List, list O list!

March 26, 2007

Stories that claim to list “The One Hundred Greatest This” or “The One Hundred Greatest That” are a dime a dozen, but this new list in the Onion’s AV Club is pretty intriguing. That’s because the topic — 26 songs that are just as good as short stories — is genuinely original, and because there’s such a wealth of possibilities. 

Bobcats will rightly deplore the lower-tier ranking of Dylan’s “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” but the authors at least have the decency to note that Dylan’s catalogue is overloaded with narrative songs. Though my personal favorites are “Black Diamond Bay” (a miniature Warner Bros. noir from Desire) and “Brownsville Girl” (an epic about going to a Gregory Peck movie), I think the listers missed a huge trick first by omitting “Ode to Billy Joe” and then forgetting Dylan’s deadpan-hilarious parody, “Clothes Line Saga,” off The Basement Tapes. On the other hand, the list does give props to Richard Thompson’s motorcycle ballad (“Red hair and black leather/ My favorite color scheme”) so we can see that reasonable people helped put the list together.

Too bad the reasonable people didn’t devote more attention to hip hop. I would think Public Enemy’s “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” would stand tall in any company of narrative songs (the video even went a step further by adding a final twist straight out of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”). And even if you have no use for gangsta rap — I have very little, myself — the exception must always be Ice Cube, whose story raps (“My Summer Vacation,” “Once Upon a Time in the Projects,” “Alive On Arrival”) are loaded with the kind of closely observed detail that would be the pride of any short story writer.

As with any of these lists, some of the inclusions suggest the authors are bucking for a Section Eight. I mean, “Copacabana”? “The Coward of the County”? Seriously? I give the authors credit for saluting the shockingly underrated Joni Mitchell, but I’ll take the howlingly lonely “Marcie” or the fizzy character sketch “Free Man in Paris” over “The Last Time I Saw Richard.”

Say now, there’s an idea for a list — top ten musicians who get more critical respect than Joni Mitchell, even though her worst albums wipe the floor with their best. I know who would head my list. Anybody else got a suggestion? 

One Response to “List, list O list!”

  1. Rix Says:

    Country music is so loaded with great narratives – British Isles balladry meets African news transmission – that it could overwhelm any list. But I take “Boy Named Sue” as a tribute to Silverstein’s enthusiastic participation. A old fav of mine, “Wreck On the Highway” is an abbreviated, cryptic version of the long form. Including the monologue “Alice’s Restaurant” skews the list. That’s actually a complete “routine” in the manner of a storyteller bookending a tale with a sing-a-long.

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