A Musical Project

I have a resolution for the year. Well, hopefully less than the year, but you know how bad I am with punctuality.

Some of you may be aware that I have the pop culture awareness of a… some amusingly unaware thing I can’t be bothered to think of right now because it’s a cliched type of punchline anyway. One of those things. I generally ignore everything going on in the world of ‘what’s going on’, except for the occasional film or TV show. [“Wreck-it Ralph” – surprisingly, really good!]

In particular, I have no knowledge of pop music. And I’m using ‘pop music’ in its widest misuse there. All that stuff that people have been listening to since the 1950s – that stuff, I know nothing about it. Sure, friends and family have induced me to listen to this album or that over the years, and some things have come through by pure osmosis, but for the most part I am utterly ignorant.

I’ve decided to do something about this. And because I’m… well, who I am… I’m doing it in an overly organised, logical, ambitious, and failure-prone way. I have made: A List.

This list has several sources. It includes every end-of-year Billboard #1 hit, plus a bunch of their all-time hits where they didn’t make #1 for a year (surprisingly often). It includes every Grammy Award-winning song. It includes the best-selling songs ever, and songs from the best-selling albums ever. And pop chart toppers and all-time sales toppers from the UK, because I’m from the UK and I’d rather learn about our culture than purely about US stuff. And critically-acclaimed songs drawn from lists by Rolling Stone and NME magazines, and Brit Award winners. In fact, in total, The List is drawn from 15 different lists.

What’s the point of that? Well I can’t just go out and pick the songs myself, because I don’t know about them. And I don’t want to ask one person, because then I’d be hostage to that person’s taste and time and place. So I’ve tried to get more of a level of objectivity. Songs are on my list because they were very popular – with the public, or with critics, or with whoever it is gives out awards.

In total, that makes for approximately 574 songs for me to listen to (I say approximately because there might be duplicates I haven’t spotted), from “1999” (Prince, 1982) through to “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” (Johnny Mercer, 1946). Or, seen another way, from “Saint James Infirmary” (Louis Armstrong, 1928), through to… well, depends how you count, but probably “We Are Young” (Fun featuring Janelle Monáe, 2011 but won the 2013 Grammy).

Don’t worry, I’m not going to update you with each one, though I may give a more general progress report now and then. So far, I’ve listened to 86 songs. I’m not ranking them exactly, but I am jotting down some numerical scores that will allow me to review the best and worst later, and so far my favourite has probably been one of “American Pie”, “All Along the Watchtower”, “Bittersweet Symphony” or “Come As You Are”. However, I knew all those before, which is a bit unfair – the best new discovery for me has probably been “Common People”, with “Blue Monday”, “Bat out of Hell”, and “A Day In the Life” also up there.

On the other hand, the competition for the song I’ve hated the most has been very hot indeed. “Born to Run”, “Bad Day”, “Apologize”, and “Careless Whisper” are all lining up behind Shania Twain’s “Any Man of Mine” and Take That’s “Back for Good”… but something tells me that in the end the title might just go to Willie Nelson’s rendition of “Always on My Mind”, which has to work really hard to overcome the handicap of actually having a pretty good tune, yet somehow, between Nelson’s toneless soulless tempoless and rasping singing and the godawfully cliche backing vocals and over-production, manages to turn that good tune into the vehicle for one of the most repellant musical performances I’ve ever encountered. Rarely have I so earnestly hoped for a song to end… but it doesn’t. And doesn’t. And doesn’t.

And nor does this project! 86 down, 400-and-however-many to go!

5 thoughts on “A Musical Project

  1. Katie says:

    I was about to complement your taste so far, but then I saw you didn’t like Born to Run and everything has been called into question.

