. “If music be the food of love, play on.”
. -William Shakespeare
Hello. Welcome to my post. I’m calling it…
. The 252: Songs That Should’ve Been Bigger .
If you’re looking for timeless #1 classics, you’ve come to the wrong place. You won’t find any here. In fact, you won’t find any songs that went Top 10. Some didn’t reach the Top 40; a few didn’t even make the Billboard Hot 100! Some achieved immense popularity in later years, while others seem to be long forgotten by everyone but me. Obscurity is underrated.
You’ve likely heard (of) many of these songs, but there are also probably quite a few with which you are unfamiliar. That’s okay.
The exposé that follows these opening remarks examines these recordings that were not huge hits immediately following release. They should have been more popular with the mainstream audience but were not. Reasons they were held back from greater success are varied, myriad and often mysterious.
You won’t want to read this all at once. Check it out bit by bit at your leisure over a period of time.
Almost every song can be found on Google. Just type the title into the search. You might want to include the artist to avoid confusion with other songs. For example, there are two numbers here with the title “I Do” – one by The J. Geils Band, another by Colbie Caillat. There are also two different songs called “Runaway.” Here’s hoping you look up the songs and watch their accompanying videos. It’s fun!
For each entry you will find the song title, the recording artist, the year of greatest popularity according to the Billboard Hot 100, and the chart “peak” – the highest spot ever attained by the record. There’s also my brief…well, usually brief… commentary on the recording.
This is some of my favorite music. Number 1 hits and, to a lesser extent, Top 10 singles have been played to death and one gets tired, if not downright sick, of them. Unless you’re an over-the-top, avid listener, there’s no such problem here.
A few applicable rules of which you should be aware: A recording artist can appear only once on this list, even though he or she or they may have several songs worthy of inclusion. If an artist had a solo career after being with a group, he or she is eligible to cited here as both. For example, Glenn Fry and Don Henley each made the list as individuals even though they also were members of the Eagles. Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac is in the same camp, and there are others. A similar rationale is utilized when a musician is a member of one group then another; Jay Ferguson and Mark Andes were in Spirit before they formed Jo Jo Gunne. There’s a song here by each of those bands.
Why so much stuff from the early-to-mid 1970s? Is it because I was in high school and my early years of college back then and bought a lot of records? Or was music just better at that time? You’ll have to trust me on this one!
Actually it’s not as bad as you might think; if you read the Honorable Mention and Special Mention selections first, you’ll be left with the wrong idea because they’re heavily 1970 to 1975. But truth be told, there is at least one song in the 252 for every year from 1962 through 2017. That’s 56 years in a row, and there are several songs from before that.
Why 252? Others have made lists with 250 items, and this way I beat them! (Actually, with the aforementioned extra songs added in, there are 286 total.)
Lastly, but importantly, this is far from an exclusive list. There are plenty of other great songs that didn’t ride the upper echelons of the charts. I fully recognize that this effort is little more than the tip of the iceberg.
Well, I think that’s everything. Time to get started.
. “Put your records on;
. Tell me your favorite song.”
. – Corrine Bailey Rae
*** Honorable Mention ***
“A World of Our Own”
“Come On Get Higher”
2008 – 2009
“Flirtin’ with Disaster”
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
“Have a Nice Day”
Did not chart!
“I Believe in Music”
“I’m Already There”
“I Think God Can Explain”
“I Will Be in Love with You”
1978 – 1979
“Keep Your Head Up”
“Smoky Mountain Rain”
“You’ll Think of Me”
“You’re My Best Friend
*** Special Mention ***
“Behind Blue Eyes”
“Don’t Ever Be Lonely (A Poor Little Fool Like Me)”
Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose
“Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing”
“El Condor Pasa (If I Could)”
Simon & Garfunkel
Green, Green Grass of Home
“Hey, Big Brother”
1971 – 1972
“Jesus Is Just Alright”
“Man in Black”
“Rocky Mountain Way”
“Starry Eyed Surprise”
Paul Oakenfold feat. Shifty ShellShock
“Under My Wheels”
“You’re a God”
Journey is from San Francisco and this song, written by lead singer Steve Perry and guitarist Neal Schon, is about that city. Well, that’s how it turned out anyway. Perry was in Los Angeles and on the verge of joining Journey. He says, “I had the song written in Los Angeles almost completely except for the bridge and it was written about Los Angeles. It was, ‘When the lights go down in the city and the sun shines on L.A.’ ” I’ll bet you didn’t know that! The song through the years would become one of Journey’s most famous, despite never sniffing the Top 40.
