(Pictured: Miranda Lambert onstage in 2017.)
I don’t see Billboard‘s adult-contemporary chart every week of the year. I suppose I could look at it, but I haven’t got the habit. So when the year-end chart comes out, I often find myself surprised by the results. This past year, for example, I expected Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” to be #1—but it came in at #2 behind Maroon 5’s “Don’t Wanna Know.” The Maroon 5 record is fine, although it’s neither quantitatively nor qualitatively different from every other single they’ve released in the last four or five years. That’s not to say I prefer “Shape of You.” The overwhelming impression I get from listening to Ed Sheeran songs, especially those on his latest album Divide, is that for as popular as they are, they should be a lot more distinctive. For example, on the autobiographical “Castle on the Hill” (#19), he’s obviously trying to tell a poignant story about the crowd he ran with as a kid and how their lives have worked out, or not, in the years since. The raw material is there, but in the execution it just kind of spools out for four minutes without ever getting anywhere.
My favorite songs of the year include Adele’s “Water Under the Bridge” (#3) and “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)” (#11), Rihanna’s “Love on the Brain” (#20), which feels like an old-school soul joint, and Niall Horan’s “This Town” (#21), which is as emotional and engaging as Ed Sheeran’s records want to be. Two records that threaten to drown in synthesizers and/or auto-tune, “Something Just Like This” by the Chainsmokers with Coldplay (#10) and “Life’s About to Get Good” by Shania Twain (#40), both qualify as guilty pleasures. A couple of hits that didn’t make the Top 50 are worth mentioning, too: “Wish I Knew You” by the Revivalists was first released in 2015 but didn’t become an AC hit until this year. The killer hook of the year belonged to “Feel It Still” by Portugal The Man: “I’m a rebel just for kicks now / I been feelin’ it since 1966 now.”
(I was tempted to dock “Feel It Still” a few points for the band’s remarkably bad name, which is even worse for being officially styled with a period after “Portugal,” an affectation I refuse to cotton to. I haven’t hated an extraneous punctuation mark so much since Bob Seger’s “You’ll Accomp’ny Me.”)
Similarly, some of the best country songs of the year didn’t make the top 70 compiled by Country Aircheck magazine, including Drake White’s “Makin’ Me Look Good Again,” which he delivers with the savvy of a soul singer twice his age, and two Miranda Lambert singles from her acclaimed album The Weight of These Wings, “Tin Man” and “We Should Be Friends.” My favorite country song of the year did make the Top 70, however: “It Ain’t My Fault” by the Brothers Osborne (#43), which, if you transported it back to 1979, would sound just fine on a classic-rock station, just like Lynryd Skynyrd did next to Led Zeppelin. (The #1 country song of 2017 was “Body Like a Back Road” by Sam Hunt, and the less I say about it, the better.)
But back to Miranda Lambert for a second. When I first heard her in 2010, she was firmly trading on being your crazy ex-girlfriend—which was also the title of her third album, released in 2007. With her Grammy-winning #1 hit “The House That Built Me” in 2010, she showed herself much deeper than merely that. For the next several years, her singles could be smart and touching (“Over You”, “Automatic”) or bring the crazy (“Mama’s Broken Heart,” “Little Red Wagon”—which is the worst record she ever made—and “Somethin’ Bad,” a duet with Carrie Underwood that NBC modified for its Sunday Night Football theme). But then came The Weight of These Wings. First single “Vice” was a substantial hit on momentum; “We Should Be Friends” and “Tin Man” did less well, as it seemed to dawn on people that the crazy ex-girlfriend has left town for good. It won’t be a surprise if Lambert’s next album, whenever it comes out, is a hit with the alt-country and Americana crowd and barely registers in the mainstream.
If there’s something you particularly liked in 2017, on a chart or not, share it with the whole class in the comments.
(Pictured: Freddie Mercury of Queen, onstage in Chicago, 1980.)
