(The response to this post has been so much fun to read that I’m leaving it up over the weekend. Whatever I was going to put here on Friday will appear some other time.)
The other night on the air, I got to play what I believe to be the single greatest top-of-the-hour song of all time. I mentioned this on Twitter before I did it, and some of my friends and followers chimed in with guesses and suggestions. It occurs to me, however, that there are lots of people to whom the concept means nothing. “Top-of-the-hour song? What’s so special about the top of the hour?”
The top of the hour, :00 on the clock or close to it, is traditionally where stations identify themselves with their call letters and city of license. In days of yore, this often involved an elaborate piece of production such as a jingle or a sweeper, and was usually followed by one of the stronger records in the music library, which could be either an oldie or a current hit depending on the station’s preference. I’ve seen the goal of the top-of-the-hour presentation expressed this way, although I forget where I heard it or who said it: You’re trying to propel the listener irresistibly forward into the next hour, and make it hard for them to turn off the radio.
A station can play anything at the top of the hour, of course. But to me, a good top-of-the-hour song has a couple of key characteristics. It should be uptempo, and it helps if it comes blasting in at a 100 percent level. No fade-ins; it’s gotta hit like a hammer, because it’s going to follow that ID jingle/sweeper, which usually has some power of its own.
Even though listeners tune in and out at all points of the clock, the top of the hour is a big deal to me. It’s where my show begins—and where it begins anew every 60 minutes. The right song at the top of the hour can set the tone for what comes after, sometimes for the whole show, or what’s left of it. More times than I can count, I have found myself in a studio feeling tired and uninspired, only to get jacked up by the first song or two I play at the start of an hour.
Here are some especially good top-of-the-hour songs, in alphabetical order. If you can start your whole show with one of ’em, so much the better.
“Disco Lady”/Johnnie Taylor (comes close to violating the uptempo rule, but it’s my rule, so there)
“Feelin’ Stronger Every Day”/Chicago (also not exactly uptempo, but such a powerful opening makes up for it)
“Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel”/Tavares (cue it in seven seconds, past the drum-and-cymbal breakdown)
“Rockin’ Roll Baby”/Stylistics (of all the songs on this list, this one’s intro is the most fun to talk over)
“Saturday in the Park”/Chicago (or maybe it’s this one)
“Signs”/Five Man Electrical Band (the long version with the long intro)
“Still the One”/Orleans (in stereo, this one hits a little softly, so you gotta crank up the level)
“You Little Trustmaker”/Tymes (be ready or the train will leave without you)
Some of the suggestions from Twitter the other night included the Grass Roots’ “Sooner or Later,” which definitely belongs, and is also a blast to talk over; “Never Can Say Goodbye” by Gloria Gaynor, also a good one; Free’s “All Right Now,” “Sky High” by Jigsaw, and Derek and the Dominoes’ “Layla.”
But which song is the greatest top-of-the-hour song of all time? Do you really have to ask?
Find some examples of how the top of the hour sounded on various radio stations of the 1970s and 1980s here. Please add your own choices for great top-of-the-hour songs in the comments.