When we talk about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, there are lots of controversial artists who have made it in, but the Rock Hall is much more notorious for who is left out.  The word “snub” has been used with some regularity: both for bands who have never been nominated (“Snubbed by the nominating committee”) and bands who are routinely nominated but never seem to get in (Kraftwerk, NWA, War, and especially Chic, who are “Snubbed by the voters”).  The difficulty, though, is that rock and roll aficionados cannot agree on which artists are the most conspicuous snubs.  While we all agree lots of great musicians are on the outside of the great glass pyramid looking in, there’s little unanimity as to which artists those are.  It is a good example of why music is so subjective to taste: there’s a reason why earning a Grammy award does almost nothing for an artist’s credibility. To show you what I mean, here are the top twenty snubs listed by five different outlets: Consequence of Sound:

  1. Whitney Houston
  2. Joy Division
  3. The Smiths
  4. Kate Bush
  5. Nick Cave
  6. New Order
  7. Devo
  8. Bjork
  9. Sonic Youth
  10. Roxy Music
  11. Iron Maiden
  12. Depeche Mode
  13. Pixies
  14. Television
  15. Slayer
  16. Black Flag
  17. Motorhead
  18. Nick Drake
  19. Journey
  20. Phish

Not in the Hall of Fame:

  1. Deep Purple
  2. Kraftwerk
  3. Roxy Music
  4. Jethro Tull
  5. The Smiths
  6. MC5
  7. New Order
  8. Willie Nelson
  9. Gram Parsons
  10. Johnny Coltrane
  11. NWA
  12. Chicago
  13. Judas Priest
  14. The Cure
  15. Dick Dale
  16. Yes
  17. Big Star
  18. T. Rex
  19. Iron Maiden
  20. Pixies

Future Rock Legends: (they recently ranked hall-worthy artists, and I simply teased out the twenty highest placing artists who are eligible for the hall, but haven’t gotten in yet)

  1. Kraftwerk
  2. The Cure
  3. Deep Purple
  4. The Smiths
  5. Nine Inch Nails
  6. Joy Division
  7. The Moody Blues
  8. Iron Maiden
  9. Roxy Music
  10. Pixies
  11. Depeche Mode
  12. Janet Jackson
  13. NWA
  14. Judas Priest
  15. Yes
  16. King Crimson
  17. T. Rex
  18. Electric Light Orchestra
  19. Chicago
  20. Sonic Youth

Rolling Stone magazine:

  1. Joan Baez
  2. The Shangri-Las
  3. Harry Nilsson
  4. Dolly Parton
  5. Deep Purple
  6. Yes
  7. Warren Zevon
  8. Kraftwerk
  9. Afrika Bambaataa
  10. LL Cool J
  11. Joan Jett (voted in this year, after article was published)
  12. Kate Bush
  13. The Cure
  14. Iron Maiden
  15. Depeche Mode
  16. Slayer
  17. Bon Jovi
  18. The Smiths
  19. Whitney Houston
  20. NWA

And, finally, my list:

  1. Chicago
  2. Kraftwerk
  3. Janet Jackson
  4. Carole King
  5. The Cure
  6. Chic
  7. The Moody Blues
  8. Peter, Paul & Mary
  9. Deep Purple
  10. Judas Priest
  11. Kate Bush
  12. NWA (although I’m really troubled by their misogyny, which is through the roof, even for a gangsta rap group)
  13. Afrika Bambaataa
  14. The Zombies
  15. Dire Straits
  16. Pixies
  17. Weird Al Yankovic
  18. The Spinners
  19. Steve Miller Band
  20. Indigo Girls

See how difficult it is to come to a consensus?  Biases abound– Consequence of Sound has no rap or hip hop, Not in the Hall of Fame has zero female artists in their top 20, and my own difficulties tuning in to post-punk are just three examples.  There isn’t a single name that appears on all five lists.  But that doesn’t mean that there weren’t any popular artists who most of us recognized.  These were near-unanimous:

  • The Smiths (4…every one but me. It’s not my fault I’m the only one who recognizes how mopey they are)
  • NWA (4)
  • Iron Maiden (4)
  • Deep Purple (4)
  • Kraftwerk (4)
  • Judas Priest (4)
  • Pixies (4)
  • The Cure (4)
  • Chicago (3)
  • Kate Bush (3)
  • Depeche Mode (3)
  • Yes (3)
  • Roxy Music (3)
  • Joy Division/New Order (3) (I’ll be generous and lump them together)

So, there is something ~like~ consensus emerging; I think 8 acts appearing on four of our five lists is actually rather astonishingly high.  And the Nominating Committee seems to agree; five of those seven have been nominated at some point in the last three or four years.  Rock Hall Watchers just can’t agree on which acts should fill out our list of snubs.  35 acts appear on one and only one of our lists: Peter, Paul & Mary, Weird Al Yankovic, Indigo Girls, The Steve Miller Band, Chic, Dire Straits, The Zombies, The Spinners, Carole King, Nick Cave, Devo, Bjork, LL Cool J, Warren Zevon, Harry Nilsson, Bon Jovi, Dolly Parton, Gram Parsons, The Shangri-Las, Joan Baez, Jethro Tull, Electric Light Orchestra, Nine Inch Nails, Willie Nelson, Johnny Coltrane, Television,  Motorhead, Nick Drake, Black Flag, Journey, Phish, Big Star, King Crimson, MC5, and Dick Dale. And altogether, 56 different artists appear on our lists of 20: enough for about nine years’ worth of inductees.  If Rock Hall experts like Tom Lane or Philip from Rock Hall Monitors made their own master list of snubs (something I would love to see them to do), I guarantee they would have come up with some unique names themselves. If that isn’t enough, consider the acts the Nom Com has nominated before and clearly thinks are worthy, but aren’t on any of our lists: Link Wray, the J. Geils Band, Sting, War, The Marvelettes, The Meters, and so on.  And then you have to keep in mind that we are also  ignoring other exceptional acts who will meet the eligibility requirement soon: Pearl Jam, Radiohead, Oasis, Beck, Mariah Carey, Rage Against the Machine, Tupac, and Biggie.  Each of them will almost certainly be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame within a decades’ time.  It’s enough to make one’s head spin. So, what can we draw from all this?  It is probably very likely that there’s so much disagreement about the current “snubs” because most of the true no-brainers have long since been inducted.  If you read the comments section at a classic rock online forum of your choice, when the subject of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame comes up, people write things like “It is a TRAVESTY that Jethro Tull isn’t in,” or “It is a SHAM that they keep ignoring the Doobie Brothers.”  No.  A Rock and Roll Hall of Fame without, say, Led Zeppelin or Jimi Hendrix or Aerosmith would have been a travesty.  A Rock and Roll Hall of Fame without King Crimson or Depeche Mode is merely an interesting debate. The main point to take away, however, is that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is never, ever going to please everyone.  Tastes and opinion and critical judgment will diverge, even among ecumenical listeners of broad tastes and good will.  The Rock Hall has made plenty of mistakes (Laura Nyro, Percy Sledge, Gene Pitney, inducting only five artists for multiple years, etc.) that contributed to the backlog, and their entire process often seems shrouded in secrecy and cronyism.  But lots of rock and roll fans take the Hall at its worst without recognizing the enormity, and in some respects, the impossibility in their task of enshrining the most important acts in rock and roll’s family tree. Assuming seven artists as the upper limit for a modern, one-night, HBO-televised ceremony with speeches, performances, and awards for Early Influences, Non-Performers, etc., the Rock Hall has years and years before digging out of the logjam of important but snubbed artists.  Even if they do everything right from here on in.

Update (May 3, 2015):

Tom Lane recently posted his own list of top 20 snubs, which included:

  1. Chic
  2. The Spinners
  3. Electric Light Orchestra
  4. Gram Parsons/Flying Burrito Brothers
  5. Neville Brothers/The Meters
  6. Chicago
  7. Yes
  8. Whitney Houston
  9. Joe Cocker
  10. Roxy Music
  11. War
  12. Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes/Teddy Pendergrass
  13. Moody Blues
  14. The Monkees
  15. Rufus with Chaka Khan
  16. Smiths
  17. LL Cool J
  18. Warren Zevon
  19. Deep Purple
  20. Janet Jackson

This is very much in keeping with my observations– he shares a lot of snubs with others on this list (6 with me), but there are also several unique to his list of 20, most noticeably Rufus/Chaka Khan, The Monkees, The Meters, Joe Cocker, and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes.  Nobody agrees on the most egregious snubs.  Nobody.

