Culture

‘The Greatest Pop Song Ever Sung,’ Part I

Singer Phil Collins performs in Cannes, France, in 2003. (Photo: Reuters/Stringer)
A binful of responses to a dumb but fun question

In August, I was writing about the two presidential nominees, and our extreme familiarity with them. What else was there to know? I was moved to quote a song: “If you don’t know me by now, you will never never never know me.”

A regular reader — Sherm Johnson, one of Indiana’s best — wrote me to say, “Thank you for quoting the Greatest Song Ever Sung (pop-wise).”

I mentioned this in a blogpost, and I issued an invitation. I asked readers, “What do you consider the greatest pop song ever sung (and we can define ‘pop’ very broadly)?” I said they should e-mail me, if they wanted. “I’m no George Gallup — but I will gladly compile the answers.”

Well, I would like to share those answers with you now. I think I will give them in order of receipt — meaning, the order in which I received them.

Kind of a dumb question: the Greatest Pop Song Ever Sung. Still, it’s fun, right?

And if you’d like to hear Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes in “If You Don’t Know Me by Now,” go here.

‐A reader says, “Gotta toss my vote in for Journey: ‘Don’t Stop Believin’.’”

‐A different reader, from Huntington, W.V.: “Rock around the Clock,” performed by Bill Haley & His Comets.

‐“I Heard It through the Grapevine,” sung by Marvin Gaye.

‐A reader from Stillwater, Maine, writes,

IMHO, the greatest “pop” song ever is “Close to the Edge,” by Yes. As you likely know, Yes is an extraordinarily innovative progressive (in the true and not bastardized meaning of the word) rock band. Inspired by Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, “Close to the Edge” is 18 minutes of musical perfection. My heart swells and my eyes water every time I hear it. It is widely considered the greatest progressive rock song of all time. Absolutely sublime!

Here.

‐A different reader: “The greatest pop song ever sung is ‘Cause’ by Sixto Rodriguez.”

‐“Gotta go with ‘Thriller’ for greatest pop song, unless Zeppelin counts, and then I change my answer to ‘Stairway.’”

‐A reader began his letter by remarking on something I had written about class envy. Then he said,

My pick is Percy Sledge singing “When a Man Loves a Woman.” One of the great soul songs of the Sixties performed by a black artist with white musicians in the deepest part of the South for a flawless Top Ten recording.

No class or other envy, because they all have class.

‐Simply two words in a Subject line: “‘Proud Mary’!”

‐From McKinney, Texas:

Okay, Jay, here’s my contribution: “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” — Pet Shop Boys with Dusty Springfield. Sorry, but it’s the perfect example of ’80s mainstream pop music, and it’s an awesome song!

Hey, no apologies necessary in this game!

‐A reader says, “‘The Way You Look Tonight.’ A close second: ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.’”

‐A nomination for “Thunder Road,” by Bruce Springsteen.

‐A Grand Rapidian says, “Hard to distill down to one, but I would nominate ‘Bridge over Troubled Water’ and ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today.’”

An aside: I will never forget Marilyn Horne, the great American mezzo-soprano, singing “Bridge over Troubled Water” as an encore, in a recital. Great.

‐A reader writes, “‘Fire and Rain,’ by James Taylor. Best. Ever.”

IMO, you can say that about several JT songs …

‐From Columbus, Ohio:

Jay,

… What a tremendous subject to ponder!

There’s a couple different ways I could go with this. As a child of the ’80s, my absolute favorite album to listen to has always been U2’s Joshua Tree. Setting aside U2’s politics (which one almost always has to do if one wants to listen to, and enjoy, any kind of pop music!), I could listen to the first four songs on that album 15 times in a row (and I’m sure I’ve done that!). “Bullet the Blue Sky” would be my favorite song to listen to, but in terms of the Greatest Pop Song Ever Sung, I’d have to go with “With or Without You.”

Going in another direction, away from pure pop, there are a number of tremendous songs ranging from “Feeling Good” (I enjoy Michael Bublé’s cover the best) to Etta James’s “At Last” to Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)” and I could go on and on!

Now I’m going to have to have this conversation with all my friends, all weekend long …

‐“‘I Will Always Love You,’ written and first recorded by Dolly Parton, of course. But Whitney Houston’s version is just about the quintessential pop song.”

