Afront’s Sensational History of Popular Music (Updated)

As it heads towards 3 million tracks, I thought I’d see how broad Spotify’s range of music was: could I build a playlist that had tracks to represent each key musical genre, from the beginning of recorded music up until today? Turns out I could get pretty close:

This Spotify playlist provides a spotted history of humankind’s music: from the very first beat to the invention of musical instruments; from mouth music to dark age medievals and the classical symphonies, then the 20th century goes rock, pop, and electro.

Each song in this playlist demonstrates the introduction of a new popular musical form or style: from music hall, ragtime, and country, through calypso, swing, and rock & roll; from reggae and punk to disco, electro-pop, rap, funk, and indie. Finally the samplers pump up the volume, while madchester, grunge and britpop bring us in to our own century. Viva la Musica!

Also uploaded to:

UPDATE (20 March 2009)

Here is a track-by-track breakdown with notes on why each song was chosen:

0 Unspecified – Human Sounds – Heartbeats The first beat.
2 Joe Legwabe – zana shiri The second beat.
3 Shambukaw player from Eritrea – Flute Solo The flute is the oldest known musical instrument.
4 Early Music Consort Of London – Lyre – Goliard melody (O Roma nobilis) The lyre is the oldest known stringed musical instrument. Eventually evolves into the electric guitar.
1000 Penguin Café Orchestra – Organum The Middle Ages sees the invention of true polyphonic music, a texture consisting of two or more independent melodic voices.
1500 Dead Can Dance – Saltarello Medieval Europe’s pop pick, especially in Italian discos.
1707 Bach – Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV565: Toccata One of the most famous pieces of organ music from the classical Baroque period.
1808 Beethoven – Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 (Beethoven’s Fifth) Da da da daaah.
1893 The Patriotic Orchestra – The Liberty Bell Sousa’s military march was one of many spawned from the new tradition of playing marches as a source of entertainment.
1902 Scott Joplin – The Entertainer Ragtime, the first American musical genre.
1926 Al Jolson – I’m Sitting On The Top Of The World Al Jolson came from Vaudeville to become a superstar who introduced African-American musical innovations like jazz, ragtime, and the blues to white audiences.
1927 Jimmie Rodgers – Blue Yodel # 1 (T. For Texas) This song was a smash hit when it came out, mostly because no-one had ever heard yodeling before. Co-incidentally, it also invents Country and Western music.
1937 Benny Goodman – Sing, Sing, Sing Big-Band and Swing grows from Jazz; this extended mix required both sides of a 12-inch 78 to hold it.
1941 The Ink Spots – I Don’t Want To Set The World On Fire We’re still enjoying the fallout of this wonderful cover from this band that invented Doo-wop.
1941 The Andrews Sisters – Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy A wartime radio song, boogie-woogie’s blues sound grew from music hall and swing.
1945 Joe Liggins & His Honeydrippers – The Honeydripper (Part 1) Ostensibly an R&B song, this track is clearly proto-Rock & Roll.
1956 Harry Belafonte – Banana Boat Song (Day-O) This song brought Jamaican calypso (albeit a commercialized version) to the masses. The album this track came from was the first LP ever to sell over a million copies.
1956 Carl Perkins – Blue Suede Shoes Rock and Roll finally arrives, although it’s still called rockabilly.
1958 Buddy Holly – True Love Ways Rock and Roll’s golden age ends with this beautiful and poignant song, an early example of Pop Baroque.
1968 Os Mutantes – Panis et Circenses Rock’s gone global and psychedelic – this song also demonstrates the evolution of recording techniques and the fusion of musical styles. Alternatively, play a track from Sgt. Pepper.
1968 Lee Perry – People Funny Boy Reggae and dub evolves from mento and ska. This Lee “Scratch” Perry song came out before reggae even had a name.
1968 Archie Bell & the Drells – Tighten Up A massive hit, this proto-disco track also heralds the arrival of funk and soul.
1968 Blue Cheer – Summertime Blues Probably the first heavy metal song; that fact that it’s a cover of a classic Rock ‘n’ Roll song only
1968 White Noise – Your Hidden Dreams Experimental electronica, The White Noise pioneered cut-and-paste composition and the use of the first British synthesizer, the EMS Synthi VCS3.
1970 Marc Bolan – Ride A White Swan The birth of glam rock.
1974 Queen – Stone Cold Crazy The first thrash-metal song.
1974 Kraftwerk – Autobahn An electronic revolution cruises by from Germany.
1977 Sex Pistols – Holidays In The Sun Punk is still not dead.
1977 Donna Summer – I Feel Love Electronic disco and arrives, Giorgio Moroder’s production also invents hi-nrg, synthpop, house and techno along the way.
1979 Gary Numan – Are ‘Friends’ Electric? The first synthesizer-based song to top the charts (much to the annoyance of The Human League’s Phil Oakey).
1979 Bauhaus – “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” Rock goes gothic.
1982 Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force – Planet Rock Rap music arrives, as well as hip-hop, electro, and freestyle. It began in Germany, but was born in New York City.
1982 Michael Jackson – Billie Jean Dance-pop R&B conquers the world.
1984 The Smiths – William It Was Really Nothing Alternative rock or indie pop? Either way, The Smiths post-punk sound brought 80s indie to the masses.
1987 M/A/R/R/S – Pump Up The Volume The first British house music hit, M/A/R/R/S’s pioneering use of music sampling meant they were doomed to die under a pile of lawsuits.
1988 S’Express – Theme From S’Express Not the first, but perhaps the best-known acid house song from that second summer of ecstatic love. It also showed that sampling is here to stay.
1990 Happy Mondays – Step On Indie-rock and dance combine in Madchester.
1991 Nirvana – Come as You Are Grunge shoots its load from Seattle and goes mainstream.
1994 Blur – Girls And Boys Perhaps just a re-brand of UK indie, Britpop’s success shows why the UK remains the 2nd largest producer of popular music in the world.
2003 Beyoncé feat. Jay-Z – Crazy in Love (feat. Jay-Z) Contemporary R&B now slickly dominates the world, liberally borrowing from pop, funk, soul, and hip-hop.
2008 Coldplay – Viva la Vida Pop returns to Baroque, from the number 1 artist on Spotify,, and MySpace. I met Chris at a gig back in 1998, before their first album came out. Shook his hand, told him I thought they’d go far. Nice guy. Viva la Musica.
  • David

    What a brilliant idea. I think the ability to share playlists is one of Spotify’s (many) strong points. I don’t think I’d be brave enough to try a complete history recorded sound but it might be interesting to try a personal history. Perhaps a track from each year I’ve been alive. Or at least one for each notable life event. Hmm! I will need to go and think about this further.

    Thanks for getting me thinking. 🙂


  • Afront

    Thanks David, some good ideas yourself there!

  • JET

    You compeletely ignored Prog rock. Whatever your feelings may be towards this unfairly reviled genre, I think it deserves a spot. Sadly, the genre-defining In the Court of the Crimson King isn’t on Spotify, as King Crimson is one of those gaping holes in the library, but surely an early Genesis or Yes tune would suffice? Say, The Knife or Yours is No Disgrace, respectively.

  • Thanks for your comment JET. I’ve nothing against Prog Rock in particular: I know there are loads of styles I missed out here. I tried to select just a few tracks to show an evolution of music and pick key tracks that can be traced back to being the first of its genre. What was the first Prog Rock song?

    I probably bit off more than I could chew with this playlist though…;)

  • JET

    Arguably, the first one to really nail all the elements of the style is In the Court of the Crimson King by King Crimson, sadly not on Spotify.

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