Today, I’m continuing my countdown for the greatest Walt Disney World attractions.  We covered the twelve lowest placeholders last time, an essay in poor theming, lazy conceptualization, and unrealized ambition.  These ten choices aren’t quite that bad, but are palatably- and in some ways, fascinatingly- mediocre additions in the Disney World pantheon.

mickeybirthdayland70.  Mickey’s Birthdayland Stage Show (Magic Kingdom, 1988-1990):  To commemorate the 60th anniversary of Mickey Mouse’s animation debut, the powers that be opened up an entirely new land for the first, and only, time in the history of the Magic Kingdom.  With a festival theme brimming with colorful tents, Mickey’s Birthdayland was a vibrant, kid-friendly addition to the park.  One of the components to this celebration was “Minne’s Birthday Surprise”, a stage show wherein Minnie collaborates with Donald, Daisy, Goofy, Pluto, Chip, Dale, and a human who hosted the show to prepare a surprise party for the birthday mouse.  Watching the footage on Youtube, I am amazed at how such a no-frills show with entry-level choreography and canned dialogue became the anchor attraction for an entire new land.  In a way, it is refreshing; the show didn’t need to be anything extraordinary.  It simply had to set the pace and tone for the birthday festivities.  Disney imagineering aimed low, and for once, it was the smart decision.  This area of the park, designed as a one-time special event, became semi-permanent as Mickey’s Starland and finally Mickey’s Toontown Fair before it was all thankfully demolished to make room for the new, improved Fantasyland.

tomorrowland speedway69.  Tomorrowland Speedway (Magic Kingdom, 1971-present):  Remember how I said, in my first posting, that this ranking of the Disney World attractions was necessarily subjective and tied to my own experiences in the park?  Here’s where that starts to matter.     You see, the race cars in Tomorrowland were my little brother’s favorite ride when we were kids.  (To put this in perspective, Matt could identify the make and model of almost any car on the road by the time he was seven, owned every Matchbox ever made, and I’m pretty sure his first word was “car.”  Of course the Tomorrowland Speedway was his favorite)  Anyway, we rode on the stupid race cards multiple times every visit, without fail.  This might have been very pleasant, except that this ride has perhaps the most uncomfortable queue in Walt Disney World.  Back in my day, large portions of it were uncovered and cramped, subjecting poor vacationers to Florida’s merciless sun without the succor of air-con or even shade.  And once you were on the ride, you were similarly in the heat of the sun, riding down a track from which you could not deviate, and riding past scenery that, despite being in Disney’s flagship theme park, was nondescript and uninteresting.  Countless variations of this ride exist at nearly every low-rent theme park in the country, but that didn’t matter.  At no point, did you feel like you were on a race track or somewhere besides central Florida.  This ride has undergone quite a few name changes, vehicle redesigns, and shortenings over the years (the modern version has a full third less track than the original).  But it still stands and soldiers on as it did on the Magic Kingdom’s opening day, clogging up valuable Tomorrowland real estate, sucking in gullible motorhead children and their hapless older brothers.

skyway68.  Skyway (Magic Kingdom, 1971-1999): This ride might not have been the most original- the Great Escape theme park, an hour’s drive from where I grew up, had a ride just like it- but a trip on the Skyway is a hallmark of nearly every trip to the Magic Kingdom over the years.  On a busy day, it could be a nice way to get away from that crowded corridor between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland, even though the colorful theme-park chic gondolas couldn’t have been more out of place with the sterile color scheme of first-generation Tomorrowland.  Naively trusting park guests to responsibly sit down for five full minutes while suspended sixty feet in the air, the ride was a wrongful death lawsuit waiting to happen.  And yet, it was the sad and wholly accidental death of a park custodian doing maintenance on the ride that probably triggered the closing of this nondescript fan favorite.

studio backlot tour67.   Backlot Studio Tour (Hollywood Studios, 1989-2014):  Conceptually, this attraction was the glue holding the MGM-Studios theme park together for its first decade.  It was chiefly through the Backlot Tour that you appreciated how you were very much in a working theme park, with television shows and movies underway.  The queue for this experience set the stage nicely, allowing guests to see how realistic effects like a storm at sea might be created with the right technology and some creative framing.  The tram ride itself gave us all a glimpse of what was taking place at the studios, and the bustle and intense activity mattered more than any specific imagery we were supposed to see.  It all culminated in Catastrophe Canyon, a simulated flood performed with Hollywood magic- although in hindsight, I think it must also have been a dreadful waste of water.  Very much like the Magic of Disney Animation (#71), Backlot Studio Tour did not age very gracefully, and was hit hard by the inexorable move away from the Disney-MGM Studios as a functioning production facility and into a more conventional theme park.  The last time I rode was in 2008, and it was a depressing experience.  We rode on, past non-functioning wardrobe facilities, empty soundstages, and barren backstage areas that once jumped with bustle and activity, all on a tram that was driven by the least enthusiastic cast member I’ve ever seen at any of the parks.  Much like the Tomorrowland Speedway, the ride space was cannibalized to make room for newer, more commercial enterprises like the Lights! Camera! Action! show and Toy Story Mania.  It’s a shame, really.  This ride was once an intensive, immersive experience that almost single-handedly turned MGM-Studios from a half-day park into a full-day park.

under the ea66.  Under the Sea (Magic Kingdom, 2013-present):  Walt Disney World does not do too many slow-moving dark rides these days.  So, I had high hopes that new technology, and a renewed emphasis on storytelling would make this ride, which dominates an entire section of the new Fantasyland, a resounding success.  It didn’t exactly live up to those expectations.  It told the story of Ariel well enough, but it missed a lot of what makes Fantasyland rides so distinctive: their lack of narrative, their ability to invoke feeling rather than making sense as a complete story, given that a short ride misses the intricacies of plot.  In other words, why recreate the movie you already own at home?  The ride needs to explore something different.  Snow White’s ride is supposed to be about fear and fright, Peter Pan’s is supposed to evoke the sensation of flying, Mr. Toad with mayhem.  Under the Sea didn’t have any of these qualities.  Despite a really cool (although unnecessary long) queue that established a grotto theme, and a ride that used the blessing of space really well, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that it was a color-by-numbers recreation of The Little Mermaid.

dumbo65.  Dumbo the Flying Elephant (Magic Kingdom, 1971-present):   It is only 90 seconds long, takes you perhaps only twelve feet in the air, and is quite possibly the slowest-loading, least efficient ride in any Disney theme park.  In fact, the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World calls its touring plan of the Magic Kingdom focused on getting little kids to as many rides as possible the “Dumbo-in-a-Day-or-Die” plan because of the sheer logistical nightmare once caused by visiting this ride. And yet, it is a big hit with small children over multiple generations, and is often remembered as their favorite ride during their trip back home.   So why has this attraction become so iconic?  One of its ride vehicles resides in the Smithsonian, for pity’s sake.  The writer over at the Progressland blog makes a compelling case for why Dumbo matters.  In the early 50s, Walt Disney received scores of letters from children asking if they could visit the place where Mickey Mouse and the movie characters lived.  Disneyland allowed that to happen for the first time.  It “has intrinsic meaning because it allows the park guest to fulfill a desire based on previous emotional context”, and Dumbo- a simple ride where elephants spin around an axis- allows entry into that world.  And so, it has soldiered on since opening day, despite its simplicity, or more probably because of it.  I need to add that Disney did the right thing by this ride with the Fantasyland expansion, creating in effect two Dumbo rides, with a carnival area where kids can play around before their beeper lets them know that it’s their time to ride, instead of waiting inexorably in line.  That’s a blessed, merciful improvement- with consistent theming no less- to this hearty warhorse in the Disney stable.

The-Many-Adventures-of-Winnie-the-Pooh64.  Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (Magic Kingdom, 1999-present):  I think this simple ride- the only other Fantasyland dark ride built since the 70s-  is actually better than Under the Sea by a whisker.  In fact, “Dark ride” hardly describes it at all, since the decision was made to present it in a bright, colorful palate, full of strong lighting.  It fits the Pooh mythology well, in the form of small vignettes and short scenes, rather than trying to attempt a unified story, which it surely couldn’t do.  Even the ride’s trackless system is a testament to this free-wheeling, and slightly anarchic, mission statement- and the hallucinatory “Heffelumps and Woozles” scene was nicely executed.  Many adventures indeed.

monster sound63.  Monster Sound Show (Hollywood Studios, 1989-1997): For almost a decade, this show, presented in a 270-person theatre, was a good example of what the MGM-Studios tried to do in its early years.  While on the one hand, the park was committed to entertaining, it was also meant to show how movies and television were produced, in a way, a much more hands-on, experiential, and frankly, Epcot-y mission.  In this case, the focus was on sound effects.  A short black-and-white film was shown, starring Chevy Chase and- in his second appearance on this list- Martin Short, with studio-made sound effects.  Then, the film’s audio was deconstructed, as four audience members were chosen to operate the sound effect equipment to produce sounds of rain, bangs, clangs, and creeks as Chase’s character traversed a booby-trapped haunted house.  What followed was often comical, with sound effects mistimed or accidentally left out.  With a great deal of audience interactivity, it wasn’t terribly thrilling but it did succeed in showing us that creating sound in film wasn’t as easy as it appeared.

