By Sean Ross (@rossonradio)
I can like the hits of 2016 if I think of them differently.
I’ve whined enough this year about the lack of tempo, not just at CHR, but at almost every major format.
I’ve put a lot of creativity into slagging off those trap ballads with the syncopated handclaps, or as I call it, “clap trap.” See?
I drove home the other night listening to a major top 40 station’s nightly countdown. I heard six consecutive EDM ballads with manipulated vocal samples, then Bruno Mars’ “24K Magic,” which I liked when it was brand new, but never as much as I did that night.
I’ve decided to think of 2016 as the year that the “Chillout” format, first championed in these pages in 2003, came into its own at radio, an altogether positive development. Every major market in America had a Chillout station. Some had several. And if some of those second CHRs stick with the sound, even after Top 40 music finally changes, they’ll have a 4-share with a niche format. Chillout’s mid-‘00s core artist Sia finally broke through, and she didn’t really change her sound all that much.
Ron White, the veteran programmer/consultant, saw the year as “a refreshing shift of the essence of Top 40 away from the almost total dominance of turbo-pop and rhythmic pop. For the first time in more than five years, [the format] would more likely be defined by the more lyric-intensive Chainsmokers, Twenty One Pilots, and the Weeknd.”
Chainsmokers might have seemed playful on “Closer,” but “Don’t Let Me Down,” you’ll remember, was the sound of a pained attempt to bargain with God. Only my Song of Summer 2016, “Ride” by Twenty One Pilots, rivals it for best representing the year in angst. You can add Alessia Cara to that list — a career launched with the “Don’t Party Rock Anthem.” The Pilots began the year with a song about missing mom’s lullabies, and Lukas Graham ended it with one about missing his dad — his third straight hit about family.
I would have been thrilled about a new format based on this emerging form of music if I had an uptempo CHR to punch over to when I was done. The rock radio that replaced Top 40 in 1981; the Country and Hip-Hop stations that left markets without a CHR in the early ‘90s; the Alternative stations that popped up in the place of Z100 New York in 1994—they were powered by galvanizing music of their own, and they all would have been fine if they hadn’t driven Top 40 away for a while.
Save for Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” tempo was almost a negative at radio in 2016. DNCE’s “Cake by the Ocean” took nine months to sound obvious to some broadcasters. Tempo made two seemingly obvious Meghan Trainor singles (including a turbo-pop throwback in “Me Too”) into short-lived trifles. Tempo did nothing to help PDs warm to Lady Gaga’s “Perfect Illusion.” A week later, Calvin Harris’ “My Way” came along — friendlier tempo from a consistent hitmaker — and radio had permission to move on. Then it burned through “My Way” quickly as well.
It wasn’t just CHR. “Get the Party Started” by Pink was a turning point record for CHR in 2002, but when Thomas Rhett channeled it for “Vacation,” he needlessly provoked Country radio (but not for long). Dustin Lynch’s almost-as-edgy “Seein’ Red” finally came through. Justin Moore’s “You Look Like I Need a Drink” needed a year to travel the charts. Maren Morris’ “80s Mercedes” is, incredibly, struggling at No. 11 at this writing.
I thought “When the Tequila Runs Out” by Dawes was rocking enough for Alternative and even a potential fit at CHR. But it had a Calvin Harris-style burn at Triple-A and went nowhere else. It was the more sober and austere Kaleo and The Record Company that became multi-format bands.
I would get e-blasts on behalf of a new single hailing “the tempo the format has been asking for,” only to play it and find out that it was really a busy midtempo record. But I shouldn’t be surprised that songs with tempo struggled at top 40 or elsewhere. They didn’t fit the format.
The most copied song of 2016 — Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” — was already out at this time a year ago. But if you’re looking for the songs that helped define the changes in radio this year, they’re actually Kiiara’s “Gold” and Gnash’s “I Hate U, I Love U,” two quality, seemingly left-field songs that owed much of their emergence to streaming and playlisting. And with radio having delegated so much of its R&D to streaming, you wonder how the sound of CHR or any other format is going to change. Because the concept of “you may also like” is not geared to sharp left turns.
And then, it’s a very short list for me of other “Songs That Made a Difference” in 2016 — not breakthrough hits, but genre-busters:
Eric Church, “Record Year”; Kenny Chesney, “Noise” – Two different and worthy examples of what you could accomplish with Country superstardom. “Noise” was particularly willful — Country radio’s Mr. Summer showing up instead with his own commentary on our troubled times.
William Michael Morgan, “I Met a Girl” – It’s always the first song that comes up in a discussion with Country PDs about the changes in the format, although I find “Missing” more interesting and provocative. But it shows that there might always be a slot for a George Strait record, even if Strait is no longer the artist asked to provide it.
G-Eazy, “Me Myself & I” – Because, without meaning to diminish his skills, it proved there was always a slot for an Eminem record
Mike Posner, “I Took a Pill in Ibiza”—The loping, tropical pulse of the year at radio (or one of them anyway) and Drake’s only rival for raw confessionals. Also, it broke out of San Francisco, still the market that proves that new music is an asset, not a liability, in a CHR battle.
Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, “S.O.B.”; Kungs vs. Cookin’ on 3 Burners, “This Girl” – Not because of what they did in America, but because “This Girl” was a CHR smash in Canada, and “S.O.B.” actually made it halfway up the CHR chart. Canada had always done its own thing, as tied to the U.K. as the U.S. musically. But last year, it was suddenly diverting little from the U.S. (except on Canadian content). So it’s nice to see PDs venturing out again.
Rae Sremmurd, “Black Beatles” – Because not long ago, Rae Sremmurd and Gucci Mane were the Hip-Hop artists that CHR definingly did not play. And “Gangnam Style” and “Harlem Shake” were the songs that emerged from viral videos.