It’s what I do
It’s what I do
It’s not some game I play
It’s in my DNA
It’s what I do
Tomorrow, Sunday, is my birthday. It’s my 44th birthday overall, the seventh among them to fall on a Sunday. When I think of having a Sunday birthday, I think of one in particular.
Few are the days of our lives that not only can we pinpoint in hindsight as momentous but that we know while they’re in progress are gamechangers. My 10th birthday — the second I ever celebrated on a Sunday — was one of those days.
December 31, 1972, 34 years ago tomorrow, opened up a whole new way of looking at the world for me. It validated an impulse that was, to borrow a phrase from a source I would learn about soon enough, bubbling under my own Hot 100. It altered the way I think about everything.
On the day I turned 10, I heard my first year-end countdown on the radio. It was like a light went off in my ears.
You mean there are people who make lists who aren’t told to go away? You mean there are people who get to broadcast them? You mean there’s honor to this thing I like to do?
As a child in my single digits, I liked to make lists, but they were shapeless, formless, without context. What I heard on Miami’s WFUN on the final day of 1972 was something else. It was the Top 79 songs of the year, fitting in that WFUN was 790 on your AM dial.
Pop music had emerged as the third leg of my obsession triad in the spring of ’72, following the Mets and politics. I was essentially set for life in terms of overriding interests. There had been music before, but I hadn’t linked it to the specificities of time and place and it wasn’t something I sought. Via WNBC in the spring and WGBB in the fall, I heard songs that I knew were new. They were what were known as hits. I loved being in on the hits. It made me feel as if I were a part of the world, not some outcast who was the only one who wasn’t told the joke or didn’t receive the memo.
Come late December, our family took off on its annual holiday trek for North Miami Beach. For the second year in a row, we stayed at a motel on Collins Avenue called the Chateau. I brought with me the transistor radio I inherited from my musically indifferent sister. I assumed Miami had a station that played the hits. It did: WFUN. Great call letters. Great records. I listened to WFUN every spare moment I was allowed to (I was supposed to be outside getting some sun, we didn’t pay all that money to come down here so you could sit in the room all day and listen to the radio).
I don’t remember what it was I was supposed to be doing on my birthday but I do remember that my sister took ill with a stomach virus. She was stuck in bed and I told my parents, you guys go to the pool, I’ll keep Susan company. It scored me some “what a good brother” points. What I did, actually, was sit on the balcony and listen to ‘FUN and discover the art of the countdown.
The Countdown! What a concept! It was a list that went from back to front. It was drenched in suspense. It was an instant history lesson, both for the songs I hadn’t heard much since June and for the songs that I managed to miss during 1972. I took a pen and wrote down in my notebook The Top 79 as it unfolded.
And I was hooked. I wanted to make this kind of list. In fact, I did. When we went home I made my own Top 100 songs of 1972. I kept reworking it into March, oblivious to the reality that nobody needed my list. But I was onto something that I enjoyed. Every year’s end I made a Top 100 list. Not my favorites, mind you, but the Top 100, based on how much I perceived the hits of any year were played on the radio. I kept this up to the end of the 1980s. I also did weekly Top 20 lists on and off during the ’70s.
I’ll admit to myself now that those were pretty pointless endeavors. WFUN may have faded from the South Florida scene but other radio stations in other places counted down songs. Casey Kasem counted down songs. Billboard existed to count down songs. I turned my attention to thinking in terms of favorite songs. My favorite songs.
I have favorite songs nobody else seems to have, at least judging by every friend’s, critic’s or institution’s ranking that comes down the pike. Perhaps it was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame declaring in the mid-’90s that there were 500 songs that shaped rock, providing a de facto canon for the genre, that inspired me to create my own list. Perhaps it was just my jones for milestones — in 1996, I sniffed the 25th anniversary of my musical birth just up the road. Perhaps it was WFUN and my 10th birthday from that Sunday, December 31, leaving an imprint on my DNA.
Whatever it was, I made it my mission to craft a Top 100 Songs of All-Time list, to be completed by April 7, 1997, the exact 25th anniversary of the day on which my pop radio connection first clicked.
So I did.
I liked it so much, I made it a Top 200. Then a Top 300. Then a Top 400. Finally, on the 30th anniversary — or 5th anniversary of the first hundred — The Top 500 Songs of All-Time.
Then I stopped. Because to do any more than 500 would be crazy.
My Top 500 Songs of All-Time would be meaningless without self-inflicted parameters. So here are the parameters.
• To be eligible, a song had to be in general circulation between the beginning of 1972 (because great songs from before then could never have quite the same impact as songs that I greeted upon their arrival into the atmosphere) and the end of 1999 (more or less the end of the century; had to cut off eligibility somewhere). General circulation means released as a single or a video or a widely played album cut or a featured number from a Broadway musical. In other words, it had to have been played somewhere at least once where anybody could have heard it. Sometimes it took me only once to love it.
• I had to own a copy of it or at least think I did and if I didn’t, I had to run out and buy it.
• I had to be aware of the song more or less within the timeframe that it was released. There is, however, the WFUN Exception. Any 1972 song that I met on my 10th birthday is grandfathered in. But a 1972 song I didn’t find out about until 1992? Not the same sensation, thus it would be ineligible.
• I had to love these 500 songs more than any other song within the parameters of eligibility. The reasons didn’t matter. It could have a great beat and you could dance to it. It could be incredibly deep. It could be catchy to the point I couldn’t rid myself of it. It could be something that I was playing when I was over there doing that or over here doing this. It could be by an artist I couldn’t get enough of or an act I couldn’t take except for the one great song he/she/they produced. It could be considered great by every scholarly musical source or it could be routinely despised by every sentient human except me. Maybe I loved it when it came out and the depth of my association with it from my youth survived my later decision it wasn’t that great but damn it it’s still one of my favorites. Maybe I only tolerated it when it was all over the airwaves but had come to appreciate it in adulthood.
Whatever. If I heard it, I knew it.
But I had to listen and listen closely. That’s why I took six years to compile my list. There were thousands and thousands of songs in my mental jukebox. There were lists inside lists inside notebooks to make certain I didn’t miss a trick. When it came down to the final hundred, the final ten even, I sat up through the night and played every compact disc, every cassette tape, every LP, every 45 under consideration. I wanted to construct the most airtight Top 500 I could imagine.
Even then I probably blew it. To this day, I’ll hear a runnerup and think, “I’m surprised this didn’t make it,” which might strike you as odd since I am the sole judge and jury. But it’s that WFUN training at work. Even when it’s all about my subjectivity, I know there has to be a strain of objectivity, if that makes any sense. There has to be a measure of merit, however I define merit, or it won’t merit inclusion.
It’s almost five years since I completed The Top 500. I stand by it in full.
Tomorrow, in honor of that seminal Sunday — and as a birthday indulgence to myself that hopefully you will enjoy as well — I will this one time and one time only step away from the stated mission of this baseball blog and share with you The Top 500 Songs of All-Time.
If this comes off as trivial, well, so am I.
On with the countdown.