Remember when top 100 music lists weren’t just cheap ploys to boost stubborn magazine sales? Think back 10 years ago – when VH1 and MTV were morally required to broadcast music videos and specials, including epic lists like the “top 100 singles of all time.” It was always an elaborate production, featuring different celebrities to host the countdown in 10-song segments. At the time, it seemed like it meant something, like we were being offered the divine verdict of music’s real value. It was even in primetime.

Now, wiser, we can look back on the experience as simply growing pains. The truth is that VH1 did a top-100-singles list practically every year. Each year’s list would be the same awkward amalgam of classic ’60s rock and Motown arbitrarily ordered, and never with any explanation. Some Beatles single would be the second-greatest track of all time and “Respect” by Aretha Franklin would be No. 1, balancing out the disproportionate number of rock songs to every other kind of music.

To be blunt, lists suck. They almost routinely overreach and fail to provide creative ways to support their argument. But leave it to the music writers at Detroit’s alt-weekly Metro Times to whip up a music list that puts most others to shame. The publication recently put out a “Best of Detroit” segment that highlights the “100 Greatest Detroit Songs Ever,” whether by artist, group, band or sound. Obviously, liberties were taken. The context seems miniscule – the best songs coming out of one city. But believe me, it is a behemoth of a list that pushes “Respect” all the way back to No. 25.

Even though the Temptations, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye flat-out dominate the competition, the list remains relatively lenient and diverse, allowing pop-country star Del Shannon to creep up to No. 6 with “Runaway.” Artists like Iggy Pop and MC5 also get a considerable amount of attention and credit amid the Motown stranglehold. All in all, the writers get it right.

Instead of Aretha, Marvin gets top honors with “What’s Going On,” and I couldn’t be happier. If for some reason “What’s Going On” doesn’t convince you that Marvin Gaye was a god incarnate, just go to YouTube and type in “1983 NBA All-Star game.” It’ll make you love your country more than anything else possibly could.

Other highlights on the list include Funkadelic’s 10-minute guitar opus “Maggot Brain,” for which George Clinton famously told guitarist Eddie Hazel to play as if his mother had just died (the rest, they say, is a cataclysmically immense track). There’s also 13-year-old Stevie Wonder with his exuberant harmonica-driven hit “Fingertips.” His age is clear throughout the track; he breaks into “Mary Had a Little Lamb” for a couple seconds and then just refuses to stop playing the harmonica while the orchestra is trying to close out the number.

The value of a song seems best explained by individual stories or moments. Metro Times uses the phrase “pure spine-tingling quality” as one gauge for placement on their list. And, really, out of all possible qualifiers, it makes the most sense – more so than record sales or popularity. Even the notion of impact seems intangible. What makes a song memorable and of value to a person is not just an assessment in passing but actually feeling and seeing the song’s magic in action.

I can’t help but look back on a list that ordered the best songs of the ’60s and put Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” at No. 3. There’s talk of Cooke’s popularity and the impact his music had on the civil rights movement. But that doesn’t visualize the essence or the power of the song. The “pure spine-tingling quality” of the song comes from picturing Denzel Washington as Malcolm X, floating down the street to his eventual death. It comes from imagining Rosa Parks alone in her room, having just heard the news of Martin Luther King’s death and putting on the song for support. It comes from something instinctual, real and momentary, and so rarely is a list capable of expressing that.

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