Laura’s Top 50

Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs of All Time cover
Rolling Stone cover from December 9, 2004, via Wikimedia Commons

It is one of the tenets of my life that anything someone else can do well, I can do poorly, so awhile back when Kembrew McLeod posted his list of the 50 best rock songs for Rolling Stone, I thought, “Well, that would be a fun pandemic exercise!”

In my bizarre and varied freelance writing career, I have written about all sorts of subjects for which I have no qualifications (to wit: I started out writing art reviews), but I have never written about music (at least not for pay or whuffie). But, as I said, I thought it would be a diverting challenge to come up with my list of the 50 best rock songs of all time. Lists are impossible, and they provoke arguments, first and foremost with the list maker. (Why are there no R.E.M. songs on this list, I find myself asking? I love them; I think they are a fantastic band. My ultimate answer was that, despite my love of them, I think of them as an album band, not a song band. I rarely want to hear a single R.E.M. song—I want to sit down and listen to all of Document or Lifes Rich Pageant or Automatic for the People.)

In compiling this list, I used the following criteria, more or less:

  • No matter how overplayed the song, is it one that would make me happy if I heard it come on at the grocery store? (Mind you, some of these will never come on at the grocery store.)
  • Does it fit one (or more) of the Great Themes of Rock and Roll? Namely,
    • My baby’s gone
    • I gotta get out of this place
    • Fuck the man
    • Celebrate good times
  • Is it a song that I like in most or all versions? Though this list contains both originals and covers, I tried to avoid songs that I only like in one particular recording and despise in all other versions or covers.
  • Does is it break any or all of those guidelines? Cool. This is rock and roll, man.

As this is my list, it’s high on folk rock and low on a lot of other sub genres and related genres. I was feeling bad about that, but then that’s why other people exist, because none of us can cover everything.

And thus, without further ado, the list, in chronological order of the year of release.

Laura’s Top 50 Rock Songs (as of this moment)

Here’s a Spotify playlist of most of the stuff on the list—see the note about Garth Brooks below.

Midnight Special—Leadbelly

Folsom Prison Blues—Johnny Cash (There probably should have been a category just for train songs… don’t worry, there are more coming.)

Johnny B. Goode—Chuck Berry

La Bamba—Ritchie Valens

Will You Love Me Tomorrow?—the Shirelles (written by Carole King—I love her version, too, but I wanted some girl group representation)

Dink’s Song—Dave Van Ronk (arguably not a rock song, but Van Ronk had such a huge influence everyone who passed through the folk scene in NYC, and his guitar work and growl presage a lot of later rock)

Like a Rolling Stone—Bob Dylan (really, I could just make an entirely Dylan playlist, but you’d all hate me—I made an obvious choice for reasons of historical significance and because, well, it is a great song)

Ticket to Ride—the Beatles (Lacking any better criteria for choosing a Beatles song, I went with my son’s favorite. It is not only his favorite Beatles song; it’s his favorite song in the world.)

Respect—Aretha Franklin

Good Vibrations—the Beach Boys

I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to Be Free—Nina Simone

Sympathy for the Devil—Rolling Stones

Piece of My Heart—Big Brother and the Holding Company

The Star-Spangled Banner—Jimi Hendrix (I know, I know, it’s the national anthem, not a rock and roll song—until Jimi Hendrix plays it. Then it becomes one of the virtuoso performances of all time and the only version of the song I like.)

Sweet Jane—the Velvet Underground (I went back and forth between this and Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” settling on “Sweet Jane” for its stunning cover by the Cowboy Junkies and for how often Jane comes up in rock and roll.)

City of New Orleans—Steve Goodman (Steve Goodman wrote it; Arlo Guthrie did probably the best recording of it. Did I mention there were more train songs coming?)

California—Joni Mitchell

Rocket Man—Elton John

I Can See Clearly Now—Johnny Nash

Lean on Me—Bill Withers (In the category of overplayed but always make you happy songs—in fact, a remix of this came on at CVS while I was in the post-shot waiting area after my second COVID vaccine and indeed, it did make me happy.)