tough to be a bug62.  It’s Tough to be a Bug (Animal Kingdom, 1998-present):  This is the first, and the lowest-ranked, of the five 3-D films that factor into this list.  I find it very interesting indeed that the characters from A Bug’s Life, which hadn’t even been released until the year Animal Kingdom opened, were used in the park’s keynote attraction.  MGM Studios is designed to draw you to the Chinese Theatre to visit the Great Movie Ride, a retrospective that is crucial for the park’s self-understanding of why movies matter.  Epcot’s design team put a twenty-story geodesic dome just beyond the entrance in the form of Spaceship Earth, setting the tone for the entire park; the ride inside conveys a sense of how far we’ve come in the past and a corporate-friendly tomorrow for Future World, and a sense of humanity becoming more connected that resonates with the World Showcase.  In contrast, Animal Kingdom made its Tree of Life, a tourist-magnet that is just as visually impressive, if not more so, as these other monuments and made the attraction inside…a 3-D movie about bugs?  Seriously?  Talk about not living up to expectations.  The film is inoffensive- short, silly, and a bit unfocused.  You’ll learn a bit about bugs, but not much, it is just an avenue for small-scale special effects.  The sundry bugs come and go so quickly that it can’t sustain even a simple narrative or story.  My reservations amount to this: the Tree of Life is, conceptually, the most valuable real estate in the Animal Kingdom park.  Disney could have decided against putting any attraction at all inside, to give the tree a kind of sanctity or dignity.  But if you do put something inside the tree, it better be something really special, something that immediately communicates to crowds that will surely make a ..um…beeline for it what the Animal Kingdom is about and why its message matters.

disneyworld railroad61.  Walt Disney World Railroad (1971-present):  This railroad ride very nearly rivals Dumbo the Flying Elephant as a Magic Kingdom icon.  It is usually the first attraction guests will see upon entering the Magic Kingdom, even if it is almost never the first one they will experience.  As a method of getting around the park, it is usually more efficient to simply walk to your destination.  But it is a lovingly made train ride, and a good way to relax when you are in the park or get toddlers to chill out for a little while.  If I’m going to nit-pick and overanalyze, here’s this: a Victorian-style train ride makes sense in Main Street USA, it makes sense to have it plow through Adventureland, and it makes sense to stop in a Wild West outpost like Frontierland.  After that, however, the train’s purpose becomes a bit muddled.  Why is there a railroad in heretofore-medieval-themed Fantasyland?  And more anachronistically, why is this in Tomorrowland which boasts better and more futuristic forms of transportation?  In all likelihood, though, I’m over-thinking this.  I appreciate the railroad’s ability to instill some calm into an often hectic park teeming with sometimes-violent stroller moms.  It even plays a role in the charming opening ceremony held when the Magic Kingdom opens each morning.

#3: George Washington

300px-Gilbert_Stuart_-_George_Washington_-_Google_Art_ProjectCategory: Super-Competent Administrators

Term in Office: 1st president, 1789-1797

Party: Non-Partisan on paper, Federalist in practice

Home State: Virginia

Presidents’ Day has come and gone in the U.S., and although I am too late to celebrate it with a new post in our almost-completed Ranking of the Presidents, I think I am close enough to George Washington’s birthday to have this count as a belated birthday gift.

Every subsequent generation has treated Washington as a god who briefly deigned to walk among mere mortals for a time.  We have put him on our coinage.  We made his birthday part of a national holiday.  We have named states, counties, and even our nation’s capital in his honor.  He is the man nobody can criticize, the man nobody wants to criticize (although this plucky account from Drunk History gives us insight into how dangerous Washington could be when he felt wronged or crossed, as one young, inebriated historian tells the tale of the lengths GW went to unsuccessfully recover a runaway slave.)

No doubt, Washington would be pleased with our general acquiesce to his legend.  His statuesque visage over America’s story is partly a mythology he spent his lifetime making.  The George Washington who appears in Gore Vidal’s historical novels starting with Burr is probably a shade closer to the truth: a man of considerable but limited skill, better at stonewalling rival politicians and Continental Army generals than defeating divisions of redcoats.  I am reminded of what my friend, former Bishop James Armstrong, once said of Billy Graham: a man who, while pretending to be above it all, uses his influence in the most partisan of ways.

More than anyone else I can think of from the founding generation, Washington spent his life posing and preening for posterity.  In particular, Washington was enamored of classical culture, the revival of Greek and Roman republicanism in the mid-1700s that established the parameters and the argot for the American Revolution.  He ordered the play Cato to be shown at Valley Forge, showing the embodiment of republican virtue and sacrifice necessary to preserve self-government and liberty at the expense of tyranny.  Rather like Reagan, Washington spent his public career acting a part out: if Reagan play-acted a competent and poised president, Washington play-acted the role of Cincinnatus in the drama of the American Revolution.

If you aren’t familiar with the legend of Cincinnatus, let me explain it to you.  One of the great stories that generations of Romans told their young ones is that of the semi-mythical figure of Cincinnatus who lived during the age of the Roman republic.  An old retired farmer who loved nothing more than to toil at his plow.  One day, he was met at his plow by a delegation from Rome.  With an impending invasion, the Senate had chosen to make Cincinnatus a dictator for six months to deal with the threat.  Cincinnatus dispatched the invading tribes in two weeks, then resigned his office, going back to his plow.  Believe me, the legend of Cincinnatus resonated in the Early Republic days of the United States.  The most prestigious organization a Revolutionary War vet could join was called the Order of the Cincinnati.  The famous Ohio city of Cincinnati was so named in the hopes that all of its citizens could emulate the virtue of this great Roman.  (Alas, even a short visit to Cincinnati is enough to disprove this aspiration.)

And so, Washington spent his life molding himself after this early antique Roman.  He feigned reluctance to lead the Continental Army, he played the dilettante when called to lead the Constitutional Convention, and he finally professed hesitance when elected unanimously to the presidency.  This was, again, partly to make himself look good in future history schoolbooks, but it was also because of a deep-seated belief that the wisest, and most counter-intuitive thing that a powerful person can do is to abdicate that power, to step down, to retire to one’s plow.

It was with that same sense of posterity-mindedness that Washington conducted his administration.  In fact, the very office of the presidency was designed in Philadelphia with the tacit understanding that Washington would be the first man to occupy it.  A group of republicans who held monarchy in the deepest contempt would scarcely have designed the presidency to be as powerful as it was unless they could be sure of Washington setting a good example with his time in office.

And so, George Washington had to establish a very delicate balance.  He had to avoid appearing overtly monarchial or despotic, but he couldn’t allow the country to fall into the rudderless gridlock that befell it under the unworkable Articles of Confederation.  And he certainly could not appear partisan (although he certainly favored what would eventually be called the Federalists.)

This often meant letting underlings handle the dirty work, preferring to levitate above much of the bickering that took place in the first Congresses.  He allowed Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison arrive at a grand bargain- exchanging the federal assumption of state debt for a plan to put the nation’s capital on the Potomac- far away from the corrupting financial centers of Philadelphia and New York.  He let John Jay tackle the thankless job of negotiating a treaty with Great Britain, allowing the former chief justice to draw the fire when the best he could do was get a treaty that didn’t really deal with impressment but averred war between the two powers.

If anything, Washington, again like Reagan, kept too much distance from the details.  Out of all the cabinet, he took Alexander Hamilton’s advice the most often- to the point where it sometimes looked like a parliamentary system does today, where you might have a president whose purpose is largely ceremonial, but also a prime minister with less prestige but more policymaking clout.  Hamilton was, in some ways, that kind of prime ministerial figure.

Hamilton was, to be sure, a financial genius who helped codify the nation’s precarious finances.  We take it for granted how good he was; we remember crisis-solvers, but rarely remember crisis-preventers quite so fondly.  Unfortunately, this came with some drawbacks.  Hamilton worked in ways that privileged lenders and financiers over the backwoods areas of the country.  He helped his banker friend Robert Morris engineer a scheme whereby financiers would buy Revolutionary War vets’ worthless IOU payments they received throughout the war, then turned around and made the IOU’s redeemable for hard currency.  Adding insult to injury, this scheme was funded by an excise tax of whiskey, which was disproportionately used by backwoods Appalachian Revolutionary War vets.  Some of the most financially precarious people in the U.S. were being taxed to pay for a policy that fleeced them.  So, I have very little good to say about Washington’s famous action to restore order in the Whiskey Rebellion, aside from Washington’s decision to prosecute almost no one for treasonable activities.  The angry rednecks of hill country had, for once, every right to be aggrieved; the Washington administration took them for a ride.  In this, Washington played only a small, symbolic role- riding into Pennsylvania on horseback to put down the rebellion; he left the details to Hamilton- a capable man, but in some ways, a dangerously Anglophile, slightly monarchial, and unabashedly partisan figure.  Still, it was a great good cop/bad cop routine while it lasted.

With Washington’s obsession with looking ahead, we need to spend a few moments looking at his approach to foreign policy.  We often remember his farewell address endorsing neutrality in foreign affairs- or at the very least, unilateralism, putting America’s interests first.  It has become a cliche to point out that this was a wise course of action, but in this case, the cliche is true.  The idea of neutrality did, I think, serve the country in good stead, allowing us to stay more or less out of Napoleonic geopolitics (with some important exceptions) and even allowed us to play major European powers against one another.  An overlooked aspect is often the Citizen Genet crisis, where a representative from Revolutionary France attempted to stir up American privateer support for the Directory, even to the point of strong-arming popular support against the Washington administration (shades of Netanyahu’s work in turning American foreign policy into a partisan exercise today?)  Washington put a kibosh on that (although he generously allowed Genet to stay in America when it was clear he would be executed if he returned to Jacobin France.)

