Rolling Stone's latest assault on rock history, the current "special collector's issue" counting down "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time" ("all time" apparently means "post-war English-language pop music"), reminded me why I finally let my subscription run out earlier this year. I grew up on the magazine, with lists of this ilk feeding my childhood music fandom. But I've long ago grown disillusioned with the magazine's attempt to devalue any music of my (or subsequent) generation that doesn't fit the magazine's specifically '60s biases.
But like it or not, this corrupted cultural institution, like so many others (see the Oscars, Grammys, and the godforsaken American Film Institute), is granted a legitimacy that gives its attempts at canonization meaning. So rather than ignore it, let's evaluate it. Memphis music fares pretty well in Rolling Stone. The rest of rock history? That's another story.
Most damning disparity: 202 to 82. That's the number of songs from the '60s compared to the number of songs from the '80s, '90s, and '00s combined.
Weirdest disparity: 2 to 2. That's the number of Glen Campbell songs compared to the number of Merle Haggard, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Lefty Frizzell, Tammy Wynette, Tom T. Hall, Charlie Rich, and Dolly Parton songs combined.
Number of Beatles songs (including solo singles): 26
Number of hip-hop songs: 13
Number of Memphis songs: 31. Toss out mega recording centers New York, London, and Los Angeles, and only Detroit (home of Motown, the Stooges, and Eminem) makes a similar impact on the list. There are 20 Memphis-music entries in the Top 200, and 12 in the Top 100, though the highest-finishing Memphis choice --Elvis' "Hound Dog" at #19 -- is a bit odd. Wouldn't "That's All Right" or "Don't Be Cruel" be better?
Five songs that got the shaft (Memphis version):
"The Dark End of the Street" -- James Carr: Just about the most elementally perfect song in American music. An unforgivable omission.
"Hold On, I'm Comin'" -- Sam & Dave: The Stax duo is represented only by "Soul Man," but this has long been considered their classic.
"How Many More Years" -- Howlin' Wolf: The Wolf gets two mentions but not for his most moving record.
"Knock on Wood" -- Eddie Floyd: Second-tier soul singers pretty much got shut out here, but this is a first-tier soul standard.
"Rocket 88" -- Jackie Brenston: To many minds, the very first rock-and-roll record.
Five songs that got the shaft (non-Memphis):
"It Takes Two" -- Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock: The last time Rolling Stone did an all-time songs list, back in the late '80s, then-upstart Spin thumbed its nose with a list of its own, topped by this then-current hip-hop hit. Twenty years later, Rolling Stone still hasn't gotten the message.
"King of the Road" -- Roger Miller: This sardonic country classic will go down as one of the quintessential American pop songs.
"Mind Playing Tricks on Me" -- Geto Boys: A far more artful and enduring glimpse into the gangsta psyche than all the Dre/Snoop/'Pac selections on this list.
"No Diggity" -- Blackstreet: The classic R&B groove of the post-disco era. That Rolling Stone found room for two Radiohead songs and not this is yet another sign that they hate rhythm.
"That's the Joint" -- The Funky 4 + 1: A radiant, optimistic blast of beats and rhymes that's a far, far better standard-bearer for early rap than the perennial token pick "Rapper's Delight."
Dullest token pick: "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Ranking it at number nine, Rolling Stone wears this like a badge in an attempt to prove that their generational bias doesn't entirely overwhelm their critical judgment. A "protest" "anthem" by a "martyred" rock star: Cobain's big hit fits the magazine's favorite paradigm all too well.
Most underrated '60s classics: As if the generational bias weren't bad enough, Rolling Stone tends to wildly undervalue even baby-boomer hits that don't fit the white-guys-with-guitars mold. So, you get James Brown's "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," maybe the most rhythmically important record in all of post-war pop, down at number 72. The Jackson Five's ecstatic "I Want You Back" (#120) can't break the Top 100. Martha & the Vandellas' seminal Motown hit "Nowhere To Run" (#358) is buried. And the Crystals' enchanted "Then He Kissed Me" (#493) barely makes the cut.
Most pleasant surprise (Memphis): "Thirteen" -- Big Star (#396). An album cut by a band without a hit isn't something you expect to see on a list like this, but it's a really beautiful little song.
Most pleasant surprise (non-Memphis): "I'm Waiting for the Man" -- The Velvet Underground (#159). Ditto.
Most embarrassing juxtaposition (Memphis):
"Free Fallin'" -- Tom Petty (#177)
"September Gurls" -- Big Star (#178)
Most embarrassing juxtaposition (non-Memphis):
"Hotel California" -- The Eagles (#49)
"The Tracks of My Tears" -- Smokey & the Miracles (#50) n