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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 Rolling Stones, ‘Miss You’

Writers: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards
Producers: The Glimmer Twins
Released: May '78, Rolling Stones
20 weeks; No. 1

The Stones were in Toronto, rehearsing for their classic gigs at the El Mocambo Club, when Jagger, jamming with R&B legend Billy Preston, came up with "Miss You." With a disco groove and a touch of the blues via a harmonica player they found in a Paris subway, it became the band's first Number One hit in five years. "It's not really about a girl," Jagger said. "The feeling of longing is what the song is."

Appears on: Some Girls (Virgin)


100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Number 16, Mick Jagger

100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: Number Ten, Keith Richards

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Number Four, The Rolling Stones

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Number 269, The Rolling Stones' Some Girls


Bruce Springsteen, ‘The Rising’

Writer: Springsteen
Producer: Brendan O'Brien
Released: July '02, Columbia
11 weeks; No. 52

Springsteen wrote the track about 9/11, taking the viewpoint of a firefighter entering one of the Twin Towers ("Can't see nothin' in front of me …") before unleashing the gospel-tinged chorus. It was the title track from an album intended to help his fans cope with the tragedy. "The fundamental thing I hear from fans is, 'Man, you got me through' — whatever it is," he told Rolling Stone in 2002.

Appears on: The Rising (Columbia)


100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Bruce Springsteen 

100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Bruce Springsteen


Jackson Browne, ‘Running on Empty’

Writer: Browne
Producer: Browne
Released: Jan. '77, Asylum
17 weeks; No. 11

The Running on Empty album was Browne's grand experiment: a set of all-new songs recorded onstage, in hotel rooms and on the tour bus. The title track was actually written while Browne was driving to the studio each day to make The Pretender. "I was always driving around with no gas in the car," he said. "I just never bothered to fill up the tank because — how far was it anyway? Just a few blocks."

Appears on: Running on Empty (Elektra)


The Rolling Stones, ‘Brown Sugar’

Writers: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards
Producer: Jimmy Miller
Released: April '71, Rolling Stones
12 weeks; No. 1

The Stones take on slavery, sadomasochism, interracial sex — and make it catchy as hell. At Muscle Shoals studios, Jagger scrawled three verses on a pad, and Richards supplied an impossibly raunchy riff. Add some exultant punctuations and you have a Stones concert staple.

Appears on: Sticky Fingers (Virgin)


100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Mick Jagger

100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: Keith Richards

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: The Rolling Stones

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: The Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers


R. Kelly, ‘Ignition (Remix)’

Writer: Kelly
Producer: Kelly
Released: Oct. '02, Jive
42 weeks; No. 2

R. Kelly's automotive metaphors for booty-knockin' in "Ignition" are subtler than they might've been; the lyrics were toned down at the request of a Chicago radio station. On Chocolate Factory, the original version of the song segued immediately into the hit remix.

Appears on: Chocolate Factory (Jive)


MGMT, ‘Time to Pretend’

Writers: Ben Goldwasser, Andrew VanWyngarden
Producer: Dave Fridmann
Released: Jan '08, Columbia
Did Not Chart

The rhythm was inspired by the wriggling of a praying mantis that VanWyngarden and Goldwasser kept in college. VanWyngarden wrote about rock-star fantasies ("I'll move to Paris, shoot some heroin"), though it's unclear how facetious the words are. "Some think we're druggies. Others see the tongue-in-cheek element," he said. "That's what I hope for as a lyricist: confusion!"

Appears on: Oracular Spectacular (Columbia)


Gloria Gaynor, ‘I Will Survive’

Writers: Dino Fekaris, Freddie Perren
Producers: Fekaris, Perren
Released: Dec. '78, Polydor
27 weeks; No. 1

In 1979, Gaynor's career was falling apart. Donna Summer had replaced her as the leading disco diva, and the 32-year-old Gaynor had recently suffered the death of her mother and had undergone spinal surgery. So when she belted out "I Will Survive," she brought extra attitude. The track was originally a B side, but after enterprising DJs started to play it at discos, it turned into a smash.

