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While I’m jumping between topics, its time to go to one of my favorites for debate, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  Every year, a slate of 15-16 nominees is composed by a team of perhaps 20 or 25 rock experts, ranging from critics to journalists to record industry executives to musicians.  It’s a varied lot making these calls, ranging from conformo-smashers like Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello to critic emeritus Dave Marsh, to Bill Adler to Steve Van Zandt of the E-Street Band, and a man I have a great deal of respect for, Questlove of The Roots.  From there, the ballot will be sent to an even wider swath of ‘music experts’, including all previous inductees of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  The committee won’t meet until August or September, their decisions won’t be made public until October, and the 5-7 (probably six) inductees won’t be named until the holiday season draws to a close.

Nevertheless, its fun to speculate what the ballot will look like, and to help us, there’s a few trends to be noted.  Questlove and Morello, two of the newest members, have succeeded in giving the Rock Hall a more populist feel.   Questlove openly wore a Hall & Oates t-shirt to the meeting last year, and lo and behold, they got on the ballot and made it into the hall, after over 20 years of being eligible. This means that the days of the committee relentlessly nominating “critics’ pets” like Laura Nyro and Solomon Burke until they got in may be drawing to a close.  In addition to Hall & Oates, a number of artists with a broad popular following or large fan base, but a toxic reputation among critics, have gotten in: KISS, Rush, and even Cat Stevens fall into this category.   Nominations in the last two years of Deep Purple, Yes, Kraftwerk, and others are also good signs that the committee is thinking in the right direction.

The other thing to keep in mind is that the committee’s definition of “rock and roll” is probably more ecumenical than yours.  If “rock and roll” to you means a bunch of white guys writing their own songs in the 1970s with crunching guitars and screeching solos, you are going to be disappointed.  You won’t see a ballot with 16 names like Boston, the Steve Miller Band, Electric Light Orchestra, Grand Funk Railroad, Styx, Journey, and so on.  So expect to see lots of genres represented: progressive rock, singer-songwriter, glam, soul, hip-hop, disco, alternative, indie, and rap artists are all fair game, its not just “classic rock.”

To recap, the 2014 ballot released in Oct. 2013 was unbelievably strong and encouraging.  Its sixteen nominees were (with the inductees in bold): Cat Stevens, Chic, Deep Purple, Hall & Oates, KISS, Linda Ronstadt, Link Wray, L L Cool J, The Meters, Nirvana, NWA, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Peter Gabriel, The Replacements,  Yes, and The Zombies.  Some of these guys will certainly get another nomination, and some are already multiple nominees.  Of those who didn’t get in last year, Deep Purple and NWA have been nominated twice, Cool J, Paul Butterfield and the Meters have been nominated thrice, and Chic beats all comers with 8 nominations, none of them successful so far.

Using history as our guide, I predict, at this early hour, these 16 nominees:
1. NWA: The originators of gangsta rap have a ‘Straight Outta Compton’ movie coming up, and remain in the public eye.  Questlove and others have all but declared their intent to get them in this coming year. In the same way that induction for Ronstadt was cleared by no other female artists on the ballot last year, don’t expect the committee to water down their chances by nominating LL Cool J, Eric B. & Rakim, or any other artists primarily known for rap.  (I have, however, included a pioneering hip-hop artist at #10.)

2. Lou Reed: He died just a hair too late for consideration in the 2014 class. I hate Velvet Underground and their alumni, but most of the people who make these decisions fawn over them. Lou will be on the ballot again, after a few years’ absence.

3. Deep Purple: I don’t like them that much either, but there’s no denying how important they were to the unfolding of heavy metal. They should have gotten in last year, and if they get in, other heavy metal acts like Alice in Chains and Judas Priest will follow.

4. Yes: I have a completely unprovable theory that Yes got voted in last year, realized they had a schedule conflict with the ceremony because of the progressive rock cruise they committed to, and it was quietly agreed to push their induction back a year. Either way, now that they’ve been on the ballot, they’ll be back. And hopefully, a Yes induction will pave the way for other progressive rockers like Jethro Tull, The Moody Blues, etc.

5. Green Day: The most popular pop-punk band ever? Yes, please!  They seem poised to follow Nirvana as a rare first-year-eligible induction.

6. Nine Inch Nails: Believe it or not, NIN is becoming eligible for the first time, as 25 years have passed since Trent Reznor’s first release.  Less likely to get in, but almost as likely to get a nomination.

7. Carole King: Every year for the last 4 or 5 years, a classic singer-songwriter has gotten in: Cat, Randy Newman, Laura Nyro, Tom Waits.  Isn’t she the next one in the singer-songwriter pecking order? Her induction as a non-performer/songwriter several years ago doesn’t do justice to Tapestry, maybe one of the ten most culturally significant albums of the 70s, and her long, successful touring history.

8. Joan Jett: Her performance at last year’s ceremony subbing for Cobain on “Smells Like Teen Spirit” reminded us of how good she really was, and her nomination will appease both those clamoring for more straight-up rock, and those who were concerned by the presence of only one woman on the ballot last year (not counting some Chic vocalists).

9. Sonic Youth: See #8; their front woman also sang with “Hervana” at the induction ceremony last year, boosting their already considerable chances to get in as one of the more recent acts on the ballot. They will replace The Replacements in the “alternative rock pioneers” slot.

10. De La Soul: Questlove and others have made it clear that they are pulling for them, and their pioneering hip-hop makes a case for their historicity, even though this outfit is entirely unrecognized in Middle America.

11. The Zombies: A lot of people were rooting for The Zombies last year, including myself. Rock critics love them, the public recognizes a few of their songs (most notably “Time of the Season”), and they would be a good way to close the book on British Invasion bands. This will be their year, took a long time to come.

12. Dire Straits: No proof, no evidence, just a hunch. They’re too good of a band to have not gotten any consideration, and there’s no plausible explanation on why they haven’t gotten nominated yet that sticks.

13. The Eurythmics: We’re going to be getting more 80s nominees from here on in, and its hard to think of a more representative group from this decade.  Their electronica and performance-art music videos were a crucial part of what made the early-MTV era so memorable.

