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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


The Smiths, ‘How Soon Is Now?’

With its engulfing, molten guitar intro and enormous drums, “How Soon Is Now,” which began life as a B side, grew to become a bona fide club hit for the Smiths. Guitarist Johnny Marr wanted a riff that would be inescapably recognizable: “When [it] plays in a club or a pub,” he said, “everyone knows what it is.” Marr came upon the song’s guitar riff hungover at an afternoon session after producer John Porter asked him to try to replicate the Elvis Presley classic “That’s All Right.” Porter later recalled thinking, “Now we’ve got a band that could be like R.E.M. are now.”


The Mamas and the Papas, ‘California Dreamin’ ‘

One frigid winter in Manhattan, a song came to John Phillips in the middle of the night. He woke up his young wife, Michelle, who was homesick for the West Coast, to help him finish writing “California Dreamin’,” one of the all-time sunniest songs of longing. The tune was first recorded by Phillips’ folk group the New Journeymen, and later given to Barry McGuire as a thank-you after McGuire, riding high with “Eve of Destruction,” introduced the group to producer Lou Adler, who convinced the Mamas and the Papas to cut it themselves.


Mariah Carey, ‘Fantasy’

The diva’s big dive into the world of hip-hop is built on a sample from the Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love,” further enhanced by a Puff Daddy remix. The rap feature from Ol’ Dirty Bastard was hardly smooth sailing — according to A&R rep Cory Rooney, ODB took three naps while recording his verse, and demanded Moët and Newports to get him in the mood. The rapper’s wild presence unsettled Columbia Records execs, but Carey said she loved the energy he brought: “He was your loving, fun-ass uncle who gets drunk at all the festivities, at Christmas dinner, the cookout, Thanksgiving.”


Booker T. and the MGs, ‘Green Onions’

The Stax house band had never considered making its own hits until it cooked up this simmering jam based around an organ line 17-year-old Booker T. Jones had written, “trying to emulate Ray Charles.” As guitarist Steve Cropper recalled, “I said, ‘Shit, this is the best damn instrumental I’ve heard since I don’t know when.’” As for the onions, Cropper explained that “we were trying to think of something that was as funky as possible.” Its original title was “Funky Onions,” but, according to Jones, “It sounded like a cuss word. So we retitled it ‘Green Onions.’”


Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars, ‘Uptown Funk’

The breezy boogie vibes of “Uptown Funk” didn’t come easy. A rehearsal jam at Mars’ Los Angeles studio led to several arduous sessions of trial and error. Mars lifted the “Don’t believe me, just watch” hook from rapper Trinidad James’ hit “All Gold Everything.” Ronson paid homage to Kool and the Gang by using an all-horns chorus featuring Antibalas and the Dap-Kings; he also added a crucial guitar part, while producer Jeff Bhasker contributed synths. After the song became a huge cross-genre hit, its knowing riff on Eighties funk styles also inspired several lawsuits — proof that success has many fathers.


Pearl Jam, ‘Alive’

This song was the genesis of the band — guitarist Stone Gossard wrote the music, and future singer Eddie Vedder recorded the vocals after hearing a demo — and “Alive” still sounds like Pearl Jam at its wooliest. “It all happened in seven days,” guitarist Mike McCready remembered. “It was very punk rock. Eddie would stay there in the rehearsal studio, writing all night. We’d show up, and there was another song.” Together, Gossard and McCready worked up a maelstrom, while Vedder matched them with a tempestuous vocal as he remembered the difficult days he lived through after learning of the long-hidden identity of his birth parents.


Depeche Mode, ‘Enjoy the Silence’

With a low-slung guitar riff and a lyric delivered by Dave Gahan at his most quaveringly romantic, “Enjoy the Silence” was the Top 10 hit that made Depeche Mode into American superstars, propelling their seventh album, Violator, to triple-platinum status and prompting a near-riot at a SoCal in-store appearance. Originally, “it was kind of half a song,” Gahan said. “And Alan [Wilder] and Flood, who was producing the album, had this idea to put a beat to it.” When Martin Gore added the guitar, Gahan said, “that was it.”