Appears on: I Will Survive: The Anthology (Polygram)


Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, ‘I Love Rock ‘N Roll’

Writers: Jake Hooker, Alan Merrill
Producers: Ritchie Cordell, Kenny Laguna
Released: Jan. '82, Boardwalk
20 weeks; No. 1

Attempting to jump-start a solo career after her stint in the Runaways, Jett had her demo tape to "I Love Rock 'N Roll" rejected by 23 record labels. Tiny Boardwalk Records finally bit, but the label sold her the radio rights to the track for $2,500. Today, the song is worth nearly $20 million.

Appears on: I Love Rock 'N Roll (Blackheart)


100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: Joan Jett


Coldplay, ‘Clocks’

Writers: Coldplay
Producers: Ken Nelson, Mark Phythian
Released: Aug. '02, Capitol
22 weeks; No. 29

Coldplay were scrambling to finish their second album and wanted to save "Clocks," with a churning piano riff inspired by the band Muse, for a later album. Luckily, a friend intervened. "He said, 'You're going on [in the lyrics] about urgency, and you're talking about keeping this song back,' " said Chris Martin. " 'That doesn't make sense.' "

Appears on: A Rush of Blood to the Head (Capitol)


500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Coldplay's A Rush of Blood to the Head


The Drifters, ‘Under the Boardwalk’

Writers: Arthur Resnick, Kenny Young
Producer: Bert Berns
Released: June '64, Atlantic
33 weeks; No. 4

A staple of beach-town jukeboxes every summer since its release, "Under the Boardwalk" evokes the carefree sounds of the shore. But its recording was no day at the beach. Johnny Moore was drafted to sing lead because the track's original singer, Rudy Lewis, died of a heroin overdose in his hotel room the night before the session.

Appears on: The Very Best of the Drifters (Rhino)


100 Greatest Artists of All Time: The Drifters


The Cure, ‘Just Like Heaven’

Writers: Robert Smith, Simon Gallup, Porl Thompson, Lol Tolhurst, Boris Williams
Producers: David Allen, Smith
Released: May '87, Elektra
19 weeks; No. 40

"I've never been a big fan of irony," Smith said, which might be why this reverie of love, cut at a vineyard in the South of France, is his favorite Cure song. The band's girlfriends influenced the music. "The girls would sit on the sofa in the back of the control room and give the songs marks out of 10," he said. "So there was a really big female input."

Appears on: Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me (Elektra)


Alice Cooper, ‘I’m Eighteen’

Writers: Michael Bruce, Glen Buxton, Cooper, Dennis Dunway, Neal Smith
Producers: Bob Erzin, Jack Richardson
Released: Feb. '71, Warner Bros.
13 weeks; No. 21

Before "I'm Eighteen," Cooper was just another hairy rock oddball. But this proto-punk smash defined the age when, in Cooper's words, you're "old enough to be drafted but not old enough to vote." A few years later, Johnny Rotten sang this at his audition for the Sex Pistols; by then, Cooper was a guest on The Muppet Show.

Appears on: Love It to Death (Warner Bros.)


500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Alice Cooper's Love It to Death


David Bowie, ‘Young Americans’

Writer: Bowie
Producer: Tony Visconti
Released: March '75, RCA
11 weeks; No. 28

In 1975, Bowie traded his glammed-out Ziggy Stardust persona for an exploration of what he called "plastic soul." Yet this R&B homage is one of his warmest, wildest tales, recorded in Philadelphia with a then-unknown Luther Vandross on backing vocals and David Sanborn wailing on sax. "It's about a newlywed couple who don't know if they really like each other," Bowie said.

Appears on: Young Americans (Virgin)


100 Greatest Artists of All Time: David Bowie

100 Greatest Singers of All Time: David Bowie


LaBelle, ‘Lady Marmalade’

Writers: Bob Crewe, Kenny Nolan
Producer: Allen Toussaint
Released: Jan. '75, Epic
18 weeks; No. 1

This hit about a Big Easy streetwalker remains in rotation 35 years after it hit Number One. The group was from Philadelphia, but the nasty groove was classic New Orleans, with producer Toussaint and his house band, legendary R&B stalwarts the Meters, funking up the beat. Thanks to the ladies of LaBelle, every disco fan now knows at least one line of French: "Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?"

