|Posted by powerpopclassics on January 27, 2015 at 5:30 PM|
The American Top 40 countdowns during the ‘90’s weren’t always pretty. Most, in fact, were pretty lame. But during one incredible week, twenty years ago, Billboard Magazine published a chart that was never rivaled in that decade. It wasn’t perfect, of course, but credible entries and long-lasting records absolutely outnumbered the duds by far. Let’s take a closer look before we replace the worst of the duds with the best of the “should’ve beens” from that period.
By the time this Top 40 aired, Alternative, as a genre, was boasting artistic peaks from acts making commercially successful records. Weezer was flying high with “Buddy Holly.” Stone Temple Pilots were cruising with their “Interstate Love Song.” Counting Crows, fast becoming Alternative royalty, ruled Progressive Radio with “Rain King.” Young snots, Green Day, had TWO entries, “Basket Case” and “When I Come Around.” Old guard Alt-Rockers, R.E.M., long graduated from College Radio, also claimed two spots with “Bang and Blame” and “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” The catchy “New Age Girl” became Deadeye Dick’s reward for non-stop club work, and “Zombie” by The Cranberries rounded out the Alternative entries by staying alive at #18.
Several new acts straddled the line between Alternative and more traditional Rock. Hootie & the Blowfish snagged a #8 position with “Hold My Hand.” Sheryl Crow’s hit, “All I Wanna Do” was rising faster the sun over Santa Monica Boulevard. Melissa Etherage poured her emotion all over the airwaves with “I’m The Only One” at #5. Former New Wavers, The Pretenders, stood at #25 with their concert anthem, “I’ll Stand By You.” And the spectacular “Allison Road” by the Gin Blossoms sported a crisp, Big Star-like John Hampton production, and confirmed that the Ardent sound was, indeed, 22 years ahead of its time.
If my math can be trusted, I count 14 releases thus far with Alternative leanings on this chart. Wow. Alternative doesn’t always mean “good” or “credible,” especially these days. But back then it generally did. That group of songs really holds up twenty years later.
More established Rock acts were fewer in number on this particular week, but still offered up decent songs. Tom Petty’s single from his second masterpiece album, WILDFLOWERS, was “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” It rolled in at #11. Bon Jovi’s “Always” kept Jon and company’s hit streak alive at #3. And Aerosmith, with “Blind Man,” a song that fell short of some apparent lofty intentions, still rocked satisfactorily at #35.
In comparison to the Rock, Alt-Rock and Alternative selections on this chart, would the Pop, Soul and Dance entries hold up? During the ‘90’s, many of these types of recordings could not. But on this chart, yes, they did.
In the Dance category, 2 Unlimited’s “Get Ready for This” was beginning its twenty year reign as the greatest cheer/tumble/gymnastics song of all time. Not far behind it was “The Rhythm of The Night” by Corona, with its detached vocal, staccato keyboard and sequenced bass foretelling Electronic Dance Music playlists far into the future. Madonna’s two entries, “Secret” (#19) and “Take a Bow” (#4) may not have been her two greatest hits, but they were perfect for the times, rhythmically and lyrically. Two sweet Pop/Soul voices, belonging to Vanessa Williams and Toni Braxton, were each represented with “The Sweetest Days” (#23) and “I Belong to You” (#33), respectively. And at #1 with “On Bended Knee” and #15 with “I’ll Make Love to You,” Boyz II Men temporarily hushed staunch Boy-Band critics (like me) with some decent vocals. While groups with choreography usually nauseated me, even I had to reluctantly admit that these guys COULD sing.
Other catchy Pop entries from that week included “You Gotta Be” by Des’Ree at #10, “Creep” by TLC at #20, “100% Pure Love” by Crystal Waters at #13, and “Mishale” by Andru Donalds at #27. Ace of Base was “Living in Danger” at #29, and Jon Secada’s “Mental Picture” was at #31. Not monumental Pop, but from this batch, “You Gotta Be” has held up rather well over time.
Alas, all good things must come to an end. Sadly, there are three entries that scar up this chart so badly that their mere appearance in this progressive countdown is, quite simply, disrespectful to music.
Starting with the least offensive dud, we have “Turn the Beat Around” by Gloria Estefan. WHY? The cut-in-one-take Vicki Sue Robinson version from 1976 is definitive. No room for improvement, Gloria. Maybe you can (or could) get a loud ovation by performing it in concert with your Sound Machine, but releasing it as a single back in 1995 reduced you to that week’s karaoke girl. And it also put you in the same league as Laura Branigan, who had already mistakenly covered it in 1990. Gloria, we forgive you, and we will let your song stay, but only because there were two other glaring atrocities worse than yours that week. (You knew better though.)
