I have been self-employed at list-making for over a decade now. It’s something I think I’ll always enjoy. The endless pursuit of a definitive appreciation for greatness is very appealing to me. Yet I’ve come to understand more and more just how endless the pursuit is. And so, this week I have completed my third list of the top songs of the 20th century. It will be the last, because beyond everything else, I now realize just how much more futile this list is than anything else I’ve attempted (besides, we’re already well into the next century). A list for the 19th century would be much, much easier — if people had been interested in such things back then. But popular music exploded in so many directions in the 20th century that any list of a mere 100 songs will leave a great deal out.
This has not daunted me. However destined I am to produce anger and befuddlement, I press on. The reason for this third installment is, simply, dissatisfaction with the second, although I’m still mostly happy with it. Two things made it insufficient: 1) the presence of a couple songs that didn’t feel like they belonged, and 2) the sources I used to compile it. Like this one, the second list was an aggregate of several official lists (with two ways of looking at the result: either it represents the actual opinions of precisely no one, or it is a mere listing of those songs that nearly everyone likes). As my understanding, not only of music itself, but also of music criticism has deepened, I believe that I have now sought out better sources, although a few are the same. They include: “Songs of the Century,” compiled by the RIAA and NEA; Rolling Stone Magazine’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”; NPR’s “100 Most Important Musical Works of the 20th Century”; Mojo Magazine’s “100 Greatest Songs of All Time”; DigitalDreamDoor.com’s “100 Greatest Jazz Vocal Standards”; Blender Magazine’s “500 Greatest Songs Since You Were Born”; and AFI’s “100 Years…100 Songs.” Only songs that appear on more than one list made the cut, and they were assigned points based on their position on the lists and the weight I chose to give to each list. Still arbitrary, perhaps, but it has pretensions of being nearly scientific. As for my first problem with the previous list, the songs I didn’t feel right about have been banished, although naturally they took some great songs with them.
So, enjoy. I plan to unfurl the list over ten days. My greatest hope is that this will spark discussion and appreciation. I am well aware that many great songs are omitted, and quite a few great artists are completely snubbed. The bell curve peaks mid-century, the 50s and 60s, when rock music came of age. If rock fares better than jazz, the other great movement of the century, that may be because so many great jazz works are purely instrumental, which disqualifies them from this particular list. In fact, some of the jazz songs on the list are well-known for instrumental versions; but lyrics were written for them, so here they are. That’s enough from me. I’m no music critic, so the words that follow are strictly the thoughts of professionals.
[note: as often as possible, the performances singled out are definitive. Sometimes I will point out two of the most famous performances. The years given are when the song was first published, not necessarily the year of the definitive performance]
100. “1999” Written and Performed by Prince (1982)
“[Prince] was pushing the question of mortality straight into an apocalyptic realm… The notion in ‘1999’ of turning the Rapture into an excuse to boogie down (check out the exquisitely climactic final few minutes, when Prince’s familiar sequenced drum patterns go haywire, sounding like a rolling torrent of artillery fire) is like the proverbial itch one can’t scratch.” –Eric Henderson, SlantMagazine.com
99. “Ring of Fire” Written by June Carter and Merle Kilgore, Performed by Johnny Cash (1963)
“Carter wrote this song while driving around aimlessly one night, worried about Cash’s wildman 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, and his marriage to June four years later helped save his life.” –Rolling Stone, “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”
98. “Maggie May” Written by Rod Stewart and Martin Quittenton, Performed by Rod Stewart (1971)