Angel From Montgomery—Bonnie Raitt (I believe John Prine once said this song belonged to Bonnie Raitt, just as Kris Kristofferson said “Me and Bobby McGee” belonged to Janis Joplin. All versions of it are good, but hers is classic.)

Gloria—Patti Smith

Three Little Birds—Bob Marley

Badlands—Bruce Springsteen (How do you pick a Springsteen song? By the first line that comes to mind—“It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.”)

I Will Survive—Gloria Gaynor

I Wanna Be Sedated—the Ramones

Bad Reputation—Joan Jett

California Über Alles—the Dead Kennedys (I debated on including this, since so much of it is topical—but some rock and roll is.)

Late in the Evening—Paul Simon (“It was late in the evening / And I blew that room away.” Awww yeah.)

Jack and Diane—John Cougar Mellencamp (Do you have to be a Midwesterner to love John Mellencamp? I know it’s true of Bob Seger. In any case, again, so many songs to choose from, but I went with the most iconic.)

Billie Jean—Michael Jackson (Still a fine song, even without the Moondance—although whatever else you want to say about him (and there is a lot), he was an amazing dancer.)

Holiday—Madonna

Burning Down the House—Talking Heads (My favorite Talking Heads song is “Life During Wartime,” but only the version from Stop Making Sense, and only with the video.

Unsatisfied—the Replacements

Fast Car—Tracy Chapman (Is there a more poignant song in the world?)

Straight Outta Compton—N.W.A. (I am, obviously, not a big rap/hip hop listener. I did go back and revisit the stuff I remember listening to a bit when I was younger, which I would characterize as “college radio hip hop,” and none of it really held up. I don’t remember when I first heard this song, but that “Compton Compton Compton” beat stuck with me even before I had any idea what it meant.

Wave of Mutilation—the Pixies

Friends in Low Places—-Garth Brooks (This one is missing from the playlist, because Garth Brooks doesn’t want you to listen to his music. As of this writing, the only streaming service that has it is Amazon’s, though there are covers and imitations all over the place. I assume his lack of presence on other platforms is part of his longstanding campaign against people listening to music except via a physical CD they bought new. Relics of the 90s may recall his contributions to the campaign against used CD sales—and locals may remember the giant cutout of him outside the Record Collector in the early 1990s warning you not to buy used CDs. Regardless, though, this is a great song—just reading the comments on one of the YouTube video imitations of it will break your heart and put it back together again and again.)

Come As You Are—Nirvana

I’m No Heroine—Ani Difranco

Unknown Legend—Neil Young

Product—New Bad Things (The perfect indie pop song. Really. Give it a listen.)

Fuck and Run—Liz Phair

Doll Parts—Hole

Good Things—Sleater Kinney

Car Wheels on a Gravel Road—Lucinda Williams (I almost can’t listen to this one anymore now that I have a kid, but that gutting feeling is part of what makes it great.)

Underneath Your Clothes—Shakira

This Year—the Mountain Goats

The Denial Twist—the White Stripes

The greatest—Lana Del Rey (I don’t know if this will last, but it’s the best distillation of 2020 I’ve heard—my thanks to Steve for getting me to listen to it in the first place.)

StartUp and/or/not Serial

Before we begin, a quick promo:

Do you get enough email in your life? Hahahaha. I know. But do you get enough email that you want to read, that feels the way email did in the 90s, back when it came from real people? If not, sign up for The New Rambler 2015 Email Series. Get an email a month from me all year long, and party like it’s 1994.

And now back to our feature presentation!

