A slapdash ‘Top Ten (plus) Songs of All Time’ list

A Pre-Raphaelite take on “Greensleeves”…

Just to start a conversation…

I mean, a serious Top Ten Songs of all Time would take years to think through and put together, and even then I’d probably hesitate to publish it without lots of caveats, protesting my own ignorance and forgetfulness. How do you construct such a list and have confidence in it?

Think about it. I doubt that any of us would even be familiar with a tune dating back before, maybe, the 9th century (see my list below). And surely there was something catchy going on somewhere in the Roman Empire — not to mention the many thousands of years homo sapiens was kicking around before inventing writing. Some caveman might have had a great groove going on around the campfire (assuming fire had come along).

Because “all time” is a long time.

But even within my own lifetime, I’m sure that if I tried to do it, within five minutes after posting, I’d remember something I’d forgotten. And then I’d remember something else.

Nevertheless, I’ve been thinking about doing such a list for awhile, and I was reminded of that notion today when I saw this tweet, shared by our own Bryan Caskey:

Bryan had replied, “Rolling Stone Magazine is just trying to stay relevant and avoid relegation into the lower tier.” (I sort of wondered what he meant. What about that list made it “relevant?” And relevant to whom, in what context?)

In any case I jumped in, criticizing specifics: “Seems like they’re trying a bit too hard to ‘take care of TCB,’ to cite a painfully redundant phrase I heard somewhere. And ‘Like a Rolling Stone?’ I’m not sure that would even make a list of top ten songs by Dylan alone…”

I was overreacting a bit. That probably would make a Dylan Top Ten. But fourth best song of all time, by anybody? Come on…

Anyway, here’s the Rolling Stone list.

And now, my own slapdash effort. I’m just going to throw a bunch of songs out there, with some of them being representative of several other songs I might have chosen in the same category. And to save time, I’m not going to worry about paring it down to 10, much less my usual five, because that takes extra work. Note that these are all popular songs; I’m not trying to be all arty with you. (You may argue that Veni, veni, Emmanuel is sacred plainchant — or something like that; I’m no expert — but I will say it had to be really popular to last 12 centuries.)

Oh, and I’m not ranking them, just listing sorta, kinda chronologically. Here we go:

