19 August 2006

some thoughts on the p4k "200 greatest songs of the '60s" list

(for reference, here's the top 20 and links to the rest of the list.)

1. i like the list - i like how it's clearly not a list made by people who grew up in the '60s, but is filtered through a few decades and generations of critical reception and reconsideration. in fact, in some ways it's a particularly '00s '60s list - it would be hard to imagine some of these things on such a list made at any other point, in particular some of the more obscure girl group stuff, which probably wouldn't be on a list made even a year ago.

i also like how - although the word "greatest" is always (and deliberately) vague - this list doesn't seem to put all that much stock in "importance", often placing songs that are perhaps more musically interesting or evocative (or that haven't had their effect dulled through overexposure!) over more obvious choices. hence "think" over "respect," "gimme shelter" but no "satisfaction," and especially the zombies selections ("this will be our year" at #40!) this is all fine with me - i don't like "respect" very much, and i can live without "satisfaction." however, although i probably prefer "i can't explain" and "the kids are alright" myself, i'm still a little scandalized by the absence of "my generation."

2. i somehow doubt johnny cash and, especially, desmond dekker would have made the top 10 (!) if not for the attention they've received following their recent deaths. ray charles (appearing once, at #52) and syd barrett (two early floyd tracks in the bottom 100) don't seem to have been helped by this though. anyway, "ring of fire" (#35) is easily my least favorite song in the top 40. (sorry, but i just find it irredeemably idiotic.)

more to the point: what the hell is up with the shangri-las? three songs!? "out in the streets" in the top 20!? not to mention the kinks' "shangri-la" (#135), a mystifying selection that i really suspect might be the result of some kind of weird crossover sweep effect. (i love the kinks, but i'm not sure they needed five songs on here, and especially that one.) i guess i just don't like the shangri-las as much as some people. or they're somehow a lot more significant than i realized. "leader of the pack" is a deserved classic, though not really a great piece of music; "out in the streets" is an okay song, i guess, but - just for instance - it's hardly one of the stand-outs on that girl group box. i just don't get it. justice would be if it swapped places with the flirtations "nothing but a heartache" (#166.)

3. okay: i don't want it to seem like i'm griping, because that's fairly pointless - these lists will always provoke gripes, which are fun to make but not very productive - but more because i don't have any major complaints about either what's on it or what's not on it. it has a lot of great songs on it, and a few i haven't heard and am looking forward to checking out. and that's really all i require.

i am, however, very interested in studying the list because of what it can tell us about the current state of thought among the music-critical community. this is exactly what i'm interested in these days: how the universe of pop music is being understood and thought about, what stories are being told about it, what's considered significant or good, etc. etc. and the music of the 1960s is of particular interest since pop music culture as we know it has its roots in that decade, and its influence on contemporary music and culture are as relevant as ever.

obviously pitchfork is not wholly representative, but it is a reasonably good reflection of, at least, the online community of people who are reasonably knowledgeable about, and take an active interest in pop music. and in any case, it's rare to get such a straightforwardly quantifiable/analyzable document of contemporary perceptions of the music of the '60s. even if its usefulness shouldn't be overstated, it should prove helpful in painting some broad strokes.

4. two things that i have been particularly curious about lately, as far as current perceptions of the '60s go: cream and the four seasons. they both seem very important to me (as well as very good), but my sense has been that they are generally disregarded these days. and this list upholds that sense.

cream are absent from the list, and conspicuously so, to my mind, considering the presence of three led zeppelin songs ("dazed and confused" at #11; "whole lotta love" at #53; "what is and what should never be" at #126), not to mention four songs by the who. leaving aside the fact that two of those zep songs were on an album released in october 1969 (which is to say they are technically legitimate, but they could hardly have made much of an impact on the 1960s, and therefore feel a bit cheap to include), and that zeppelin are just such a quintessentially '70s band, the inclusion of these tracks is enough to demonstrate that the listmakers didn't have a problem with heavy, blues-based british rock. which is to say they must therefore have a problem with cream, because cream were clearly the biggest heavy blues-based british rock band of the 1960s, and "sunshine of your love," in particular, is a no-brainer of a massively influential song, and i won't say led zeppelin would have been unthinkable without cream, but there's something to that line of reasoning. (the way my dad tells it, disraeli gears was one of the most popular and inescapably big-deal albums of the late '60s, and it sounded completely new and different to his ears, with its unprecedented heaviness and use of distortion.)

