Greatest Songs Lists

Not all ‘Greatest of’ lists are created equal

Greatest Songs Lists

Not all ‘Greatest of’ lists are created equal …
My thoughts on the ‘greatest of’ lists…and my own
Greatest Songs (Part 1 )

Let me add some music right off the bat here because as usual I’m going to be complicating things, but later I will squeeze in another four tunes. We will call this the “MMC (MostlyMusicCovers) Blog Greatest Songs List” (hey, I worked on that name for a good thirty seconds, can you tell?)

My choice for – Greatest Song of all time is  “Over the Rainbow”


 “Over the Rainbow” performed by Judy Garland in the movie ‘The Wizard of Oz’. Music written by Harold Arlen, lyrics by E.Y. Harburg. First recorded October 7, 1938, the movie was released August 12 1939. Judy would record this song July 28, 1939 for the cast recording album “The Wizard of Oz by Victor Young and His Orchestra”. I am not alone in my opinion that this is the best song period, not just from a movie but from anyone or anything. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has placed this as the 20th century’s #1 song and I find no fault in that choice. The brilliant melody by Harold Arlen who was a former staff writer at the Cotton Club had already composed Musicals and the classic “Stormy Weather”. He was struggling with coming up with the right song for the movie which came to him as his wife Anya Taranda was driving them to Grauman’s Chinese for dinner, they pulled over just past Schwab’s Drug Store on Sunset and he wrote the song there and then. He would go on to compose some of the most recognizable songs in American music. Just a short list of songs he wrote with a number of different lyricists includes; “That Old Black Magic”, “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” and “The Man That Got Away” from the original “A Star is Born”. Lyricist E.Y. (Yip) Harburg has written “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”, “April in Paris” and “It’s Only a Paper Moon” as well as many Broadway productions.


The song was also released as a single by Decca Records on a 78 r.p.m. record as the 45 r.p.m was not invented yet (it came out in 1949). By the time Garlands record had been released in 1939 the song had already been covered five times, and has gone on to be recorded including instrumentals, into perhaps the thousands of times but officially documented at over 1100 times if you go by, eight of those versions in 2019 alone. Judy Garland had not only the most remarkable and beautiful voice but her performances both on screen and live on stage were trans-formative. That is to say audiences were taken away to another place, dare I say “over the rainbow” when she sang. There are few voices that compare to hers nor a person that can deliver a song like she did. All too often behind a performer we find a heartbreaking and sometimes tragic story. Judy Garland has such a story and you can read about in many places and also see a bit of insight in the new movie ‘Judy’.

There will never be anyone who can sing this song as well as Judy Garland, but there are many amazing attempts that give the original song enough justice to warrant some attention, especially this first cover by Zellweger from ‘Judy’, Renée Zellweger (2019) and a few of the better versions;  Octave (2019) Lady Gaga (2018), Pink (live at the Oscars 2014), Ariana Grande (2017), the little angel Jackie Evancho from 2012, a superb version from Susan Boyle (2012). Eva Cassidy’s version from 1992 would gain much deserved attention in the U.K. in particular two years after her passing in 1996 at age 33 from cancer. Of note there is a lead verse to the song that was omitted from the original performance but many cover versions and stage performances add it back in (some above) and others such as this one from Danielle Hope (2010), other great covers from; Eric Clapton (2002), Eva Cassidy (1992), Celine Dion (1985), Patti LaBelle and The Bluebelles (1966), Ray Charles (1963), Ella Fitzgerald (1961), Liza Minnelli at age 13 (1960),  Frank Sinatra (1947).


While the song came out before the music charts were created there is little doubt it would be a chart topper and it won the Academy Award in 1939 for Best Original Song. Various later recordings have hit the charts but none reaching the top 10.

What do I mean when I say “Not all ‘Greatest of’ lists are created equal”For me at least, the ‘criteria’ used to decide ‘the best’ is generally fraught with bias, be it due to genre, geography or perception. 