Appears on: Nightbirds (Epic)


100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Patti LaBelle 

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: LaBelle's Nightbirds


Justin Timberlake, ‘Cry Me a River’

Writers: Timbaland, Scott Storch, Timberlake
Producer: Timbaland
Released: Nov. '02, Jive
20 weeks; No. 3

This breakup aria marked the formation of the TimberlakeTimbaland team, a match made in pop heaven. The stunning video — in which Justin stalks an actress dressed to look like his ex Britney Spears — made clear the inspiration for "River." "It's a good-ass video," Timberlake told Rolling Stone. "I didn't want anyone to come off smelling like roses."

Appears on: Justified (Jive)


Jefferson Airplane, ‘White Rabbit’

Writer: Grace Slick
Producer: Rick Jarrard
Released: Sept. '67, RCA
10 weeks; No. 8

"White Rabbit" was a trippy rock & roll bolero written by Airplane vocalist Slick. "Our parents read us stories like Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz," Slick said. "They all have a place where children get drugs, and are able to fly or see an Emerald City or experience extraordinary animals and people… And our parents are suddenly saying, 'Why are you taking drugs?' Well, hello!"

Appears on: Surrealistic Pillow (RCA)


500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Jefferson Airplane's Surrealistic Pillow


Kelly Clarkson, ‘Since U Been Gone’

Writers: Dr. Luke, Max Martin
Producers: Dr. Luke, Martin
Released: Nov. '04, RCA
46 weeks; No. 2

Pop gurus Max Martin and Lukasz "Dr. Luke" Gottwald wrote this indignant track with Pink in mind, but Clarkson's A&R rep snatched it up for the first-ever American Idol. The result was a career-making hit that gave teen pop a feisty new template. "I went to see Foo Fighters when I was off in Texas," Clarkson said, "and the first thing Dave Grohl said to me was, 'I love that song!' "

Appears on: Breakaway (RCA)


Rick James, ‘Super Freak’

Writers: James, Alonzo Miller
Producer: James
Released: Aug. '81, Gordy
24 weeks; No. 16

James wasn't exactly modest about his ambitions. As he declared in 1981, "I wanna make Paul McCartney white-boy money!" He got it with the self-described "punk funk" of "Super Freak," from his breakthrough album, Street Songs. James enlisted the Temptations for background vocals. The song got a second life when MC Hammer jacked it for the 1990 megasmash "U Can't Touch This."

Appears on: Street Songs (Motown)


Beastie Boys, ‘Sabotage’

Writers: Beastie Boys
Producers: Beastie Boys, Mario Caldato Jr.
Released: May '94, Grand Royal
Did Not Chart

Adam "MCA" Yauch came up with the killer fuzz-bass riff at Manhattan's Tin Pan Alley studio, but it wasn't until a year later that the song was finished in L.A. With two weeks to go before Ill Communication was completed, Adam "Ad-Rock" Horovitz got all hot and bothered about paparazzi on the mike and came out of the song's breakdown with a scream for the ages.

Appears on: Ill Communication (Capitol)


100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Beastie Boys


Foreigner, ‘I Want to Know What Love Is’

Writer: Mick Jones
Producers: Jones, Alex Sadkin
Released: Nov. '84, Atlantic
21 weeks; No. 1

This gospel-rock hymn featured Dreamgirls star Jennifer Holliday, one of the Thompson Twins and, most notably, the New Jersey Mass Choir. Said Jones, "I'll always remember them getting in a circle before we did it and everyone saying the Lord's Prayer." That probably didn't happen for "Hot Blooded" — but this soaring ballad became Foreigner's biggest hit.