(i'll admit that i don't have that much interest in listening to cream these days, but then i don't have much interest in listening to zeppelin either. my skewed presumption - based on my own experience and observations - is that both groups have a particular appeal to high-school-aged males, but for some reason folks tend to retain a fondness for zep after losing interest in cream/if they even had it in the first place.)

again, though, i'm not really interested in complaining about this omission for its own sake, i merely bring it up for the credence it lends to my theory that 1) cream tend to be ignored and underrecognised these days which 2) i think is because people's (generally negative, or else indifferent) perceptions of eric clapton's subsequent career have negatively affected their perception of his (arguably better and/or more important) earlier work (with cream and beyond) to the point that it has lost a considerable amount of esteem. this plays into the tangled web of thoughts i have about "mature" (/"dad") rock, which i will get back to expounding about at a later date.

5. as for the four seasons...they are also absent from the list. this is a good deal less surprising than cream's absence, despite the fact that the four seasons were certainly more popular, more era-defining, and, in cultural terms (and maybe or maybe not musical terms) more "important" than cream. it's not surprising because the era that they defined was the early sixties (their biggest hits were all in 1962-64) before the beatles came on the scene in 1964 and established rock as we know it as a dominant form of (white) popular music. which is to say, they were - with the possible exception of the beach boys - the biggest band of the 1960s before the beginning the rock era. which, incidentally, continued through at least the mid-90s and possibly somewhat beyond, but certainly seems, for all intents and purposes, to be over now, at least for the time being.

rock is still popular, however, and moreover it's still considered to be a big deal, and that's why, among other reasons, it's unsurprising, although striking, that the first four years of the decade, 1960-63, are representated on this list by a total of only 26 songs, as compared to 138 for the last four years, including 40 - close to a quarter of the list! - for 1969 alone. [source: michelangos matos on this ilm thread] not that the list is overwhelmingly dominated by rock: soul and pop, however you choose to define those terms, are markedly and deservedly prominent. nowhere is this clearer than the #2 slot going to the jackson five's "i want you back" - a song from 1969 that still sounds uncannily fresh today, to the extent that it almost seems unfair to include it. (i have to admit that it makes me a little uneasy for that song to be so high, since - unlike almost any other motown single from the decade - it doesn't feel particularly representative of the '60s; on the other hand it's hard to deny that the song really is that good.)

as i've mentioned above, there's a respectable amount of girl-group music on the list. girl groups are clearly hot now, which is awesome and very exciting and makes me happy. (even if three shangri-las tunes muscled out "he's a rebel," which would easily have made my top five.) i see this trend - recognizing the significance and greatness of girl-group music - as a much-needed correction to the general understanding of pop music history, as well as an appropriate corrolary to the recent wave of contemporary girl-pop.

it seems to me that the necessary (and, i should think, inevitable) next step is a reappraisal of the corresponding "boy" music of the period. which is to say, vocal-based pop by male performers as well as females. just as "girl group" can encompass a considerable range of musical styles - soul, pop, rock, country, and beyond - there is comparable diversity in male vocal pop of the '60s. this complicates matters since - absent the gender distinction - it can be harder to know where to place the boundaries with and among "staight-up" soul, doo-wop, folk-rock, garage rock, british invasion beat combos, surf music, '50s-style crooners, bubblegum pop, and so forth. (there's also confusion about how to consider groups who shifted over the course of their careers from - most commonly - straightforward pop territory towards artier or rockier or grittier or psycher or otherwise more "artistically legitimate" terrain.)

so it's a broad category, and i haven't quite figured out who counts, except that - taking the pitchfork list as exhibit A - many of the contenders don't seem to be that well regarded.

