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


Leonard Cohen, ‘Hallelujah’

Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” begins with scripture and ends with the confession of a broken man, holding onto the one word with any hope left in it for him. “I wanted to indicate that Hallelujah can come out of things that have nothing to do with religion,” he once said. The song itself struck some secret chord with listeners and got born again through the lips of John Cale, Jeff Buckley, and Bob Dylan. “The only moment that you can live here comfortably in these absolutely irreconcilable conflicts is in this moment when you embrace it all and you say, ‘Look, I don’t understand a fucking thing at all — Hallelujah!’” Cohen said. “That’s the only moment that we live here fully as human beings.”


Beyoncé, ‘Formation’

When Beyoncé released “Formation” in 2016, the tremors were immediate, and undeniable. She debuted the song on the eve of her Super Bowl 50 performance, where she enthralled (and startled) audiences by employing dozens of dancers dressed like Black Panthers. That set the table for the video, which protested police brutality and drew the ire of police unions. And then came the song itself, in which Beyoncé nodded to her Southern roots, declaring “My daddy Alabama/My ma Louisiana/You mix that Negro with that Creole/Make a Texas bama” over hip-hop superproducer Mike WiLL Made-It’s spring-loaded synth. It was a complete package of Black radical feminist self-assertion.


The Beatles, ‘Yesterday’

Paul McCartney’s greatest ballad holds a Guinness World Record as the most recorded song of all time; seven years after its release, there were 1,186 versions by artists as varied as Frank Sinatra, Otis Redding, and Willie Nelson. McCartney auditioned the song for George Martin, with the working title “Scrambled Eggs,” in a hotel room in Paris in January 1964 — before the Beatles had even landed in America — but would not record it for another year and a half. “We were a little embarrassed about it,” McCartney confessed. “We were a rock & roll band.” A Number One single in America, “Yesterday” was, in his own words, “the most complete song I have ever written.”


Tracy Chapman, ‘Fast Car’

Chapman became an unlikely star with “Fast Car,” a haunting rumination on poverty and escape that touched a nerve, putting her stark acoustic folk music on MTV. A veteran of Boston coffeehouse gigs (she once got a demo-tape rejection letter suggesting she tune her guitar), Chapman suddenly found herself in the Top 10 and with a Grammy. “I had so many people come up to me and say that they felt it was their song, and someone told me at one point that they thought I’ve been reading their mail,” she once said. “They were saying, ‘You seem to know my story.’”


Elvis Presley, ‘Suspicious Minds’

When producer Chips Moman presented this song to Presley in 1969, the singer was, as the lyrics put it, “caught in a trap” — a cash cow being milked dry by his label and hangers-on. That might be why Presley was convinced he could turn the song into a deep soul hit, even though it had flopped in 1968 for singer-songwriter Mark James. Recorded between four and seven in the morning, during the landmark Memphis session that helped return the King to his throne, “Suspicious Minds” — the final Number One single of his lifetime — is Presley’s masterpiece: He sings so intensely through the fade-out that his band returns for another minute of the tear-stained chorus.


Taylor Swift, ‘All Too Well’

“It was a day when I was like a broken human walking to rehearsal, just feeling terrible about what was going on in my personal life,” Swift told Rolling Stone, recalling the origins of “All Too Well.” She ad-libbed lyrics over chords she had written, as her backing band fell in behind her. “They could tell I was really going through it.” Originally 10 minutes long, “All Too Well” would be paired down by Swift and co-writer Liz Rose into a finely burnished reflection on past love, full of unforgettable imagery and detail. “I thought it was too dark, too sad, too intense, just too many things,” Swift said. But it has become a songwriting peak and one of the greatest breakup songs of all time.


Chic, ‘Good Times’

For Chic, disco was more than a beat — it was a “new state of mind.” Guitar master Nile Rodgers and bassman Bernard Edwards were inspired by the glam art rock of Roxy Music, as well as jazz and R&B. As Rodgers put it, “We shared Afrobromantic dreams of what it would be like to have real artistic freedom.” “Good Times” turned those dreams into a utopian disco celebration. It’s a hedonistic Seventies roller-boogie hit with an ironic edge, while Edwards plays one of history’s most influential bass lines. It’s the bass that kicked off the hip-hop era — the Sugarhill Gang rapped over it for “Rapper’s Delight,” while Grandmaster Flash turned it into “Wheels of Steel.”


Bob Dylan, ‘Tangled Up in Blue’

When Dylan introduced “Tangled Up in Blue” onstage in 1978, he described it as a song that took him “10 years to live and two years to write.” It’s still one of his most frequently performed live staples. It was the six-minute opener from Blood on the Tracks, written as his first marriage was falling apart. Dylan takes inspiration from classic country singers like Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell, in a tale of a drifting heart on the road through the Sixties and Seventies. Dylan kept revising the song heavily through the years; on 1984’s Real Live, he plays with the chords and lyrics to tell a whole new story.


Simon and Garfunkel, ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’

When Simon wrote this tribute to friendship, he and Garfunkel were arguing over everything, even who should sing it. “He felt I should have done it,” Simon said. “Many times I’m sorry I didn’t.” The “Sail on, silver girl” verse was Garfunkel’s idea; Simon has never liked it. The melody came from the Bach chorale, and the title phrase came from a Sixties song by West Virginia gospel group the Swan Silvertones — “I guess I stole it, actually,” Simon told Dick Cavett around the time “Bridge Over Troubled Water” was the Number One song in America, a position it held for six weeks. He later paid the Silvertone’s singer, Claude Jeter, $1,000 as a way of saying thanks.


Earth, Wind, and Fire, ‘September’

Earth, Wind, and Fire were at their commercial peak when they went into the studio to cut “September” in the fall of 1978 as a bonus track for The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire, Vol. 1. The nostalgic song about a perfect September romance was written by EWF guitarist Al McKay, bandleader Maurice White, and songwriter Allee Willis, who hated White’s additions of “Ba-du-da” and “Ba-dee-ya” throughout the song. “It took me about a month to calm Allee down,” White wrote in his memoir. “She perceived it as a slight to her lyric-writing abilities.… Try as I might, I couldn’t get her to understand that good music is all about the vibe.” She probably calmed down when the song hit Number One on the R&B chart and Number Eight on the Hot 100.


Ramones, ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’

In less than three minutes, this song threw down the blueprint for punk rock. It’s all here on the opening track of the Ramones’ debut: the buzz-saw chords, which Johnny played on his $50 Mosrite guitar; the snotty words, courtesy of drummer Tommy (with bassist Dee Dee adding the brilliant line “Shoot ’em in the back now”); and the hairball-in-the-throat vocals, sung by Joey in a faux British accent. Recorded on the cheap at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, of all places, “Blitzkrieg Bop” never made the charts; instead, it almost single-handedly created a world beyond the charts. The kickoff chant — “Hey! Ho! Let’s go!” — meanwhile, is now an anthem of its own at sporting events nationwide.


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.