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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

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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


William DeVaughn, ‘Be Thankful for What You Got’

William DeVaughn was living in Washington, D.C., when he brought his composition to Omega Sound, a pay-to-play production studio in Philadelphia. When the company realized DeVaughn was talented, they hired producer John Davis to arrange a professional session — with excellent MSFB musicians like drummer Earl Young and guitarist Norman Harris — and sold it to independent label Chelsea Records. DeVaughn’s one-hit wonder has epitomized Seventies-hustle mentality ever since, thanks to his Curtis Mayfield-like croon and the evocative chorus, “Diamond in the back, sunroof top, diggin’ the scene with a gangsta lean.”


Drake, ‘Hotline Bling’

“Hotline Bling” was Drake’s entry into an ongoing flurry of new songs based around the rhythm track of “Cha Cha” by Virginia rapper-producer Shelley (formerly D.R.A.M.). “In Jamaica, you’ll have a riddim, and it’s like, ‘Everyone has to do a song on that,’” Drake said. “Imagine that in rap, or imagine that in R&B … that’s kind of what ‘Hotline Bling’ was.” In the same vein as that Jamaican tradition, “Hotline Bling,” with its infectious “You used to call me on my cellphone” intro and instantly meme-ready video, became an enormous viral hit, inspiring versions by everyone from Alessia Cara, who rendered the song as a ballad, to Erykah Badu, who spun her take into an entire phone-themed mixtape.


Bonnie Raitt, ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me’

Raitt nailed this staggeringly intimate ballad in one take. “It’s a pretty devastating song to sing more than once,” she said later. “Plus, it took me a minute to recover from how sad it was.” With Bruce Hornsby on piano and Benmont Tench of the Heartbreakers on organ, she created an unexpected pop standard, performed by everyone from Adele and George Michael to Boyz II Men and Bon Iver. But no one has come close to Raitt’s honesty or vulnerability. Said producer Don Was: “It’s one of those performances that is so powerful that it changes the definition of what the popular music of the time is.”


Elton John, ‘Bennie and the Jets’

This weird and wonderful Number One hit — Elton at his most playfully funky — is about a fictional rock band, as told by a ravenous fan preaching the gospel of Bennie and the Jets to her friends Candy and Ronnie. “I saw Bennie and the Jets as a sort of proto-sci-fi punk band,” lyricist Bernie Taupin told Rolling Stone in 2014, “fronted by an androgynous woman, who looks like something out of a Helmut Newton photograph.” Elton didn’t want “Bennie and the Jets” released as a single, only acquiescing after he heard it was getting play on the top Black station in Detroit.


Buddy Holly, ‘Peggy Sue’

Holly’s most iconic hit came together in a rehearsal. “Buddy had a song started called ‘Cindy Lou,’” said Jerry Allison, the drummer for Buddy Holly and the Crickets. “I think he had a niece named Cindy Lou.” During the recording, Allison’s snare drum was so loud that producer Norman Petty told him to play in the studio’s reception area. Perhaps to placate his drummer, Holly agreed to Allison’s suggestion that they rename the tune after a woman he was dating, Peggy Sue.


The Cars, ‘Just What I Needed’

“If the goal was to have great success making pop music with a sense of irony,” Cars guitarist Elliot Easton told Rolling Stone shortly after Ric Ocasek’s death in 2019, “then mission accomplished, right?” Written in the late Seventies in the basement of a commune where Ocasek lived, the Cars’ debut single defined their mix of precision-tuned sleekness and creepy mystery — especially when he throws in the vampiric line “I needed someone to bleed.” In a testament to the tune’s genius, a rawer early demo, lacking the meticulous studio polish that made it a New Wave smash, broke on Boston radio before the official version even came out.


Soundgarden, ‘Black Hole Sun’

Chris Cornell was watching TV one day when he thought he heard a news anchor refer to a “black hole sun.” He soon realized he was mistaken, but he liked the phrase, so he hung onto it and later attached it to the otherworldly power ballad that would become Soundgarden’s biggest hit. The song bathed the band’s signature gloomy crunch in a heady psychedelic swirl, giving it an eerie, Floyd-ian feel. “It was this combination of bright and dark,” Cornell recalled, explaining the song’s spooky gravitational pull. “This sense of hope and an underlying moodiness.”


Frank Ocean, ‘Thinkin Bout You’

When Ocean sang, “My eyes don’t shed tears, but boy they pour when I’m thinking ’bout you,” the subtle shift in pronoun marked a turning point in R&B; he accompanied his debut, Channel Orange, with a heartfelt open letter on his Tumblr, artfully telling the story of coming to understand his sexuality. “Thinkin Bout You” was in some ways accidental; the song was originally written for R&B singer Bridget Kelly. But when a demo of Ocean’s subtle, elegiac version leaked, it immediately became recognized as the shy soul visionary’s signature song.