Appears on: Agent Provocateur (Atlantic)


The Strokes, ‘Last Nite’

Writer: Julian Casablancas
Producer: Gordon Raphael
Released: Aug. '01, RCA
Did Not Chart

Youthful angst on the Lower East Side: Lou Reed vocals and cool confusion, driven by the surging, garage-band sound that would go on to define early-2000s rock. The Strokes supposedly nicked the opening riff from Tom Petty's "American Girl." "I saw an interview with them where they admitted it," Petty told Rolling Stone. "I was like, 'OK, good for you.' It doesn't bother me."

Appears on: Is This It (RCA)


500 Greatest Albums of All Time: The Strokes's Is This It


The Smiths, ‘How Soon Is Now?’

Writers: Johnny Marr, Morrissey
Producer: John Porter
Released: Feb. '85, Sire
Did Not Chart

Morrissey cribbed lyrics from George Eliot, but guitarist Marr cited another reference: Derek and the Dominos. "I wanted an intro that was almost as potent as 'Layla,'" he said. "When [it] plays in a club or a pub, everyone knows what it is."

Appears on: Meat Is Murder (Warner Bros.)


100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Morrissey 

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: The Smiths's Meat Is Murder


Aretha Franklin, ‘Do Right Woman — Do Right Man’

Writers: Chips Moman, Dan Penn
Producer: Jerry Wexler
Released: March '67, Atlantic
11 weeks; No. 9

Franklin disappeared after a 1967 session in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, leaving this simmering ballad unfinished. A few weeks later, she resurfaced in New York. The resulting vocal, said producer Wexler, was "perfection."

Appears on: I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (Rhino)


100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Aretha Franklin 

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Aretha Franklin 

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Aretha Franklin's I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You


The Supremes, ‘Where Did Our Love Go’

Writers: Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, Eddie Holland
Producers: Brian Holland, Dozier
Released: June '64, Motown
14 weeks; No. 1

After eight flop singles, the trio were known as the "No-Hit Supremes." The Marvelettes — Motown's top girl group at that point — passed on this song, and the Supremes didn't like their own recording. Until it hit Number One, that is. That foot-stomping beat is actually two boards banged together.

Appears on: The Ultimate Collection (Motown)


100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Diana Ross and the Supremes


Van Morrison, ‘Into the Mystic’

Writer: Morrison
Producer: Morrison
Released: March '70, Warner Bros.

"Into the Mystic" is one of Morrison's warmest ballads, an Otis Redding-style reverie with acoustic guitar and horns. The lyrics are truly mysterious: "People say, 'What does this mean?' " said Morrison. "A lot of times I have no idea what I mean. That's what I like about rock & roll — the concept. Like Little Richard — what does he mean? You can't take him apart; that's rock & roll to me."

Appears on: Moondance (Warner Bros.)


100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Van Morrison 

100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Van Morrison 

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Van Morrison's Moondance


Guns N’ Roses, ‘Welcome to the Jungle’

Writers: Guns n' Roses
Producer: Mike Clink
Released: Aug. '87, Geffen
17 weeks; No. 7

Slash's Seventies-metal crunch and Axl's hell-bound shriek brought brutal realism to the L.A. glam-metal scene. "They're real-life stories, these fuckin' songs," bassist Duff McKagan said. "Jungle" beckoned listeners into the Gunners' sordid Hollywood milieu, but Rose's inspiration came from getting lost during his first trip to New York.

Appears on: Appetite for Destruction (Geffen)


100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Guns n' Roses 

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Guns n' Roses's Appetite for Destruction 

100 Best Albums of the Eighties: Guns n' Roses's Appetite for Destruction


Del Shannon, ‘Runaway’

Writers: Shannon, Max Crook
Producers: Harry Balk, Irving Micahnik
Released: March '61, Big Top
17 weeks; No. 1

As a kid, Shannon got his first guitar for $5. His truck-driver dad wasn't too happy about it. "'You get that goddamn guitar outta here' — that's the exact words my father used," Shannon recalled. "However, my ma said, 'It's OK, son. You can sing for me.'" He sang this hit with raw emotion; co-writer Crook played the solo on an early electronic keyboard called the Musitron.

