METHOD

If I couldn’t achieve objectivity via other judges colaboration, at least I could aim to keep my personal interpretation influence to a minimum by using a quantification system based on dimensions. Each song has different traits that can be assesed independently, such as melody or lyrics, and these traits can be employed for the generation of evaluations that determine the sense in which a song can be considered “good” or “bad”. Thus, as a first step, I chose the seven dimensions that, in my opinion, are the most significant when it comes to evaluate a song.

Without remembering the score I gave to a song in one dimension and what score I gave to another one, I could aspire to be just and consistent on my appraisals and, while not fully objective, at least not fully subjective in my analysis. Besides, I would be explicit, namely, I would clearly express the criteria by serían which a song would be considered “good” or, at least, better than the others. At the same time, it would be quantitative because the position earned by each song in the ranking would come from a numerical value combination, which would allow quick and clear comparsions. These two factors, in turn, would allow discussion, comparsion, adjustment and collaboration by other people.

The criteria are:

  1. Melody: General appraisal of note selection and ordination which elicits a pleasant feeling on the listener. The best indication of a song having a good melody is that it can be hummed and, particularly, that frequently people sing it even though they do not know its lyrics, as it happens with “California Dreamin’” from The Mamas & The Papas.
  2. Instrumentalization: Extent in which chosen instruments and sound effects contribute to optimize the song impact. In this category unique sounding instruments are as positively appreciated as a defining post-production that enhaces timbres and makes them clearer. However, this is not about considering the more instruments a song has, the louder it sounds, or the more overdubs it has, the better. It is about evaluating how the chosen instrumentalization serves the spirit of the song. While Pink Floyd set milestones in audio console usage, esit is hard to think that adding another instrument along Jim Croce’s guitar in “Time in a Bottle” would allow to communicate with more feeling the nostalgic beauty of this balada ballad that even today makes many people in the world cry.
  3. Lyrics impact: Effect produced by sung (or spoken) text in the listener. It regards lyrics capability to stimulate imagination, to elicit experiences, to attain representations or, above all, communicate a message. The value of many protest songs by Bob Dylan, Joan Báez or  Rage Against the Machine resides on this dimension. It is where language operations take place: rhymes, verses, puns, wordplays, semantic references and many more. Nonetheless, a song is not a poem with music nor it is a list of anecdotes with music and, therefore, one cannot pretend lyrics to work on their own. Their effect relies on the context generated by melody in the first place.
  4. Structural complexity: A song forms a whole that, even though it is composed of parts, has an holistic emergent value –which equals to say that the whole is more than the sum of its parts–. And those components can be combined in a conventional or an innovative way. As the experimental genre it is, rock is in constant renovation and that includes song structure. In this dimension it is assesed the extent to which a song has a simple skeleton or a rather complex one, and the extent to which that skeleton fulfills its role in the song’s final effect. This is not about stating that a longer song or a song with more sections is necessarily better. There are many short and direct songs that simply take one’s breath away. Like Dead Kennedys songs.
  5. Historical significance: This category comes to moderate the list property of reflecting only my personal taste and, as such, it is a quantification of the impact that each song has had for people along these more than 55 years of rock music history. In order to carry out this quantification –which I know is highly questionable– used several inputs; mainly the number of mentions and preferences that a song had in forums and websites (Lew, 2005; VH1, 2008; SongMeanings, 2012), its aparition and position in compilation rankings (Canal 4, 2006; Guitar World, s/f; Juddery, M., 2007; Mack, s/f; NME, 2002, 2007; Pitchfork Media, 2006; Q, 2003, 2005; Rolling Stone, 2004; Triple J, 1989, 1990; VH1, 2008a, 2008b, 2008c) and my own observation. Evidently, songs that have been used in commercial ads, audiovisual campaigns and movies have reached much more people and, in many cases, have become popular among them, but the main focus is to evalute tue quantity of people that know that song, the extent to which it has inspired similar musical patterns in future composition (as Black Sabbath songs or Jerry Lee Lewis singing style have done) and, above all, that capability to wake up representations and emotions on the inside of the listener. If we wanted to imagine this cirteirum in a quantitative way, it would be something like “the average phenomenic intensity produced by this song multiplied by the number of people in the world who know it”.
  6. Cover version (dichotomic category with negative score): Property of the song of being an original version or a subsequent interpretation. In the latter case the song is less meritorius. One point is assigned if the song is a cover version or zero points if it is the original one. It is considered a cover even if the artist(s) who recorded the new version is(are) the same who recorded it in the first place (as it happens with a-Ha’s “Take on Me”).
  7. Memorable riff (dichotomic category): A riff is a brief musical structure which repeats itself along a melody and is easily recalled. In general it is one of the best remembered parts of a song and it is what people tipically hum for another person to identify it. Aerosmith’s “Walk this Way”, Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker” or Judas Priest’s “Breakin’ the Law” are archetypical examples of this feature.