  • O Come. O Come, Emmanuel” — If you’d perused the charts back in the 9th century, you’d probably have known it as Veni, veni, Emmanuel. Definitely my favorite hit from before the Norman Conquest. And I guess it’s the oldest song I know — or the oldest that I know is that old. The Church plays this a lot during Advent — it’s sort of the Advent song. But they never quite play it enough for me.
  • Greensleeves” — Or, as it was known when published in 1580, “A Newe Northen Dittye of ye Ladye Greene Sleves.” As you probably know, Shakespeare mentioned it. I first heard the tune myself when I went to see “How the West Was Won” as a kid. Now, I usually hear it at Mass in the weeks after Advent ends, as “What Child Is This?” Whatever the lyrics, it’s an awesome tune. So congratulations, King Henry. This was your one chance to make the list, and you did it! (Just kidding.)
  • La Marseillaise” — This is the only national anthem on the list, I promise. I love our own, and “God Save the Queen,” and the Russians have a nice one. I can even say positive things about “Deutschland über alles” (or, as it is correctly called, the Deutschlandlied — but we don’t usually call it that because it’s a lousy song name). But I think the French take the prize in this, if in nothing else. If you doubt the song’s power, go watch “Casablanca” again.
  • Lorena” — There were a lot of hit songs during the Civil War, but of all those Ken Burns weaved so artfully into his TV series, I find this one most appealing. It predated the war, but during the fighting it was huge among both the blue and the gray. Here’s a version with words.
  • “I’ll Be Seeing You” — Same here. Written in 1938, but during the war, this one most powerfully captured the yearning of so many millions to be back with their loved ones. One of the most wistful songs ever.
  • Hard-Headed Woman” — Had to get in some Elvis P. This one was my fave when I was about 3 (the year it came out), and I’m just going to keep it there. It’s special because it represents a certain category in my mind, which is songs that really rock out, no holds barred. You could say the same about “Tutti-Frutti,” or maybe another Little Richard track such as “Good Golly Miss Molly.” Creedence made a solid entry in the class with “Traveling Band.” But this is my favorite. When I was a kid, I definitely had a favorite line. I used to go around saying, “You better keep your cotton-pickin’ fingers out my curly hair…” Oh, and if you like some Wanda Jackson, here you go.
  • Summer Wind” — I’m also making a special effort to get in some Sinatra, and to me, this one blows away all the others.
  • Yesterday” — OK, I’m being hard on the Beatles here, only allowing them one song. Especially hard on Lennon, since as even he admitted, he had nothing to do with this one. If you want to be kinder to John, you can substitute “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” or maybe “In My Life.” If I spent years working on this list, really did the homework and the sweating, I might end up with more than one Beatles song on the list, but this one will have to represent the rest.
  • Just Like a Woman” — My answer to Rolling Stone including “Like a Rolling Stone.” Yes, that’s very emblematic of him, but it’s easy to name a bunch of his works that are simply better songs, no doubt about it. And if you don’t think this is the best thing from “Blonde on Blonde,” I’ll allow you to substitute “Visions of Johanna.”
  • Soldier of Love” — This me pulling a real Barry (from High Fidelity) move, going with a pop song that’s sort of esoteric. I loved it when I heard the cover of it on “The Beatles on the BBC,” but I think I might have enjoyed the Pearl Jam cover even more. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever even heard the original, whoever did it. (Oops, found it.)
  • Mas Que Nada” — If you want to evoke the 1960s in the mind of someone who actually lived through them, you’ll play this perhaps even more readily than something by the Beatles or the Stones. That’s what Austin Powers did, and it worked. Coming from me, it also represents my love of samba music from that era. So you could also have chosen “One-Note Samba,” “Desafinado,” or the ultimate standby, “The Girl from Ipanema.” For that matter, just get Astrud Gilberto to sing anything, even if not samba, and I’ll be happy.
  • Green Shirt” — My official Elvis C. entry. Again, could have been any number of others, but we love this one down at the Quisling Clinic.
  • Hallelujah” — I’ve raved about this a number of times in the past, but I tell you — this Leonard Cohen masterpiece would probably make the Top Ten list even if I spent the rest of my life on it.
  • Creep” — Wanted to get in something good from the early ’90s — the very last gasp of rock music — and probably would have been happy with something from Weezer or Green Day, but for now this will do. The boys from Abingdon did a great job on this one. And if you’d like a fun cover, here ya go.
  • Hey Ya” — Here, I’m just being perverse by including one song from the Rolling Stone list. It was the only pick that I found at all original or thoughtful, and I’m sure Barry would say the same. So I’m throwing it in. It ain’t “Greensleeves,” but it’s catchy.

Yeah, that was 15. I just didn’t want to do the sweating necessary to get it down to 10. I look forward to seeing y’all’s lists. And remember, “all-time” doesn’t just mean, you know, when you were in high school…

56 thoughts on “A slapdash ‘Top Ten (plus) Songs of All Time’ list

  1. bud

    I’ll take a swing at this:

    Also sprach Zarathustra – Richard Strauss
    Happy Birthday – Mildred and Patty Hill
    Jingle Bells – James Pierpont
    Whatever Gets You Through the Night – John Lennon
    The Day Before You Came -ABBA
    Stars and Stripes Forever – John Philip Sousa
    Respect – Aretha Franklin
    I am the Walrus – Beatles
    As Time Goes By – Herman Hupfeld
    In the Mood – Glenn Miller
    Blue Danube Waltz – Johann Strauss II
    Oh What a Night – Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Oh, yeah — definitely.

      When I finished that list, my very first objection was, “The Band is missing!” And I slapped myself around a good bit over that.

      But of course it wasn’t about bands or any other particular performers (although I did make a point, I admit, of making sure Sinatra, Elvis, and Elvis C. were on it).

