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 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)


Photos: Rare and Intimate Pictures of the Rolling Stones


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.)


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)


Aerosmith, ‘Dream On’

Writer: Steven Tyler
Producer: Arian Barber
Released: June '73, Columbia
9 weeks; No. 59

Tyler began writing this power ballad in his late teens. He was still at it in Aerosmith's early days, pounding a piano in the basement of the group's living quarters. "Dream On" was a huge regional hit in Boston when it was first released in 1973 but never made the national Top 40. An edited version finally reached the Top 10 in 1976, giving the band its breakthrough hit.

Appears on: Aerosmith (Columbia)


Aerosmith Live: Four Decades of Rockin' the Joint


Jay-Z, ’99 Problems’

Writers: Jay-Z, Rick Rubin
Producer: Rubin
Released: Nov. '03, Roc-a-Fella
12 weeks; No. 30

Jigga's decade-long run reached its crescendo with this Black Album smash. Mixing an old Ice-T hook with an intense, clanging groove – including samples spliced in from Billy Squier's "The Big Beat" and Mountain's "Long Red" – it was the funkiest thing Rubin had touched since Licensed to Ill. Def Jam label head Lyor Cohen had suggested the collaboration. "I knew I was gonna get fresh shit," he said.

Appears on: The Black Album (Roc-a-Fella)


Joni Mitchell, ‘Both Sides Now’

Writer: Mitchell
Producer: Mitchell
Released: May '69, Reprise
Did not chart

As her first marriage fell apart in the late Sixties, Mitchell saw her career bloom with hit covers of her work by singers such as Tom Rush and Judy Collins, including the latter's Top 10 version of "Both Sides Now." Mitchell sang it herself on the 1969 LP Clouds, describing the song as "a meditation on reality and fantasy. . . . The idea was so big it seemed like I'd just scratched the surface of it."

Appears on: Clouds (Warner Bros.)


The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Joni Mitchell

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Joni Mitchell


R.E.M., ‘Losing My Religion’

Writers: Berry, Buck, Mills, Stipe
Producers: Scott Lift, R.E.M.
Released: March '91, Warner Bros.
21 weeks; No. 4

"Losing My Religion" is built around acoustic guitar and mandolin, not exactly a familiar sound on pop radio in the early Nineties – singer Michael Stipe called it a "freak hit." As for the subject matter, it's not religion: "I wanted to write a classic obsession song," he said. "So I did."

Appears on: Out of Time (Warner Bros.)


The Temptations, ‘Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone’

Writers: Norman Whitfield, Barrett Strong
Producer: Whitfield
Released: Oct. '72, Gordy
16 weeks; No. 1

At first the Temptations hated this song, especially Dennis Edwards: His father had died on September 3rd, just like the papa in the song. Then "Papa" topped the charts, and it "kind of grew on us," said Temptation Otis Williams.

Appears on: Anthology (Motown)


Marvin Gaye, ‘Let’s Get It On’

Writers: Gaye, Ed Townsend
Producers: Gaye, Townsend
Released: June '73, Tamla
14 weeks; No. 1

After 1971's "What's Going On," Gaye radically changed course with this ode to sexual bliss. With the help of producer and songwriter Townsend, Gaye created a masterpiece of erotic persuasion that topped the pop and R&B charts. Gaye said later that he hoped "Let's Get It On" didn't "advocate promiscuity" but also said he had a hunch the song might have "some aphrodisiac power."

Appears on: Let's Get It On (Motown)


The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Marvin Gaye

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Marvin Gaye


Tracy Chapman, ‘Fast Car’

Writer: Chapman
Producer: David Kershenbaum
Released: April '88, Elektra
 21 weeks; No. 6

Tracy Chapman was a hardened veteran of Boston coffeehouse gigs (she once got a demo-tape rejection letter suggesting she tune her guitar) when a classmate at Tufts University told his music-publisher dad to check her out. Soon after, she made her 1988 debut, featuring this haunting rumination on escape. "Fast Car" won a Grammy, setting Chapman's career in motion.

