This week, Rolling Stone published its reranking of the "500 Greatest Songs of All Time" in a transparent effort to rile up Boomers.
It mostly worked: Miles Davis' "So What?" ranks behind Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road," and K-pop boy band BTS' 2020 hit "Dynamite" is deemed "greater" than Prince's "Little Red Corvette," Bill Withers' "Lovely Day," and Bon Jovi's "Living on a Prayer" (okay, admittedly RS might be onto something with that last one). On the other hand, who's really going to argue that Aretha Franklin's "Respect," in the list's #1 spot, doesn't have a case for being the best song of all time?
Even knowing that Rolling Stone's rejiggering of the "500 greatest" list is all just a ploy to get people talking, though, I absolutely cannot let it slide that the writers' ranked "Strawberry Fields Forever" as the Beatles' best song.
Some important background: Rolling Stone first published its list of the "500 Greatest Songs of All Time" in 2004, when it was perhaps a little biasedly topped by Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone." But since the times, they are a'changin', RS decided to reevaluate the musical landscape, and it published its new list this week. The 2004 and 2021 lists are dramatically different, with the latter skewing noticeably younger and more adventurous. Public Enemy's 1989 hip hop track "Fight the Power," for example, didn't make it on the 2004 list, but debuted in the #2 spot in the 2021 ranking; in doing so, it knocked The Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" from the second spot back to the 31st.
And then there are the fab four. No longer is "Hey Jude" the top-ranking Beatles song in the list's #8 spot, as it was in 2004; now "Strawberry Fields Forever" is their highest-ranked track at #7, trailed in the top 50 by "A Day in the Life" at #24 and "I Want to Hold Your Hand" at #15 — both of which are way, way better songs.
Now, I'm not saying "Strawberry Fields Forever" is bad. Really, were it by almost any other band, it'd easily be their most impressive hit. A 1967 single that John Lennon considered one of his best songs, "Strawberry Fields Forever" is emblematic of the dexterity of the Beatles, folding a carnivalesque Mellotron keyboard, the hazy, psychedelic strums of a swarmandal, and Lennon's strangely ominous lyrics ("nothing is real…") into what is ostensibly a pop song. "Strawberry Fields" was so groundbreaking and influential at the time of its release that it spawned multiple urban legends, ranging from being the reason the Beach Boys' Brain Wilson gave up on Smile to "confirming" the conspiracy that "Paul is dead."
By making "Strawberry Fields Forever" the top-ranking Beatles song, though, Rolling Stone is seemingly putting the greatest value on technical breakthroughs and influence. But if that's indeed the case, they should have been consistent by including tracks like The Beach Boys' groundbreaking "Good Vibrations" in the top 10, too. In fact, the opposite happened: "Good Vibrations" outranked any song by the Beatles on the 2004 list, but has dropped back to the 53rd spot in the 2021 reranking. Likewise, Kraftwerk, a German band credited with numerous innovations in electronic music, doesn't appear on the 2021 list until the low 300s. Indeed, if "Strawberry Fields Forever" is the greatest Beatles song due to its influence and innovations, then one wonders why Karlheinz Stockhausen, the avant-garde composer who strongly influenced Paul McCartney and John Lennon, and without whom "Strawberry Fields Forever" might not ever have been written, didn't make the list at all.
Besides, valuing "Strawberry Fields Forever" above all other Beatles songs for purely technical reasons gravely misses the point of why people listen to the Beatles in the first place. The foursome's wizardry in the recording studio is impressive, sure, but the reason we're still listening all these years later is those sounds went toward creating some really great pop songs.
And "Strawberry Fields Forever" is not one of the band's best pop songs. I'd entertain the argument that "Hey Jude," the previous top-ranked Beatles song, might be. It's certainly one of the band's biggest crowd-pleasers, infectiously sing-along-able with all those na-na-na-nanana-naaas. Maybe because of that, it's also consistently one of their top-played tracks on streaming services like Apple Music and Spotify, where it has 382,913,909 plays at the time of writing; "Strawberry Fields Forever" has less than half that. But by the same token, why not rank "I Want to Hold Your Hand" as the Beatles best song? It's possibly the single greatest pure pop love song ever written, a basic but utterly inebriating bop with the most youthful and precious of yearnings. "I Want to Hold Your Hand" additionally has immense importance in the Beatles annals as one of the tracks the band played on the famous 1964 Ed Sullivan Show that introduced them to America.
"I Want to Hold Your Hand" in fact did beat out "Strawberry Fields Forever" in a 2020 ranking Rolling Stone did of "The 100 Greatest Beatles Songs," behind "A Day in the Life" at #1. The exclamation point at the end of Sgt. Pepper's, "A Day in the Life" is also a more justifiable pick due to the fact it epitomizes the collaborative energy that defined the band — criteria that again rules out "Strawberry Fields Forever," since despite the Lennon-McCartney credit, it is really all John Lennon. "A Day in the Life," on the other hand, marks the height of the Lennon-McCartney collaboration era, where both songwriters feel equally balanced, working with and off each other. It's a brilliant musical symbiosis — and the same reason why "The End" would be my personal pick for the greatest Beatles song, as it showcases every member of the band and concludes with a lyric that could be an overarching maxim for the Beatles' entire career: And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.
Lists that purport to rank the "greatest songs" are, of course, meaningless, which is why they're so fun to argue about. Still, instead of reranking the 2004 list, Rolling Stone should have just published "A List of 500 Really Great Songs." There, the inclusion of "Strawberry Fields Forever" would draw no complaints from me.