Polls Apart: Rolling Stone vs. Billboard – The Singles

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We all love a good poll.

Whether electing Presidents…

deciding on the best cheese…

It’s an entirely uncontroversial and scientifically unimpeachable method of deciding things. 

We strive for accuracy. And well-groomed felt.

So having previously looked at the 100 biggest singles and albums of all htime based on sales and Billboard chart metrics, let’s see how the critics choices compare. 

The metric that I’m using is that bastion of rock orthodoxy: Rolling Stone:

Using their 500 Greatest songs and albums of all time. This week: the songs. 

They could have dropped the reference to ‘all time’ as it turns out that the furthest we go back is 1937. Never mind that several millennia of songs are instantly disposed of, just feel the hyperbole. I’m sure that Greensleeves was just outside the 500.

Probably. But we’d like a recount anyway.

The current list was compiled in 2021. By polling over 250 artists, musicians producers, critics and journalists – too important a task to let the public have their say – and having them all pick their top 50. The original list was created in 2004 and as Rolling Stone notes, the updated version is much more inclusive with far wider representation from hip-hop, modern country, indie rock, Latin pop, reggae, and R&B. 

Let’s see how the numbers stack up and compare to Billboard’s Greatest of All Time Hot 100 songs.

LMFAO fans may want to look away now. It’s like the critics don’t see the toil and earnest craftsmanship that went into making Party Rocking so…err…rocking. 

“Looking back, we see it now: Covering “Greensleeves” would have been the informed career move.

Starting off with the top 10;

  • 10. Outkast – Hey Ya!
  • 9. Fleetwood Mac – Dreams 
  • 8. Missy Elliott – Get Ur Freak On
  • 7. The Beatles – Strawberry Fields Forever 
  • 6. Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On
  • 5. Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spiri
  • 4. Bob Dylan – Like A Rolling Stone
  • 3. Sam Cooke – A Change Is Gonna Come
  • 2. Public Enemy – Fight The Power
  • 1. Aretha Franklin – Respect

The full list is here.

Turns out that critical success doesn’t necessarily stack up with commercial success.

Only 14 of the Billboard list appear on the RS list. 

The metric of greatest song allows for greater choice than Billboard’s which is confined by what made the charts. 

There is still an obvious trend towards big hits:

  • 314 of these were top 40 hits with 225 of those making the top 10 and 117 reaching top spot.
  • There are still 139 that didn’t make the Hot 100, whether due to flopping on release, being album tracks and in a few cases pre-dating the Hot 100. 

The question of what era produced the greatest songs shows a marked difference to Billboard.

Over at BB, the streaming age appears to have distorted the metrics, as the 2010s won out, followed by the 90s then 80s.

The idea of the classic era of song is alive in the RS list, though. The 70s are well ahead of the pack with the 60s next in line. The 2010s come in as only the 6th best represented decade.

Which makes some kind of sense, as they haven’t yet had the chance to become classics. 

Look further into the individual years, and the golden era is even more pronounced.

There are 19 years which gift 10 or more songs to the list.

1964 was the first year into double figures and every year after through to 1982 achieved the same feat – apart from two. For whatever reason, slap bang in the peak period 1974 is left slacking, only providing five entries. Theories as to why are welcome. 

  • After 1982 only two more years supply 10 or more entries; 1992 and 1994. 
  • While the updated 2021 list does go some way to rectifying the imbalances of the original list the mid 90s onwards are still underrepresented. 
  • The peak individual years are 1971 with 21 contributions and 1967 and 1970 with 20. 
  • Every year from 1953 to 2020 is represented.

One advantage the Rolling Stone list has in comparison to Billboard’s is that it goes much further back, with three songs predating the 50s;

Robert Johnson – Crossroad Blues: 1937

Billie Holliday – Strange Fruit: 1939

Hank Williams – I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry: 1949

The idea of a canon is brought into focus by the fact there are 91 artists who provide multiple entries which account for over half the list. 

