So often we see lists of the "all time" top 10 songs or albums, usually delivered by a magazine or a radio station. They serve two useful purposes. Firstly, they attract new readers and audiences, mainly of people who want to argue against any entry they do not like. Secondly, they are a handy piece of market research. Britain's Q Magazine recently published their readers' poll of the 100 greatest songs (amusingly described as "the definitive countdown of the nation's playlist"). The top two songs: Oasis's Live Forever and Wonderwall. The message to Q: plaster the magazine with Oasis stories (which they do anyway).
As a barometer of long-term popular taste, these lists are mostly useless. They tell you more about the magazine or the radio station. When surveyed on their favorite song, listeners to Australia's Triple J radio – proud devotees of "alternative" rock – have often named Love will Tear Us Apart, Joy Division's influential paean to anguish and mental breakdown. Some years ago, a Sydney easy-listening station chose Bette Midler's The Wind Beneath My Wings. (Strangely, Motorhead did not make that list.)
Classic rock stations in the 1980s were usually obligated to select Stairway to Heaven. Was it the best song of all time? Surely, it has won enough polls to lay the matter to rest? Then again, for most music polls, "all time" begins with Elvis and Rock Around the Clock, or even the early Beatles. Nobody ever sees to vote for Loch Lomond or Danny Boy.
One rare exception was BBC Radio 2's 1999 poll that attempted to name the 100 best songs of the twenty century, a period that lasted twice as long as "all time". The average age of Radio 2 listeners was 64, so the list contained a wide range of songs, from 1903 (Sweet Adeline) to 1997 (My Heart will Go On). Nothing by Oasis or U2, but Stairway to Heaven made # 35.
But even that educated list showed a listener bias: a preference for the laid-back and mellow. Despite the surprise appearance of Hound Dog and Satisfaction, the list was populated with sweet love songs. One could imagine Fred Astaire gliding across the floor to most of them.
And number one? That was the Beatles' Yesterday, sometimes the most timeless song on the list. It could have been written in 1905, 1935, 1965 (as it was) or 1985.
Compilers of "favorite" album and song lists must find the Beatles a real nuisance. In 1997, a random phone poll revealed that (to nobody's surprise) they were Britain's favorite musicians, followed by Elvis and Sinatra. Whatever your audience, the Fab Four will always be there, distorting your audience survey. Even the hip young readers of Q Magazine voted for A Day in the Life as the top non-Oasis, non-Nirvana song.
Sometimes, when comparing such lists, that's the only thing that can be ascertained. Not everyone is inspired by Nirvana, Led Zeppelin, or even Cole Porter. But if you do not like the Beatles, you're in the minority.