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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.

343

The Rolling Stones, ‘Wild Horses’

Writers: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards
Producer: Jimmy Miller
Released: April '71, Rolling Stones
8 weeks; No. 28

Richards wrote this acoustic ballad about leaving his wife, Anita, and young son Marlon as the Stones prepared for their first American tour in three years. Stones sidekick Ian Stewart refused to play the minor chords required, so Memphis musical maverick Jim Dickinson filled in on upright piano at the Muscle Shoals, Alabama, recording session. Jagger’s ex-wife Jerry Hall calls it her favorite Stones song.

Appears on: Sticky Fingers (Virgin)

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342

The Velvet Underground, ‘Sweet Jane’

Writer: Lou Reed
Producers: The Velvet Underground, Shel Kagan, Geoffrey Haslam
Released: Aug. '70, Cotillion
Non-single

After Reed quit the band, a wistful coda was chopped out of this song. "How could anyone be that stupid?" Reed asked RS in 1987. "If I could have stood it, I would have stayed with them and showed them what to do." For years, the only available version of the coda was on the 1969 live LP, but the full "Jane" appears on recent reissues.

Appears on: Loaded (Fully Loaded Edition) (Rhino)

341

Norman Greenbaum, ‘Spirit in the Sky’

Writer: Greenbaum
Producer: Erik Jacobsen
Released: Feb. '70, Reprise
15 weeks; No. 3

"I’m just some Jewish musician who really dug gospel music," Greenbaum said. "I decided there was a larger Jesus gospel market out there than a Jehovah one." The crunchy guitar sound came when a friend built a small fuzzbox right into the body of Greenbaum’s Fender Telecaster.

Appears on: Spirit in the Sky (Varese)

340

Bob Dylan, ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’

Writer: Dylan
Producer: Tom Wilson
Released: March '65, Columbia
8 weeks; No. 39

"It’s from Chuck Berry, a bit of 'Too Much Monkey Business' and some of the scat songs of the Forties," Dylan said. John Lennon once said of the track that it was so captivating it made him wonder how he could ever compete.

Appears on: Bringing It All Back Home (Sony)

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339

Bonnie Raitt, ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me’

Writers: Mike Reid, Allen Shamblin
Producers: Don Was, Raitt
Released: Nov. '91, Capitol
20 weeks; No. 18

Raitt was a Seventies blues prodigy who didn’t break through until 1989’s Nick of Time. Two years later came this clear eyed song about love gone cold. Co-author Reid was a defensive tackle for the Cincinnati Bengals before heading off to Nashville. "Of all the songs in my career, that one is the greatest gift," Raitt said. "I think it stands among the best songs ever written."

Appears on: Luck of the Draw (Capitol)

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338

Queen, ‘We Will Rock You’

Writers: Brian May, Mike Stone
Producers: Queen
Released: Oct. '77, Elektra
14 weeks; No. 52

In 1977, Sid Vicious wandered into the wrong recording studio and ran into Freddie Mercury sitting at his piano. "Still bringing ballet to the masses, are you?" snarked Sid. "Oh, yes, Mr. Ferocious, dear," Freddie replied. "We are doing our best." Queen soon one-upped the punks with this foot-stomping, conquering-army smash, the B side of "We Are the Champions."

Appears on: News of the World (Hollywood)

337

Earth, Wind and Fire, ‘Way of the World’

Writers: Maurice White, Verdine White, Charles Stepney
Producer: Maurice White
Released: March '75, Columbia
16 weeks; No. 12

"Way of the World" was the title song of a little-seen movie starring Harvey Keitel as an idealistic label exec and EWF as the band he wants to produce, rather than white-bread pop acts. The movie was rereleased as Shining Star in 1977, and it flopped again. The song, however, was a Top Five R&B hit in 1975.