The Samaritans were a secular emotional-support-for-the-suicidal organization in Britain. In 1995 they were alarmed at the high suicide rate of young men in their geographic region and the reluctance of those men to seek help, so they started an advertising campaign. It was nothing more than the lyrics to this song and their hotline number. Lead singer Michael Stipe, who intentionally sings so he’s difficult to understand, enunciated very clearly to make sure the message got through. The state of Nevada, which also has a high rate of teenage suicide, praised R.E.M. for their part in addressing the problem. Stipe is proud the R.E.M. song has saved lives, as well he should be. Strings on the record were arranged by Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones.
“Send In the Clowns”
Stephen Sondheim wrote this for the musical A Little Night Music. It was intended to fit the plot. The “clowns” were fools and the ending line “Don’t bother, they’re here” means that “we’re the fools.” Judy Collins had the perfect voice to make a hit out of this beautiful but very sad number about a lifetime filled with regret and the irony of it.
Peak: Did not chart!
The subtleties of Traffic’s original version, with its exquisite piano, saxophone, melancholy lyrics and question mark in the title, make it superior to Joe Cocker’s cover. Cocker released it twice and it charted both times, as it did for two other recording artists, one of which was Grand Funk Railroad. Others to record it include the Fifth Dimension, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Isaac Hayes, the Jackson 5, Rare Earth, Lou Rawls, and Three Dog Night. Overall it’s been covered by at least 45 acts. Traffic consisted of four musicians, two of which were Steve Winwood and Dave Mason. Mason wrote this rock classic that wasn’t a hit for the original performers.
Peak: Did not chart!
AM radio stations once ruled the day, and the years 1970, 1972, 1975 and 1977 are specifically cited in this tribute. The Ford Pinto, bell bottoms and 8-track tapes are also mentioned to further capture the mood of the era. The song’s vocals were made to mimic the sound of AM radio, when the transmission didn’t allow for a lot of bass because of restrictive bandwidth.
Can schmaltzy stuff attain perfection? Sherman was a teen idol around 1970. He would retire from music and acting later in the decade to become a paramedic and a policeman! But he did so with seven Top 40 hits in the rear view mirror. Young women used to scream uncontrollably at his concerts, causing Sherman to suffer hearing loss. In addition to singing, Sherman learned to play 16 musical instruments.
“Crash into Me”
The Dave Matthews Band
Peak: Did not chart!
Didn’t make the Hot 100 but what nominated for a Grammy. What’s it about? It’s often mistaken for a love song, with enough lyrical lines to justify such thinking. But it’s really about voyeurism; Matthews used the phrase “peeping toms” in discussing it. The singer, outside and watching the object of his lusty, juvenile desire through a window, probably sees her in a bathrobe because he sings, “Tied up and twisted the way I’d like to be.” He’s picturing himself with his arms around her from behind. Kinky stuff for a pop song, which may explain why it failed to chart. But there are sufficient lines for other interpretations too. Among them: masturbation, wet dream, the complex emotion love brings, a love triangle, and perhaps as many more as there are listeners.
“Hey Leonardo (She Likes Me for Me)”
Blessid Union of Souls
Leonardo DiCaprio, Tyson Beckford, Robert Redford, Cindy Crawford and Jim Carrey ae among the celebrities mentioned in this upbeat number. It’s about being loved for who you are, even if you lack the traits that make these are other stars desirable. Blessid Union of Souls is from Cincinnati, Ohio. They had bigger hits, but the message here, though delivered with humor, is spot on.
“That’s Not My Name”
The Ting Tings
Only Top 40 hit for the British duo. Singer Katie White says it’s her “ranting about my frustrations with the recording industry.” A critic called the 45 “a well-shaken can of cola…brimming with sticky, yummy, fizzy goodness.” The song’s style reminds me of another one-hit wonder – Toni Basil with “Mickey” almost 30 years earlier.
“I Want to Take You Higher”
Sly and the Family Stone
Though Ike and Tina Turner covered the song the same year and actually charted slightly higher, Sylvester “Sly Stone” Stewart wrote and produced it, and his funky version was better. The song was covered too by the Jackson 5, Duran Duran and Toto, among others. “I Want to Take You Higher” would have benefitted by being shorter than five and a half minutes. A Rock and Roll Hall of Fame exhibit in the late 1990s was dubbed “I Want to Take You Higher: The Psychedelic Era 1965-1969,” and there was a book with the same title.
Peak: Did Not Chart!
Inspiration for the song was the loneliness Pat Monahan felt after his 2004 divorce. He says, “You don’t choose your experiences; they choose you.” It seems he wrote the lyrics as a cathartic exercise; consider the lines, “This new rhythm I pursue is just my getting over you. I’m telling myself that I need to.”