17 artists provide four or more and only two of those: Beyonce and Outkast, post date the mid 80s.

It’s not going to be a surprise to find that The Beatles are the most prolific progenitors of classics. They’ve a whole albums worth of them covering all stages of their career. 

Surprisingly, John is the only Beatle to appear with a post breakup song; Imagine at #19. 

The other big hitters are; Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones and David Bowie, all of whom appear seven times. Which makes up for the fact that none of them appeared in the 100 biggest selling singles or albums on either side of the Atlantic. 

Keen eyed observers will note Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane there:

Impressive work to get both sides of the single onto the list.

They aren’t the only ones to achieve this: It’s appropriate that the others are their partners in pushing the boundaries in the mid 60s; The Beach Boys. 

At the time Wouldn’t It Be Nice was the designated A-side and reached #8 while B-side God Only Knows made it to #39.

Critical appreciation has turned things around; #11 against #297. 

Whereas Soundtracks, with their inbuilt advertising were a big deal on the Hot 100: they aren’t such a factor here.

In a much bigger sample, the number drops from 14 to 8:

The Respect demanded by Aretha proves the original isn’t always the best. That’s one of 20 cover versions present, with a good portion of those being late 60s soul songs. 

There are four instances of both the original and a cover appearing, only of which has the cover as the pre-eminent version:

  • Mr Tambourine Man: Bob Dylan #164 / The Byrds #230 
  • Killing Me Softly: Roberta Flack #273 / The Fugees #359  
  • Walk On By: Dionne Warwick #51 / Isaac Hayes #312
  • Gloria: Them #413 – Patti Smith #97

One factor that remains the same as the Billboard 100 is that there’s no shortage of white men. 

  • Male group = 196
  • Male solo = 155
  • Female solo = 89
  • Mixed group = 44
  • Female group = 16

Things are shifting, as shown by the 71 songs featured that have been released since 2000: only 21 are by groups. 

Since RS first compiled their list in 2004 rap has made inroads into the hallowed selection.

Back then Hey Ya! was highest ranked at #180 and one of only 10 rap songs total.

There are now well over 50 with three in the top 10. 

Another change from the previous lists is that R Kelly who was present in 2004 with “I Believe I Can Fly” and saw that replaced with Ignition in the 2010 update is now conspicuous by his absence.

Whereas the allegations around Michael Jackson haven’t derailed his popularity.

And it’ll be interesting to see if Kanye’s commitment to trashing his reputation survives future editions.

The 2021 poll came before he went into overdrive on that count. 

So: We’ve got:

… pop, rock, soft rock, hard rock, prog rock, industrial rock, rock ‘n roll, heavy metal, grunge, soul, R&B, funk, rap, a smattering of folk and country, psychedelia, punk, new wave, indie / alternative, a little bit of disco, electronic, synth pop, blues, jazz, reggae, reggaeton, salsa, tejano cumbia, sensitive singer songwriters, samba funk, K-pop, girl groups, boy bands, teen sensations…

and the beat goes on.

Still, there are gaps. Despite going all the way back to the 30s there’s no room for the likes of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Bing Crosby and other pre-rock n’ roll sensations. 

Dance / techno / EDM, call it what you will: it’s underrepresented.

The one true dance track is Marshall Jefferson’s house anthem; Move Your Body at #335. 

We don’t have much in the way of instrumentals either. It is a poll of greatest songs which suggests a vocal element but these few make the cut:

  • – The Meters – Cissy Strut #158
  • – Augustus Pablo – King Tubby Meets The Rockers Uptown #266
  • – John Coltrane – Pt 1 Acknowledgement #315
  • – Booker T & The MGs – Green Onions #418
  • – Miles Davis – So What #492

After using all my fingers, toes and a calculator: I wondered what I was doing with my life.

I worked out that the idea of the perfect three minute pop song needs to be revised upwards by a minute. Plus one more second.

