Voters were asked to submit ranked ballots listing their 50 favorite songs of all time. — Rolling Stone, on its new version of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”
Did you notice that? Their favorite songs, not the greatest songs, as if it’s the same thing.
“Like A Rolling Stone” is Dylan’s “greatest song,” but it’s not necessarily my favorite. Further complicating things: I don’t have a single favorite Dylan song (somedays it’s “Handy Dandy,” or something off the “Desire” album), whereas I do have a favorite John Prine song (see below).
Likewise, sort of, I don’t have a favorite Springsteen song but I do have a favorite Joni Mitchell song (again, see below), which I realize isn’t her greatest song, which would be something from “Blue.” I don’t know why it’s that way, it just is. And anyway, picking favorites is both tougher and easier — it’s what you feel, but you feel different every day. Your favorite song may just make you smile; the greatest song ought to define or defy or change the world, or culture, or the national mood, in some way. (“Like A Rolling Stone” did. “That’s All Right” did. “Strange Fruit” did.) Somedays my favorite song is “Weed Smoker’s Dream” by the Harlem Hamfats, and sometimes John Fahey’s “Steamboat Gwine ’Round De Bend.” Play those two, right now, and see what I mean. Other times it’s something off side two of Neil Young’s “Hawks & Doves” — I have a favorite side of a Neil Young album (B), but I don’t have a favorite Neil Young album. Favorite Neil Young song? Impossible. There are too many I cherish that way.
Anyway, here are my favorite 10 songs. Today. This morning. On one cup of coffee. And yes, I know it goes to 13.
1. “The Weight,” The Band
2. “Fairytale of New York,” The Pogues
3. “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” Richard Thompson
4. “When I Grow Too Old to Dream,” Nat King Cole and His Trio
5. “Everybody Knows (The River Song),” O.V. Wright
6. “Genius of Love,” Tom Tom Club
7. “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” Blind Willie Johnson
8. “Devil Got My Woman,” Skip James
9. “I Dream A Highway,” Gillian Welch
10. “Mexican Home,” John Prine
11. “You Never Can Tell,” Chuck Berry
12. “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio,” Joni Mitchell
13. “Thirteen,” Big Star
Notes: Story songs, of sorts, top the chart. That shouldn’t surprise. Nobody knows what “The Weight” is really about, and people misunderstand “Fairytale” when they want to ban it over its “offensive” language, come Christmas time, and “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” is my favorite movie — yes, movie; it just plays in my head now, but I always see Bill Forsyth (“Local Hero,” my other favorite movie) directing.
“When I Grow Too Old to Dream,” with secret-weapon Stuff Smith on violin, is a song I’d love to hear played at my funeral. I’m still working out how that might happen. O.V. Wright is my favorite soul singer, unjustly obscure though he is, and I named my next novel after my favorite song of his. This is not product placement; this is deeply held belief.
The selections at 7-8-9 feel like a dark suite, the centerpiece of which is Skip James’ spookiest blues. There are ghosts who won’t play “Devil Got My Woman” after 8 p.m. on a weeknight.
I love John Prine, love pretty much everything he did, but “Mexican Home,” from the Sweet Revenge” album, is my favorite, especially when he sings, “The air’s as still as the throttle on a funeral train.”
And on his next album, “Common Sense,” when John wanted to finish with a Chuck Berry song, he picked “You Never Can Tell.” Of course he did. Because it’s the height of Chuck’s wit, and a story song, to bring things back around — a song about teenage newlyweds who furnish their apartment with a “coolerator” (“crammed with TV dinners and ginger ale”), a “hi-fi phono” (“boy, did they let it blast / seven hundred little records / all rock, rhythm and jazz”), and love, of course. You need some love songs on your list. Because life’s not all funeral trains and spooky blues, however much it seems like it, these dark days we’re in.