Appears on: Greatest Hits (Rhino)


Cheap Trick, ‘Surrender’

Writer: Rick Nielsen
Producer: Tom Werman
Released: May '78, Epic
8 weeks; No. 62

Cheap Trick provided the ultimate Seventies teen anthem in "Surrender," with a verse about a kid who catches his parents making out and gets stoned to his Kiss records. Guitarist- songwriter Nielsen's secret? "I [had] to go back and put myself in the head of a 14-year-old."

Appears on: Heaven Tonight (Epic)


The Four Tops, ‘Standing in the Shadows of Love’

Writers: Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, Eddie Holland
Producers: Brian Holland, Dozier
Released: Dec. '66, Motown
10 weeks; No. 6

Like so many other Motown hits, "Standing" features the popping bass of James Jamerson. He was such a monster player, his fellow musicians called him "Igor"; Marvin Gaye called him a genius.

Appears on: The Ultimate Collection (Motown)


100 Greatest Artists of All Time: The Four Tops


The Beatles, ‘Rain’

Writers: John Lennon, Paul McCartney
Producer: George Martin
Released: June ’66, Capitol
7 weeks; No. 23

The B side of “Paperback Writer” was Lennon‘s response to people moaning about the wet British weather. It featured one of the earliest uses of backward tape, which Lennon said was the result of being stoned and spooling up the tape wrong. It also included virtuoso drumming from Ringo Starr. “I feel as though that was someone else playing,” Starr said. “I was possessed!”

Appears on: Past Masters (Capitol/Apple)


100 Greatest Artists of All Time: The Beatles


The Staple Singers, ‘Respect Yourself’

Writers: Luther Ingram, Mack Rice
Producer: Al Bell
Released: Oct. '71, Stax
14 weeks; No. 12

Stax singer Ingram, frustrated with the state of the world, told house songwriter Rice that "black folk need to learn to respect themselves." Rice liked the comment so much that he built a funk groove around it, then gave the song to the Staples. "This is the song I've been waiting [for]," said producer Bell, who laid it down with the famous Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section.

Appears on: Bealtitude: Respect Yourself (Stax)


100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Mavis Staples


Jay-Z Featuring UGK, ‘Big Pimpin”

Writers: Jay-Z, Bun B, Pimp C, Timbaland, Kyambo Joshua
Producer: Timbaland
Released: Dec. '99, Roc-A-Fella
20 weeks; No. 18

For this thumping ode to conspicuous consumption, the king of New York rap hooked up with Houston rap dons UGK over a beat that sounds like it was cut in Cairo. Timbaland allegedly based the melody on a 1957 song by Egyptian Abdel Halim Hafez.

Appears on: Vol. 3: Life and Times of S. Carter (Roc-A-Fella)


Missy Elliott, ‘Get Ur Freak On’

Writers: Elliott, Timbaland
Producer: Timbaland
Released: March '01, Gold Mind/Elektra
25 weeks; No. 7

Elliott was convinced that Miss E needed one more track. So Timbaland cooked up a stuttering, tabla-laden beat based on bhangra, an Indian dance genre he heard while traveling, and plucked out the signature six-note riff on a tumbi, a one-stringed Punjabi guitar.

Appears on: Miss E … So Addictive (Atlantic/ATG)


Muddy Waters, ‘Rollin’ Stone’

Writer: McKinley Morganfield
Producers: Leonard and Phil Chess
Released: 1948, Chess
predates chart

For Chess Records' first single, Waters turned Mississippi bluesman Robert Petway's "Catfish Blues" into a spare track he named "Rollin' Stone." "We wouldn't do it exactly like those older fellows," Waters said. "We put the beat with it, put a little drive to it." The Rolling Stones took their name from it, as did, in part, this magazine.

Appears on: The Anthology: 1947-1972 (Chess/MCA)


100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Muddy Waters 

100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Muddy Waters


Prince and the Revolution, ‘Kiss’

Writers: Prince and the Revolution
Producers: Prince and the Revolution
Released: Feb. '86, Paisley Park
18 weeks; No. 1

The Paisley Park band Mazarati asked Prince for a song, so he dashed off a bluesy acoustic demo for them. Mazarati added a funk groove, and Prince was smart enough to take the song back.

