It is quite a claim, is it not? The “greatest songs of all time.” So reads the July/August cover story of a special issue of Rolling Stone. It offers us “the ultimate play list,” chosen by a blue ribbon panel of writers, musicians and experts. I was curious….greatest songs of ALL TIME. Do they mean by “greatest,” their favorite songs, or the most influential songs, or the most important songs of all time? They don’t say.
If they mean “most influential” songs, would the list include, say…songs of lasting historical consequence, such as the Star Spangled Banner, The Socialist International, The Marseille, God Save The Queen, Land of Hope and Glory, Deutschland Uber Alles, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again, or perhaps songs that epitomized Greece and Rome at their heights? Would the list include Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, or Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus? For that matter, would it include Somewhere Over the Rainbow, or even Happy Birthday? But no….none of those songs make the list.
In the introduction, Jay-Z says that a great song is one which “transcends time” (p. 6). So which songs, according to Rolling Stone, transcend time and make the top ten? They include, in order: Like a Rolling Stone, by Bob Dylan (1965), I Can’t Get No Satisfaction, by the Rolling Stones (1965), Imagine, by John Lennon (1971), What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye (1971), Respect by Aretha Franklin (1971), Good Vibrations, by the Beach Boys (1966), Johnny B. Goode, by Chuck Berry (1958), Hey Jude, by the Beatles, (1968), Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana (1991), and What’d I Say, by Ray Charles (1959).
Interestingly, Rolling Stone’s myopic vision is evidenced by a list that is almost entirely composed of North American and British artists. Their 500 list has only one song that is not in English. It has only two songs from the 1940s, all the rest are more recent. Most are from the 60’s and 70’s. Of the groups, the Beatles are the most represented with 23 songs, followed by the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, U2 and the Beach Boys.
Curious about this whole—“greatest songs of all time” matter, my wife Christina and I had a breakfast conversation about the subject. We will never be appointed to any music “blue ribbon panels,” but our list would look very different. It’s not that it would exclude everything that Rolling Stone put forward. I am sure my list of top 500 songs (though not hers) would actually include songs by the Beatles, U2, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Nickel Creek, Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, as well as various Bluegrass, Jazz and Celtic artists.
People sometimes ask me what kind of music I like. “All kinds,” I answer. My tastes vary wildly. I am an eclectic mess. But at the top of our list, we would most definitely expand Rolling Stone’s horizons. Our list would include:
- The Song of Creation, as referenced by Job 38.7 when “the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy,” and noted in literature by C.S. Lewis in The Magician’s Nephew when Aslan sang creation into being.
- The Song of Moses and Miriam, of Exodus 15 which praises God for his redeeming deliverance—“the Lord is my strength and my song; and he has become my salvation.”
- The Songs of David—the psalms. The longest book in the Bible is composed of songs of praise, lament, thanksgiving, ascent and mourning
- The Magnificat by Mary at the birth of Jesus, (Luke 1.46ff).
- What about the songs the disciples sang after the Passover meal, (Mark 26.29)? Or the song of celebration when the loving father celebrates the return of his wayward son in Luke 15. The father celebrated with music and dancing. Or how about the song of Paul and Silas singing in jail at midnight, referred to in Acts 16.25
- What about the songs of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion?
- Not just Handel’s wonderful Hallelujah Chorus, but also I Know My Redeemer Liveth, Worthy is the Lamb, He Shall Feed His Flock, If God is For Us, Who Can Be Against Us?
- Malotte’s The Lord’s Prayer
- What of some of the greatest hymns of the church—St. Patrick’s Breastplate, Luther’s A Mighty Fortress—(the most powerful hymn ever written. The hymn the devil hates), Newton’s Amazing Grace, Bach’s Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring, Watts’ When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, and hymns like Great is Thy Faithfulness, Joy to the World and Holy Holy, Holy.
- Surely Jesus Loves Me ought to make the list
- As should Take Me Out to the Ball Game J I better stop
- But what about the song of the trumpet when the dead are raised in 1 Corinthians 15.51 and death is swallowed up in victory?
- And what about the songs of the future in Revelation 5.7-13, 14.3 and 15.3 where multitudes sing a new song—many angels numbering thousands upon thousands and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircle the throne of God and sing in a loud voice “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!”
I appreciate the challenge that Rolling Stone has given to us of identifying the great songs of all time. It’s just that they suffer from a kind of weightlessness and tunnel vision. Jay-Z was on to something when he said that great songs transcend time; it’s just that his and Rolling Stone’s bandwidth is too narrow!
And they accuse us of being small minded people?!?!