Pop music has become as disposable as an mp3 file. There are many terrific things about the Internet, but one of the negative consequences of so much information is that our connection to even the biggest hit song is usually tentative and rarely communal. The musical landscape has completely changed: we’re all on our own—we make our own playlists and ignore the filters and tastemakers (like critics and television appearances) that once exposed us to a wider range of music. At any moment in any week, there is still a number one song, but the sense of its ubiquity, inevitability, and presence in our lives has, in large part, gone the way of live instruments. I went to a Bat Mitzvah last weekend. It was a fantastic party, but oy, the music! The bland, blaring beats the D.J. played (which delighted the 13-year-olds, of course), were an endless, nerve-fraying, assault of tuneless tracks. The music was so bad, in fact, that when the D.J. played Jennifer Lopez‘ Get On The Floor, which contains an uber-hooky melodic figure that punctuates the chorus (“dance the night away live your life and stay young on the floor,”) it sounded so melodically ornate compared to the absence of even a single decent melody anywhere else in the evening’s playlist that I swear to God, at that moment, I saw the ghost of Irving Berlin hovering above the hype man, waving his baton and saying “see, bubele, there’s still hope!”
But how, Irving? Today, we’re all isolated in a musical world of our own creation, so when a record comes along like Adele’s “Someone Like You” or Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” they seem not just good, but exceptional, not just because they are well-crafted, melodic songs that could have been hits in any of the last four decades, but also because they cut through the digital din and we are, once again, able to feel the magic of connectedness through popular music. Carly Rae Jepsem’s “Call Me Maybe”—a pleasant little pop song— is a phenomenon, but why, Irving? Maybe it’s because, as Erasmus said in the early 1500s, “In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king.” I suppose the saying should be updated: “In the land of beats, we settle for whatever shitty melody we can get.” But oh, what joy these kids are missing!
Clive Davis, the legendary record executive used to have a challenge that he would present to any aspiring A&R person who sought his endorsement: “send me ten songs that should have been hits.” I suspect he used this test not just to assess the character and proficiency of the applicants ears, but also as a potential source for the rediscovery of songs worthy of being covered by any of his artists who sought outside material.
So in the spirit of community and, in a small way, to shine a light on overlooked excellence, here is my list of 13 songs (a baker’s dozen), in no particular order, that you’ve probably never heard, each of which—in my humble opinion—should have been a top-ten hit based on actual merit. I have tilted my list heavily toward established artists of a certain age because I have never witnessed anything like the current ageism at Top-40 radio that has become completely endemic. Most of the following examples are from artists who truly returned to form, delivered singles (or, in some cases whole CDs) of excellent music and were completely ignored by radio stations for whom they were formerly regarded as core artists simply because of their age. If these songs were recorded by kids I believe they would have been hits. It was Clive Davis who used to say “once a name, always a threat”— one must never rule out the possibility of a comeback. Historically I had always agreed with him, but in today’s youth-driven, beat- and phone-obsessed culture, I think Clive’s admonishment is as old fashioned as a manual typewriter.
This stunning ballad only peaked at #29 on the R&B chart and failed to chart Pop completely. Though the album it came from, Funk This, won two Grammy awards, sold a respectable 180,000 plus units, and was the best Chaka album in twenty years, it deserved much more cultural presence than it received. Khan is one of the all-time greats and a return to form like Funk This should have (and would in decades past) have been a big hit record with a top-ten song.
2. Stevie Nicks, “For What It’s Worth” (2011)
Despite excellent reviews and performing the song on The Jay Leno Show, America’s Got Talent, and Good Morning America, Stevie Nicks’ best single in 25 years failed to make the pop charts and peaked at a disappointing #25 on the Adult Contemporary chart. The mid-tempo ballad is as emotionally immediate and as touching as Sara, Gypsy or any of Nicks’ finest songs. Yes, pop radio has changed a lot, but in no way more than its cold-hearted ageism. To wit: if For What It’s Worth was a Taylor Swift song it would have been a number one pop and Country song. Listen for yourself.