“Fool for the City”
From the album of the same name. I’ve lived most of my life in the country and prefer it; here’s the opposite point of view. It’s not about a particular city but rather city life in general. The lyrics actually extol the virtues of life in the boonies, but no matter – the narrator desires urbia. “Breathing all the clean air, sitting in the sun. When I get my train fare, I get up and run. I’m ready for the city. Air pollution, here I come!” Yeah, I’d say he’s definitely a fool for the city. Hard driving, monotonous, but unapologetic rock and roll.
“My City Was Gone”
Peak: Did not chart!
This would have been called “Ohio” if not for the CSNY song with that title. Chrissy Hynde wrote it; she was from Akron. Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh has used the song’s opening as the lead-in to his talk radio show for more than 30 years. Limbaugh hadn’t asked permission, and EMI ordered him to stop. He did so until the liberal Hynde said her parents listen to him all the time and that she didn’t object to him using her song.
Five for Fighting
As might be expected, this song was huge on the adult contemporary chart, sitting at #1 for 12 weeks total after three different ascensions to that spot. It’s a simple tune about how precious life is as we move through its various stages. We should live in the moment and be grateful for everything. By song’s end the narrator is 99 and “dying for just another moment.” Most of us get there sooner, but ain’t it the truth?
“Someone That I Used to Love”
She decides, sadly, that moving on is better than ripping up her heart over someone for whom her best wasn’t enough. Famed lyricist Gerry Goffin wrote the words; “Someone That I Used to Love” was one of over 100 chart hits for the prolific native New Yorker. Not long after this record, Cole fell heavily into drugs but recovered later in the decade. She never really tried to escape her father’s long shadow and won seven Grammys for her album Unforgettable…With Love, on which she covered many of her dad’s standards. Cole died of heart failure on New Year’s Eve in 2015. She was 65 years old.
“New York Minute”
Peak: #48 In parapsychology “promnesia” loosely means “memory of the future.” Did Henley experience a touch of it with respect to 9-11, even though the song peaked more than 10 years before the infamous terrorist attacks on The City That Never Sleeps? The melody has a haunting, despairing, ominous tone to it. And consider these lyrics: “Harry got up, dressed all in black, went down to the station, and he never came back… In a New York minute, everything can change… You hear the sirens wail. Somebody’s going to emergency…The wolf is always at the door…You better take care of your own. One day they’re here, next day they’re gone…The groaning city in the gathering dark.” Eerie stuff, no?
“Breathe (2 AM)”
Music critic Chuck Taylor called it “an introspective yet confessional tale about learning to handle everyday challenges.” It’s getting beyond the blunders we all make and moving on. In the first verse the blunder is becoming pregnant by a man you don’t love. Wise if sobering message in the chorus: “You can’t jump the track; we’re like cars on a cable. And life’s like an hourglass glued to the table. No one can find the rewind button.” Ah, but isn’t a visit to an abortion clinic an attempt to find that elusive button? “Breathe (2 AM)” was included in the Hot 100 for 34 weeks, thus tying the record for most weeks on the chart without reaching the Top 40.
“Mustang Sally” comes awful close to being rhythm and blues at its best. It’s about a girl who wildly runs around town in her new car, purchased for her by the narrator (singer), whom she now tends to ignore in favor of her oh-so-sweet ride. He admonishes her to slow down, literally and figuratively, with the line “Oh, I got to put your flat feet on the ground.”
“Should I Stay or Should I Go?”
The song originally contained the line, “On your front or on your back,” which was deemed too sexually explicit to expect radio stations’ playlists to embrace it. So the line was changed to the much more generic, “If you want me off your back.” Interestingly, the line, “You’re happy when I’m on my knees” wasn’t touched. “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” was among the English punk band’s few fine moments.
Jars of Clay
Few songs have ever gotten airplay on both alternative rock and contemporary Christian stations, but this one did. Since Jars of Clay is a contemporary Christian group, folks assume this song is about God inundating all the earth, but such is not the case. The band has indignantly said it’s not “about Noah,” though the line in the hook, “If I can’t swim after 40 days” certainly lends credence to those who say it’s about the great flood. Genesis 7:12 reads, “And the rain was upon the earth forty days and forty nights.”
“September” was Daughtry’s eighth and last Top 40 hit. Six of the others did better and the remaining one equaled it, but this was one of his better songs. That’s both my opinion and his. It was inspired by Chris Daughtry’s formative years with his brother in small-town North Carolina. The only feasible explanation for this song’s failure to chart higher is that the listening public had tired of the distinctive Daughtry sound; his aforementioned hits had all come in the previous 3½ years.
She put out only one album and two singles. She was at the time married to Journey’s Jonathan Cain, who wrote this song. She didn’t appreciate critics saying she sounded like Pat Benatar, but she did. Cain was also an actress; she would play Reese Witherspoon’s mother in the Legally Blonde movies.
“Fire Under My Feet”
Peak: Did not chart!