14. Link Wray: Lots of rock historians were edified by Wray’s appearance on the ballot last year. If you haven’t heard his only real hit, “Rumble”, go play it for a minute; he invented both guitar distortion and power-chords as viable concepts within a song, influencing plenty of future axemen, including Pete Townshend.  With the ceremony being held in Cleveland in 2015, and expectations thus a bit lower than this year’s in Brooklyn, an influential nominee with little name recognition might have a better chance this time around.

15. Bill Withers: Another singer-songwriter, but his soulful approach will hopefully keep votes from being drawn away from Carole King.  Withers’ mid-70s hits, from “Lean on Me” to “Ain’t No Sunshine” reverberate to this day.

16. Chicago: The hall, as others have pointed out, has gotten more populist lately, and lots of commercially successful bands that were snubbed are finally getting recognized. If Hall & Oates can get in, why not Chicago? They had more hits than any rock band not in the Hall of Fame, and between Kath’s guitar, Seraphine’s drums, Cetera’s vocals, and Pankow’s horn arrangements, there’s no denying they pass the “excellence” test. Robert Lamm reported last year that sources told him they were the last cut from the ballot for the class of 2014.

Another thing to consider: the Rock Hall wants to avoid another KISS fiasco. Chicago dialed down their criticism of the rock hall in recent years, and both the band and Peter Cetera have intimated that a rock hall performance is the only way on earth that a reunion would happen. It could draw some good press for all parties concerned if it happens.

My great-aunt died two weeks ago.  It was sad, especially because she was the last of my grandparents’ siblings to pass away (and all four grandparents were long since gone, making this truly the passing of a generation.)  During a meal we shared at an mildly upscale restaurant after her funeral, my brother, my cousin, and I talked not about our aunt, not even about our own lives, but how Lebron James could be stopped from winning.  Loathing for the stacked Miami Heat united all of the country beyond South Beach, but to our surprise and delight, the beaten-up San Antonio Spurs, whose best three players are all pretty deep into their 30s,  prevailed.

This turn of events gave Tim Duncan his 5th NBA championship ring since he joined the NBA in the 1997-98 season.  5 rings in 15 years: a great accomplishment.  All of this has made a wide variety of NBA bloggers wonder: how does this remarkable accomplishment reset Tim Duncan’s ranking among the all-time greats?  For Duncan, the problem is that his name doesn’t inspire a sense of wonder in the ways the hallowed names of Russell, Jordan, Bird, Chamberlain and others.  Duncan was so maddeningly consistent, his game so sound, that we forgot how great he was.  So here I am to quantify that greatness.

Here’s what I looked for: individual excellence, a wide variety of awards, ability to win championships, completeness as a player, and finally (this is where I differ from other rankers), I’m also including their ability as a teammate.  In other words, you can be an individual player of exceptional talent, but if you persistently undercut your team, behave selfishly, and act like a diva, no amount of native talent can compensate for what that takes away from the table.

1.  Bill Russell: Russell was a true champion, leading the Celtics to 11 championships, the greatest sustained run of excellence in any professional sport in American history.  Russell changed defense from an afterthought to an art form: he blocked shots with impunity, lived to rebound, and could utterly destroy a team’s game plan.   He may not have been the best player on offense, but that wasn’t needed in a team with lots of scrappy shooters.  But Russell made camaraderie and a commitment to win his priority; he stood up for his teammates, and led by example, and made the other Celtics want to go as far out of their way to win as Russell did.  This is what greatness means: it is more than being an excellent individual, it is inspiring those around you to excellence.  Nearly every teammate admired Russell so much that they never dared to do less than their best.  Even today, being a Celtic means something special, so when your career still impacts the league 50 years later, you know that you’ve achieved an unparalleled form of greatness.

2.  Michael Jordan: We have been hard-wired from our youth to view Michael Jordan as excellence in sports personified.  Every advertisement, every jump man logo, prodded us toward this wrongheaded consensus.  There were few flaws in Jordan’s game: unstoppable offensively, he could shut anyone down defensively, and he had an indomitable will to win.  But he was a terrible teammate, something that undermined the Bulls success: Jordan berated underperforming teammates, and punched a couple of them when they were guarding him too closely in scrimmage.  Throughout his career, he bought the hype that he was the greatest ever, and took to calling his teammates “my supporting cast,” a condescending designation that killed a lot of the Bulls’ camaraderie.  I’m also convinced that because Jordan was the league’s cash cow, and his success determined how much money it made like no other player before or since, MJ benefitted from favorable treatment from refs throughout his career, allowing him to travel, shove, and trip in ways no other player on this list could get away with.  I complain, but even with these flaws, it is hard to argue with 6 rings, multiple scoring titles, routine appearances on All-Defense teams, etc. A player blessed by the gods, his problematic personality keeps him from the top.

3.  Magic Johnson: Magic was the ringleader of the amazing 80s Showtime lakers.  It’s hard to stop a 6’8″ point guard who could distribute the ball, but also play rough and aggressively when necessary.  Magic lived to make his teammates better, and his infectious enthusiasm mattered almost as much as his ball handling skills.  Whatever you needed- extra rebounding, an outside shot, another forward, Magic could provide it.  Accordingly, he has 5 rings, 3 MVPs, and is the all-time leader in assists per game.  But you can argue that his true strength is in how he elevated the game of Kareem (#4), James Worthy, Michael Cooper, A.C. Green, and everybody else he played with.

4.  Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Durability matters.  Perhaps the most celebrated collegiate basketball player ever, Lew Alcindor joined a moribund Bucks squad that won at an extraordinarily high level. He became Kareem, and slogged on for years, sullen, uncharismatic, rude to fans, but undoubtedly successful.  In the interim, he won 6 titles, led the league in rebounds, blocks, and scoring at different points, and is the all-time leading scorer in NBA history.

5.  Tim Duncan: There’s something to be said for the remarkable longevity.  5 titles in fifteen years?  6 finals appearances?  He’s called the ‘Big Fundamental’ for a reason: he will consistently get 20 points and 8 rebounds a game for eternity.  More than that, Duncan is an exemplary teammate who is not jealous when they win honors and he doesn’t (cases in point: Tony Parker’s NBA Finals MVP in ’07, and Kahwi Leonard in ’14.)  He has kept, through extraordinary camaraderie, a remarkable team together for well over a decade.

