September 9, 2008

When were the best songs written?

Rolling Stone came up with a list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. We can ignore the ranking of songs for the most part, although appearing at all on the list is an OK way to measure how good a song is. I checked the year each song was released in to figure out how many songs on the list came out in a given year. Here is the result, where 3-year moving averages are used to smooth out the data:

According to Rolling Stone, the two best periods -- when the trend is upward toward a local maximum -- are 1953 - 1957 and 1963 - 1965.

Obviously, this graph reflects the tastes of the people who wrote the list. Since it was drawn up in 2004, it doesn't reflect the surge of, er, what did they call it at the time -- post-punk revival? They've probably stopped calling it that anyway, like how the term "hipster" has gone out of fashion for referring to hipsters. At any rate, from about 2003 to 2006, a lot of cool "back to basics" stuff came out, but things have seemed dead for the past two years. Also, the list gives little weight to the late '70s and early '80s, when a bunch of great punk and disco music came out.

It's no surprise that a list composed by nerds shows such a disdain for music that you can dance to -- we're supposed to pretend that pop musicians are serious artists, and therefore that the audience should face and worship the band while standing still. Dance music stars weren't taken seriously, as is correct for pop musicians -- they were only to play music that would allow listeners to cut loose and mingle amongst themselves. And anything preferred by extraverts, especially the extreme ones like gay males, is universally tarred as uncool by snobs, who were largely friendless in high school.


  1. I think the RS list reflects old music nerds. The present zeitgeist is due to the fight caused by recognizing commerically viable songs are not neccesarily bad music. In fact, the pitchfork set imo have gone a bit overboard. Kelly Clarkson's Since you've been gone has been championed by the hipster set in an non-ironic way, when it's no different than any of Avril Lavigne's stuff.

    I'm not sure whether taking pop musicians seriously is a problem. The musicians who experiment with new technology and new technique are still important. And I think a critics duty is to drag at least some of it back into popular culture. Also one of the boons the backlash to 1960s centric view on music is recognizing dance music. Italo disco is well respected, musicians like Sally Shapiro are well respected, and Giorgio Moroder is rightfully considered as a giant in popular music. I think dance music's large resurgence in North America is mainly due to hipster support.

  2. ABBA and The Bee Gees probably dont get the respect they deserve. Writing lyrics for danceable melodies is probably much harder than writing them for slow acoustic ballads.

    I think to judge whether music is good or bad, you can give it the "kids" test. If the kids in the back seat are bopping their little heads---its good. If they dont---its not. Nobody has to tell them that "Ticket to Ride" by the Beatles is good. They like it of their own accord.

    Whiterpeople almost always fall for whatever is "critically acclaimed", thus allowing nerdo crtics with political agendas to pick out the MUZAK that will be the soundtrack of their lives.
    I'd like to highlight a couple of acts that are "acclaimed" but really sucked in person or who have singers who simply cannot sing: Dave Mathews (he cant sing), Pearl Jam (Eddie Vedder has an awful voice, despite the fact that the band is instrumentally pretty good), Elvis Costello (intelligent songs, but his voice is grating), Nirvana (that singer Cobain was singularily awful in concert. Slurred words, awful voice, horribly sloppy guitarist), Tim McGraw (bad voice----computer tricks make his studio stuff sound good), Radiohead since the OK Computer album has been dreadful, no matter what critics say. There are others, those are just off the top of my head.

    Music critics have way too much authority over whiterpeople in particular. There was a certain subset when I was a young lad who would vet a band's music simply because of what Rolling Stone had to say about them. Journey and Led Zeppelin were hated by Rolling Stone, so some of the tragically hip were robbed of listening to their immensely likeable music for years. The one thing that is really redeeming about dance music in particular-is like the acts described above (journey and zep) is that you will not be preached to on who to vote for, or what political convictions to hold therein. Its just likeable music for the sake of being likeable music. Its good to pump iron or go jogging to on headphones also.

  3. If the kids in the back seat are bopping their little heads---its good. If they dont---its not.

    What crap. By this logic Bach sucks.

    Ordinary people, particularly the young, really do have trouble picking up on subtlties and dealing with complexity, so one shouldn't bow down before their tastes. The problem with elite taste is that, while it is generally better than that of the general public, it get so wrapped up in status seeking that it isn't entirely reliable either.


  4. Thurs,

    I dont think Bach will get covered by Rolling Stone anytime soon. The era covered was the fifties until now in the article.

    Critics and peer pressure can get kids to buy music or to say, "its cool" to music that doesn't have decent pop hooks, good melodies, or even a catchy guitar riff. This doesn't even touch the lyrics.

    If you could get in a time machine and travel back to 1981, right before MTV, and take a Jessica Simpson, Britney Spears, and whatever loser-alterna-rock-band-du-jour is popular at the moment on a cassette tape (they didn't have DVD's), and play the casette for the young people of that age-------and tell them that this crap would be considered "popular" in 25 more years, those young people would be mighty dissapointed in the future direction of music. None of them would have liked it.

  5. Ironically, I covered this on my own blog, in my posts "Why It's Always 1968."

    This critic-driven phenomena, and general lack of any innovation, is EXACTLY demographically driven.

    Punk died out and dried out, because there simply were not enough young people to allow risk taking. A large pool of young people, ever growing, encourages a lot of innovation and risk-taking, particularly in music with low barriers to entry and constant generational churn of new-sensation seeking.

    What happened was Americans stopped having kids around 1966-67, in the way they did between 1948-65.

    Thus the classic ever-smaller group of audience/readers/fans -- "critics" to anoint one band or another, fads that die out quickly, lack of any big payout.

    Who actually makes money (useful proxy: size of entourage, mansions, etc) in pop music? Rap musicians offering fairly lame updated "minstrel shows" with hyper-macho posturing for white suburban teens.

    [I think it would be interesting to compare the age of the song-writers, next to the graph above, and overlay with Jazz songs and songwriters, going back to the 1920's and overlapping with the 1950's and Sinatra, Dean Martin, etc. It could also be that lack of enough "young" songwriters capturing the energy of the moment leads to less competition and artistic decline, constant copying and stasis, the way much of Jazz is today.]

  6. Thursday (Anonymous at 3:29), this Bach will get the teenyboppers bopping, even though that's not the audience Bach was writing for.


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