I had quite a backlog of American Top 40 shows from December to listen to, and I spent the month gradually working my way through them.
The show from December 9, 1972, represented one of the great weeks in soul music history, with the Temptations, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Al Green, Billy Paul, and the Stylistics all in the Top 10 with classic records. It’s a week one can cite to give the lie to the tired idea that 70s music was consistently inferior to that of the 60s, and not just because of all the soul music: the twosome of Jim Croce’s “Operator” (#17) and Lobo’s “I’d Love You to Want Me” (#16) might represent some kind of high point for forlorn singer/songwriter pop. (Re-listening to this particular point in the show represented some kind of high point for Jim singing along in the car.)
At #20 on the 12/9/72 show, “Sweet Surrender” by Bread contains the line “you keep your rights, I’ll take your nights.” I can’t decide: it’s either an open and progressive attitude toward the woman in question at a time of change, or another example of the ham-fisted sexism of a time we like to believe is long gone but clearly is not. It’s either “be yourself and love me too” or “having dignity and independence is your thing, now let me unhook your bra.” Meanwhile, up at #1, introducing 31-year-old Helen Reddy’s liberation anthem, “I Am Woman,” Casey refers to her as a “pretty girl.” So maybe we can figure out what Bread’s attitude was after all.
The show from December 7, 1974, comes from the time when I first discovered FM radio but was still mostly an AM kid. I would switch back and forth from band to band depending on where I was listening, upstairs in my room, downstairs on the console stereo, or in the car when I could commandeer the radio. It wasn’t long before I noticed how Fancy’s “Touch Me,” “Everlasting Love” by Carl Carlton, and “Junior’s Farm” by Wings—among many others—were clearer on FM but hotter on AM.
The show from December 13, 1975, had seven debut songs, three of which are still on the radio 42 years later: “Evil Woman” by ELO, “Over My Head” by Fleetwood Mac, and “Singasong” by Earth Wind and Fire. The highest debut of the week, way up at #29, was “Convoy” by C. W. McCall. The CB radio novelty had hit the Hot 100 the previous week at #82 and would go 14-7-6 and finally to #1 for the week of January 10, 1976. Also among the debuts: “Winners and Losers” by Hamilton Joe Frank and Reynolds, which would get only to #21 in January. It’s basically the #1 hit “Fallin’ in Love” played faster, but it gains awesomeness points for its radio-perfect 14-second intro, and for whoever’s playing piano on it.
The show from December 13, 1980, was the one on which John Lennon was memorialized, even though he was murdered after the show had already been mailed to affiliates. (I wrote about it last month for Magic 98; hear Casey’s heartfelt memorial here.) Kenny Rogers’ “Lady” spent the fifth of what would be six weeks at #1, a record that got caught in the changing tides of history. Within a couple of years, after the rise of the MTV bands, Michael Jackson, and Prince, “Lady” (and similar lush adult ballads) would no longer be suitable for Top 40 radio. Also high on the chart that week: Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” which I hadn’t heard in a long while before I heard it on this show. Most people would pick “Bohemian Rhapsody” as Queen’s greatest achievement, but “Another One Bites the Dust” is just as great, for the way it packs one hook on top of another and never lets up for a full 3:32.
With this post, we embark on another calendar year at this blog. I wrote a lot more in 2017 than I expected to at this time last year. We’ll see if that pace continues in 2018.
(Pictured: Michael McDonald, Billy Crystal, and Gregory Hines wearing a bad Chicago Bears knockoff jersey, in the music video for McD’s “Sweet Freedom,” from the movie Running Scared, 1986.)
A couple of years ago I did a thing for Friday the 13th in which I picked, in a completely arbitrary fashion, the best song to peak at #13 on the Billboard Hot 100 in each year from 1955 through whenever we stopped. Let’s do that again, but since today is the 15th, let’s take #15.
1956: Gotta be “Stranded in the Jungle” by the Cadets.
