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Ken Hoffman looks back on the brilliance of Rolling Stone's 500 greatest songs of all time list

Hoffman looks back on Rolling Stone's greatest 500 songs of all time

Nathan Apodaca TikTok
Nathan Apodaca's skateboard ride catapulted "Dreams" high into Rolling Stone's list. 420Doggface208/TikTok

Back in 2004 Rolling Stone magazine released its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Of all time is a very long time, but for argument’s sake, let’s say 1955 to now.

The Rolling Stone 500 was one of the best conversation-starters ever — challenged only by “Who was your first concert” in college dorms during freshman orientation week.

For the record (mostly 45s), the Top 10 went a little something like this:

1. “Like a Rolling Stone,” Bob Dylan
2. “Satisfaction,” Rolling Stones
3. “Imagine,” John Lennon
4. “What’s Going On,” Marvin Gaye
5. “Respect, ”Aretha Franklin
6. “Good Vibrations,” Beach Boys
7. “Johnny B. Goode,” Chuck Berry
8. “Hey Jude,” Beatles
9. “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Nirvana
10. “What’d I Say,” Ray Charles

I was okay with the list. Left up to me, The Beatles would hold down No. 1 through No. 212, their entire catalog of songs released in the U.S. – everything except Revolution No. 9. I accepted that Rolling Stone was a mass media magazine and had to appeal across the board, and above all else, had to look hip to its readers.

I pored over that list for days. I grew up loving sports and rock ‘n’ roll on the radio. I worked at a record store after school. I couldn’t name the elements on the periodic table, but I memorized the backs of baseball cards and flip sides of singles.

Earlier this month, Rolling Stone — I swear I didn’t know it still existed (Editor's note: Uh, yeah. Please don't sue us, Rolling Stone.) — came out with its revised list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

This time, it wasn’t a big deal, hardly a blip on talk radio, my concert-going friends weren’t even aware of the updated ranking.

This list is too cool for school. Here’s the new Top 10 of all time:

1. “Respect,” Aretha Franklin
2. “Fight the Power,” Public Enemy
3. “A Change is Gonna Come,” Sam Cooke
4. “Like a Rolling Stone,” Bob Dylan
5. “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Nirvana
6. “What’s Going On,” Marvin Gaye
7. “Strawberry Fields Forever,” The Beatles
8. “Get Ur Freak On,” Missy Elliott
9. “Dreams,” Fleetwood Mac
10. “Hey Ya,” Outkast

More than half of the 2021 list, 254 titles, weren’t on the 2004 list. "Hound Dog" by Elvis Presley was No. 19 in 2004, now vanished. But "Hound Dog," the original 1952 version by Big Mama Thornton, which wasn’t on the 2004 list, is No. 318 two decades later.

"Dreams" by Fleetwood Mac wasn’t on the 2004 list and now lands at No. 9? That’s some speeding bullet, considering it was released in 1987. Of course, how a song rates historically is subjective. But, that's the power of a guy riding a skateboard on TikTok

Fun facts: The Beatles have the most entries (12) on the 2021 list, followed by the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and David Bowie with seven each. The only entry not sung in English is "La Bamba" by Ritchie Valens.

The only instrumental is "Green Onions" by Booker T (not the wrestler) and the M.G.’s. John Lennon is the only artist to appear twice in the Top 10 with "Strawberry Fields Forever" as part of the Beatles and "Imagine" a solo hit. The shortest song is "Rave On" by Buddy Holly (1:47), the longest "The End" by the Doors (11:41).

According to the magazine editors, the 2021 list is a “more expansive, inclusive vision of pop music that keeps rewriting its history.” Rewriting history can be dangerous. Elvis Presley didn’t become less revolutionary over time. Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it on youtube, from the waist up, on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Rolling Stone swapping out 254 songs on its 500 Greatest Songs list is like the Baseball Hall of Fame replacing 180 current members with different players. Songs, like shortstops, don’t suddenly achieve greatness 30, 40, 50 years later. How is it possible that "Fight the Power," recorded in 1989 and with nothing else changing, jumps from No. 322 to No. 2?

How’s it possible? Rolling Stone came up with its new 500 greatest songs list by polling 250 artists, writers, journalists, critics and industry figures. Uh-oh, journalists and critics?

True story from my career, this long climb to the middle: Early on, I got a job reviewing concerts and TV and general assignments for a struggling newspaper. I was given a desk in a cluster of entertainment writers, the restaurant critic, food editor, fine arts critic, movie critic … the playground section of the newspaper.

My desk was opposite the music columnist, who had been there forever.

One day, I tried to engage the music critic. You know me, I love people, I can’t help it. I’ll try to piece together the conversation, from my side of it.

Me: What are you working on?
Music critic: “I’m putting together a list of the Top 100 songwriters of the rock era.”
Me: Who’s No. 2? (Hilarious. I’m a Beatles fan, of course Lennon-McCartney would be No. 1.)
Music critic: “Robert Johnson.” Or some other blues songwriter, I’ve forgotten who he said. I was surprised. Then I thought, wait …
Me: At least you have Lennon-McCartney at No. 2, right?
Music critic:  “They’re not on my list.”
Me: We’re not going to be friends. I didn’t really say that but that’s how things turned out.

The biggest flaw in Rolling Stone’s 500 greatest songs list is – back in 2004, if fans wanted to listen to music, they had their album collection, the Columbia Record Club (12 albums for 1 penny), and the radio. The iPod was just catching on. Streaming services were relatively new.

Now everybody has their own personal 500 greatest songs of all time on their Spotify playlist and phone. I own practically every song I love. I don’t need Rolling Stone magazine and too-cool “industry insiders” to tell me that Hey Jude isn’t in the Top 10 – it’s No. 89. I know what I like, and "Hey Jude" tops the list.

I can drive from Houston to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and listen to all 500 greatest songs with a few hours left over for an Astros game on Sirius XM.

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