      I shouldn’t have tried to be clever including the Outkast song. Because quite a few songs by The Band are better, and this is one of them. Although Hey Ya was certainly inventive.

      This, of course, is the problem with any such list. It’s so easy to forget something obvious…

  2. Brad Warthen Post author

    Oh, something I should mention.

    Richard Thompson did a more careful, thoughtful version of this, although he was only trying to cover a single millennium. But still, it’s practically the same thing, since only one of my songs came before 1000,

    I don’t necessarily agree with all of his picks — I’m not a big fan of his music, and mainly know who he is because my brother really likes his stuff — but I respect the list.

    And I especially tip my hat to him for having the guts to included the Britney Spears song. Hey, a good song is a good song, right?

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I was also impressed by his inclusion of “Tempted,” which is a really great, but little-noticed, song.

      And I must also give a nod to his slightly esoteric Beatles choice, “It Won’t Be Long.”

      OK, “esoteric” is the wrong word, since nothing the Beatles ever put out on a record is obscure. But it’s not, say, “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” It’s not obvious.

      And of course Thompson was deliberately avoiding “obvious,” and being cool about his picks. As he said in The Guardian:

      Of course, “popular” is a tricky word. A truly popular selection might include the likes of Greensleeves, I Gave My Love a Cherry, anything from the Sound of Music – perhaps people in large numbers don’t always have the best taste. I preferred to concentrate on songs that were deserving but slightly too arcane to be in every household; the also-rans, the misfits, the hidden jewels.

  3. Guy

    10 better songs off of the top of my head:

    “Moonlight Mile”- The Rolling Stones
    “No Surprises”- Radiohead
    “At Least That’s What You Said”- Wilco
    “Descending”- The Black Crowes
    “Dirty Work”- Steely Dan
    “So. Central Rain”- R.E.M.
    “In Bloom”- Sturgill Simpson
    “Estranged”- Guns n Roses
    “Green Grass and High Tides”- The Outlaws
    “Fish On”- Primus

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      OK, first, I’ll confess I don’t know some of those songs. So you’ve pulled a Richard Thompson on me. But the ones I know are good.

      My one objection is that your “all time” doesn’t seem to go back any further than 1971.

      Now let me confess something silly about myself with regard to “Moonlight Mile”…

      First, it’s an awesome way to end what may be the Stones’ best album (and no, I’m not dissing “Exile on Main Street;” I’m just saying “Sticky Fingers” might be better).

      Second, the weird thing: Ever since it came out, and I played it on my turntable about a thousand times, I have associated that song with… wait for it… The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

      It would just make me feel exactly as though I was on the raft with Huck and Jim, drifting down the river and looking at the moon reflecting off the water. I suppose Huck would have been smoking his corncob pipe, hopefully downwind from me…

      Don’t know why, but it created that impression over and over…

      1. Guy

        Understood. My list was pondered for 3 minutes and a quick review of what I have been listening to from my phone. We can all agree that there are thousands of exceptional songs out there. I find pre ‘70’s “rock” to be a little schmaltzy for my tastes.

        Thanks for the post.

        1. bud

          Schmaltzy? A lot of 60’s tunes were too serious for my taste but schmaltzy is not an appropriate term to describe 60s counter culture and anti war music.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Well, that’s a good ‘un, but I tend to go with either Sticky Fingers or Exile on Main as number one, and No. 3 is an open question. I’m sort of partial to Tattoo You — as a change of pace from another era, or Let it Bleed. But you can’t always get what you want, right?

          Of course, I could just say, “Hot Rocks,” but that would be cheating…

  4. Brad Warthen Post author

    Looking at that Rolling Stone list again… “RESPECT?” The best song in history?

    Come ON! It was great, but was it even Aretha’s favorite song in history? Maybe it was, but I’d be surprised.

    In fact, I’m not sure it was the best rendition of the song itself. I mean, have you ever heard the original — by which I mean, Otis Redding’s?