1957: “Can I Steal a Little Love” by Frank Sinatra sounds like something Elvis would have sung in one of his lesser movies. It was in the teenage drive-in quickie Rock Pretty Baby, although Sinatra didn’t sing it.
1958: “Maybe” by the Chantels.
1959: Because it’s December, we’ll go with “The Little Drummer Boy” by the Harry Simeone Chorale, back on the chart in 1959 after hitting #13 in 1958. Runners-up are “Dance With Me” by the Drifters and the Kingston Trio’s “M.T.A.”
1960: Choices. If you like guitar twang, there’s the Ventures (“Perfidia”) and Johnny and the Hurricanes (“Beatnik Fly”). If you prefer R&B, there’s “Three Nights a Week” by Fats Domino and two records by Jackie Wilson, “A Woman, a Lover, a Friend” and “Doggin’ Around,” which is what I’m going with.
1961: Fats takes it the next year with “Let the Four Winds Blow.”
1962: Some famous records peaked at #15 in this year, including “Follow That Dream” by Elvis, “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman” by the Blue-Belles, and “Sharing You,” a Carole King/Gerry Goffin song recorded by Bobby Vee. But the prize goes to the jazz classic “Desafinado” by saxophonist Stan Getz and guitarist Charlie Byrd.
1963: “Little Deuce Coupe” by the Beach Boys.
1964: Despite a couple of Marvin Gaye tunes plus Little Anthony and the Imperials, the Impressions, and the Dave Clark Five, I’m going off the board for “Shangri-La” by Robert Maxwell, because I am a sucker for those big instrumentals from the 60s.
1965: I am tempted to pick “May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose” by Little Jimmy Dickens, but I’ll take “Willow Weep for Me” by Chad and Jeremy.
1966: I want to pick something other than Al Martino’s “Spanish Eyes” here, but I can’t.
1967: Quite a list of possibilities here: “Talk Talk” by the Music Machine, “Alfie” by Dionne Warwick, and the Bob Crewe Generation’s “Music to Watch Girls By.” But I’m going with “Darling Be Home Soon” by the Lovin’ Spoonful.
1968: “Words” by the Bee Gees.
1969: Billy Joe Royal’s “Cherry Hill Park,” a song we’ve dug around here since always.
1970: Out of “The Thrill Is Gone” by B. B. King, “Out in the Country” and “Celebrate” by Three Dog Night, and “Sex Machine” by James Brown, “Out in the Country” it is.
1971: “Won’t Get Fooled Again”? “Temptation Eyes”? “Funky Nassau”? The Donnie Elbert version of “Where Did Our Love Go”? Could be any of them, but it’s “Here Comes That Rainy Day Feeling Again” by the Fortunes.
1972: “Rock and Roll Lullaby” by B. J. Thomas and “Beautiful Sunday” by Daniel Boone are both on my Desert Island list, but I’m going off the board again for the fabulous “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show” by Honey Cone.
1973: “China Grove” by a nose over “Space Oddity.”
1974: “Who Do You Think You Are” by Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods over “Heartbreaker” by the Stones, but I feel bad about not picking the Spinners’ “Love Don’t Love Nobody.”
1975: “SOS” by ABBA over “Bad Luck” by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, but you could talk me out of it.
1976: “Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel” by Tavares.
1977: “Give a Little Bit” by Supertramp.
1978: “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” by Santa Esmeralda.
1979: “Driver’s Seat” by Sniff ‘n’ the Tears over “Goodbye Stranger” by Supertramp.
1980: “Breakdown Dead Ahead” by Boz Scaggs over Tom Petty’s “Refugee.”
1981: “The Breakup Song” by the Greg Kihn Band.
1982: The cheesy pop addict in me wants to pick “Nobody” by Sylvia, but I’m going with Sheena Easton’s “You Could Have Been With Me”.
1983: Only two songs peaked at #15 in this year: “Heart to Heart” by Kenny Loggins and “Cuts Like a Knife” by Bryan Adams, but I can’t work up enough enthusiasm for either one to pick between ’em.