Appears on: Parade (Warner Bros.)


100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Prince

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Prince


Sam and Dave, ‘Soul Man’

Writers: Isaac Hayes, David Porter
Producers: Hayes, Porter
Released: Sept. '67, Stax
15 weeks; No. 2

For the follow-up to "Hold On, I'm Comin'," writer-producers Hayes and Porter decided to tinker with their formula: Porter asked singer Sam Moore to give him "the Bobby Bland squall," guitarist Steve Cropper came up with the licks that set up the familiar blast of the Memphis Horns, and — voilà! — another soul classic was born. "We had no idea how good we were," Hayes said of the partnership.

Appears on: Soul Men (Rhino)


Nirvana, ‘All Apologies’

Writer: Kurt Cobain
Producer: Steve Albini
Released: Sept. '93, Geffen
22 weeks; No. 45

Written in the L.A. apartment Cobain shared with Courtney Love, this haunting meditation on remorse was originally produced by punk malcontent Albini, but then R.E.M. producer Scott Litt was brought in to smooth it out — the original had a long stream of feedback on it. Cobain's shredded vocals maintain the punk edge in the hushed MTV Unplugged in New York rendition.

Appears on: In Utero (Geffen)


100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: Kurt Cobain 

100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Kurt Cobain 

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Nirvana 

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Nirvana's In Utero


Ramones, ‘Sheena Is a Punk Rocker’

Writers: Ramones
Producers: Tony Bongiovi, T. Erdelyi
Released: May '77, Sire
13 weeks; No. 81

This was cut twice: first as a single that was rushed to radio and became one of the Ramones' few modest hits, then in a slightly souped-up version for the band's album Rocket to Russia. "I combined Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, with the primalness of punk rock," said Joey Ramone. "It was funny, because all the girls in New York seemed to change their names to Sheena after that."

Appears on: Rocket to Russia (Rhino)


100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: Johnny Ramone

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: The Ramones

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Ramones's Rocket to Russia


George Harrison, ‘My Sweet Lord’

Writer: Harrison
Producers: Harrison, Phil Spector
Released: Nov. '70, Apple
14 weeks; No. 1

The first hit for an ex-Beatle, it features Harrison's teardrop slide licks and a melody virtually identical to the Chiffons' "He's So Fine." After a lawsuit, Harrison had to pay $587,000 to his former manager Allen Klein, who then owned the rights to "He's So Fine." "It made me so paranoid about writing," Harrison said. "I thought, 'I don't even want to touch the guitar, in case I'm touching somebody's note.'"

Appears on: All Things Must Pass (Capitol)


100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: George Harrison 

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: George Harrison's All Things Must Pass


Guns N’ Roses, ‘Paradise City’

Writers: Guns n' Roses
Producer: Mike Clink
Released: Aug. '87, Geffen
17 weeks; No. 5

For nearly seven minutes, Axl Rose expounds on the joys of green grass, pretty girls and toxic chemicals. The song was written in the back of a van as the band drove home to L.A. after a gig in San Francisco, with all the members tossing in lines. In a typically tasteful G n' R move, the video has footage of the band's 1988 gig at Castle Donington in the U.K. — where two fans were crushed to death.

Appears on: Appetite for Destruction (Geffen)


100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Guns n' Roses 

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Guns n' Roses's Appetite for Destruction 

100 Best Albums of the Eighties: Guns n' Roses's Appetite for Destruction


Sam Cooke, ‘Cupid’

Writer: Cooke
Producers: Cooke, Hugo and Luigi
Released: July '61, RCA
17 weeks; No. 12

Cooke's producers had asked him to write a song for a girl they had seen on a Perry Como TV show — but once they heard her sing, they kept "Cupid" for Cooke to do himself. It was Cooke's idea to drop in the sound of an arrow being fired "straight to my lover's heart."

