: Dylan
Producer: Dylan
Released: Jan. '75, Columbia
7 weeks, No. 31

When Dylan introduced "Tangled Up in Blue" onstage in 1978, he described it as a song that took him "10 years to live and two years to write." It's still one of his most frequently performed live staples. It was the six-minute opener from Blood on the Tracks, written as his first marriage was falling apart. Dylan takes inspiration from classic country singers like Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell, in a tale of a drifting heart on the road through the Sixties and Seventies. Dylan kept revising the song heavily through the years; on his 1984 Real Live, he plays with the chords and lyrics to tell a whole new story.

Appears on: Blood on the Tracks (Columbia) 


100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Bob Dylan

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Bob Dylan

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Blood on the Tracks

Bob Dylan at 70: His Best Songs, Classic Features, Photos and More


Elvis Presley, ‘Jailhouse Rock’

Writers: Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller
Producer: Steve Sholes
Released: Oct. '57, RCA 
27 weeks, No. 1

Songwriters Leiber and Stoller had already penned a couple of Presley hits — most notably "Hound Dog," picked up from blues belter Big Mama Thornton — but the theme song for Presley's third movie was the duo's first studio collaboration with the young superstar. "Jailhouse Rock" was decidedly silly, the kind of tongue-in-cheek narrative goof they had been coming up with for the Coasters. The King, however, sang it as straight rock & roll, overlooking the humor in the lyrics (like the suggestion of gay romance when inmate Number 47 tells Number 3, "You're the cutest jailbird I ever did see") and introducing Scotty Moore's guitar solo with a cry so intense that the take almost collapses.

Appears on: Elvis 30 #1 Hits (RCA) 


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Elvis Presley

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Elvis Presley

Young Elvis Presley: A Look Back at the King at 21 on His 75th Birthday


Bob Marley and the Wailers, ‘Redemption Song’

Writer: Marley
Producer: Chris Blackwell
Released: June '80, Island
Did not chart

Marley had already recorded a version of this freedom hymn with his band when Island Records' chief Blackwell suggested he try it as an acoustic-style folk tune. Inspired by the writings of Marcus Garvey, Marley's lyrics offer up music as an antidote to slavery, both mental and physical. "I would love to do more like that," Marley said a few months before his death, from cancer, at age 36 in 1981. As the final track on his final album, "Redemption Song" stands as his epitaph.

Appears on: Uprising (Island) 


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Bob Marley

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Bob Marley

Intimate Moments with Bob Marley During the Golden Age of Reggae


Cream, ‘Sunshine of Your Love’

Writers: Jack Bruce, Pete Brown, Eric Clapton
Producer: Felix Pappalardi
Released: Jan. '68, Atco
26 weeks; No. 5 

Bassist Bruce and lyricist-poet Brown came up with "Sunshine" toward the end of an all-night session, which inspired the opening line: "It's getting near dawn/When lights close their tired eyes." The killer riff was inspired by Jimi Hendrix and based on a bass ostinato from Bruce; Clapton added the chorus hook, and drummer Ginger Baker laid down a mammoth, tom-tom-heavy beat. Bruce knew "Sunshine" would do well, but Atlantic Records nearly rejected it until some of the label's biggest acts started championing the record. "Both Booker T. Jones and Otis Redding heard it and told me it was going to be a smash," he recalled.

Appears on: Disraeli Gears (Polydor) 


The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Disraeli Gears

The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: Eric Clapton

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Eric Clapton


The Beatles, ‘She Loves You’

Writers: John Lennon, Paul McCartney 
Producer: George Martin 
Released: Sept. '63, Swan 
15 weeks; No. 1

Lennon and McCartney began writing this song on a tour van, and George Harrison dreamed up the harmonies, which Martin found "corny." The band overruled Martin on the harmonies, but they took his suggestion to kick off the song with the jubilant chorus. When McCartney's father heard the song, he said, "Son, there are enough Americanisms around. Couldn't you sing, 'Yes, yes, yes,' just for once?" McCartney said, "You don't understand, Dad. It wouldn't work."

Appears on: The Beatles 1 (Capitol/Apple) 


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: The Beatles


Buffalo Springfield, ‘For What It’s Worth’

Writer: Stephen Stills
Producers: Charles Greene, Brian Stone
Released: Feb. '67, Atco
15 weeks, No. 7

As police and teens clashed on L.A.'s Sunset Strip, Neil Young's guitar tolled like a funeral bell; the Summer of Love was unraveling before it even began. "It turned out to be indicative of what was about to happen," said Stills.