Blondie, ‘Dreaming’

Featuring one of the greatest opening lines in rock — “When I met you in a restaurant/You could tell I was no debutante” — “Dreaming” is both escapist fun and about escapist fun — the kind that doesn’t cost anything. Blondie guitarist-songwriter Chris Stein called “Dreaming,” the shimmering hit from their 1979 album Eat to the Beat, “a mishmash of a lot of things. It really was supposed to be more disco rock than it came out. The bass drum got swamped by the tom-toms.” Drummer Clem Burke later said that he played all those wild roller-coaster fills because he thought the recording was just a warmup take.


Them, ‘Gloria’

When Van Morrison wrote his first hit, “Gloria,” with the Belfast garage band Them, he was just another hungry young rocker, but his gravelly voice sounds years older than he was, and you can already notice the roots of the Celtic R&B mysticism he’d pursue for decades to come. “I was just being me, a street cat from Belfast,” Morrison said. “Probably like thousands of kids from Belfast who were in bands.” A Chicago group called Shadows of Knight hit with a more cautious version in 1966; Morrison later complained that “Gloria” was “capitalized on, a lot.“


Neneh Cherry, ‘Buffalo Stance’

“I always try and put an element of rawness — which probably is sex — into what I do,” Neneh Cherry said of her solo smash “Buffalo Stance.” “It’s that something that sends tingles up your spine, that’s the sex in my voice.” A searing dance track featuring the first rapping by a British woman most Americans had heard, the song was inspired by the London designer Ray Petri, who called his streetwear-inspired fashion Buffalo. “To me, a buffalo stance is an attitude you have to have in order to get by,” she told The New York Times. “It’s not about fashion but about survival.”


Wilco, ‘Heavy Metal Drummer’

Jeff Tweedy yoked the sweetest melody of Wilco’s career to this openhearted song about making peace with the hair-metal dudes he used to mock in his punk-rock youth. It’s the centerpiece of Wilco’s post-alt-country artistic breakthrough Yankee Hotel Foxtrot: a kicky drum groove, some breezy strumming, randomly accented electronic blips, and Tweedy singing himself a midlife lesson about never giving into easy irony. As he said in 2004, “That song is really just another reminder about not being judgmental and reductive.”


Allman Brothers Band, ‘Whipping Post’

The studio version (recorded when author and singer Gregg Allman was 21 years old, and written a year earlier, on the cover of an ironing board as it came to him) clocks in at a comparatively svelte 5:17 on the Allman Brothers’ 1969 debut. Built around Berry Oakley’s bass riff and opening in an unusual 11/4 time signature, it became the stuff of jam-band legend in its sprawling 22:40 live version on 1971’s At the Fillmore East, where it showcased guitarists Duane Allman and Dickey Betts’ bluesy fire and the rhythm section’s jazzy ramble.


Foo Fighters, ‘Everlong’

A fittingly intimate monument to the alternative era, “Everlong” has become a quasi-official pop-culture envoi, whether it’s been arranged for strings for Monica and Chandler’s wedding on Friends or performed by the Foo Fighters on David Letterman’s final Late Show. No surprise: Dave Grohl came up in the Washington, D.C., hardcore scene, and the signature Foos song was the rare Nineties hit to supersize original Eighties D.C. emocore. Grohl wrote it following his breakup with Louise Post of Veruca Salt; when asked, he would only confirm that it was “about a girl.”


Cat Stevens/Yusuf, ‘Father and Son’

This wisdom-sharing ballad about the strained generation gap between families during the Vietnam War has its origins in a musical Stevens wrote about the Russian Revolution. The project was ultimately shelved, and “Father and Son” became a hit from Tea for the Tillerman, one of the biggest albums of the early-Seventies singer-songwriter boom. “That’s a beautiful thing about the gift of music and what it can do to you,” Stevens, who later changed his name to Yusuf Islam, told Rolling Stone. “It’s really become integral to so many people’s lives.”


