September 20, 2021
In 2020, Rolling Stone magazine revamped its famed list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time,” replacing many of the iconic soundscapes from the last half-century of music with newer and more diverse offerings from the past two decades.Last week, Rolling Stone gave its equally contested list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” the same treatment.
The music and culture magazine first published such a list in 2004, heavily lining its ranks with indelible classics — Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and John Lennon rounded off the top three.
The revised listicle jettisons many of the traditional 20th-century classics, which still permeate classic rock radio, in favor of newer genres and artists. Hits from hip-hop, modern country, indie rock, Latin pop, reggae, and R&B are now far more prevalent.
The bevy of issues with Rolling Stone’s reranking of the all-time greatest albums persist in this list as well. Many inclusions, such as Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” from 2015 (just five years ago) are still far too young to be dubbed timeless and sandwiched between Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” (1972) and Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” (1983).
While no single list purporting to rank the greatest art ever created will ever satisfy everyone, the decisions in Rolling Stone’s updated list were made with such egregious disregard for artistic merit that they can’t simply be chalked up to subjective differences.
Many of the revisions are motivated by the music’s political undertones viewed in the context of today’s political climate. The most glaring example, at No. 2 — supposedly the second greatest song ever written — is Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” arguably not even Public Enemy’s best song. What the 1989 record lacked in musical creativity, it more than made up for with its politically charged lyrics about race in America. It was this timely theme that fueled the hip-hop protest anthem’s rise from No. 330 on the original list all the way to No. 2.
Though rap and hip-hop and their offshoots have replaced traditional rock ‘n’ roll as our contemporary cultural soundtrack, they haven’t been dominant long enough to swallow up classic rock. For every Led Zeppelin record we remember for the ’70s, there are more than a dozen lesser artists and songs we’ve forgotten today.
The only way to know which songs will live on to rest alongside Zeppelin’s or Elton John’s best offerings, and which will be forgotten as transient fads, is to let time do the sifting, which is why it’s asinine and unforgivable to rank a 2010 novelty tune such as Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina” a whopping 11 spots higher than “Stairway to Heaven.”
Such head-scratching decisions are riddled throughout the ostensible “Greatest Songs” ranking. Swedish disco-pop singer Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” from 2010 was ranked at No. 20, above Michael Jackson’s entire discography. And according to Rolling Stone, Outkast’s2003 hit“Hey Ya!” ranks higher than the entire discographies of the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Velvet Underground, Elton John, David Bowie, and a whole host of other artists who didn’t make the top 10.
The biggest problem with this ostensibly authoritative catalog is that it does not adequately define which songs are eligible for a spot and which are still too new. The requirement to be dubbed a classic ought to be at least 10 years. Otherwise, there’s no telling ephemeral fads from classics that will influence future artists. Looking at our contemporary musical landscape, we can trace recent hits back to the early 2000s, drawing conclusions about which records from the first decade of the century shaped the music that permeates today’s radio.
But Rolling Stone’s selections from this era make little sense, too. For example, at the very bottom, at No. 500, is Kanye West’s “Stronger,” a turning point for the entire rap genre , and a move by the artist to create for stadiums rather than clubs. But despite its musical and cultural significance, it ranks lower than both Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” from 2019 and the K-pop group BTS’s “Dynamite” from 2020, both generic songs that do little to push any musical boundaries.
Aside from fanning the flames of heated music arguments among fans quarreling about their favorite song’s position in the list, any such list claiming to catalog the ranking of greatest songs, in order to be useful, ought to be something we could give to someone unfamiliar with Western culture to introduce them to the best art we’ve created across the different genres. But Rolling Stone’s revamped “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” fails to meet this metric. It eschews judging artistic and cultural significance in favor of rewarding political platitudes that will have gone out of style by the time Rolling Stone revamps its list yet again.
Originally Published at The Washington Examiner