For all you may have read about “The Long Tail” and the likelihood that there will be fewer common currency smash hit songs, there will still be records that come along once or twice a year to demonstrate what Edison’s Larry Rosin calls “the imperative of a hit”–the fast-breaking record that’s so compelling that you sit in the parking lot waiting for it to end before you get out of the car, or punch from station to station looking to hear it again. And having fewer songs that are shared experiences of that sort will make those that do exist all that more exciting.
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable,” at least now, is that there was apparently a moment when it was not an obvious hit for any programmer who heard it.
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable,” at least now, is that there was apparently a moment when it was not an obvious hit for any programmer who heard it. When the “B-Day” album came out in September, Columbia had already worked one single and was in the process of promoting another, meaning that only a handful of PDs actually went to the album and found “Irreplaceable.” In the intervening weeks before it finally became too big to deny, I had one radio person tell me that the label would probably stop at two singles, and another tell me that “Irreplaceable” would have problems at radio because “Déjà Vu” and “Ring The Alarm” weren’t bigger hits.
So as we take our annual look at hit records in 2006 that had larger implications for the stations that played them, “Irreplaceable” proves that radio’s ability to find its own hits isn’t what it used to be–but it hasn’t been completely wiped out by an alleged post-Spitzer willingness to diverge from label priorities. Mostly, though, it shows that explosive, multi-format hits of this sort are still possible. When “Irreplaceable” did pop, it was often set up by a listener call asking, “What’s that song about ‘to the left/to the left?'” And calls like those (when they’re real) are part of what still make radio exciting.
Justin Timberlake also helped reaffirm the existence of the mega-hit. Next time somebody tells you that a record can’t have wide-ranging pop culture phenomenon, ask yourself how many stray comments about bringing sexy back you’ve heard this year. And “SexyBack” also proved that sounding different on the radio was a positive, not a problem. You can also add Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” and Nelly Furtado’s “Say It Right” to that list. And if “Crazy” wasn’t as massive a Top 40 hit as initially predicted, it’s doing a lot as we speak to change the notion of what a Mainstream AC record sounds like. And, as Hispanic Market Weekly’s Adam Jacobson notes, it played everywhere from Mainstream AC to Alternative to Urban AC to Rhythmic Top 40.
Then again, there was a lot of blurring of format lines this year. “SexyBack” also marked a heavily trafficked intersection of Hip-Hop, Top 40, and R&B. From Furtado to the Pussycat Dolls, today’s multi-tasking Rhythmic Pop recalls the early ’80s when artists like Jeffrey Osborne, Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, and Tina Turner made broadly accepted records that are sometimes more at home now on AC radio than Urban AC. Many of those artists had done so with the help of veteran pop songwriters. Now it’s pop artists who have sought out Hip-Hop producers and writers. And no matter how tempted you are to deride the new Hip-Pop as “not the real thing,” many Rhythmic Top 40 and Hip-Hop PDs, who have scrambled for product this year, would be hard pressed to tell you what the real thing is.
What other records helped gauge the temperature of radio this year?
- Snow Patrol, “Chasing Cars” and the Fray’s “How To Save A Life”–Both demonstrate the influence of “Gray’s Anatomy,” whose music supervisor, Alexandra Patsavas has become the Rosalie Trombley of our era, with the same power to put a record on radio’s docket that the legendary CKLW Detroit music director wielded in the ’70s. And if your record is already off and running at radio, it’s exposure on “Gray’s” or other series television that will help it finally kick in, in the same way that MTV would finally push a song forward in callout a decade ago. “Chasing Cars,” in particular, was the least obvious of several single candidates from this Snow Patrol album. “Hands Open,” the first Rock single, was as obvious a radio song as any A&R person could have asked for. But “Chasing Cars” was the kind of song that works on TV. And TV is apparently what you need to cross a band like Snow Patrol over these days.
- Daniel Powter, “Bad Day”–Speaking of TV-driven success stories, it showed that the power of “American Idol” wasn’t just for contestants. And, along with James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful,” that Mainstream AC could spread records to Top 40. And for better or worse, both also marked that turning point we saw in 1981 or 1991 where suddenly AC music was teen music, for a moment anyway.