The Crystals, ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’

Within a year, the Crystals’ records went from high drama (“He’s a Rebel”) to swooning romance (“Then He Kissed Me”) to the speaking-in-tongues magic that is “Da Doo Ron Ron.” And every one was a smash. Spector, their producer, was adamant: “My belief is that every disc issued should be a hit,” he declared in 1964. “Big labels put out hundreds of discs, but every one I put out I intend for the charts.” The Crystals themselves didn’t all sing on the record — just lead vocalist LaLa Brooks, backed by session singers, including Cher.


Sex Pistols, ‘God Save the Queen’

Banned by the BBC for “gross bad taste,” this blast of nihilism savaged the pomp of Queen Elizabeth II’s silver jubilee and came in a sleeve showing Her Majesty with a safety pin through her lip. “As far as I’m concerned, she ain’t no human being,” said singer Johnny Rotten. “She’s a piece of cardboard they drag around on a trolley.” The manic sneer in John Lydon’s voice and Steve Jones’ glam-avalancher guitar crunch immediately made it the signature anthem of U.K. punk rock as proud social disease.


The Grateful Dead, ‘Box of Rain’

Perhaps the Dead’s finest moment in a recording studio, with its raggedly gorgeous harmony singing and concise down-home guitar beauty. Robert Hunter wrote “Box of Rain” to music Phil Lesh had given him, quickly penning a reflection on mortality. Lesh learned to sing it while driving out to visit his father, who was dying of cancer. “By ‘box of rain,’ I meant the world we live on,” Hunter said later, “but ‘ball’ of rain didn’t have the right ring to my ear, so ‘box’ it became, and I don’t know who put it there.”


Bob Marley and the Wailers, ‘Could You Be Loved’

In the liner notes to the 1992 Marley box set Songs of Freedom, “Could You Be Loved” is described as “consciously recorded with a sound that would appeal to Black American radio programmers.” Indeed, it’s Marley’s only single to make the Billboard Dance chart, thanks in part to a disco groove and irresistibly fluttering keyboards. He wrote “Could You Be Loved” on airplanes en route to the final shows he would play before his death from cancer in 1981, a slot opening for the Commodores. The sheet music of the song was later emblazoned on a postage stamp issued by the Jamaican government.


Kacey Musgraves, ‘Merry Go ‘Round’

Inspired by her upbringing in a “tiny little Bible Belt town,” the Texan country artist channeled years of firsthand observation into her debut single, a searingly on-point bit of small-town realism about folks settling into comfort zones that become life sentences. “I feel like it’s something everyone can relate to,” Musgraves said. The jaw-dropping lines “Mama’s hooked on Mary Kay, brother’s hooked on Mary Jane, and daddy’s hooked on Mary two doors down” might’ve been a little edgy, but the song went Top 10 on country radio and won Best Country Song at the Grammys.


Jimmy Cliff, ‘The Harder They Come’

Before this song, Cliff had already won acclaim: Bob Dylan lauded his 1969 single “Vietnam” as “the best protest song ever written.” But Cliff became an international star with this gospel tale of eternal rebellion, expressly written for the movie of the same name, in which he played Ivan Martin, a young man who comes to Kingston, Jamaica, to make his way as a musician. “The film opened the door for Jamaica,” Cliff recalled. “It said, ‘This is where this music comes from.’”


Prince, ‘Little Red Corvette’

A horse-racing metaphor, a car metaphor, and a sex metaphor: Prince didn’t scrimp on literary possibilities in coming up with what would be his first Top 10 hit. In 1982, Prince had a 24-track studio installed in his basement; by 6 p.m. the day after it was set up, he had recorded “Little Red Corvette.” The song is an almost perfect erotic fusion of rock and funk that builds slowly until exploding into a guitar solo. Fittingly, Prince wrote the lyrics in the back seat of a car, but not a red Corvette: It was a bright-pink Ford Edsel belonging to Revolution keyboardist Lisa Coleman.


Fugees, ‘Killing Me Softly With His Song’

For all the musical creativity New Jersey trio Fugees unveiled on their classic album The Score, it was a cover of a 1972 Roberta Flack ballad that remains their most iconic moment. Pras came up with the idea to do it, and producer Salaam Remi suggested using A Tribe Called Quest’s “Bonita Applebum” instrumental. Meanwhile, producer Jerry Wonder decided to use a “reggae one drop” bass line. But this song truly belongs to Lauryn Hill: It’s the moment when she evolved from everyone’s favorite femcee to a generational icon.


