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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


Martha and the Vandellas, ‘Dancing in the Street’

Gordy Stevenson, who gave Martha Reeves her first job, as his secretary, approached the group with this song after it was turned down by Motown labelmate (and future Mrs. Stevenson) Kim Weston. The trio agreed to record “Dancing in the Street” as a demo, with its songwriters singing backup. “When Martha got into the song,” Stevenson said, “that was the end of the conversation!” Against a backbeat that cracks like a gunshot, Reeves reinvents the world as a giant block party.


Drake feat. Majid Jordan, ‘Hold On, We’re Going Home’

That Drake titled his third album Nothing Was the Same is on the nose even for him. But the chart-topping rapper is indeed perceptive. The record found Drake transitioning from successful rap star to global powerhouse. On the single “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” he channels the timeless hits of the prior generation’s greats — something like OVO’s take on Thiller-era Quincy Jones. Drake even told MTV at the time that he thought the song was more fit for weddings than the club. He’s right. “Hold On, We’re Going Home” has the enduring appeal of a late-Eighties hit.


Led Zeppelin, ‘Whole Lotta Love’

The members of Led Zeppelin first got their sound together by jamming on blues standards, stretching them out into psychedelic orgies. “Whole Lotta Love” was a tribute to Chicago-blues songwriter Willie Dixon, based on his “You Need Love,” a Muddy Waters single from 1962 (though Robert Plant also threw in quotes from songs Dixon wrote for Howlin’ Wolf). The copyright issues weren’t sorted out until 1985, when Dixon brought legal action and got his rightful share of the credit for “Whole Lotta Love.” “[Jimmy] Page’s riff was Page’s riff,” Plant said. “I just thought, ‘Well, what am I going to sing?’ That was it, a nick. Now happily paid for.” Said Page, “Usually my riffs are pretty damn original. What can I say?”


TLC, ‘Waterfalls’

R&B trio TLC had to fight to get this hit the corporate backing it deserved. Clive Davis, president of their label, Arista, wasn’t a fan of “Waterfalls,” which would become a massive hit from their megaplatinum album CrazySexyCool. TLC pleaded for a video budget to help them better communicate the ballad’s cautionary tales and message of hope; in a daring gesture, “Waterfalls” dealt with HIV/AIDS during a year when more than 50,000 Americans succumbed to the disease. With $1 million and director F. Gary Gray, TLC finally made a striking video and became the first Black act to win Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards.


George Michael, ‘Freedom! ’90’

Fed up with life as a pin-up idol, Michael poured his frustrations into “Freedom! ’90,” which nodded to hip-hop with its sample of James Brown’s 1970 classic “Funky Drummer.” “Went back home, got a brand-new face for the boys on MTV,” he sang. “But today the way I play the game has got to change/Now I’m gonna get myself happy.” To drive the point home, he refused to appear in the video (hiring supermodels Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Tatjana Patitz, Christy Turlington, and Cindy Crawford to lip-sync his part) and literally torched the iconic leather jacket, jukebox, and guitar from his Faith period.


Sex Pistols, ‘Anarchy in the U.K.’

The Sex Pistols set out to become a national scandal in the U.K., and they succeeded with their debut single. Steve Jones made his guitar sound like a pub brawl, while Johnny Rotten snarled, spat, and snickered, declaring himself an antichrist and ending the song by urging his fans to “Get pissed/Destroy!” EMI, the Sex Pistols’ record label, pulled “Anarchy in the U.K.” and dropped them, which just made them more notorious. “I don’t understand it,” Rotten said in 1977. “All we’re trying to do is destroy everything.”


Buddy Holly, ‘That’ll Be the Day’

Recorded in Clovis, New Mexico, in February 1957, the song took its title from a recurring line in the John Wayne movie The Searchers. “We were cutting ‘That’ll Be the Day’ just as a demo to send to New York, just to see if they liked the sound of the group — not for a master record,” recalled Crickets drummer Jerry Allison. “So we just went in and set up and sort of shucked through the song.” Allison credits Holly’s guitar-picking on “That’ll Be the Day” to the influence of New Orleans bluesman Lonnie Johnson.


Talking Heads, ‘This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)’

The origins of this Talking Heads classic came from a rough instrumental the band had been working on for some time. “The original basic track was called ‘Naive Melody,’ because the melody was naive-sounding,” drummer Chris Frantz later explained. David Byrne’s lyrics represented a new level of emotional honesty and directness for the Talking Heads frontman. “It’s a real honest kind of love song,” Byrne said. “I tried to write one that wasn’t corny, that didn’t sound stupid or lame, the way many do. I think I succeeded.”


The Impressions, ‘People Get Ready’

“It was warrior music,” said civil rights activist Gordon Sellers. “It was music you listened to while you were preparing to go into battle.” Curtis Mayfield wrote the gospel-driven R&B ballad, he said, “in a deep mood, a spiritual state of mind,” just before Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on the Impressions’ hometown of Chicago. Shortly after “People Get Ready” was released, churches in Chicago began including their own version of it in songbooks. Mayfield’s version of the song ended with “You don’t need no ticket/You just thank the Lord,” but the churches’ rendition, ironically, made the lyrics less Christian and more universal: “Everybody wants freedom/This I know.”


The Beatles, ‘Let It Be’

Inspired by the church-born soul of Aretha Franklin, an anxious Paul McCartney started writing “Let It Be” in 1968 and unveiled a skeletal version to the other Beatles during the disastrous Let It Be rehearsals in January 1969. John Lennon was brutally dismissive, mistaking McCartney’s secular humanism for self-righteous piety. Yet the Beatles put special labor into the song, getting the consummate take on January 31st — the day after their last live performance, on the roof of their Apple offices in London. Released four months later, “Let It Be” effectively became an elegy for the band that had defined the Sixties.


X-Ray Spex, ‘Oh Bondage! Up Yours!’

With their braces-wearing, mixed-race singer Poly Styrene and saxophone shredder Laura Logic, who was all of 16 years old when she joined the band, X-Ray Spex looked and sounded like nothing else on the London punk scene. And their legendary debut single remains punk’s greatest statement of anti-consumerist revolution. “I think [Poly] felt that everyone was in a type of bondage — restricted, crushed, and alienated by modern materialistic society,” Logic later recalled. “The goal of our society is sense gratification — that is the only prize on offer. But one can never satisfy the senses; it is an impossible goal.”


Marvin Gaye, ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’

Motown producer Norman Whitfield had a reputation for recording the same song with a number of acts, changing the arrangement each time. This irritated some of the label’s artists, but every now and then he would get a golden idea — as happened with Gaye’s 1968 version of “Grapevine,” which had been a hit the year before for Gladys Knight. Whitfield and co-writer Barrett Strong set the track in a slower, more mysterious tempo, and the song — which Gaye initially resisted recording — became the bestselling Motown single of the decade.


Radiohead, ‘Creep’

“I wasn’t very happy with the lyrics; I thought they were pretty crap,” Thom Yorke told Rolling Stone in 1993. He’d written the song in college, before Radiohead existed. But “Creep” had the right note of post-Nirvana miserablism, and it vaulted the band into the U.S. charts. Guitarist Jonny Greenwood later admitted that he found the success that came after “Creep” to be “stultifying,” but Radiohead’s experience with cookie-cutter fame played a role in driving the band to create challenging albums like OK Computer and Kid A, some of the most groundbreaking rock of the past 50 years.


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.”