Appears on: That’s the Way of the World (Columbia)

336

The Doors, ‘The End’

Writers: John Densmore, Robbie Krieger, Ray Manzarek, Jim Morrison
Producer: Paul Rothchild
Released: March '67, Elektra
Non-single

Morrison had worked on a student production of Oedipus Rex at Florida State. But his exploration of its sexual taboos took on bold new life in the 11 minutes of "The End," which evolved during the Doors' live shows at L.A.’s Whisky-A-Go-Go. "Every time I hear that song, it means something else to me," Morrison said in 1969. "It could be goodbye to a kind of childhood."

Appears on: The Doors (Elektra)

335

Jerry Butler and The Impressions, ‘For Your Precious Love’

Writers: Arthur Brooks, Butler
Producer: Calvin Carter
Released: June '58, Falcon
12 weeks; No. 11

The spiritual tenor of the vocals came from the Impressions' church roots; Butler and Curtis Mayfield had sung together in the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers. The lyrics were drawn verbatim from a poem Butler had written in high school. The single’s credit — "Jerry Butler and the Impressions" — caused friction in the group, which Butler soon left.

Appears on: Greatest Hits (Curb)

334

James Brown, ‘Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine’

Writers: Brown, Bobby Byrd,Ron Lenhoff
Producer: Brown
Released: July '70, King
9 weeks; No. 15

Engineer Lenhoff got co-writing credit mostly because he got out of bed and drove five hours to Nashville to record this duet with former Famous Flame Byrd, which Brown wanted cut pronto.

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

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333

The Young Rascals, ‘Good Lovin”

Writers: Rudy Clark, Arthur Resnick
Producers: Tom Dowd, Arif Mardin
Released: March '66, Atlantic
14 weeks; No. 1 

A soulful New York bar band, the Rascals tried to replicate their jacked-up live rendition of the Olympics' "Good Lovin'" in the studio. "We weren’t too pleased with our performance," singer Felix Cavaliere admitted. "It was a shock to us when it went to the top of the charts."

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

332

The Supremes, ‘Baby Love’

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

Diana Ross wasn’t the strongest vocalist in the Supremes, but as the Motown production team discovered, when she sang in a lower register, her voice worked its sultry magic. When this song was finished, Berry Gordy thought it wasn’t catchy enough and sent the group back into the studio. The result: the smoky "Oooooh" right at the start.

Appears on: The Ultimate Collection (Motown)

331

Patti Smith Group, ‘Dancing Barefoot’

Writers: Smith, Ivan Kral
Producer: Todd Rundgren
Released: May '79, Arista
Did not chart

Smith started as a poet and Rolling Stone writer before finding fame as a New York punk priestess. "Dancing Barefoot" is her mystical ode to sexual rapture. "I think sex is one of the five highest sensations one can experience," she said in 1978. "A very high orgasm is a way of communion with our creator." She added that she masturbated to her own album-cover photo, as well as to the Bible.

Appears on: Wave (Arista)

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330

Public Enemy, ‘Fight the Power’

Writers: Chuck D, Eric Sadler, Hank Shocklee, Keith Shocklee
Producers: Sadler, Hank Shocklee
Released: June '89, Def Jam
Did not chart

The opening credits of Spike Lee’s 1989 Do the Right Thing feature a masterpiece from the Bomb Squad production team: a dissonant call to revolution, with a title borrowed from an Isley Brothers funk hit and a groove lifted from the 1972 B side "Hot Pants Road" by the J.B.’s. Public Enemy direct their rage at Elvis Presley, John Wayne and, er, Bobby McFerrin.

Appears on: Fear of a Black Planet (Def Jam)

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329

Neil Young, ‘Cortez the Killer’

Writer: Young
Producers: Young, David Briggs
Released: Nov. '75, Reprise
Non-single

"It’s weird," Young mused to Rolling Stone in 1975. "I’ve got all these songs about Peru, the Aztecs and the Incas. Time travel stuff." Over a slow, rambling Crazy Horse guitar jam, he mourns the Aztec civilization destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors. The song ends after seven and a half minutes, onlybecause a circuit blew on the recording console. The band went on for another verse.

Appears on: Zuma (Reprise)

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