I wrote before of the idea that one-hit wonders have invested a whole life's worth of talent into one song, and the idea that maybe their one song is better than any single song of an artist with a whole career of great works. And how, tempting as that idea is, I wonder if it's really fair. An MP3-CD of the hits of one-hit wonders make a fantastic listen, with a great diversity of styles and with every song, even those very worn and familiar, popping out and catching attention. But would a CD of the single biggest hits of non-one-hit-wonder bands do just as well?
On the drive in this morning I was thinking about making that CD. For a lot of bands that are definitely not one-hit wonders, it'd be easy to pick their one song. But for a lot more, it would be hard. Not just because they have a lot of great songs, but because a band with a lengthy and successful career has probably reinvented itself and its sounds multiple times, has played songs in a variety of styles, and thus, defies picking a single song to represent its best.
If you asked someone who wasn't a Rush fan what should be their one song, half of them would say Tom Sawyer, and the other half would say one of a handful of other songs (Closer To The Heart, Spirit of Radio, New World Man, Big Money, etc. depending on their age). But Rush has practically been a bunch of different bands over the years. No one song of theirs comes even close to being a fair representative for the purpose of testing the hypothesis (that the one hit of a one-hit wonder is a better song than any single song of an accomplished band).
And yet Rush, despite being unparalleled for musicianship or evolutionary change over its lengthy career, is maybe easier to answer this question for than a lot of others. After all, while Tom Sawyer doesn't represent a huge amount of sounds Rush has had, and may not be your favorite Rush song by far, few Rush fans would say it's not a great song. In the same way, it's a heartache to think of distilling all of Led Zeppelin's career with just Stairway to Heaven, but it'd be hard to deny that that's a great song and would have a place on an album intended to test that hypothesis. But what single Who song could you choose? No single song stands out; the closest I can think of might be Baba O'Riley, but not really. What Fleetwood Mac song would you choose? What Chicago song? And this issue isn't limited to the "classic rock"; you'd have the same problem with Cole Porter, Glenn Miller, Alanis Morrisette, or the White Stripes, I think.
It's easy to lose sight of the purpose here: it's not about saying "this song represents a band's entire oeuvre" or even "this is my favorite of their songs" but just that "this song serves to test the hypothesis that the best song of a many-hits band is as good as the best song of a one-hit wonder", so we want the song that will stand up on a collection of similar songs, give the same spread of diversity of styles, and really pop despite being often-played and familiar.
Now I'm not so sure I want to try to make the disk. (Not like I have the time to do it anyway, but even if I did, I don't know if I can make the experiment work. Or if the time it would take would be worth it for the enjoyment of the resulting disk in the car.)