Mild-mannered lawyer and music obsessive Dave Rawson has been ranking singles and albums for 42 years. Now he shares the methods behind the madness.
I first met Dave Rawson when we were both DJs at WHRW in Binghamton, N.Y. in the early ‘80s. We shared an affinity for New Wave, Punk Rock and parties, where David would frequently play The Jam’s version of “Move On Up” or if memory serves, Curtis Mayfield’s gold-standard live version. Somewhere along the way, I got a look at Dave’s annual rite of Winter: his yearly Top 40 Albums list and his Top 100 Songs list. I admit it: Initially, I laughed at the very idea of such lists, and I wondered if my friend was a little nuts, like so many other music obsessives. Now, making lists is something of an industry. There are web sites that publish endless streams of listicles — from Buzzfeed to Cracked to a zillion Facebook posts. (Readers are advised to check out this site’s two piss-takes on listicles here and here.) Seen in this light, Dave was clearly a man ahead of his time. And given the crass, clickbait nature of so many listicles, my attitude toward Dave’s lists has warmed. I see them as a number of things: A love letter or act of devotion to pop music, an act of sharing, a personal declaration on the state of music and a public service to the more listening challenged. I’m grateful to him for keeping the faith — and for answering a few prying questions about his lists.
SK: Please tell us about the history of the list: When did you start it? Has it changed in anyway?
Has it been continuous?
DR: List-making is an artificial way to maintain a sense of control over your life, whether you are a depressed teenager or an aging Trump hater. I often feel at peace, with a sense of purpose, when I’m working on a list.
I started the list in 1976 when I was 14. I had begun to listen to FM rock radio (WPLJ), but I still listened to pop stations like 99X and followed the charts, and I detected a strong turn away from the great pop of the early 70’s through 1973 (Elton John, good solo Beatles, “Brother Louie,” “Will It Go Round In Circles,” “We’re An American Band”) toward novelty hits, early disco, awful ballads, and bad solo Beatles (McCartney – “Silly Love Songs,” “Let ‘em In.)” 99X’s top 100 for 1976 included in its top 20 the horrors of “A Fifth of Beethoven,” “You’ll Never Find a Love Like Mine,” “Disco Duck,” “Get Up and Boogie” and “I Write The Songs.” I started compiling the list because I thought the good stuff was not represented and someone had to fight the good fight! My 1976 top 50 songs was topped by Aerosmith’s reissued 1973 “Dream On” and included enough Peter Frampton to choke on his hair spray. My budding taste was well represented by 3 Bowie songs from “Station To Station.”
In 1977 I moved to my present format of Top 40 albums and Top 100 songs. I have put out the lists in this format every year since. The only change really has been an improvement in taste. 1977 saw the Eagles, Kansas and Styx starting to do battle with the Sex Pistols, Elvis Costello, and Neil Young. 1978 saw a further punk/new wave invasion with my discovery of Nick Lowe, Talking Heads, The Cars and Devo, though there was still plenty to be embarrassed about. Actually, there is usually something to be embarrassed about in retrospect.
SK: The Top 100 Albums and Top 40 singles echo American Top 40 and the Billboard Hot 100. Was your list a reaction to this? An homage? Why did you start compiling this?
DR: The Top 100 songs was meant as a reaction and an alternative to WABC’s top 100 song list (99X of course had a top 99). The Top 40 albums was more of an homage to the top 40 radio concept – it just seemed like the perfect number, and still does.
It became apparent to me in the 1980’s that I was trying to maintain the values of 60’s rock and pop and apply them to contemporary music. I asked myself, why is Van Halen rock and the Replacements alternative rock? The Replacements are the heirs to Chuck Berry and the Beatles, not Van Halen, so it’s obviously the other way around, with Van Halen being a very bad “alternative.”
By the 1990’s I was also trying to maintain the values of 60’s and 70’s rock criticism. In the 90’s we saw the advent of Chuck Eddy type rock criticism, a kind of Midwestern anti-art rock school of criticism where intelligence was removed from the criteria of what was considered good music, and became its own form of elitism, you know, my music is better because its stupider and more popular than your music. In this millennium we saw the advent of “Poptimism,” where bad pop music receives serious consideration that was never afforded the DeFranco Family, and the ugly “rockist” pejorative came into common use. (Let me say something about the rockist concept that is often overlooked by people who use the term – while the term reads white, it disparages the entire 20th century of African-American music, because you can’t separate easy targets like Elvis Presley, Led Zeppelin and U2 from other handcrafted music made on real instruments by black people, from Buddy Bolden, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, to Arthur Crudup, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye and Prince. Next time you hear someone say “rockist” remember that they are also denigrating jazz, blues, Motown and funk).
