What Are the Greatest Songs of All Time?

What Are the Greatest Songs of All Time?

Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1, 2021.

What songs do you consider to be among the greatest of all time? Why?

What do you love or appreciate about these songs? Is it the instrumentation, vocals, lyrics or something else that makes the music so outstanding? Would others echo your opinion, or do you think your choices are unusual?

In “What Are the Greatest 2,020 Songs Ever? Philadelphia Is Deciding,” the New York Times critic Wesley Morris writes about WXPN, a public radio station in Philadelphia that is currently counting down the 2,020 greatest-ever songs, as chosen by listeners:

It’s been a terrible year for experiences — pleasant, frivolous, collective ones, anyway. This countdown is an oasis amid the sands of monotony and worse. I’ve done no dancing at any bar or club (or illegal house party) since mid-February. But there I was in my kitchen Friday night presented with a block of nourishment, wagging my fanny against the cabinet doors as Janelle Monáe’s “Tightrope” led to Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend” then the Trammps’ “Disco Inferno” (traditionally, a song that keeps me seated) and “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” the most physically addictive song Stevie Wonder has written, followed by “Highway to Hell,” essential AC/DC that my body treated as if DJ Kool had produced it.

So far, the usual suspects find themselves overrepresented. (It’s a mark of a kind of progress that, at some point, Radiohead had as many songs as Steely Dan and the Who. The station’s site is keeping track.) There’s also been much too much Van Morrison and Moody Blues yet no or not nearly enough Nina Simone, Carly Simon, Alice Coltrane, Patti Smith, Reba McEntire, Madonna, Björk, Tracy Chapman, PJ Harvey, Tori Amos, Hole, Fiona Apple, Shakira, Beyoncé and Erykah Badu. Joni Mitchell currently leads the song count among women.

Mr. Morris offers up some of his own song suggestions, while also analyzing the subjectivity and potential disputation of such a list:

One compelling aspect of this countdown business is philosophical. At 2,000-plus songs, some percentage was probably always going to hew to XPN’s taste. Local acts like the Hooters, Amos Lee and Low Cut Connie are very much here. And believe it or not, “local” extends to Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel, who, as of midday Monday, had almost 30 entries between them. But how would a countdown of the 2,020 greatest songs proceed over at, say, WDAS, where the format is now old-school R&B and “The Steve Harvey Morning Show” anchors the a.m. block? Power 99 used to have a nightly countdown show that one song — Shirley Murdock’s “As We Lay” or Keith Sweat’s “Make It Last Forever” or Prince’s “Adore”— would dominate for what felt like weeks. What would a more epochal undertaking look like? Would WMMR find a way to make inroads there, too?

And what would the same countdown reveal at a similar station in Anchorage or Montgomery or Chicago or the Bay Area? Does it matter that a few corporate behemoths have flattened pop’s palette? Can a chart still quantify local taste? Would an accurate answer prove as vexing as precise electoral polling data, because, in part, we now live on Spotify, Apple Music and YouTube? Is this entire process just too random and subjective to be worth continuing?

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

  • What belongs on your list of most beloved songs? Is there a common theme or mood they evoke? What, if anything, does your catalog of beloved songs say about you?

  • Have your musical tastes changed over the years or largely stayed the same? Do you have a love for a specific genre or style? Or do your tastes defy categorization? Why?

  • Mr. Morris explains that part of what drives a “greatest songs” list is a regional connection. Are there any songs that your hometown or neighborhood has a special connection with?

  • Are your favorite songs the same as those of your siblings and peers? What about your parents, teachers or other adults? Do you think people of different racial or ethnic backgrounds or from different generations would have strong disagreements about the “best songs of all time?”

  • What do you think about WXPN’s attempt to compile a list of the greatest songs ever? Are you a fan of such lists? Why, or why not?

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Students 13 and older in the United States and the United Kingdom, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.