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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.

32

The Rolling Stones, ‘Sympathy for the Devil’

Writers: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards
Producer: Jimmy Miller
Released: Dec. '68, London
Non-single

The inspiration for this hellish detour came from Soviet writer Mikhail Bulgakov's novel The Master and Margarita, which depicts Satan having his way in 1930s Moscow. Richards struggled to find the right backing for Jagger's menacing Dylan-esque lyrics, unsure "whether it should be a samba or a goddamn folk song," he recalled. The Stones ended up giving the devil one of their best grooves, built on Rocky Dijon's congas and Bill Wyman's Bo Diddley-ish maracas. "Before, when we were just innocent kids out for a good time [the media said], 'They're evil, they're evil,'" Richards said. "So that makes you start thinking about evil. . . . Everybody's Lucifer."

Appears on: Beggar's Banquet (ABKCO) 

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31

Led Zeppelin, ‘Stairway to Heaven’

Writers: Jimmy Page, Robert Plant
Producer: Page
Released: Nov. '71, Atlantic
Non-single

All epic anthems must measure themselves against "Stairway to Heaven," the cornerstone of Led Zeppelin IV. The acoustic intro sounds positively Elizabethan, thanks to John Paul Jones' recorder solo and Plant's fanciful lyrics, which were partly inspired by Lewis Spence's historical tome Magic Arts in Celtic Britain. Over eight minutes, the song morphs into a furious Page solo that storms heaven's gate. Page said the song "crystallized the essence of the band. It had everything there and showed us at our best. It was a milestone. Every musician wants to do something of lasting quality, something which will hold up for a long time. We did it with 'Stairway.'"

Appears on: Led Zeppelin IV (Atlantic) 

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30

Johnny Cash, ‘I Walk the Line’

Writer: Cash
Producer: Sam Phillips
Released: Aug. '56, Sun
22 weeks; No. 17 

Cash began work on this track while he was in Germany with the Air Force, years before he would ever enter a studio. He returned to it after he hit with "Folsom Prison Blues," only to find that the original tape had gotten mangled. But Cash liked the strange sound and added a click-clack rhythm by winding a piece of wax paper through his guitar strings. Phillips then had him speed up the song, originally a ballad, to a driving rumble. "It was different than anything else you had ever heard," Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone. "A voice from the middle of the Earth."

Appears on: The Complete Original Sun Singles (Varese Sarabande)

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29

The Beatles, ‘Help!’

Writers: John Lennon, Paul McCartney
Producer: George Martin
Released: July '65, Capitol
13 weeks; No. 1 

"Most people think it's just a fast rock & roll song," Lennon said. "Subconsciously, I was crying out for help. I didn't realize it at the time; I just wrote the song because I was commissioned to write it for the movie." Overwhelmed by Beatlemania, Lennon was eating "like a pig," drinking too much and "smoking marijuana for breakfast" — only 24 years old, he was already expressing nostalgia for his lost youth. "I don't like the recording that much," Lennon would later tell Rolling Stone. "We did it too fast, to try and be commercial."

Appears on: Help! (Capitol) 

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