6.  Kobe Bryant: I hate the universe for forcing me to put Kobe this high; he’s easily the player I like least in this whole lot.  5 rings is a compelling argument, and Kobe worked his ass off to remain this good for this long, working hard all summer to add some new trick to his game every off-season.  Although he is reaching the end of his career, he has consistently made any team he plays on while healthy a contender, has multiple scoring titles, and has not neglected defense.  He is a complete player in a way his celebrated teammate Shaq is not (one reason among many why Shaq does not make my top ten.)

7.  Larry Bird: Bird’s blue-collar ethos and wiseass persona belie an amazing sense of vision, as though he saw games unfolding in a different dimension the rest of us mortals couldn’t see.  Bird was a rare forward who didn’t just rebound and take high-percentage shots, but shot from the outside, won 3-point contests, and was perhaps the best passing forward of all time.  He led the Celtics to 3 titles and made them perennial contenders, but his just okay-ish defense, and an injury-racked end to his career put him at #7 for me.

8.  Lebron James: Lebron will probably overtake Larry and Kobe by the time his career is over.  He might be the most physically gifted player on this list, with an ability to play small or power forward as needed, excellent passing, strong defense, and very few holes in his game.  And yet, the poor guy can’t get a break- he went from being “Disappointing in the Playoffs” Lebron in Cleveland to “He’s so Unstoppable he must be destroyed” Lebron in Miami- people despise him when he loses, and fear him when he wins.   The honors keep racking up: 4 MVPs in five years, a scoring title, perennial appearances on All-NBA and All-Defense teams.  For all these gifts, James fails in the clutch a little too often for my liking, and a 2-of-5 record in the finals is a blot on his resume.  But still, “championships or you are a terrible player” arguments can be extreme sometimes; just getting to the Finals after an 82-game season is a remarkable achievement in human endurance and dedication.  As demonstrated by…

9.  Jerry West:  Proof that rings and MVPs aren’t everything.  West is the only one in my top ten without an MVP, and just one championship ring.  Why, then, is he here? World class defense, remarkable performances in the clutch, and leading the Lakers to the finals 9 times in 12 years.

10.  Wilt Chamberlain: Proof that the stats can lie.  Chamberlain was unleashed into a league filled with slow 6’5″ power forwards named Norman; small wonder he dominated as a seven-footer in an almost all-white league.  His accomplishments: all the scoring titles, all the rebounding titles, the 100-point game, matter, for sure.  But he had significant flaws in his game: a lackadaisical attitude toward practice, he could only shoot within 10 feet of the basket, his terrible free-throw shooting.  Wilt was also untrainable, and except for the 1967 season, expected his teammates to service him.  His weird obsession with stats became a hinderance: he once took his team into the tank so that he could be the first center to lead the league in assists; he also wanted to get through his career without ever fouling out of a game, so he would repeatedly shut down after that 4th foul.  Anyone who praises Chamberlain’s statistical accomplishments is only feeding into this narcissistic behavior.  And If Wilt’s so great, why did he consistently fail when it mattered?  Why were two excellent teams willing to get rid of him for pennies on the dollar?  Why was he unable to win a championship except on teams loaded to the gills with help?

Rounding out spots #11-20, I’d put, in something approximating this order: Shaq, Oscar Robertson, Karl Malone, Elgin Baylor, Hakeem Olajuwon, Moses Malone, John Havlicek, Kevin Garnett, Isaiah Thomas, and Bob Pettit.

What?  You want me to name all 100 greatest players, you say?  I’ll do this in greater detail some day, but if we’re ranking them in “chunks” of ten, here’s how I’d do it:

#21-30:  Walt Frazier, Charles Barkley, Julius Erving, Bob Cousy, Scottie Pippen, Dirk Nowitzki, John Stockton, Dwyane Wade, David Robinson, George Mikan

#31-40:  Willis Reed, Kevin McHale, Patrick Ewing, Rick Barry, Jason Kidd, Gary Payton, Steve Nash, Clyde Drexler, Dolph Schayes, Allen Iverson

#41-50:  Kevin Durant, Sam Jones, Billy Cunningham, David Cowens, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Dennis Johnson, George Gervin, Wes Unseld, Paul Arizin

#51-60: Bill Walton, Bob McAdoo, Paul Pierce, Elvin Hayes, Pete Maravich, Nate Thurmond, Joe Dumars, Robert Parish, Bill Sharman, Reggie Miller

#61-70: Dominique Wilkins, Hal Greer, Neil Johnston, Tony Parker, Bernard King, Lenny Wilkens, James Worthy, Ray Allen, Jerry Lucas, Earl Monroe

#71-80: Chris Mullin, Tiny Archibald, Dave DeBusschere, Dave Bing, Sidney Moncrief, Alex English, Dennis Rodman, Chris Webber, Paul Westphal, Dave Thompson

#81-90: Connie Hawkins, Jack Twyman, Grant Hill, Bob Lanier, Alonzo Mourning, Carmelo Anthony, Tim Hardaway, Artis Gilmore, Adrian Dantley, Ed Macauley

#90-100:  Bobby Jones, Jerry Sloan, Tommy Heinsohn, Ben Wallace, Bobby Dandridge, Michael Cooper, Maurice Cheeks, Guy Rodgers, Joe Johnson, Gus Johnson

Sorry for switching projects.  I will return to the presidents- honest I will.  But I also know that I’d just be churning out mediocre stuff if I did, because my “history writing” energies are focused on finishing my book on McGovern and the Christian Left.

340.  “Bernadette”- The Four Tops (1967):  From the first punch of electric organ, this song is one of the most urgent of the entire Motown era.  A great vocal performance (especially the tight background vocals that are barely audible unless you deliberately try to listen to them).

339.  “Chapel of Love”- The Dixie Cups (1964): The Dixie Cups fall through the cracks when we talk about the great girl groups from the 1960s.  That’s a shame, because this song’s sweet innocence, while antiquated, is a great relic of its time.  I had it stuck in my head for most of the morning of my wedding.

338.  “Mother’s Little Helper”- The Rolling Stones (1966): Showing a remarkable versatility, the Stones go from being snide and condescending toward middle-class girls to middle-class housewives.  This song is intrinsically interesting because one of my professors, David Herzberg, is a historian of the ‘mother’s little helper’ drugs that proliferated in the 1950s and 1960s as the dark, self-medicating side of postwar housewifery.

