When we look back at the records that most influenced radio over the year, it’s often hard to ignore the tentacles of a song from a year or two previous. The song that kicked off last year’s “Songs That Made A Difference” column, Beyonce’s “Irreplaceable,” was, at the end of this year, being channeled through at least three similar sounding records. And the opening of the floodgates for Stargate (the producers of “Irreplacable”) was still dwarfed by the influence of “Hollaback Girl.”
Two years ago, it was Gwen Stefani who confronted her inner cheerleader and said, “Bring it on!” Last year, it was Nelly Furtado. This year, it was most obviously Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend,” but there was stomping and clapping everywhere in 2007 from the R&B charts (Lil’ Mama’s “Lip Gloss”) to Latin pop (two cuts on the new Paulina Rubio album) to, at year’s end, the new Ashlee Simpson single. Pure pop didn’t usurp Rhythmic Pop as the key sound at Top 40, but it held its own (and the two were getting pretty close anyway as it was).
Meanwhile, the pop artist who most defied the trend by rocking harder, Kelly Clarkson, was the year’s most public spinout. The two most significant songs you didn’t hear on this radio in 2007 were Clarkson’s “One Minute” and “Can I Have a Kiss.” They were the two poppiest sounding cuts from Clarkson’s ill-fated “My December” album. If they had been released as singles, they wouldn’t have been “Since U Been Gone,” but they might have been “Walk Away.” But they weren’t worked. So no Top 40 station played them on their own volition — even those who continued to do okay with “Never Again” after it mid-charted.
What did that say about radio? Again, that it’s very hard to get them to go off the menu of songs being promoted to them. But also that there is now so much available uptempo mainstream pop that Top 40 PDs didn’t think they had to find their own Clarkson songs. Rascal Flatts, the Wreckers, and others showed up to fill the Dixie Chicks’ role at Country as the genre-spanning act with younger appeal. So when Clarkson wanted to write mostly with “Her + Hr Band,” there was Pink, back from her own less successful rock jaunt, to fill the void. Who knew?
Clarkson’s Top 40 travails also reflect just how many “American Idol” winners and finalists have been minted since her initial coronation. Being an ex-finalist was one of the ways to break through at Top 40 even on an independent imprint as Elliot Yamin’s “Wait For You” proved.
These are the other “Songs That Made A Difference In 2007″ – never necessarily the biggest songs of the year, although they often are, but ones that reflect the changing nature of the formats that played them:
- Colbie Caillat, “Bubbly” – We’ll see how many more acoustic female singer-songwriter records that bubble up from MySpace truly end up in power rotation at Top 40. But as noted here earlier this year, seeing Caillat, Feist, and Ingrid Michaelson among the top selling singles in one week is a pretty seismic change.
- Snow Patrol, “Chasing Cars” and Fray, “How to Save A Life” - They were in this list last year as a testament to the power of “Gray’s Anatomy” (and TV overall). They’re here this year because they continued throughout 2007 as currents at AC radio, as that format tried to think younger.
- Carrie Underwood, “Before He Cheats” and Taylor Swift, “Teardrops On My Guitar” – During the Country boom of 1990, an ailing Top 40 decided to sit out Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood, lest even more listeners figure out that was where the action was. This is evidence that programmers are savvier this time around. And while Top 40 is still willing to wait six months until the label says it’s their turn, they don’t always need a pop remix, as evidenced by “Before He Cheats,” the purest Country story song crossover since the era of Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” and “Coward of the County.” And even without her pop success, Swift would rate a mention here for bringing the MySpace revolution to Country radio. Meanwhile, the next time somebody asks why Top 40 isn’t like it was in the old days when it played everything, tell them that Taylor is playing next to Soulja Boy somewhere right now.
- Miley Cyrus, “See You Again” – Last year’s column focused on all the Radio Disney product that didn’t make it through to Top 40. “High School Musical 2″ was still MIA in 2007, but after incursions by Aly & AJ and the Jonas Brothers, one can be cautiously optimistic that radio is coming around – even before an artist transfers from the Disney label to sister Hollywood. And in a year of pure pop, why shouldn’t they?