there are obvious exceptions, of course: whatever else they may have been and done, the beach boys and the beatles are clearly two of the greatest male vocal pop groups of all time - and the former are the clear winners of this poll, with the latter close behind. but it should be noted that - of the five slots each group was allotted (including one, apparently, for brian wilson's solo piano version of "surf's up"!?), only "i want to hold your hand" represents the beatles' early "vocal pop era" output [the remaining four are decidedly more 'experimental'], while the earliest beach boys cut, "don't worry baby," though it dates to '64, is far more in keeping with the "mature" (and innovative) vein of the later beach boys tunes also selected than - for instance - its A-side flip, the equally brilliant "i get around."

anyway, killer b's aside...(let's ignore the byrds too, while we're at it)...the four seasons have to be on the top of the male vocal pop heap. they seasons had 13 top ten US hits in the 1960s - which isn't quite as many as the beach boys (15) or the supremes (18) [source: wikipedia!] - nor is chart success necessarily the most relevant indicator of greatness - but it's noteworthy nonetheless. i'm hopelessly confused as to why rhino is currently re-re-releasing the monkees' albums on CD with as two-disc sets with mono and stereo versions and copious bonus tracks, while they've allowed the only decent four seasons anthology on CD to go out of print. could it perhaps be that frankie valli sings like a girl?

relevant songs that did make the cut:
monkees - daydream believer (#54), i'm a believer (#133)
tommy james and the shondells - crimson and clover (#57)
del shannon - runaway (#64)
roy orbison - crying (#85) (but no sign of "oh, pretty woman," which has got to be one of the greatest '60s rock songs)
the association - never my love (#152)
bobby darin - beyond the sea (#183)
hollies - bus stop (#186)

(i've left off the male motown groups - the miracles (#87, shamefully low for "tracks of my tears"), four tops (#110 - weird choice), and temptations (#185!?) each made it once; and stevie twice and marvin once, which means that the men of motown only barely edge out the women, as represented solely by five supremes selections, no marvelettes, martha reeves, gladys, mary, etc.)

some omissions, notable and otherwise:
the drifters (!)
the rascals (!!)
the lovin' spoonful (?)
the turtles
jan and dean
jay and the americans
gary lewis and the playboys
hermans hermits
everly brothers ("cathy's clown" and "when will i be loved" are eligible)
lots of one hit wonders i'm not going to think of,
plus all the second-tier british invasion groups -
dave clark five/spencer davis group/gerry and the pacemakers/freddie and the dreamers/wayne fontana and the mindbenders

i do note that these are all, to a greater or lesser extent, rock bands - so are the four seasons, of course; just look at their AMG entry. but even when their music is at its most rocking (the monkees' "stepping stone", the rascals' "good lovin'), a lot of it tends to be treated differently from, say, the stones, or some of the nuggets bands. the difference, possibly, has something to do with r'n'b.

this requires some further thought and research - the distinction likely seems more evident now than it did at the time, and i'd like to consider vocal pop vs. album rock market niches, soul influences, the effect of legacy, and questions of artistic intentions and "integrity." anyway...

6. an interesting point of comparison is a very recent ILM poll ranking '60s songs, which you can read here (scroll to the bottom for the list of #1-200.)

on the whole, the lists isn't really all that different in character (it is reasonably different in the actual songs), which makes sense, because i more or less assume the contributors to ILM and PFM to be on the same page. if the ILM list has slightly more interesting (=unexpected) song choices, i'd chalk that up to a small sample size. i do like their beatles picks more, btw.