While pondering a list of my own I had to ask the question, “How do ‘we’ or ‘they’ actually come up with these lists, and what bias goes into them”? While my subsequent posts on this topic will have more songs, I wanted to get something about ‘criteria’ and ‘greatest of’ music lists out of my system. It’s not that I don’t like the lists as in fact I use them all the time in my blog, but they aren’t my only points of reference. After perusing music “best of” lists and charts until I can peruse no more (not really), I’ve come to the conclusion it is impossible, at least for me and perhaps anyone else to come up with a truly definitive list of the best songs of all time either inclusive or exclusive of genre(s).

I have to point out that there are many lists that are poorly researched and or just ‘steal’ a list from somewhere else and call it their own. It’s either that or they are written for the purpose of trying to attract readers while offering little substance. While researching my New Years blog I came across a list of the “Best New Years Songs” from a fairly well known magazine. On the list was Katy Perry’s song “Firework”, now I’m an old geezer but even I knew immediately the song had no place on that list. Other than the fact there are ‘fireworks’ at New Years celebrations the song has no correlation at all, at best as “Like the Fourth of July” is in the lyrics, maybe you could go with that holiday.

Most of the lists however are made by people much more knowledgeable than I am about music. So, acknowledging there are very credible journalistic and music governing and representative bodies that make lists, there is still a lot of subjectivity involved. One of the big reasons for this is because many of the lists have particular genre or genres that dominate the list (in the case of Rolling Stone Magazine being R&R driven), or others that look primarily at “sales numbers” to draw conclusions. The trouble I have with this is you get the more current lists dominated by say R&B, Hip Hop, Rap and Pop. Which is fine, if you want to list “the Greatest of” in these categories of songs you’ll not consider Country Rock artists as an example. But do these lists or rather the list-ers consider past Grammy, Brit or Academy Awards? Not to mention weeks and positions on music charts from years gone by from music in any genre? There is much more to consider I think. I have mentioned in past posts about Acclaimed Music, it was created by Henrik Franzon, Stockholm, Sweden and he does a great job of trying to aggregate lists and music critic picks to come up with a more subjective list, very impressive but it it’s still quite deliberately very Pop and Rock song heavy. Way better than anything I could muster that is for certain.

We do have well established lists from which are not exclusively but primarily US songs with the ‘Hot 100 Pop’ chart, the ‘Hot 100 Country’, Hip Hop/R&B, Latin and a few more that are perhaps more global in scope. However the criteria by which songs are listed has changed over the years. If we base the value of a song largely on the somewhat nebulous term (which I’ll explain later) of “record sales” how do you compare a non-charted Joni Mitchell song to the powerhouse of Taylor Swift? Having said that if you look once again at say Rolling Stone Magazine their various lists contain many songs that were not chart toppers or big sellers, so they have gone deeper into the songs historical merit. So one of my questions is even if we stick loosely to genre, what criteria do we use in order to weigh one song against another? Does fleeting popularity and selling millions of copies make a song great? And if I’m honest my lists are going to reflect not only my personal tastes but more decades of songs than would my Justin Bieber loving 25 year old daughter who really knows her music. Not that I am more expert but she just has not listened to as many songs from 50 years ago and more like I have.

As mentioned, we see lists from the credible ‘Recording Industry Association of America’ (RIAA) which of course skews toward American music but they have a great “Songs of the Century” list. MTV and VH1 also have lists and then so does every web and print media outlet out there from to Forbes Magazine and NPR. Not to mention legit and some not so legit individual critical journalists, musicians, industry experts and bloggers.

