Songs That Made A Difference in 2004

by Sean Ross, VP of Music & Programming

Programmers often tend to deal in absolutes with genres of music. Certain types of records absolutely don’t belong on their radio station, until they do. And every year there are records that help alter the face of any given format—records we always look at in our year-end wrap-up.

Even by last year, “crunk” was on its way to becoming a cluster.

These aren’t the author’s favorites or the biggest records of the year. They’re the ones that signaled a change in what a format was (or sometimes was not) playing. Here’s this year’s roll-call.

  • Jojo/”Leave (Get Out)”—It wasn’t that long ago that radio had declared mainstream teen pop dead, announcing that teens had moved on to edgier fare, like Avril Lavigne. Then this went to No. 1 at Top 40, thus widening the opening for Ashlee Simpson, Ryan Cabrera, and Jesse McCartney, (and probably the resurgence of Avril and Kelly Clarkson). Ironically, instead of hearing that teens wanted edgier music this year, we were told instead that Hot AC was more interested in teen acts than in music by adults for adults. If you were a ‘90s singer/songwriter, suddenly your best route to airplay was to co-write with and produce these acts, rather than expecting to be a 31-year-old and get airplay somewhere other than Mainstream AC or Triple-A.
  • Alicia Keys, “If I Ain’t Got You”—For an R&B ballad this year, breaking even at R&B radio was an endurance test. This record, as well as Anthony Hamilton’s “Charlene,” and Mario’s “Let Me Love You,” proved that the hang-up was, as is often the case, with programmers and not the audience. Keys’ single did everything a hit is supposed to do, including posting callout results right away, and still had a relatively long slog. That said, there was also a relative paucity of straight-ahead R&B this year to the point where it sometimes felt like so-so records were becoming hits, just because of the demand.
  • Kanye West, “Jesus Walks” and “All Fall Down”; Jadakiss, “Why”—West may have expected programmer resistance to rapping about Jesus, but religion has been a pretty well-accepted part of R&B radio for years. With all those Grammy nominations and widespread critical acclaim, the real resistance to West’s hits, and to Jadakiss’ “Why,” came from Rhythmic and Mainstream Top 40 programmers. Now, it seems, it isn’t just R&B ballads that some Rhythmic PDs don’t get, it’s also songs that talk forthrightly about race. If Jadakiss wonders why his buzz in L.A. isn’t what it is in New York, it may now be because the west and southwest (if not L.A. itself) is served primarily by Rhythmic Top 40s. Which makes you wonder what kind of reception Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” would get if it came out today.
  • Green Day, “American Idiot”; Incubus/”Megalomaniac”—Then again, until recently, you also had to wonder what kind of reception Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” would get. It was only 18 months ago when it looked like the Dixie Chicks controversy had stifled any anti-war commentary, except from those artists who had already drifted away from radio. In the end, it was too much to expect Green Day, Incubus, Jadakiss, Eminem, R. Kelly, or any of the other artists who weighed in with anti-war/anti-Bush music to swing an election. But seeing the tenor of the debate evolve from “Have You Forgotten?” to “why did Bush knock down those towers?” can’t be ignored.
  • Gretchen Wilson/”Redneck Woman”; Big & Rich, “Save A Horse (Ride A Cowboy)”—Earlier this year, I identified these two songs as the defining country hits of the summer and got an e-mail from one PD friend that the real record-of-the-summer was Tim McGraw’s “Live Like You Were Dying.” He’s right about the magnitude of that record, but it’s not revolutionary. McGraw’s record is an undeniably well-crafted version of what already exists in abundance on Country radio: inspirational ballads about the importance of family, faith, and getting on with your short life.
  • By contrast, Big & Rich and Wilson’s hits are the type of records that have been, by and large, missing since the early ‘90s: country/rock (and now rap) hybrids with the potential to bring in younger listeners. The two acts gave the format a shot of energy this summer, and now that they’ve both released relatively mainstream songs as their third singles, you can feel the format’s pulse slow again. As for McGraw, it’s ironic that he’s now on Country radio with a song bemoaning the incursion of hip-hop lingo in Country (“Back When”) while he’s on Top 40 radio dueting with Nelly.

