Old rock rules WXPN’s “2,020 Greatest Songs of All Time”

The countdown wrapped Thursday night with "Thunder Road" coming in #1

Song countdowns are a radio station gimmick that are almost as old as radio itself. Stations have always done top 5-at-5, top 9-at-9, and annual countdowns of the year’s best tunes, which is to say nothing of “The American Top 40” and its various successors. In recent years, stations have gotten more ambitious with the efforts, running countdowns, often over long holiday weekends, of the top 100 or 500 songs of all time, or even of their entire musical libraries. 

WXPN, the respected indie channel in Philadelphia that’s based at the University of Pennsylvania, tried something this year that’s a bit more ambitious: It decided to count down the top 2,020 songs of all time, as determined by listener ballots. And the countdown drew major attention, occasioning a New York Times feature, and endless arguments on Twitter over whether songs were ranked too high or too low. There were also attempts on social media to guess where certain songs might place. 

The countdown ran for about a week, and wrapped up Thursday night with Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” coming in #1, following by John Lennon’s “Imagine,” Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” 

I love all of those songs, and most of the top selections (well, not “Imagine,” but all the others). But it’s hard not to notice that this is not a list that’s particularly different from what you might find on a classic rock station’s best-songs-of-all-time countdown, although WXPN is not a classic rock station, and in fact, prides itself on being eclectic, and playing music from all over the musical spectrum. 

But nevertheless, the list WXPN ended up with was very white, very male, and very boomer – not to mention very old. Every single song in the top 14 was a rock song from between 1965 and 1975. Of the 20 most represented years on the list, 1969 was first, 1973 was second, and the most recent year represented in the top 20 – at #20 – was 1989. The most represented artists, according to a “by the numbers” chart? I probably don’t even have to tell you: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, the Grateful Dead, and Stevie Wonder. Not even Prince or Michael Jackson cracked the list of top 20 artists. 

Does this mean that all of the best music ever made is from 40 or 50 years ago, all come from a single genre and that nothing produced since has come close to comparing? 

Of course not. What’s much more likely is that the sorts of people who have strong opinions about these things, and therefore participate in radio station song surveys, tend to belong to a certain demographic: Older, whiter, male, and with tastes that trend towards the classic rock canon, a cluster of songs and groups that have remained mostly frozen in place for the better part of the last 30 or 40 years. 

Not only is there barely any hip-hop in the top echelon of the list, but there’s also hardly any music that’s come out since hip-hop was invented. This is a list dominated by music from Carter Administration and earlier. I’m over 40, but if this list had come out when I was 12 years old, it might not have looked any different. 

This was all dealt with in the Times piece, by the great culture writer Wesley Morris, himself a Philadelphia native who grew up listening to WXPN. Morris published the piece last weekend before the list was completed, but he noticed that the top parts of the list up to that point were notably lacking in racial, gender, and genre diversity. 

“Why do this to myself? Why do it for what’s essentially just another canon?,” Morris wrote. “Enough with those! They’re exclusionary, history-warping, gate-kept; perpetuators of the same-old same-olds — the Beatles and the Stones and Dylan. These hierarchies of worth are rarely about passion for art; they’re papacy. And didn’t I mention that this is a Philadelphia station and the list was likely determined by Philadelphia-area radio listeners? That means hours and hours of rock ’n’ roll — old rock ’n’ roll.” 

Morris also asked, “would Aretha Franklin serve her usual canonical function of hauling both Black America and womankind to the top of the pile?” Indeed, Aretha’s “Respect” came in at #15, making it the highest-ranking song by a solo woman or a Black artist, though Bonnie Raitt’s duet with John Prine, “Angel From Montgomery,” was one spot ahead. Morris did, however, acknowledge that the countdown had value, as a rare modern example of “word-of-mouth radio.”

I applaud WXPN for putting together a project that got people talking, all around the country, and if you listen to WXPN on a typical day, you’re going to discover some great music, of all kinds of genres, and you’re a lot more likely to hear something great and obscure than you are to hear selections from the classic rock canon. But it must be pointed out that “Greatest Songs of All Time” does not equal “Greatest Songs In One Genre From One Particular Ten-Year Period a Long Time Ago.” 

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