As an attempt at definitively quantifying an inherently subjective thing like music, Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs Of All Time” (released initially in 2004, and updated in 2010) was always going to be an exercise in failure and futility. The product of 172 musicians, critics, and industry figures contributing individual rankings, it has all the weaknesses of something designed by committee, with results skewing toward the mainstream, and a clear bias toward the contributors’ cultures. For example, out of the 500 songs, only a single one—”La Bamba,” by Ritchie Valens— is in a language other than English. The list reveals significantly more about the values and beliefs of the music industry that created it than it does actual music.
For that exact same reason, though, the list has a lot of potential as a data set to be analyzed. Hence this blog post, created by music data lover Alexandre Passant, in which he analyzes the lyrics of all 500 songs, looking for trends and patterns. Unsurprisingly, love and desire top the list, with “love,” or variants of the word, appearing in 212 songs, and the three-word phrase “I want to” appearing in 38. Passant also shows analysis of the accompanying reviews for the songs, finding, for instance, that 11 out of the 500 mention heroin in some way.
The analysis is surrounded by a lot of discussion of the minutiae of breaking song lyrics into easily analyzed chunks, for those of you with a fetish for code. It’s all delightfully nerdy, with Passant promising more analysis of other aspects of the songs, including acoustic features and mood, in future posts.