40 hits in 40 years

By Razib Khan | September 20, 2011 1:56 am

I’m not very interested in music compared to the average person. But I’m curious about changing tastes in music over time, because it’s part of our cultural fabric. Since I lack real “thick” knowledge in this domain, I started to think of crutches to allow me to get a slice of perception as a function of time. So what I did was look at all the top songs by year since 1970, and found them on YouTube. I created a “playlist” which I could listen to all at once.

  • http://dienekes.blogspot.com Dienekes

    >> But I’m curious about changing tastes in music over time, because it’s part of our cultural fabric.

    Simon & Garfunkel … Kesha, nuff said

  • Justin Giancola

    you Are so weird Razib :) this will truly be only a “slice of perception” but I applaud the initiative.

  • Eurologist

    In conversations with my son, I have often stated the “40-year rule of experience/taste/fashion periodicity.” He actually now agrees with me by experience; he loves most of the music from my teen years.

  • Åse

    That was fun. From my point of view – I could first pin-point the time I moved from Sweden to US (and discovered that the atlantic was an awfully difficult ditch for music to traverse at that time), and the time I became a fuddy duddy and completely lost touch with contemporary music.

    Now I’m mildly tempted doing a Swedish one, but it will likely remain mostly theoretical…

    I’m not quite sure I buy the 40 year rule… My kids (who are 40+ years younger than me) are big fans of Michael Jackson around Thriller/Bad. Then again, that is awfully anecdotal of me.

  • bob sykes

    I am 68 years old, and I lived consciously through the whole 50s (late) through 2000s thingy. I nowadays find much of the 60s/70s music tiresome and pretentious, especially the Beatles. I have, however, an increasing appreciation for pre-Beatles music. I think it is the innocence of artists like, Chubby Checker, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers and Beach Boys.

    When I drive around central Ohio, I mostly listen to classical music (our on again/off again jazz station is MIA right now), but the damnable OSU powers its transmitters with hamsters and you practically have to be on campus to hear it.

    By the way, before FM, AM stations were extremely eclectic in their offerings, and there was a much larger variety of music available then there is today, at least in Buckeye country as compared to the Boston of my youth.

  • Talisker

    Interesting exercise, but useless for telling you what was influential or important in the long term. According to that list David Bowie, the Velvet Underground, and Bruce Springsteen do not exist. Neither does Queen, or Michael Jackson.

    If you did a similar exercise with cinema, then Mission Impossible 2 and Pirates of the Caribbean 3 are major landmarks in film history:

  • John C

    Its pretty much the same with movies for me. The commercial stuff sells, is usually crap, but occasionally fantastic. The underground stuff usually does not sell, is full of gems (if you know where to look), and occasionally one becomes a mainstream hit. Music/the movies/the arts are not getting any better or worse – there is, and always has been, a huge trough of talent if you care to look.

  • http://3lbmonkeybrain.blogspot.com/ Mike Keesey

    Kind of hard to keep going through this when the first song is by far the best.

  • Sandgroper

    “I nowadays find much of the 60s/70s music tiresome and pretentious, especially the Beatles.”

    I don’t know many people who would say that. I agree with you, Bob.

    When my daughter was 12, I taught her about Emmylou Harris, and she loved it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TMPydiR4NaQ

    Now she’s teaching me about Regina Spektor, and I’m loving it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p62rfWxs6a8&feature=relmfu See what you think.

    I asked her if she found it uncomfortable that she and her father like the same music. She said she finds it “strange but endearing”.

  • Jacob Roberson

    I like to say, I don’t like music (hands narrow), I like MUSIC (hands wide). My collection is pretty heavy back to ~40 years. Sparser back to ~400 years. Wish I could extend it back to ~4000, anything you work on for that long is worth it.

  • Sandgroper

    #10 – That’s easy, get some CDs of traditional Australian Aboriginal music. I’m not saying the songs will be 4,000 years old, I mean who knows, but the form probably won’t have changed much. Same instruments.

  • pconroy

    My music tastes are very eclectic, and I’m forever scouring YouTube for really great music, but I’m genre agnostic for the most part, though I do lean towards, Heavy Metal, Death Metal, New Age, Trance, Reggaeton and all fusions of the above. I like very little folk or country.

    So I like Dimmu Borgir, Linkin Park, Jean Michel Jarre, Dido, Evanesence, Sean Paul, E S Postumous and so on.
    As I’m reading this post the next songs on my playlist are:
    1. Puerto Rican Rap group “Daddy Yankee” – Gasolina
    2. German Neo-Classical group “E S Postumous” – Ebla
    3. UK New Age group “Mono” – Life in Mono
    4. US DJ “William Orbit” – Barber’s Adagio for Strings (Ferry Corsten Remix)
    5. Greek composer “Vangelis” – La Petit Fille De La Mare
    6. Australian “Rob Dougan” – Clubbed To Death (Black Hawk Down remix)
    7. Welsh crooner “Jem” – It’s Amazing
    8. UK’s “Clint Mansell” – Lux Aeterna – Requim for a Dream (Full Orchestra version)
    9. Russian trance group “PPK” – Resurrection (full version)

    When I’m problem solving I like to listen to music, and I find that the less words the better, and the music should be dramatic and invigorating, and for best (ie creative) results, the genres should be mixed one song to the next.

  • jb

    Interesting. Up until the mid 90’s I knew almost all of the songs, even just from their names. But after that I was unfamiliar with more than half of them, and didn’t recognize them even on listening.

