On Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Songs” Beatles Special

I invariably feel stupid when I spend money on a Rolling Stone publication.

Fifteen years ago, even ten years ago, I subscribed to Rolling Stone year in, year out. What changed was that I felt that the magazine was growing increasingly fluffy (when I pick up a music magazine, I want to read about music; if I want a lifestyle magazine, I’ll pick up Esquire or GQ), and my tastes in music had changed; I found that British imports covered the stuff that I liked to listen to.

Nonetheless, I will occasionally buy Rolling Stone off the newsstand, if I flip through it and see coverage of bands or albums I’m interested in, or an article on a political topic that interests me. Recently, I bought the issue with the article that led to the sacking of General Stanley McChrystal, despite being barely aware of who cover girl Lady Gaga is. (Seriously, I genuinely wouldn’t know a Lady Gaga song if you played it for me in a blind taste test.)

A few days ago, at Rite-Aid, I saw on the newsstand a Rolling Stone special — The Beatles: 100 Greatest Songs. I picked it up, read the back cover — “An essential guide to the Beatles’ best tracks, ranked by the editors of Rolling Stone and packed with the stories behind the music” — flipped through it, and decided that, yes, I could add this to my Beatles library.

There’s nothing unique about this special issue; earlier in the year I picked up 100 Best Beatles Songs: An Informed Fan’s Guide by Stephen J. Spignesi and Michael Lewis at the local Borders. I liked that book. Oh, I disagreed with it, that’s par for the course when discussing the “best” of anything with the Beatles, much as I disagree as frequently as I agree with some of Ian MacDonald’s assertions in Revolution in the Head. Some things are simply subjective where the Beatles are concerned.

If Rolling Stone‘s special provoked even half the internal disagreement I’d felt with other books, I’d have considered myself fortunate.

Unfortunately, there’s absolutely nothing to disagree with in Rolling Stone‘s special. Everything feels arbitrary. Why does “In My Life” make the top five? Jann Wenner and his writers don’t say. (And that’s a pet peeve — the song profiles aren’t bylined.) The profiles tell a little bit about how the song came to be and, in some cases, the historical import of the song (like “I Want To Hold Your Hand” representing the Beatles’ breakthrough in America as an example). But the reasoning behind the ranking of an individual song is wholly absent. On top of that, while there’s an index of the songs profiled, there’s no master listing running from 1 to 100. What stands out in the magazine isn’t the discussion of the songs but the photography of the Beatles at work — and, frankly, that seems to be the point; spotlighting 100 Beatles songs really feels like an excuse to run a bunch of pictures of the Fab Four on glossy paper.

Spignesi and Lewis’ book, mentioned above, is, by contrast, the more interesting profile of the best 100 Beatles songs. The book reads like a dialogue between two Beatles fans, they provide a wealth of information on the recording of the songs and their cultural impact, and they give their reasons for why a given song ranks in certain spot.

In short, I feel like Rolling Stone suckered me out of my ten dollars. :-/

Such is life.

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