This week, Rolling Stone magazine released another debate-triggering list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.
The last time the longtime publication made such a list was in 2004, with a very minor update in 2010.
Back then, the top lists either mirrored the magazine’s history or were coincidentally nepotistic, depending on how you looked at it.
At number one was one of the songs which the magazine was named – Like A Rolling Stone by Bob Dylan – and number two was Satisfaction, by a band which took its name after the other song which the magazine has. been named, The Rolling Stones.
At number three was John Lennon’s Imagine, and Lennon was just the first person to be photographed on the cover of Rolling Stone.
The latest version of the top 500 is very different, with the top three bands all being African-American, all singing songs of respect, revolution and rights.
Respect for Aretha Franklin is in first place, Fight The Power of Public Enemy is second and A Change Is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke, third.
What is happening?
Much has happened in the music industry in the 17 years since the previous listing in 2004.
Besides the rise of streaming, the industry has struggled with pressure for increased diversity.
The great “awakening” of the last few years, whether you consider it good or bad, is reflected in the new list.
More than half of the new list is made up of new entries and around 100 of these are signed or highlighted by women.
Over 100 are or highlight people of color.
It sparked predictable criticism on social media, with some accusing Rolling Stone of “signaling virtue” and “bowing to enlightenment.”
However, the charges ignore how the list is compiled.
In 2004, around 170 musicians, industry figures and music journalists voted on their favorites to make the 500 list.
Today, the voters number 250, with a greater effort being made to have more diversity among them.
It stands to reason that a more racially and gender diverse band will vote for a songlist that is as well.
As a result, the vote is a reflection of our time, seen through the prism of the 250 voters.
But what does this new list say about where we – or more precisely, the American music industry – are?
The first three precedents were an uplifting tale of the need for humility (Like A Rolling Stone), a hymn to adolescent boredom (Satisfaction), and a plaintive plea for unity (Imagine).
In the 2021 list, the top three are a demand for respect (Respect), a battle cry for revolution (Fight The Power), and a hopeful plea for civil rights (A Change Is Gonna Come) – all by black artists.
The comparative tone of the new top three is more shrill and the messages are arguably more meaningful and powerful.
Away from social messaging, the roster has been sonically updated, with old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm ‘n’ blues from key three decades, leaving plenty of room for a new wave of hip-hop, pop and other genres spanning five decades.
Of the songs dropped from the 2004 list, over 220 are from the 50s, 60s, and 70s – roughly the same number were added between the 70s and 2010.
The song stays the same
Can a cover be the greatest song of all time? This is one of the discussions that stands out from this list.
Respect was written and published by Otis Redding two years before Aretha Franklin significantly rearranged it and made it her flagship song.
The roster has had a weird relationship with covers as well, and that doesn’t count having a number one cover.
In 2004, Jeff Buckley’s version of Hallelujah was at 259 – this year it is nowhere to be found, while Leonard Cohen’s previously unlisted original is at 74.
The 2021 roster also includes two versions of Killing Me Softly With His Song (Roberta Flack and Fugees), two versions of Mr Tambourine Man (Bob Dylan and The Byrds) and two versions of Walk On By (Dionne Warwick and Isaac Hayes).
Elvis Presley was number 19 in 2004 with Hound Dog, who failed to qualify in 2021.
Instead, Big Mama Thornton’s version of three years earlier is listed at number 318.
Elvis is missing Blue Suede Shoes yet again – in the 2004 roster, Presley and Carl Perkins’ versions of this song were in the 500, but none appear in 2021.
I’m a loser, baby …
In fact, Elvis is one of the biggest losers on the 2021 list.
In 2004, it had 11 entries – the new roster only features three by King, with Hound Dog being the only 2004 top 30 song not to make the 2021 roster.
Meanwhile, The Beatles went from 23 entries to 12 over the next 17 years, The Rolling Stones went from 14 to seven, Bob Dylan went from 12 to seven, and The Beach Boys and Jimi Hendrix went on. from seven to three.
Meanwhile, the big winners were power couple Beyonce and Jay-Z, who were not on the 2004 list.
Beyonce scored three solo entries and a fourth with her group Destiny’s Child, while her husband Jay-Z made three appearances. Together they reached number 16 with Crazy In Love.
Missy Elliot also appears on the 2021 roster three times, most notably placing number eight with Get Ur Freak On and number 56 with Work It, after not making any mention in 2004.
Public Enemy went from 322 to number two, although the biggest jump was 390 places by Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg, who went from 419 in 2004 to 29 in 2021 with Nuthin ‘But A’ G ‘Thang.
Dad has a brand new bag
How long does it take before a song can be called “classic”?
In the 2004 list, there were only eight songs included from 1995.
Interestingly, four of them survived the cut for the 2021 roster.
The new poll is much less reluctant, granting “classic status” to contemporary songs from the left, right and center, further triggering web warriors who blame “millennials” for this perceived contempt for the word “classic.”
There are 32 songs from 2011 on the list, which is like a red rag for the Boomer and Gen-X bulls complaining that their favorite choices from the 1990s / 80s / 70s have been left out.
Are they right? We’ll just have to wait and see if BTS, Megan Thee Stallion, Ariana Grande, Billie Eilish, Cardi B, Harry Styles, Lizzo, Drake, and Carly Rae Jepsen are still on the list the next time Rolling Stone counts down the 500 biggest. songs of all time.
But the most important thing to keep in mind is that this type of list is meant to provide a bit of fun, food for thought, and good-humored debate.
Oh, and yes, Wonderwall made the list this time. At number 95.