3. Donna Summer, “Stamp Your Feet” (2008)
I’m still heartsick about the loss of the great Donna Summer earlier this year. But before that I was dismayed by the complete indifference radio showed Summer’s excellent Crayons collection, which was released in 2008 and peaked at number 17 on the Billboard Album Chart. Despite the fact that Stamp Your Feet enjoyed great exposure on American Idol and went to number one on the dance chart, the song failed to garner pop airplay and fizzled. It’s a terrible shame, not because one can easily imagine Pink having a number-one hit with the same song, but because the album would tragically be Donna’s last and it would have been poignant (and appropriate) for her to have left us with a big hit song. Kudos to my friend Pete Ganbarg who put Crayons and Funk This together and, if nothing else, created environments for both of these artists to create some of their greatest work, regardless of the outcome.
4. David Gray & Annie Lennox, “Full Steam” (2009)
Originally planned to be released as a single from Gray’s Draw The Line CD in 2009, the release date was pushed back and then abandoned. Who knows why? The song was ultimately released for digital download only and failed to chart in any format in the United States, but should have been a monster. Yes, I know, Gray has zero star quality (for proof of this check out the video of the song where Lennox’s incendiary charisma effortlessly blows him off the screen—even when she’s in repose), but that doesn’t matter when you’re listening to the radio. In years past Lennox enjoyed top-ten hits with lesser duets with everyone from Aretha Franklin to Al Green—criminal.
5. Joss Stone, “What Were We Thinking” (2007)
Something is wrong when one of the finest soul singers to emerge in the last decade has never had even a top-fifty Pop or R&B hit! Yes, some of her early albums sold well, but Stone’s overall career trajectory would have been helped immeasurably by significant mainstream airplay. It’s simply wrong that Joss’ biggest media moment was because of some crazy kidnapping plot last year instead of any one of her beautiful records. I chose What Were We Thinking (which was co-written and produced by the genius Rafael Saadiq) simply because it was my favorite track from the singer’s third album, Introducing Joss Stone. I love that the song and its production sounds like it could have been recorded at any time since the late 1960s. Stone is truly an old soul who has deserved much more than she’s gotten. And in case you don’t know, she’s young, English and gorgeous. Go figure.
Can a three-minute pop song have a social message anymore? Nowadays it would seem to be more of a liability than an asset to address anything other than fucking or bragging about money and luxury goods. Circumventing the smog of banal, hip-hop-flavored pop was a challenge for Kelly Rowland’s superb single, Stole, even back in 2002 when it was released. Coming directly on the heels of Dilemma, Destiny’s Child alumna Rowland’s number-one collaboration with Nelly, Stole should have been at least a top-five song in the States, matching its success in Europe. Instead, the single sputtered out at number 26 on the Pop chart, which still boggles my mind. I love Stole not only for its intrinsic excellence—thoughtful lyrics and monster chorus—but also because it was co-written by Steve Kipner, a legendary pop writer who also helped give us so many other classic top-ten hits like Christina Aguilera’s Genie in a Bottle, Natasha Bedingfield’s These Words, Chicago’s Hard Habit To Break, and of course, his biggest hit, Olivia Newton-John’s Physical. The relative failure of Stole was a significant signpost for me that the presence of melody on American pop radio was really being marched over the cliff at knife-point. The assailant? The rhythm arrangement or, as its better known nowadays: the beat.
It is rather confounding that this stunning, ambitious 2003 duet between two legendary superstars failed to garner any airplay on either side of the Atlantic! In the 70s, 80s, or 90s a song this excellent by two major artist would have a been an event (a position supported by the record’s Grammy win for Best Pop Collaboration with Vocal). Muscially this is one of Sting’s most complex compositions—apparently it quotes exactly the harmonic progression of Bach’s Little Prelude in C-minor. I guess the computer in Texas that spits out playlists for Clear Channel (the company that owns most pop stations in the country) has less regard for classical music than the radio programmers who made Walter Murphy and the Big Apple Band’s Fifth of Beethovena number-one hit in 1976.
Two thirds of CSN (or one half of CSNY, if you prefer), David Crosby and Graham Nash have historically enjoyed the least fraught relationship of any of the bands other permutations and have thus recorded as a duo many times over the years. I was tremendously sad at the time that this song—which ranks with any of their all-time best—received no attention of any kind, anywhere in the world, which just proves that creating something of great artistic and even commercial value is no guarantee that it will find its way to a large audience. If it wasn’t for journalist Bob Lefsetz’ newsletter I doubt that I would have ever known about this stunner. Some things defy reason and logic.