“Draped in glittering, ornate acoustic guitars and mandolins, it was a wonderful blend of epic simplicity, self-deprecating humor and emotional truth, wistful melodies, and rocking rhythms. Stewart’s tale may or may not have been autobiographical, but it didn’t really matter. What mattered is that every fiber of it felt as if it was true… It’s like a novella condensed into song, teeming with colorful characters, surprising situations, and unforgettable moments.” –Stephen Thomas Erlewine, AllMusic.com
97. “Born in the U.S.A.” Written and Performed by Bruce Springsteen (1984)
“‘Born in the USA’, the title track of the Boss’ mega-selling 1984 album, was much misunderstood. Accused at the same time of being repulsively nationalistic, and viciously Anti-American, the track was endorsed by conservative US politicians as an exemplar of ‘classic American values’ whilst the bitter lyrics actually tell the story of a disaffected Vietnam veteran, chewed up and spat out by his own country.” –P.J. Lucas, BBC Music
96. “The Twist” Written by Hank Ballard, Performed by Chubby Checker (1959)
“‘The Twist’ began as a B side for Ballard and the Midnighters in 1958. But in 1960, former chicken plucker Checker covered it at Dick Clark’s suggestion. ‘Going crazy is what I was looking for — where the music is so good you lose control,’ Checker said. ‘”The Twist” did that.'” –Rolling Stone, “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”
95. “I Got You (I Feel Good)” Written and Performed by James Brown (1965)
“‘I Got You (I Feel Good)’ was a career-making track and an explosive display of Brown’s new funk prowess. Brown’s vivacious charisma and long-held interest in funk came through unfettered: the brassy instrumentation followed genre style by falling ‘on the one’ (i.e. heavily emphasizing the first beat of the measure), and the song charted as one of Brown’s first two Top 10 pop singles (with ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag’).” –Stacey Anderson, Rolling Stone
94. “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” Written by Irving Berlin, Performed by Arthur Collins / Bessie Smith (1911)
“Variety magazine called ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band,’ written by Irving Berlin at the age of 23, ‘the musical sensation of the decade.’ Another source, preserved in Berlin’s own scrapbook, declared it a ‘public menace.’ While Berlin’s daughter, Mary Ellin, calls it ‘The theme song of a generation.’… A true phenomenon, it sold a million and a half copies of sheet music in its first year and a half. It was so popular that it was played on the Titanic.’ –Susan Stamberg, NPR Music
93. “Bo Diddley” Written and Performed by Bo Diddley (1955)
“The song that launched the career of one of America’s most singular guitarists was originally called ‘Uncle John.’ Sporting some fairly raunchy lyrics, the tune was turned down in its originally R-rated lyrics form by Chess Records chief Leonard Chess before being rewritten by Ellas McDaniels [Diddley] for a second go-round… Bo Diddley’s simple beat has ended up becoming one of the most plagiarized rhythms in the history of 20th century popular music.” –Cub Koda, AllMusic.com
92. “Let It Be” Written by Paul McCartney, Performed by the Beatles (1970)
“Inspired by the church-born soul of Aretha Franklin, an anxious Paul McCartney started writing ‘Let It Be’ in 1968, during the contentious sessions for the White Album. His opening lines were based on a dream in which his own late mother, Mary, offered solace during a tumultuous time for both the band and the culture, assuring him that everything would turn out fine… ‘Let It Be’ effectively became an elegy for the band that had defined the Sixties.” –Rolling Stone, “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”
91. “What’d I Say” Written and Performed by Ray Charles (1959)
“‘What’d I Say’ was a monster with footprints bigger than its numbers. Daringly different, wildly sexy, and fabulously danceable, the record riveted listeners. When ‘What’d I Say’ came on the radio, some turned it off in disgust, but millions turned the volume up to blasting and sang ‘Unnnh, unnnh, oooooh, oooooh’ along with Ray and the Raelets. [It] became the life of a million parties, the spark of as many romances, and a song to date the Summer by.” –Michael Lydon, Ray Charles: Man and Music
I was in the Army in 1971 when Maggie Mae was on every other song. The idea of being away from my girlfriend (later my wife, now of 37 years) and being in the Army when I really “should have been back to school” was very real. Every time I hear it today I think of a barracks, being lonely, and remembering how I missed her.