Appears on: Tracy Chapman (Elektra)


The 500 Best Albums of All Time: Tracy Chapman's Tracy Chapman


Queen, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’

Writer: Freddie Mercury
Producer: Roy Thomas Baker
Released: Nov. '75, Elektra
24 weeks; No. 9

According to Queen guitarist Brian May, everyone in the band was bewildered when Mercury brought them a draft of this four-part suite — even before he told them, "That's where the operatic bits come in!" Recording technology was so taxed by the song's multitracked scaramouches and fandangos that some tapes became virtually transparent from so many overdubs.

Appears on: A Night at the Opera (Hollywood)


Sinead O’Connor, ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’

Writer: Prince
Producers: O'Connor, Nellee Hooper
Released: March '90, Ensign
21 weeks; No. 1

Originally recorded by one of Prince's flop side projects, the Family, the tune became the Number One song of 1990 in O'Connor's rendition. The video focused on her face for four minutes until she shed a lone tear. "I didn't intend for that moment to happen," O'Connor said, "but when it did, I thought, 'I should let this happen.' "

Appears on: I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got (Capitol)


The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Sinead O'Connor's I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got


Ray Charles, ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’

Writer: Don Gibson
Producer: Sid Feller
Released: May '62, ABC-Paramount
18 weeks; No. 1

When Charles put out Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, DJs picked up on this remake of the Kitty Wells hit, which hadn't been released as a single. After Charles heard that white vocalist Tab Hunter had cut his own rendition of the song, ABC rushed out a 45-friendly two-and-a-half-minute version.

Appears on: Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music (Rhino)


The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Ray Charles' Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music


Johnny Cash, ‘Folsom Prison Blues’

Writer: Cash
Producer: Sam Phillips
Released: Jan. '56, Sun
18 weeks; No. 32

Cash first recorded "Folsom Prison Blues," one of his earliest songs, for Sun in 1956. But it was the thrilling, electric '68 version, live at the prison, that defined his outlaw persona. Cash said he wrote the line "I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die," while "trying to think of the worst reason . . . for killing another person." He added, "It did come to mind quite easily, though."

Appears on: The Essential Johnny Cash (Columbia)


The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Johnny Cash

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Johnny Cash


Public Enemy, ‘Bring the Noise’

Writers: Carlton Ridenhour, Eric Sadler, Hank Shocklee
Producers: Rick Rubin, Carl Ryder
Released: April '88, Def Jam
Did not chart

"We were the first rap group to really tempo it up," Chuck D said. Over the Bomb Squad's souped-up horn riffs from Marva Whitney's "It's My Thing," PE showed how far-reaching its sound and political ambitions were, name-checking everyone from Yoko Ono and Anthrax (who later remade the song with Chuck D) to Louis Farrakhan.

Appears on: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (Def Jam)


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Public Enemy


The Velvet Underground, ‘I’m Waiting for the Man’

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

Originally a rootsy Dylan hommage, the song evolved into a proto-punk classic steeped in New York grit. The Velvets mixed R&B rhythm-guitar workout, blues-piano stomp and dreamy art drone, as Reed deadpans a story about scoring $26 worth of heroin in Harlem. "Everything about that song holds true," said Reed, "except the price."

Appears on: The Velvet Underground and Nico (Polygram)


U2, ‘Moment of Surrender’

Writers: Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen Jr.
Producers: Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois
Released: March '09, Interscope

The most devastating U2 ballad since "One" sets lush, gospel-tinged music – much of it improvised live in the studio – against dark subject matter: It's about a junkie riding the subway. 

Appears on: No Line on the Horizon (Interscope)


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: U2

U2: The Rolling Stone Covers


Bill Haley and His Comets, ‘(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock’

Writers: Jimmy DeKnight, Max Freedman
Producer: Milt Gabler
Released: May '54, Decca
24 weeks; No. 1

Haley began his career as a country yodeler before converting to rock & roll. "Clock" was a modest hit until it played during the opening credits of The Blackboard Jungle and shot to Number One.