Appears on: Buffalo Springfield (Elektra) 


Bo Diddley, ‘Bo Diddley’

Writer: Ellas McDaniel
Producers: Phil and Leonard Chess
Released: June '55, Checker 
Did not chart

Didley's first single went to Number One on the R&B charts and immortalized the bedrock beat that would power everything from Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away" to the Smiths' "How Soon Is Now." The song originated as a sexually suggestive ditty titled "Uncle John," but the Chess brothers asked Diddley to clean up its lyrics and give it a more memorable title to match its otherworldly sound. Diddley, who studied violin as a child and built his own instruments, wrote songs that were deceptively simple, driven by interplay between the bass, drums and his tremolo guitar. But you can't copyright a beat, and Diddley never reaped the rewards for his greatest innovation.

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


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Bo Diddley

The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: Bo Diddley


Jerry Lee Lewis, ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On’

Writers: Dave Williams, Roy Hall
Producer: Jack Clement
Released: June '57, Sun
29 weeks; No. 3

When Lewis decided to record what would be his breakthrough hit, it had already been cut four times and gone nowhere. Lewis filled it with frantic piano and filthy instructions ("All you got to do, honey, is kinda stand in one spot/Wiggle around just a little bit"). But what really made "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On" work was producer Cowboy Jack Clement's decision to turn the session over to the manic energy of Lewis' live shows. "I just simply turned on the machine, mixed it on the fly," he said. After Lewis played a fiery version of "Shakin'" on Steve Allen's TV show, the song went on to sell more than 6 million copies.

Appears on: Original Sun Greatest Hits (Rhino) 


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Jerry Lee Lewis

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Jerry Lee Lewis


Al Green, ‘Let’s Stay Together’

Writers: Al Green, Al Jackson Jr., Willie Mitchell
Producer: Mitchell
Released: Dec. '71, Hi
16 weeks; No. 1

After Mitchell gave Green a rough mix of a tune he and drummer Jackson had worked out, Green wrote the lyrics in five minutes. Still, Green didn't want to record the song and fought with Mitchell for two days before finally agreeing to cut it. The recording was finished late on a Friday night in the fall of 1971; Mitchell pressed the single on Monday, and by Thursday Green was told that "Let's Stay Together" would be entering the charts at Number Eight. Within two weeks, it had reached Number One on the R&B charts, and in February 1972, the warm, buoyant love song gave Green his only Number One pop hit.

Appears on: Let's Stay Together (The Right Stuff)


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Al Green

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Al Green


Bob Dylan, ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’

Writer: Dylan
Producer: Bob Johnston
Released: Jan. '64, Columbia
Did not chart 

"I wanted to write a big song, some kind of theme song, with short, concise verses that piled up on each other in a hypnotic way," said Dylan. "This is definitely a song with a purpose." Inspired by Scottish and Irish folk ballads and released less than two months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, "The Times They Are A-Changin'" became an immediate Sixties anthem and was covered by artists ranging from the Byrds to Cher to Eddie Vedder. Said Dylan, "I knew exactly what I wanted to say and who I wanted to say it to."

Appears on: The Times They Are A-Changin' (Columbia)


The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Bob Dylan

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan at 70: His Best Songs, Classic Features, Photos and More


Michael Jackson, ‘Billie Jean’

Writer: Jackson
Producers: Jackson, Quincy Jones
Released: Jan. '83, Epic
7 weeks; No. 1

Sinuous, paranoid and omnipresent: The single that made Jackson the biggest star since Elvis was a denial of a paternity suit, and it spent seven weeks at Number One on the pop charts. Jackson came up with the irresistible rhythm track on his home drum machine and he nailed the vocals in one take. "I knew the song was going to be big," Jackson said. "I was really absorbed in writing it." How absorbed? Jackson said he was thinking about "Billie Jean" while riding in his Rolls-Royce down the Ventura Freeway in California — and didn't notice the car was on fire.

Appears on: Thriller (Sony)


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Michael Jackson

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Michael Jackson

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Thriller


Procol Harum, ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’

Writers: Keith Reid, Gary Brooker
Producer: Denny Cordell
Released: June '67, A&M
12 weeks; No. 5

A somber hymn supported by an organ theme straight out of Bach ("Air on the G String," from the "Suite No. 3 in D Major"), Procol Harum's "Whiter Shade of Pale" was unlike anything else on the radio in 1967. Reid got the idea for the song when he overheard someone at a party tell a woman, "You've gone a whiter shade of pale." The track was also the only one recorded by the initial lineup of Procol Harum, which started as a British band, the Paramounts, in 1963. A worldwide smash that sold more than 6 million copies and quickly found its way into wedding ceremonies (and, later, the Big Chill soundtrack), "Pale" helped kick-start the classical-rock boomlet that gave the world the Moody Blues.

Appears on: Greatest Hits (A&M)


The Sex Pistols, ‘Anarchy in the U.K.’

Writers: Paul Cook, Steve Jones, Glen Matlock, Johnny Rotten
Producers: Chris Thomas, Bill Price
Released: Nov. '77, Warner Bros.

