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THE 100 TOP VOCAL SONGS SINCE 1950

by Miles Mathis

After looking at the leading online lists, I decided a new list was badly needed. The top three lists that come up on a normal websearch are those of the Recording Industry of America, Billboard, and some guy named John Sandford. The RIAA top 365 lists the top songs of the century, with the highest rated after 1950 being Woody Guthrie's “This Land is Your Land” and Aretha Franklin's “Respect.” Both good songs from a radio listener's perspective, maybe, but not the cream of the crop from a songwriting perspective. Much worse is the Billboard top 100 of the rock era. This list is topped by “The Twist,” and the top ten also includes Leann Rimes, “The Macarena,” Debbie Boone, Mariah Carey, and Toni Braxton. Usher appears multiple times. So we can pass that list over as a list based on sales, not on quality. Billboard has never been interested in making artistic judgments. As for John Sandford, he leads with two songs by ZZ Top, so we can move on. Another highly placed list on the net leads with Heart's Alone. At Bestuff.com, some guy named Gerard Way gets 50% more votes than Bob Dylan and John Lennon, as best songwriter. You can see why I am here.

Don't care much for
Rolling Stone's top 500 list, either, since they bury “The Boxer” down at 105, below Donna Summer's “Hot Stuff.” Joni Mitchell debuts at #170, below Eminem, Public Enemy, The Penguins, Grandmaster Flash, Dionne Warwick, and The Five Satins. Nick Drake doesn't make the list, putting him below OutKast, the Dixie Cups, Run-DMC, Toot and the Maytals, and the Stooges. Jim Croce is also off the list, putting him below the Carpenters and Glen Campbell. The experts at Rolling Stone have never heard of The Hollies, Gordon Lightfoot, or Don McLean, either. And despite the fact that their list is called the 500 best of ALL TIME, they haven't heard of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis, Judy Collins, Andy Williams, or Bing Crosby. Crosby was too early for my list, but I fit in the rest.

In another list,
Rolling Stone actually lists Madonna above John Lennon and Paul Simon, this despite the fact that Madonna doesn't write her own songs, can't sing, and has never had a hit that was more than a mediocre dance tune. RS also lists Dr. Dre and the Sex Pistols above Joni Mitchell. And this is supposed to be a list of top musical artists. They should have titled it top posers, then they could have left off Joni and Paul altogether, as I'm sure they would have preferred. Rolling Stone has nominated itself to the annals of ignominy with these lists, which are a much clearer commentary on the editors than they are on music or artistry of any kind. If someone ever makes a list of top realists of the late 20th century, and if they include Kinkaid or Pino on the list, I hope they will leave me off altogether. I would rather be buried deep in the earth with Nick Drake than have my name polluted by proximity.

My list is based mainly on songwriting skill, though I also include skill of execution in vocals as well as instruments. I am not interested in sales or popularity. Nor am I interested in timeliness, coolness, political correctness, or relevance. My list will include only those songs that seem to me to have a timelessness: they will sound about the same in 100 years as they sound now, because they are quality constructions.

My list is broad and eclectic, but it does have large holes. It has only six songs after 1990, and only three after 2000. It has no rap, very little country, and very little hard rock, metal rock, or dance music. These sub-categories tend to be very repetitive, and therefore disqualify themselves from the top spots based on songwriting skill, melody, harmony, or vocals.

For instance, in researching this list, I found VH1's top 100 of the 90's. I wanted to be sure I wasn't leaving anything out. I only found about three songs out of 100 that I didn't actively hate, and
Linger by the Cranberries was the only one I really liked. It was a decade of bad dance music, bad rap, and bad alt. Lots of phony people trying (and failing) to be cool. Our current decade is another such decade, with so-called bands making best-of lists for piss-poor covers of old songs that didn't need to be covered, especially by posers like the Fugees or Pdiddy or Destiny's Child. We even have Van Morrison, Elton John, and Rod Stewart covering eachother in circles. Not to mention Bono covering Frank Sinatra. End-of-the-world, apocalyptic, judgment-day badness, and I don't mean goodness.

That said, I did try to spread it around a little bit. Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell make multiple appearances here, for instance, but they could have made more. Instead, I tried to include the best song from a lot of very good songwriters and singers, rather than load the list with repeats from the very best.

Lists like this are controversial, which is why you see so few lists that aren't hiding behind a committee. You always leave someone's favorite song out. Beyond that, it is difficult to narrow the field down to just 100. There have been thousands of very good songs written in this period, many more than in other periods of history. I had to cut about 50 of my own favorites, just to make the number. So you can imagine your favorite song would have been at 101, if you like. Unless, of course, your favorite song is by Madonna, Shania Twain, Cher, Britney, The Spice Girls, Barbara Streisand, Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Nsync, George Michael, Keith Urban, Garth Brooks, 50Cent or Eminem, in which case I could have gone to 10,000 and it would not have made any difference.

And no, I didn't forget Bohemian Rhapsody, so don't write and tell me I did. I don't dislike BR, but it has never struck me as especially earnest. Galileo and Figaro are just mentioned to rhyme and impress, and serve no real function, as one example. Freddy is trying a little too hard here. It would probably make a top 200, but it sounds phony next to the top songs. Listen to BR after listening to Nick Drake, for instance, and you will see what I mean.

1. The Boxer. Simon & Garfunkel
2. Heard it Through the Grapevine. Whitfield/Strong/Marvin Gaye
3. Fruit Tree. Nick Drake
4. Yesterday. The Beatles
5. Cactus Tree. Joni Mitchell
6. Bridge over Troubled Water. Simon and Garfunkel
7. Suzanne. Leonard Cohen/Judy Collins
8. The House of the Rising Sun. The Animals
9. Blowin' in the Wind. Bob Dylan

tie Shelter from the Storm. Cohen/Bob Dylan
10. California Dreamin'. The Mamas and the Papas
11. Sounds of Silence. Simon and Garfunkel
12. Dreams. Fleetwood Mac
13. Operator. Jim Croce
14. Like a Rolling Stone. Bob Dylan
15. Which Will. Nick Drake
16. Both Sides Now. Joni Mitchell (1969 version)
17. For Emily. Simon and Garfunkel
18. When a Man Loves a Woman. Percy Sledge
19. Long Cool Woman. The Hollies
tie Gimme Some Lovin'. Spencer Davis Group
20. Lyin' Eyes. The Eagles
21. Brown-Eyed Girl. Van Morrison
22. Georgia on my Mind. Carmichael/Gorrell/Ray Charles
23. He Ain't Heavy. The Hollies
24. On the Border. Al Stewart
25. And I Love Her. The Beatles
26. Never my Love. The Association
27. Proud Mary. CCR
28. Riders on the Storm. The Doors
29. Night Moves. Bob Seger
30. Time in a Bottle. Jim Croce
31. Vincent. Don McLean
32. Nights in White Satin. The Moody Blues
(tie) Ride my Seesaw. Moody Blues.
33. Tall Trees in Georgia. Buffy St. Marie/Eva Cassidy
34. They Call the Wind Maria. Lerner & Loewe/Harve Presnell
35. Layla. Derek and the Dominoes
36. Mercy Mercy Me. Marvin Gaye
37. Heart of Gold. Neil Young
38. The Town I Loved So Well. Phil Coulter/Luke Kelly
39. Send in the Clowns. Stephen Sondheim/Judy Collins
40. Daniel. Bernie Taupin/Elton John
41. Imagine. John Lennon
42. Help Me. Joni Mitchell
43. Chances Are. Allen/Stillman/Johnny Mathis
44. Fire and Rain. James Taylor
45. Piano Man. Billy Joel
46. River Man. Nick Drake
47. Where I Stood. Missy Higgins
48. The Pretender. Jackson Browne
49. Stairway to Heaven. Led Zeppelin
50. Roxanne. The Police
51. Born to Run. Bruce Springsteen
52. Won't get Fooled Again. The Who
53. Dust in the Wind. Kansas
54. Have you Ever Seen the Rain? CCR
55. Leavin' on a Jet Plane. John Denver/Peter, Paul & Mary
56. Sunshine of My Life. Stevie Wonder
57. Let's Stay Together. Al Green
58. Day after Day. Badfinger
59. What's Goin' On? Marvin Gaye
60. Don't Fear the Reaper. Blue Oyster Cult
61. The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face. Ewan MacColl/Roberta Flack
62. Moon River. Henry Mancini/Andy Williams
(tie) Smoke gets in your eyes. The Platters
63. Carry On. CSNY
64. The Last Farewell. Lawrence/Webster/Roger Whittaker
65. How Deep is Your Love? The BeeGees
66. How Much I Feel. Ambrosia
67. Stand by Me. Ben E. King
68. Unforgettable. Gordon/Nat King Cole
69. Unchained Melody. Al Hibbler/Righteous Brothers
70. Crazy. Willie Nelson/Patsy Cline
71. You've Got a Friend. Carol King/James Taylor
72. All the Way. Cahn/Van Heusen/Frank Sinatra
73. It's Too Late. Carol King
74. Hello, It's Me. Todd Rundgren
75. Bitter Green. Gordon Lightfoot
76. Turn Turn Turn. The Byrds
77. Just the Way you Are. Billy Joel
78. Blue Eyes Cryin' in the Rain. Fred Rose/Willie Nelson
79. Deja Vu. CSNY
80. I Left my Heart in San Francisco. Cory/Cross/Tony Bennett
81. Mona Lisa. Evens/Livingston/Nat King Cole
82. Sweet Dreams. Don Gibson/Patsy Cline
83. These Eyes. Guess Who
84. Year of the Cat. Al Stewart
85. American Pie. Don McLean
86. Baker Street. Gerry Rafferty
87. Time of the Season. The Zombies
88. Hallelujah. Leonard Cohen/Jeff Buckley
89. Moonshadow. Cat Stevens
90. The Lady of Shalott. Tennyson/Loreena McKennitt
91. If You Could Read my Mind. Gordon Lightfoot
92. At Seventeen. Janis Ian
93. Strangers in the Night. Chicorel/Frank Sinatra
94. Let's Get Lost. Loesser/McHugh/Chet Baker
95. Stranger in Paradise. Wright/Forrest/Tony Bennett
96. Chasing Cars. Snow Patrol
97. Here's Where the Story Ends. The Sundays
98. Love is all Around. Troggs
99. Linger. The Cranberries
100. Everybody's Changing. Keane

And some that almost made it:
Pride. U2
Maggie May. Rod Stewart
Beyond the Sea. Bobby Darin
Ghost in You. The Psychedelic Furs
All I Want. Toad the Wet Sprocket
Circle Game. Joni Mitchell
The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Gordon Lightfoot
She Belongs to Me. Bob Dylan
Castles in the Air. Don McLean
Substitute. The Who
Fast Car. Tracey Chapman
Long Train Runnin'. The Doobie Brothers
Best I Ever Had. Vertical Horizon
Found out about You. Gin Blossoms
Sunny Sailor Boy. Mike Scott/Luka Bloom
Lorelei. Cocteau Twins
Run. Collective Soul
Can't Get it Out of my Head. ELO
Ventura Highway. America
The Times They are a-Changin'. Bob Dylan
Sundown. Gordon Lightfoot
Lost Cause. Beck
She's not There. The Zombies
Court and Spark. Joni Mitchell
Desperado. The Eagles
Whiter shade of Pale. Procol Harum
Melt with You. Modern English
High. The Cure
Just Can't Get Enough. Depeche Mode
Drive. The Cars
Please Come to Boston. Dave Loggins
Norwegian Wood. The Beatles
When Will We be Married? The Waterboys


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