By Sean Ross (@rossonradio)
The “Songs That Made a Difference” saluted in this article every year are the ones that drive radio’s contemporary music formats in a direction in which they might not otherwise go. This year, with Mainstream Top 40, it was almost too easy. With the format so tightly wound around a handful of like-sounding trop house and trap pop records, any leftfield hit from another genre was an outlier, and two of anything different actually was a trend.
The most obvious change agent was Hip-Hop, and a stream ran through it. It wasn’t that long ago that the songs that brought R&B and Top 40 back together were “Happy” and “All of Me.” This year, it was Rae Sremmurd, “Black Beatles”; Migos, “Bad And Boujee”; Cardi B, “Bodak Yellow” and perhaps, at year’s end, Lil Pump, “Gucci Gang.” Think of it as the difference between Whitney Houston, “I Will Always Love You,” and Boyz II Men, “I’ll Make Love to You,” and Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It” or Soul IV Real’s “Every Little Thing I Do” a few years later.
Being the biggest breakthrough was only enough to make “Black Beatles” CHR’s 90th most-played song of the year. The pattern was for Mainstream Top 40 to tentatively acknowledge a song, take it up to the 20s or so on the airplay chart, then no further. But Montell Jordan and Soul IV Real peaked in that region as well in the mid-‘90s. The change is that the discussion is now taking place, as radio tries to figure out how to ingest streaming metrics and “consumption” stories.
Had none of those songs crossed over, there would still have been a story in the rise of Alternative crossovers in the second half of the year: “Believer” and “Thunder” by Imagine Dragons, and “Feel It Still” by Portugal. The Man. Sonically, those songs weren’t really “coming out of left field.” But equally poppy records have dominated the Alternative chart all along without getting CHR’s attention.
Last month, when I wrote about the resurgence of Alternative at pop radio, music journalist Chris Molanphy tweeted the column, prompting one of his Twitter followers to comment, “Top 40 is taking a risk by going for a hard split with streaming, which is hip-hop-dominated.” That’s a column unto itself, but for now, with Top 40 effectively playing 15 records, there’s room for more hits from anywhere.
There’s also room for better homegrown CHR music. Once the sludgy, unsatisfying teen pop of the early ‘90s gave way to better hits from teen idols, not only did CHR’s own fortunes improve, but Top 40 did a better job of acknowledging both Hip-Hop and Alternative.
In its own period of transition, Country radio also made room for a more interesting variety of hits in its procession of chart-toppers. Entercom Houston’s Chris Huff cites Carly Pearce, “Every Little Thing,” as “exactly what all the … naysayers say country radio would never embrace: female, new artist, sparse production, slow tempo.” Keith Urban went to No. 1 with “Blue Ain’t Your Color,” which shared every obstacle except gender with Pearce, then went back with “The Fighter,” which sounded more like ‘70s disco or yacht rock than Country.
Some people weren’t surprised by an uptempo No. 1 from Kenny Chesney. But “All the Pretty Girls” sounded more like a late ‘80s Foster & Lloyd hit, or something from Country’s early ‘90s flirtation with the John Hiatt catalog, than today’s winning formula — perhaps because Country is still searching for today’s winning formula. It felt less like an automatic No. 1 than the personal-passion single snuck out at the end of the project, so it was gratifying to see it at the top.
Other songs worth mentioning, because they became a hit or (in some cases) did not. As usual, it’s neither merely a roll call of the year’s biggest hits or my list of personal favorites, but the songs that most seemed to represent change at a given format.
Sam Hunt, “Body Like a Back Road” – The significance here is not that it put a Hip-Hop-inflected Country hit on Mainstream CHR (we’d already had one of those), but that it brought Country radio to grips with Hunt, the format’s current cume magnate, at a time when the format needed one. The markets that broke it as a pop song were Hartford, Conn., and Boston, and why shouldn’t they? They’re big Country markets.
Logic, “1-800-273-8255”; NF, “Let You Down”; MGK, “Bad Things”; Post Malone, “I Fall Apart” – Within Hip-Hop, and the universe of songs emerging through streaming, a genre unto itself. The tone of introspection comes from Drake. The common thread of young-adult anguish and intergenerational struggle recalls Linkin Park, and there is a clear and tragic irony in Chester Bennington’s death at a time when listeners were being taught the number of the suicide hot line. There’s also a through-line to the emo and teen punk of the ‘00s, particularly in the way that music came to the fore outside radio’s walls.
Lord Huron, “The Night We Met”; Sofi Tukker, “Best Friend” – For all the attention given to streams, a sync could still bring attention to a song that didn’t sound like a hit, (or, in the case of “Best Friend” very much sounded like a hit, but would not have ordinarily been on the radar).
Childish Gambino, “Redbone”; Khalid, “Location” – Then again, this was the year that everything sounded like TV/movie “music supervisor” music. “Redbone,” in particular, felt like the song that fit everywhere and nowhere. And both songs were emblematic of the ongoing contemporization of Urban AC.
Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee, “Despacito”; J. Balvin f/Willy William, “Mi Gente” – I liked “Despacito” as the comeback of the decade (both for Fonsi, who had just missed crossing over in the early ‘00s and for reggaetón, which went off pop radio’s radar after its brief moment, but never went away). I liked “Mi Gente” for proving it could happen again, and will undoubtedly happen many times over when next year’s “Song of the Summer” field masses in April/May. The effect on the Spanish Contemporary format was as dramatic — mainstream pop has given way to reggaetón collaborations with pop artists: Jennifer Lopez & Wisin, Shakira & Nicky Jam, and more.
Kesha, “Praying” – It galvanized listeners immediately, but radio was reluctant to certify it as anything other than a short-term curio. Then a societal turning point came, and the song resonated not for what it might be saying about Kesha and Dr. Luke, but for what it said to women about their own battles.
Katy Perry, “Chained to the Rhythm”; Pink, “What About Us” – The artists who reanimated CHR a decade or so ago were subdued this year. Each nudged forth with a tentative social commentary. Neither left with a consensus hit, although it’s symptomatic of Top 40’s current tightness that “Chained to the Rhythm” still made the format’s top 50 songs of the year.
Justin Timberlake, “Can’t Stop the Feeling” – I knew from the second I heard it that it would be the No. 1 song of the winter. And that’s what it was at mainstream AC, nine months after its spontaneous combustion at CHR and Hot AC. But as the stars of the ‘00s become less reliable, both in gold and current, Mainstream AC is backing away from CHR. And it never backed away from playing CHR’s recurrents as its currents to begin with. (In fairness, “What About Us” was an AC hit and an exception.)
Zedd & Alessia Cara, “Stay”; Chainsmokers & Coldplay, “Something Just Like This” – At Mainstream CHR, it was the format center. At Adult Top 40 and even Mainstream AC, it was interesting to see EDM-infused pop edge its way in ahead of more traditional format records.
What are the songs that you felt influenced radio’s direction in 2017? Please add a comment.