337.  “Walk Don’t Run”- The Ventures (1960): A bright, shining beacon in rock’s darkest hour, this nifty little instrumental combo creates a tight sound with a memorable guitar melody, and it makes history as one of the very first surf instrumentals ever (although one could neither walk nor run on a surf board…)

336.  “Keep on Running”- The Spencer Davis Group (1965):  They were a great little combo for a little while, giving a young Steve Winwood his start with some great blue-eyed soul vocals.

335.  “Rocksteady”- Alton Ellis (1967):  Ellis took ska, slowed it down to something more deliberative and even sensual, and this song became the namesake of an entirely new genre of music in Jamaica.

334.  “A Sunday Kind of Love”- Etta James (1961):  James gives a great R&B vocal performance with some world class crooning.  Classy and brassy at the same time, James’ artistry shines through.

333.  “Traces”- Classics IV (1969):  These guys had a nice late-60s run that basically invented lounge-rock.  Easy melodies, emotive saxophone solos, this song was made for elevators and department store, but there’s no denying its craftsmanship.

332.  “White Rabbit”- Jefferson Airplane (1967):  Overrated.  But still a trippy journey into the subconscious, and possibly the first recorded comparison of LSD to Lewis Carroll’s flights of fancy.

331.  “The Inner Light”- The Beatles (1968): One of the most important facets of what made the Beatles great was George Harrison’s attempt to bring Indian music to western audiences.  This is truly a work of fusion: the text of the Tao Te Ching set against a classical Indian raga, replete with scales and instruments that most Westerners were scarcely familiar with.  A hell of a lot more groundbreaking than “Revolution No. 9″, don’t you think?

330.  “Guineverre”- Crosby, Stills & Nash (1969):  This spartan number from CSN’s first album shows David Crosby’s fiddly approach to music and his mystical approach to life all at once.  Filled with Arthurian nonsense, it remains a haunting and enchanting piece, using unusual guitar tunings and his peerless harmonies with Nash.

329.  “Devil With a Blue Dress/Good Golly, Miss Molly”- Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels (1966):  Detroit wasn’t just Motown– it also gave us Mitch Ryder soulful rock-revival hit.  The outrageous mock-gospel background vocals give this song a great deal of camp value.  And yet, it paradoxically was one of the first blue-collar, Rust Belt rock songs of the 60s.  It’s a track that transgresses the genre and race boundaries in which we love to put music.

328.  “I Shall Be Released”- The Band (1967): Plaintive, stripped-down and spiritual, Richard Manuel delivers an emotionally aching performance in a tenor that paves the way for Neil Young.

327.  “Israelites”- Desmond Dekker (1968): This was the first time the wider public got a taste of Rastafarian theology.  Dekker subtly draws the connections between the Old Testament story and the wider African diaspora in some excellent early reggae with trademark piss-poor Jamaican production values.

326.  “Maggie’s Farm”- Bob Dylan (1965): Folkies love arguing about this song.  Is Dylan declaring his independence from the folkie movement?  From social issues?  From the rock industry?  He defiantly uses electric guitar on this, so….yes?

325.  “No Particular Place to Go”- Chuck Berry (1964):  This song vintage Berry: lots of kick-ass guitar, and cheeky lyrics (sure your safety belt was stuck, Chuck.  And I’m the pope.)  It’s such a great description of teenage idleness in the 50s and 60s that I use it in my class to make that very point.  I’d rank it higher, but, you know, Berry ripped off his own earlier hit “School Day” to write it, making this the 2nd song plagiarized off Chuck Berry on this list.  (Don’t worry, “Surfin’ USA” is coming)

324.  “I Wanna Take You Higher”- Sly & the Family Stone (1969): Loud and funky, with lots of punchy horns, the exchanges between the vocalists, and the sense of barely-controlled chaos contains everything that made Sly and the Family Stone great.

323.  “Barterers And Their Wives”- The Left Banke (1967):  The Left Banke were a brilliant group that self-destructed far too soon (another ‘lead songwriter is attracted to the lead guitarist’s girlfriend’ scenarios.  You know how that goes.)  But their attempt to synthesize rock music with older forms is perfected in this track off of their amazingly good debut album.   Here, they attempt an English folk tune of their own creation, all the while pointing at the futility of materialism.

322.  “Village Green Preservation Society”- The Kinks (1968): The Kinks had some of the keenest eyes of the 1960s, and while sometimes this could be poignant (“Waterloo Sunset”), it more often ended up on the side of the ridiculous.  “Village Green” is a wonderful send-up of local British movements opposed to any change at all in stodgy post-austerity Britain.

321.  “Sail Away”- The Kingston Trio (1961): The Kingston Trio were hugely important.  They had multiple albums that were #1 for 8+ weeks, invented the modern concept of touring, and took over the folky mantra from the Weavers (although they deliberately avoided the Weavers’ political controversies and were probably too preppy and collegiate.)  This song about escaping to the Caribbean is sad and wistful, and eloquently harmonized (and as un-Jimmy-Buffett as could be).

360.  “Come Together”- The Beatles (1969):  This song is maybe the coolest in The Beatles’ catalog, full of Lennon’s snarky character observations, completely untethered from its throwaway chorus, and also features some of the best bass-playing of Paul McCartney’s career.  It would rank higher if the melody wasn’t completely plagiarized from a B-list Chuck Berry tune, “You Can’t Catch Me.”

359.  “Nowhere to Run”- Martha Reeves & the Vandellas (1965):  1965 was a great year, but believe it or not, this is our first track from that annum mirabilis to appear on our list (remember, ’65 gave us both “Satisfaction” and “Yesterady” among many others.).  In the Motown hit factory, Reeves was celebratory and exuberant while Diana Ross was sultry and demure.  The Vandellas were, I think, the better group, but they weren’t given the best material, since Ross was sleeping with Motown president Berry Gordy and Martha Reeves was not.

358.  “Feeling Good”- Nina Simone (1965):  Simone’s work is full of heartbreak and bitterness, but this track proves the adage that living well is always the best revenge.