To me it’s a cross between Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” and Emeli Sandé’s “Next to Me.” (See #86.) All three women hail from Great Britain. “Fire Under My Feet” is an attempted comeback for Lewis, who won Britain’s The X Factor in 2006 and released at least one single each year thereafter through 2013. In 2014…nothing. Except leaving the only record label she’d ever been with in favor of a different one. The failure of this song (didn’t chart in the U.S., didn’t make the Top 40 in her native land) had to be a disappointment to Lewis.
The Grass Roots
This group had 14 Top 40 hits in the mid 1960s to early 1970s; “Glory Bound” was the second-to-last of them. Their sound was built for AM radio – uptempo, infectious stuff that was easy to sing along to. It got in your head. The “band” consisted of three different groups of musicians that were billed as the Grass Roots. On the March 25, 1972 chart in which “Glory Bound” peaked, the songs that were in the Top 10 included America’s “A Horse With No Name,” Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold,” Robert John’s “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” Paul Simon’s “Mother and Child Reunion,” Nilsson’s “Without You,” and Cher’s “The Way of Love.” I own five of those six songs on 45s and the sixth one on an album. Do I have “Glory Bound” on a single? You bet! It should’ve charted higher, but to say it belonged in the Top 10 with such heady company would be quite a reach.
“Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap”
Peak: Did not chart!
Australian, hard-rocking AC/DC sought album sales success and achieved it. Chart singles were secondary if not incidental. The singer here is a hit man; among his dirty deed offers to the listener are concrete shoes, cyanide, TNT, neckties, contracts, and high voltage. The singer invites those with school, domestic or other problems to call him at 36-24-36. An Illinois couple sued because they got hundreds of calls to their number, which was 362-4368. What sounded to them like “8” was actually “Hey!” This song was released in other parts of the world before it was released in this country, which is very unusual because the U.S. is where the money is when it comes to pop music. But remember: Singles weren’t the focus!
Hoyt Axton wrote this, as well as the better-known “The Pusher.” Both were songs damning hard drugs and what they do to users. He also wrote the Three Dog Night hits “Joy to the World” and “Never Been to Spain.” A sampling of the lyrics to “Snowblind Friend”: “Stoned on some new potion he found upon the wall of some unholy bathroom in some ungodly hall,” and “He said he wanted heaven but prayin’ was too slow, so he bought a one-way ticket on an airline made of snow.”
“The Fire Down Below”
Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band
Peak: Did not chart!
About prostitution, how customers come from all walks of life, and how the oldest profession thrives everywhere. Advice columnist Ann Landers denounced it for extolling sex. But Seger was unaffected, later releasing “The Horizontal Bop,” which had lyrics that made “The Fire Down Below” seem mild by comparison.
“Having a Party”
Cooke wrote it. The recording session was a blast, which matched the title and the feel of the song. Lots of friends were there dancing. Two drummers, two bass guitars, two lead guitars, a piano, a sax, six violins, two violas, two cellos, and backing vocalist Lou Rawls comprised a supporting cast uncommon at the time. Cooke always ended his concerts with this number, often with his warm-up acts joining him on stage. Rod Stewart took a cover version to the Top 40 more than 20 years later. It had previously been covered by the Pointer Sisters, Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes, and Luther Vandross.
“Rest in Pieces”
Saliva hails from Memphis, Tennessee. They’ve had two Hot 100 entries; both came in this calendar year. They also toured in 2003, opening shows for Kiss and Aerosmith; they were selected over Billy Idol for the tour. Lead guitarist Wayne Swinney is the only band member to have been with the group since its inception in 1996. They’re still going, but without much success over the past five years. So “Rest in Pieces” can be considered a diamond in the rough.
Miranda Lambert duet with Carrie Underwood
Went to #1 on country chart, becoming the first duet by female solo artists in over 20 years to do so. The two had been wanting to collaborate for a long while. Said Lambert, “It took me forever to write the email to ask her, like I was writing to someone I had a crush on and you don’t want to mess it up.” Underwood didn’t respond for a week, causing Lambert to think Underwood hates her and hates the song! But Underwood’s long-awaited response was, “I think it’s awesome; let’s do it.” Lambert felt the song was “a meshing of our styles” and that it was “really rock and roll” more than country. To express her thanks, Lambert gifted Underwood with the motorcycle Underwood had ridden in the video.
“Water Under the Bridge”
Adell wrote this mid-tempo number in which the listener can hear influences of disco and gospel, and of course that amazing voice. A music critic noted the song “sacrifices none of Adell’s trademarked intimacy.” So let’s see…Disco, gospel, and intimacy all prominent in the same song. So how could it stall so far short of the Top 10?