‐A man from Washington, D.C., proclaims a “virtual tie”:

Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” by the Beach Boys (and in a pop-music-ish way, it affirms marriage!), from their immortal album Pet Sounds.

“Walk on By,” in Dionne Warwick’s cover of this Bacharach/David classic. More musical sophistication is packed into this three-minute track than in some entire musicals.

I’ll Be Around,” by the Spinners, one of the great soul groups, here performing a song by the maestro of the “Philadelphia Sound,” Thom Bell.

Ha, that’s good! I associate the Philadelphia Sound with Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy!

‐“Tammy Wynette’s ‘’Til I Can Make It on My Own,’ with its simple but striking progression, always gives me the same ‘good-music chills’ as Chopin.”

‐“For its perfect blending of lyrics and melody — each of elegant simplicity — ‘Where or When,’ by Rodgers and Hart.”

‐A letter:

Dear Jay,

What a great way to kill a little time on a slow Friday …

If you ask me next week, you will get a different answer, but …

Today, the answer to the question “What is the model of singing a pop song?” is Kenny Rankin in Randy Newman’s uncharacteristically sweet ballad “Marie.”

It is not irrelevant that when Paul McCartney, as an inductee to the Songwriters Hall of Fame, had to choose for the ceremony one song to be sung by someone else, he chose “Blackbird” and Kenny Rankin.

And if that doesn’t do it for you, Plan B is Roberta Flack’s cover of Janis Ian’s ballad of lost love “Jesse.”

Intentionally or otherwise, Janis Ian neatly paralleled the structure of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 …

P.S. Okay, Plan C is Roberta’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.”

‐A reader writes,

One’s favorite pop song will almost certainly define one’s age; and that age will almost always center around 16. I could offer the Everly Brothers in “All I Have to Do Is Dream” or Buddy Holly in “Rave On” and you might guess I was born around 1947.

Then there’s the ultimate 16-year-old love song: Sonny James and “I Wish This Night Would Never End.”

‐“I Get Around,” Beach Boys.

‐A reader says,

My wife and I went together in high school, went off to different colleges in different parts of the country, and our lives moved in different directions. We reconnected 17 years later and have been married now for 34 years. Our wedding song and the one I nominate is: “Endless Love.”

‐“So in Love,” from Kiss Me, Kate (Cole Porter).

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the great Italian bass Cesare Siepi: here. Heh.

‐A reader says,

Jay,

Considering the current nominees and the state of the electoral process, the following is, without a doubt, my greatest song ever sung: Parliament’s “Fantasy Is Reality.”

‐A man from British Columbia:

Of course this is an impossible question — but if I were put in a spot where my life depended on offering a response, I would say: Frank Sinatra in “I’ve Got You under My Skin” [Porter].

There. I said it!

‐“Take Me Home,” Phil Collins.

‐“Every Breaking Wave,” U2. There are different versions, one of which is here.

‐A reader writes,

This is, indeed, defining “pop” broadly, but my favorite is Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street.” Not exactly sweet or sentimental (just the opposite, in fact, as he rips Joan Baez), but I can never get enough of this Dylan classic.

‐“It may not be the greatest song, but it’s my favorite: ‘My Old School,’ by Steely Dan.”

This reader adds, “Verse 3 has definitely the greatest pop rhyme scheme of all time” — to wit,

California tumbles into the sea.

That’ll be the day I go back to Annandale.

Tried to warn you about Chino and Daddy Gee.

But I can’t seem to get to you through the U.S. Mail.

The reader continues, “Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ is pretty impressive for the same reason.”

I would like to tell you a story. Years ago, I was doing a public interview of Markus Hinterhäuser in Salzburg. He was the director of concerts for the Salzburg Festival. Today, he oversees the entire affair. In any event, I asked him whether there was anyone he couldn’t get — anyone he could not tempt to appear at the Salzburg Festival. This is pretty much the most prestigious music festival in the world. Musicians would slit their wrists to perform there.

Johnny Carson used to say there was one guest he couldn’t get: Cary Grant.

I mentioned this to Hinterhäuser, and I said, “Do you have a Cary Grant?” He answered, “Leonard Cohen.” I had never even heard of Cohen, I’m afraid. I certainly have now.

This is probably enough for one day, don’t you think? I’ll do one more installment — one more round of the Greatest Song Ever Sung.

Nominations are closed, incidentally, but, to one and all — nominators and readers alike — thank you. See you.

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