This list business becomes more confusing as time goes on because even when considering “record sales” buy definition you have “reported sales” and also “claimed sales” which historically was the way sales were tracked. This was latter changed to “certified sales” which sounds like a more accurate accounting until you realize record companies included how many records they shipped vs. how many were actually sold. No knock on the great Elvis Presley but after his untimely death, hundreds thousands of compilation and “Greatest Hits” albums in many formats were shipped to stores only to have untold numbers end up in the bargain bin and many remained unsold. Now we have “Digital media verification”, this is more accurate as actual downloaded copies are tabulated, which started in 2004. There is also a small market for vinyl sales and other formats that are more accurately tracked these days. And there are of course sales and the charts from other countries, the UK Charts being very influential, charts in smaller English markets such as Canada and Australia etc. somewhat less so.

Add to that mix all the streaming companies having their internal numbers, so now Spotify, Tidal, Apple Music, Google Music and even Napster got added in 2006 into ‘sales’ numbers and their own charts and lists. YouTube Music is not far behind on that front also. If you look at the historical reality of music sales one needs to consider how purchases were made versus how they are made now. I argue that access to music being so much easier now, has significantly affected consumption. Things like disposable income by age group would have had a huge effect, the ease of purchasing a digital copy vs. going to your local record store and buying a physical record has to have increased per capita ownership exponentially.  Even with the more diverse market today’s million seller does not compare to the pre-digital age at all. It just took more effort and more of your income to buy even a single 45 record with two songs than it does today to buy the digital equivalent. Like I said I may be complicating things I know…now back to some music!

My choice for – Greatest Original Jazz Vocal,

 “What a Wonderful World”

What a Wonderful World” (1967) by Louis Armstrong, lyrics by Bob Thiele, lyrics and music by George David Weiss. The song only reached #16 on the U.S. Adult Contemporary Chart and didn’t crack the Billboard Hot 100. Not because it was not a great song as it hit #1 in the UK and Austria, several top 10’s and top 20’s around the world. It did not do well in the US because of the then President of ABC Records Larry Newton, who disliked it right from the get go. He never promoted the song and therefore it received little airplay in the States. In the UK it rose to #1 purely on the merits of the song, without any politics.
Apparently the writer Bob Thiele who also produced the song had to lock Newton out of the studio in order to get the recording finished. Now it takes some nerve to lock your boss out…he didn’t last much longer at ABC and he started his own label, Flying Dutchman Records. At the time of “What a Wonderful World” Bob Thiele was a seasoned pro, he started his first record company at age 17 and had recorded some of the greatest Jazz artists of all time such as John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie, so he was not one to be pushed around. So thank goodness and the big heart of Louis Armstrong who gave up his above scale pay so the band could get paid overtime due to that disruption and the train whistle outside that caused constant restarts as well. Co-writer George Weiss was better known for his considerable composing and songwriting skills with his contribution to “Can’t Help Falling in Love” by Elvis Presley, “I’ll Never Be Free” recorded by over 60 artists, “Too Close for Comfort” by Sammy Davis Jr., covered over 130 times and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by the Tokens among many others.
So why then is a song with a less than impressive chart performance at the top of my list? Well in part for that very reason, despite all odds the song has endured, and you can’t help but smile when you hear it and most certainly when you watch the video of legendary Louis Armstrong performing, the man was magic. It has was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame (1999) along with 11 more of his songs. A very simple song and the lyrics paint an idyllic picture, nevertheless “Yes, I think to myself, What a wonderful world”. Covered well over 500 times; Tony Bennett did it solo in 1970 as a tribute to Louis Armstrong and recorded a beautiful duet with k.d. lang in 2002. Roy ClarkVera LynnWillie NelsonNick Cave & Shane MacGowan and it looks like I agree with this big beautiful man, a medley of my first two choices Israel Kamakawiwo’ole .

To carry on with my attempted train of thought here, you also have ‘The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry’ (IFPI) who started tracking and publishing lists and awards after they popped up in 1996. Add to this, The Independent Music Companies Association (IMPALA) who began issuing sales awards in 2005. And once again, specifically how to you define what a ‘sale’ even is? The recording industry has gone from releasing single songs and up to 10 or so tunes on a 78 r.p.m vinyl record to adding a ‘B’ side on a 45 r.p.m. disc to E.P’s (Extended Play) with typically five songs, then to Albums with usually 10 or 12 tunes on each one. Sales are now tracked as “units”, which could mean a just a single release or the song(s) as part of a whole album.