357.  “Breaking Up is Hard to Do”- Neil Sedaka (1962):  Sedaka was perhaps the least irritating of the early 60s teen idols.  I always appreciated how Sedaka wasn’t mass-marketed, and frequently showed up at television appearances in dorky haircuts and ugly sweaters.  At least he wrote his own material, which the likes of Frankie Avalon can’t say.  (Frankie Avalon, by the way, is my watchword for “everything wrong with the early 1960s music scene.”)  Anyway, this track has one of the great ear-worm melodies of the era, with an infectious “Down-dooby-doo down-down” vocal riff following it throughout.  It’s a standout track from one of pop’s bleakest eras.

356.  “The Tide is High”- The Paragons (1967):  Admit it, you thought the folks in Blondie wrote this, didn’t you?  As it turns out, its a ska track by a short-lived Jamaican group whose fuzzy 60s production actually fits the song quite a bit better than Blondie’s late-70s mariachi treatment.

355.  “Wedding Bell Blues”- The 5th Dimension (1969):  For years, I thought this track was on the Hair soundtrack or something, because its so theatrical, and you can see it being played out on stage.  Another great testament to Laura Nyro’s ability to write soul numbers so persuasively that one of the era’s preeminent black vocal groups took the song up eagerly.

354.  “Sweet Cherry Wine”- Tommy James & the Shondells (1969):  This song isn’t a radio staple like “Crimon and Clover” or “Draggin’ the Line”, but in a way its the most historically significant song the band recorded.  By the late 60s, James and the crew were breaking free of the mafia and finding a born-again faith.  This song reflects these changes (“sweet cherry wine” is, of course, a metaphor for the blood of Christ), and you can argue that its the first Christian Contemporary song ever recorded.

353.  “Scarborough Fair/Canticle”- Simon & Garfunkel (1966):  I’m a big sucker for counterpoint.   Paul Simon arranges something poignant and beautiful with this track from the Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme album.  He anticipates the baroque direction popular music would take in the next year, and oozes the song with the best elements of folk: beautiful acoustic instrumentation, a reverence for our musical heritage, and a biting social message.

352.  “Hide Away”- Freddie King (1960):  They say that there were three kings of the blues: B.B. King, Albert King, and Freddie King.  “Hide Away” is a great transition point between earlier Chicago blues and the rock instrumental.

351.  “A Hard Day’s Night”- The Beatles (1964):  That opening chord changed music forever.  That F-add-9 is loaded with anticipation, which is rewarded with one of the most energetic and focused of the early Beatles hits, and introduced the 12-string guitar to the pop lexicon.

350.  “Groovin'”- The Rascals (1967):  It rivals the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Daydream” as the most mellow hit of the 1960s.  This tribute to weekend laziness is expertly served by Felix Cavaliere’s easy blue-eyed soul vocals.

349.  “Okie from Muskogee”- Merle Haggard (1969):  Is the song an earnest ode to old-fashioned, rural American virtue?  Or is it an especially clever satire of insular middle America?   In a way the song reminds me of the poetry of William Topaz McGonagall:  scholars still can’t figure out whether he was a brilliant parody of a bad poet, or an actual prodigiously bad poet.  In the same fashion, one can’t quite tell whether Haggard is extolling or ridiculing his song’s Okies.  He played it before country audiences who took it seriously, but he also performed it deadpan on the Smothers Brothers’ show, and plenty of countercultural acts have taken the song in as their own.  Maybe Haggard has the last laugh on all of us in the end.

348.  “Alice’s Restaurant”- Arlo Guthrie (1967):  This takes up almost the entire side of a record, but Guthrie, Woodie’s grandson, takes up the populist dissent tradition from his forebear.  An essay in the craft of hippie storytelling, “Alice’s Restaurant” is a pointed satire of the hypocrisy of the Vietnam War effort, where our hero successfully evades the draft by earning a criminal record from littering.

347.  “So Much in Love”- The Thymes (1963):  One of my favorite doo-wop records, this was recorded when doo-wop was all but dead as top 40 material.  The song is brilliant and simple in its harmonies, and I can’t help but smile at its earnest and endearing storyline about a seaside romance culminating in marriage.  Boyz II Men remade the song in the 90s to great effect.

346.  “Good Times, Bad Times”- Led Zeppelin (1969):  If you were listening to top 40 radio, Led Zeppelin’s first album  must have seemed like a bolt out of the blue.  Although they borrowed liberally from obscure blues artists, this is already an amazingly tight and proficient ensemble.  This raucous track, even with hints of the Yardbirds easily detected (no surprise, given Jimmy Page’s journeyman turn with the group), shows that the next generation of blues-rock has arrived.

345.  “The Dawn Treader”- Joni Mitchell (1968):  This track is from Mitchell’s debut album, released in 1968, just in time to make Mitchell one of the earliest female singer-songwriters to inspire dozens of careers in that vein in the 1970s like Carly Simon’s and Janis Ian’s.  Mitchell’s imagery is evocative even at this early stage in her career, and I found it impressive how she molds the words into the melody.  As good a lyricist as she is, the song would be just as effective in a foreign language, or in a made-up dialect like those Enya uses.

344.  “Girl From the North Country”- Bob Dylan with Johnny Cash (1969):  Dylan’s remake on the epochal Nashville Skyline album works with Johnny Cash and remakes this 1963 song with a greater earthiness and down-home feel than the original.  Interestingly, it borrows some lyrics from “Scarborough Fair” as well.

343.  “Ballet for a Girl in Buchanan”- Chicago (1969):  Chicago was almost shockingly ambitious and daring in their first three albums, and couldn’t be further apart from their 80s power ballads.  This suite was written by James Pankow, their trombonist who doubled as their horn arranger.  Clocking in at almost fifteen minutes, it moves from the band’s conventional jazz-rock into Bach arpeggios, Renaissance aires, and Copland-like Americana.  Two pieces of the suite were pared down as successful singles, “Make Me Smile” and “Colour My World.”

342.  “I Can Hear Music”- The Ronettes (1966):  Listening to this track, it becomes clear why Brian Wilson idolized record producer Phil Specter.  The production is lush, deliberate, and elaborate, effectively stealing the show from Ronnie and her friends.

341.  “I Saw Her Again”- The Mamas and the Papas (1966):  A great track that subtly hints at the inter-band love triangles that had developed by this point in time.  I love the false start before the second verse.  This is a fine stepping stone between Greenwich Village folk and psychedelia.

