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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


Tom Petty, ‘Free Fallin”

Petty wrote “Free Fallin’” with Jeff Lynne, who produced his solo debut, Full Moon Fever. “I got to the chorus of the song, and he leaned over to me and said the word ‘free-falling,’” Petty recalled. “I couldn’t get the whole word in. So I sang, ‘Freeee,’ then ‘free-falling.’ And we both knew at that moment that I’d hit on something pretty good.” They finished and recorded it in just two days, the first song completed for the album. The label initially rejected Full Moon Fever because of a lack of hits. “So I waited six months and brought the same record back,” Petty said. “And they loved it.”


Wilson Pickett, ‘In the Midnight Hour’

Pickett’s first two singles for Atlantic were recorded in New York, and they flopped. “I told Jerry Wexler I didn’t want to be recorded this way anymore,” Pickett said. “I said I heard a song by Otis Redding out of Memphis, and that’s the direction I wanted to take.” Pickett soon headed south. He and Steve Cropper wrote “In the Midnight Hour” in the Lorraine Hotel (where Martin Luther King Jr. would later be assassinated), and while they were cutting the song, an idea shot Wexler out of his seat. “I was shaking my booty to a groove made popular by the Larks’ ‘The Jerk,’ a mid-Sixties hit,” wrote Wexler. “The idea was to push the second beat while holding back the fourth.” And a soul classic was born.


Stevie Nicks, ‘Edge of Seventeen’

Stevie Nicks once casually asked Tom Petty’s wife, Jane, when the two had met. “During the age of 17,” Jane said, but because of her Southern accent, Nicks thought she’d said, “the edge of seventeen,” and took it as a song title on her first solo album. Over Waddy Wachtel’s distinctive 16th-note guitar riff, later sampled by Destiny’s Child, Nicks sang about innocence and loss, moved by the recent deaths of an uncle and John Lennon. The line “He seemed brokenhearted,” though, was about Petty, she said. “That was Jane, talking about Tom. I was chronicling their relationship, as she told it to me.”


Elvis Presley, ‘Jailhouse Rock’

Songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller had already penned a couple of Presley hits — most notably “Hound Dog,” picked up from blues belter Big Mama Thornton — but the theme song for Presley’s third movie was the duo’s first studio collaboration with the young superstar. “Jailhouse Rock” was decidedly silly, the kind of tongue-in-cheek narrative goof they had been coming up with for the Coasters. The King, however, sang it as straight rock & roll, introducing Scotty Moore’s guitar solo with a cry so intense that the take almost collapses.


Mobb Deep, ‘Shook Ones, Pt. II’

Mobb Deep may have been dropped from their first label after their 1993 debut, Juvenile Hell, but watching top producers like Large Professor and DJ Premier chop samples during its sessions proved instructive. Picked up by Loud Records, the two teenagers found inspiration in “Jessica,” a deep cut from Herbie Hancock. “I just had the mind to sample it and rearrange it,” Havoc recalled, adding that he was going for “darker music.” The result was one of the most soul-crushing beats ever, and a template for the coldhearted verses that ensured Mobb Deep’s place in history.


Steely Dan, ‘Deacon Blues’

“‘Deacon Blues’ is about as close to autobiography as our tunes get,” Donald Fagen has said. A dream of escape into a bohemian existence that’s also a fantasy of hipster oblivion, the song is the elegant, elegiac centerpiece of Steely Dan’s 1977 album, Aja. As for the characteristically cryptic title, Fagen later recalled, “If a college football team like the University of Alabama could have a grandiose name like the Crimson Tide, the nerds and losers should be entitled to a grandiose name as well.”


The Rolling Stones, ‘Paint It, Black’

The Stones’ experimental mid-Sixties period was partly driven by Brian Jones’ restlessness. “Brian had pretty much given up on the guitar by then,” said Keith Richards. “If there was [another] instrument around, he had to be able to get something out of it.” At one L.A. session, Jones plucked a haunting melody on a sitar, to which Bill Wyman added klezmer-flavored organ and studio legend Jack Nitzsche provided gypsy-style piano. It could have all been a goof, but Charlie Watts’ booming drums and Mick Jagger’s full-throated vocals made “Paint It, Black” more of a gaze into the abyss.


Boston, ‘More Than a Feeling’

Every night Tom Scholz would come home from his day job at Polaroid to labor away in his Watertown, Massachusetts, basement studio. Here, inspired by the Left Banke’s lovely psych-pop ballad “Walk Away Renee,” he painstakingly constructed the majestic studio-rock symphony that would become Boston’s career-making hit, centered on a vision of Marianne — who, in fact, existed. “She was my older first cousin, who I had a crush on when I was 10,” Scholz said. Many accused Nirvana of nicking the chords to the chorus of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” from “More Than a Feeling,” but not Scholz, who’s said simply, “I don’t hear it.”


U2, ‘With or Without You’

The Joshua Tree was U2’s ode to America: Its songs were inspired by folk, gospel, and roots music, and its lyrics, as the Edge noted, were sparked by civil rights heroes and the New Journalism of the 1960s. Yet “With or Without You” — with its simple bass groove and ethereal guitar hum framing Bono’s yearning vocals — was one of U2’s most universal songs to date, a meditation on the painful ambivalence of a relationship. Bono insisted it was “about how I feel in U2 at times: exposed.” It would turn out to be U2’s first Number One hit in the U.S.


Funkadelic, ‘One Nation Under a Groove’

“We really wanted it to be a hit so we really made it more commercial and more straightforward than I like to do it.” That’s how Funkadelic ringmaster George Clinton described this funky dance-floor anthem in 1978. “The band were even singing ‘Corny or not, here we come!’” Clinton’s idea of pop was to overload a track with enough ideas and slogans and melodies for a full album and still make it stomp like a mother. As bassist Bootsy Collins puts it, “George’s thing was, ‘It don’t matter how many hooks you put in. Don’t matter! Put them all in there.’”


Don Henley, ‘Boys of Summer’

While fooling around with his new LinnDrum machine, Heartbreakers’ guitarist Mike Campbell whipped up a hypnotic guitar figure over an electronic beat and brought the results to his pal and boss, Tom Petty. The track didn’t quite work for Petty, but former Eagle Don Henley heard something poignant in the looping production and he immediately wrote some lyrics that expressed the ultimate farewell to Sixties idealism, made more poignant by the song’s very Eighties sound. Its stark black-and-white video won Video of the Year at the 1985 MTV Video Music Awards.


Hole, ‘Doll Parts’

Courtney Love said she wrote “Doll Parts” in 20 minutes in a bathroom in Boston. “It was about a boy, whose band had just left town, who I’d been sleeping with, who I heard was sleeping with two other girls,” she explained years later. “It was my way of saying, ‘You’re a fucking idiot if you don’t choose me, and here is all the desire and fury and love that I feel for you.’” Guitars stagger forward but never lose their footing; Love’s obsession builds slow, then erupts in erotic threats. Oh, and the upshot of Love’s story: “I married that guy.”


Rage Against the Machine, ‘Killing in the Name’

A killer riff can arise at any time — even during a guitar lesson. That’s when Tom Morello, who was teaching on the side, came up with the start of the song that would become RATM’s breakthrough anthem. “I stopped the lesson, got my little Radio Shack cassette recorder, laid down that little snippet, and then continued with the lesson,” he said. Rage’s bludgeoning rhythm section bolstered that riff, and Zack de la Rocha contributed sharp critiques of the police (“Some of those that work forces/Are the same who burn crosses”) as well as the universally anti-authoritarian mantra “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.”


Glen Campbell, ‘Wichita Lineman’

Inspired by the isolation of a telephone-pole worker he saw on the Kansas-Oklahoma border, Jimmy Webb wrote this in 1968 for Campbell, who had asked if Webb could come up with another “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” “I just tried to take an ordinary guy and open him up and say, ‘Look there’s this great soul, and there’s this great aching and this great loneliness inside this person, and we’re all like that,’” Webb told the BBC. Campbell added a guitar part and kept the organ from Webb’s demo; the chiming sound at the fade, evoking telephone signals, was done on a massive church organ.


Britney Spears, ‘…Baby One More Time’

The song that introduced the world to the most influential female pop artist to come around since Madonna was originally intended for TLC, but the R&B group rejected it. Once Swedish songwriter Max Martin met Spears, a new 15-year-old singer with Jive Records, he thought he had the right person for the track. Spears agreed. “I wanted my voice to be kind of rusty,” she told Rolling Stone years later. “I wanted my voice to just be able to groove with the track. So the night before, I stayed up really, really late, so when I went into the studio, I wasn’t rested.”


David Bowie, ‘Young Americans’

“It’s about a newlywed couple who don’t know if they really like each other,” Bowie said of “Young Americans.” He had ditched the glam look that made him a star and embraced what he called “plastic soul,” embedding in Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia, which had been producing ornately orchestrated soul hits from the likes of the O’Jays and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. Listen close to this R&B homage and you’ll hear two stars in the making: Luther Vandross on backup vocals, and David Sanborn wailing on sax.


Stevie Wonder, ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours’

Wonder experimented with producing on this 1970 R&B chart topper, with its distinctive sitar intro and expansive soul-pop arrangement played by the Funk Brothers. He has credited the song’s iconic refrain to his mother, who received a co-writing credit on the classic. The song ushered in a new era of creative renaissance for the 20-year-old singer, and would go on to be covered by everyone from Elton John to Ariana Grande and become a favorite of Barack Obama’s on the 2008 campaign trail.


Elton John, ‘Your Song’

Bernie Taupin has often claimed that a song should never take more than an hour to write. His first classic took all of 20 minutes. In 1969, Taupin and Elton were sharing a bunk bed at Elton’s mom’s house when Taupin wrote the words to “Your Song” one morning at the breakfast table. Elton assumed that the soaring piano ballad was inspired by an old girlfriend of Taupin’s, but the lyricist maintains that it was aimed at no one in particular. “The early ones were not drawn from experience, but imagination,” Taupin said. “‘Your Song’ could only have been written by a 17-year-old who’d never been laid in his life.”


Johnny Cash, ‘Ring of Fire’

June Carter came up with this song while driving around aimlessly one night, worried about Cash’s wild-man ways — and aware that she couldn’t resist him. “There is no way to be in that kind of hell, no way to extinguish a flame that burns, burns, burns,” she wrote. Not long after hearing June’s sister Anita’s take on the song, Cash had a dream that he was singing it with mariachi horns. Cash’s version became one of his biggest hits (inspiring cover versions by everyone from Frank Zappa to Adam Lambert), and his marriage to June four years later helped save his life.