    Few on the list were real favorites of mine. I wonder though — are those songs the top favorites of anybody? How many people are there whose individual musical preferences actually track the averaged preference of an entire nation?

    (BTW, is it just me, or does anyone else thing The Sign sounds like repurposed Christian rock?)

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #13, re: the sign, yes. the two sisters and brother in the band started out in their local lutheran church choir, so that may explain some of the issues. “all that she wants” doesn’t sound xtian though :0)

  • LeslieL

    Listened to this and realized I didn’t know any of them after the first couple. Then I realized – I live in Canada, and in the early 70s the Canadian content laws came into effect – our radio stations have to play a significant amount of Canadian music. So most of what I heard was Canadian. So I made a playlist of the top Canadian hits (based on the Juno awards for the best single of each year): http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL1C3B79A19F18CA91. That’s the music I’ve lived by over the last few decades.

  • laial

    nevermind, cancel.

  • juan

    heh. I’ve done similar exercises. Compared to most people I can go surprisingly long without listening to music. Funny thing is I actually play both the guitar and piano, but I taught myself mainly as an exercise in personal growth. In both cases I got good enough to play local open mics and get some mild praise, even a couple invites to join some local bands. But I had no ambition beyond that.

    And I enjoy music, of course, just obviously not to the degree most of the rest of the world seems to. I realized early the music I discovered first will always have the strongest emotional impact on me, so it seemed pointless to keep up to date and search out new songs that might have a similar impact. It’s impossible to recreate those emotional connections that come along with coming of age, first dances, first kisses, first loves, first sports triumphs, first great friends.

    I recognized I needed to have some awareness though for dating. So I’ve done similar exercises of just plowing through billboard lists to develop some familiarity.

    I find movies the easiest to keep culturally current on. Movies also have the largest audiences so it’s easiest to bond with people over movies. Then TV. But TV is increasingly narrow. Only the longest-running re-runs seem to become universally known (2 1/2 men, Law & Order, etc) where nearly everyone has at least seen an episode or two. And my favorite genre, sci-fi, has little cultural currency. I really enjoy the show Fringe, but I can’t make a Walter or Olivia reference to the average person — the average person has never seen the show even though it’s been on for years now.

    Music is the hardest. Each cultural niche is so narrow. There are so many singers and bands. And they come in and out of fashion so quickly that the age range of their fans is very narrow.

    The most popular songs tend to become parts of movie soundtracks, so that’s another way movies are helpful to maintain cultural fluency. I realize that’s a separate issue from understanding the broad sweep of cultural changes in an academic sense. I’ve used youtube to watch the earliest tv shows, movie serials and listen to old time radio because I have a personal fascination with the changes in popular media. But I use youtube to keep up to date with music so I can bond more easily with other people in my day-to-day life. I try to keep abreast of big sports stories for similar reasons.

  • DK

    And top rated blogs are Huff Post and Boing Boing. And Dan Brown is up there with Charles Dickens in the list of best selling authors.

  • http://reflexionesfinales.blogspot.com/ russell1200

    A top 40 list will as much reflect the changes in radio broadcasting as changes in taste. Top 40 used to include an enormous variety of music and the winnowing process at times could be extreme. Todays Top 40 is much more a targeted mix directed at a young audience with much less variety.

    Without being scientific about it, I would but the change somewhere in the late 1070s when AOR format split of (what was to become) classic rock from pop.

  • John Emerson

    Heavy in the disco-dance. Don’t know if that was sampling bias or just the way it was.

    The largest single seller of anything will often be mediocre because it’s geared to appeal to as many niche markets as possible, including people who usually aren’t very interested. For example, when TV Olympic coverage tried to increase their audience by including human interest stories, they lost me entirely. The nationalism and advertising hype I could just barely stand, but the feely-touchy shit was the last straw. Probably for 30 years I followed the Olympics religiously, and now I don’t even notice.

  • Chris

    This is one thing that always bugged me about music awards. How can you objectively say one musical composition is the best. While I don’t watch the music awards shows, it always seems like recently some rap video wins. But try telling a country music fan to enjoy rap music, or vice versa. What criteria are used to say what is better than another? Must be the scientist in me wanting to put some data behind the results.

  • John Emerson

    As I understand these pieces were picked objectively according to sales. Sales figures can be tweaked, of course.

  • Douglas Knight

    I was surprised how rarely the top single came from the top album.

  • Anthony

    Apocryphally, the “Top 40” came from a guy who noticed that only about 40 records in his jukebox got played a lot, and the rest were effectively filler.

    Early “Top 40” lists came from surveys of record stores and requests made to radio stations, as actual sales figures were hard to get – the record companies didn’t like sharing that information with the competition, nor did they like sharing real information with their artists, as some were cheating the artists on royalties. So even the “top songs” may not be accurate.

    Bob Sykes – the Beatles *became* pretentious. Listen to their earlier stuff compared to their later stuff. It’s probably safe to say that the true tragedy of marijuana is that it makes people pretentious.

  • http://www.usmc.org/7th/ Mustapha Mond

    I distinctly remember Itzhak Perlman and Vladimir Ashkenazy’s recording of Cesar Franck’s Sonata in A major for Violin and Piano being the major hit album of 1969.

  • Careless

    #20 John, with the recent move to putting the Olympics on multiple channels (CNBC, MSNBC, etc) at once it’s pretty easy to get pure sports now. And dozens of hours of curling once every four years.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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