Let’s go as far back (with just a single song) as a 78 r.p.m. record, when it became obsolete with the conversion of that same song onto the RCA invented 45 r.p.m. (as mentioned).  Then the same song was added one again to the later invented 33.3 L.P. (Long Playing Record) and what we typically refer to even now as an ‘Album’. Well that album and collection of songs (including that same single) got sold again as; an eight track tape, a cassette tape, a CD (compact disc) and in numerous video formats such as VHS tapes and Blue Ray. And don’t get me started on the Compilation issues! Then, when Napster came along it made the trading of your 45’s look like a joke as now we have digital copies of all these songs and we know most people ‘traded’ those for free, so there’s no official tally of those numbers. Which then helped to proliferate the good old “bootleg” concept to a whole new level and again, impossible to track from a sales and distribution standpoint. Enter the legal concept of iTunes and the mp3 etc. where you could pick and chose any individual song you wanted without the risk of getting a P2P virus. At least for a time there was also the idea you could save money per song by buying the whole album (if there was one). Now we stream or rent our music much more, and rarely actually buy it.

I don’t know about you but I bought the same songs on 45’s and then the subsequent LP’s. Then, so I could play it in my car I bought the same songs on a cassette tape until they went the way of the dinosaur and I had to buy them on Cd’s. OK now they went defunct so I had to download a digital copy once I wrapped my head around that concept so I could play it on my mp3 player. Apparently even this system is quite antiquated now as I can’t remember the last time I used my iPod. I can put more music on my phone than I could carry albums in a shipping container (if I was so inclined). Now this system is also quite passé as we just open our Spotify App and can play any song from an ocean full of ships carrying on average a full load of 21,000 containers, to extend the analogy. So, I’m guessing I’ve paid for some of my music at least four times over, how does this figure into the sales tally, did I and others like me push the Eagles over the top to give them the #1 album in all time sales? I can’t be certain but I think it very likely.
Their (Eagles) tally is now 38 million albums sold, but what percentage was the same thing sold three times (vinyl album + CD + Digital copy)?  Granted not everyone is as silly as I am to pay for the same music three, four or more times so there’s a lot of one time and more recent buyers as well. Then again my buying started in the days of  those “claimed sales” and has hopefully ended in the digital age so who knows for sure what number is correct, maybe I just don’t know how it all really works! After all a sale is a sale so it matters little to those who are making the money.

My choice for:


Greatest Original Traditional Rock & Roll Song, Johnny B. Goode


Johnny B. Goode” written by Chuck Berry and first released as a single in March of 1958. One of the most recognizable R&R songs in history and ranked #7 on Rolling Stones “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”. Just a qualifier, in this song we find Chuck using a small bit of music from someone else, the guitar intro is pretty much an exact copy of Louis Jordan’s song “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman” from 1946 played by guitarist Carl Hogan. Listen to Louis Jordan “Ain’t That Just Like A Woman” written by Claude DeMetrius and Fleecie Moore. In the first few seconds you will hear the guitar intro. This song was a big R&B hit in 1946. In fact Chuck would cover this song himself in 1965.

Despite the qualification “Johnny B. Goode” is an original creation as evidenced in the lyrics, music and the listening. Here is Chuck Berry adding his own flair to the guitar. The song sounded like nothing else at the time, coupled with his amazing guitar (supported in studio by the great Willie Dixon on Double Bass), recorded at the famed Chess Records and produced by Phil and Leonard Chess. Berry’s flair for story telling in his lyrics is never better than in this song. Though not recorded until January 6, 1958 the song was first drafted by Berry in 1955, with strong inspiration coming from his piano player Johnnie Johnson, it became more auto biographical over time.


