Saturday, August 27, 2011

Most Rockin' Rock and Roll Songs

I stumbled upon this interesting list of 15 songs today (link temporarily removed because it isn't working properly).  I like the idea of selecting the most rockin' songs as opposed to the best or greatest or most important.  It's a good criterion for putting songs head to head and making a choice about which one comes out on top.  You might think such a list could lack of diversity, but here's the list of the 15 artists on the list:

Iggy and the Stooges
Bo Diddley
Jimi Hendrix Experience
Screamin' Jay Hawkins
Howlin' Wolf
The Groundhogs
The Ramones
The Kinks
Little Richard
Sly and the Family Stone
Black Sabbath

Entertainingly the list, billed as the 15 Most Rockin'..., actually has 16 entries.  I think it might be like the Spinal Tap amp that goes to 11.  As the one obscure entry on the list, and a band I didn't know, I thought the Groundhogs might have been a current local band that the list author just happened to know and like, but the song is from 1966 and I have to say it does rock.

There's no hardcore on the list, so it doesn't include Minor Threat, Husker Du, Government Issue, Bad Brains, or Black Flag among other potential contenders.  On the classic rock end of the spectrum, it doesn't include Zeppelin, The Stones, or The Who.  As much as I love the Kinks, I don't think you can really include them at the expense of the others.

I thought the AC/DC choice was interesting, and I was pleased to find affirmation in this video of somebody's top 10 AC/DC songs, which does not include "It’s A Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock n Roll)".

The list had more proto-punk (MC5 and the Stooges) than punk (Ramones), and I think the Ramones "Blitzkrieg Bop", while a perfectly peppy punk rock classic, is not as rockin' as the most rockin' New York Dolls, Clash, Jam, Pere Ubu, or Dead Boys from roughly the same period.

On the early end of the time spectrum, I was glad one commenter mentioned Link Wray.  What could be more rockin' than an instrumental so menacing it was banned.

 I'm not sure what to think of the lack of metal on the list, apart from Sabbath and Motorhead.  I guess a real metal head would have made it an all-metal list, and I find few people who only have a passing interest in metal.  I still would have had to give Metallica and Judas Priest some consideration.

Lastly, I must consider the Beatles, because I always, always consider the Beatles.  The candidate Beatles songs for such a list are probably "Come Together", "I Want You (She's So Heavy)", and "Helter Skelter".  It's tempting to consider "Revolution" on the strength of the opening scream alone, but I am aware of the need to keep my Beatles-bias at least partially in check.

Then again, this is a list without Zeppelin, The Who, or The Stones.  I know I already said that, but I think you've got to figure out where they fit in before contemplating the Beatles.  Seriously, it's a very good list, but no Zeppelin.  I was feeling a lot better about the unusual inclusion of the Groundhogs before I began to stew about Zeppelin.  No Cream either.  You've got to think about Cream I think.  I'll stop now.  You could start though if you wanted.  This page is now open for comments.

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.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

A Searchable Database of the 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made

I've mentioned before that I'm a statistician.  As a result, I do a lot of SAS programming, and every so often I've presented a paper at one of SAS's conferences.  You may ask what in the world this has to do with a list of the 1001 greatest singles ever made.  Lex Jensen has created a fascinating home page with lots of information about two different areas.  One part of it is totally SAS focused.  There's a way to search for papers presented at any SAS conference.  I was able to track down my own papers more easily through this site than I possibly could have going through my own computer files.  He's also created a lot of cool links to music lists, especially one particular Dave Marsh list.

Among the many music references on my shelf, I do not have Dave Marsh's book on the 1001 greatest singles ever made.  Dave Marsh comes from a generation of music critics that overvalues 60s soul at the expense of rock music (and specifically at the expense of rock, as opposed to rock and roll).  That's fine.  There are plenty of others who place far too little value on 60s soul, but you have to accept that Marsh's rankings come with that bias.  Even among better known white artists, Bruce Springsteen manages to crack the top 25, while the Beatles do not, and I have to assume it's because Bruce does that soulful thing that Marsh digs better than the Beatles.

Anyway, back to Lex Jensen.  He's created a really neat searchable database of Dave Marsh's list, so I could quickly verify that there were 3 Beatles songs in the top 100, 3 Aretha Franklin songs in the top 100, and 3 Marvin Gaye songs in the top 100.  Dave Marsh also has a pretty heavy pro-American, anti-British bias.  The fact that Bob Seger has 4 songs on the list while The Jam have none makes that case reasonably well, but he does let The Clash in with 3 songs.  It's a really, really, big list.  I haven't digested it all yet, but that's what makes Lex's database so nice to have available.  Have some fun doing some searching on your own (for either music lists or SAS papers - it's so rare you have the choice, so use it wisely).

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Top Ten Beatles Songs

One of the many challenges I expect to face when I eventually get around to making a top 500 of the 60s is ranking Beatles songs.  It was challenging enough just having to size up the one new Beatles recording from the 70s against the rest of that decade.  I ended up placing Let It Be at number 5 for the decade in my best-of-the-70s list behind four punk era songs, but if I had had more than one Beatles album to choose from, it's tough to guess how they would have fared in head to head competition with the best that early punk had to offer.

As reported by CNN, Rolling Stone magazine took on the task last year of ranking the top 100 Beatles songs, and the CNN report lists the top 10.  Two George Harrison songs make the top 10, which I think is at least one too many.  I'm reasonably satisfied with "A Day in the Life" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand" at #1 and #2.  Apart from "Come Together" at #9, the rest of the list is overweighted with their quieter songs.  It seems bizarre to say, but I think the Beatles are really underappreciated as a rock band.  McCartney's ability to write phenomenal pop songs and Lennon's ability to think globally and act (write) introspectively, particularly in their later years, leads to lists like this one that are heavy on what I think of as Blue Album material and light on Red Album material.

The blue and red albums, a pair of double albums released by Capitol in 1973, were actually called "1962-1966" and "1967-1970" respectively.  When I was a kid, I owned the Blue Album and my best friend owned the Red Album, and I think I thought of myself as more of a Blue Album kind of guy up until at least the early 90s.  The early Beatles made a big resurgence in my personal music rankings in the mid to late 90s.  The CD set "Live at the BBC" and the movie Backbeat, both released in 1994, were major tipping points.  Joining a band around the same time also gave me a new appreciation of the effort required to be a good unit, as opposed to merely being a collection of creative individuals.  The early Beatles were the former and the later Beatles were the latter.

It's interesting that Rolling Stone notes that "A Day In the Life" was among the finest collaborations between Lennon and McCartney, while ranking it #1, yet little else on the list reflect their true collaborations because of the dominance of the later material.  The collaborations also get fewer spots because of the decision to give George Harrison two slots.  For those interested in who actually wrote what in the later years of The Beatles, Walter Everett's book The Beatles as Musicians is a nice reference.  The Beatles of the Blue Album were undoubtedly more sophisticated, and in many ways a lot more interesting, but at the end of the day when ranking songs, I think the Red Album Beatles got short shrift.

Early Beatles songs are currently coming out slightly better at Vinyl Surrender, but I Want to Hold Your Hand in inexplicably absent from the top 10 for the moment.  Sometime within the next year or so I'll make my best-of-the-sixties list, and we'll find out if I'm a hypocrite or not.