Home Music Music Lists

The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time

For the first time in 17 years, we’ve completely remade our list of the best songs ever. More than 250 artists, writers, and industry figures helped us choose a brand-new list full of historic favourites, world-changing anthems, and new classics

Photo Illustration by Sean McCabe. Photographs used within illustration by Jack Robinson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images; Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images, 3; Paul Natkin/WireImage; Val Wilmer/Redferns/Getty Images; Theo Wargo/Getty Images; Jack Mitchell/Getty Images; C Flanigan/Getty Images; Scott Dudelson/Getty Images; Gie Knaeps/Getty Images; Emma McIntyre/Getty Images; Steven Nunez; STILLZ

In 2004, Rolling Stone published its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. It’s one of the most widely read stories in our history, viewed hundreds of millions of times on this site. But a lot has changed since 2004; back then the iPod was relatively new, and Billie Eilish was three years old. So we’ve decided to give the list a total reboot. To create the new version of the RS 500 we convened a poll of more than 250 artists, musicians, and producers — from Angelique Kidjo to Zedd, Sam Smith to Megan Thee Stallion, M. Ward to Bill Ward — as well as figures from the music industry and leading critics and journalists. They each sent in a ranked list of their top 50 songs, and we tabulated the results.

How We Made the List and Who Voted

Nearly 4,000 songs received votes. Where the 2004 version of the list was dominated by early rock and soul, the new edition contains more hip-hop, modern country, indie rock, Latin pop, reggae, and R&B. More than half the songs here — 254 in all — weren’t present on the old list, including a third of the Top 100. The result is a more expansive, inclusive vision of pop, music that keeps rewriting its history with every beat.

From Rolling Stone US


Aretha Franklin, ‘I Say a Little Prayer’

Franklin’s takeover of this perfectly crafted Burt Bacharach-Hal David gem is one of pop’s great happy accidents. Dionne Warwick was the first to cut the song, which evoked a woman yearning for a partner who’s been shipped off to Vietnam. The story should have ended there, but Franklin wanted to record it herself (over the protestations of producer Jerry Wexler, who felt Franklin’s version would come out too soon after Warwick’s). Even then, it was initially a B side. But the puckish joy in Franklin’s delivery, combined with the song’s supple arrangement, couldn’t be denied — even Bacharach called Franklin’s version “definitive.”


Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock, ‘It Takes Two’

Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock had modest hopes for “It Takes Two.” Perhaps it would become a hit in the Northeastern tristate area, they thought. But the joyous pop-rap opus became an overnight smash, thanks to its infectious positivity and high-energy sample of Lyn Collins’ James Brown-produced 1972 funk-soul banger “Think (About It).” “One day, we doing little block parties and rockin’ outside for free, to doing big clubs and arenas and stuff like that,” Base told Rolling Stone. “Once the song started to get played … we woke up and we were just different people.”


Etta James, ‘At Last’

For James’ first album for their Chess label, brothers Leonard and Phil Chess envisioned her as a crossover pop stylist rather than the gutsy R&B belter of her earlier singles. Among the songs they picked was this modest hit for big-band leader Glenn Miller in the Forties. Yet it was James’ commanding version that turned “At Last” into a pop standard. Its enduring allure has not been lost on the singer herself: “Some people in the front rows, they’ll go, ‘At last,’ or either somebody just got married or is about to get married.”


Britney Spears, ‘Toxic’

After years of maximalist hits, the pop princess went for something a little more subtle with producers Bloodshy and Avant, who piled on James Bond guitar, Bollywood strings, and robo-funk vocoders — making for a different kind of song that felt sticky-sweet but also global and avant-garde. “Toxic” redefined Spears’ image and sound, but it almost wasn’t hers. “That was written in Sweden,” co-writer Cathy Dennis explained. “I went over there to write with Janet Jackson in mind.” The song didn’t end up making it to Jackson, and was then passed up by Kylie Minogue before getting into Spears’ hands.


Stevie Wonder, ‘Higher Ground’

Recorded in a mere three hours and driven by a foot pedal that made his keyboard sound extra funky, “Higher Ground” had a drive and intensity that truly sounded like Wonder reaching for new heights. Unfortunately, it was cut just before he was involved in a near-fatal 1973 car accident that left him in a coma. During Wonder’s recovery period, his road manager would sing the melody of “Higher Ground” into his ears. “For a few days [afterward],” Wonder said later, “I was definitely in a much better spiritual place that made me aware of a lot of things that concern my life and my future, and what I have to do to reach another higher ground.”


R.E.M., ‘Losing My Religion’

R.E.M. fully crossed over into the mainstream with this largely unplugged ballad, which had its origins in Peter Buck fiddling around with a mandolin while watching TV and idly practicing. “I probably wouldn’t have written the chords for ‘Losing My Religion’ the way they were had I not played it on my mandolin,” he told Rolling Stone. Yet the mandolin laced throughout the song was one of the most striking aspects of “Losing My Religion,” which was named after a Southern expression for being at the end of one’s rope. Never before had Michael Stipe sounded so vulnerable, yearning, and articulate.


Bruce Springsteen, ‘Thunder Road’

“We decided to make a guitar album, but then I wrote all the songs on piano,” Springsteen said of his third LP, Born to Run. “Thunder Road,” its opening track, is a cinematic tale of redemption with a title borrowed from a 1958 hillbilly noir starring Robert Mitchum as a bootlegger with a car that can’t be beat (though Springsteen had never actually seen the movie). Decades later, he would marvel that he wrote the line “You’re scared, and you’re thinking that maybe we ain’t that young anymore” when he was all of 24 years old.


