Staff Top 10
Top Ten Lessons Learned from Listening to XM’s History of Pop Music

recently, the satellite radio provider XM ran a roughly month-long program called It: The History of Pop Music. In its own words, the program played “every song ever to hit the charts,” in chronological order from 1940 – 1999. This was an exaggeration, of course—doing that could literally take years—but it wasn’t that much of an exaggeration, and pretty much every song that was ever sizably big (even a bunch that didn’t chart) got played.

Naturally, I was positively ecstatic when I found out, and geared myself for as much listening as possible. Unfortunately, the program ran, without repeat, for 24 hours a day, and during those 24 hours, other responsibilities beckoned—things like classes, work, being social, eating, and worst of all, sleep, which meant that even on my most irresponsible and anti-social day I still missed at least six hours of glorious pop music. Still, I did my damndest to catch as much of it as was humanly possible, and I figure that between the years of 1962 and 1999, I caught probably about 30% of what they played. That might not sound like much, but 30% of 38 years of pop music…well, it’s a lot.

In the process, things were learned. They don’t call it the history of pop music for nothing, and I walked away with at least a few shattered preconceptions and interesting revelations. So revisionism be damned, here are the top ten lessons I learned from listening to XM Radio’s It: The History of Pop Music.

10. The early-mid 90s were a fantastic time for rap
I mean, I think pretty much everyone knew this one already, including me—the years of Nas, Biggie, 2Pac, Snoop, Mobb Deep, Pete Rock & C.L., Gang Starr, etc. However, I always figured this was more or less revisionist viewing of this time in rap, and that if you actually lived through it, there was a surface level of totally shitty rap more or less outweighing these giants. Listening through the years 1992 – 1994, though, you don’t really get any of that—the minor hits are still pretty credible, and even the big pop-rap like 69 Boyz and Positive K are pretty awesome.

9. James Brown had like a million soundalike hit singles
Between the years of 1962 and 1975, the dude must’ve had 40 hits or so. They all sound fairly similar, and they’re all at least pretty awesome, but damn do some of them get obscure—four of ‘em have the word “Popcorn” in the title, even. It’s ridiculous.

8. The Medley used to be a valid format of hit song
I mean, I knew about Stars on 45’s #1 hit Beatles medley in 1981 (which is pretty ridiculous in itself), but I didn’t really understand what a sort of craze it started. A Beach Boys medley, a medley of famous classical tunes, even another Beatles medley, which just sort of aimlessly strings a bunch of Beatles songs together and makes Stars on 45 sound like 2 Many DJs by comparison, and all were huge hits. Were standards really this low in the early 80s, or were people just bowled over by the technological achievement of hearing a bunch of songs strung together in semi-awkward fashion? One for the ages, I guess.

7. Spoken Word used to be a valid format of hit song
Once again, I knew about Sgt. Barry Sadler’s ridiculous1966 #1 spoken word hit, but I figured it was just a weird wartime anomaly. I didn’t realize there were a whole bunch of songs like this to hit the charts in the late 60s—these “inspirational,” portentous speeches read over patriotic or spiritual-sounding backing music that apparently the kids were crazy for, songs like Victor Lundbgerg’s “An Open Letter to My Teenage Son,” a 4-minute condemnation of hippies and draft card burners going top ten. Worst of all is “Americans (A Canadian’s Opinion),” a defensively pro-America radio rant that hit in 1974 (by which time American really should’ve known better) for TWO DIFFERENT ARTISTS. Explain yourself, country.

6. Vanilla Ice had a ballad
Seriously. It’s called “I Love You”. It’s awesome, check it out.

5. Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin had like half a dozen legitimate hits between the two of them
Being raised on classic rock radio has a tendency to unrealistically build your perceptions of these two bands as absolutely the giants of the 70s, without which popular music might very well have collapsed in on itself. In reality, though, appearances of these guys on the pop charts were pretty fucking sparse, and the XM program reflected this, playing more Helen Reddy or Tony Orlando & Dawn songs than both of these artists combined. I don’t think I heard a single Black Sabbath song, either.

4. I really should listen to more music from the 50s
It’s not until recently that I even listened to much music from before ’77, but even though I’ve gotten heavily into the 60s and the first half of the 70s since, I still have yet to really delve into the 50s, and I more or less ignored the 50s segment of the XM program. The only time I did listen to it, though, was for a half an hour or so in 1957, and in that half an hour I heard two songs (The Dells’ “Oh What a Night” and Louis Prima’s “Just a Gigolo”) that struck me enough with their awesomeness to at least give them a download. If this half-hour is representative of the percentage of overall awesomeness in 50s pop music, it might be time for me to start cracking those Rhino boxes.

3. The early 90s were a pretty miserable time for pop music
As someone who was too young in the early 90s to really remember it, I always sort of pictured the early 90s as a positive treasure trove for great pop music, with diva-pop goodies from C&C; Music Factory and Black Box mixing it up with indie-dance crossovers from EMF and Jesus Jones and great one-offs from Seduction and Jane Child. Well that’s all there, but what the history books tend to leave out are the ballads—those awful, treacly, liter-than-air, miserable concoctions which made up like 70% of popular music in the early 90s. Listening to the ’90 and ’91 segments was a positive fucking chore, with all-too-brief oases from Urban Dance Squad and Gerardo being all but drowned out by those damn bullshit ballads. I don’t even want to think what it must’ve been like to live through.

2. The late 90s were actually a pretty great time for pop music
Having lived through the late 90s with eyes fully open, I never had terribly nice things to say about the pop music of the time. In fact, so upset was I about TRL’s dominance over the musical landscape of America in that time that I pretty much stopped listening to music altogether, damage that took years to undo. Looking back on it now, though, it was a really bright, sunny, optimistic time in pop music that, especially when compared to the dredges of the early-90s, actually is pretty fun to listen to. The fact that the XM program more or less excludes the nu-metal that regrettably reigned supreme in the rock world for the LFOs and the Jennifer Paiges of the time doesn’t hurt this perception, either. Sorry, Carson Daly, I take it all back. Except for the part about 98 Degrees.

1. 1966 was, hands down, the greatest year in pop music history
Listening to it now, it seems positively unhuman that we were able to cram this many great pop songs into one year of Billboard charts. I mean, yeah, there’s some crap—Sgt. Barry Sadler had the #1 single of the year, after all—but it’s so totally outweighed by awesome heavy hitters like the Beach Boys, The Association, The Four Tops, Nancy Sinatra, The Beatles, The Temptations, The Supremes, The Monkees and so many more, as well as amazing one-offs from ? and the Mysterians, The Count Five, Jimmy Ruffin, Keith, The Standells, The Left Banke, even Love’s only top 40 hit. It’s positively inspirational, and if they ever play It: The History of Pop Music, this is the one section that you gotta tune in for. I’ll forgo sleep the next time around.

By: Andrew Unterberger
Published on: 2005-12-03
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