I’ve picked Washington’s administration apart, but it is above question that he had a monumentally difficult task.  If we are going to continue using “Value Over Replacement Player” as a metric, Washington’s score is astronomically high; there isn’t a single American of his time- possibly any time- that could have done so well, and commanded so much respect at such a critical moment, and had the good sense to leave at the proper time.  Fundamentally, you needed consensus for this constitutional experiment to work, and he was the only man who could provide it.  Forrest MacDonald of the University of Alabama is partly correct when he says that Washington’s greatness was not so much what he did or the policies he pursued as much as the example that he left behind.  In that sense, he was great because he stepped down, MacDonald argues; he set the precedent of serving for only a short while, emulating Cincinnatus one last time.

It is easy to forget that the late 18th century was filled with petty princelings, would-be despots, and dangerous revolutionaries.  With only small and rather weak republics to use as models, Washington had to figure out how a large republic would work for the first time in the history of the modern world.  He succeeded beyond expectation by an apolitical veneer, appointing competent people based on merit, and using his symbolic authority as America’s leading citizen.  His latent biases toward financiers over small farmers, the British over the French, and central authority over states’ rights, are forgivable- and in some ways, deeply human- complications to an administration that got an awful lot right.  In virtually every respectable ranking of the presidents I have seen, he’s in the top three, and I see no reason to change that.


I have too many projects underway at this blog right now.  I’m ranking the presidents, I’m counting down the top 400 songs of the 1960s, and I’m closely following all developments involving the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  So, why not add one more?  I am going to attempt to rank the attractions found at Walt Disney World in Orlando.

As those who know me are fully aware, I am something of a Disney World nut, and many of the happiest days of my childhood and adolescence were spent there.    When a friend begins to plan a visit, I have been known to write 30-page memos detailing how they should tackle the parks, their lodging, and the dining options.  I love the thought that goes into each themed area in the park, the intricate planning that goes in to even mundane elements like lighting the parks or what the cast members wear on each ride.  I appreciate the parks’ place as cathedrals in American pop culture, where going on the most important rides takes on a purposefulness and sanctity that I can only compare to following the stations of the cross in a Catholic church.  You can’t really skip “Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus”, and neither can you quite forego Big Thunder Mountain Railroad without feeling like the Disney experience is incomplete.  I can claim, however, no special expertise.  There are plenty of people on the internet whose knowledge of Disney history, whose technical or engineering understanding, or whose  command of attraction design and theming far eclipses my own.  I’m just a historian who follows the story and development of Disney World as a hobby, and who has been to the park 9 times in his 31 years.  (1987, 1990, 1993, 1996, 1999, 2005, 2008, 2009, and 2014, if you care to know.)

On what grounds, though, am I ranking them?  Well, a theme park is there for enjoyment, so I suppose in some ways that this is a ranking of how well and how deeply I appreciated these attractions.  That can mean a number of things, of course: how well the attraction tells a story, its immersion and ability to convincingly create a new world or new environment, its ability to thrill or instill wonder, nostalgia, imagination, hope, or whatever feeling the ride is trying to evoke.  Naturally, this cannot be reviewed objectively, nor should one even try.  Theme parks are there to entertain and appreciate; to address them in a purely clinical fashion is to miss the point.  My ability to judge the rides cannot at all be separated from the warm memories surrounding them; indeed, they were made to be enjoyed with families and loved ones.

But some level of order is necessary, and I have to set some ground rules.  Firstly, this is a ranking of Disney World attractions past and present.  Long-shuttered favorites like Dreamflight, World of Motion, Body Wars, and the Backlot Studio Tour will all be resurrected (there I go with the blasphemy again) alongside attractions that are still open today.  This includes rides, park-specific films, and perennial theatre presentations, but not parades, park entertainment, exhibits, playgrounds, or seasonal fare.  Therefore, park elements like Illuminations, or Global Neighborhood, or the Penny Arcade or the Image Works are all disqualified.  By my count, this makes 82 attractions that I have to rank.

Secondly, I am only ranking attractions that I have experienced myself at some point.  Even in nine trips, there are still some things I’ve never quite gotten around to on account of limited time, lack of interest, rides closing before I was born, or opening after my most recent visit.  So, if you are a fan of Toy Story Mania, Food Rocks, Magic Journeys, Plaza Swan Boats, the Seven Dwarves Mine Train, or (shudder) Stitch Encounter, I’m so sorry, but I never got around to them.

Thirdly, I am only ranking one version of each attraction- the version I deem as the best, its highest form.  For example, there have been four distinct incarnations of Spaceship Earth since Epcot’s 1982 opening- the original, the Walter Cronkite version, the Jeremy Irons version, and the Dame Judi Dench version.  In the end, though, it is basically the same ride: a slow-moving journey through the history of communications.  It was a close race between Cronkite and Irons, but ultimately I will be judging it on Cronkite.  Thankfully, this means I don’t have to review some disastrous revisionings of classic rides, Journey Into Your Imagination and Enchanted Tiki Room: Under New Management.

Starting with the bottom of the barrel- the cautionary tales of how not to design a theme park attraction-  and moving ever forward into the sublime, I’ll tackle the bottom twelve in this post.

250px-DrewCareySD82.  Sounds Dangerous!  (Hollywood Studios, 1999-2012):  In 2005, my mom and I spent a grand total of three hours at MGM Studios during a three and a half day visit to Disney World.  The other three members of our party went on Star Tours and Tower of Terror, then left.  On a whim, the two of us decided to check out Sounds Dangerous, on the reasonable grounds that its host, Drew Carey, was funny enough on “Whose Line Is It Anyway.”  Set in the old Monster Sound Show studio, we were appalled by what followed.  Drew Carey plays an inept detective who carries along a tiny video camera to record his exploits.  Along the way, the video feed goes out, the room goes completely dark, and we are reliant on the audio to piece together the action.  It was a disaster: unfunny, and probably incredibly scary for children afraid of the dark. This show has so many of the hallmarks that make so many newer Disney attractions less compelling today: a bad script, an over-reliance on celebrities, a lazy concept, desperate comedy, no theme, and it is divorced from the Studios’ goal of simultaneously celebrating Hollywood while showing how it works behind the scenes.  Since I disqualified Journey Into Your Imagination, it is my choice for the worst attraction ever staged at Walt Disney World.


tarzan rocks81.  Tarzan Rocks! (Animal Kingdom, 1999-2006):  This show ran for seven excruciating years in a nicely designed theatre tucked away in the back corners of Animal Kingdom.  As I watched Tarzan Rocks! itself, it was clear that too many cooks had spoiled the broth in this stage show based on the eponymous Disney animated film.  Somebody on the design team clearly wanted this to be a  straightforward theatrical presentation of the film.  A second person insisted on turning this into a rock concert, fronted by a hairless Phil Collins clone introducing the film’s soundtrack with generalities like “we’d like to dedicate this song to all the families in the audience”, and the standby of all unsuccessful entertainers, “I can’t hear you,” imploring the audience to reluctantly clap louder than the show deserved.  And yet a third person envisioned the show as a circus, with gravity-defying trapeze work, and in-line skaters dressed like monkeys.  Any one of these elements on their own could have made for an entertaining experience.  Put together, it was loud, confusing, disjointed, and agonizing.  By the way, it can’t be a coincidence that the two worst attractions on my list both end in exclamation points.

80.  The Making of Me (Epcot, 1989-2007): Picture, if you will, the following scene unfolding as the Reagan years were winding down, and two Disney timeservers pitch their idea to the boss:

Imagineer 1:  So, we’ve got an idea for the new Wonders of Life pavilion.

Imagineer 2: It’s about health, and wellness, and life, right?

Imagineer 1: And where does life begin?

Both: Sex!

Michael Eisner: I’m listening…

Imagineer 1: So, naturally, a Disney World vacation is when most parents want to introduce their children to the sensitive subjects of puberty, conception, and birthing.

Eisner: Indeed.

Imagineer 2: So, we’d like a green light on a sex ed film we can show in Epcot.

Imagineer 1:  Starring Martin Short.

Michael Eisner: Sold!  Let the Disney Decade begin!

making of meTo be completely fair, this show was about as good as an Epcot sex ed film could realistically be.  There’s very little wrong with the execution; Short is surprisingly empathic and sweet, and as a film introducing impressionable children to some very adult topics, it does a lot of things right.  It emphasizes the need to love your partner, and the idea that having a child should be a deliberate choice rather than a careless default.   No, the problem is completely in the concept.  In the same way that Disney World is not the proper forum for a Howard Zinn style deconstruction of power and race in American history, it is also perhaps not the best venue for talking about the birds and the bees.

circleoflife79.  The Circle of Life: An Environmental Fable (Epcot, 1995-present):  There are lots of Disney World fans out there on the web, and one contentious issue that is never satisfactorily resolved is the appropriateness of saturating Disney rides, especially in Worlds Fair-like Epcot, with characters from the film canon.  In the last decade, we’ve seen the Caballeros move in to Mexico, Nemo & Co. commandeer The Living Seas, an animatronic Chef Remy in France, and a hostile takeover from the cast of Frozen in the Norway pavilion.  Sometimes, when done smartly, this cross-pollination works, but other times it reeks of shamelessness and laziness.  My problem with The Circle of Life is neither.  It’s simply that the attraction does not need to be there.  Conceived as a kid-friendly replacement for the well-regarded Symbiosis film at Epcot’s Land pavilion (which I never saw), there’s nothing about the film or the theatre it is shown in that couldn’t have been screened elsewhere.  Maybe it could have been distributed to middle school classrooms for Earth Day (love you, Gaylord Nelson!).  The environmental element is so very, very important, and we need to hear it.  And maybe the Lion King characters were the best way to communicate these values.  But the entire plot revolves around Timon and Pumbaa scheming to start a resort with a disastrous environmental impact, earning a reproach from grown-up Simba.  Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!  Um…the entire Disney World resort is four theme parks and nearly two dozen resort hotels or timeshares sitting on what used to be a swampland ecosystem.  The mixed messaging just kills the educative value of the film.  Preachiness is fine- sometimes we need to be preached at- but hypocrisy is another problem altogether.

beauty and the beast78.  Beauty and the Beast Live on Stage (Hollywood Studios, 1991-present):  It’s been in the MGM or Hollywood Studios for nearly a quarter century now, but I only saw this for the first time on my most recent trip in 2014.  It was underwhelming.  The best Disney theatre shows provide something special- a creative or unique way of telling a story you already know by heart.  Finding Nemo does that.  Festival of the Lion King does as well.  Beauty and the Beast’s show is simply a staged retelling of the movie, with some dancing.  Constrained to 25 minutes, it just can’t do its job: crucial plot elements are left out or are mentioned awkwardly in passing (“I KNOW the rose’s final petal is about to fall,” the Beast roars at one point).  And the costumes are a mess…just cumbersome full-body suits looking like fearsome, rotund versions of Cogsworth or Lumiere.  They might have been the best that 1991 conventions would have allowed, but when you compare them to how, say, the Nemo show allows the actors’ expressions to be seen and incorporated into the show fluidly, they look like a floundering “Left Shark” during Katy Perry’s Superbowl halftime show.  This needs an update or replacement- stat!

astro orbiter77.  Astro-Orbiter (Magic Kingdom, 1994-present): It’s iconic, in its way: the towering model of a self-contained solar system looming over the Tomorrowland silhouette.  Essentially, you spin in tight circles way high up.  Not bad as a concept, but it is more nausea-inducing than fun, and the ride lasts a pitiful 90 seconds.  Although, looking back to my most recent trip, its brevity may be a good thing.  My wife, who was looking moribund and pale after a Tonga Toast breakfast, credited the ride, paradoxically, with restoring her health by getting some much-needed breeze on her face.  I’d imagine many people who had the deep-fried concoction for breakfast could tell a different story after a trip on the Astro-Orbiter.  I do like, though, the concept of waiting on the ground floor to be taken up on a special elevator to the ride platform; it makes it feel much more like a space launch.

monsters inc76.  Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor (Magic Kingdom, 2007-present): In the mid-Naughts, Disney’s new buzzword became “interactivity.”  This meant interactive queues, interactive encounters with the characters, and harnessing new technology to allow a theatre presentation to interact with guests.  As I’ll discuss later, Turtle Talk with Crush nailed the concept.  Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor did not.  Stand-up comedy is tough to pull off in a theme park setting.  You have to avoid being too “blue” because, being Disney World, children are invariably in the audience, and yet you need to entertain mom and dad as well.  What follows is usually a semi-improvised litany of canned jokes, some dumb jokes audience members text to Roz, and some further jokes at the audience’s expense (one hapless guest is targeted as “that guy” so mercilessly that he gets a special sticker to wear in the park for the rest of the day.)  More often than not, whoever is using the computer-animated puppets in the show or supplying the voices can’t navigate between being funny, being PG, and being quick on your feet, making this attraction an unsuccessful essay on a promising development in theme park technology.

75.  American Journeys (Magic Kingdom, 1984-1994): While normally associated with Epcot Center, Tomorrowland housed a Circle-Vision 360 film for many years.  Originally, this was America the Beautiful, but in the 1980s, it was revamped and updated (including some badly needed emphasis on other races and cultures to counter the original’s uncomfortably lily-white feel.)  It wasn’t a disaster or anything, but the Circle-Vision format was perhaps best for fantastical or more unfamiliar settings, and focusing on one’s home country didn’t quite showcase the positives of this compelling and immersive film format.  I’d tell you more, but I last experienced this film when I was 9, and it’s not like I can revisit it online, Circle-Vision films translating very poorly to Youtube.  Maybe we need Circle-tube for this kind of thing.

leagues under the sea74.  20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Magic Kingdom, 1971-1994): I last rode this one in 1990, so a lot of this is based on camcorder footage of the ride that I purchased on Ebay when I was 17 (I was an extremely nerdy kid, what can I say?)  It turned out the videos confirmed my vague memories of the ride as a six-year-old.  It was an immersive concept that was atmospheric, to be sure, but also deathly dull.  When you were on this ride, you couldn’t help but wish you had gone on the tea cups instead.  Still, it is hard to deny that it was innovative for its time, and had neat special effects, such as the strategically timed use of bubbles to suggest ascending, descending, or indeed rolling, in the deep.  But it was also weirdly out of character for Fantasyland; a ride based on a live-action film intruding on the space of animated classics.

73.  Mission to Mars (Magic Kingdom, 1975-1992):  Geez, vintage Tomorrowland is taking a beating in these rankings, isn’t it?  Don’t worry too much, because that particular part of the Magic Kingdom also harbors some of my all-time favorites.  A lot of rides from that era have a certain nostalgia value, because Disney never topped them or tried anything like them again.  Mission to Mars isn’t so lucky; over a decade after it closed, Epcot deployed Mission: Space a better, faster, more inspiring simulator visit to- you guessed it- Mars.  Mission: Space wasn’t perfect, as I will show in a later installment, but it did lay bare the flaws of Mission to Mars to any who had experienced both: it was dry as could be, too clinical and scientific yet failing to instill any wonder.  It perhaps inaugurated the “scientific exploration gone wrong” genre that Body Wars, and almost every 90s Epcot attraction later used, but failed to convey any sense of urgency or danger.  I can’t stress enough how difficult it is to make a trip to Mars uninteresting- what little kid hasn’t dreamed of being an astronaut- but Disney Imagineering found a way.

72.  Cinderella’s Golden Carousel (Magic Kingdom, 1971-present): I don’t quite know what to say here.  It’s a carousel.  It’s an especially lovely one, with a vintage design and a sound system playing calliope versions of classic Disney songs.  But that’s about it, guys.

disney animation71.  Magic of Disney Animation (Hollywood Studios, 1989-present):  I know I said I would only rank each ride based on its best incarnation, but something has to be said for the sad state this attraction is in.  Back in the early 90s, this had a charming movie demonstrating how animated films are made with two men who were both in Disney attractions before: Robin Williams and Walter Cronkite.  (It would be tear-jerking to see this today, between Cronkite’s death symbolizing the death of courageous journalism and Williams’ recent suicide.)  There was also a space where you could see Disney animators plying their craft.  No longer.  Disney animation pulled up its tent-poles from Orlando long ago, leaving what should, by all rights, be Hollywood Studios’ signature experience an empty husk.  You can still experience it today- apparently with a film staring Mulan’s Mushu- but it just isn’t the same.  And even the original- while good- still could have been better.  Again, you could see Disney films being made.  It should have been a can’t-miss part of a visit to the Studios, the same way Spaceship Earth needs to happen for any Epcot visitor, but it never was.  Like Mission to Mars it was a slam-dunk concept that Disney just couldn’t execute with the proper scope and vision for guests.

Tune in next time for #70-61.

We’ve made it to the halfway point!

220.  “Rescue Me”– Fontella Bass (1965): If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Aretha Franklin must have been tickled pink.  The entire record sounds like it was made in a laboratory trying to emulate the “Queen of Soul”.  From Bass’s gospel pedigree, to her command of the song’s call-and-response bridge, to her precociously early career, to the Stax-style production with punchy horns, it succeeds so well that the song is more memorable than much of Franklin’s own catalog.  While not a perfect specimen (Aretha would have never allowed her voice to be double-tracked to the extent we hear in “Rescue Me”), it is one of the most convincing marriages of song and performer that came out of the 1960s.

219.  “Walk Like A Man”– The Four Seasons (1963):  My friend Scott has a segment on his blog about the “secret weapons” of various bands– members whose contributions fall under the radar but were a crucial component of success.  He believes that Bob Gaudio, the band’s keyboardist and principal composer was the Four Seasons’ secret weapon, thriving in the background while Franki Valli fronted the band.  I think he’s right, but a case could also be made for Nick Massi, the band’s hardscrabble bass vocalist and vocal arranger.  This song showcases his talents in a big way, transforming what would otherwise be an ordinary song about a father telling his son to buck up after a breakup into one of the most memorable doo-wop songs of the early 60s.  Frank Valli’s falsetto could not soar so high if it wasn’t anchored by Massi’s low notes.

218.  “Ooo, Baby Baby”– Smokey Robinson & the Miracles (1965):  This song has been covered by many artists in the subsequent decades, but there is no denying the charm and atmosphere of the original.  It’s a sweet, hopeful song about love gone wrong, and must have set the tone for many a slow dance.  Smokey’s done better songs, but he was never this good at emotional communication.

217.  “People Got to Be Free”– The Rascals (1968):  Blue-eyed soul was a marvelous thing in the 1960s.  The Rascals were master practitioners in that art, with the Righteous Brothers as their only serious challengers.  What made the Rascals so great was that they never forgot who invented soul music, and they always went to great pains to make sure they shared a bill with artists of color.  Their empathy toward the civil rights moment shines through in this gem, a #1 hit with biblical allusions and a theme of brotherhood that cuts against the grain of that violent year.