Finally, I added a deduction according to the recording (and publication) year of the song such that older songs received a proportional score bonus. I thought of this because more recent songs gain from from historical knowledge of past works, taking their ideas from them and purifying these ideas in order to deliver them to a younger audience. This, and technological equity, are the reasons why I consider pertinent this novelty correction factor, pues contribuye a hacer más justa la competencia entre canciones antiguas y actuales.

In summary, this ranking is an independent 7-dimension appraisement quantification of those song I consider particularly worthy in rock history, adding a corrective factor by year. Once all the scores are assigned, tey will feed the formula, which will yield each song’s final score.

The formula is as follows:

Score = (M x 2) + (I x 1,1) + (L x 1,2) + (SC) + (S x 1,2) + (R x 1,5) + (Y / 11) – (Cv x 1,5)

Where:

M : Melody (20: 31,01%)

I : Instrumentalization (11: 17,05%)

L : Lyrics Impact (12: 18,60%)

SC : Structural Complexity (3: 4,65%)

HS : Historical Significance (12: 18,60%)

R : Memorable Riff (1,5: 2,33%)

Y: Year of release (5: 8,53%)

Cv : Is it a cover song? (1,5: 2,33%)

The constants, by which each variable is multiplied, are specific ponderations designed to give it a weigh. That weight is expressed in parenthesis as the maximum score for the category and its translation to the porcentual contribution it gives to the final value[4].

Thus, considering it is a sum, this leads to the maximum score for a song being 64,5.

Once the seven dimensions were defined and the formula was built, as a next step I began recollecting those compositions that me and other sources[5] –all of which I mention in the references of this article– considered “the best”, the worthiest in rock music. The only criterium songs should comply in order to be included in the database and be scored was to belong to the rock music realm, meaning this the vaguely defined genre which appeared in the middle of 20th century, which rests on the present instruments technological develpoment and which tends to evolve with time (as opposed to folklore). Its sound usually comes from acoustic and electric guitars, and uses a strong beat provided by a rhythm section composed of electric bass guitar, drums and keyboard instrumens such as organ, piano and synthetizers (Wikipedia, 2009). In its “purest form” rock music has “thre chords, a strong persistent backbeat and a catchy melody.” According to All Music Guide , it is “defined by its energy energy, rebellion and catchy hooks, but as the genre aged, it began to shed those very characteristics, placing equal emphasis on craftmanship and pushing the boundaries of the music. As a genre, rock had a specific image and a specific sound only for a handful of years. During most of its existence, rock has been fragmented, giving birth to news styles and variatins each few years, from teenager pop and heavy metal to eurodance and grunge. And that’s only natural for a genre that began its life as a fusion of styles.” (All Music Guide, 2009)

Thus, this definitoin covers the scope of songs that can be soft acoustic ballads or rabid sonic attacks. Excluded are: folklore (Violeta Parra or tibetan chants, for instance), latin-american romantic music, rap, bolero, jazz and orchestral music, among others. This is not because these are less worthy genres, but because they are, simply, different genres.

After a two-month research I settled in a 1052 songs database, scoring each one in the 7 independent dimensiones previosuly described. Motivation to include a particular song was based on my personal appraisal of them, on its inclusion in compilation “Best of” o “Greatest Hits” albums of an artist or a scene (for instance, “Best of the 50’s”), or because it was sugested by some acquaintances.

But, as I said at the beginning, every ranking recieves criticism. Some of these point to the composing items cultural representativeness. In this regard, my ranking could not escape that impugnment, especially if we analize the distribution of the 1,050 songs by their contry of origin.

50% of the songs in the database come from U.S.A. (which is no wonder if we take into account that many of the sources resorted to build the databse arefrom that country) while 32.29% come from England. Of the remaining countries, only surpass 1%: Germany (1.71%), Australia (2.19%), Canada (2.10%), France (1.90%) and Ireland (1.43%). Sweden comes in close, reaching 0.95%.

Thus, at least 88.01% of the database is made by songs written by people native from an English-speaking culture. If we reckoned how many songs are really sung in English, we would arrive to a much higher number. In fact, even songs coming from countries as diverse as Iceland, Sweden, Japan, Brazil, and India sung in English. This too can be used as an argument to criticize the setting-up of this ranking, but I think I am not mistaken when I assert that this conformation reflects not only the architecture of other lists, but also the reality of this kind of music demand across the globe. 1.90% is made up of Spanish-sung songs.

Once scored each song, I applied the formula which combines blends values yielding a final outcome, of which we can see the following screenshot:

Extracto de la base de datos original de la cual emana el ranking

As a last step, I ordered the songs from the highest value to the lowest one, I marked the first 100 marqué and… voilà! The ranking of the 100 best songs in rock music history according to Pentopa (my alias) had come alive.

From here on, for the joy of the patient reader who is eager to know the destination of this little experiment, I will present thos 100 songs. The complete ranking and the original database are in the Excel file “Las 100 mejores canciones” (this is in Spanish since that’s my mother tongue).

So here is the ranking. I only hope this work will contribute to the appreciation of the nature of rankings and will help guide the making of this kind of hierarchies in the future.

Go to ranking.

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