But Warren is no fool. All of that Genesis testifies to some of the station’s older listeners “who grew up listening to them on WMMR.” He says that the final 200 songs will represent something of a consensus among those ballots, and that “No. 1 is No. 1 by a lot.” I wouldn’t let him spoil what kind of consensus, but I do wonder. Would it be what my friends who are also following along wearily predict? “Stairway to Heaven”? “Born to Run”? Would Aretha Franklin serve her usual canonical function of hauling both Black America and womankind to the top of the pile? Did no one write the words “Sinead” and “O’Connor” on their ballot?
One compelling aspect of this countdown business is philosophical. At 2,000-plus songs, some percentage was probably always going to hew to XPN’s taste. Local acts like the Hooters, Amos Lee and Low Cut Connie are very much here. And believe it or not, “local” extends to Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel, who, as of midday Monday, had almost 30 entries between them. But how would a countdown of the 2,020 greatest songs proceed over at, say, WDAS, where the format is now old-school R&B and “The Steve Harvey Morning Show” anchors the a.m. block? Power 99 used to have a nightly countdown show that one song — Shirley Murdock’s “As We Lay” or Keith Sweat’s “Make It Last Forever” or Prince’s “Adore”— would dominate for what felt like weeks. What would a more epochal undertaking look like? Would WMMR find a way to make inroads there, too?
And what would the same countdown reveal at a similar station in Anchorage or Montgomery or Chicago or the Bay Area? Does it matter that a few corporate behemoths have flattened pop’s palette? Can a chart still quantify local taste? Would an accurate answer prove as vexing as precise electoral polling data, because, in part, we now live on Spotify, Apple Music and YouTube? Is this entire process just too random and subjective to be worth continuing?
I vote no; it’s not. I treasure the folly of it, the surprises, the mind-bending idea that a ranking process could place the number 1,995 next to something as celestial as Franklin’s “Amazing Grace” and go on to play another song after Ella Fitzgerald turns “Mack the Knife” into thrilling mass murder. I think “Brilliant Disguise” is a better Springsteen song than the certain finalist “Born to Run,” but no chart will ever reflect that, because it’s a blasphemous position. But I like the drama of the blasphemy and the certitude of what a chart tells you: Modernization is hard work. XPN’s is a kaleidoscope nonetheless.
It’s true that you could build your own massive, perfectly tailored playlist. But you’d miss the astonishment of Kate Bush’s “Cloudbusting” kicking off the 767-to-764 block and A Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario” ending it in smithereens. There’d be no shock at all in hearing, say, Edith Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien” (1,093) follow the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy” (1,094), which had chased Paul McCartney and Wings’ “Band on the Run” (1,095). There’s no happening upon Dan Fogelberg’s 40-year-old “Same Auld Lang Syne” and swearing it’s the lonely ghost lurking on Taylor Swift’s two quarantine albums. Ditto — if you’re up late enough — for hearing XPN’s newbie host Rahman Wortman go a little bonkers exclaiming that Outkast’s “B. O. B (Bombs Over Baghdad)” did indeed make the cut.
And you certainly couldn’t cringe at Olivia Newton-John’s “Xanadu” and the Richard Harris travesty known as “MacArthur Park.” I suspect that the people who voted for those two know that they’re trolls. But it doesn’t matter. Even songs as baffling (fine, as horrendous) as those have culminated in days and days of something we’ve grown increasingly estranged from: word-of-mouth radio.