Sunday, August 21, 2011

How Not to Make a Top Ten List: Brian Wilson in His Own Room

The Rolling Stone Magazine special issue with the 500 greatest songs of all time includes top 10 lists from a number of individuals.  One of those is Brian Wilson (from the Beach Boys, not the SF Giant's blackbearded closer).  Here's his top 10:

1) The Ronettes - Be My Baby ('63)
2) The Righteous Brothers - You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' ('64)
3) The Ronettes - Walking in the Rain ('64)
4) The Crystals - Da Doo Ron Ron ('63)
5) Ike and Tina Turner - River Deep, Mountain High ('66)
6) The Beatles - She's Leaving Home ('67)
7) The Beach Boys - California Girls ('65)
8) The Beach Boys - Good Vibrations ('67)
9) The Beach Boys - I Get Around ('64)
10) The Beach Boys - Surfer Girl ('63)

There isn't a Kanye West list in the issue, but one imagines that even Kanye might have resisted including 4 of his own songs in the top 10.  Then again, maybe not.  It would be a healthy competition for a future issue.  Of the 6 non-Beach Boys songs on the list, 2 are from one artist and five of the six were produced by Phil Spector, so we're left with a top 10 list with 5 total artists or just 3 total artists depending on how much you consider Phil Spector the actual artist for the songs he produced.

The magazine doesn't list the dates, so I looked them all up to confirm my suspicion that the list only covers a five year span.  There's a strong case to be made that the quality of pop/rock songwriting and recording peaked in the mid 60s.  Almost 40% (195 out of 500) of the magazine's 500 greatest songs are from the 60s compared to only 55 from the 1980s and 21 from the 1990s.  I wonder though if these are really the greatest songs or simply the songs that most of us know.  The divergence of pop culture into niche markets, even the current cult of Brian-Wilson-worshipping indie bands, makes it hard to for any song to achieve "greatness" on the scale of the 60s classics.  The songs and recordings may be extraordinarily good, but "great" has a certain weight to it.

Brian Wilson clearly carries his own heavy weights and probably doesn't manage the load all that well.  I feel a bit like a playground bully, therefore, critiquing his list making.  It's nearly as unfair as it would be if he critiqued my songwriting.  Of course, I needn't worry about that since he apparently quit listening to music when I was still a toddler.


  1. I used to reject the idea that the Baby Boomers created the greatest music the same way I reject that they created the greatest baseball players, social policies, consumer products, etc. If you control the terms of the debate, as Rolling Stone clearly does, then the outcome will always be rigged.

    I do think that 21-25 year olds tend to make the best music at any given time point. The years when this age group represented the largest percentage of the population was around 1968-72, a bit later than the years usually credited as the greatest.

  2. I think Brian Wilson was drawing from the short window of time during which he was completely lucid.