Rolling Stone’s ‘Top 500 Songs’ Is Good Fun and Lousy History

Rolling Stone magazine’s new list of the “500 Best Songs Of All Time,” which places Aretha Franklin’s version of “Respect” at Number One, proves again that lists like this transcend mere fun. They’re irresistible.

You’re compelled to leaf through it even knowing that if you take the premise literally, the results are nonsense.

According to this list, something like 495 of the best 500 songs “of all time” were written after 1954.

That’s an arguable point, I suppose, if you dismiss the Gershwins, Stephen Foster, Cole Porter, Yip Harburg, Irving Berlin, Lerner and Loewe, Johnny Mercer, Duke Ellington, Rodgers and Hammerstein, or Blind Willie McTell.

You could make that case if you believe “Louie, Louie” is a better song than Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Peace in the Valley” or “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” or “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” or “His Eye Is On the Sparrow” or “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” or “Over the Rainbow” or “God Bless the Child” or “As Time Goes By” or “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes” or “White Christmas.”

So sure, you could say that. Much as an infant could argue that Gerber’s Strained Bananas are the best food of all time because she or she didn’t yet know any other foods exist.

Let’s hasten to add here that the writers who contributed to this new list very likely all understand that absurdity. So does Rolling Stone, which is why megalomania isn’t the reason — well, not the only reason —this list claims to declare the best songs “of all time.” The more compelling reason is that superlatives start discussions and draw clicks, which is the whole ballgame these days.

No, Rolling Stone knows that it is really offering what it considers the 490-plus best records of the rock ’n’ roll era, with the token inclusion of a few famous records from a few years earlier, like Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues,” Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and Hank Williams’s “Your Cheating Heart.”

We can assume those tunes, all of which deserve inclusion, pop up in part to help Rolling Stone counter legitimate past criticism that the magazine has often focused disproportionately on rock-era white guys with guitars.

The new “best of” list draws on a broader musical base, notably embracing more hip-hop, and that’s not a bad thing. But once you’ve declared that you are surveying all songs ever, you can’t argue with a straight face that 99% of them have been recorded since the mid-1950s.

And as long as we’re kvetching, it’s also misleading to declare you’re judging “songs” when you really mean “records.”

“Tutti Fruitti” is a great record. It’s not a great song, beloved as it no doubt became in the barrooms or cathouses where it’s said to have been born as a raucous ode to feminine charms.

Rolling Stone admits it’s really judging records in its own explanatory passage for “Respect,” which talks about how Franklin took Otis Redding’s song, dressed it up, changed its tone and focus and turned it into, uh, a great record.

And that’s fine. Just come out and say it.

The argument for “Respect” as the Number-One choice is compelling, by the way. So was the case Rolling Stone made for Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” when that tune topped Stone’s 2004 list. Just as Dave Marsh made a persuasive case for Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” in his book The Heart of Rock and Soul: the 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made.

Just as you could make a powerful case for the Temptations’s “My Girl” or Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.” Just as I modestly think I could make a strong argument for Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll.”

That’s the law of lists. We all get to make our own, which is why everyone who reads the Rolling Stone list is tacitly comparing it to his or her own choices.

What you do mean, “Good Vibrations” is better than “Don’t Worry Baby”? What do you mean, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” makes the top five while the Beatles’s “Here, There and Everywhere” is missing entirely? Is “Strawberry Fields Forever” really the best Beatles song? Why is Elvis almost invisible, with none of his Sun records in sight? Why is the overrated “River Deep, Mountain High” here when the Midnighters’s “Annie Had a Baby,” the Showmen’s “It Will Stand,” the McGarrigle Sisters’s “Heart Like A Wheel,” Jan Bradley’s “Mama Didn’t Lie,” the Swingin’ Medallions’ “Double Shot,” the Chantels’s “Maybe,” or Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On” is not?

None of these questions, or a thousand others, come down to right or wrong. They reflect taste, which is shaped by dozens of unique factors for each of us and, oh yeah, can change from one hour to the next.

There’s also this: Rolling Stone’s “best of” list is inherently more tenuous in 2021 than it was in 2004, because we have 17 more years for music to evolve, diversify and splinter.

So while Rolling Stone did the right thing by expanding its musical tent, the result is less enticing for many of the people reading it.

Much of the pleasure from any music list is visceral. You see the title and the song in your head evokes the part of your life into which it fit.

The more songs you don’t recognize, the less interesting the list. That’s sad because it also tells us modern popular music has become less of a cultural common ground, less of a delightfully neutral meeting place.

For the record, so to speak, here’s the Rolling Stone top 10:

1. “Respect,” Aretha Franklin

2. “Fight the Power,” Public Enemy

3. “A Change Is Gonna Come,” Sam Cooke

4. “Like a Rolling Stone,” Bob Dylan

5. “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Nirvana

6. “What’s Going On,” Marvin Gaye

7. “Strawberry Fields Forever,” Beatles

8. “Get Yr Freak On,” Missy Elliott

9. “Dreams,” Fleetwood Mac

10. “Hey, Ya,” Outkast

That reflects the consensus from a smart group of music people recruited by Rolling Stone.

Fair enough.

But if you really think the best 500 songs of all time doesn’t include “Stardust,” you’re just plain wrong.

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”