an excerpt, with comments:
1 Jackson 5 - I Want You Back (wow!! by a huge margin too!)
3 Glen Campbell - Wichita Lineman (i don't even know this song. so i'm kind of confused.)
17 Dionne Warwick - Walk On By (was on the pitchfork list at like #198, which seems strange in retrospect)
18 Petula Clark - Downtown (no pitchfork love)
28 Shangri-Las - Leader of the Pack (three shangri-las songs here too, but at least this is the highest. no "out in the streets", weirdos.)
41 Archies - Sugar Sugar (awesome!)
42 Cream - Badge (surprising choice, but this is definitely a very cool and strangely modern-sounding song, and of course i'm glad for the inclusion, even if it seems like a fluke of the small sample set and somebody lobbying hard.)
45 Trashmen - Surfin Bird (hmm.)
60 Monkees - I'm a Believer
71 Tommy James & the Shondells - Crimson & Clover
72 Del Shannon - Runaway
80 Lovin' Spoonful - Do you believe in magic?
97 Monkees - Pleasant Valley Sunday (very well, but what about "stepping stone"?)
114 Beach Boys - I Get Around (yeah!)
165 Who - My Generation (see, this is fine - low but at least it's there.)
180 Beach Boys - California Girls (yeah!!)
181 Led Zeppelin - Whole Lotta Love
182 Led Zeppelin - Babe I'm Gonna Leave You
184 Troggs - Wild Thing
188 Led Zeppelin - Communication Breakdown (pretty striking difference from the pfork list in LZ choices and placement. i'd probably go for "babe" and "dazed" as my '60s zep picks. also, good call on "wild thing," another seminal moment in the development of heavy pop.)
198 Ventures - Walk, Don't Run


Dave said...

Funny, I kind of got where this was going early, and I agree...I tend to do this myself with current music, I just don't cover the boys like I do the girls, and I wonder if it comes from a similar mentality, or if now the girls really do it better more frequently. (I'm tempted to think the latter, because I feel I have listened to what's available from the boys.)

Anyway, I think a list like this really needs to expand to five hundred, even a thousand songs before it could even begin to paint an accurate picture, and that the best a 200 list like this could hope for is an increased number of tokens, which might not have been as interesting or (maybe) as honest. And there should have been an Archies track!

Ross said...

i think there are some important distinctions, which are applicable both then and now, between girl-pop and the corresponding boy music. as i suggested above, the male version has more in common with "regular" music - rock, in particular.

hence the monkees, and even the four seasons, like the jonas bros, are easy to see as rock bands. which works for them, somewhat, in rockist-credibility department, but works against them majorly because they suffer by comparison with "real" rock bands (since that's not what they're trying to be.) maybe BSB and *Nsync don't quite fit in there - they don't have the soul cred of the drifters either, though they probably should. they sort of make me think of the coasters.

individuals may be more successful - folks as different as roy orbison and bobby darin can convincingly play both sides of the pop/rock divide. i don't see any males doing that currently - i do want to know more about jesse mccartney though.

but girls - singly or in groups - just seem to work better in the "prefab"/producer-constructed pop mold - i'm not sure how well we'd deal with males doing that. (except that bsb & *n were sort of mocked, and eventually presented a stance of having greater artistic control to avoid seeming emasculation?)

anyway, i don't doubt that there is more, and better, pop sung by women. one (simplistic) reason is that higher voices just work better in pop. (hence baby michael jackson, baby jonas, hanson, falsetto frankie v, etc.)

i guess i'm not necessarily arguing for male pop to be recognized as a counterpart to girl-group pop, but for '60s pop in general to be acknowledged as more important than it currently is (i have a sense that people still think the girl-group era lasted from like 61-64 or something, despite that box set spanning the whole decade.)

a 500-song list would be fun, but to make it mean anything you'd need to have a really really big group of contributors, which would make the top 200 more bland. better solution (i would say) is to publish the lists of each of the contributors, a la stylus. also helps make it seem less like it's trying to be obnoxiously definitive.

you saw the archies on the ILM list right?

Benjamin said...

I like your approach to analyzing this PF list in terms of what it says about what's popular among pitchfork writers now, which is very different from what Americans who are not music critics might be nostalgic for in the music of the '60s.

It's strange that they purport to make a list based on greatness, yet do not seem to include innovation or *contemporary* influence as dominant factors in deciding who gets which slots. How else can you explain omitting the Byrds but including all of those songs from '69?

I also agree with you that the list is nevertheless entertaining and useful to read because it highlights idiosyncratic details of songs that may never have been sufficiently appreciated or given their due.