Going, going, gone for a song

A new chart of the 100 best tunes (ever written, no less) has sparked the usual controversies. But none more so than: what exactly is Bonnie Raitt doing there?
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The Independent Culture

It's hardly gone unreported, which was obviously the intention, but Mojo's list of "The One Hundred Greatest Songs Ever Written" was noticeably curious even by the arbitrary standards of such epic space-fillers. Take the No 8 choice - Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me", penned by that latterday Bacharach and David, Mike Reid (no, not that one) and Allen Shamblin (smart monicker - better even than Badly Drawn Boy). Now if an esteemed panel of tunesmiths and critics rate this number above the entire work of Brian Wilson, you might reasonably expect to be aware it. But not one of my wide circle of acquaintances admitted to familiarity with this presumably incisive source of emotional truths, doubtless backed with a damn fine melody.

It's hardly gone unreported, which was obviously the intention, but Mojo's list of "The One Hundred Greatest Songs Ever Written" was noticeably curious even by the arbitrary standards of such epic space-fillers. Take the No 8 choice - Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me", penned by that latterday Bacharach and David, Mike Reid (no, not that one) and Allen Shamblin (smart monicker - better even than Badly Drawn Boy). Now if an esteemed panel of tunesmiths and critics rate this number above the entire work of Brian Wilson, you might reasonably expect to be aware it. But not one of my wide circle of acquaintances admitted to familiarity with this presumably incisive source of emotional truths, doubtless backed with a damn fine melody.

It's not the only anomaly. The best song ever written, in the world, ever, is apparently the Beatles' "In My Life", a lovely tune, certainly, but in many people's opinion not even the best track on Rubber Soul, while "Here, There and Everywhere" beats off the rest of Revolver (as well as The White Album, Sgt Pepper, and lots of great singles...) to the No 4 slot, despite the fact that even Paul McCartney admits its roots in the standards of the Thirties and Forties. It's pastiche. Great pastiche, wonderfully constructed, but - quite deliberately - not groundbreaking.

Elsewhere on the list there's a song about Hank Williams (Leonard Cohen's admittedly fantastic "Tower of Song"), but not a single entry from the great man himself. No "Your Cheatin' Heart", "Hey Good Lookin' " or "I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive" - each one a template, but now rated inferior to the Eagles' "Desperado" and Marc Cohn's "Walking In Memphis".

Of course the nature of the panel defines the choices, and aged, if illustrious, voters such as Lamont Dozier, Carole King and Jerry Leiber chose the soundtracks to their formative or peak years. Conversely, young bucks such as Fran Healy and Danny McNamara (who he?) must have nominated those La's and Smiths classics. Healy also has a well-documented soft spot for No 97, Britney Spears's "Baby One More Time", penned by the Scandinavian writer Max Martin, the only present-day writer for hire to make the list.

More surprising are the omissions. Though fashions change, a similar poll 15 years ago would surely have turned up entries by David Bowie and Elvis Costello, while Prince, REM or U2 must have touched enough people to deserve recognition. No "Everybody Hurts", but James Taylor's "Fire and Rain" at 16? The absent George Michael certainly knows something about crafting a tune, even if his own recent tribute, Songs From The Last Century, was smothered by its own tastefulness.

Just how does one define a great song? A great melody? A cutting lyric? The perfect match of the two? Or does it have more to do with the effect that something has on its listeners? Why should it not be perceived as an evolving form? Public Enemy's fearsome polemics are hardly less musical than Bob Dylan's early efforts, yet the generation which grew up with them have yet to make it, if ever, to the head of a big corporation.

Then again, such lists are perpetually flawed, and at least this one manages to persuade the casual reader to prepare their counter-arguments. One Eighties selection by prominent rock hacks of The Greatest Albums Ever Made (a predictable list - Sgt Pepper, Highway 61, Never Mind the... etc etc) included each contributor's individual choices. Strangely, Greil Marcus, Dean of Rock, chose exclusively British post-punk curiosities such as Wire and Gang of Four. This, it transpired, was what he had been listening to the day he received the call - an unintentionally perfect response to those who stitch Rock's Rich Tapestry, as Julie Burchill accurately described such pompous self-aggrandisement.

Even a recent attempt by another newspaper to come up with an alternative canon by explicitly excluding the perpetual nominees foundered on the fact that promoting Nick Drake's oeuvre only served to create a new orthodoxy. Perhaps it would be wiser simply to publicise the gems overlooked by history without bothering to rank them.

Not that the public can be trusted to do any better. Radiohead must have been surprised to discover that the readers of Q magazine considered OK Computer to be the finest album ever made only three months after its release. Time does make the difference, and though naturally bitter that the Byrds' "Lady Friend" has yet again been overlooked for the top spot, I am more puzzled by the absence of "Ode to Joy" from the Hot Hundred. Top tune, great lyricist - when will Ludwig and Freidrich receive their dues? Aux armes, citoyens!, as another one goes...

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