  2. Huh. Interesting. Well, since you say that, I’ll listen to it again…
    …I’ve now listened to it again. And I have to admit, it worked better the second time. I’m upgrading it… from ‘one of the worst songs so far’ to ‘I really didn’t like it’. I like the chords at the beginning, and in between the verses. Possibly I’d have liked it more if I could have made out more than one word a verse – as it was it sounded like a drunken uncle doing bad karaoke: can’t hear the words, and he can’t hit the notes. And that wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t been nearly five minutes of the same stuff repeated! Just don’t get it. Didn’t really like “Born in the USA” either, although that at least has the benefit of energy.

    May also be worth mentioning: as I say, I like New World Order’s “Blue Monday”, but I also listened to their “Bizarre Love Triangle” and couldn’t stand it. Further investigation will be necessary.

    I realise I forgot to write anything down about “Bohemian Rhapsody”, but obviously that would be up with the favourites too. Though that one’s so culturally engrained that it can’t really be judged impartially – even as someone who doesn’t know any pop music, I find I still know it all by heart just through osmosis.

    As you can tell, I’m going through alphabetically. So Springsteen has a few more chances to impress me (Streets of Philadelphia, The River, and Thunder Road).

    Two more general findings I’ll share while I’m here. The first is that the Beatles were really good. I’m not really into their style, by and large, but it’s clear they were talented, and I can’t but admire their creativity – a lot more inventive and varied, and plain musically aware, than most of these pop people. The second is that Britney Spears wasn’t good – but was a lot less awful than I was expecting her to be. [Or, as I understand, the people who wrote, produced, and to a large extent performed ‘her’ music were less awful than I was expecting them to be].

    Further adventures in “things everyone else already knew” will follow…

  3. Katie says:

    Haha, I’m just messing with you. I’m originally from New Jersey, so I’m obligated to defend Bruce Springsteen. Let me know what you think of Thunder Road, that’s my favorite of his by a long shot. He is super, super American, though, so some of the charm may not entirely translate.

    And yeah, the Beatles are good! It’s probably a bit unfair of me, but whenever I come across someone who says that they hate the Beatles I don’t really believe them. I can understand them not being your favorite band, but you’re right – they’re absolutely talented and they wrote some wonderful melodies.

    Maybe I should give Britney another go?

  4. Hans says:

    On Bruce Springsteen – I think he’s one of those “message” guys people listen to because of what he sings, not because his tunes are so good. Although some of them are, he mostly sings in that same, limited melodic range and even the riffs and chords sound similar in most songs. But there’s still stuff I like – my favourite is one of his first famous songs, “Hungry Heart”. If that’s not on your list, give it a chance.
    As for the Beatles – here again is a band where it’s worth listening to the entire albums, at least the later ones (White Album, Magical Mystery Tour, Sgt. Pepper, Abbey Road).

  5. Katie: oh, I wouldn’t go that far! Except perhaps out of scientific curiosity. It’s just that I was expecting/halfremembering her to be the epitome of musical blandness, when actually there’s a lot of room to be worse [I’m only going on two songs here, mind you, not her entire oeuvre]. For one thing, the songs do have energy, which is always a plus. And then they do at least try to be interesting: there’s all sorts of playing around with multiple levels of chorusing and stereo effects, building up at times to actual counterpoint (with her and her chorus singing different words to different tunes simultaneously), there’s a range of interestingly distorted sounds, they vary some sections between verses, they use off-kilter and varying rhythms and a sort of syncopation between rhythm and where the stresses fall in the lyrics.

    I guess to me the worst thing music can be is boring, and while I don’t really like the style myself (and I think the tunes are bombastic and the lyrics are vacuous) the Spears songs are at least less repetitively boring than some of this music. And if nothing else, they are at least short!

    On the Beatles (changing the topic just slightly there…) – I guess I could see people hating a certain common thread of… tweeness, you might call it? I’ve got a lot of their stuff to listen to yet, and it doesn’t apply to songs like ‘Hey Jude’, but a lot of their songs do seem to have a rather smug, jolly, effete, polishedness to them, which I can see people hating much the same way as some people hate Mozart. In both cases they’re missing out, of course…

    Hans: yeah, I probably will come back and listen to a bunch of their albums at some point.

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