1984: “Don’t Answer Me” by the Alan Parsons Project.
1985: Here’s one you haven’t heard in a while: “Crazy in the Night” by Kim Carnes.
1986: “Man Size Love” by Klymaxx. It’s from the soundtrack of Running Scared, a buddy cop movie that The Mrs. and I love unreasonably.
Because this post is already too long, we’re gonna stop here. If after reading it, you want your two minutes back, I understand completely.
In 1966, a songwriter named Dick Holler wrote a straight military ballad, in the mold of “The Ballad of the Green Berets” and “Sink the Bismarck,” about World War I fliers doing battle with German ace Manfred von Richthofen, known to history as the Red Baron. Record producer Phil Gernhard suggested that given the popularity of the comic strip Peanuts, perhaps Holler (who would also write “Abraham Martin and John”) could incorporate Snoopy’s battles with the Red Baron and turn his song into a novelty number. Gernhard offered “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” to a Florida band called the Royal Guardsmen. They were skeptical about it but cut a demo anyway—and by the end of 1966, their demo, with a few late overdubs in the studio, was a smash hit. “Return of the Red Baron” followed “Snoopy” up the charts early in 1967, and “The Airplane Song,” another novelty, hit that summer.
The Guardsmen considered themselves a legitimate rock band, so they opened their shows with their novelty hits before going on to the stuff they preferred to play: songs by Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Procol Harum, the Stones, and other heavy bands. But their record label, Laurie, preferred that the Guardsmen record what had worked before, pigeonholing them as a novelty act. So in the fall of 1967, when Laurie brought them “Snoopy’s Christmas,” they weren’t enthusiastic. But with little choice, they took it on. (“Snoopy’s Christmas” is credited to Hugo and Luigi and G. D. Weiss, although group member Barry Winslow calls it “pure Dick Holler.”) Group member John Burdett recalled that they worked in the studio with a full orchestra, and the conductor kept trying to change the arrangement because he felt it wasn’t “correct,” so the group threw him out and finished up the recording on their own.
“Snoopy’s Christmas” ended up being a hit for the ages. Radio station WALT, in the Guardsmen’s hometown of Tampa, had helped the band get some early bookings in 1966, and they were the first to chart it, on November 3, 1967. Within two weeks, however, the song was on some of the most influential stations in the country: KNUZ in Houston, KIMN in Denver, KJR in Seattle, KMEN in San Bernardino, WMCA in New York, KOMA in Oklahoma City, WLOF in Orlando, KDKA and KQV in Pittsburgh (both of which would eventually chart it at #1), and KXOK in St. Louis. More stations picked it up as November turned to December, and by the middle of the month, it would have been quite literally impossible to avoid hearing it, not just in America but in Australia, where it was also a monster.
“Snoopy’s Christmas” did not make the Billboard Hot 100, although it did top Billboard‘s special Christmas chart for the entire month of December 1967. It made the main Cash Box chart and rose to #10 for the week of December 30, 1967. KDKA ranked it as the #4 single for all of 1967, behind only “I Think We’re Alone Now,” “I’m a Believer,” and “Happy Together.” “Snoopy’s Christmas” would reappear on Billboard‘s Christmas charts in 1968 and 1969.
The Royal Guardsmen would do Snoopy one more time, with “Snoopy for President” in 1968, although 1969’s “The Smallest Astronaut” is clearly a Snoopy song without mentioning him: group member Bill Balogh says that Charles Schulz, who had been paid a sum of money by the record label before “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” was released (and who provided artwork for the group’s first album), had told them “no more Snoopy songs.” By then, the Guardsmen had already begun going their separate ways and would break up officially in 1970. As most bands do, they have reformed a few times over the years; in 2006, they recorded “Snoopy vs. Osama.”
Fifty years on, “Snoopy’s Christmas” is one of the holiday’s season’s essential records. It’s satisfying to hear it each year, satisfying in a way that lots of other familiar holiday songs are not. I can’t describe the feeling beyond that; it just is.