“Are You Gonna Be My Girl”
Peak: #29 Australian rock band Jet’s signature song utilized an early Motown swing beat some 40 years later. They employed an obvious, childish, I-don’t-care-what-you-think rhyme scheme in a song about watching and wanting a stripper in a club. ” Now you don’t need the money when you look like that, do ya, honey?”
“It’s Sad to Belong”
England Dan & John Ford Coley
Considered by some a “timeless classic,” this song spent five straight weeks atop the Easy Listening chart, which is now called Adult Contemporary. The duo had four other songs go to #1 on that chart. Easy on the ears, indeed.
“It’s All Been Done”
1998 – 1999
It’ll soon be 10 years that this song has been played at Detroit Red Wings home hockey games. Songwriter Stephen Page felt his previous song, “Brian Wilson,” had been too verbal and sought to write something more simplistic, which explains the “woo hoo hoo” chorus. In BNL’s native Canada this was a #1 song. It didn’t do nearly so well on the rest of the planet.
“Fields of Gold”
Sting wrote it. While “Fields of Gold” wasn’t a big hit in the U.S. or his native United Kingdom, it has blossomed into one of his best-known songs. It’s really now a middle-of-the-road standard and has been covered by many. The wistful lyrics made this simple tune what it was: “Many years have passed since those summer days among the fields of barley. See the children run as the sun goes down among the fields of gold.” Sting had just purchased a house near vast barley fields.
Chad & Jeremy
The first song Chad Stewart ever wrote, though he gave co-writing credit to the woman who let him compose the song on her piano! The arranger/producer of the song insisted on the soft, almost whispery vocals (as opposed to “belting it out”) heard on the recording. The so-called “British Invasion” helped “Yesterday’s Gone” in the United States.
“Where the Hell Are My Friends?”
Peak: Did not chart!
How about these opening lyrics to a song by an unknown group? “Where the hell are my friends? Home alone, not again. Friday, wine, and the Internet – The only love I seem to get.” LANY is an alternative electronic trio from Los Angeles. Their name is an acronym for “Los Angeles New York.” It’s pronounced “Lay-Nee.”
“You Could Have Been a Lady”
This record was a cover of Hot Chocolate’s original version, which never attained popularity. Although you may have never heard of April Wine, the Canadian band has released over 20 albums since its inception in 1969. The group has undergone many lineup changes; in its various reincarnations almost 20 musicians have been members of the hard-rocking band. “You Could Have Been a Lady” was one of only three Top 40 hits in the U.S.A.
“Love Me Love Me Love”
His only Top 40 hit was the instrumental “Music Box Dancer,” which peaked at #3. This makes me wonder if I was the only person to buy the 45 “Love Me Love Me Love.” It probably would’ve done better on the charts if it had followed “Music Box Dancer” rather than preceding it. Gotta love a harmonica-driven number, right? “I went back to the corner to hear the organ play. A policeman said the old man died one cold November day. I waited for a minute then sadly walked away. Though I couldn’t see the old man, I’m sure I heard him say, ‘If you love me love me love, why did you ever leave me, girl?'”
“No One Like You”
Arguably one of the two best songs by Scorpions (“Wind of Change” being the other). The German band has sold more than 100,000,000 records worldwide. They’ve been a group for 52 years. Rolling Stone called them “the heroes of heavy metal.” MTV said, “Ambassadors of rock.” The Scorpions have a star on the Hollywood RockWalk. Prejudice against heavy metal and a dearth of Hot 100 singles has kept them from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Bowling for Soup
The song itself is more than 10 years old; its topic is more than 30 years old. Nostalgia, anyone? Among the musicians mentioned from the mid-1980s: Whitesnake, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, U2, Blondie, Wham!, Limp Biscuit, Duran Duran, Van Halen, and Motley Crue. Kind of like checking out this list of non-Top 10ers, huh? Memories come flooding back! A recording of the song for Radio Disney cleaned up the lyrics a bit. For example, “One Prozac a day” became “One workout a day” and “She was gonna shake her ass” became the milder “She was gonna shake it right.”
“Rock and Roll”
This is one of few Led Zeppelin songs in which all four band members – Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and John Bonham – received writing credits. At inception it was called “It’s Been a Long Time.” Thirty years later Cadillac’s “Break Through” ad campaign made “Rock and Roll” the first Led Zeppelin song to be used in commercials, which debuted in the 2002 Super Bowl. Sales of the luxury car would rise in the next year by a healthy 16%.
Instrumentals are at an inherent disadvantage because listeners have no chance to relate to nonexistent lyrics, but this number has become something of a standard in jazz music. It was written by Bobby Womack, who has a song at #21 on this list. Benson’s album of the same name went to #1 on the album chart.