The Beatles, ‘Something’

In 1968, James Taylor, a new signee to the Beatles’ Apple Records, recorded “Something in the Way She Moves,” the title of which inspired George Harrison to write “Something” near the end of the White Album sessions (one place-holder lyric: “Something in the way she moves/Attracts me like a cauliflower”). It was too late to squeeze it onto the disc, so he gave it to Joe Cocker. The Beatles cut a new version the next year with a string section, Harrison’s only A-side single with the Beatles, which quickly became a standard recorded by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Ray Charles.


Sly and the Family Stone, ‘Everyday People’

“Everyday People” appeared on Sly and the Family Stone’s fourth LP, Stand!, which explored everything from hot funk to cool pop. “I was into everyone’s records,” Sly Stone said of his radio days. “I’d play Dylan, Hendrix, James Brown back-to-back, so I didn’t get stuck in any one groove.” As the song was going to Number One, Stone canceled three months of bookings, including a slot on The Ed Sullivan Show, when trumpeter Cynthia Robinson needed emergency gallbladder surgery. Hits were nice, but family came first.


The Cure, ‘Just Like Heaven’

Robert Smith wrote the Cure’s 1987 single “Just Like Heaven” after a romantic getaway to Beachy Head in East Sussex, England, with his future wife, Mary Poole. “The song is about hyperventilating — kissing and fainting to the floor,” Smith said in 2003. “Mary dances with me in the video because she was the girl, so it had to be her. The idea is that one night like that is worth 1,000 hours of drudgery.” Millions of people connected to that sentiment, and “Just Like Heaven” became the Cure’s first Top 40 hit in America.


Wu-Tang Clan, ‘C.R.E.A.M.’

Originally titled “Lifestyles of the Mega-Rich,” the third single from Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) offers a gritty East Coast rejoinder to slick West Coast gangsta rap. Inspectah Deck later recalled writing his verses years earlier, “standing in front of the building with crack in my sock.” Producer RZA pared down what was at first a sprawling crime narrative, and Method Man provided one of the greatest hooks in hip-hop history, an acronym for “Cash rules everything around me,” which he got from his buddy Rader Rukus, and “dolla dolla bill,” a reference to Jimmy Spicer’s early rap single “Money (Dolla Bill Y’all).”


The Rolling Stones, ‘Sympathy for the Devil’

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. Keith Richards struggled to find the right backing for Mick 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.”


David Bowie, ‘Life on Mars?’

“Inspired by Frankie,” read Bowie’s liner note about this Hunky Dory track when it was released in 1971. The Frankie in question was Sinatra: His “My Way” was based on the 1967 song “Comme d’habitude,” by French artist Claude François, for which Bowie had written (rejected) English lyrics. “That really made me angry for so long  —  about a year,” Bowie later joked. He wrote the similar-sounding “Life on Mars?” as “a revenge trip on ‘My Way.’” Accompanied by Rick Wakeman of Yes on piano, Bowie spins the surrealistic tale about the limits of escapism, complete with references to John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” and the Hollywood Argyles’ “Alley Oop,” a 1960 doo-wop tune about a caveman.


The Jackson 5, ‘I Want You Back’

“I Want You Back” was the song that introduced Motown to the futuristic funk beat of Sly Stone and James Brown. It also introduced the world to an 11-year-old Indiana kid named Michael Jackson. The five dancing Jackson brothers became stars overnight; “ABC,” “The Love You Save,” and “I’ll Be There” followed in rapid succession on the charts, but none matched the boyish fervor of “Back.” It remains one of hip-hop’s favorite beats, sampled everywhere from Kris Kross’ “Jump” to Jay-Z’s “Izzo (H.O.V.A.).”


Alanis Morissette, ‘You Oughta Know’

Long rumored to be about Full House actor Dave Coulier, whom she once dated, Morissette’s scorched-earth breakthrough boasts a one-and-done vocal performance, plus instrumental contributions from the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Dave Navarro and Flea, as well as longtime Tom Petty sideman Benmont Tench. “I didn’t write it to get back,” Morissette said. “It’s a devastated song, and in order to pull out of that despondency, being angry is lovely. I think the movement of anger can pull us out of things.” The blockbuster sales of her album Jagged Little Pill showed she wasn’t the only one who felt angry.


Chuck Berry, ‘Maybelline’

The pileup of hillbilly country, urban blues, and hot jazz in Berry’s electric twang is the primal language of pop-music guitar. The groove for “Maybelline” comes from “Ida Red,” a 1938 recording by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys (of a song that dates back to the 19th century). By the time of the May 21st, 1955, session, Berry had been playing country tunes for Black audiences for a few years: “After they laughed at me a few times, they began requesting the hillbilly stuff.” Leonard Chess came up with the title, inspired by a Maybelline mascara box lying on the floor at the Chess studio.


Yeah Yeah Yeahs, ‘Maps’

The Lower East Side trio was one of the coolest bands to emerge from the New York indie-rock boom of the early 2000s, fronted by force-of-nature vocalist Karen O. “Maps” is both a soul ballad and an art-punk classic, with torrents of jagged guitar noise and thundering drums backing up Karen O’s lovesick wail. The YYY’s breakthrough hit was inspired by a case of real-life rock & roll romance: Karen O wrote the song about being on tour and missing her then-boyfriend, Angus Andrew, singer for fellow New York band Liars. Years later, “Maps” would get the ultimate endorsement when Beyoncé interpolated it for the Lemonade track “Hold Up.”