216.  “Mississippi Goddamn”– Nina Simone (1964):  Simone made a second career out of herself by issuing pointed critiques of the black condition across the country, and down South in particular.  It’s very topical, and tough to duplicate.  She names names and points fingers, rather than relying on generalities, even taking some shots at Lurleen Wallace, running for governor of Alabama as her husband’s surrogate.   Folk songs that protest Jim Crow are a dime a dozen, but Simone’s cabaret stylings allow for layers of humor and drama and pathos to enter the song more easily.  Her line “I’ve even stopped believing in prayer” is especially poignant.  The song is a manifesto of the folly of “moving slow” in the civil rights movement.  “You don’t have to live next to me,” she intones, “you just have to give me equality.”

215.  “I Think We’re Alone Now”– Tommy James and the Shondells (1968):  I bloody well love this song.  To be sure, it ranks this low only because it is more of a guilty pleasure than an objective piece of greatness.  But from start to finish, it’s a damn great single.  The crickets chirping between the verses, the sense of urgency to make the most out of fleeting time alone.  This song captures the feel, the fear, the discovery of the sexual unknown, that comes with being young better than any song from this era not by the Beach Boys.

214.  “Cathy’s Clown”– The Everly Brothers (1960):  Perhaps the last great song that the two brothers wrote, it is more complex and melodic than their earlier work.  Essentially a polite way of acknowledge that one has become a cuckold, it has the neat trick of both Phil and Don’s lines serving as potential melodies; neither is quite dominant enough to be considered the harmony line.  John and Paul would later borrow this tactic in songs like “If I Fell.”

213.  “Wild Thing”– The Troggs (1965):  Ruthlessly and remorselessly stupid, “Wild Thing” is the beating heart of garage-rock that thrived in the 1960s and encouraged young, resourceful, and dubiously-talented musicians to attempt bands of their own.  With repetitive verses, an unforgiving guitar riff that was duplicated by hundreds of youngsters, and a bizarre flute solo in the middle of the song that presages psychedelia, the song lives in infamy.  Strangely, its author, Chip Taylor, also wrote “Angel of the Morning,” a manifesto of a woman’s sexual liberation.

212.  “Tuesday Afternoon”– The Moody Blues (1967):  While associated with progressive rock, The Moody Blues were actually much closer to the first-generation British Invasion bands than most people remember.  Part of the ambitious and orchestral Days of Future Passed project, the track is necessarily bouncier and more ponderous than its urgent and exquisite cousin, “Nights in White Satin.”

211.  “Spanish Caravan”– The Doors (1968):  One of the things that fascinates me is how innovative early single year of the 1960s was in retrospect.  In other words, more than any decade since, a record from, say, 1966, sounds substantively different from a record in 1968.  There was constantly new ground to furrow.  It’s fascinating to think that by 1968 nobody had thought to do a Spanish-style song in a serious way (that is, not counting novelty numbers like “Come a Little Bit Closer.”)  In fact, this song is based off of a guitar piece by turn-of-the-century Spanish composer Isaac Albeniz.  In this track, The Doors put Ray Manzarek’s organ in the far background in favor of Rob Krieger’s flamenco guitar.  The effect is mesmerizing and eclectic.  The Doors are, in my opinion, one of the most overrated bands of the 1960s, but when they delivered, they could produce some astonishing and unexpected results.

210.  “A Lover’s Concerto”– The Toys (1965):  By 1965, girl groups not named The Supremes were on the way out.  One of the last great efforts from this forgotten world is a one-off hit called “A Lover’s Concerto” by the Toys, a group that didn’t do much else.  Like #211, it is based on some classical motifs, in this case, the minuet in G major from one of Bach’s notebooks.  One critic, Dave Thompson, calls it “the apogee of the girl group sound,” and it is hard to disagree.

209.  “Seven O’Clock News/Silent Night”– Simon and Garfunkel (1966):  Sad and poignant, Simon and Garfunkel strike on the ingenious idea to juxtapose the soft Christmas hymn with the increasingly violent and unsettling evening news.

208.  “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)”– The Beatles (1965):  This record is a historic occasion.  It not only signifies John Lennon’s evolution as a more interesting songwriter willing to explore some of the dark places of the human condition.  The girl in this song is the first truly unconventional and even dangerous character we meet in a Beatles song.  More than that, The Beatles, for the very first time, introduce the sitar to western music.  George Harrison’s songs for the next few years would explore these boundaries further, but this is the first track in rock and roll to conscientiously break down barriers between east and west.

207.  “Bus Stop”– The Hollies (1966):  It’s a cute little trifle of a song, a self-contained story about love blossoming unexpectedly at a bus queue.

206.  “Crossroads”– Cream (1968):  Since the days of Robert Johnson, the concept of the crossroads, the point of decision between right and wrong, Jesus and the devil, has been a leitmotif in the blues.  Perhaps the greatest psychedelic blues outfit of them all tackles the theme their own way in this seminal track.

205.  “Hush”– Deep Purple (1968):  One of the first hard rock bands, Deep Purple became a sort-of gateway drug for lots of musicians and listeners.  Although “Smoke on the Water” would go on to be more famous, “Hush” introduces the band’s prominent guitars with some very 60s trappings, from psychedelic organ, to British Invasion-y background vocals, and its famous melody line.

204.  “Classical Gas”– Mason Williams (1968):  Hmm..this is the third song with classical pretensions in this set.  Strange!  Williams seems like a troubadour from a bygone age- a comedian, writer, and musician as well, like one of the players we see arriving at Elsinore in Hamlet.  In a similar Renaissance vein, “Classical Gas” has some captivating classical guitar and stately horns- making it a marching band staple ever since.  I love that songs like this could be #1 hits in the 60s.

203.  “And When I Die”– Blood, Sweat & Tears (1969):  And yet a fourth song!  BS&T is borrowing liberally from Aaron Copland in this cover version of a soul number originally written by Laura Nyro.  An existential singer-songwriter track became, with Chicago’s James William Guercio producing,it is a piece of twee Americana with a soundscape that evokes the frontier and its live-fast-die-hard ethos.  And it’s also perhaps the finest vocal performance given by David Clayton-Thomas.

202.  “Soul Finger”– The Bar-Cays (1967):  Riffing off of James Brown and his contemporaries, funk music was in its vibrant early stages in the mid-to-late 1960s, setting the stage for its maturation in the 1970s via groups like Parliament-Funkadelic.  The Bar-Cays, ostensibly Otis Redding’s backing group, hit on a fantastic and danceable riff.  The Bar-Cays might have become funk legends, but we’ll never know if they could have pulled it off.  Most of them perished in the same plane crash that claimed Redding.

201.  “Dear Mr. Fantasy”– Traffic (1967):  Traffic was a group that could have done so much more if they had a little more time and a lot more focus.  But as a near-supergroup with egos to juggle like Steve Winwood, Dave Mason, and Jim Capaldi, it is no wonder that they self-imploded.  “Dear Mr. Fantasy” is a great glimpse of what could have been however, and it is one of the strongest psychedelic tracks from this most psychedelic of years- transcendent and trippy.

As some of you know, I frequently post at the Future Rock Legends site, under my college nickname of Pope Charming.  While the site was founded to speculate and debate the direction of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, at any given time, a few projects will be underway there.  One of them is our Rock Hall Projected- where we redid the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame our way (which resulted sometimes in radically different inductions than the real hall in Cleveland), and then cast it fifteen years into the future up to a theoretical class of 2030.  This way, our Hall includes acts like Missy Elliot or Radiohead or LCD Soundsystem, which wouldn’t be eligible until many years from now, if we were doing this in real time.  As a result, over 300 artists are included in our honorary online Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  What to do next?  Why, rank the artists of course!  About twenty of the regular posters, myself included, collaborated to determine the top 100 rock and roll artists of all time- each of whom had to be in our Rock Hall Projected.

Our definition of “rock and roll” is fairly broad, as is Cleveland’s.  Essentially, any artist whose lineage can be traced back to the early 50s rock and roll pioneers is fair game.  So, sure, artists like Aerosmith or Creedence are no-brainers, but R&B, soul, disco, electronic, prog, pop, and yes, even rap, are all considered fair game.

