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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


Dolly Parton, ‘Jolene’

When Parton recorded “Jolene” in 1974, she was chiefly known as Porter Wagoner’s TV partner, although she had written the hit “Coat of Many Colors.” “Jolene” showed how she could put her stamp on traditional country. The Jolene that inspired the song was actually a young autograph seeker; “I said, ‘Well, you’re the prettiest little thing I ever saw. So what is your name?’ And she said, ‘Jolene.’” Parton got the idea for the song’s lyrics after too many run-ins with a flirty bank teller: “She got this terrible crush on my husband. And he just loved going to the bank because she paid him so much attention. It was kinda like a running joke between us.”


U2, ‘One’

Achtung Baby was the album on which U2 traded in a decade of earnestness for irony, but the new approach resulted in their most moving single ever. “One” was spun off from another song, “Mysterious Ways,” when the Edge came up with two ideas for the bridge, and Bono so liked one of them that he wrote a new set of lyrics. Though some hear it as a love song, the words are full of hurt and ambiguity. “People have told me they play it at their wedding,” the Edge said. “And I think, ‘Have you listened to the lyrics? It’s not that kind of a song.’”


Led Zeppelin, ‘Stairway to Heaven’

​​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 Robert 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 Jimmy 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.’”


Kate Bush, ‘Running Up That Hill’

The song was originally called “A Deal With God.” Bush changed the title after he label got worried it would be controversial. The deal in question: “If the man could be the woman and the woman the man … they’d understand what it’s like to be the other person and perhaps it would clear up misunderstandings,” Bush once explained. Deploying her futuristic new Fairlight CMI synthesizer over a rumbling LinnDrum beat as her ecstatic voice bounced around a track that seems to stretch past the horizon, the song kicked off her massively ambitious 1985 album, Hounds of Love, one of the Eighties’ most resonant records.


Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, ‘The Message’

“The Message” was a breakthrough in hip-hop, taking the music from party anthems to street-level ghetto blues. It began as a poem by schoolteacher Duke Bootee; Sugar Hill boss Sylvia Robinson decided to make it a rap record with Melle Mel of the Furious Five. Said Flash in 1997, “I hated the fact that it was advertised as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, because the only people on the record were Mel and Duke Bootee.” But the song, driven by its signature future-shock synth riff and grim lyrics about urban decay, became an instant sensation on New York’s hip-hop radio. “It played all day, every day,” Flash said. “It put us on a whole new level.”


The Band, ‘The Weight’

The Band was chiefly known as Bob Dylan’s touring group when they retreated to a pink house in Woodstock, New York, to record their debut, Music From Big Pink. The album was centered by “The Weight,” an oddball fable of debt and burden driven by an indelible singalong chorus. Robbie Robertson said he was inspired to write the song after watching director Luis Buñuel’s films about “the impossibility of sainthood,” but characters such as Crazy Chester could have walked straight out of an old folk song. As for the biblical-sounding line “pulled into Nazareth,” it refers to Nazareth, Pennsylvania, home of the Martin Guitar factory.


Sly and the Family Stone, ‘Family Affair’

When There’s a Riot Goin’ On came out in 1971, a Rolling Stone reporter mentioned the rumor that Stone had played all the instruments himself, and he asked Sly just how much he played. “I’ve forgotten, man,” Stone said. “Whatever was left.” The leadoff single, the aquatic funk number “Family Affair,” was widely considered to be about his relationships with his band, family, and the Black Panthers. “Well,” Stone said, “they may be trying to tear me apart; I don’t feel it. Song’s not about that. Song’s about a family affair, whether it’s a result of genetic processes or a situation in the environment.”


Missy Elliott, ‘Work It’

Elliott and Timbaland were on top of the world when they made “Work It,” her biggest hit. Yet they stayed as hungry and experimental as ever. The first time they cut this song, Tim said something he’d never told her before: “That ain’t it.” So they went back to the studio. As he told Rolling Stone, “With ‘Work It,’ I made her go back four times. Because I’m like, ‘That ain’t it. That’s not it. That’s not it.’” But it paid off when Elliott came up with the backward-vocal hook. “When she got to that reverse part, I was like, ‘Oh, we out here. We’re done.’ When you bake a great cake, you need the right icing on top.”


Madonna, ‘Like a Prayer’

Only Madonna could combine love, religion, and oral sex into a six-minute gospel-pop powerhouse. To her, “Like a Prayer” is “the song of a passionate young girl so in love with God that it is almost as though He were the male figure in her life.” The song debuted as part of a soft-drink ad campaign, which got yanked after the ostentatiously blasphemous video hit MTV. Right on schedule, the Vatican condemned it, as if intentionally playing its part in the song’s marketing. “In Catholicism you are born a sinner and you are a sinner all of your life,” Madonna said in 1989. “No matter how you try to get away from it, the sin is within you all the time.”


Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, ‘The Tracks of My Tears’

Legend had it that audiences would actually break into tears when Robinson and the Miracles sang “The Tracks of My Tears.” “It tapped into their emotions,” said Warren “Pete” Moore of the Miracles. Pete Townshend was obsessed with the way Robinson put across the word “substitute” (“Although she may be cute/She’s just a substitute”). So obsessed, he said, “that I decided to celebrate the word with a song all its own” — which is how he came to write the Who’s 1966 hit “Substitute.” When Robinson cut “Tears,” it was such a clear winner that even hard-to-please Motown founder Berry Gordy proclaimed it a masterpiece.


The Beach Boys, ‘Good Vibrations’

“This is a very spiritual song,” Brian Wilson said after its release, “and I want it to give off good vibrations.” Wilson was still working on his long-playing magnum opus, Pet Sounds, when he started “Good Vibrations” late on the night of February 17th, 1966, at Gold Star Recorders in Los Angeles. During the next seven months, in four studios, at a cost of more than $50,000 (at that point the greatest sum ever spent on a single), Wilson built “Good Vibrations” in sections, coloring the mood swings with locomotive cello, saloon piano, and the spectral wail of a theremin. “We didn’t think about doing it in pieces at first,” Wilson said years later, “but after the first few bars in the first verse, we realized that this was going to be a different kind of record.”


Donna Summer, ‘I Feel Love’

Summer wasn’t terribly impressed when co-writer Giorgio Moroder presented her with “I Feel Love.” “Giorgio brought me these popcorn tracks he’d recorded, and I said, ‘What the hell is this, Giorgio?’ I finished it sort of as a joke,” she told Rolling Stone in 1978. But the song’s impact on dance music is incalculable. Moroder’s decision to jettison disco’s fluffy orchestrations for throbbing strobe-light-synth minimalism (augmented by his crack team of Munich session musicians) set the table for Euro disco, synth-pop, and wave upon wave of electronic music to come. When Brian Eno first listened to it, he told David Bowie, “I’ve heard the sound of the future.”


Dionne Warwick, ‘Walk on By’

Early in her career, Warwick was a backup singer who also cut demos for Brill Building songwriters Burt Bacharach and Hal David. This forlorn classic solidified her stardom, capping a series of singles in which she played the pleading lover. A downcast ballad set to a bossa nova beat, it was originally relegated to the B side of “Any Old Time of the Day,” until New York DJ Murray the K asked listeners to vote on the single’s two sides. The winning cut scaled the charts during the heady exuberance of Beatlemania, which provided an unwitting foil for the understated perseverance of “Walk on By.” “I didn’t get the guy very often in those days,” Warwick said.