Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Top 100 Songs: Introduction


I first attempted to craft a favorites song list back in 2012 and the result was an unwieldy monstrosity featuring 250 songs. I was generally happy with the list, but the sheer breadth of it allowed for the inclusion of songs like Will Smith's "Men in Black" and the Backstreet Boys "I Want It That Way." I feel secure enough in my adulthood and in my need for acceptance as a credible voice of reason that I can comfortably include songs that might bring criticism, but even I have to look back on some of my inclusions with a bit of sideye. (Despite the lovely violins, Celine Dion's "To Love You More" is a particularly egregious inclusion.) 

I'm no music critic and I make no claim to be one. I'm not ashamed to tell you that most of the musical terms I've learned I have picked up through shows like American Idol or overheard my smart music major college roommates using. I'm not into the Indie scene and very few of the artists/bands on my list will be "underground" choices to boost my street cred. 
What musical credibility do I have? Do Karaoke skills count?

I return to this list four years later not because I feel more enlightened as a music listener, but because I'd like to capture my current tastes in music and invite others to enjoy them as well. Lists like this are like photographs; they never off a final word about us, but they do offer a temporary snapshot into our life. If this all sounds like I'm taking lists like this too seriously, you are absolutely right, I do. I admit it, I love making lists like this and thinking about their implications. What other hobbies do you expect from a 33 year-old bachelor?

I initially believed in updating this list I would remain at 250 songs, but during the 3-4 weeks I spent re-making the list I discovered that I could no longer really see any major differences between a song that might be #150 and a song that might be #215. As life goes on and the number of songs I've heard and greatly enjoyed goes up, many songs that once stood out now find themselves as just another 'fun' song. I've found this has happened to me when it comes to movies as well, as I've now got to sort through decades of film experiences when comparing new ones. About halfway through updating this list I decided to make it a Top 100 and include an additional 100 just in alphabetical order because I just couldn't leave it at 100. 

The top 100 includes 22 brand new songs to my list and 40 brand new songs to the top 100; which is quite a lot of turnover in just 4 yours! If you are interested in the nuts and bolts of how I created the list, feel free to keep reading. For those not interested in a deep dive, here's the overview:
The top 100 list is decidedly more a favorite songs list more than a best songs list. It's not an attempt to say what I judge the best songs ever made are; who am I to say anything about that? No, the list is crafted with the mindset that if I only had 100 songs to live with the rest of my life, these would currently be them. This means the list tries to feature a diverse group of songs. Doing it this way unfortunately undervalues artists, like Pink Floyd, who may have great albums, but isolating songs that stand out as great singles is not their strong suit. 

Despite several great albums, there's no Pink Floyd single on the list. Sorry 

Principles & Process of the Top 100 Songs List

In the course of making lists, I've developed a pretty consistent view or guiding principle on how to create them. When I approached this list I asked the question, "What songs could I not live without?" This is the guiding question when I am forced to pit one song against another. For instance, if I was simply doing a Top 1 list, then that song would be the one song that I would want to have above every other. If I could only listen to one song in my lifetime ever again, it would be that one. If I was then given the opportunity to expand the list to a Top 2, then the second song I picked would be the next song I would want above every other in the world. Imagine I kept expanding that list until it reached 100 songs, you would then have the list that I have made. With just 100 songs to live with, I find myself desiring to coordinate a vast combination of preferences based primarily on four things to varying degrees: personal enjoyment, personal meaning, musical quality, and historical importance. 

Taking on lists of this size, I use a pretty consistent ranking process. I've tried to relay the process as simply as I can.

1. Make an initial listing of all songs I feel might be eligible for the list
- This is a really lengthy process. I basically gather together a long long list of any and every song that I think has a shot at making the list. This meant I scoured my iTunes catalog then spent numerous hours going through Billboard and critic lists to make sure I didn't miss any of the popular or critical songs of the past that I might not have in my personal libraries.

2. Begin categorizing and sorting
- After looking over this initial list (that was about 600 or so songs) I began to categorize them by genre of music. For this list I used the following genres: Country, 2000's Rock/Pop, 90's Rock/Pop, 80's Rock/Pop, Classic Rock, Oldies, Rap/R&B, Christian, Musical/Film. With a list this size, I find it easier to first begin ranking songs against their own genre. It's easier to compare Michael Jackson to Stevie Wonder first, before comparing Michael Jackson to something like Garth Brooks.

3. Sort the categories further

- After putting the songs into genres, I split them up further into one of three levels: Must Have, Really Good, and Close Call. This allowed me to get an initial reaction to the songs and begin splitting them up and ordering them in a basic gut way.

4. Begin ranking the levels in the genres
- Now that I've got the genres and the levels within the genres I begin to rank them. My entire system boils down to taking two songs and comparing them. I ask the question, "Which one would I most not want to live without?"

5. Begin combining the levels in their genres
- Since opinions change over time and with second looks and listens, I go back over the genres now that it is ranked and ordered pretty well to ensure that a song wasn't in the wrong level and needs to be moved up.

6. Begin combining and ranking like genres
- Using the same principle for combining ranked groups that I used above, I begin combining the ranked genres. I begin with like genres to make the ranking easier. For instance, I first began combining 2000's Rock/Pop with 90's Rock/Pop.
- I combined genres until I ended up with just two super-genres left.

7. Combine final two genres to make the final top 100


8. Sleep on list, come back and make final adjustments
- It's here where I will be very attentive to the diversity of the list. I would purposely ensure that the list contains the diversity of music I would desire in a top 5, or a top 10, 50, 100 etc.

That's how I do it. Simple right? Okay, maybe it's a little obsessive. All of that said, I hope you enjoy the list! 


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