The songs everyone should hear

Over the last couple weeks, I ran an informal survey asking people for the ‘five songs they think everyone should hear.’ I left it to those surveyed to decide precisely what that meant. My hope was to get enough responses to produce a relatively short list of consensus picks, as well as a broader set of interesting songs that someone interested in broadening their musical palette might want to peruse.

What I got was a long, somewhat bewildering, and wonderfully diverse list with far less overlap than I expected. Which is great. There is an inner circle songs that stood above the crowd, which I’ve collected into a relatively compact playlist suitable for handing to someone utterly unfamiliar with the western popular music canon.

But the notable thing to me was just how much didn’t make the cut. Dozens (maybe hundreds) of all-time classic songs failed to garner a single vote. Which, ultimately, is testament to just how much great music exists out there.

A few notes before I dive into analyzing the results:

  • I drew about a hundred results, which is a nice amount but nowhere near enough to draw any truly definitive results.
  • The selections skew pretty heavily toward the western rock and pop canon. It’s not quite as lilywhite as a list from Rolling Stone, but this should by no means be taken as a great representation of the diverse array of songs that come from different cultures, backgrounds, and timeframes.

With those caveats entered, here are the big topline results.

Three songs came at the top, with five votes each: “So What” by Miles Davis, “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, and “All Along the Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix. “Watchtower” probably gets the nod as the #1 selection, though, since it also received a nod from someone for the Dylan original. Two other songs received four votes each: “Hey Jude” by The Beatles, and Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (which was recommended in whole and in part by different responders, which I chose to group together). There were then six other songs that received three votes each, giving us a top 11 of:

  1. All Along the Watchtower – Hendrix/Dylan (6)
  2. So What – Miles Davis (5)
  3. Bohemian Rhapsody – Queen (5)
  4. Hey Jude – The Beatles (4)
  5. Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (4)
  6. A Day in the Life – The Beatles (3)
  7. Johnny B. Goode – Chuck Berry (3)
  8. Imagine – John Lennon (3)
  9. Stairway to Heaven – Led Zeppelin (3)
  10. What’s Goin’ On – Marvin Gaye (3)
  11. Hallelujah – Leonard Cohen/others (3)

Like I said, the responses leaned fairly heavily toward the rock canon, so none of these are probably too surprising.

It’s hard for me to argue with any of these as must-listens. While I don’t necessarily love them all (I’d be fine with retiring “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Stairway to Heaven” for good at this point), they’re all key pieces of musical history. Still, as I noted, the responses leaned fairly heavily toward the rock canon, limiting the diversity of these choices. You’ve got a universally acclaimed jazz track, a universally acclaimed piece of classical music, and then 9 songs drawing heavily on the classic rock songbook.

Once you get into the two-vote selections, things get a little more interesting, though we remain fully ensconced within the post-war modern musical tradition. In alphabetical order, these are the tracks receiving two recommendations:

  • A Change is Gonna Come – Sam Cooke
  • A Love Supreme, Pt. 1 – John Coltrane
  • Billie Jean – Michael Jackson
  • Canon in D – Pachelbel
  • Comfortably Numb – Pink Floyd
  • Crossroad – Robert Johnson
  • Formation – Beyonce
  • God Only Knows – The Beach Boys
  • He Stopped Loving Her Today – George Jones
  • I Will Always Love You – Whitney Houston
  • Jolene – Dolly Parton
  • Karate – Baby Metal
  • Let It Be – The Beatles
  • Like a Prayer – Madonna
  • Like a Rolling Stone – Bob Dylan
  • Man in the Mirror – Michael Jackson
  • One Sweet Day – Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men
  • Rhapsody in Blue – George Gershwin
  • Same Love – Macklemore
  • Shadow Moses – Bring Me the Horizon
  • Straight Outta Compton – NWA
  • Tangled Up in Blue – Bob Dylan
  • The Sound of Silence – Simon & Garfunkel
  • Uptight – Stevie Wonder
  • We Belong Together – Mariah Carey
  • What a Wonderful World – Louis Armstrong

Still very little hip-hop, which feels like a major omission for what has been the principle popular music genre of the past two decades. But at least we’ve now got a little country, a bit more true pop (finally got some MJ and Mariah), some blues, some metal, and so forth. And we also get the first instances of songs that I literally had never heard of (I’d vaguely heard of Baby Metal and never heard anything of Bring Me the Horizon).

There is a ton more diversity in the list if you drop down to all the songs that were recommended only a single time (link to all the songs is available here). That’s nice because, while one goal of this exercise was to get some consensus picks, a big part was also to simply collect a list of the more idiosyncratic choices. I’m very happy with how that part turned out, and I’m slowly building out a Spotify list of all the recommendations, which is available here (and is embedded at the end of this post).

In terms of artists, you will probably not be surprised to learn which band got the most recommendations. Unsurprisingly, it was The Beatles with 13 picks, followed by Michael Jackson with 9 (from seven different songs!), Hendrix and Queen with 7, and Dylan with 6.

Behind those big five, there were a lot of other expected names, including Miles Davis (whose five votes were all for “So What”), David Bowie (who got five votes for five different songs), and Mariah Carey.

The one big surprise for me was some of the titanic names that received almost no votes. Bruce Springsteen picked up two recs (neither for “Thunder Road”), the Rolling Stones only got four, and Aretha Franklin just two. Bach only picked up three, and there were none for Mozart. There were no Charlie Parker songs. No Tupac. Nothing from Nas. No Wu-Tang Clan. Very little Diana Ross. Just one Joni Mitchell song. And so on.

That’s clearly a feature of the exercise, which asks the impossible of respondents: to distill all music down to five songs requires slicing away hundreds of good picks. So I wouldn’t read too much into it. But it is still interesting to see what people say when asked to narrow things down to the absolute core choices.

For what it’s worth, the five songs I contributed were:

  • Hey Jude – The Beatles
  • Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 – J.S. Bach
  • Blue Train – John Coltrane
  • Two Headed Boy, Pt. 2 – Neutral Milk Hotel
  • Straight Outta Compton – NWA

After I submitted my picks, though, I immediately regretted the lack of a good pop song. If I could do it again, I think I’d swap in something from, say, Madonna or Diana Ross.

Did you miss out? Feel free to submit your choices in the comments.

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2 Responses to The songs everyone should hear

  1. Peter McCollum says:

    Interesting to finally know how this turned out, and awesome to be able to see the raw results.

    My picks were:
    1. Good Vibrations – Beach Boys
    2. Billie Jean – Michael Jackson
    3. A Change Is Gonna Come – Sam Cooke
    4. Imagine – John Lennon
    5. Under Pressure – Queen/David Bowie*

    *I think this is right, but am not absolutely sure of my memory on this one.

  2. Adam says:

    Mine were

    All along the watchtower – Hendrix
    Under Pressure – Queen/Bowie
    I Will Always Love You – Whitney
    Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang – Dre
    Dream a little Dream of me – Ella Fitzgerald

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