The average song length is 4:01. Which is skewed upwards by the presence of a few 10 minute plus epics like Desolation Row and the not to be rushed live rendition of Whipping Post by The Allman Brothers weighing in at 22:40. Which is long enough to listen to the shortest song 12 times:

Jerry Lee Lewis – Great Balls Of Fire.

That passes by in a blast of hammering keys in only 1:50. 

Mention of The Allman Brothers raises a popular naming convention. They join the Brothers; Doobie, Everly, Isley and Righteous. Alternatively, expressing their youth are the Boys from the Backstreet, Beach, Beastie, Geto and Pet Shop. 

Whereas there is only one sister who is doing it for herself: Sister Nancy, with Bam Bam. 

“These statistics are all well and good, JJ.”

But what I really hear you asking for is the part that punctuation plays.

Lucky for you I’ve done the working out:

You want songs in the form of a question? You got it, our artists variously want to know;

  • What’d I Say?
  • Life on Mars? 
  • What’s Love Got To Do With It?
  • Will You Love Me Tomorrow?
  • Are You That Somebody?
  • Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)?
  • Can I Kick It?
  • Wouldn’t It Be Nice?
  • Could You Be Loved?
  • Where Is My Mind?
  • How Soon Is Now?

While this lot are so worked up, they just have to exclaim:

  • Hey Ya!
  • Freedom! 90
  • Oh Bondage! Up Yours!
  • Yeah!
  • Stop! In The Name Of Love
  • Help!

Never let it be said I don’t consider the big issues.

Lastly, how does this list tally with the man whose opinion we all defer to?

Tom B has rated 165 of these at time of writing. 

Turns out he largely agrees with the RS cognoscenti, awarding 78 of them the perfect 10 with another 53 scoring a nine. The worst performers get a 4:

  • John Lennon – Imagine
  • Doobie Brothers – What A Fool Believes
  • Eagles – Hotel California

Next time we move onto consider the Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums.

Not much of a spoiler alert: As ever, there’s plenty more Beatles.

And still no LMFAO. 

“Never say never, bro.”

Let the author know that you liked their article with a “Green Thumb” Upvote! 

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JJ Live At Leeds

From across the ocean, a middle aged man, a man without a plan, a man full of memories, a man like JJ.

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cstolliver
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September 13, 2023 5:07 am

Thanks for this deconstruction. Although the Top 10 does seem predictable, at least it’s less so than any radio station holiday countdown, which seemingly is guaranteed to produce a top 3 of Stairway to Heaven, Hey Jude and (insert blockbuster of the past 24 months).

Phylum of Alexandria
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September 13, 2023 8:54 am

I find that Rolling Stone list really frustrating. If you’re going to make a “best of” list that eschews charts and popular polls in favor of critical consensus, why would you poll for critics personal favorite tunes, rather than ask them about the most important, immortal classics?

It’s insane that only one song from the 1940s would be on such a list. No offense to Lil Nas X, but I doubt many people will care about “Old Town Road” in a few years, while “God Bless the Child” will almost certainly find new fans, and new relevance in a movie soundtrack or sample. I’m all for silly ephemera, but not for these types of lists.

If they had simply made it from the 50s onward that would make a lot more sense, but as it is, it’s rather insulting to the cultural giants of yesteryear.

Just looks like cultural amnesia to me, but maybe that’s because I’ve been reading too much Theodor Adorno…

Anyhow, interesting research!

cappiethedog
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September 13, 2023 3:09 pm

The only entry that surprises me because I think it would be more at home on Pitchfork than Rolling Stone is Rilo Kiley’s “Portion for Foxes”.

