In Quisterflaang’s Canon, longtime professional rock critic, journalist, and author Peter Quisterflaang reviews the most critically celebrated songs of all time as compiled by aggregator acclaimedmusic.net. Quisterflaang does not make himself open to contact through conventional means but will appear in the comments below to discuss his invaluable contributions to the discourse.
#001: Bob Dylan – Like a Rolling Stone (B. Dylan, 1965)
This is, statistically, the greatest song ever written, in that apparently, if you crunch the numbers, “Like a Rolling Stone” appears the most frequently and the highest on various critics’ best-of lists. This is, for example, the track1 that appears at #1 on Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list.2 It is very difficult for even the most seasoned professional rock critic to put themselves out there and commit to asserting that one song, above all others, is The Greatest Ever Written. The decision must be carefully weighed for maximum gravitas and credibility, as the #1 pick is the track3 one’s entire list will be judged by. Best-of lists, like all writing, are to some degree political.4
Thankfully, Bob Dylan anticipated this need and obligingly wrote “Like a Rolling Stone” specifically to be our consensus top pick. It is a song by an Important Artist, but not The Beatles, because that’s always considered a pretty basic move. This specific Important Artist, Robert “Bob” Dylan “Zimmerman,” is so important that even if you don’t really like him, you have to sort of apologize and concede his greatness and that it is merely that you are uncultured swine. This song is over six minutes long, so you really have to commit there. The subject matter is cryptic and rambling and poetic, so we can write long analyses claiming the song is really about almost anything, including a specific person, society as a whole, or even Dylan himself.5 The lyrics are clever and nimble with a lot of internal rhymes, so in a way, didn’t Dylan sort of pave the way for hip hop?6 “Like a Rolling Stone” is the ultimate pillar in rock criticism as homework.
Anyway, I kind of like this song, the organ part is pretty cool.
#002: Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit (K. Cobain/K. Novoselic/D. Grohl, 1991)
Here are two things that are true about professional rock critics at the transition from the ‘80s to the ‘90s: we were hungry for a musical revolution to be a part of, and we were tired of songs with saxophones and that Yamaha keyboard sound. Nirvana provided a solution to both of those problems, especially the first one.7 Imagine what it would have been like to chronicle the evolution of the Beatles! Imagine what it would have been like to see the dawn of punk! This was the chance to get in on the ground floor of a sound that would change the face of popular music forever.
Unfortunately, by the mid-to-late-’90s Nirvana was gone8 and grunge had turned out to be kind of a dead end. The problem was, we had already made such a big deal over Nirvana. They say that people who buy snake oil psychologically will themselves into believing it works because nobody wants to admit they got royally hosed, and this was a similar situation. So we made a solemn vow that for the rest of our careers we would continue to decree that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” deserves to be this high on the GOAT list as a watershed in popular culture that we few, we lucky few, were there to experience firsthand for ourselves, and not that it was mostly a really catchy single by a kind of cool new rock band that was big for about three years.
#003: The Beatles – A Day in the Life (J. Lennon/P. McCartney,9 1967)
I think #3 is a good place to put your highest-rated Beatles track, and “A Day in the Life” is artsy and daring, and it wasn’t a single but neither is it exactly a deep cut, so you’re not going to alienate anybody. Plus, it has both John and Paul on it, so you can talk about, like, the synthesis of their songwriting in the Beatles, even if I think “We Can Work It Out” is more interesting to talk about in that respect. Actually, the top Beatles song probably should be “She Loves You,” but we don’t put the early Beatles tracks this high because they lack the legitimacy of the later Beatles. At no point during the recording of “She Loves You” did anybody have a mustache.
Actually, maybe this is Ringo’s song. Look, if I told you that there exists a song with a sad and mournful drum part, you would say, “What the hell does ‘a sad and mournful drum part’ even mean? What would that even sound like? How can a drum be sad? This is exactly the kind of wank professional rock critics say to sound profound that makes one despise the professional rock critic.” But then.You get to the line about “He blew his mind out in a car” and all of a sudden here come the drums: FL-DIP DOOM, BA DOOM, BA DUMPADAPUMP psssshhhh. 10 That fill is absolutely heartbreaking, and it’s hard to say how Ringo did that. But what’s important is: you concede I was right.
Jeff Lynne would later steal the Paul bit in the middle of this and expand on it to create “Mr. Blue Sky,” but I’ll be damned if I’m going to hold that against my close personal friend Mr. Lynne or his wonderful song.
#004: The Beach Boys – Good Vibrations (B. Wilson/M. Love, 1966)
I don’t want to talk about Brian Wilson’s whole deal here. As a professional rock critic, you sort of have to go on about this lonely, fragile genius and the mental health stuff, and it’s so depressing and you already know all this. I would rather talk about the staggering, groundbreaking production work and how it’s wedded to sharp, hooky songwriting. (Much of Pet Sounds, unfortunately, is the first thing but not the second thing.)
But even there, it gets tricky because the song captures such a Brian Wilson-y vibe. It starts out simple, sounding serene, cosmic, enlightened, the Spirit of 1960s Counterculture11 personified. Then it builds and builds, but in an organized way. It is never chaotic in the way that the crescendo in “A Day in the Life” is; it is purposeful and deliberate. But then it occurs to you that there is too much of it happening, and the cheerfulness becomes almost terrifying. You are losing control. Brian Wilson is losing control. So whether you want it to or not, this song becomes about Brian Wilson, which in turn becomes a symbol, or symptom, of the lost dream of the ‘60s and how good vibrations and good intentions could turn into a nightmare.
This song is also used at a pivotal moment in the greatest film of all time, Vanilla Sky (dir. C. Crowe, 2001).
#005: The Rolling Stones – (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction (M. Jagger/K. Richards, 1965)
The way professional rock critics talk about The Rolling Stones is different from the way we talk about The Beatles. The Beatles start getting Serious Cred with Rubber Soul and accumulate more over time right until the recording of their last album, Abbey Road, which was designed and performed as a deliberate magical incantation to invent the genre of Classic Rock for the next decade. By contrast, it’s the early Rolling Stones that are the coolest, and as time goes on they become a little less dynamic. Part of the thing is that the Beatles had the incredible PR idea to break up and thus pass The Beatles into Valhalla as legends, but they could still make their own solo records and lots of money, accordingly. The Rolling Stones also make a lot of money, but you actually can see them play together sometimes.12 They are real and material.
Anyway, what a great riff, obviously. The lyrics are aggressive and disaffected and cool, and Jagger snarls them appealingly. You listen to this song and you feel like you are young and hate everything but also feel amazing. I think #5 is a good spot for this one. Good to see the critics get it right!
Peter Quisterflaang is the author of several books of professional rock criticism, including Klaatu: Canada’s Prog Rock Treasure (2003, Credibility Press).