What makes a great song? What makes a song great?
How do we differentiate between songs that are sentimental favorites, and songs that we believe are “objectively” good?
If you someone asked you to play them five great songs, and someone else asked for five favorite songs, would you play the same songs?
How would you go about making an argument that one song is “better” than another? It’s easy enough in some case, but how do you compare, say, Is She Really Going Out With Him with The Weight? They’ re such different songs.
I don’t have any standards that I would even pretend are objective, but I can offer a couple of criteria that I think about when deciding if I would call a song great.
1) The first step is to ask what the song is trying to accomplish, do I appreciate that goal, and how successful is the song at meeting the challenges it sets for itself? I appreciate the ambitious song that lives up to it’s ambition, but I will always defend a song that has modest goals, but completely satisfies them.
2) Would this song be enough to justify a songwriting career? I call this “The Man Who Wrote Danny Boy” criteria (after the Joe Jackson song of that name). If everything else that someone wrote had been forgotten, but they had written this one song, would you feel like they had added something to the world. There’s a lot of overlap between this and the first criteria, but they’re just different ways to think about the same thing.
3) How unhappy would I be if I knew I could never hear a given song again? There are many songs that I enjoy, but I wouldn’t miss if they weren’t available to me — I’ve lately been feeling that way about many Elvis Costello songs, for example, but I could change my mind again on those.
4) Does a song surprise me, and is there some reason that I am just happy that someone has written that particular song? These are songs that just remind me why I’m happy to keep on the look out for new music. Songs for which my day is just a little better having heard them.
5) Does the song lodge itself in your soul in some way? If the previous criteria is songs that make ones day a little better, there has to be another criteria for songs for which it makes your life a little better having heard them. I’m thinking here mostly of traditional music — songs for which the experience of listening isn’t an experience of more or less contemporary pop culture, but of human culture.
Any one of those is reason enough for me to love a song. They aren’t exclusive reasons, they’re just different ways of describing what I enjoy about music.
I don’t know where I would put musicianship on this list. In general, my experience is that musicianship is a threshold that, when satisfied becomes less important. I wouldn’t like the Ramones any more if they were better musicians. At the same time, I have a bias towards music that has a clear sense of sound and tone and that biases me in favor of a certain amount of musical talent.
As far as examples of each of those criteria, I would put both of the songs at the top of the post into the first category. I think “The Weight” is a more ambitious song than “Is She Really Going Out With Him” but they both satisfy their ambitions — in the case of the Joe Jackson song, including one of the most memorable pop riffs you can think of.
For an example of what I mean by the second criteria, I’ll pick Hard To Handle by Otis Redding. It isn’t considered one of his classics, but I say that if every other Otis Redding song was lost, and we only had that to evaluate his career, you’d have to call him a great Soul singer based on that track alone.
For #3, how about I’ll Come Running (To Tie Your Shoe) by Brian Eno. That is a song that I just went looking for, recently, having heard it a few times years ago. I have mixed feelings about it in some ways, but it’s a song I very much want to have on shelf.
For #4, Here Come the Martian Martians.mp3 by Jonathan Richman. I’m not sure that I’d pick it as his “best” song (Roadrunner, for example, would be more of a classic), but I’m just happy it exists.
For #5, here’s Doc Watson playing Red Rocking Chair.
Looking at that list, geez, next week more women.