“I bet they ain’t got none of my favorites,” my neighbor Swamp Rabbit said when WXPN in Philadelphia started playing the 2,020 all-time greatest songs, an end-of-year list based on votes cast by the station’s listeners.
“You might be surprised,” I replied. “Listeners were allowed to vote for anything, and each voter could choose from one to ten songs. I’m sure there were votes for some of those hillbilly songs you like.”
I told him I’d checked XPN’s audience demographics. It seemed obvious the playlist would include a ton of classic rock, a decent amount of soul and R&B, a little hip-hop, a smattering of tunes from other genres and enough eclectic oddball stuff to keep the list from being completely predictable.
The countdown went on for about a week, 24 hours a day except for a break before the Top 100 songs. I tuned in from time to time and at one point noted that many if not most of the songs were from the 1960s and 1970s, when pop music was the most important driving force behind cultural change.
“OK boomer,” Swamp Rabbit growled. “The real reason so many of them selections are old is because a lot of the voters were old. You and all them peeps who grew up burning your draft cards on Main Street and preaching the brotherhood of man. I demand a recount.”
I was surprised that Swamp Rabbit was so upset until I remembered he’s a lot younger than me and only looks old because he drinks Wild Turkey all day.
“You’re probably half-right,” I conceded. “Only 2,473 ballots were cast, representing less than one percent of XPN’s per-week listening audience. And I’ll bet a lot of the voters were old and white. And a lot of young people don’t even listen to radio anymore. They just download the songs they want to hear from the Internet.”
Swamp Rabbit wasn’t placated. He was mad, and so was I, that the list included so many songs by lame-ass Billy Joel and the hippy-dippy Grateful Dead and overrated Bruce Springsteen, and Led Zeppelin’s inevitable, insufferable “Stairway to Heaven.” And why no Ernest Tubbs, Loretta Lynn, Jimmy Rodgers, Kitty Wells and so on? Only one song by the genius songwriter Hank Williams!
“Don’t flip out, it’s just a list,” I said. “The point is to attract more listeners. Music fans find out some station is doing a best-ever list and they tune in to hear if their favorite songs are on it. Then they argue about the list, like we’re doing right now. It beats arguing about politics and the pandemic.”
I confessed that my own greatest songs list would be predictable. My Top 40 would consist mostly of cuts by Bob Dylan, Beatles, Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix, and probably something by David Bowie, Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday, Muddy Waters, Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, Sly Stone, Van Morrison, Captain Beefheart, Cream, Beck, Buffalo Springfield, the Band, Chrissie Hynde, Radiohead, Bob Marley, James Brown, Kinks, Doors, Who… But who cares what I think?
“That’s the first intelligent thing you said all day,” Swamp Rabbit said.
Footnote: The rabbit and I agreed on one thing: Super-long cuts by jazz and prog-rock artists shouldn’t have been included. “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” is a great piece of music, but it is not a song.
One more: Sure, the “greatest songs” idea was a gimmick, but the execution was fun. I tuned in one day long enough to hear Frank Sinatra’s grandiose “My Way” segue perfectly into King Crimson’s “The Court of the Crimson King.” I’ll never hear that segue again, thank God, but I’m glad I heard it once.