Phylum of Alexandria
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September 13, 2023 5:03 pm

Just some alternative selections to consider, off the top of my head:

1920s

  1. George Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue
  2. George Gershwin: Embraceable You
  3. Original Dixieland Jazz Band: Tiger Rag
  4. Louis Armstrong: West End Blues
  5. Louis Armstrong: Ain’t Misbehavin
  6. Bix Beiderbecke & Frankie Trumbauer: Singin the Blues
  7. Bix Beiderbecke: In a Mist
  8. Bessie Smith: St Louis Blues
  9. Bessie Smith: Downhearted Blues
  10. Al Jolson: Swanee
  11. Ethel Waters: Am I Blue
  12. Isham Jones: It Had to Be You
  13. Ma Rainey: See See Rider
  14. Pine Top Smith: Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie
  15. The Dorsey Brothers (with Bing Crosby): Let’s Do It
  16. Bo Carter: Corrina Corrina
  17. Helen Kane: I Wanna Be Loved By You
  18. Jimmie Rogers: In the Jailhouse Now
  19. Ruth Etting: Love Me or Leave Me
  20. Duke Ellington: East St Louis Toodeloo
  21. Duke Ellington: Black and Tan Fantasy
  22. Hoagy Carmichael: Stardust
  23. Gene Austin: My Blue Heaven
  24. Mississippi John Hurt: Stack o Lee Blues

1930s

  1. Cab Calloway: Minnie the Moocher
  2. Cab Calloway: St James Infirmary
  3. George Gershwin: Summertime (Billie Holiday)
  4. Louis Armstrong: You Rascal You
  5. Louis Armstrong: I’m In the Mood for Love
  6. George Gershwin: I Loves You Porgy
  7. Duke Ellington: Mood Indigo
  8. Duke Ellington: Don’t Mean a Thing
  9. Duke Ellington: Caravan
  10. Benny Goodman: Sing, Sing, Sing
  11. Billie Holiday: Strange Fruit
  12. Billie Holiday: I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm
  13. Judy Garland: Somewhere Over the Rainbow
  14. Fred Astaire: The Way You Look Tonight
  15. Fred Astaire: Puttin On the Ritz
  16. Snow White: Hi-Ho
  17. Raymond Scott: Powerhouse
  18. Raymond Scott: The Toy Trumpet
  19. Skip James: Devil Got My Woman
  20. Carlos Gardel: Por Una Cabeza
  21. The Ink Spots: I Don’t Want to Set the World On Fire
  22. Carter Family: Can the Circle Be Unbroken
  23. Glen Miller: In the Mood
  24. Artie Shaw: Begin the Beguine
  25. Benny Carter: These Foolish Things
  26. Jimmy Durante: Inka Dinka Doo
  27. Coleman Hawkins: Body and Soul
  28. Lester Young: Lady Be Good
  29. Robert Johnson: Cross Road Blues
  30. Ella Fitzgerald: A Tisket A Tasket
  31. Blind Willie McTell: Southern Can is Mine

1940s

  1. Dooley Wilson: As Time Goes By
  2. Irving Berlin: God Bless America
  3. Billie Holiday: God Bless the Child
  4. Billie Holiday: Don’t Explain
  5. Thelonious Monk: Round Midnight
  6. Duke Ellington: Come Sunday
  7. Duke Ellington: Take the A Train
  8. Dizzy Gillespie: Salt Peanuts
  9. Edith Piaf: La Vie en Rose
  10. Bob Eberly & Kitty Kallen: Besame Mucho
  11. Xavier Cugat: Brazil
  12. The Mills Brothers: You Always Hurt the One You Love 
  13. Pinocchio: When You Wish Upon a Star
  14. Frank Sinatra: Night and Day
  15. Hank Williams: Move It On Over
  16. Leadbelly: Goodnight Irene
  17. Leadbelly: Bourgeois Blues
  18. Louis Jordan: Caldonia
  19. Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Jordan: Baby It’s Cold Outside
  20. Charlie Parker: Ko-Ko
Virgindog
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Virgindog
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September 14, 2023 12:20 pm

#JusticeForRhapsodyInBlue

Phylum of Alexandria
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September 14, 2023 12:27 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

They were just Puttin’ on the Ditz…

Zeusaphone
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September 13, 2023 2:37 pm

The RS list is boomer naval gazing, as is their custom.

cappiethedog
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September 13, 2023 8:32 pm
Reply to  Zeusaphone

Gen X should have their own body part to gaze at. It’s a frustrating list for everybody. I was looking for “Here’s Where the Story Ends”.