So many young bands have come out with 80s-sounding music in the last few years that you might be silly enough to think that the original progenitors would stand a decent chance in the marketplace. Think again! The Cars’ 2011 terrific single Sad Song, which sounds exactly like their old stuff, failed to gain enough airplay to make the pop chart and climbed to a tepid #33 on the Rock Singles chart; sad song, indeed.
10. George Michael and Mary J. Blige, “As” (1999)
This extremely well-done cover of this song from Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key of Life was a hit throughout Europe and other territories in 1999, but wasn’t even released in the United States. If memory serves this was near to the time George Michael came out and he wasn’t exactly catnip to radio programmers’ ears, but in my opinion if a song’s a hit, it’s a hit; let the listeners decide.
11. Whitney Houston, “Tell Me No” (2002)
Though 2002’s Just Whitney was just okay, it did feature what for me was one of the last Houston recordings to contain anything like the uplifting thrust of her earlier music. Tell Me No was not released as a single, but I doubt it would have done much better than any of the four songs that were, but charted poorly. Co-written by Babyface, Holly Lamar (Faith Hill’s Breathe), Kandi Burruss (T.L.C.’s No Scrubs), and Annie Roboff (Faith Hill’s This Kiss), when I listen to Tell Me No today I hear Whitney expressing the hopefulness that, in the end, would lose out to her demons. The song’s momentary flash of Whitney’s incandescence and its perhaps unintentional insight into the singer’s personal struggle and pain makes this musical moment almost heart-wrenching. Carlos Santana’s incredible guitar work is infused with a similar passion and is the icing on the cake. For me this is the last time Whitney showed us she still knew how.
12. Elton John, “I Want Love“ (2001)
It’s hard to feel much sympathy for someone whose accomplishments are as monumental as Sir Elton John’s, but it does seem most unfortunate that after years of making uneven albums that frequently had one or two excellent songs and the rest filler, he released what was unequivocally his most consistent album in twenty years just days before 9/11. The album got completely lost and it’s a real shame because in song after song, Elton gives us the amazing analog Elton John band sound, right down to the background vocals. His songwriting here is vital, clear and at least four or five songs stand up strongly against early-period Elton. The CD’s first single, I Want Love, failed to chart and the album peaked at number 15 on the Billboard chart (despite a very effective video that featured a just-a-moment-before-his-comeback Robert Downey, Jr.). Although he has had more Top-40 longevity than almost any other contemporary artist (primarily due to savvy pairings with younger artists), I’m not sure if radio would have shown any more love if the timing of the record had been further from the events of September 11th. If you like Elton and don’t know this album, you’re in for a great surprise.
13. Natalie Cole, “Leavin'” (2005)
I remember when I read The Book of Lists—the massively popular book first published in 1977 that presaged the sound-bite era by decades—I remember one list that made a particularly big impression on me: legendary film director William Wyler’s list of the ten-best films of all time. What struck about his list (don’t ask me why), was his inclusion of one of his own films as his tenth choice with the parenthetical comment: with apologies. Perhaps it was his classy way of acknowledging something he accomplished with a modicum of humility. So in a tip of the hat to Mr. Wyler (and with no attendant implication that I am the William Wyler of pop music), with apologies:
When I collaborated on Leavin’ with Natalie and producer Dallas Austin in 2005, the idea was to create a very old-school soul record and take Natalie back to her roots. I gave her this Shelby Lynne song and we worked it up like one of those classic R&B jams where the narrator tells you her story—and takes her time doing it. Natalie had a ball with it and, I think, brought Shelby’s song to a much deeper level. It would have been the second single off the album (after a cover of Aretha Franklin’s “Day Dreaming”), but Verve Records was in the midst of a regime change and didn’t have the infrastructure to work an R&B single (or pop record, for that matter), anyway. It’s still a bit of tender subject for me when I think of what might have happened if “Leavin’” was the hit it deserved to be.
*”Stevie Nicks” by Ron Domingue:
Ron is an artist, designer, and illustrator and has collaborated and worked with high profile clients and brands such as The World War II Museum, Lucid, Dinner Lab, Peter Mayer, DC Comics, RapJab, CSE, I Am Always Hungry Studios, Naked Pizza, Apple, Happy Cog, Trumpet, OPEN, Stuller, SKUBA, Deep Fried Ads, AIGA New Orleans. He studied History and Fine Art with a concentration in Drawing and Printmaking at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and currently resides in the Garden District, New Orleans.