    1. bud

      Linda Ronstadt once described her own voice as very inferior compared to Aretha Franklin’s. I disagree with that assessment. Yet it’s important to give great weight to Ronstadt’s opinion regarding a singer’s voice skill. The Aretha Franklin version of Respect is an extraordinary example of a truly magnificent vocal performance. As such it is a worthy choice for best song ever.

  5. Barry

    Never forget, you can get a lawyer to say anything- ANYTHING

    This is the six-point plan advanced by Trump lawyer John Eastman for VP Pence to overturn the election on January 6th.


    1. VP Pence, presiding over the joint session (or Senate Pro Tempore Grassley, if Pence recuses himself), begins to open and count the ballots, starting with Alabama (without conceding that the procedure, specified by the Electoral Count Act, of going through the States alphabetically is required).

    2. When he gets to Arizona, he announces that he has multiple slates of electors, and so is going to defer decision on that until finishing the other States. This would be the first break with the procedure set out in the Act.

    3. At the end, he announces that because of the ongoing disputes in the 7 States, there are no electors that can be deemed validly appointed in those States. That means the total number of “electors appointed” – the language of the 12th Amendment — is 454. This reading of the 12th Amendment has also been advanced by Harvard Law Professor Laurence Tribe (here). A “majority of the electors appointed” would therefore be 228. There are at this point 232 votes for Trump, 222 votes for Biden. Pence then gavels President Trump as re-elected.

    4. Howls, of course, from the Democrats, who now claim, contrary to Tribe’s prior position, that 270 is required. So Pence says, fine. Pursuant to the 12th Amendment, no candidate has achieved the necessary majority. That sends the matter to the House, where the “the votes shall be taken by states, the representation from each state having one vote . . . .” Republicans currently control 26 of the state delegations, the bare majority needed to win that vote. President Trump is re-elected there as well.

    5. One last piece. Assuming the Electoral Count Act process is followed and, upon getting the objections to the Arizona slates, the two houses break into their separate chambers, we should not allow the Electoral Count Act constraint on debate to control. That would mean that a prior legislature was determining the rules of the present one — a constitutional no-no (as Tribe has forcefully argued). So someone – Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, etc. – should demand normal rules (which includes the filibuster). That creates a stalemate that would give the state legislatures more time to weigh in to formally support the alternate slate of electors, if they had not already done so.

    6. The main thing here is that Pence should do this without asking for permission – either from a vote of the joint session or from the Court. Let the other side challenge his actions in court, where Tribe (who in 2001 conceded the President of the Senate might be in charge of counting the votes) and others who would press a lawsuit would have their past position — that these are non-justiciable political questions – thrown back at them, to get the lawsuit dismissed. The fact is that the Constitution assigns this power to the Vice President as the ultimate arbiter. We should take all of our actions with that in mind.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Barry, allow me to suggest a slight change on your statement. You say, “you can get a lawyer to say anything.”

      I think you mean, “you can FIND a lawyer to say anything.” You can’t just get ANY attorney to take ANY position.

      Not unless it’s something like a matter of defending someone everyone is sure is guilty — simply because every person has a right to representation. And that is a matter of principle. And lawyers defending the guilty aren’t always saying the person is innocent — they’re just trying to provide the best defense they can, which is often a matter of seeing that the conviction is on a lesser charge.

      Of course, if you’re Trump, you’re going to look until you find a lawyer who will take your position, however crazy it is. So what you look for is someone who is technically a lawyer, but shouldn’t be. Someone like Rudy, for instance…

      1. Barry

        Fair enough.

        But, I did have to really think about it because it often seems like that’s a distinction without a difference.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Actually, it’s a pretty big difference — between there being NO attorneys with any principles or belief in the law, and there being somewhere a lawyer who will argue whatever position you have….

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          After all, everyone knows I always go home with the waitress…

          Yep, another awesome one. Perhaps his best, although I’m also partial to “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.”