Patti Smith, ‘Because the Night’

While recording Darkness on the Edge of Town in 1977, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band had come up with a rough sketch of a song that they weren’t sure what to do with. That is, until engineer Jimmy Iovine stepped in and decided it belonged to another artist he was working with at the time: “One night, whilst we were lounging around the Hotel Navarro in New York, I told Bruce I desperately wanted a hit with Patti, that she deserved one. He agreed.” The rest is history: With its twin verses written by Springsteen and Smith, respectively, “Because the Night” perfectly captured both artists’ hungry-hearted rock & roll spirit, and became Smith’s lone Top 20 hit.


Taylor Swift, ‘Blank Space’

After nearly a decade of having her lyrics, public image, and dating life scrutinized beyond her control, Swift chose to take back the narrative with “Blank Space,” a song that satirizes her “serial dater” persona by doubling down on it — it became an intense-even-for-Taylor highlight of her synth-pop blowout 1989. “That was the character I felt the media had written for me, and for a long time I felt hurt by it,” she said. “I took it personally. But as time went by, I realized it was kind of hilarious.”


Cheap Trick, ‘Surrender’

Cheap Trick came out of Rockford, Illinois, in 1974, a Midwestern rock & roll corrective to the self-seriousness of music at the time. ​​“People go to bars to pick up girls and dance,” bassist Tom Petersson recalled. “They didn’t want to hear Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.” Trick provided the ultimate Seventies teen anthem in “Surrender,” with a verse about a kid who catches his mom and dad getting stoned and making out to his Kiss records. Guitarist-songwriter Rick Nielsen’s secret? “I [had] to go back and put myself in the head of a 14-year-old.”


Thelma Houston, ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’

This emotive disco ballad, previously by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, became a barnburner for Motown star Houston. When she was nominated for a Best Female R&B Vocal Performance Grammy for it, she stayed home, having lost a previous time to Aretha Franklin. This time, Houston won. She later recalled: “You don’t want to feel like a fool when you win and people ask you years later, ‘Where were you?’ — ‘Oh, I was at home, scrubbing my kitchen floor.’”


Michael Jackson, ‘Rock With You’

“Rock With You” is at once a beginning and an end. Released in 1979, it’s the perfect swan song for the disco era — a seductive, love-filled romp with rich horns, staccato strings, slick guitar, and subtle synth work. It’s also the first collaborative effort between Jackson, songwriter Rod Temperton, and producer Quincy Jones, and with “Rock With You” as their foundation, this trio would soon redefine pop and make Jackson its king. Usher later said, “Songs like ‘Rock With You’ made me want to become a performer.”


Eurythmics, ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)’

“Sweet Dreams” was a deceptively catchy and seductive single from two former lovers. “The day Dave and I ended our romance, Eurythmics began,” Lennox told Rolling Stone. Their relationship had crumbled along with their previous band, the Tourists, and the creation of Eurythmics steered the two away from guitar-based New Wave and into the burgeoning synth-pop scene. But the tense sessions for “Sweet Dreams” nearly ended their musical partnership. “I was curled up in the fetal position,” Lennox said. “He programmed this rhythm. It sounded so good. In the end I couldn’t resist it.”


Ice Cube, ‘It Was a Good Day’

Ice Cube’s 1992 album, The Predator, was steeped in the turmoil of the L.A. riots. But for “It Was a Good Day,” he wanted to show a little optimism: “I remember thinking, ‘OK, there’s been the riots, people know I will deal with that. That’s a given. But I rap all this gangsta stuff; what about all the good days I had?’” Yet his day-in-the-life chronicle, which cruises along on a smooth Isley Brothers groove, is hardly carefree; even if Cube didn’t have to use his AK, the specter of violence and racism is always close at hand.


Jorge Ben, ‘Ponta de Lança Africano (Umbabarauma)’

When David Byrne put together an introductory compilation of Brazilian pop for American listeners in the late Eighties, he opened it with this track, and for good reason. Ben was a versatile artist with a hornlike vocal wail and slippery sense of rhythm who effortlessly fused bossa nova and samba with rock and funk. “Ponta de Lança Africano,” dedicated to an African soccer player, opens his fantastic 1976 album Africa Brazil; Ben works closely with his backup singers, who alternate between echoing the lead and providing sweet chirping accents, to pour fuel on the rhythm section’s fire. The result is a funky tour de force.