Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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This was originally published as free content, in Robert Christgau's And It Don't Stop newsletter. You can have Christgau's posts delivered to your mailbox if you subscribe.

Favorite vs. Best vs. Whatever

Ballots for Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs poll and some thoughts on precious dollops of pleasure

As I was saying a year ago, voting in the Rolling Stone 500 greatest albums sweepstakes was real work, but it was also fun to do, especially once the great lost rock critic I live with was invited to participate, whereupon we livened up a whole month of pandemic honing our respective top 50s. But when Rolling Stone hit us up for singles ballots I scoffed. As somebody who's been grading music for over half a century, I'm convinced singles can't be assayed like albums, because they split the incalculable difference between "favorite" and "best" a little too fine. Whatever exactly "great" means, it implies at least a portion of enduring gravitas or historical significance. But that's not how great singles work. By definition they're moments, moments that compel the attention of a wide swatch of listeners with precious dollops of pleasure, excitement, exhilaration. Often, admittedly, these are augmented by a jolt of meaning, although there are many exceptions, with Rob Base & D.J. E-Z Rock's 1988 "It Takes Two" a classic example for me. But in addition they're generally equipped with what were once happily designated "hooks," although that term now comes smelling slightly of declasse boomer retro. How the hell you assign aesthetic value to your "favorites" while straightening out this theoretical tangle I can't tell you now and hope I'm never compelled to figure out, especially for free. So I scoffed.

Only then I learned that the great lost rock critic I mentioned was already, that word again, hooked, and had gotten to where she wanted to talk about it. So I got hooked as well and began to poke at a list of my own--see final results of both efforts below. But we took different approaches. Carola really did try to put her true favorites in true order of preference, although she admits the order got sloppier as she passed 20. My own method was more cynical as to not just order, alphabetical by artist according to WordPerfect 5.1 (hence "Al Green" begins with A, hence group names sans "The"), but also judgment--I elected to put my thumb on the scale for records from one period (the '50s) and one genre (girl group) I assumed the electorate would neglect.

That said, I'm so glad Carola's top 10 is her true top 10, because it reminds me of various ways I love her. "Heat Wave" (two words, darlin') has been her favorite record for as long as I've known her, because as much as the second-place Beatles it was what drew her back to rock and roll in a Cambridge where folk music ruled. But also find three songs from this century: the Moldy Peaches young love song we've loved from the pushing-60 moment we heard it, the Etta-sings-Otis married love song we fell for shortly after Etta died in 2012, and the breakup blowup that hooked us on our beloved Wussy. Plus a Coasters song that hit the radio when she was barely 12 and a Chuck Berry song she first heard at my place at 27 and the Clash love song that anchored our punk years and the Sam Cooke trifle she ignored at 12 but now loves enough to curate in its Aretha variants.

As for my list, it is what it is--undefinitive by design. My attempts to stuff the ballot box yielded the scant results I feared. By my count, which I can't swear is exact because trawling and retrawling through a list of 500 anythings is dizzying, error-prone work, 14 pieces of '50s rock and roll made the 300-odd voters' 500 plus Muddy Waters's "Mannish Boy," John Lee Hooker's "Boom Boom," and "So What," the lead track of Miles Davis's Kind of Blue and a plausible candidate for greatest song or whatever it is of the decade. "Maybellene" and "Johnny B. Goode" plus the non-'50s "Promised Land" seems a reasonable read of Chuck Berry's very peak, whereas Elvis's "Jailhouse Rock" and "Heartbreak Hotel" over nonfinishers "Don't be Cruel" and "All Shook Up" do not. I was pleased to see Screamin' Jay Hawkins's "I Put a Spell on You" representing blotto insanity and "Bo Diddley" representing Bo Diddley and the Five Satins' "In the Still of the Night" representing the doowop it epitomizes only there was so much more. Black, gay Little Richard gets two picks to white, straight Jerry Lee's and Buddy Holly's one, and OK then. But although Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line" and Ray Charles's "What'd I Say" are undeniable peaks, it would have been nice to see "Folsom Prison Blues" join "Georgia on My Mind" in representing their long, fruitful maturities.

