40 Great Songs

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40 Great Songs

Any attempt to create a list of the “40 Greatest” songs is a dicey project, at best. Putting aside the whole idea of subjectivity, there is an array of factors to consider. First, there is the generally accepted list of great songs as propagated by the media, specifically Classic Rock radio and publications like Rolling Stone magazine. Certain songs have been anointed the status of “great“, and the public has generally accepted this as gospel. The only problem with any such list, however it is created, is what I’ll call “The Lowest Common Denominator Factor”: A consensus is formed, and whatever the most people seemed to find most palatable become the “Greatest” songs.

A consensus opinion is, perhaps, the best way to avoid the pitfalls of subjectivity, but there is a downside to a list achieved via public consensus: The familiarity factor. Songs which achieve the level of renown to be selected as “Great” by a large faction of people, by the very nature of their selection, must be very familiar to listeners. The list itself is bound to seem mundane, because anyone reading the list could probably have come to many of the same conclusions. In addition, songs that might be recognized as “great” by a lesser percentage of people, by the very nature of the consensus format will be overlooked. Might songs that take a more discerning ear to appreciate be “greater” than those recognized by the majority?

Other questions arise: Are these anointed songs really so great? Or are they just the songs that have been forced down our throats by the mass-media, in a sense, telling us what is great and what isn’t? Are there more obscure tracks that are actually “greater” than these familiar tracks? Are there other artists, who are less well know, who have “better” songs?

What about the songs we’ve never heard? I have more than 10,000 songs in my I-Pod, and I’ve heard many more songs that haven’t made there way into my collection, but are there great songs that I’ve never heard? I’m sure there are, but they can’t be included on my list. An individual’s list, by its very nature, must be somewhat incomplete.

And how many songs can an individual digest in a lifetime? I’m 39 years old, and I feel like I have a good grasp of the songs in my collection. If I had properly applied myself, I probably could have digested a lot more music in my life. How many songs is it possible to really know and appreciate? 20,000? 30,000? Probably not too many more than that. So, any attempt to be all encompassing must, by very necessity, look to others to find starting points for the listener.

So, what of my list? It is subjective, because I’m creating it on my own, from my own music collection, based on my own tastes. I have not taken a poll to complete my list. Also, this list is from this moment in time, given my current level of music appreciation. Any such list must be constantly in flux, as my musical tastes change, refine, regress, and develop. Years ago, I might have thought “Stairway to Heaven” was a great song, and perhaps it still is, but these days, if I’m going to listen to any Led Zeppelin album, it’s probably going to be Presence. Does this mean that the songs on Presence are better than “Stairway to Heaven”? Probably not, but I’m not quite so familiar with the songs on Presence, and I’m just developing an appreciation for this more obscure album, where as, I could probably go my whole life and never need to hear “Stairway” again. This returns to the idea of familiarity breeding contempt for a song, and makes me ask the question, should a great song be able to survive over-familiarity?

Can a song be truly great if, after repeated listenings, one becomes bored with it? Or should a great song transcend repeated listening? Or, are we, as listeners, doomed to become bored or tired of hearing great music? And, just as the older, more-familiar songs, might be discriminated against, also newer songs won’t make the list for fear they won’t stand the test of time, or are merely “catchy” and not truly “great“.

I’ve opted to let obscurity trump familiarity whenever possible on my list. Here’s a couple of reasons why: First, to create a list of the familiar, would simply be recreating the lists which have already been created by people like Rolling Stone, and my list would be a product of all the mass-media brain-washing (for lack of a better word) that I’ve been subjected to my whole life. Second, I hope to create a unique list, high-lighting my musical tastes. Just because the world has decided that “Like a Rolling Stone” is the greatest Bob Dylan song, perhaps, I might think some other Dylan song is actually the “greatest” (subjectively, of course).

Finally, and I think most importantly, what purpose do these lists serve? Some people take these lists very seriously and feel betrayed if certain songs are slighted in favor of others. I remember following comments online after Rolling Stone published their top 500 songs and albums in 2004. There was a lot of anger and indignation at the inclusion and exclusion of various titles. For me, however, the purpose of these lists, or what I take from them, is to be introduced to new artists and new music that I have not heard, but other people think are great. I like to approach music I haven’t heard with the mindset that if someone thinks it’s great, then there must be something there worth hearing. After that, you can argue all day about what should and should not be included, and everyone can have their say, and no one is right or wrong because, in the end, it’s all just a matter of opinion.

Creating a more unique list leaves one open to accusations of snobbery. Can an unreleased Dylan song from disc 3 of The Bootleg Series really be better than one of his hit songs? Are songs by Wire better than those by the Sex Pistols, just because not as many people have heard the Wire songs? My only answer is that these are the songs that I like to listen to right now. So, those are the biases in my list: What I like right now. What I haven’t grown tired of. What the listening public hasn’t heard time and again.

And what of diversity in such a short list? Does a list of 40 songs need to contain representatives from a wide array of styles within the rock ‘n’ roll genre? What about other genres? Can one have a list of great songs without any Jazz or Blues?

All that being said, perhaps the best name for this list is simply “40 Great Songs”.

I’ve limited myself to one song per artist, in order to cut as wide a swath as possible.

So, without further ado, The List:

1) “The Magnificent Seven” by The Clash (from Sandanista)
2) “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” by The Fairport Convention (from Unhalfbricking)
3) “Going to Acapulco” by Bob Dylan & The Band (from The Basement Tapes)
4) “Funny How Time Slips Away” by Al Green (from Call Me)
5) “Old Landmark” by Aretha Franklin (from Amazing Grace)
6) “Driver 8” by R.E.M. (from Fables of the Reconstruction)
7) “Angry Inch” by Hedwig & The Angry Inch (from Hedwig & the Angry Inch Soundtrack)
8) “What Goes On” by The Velvet Underground (from 1969: The Velvet Underground Live)
9) “Ballerina” by Van Morrison (from Astral Weeks)
10) “Bring on the Night” by The Police (from Reggatta de Blanc)
11) “Bowite” by OutKast (from Speakerboxxx)
12) “I’d Rather Go Blind” by Etta James (from Tell Mama)
13) “Trouble Every Day” by The Mothers of Invention (from Freak Out!)
14) “Funkentelchy” by Parliament (from Funkentelchy vs. The Placebo Syndrome)
15) “Shake for Me” by Howlin’ Wolf (from Howlin’ Wolf)
16) “Lust For Life” by Iggy Pop (from Lust for Life)
17) “Ex Lion Tamer” by Wire (from Pink Flag)
18) “Direct Me” by Otis Redding (from Love Man)
19) “Oh Well” by Fleetwood Mac (from Then Play On)
20) “Eye Know” by De La Soul (from 3 Feet High and Rising)
21) “Beercan” by Beck (from Mellow Gold)
22) “Surfin’ Bird” by The Trashmen (from Surfin’ Bird)
23) “Excursions” by A Tribe Called Quest (from The Low End Theory)
24) “Funky Kingston” by Toots & The Maytals (from Funky Kingston)
25) “Buzzin’ Fly” by Tim Buckley (from Happy Sad)
26) “Found a Job” by The Talking Heads (from More Songs About Buildings and Food)
27) “See No Evil” by Television (from Marquee Moon)
28) “Where Did Our Love Go” by The Supremes (from Where Did Our Love Go)
29) “The Modern Age” by The Strokes (from Is This It)
30) “Cindy C.” by Prince (from The Black Album)
31) “Roadrunner” by The Modern Lovers (from The Modern Lovers)
32) “Gin House Blues” by Nina Simone (from Forbidden Fruit)
33) “Bhindi Bhagee” by Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros (from Global A Go-Go)
34) “Rocks Off” by The Rolling Stones (from Exile On Main St.)
35) “Shake It, Baby” by John Lee Hooker (from The Ultimate Collection)
36) “Let Me Hear It From You” by Sly & The Family Stone (from A Whole New Thing)
37) “The Bogus Man” by Roxy Music (from For Your Pleasure)
38) “Loretta Blues” by Lightin’ Hopkins (from The Gold Star Sessions)
39) “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” by Richard Thompson (from Rumor & Sigh)
40) “Discovering Japan” by Graham Parker & The Rumor (from Squeezing Out Sparks)

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