“FM (No Static At All)”
Frontmen Donald Fagen and Walter Becker wrote this for the movie FM, which is set in a radio station and paved the way for the television comedy WKRP in Cincinnati. At the time FM was just coming into its own. The song is a blues, jazz and rock hybrid, as were many Steely Dan efforts. Eagles stalwarts Glenn Frey, Don Henley and Timothy B. Schmitt sang background vocals. Unfortunately the movie tanked at the box office. However, a music critic called it “a shining gem” and added, “It’s polished, it’s got hooks, it’s got cool lyrics, it’s got great guitar, and it’s got smooth sax.” Fagen believes the failure of the movie kept the song from doing better on the charts.
“Love Walks In”
A song about aliens. A metaphor for new love in one’s life? Van Halen seeking new fans? Nope. It’s about aliens, literally. New lead singer Sammy Hagar wrote the words, and he claims to have had out-of-body experiences with extraterrestrials on numerous occasions. He calls the ETs “The Nine” because, in his words now, “They’re from the Ninth Dimension.” He adds, “Anyone who thinks we’re the only ones here, despite the vastness of the entire universe, is fucking crazy.”
“Sunday Morning” was the fourth single from their ridiculously successful debut album Songs About Jane. The music released by Maroon 5 since has not been nearly as good. They’ve become formulaic and are clearly putting out stuff that panders to Top 40 radio. (“Sugar” is a good example. ) These guys were far more artistic and not so much Adam Levine with his back-up band back in the days of “Sunday Morning.”
“The Angels Listened In”
The composition of this tune certainly followed the blueprint that was in place for pop music in the ’50s. Still, there’s something charming about the notion that angels are listening and fulfilling the yearnings of one’s heart. Those who think, “If you’ve heard one Fifties song, you’ve heard them all” need to think again.
“8th World Wonder”
Locke finished third in the 2003 American Idol competition. This is her only Hot 100 single, as she has set her goals on adult contemporary. She experienced success in that through 2008 but mostly with Christmas songs, for which her cheery voice is ideal.
The concept of this song is juvenile: In a mere week the singer falls head over heels for a guy she perceives to be as amazing as the seven wonders of the world.
“Anytime (I’ll Be There)”
As the previous generation’s crooner, 59-year-old Ol’ Blue Eyes’ voice was beyond its pinnacle and at times sounds almost tortured here. But overall he does all right on this Paul Anka-penned number. In 1965 Sinatra recorded an album entitled September of My Years – and this song came along a full decade after that! But if we’re talking popular music in the 20th century, only three other acts could hold a candle to him: Bing Crosby, Elvis and the Beatles.
“Big Yellow Taxi”
Studio version stalled at #67 in 1970; live version released in ’74 did much better. Counting Crows version with Vanessa Carlton peaked just outside the Top 40 in 2003. Mitchell’s first trip to Hawaii resulted in the writing of this song. She awoke in the morning, looked out her window at the mountains, then looked down and saw seemingly infinite pavement. Hence, the classic line, “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” Tune was also covered by Bob Dylan, Percy Faith and Amy Grant, among others. Mitchell believes her song has become part of the culture – and she’s right.
Mariah Carey feat. Miguel
Mariah Carey has had an absurd total of 18 chart-topping singles, 14 of which came in the Nineties. This song is retro to that era, so it’s a mystery to pop music aficionados and music critics why it didn’t reach the rarefied air of her heyday. Miguel has been compared as a vocalist to Prince, so don’t blame his presence on the record for somehow weighing it down. More likely it’s the listener. Maybe the public’s musical tastes have changed. Maybe rap and hip-hop have worn us down. But there are no “maybes” about this: If you back “#Beautiful” up 20 years, it’s right there with Mariah’s others.
“You Don’t Miss Your Water”
Bell wrote this himself and it became his signature song as well as a classic of Memphis Soul. (Motown production might have helped it.) When your work is covered by the greats, you know you’ve got something. Here it was Otis Redding, the Byrds, and Jerry Lee Lewis, among others. “You Don’t Miss Your Water” was the first of almost 50 singles released by Bell, but he never had a Top 40 hit. In 2013, at the age of 77, Bell performed this song in the East Room of the White House for an audience that included President and Mrs. Obama, front and center. Bell looked and sounded great, and it’s Booker T. Jones of Booker T. & the M.G.’s on the organ. Just Google “William Bell performs ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water’ In Performance at the White House.”
“I Can’t Make You Love Me”
This was created by Nashville country music songwriters Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin over more than half a year. Shamblin: “One day [Reid] said, ‘Come up to the living room,’ where his piano was. He sat down and started playing this melody, and it was one of the most moving pieces of music I’d heard. I mean, it hit me in a hard way…Instantly I knew it was the best thing I’d ever been part of.” They slowed the tempo to increase the melodrama. They had in mind three recording artists to give it to; Bette Midler and Linda Ronstadt were the others. Reid originally conceived the song in reading about a drunk shooting at his girlfriend’s car. The man said in court, “I learned, Your Honor, that you can’t make a woman love you if she don’t.” Raitt recorded the song in one take, admitting later that she couldn’t recapture the sad emotion in subsequent takes. Covered by Adele.