380.  “Flying on the Ground is Wrong”- Buffalo Springfield (1966): While Stills got most of the attention in Buffalo Springfield, that chapter of Neil Young’s career was an important apprenticeship.  His falsetto lift (“then I’m sorry to let you down”) into the bridge is the first great rock and roll moment that he is responsible for as a composer.

379.  “This Will Be Our Year”- The Zombies (1968):  On the verge of breaking up, British Invasion band The Zombies recorded one of the best albums of the 60s, Odessey and Oracle.  (The title isn’t a bad pun.  The band just didn’t know how to spell “Odyssey”.)  “This Will Be Our Year” is one of the finest tracks on that release.  Pitchfork put it on their list of the greatest 1960s songs, comparing it to “the rose-colored finale of a feel-good musical.”

378.  “Songs to Aging Children Go”- Joni Mitchell (1969): Even at this early hour, Joni Mitchell was refining the folky Southern California sound that would lay the groundwork for introspective 70s soft rock.  With her trademark ethereal melodies and evasive lyrics, Mitchell evokes an otherworldly sound from Laurel Canyon.

377.  “A Quick One While He’s Away”- The Who (1966):  The Who were always ahead of the curve, and their mid-decade release A Quick One shows plenty of ambitious themes, and a conceptualization of how an album could work as a cohesive piece.  It narrates a brief interlude of infidelity in a relationship throughout a nine-minute suit.  It prepared the band to work on rock operas in the future, and some fans have speculated that the song narrates the conception of the hero of their rock opera “Tommy.”  It offered one of the first glimpses of rock music as a vehicle for real drama.

376.  “Laughing”- The Guess Who (1969): Never really respected by anyone who mattered in the 60s and 70s, Canada’s best-loved rock group was one of the most reliable hit-producing outfits that thrived in rock’s most competitive years.  Burton Cummings and Randy Bachman prove that they have developed into solid, if unspectacular, tunesmiths by the time “Laughing” came out.

375.  “Time Was”- Canned Heat (1969):  Great psychedelic blues from a band that was once the toast of Woodstock.

374.  “Twist and Shout”- The Beatles (1963):  This is The Beatles’ first appearance on this list, and the only one of their cover songs to crack the top 400.  They take the “Slow jam” feel of the Isley Brothers’ original record, and infuse it with raw Merseyside energy.  Small wonder this song opened or closed nearly every concert they did afterward.  A tip of the hat to John Lennon who nearly shredded his larynx, recording this in one take after a 12-hour recording session, with a head cold.

373.  “Dirty Water”- The Standells (1966): True to the song’s title, the sound is murky and muddled, in the best garage band style.  It’s a lovely warts-and-all tribute to Boston, a city that didn’t contribute very many of the artists on this list.  Including, it seems, the LA-based Standells.

372.  “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore”- The Walker Brothers (1966): I can’t think of a single British invasion track that captured the essence of early 60s soul records more than this one.  The were popular enough in Britain, but it’s a shame the band never had a follow-up hit in the U.S.

371.  “A Summer Song”- Chad & Jeremy (1964):  Sure, it is shlock, but “A Summer Song” is a sweet encapsulation of a feeling many teens in the 60s had to face: saying goodbye to a sweetheart as summer tore them apart.  Good British-invasion harmonies and a strong melody carry this track nicely.

370.  “The Pied Piper”- Crispian St. Peters (1966):  Crispian was vain, arrogant, and elusive, but he managed to write a very strong song with multiple hooks that wanders from a low-register drawl to a Beatlesque crescendo.  If his talent and focus had matched his opinion of himself, he could have had a career instead of languishing with the one-hit wonders.

369.  “19th Nervous Breakdown”- The Rolling Stones (1966):  Unfortunately, misogyny directed at spoilt middle-class girls was becoming a calling card by this point in the Rolling Stones.  Even still, one can’t dismiss the power and proficiency of this track that shows by the Stones succeeded in ways that outshone almost all their British counterparts.  For this period in their career, anyway, they dismiss their blues background in favor of a more straightforward rock approach.

368.  “A Groovy Kind of Love”- The Mindbenders (1966): This song has a fine melody that lends itself to a certain sense of intimacy.  I really appreciate how its mellowness contrasts from the overwrought vocals of someone like Paul Anka earlier in the decade.  Despite the title containing the most dated word in the hippie lexicon, Phil Collins managed to make the song a hit again in the 1980s.

367.  “People Are Strange”- The Doors (1967):  I think The Doors are rather overrated, but there’s no question that Morrison taps into something very strong on this track- a sense of alienation heightened by the song’s sudden stops, dreary atmosphere, and Ray Manzarek’s anachronistic barrelhouse piano.

366.  “Blue Bayou”- Roy Orbison (1963):  Orbison’s voice is perfectly matched for a song about longing to go back home.  Linda Ronstadt’s version is more polished and affecting, but it is hard to deny the mournful power in Roy Orbison’s original.

365.  “A Salty Dog”- Procol Harum (1969):  Procol Harum thrived on creating atmosphere without resorting to kitsch.  They are at the top of their game here, evoking a nautical theme for a dramatic number on the high seas that slowly builds up to an almost cinematic conclusion.

364.  “Remember (Walking in the Sand)”- The Shangri-Las (1964):  The Shangri-Las weren’t the most talented of the 60’s girl-groups, but they did record some of the most interesting material.  Spooky and atmospheric, “Walking in the Sand” moved the band into darker territory than many of their contemporaries were permitted to occupy by their producers.

363.  “Eli’s Coming”- Three Dog Night (1969): They would go on to be the top vocal group of the early 70s, but Three Dog Night was just getting started here, with an urgent, organ-laced interpretation of this Laura Nyro song.  Although it pointed to the great things this combo would eventually accomplish, “Eli’s Coming” is also perhaps their least radio-friendly hit.  (It’s the only major song of theirs that the band did not perform when I saw them back in 2009.)

362.  “You’re All I Need (To Get By)”- Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell (1968):  Ashford and Simpson were, at this point, becoming a Motown Goffin and King.  They deliver in the songwriting stakes again giving Motown’s strongest vocal duo at the time another big hit.  It is all the more remarkable because Terrell was suffering from brain cancer and was confined to a wheelchair during the song’s recording.

