Billboard's Top 600 singles prove 'greatest of all time' lists are fun — but ultimately, meaningless

Amit Gurbaxani

Aug 11, 2018 12:19:46 IST

The Billboard Hot 100 chart turned 60 last week and the magazine celebrated by publishing for the first time the Top 600 singles of all time. There was no change as far as the No.1 was concerned, ‘The Twist’ by Chubby Checker, which was also at the top when they revealed the Hot 100 of all time five years ago to mark the Hot 100’s 55th birthday.

The Twist’, which is the only song in the chart’s history to have two separate runs at No.1, is a relatively non-controversial choice. It’s a rock n’ roll classic and most people remember it 48 years after it was released (it even has a Bollywood version). Some people, however, might take issue with the rest of the top 10. Like for instance the fact that ‘Shape Of You’ by Ed Sheeran, from as recently as last year, is the ninth biggest hit of all time, according to Billboard. Among the reasons why ‘Shape Of You’ is so high is that it stuck around in the top 10 for 33 weeks, longer than any track before.

The Hot 600, of course, only includes songs that hit that chart, and therefore can never be a truly comprehensive GOAT (greatest of all time) list. During the first 40 years of its existence, until December 1998, a tune had to be officially released as a single to reach the Hot 100, which means decades of classic album tracks are not represented on the survey, the most infamous example of which is Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway To Heaven’.

The Billboard Hot 100 chart turned 60 last week. Image via Wikimedia Commons

The Billboard Hot 100 chart turned 60 last week. Image via Wikimedia Commons

That however does not prevent chart geeks like me from looking forward to and enjoying GOAT lists like the Hot 600 or for that matter Rolling Stone’s ranking of the top 500 songs of all time, which they last updated in 2011. But the vast differences between the two prove that as fun as GOAT lists are, ultimately they’re meaningless.

The Twist’ for example just about makes it to Rolling Stone’s top 500, at No.457, while the magazine’s No.1, Bob Dylan’s ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, which hit No.2 on the Billboard chart in 1965, does not appear on the Hot 600. There’s no surprise as to why the magazine picked that Dylan track as opposed to any other to top their survey. Maybe you, like me, would have chosen ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ but guess what, Dylan’s original didn’t chart (though Peter, Paul and Mary’s cover reached No.2).

As if to emphasis the discrepancies, Rolling Stone helpfully provided the peak position and weeks spent on the Hot 100 for each of the tunes on their top 500. Five of their top 50, including such iconic songs as ‘Waterloo Sunset’, ‘Heroes’, ‘No Woman, No Cry’ and ‘London Calling’, never touched Billboard’s hallowed chart page.

Music website Consequence of Sound executed a similar exercise in 2012 for its fifth anniversary. ‘God Only Knows’ by the Beach Boys (No.25 on Rolling Stone’s but nowhere on Billboard’s given that it only reached No.39 on the weekly chart in 1966) lorded over their list. It’s another matter that these are all American selections, determined by the choices of record buyers and radio jockeys and music critics and industry professionals in the US. It’s not exactly a world view, even if it comes from the largest music market in the world.

Of course, Americans aren’t the only folks to have done this sort of thing. The UK’s NME printed their picks of the 500 greatest songs of all time in 2014, with ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ by Nirvana at the apex. That grunge-breaking 1991 tune was No.9 of all time for Rolling Stone and No.11 for Consequence of Sound (NME’s highest-ranking track by a British act, incidentally, was the runner-up, ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ by Joy Division).

In Australia, music television channel Max has made counting the top 1,000 songs of all time an annual affair by asking for votes from viewers and a few acts. The only criteria: the track has to have an official music video. Countrymen AC/DC’s ‘It’s A Long Way To The Top’, from 1975, is at the top for 2018, while previous winners include more global favourites like ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ (2017) and ‘Imagine’ (2012). ‘Long Way To The Top’ was No.105 back in 2012, so it has literally had a long way to the top.

Online poll conducting website Ranker has the Beatles ‘A Day In The Life’ on its tally of the most popular songs of all time, sourced from users across the world. ‘A Day In The Life’ wasn’t released as a single so it didn’t hit the Billboard charts but does appear on most other GOAT lists (No.28 in Rolling Stone, No.5 in Consequence of Sound, No.17 in NME). Surprisingly ‘The Twist’ is nowhere to be found in the top 1,000 but its sequel ‘Let’s Twist Again’ is down at No.1202. Users, who seem to have taken it to mean a list of the most popular rock tunes ever, have uploaded over 4,600 different ditties on the Ranker poll so far. And if you disagree with them, you can add your preference to the mix.

The only Indian GOAT list I know of is British radio station BBC Asia Network’s 100 Greatest Bollywood Songs of All Time, determined in 2013 by an online poll. Shining brightly at No.1 was ‘Baharon Phool Barsao’ from the 1961 Hindi film Suraj. Which leads to me believe that a GOAT list is most likely to be crowned by a track from the 1960s.

Nobody has yet attempted to compile such a register for the Indian independent music scene though a handful of magazines and websites now frequently publish year-end best-of lists. For the now defunct website Indiecision, in 2009, founder-editor Arjun S Ravi and I put together a top 25 of the best Indian indie songs (and albums) of the decade just gone by.

At No.1 was ‘PSP 12”’ by Zero, which may have a fair shot if we were to do a GOAT list today, by asking for contributions from a far larger pool of fans of course. Notably, our top 25 contained no electronic music and hip-hop releases, and those are the two genres that have seen the most creativity in the scene over the past nine years.

I wonder though if people think differently when asked to name “the greatest” of anything. Maybe too many criteria have to be met: it should be innovative, influential and, to an extent, ageless. Perhaps if people were asked instead to name the song that changed their life, the results would be different. They might include a number of guilty pleasures but such a list could just be a more honest representation of the music that makes us.

Amit Gurbaxani is a Mumbai-based journalist who has been writing about music, specifically the country's independent scene, for nearly two decades. He tweets @TheGroovebox

Updated Date: Aug 14, 2018 16:03:10 IST