So the question for me became what if the high quality songwriting of the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Kinks, Neil Young, Smokey Robinson, Al Green et al., with intelligence, passion, energy, tunefulness, insight, etc…, continued to be highly regarded? Wouldn’t that require that best of music lists be topped by Husker Du, the Replacements, the Mekons, Go-Betweens, Chills, Pavement, Nirvana, Pulp, Edwyn Collins, Belle & Sebastian and Sleater-Kinney, as well as the best parts of the careers of De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Nas Jay-Z and Kendrick Lamar?
Of course, the list was also meant to alert my small audience to the many great bands that could not break through commercially in America like the aforementioned Go-Betweens and Chills and Chameleons, and on and on through every year of the 1990’s and this millennium.
I continue to compile it because the list pushes me to find new music instead of lazily listening to the same old favorites over and over again. There are so many great songs that have their 5 seconds of non-fame and disappear back into the ether. I would argue that if you played the top songs off any of my lists of the past 40 years it would sound just as good as the best songs of the holy year 1967, minus the social and commercial import of course. I’ve made year-end best-of cassettes and CDs for years. Driving around Brooklyn with my broken CD player, faced with having to play my old best-of cassettes, I’ve found that as nondescript a year as 1998 can take on 1967. “New Birds” by Arab Strap, “Scarred For Life” by Slapp Happy, “Stall” by Sarge, “Clear Spot” by the Pernice Brothers, to me are comparable to “Light My Fire” and “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and “Happy Together” and “Kind of a Drag,” if one is willing to suspend disbelief and listen with an open mind.
SK: Has your attitude toward the list changed at all?
DR: I think I answered this in the previous response, though I agree with the characterizations of the list, as an act of devotion to pop music, a personal declaration on the state of the art and a public service to the more listening challenged. I’d say a personal declaration on the state of the art is paramount. I do feel that I am preserving values from an earlier era and extrapolating them to the current epoch.
SK: What do your family members think about the list?
DR: My wife thinks I have listomania, and considers it an act of derangement, but really the family has dealt for so long with my odd obsessions that it barely gets noticed. When friends were around to witness when my son started making lists, in his head at least, telling me his top 5 rappers or putting the Batmans in order of preference, for example, there was a lot of discussion as to whether list-making is to some extent genetic.
SK: When you are making the list, what drives placement? Is there a Dave Rawson aesthetic?
DR: Placement on the list is guided mostly by the pleasure the music gives me, though a record gets points for its commercial relevance and my sense of its relative importance. A song that captures the zeitgeist like Husker Du’s “Turn On The News” or Liz Phair’s “Fuck and Run” make perfect #1 songs. In 1997 I had “Tubthumping” by Chumbawamba beating out “Autumn Sweater” by Yo La Tengo for the top spot, not only because I liked it better, but also because it was an international hit single. I was talking to Ira Kaplan at a party in 1998 and I mentioned that “Autumn Sweater” came in #2, and when he asked what was #1 and I answered, and well, you’ve never heard such a dead silence from a rock star.
Similarly, albums and songs by Outkast, Frank Ocean and the Weeknd took the top spot, and I would surmise that their relevance played a role in my thinking. But I’ve also had pretty obscure songs at the top, album tracks by 7 Seconds, the Chills, Mega City 4, Yuck and Iris Dement taking the top spot in 1986, 1987, 1990, 2011 and 2012, respectively.
The Dave Rawson aesthetic is good songs. Intelligent, tuneful, melodic, passionate, insightful. I like to hear an animated intelligence. Songwriting takes precedence over musicianship, so historically the biggest love goes to the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Neil Young, rather than the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, who are also great of course. Props go to the songwriters’ songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and Randy Newman, plus the underrated songwriters of the punk and indie eras, like Forster/McLennan, Paul Weller, Bob Mould, Paul Westerberg, Nick Cave, Justin Sullivan of New Model Army, Nick Salomon of the Bevis Frond, Mark Eitzel of American Music Club, all the way to the present day – people as varied as Archy Marshall (King Krule), Joe Casey (Protomartyr) and Laura Marling.
If I see someone asking for the greatest drummers on Facebook I don’t get involved, because I don’t care about drummers. I do care about guitarists, but Neil Young going from F to A minor for 15 minutes on “Cowgirl in the Sand” is more my style than fancy solos. I find it hard to accept Jeff Beck as one of the great guitarists, since he has never written a single good song.