          Talkin’ about the man…

          1. Bob Amundson

            Seems the good, they die young. Discovered “Can” today; from Wikipedia: “Can (stylised as CAN) was a German experimental rock band formed in Cologne in 1968 by the core quartet of Holger Czukay (bass, tape editing), Irmin Schmidt (keyboards), Michael Karoli (guitar), and Jaki Liebezeit (drums). The group cycled through several vocalists, most prominently the American-born Malcolm Mooney (1968–70) and the Japanese-born Damo Suzuki (1970–73), as well as various temporary members. Coming from backgrounds in the avant-garde and jazz, the members of Can blended elements of psychedelic rock, funk, and noise on influential albums such as Tago Mago (1971), Ege Bamyasi (1972) and Future Days (1973). Can also had occasional commercial success, with singles such as “Spoon” and “I Want More” reaching national singles charts. They have been widely hailed as pioneers of the German krautrock scene, and a considerable influence on subsequent rock, post-punk, ambient, and electronic music.

            Like Kraftwerk:
            [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rPgaz3Re0ik&w=560&h=315%5D

            1. Ken

              Others from the same time:
              Neu!, Amon Duul and Cluster.
              But none of them reaches the level of Tangerine Dream — at least during their “classic” period from 1971 to 1979. After that, they, like Kraftwerk, turned to more superficial schlock.
              A few, like Brian Eno and Klaus Schulze, are still out there, though.

              1. Bob Amundson

                Thanks for the info on Neu!, Amon Duul and Cluster; morning workout music!

                Tangerine Dream – Nektar – Teutonic Rock?

    2. Bart

      Just wondering. What the hell does this have to do with a list of most popular songs? Is it possible for once to simply stay on the subject of the post and not deviate into freaking politics? An attorney’s outline to Pence on how to change the election outcome that was never followed up on may be one of the most popular songs in your repetoire if it had ever been made into a song but I do not recall it ever being set to music and played on MTV or any other outlet featuring musical talent.

      1. Barry

        It goes without saying it’s not my blog but I thought it was too important an issue to not address – at least compared to a “popular songs” post.

        For others – The attorney wasn’t just some attorney. He’s a very respected lawyer amongst conservatives, a big player in The Federalist Society which a number of conservative supreme court justices belong to, and key player in the conservative legal world.

        He’s also the same guy who cast doubt that Kamala Harris was eligible to be Vice President.

      2. Barry

        Brad isn’t going to allow my reasoned comment so I’ll just say it had nothing to do with popular songs.

        I wasn’t interested in such so I posted a current events topic that was big news yesterday as there was no other place to post it.

          1. Barry

            Hey, I apologize. On my screen it disappeared. On the old blog I could see my post before it was cleared but maybe that’s a new change. My fault.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Well, OK, although I almost protested, thinking that was Cat Stevens, or Seals & Crofts.

      But then I realized it wasn’t, so that’s fine… 🙂

      Seriously, I’m glad it gives you joy.

      My wife and I don’t so much have a song as we have a book. We met at a party — a party I attended through coincidental circumstances — when I was reading On the Road. Turned out she was reading a biography of Kerouac at the same time. So we got to talking about Dean Moriarty and the Beat Movement and so forth, and the rest is legend.

      Yeah, I know — for our generation, that’s sort of a cliché, right? That’s OK. I like it…

  6. Bill

    Down the street, the dogs are barkin’
    And the day is gettin’ dark
    As the night comes in a-fallin’
    The dogs, they’ll lose their bark
    An’ the silent night will shatter
    From the sounds inside my mind
    As I’m one too many mornings
    And a thousand miles behind
    From the crossroads of my doorstep
    My eyes begin to fade
    And I turn my head back to the room
    Where my love and I have laid
    An’ I gaze back to the street
    The sidewalks and the sign
    Never know I’m one too many mornings
    An’ a thousand miles behind
    It’s a restless hungry feeling
    And it don’t mean no one no good
    When ev’rything that I’m sayin’
    You can say it just as good
    You’re right from your side
    And I’m right from mine
    We’re both just one too many mornings
    An’ a thousand miles behind
    I know right, I’ll behave
    If you’ve got right to stay
    Or tell about the one too many mornings
    And a thousand miles behind

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