A lot of people on the internet these days, including a lot of people I know, are obsessed with Serial. I am not. I have heard it, or rather I have heard a little of it, and at some point I may listen to the rest of it, but mostly I find the critiques I’ve read of it far more interesting than the show itself. Like, do the producers really get the cultures of the people they are talking about? I don’t know, but I’m interested. The show itself is engrossing and slick and smart and everything you expect from a This American Life spinoff, which it is, but in the end I often feel like I’m listening to the 21st century version of a 19th century illustrated crime newspaper — with the added advantage that no one has to do the police in different voices, because they can, at least in some cases, interview the police directly and edit in a studio into this thing I can download on my phone and listen to wherever. The future is pretty amazing. But of course I don’t really care who done it, which is a fundamental problem when the chief dramatic tension in a story is did he or didn’t he kill her.

But as I’ve said, I’m not obsessed with Serial. I’m obsessed with StartUp. Last week on StartUp, Alex Blumberg said if you’d heard of StartUp but not of Serial, you occupied a very interesting niche in the radio landscape and he wanted to hear from you. I’m not a member of that niche, but I might be a member of one of its neighbors, and I have things I want to say on the subject. I was going to brag that I heard StartUp before I heard Serial, but then I realized that everyone did, or at least everyone one who listens to This American Life did: StartUp’s first episode was excerpted in Episode 533; Serial’s first episode was aired as Episode 537. So much for my vaunted avant garde.

StartUp, if you haven’t heard it, is this meta podcast that Alex Blumberg is doing about starting his own podcasting company. I adore Blumberg’s work. I liked it even back when he was doing quirky stories (The Family that Flees Together Trees Together is an early favorite). That expanded when he started doing more topical work (Somewhere in the Arabian Sea is brilliant even though in theory we’re not exactly at war anymore). When he started doing economics stories with Adam Davidson, though, he started being brilliant about something I’ve always thought I should know more about but hadn’t previously spent any time with, because, after the night in seventh grade when my mother spent several hours attempting to explain what “adjusted for inflation” meant (I’d gotten curious about a graph in the back of my geography textbook) and we’d both ended up in tears, I thought maybe economics and I just were not going to be friends.

Blumberg’s work with Davidson, first on This American Life and then on Planet Money, changed all that. I don’t really want to confess to you how many times I’ve listened to the  financial crisis stories. I can’t, actually, as I haven’t kept track. I love Planet Money even though I find it, like much of NPR, incredibly centrist and occasionally a little dense (I loved the tshirt project, but was it really a surprise to anyone that the garment industry follows poverty? Perhaps to people who didn’t spend a few years in the anti-sweatshop movement trenches, or read Naomi Klein’s No Logo, or read The Nation for years before that…).

So I was intrigued when Blumberg decided to strike out on his own. Intrigued and worried, and worried for a variety of reasons. If you listen to the very first show, you’ll get some of that worry right off the bat. Blumberg is so awkward, so bumbling, so nervous, so… embarrassing when he’s trying to pitch his project to investors that I actually had to pause the episode a few times just to breathe. The dramatic tension is like that in a really good novel — the kind where you want to jump into the pages and take the protagonist and grab her and say, “STOP! NO! DON’T DO IT!” Brilliant.

What fascinates me about StartUp is its storytelling, which is just as produced as that of Serial but which feels fresher and… messier. I love a good mess. But I’m also fascinated by the tensions it brings up. When Blumberg makes his terrible pitch to Chris Sacca, a venture capitalist, Sacca first gives him a better version of his pitch — all the reasons Sacca and others should invest in his company. Then, seemingly with his next breath, he gives a pitch of all the reasons they shouldn’t. Among those is that Blumberg risks losing all his credibility with public radio listeners by becoming a commercial entity. Some episodes later, you watch that happen, as the team gets into a major internet scandal because they mistakenly let someone who was being interviewed for an ad think she was being interviewed for, well, This American Life.

This is a pretty fangirly post, and I am a big fan. But I’m also a skeptical observer. I really want to see if this thing takes off, if Blumberg and company can build a commercially successful podcast company, and if, in the course of doing so, they can keep my anti-capitalist public radio listener self as a fan.