Fine-tuning Rolling Stone's list of best songwriters
Our music blogger offers some international ideas for the magazine.
Ever so often Rolling Stone releases an ordered list that gets the Internet in a tizzy. Whether it’s the 100 Greatest Guitarists, or 500 Greatest Albums, a Rolling Stone list is guaranteed to leave comment threads apoplectic with dissent. Their most recent list, The 100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time, is no exception. Immediately upon publication, the wailing began from fanboys and girls dismayed to learn that their favorite artist was not ranked – or not ranked highly enough. Or that an artist that to their minds seemed undeserving (Taylor Swift?) ranked at all.
Most of us realize that RS’s aging rock auteur demographic is rarely au courant. The moment I saw the list I knew that Bob Dylan's “Like a Rolling Stone” would be at the top. It’s in the magazine’s name, after all. Moreover, no list limited to 100 can ever satisfy all music fans. Pink Floyd and Public Enemy fans can commiserate in their disappointment. The complaining is sort of the point.
Nonetheless, there have been fair critiques of the list, including an especially insightful one from NPR’s Tom Moon, who noted the total lack of early popular music history in RS’s list:
“By putting an arbitrary historical bookend on the endeavor of songwriting, Rolling Stone actually does a disservice to the idea of songwriting. The magazine ignores the pioneers who paved the roads the rockers represented on the list all travel – including people whose works have endured for generations, like Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Cole Porter and Antonio Carlos Jobim,” Moon writes.
No Duke Ellington on a list of music’s greatest songwriters? OK, that is a huge oversight.
In addition to RS’s prejudice against older music, I’d suggest an additionally blind spot when it comes to international music. Sure, Rolling Stone’s audience is primarily contained in the English-speaking Anglosphere. But a list of songwriters that only includes artists from the U.S., U.K. and Canada is missing an entire world of music (literally!). With the acknowledgement that no list can satisfy everyone, here are five international artists that belong in any collection of greatest songwriters:
The prolific Nigerian Afrobeat bandleader has never been more popular, which makes his snub particularly hard to understand. In addition to the Tony-winning FELA! musical on Broadway, the last few years have seen the Knitting Factory reissue all of Kuti’s LPs and a full-length documentary film premiering at the Sundance Film Festival. Kuti’s big band mixture of sweaty African rock, protest lyrics and unique story is in full-blown revival. So how did RS miss him? Maybe it’s because his improvised saxophone jams, big horn movements and call-and-response vocals sound too chaotic to indicate clever songwriting. But I dare you to listen to “Zombie,” “Roforofo Fight” or “Shuffering and Shmiling” without hearing the carefully crafted beat that Kuti brought to all his projects.
Israel’s Bob Dylan has spent his career drawing on folk and grunge sounds to put together his own inimitable style. Most of Geffen’s career, including a dozen gold- and platinum-selling albums, has been in Hebrew, but the artist’s 2009 self-titled collection brought many of his best songs to English, including the iconic “It’s Cloudy Now.” When he tours abroad, Geffen performs as part of Blackfield, an English-language collaboration with Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson. At a show in New York, Wilson told the audience that “Geffen is a genius in creating three-minute pop songs.” He combines a 1970s rock aesthetic RS would easily recognize in Dylan and David Bowie with classic Israeli artists like Arik Einstein and Geffen’s own father, hitmaker Yonatan Geffen.
Turkey’s Joan Baez made her bones with traditional Anadolu songs deeply centered in a Turkish folk tradition, but what really makes Selda stand out is the amazing psych-folk found on her eponymous 1976 LP. Combining spacey funk riffs and psychedelic guitar sounds with typical Anatolian styles and Turkish electronica, Selda helped create, along with beat combo Mogollar, one of pop music’s most distinctive (and funkiest) genres. Still highly desired by psych aficionados and record collectors, this album was lyrically and musical ambitious enough to get Selda in trouble with the authorities – threatened with jail sentences and travel restrictions. In 2015 it sounds as fresh as it must have in 1976.
Palm-wine music, a genre that developed among the Kru people of Sierra Leone and Liberia, combined the Portuguese guitar music of visiting sailors with indigenous rhythms and Trinidadian calypso. Palm-wine is ideal summer music – chilled-out folk refracted through an African sensibility that crosses over with highlife. Though the genre has produced a number of talents, for my money the most impressive is S.E. Rogie, who mostly wrote in English. His compositions are timeless tracks from an alternate early pop dimension that follow their own unique musical logic. Born in 1926 in the town of Fonikoh, Pujehun District in southern Province Sierra Leone, Rogie moved to the U.S. in 1973 and recorded his final album in 1994 shortly before his death. If you can find it, his 1988 collection "Palm Wine Guitar Music (the 60’s Sound)" is the place to start, containing such classics as “Please Go Easy With Me,” “I Wish I Was a Cowboy" and the tongue-in-cheek “She Caught Me Red Hot.”
Hey, guess what – classical music needs to be “songwritten” as well. There were numerous artists I could’ve included: Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, insert your favorite classical artist here. My preference is for Debussy’s early works such as the impressionistic "Deux arabesques," and the rococo-styled "Clair de Lune." "Nocturnes," "Preludes" and "Children’s Corner Suite" all contain beautiful compositions layered with rich texture and daring harmonies. The French songwriter and conductor was also a music critic, calling Bach “the one great master,” and Beethoven “le vieux sourd” (the old deaf one). Suffice it to say that Debussy’s list of 100 Greatest Songwriters would likely have no crossover with Rolling Stone’s. Yet the level of sophistication and technical proficiency Debussy brought to his works eclipse even the greatest artist on RS’s list. So maybe it’s not fair to compare him to Taylor Swift, but it doesn’t seem right to call a list the 100 Greatest Songwriters of all time if you really mean the 100 Greatest Songwriters of the last 50-something years that wrote in an English-speaking country and were probably reviewed in the pages of Rolling Stone.
Mordechai Shinefield has been writing about music for over a decade for a variety of periodicals including Rolling Stone, Spin Magazine and the Village Voice. His tastes in music run the gamut; Malian desert blues and palm wine music from Sierra Leone, leftfield electronica, Middle Eastern folk metal, sun-soaked psychedelic folk, avant garde free jazz, vaporwave, and even some top 40.
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