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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.

176

The Rolling Stones, ‘Paint it Black’

Writers: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards
Producer: Andrew Loog Oldham
Released: May '66, London
11 weeks; No. 1

Brian Jones plucked the haunting sitar melody at the 1966 L.A. session for this classic. Bill Wyman added klezmer-flavored organ; studio legend Jack Nitzsche played the gypsy-style piano. "Brian had pretty much given up on the guitar by then," said Richards. "If there was [another] instrument around, he had to be able to get something out of it. It gave the Stones on record a lot of different textures." 

Appears on: Aftermath (ABKCO)

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175

The Sex Pistols, ‘God Save the Queen’

Writers: Johnny Rotten, Steve Jones, Glen Matlock, Paul Cook
Producer: Chris Thomas
Released: May '77, Warner Bros.
Did not chart 

Banned by the BBC for "gross bad taste," this blast of nihilism savaged the pomp of Queen Elizabeth II's silver jubilee and came in a sleeve showing Her Majesty with a safety pin through her lip. "As far as I'm concerned, she ain't no human being," sneered singer Rotten. "She's a piece of cardboard they drag around on a trolley."

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

174

Abba, ‘Dancing Queen’

Writers: Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus, Stig Anderson
Producers: Andersson, Ulvaeus
Released: Nov. '76, Atlantic
22 weeks; No. 1

When Benny Andersson auditioned the song for his fiancee and band member Anni-Frid Lyngstad, she was moved to tears. Sweden's biggest musical export debuted "Queen" in 1976 at a ball for King Carl Gustaf on the eve of his wedding. The song, a disco-flavored dessert of sublime melody and pop-operatic harmonies, became the group's only U.S. Number One.

Appears on: Arrival (Polydor)