Appears on: Greatest Hits (RCA)


100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Sam Cooke 

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Sam Cooke


Chubby Checker, ‘The Twist’

Writer: Hank Ballard
Producer: Karl Mann
Released: Aug. '60, Parkway
39 weeks; No. 1

"The Twist" began as a B side for Ballard and the Midnighters in 1958. But in 1960, former chicken plucker Checker covered it at Dick Clark's suggestion. "Going crazy is what I was looking for — where the music is so good you lose control," Checker said. " 'The Twist' did that."

Appears on: Greatest Hits (Prime Cuts)


The Beatles, ‘Penny Lane’

Writers: John Lennon, Paul McCartney
Producer: George Martin
Released: Feb. '67, Capitol
10 weeks; No. 1

After Lennon composed "Strawberry Fields Forever," McCartney wrote his own snappy memoir. Penny Lane was a Liverpool bus stop where Lennon and McCartney often met. "John came over and helped me with the third verse, as was often the case," McCartney said. "We were writing recently faded memories from eight or 10 years before."

Appears on: Magical Mystery Tour (Capitol/Apple)


100 Greatest Artists of All Time: The Beatles


The Velvet Underground, ‘Heroin’

Writer: Lou Reed
Producers: Andy Warhol, Tom Wilson
Released: March '67, Verve

This seven-minute, two-chord track spiked out its territory with lyrics about shooting up until you felt like Jesus' son. "It wasn't pro or con," Reed said. "It was about taking heroin from the point of view of someone taking it. I'm still not sure what was such a big deal. So there's a song called 'Heroin.' So what?" Drummer Moe Tucker disagreed: "I consider it our greatest triumph."

Appears on: The Velvet Underground and Nico (Polydor)


100 Greatest Artists of All Time: The Velvet Underground 

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: The Velvet Underground's The Velvet Underground and Nico 

100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Lou Reed


The Shangri-Las, ‘Leader of the Pack’

Writers: George "Shadow" Morton, Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich
Producers: Morton, Barry, Greenwich
Released: Oct. '64, Red Bird
12 weeks; No. 1

Morton found the inspiration for this song at a diner in Hicksville, New York. "Bikers, hot rodders, gum-smacking ladies," he said, "not careful at all about their language." He brought a bike into the studio for the motorcycle sounds.

Appears on: Myrmidons of Melodrama: Definitive Collection (RPM)


Toots and the Maytals, ‘Pressure Drop’

Writer: Toots Hibbert
Producer: Leslie Kong
Released: Feb. '73, Mango
Did Not Chart

Toots and the Maytals were already reggae stars — they coined the word on 1968's "Do the Reggay" — before "Pressure Drop." They were rumored to be Chris Blackwell's choice over Bob Marley and the Wailers when he wanted a group for his Island label.

Appears on: The Harder They Come (Hip-O)


500 Greatest Albums of All Time: The Harder They Come


Nirvana, ‘Come As You Are’

Writers: Kurt Cobain, Nirvana
Producers: Butch Vig, Nirvana
Released: Sept. '91, Geffen
18 weeks; No. 32

"It's just about people and what they're expected to act like," Cobain said. "The lines in the song are really contradictory. They're kind of a rebuttal to each other." The song is driven by a simple riff that Vig goosed with a flanged, subaquatic guitar effect. Cobain apparently lifted it from a 1985 song by U.K. art-metal band Killing Joke, whom Dave Grohl paid back 12 years later by drumming on their 2003 album.

Appears on: Nevermind (Geffen)


100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: Kurt Cobain 

100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Kurt Cobain 

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Nirvana 

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Nirvana's Nevermind


Sonny and Cher, ‘I Got You Babe’

Writer: Sonny Bono
Producer: Bono
Released: July '65, Atco
14 weeks; No. 1

Late one night, while Sonny and Cher were living in their manager's house, Bono woke up Cher and asked her to listen to "I Got You Babe" and to sing the lyrics, which he had written on a piece of shirt cardboard. She thought it was OK but really wanted a song that modulated. So he changed the key at the bridge and woke Cher up again hours later to hear it; she was delighted.

Appears on: The Beat Goes On: The Best of Sonny and Cher (Atlantic)

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