Peak: Did not chart!
From the underrated album The Division Bell. At times uses Steven Hawking’s electronic voice. The song implies that we can talk problems through. One of the three songwriters was David Gilmour; he says, “It’s more of a wish than a belief.” The unmistakable Pink Floyd sound is in full force here, and the female vocals are a nice added touch.
Tokyo Police Club
Peak: Did not chart!
Indie group formed in 2005. The closest this group has come to making it is rubbing elbows with those who have. Opened for Weezer, who also have a song in this lengthy treatise (See #15.), in 2008, and performed with Foster the People (“Pumped Up Kicks”) in 2012. They’ve played numerous festivals and released 16 singles, none of which have really done anything on the pop charts, even in their native Canada. But sometimes a group just needs a break. Anyway, I know a worthy song when I hear one.
“Run, Run, Run
Jo Jo Gunne
There’s a good reason this number is reminiscent of Spirit’s “I Got a Line on You,” which we’ll get to further up (or is it “down?”) this list. (See #65.) Both songs feature a “full” rock sound. The common denominators are vocalist and keyboard player Jay Ferguson and bass guitarist Mark Andes. Ferguson would later have a solo hit – 1978’s “Thunder Island.”
Few juiced-up rockers are melodic, but here’s one that is. It became a staple of the Eagles’ concert performances, as well it should have been. “Already Gone” was covered by Tanya Tucker almost 20 years later and by Wilson Phillips 30 years later. Glenn Frey, who didn’t write the song, sang it and has declared, ” ‘Already Gone’ – That’s me being happier; that’s me being free.”
Inspired by her work with special needs children at a summer camp way back in the Seventies when Merchant was still in her early teens. Specifically it was about a woman handicapped with a congenital condition since birth. It’s about overcoming what appear to be insurmountable challenges. Says Merchant, “I’ve met a lot of people through this song, and they told me that they’ve taken it on as their song, that it describes them. It describes their strengths in spite of what others would see as deficiencies.”
“I Feel a Song (In My Heart)”
Gladys Knight & The Pips
To be sure, the lady had soul. The Pips were her brother and a couple cousins. They had 26 Top 40 singles, eight of which went Top 10. The recording career spanned more than a quarter of a century; the group was on the charts from 1961 to 1988. They’re members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but Gladys Knight and The Pips would be a good reason to change the name to Rock and SOUL Hall of Fame.
“Where Were You (On Our Wedding Day)?”
I like Fifties music and I like saxophone. ‘Nuff said. Nicknamed “Mr. Personality,” Price was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And deservedly so. The song was one of 10 Top 40 hits. On the more black-oriented rhythm and blues chart, he amassed 14 Top 10 singles. In the more enlightened day and age in which we now live, in which theoretically everyone gets a fair shot regardless of race, he would have been a superstar. In the same league as Elvis.
“It Sure Took a Long, Long Time”
“Lobo” is the Spanish word for “wolf,” but his real name is Roland Kent LaVoie. In the early 1970s he had eight Top 40 singles, all of which he wrote himself. The melodies were simple but catchy, as was the case here, and he was a fine lyricist. Like this one, his songs were about love relationships.
“Accidentally in Love”
On the soundtrack for the movie Shrek 2 and nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song. Lead singer Adam Duritz, who wrote it: “My songs for Counting Crows are mature and generally don’t get a chance to reach kids. To be part of something like that is pretty cool.” He had written “Accidentally in Love” on demand, just for the movie, and he doesn’t normally work that way. The only requirement is that it had to be “uplifting” – and it is.
“After the Glitter Fades”
Want proof that she could have been all-the-rage if she’d gone into country music? Well, here you go. It’s an autobiographical song written by Nicks herself (Is that redundant?), probably in the early 1970s and certainly before the great success of Fleetwood Mac in the late ’70s. Regarding the line, “The loneliness of a one-night stand is hard to take,” Nicks says it wasn’t about a man but rather about performing in a town then scurrying off to the next one. She said, “I was talking about your one-night stands where you run in, played, and left.”
“I Need Your Help, Barry Manilow”
A clever, lyrically brilliant parody. And it sounds like a Barry Manilow tune. The narrator cites his misfortunes and concludes that a Manilow song could comfort him because “no one knows how to suffer quite like you.” A spoken piece toward the end of the record mentions seven Manilow song titles. Manilow never met Ray Stevens but nonetheless sent a telegram, which said in part, “I’m knocked out by the record. It’s the most flattering thing to happen to me in a long time.” Give this a listen and have some fun!