This song and Chuck Berry himself has been credited with inspiring guitar players around the globe. Not the least of which is Keith Richards, “I could never over stress how important [Berry] was in my development” as quoted from ‘Play It Loud: An Epic History of the Style, Sound & Revolution of the Electric Guitar by Brad Tolinski and Alan di Perna’. The song has been covered over 200 times by artists such as Johnny Rivers, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Bill Haley & The Comets, Elvis and Cliff Richard. Here is a clip from the late Roy Buchanan playing his Fender Telecaster (you guitarists may correct me on that) in a version of Johnny B Goode from 1973. Buchanan is one of the best guitarists that has ever lived yet he plays homage to Chuck Berry (and he was a tutor to Robbie Robertson from the Band). It’s a long video with an interview but just listen to the first minute and a half or so, if you haven’t heard him before I think you’ll agree he was amazing.


Greatest Traditional Blues vocal performance “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday


Strange Fruit” is a courageous recording by the legendary Billie Holiday from 1939. This song makes an appearance on my “25 of the Greatest Cover Songs #51-75” post. It is from a poem by another brave soul, Lewis Allan (Abel Meeropol) as a protest against racism and lynchings in the American South. He put the poem to a tune and his wife and others sang it at protest rallies. The lyrics are dark and disturbing. Eventually the song made its way to Holiday who added it to close her Nightclub act. It was only recorded after her efforts to find a label willing to do it. Her delivery is haunting and deeply emotional. Covered close to 100 times. Here is  Nina Simone  with a great cover version from 1965.


Greatest Original Traditional Blues song,
“Mr. Carl’s Blues” by Carl Rafferty

Carl Rafferty’s 1933 recording of “Mr. Carl’s Blues” featured on this occasion some amazing accompaniment from the phenomenal piano player, composer, singer and more well known Roosevelt Sykes. This pairing makes it a critical song in Blues music history. It was the major inspiration for the song “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” written by Robert Johnson and recorded at the famed Gunter Hotel sessions in San Antonio, Texas on November 23, 1936. So without “Mr. Carl’s Blues” there is no “Dust My Broom” as titled on covers of the song, most notably by another Delta Blues and slide guitar legend Elmore James in 1951. Elmore James version gets most of the credit, and not undeserved for establishing this as a Blues Classic. There is no Blues artist worth their chops that does not know this song, but it’s only been officially documented at just over 100 cover versions. It is well known that Johnson added two new verses but he used the “Dust my broom” lyrics from the Carl Rafferty song as well as parts from ‘The Sparks Brothers’ recording of “I Believe I’ll Make A Change” (1932 ), and Jack Kelly’s “Believe I’ll Go Back Home” (1932). Many songs, lyrics, guitar licks and melodies from these times were passed on from artist to artist so Johnson in my mind gets a pass on this count and makes his version no less valuable. Indeed many trace the evolution of Rock and Roll back to him and these other artists from the 1930’s. However, in my opinion the originality award has to go to Rafferty with honorable mention to Jack Kelly and Aaron and Marion Sparks. This song was apparently uncovered by musician and journalist Jas Obrecht, there is little else known of Rafferty who recorded the song “Dresser With The Drawers” which was the ‘A’ side to “Mr. Carl’s Blues”. The song credit shows the name ‘C. Fletcher’ which is believed to be Carl Rafferty who likely wrote both songs himself.

That’s it for now, in Part two I will stick primarily to more listing and less blathering for my picks of the “Greatest Songs” featuring major categories in Pop, R&R, Blues, Jazz and Country music.

images;,, Billie Holiday, c. 1949 PHOTO: HERMAN LEONARD PHOTOGRAPHY, LLC,

Pass it along to a friend who might enjoy it as well or post it to your timeline on FB. And many thanks as always for reading my blog!

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