Mid-Century: ‘A Century of Song’ at the Halfway Point

A Century Of Song

Hey, readers! How are you holding up?

It’s been just over six months since I published the first installment of A Century of Song. Since then, over the course of thirty entries, I have revealed the first 600 of the 1000 songs that I picked to represent the history of popular music from 1920-2019.

When A Century of Song debuted, it was just one of a handful of features that occupied the spare hours that I could devote to Strange Currencies. Since then, it has more-or-less become the sole focus of this website. While I fully anticipate getting back to discussing obscure bands (On Distant Stations), arguing with friends about overlooked eras from favorite artists (In the Wilderness), and writing about whatever music-related topics cross my mind (Strange Currencies Blog), finishing A Century of Song takes precedence.

Before entering the second half of the project, I figured it might be a good opportunity to take stock of where it’s been, and preview what is to come.

First off, you may be wondering about my math comprehension, in light of now-multiple references to a “halfway” point. Those who have been following the project closely may have noticed that the song write-ups have been getting a little wordier in recent installments. I anticipate this trend continuing as we approach the upper reaches of the list, and have decided that – in the interest of maintaining a semi-regular posting schedule – I will cover only ten songs per entry once we reach the top 200 tracks. That will result in the finished ACOS project consisting of sixty entries.

One challenge of following a large, slowly-revealed list is a considerable lack of context – at least until the full scope of the project is visible. You wouldn’t necessarily know it from reading the list, but some of my personal heavy hitters are already fully represented at this point (Sly & The Family StoneMinutemenSleater-KinneyWillie Nelson), while others have just started to make their presence felt in recent entries (Leonard CohenSimon & GarfunkelBjörk). Even through 600 songs, there are still hugely important artists that are yet to appear, but that will definitely figure into the top 400 (Patti SmithFunkadelicFour Tops).

As we move closer to the top of the list, I will attempt to be more deliberate about taking away some of the guesswork as to whether or not an artist is making their final appearance. I’ve done some of that so far – yes, I’m really done with Led Zeppelin already – but I’ll aim to keep in mind that I’m still the only one who has the endgame in sight.

Speaking of that endgame, I think I’ve decided on the song that will ultimately top the list. Some of you have shared your guesses with me, and none of them have been right, so far. I will say though, there have been a few songs that have refused to go away quietly. Elizabeth Cotten’s “Freight Train” was originally slated for the very first entry, but it survived multiple rounds before landing in the #782 spot. I must have placed “Some Velvet Morning” on at least a half-dozen drafts before it finally settled in at #420. There are still a few hangers-on that I would have never expected to make it into the top 400, but keep living to see their way through another round of cuts.

I guess that’s one of the great things about songs, as opposed to albums. Where my views on albums tend to be slow to change, songs can be harder to pin down, for whatever reason. I think some of this could be attributed to a deep-seated – and admittedly-outdated – “rockist” bias that suggests that only certain kinds of artists can make great albums, while anyone can make a great song. That’s bullshit, and I’m looking forward to confronting that bias – and others – when I inevitably tackle an album-centric project in the future.

For now, I’m still focused on songs. I hope that the first half of this project has brought a few new ones into your orbit. Don’t hesitate to share some thoughts in the comments, and – as always – thanks for reading…

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Part 31: 400-381


  • Matt Ryan

    Matt Ryan founded Strange Currencies Music in January 2020, and remains the site's editor-in-chief. The creator of the "A Century of Song" project and co-host of the "Strange Currencies Podcast," Matt enjoys a wide variety of genres, but has a particular affinity for 60s pop, 90s indie rock, and post-bop jazz. He is an avid collector of vinyl, and a multi-instrumentalist who has played/recorded with several different bands and projects.

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