Appears on: The Best of Bill Haley and His Comets (MCA)


The Flamingos, ‘I Only Have Eyes for You’

Writer: Harry Warren
Producer: George Goldner
Released: April '59, End
13 weeks; No. 11

Dubbed "The Sultans of Smooth," this Chicago quintet honed their harmonies singing in a black Jewish temple choir and scored its best-known song with "I Only Have Eyes for You," originally a hit for crooner Ben Selvin in 1934. The Flamingos take the song all the way to Venus with elegant vocalizations and the otherworldly doo-bop-sh-bop.

Appears on: The Best of the Flamingos (Rhino)


Simon and Garfunkel, ‘The Sounds of Silence’

Writer: Paul Simon
Producer: Tom Wilson
Released: Nov. '65, Columbia 
14 weeks; No. 1

Simon wrote this as an acoustic ballad, but  Simon and Garfunkel's first single version died. While Simon was in England, Wilson, who was producing Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone," asked members of Dylan's studio band to add electric guitar and drums. Columbia released the amplified "Silence," which became a hit before Simon and Garfunkel had even heard it.

Appears on: Sounds of Silence (Columbia)


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Simon and Garfunkel


Creedence Clearwater Revival, ‘Proud Mary’

Writer: John Fogerty
Producer: Fogerty
Released: Jan. '69, Fantasy
14 weeks; No. 2

"It was, like, the first really good song I ever wrote," Fogerty said of "Proud Mary," which began a run of five consecutive Top Three singles for CCR. He wrote the song, later unforgettably covered by Ike and Tina Turner, after his Army discharge: "I was fooling with the chord changes and started singing about the river. I realized, 'Well, maybe if I make it about the boat.' "     

Appears on: Bayou Country (Fantasy)



Buddy Holly and the Crickets, ‘Rave On’

Writers: Sonny West, Bill Tilghman, Norman Petty
Producer: Petty
Released: April '58, Coral
10 weeks; No. 37

West recorded his own version of "Rave On" at the New Mexico studio where Holly laid down most of his hits. Petty wanted to give it to another band, but Holly said, "No way. I've got to have this song." 

Appears on: Buddy Holly: Greatest Hits (MCA)


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Buddy Holly

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Buddy Holly


The Beatles, ‘A Hard Day’s Night’

Writers: John Lennon, Paul McCartney
Producer: George Martin
Released: July '64, Capitol
13 weeks; No. 1

The title comes from a Ringo Starr malapropism, the product of a marathon recording session. Lennon was fond of these Ringoisms and wrote the song overnight. Said Lennon, "The only reason [Paul] sang on it was because I couldn't reach the notes."

Appears on: A Hard Day's Night (Capitol)


 The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: The Beatles


The Jimi Hendrix Experience, ‘Foxey Lady’

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

Heather Taylor, the future wife of the Who's Roger Daltrey, was said to have inspired this lip-smacking ode as Hendrix was gathering songs in London for his 1967 debut LP, Are You Experienced? Hendrix scrapes his pick down a guitar string, literally making it tremble with anticipation, before exploding into an indelibly dirty rift. "I'm comin' to getcha," he promises – and he did.

Appears on: Are You Experienced? (MCA)


The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Jimi Hendrix

The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: Jimi Hendrix


The Penguins, ‘Earth Angel’

Writers: Jesse Belvin, Curtis Williams
Producer: Dootsie Williams
Released: Dec. '54, Dootone
15 weeks; No. 8

Crudely recorded in a garage and released on a small label, "Earth Angel" turned out to be a pivotal record in the early development of rock & roll. The artless, unaffected vocals of the Penguins, four black high schoolers from L.A., defined the street-corner elegance of doo-wop. The Penguins' version also outsold a sanitized, big-label cover by schmaltzy white group the Crew-Cuts.

Appears on: Earth Angel (Ace)


The Byrds, ‘Eight Miles High’

Writers: Gene Clark, Roger McGuinn, David Crosby
Producer: Allen Stanton
Released: April '66, Columbia
9 weeks; No. 14

A rare collaboration between three Byrds, it was supposedly about an airplane flight. McGuinn's 12-string solo was inspired by John Coltrane's sax playing and Rod Argent's piano on the Zombies' "She's Not There." "Of course it was a drug song," Crosby said. "We were stoned when we wrote it. But it was also about the [plane] trip to London."

Appears on: Fifth Dimension (Legacy)

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