The Cream of the Rest

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(Pictured: Cream, 1967.)

My recent series of posts on “Stairway to Heaven,” “Free Bird,” and “Layla,” started me thinking: those songs are widely considered the foundation stones of classic rock as a radio format, and album-oriented rock radio before it. But what’s #4?

As it happens, we already have a list of semifinalists available at this website. Last year, I wrote about a couple of lists I found in the archives from the now-defunct Radio and Records that were compiled in 1978 and 1979. The first was the Top 43 album cuts of all time, which could include 60s music; the second was the top tracks of the 70s.

On the 1978 list, here’s the rest of the Top 10: “Roundabout,” “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Nights in White Satin,” “A Day in the Life,” “Light My Fire,” and “Hey Jude.” From 1979, the rest of the Top 10 were “Born to Run,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Roundabout,” “Money,” “Hotel California,” “Rhiannon,” and “Aqualung.” So consensus of those lists would make “Roundabout” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” into prime contenders.

When I started thinking about which song could be #4, “Roundabout” was the first song that came to mind, although I don’t think it’s as popular now as it used to be. Dan Kelley of the Michigan Association of Broadcasters, a guy with many years in and around classic-rock radio (including his own online station) suggested “Smoke on the Water,” although he also observed that we don’t hear it as much as we used to. “I guess when classic-rock stations added Def Leppard and Guns ‘n’ Roses, something had to go.” Sean Ross of Edison Research concurs. Neither “Smoke on the Water” nor “Roundabout” gets much airplay anymore because of their age, and their length. You might say the same about “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”

Randy Raley, a longtime album-rock jock who also has an online classic-rock station, says that based on research he’s done and/or seen, the most-played songs on classic-rock radio right now are “Dream On,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.” All of those have grown in stature since the end of the 70s, since none of them were on either of the Radio and Records lists—which seems weird until you consider the fate of “Roundabout” and “Smoke on the Water,” and you get your brain around the idea that even though these lists seem very static, they’re fluid too. So you’d have to consider those three songs as well.

(I don’t have a problem excluding music from the 80s or later from this discussion, although your mileage may vary. Sean mentioned “Don’t Stop Believing,” “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” saying, “Feels like something new should have entered the canon but doesn’t feel exactly like a match.”)

I asked people on Facebook to weigh in and got a lot of suggestions, some of which were better than others. “Won’t Get Fooled Again” got some votes, as did “Money,” “More Than a Feeling,” and “Sweet Home Alabama.” Two of the strongest contenders for #4 that I hadn’t thought of before were “Come Sail Away” and “White Room.” I think we forget how ubiquitous “White Room” used to be, even though it didn’t make either Radio and Records list. That song got daily airplay, at least on the classic-rock stations I heard most often.

Whatever #4 is, it would need the kind of epic, larger-than-life quality that the big three have. That’s an elusive thing to define, and I’m not sure any one of us would see it the same way. To me, it represents an obvious striving for a Big Statement, but not so obvious that it seems contrived or overblown. A lot of records on this list were and are hugely popular but don’t seem like Big Statements. “Overblown” takes “Bohemian Rhapsody” off the table—great as it is, it’s hilariously over the top at the same time. Song #4 needs the proven ability to stand the test of time without feeling dated. This is where “Smoke on the Water,” “Roundabout,” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” fall off the table—and “Light My Fire,” “Hey Jude,” and “A Day in the Life” too.

The way I see it, the legitimate contenders for #4 are (in no particular order) “Money,” “Dream On,” “Born to Run,” and “Hotel California.” And in the end, I settled on the latter. Dan thought of it, Sean concurred, and several Facebookers voted for it. “Hotel California” is the right combination of Big Statement, timelessness, and enduring popularity, and it’s still getting a lot of airplay today.

Let a thousand arguments bloom.

14 thoughts on “The Cream of the Rest

  1. Scott Paton

    I’m in 100% agreement with you, JB, and Mike Haggerty’s prior comment, too. If “Hotel California” is #4, “Money” is #5. I do believe that “Bohemian Rhapsody” should be somewhere in the Top Ten.

  2. Charlie Gamble

    There’s also the “Desert Island Test”. If I were on a desert island, I would much rather have “Won’t Get Fooled Again” with me than “Hotel California”. Through the years, I’ve introduced a number of young people to “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. I believe “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and most of “Who’s Next” does withstand the test of time. Thanks for another great post J.B.

    1. mikehagerty

      Tim: I think that may be because both “Satisfaction” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” were AM Top 40 records from before (just before, in the case of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”) FM album rock radio became prominent—and that’s where the Classic Rock format generall comes from.

      After FM rock? Well, there were absolutely some good Stones records, but do “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” or “Street Fighting Man” hold up well enough to belong in the top ten classic rock tunes?

      I’m genuinely asking. Personally, I love “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

      1. Chris Herman

        I like “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” but it’s been ruined because of its use by our current CIC. What about “Gimme Shelter” instead? My favorite Stones song is “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?” but that’s now considered a deep cut.

        As for other #4 candidates, there’s Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” but that might be considered too much folk and not enough rock.

        The decline of Yes’ “Roundabout” in popularity is related to the bad reputation Prog Rock has gotten over the last 40 years. Case in point is The Atlantic’s “The Whitest Music Ever” article from 2017.

  3. David

    I agree that #4 is “Hotel California,” even if I don’t really care to hear it ever again due to its cultural ubiquity. I’d nominate Kansas’ “Carry On My Wayward Son,” AC/DC’s “Back in Black” or “You Shook Me All Night Long,” Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower,” Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2” or “Comfortably Numb,” and The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” as other songs that would be in the running along with the ones you mentioned, even if they aren’t the ones most likely to be bubbled in for the #4 pick. In my experience, “Baba O’Riley” hasn’t dated as much as “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” perhaps because Pearl Jam frequently covered it, it was used as the CSI:NY theme for 10 seasons, and it continues to appear in commercials/movies on a regular basis.

    I can honestly say I’ve never heard “Roundabout” played on a Classic Rock station (thank goodness, not a prog person). But I would have started listening to such stations in the early 1990s.

  4. T.

    “Hotel California” certainly gets heavy airplay out here in California, but a worthy candidate would be “Free Bird”. It’s got the “statement” and the epic grandeur.
    And most of the commercial country artists and many of the “alternative” bands are trying to sound like that, so it’s got a contemporary feel.

  5. Tom Nawrocki

    I’m surprised how quickly you wrote off “Hey Jude.” It’s got the same majesty and multi-part structure as the first three songs on your list, and it still sounds great. I happened to stumble across it from the back seat of a Lyft the other day, and it roped me in as if I was hearing it for the first time.

    Don’t overthink this, man. The Beatles were awesome.

    1. mikehagerty

      Tom: I understand where you’re coming from—in fact, I agree with you—but Classic Rock has always seemed to me to have its core in the post-Beatle era. I think I hear more McCartney, Harrison and Lennon solo on Classic Rock stations than I do Beatle tracks.

      1. Tom Nawrocki

        When I first started listening to Classic Rock radio, which was also around the time it first became a popular format, it was very clear that the back end of it as an era was the Beatles and the start of the British Invasion. I suppose that back line may have moved forward over time; I no longer listen to enough Classic Rock to appreciate its nuances.

  6. Wesley

    I’m perfectly fine with “Hotel California” at #4. If you had picked “Sweet Home Alabama,” then I would’ve screamed. Having lived here in North Carolina, I never need nor want to hear that again, not only because it’s overplayed but also yes, Watergate does bother me.

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