Inspired by the Indianapolis 500 auto race, some stations go from 500 all the way down to Number One.
Others have more modest goals. I still remember the Dallas station of my youth counting down its 102 top songs . . . as it was, after all, 102 FM.
The songs near the top of all those countdowns tend to be anthems: long songs filled with musical variety, lyrical elusiveness, and imagery that speaks for a generation.
By the way, that’s just my definition of anthem, but then again, this is my post.
Yet with that sort of working definition — length, variety, elusiveness, and enduring appeal — here are my top five anthems of the rock era.
5. Nirvana, Smells Like Teen Spirit. This is ironically the track that signalled the death of the era we’re celebrating, as Nirvana meant the end of classic rock and the beginning of grunge. Is there a line that better captures the pathos of what it means to grow up in a broken home raised by disengaged parents than “Here we are now / entertain us”?
4. Bruce Springsteen, Born To Run. A lot of you know that I lived seven (long) years in New Jersey. During that time I had absolutely no appreciation for Native Son Bruce Springsteen. So in this case distance created admiration, and this song is a major reason why. It does make you wonder about New Jersey’s self-esteem, though: there has been a decades-long movement to make this the state song in spite of the lyric “it’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap, we gotta get out while we’re young.”
3. U2, Where The Streets Have Name. U2 has several songs that could be on this list: I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, With Or Without You, and Pride among them. I choose Streets because at some point in the future, someone will do a version of this at my memorial service. The otherworldly keys leading into the ringing guitar at the outset is one of my favorite moments ever in rock.
2. Eagles, Hotel California. I think if you add up radio listens plus record album plays plus cassette tape hearings plus CD hits, I have heard this song more than any other in my life. And it still sounds terrific, especially the dueling guitars that take up the last couple of minutes.
1. Led Zeppelin, Stairway To Heaven. Not my favorite but for sure the most influential anthem of them all. It won that “Top 102” countdown in Dallas in 1977 . . . and most such contests ever since. It well defines all the anthemic elements listed above: length, variety, elusiveness, and, most of all, imagery. Just how can you get a bustle in your hedgerow anyway?