(Note to patrons: following this post, this blog is going on hiatus. Posting will resume in early December . . . unless somebody else dies before then.)
On November 21, 1970, “I Think I Love You” by the Partridge Family hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. But because Billboard was always a bit behind the street and is just one chart besides, the charts available at ARSA tell a more complete and accurate story.
The first station to list “I Think I Love You” was WLCY in Tampa, on a survey dated August 31. KREL in Corona, California, followed on September 2. The first city to go nuts over the record was Seattle, where KJR and KOL both debuted it on September 18. Two other major Top 40 stations, KFRC in San Francisco and KOIL in Omaha, charted it days before The Partridge Family debuted on ABC on September 25, 1970. So did KCPX in Salt Lake City, where it blasted to #1 in three weeks, on the chart dated October 6—before the record had even made the Hot 100. KJR moved it to #1 on its survey dated October 9.
“I Think I Love You” debuted on the October 10 Hot 100 at #75 (the same week WRIG in Wausau, Wisconsin, charted it at #1) and slow-cooked for the rest of the month, going from #75 to #60 to #41. But on October 31, it vaulted into the Top 40 at #17, then went to #7, #4, and finally #1. Its reach across the country was fast, and massive: WLS and WCFL in Chicago both charted it at #1 for the week of November 2. By November 21, it had also reached #1 in Seattle, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Jacksonville, Vancouver, Houston, Detroit, Akron, Buffalo, Minneapolis, Memphis, Winnipeg, Syracuse, Miami, San Diego, Boston, Fort Wayne, Flint, Grand Rapids, Toronto, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Fresno, Hartford, and Columbus (where WCOL would make it the #1 song for all of 1970, as would KOL in Seattle). It topped charts in smaller cities too, from Altoona, Pennsylvania, to Muncie, Indiana.
“I Think I Love You” would spend three weeks at #1 and six additional weeks in the Top 10 after that before going 11-15-22-25 and out. During its last week on the Hot 100, February 13, 1971, “Doesn’t Somebody Want to Be Wanted” debuted at #57, and another rocket ride began.
The Partridge Family was must-see-TV at my house; both my brother and I bought Partridge records and other swag in 1971, the year we turned 11 and 9—solidly in the Partridge demographic. I needn’t rehash my adult fondness for the family’s music: played by members of the Wrecking Crew and with vocals by the top session singers in Hollywood, it was far better-made than it needed to be. Neither do I need to revisit its place in the mythology of this blog: “I Think I Love You” was one of the 45s I got for Christmas in 1970.
And on November 21, 2017, 47 years to the day since “I Think I Love You” hit #1, David Cassidy died.
Any online obituary you choose to read will sketch the outlines of Cassidy’s career, so I’m not going to do it here. One thing I will do is suggest you listen to his 1990 Top 40 return, “Lyin’ to Myself,” which is clearly an artifact of its time but worth four minutes nevertheless. I’ll say instead that 47 years after it exploded into American popular culture like a polyester-and-puka-shell bomb, David Cassidy’s Keith-Partridge early-70s young-man cool endures. Who wouldn’t want to look like him, dress like him, or sing like him? I did. And I do.
About that other thing . . . .
(Pictured: Elton John and Rod Stewart on the soccer pitch.)
Radio Rewinder is a fascinating Twitter feed that somehow has only a few more followers than I do. It posts old record charts, pictures of radio personalities, and other ephemera very appealing to a geek such as I. A post the other night was a scan of the Billboard Hot 100 chart for the week of November 13, 1976.
As I look at this chart, I get the same sensation I used to get from reading baseball box scores, standings, and the long lists of hitting and pitching leaders that ran in the Sunday paper. It represents a record of what mattered at that moment, and who, a repository of truths (and illusions), and the raw material from which an infinite number of stories could be told.
I won’t make you wade through an infinite number, but you can find a few on the flip.