361.  “Hurdy Gurdy Man”- Donovan (1968)  I almost forgot this one, but Jared reminded me that this Donovan hit existed.  Usually a folky, Donovan evokes a mythos and mysticism with this track, with the tambla providing a drone (the single most distinctive element of Indian music, substituting for the universal “Om” sound).  It also helps that the men who would become Led Zeppelin back him up.

And I welcome you to the first part of our countdown, where we determine the greatest songs from that most pivotal of decades, the 1960s.

400.  “Kick Out the Jams”- MC5 (1969):  Loud, brash, and undisciplined, this group worked in the White Panther Party, shouted revolutionary slogans during concerts, and went to Chicago to disrupt the Democratic Convention in 1968 with John Sinclair.  “Kick out the Jams” shows how their amateurish musicianship anticipated the anarchy of the DIY movement and, of course, punk.

399. “Sheila”- Tommy Roe (1962): Buddy Holly didn’t live to see the 1960s, but this charming, but deeply derivative ditty by copycat Tommy Roe is a close enough approximation to what he might have sounded like in 1962.

398.  “I Like My Toys”- Idle Race (1968): Believe it or not, Jeff Lynne was actively emulating The Beatles long before the Electric Light Orchestra tuned up.  The Idle Race was his first project as a teenager, and their first release was a concept album about a child’s birthday party.  From the “Penny Lane”-ish bells to the McCartneyesque sense of levity to the Harrison slide guitar, Lynne’s hero worship for The Beatles is evident from the start.

397.  “Turn Your Love Light On”- Bobby Bland (1961): Bland is one of the most obscure rock and roll hall of famers, but this track gives credence to a great voice, and it sets the table for the direction soul music would take later in the 1960s as it developed.  He reaches deep into the gospel idiom to produce a pretty amazing record.

396.  “Dominique”- The Singing Nun (1962): The tale of the Singing Nun is surprisingly sad, but that shouldn’t take away from this surprise hit song, the only foreign language number (I think) in my top 400.  One thing I do love about the early 60s is that the talent pool was so thin that a French song about a Dominican friar performed on the acoustic guitar by a nun could make it to #1.

395.  “Give Peace a Chance”- John Lennon (1969): Recorded in a bed during his Montreal honeymoon with Yoko Ono, this is Lennon’s clever wordplay at its best, a series of rapid-fire verses with an inane and eminently singable chorus.  Small wonder that nearly every peace march since has adopted this song.  I love how Lennon was still so committed to his partnership to Paul in ’69 that he still credited his first solo record as a Lennon-McCartney release even though Paul didn’t write a word or note of it.

394.  “Freedom Trilogy”- Odetta (1963): Odetta was a national treasure; one of the premier muses of the civil rights movement who performed at the March on Washington, an honor she shared Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul & Mary.  This is possibly her finest hour, taking her blues and folks background directly through the old black spirituals just as the civil rights movement was at its highest ebb.  This is a staggering track, one that played a role in shaping American history.

393.  “Creeque Alley”- The Mamas and the Papas (1967): This is a strikingly self-referential track, telling the tale of the group’s formation, and its connections to the others in New York’s folk scene, replete with cameo appearances by members of the Byrds and the Lovin’ Spoonful.

392.  “A Little Less Conversation”- Elvis Presley (1968): By the mid-60s, Elvis was trapped in a never-ending cycle of making cheap, badly written movies with hastily written soundtracks.  Artistically, he had been certifiably dead since he joined the army, but sparks of life and mischief and energy can be seen in this track, peering out of his creative morass, his lethargy, and his diet of fried banana sandwiches.  “Lilo and Stitch” gave this track new life several years ago.

391.  “I Wanna Be Your Dog”- The Stooges (1969): One more proto-punk song I feel obligated to include because of its massive influence on the development of the genre.  Rugged, uncompromising, and committed to its juvenility, Iggy Pop makes a startling debut on record.

390.  “A Shot of Rhythm and Blues”- Arthur Alexander (1961): Arthur Alexander was one of Lennon’s favorite artists (“Anna” from the first Beatles LP was one of his tunes.)  His knack as a tunesmith is evident here, despite the god-awful production (loud brass, abrasive female backup singers), but there was enough in this track to lament that Alexander was one of his era’s lost treasures.  In fact, Alexander is the only artist to have had his songs recorded by The Beatles, The Stones AND Dylan.

389.  “The Wolf of Velvet Fortune”- The Beau Brummels (1967): Better known for their 1966 hit “Laugh Laugh”, the Brummels made perhaps the first foray into fantasy themes on the psychedelic heels of Sgt. Pepper.  Animal metaphors, experimental instrumentation, inchoate lyrics– I’m amazed that this isn’t pegged as the first progressive rock song.  I’m also still trying to figure out of the title is a euphemism for something.

388.  “Questions 67 & 68″- Chicago (1969): Bold as, well, brass, Chicago made its first release a double album forcing first-time listeners to make a commitment.  This one paid off; the best track combines Robert Lamm’s thoughtful songwriting and Peter Cetera’s soaring tenor.  But it is the rhythm section- Terry Kath on guitar, Cetera on bass, and Danny Seraphine on drums, that anchor this magnificent and stately song, which unfortunately tanked as a 45-rpm single.

387.  “I Just Dropped In To See What Condition My Condition Was In”- First Edition (1968): Before he ever sold a single piece of roast chicken, before he ever became The Gambler, Kenny Rogers was hanging out with the Smothers Brothers and released this psychedelic hit.

386.  “Be Not Too Hard”- Joan Baez (1967): Baez’s warm earnestness penetrates this song, an ode to grace with a social conscience.  And by “earnest”, of course, I mean speaking the first verse in lieu of singing a third verse.

385.  “Give Me Love”- Rosie & the Originals (1960): Speaking of songs that Lennon took a liking too, this was also one of his early favorites.  The flip side of a minor hit “Angel Baby,” Rosie attempts to sing it in a deeper, masculine style, in the midst of a boogie-woogie backdrop with a persistent electric guitar part.  It’s one of the strangest girl-group records ever made; insistent and over-bearing in fascinating ways.

384.  “Shantytown”- Desmond Dekker (1967): There’s a fair bit of proto-reggae on this list, including this track by Dekker.  A great example of commercially viable ska, its also a useful window into the rudeboy subculture from that time in Jamaica’s history.