Lynyrd Skynyrd, ‘Free Bird’

This definitive Southern-rock guitar epic had a humble birth, with late Skynyrd frontman Ronnie Van Zant scribbling lyrics about keeping love alive on tour, while Allen Collins jammed on guitar — although initially, the singer complained Collins used too many chords. “But after a few months,” said guitarist Gary Rossington, “we were sitting around and he asked Allen to play those chords again. After about 20 minutes, Ronnie started singing ‘If I leave here tomorrow,’ and it fit great.” The nine-minute album cut got heavy rock-radio airplay, an edited single reached the pop Top 20, and Skynyrd always encores with it.


Run-DMC, ‘Sucker MC’s’

Rap’s boom-bap Big Bang: On this B side to their first 12-inch (“It’s Like That” was the A), Run-DMC rhymed over a stark break stripped out of an Orange Krush song by their guitarist Davy DMX, inspiring Run’s line, “Davy cut the record down to the bone.” “Sucker MC’s” established the crew as rap’s new kings, turned Queens into the rugged successor to rap’s birthplace, the Bronx, and proved that in hip-hop, melody and other pop niceties were fully optional. “We figured we had very, very good rappers,” co-producer Russell Simmons said, “and we wanted people to appreciate what they did.”


Selena, ‘Amor Prohibido’

By 1994, Mexican American star Selena Quintanilla had proven she could hype a crowd with the party-starting glee of “Baila Esta Cumbia,” and just as easily crush a listener with the tenderness of “Como la Flor.” However, as her husband and bandmate, Chris Pérez, once noted, her voice took on a stunning new resonance when she sang about a deep, forbidden love on “Amor Prohibido,” an upbeat cumbia co-written with her brother that mixed modern pop with Tejano sounds. Selena famously ad-libbed “Oh baby” after the refrain, making a song inspired by her grandparents, as well as her own relationship with Perez, even more personal. It became her first Number One solo single.


Kiss, ‘Rock and Roll All Nite’

After the band’s 1974 album Hotter Than Hell sold poorly, Casablanca Records head Neil Bogart demanded that Kiss write a bigger, more anthemic hit. Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley obliged with what Stanley called ”a song that could be the rallying cry for all of our fans.” The result was the ultimate Kiss rocker, closing every one of their concerts since 1976. “When I was writing it, naive or not, it was really about celebrating,” Stanley later said. “It wasn’t about getting high or getting stoned or anything like that.”


Rufus and Chaka Khan, ‘Ain’t Nobody’

When keyboard player David “Hawk” Wolinski showed the “Ain’t Nobody” instrumental to his pal Glenn Frey, the Eagle instantly thought it would be a Number One hit. But Rufus and Chaka Khan’s label, Warner Bros., wasn’t as enthusiastic about “Ain’t Nobody,” according to Wolinski. “I said, ‘If you don’t release the song … I will give that thing to Quincy [Jones] for Michael [Jackson] and retire,’” he remembered. The label relented, and Frey’s prediction proved accurate — “Ain’t Nobody,” with its gnarled guitars and slippery programmed groove, became a Number One R&B hit.


Bill Withers, ‘Lovely Day’

Withers’ vocal style was so laid-back and conversational that it’s easy to overlook that this breezy ballad hinges on an impressive technical feat: For 10 to 20 seconds at a stretch, Withers holds the note containing the second word of the song’s title, and moreover, he holds it absolutely level, with no vibrato and no audible strain. That’s fitting — it’s Withers’ most winsome tune, moving at an unhurried gait, with sepia-toned horns. “I used to get criticized for making simple records — the term was ‘underproduced,’” Withers recalled, adding, “Those few simple songs that I did, fortunately, found their own way.”


Fleetwood Mac, ‘Go Your Own Way’

“Go Your Own Way” was the sound of a relationship shattering in real time. Lindsey Buckingham, who wrote it while breaking up with Stevie Nicks, said that the razored lyrics came to him “almost as a stream of consciousness,” while Nicks has admitted that they angered her so much that she “wanted to go over and kill [Buckingham]” each time she sang it onstage. For the beat, Buckingham wanted something similar to the way Charlie Watts played on the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man,” which drummer Mick Fleetwood interpreted into the song’s tension-filled snare-tom thump.