But it comes down to whatever gives me listening pleasure, not everything fits comfortably into an aesthetic. There are plenty of songs with tasty guitar where I can excuse half-assed lyrics, not to mention dance songs or electronic songs or pop R&B songs that hit the spot. And since good songwriting crosses genres my aesthetic crosses genres, so I can love Steely Dan and the Clash and Parliament/Funkadelic, the Smiths and the Fall and Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Belle and Sebastian and Leatherface and Nas, Bill Callahan/Smog and Trembling Blue Stars and Frank Ocean and St Vincent.
SK: People I know express amazement — usually older people — that you have the time to listen and wade through so much music. How do you consume your sounds?
DR: In adulthood I basically followed my teenage tradition of racing to the record shops with my allowance, except my allowance got much bigger. I have thousands of records and CDs, though I’ve never tried to count them. For many years I bought way too many CDs, though I had connections, friends who are music writers or were in the biz and had “sell-piles” filled with promos sent to them that I could raid. Now I mostly stream music, though I buy vinyl records if I really like the album.
I kept up with music after we left WHRW by reading the Times and the Voice, paying particular mind to the Pazz and Jop Poll, listening to the New Afternoon Show on WNYU, reading my friend Jack’s The Big Takeover, getting tips from friends, and in recent years perusing Pitchfork’s year-end best-of lists.
Alan Lomax I’m not, but I do think of myself as sort of a song detective or hunter, the needs of the list requiring me to search for good albums and songs among the way too many releases in recent years.
SK: The internet is crazy for lists. It's now become a universal exercise on Facebook to list ten important or favorite albums. Do you feel you were ahead of the curve?
DR: I do feel like I was ahead of the curve, since personal list-making seems to have really taken off in the culture in recent years with the internet and all. Based on my son’s viewing habits the internet seems to be filled with top 10 Superbowl moments, top ten rap punchlines, top ten movie villains etc… And like I said, my original reference point was radio station lists and Billboard, I didn’t start reading the Voice regularly until 1984.
And Pitchfork stole my top 100 song format!
SK: Do you have a favorite list? Is there a year you go back to and say, that was the greatest year ever?
DR: As a general matter I much prefer the top 100 song list to the top 40 album list. It’s a lot more fun, and a lot more unique – there are plenty of critics’ album lists.
The greatest year in music history, and I would include Bach and Beethoven in this thought if I knew anything about them, was 1980, or really 1979-1980, since many of the great albums of 1980 were released in the UK in 1979 and the US in 1980, like “London Calling,” “Setting Sons” and “Entertainment!” Because I was only a teenager the 1979 and 1980 lists are missing a lot of great records from great bands I hadn’t discovered yet, like The Jam and Stiff Little Fingers.
Lists are like your children, how do you favor one over another? Though I have a soft spot in my heart for 1984 when Husker Du and the Replacements battled for first place in a year where American music made a great comeback on every level, with Prince and Springsteen reaching their commercial heights. I also like 1993, when British rock made a comeback and the Auteurs battled Suede for the top spot, along with American Music Club and Liz Phair. The Auteurs “New Wave” and American Music Club’s “Mercury” remain in my top 5 albums of the 1990’s, along with Edwyn Collins’ “Gorgeous George,” Pulp’s “Different Class” and Pavement’s “Slanted And Enchanted.”
SK: Is there a list that didn't stand the test of time, with entries that no longer measure up?
DR: Any list is just a snap
shot of my views when I finalize them. I could change my mind about a song or album a few days later after another listen. Looking at the old lists for this exercise I find there are songs on my lists I’ve never heard of, let alone remember. I was also surprised to find I was still listening to Billy Joel in 1980. I also liked Men at Work in 1982 and championed The Alarm in 1983. But once I got rolling in the 80’s the lists hold up remarkably well. One of the more embarrassing lists from this vantage point was 1994, when I went gaga over a Britpop band called Echobelly that I way overrated, placing it at #1 ahead of the far superior East River Pipe – “Shining Hours In a Can.”
SK: Do you make other lists? If so, what are they about?
DR: I have my other obsessions, but they tend to call for record-keeping rather than list-making. I keep the softball stats for my league, and I keep a record of my own stats, and they both go back many years. I also keep lists of candidates in election years with polling information and past election results, like my own little Nate Silver 538 website.
SK: Do you have any plans to put all your lists up on the web?
DR: I’ve been planning on getting my own website and putting all the lists up on the web for a long time but I’ve never done anything about it. All of my lists since 2008 are on my Facebook page. But I don’t even have all the lists in one place, and the early lists were first handwritten and then typed before I got a computer at work in 1987. A couple of lists seem to be missing.
Now that the rock era is at a close, replaced by artists mumbling in Atlanta, wouldn’t it be cool to assemble a master list, like an all-time top 2,000 songs? That would be the ultimate in crazy list-making.
To see David's most recent lists: