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:
Um, can we talk about this top ten songs of all time by Rolling Stone for a second? pic.twitter.com/591IICv0Ee
— John ‘pro-norms’ Ekdahl (@JohnEkdahl) September 17, 2021
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…