Phylum of Alexandria
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September 14, 2023 6:48 am
Reply to  cappiethedog

Shoes sufficed for some.

Virgindog
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Virgindog
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September 13, 2023 4:08 pm

I’m up to my ears in my day job today but thanks for the in-depth analysis. I’ll try to give it a closer look later and I’m really looking forward to the greatest albums.

Napoleon of Birds
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September 13, 2023 6:58 pm

If Party Rock Anthem doesn’t get at least an 8, I’m rioting.

From my Gen-Z self, that is all.

PeiNews
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September 14, 2023 12:36 pm

Me in virtual 2006: If Tom gives “Girlfriend” a 5 or lower, I’m going into Highrise mode

Thankfully, he gave it a 6

LinkCrawford
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September 13, 2023 7:00 pm

This is pretty fun to look at and compare. I especially love your extra stats, like length of song, group names, etc. That’s fun to read. These kinds of lists are important as another way to gage the popularity/significance of individual songs in our day. It sounds weird, but it’ll help future generations know what we thought (as a collective) and track trends.

I do remember that we choked a little bit back in the day when ROLLING STONE Magazine ranked #1 “Like a ROLLING STONE” and #2 by The ROLLING STONES. Seemed a little self serving.

Of course, this list has far too few entries by Vince Guaraldi and Bert Kaempfert.

Phylum of Alexandria
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September 14, 2023 8:36 am

Speaking of gaps, the instrumentals pickins are pretty darn slim. Even if we limit the time span to 1950-present, we’re missing some monumental instrumentals, including:

Rumble, Wipe Out, Tequila, Misirlou, Apache, Popcorn, Walk Don’t Run, The Hustle, Rockit, Close to the Edit, Rock n Roll Part 2, Rockafeller Skank, etc.

And of course, Hocus Pocus by Focus.

Ozmoe
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September 14, 2023 11:38 am

This is some incredible research by you, JJ! Fantastic article indeed. Very impressed.

As to why 1974 didn’t do so well as much of the rest of the songs from 1964-1982, I’m guessing that the reason is its reputation among some here in the United States that it was one of the worst years for pop music hits. Novelty tunes were plentiful (The Streak, Spiders and Snakes, even arguably Life is a Rock But the Radio Rolled Me), a rare spoken record hit number 4 (The Americans), and there were several other hits that seemed like flukes, like The Lord’s Prayer by Sister Janet Mead. Not to mention one of the most disliked number ones ever, You’re Having My Baby.

Also, looking at the TNOCS spreadsheet, 1974 has a weighted average score per song of 5.79, the lowest average from 1964-1982 except for 1977. But the latter year had far more number one songs receiving at least an 8 ranking by TNOCS voters (I Wish, Dancing Queen, Don’t Leave Me This Way, Sir Duke, Dreams and Got to Give It Up) than only 3 for 1974 (Band on the Run, Sundown and Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe).

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of songs I love from 1974–You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet, Come and Get Your Love, Help Me, Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, The Air That I Breathe, I Got the Music in Me and so on. But overall, it pales in comparison to most of the decade that came before it and followed it.

cstolliver
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September 14, 2023 9:49 pm

Spiders and Snakes, borderline novelty that it is, at least has a swampy kind of groove and a slyly goofy nature to it. My favorite version is this video version by Stafford and Dolly Parton:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4lYdD9DdLNY

Stafford kept just barely on the amusing side of goofy with “My Girl Bill” and “Wildwood Weed” before tumbling over to the dumb side of goofy with “Your Bulldog Drinks Champagne” and “I Got Stoned and I Missed It.”

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