This is what the beginning of a revolution sounds like: an explosion of punk-rock guitar noise and Johnny Rotten's evil cackle. The Sex Pistols set out to become a national scandal in the U.K., and they succeeded with their debut single. Jones made his guitar sound like a pub brawl, while Rotten snarled, spat and snickered, declaring himself an antichrist and ending the song by urging his fans, "Get pissed/Destroy!" EMI, the Sex Pistols' record label, pulled "Anarchy in the U.K." and dropped them, which just made them more notorious. "I don't understand it," Rotten said in 1977. "All we're trying to do is destroy everything."

Appears on: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols (Warner Bros.) 


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: The Sex Pistols

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols


Little Richard, ‘Long Tall Sally’

Writers: Robert "Bumps" Blackwell, Enotris Johnson, Little Richard
Producer: Blackwell
Released: March '56, Specialty
19 weeks; No. 6 

Half of a double-sided hit (the flip was "Slippin' and Slidin' [Peepin' and Hidin']"), "Long Tall Sally" was aimed squarely at pop singer Pat Boone. "The white radio stations wouldn't play Richard's version of 'Tutti-Frutti' and made Boone's cover Number One," recalled Blackwell. "So we decided to up the tempo on the follow-up and get the lyrics going so fast that Boone wouldn't be able to get his mouth together to do it!" "Long Tall Sally" proved to be Little Richard's biggest hit. Unfazed, Boone also recorded the song, taking it to Number Eight.

Appears on: The Georgia Peach (Specialty)


The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Little Richard

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Little Richard


The Kingsmen, ‘Louie Louie’

Writer: Richard Berry
Producer: Ken Chase
Released: June '63, Jerden
16 weeks; No. 2 

A blast of raw guitars and half-intelligible shouting recorded for $52, the Kingsmen's cover of Richard Berry's R&B song hit Number Two in 1963 — thanks in part to supposedly pornographic lyrics that drew the attention of the FBI. The Portland, Oregon, group accidentally rendered the decidedly noncontroversial lyrics (about a sailor trying to get home to see his lady) indecipherable by crowding around a single microphone. "I was yelling at a mike far away," singer Jack Ely told Rolling Stone. "I always thought the controversy was record-company hype."

Appears on: The Best of the Kingsmen (Rhino) 


Percy Sledge, ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’

Writers: Calvin Lewis, Andrew Wright
Producers: Marlin Greene, Quin Ivy
Released: March '66, Atlantic
13 weeks; No. 1 

Sledge was touring the South with an R&B combo called the Esquires when producer Ivy heard him belt out an intense, pleading ballad at the local Elks Club. Sledge had recently lost both his construction job and his girl, who'd taken off for L.A. to pursue a modeling career. "I didn't have any money to go after her, so there was nothing I could do to try and get her back," he later recalled. Ivy had the lyrics rewritten, and Sledge quit the Esquires to cut his first solo side, the immortal "When a Man Loves a Woman." When Atlantic's Jerry Wexler heard the song, he told partner Ahmet Ertegun, "Our billing for the summer is in the bag."

Appears on: It Tears Me Up: The Best of Percy Sledge (Rhino)


Prince, ‘When Doves Cry’

Writer: Prince
Producer: Prince
Released: June '84, Warner Bros.
21 weeks; No. 1 

The Purple Rain soundtrack album was completed, and so was the movie. But Prince just couldn't stop making music. And at the very last minute, he added a brand-new song: "When Doves Cry." Even by Prince standards, it's eccentric; after single-handedly recording the stark, broken-hearted song in the studio, he decided to erase the bass track from the final mix. According to the engineer, Prince said, "Nobody would have the balls to do this. You just wait — they'll be freaking." He was right. Prince made it the soundtrack's first single — and 1984's most avant-garde pop record became his first American Number One hit, keeping Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark" out of the top spot.

Appears on: Purple Rain (Warner Bros.) 


The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Prince

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Prince

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Purple Rain


Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, ‘The Message’

Writers: Duke Bootee, Melle Mel
Producer: Sylvia Robinson
Released: May '82, Sugar Hill
7 weeks; No. 62 

"The Message" was a breakthrough in hip-hop, taking the music from party anthems to street-level ghetto blues. It began as a poem by schoolteacher Bootee; Sugar Hill boss Robinson decided to make it a rap record with Melle Mel of the Furious Five. Said Flash in 1997, "I hated the fact that it was advertised as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, because the only people on the record were Mel and Duke Bootee." But the song, driven by its signature future-shock synth riff and grim lyrics about urban decay, became an instant sensation on New York's hip-hop radio. "It played all day, every day," Flash said. "It put us on a whole new level."

Appears on: The Best of Sugar Hill Records (Rhino) 

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