Here’s what we came up with:

1. The Beatles
2. The Rolling Stones
3. Bob Dylan
4. Elvis Presley
5. Chuck Berry
6. Led Zeppelin
7. The Who
8. The Jimi Hendrix Experience
9. James Brown and the Famous Flames
10. The Beach Boys
11. Aretha Franklin
12. Stevie Wonder
13. Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band
14. Ray Charles
15. Michael Jackson
16. Nirvana
17. Buddy Holly and the Crickets
18. Marvin Gaye
19. Johnny Cash
20. David Bowie
21. U2
22. Pink Floyd
23. Queen
24. The Clash
25. The Doors
26. Black Sabbath
27. Little Richard
28. Prince
29. Bob Marley & The Wailers
30. Elton John
31. Neil Young
32. Metallica
33. R.E.M.
34. The Velvet Underground
35. Public Enemy
36. Simon & Garfunkel
37. Ramones
38. Creedence Clearwater Revival
39. Fats Domino
40. Madonna
41. Sam Cooke
42. Otis Redding
43. The Kinks
44. Sly & The Family Stone
45. The Supremes
46. The Temptations
47. The Everly Brothers
48. Talking Heads
49. Bo Diddley
50. Kraftwerk
51. John Lennon
52. Joni Mitchell
53. Radiohead
54. The Allman Brothers Band
55. The Miracles with Smokey Robinson
56. Van Morrison
57. Eagles
58. Pearl Jam
59. Roy Orbison
60. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
61. Fleetwood Mac
62. Jerry Lee Lewis
63. The Byrds
64. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
65. The Police
66. Aerosmith
67. Guns N’ Roses
68. Cream
69. The Grateful Dead
70. AC/DC
71. Billy Joel
72. The Band
73. B.B. King
74. Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company
75. Al Green
76. Run-D.M.C.
77. The Bee Gees
78. Paul McCartney & Wings
79. Parliament-Funkadelic
80. The Drifters
81. The Four Seasons
82. Elvis Costello & The Attractions
83. Van Halen
84. The Stooges
85. Genesis
86. Beastie Boys
87. Santana
88. Steely Dan
89. Eric Clapton
90. Jackie Wilson
91. Lynyrd Skynyrd
92. The Four Tops
93. The Cure
94. Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention
95. Bill Haley & His Comets
96. Outkast
97. Rush
98. Deep Purple
99. Red Hot Chili Peppers
100. Ike & Tina Turner

It needs to be said that this is a pretty good list, and I was delighted to take part in its compilation.  It’s hard to argue with its top ten, even though we might have put some of its artists in a different order.  Like many lists, it tries to avoid the idiosyncrasies of any one voter by forming consensus.  There aren’t too many artists on this list that I genuinely shouldn’t have been under consideration for the top 100.  Maybe Rush.  Maybe Zappa.  Definitely Ike & Tina.  Probably Bill Haley, given his low output, even though he made arguably the first great rock and roll record, “Rock Around the Clock.”

As much as I like this ranking, I cannot help but tweak it.  So, I decided to come up with my own ranking.

Personally, I looked at 1) musical excellence, 2) influence, 3) commercial success/ability to connect with the record-buying public, 4) historicity, and 5) vision.  That’s an awfully difficult set of criteria to juggle.  Someone like Elvis is amazingly important in historicity, commercial success, and influence- but he couldn’t play or write, wasn’t by most definitions an artist (as opposed to a performer) and his post-1960 career is remarkably, remarkably shaky, as he churned out tepid soundtracks to unwatchable films over and over and over again.  He had to be in the top ten, but his iconic role in American pop culture have blinded us to his considerable drawbacks and limitations.  I just couldn’t name an artist with so many flaws as the #2 or #3 best of all time.  I just couldn’t.

I tried my best to be objective, but invariably, I am sure that I fell short.  I have deep-seated issues with Velvet Underground, KISS, Rush, MC5, and The Stooges, and it probably shows- none of them appear on my list, even though Velvet Underground was in the top 40 at Future Rock Legends.  I give high placement to artists I do not especially care for, notably Bowie, Black Sabbath, Jay Z, and Red Hot Chili Peppers.  And conversely, I kept off some artists who I liked a great deal, but I didn’t feel were quite ‘Top 100′ material.  Paul McCartney as a solo artist might be one of my ten favorites, all-time, but I couldn’t quite justify putting him in the top 100 as my colleagues did.

Three artists that I included- Mariah Carey, Beyonce, and Carole King- were ineligible for Future Rock Legends’ ranking, because they are not in their Rock Hall Projected as artists.  (Carey came within an inch of getting voted in last year, losing a very close tiebreaker against De La Soul, and King is inducted only honorarily as a non-performer- ostensibly for her early 60s songwriting with Gerry Goffin.)

Here’s my own version of what the list should look like:

Alex Voltaire’s Top 100 Rock and Roll Artists:
  1. The Beatles
  2. Bruce Springsteen & the E. Street Band
  3. The Rolling Stones
  4. Bob Dylan
  5. The Who
  6. Led Zeppelin
  7. Chuck Berry
  8. Michael Jackson
  9. Aretha Franklin
  10. Elvis Presley
  11. The Beach Boys
  12. Stevie Wonder
  13. The Jimi Hendrix Experience
  14. U2
  15. Madonna
  16. James Brown and the Famous Flames
  17. Pink Floyd
  18. Nirvana
  19. Prince
  20. Buddy Holly & the Crickets
  21. Elton John
  22. Ray Charles
  23. Marvin Gaye
  24. David Bowie
  25. Queen
  26. Bob Marley & the Wailers
  27. Simon & Garfunkel
  28. Metallica
  29. The Clash
  30. Sam Cooke
  31. R.E.M.
  32. The Ramones
  33. Public Enemy
  34. Johnny Cash
  35. Aerosmith
  36. The Everly Brothers
  37. Kraftwerk
  38. Neil Young
  39. Creedence Clearwater Revival
  40. Genesis
  41. The Supremes
  42. The Temptations
  43. Black Sabbath
  44. Otis Redding
  45. Sly & the Family Stone
  46. John Lennon
  47. Radiohead
  48. Joni Mitchell
  49. The Miracles with Smokey Robinson
  50. The Eagles
  51. Pearl Jam
  52. Roy Orbison
  53. Chicago
  54. The Kinks
  55. Bo Diddley
  56. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
  57. Fleetwood Mac
  58. The Allman Brothers Band
  59. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young
  60. Little Richard
  61. The Police
  62. Guns N Roses
  63. Jay Z
  64. The Grateful Dead
  65. The Band
  66. The Bee Gees
  67. Parliament-Funkadelic
  68. Lynyrd Skynyrd
  69. Coldplay
  70. Eminem
  71. Peter Gabriel
  72. Talking Heads
  73. Earth, Wind & Fire
  74. Van Morrison
  75. Red Hot Chili Peppers
  76. Paul Simon
  77. ABBA
  78. The Doors
  79. Rage Against the Machine
  80. Mariah Carey
  81. James Taylor
  82. Fats Domino
  83. Peter, Paul & Mary
  84. Billy Joel
  85. Santana
  86. Janet Jackson
  87. AC/DC
  88. Green Day
  89. Eric Clapton
  90. Al Green
  91. Jerry Lee Lewis
  92. Beyonce
  93. Beastie Boys
  94. Weird Al Yankovic
  95. Jackie Wilson
  96. Janis Joplin & Big Brother and the Holding Company
  97. The Cure
  98. Carole King
  99. Outkast
  100. The Spinners
I hope that some day, when I have more time, I can do some write-ups on these artists, and perhaps justify some of my more controversial choices.  But for now, any thoughts?  Critiques?  Ad-hominem attacks?

#39: James Buchanan

bigbuchCategory: Failed Ideologue

Term in Office: 15th president, 1857-1861

Party: Democratic

Home State: Pennsylvania

It was my first big research paper for graduate school, and I was terrified out of my mind.  We had to select a topic and address it from one of the plethora of historical theories and approaches we learned in twelve weeks from a brilliant, but ruthlessly exacting and humorless German taskmaster of a professor.  My line of thought was this: we spend so much time studying epochal figures that I wanted to look closely at how unsuccessful people take part in the historical process.  In short, I wanted to study failure, and like a moth to the flame, I was drawn to James Buchanan.  I ended up throwing a complete hail mary, mixing local history through Pennsylvania boosterism of James Buchanan, with counterfactuals- that is, approaching history not through the lens of inevitability, but asking yourself “what if this alternative outcome happened?”  I got a B+ on the paper, the only time in my life I was grateful for a grade that wasn’t an A.

Counterfactuals are a dangerous terrain for any historian, but in this instance, I think it is warranted.  The case for James Buchanan’s failure as president seems self-evident.  Buchanan, a cursory reading of history tells us, was the weak, vacillating figure who rung his hands as South Carolina seceded from the union, the Deep South seized federal property and Fort Sumter was besieged.  Like the 75 years of bad scholarship on Neville Chamberlain and the dangers of “appeasement,” whatever that’s supposed to mean, the laziness of this account makes me a tiny bit suspect.  Much of it holds up, but that doesn’t mean we can’t dissect it and pick it apart a bit.

Part of our national revulsion of Buchanan might be tied to the persistent issue of Old Buck’s sexuality.  Look at the traditional barbs thrown at Buchanan: weak, vacillating, cowardly, untrustworthy, fussy, dandified– it can’t be a coincidence that these criticisms of James Buchanan have also been coded as effeminate or homosexual for a couple centuries.   Think of how many of those negative and implicitly queer traits were also projected onto, say, Scar in The Lion King or King Candy from Wreck-It Ralph.   In the same way, rumors of homosexuality dog England’s least successful kings: William II, Edward II, James I.  If there was a radio drama of Buchanan’s administration, I guarantee his voice actor would give him a lisp.  And gee, isn’t Buchanan’s betrothal to a girl from a rich family, and her mysterious death- possibly a suicide- before their marriage, suspicious?  Bah.  Can’t we get over this sort of childish innuendo? In Buchanan’s own public life, whispers about his preferences were bandied about easily, carelessly.  Some have hypothesized he had a decades-long relationship with Alabama senator Rufus DeWane King (ironically elected vice-president under Franklin Pierce).  They boarded together in Washington and were so inseparable that wags called them Miss Nancy and Aunt Fancy.  Maybe James Buchanan preferred men.  Maybe not.  A  chaste bachelorhood wasn’t uncommon in the 1800s.  Neither was a bachelorhood that eschewed an inevitably unhappy marriage and pursued sexual fulfillment outside of matrimony- whether with men or with women- uncommon.  Instead, the entire situation says much more about Buchanan’s detractors.