- Finger Eleven, “Paralyzer” - Rock radio in 2007 saw a tilt back toward the Active Rock side, but with a nod to the Alternative artists with great riffage (White Stripes, Silversun Pickups). And this was the record that best represented the middle-of-the-rock convergence: a mainstream rock band that turbocharged the sound of Franz Ferdinand’s “Take Me Out.” In the process, they managed a major Top 40 hit on an indie label with a Rock record that was neither teen punk nor Nickelballad.
- Timbaland & Onerepublic, “Apologize” – Because what was more typically 2007 than a Hip-Hop producer presenting a teen punk band with the record that one still wishes Elton John would make?
- Alicia Keys, “No One” - The song that reminded programmers just how mass-appeal R&B is (as opposed to Hip-Hop or Rhythmic Pop). And if I probably wrote the same thing about “If I Ain’t Got You” in 2003, well, it just shows how that lesson has to keep being delivered. So does…
- Fantasia, “When I See U” - This was the No. 2 Urban record of the year. But if you’re not involved with R&B radio, you may not know it existed. (Even the week it was No. 1, I had friends asking me what had happened to her and if she was still recording.) For the first time in nearly 30 years, since the era of Zapp and Tom Browne, we’re starting to see massive Urban hits that never get anywhere near pop radio, and part of it is because R&B (as opposed to Hip-Hop) is displaying its primacy at that format.
- Playaz Circle, “Duffle Bag Boy” - That said, this was the kind of record that had supposedly ceased to exist at R&B: lyrically edgy but melodic, a/k/a the “Chronic” formula. And it was bigger than either of Jay-Z’s return-to-the-streets hits.
- Paramore, “Misery Business” - Refreshed the teen punk formula, but, as an act, also the best bet to fill the vacant Heart/Pat Benatar franchise in many years.
- Tracy Lawrence, “Find Out Who Your Friends Are” and Emerson Drive, “Moments” -The No. 4 and 5 songs of the year at Country were on indie labels (something that’s less and less remarkable all the time) and Lawrence’s hit showed that Country radio would stand up for its right to go off the menu. And with “Before He Cheats” and Billy Currington’s “Good Directions,” “Moments” also represented a resurgence of the Country story song. Lawrence, meanwhile, shares the “no comeback is more than one great song away” award with Pink and Musiq Soulchild’s R&B hit “Buddy.”
- Song Trust, “Bring Him Home Santa” – This year’s “Dear Mr. Jesus,” albeit on a somewhat smaller scale – a Country Christmas reaction record in which a 6-year-old girl asks Santa to bring her military dad home. The sign-of-the-times was getting the words “bring him home” (in the most apolitical way possible) onto Country radio, even in military base markets like Norfolk and Tampa.
- Eagles, “How Long” - The Classic Rock/Country connection still isn’t quite bearing the fruits that both sides might have hoped after the success of Bon Jovi’s “Who Says You Can’t Go Home.” It’s still easier to hear a new Rascal Flatts song that recalls Glenn Frey than the real article. But the album sales prove that the market is still there.
- Bob Sinclair, “World Hold On” and Enur f/Natajia, “Calabria 2007″ - Okay, there was actually plenty of danceable music on the radio this year, it just didn’t come from the dance music world. But if current dance finds a foothold again, it will be because of these two records and the beachhead they established at Miami’s WPOW (Power 96) and WHYI (Y100) this year.
- Radiohead, “Bodysnatchers” – The lead track that emerged from “In Rainbows” — the album that was expected to change the way music is bought and valued — has gotten to #24 on the Modern Rock charts, and that’s with the eventual support of an actual label. So is radio failing to adequately embrace the event of the year? We’ll know a little more in a week when the first sales figures for the hard copy of “In Rainbows” come back.