Girl group, on the other hand, got completely disrespected, starting with two '50s picks of mine for which I expected no better: not just the Bobbettes' praisesong for their high school principal "Mr. Lee," in behalf of which I've long labored as a one-man preservation society, but the Chantels' "Maybe," which was covered by Janis Joplin (who actually, um, failed to make the 500 at all). Beyond the Shangri-Las' 316th-place "Leader of the Pack" and, thank you Lord, the Shirelles' 151st-place "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," the relevant finishers are producers' records, Phil Spector's Ronettes and Crystals and a bunch of Motown: four Supremes hits, a sum not many males equalled, the Marvellettes' "Please Mr. Postman," and, yeah yeah yeah, "Heat Wave" (ranked 257th, so it may not even have needed Carola's first-place points). The biggest disgrace in this category is the shutout afforded the magical Jaynetts one-off "Sally Go Round the Roses," one of those impossible flukes, two weeks at No. 2 in Billboard in September of 1963, that its adepts never forget. Luc Sante's essay about it flirts proudly and atypically with mysticism.

I could go on, but I promised myself I wouldn't. Instead I'll just tell you a little about what it was like to scan the list--kindly provided by friends at Rolling Stone without the accompanying critical celebrations, which I've yet to crack and may never read even though I'm sure some of it is superb because I'm even surer that life is short in a much crueler way than singles are. It honors a few mostly newish songs I've never heard and many older ones I've long since half forgotten. But what impressed me most deeply was how often a mere title on a list, down to 250 anyway, made me grunt or moan briefly in pleasure recalled--how many selections struck me as deserving even if my deep preferences canted differently. "Good Vibrations"? I can still remember Ellen Willis and me listening gobsmacked on East 10th Street as it emanated from the car radio. Robyn's "Dancing on My Own"? Inspired a whole piece that ended with Carola putting her back out. "Smells Like Teen Spirit"? A world changer I thought merely pretty darn good first time I heard it. The Meters' "Cissy Strut"? Ziggy-defining three-minute masterpiece. "It Takes Two"? Just Saturday played it four times and decided that it smoked James Brown's magnificent nine-minute Carola pick "Talkin' Loud and Sayin' Nothing," which it samples. "Superstition"? Another career-making stop-the-car masterstroke that had me envisioning racial breakthroughs that did not ensue because there's only so much pop music can do and it's never enough. "Redemption Song"? On my list, on Carola's list, has been known to make me cry. Missy Elliott's "Work It"? Jimi Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower"? Mott the Hoople's "All the Young Dudes"? How come we didn't think of that one?

That's the way best-anything lists are, however. So Carola and I would like to depart this essay apologizing in unison for having somehow neglected the Kinks' "Waterloo Sunset," which each of us has been known to call the most beautiful song ever written. And speaking solely for myself, how the hell did I forget Bill Doggett's "Honky Tonk," a work of art that without question is a major reason I'm crushing out this prose all too deep into dinnertime.

Robert Christgau: 50 Greatest Singles, alphabetical by artist according to WordPerfect 5.1

