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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.

211

Them, ‘Gloria’

Writer: Van Morrison
Producer:
Tommy Scott
Released: March '65, Parrot

1 week; No. 95

When Morrison wrote his first hit, "Gloria," he was just another hungry young rocker, with the Belfast garage band Them. "I was just being me, a street cat from Belfast," Morrison said. "Probably like thousands of kids from Belfast who were in bands." A Chicago group called Shadows of Knight hit with a more cautious version in 1966; Morrison later complained that "Gloria" was "capitalized on a lot."

Appears on: The Story of Them (Polydor)

210

The Everly Brothers, ‘Bye Bye Love’

Writers: Boudleaux and Felice Bryant
Producer:
Archie Bleyer
Released:
May '57, Cadence
27 weeks; No. 2

 "Bye Bye Love" had been turned down by 30 artists before Bleyer offered it to the Everlys for their first single. Phil and Don took it happily, if for no other reason than the $64 they would each earn for making it. The guitar intro was borrowed from a song Don had written called "Give Me a Future."

Appears on: All-Time Original Hits (Rhino)

209

The Four Tops, ‘Reach Out, I’ll Be There’

Writers: Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier, Brian Holland
Producers:
Holland, Dozier, Holland
Released:
Aug. '66, Motown
15 weeks; No. 1

 HDH pumped out Tops hits at a breakneck pace. "They were over so fast I can't remember them at all," said Dozier. Phil Spector called "Reach Out, I'll Be There," their second Number One, "black Dylan."

Appears on: The Ultimate Collection (Motown)

208

Bill Withers, ‘Lean on Me’

Writer: Withers
Producer:
Withers
Released:
June '72, Sussex
19 weeks; No. 1

Growing up as one of six kids in the coal-mining town of Slab Fork, West Virginia, Withers learned a lot about helping family and neighbors when they needed you. After a dislocating move to L.A., the bonds he built with co-workers manufacturing airplane toilets reminded him of the tightknit community he'd left back home, providing the inspiration for the plain-spoken "Lean on Me," his biggest hit.

Appears on: Lean on Me (Sony)

207

Otis Redding, ‘Try a Little Tenderness’

Writers: Jimmy Campbell, Reginald Connelly, Harry Woods
Producers:
Steve Cropper, Jim Stewart
Released:
Dec. '66, Stax
10 weeks; No. 25

On his own, drummer Al Jackson Jr. switched to double-time on the second verse, for the high-energy climax. "We didn't know he was gonna do that," said bassist Duck Dunn. "It was amazing."

Appears on: Very Best of Otis Redding (Rhino)

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206

Bob Dylan, ‘Positively 4th Street’

Writer: Dylan
Producer: Bob Johnston
Released: Sept. '65, Columbia
9 weeks; No. 7

In whose direction did Dylan aim this? Most likely, "4th Street," the follow-up to "Like a Rolling Stone," is about the people he met in Greenwich Village (when he lived on West 4th) and on fraternity row at the University of Minnesota (on 4th Street in Minneapolis).

Appears on: The Essential Bob Dylan (Sony)

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205

The Beatles, ‘Come Together’

Writers: John Lennon, Paul McCartney
Producer: George Martin
Released: Sept. '69, Apple
16 weeks; No. 1

Timothy Leary was running for governor of California and asked Lennon to write a campaign song for him. The tune was not politically useful, so Lennon brought it to the Abbey Road sessions. "I said, 'Let's slow it down with a swampy bass-and-drums vibe,'" said McCartney. "I came up with a bass line, and it all flowed from there." It was the last song all four Beatles cut together.

Appears on: Abbey Road (Apple)

204

New Order, ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’

Writers: Bernard Albrecht, Gillian Gilbert, Peter Hook, Stephen Morris
Producers: New Order
Released: Oct. '86, Qwest
2 weeks; No. 98

After the death of Joy Division's Ian Curtis, his band became New Order. "There's life, and there's death," drummer Morris said in 1983. "We were still alive, so we thought we'd carry on doing it." New Order wrote their synth-pop hits in a Manchester rehearsal room next to a cemetery. Said Morris, "Fate writes the lyrics, and we do the rest."

Appears on: Substance (Qwest)

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203

Beck, ‘Loser’

Writer: Beck Hansen
Producer: Karl Stephenson
Released: 1993, Bong Load   
24 weeks; No. 10

In 1992, 22-year-old Beck Hansen was scraping by as a video-store clerk while performing bizarro folk songs at L.A. coffeehouses. After friends offered to record some songs, Beck cut "Loser" in his producer's kitchen. It became the centerpiece of an album (1994's Mellow Gold) that cost $200 to make.

Appears on: Mellow Gold (Geffen)

202

Parliament, ‘Flash Light’

Writers: George Clinton, Bernie Worrell, Bootsy Collins
Producer: Clinton
Released: Dec. '77, Casablanca
16 weeks; No. 16

"Flash Light" is the P-Funk Nation's groove manifesto. "We're going to get the message out," Clinton declared in 1978. "We want to put the show on Broadway – tell the story straightforward so people understand that funk mean funk."

Appears on: Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome (Mercury)

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201

The Jimi Hendrix Experience, ‘Hey Joe’

Writer: William Roberts
Producer: Chas Chandler
Released: Dec. '66, Reprise
Did not chart

Thismurder ballad was the Experience's first single, recorded two weeks after their live debut. Hendrix was so shy about his voice that manager Chandler even hired a female vocal group, the Breakaways, for backup. The song had already been recorded by the Byrds, Love, the Standells and many other bands, but Hendrix learned it from folkie Tim Rose's version.

Appears on: Are You Experienced? (MCA)

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