The 13 Greatest Songs Ever Written
For several years now, my music habit relies on two platforms. I subscribe to eMusic, which entitles me to download about 20 tracks a month, and I regularly create playlists on 8tracks, recombining music that’s in my iTunes already, available on 8tracks’ SoundCloud plug-in, and, especially, recently downloaded from eMusic. I often download material expressly for use in a mix.
Sometimes I get caught up in a genre like bluegrass or rap, and sometimes it’s a particular artist—recently, the Brazilian drum ensemble Olodum and, before that, Elvis Costello. But two categories of music have obsessed me for years and years—duets and what I’ll loosely call standards. I only just realized that these obsessions are one and the same.
My duet mixes all present male-female duets from across the musical spectrum—country, soul, world, etc. I love the ways that two distinct voices overlap, contrast, and weave together. Frequently the man and the woman sing the same line in different ways, e.g., Frank Sinatra and Rosemary Clooney trading verses by Cole Porter: (Frank: “Mr. Pulitzer’s prize ought to be you.” Rosemary: “Romeo in disguise ought to be you.”)
The “standards” mixes present one song over and over again, sung by different voices. Ideally, each mix includes male and female voices, black and white singers, and versions that run the composition through a reggae, jazz, whatever filter.
My standard mixes celebrate these thirteen songs (what’s your favorite?):
- "Amazing Grace" (words by John Newton, music by anonymous). I’ve already said enough about this song. My favorite version: The Byrds
- "Friday on My Mind" (George Young and Harry Vanda; the Easybeats.) The least versatile of the “all one song” mixes, it’s the quintessence of everything a pop tune should be. My favorite: David Bowie
- "Lakes of Pontchartrain" (anonymous; first made famous by Planxty.) There don’t seem to be any interpretations of this song by African-American singers. Perhaps “Girl from the North Country” would have been a better choice; I could have included Howard Tate. My favorite: The Be-Good Tanyas
- "Wayfaring Stranger" (anonymous; first made famous by Burl Ives). Ed Sheeran’s version is a revelation.
- "I’ll Be Home for Christmas" (Kim Gannon and Walter Kent, based on a poem by Buck Ram, and first made famous by Bing Crosby). See this half-baked theory. Favorite: Dolly Parton
- "Let It Be Me" (Originally published in French in 1955 as “Je t’appartiens”. The score was written and first recorded by Gilbert Bécaud. The lyrics were penned in French by Pierre Delanoë. The English language version used lyrics by Mann Curtis. First made famous by the Everly Brothers). Nina Simone and Hannibal Means win this contest.
- "Bring It On Home to Me" (Sam Cooke). My favorite: The Chenille Sisters.
- "I Shall Be Released" (Bob Dylan). This mix is missing the Sting-led version from The Secret Policeman’s Ball—my first exposure to the song. It hasn’t aged well. Favorite: Earl Scruggs
- "Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye" (Cole Porter). Nina Simone’s second trophy.
- "The Tennessee Waltz" (Redd Stewart and Pee Wee King). Spike Jones!
- "Lonely Woman" (not technically a song—no lyrics—the jazz standard by Ornette Coleman) Favorite: Bill Orcutt
- "Fever" (Eddie Cooley and Otis Blackwell. First made famous by Little Willie John and Peggy Lee in 1956 and 1958, respectively). Tom Verlaine.
- "Wichita Lineman" (Jimmy Webb). Ray Charles.
Greatest all-time singer: Nina Simone
Runner-up: Eva Cassidy
Greatest living singer: Emmylou Harris
Runner-up: Cassandra Wilson
The Cole Porter is the only bona fide standard here. I could easily have included more of those—notably, “Summertime”—or other oft-covered tunes such as Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” the ubiquity of which has become some kind of joke. The genius of these thirteen, however, is indisputable. Each reveals a little something different with each interpretation as it accommodates, for example John Lennon’s growl or Colin Meloy’s purr.
It is of course obsessive to listen to the same song repeatedly, but it’s not as if I’m listening to the same track. (In high school there was a girl who made a cassette with “When Doves Cry” by Prince twelve times on each side.) What emerges from listening to all the different versions one after the other: deeper love of the song itself in all its variety, and a nuanced appreciation of each singer putting his or her stamp on a work that’s been done to death.
Both duets and standards reward the kind of careful attention—it’s even possible to achieve when you’re doing something else, like writing—that demands repetition. And obsession.