Evaluating Songs

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.

  1. The Modesto Kid’s avatar

    next week more women

    I read this and had the thought, Oh, I should link this to heebie-geebie’s recent post about male and female singers. Went over to her journal and found you had made the connection.


  2. NickS’s avatar

    I thought about changing the song selection, after I looked at it. It certainly isn’t intended to be definitive.

    Mostly, however, my attitude towards this blog, is that it’s best to not spend too much time second guessing and just leave things as a topic of discussion.


  3. The Modesto Kid’s avatar

    I like these criteria or categories — another category of “good song” for me is a song that really stands out in some way from the rest of the performer’s œuvre and is outside the box you usually think about the performer sitting in. Like e.g. “I’ll be your baby tonight” — I don’t think of Dylan as a C&W artist but that’s totally a country song. Dylan’s not the best artist to use as an example here because he crosses so many genres and he does have other country songs but you get the idea.


  4. NickS’s avatar

    I know what you mean. I was just listening to some of Gil Scott Heron’s earlier, jazzier songs that were new to me (I had only heard the songs that were poetry set to music), and it was more interesting to hear it as another side of someone that I was familiar with.


  5. RS’s avatar


    I like how you have laid out this question.

    This is a topic I hope other people notice and comment on.

    I will think about some of your questions, but I want to add the category of songs that are great because they stick to you and you want to sing them.

    John Cohen has a line in the New Lost City Rambler’s Song book that I thought was brilliant the first time I bumped into it: “Songs to listen to. Songs to sing to yourself. Songs to sing with others.”

    The other quote from him that seems worth adding to this conversation is this one: The following is from there is no eye by John Cohen and published by powerHouse Books in.

    “For years I’ve made many photographs of people playing music that brings a community together, calls up old spirits, and evokes family memories. Music making transcends everyday life. Music that involves dances or religious ritual can get very intense. After a festival, people comment, “it filled my deepest needs.” Sound, dance, motion, artistic and spiritual matters, even economics and politics contribute to this feeling. But language is an inadequate tool for expressing it. Try to describe these deepest needs and you wind up with a list of cliches. My travels have been in pursuit of music and art which filled such deep needs. I got to experience and inhabit these things personally – not just as a listener – along with a wish to be consumed by them.


  6. The Modesto Kid’s avatar

    Songs to listen to. Songs to sing to yourself. Songs to sing with others.

    Nice. Robyn Hitchcock said on the liner notes to Eye, “These songs are designed — insofar as such things are intentional — to be listened to by yourself.”


  7. NenitaCiborowski.bravesites.com’s avatar

    Keep this going please, great job!


  8. mallietatsapaugh.weebly.com’s avatar

    I quite like reading through an article that can make people think.
    Also, many thanks for permitting me to comment!



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