Home Music Music Lists

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.

132

U2, ‘With or Without You’

Writers: Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen Jr.
Producers: Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois 
Released: March '87, Island
18 weeks; No. 1

The Joshua Tree was U2's ode to America: Its songs were inspired by folk, gospel and roots music, and its lyrics, as the Edge noted, were sparked by civil rights heroes and the "new journalism" of the 1960s. Yet "With or Without You" – with its simple bass groove and ethereal guitar hum framing Bono's yearning vocals – was one of U2's most universal songs to date, a meditation on the painful ambivalence of a love affair. Bono insisted it was "about how I feel in U2 at times: exposed." It would turn out to be U2's first Number One hit in the U.S.

Appears on: The Joshua Tree (Island)

RELATED:

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: U2

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: U2's The Joshua Tree

U2's Rolling Stone Cover Shoot: On the Set with Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr.

131

Rod Stewart, ‘Maggie May’

Writers: Stewart, Martin Quittenton
Producer: Stewart
Released: June '71, Mercury
17 weeks; No. 1

Stewart plays a schoolboy in love with an older temptress in "Maggie May" — he claimed it was "more or less a true story about the first woman I had sex with." The song, a last-minute addition to Every Picture Tells a Story, was initially the B side of "Reason to Believe." Stewart has joked that if a DJ hadn't flipped the single over, he'd have gone back to his old job: digging graves. But the song's rustic mandolin and acoustic guitars — and Mickey Waller's relentless drum-bashing — were undeniable. The song became Stewart's first U.S. Top 40 hit — and first Number One.

Appears on: Every Picture Tells a Story (Mercury/Universal)

RELATED:

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Rod Stewart

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Rod Stewart's Every Picture Tells a Story

130

Steppenwolf, ‘Born to Be Wild’

Writer: Mars Bonfire
Producer: Gabriel Mekler
Released: Jan. '68, Dunhill 
13 Weeks; No. 2  

The first two singles from Steppenwolf's 1968 debut stiffed; the third was "Born to Be Wild." It hit Number Two on the Billboard charts in the summer of '68, a year before Dennis Hopper used it in a rough cut of the movie Easy Rider, where it was originally just a place holder – actor-producer Peter Fonda had asked Crosby, Stills and Nash to do the soundtrack. But "Born to Be Wild" stayed. "Every generation thinks they're born to be wild," said frontman John Kay, "and they can identify with that song as their anthem." The line "Heavy-metal thunder" would help give a new genre its name.

Appears on: Steppenwolf (MCA)

129

Chuck Berry, ‘Rock & Roll Music’

Writer: Berry 
Producers: Phil and Leonard Chess
Released: Sept. '57, Chess
19 Weeks; No. 8

This was a manifesto. "I was heavy into rock & roll and had to create something that hit the spot without question," Chuck Berry wrote in his autobiography. "I wanted the lyrics to define every aspect of its being." Set to a jolting rumba rhythm, "Rock & Roll Music" features Berry's genre-defining guitar licks and bass work from the legendary Willie Dixon. Berry's original made the Billboard Top 10, and the Beatles and the Beach Boys cut popular versions as well. For years it was this simple: If you played rock & roll, you knew this song.  

Appears on: Johnny B. Goode: His Complete '50s Chess Recordings (Chess/Hip-O Select) 

RELATED:

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Chuck Berry

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Chuck Berry

The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: Chuck Berry

 

 

  


128

David Bowie, ‘Changes’

Writer: Bowie
Producer: 
Ken Scott
Released: 
Dec. '71, RCA
11 Weeks;
No. 41

The keynote from David Bowie's 1971 album Hunky Dory, "Changes" challenged rock audiences to "turn and face the strange." But the song originally stalled on the charts in both Britain and the United States, and it didn't really take off until after the commercial success of 1972's Ziggy Stardust. Eventually, Bowie fans adopted it as the theme song for the man who'd already given them Hippie Bowie, Mod Bowie and Bluesy Bowie. As it turned out, he had barely begun to show the world his wardrobe of disguises. The poignant sax solo at the end is played by Bowie himself.

Appears on: Hunky Dory (Virgin)

RELATED:

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: David Bowie

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: David Bowie

 

127

Big Joe Turner, ‘Shake, Rattle & Roll’

Writer: Charles Calhoun
Producer: 
Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler
Released: 
April '54, Atlantic
Predates chart

Atlantic Records' contribution to the birth of rock & roll (Wexler and Ertegun even sang backup), "Shake, Rattle & Roll" was written specifically for big-voiced blues singer Turner, one of the label's early stars. "Everybody was singing slow blues when I was young, and I thought I'd put a beat to it and sing it uptempo," Turner said. This track, with its big bounce and raunchy lyrics ("I'm like a one-eyed cat peepin' in a seafood store"), topped the R&B charts; typical of the times, a sanitized cover by Bill Haley and the Comets got white America bopping. 

Appears on: The Very Best of Big Joe Turner (Rhino)

RELATED:

Wex on Wax: Twenty Essential Jerry Wexler Productions

 

 


126

The Shirelles, ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’

Writers: Gerry Goffin, Carole King
Producer: Luther Dixon
Released: Nov. '60, Scepter
19 weeks; No. 1

After a few minor Shirelles hits, Scepter Records founder Florence Greenberg asked King and Goffin to write the group a song. On the piano in Greenberg's office, King finished a song the team had been working on. "I remember giving her baby a bottle while Carole was writing the song," Greenberg said. Lead singer Shirley Owens initially found "Tomorrow" too countryish for the group, but Dixon's production changed her mind. King's devotion to the song was so strong she replaced a subpar percussionist and played kettledrum herself. With its forthright depiction of a sexual relationship, it became the first girl-group record to go Number One.

Appears on: Girl Group Greats (Rhino)

RELATED:

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: The Shirelles

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: The Best of the Girl Groups Volumes 1 and 2 – Various Artists