  1. Ad Libs, "Boy From New York City"
  2. Al Green, "Love and Happiness"
  3. Beatles, "She Loves You"
  4. Bob Marley and the Wailers, "Redemption Song"
  5. Bob Dylan, "Brownsville Girl"
  6. Bobbettes, "Mr. Lee"
  7. Brad Paisley, "Then"
  8. Cadillacs, "Speed-O"
  9. Chantels, "Maybe"
  10. Chuck Berry, "Maybellene"
  11. Chuck Berry, "Promised Land"
  12. Chuck Berry, "Rock and Roll Music"
  13. Chuck Berry, "Roll Over Beethoven"
  14. Clash, "Janie Jones"
  15. Coasters, "Searchin'"
  16. Danny and the Juniors, "At the Hop"
  17. Del Vikings, "Come Go With Me"
  18. Dixie Cups, "Iko Iko"
  19. Dolly Parton, "Jolene"
  20. Exciters, "Tell Him"
  21. Fats Domino, "I'm in Love Again"
  22. Five Satins, "In the Still of the Night"
  23. Funkadelic, "Maggot Brain"
  24. Funky Four Plus One, "That's the Joint"
  25. George Jones, "He Stopped Loving Her Today"
  26. Gloria Gaynor, "I Will Survive"
  27. Gogol Bordello, "Ultimate"
  28. James McMurtry, "We Can't Make It Here"
  29. James Brown, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag"
  30. James Brown, "Sex Machine"
  31. Jaynettes, "Sally Go Round the Roses"
  32. Little Willie John, "Fever"
  33. Little Richard, "Tutti Frutti"
  34. Monotones, "Book of Love"
  35. Randy Newman, "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country"
  36. Ray Charles, "What'd I Say"
  37. New York Dolls, "Personality Crisis"
  38. Shangri-Las, "Leader of the Pack"
  39. Shirelles, "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?"
  40. Shirelles, "Tonight's the Night"
  41. Shirley and Lee, "Let the Good Times Roll"
  42. Silhouettes, "Get a Job"
  43. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, "You've Really Got a Hold on Me"
  44. Stooges, "I Wanna Be Your Dog"
  45. T.S. Monk, "Bon Bon Vie"
  46. Taana Gardner, "Heartbeat"
  47. Van Morrison, "Jackie Wilson Says"
  48. Willie Nelson, "September Song"
  49. Wussy, "Airborne"
  50. Youssou N'Dour, "Birima"

Carola Dibbell: 50 Greatest Singles, ranked by favorites (after first 20 ranking is mostly approximate)

  1. Martha and the Vandellas, "Heatwave"
  2. Beatles, "She Loves You"
  3. Etta James, "Cigarettes and Coffee"
  4. Aretha Franklin, "You Send Me"
  5. Clash, "Janie Jones"
  6. Wussy, "Airborne"
  7. Coasters, "Searchin'"
  8. Moldy Peaches, "Jorge Regula"
  9. Chuck Berry, "Nadine"
  10. Bob Marley, "Redemption Song"
  11. Aretha Franklin, "Think"
  12. Bob Dylan, "Tangled Up in Blue"
  13. Beach Boys, "Darling"
  14. James Brown, "Talkin' Loud and Sayin' Nothing"
  15. Randy Newman, "Louisiana 1927"
  16. Little Richard, "Tutti Frutti"
  17. Gloria Gaynor, "I Will Survive"
  18. New York Dolls, "Personality Crisis"
  19. Otis Redding, "Dock of the Bay"
  20. Marvin Gaye, "I Heard it Through the Grapevine"
  21. Ray Charles, "What'd I Say"
  22. Michael Jackson, "Beat It"
  23. Beatles, "Norwegian Wood"
  24. James Brown, "Sex Machine"
  25. Rolling Stones, "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction"
  26. James McMurtry, "We Can't Make it Here"
  27. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, "You Really Got a Hold on Me"
  28. Kanye West, "Gold Digger"
  29. Jaynettes, "Sally Go Round the Roses"
  30. Run-D.M.C., "It's Like That"
  31. Nirvana, "Heart Shaped Box"
  32. Funky Four Plus One, "That's the Joint"
  33. Robyn, "Don't Fucking Tell Me What To Do"
  34. Velvet Underground, "After Hours"
  35. Missy Elliott, "Work It"
  36. Silhouettes, "Get a Job"
  37. Elvis Presley, "Hound Dog"
  38. Fats Domino, "Blueberry Hill"
  39. Little Richard, "Good Golly Miss Molly"
  40. Neil Young, "Don't be Denied"
  41. Imagination, "Just an Illusion"
  42. Panjabi MC, "Beware of the Boys"
  43. Public Enemy, "Fight the Power"
  44. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, "The Message"
  45. Patti Smith, "Piss Factory"
  46. Taana Gardner, "Heartbeat"
  47. M.I.A., "Paper Planes"
  48. Shangri-Las, "Leader of the Pack"
  49. Bruce Springsteen, "Born in the USA"
  50. Danny and the Juniors, "Rock and Roll is Here to Stay"

And It Don't Stop, September 27, 2021