  • Usher/”Yeah”—Even by last year, “crunk” was on its way to becoming a cluster in R&B and Top 40’s music research projects, but this was further confirmation of how much the pop landscape had changed. And while “Yeah” didn’t make its way on to many Hot AC stations, there’s plenty of research suggesting that it could have. In any event, by the end of the year, some of the Hot ACs that had started off wondering whether “Hey Ya” was too rappy were now playing Nelly & Tim McGraw and the Black Eyed Peas.
  • Ciara/”Goodies”—At most stations, this would be part of the aforementioned crunk cluster, but you could really think of this song and its follow-up “1, 2 Step” as breakthroughs for “electroclash,” the retro-synth sound that was supposed to be the new direction of dance music. Instead, electroclash and dance itself have pretty well been co-opted by R&B over the last few years (including “Work It” by Ciara’s duet partner, Missy Elliott).

It’s hard to settle on one breakthrough record at Modern Rock. After “Seven Nation Army” last year, the “back-to-Alternative” bandwagon was rolling and stations were either trying to copy KBZT (FM94.9) San Diego or pre-empt it by making sure they were playing enough Modest Mouse, Interpol, Killers, Muse, and the like. But it’s still hard to know how much of a sea-change really took place when Chevelle, Crossfade, Breaking Benjamin, and Three Days Grace are sharing the Alternative top 20 as well. Or when the second most played Modern Rock recurrent this week is Slipknot’s “Duality.” Perhaps what we really had in 2004 was “back-to-variety,” which is probably preferable.

Coming in early 2005: the stations that made a difference in 2004.

Sean Ross is Edison Media Research’s VP of Music & Programming and the former editor-in-chief of Airplay Monitor, Billboard Magazine’s radio programming publication. The opinions expressed here are his own and can be found on the Web site every week. Sean can be reached at 908.707.4707 or

4 replies
  1. Jimi
    Jimi says:

    Maroon 5 “This Love”…this record broke up the monotony of CHR music that was the same (girl angst…hip hop that drove on the same bald tires; cristal, money, girls……Brat-rock Green Day wannabes)
    This song will swing the door even wider for singer/songwriter types (Mraz/Mayer/Tyler Hilton/Ari Hest). As big as Maroon as been at CHR and AC and Hot AC, there will be no “Hootie-esque” backlash.

  2. Mike Chambers
    Mike Chambers says:

    The problem with Country and I believe your assessment to be somewhat valid is that it has no emotion. The guts have been ripped out with all of the pablum tunes being pushed out. I mean c’mon 20 something guys and groups singing about the good ol’ days. It’s laughable. My God Nashville let’s get some drinkin’, cheatin’ and hurtin’ records and artists who know what they are singing about.
    The second thing is too many songs in the pipe. The schlock gets pushed and many good songs that are actually Country get pushed out, hit records. You can see the record promoters at work just by looking at the R&R charts every week.
    Mike Chambers

  3. Brian Woodward
    Brian Woodward says:

    As a long time fan of you, at The Monitor…and now at EMR I know you’re the only one who follows the charts as much as I do. I wanted to share my thoughts with you concerning 2004 at Top 40.
    It’s been a good year. Not a memorable year, no real blockbuster hits(Until Over & Over of course), but a solid year for MAINSTREAM Top 40. I do use the term mainstream for the first time in a while because looking at the end of the year chart, it was for the first time in a while, pretty balanced.
    Looking at 2004′s chart, (the R&R chart) I was fairly surprised that ONLY 5 of the Top 20 were legitimate Rhythmic crossover records. The perception has been that crossover records were dominating at Top 40, but
    it’s just not the case. “Yeah” at #1 was a no
    brainier for Top 40. Usher has established himself as the #1 core artist for the format, so being at the top was no surprise. 2 Outkast records in the top 10 were no surprise either. Both records really weren’t Rhythmic records anyway, but qualify because Outkast is an R&B artist. Usher’s “Burn” is at #13, Beyounce at #17, once again a pop/Rhythmic record, and Mario Winans & P.DIddy at #20. And that’s all!!
    The return of pop, by many new artists is very refreshing for this long time Top 40 fan! And the fact that so many new artists had break thru years is VERY encouraging! Ashlee Simpson, JoJo(who is 13 and whose lyrics relate to every 30 year old woman old enough to be her mom) Maroon 5(the new Matchbox 20), and Switchfoot(which crosses from Christian, might be the best rock act in a while) were all top 20 artists with huge records that added balance and more importantly, are artists who hopefully will have a long future at top 40 (as long as Ashlee Simpson sticks to singing instead of pretending to do so).
    Don’t get me wrong, I love the Rhythmic stuff much more than any other 34 year old male probably does.
    Give me “Freak A Leak”, or “Get Low” and the radio will get turned up enough to give me even more hearing loss than I already have. But the format’s numbers have been soft lately…and only music from every genre will help that in the long run.
    Give me your thoughts…I’m sure you’ll chime in with a column of your own!


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