Next, and even more repulsive, is a remix that I initially presumed would be the song chucked right off of this chart, “December 1963 (Oh What a Night)” by the Four Seasons. Now before you get mad, this is the second REMIX I’m talking about, NOT the clever Piano, Bass and Drum driven original that hit #1 in 1976. WE ALL LOVED the original’s intro, its fantastic energy, those classic synthesizer solos and the vocal trading between Gerry Polci and Frankie Valli. But for the love of falsetto, REMIX THAT RECORD? TWICE? There was not one grain of artistic improvement bestowed upon this classic record by the twisting of a few knobs after the fact. Either time. Even though it charted again and sold a bunch more units. Luckily, this studio debacle has since disappeared, while the original Bob Gaudio mix still gets played all the time.
The only question that remains, though, is what song on this chart could possibly smell SO bad that the Four Seasons remix gets to stay? Well, the odor produced by the above-mentioned twiddling and tampering was not nearly as suffocating as the stench brought on by, quite possibly, the worst recording of the decade, if not the worst recording ever released.
What is it? It’s another remake. Another pointless remake. At #7 that week was the song, “Sukiyaki” by 4PM. And (as I return to my tendency to bash Boy-Bands) did this Boy-Band ever brew up a stinking pot of Boy-Soy. The original recording by Kyu Sakamoto, a 1963 #1 single in the US, was a decent, well produced record. It was enjoyable primarily because of a strong melody line dueling with a string and horn counterpoint in the backing track. While it was before my time, I can remember hearing it played on “Beautiful Music” or “Muzak” channels my mother liked in the 70’s. I also recall that the lyrics to the original were Japanese, and never mentioned the word “Sukiyaki.”
Then, in 1981, A Taste of Honey “Boogie-Oogie-Oogied” a remake of it onto the charts, and replaced the Japanese lyrics with new English words. These lyrics DEFINITELY did not mention the word, “Sukiyaki,” making this first charted remake a novelty record of sorts. Yes, it was sickening. But somehow, fourteen years later, as if answering a challenge to ruin the song worse than A Taste of Honey did, 4PM found a way to screw the song up even more. As difficult as it may be to believe, it is actually MUCH worse than A Taste of Honey’s remake. The most positive word I can find to describe this record is “terrible.” It is faux-cappella, with vocals that never seem to get quite tuned up. After making myself listen to the whole song last night, I realized that I was pining for the nearest Auto-Tune app on my son’s iPhone. For your own safety, and to prevent yourself from stabbing your ears with nearby pencils, please take my word on this issue.
I can’t even wait until 4PM today to throw this song off of this chart. It must go NOW.
With the space vacated by “Sukiyaki,” what should be put in its place? Some might suggest that a popular Country song of the time should have crossed over. However, it seems that part of what makes this chart so progressive, is its noticeable lack of Country music. The closest this chart comes to Country is its inclusion of Sheryl Crow and Darius Rucker, both of whom have "gone Country" in recent years. But we will edge no closer to Nashville than Sheryl and Hootie here. I don’t want to start any honky tonk fights, but what good could possibly come from the inclusion of a Country song on this, of all, charts?
Instead, we will stay true to the Alternative and Alt-Rock leanings this chart already possesses. In place of the completely lame and inexcusable “Sukiyaki” by 4 PM, we MUST insert “Stars” by Devin Hill, a song released the summer before on an indie label. It likely would have taken until the end of the following January for it to gather enough steam to take its rightful place in the Billboard Top 40.
So why “Stars?” Well, we have already mentioned how “Allison Road” by the Gin Blossoms echoed the Big Star sound. With “Stars,” Devin Hill tipped the cap to Big Star even further, and created what may very well be the most perfect College Rock/Alternative Rock/Power Pop/Retro single of all time. His voice sounds remarkably like Alex Chilton’s did during the period of Big Star’s second album, RADIO CITY. His chord progressions sound remarkably like those of Chris Bell during his solo outing “I Am The Cosmos.” The understated background vocals are perfect for the mood of longing created by this song. The guitar solo sounds like Mike Campbell of the Heartbreakers joined Alex and Chris for the evening. Yet, all put together, it is Devin Hill’s finest moment. There is not one aspect of this single that is less than perfect.
Now let's dump that bad batch of “Sukiyaki” and keep reaching for the “Stars!”
OUT: "SUKIYAKI" - 4PM
IN: "STARS" - DEVIN HILL