383.  “Monster Mash”- Bobby Boris Pickett & the Crypt-Kickers (1962): Every novelty hit forever afterwards was held up to this standard.  Capitalizing on the popularity of “Mashed Potato Time,” the creative production and sound effects and Pickett’s spot-on Boris Karloff impression makes this a delight to hear every October.  Well, the first couple of times, anyway.

382.  “San Antonio Rose”- Willie Nelson (1966): Just like Kenny Rogers wasn’t the Gambler yet, Willie Nelson was the country rebel or the Red Haired Stranger.  Still, Nelson’s finding his way beautifully here, with a confident vocal with a horn section break appropriate to the tune’s setting.

381.  “Draft Dodger Rag”- Chad Mitchell Trio (1964): Written by Phil Ochs, this was recorded by the Chad Mitchell Trio years after Chad Mitchell abandoned ship, and one of its members was a very young John Denver.  The song is uproariously funny, and a good example of how Tom Lehrer’s satire (think “Vatican Rag”) had a larger impact on popular music.  It works perfectly in the folk idiom with great comic timing to suggest that the guy desperately getting out of service might have been the real protagonist of the Vietnam farce.

As the president-ranking project slowly winds down (only nine left!), I’d like to turn my attention toward some other topics, since the last year has been almost entirely dominated by presidential posts.  I mentioned it in a post a month or two ago, but in the future, I’ll be counting down the top 100 architects of modern conservatism and modern liberalism in America, respectively.  I will comment on the 2014 midterm elections and the table-setting for the 2016 presidential election as they happen.  I will continue to monitor the Rock and Roll Hall of fame and predict the class of 2015 (nominations will come out in October of this year.)

For all this, my next priority is ranking and listing the top 400 songs of perhaps the 20th century’s most prolific decade for popular music, the 1960s.  This endeavor is bold, and certain a bit arrogant, but this is, by no means, a definitive ranking.  Lots of others have made similar rankings, and I drew on their knowledge and expertise to point me toward songs I never even knew existed.

A question, dear readers, may remain: why 400?  Wouldn’t 200 or even 500 be cleaner?  400, to me, represented a happy medium.  If limited to 200, a lot of more obscure, less influential, but nonetheless interesting and engaging tracks were left off.  When I tried to expand beyond 400 to 500, a lot of songs I wasn’t that enthusiastic about started to make appearances.  So, 400 it is.

In doing this, I tried to limit some of the iconic artists.  It seems like 40 or so Beatles songs should be on this list, but I capped it to about 15 or so, to allow other artists a chance to make their presence known.   Other artists similarly stymied for their own good are The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, The Who, and, if you can believe it, Nina Simone.   One thing that became clear as I compiled this list is how, um…bottom-heavy the 60s are.  The first few years of the 1960s were not very good at all until the British Invasion, The Beach Boys, and Motown really reached their peak.  By 1960, most of the greats from the 50s were out of the picture: Elvis and the Everlys were in the army, Chuck Berry was in jail, Little Richard forsook rock for the gospel, Carl Perkins was reeling from a near-fatal auto crash, and Jerry Lee Lewis was rightly ostracized for marrying his 13-year-old cousin.  We were left with a bunch of second-raters, never-weres, squares, posers, instrumental themes from unimpressive movies, and a dreadful number of teen idols named Bobby.  By 1969, The Beatles, The Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Simon & Garfunkel, Aretha, Marvin Gaye, Chicago, Hendrix, Three Dog Night, and Pink Floyd were all on the scene.  So, the competition isn’t even close; the decade got better and better, musically, as it wore on, and it shouldn’t be surprising that there are dozens and dozens of songs from ’69 and ’68 but only a relatively small handful from ’60 and ’61 that make the list.

Also- what do I mean by “song”?  Generally, I mean the rock and roll universe, but I generally believe rock and roll to not really be its own genre after 1960 or so, but rather, a common ancestor to what came after: British Invasion, Motown, R&B, soul, punk, funk, soft rock, disco, and so on.  All of these genres (or their progenitors) are represented here, and I included a few songs that fell entirely out of the rock spectrum, but existed in a kind of conversation with rock and roll, or had a profound impact on rock and roll in some way- so Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline, and a few traditional blues artists will make appearances on the list.  Of course, most of the songs on this list will be Billboard hits, although some “deep tracks” from obscure albums will certainly show up.   I respect the hell out of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and other crooners, but their work is outside of this list’s dojo.

The final question- what do I mean by “best” or greatness?  Part of it is musical excellence- a moving vocal performance, a virtuoso guitar solo, a tight ensemble, a memorable hook.  At the same time, I also keep an ear toward creativity and innovation– but not so innovative as to become unlistenable (one reason why Frank Zappa and dozens of the weirder psychedelic rock bands are not on the list.)  Songs that contributed to the development of new sub genres or synthesized existing styles together will be ranked highly, as did those that best captured the zeitgeist of the times.  (When you think of a 60s protest, Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” will almost inevitably play in your head; that sort of thing has to count for something.)   Simultaneously, pop is still more than represented if it passes the excellence test (which something like “Build Me Up Buttercup” does, but “Honey” by Bobby Goldsboro does not.)

So, we’ll soon begin, with 20 postings of 20 songs each.  As we go along, post a comment and let me know some of your favorite 1960s songs.

To begin, here’s some stinkers that you can rest assured didn’t make the list:

  1. SSgt. Barry Sandler- The Ballad of the Green Berets
  2. Ray Peterson- Tell Laura I Love Her
  3. Zagger and Evans- In the Year 2525
  4. Richard Harris- MacArthur Park
  5. Percy Sledge- When a Man Loves a Woman
  6. Tiny Tim- Tiptoe Through the Tulips
  7. Anything by Sonny and Cher
  8. The Trashmen- Surfin’ Bird
  9. The Archies- Sugar Sugar
  10. The Crystals- He Hit Me and It Felt Like a Kiss
  11. Bobby Goldsboro- Honey
  12. Victor Lundberg- An Open Letter to My Teenage Son
  13. Napoleon XIV- They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha haas
  14. Anything by Gary Puckett and the Union Gap
  15. Anything by Captain Beefheart
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