James Buchanan’s sexuality has no bearing on my conclusion that he was a manifestly failed president.  Make no mistake about it.  But the reasons he failed aren’t so easily coded as sissified or effeminate.  Maybe the key to understanding James Buchanan is to see him not as a Pennsylvanian, but an Appalachian.  True, Buchanan, the uptight, legalistic bachelor could not be further from stereotypes of rough, brawny Appalachian masculinity.  But like a true Appalachian, his approach to politics was clannish and quasi-familial; party loyalty provided cover and protection, but also lent itself to petty, over-exaggerated feuds- think of the Hatfields and McCoys.  I just put James Monroe down as my fourth greatest president because of his understated ability to unify, his ability to make the United States less provincial and balkanized, to squint his eyes to see the Magic-Eye picture of a nation, not a collection of states.  Buchanan could not be a greater contrast.

On paper, at least, James Buchanan was one of our most qualified presidents.  His long career began as a Federalist (!) clock-puncher who eventually hitched his star to the Jacksonian branch of what became the Democratic Party.  He was a congressman, a senator, minister to Russia, minister to Britain, and Secretary of State.  Equally relevant, he was a genuine force in state politics, and was responsible for moving the state of Pennsylvania, originally dominated by conscientious Quakers and sly bankers working out of Philadelphia into a state dominated by Appalachian interests in the state’s “Pennsyltucky” middle section.  The denizens of this region were a rowdy, far more provincial bunch, and their rise to power turned a “doubtful state” into the northernmost Jacksonian stronghold.  As the ringleader of these strategically important Pennsylvania Democrats, Buchanan flitted from office to office, not so much on excellence or skill- he was never outstanding at any job he ever had- but because of the Jacksonian spoils system that rewarded loyalty and going along to get along, at the expense of vision, conscience, and especially merit.  It also made Buchanan hard-wired to see moral objections to slavery or its expansion as anything other than obstructionist, disruptive, and even disloyal, to the precarious and precise sectional balance that had been struck by decades of compromise.

He could not help but see other parties, other factions of his own party, and competing ideologies as domestic enemies.  His cabinet, for example, is especially terrible.  He didn’t consider, for a moment, throwing a bone at northern “conscience Democrats” who had moral qualms with slavery and left the party under Buchanan’s watch (such as Hannibal Hamlin, Lincoln’s first vice-president).  He also shut out more moderate Democrats willing to see where the philosophy of popular sovereignty- letting the states themselves choose whether or not to keep slavery- led.  In a cabinet littered with Southern sympathizers and tilted decidedly to Buchanan’s faction of the party, incompetence ran amuck.  Lewis Cass, who had recently lost his Senate seat from Michigan and was in the early stages of senility, was Secretary of State.  John Floyd is considered by some to be the worst cabinet official in U.S. history, and very probably funneled Union arms to seceding states, and later became a Confederate general.  His Secretary of the Treasury left the cabinet to openly advocate for secession, and later joined the Confederate army as well.

This sort of nonsense was emblematic of larger problems throughout his presidency.  Even before he took office, he collaborated with the Taney court as it prepared to issue its decision on Dred Scott.  In essence, the decision recognized slave ownership as an inviolable form of property rights- a slave did not cease to become property on entering free territory.  Technically, this meant that there were no ‘free states’ any longer; slaves could be held as property anywhere.  For a North that increasingly found slavery un-Christian, and the expansion of slavery as both immoral and contrary to their economic interests, this decision could not be countenanced.  Buchanan was friendly with most of the judges (who were, at this point, largely Jackson, Van Buren, and Pierce nominees), and learned of their decision in advance.  Before the decision was handed down, Buchanan pledged in his Inaugural Address to carry the decision out fully, no matter what it was.  As a result of this, Buchanan knowlingly blessed and committed himself to a Supreme Court decision that is widely considered the worst in U.S. history.  This behind-the-scenes maneuvering, an affront to separation of powers, was an act of pre-presidential treason on par with Nixon sabotaging the Paris talks, or Reagan’s reported (and in my opinion, quite likely) intrigue to stave off the release of the hostages in Iran until after Carter had left office.

Consider as well his actions in admitting Kansas to the Union.  Kansas, as we learned in our study of Pierce, was an unholy mess.  Border ruffians regularly rode into slave-friendly Missouri, voted often, and beat up any free-soilers they happened to find.  And violence was often reciprocated.  As a result of all this, you had a pro-slavery Kansas territorial government recognized by the Pierce administration, but by few Kansans; this was called the Lecompton government.  And you had a free-state government that the lion’s share of Kansans saw as legitimate, but Washington did not recognize.  Buchanan’s blatant sympathies with the Lecompton faction hoped to cut off Republican and abolitionist strength in Kansas.  Quite the opposite happened; Buchanan’s repeated decisions to undercut and undermine popular will in Kansas lead to the state becoming both a Republican stronghold and a symbol of resistance to the expansion of slavery.

Perhaps Buchanan might have kept this increasingly precarious balance intact, but that was no longer possible with the election of Abraham Lincoln, whose party intended to contain slavery to where it already existed.  This triggered the departure of South Carolina, whose leaders would rather leave the Union that remain in it under a Lincoln administration.  Buchanan dithered as secessionists seized federal property and arms.  It wasn’t completely his fault, to be fair; Andrew Jackson threatened force to prevent South Carolina from seceding nearly thirty years earlier, but Congress did not give Buchanan the authority they once had given Jackson.  Between Southerners who supported South Carolina and Northerners who wanted to wait out the clock for Lincoln, Buchanan’s base of support had eroded and no “force bill” was going to pass.  The best he could do within his understanding of constitutional propriety was to order Fort Sumter, the lone outstanding federal property in South Carolina’s reach, to hold the line.   As presidential blogger Big Mo put it, “by handing him Fort Sumter still intact, he left Lincoln with a huge ace to play- and play it, he did.”

Let’s go back to the counterfactuals, then.  I wonder sometimes what would have happened if it had been Buchanan’s lot to face a foreign policy crisis, rather than a domestic crisis.  If Buchanan had to act in a situation where the constitutional boundaries were clear, his geopolitical knowledge and long working relationships with old Washington hands could have been invaluable assets.  He might have worked diligently, if uncreatively, in an emergency situation, in a manner more like George H. W. Bush than anyone.  I tend to think, though, we might have seen a much more James Polk-like presidency: unapologetic expansion, but with an eye toward the Caribbean and Latin America.  In fact, his cabinet bandied about the idea of making parts of Mexico into a protectorate during one especially unstable period, but domestic crises took their focus away from this intriguing (and probably wantonly illegal) possibility.  Unfortunately, Buchanan inherited a toxic state of affairs involving constitutionally inchoate questions: can a state secede, and can the federal government use force to stop it?  In the end, Buchanan was the luckless man in the hot seat as the entire unsustainable Jacksonian edifice of graft, compromise, and states’ rights came crashing down.  He served in terrible circumstances, but his partisanship and almost fanatical belief that compromise and concession could placate two sides who no longer viewed the country’s two competing economic systems as a political problem, but as a spiritual contest- for the sectional crisis was also fought on theological grounds- on which the soul of the nation was at stake.

It feels strange, given that James Buchanan is ranked #39 out of 41 presidents, that I have to justify ranking him so highly!  More often that not, Buchanan is placed as our very worst president.  As Christopher Buckley jokes, “perhaps historians, the next time they convene to decide who was the absolute worst president ever, will also factor in his good intentions and move him up two notches so that his ghost can experience the giddy feeling of looking down — if only temporarily — on Warren Harding and Franklin Pierce.”  I don’t think Buchanan’s intentions were particularly altruistic. His greatest debits are an inability or unwillingness to recognize the severity of Southern intransigence, and a lack of moral vision.  He could be very inconsistent about his use of power, bending constitutionality in his dealings with Kansas and the Supreme Court and a minor rebellion in what would become Utah, but was curiously scrupulous about not exceeding his boundaries during South Carolina’s departure from the Union, perhaps the biggest crisis in the nation’s history up to that point.  Incompetent and myopic, Old Buck still ranks third from the bottom.  Two presidents had such catastrophically bad human rights records that I had to place them behind Buchanan.

It was only at the very end of his administration that Buchanan realized the gravity of his errors.  In the final seconds of the fourth quarter, it dawned on him that he had been had, that the Southerners whose support he spent his career flattering and befriending cared more for extending slavery than for their country.  He left his office a broken, bitter man, and most histories since have cast Buchanan as the perfect foil for Lincoln’s vision, commitment to victory, and capacity to forgive.  Rutherford Hayes once declared, “he serves his party best, who serves his country best.”  Buchanan, in sharp contrast, devoted his presidency to keeping a fractious Democratic Party together in an age of rabid abolitionism and pro-slavery fetish.  In trying to keep his faction, and his party, in power, the nation itself was torn asunder.


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