CLASSIC ROCK'S TOP SONGS
How do we really know the best tunes?
by Darren Barakat
On Memorial Day weekend, radio stations across the country will count down the top 500 classic rock songs of all time to coincide with the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the Indianapolis 500. This tradition was once a celebration of the greatest music in history, but it's become a farce that's more lemon than hot rod.
Published lists of the top classic rock songs of all time, mostly from radio stations, keep getting twisted and bent further out of alignment with history even as our ability to analyze data grows.
The first Top 500 I remember was in the mid-1980's on the big-city album rock station where I grew up. As a young student of rock music and history, I spent the weekend near my radio, especially as the countdown approached No. 1. I paid particular attention to the top 20 or so. I thought of these songs as the sonic equivalents of Da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" or Van Gogh's "Starry Night, " and the artists as royalty.
When it was over, I was curious about the formula used to compile the list. In the 1990's, I bought a book that showed the Billboard magazine chart performance of every album and single of the last 40 years and compared the numbers there with the songs on the station's countdown lists and in the music literature of the day. They matched up pretty well.
Recently, I used the Internet to round up about 20 lists of the top (usually 500) "classic rock" songs of all time. They all came from some kind of media operation- mostly radio stations, but also a few music websites and magazines- based in the United States. The lack of consistency among lists was astonishing given that they were presumably based at least partly on the same national album sales numbers and all cover "classic rock."
I couldn't Imagine that John Lennon's solo masterpiece would rank as low as No. 489 (last year by KSLX 100.7 FM in Phoenix, Ariz.) while as high as No. 10 (last decade by DJ Zone magazine, originally from classicrock.about.com).
A few other nuggets:
- "Born to Run" by Bruce Springsteen was No. 10 (Q104.3 FM in New York in 2015) and No. 335 (Rock 107 FM in Scranton, Pa., last year).
- "White Room" by Cream was No. 14 (DJ Zone) and missing from the top 500.
- "A Day in the Life" by the Beatles was No. 4 (DJ Zone) and missing from the top 500.
"Sweet Emotion" by Aerosmith was ranked No. 284 (97.1 FM The River in Atlanta in 2015) but also No. 1 by a handful of radio stations owned by the same company, and by a website, Ultimate Classic Rock. It's a strange, unsatisfying choice for No. 1 of all time, given the conventional wisdom that "Dream On" was Aerosmith's best and most well-known song. It's like choosing something other than "Stairway to Heaven" as Led Zeppelin's top song, which I saw on four lists. KSHE 95 FM in St. Louis even had Stairway to Heaven the fourth-ranked Zeppelin song on its 2015 list.
IHeartMedia owns a few of the radio stations whose lists I examined. It pays a company called Critical Mass Media to conduct a survey and build the list, according to John Cooper, senior vice president of programming for the Hartford Region and program director at WPYX 106.5 FM in Albany, N.Y.
Critical Mass Media is a market research firm whose goal is to help radio stations make money today rather than assemble a historically correct list of rock classics. Some of the services the company offers client stations, according to its website, are "online music tests" where respondents rate music they hear and in-person focus groups such as "perceptual studies" from interviews with "400-800" listeners.
KYBB 102.7 FM of Sioux Falls, S.D., uses another, unnamed "consulting and media" firm, whose formula for ranking the top songs is a closely guarded secret. "I can't give out any additional details but the criteria is from them," Danny V., program director/brand manager at KYBB, wrote in an email. He did admit that "bands that are still on the road will continue to climb this list. Groups such as Aerosmith, the Eagles, and Paul McCartney who have had mega success on their tours last year will have stronger scores because they're still selling albums and collecting ticket sales while touring."
Some stations simply open it up to direct voting by listeners, which results in the carnival mirror distortions inherent in any small sample size. The process for 102.9 FM The Whale in Hartford, Conn., is especially primitive. Voters aren't asked for a ranking, just an "up or down" vote on more than 1,000 pre-chosen songs, according to program director Keith Dakin. Voting lasts only "about a month." This resulted in Another Brick in the Wall by Pink Floyd pole-vaulting from No. 82 in 2015 to No. 1 in 2016.
'ACID TRIP' LISTS
"Classic rock" has traditionally referred to rock music from an era that began in the mid- to late 1960's, shortly after the British invasion, and lasted into the 1980s. It was focused on the longer album cuts played on FM rock stations, which in the early years were programmed by disc jockeysómusic fansórather than corporate marketers. The beginning of the end was the day MTV began broadcasting, and the final ending was the grunge explosion of 1991. The fans who built and sustained classic rock by buying millions of albums and listening to FM radio got older, had kids, and lost interest in new artists during the 1980s while continuing to enjoy a strong connection to the music they already knew. Their collective opinions are what make an all-time classic rock list, and because most of them are either offline or dead, we'll never know exactly what that would look like.
Filling a room for interviews with people who weren't listening to music or shopping at record stores during the golden years of 1967-1983 is no substitute. Nor is asking fans to click "yes" and "no" buttons on a website for a 30-second song segment. It's why most of these lists from the last few years look like they're on a bad acid trip and have at least one laugh-out-loud moment, usually when a song is so out of place the list immediately turns from drama to comedy.
Here's a few:
- Ultimate Classic Rock elevated "Everybody Wants Some," a throwaway track on one of Van Halen's least-selling albums, to No. 8. KSHE ranked "Ain't Talkin' Bout Love," a non-hit by Van Halen, at No. 6.
- Q104.3 FM stretched the boundaries of classic rock with the Captain-and-Tennille-sounding Billy Joel song "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant," which made no one else's top 500, at No. 67 in 2015.
- Last year WPYX raised "Live and Let Die" by Paul McCartney and Wings to No. 33, ahead of all but two Beatles songs, and did not include any songs from the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album (11 million copies sold) in the top 500.
- KSLX also might need to be reminded that the Beatles sold 178 million records in the United States, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. The station elevated "Come Together" by Aerosmith to No. 83 while failing to include the original version in the top 500.
- KSLX and KYBB both included "The Boys are Back in Town" by Thin Lizzy, from an album that sold less than 1 million copies, in the top 100. Both stations failed to include anything from Rumors by Fleetwood Mac (20 million sales) or Frampton Comes Alive by Peter Frampton (8 million) in the top 100. All three were released within 13 months of one another.
- Rock 107 FM relegated "Won't Get Fooled Again," the Who's signature song, to No. 182, while including Joan Jett and Billy Idol in the top 40.
- WZLX 100.7 FM Boston had "Rockin' in the Free World" from Neil Young's Freedom album, which sold less than 1 million copies, at No. 12 in 2013. Nothing from Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, which sold more than 15 million, made the top 100.
- 97.1 The River listed the same song twice. "Money" by Pink Floyd was at No. 34 and No. 254.
- KSLX was sloppy enough to list two songs twice. The station had "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen at No. 8 and No. 294, and "Sympathy for the Devil" by the Rolling Stones at No. 100 and No. 302.
This is what happens when you hand the keys to modern marketers, who see a top-songs list as a bullet point in a content strategy. The same people who stuff your inbox with spam and flood your phone with election robocalls have driven the Magic Bus into a tree and spilled soda all over the sacred, leather-bound volume The Greatest Classic Rock Songs of All Time.
Darren Barakat is the author of Greatest Misses: Deep Cuts and Forgotten Songs from the Shadows of Classic Rock, an e-book available at Amazon.com.
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