- Natasha Bedingfield, “Unwritten” — Even after Pink and Kelly Clarkson’s inroads at Hot AC, there was still a time when this record somehow seemed too teen, too rhythmic, too something to Hot AC PDs. Now it’s the third most-played record of the year and the female singer-songwriter sound that radio once fought to preserve is now limited to an occasional Anna Nalick or KT Tunstall (and a handful of Sheryl Crow and Sarah McLachlan records). Or, ironically, the female singer/songwriter sound has to cross back to AC from Country as shown by . . .
- Wreckers, “Leave The Pieces” — Twenty years ago when the female singer-songwriter sound was out of favor elsewhere, it was Country that gave Mary Chapin Carpenter and Rosanne Cash a home. So why not Michelle Branch? (Or, for that mater, with Country vying for the Hot AC franchise in many markets, why not Bon Jovi?) As Larry Rosin also notes, “Leave The Pieces” also proved that there was still a need for the Dixie Chicks sound at Country radio–it just had to come from somebody other than the Dixie Chicks.
- Jim Jones’ “We Fly High”–It’s everything that a radio Hip-Hop hit isn’t supposed to be right now. It’s harder. It’s not melodic. And it’s from New York. And while there are undoubtedly readers ready to take issue with the “hard” part, it’s still going to take a lot of cognitive dissonance for a 35-year-old Black Eyed Peas fan to come to the party on this one. If nothing else, proves that the demand for this type of record still exists at both R&B/Hip-Hop and Rhythmic radio. You can also cite Lyfe Jennings’ “S.E.X.,” and Keyshia Cole’s “Love”–songs that were supposed to be “too R&B” for Rhythmic radio until, suddenly, they weren’t.
- My Chemical Romance, “Welcome To The Black Parade” and Muse, “Knights Of Cydonia”–Three years after Alternative programmers tried to turf the extreme rockers out in favor of neo-garage and neo-punk, it is once again a hard rock world (Breaking Benjamin, Incubus, Tool, Three Days Grace) on both sides of the Active/Modern divide, balanced out by mainstream rock ballads (Hinder, Nickelback, Evanescence, Stone Sour) and only an occasional Killers, AFI, Raconteurs, or Snow Patrol. But if it’s possible to find any other trend, it’s the renewed appetite for the epic that began with neo-progressive acts and now seems to be spreading as each generation looks for its own “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
- John Mayer, “Waiting For The World To Change”; Pearl Jam, “World Wide Suicide”; Nerina Pallot “Everybody’s Gone To War”–As public opinion turned harsher on the War in Iraq, there were more consumer press stories suggesting that music was finally following a similar path. In reality, even as the Dixie Chicks controversy raged at Country, most other formats were finding room for commentary at various levels of vehemence, as evidenced this year by the range between Pearl Jam’s No. 1 Rock hit and Mayer’s gentle Impression-ism, couched in a larger comment about the apathy of twentysomethings. (If it means anything, Mayer’s record did finally kick in at Top 40 around the time of the November elections.) The surprise, however, was in the U.K., where Top 40 radio made a top 10 airplay hit of Pallot’s hooky but uncompromising indie-pop in a way that is, thus far, hard to imagine in the States.
- Hannah Montana, “If We Were A Movie”; High School Musical, “Breaking Free”; Panic! At The Disco, “I Write Sins Not Tragedies”–It’s hard to label any success story truly organic these days, particularly now that MySpace is worked as aggressively by the record labels as any radio station. P!ATD’s Top 40 career began with the endorsement of several major Top 40s and a Rock radio hit already under its belt. The “Hannah Montana” soundtrack has sold over a million units with only Disney Channel and Radio Disney exposure–although it’s hard to call that or “High School Musical” organic exactly. But, as with Snow Patrol, they both show how the agenda is being set elsewhere, regardless of whether radio follows. I’m expecting RED’s Danny Buch to post a comment below on why Hellogoodbye’s “Here (In Your Arms)” belongs here as well.