The best songs of all time?


I love lists. I love when people commit to their top albums of the year, or favorite songs. This time of year is great as everyone is busy sharing all the media they consumed with list after list. And though I am very much of the sentiment that these rankings are fluid to change from minute to minute, I want to know what folks are thinking at that moment.

In music one of the most influential lists is The Rolling Stone magazine’s list of their top 500 songs of all time. The thing that I like most about what they are doing is that they have revised their list every decade or so. One of these revisions happened a few months ago. Now I don’t want to litigate why a Harry Styles song was put above David Bowie and Queen’s ‘Under Pressure’. Instead I want to look at the list as a whole and see what it tells us about the view on popular music. 

So being the music nerd and data nerd that I am I made some charts. Last time I did this I looked at UK No 1s over time. It probably came as no surprise that over the past few decades Pop and Hip Hop have been surging in popularity as Rock is relatively less popular. As current tastes in music is changing I was curious to see if that has changed our perception of ‘the classics’. 

Rolling Stone have released their top 500 song list in 2004, 2010 and now again in 2021. The artists with the most songs in this list have not changed throughout: The Beatles, Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones. 2004 and 2010 are broadly the same with ~⅙ songs coming from the top 6. The new edition shows a lot of change. Over half the songs from the top 6 artists have been demoted out of the top 500. I am a big fan of this democratisation. As much as I respect the legacy of The Beatles, I don’t think they have over 20 of the best songs of all time!

Number of songs in The Rolling Stone Top 500 songs list from the top 6 most common artists

So what is changing? Well the breakdown by genre shows that the list is still dominated by Rock music. But you can start to see the increase in hip hop and pop. This is not super dramatic, but it obviously takes a little time for something to be considered a classic. 

Number of songs of each genre from The Rolling Stone Top 500 lists

It isn’t just the Genre changing though. Maybe what is more dramatic is when we look at the decades the songs are from. Again the 2004 and 2010 list are broadly the same as each other, as both are obsessed with the 60s and 70s. Beatles, Beatles, Beatles! The new list changes this. A bit anyway. The 60 and 70s are still the most common decade. But the songs are a bit more spread across the decades. Taking in much more from the 80s and 90s.

The proportion of songs from each decade from The Rolling Stone Top 500 lists. The dotted line is at 1, which is the expected number.

Overall it does seem like that over time the list is diversifying. As limited as it is to use a single publication to get a snapshot on pop culture, hopefully these changes reflect people’s view of music as a whole. Whether you think these lists are very useful or not, lists like these and the Pitchfork 500, are important. When I started to vociferously consume music these lists helped me get a foothold in music that I had no link to. Old hip hop and soul. 90s electronica. So a more varied Top 500 list can only be a good thing. 

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