Home Music A look at the new Rolling Stone 500 all-time songs list

A look at the new Rolling Stone 500 all-time songs list

by Guillaume Laberge September 28, 2021
A look at the new Rolling Stone 500 all-time songs list

It’s only natural that such an opinionated topic can divide a large portion of music fans

Rolling Stone just released their list of the top 500 greatest songs of all time, creating a polarizing conversation in the music community. They sought help from over 250 people coming from every corner of the industry — artists, producers, musicians, critics, writers and journalists all pitched in for the 2021 edition. The list of people who contributed spans from Megan Thee Stallion to Joey Santiago from Pixies, to people working for Spotify, Rolling Loud and even RCA Records. Contributors were asked to submit a ranked list of their top 50 songs of all time. Nearly 4000 songs were mentioned and they then cumulated the results.

An inaugural version of the top 500 list came out in 2004, which was compiled by a variety of figures across the industry. Unfortunately, the list had many issues. The first and most obvious flaw is that the list contains next to no variety: 40.8 per cent of the 500 songs, which equals 203 tunes, are from the 1960s alone. The 1970s also have a lot of entries on the list with 142 songs, (28.2 per cent) of the list. The list is basically telling listeners that for the hundreds of years that music has been around, 69 per cent of the 500 greatest songs of all time have been created in a 20-year time span. As great as the ‘60s and ‘70s were for music, this is a highly controversial take.

In addition to lacking different eras of music, the 2004 list is also deprived of breadth in the genres and languages it presents. The list is mainly composed of early rock and soul songs with not a lot of other genres. It does make sense that these are favoured the most by the list since it is dominated by the ‘60s and ‘70s, an era where rock and soul were at their peak. The vast majority of tracks on the list are English songs, with only a few exceptions such as “La Bamba,” by Ritchie Valens, which is sung in parts English and Spanish and “Barrio Fino,” by Daddy Yankee, which is sung solely in Spanish. Songs in English are widely more popular in North America and in the U.K., where Rolling Stone is mostly based, but to not have a single song in another language is problematic. All-time classic songs like “La Vie en rose,” by Édith Piaf, which is sung in French, could have easily been worthy of being on the list.

The latest 2021 edition of the list addressed most of these problems by incorporating a wide range of musiciality. This saw every major genre being at least represented, and significantly more songs being featured coming from artists all over the world. With its latest version, the list isn’t afraid of incorporating songs that are incredibly contemporary — putting them next to all-time great songs from decades past. Tracks like “Old Town Road,” by Lil Nas X (#490) or “Dynamite,” by BTS (#346) that had tremendous success in the past two years both appear on the list. The highest charting song of 2020 on the list is “Safaera,” by Latin superstar Bad Bunny, which occupies the 329th spot.


The top 10: 


  1. “Hey Ya!” by Outkast, released in 2003


  1. “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac, released in 1977


  1. “Get Ur Freak On” by Missy Elliott, released in 2001


  1. “Strawberry Fields Forever” by The Beatles, released in 1967


  1. “What’s Going On’” by Marvin Gaye, released in 1971


  1. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana, released in 1991


  1. “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan, released in 1965


  1. “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke, released in 1964


  1. “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy, released in 1989


  1. “Respect” by Aretha Franklin, released in 1967


The top ten is pretty solid in its own right. “Respect,” by Aretha Franklin at #1 is a safe and great pick, and every song on this list has had a lasting impact on music. The only song that feels out of place here is Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On,” which is a great track, but should be nowhere near the top 50. ”Imagine,” by John Lennon (#19) or “A Day in the Life,” by The Beatles (#24) could have easily replaced this for a spot in the top 10, but regardless, it could have been way worse.

As you would expect from such a subjective list, people complained about the placement of certain songs — for instance, the article on the Rolling Stone’s website has amassed over 1900 comments. While the value of a song is in the eye of the beholder, this list cannot be perfect. Some songs are deemed way too low, others are placed way too high. Some placements make sense, others are truly outrageous. Are we really living in a world where Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” is the 20th best song of all time? Where “Royals,” by Lorde (#30) is one spot higher than The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,”? Where “All Too Well,” by Taylor Swift (#69) is ranked a spot higher than “Suspicious Minds,” by Elvis Presley and three spots higher than “Yesterday,” by The Beatles? Absolutely not.

Putting “Hotel California,” by The Eagles at #311, “Wish You Were Here,” by Pink Floyd at #302, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” by The Beach Boys at #297 and “River” by Joni Mitchell at #247 should be considered a crime.

With all this being said, while the new list has its flaws, it is exponentially better than the 2004 list by being far more versatile in every aspect — with songs from every era, a greater variety of genres, and by also incorporating tracks in other languages. While some people have problems with the idea of a list like this, I personally find it extremely entertaining that some of music’s brightest people can put together such a list for casual and devoted music fans alike to debate and have a discourse over. Yes, some placements were not great, but overall, the list is not as bad as people make it seem and it arguably contains the 500 greatest songs of all time.


Graphic by James Fay

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