Should an Artist’s Signature Song Define Them? (My Way Isn’t the Only Way)

Anyone who has been reading my musings over the past several months knows I love the big picture. But at the same time, I love to revel in the minutiae. I have stopped and started a few posts on another favorite subject of mine, music. The reason I stopped was because I kept going for the grand tour of my musical palate. So, I have decided to cut smaller swaths and discuss a smaller subject in more depth. For today’s swath, I want to open a discussion that I have had many times with many people about various artists. Many singers and bands have a signature song. It is the one that starts to play in your head. You know the one that every television show will use as an introduction. It is usually their biggest commercial hit.
Is the signature song their best song? In many cases, I don’t believe so. Now when I say best, I am referring to the entire package. The music, lyrics, presentation are all part of the song. A great hook does not make a great song. I want to make another distinction. I am also not referring to a favorite song. I have many favorites that are not an artist’s best work. I am looking for the best an artist has to offer. Let’s explore.
I will start with a classic example, Frank Sinatra. The Chairman has an extensive catalog from a half century of recording and was a giant in the industry. He will forever be tied to My Way. (Sorry, unless you are a Yankee’s season ticket holder, it is not New York, New York.) Is it his best song? I say, no. I have two personal favorites, You’re Getting to be a Habit with Me and Fly Me to the Moon. I think the latter is possibly his best song. Among my other candidates for best Sinatra tune are: All the Way, In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning, Come Fly with Me, and I’ve Got the World on a String. I believe these songs showcase the best of his music. These vocals and arrangements are his best.
Next, let us look at the Rolling Stones. Think of them and think of Satisfaction. I love this song and Keith Richards opening riff is one of the all-time great intros in rock history. It is not their best song. Paint It Black and Sympathy for the Devil are both better songs but they only vie for number two. Gimme Shelter is not only their best, but I feel one of the best rock songs ever. The give and take between Mick Jagger and Merry Clayton is what drives the song but the music behind it is every bit as good. I want to throw out 19th Nervous Breakdown, not as their best but one of my personal favorites.
Billy Joel not only has a signature song, he is so associated with it that it has become his moniker. He is the Piano Man. While I do love the song, I don’t think it is even close to his best. He tells a compelling story and yes, his piano sounds like a carnival, but he has so many better songs. I will start with Just the Way You Are. This has a depth of feeling Piano Man does not and the music is better composed. For my money, this is number one. I want to offer a few others I feel are still better than his signature: Movin’ Out, Only the Good Die Young, My Life and The Downeaster Alexa. Okay, okay Joel fans, I know I did not include Scenes from an Italian Restaurant. I love all seven and a half minutes of it. It is just not his best work.
Purple Rain is regarded as Prince’s signature. Much like Billy Joel, Prince is tied to the song more because of how it relates to his persona than for the greatness of the song. I think everyone agrees that When Doves Cry is his best effort. Musically, emotionally, vocally, it is superior. For Prince, I also think Let’s Go Crazy and Sign O’ The Times and Kiss are better songs.
David Bowie is linked to Space Oddity. It is the song that made him a star. I don’t think this is even a top ten song for Bowie. Allow me to give a short list of better works from the Thin White Duke: Fame, Heroes, Modern Love, Young Americans, Rebel Rebel, Ashes to Ashes, and One that fits the bill for two artists, Pressure. Yes, Pressure is not only better for Bowie, I say it is better than Bohemian Rhapsody for Queen. Not by much mind you, but better.
I hope you can see where I am going with this now. Let me jump into a list of artists, their signature, and what I believe is better.
Aretha Franklin – Respect
I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)
Do Right Woman, Do Right Man
Madonna – Like a Virgin
Like a Prayer
This Used to be My Playground
Crazy for You
Otis Redding – Dock of the Bay
Try a Little Tenderness
Elton John – Rocket Man
Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Nikita
Led Zeppelin – Stairway to Heaven
(About half of their catalog)
Michael Jackson – Anything from the Thriller album
Anything from the Off the Wall album

My lists could go on and on from Elvis to Donna Summer, The Supremes to Coldplay, Chuck Berry to Metallica, The Beatles to Mariah Carey, Marvin Gaye to Usher. You get the picture.
I don’t want you to think I feel this way about every artist. There are many where their signature song is probably their best. The Eagles – Hotel California, Gladys Knight and the Pips – Midnight Train to Georgia, Johnny Cash – Ring of Fire. But even these great ones can be up for debate. And that is exactly what I want. I don’t want some DJ or iTunes telling me what the best song is from any particular artist. I like to talk about it.
Now I want to take a moment and explain the choice of artists I used for this post. I stayed away from most current artists for two basic reasons. First, I am nearing fifty and the artists above are what I listened to growing up and they are part of my core. There are many others, but mostly in the same eras. While I do keep up with much of today’s music, I have limited favorites and I don’t want to short change great talent by making a stupid comment because I am uninformed. The second reason is that most of these artists have already put out the bulk of their catalog. Can Madonna or the Stones come out with another album with the greatest thing they have ever recorded? Sure, they can. That would be incredible and I will take my copy on day one. Rihanna, Adele, Drake, Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars, Katy Perry, and Niki Minaj all have many years to create that one song that will define them. I think it is too early to assign a song to them now. Let’s give them all a few more decades and we can include them.

So now, I want to hear from you. Do you agree with any of my examples? If not, that is okay with me. What are your thoughts on the best they created. If you have other artists you feel fit the bill, please share them. I love great discussion.

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