Karen Carpenter fancied herself a drummer who sang! When I was in college, I declared that she had the best female voice in pop music. A black friend challenged that assertion. I said he couldn’t name a black female singer who’s better. He said,
“Gladys Knight.” I scoffed, shook my head, smirked and said dismissively, “No.” I added, “Roberta Flack, maybe.” This song’s soft, too-slow first minute probably held it back from bigger things. Richard Carpenter has said his late sister didn’t care for the song and never changed her mind. However, it may have highlighted her vocal ability as well as anything else she ever did.
“Reason to Believe”
Stewart released the song originally in 1971, but it was overshadowed by its B-side, “Maggie Mae,” and peaked well short of the Top 40. An unplugged version did much better 22 years later. It was done live with Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones, who had played with Stewart in the Faces in the early 1970s at the time of the first recording. Infusing his singing with passion was always a forte for Stewart, and it’s evident here.
“Wondering Where the Lions Are”
Perhaps it’s too late, but the man’s last name is pronounced “Co-burn.” This song is his only Top 40 hit in the United States, though he would have seven singles go higher in his native Canada than this one did. It had a different sound for AM airplay as the new decade settled in and has been covered by both Leo Sayer and Jimmy Buffet. At the time the song was written, China and Russia were contemplating nuclear war. One night Coburn repeated a dream he’d had years before, with one important difference. Lions still wandered the streets, only this second time they were not scary and threatening. He wrote the first few verses of “Wondering Where the Lions Are” while driving from town the next morning. The dream had apparently eased his concerns about nuclear holocaust.
“That Thing You Do!”
Missed the sacred Top 40 by one spot! From the movie of the same name, in which “The One-ders,” a fictional Sixties group, win a talent show with this song. It then climbs into the Top 10. It was nowhere near so successful in real life, although it was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song. True to the era it was supposed to be from with its British Invasion sound.
This number was nominated for a Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance and has become a signature song for Englishwoman Dido Armstrong. It was much bigger in the rest of the world, going to #1 or #2 in many countries. Critics loved it, writing of Dido’s “sweet delivery,” calling it “comfort food for the ears,” and “the definition of ‘wistful’ in a song.” The album it was from, Life for Real, sold a million copies in only five days and more than five million overall.
The group was known for this one song, and it didn’t even get to the top half of the Top 40. But it’s become an iconic number for Felix Pappalardi and his bandmates. He insisted on repeated takes while recording the song, and drummer Corky Laing got tired of it. So he began to use a cowbell as a lead-in. Pappalardi loved it and left it in, thus creating the classic and distinctive intro. The most famous use of a cowbell in a pop song ever?”
Quincy Jones feat. James Ingram
Ingram sang it. My girlfriend at the time had a freakish elbow that hyperextended well beyond 180º when she’d lie on her side and prop her head up. I used to kid her that I heard the line, “I think my all may have been too much” as “I think my arm may have bent too much.” Haven’t seen her or talked to her in years, but I’ll bet she remembers!
“Bell Bottom Blues”
This song made it to the nether regions of the Billboard Hot 100 twice, two years apart – February of 1971 and March of 1973. It reached #91 the first time, taken from the album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs and credited to Derek and the Dominoes. The latter release was the exact same recording but credited to Eric Clapton, who was the principal songwriter. The song was written for Pattie Boyd, the then-wife of Clapton’s good friend George Harrison. She had asked Clapton to purchase a pair of bell bottom jeans when he went to the United States. Clapton had a thing for Boyd and would later marry her, though he was clearly agonizing over his feelings for her at the time.
“You’re an Ocean”
Peak: Did not chart!
Billy Ocean played piano for it. Like their earlier hits this number was melodic in nature and had that feel-good quality to it. Despite the release of three more albums, Fastball pretty much faded from view after this song.
“If Not for You”
Written by Bob Dylan. Covered by George Harrison on his album All Things Must Pass.
But it took this lovely lady to make it a hit – her first. Interestingly, she didn’t like the song and recorded it reluctantly. When she went into the studio, she had never even heard Dylan’s original, just Harrison’s cover!
“Just Like a Woman”
Edie Sedgwick? Joan Baez? A critic: “Everyone can understand the feeling and the relationship described in the song, so why does it matter if Dylan wrote it with one woman in mind?” Dylan was accused of being misogynistic, as the title strongly implies, as does the line from the chorus: “You break just like a little girl.” To me the song is not about a man dissing a woman, but rather a man experiencing a female who is both woman and girl at once. And that’s not sexist.
“Man! I Feel Like a Woman!”
The world’s best-selling female country artist crossed over to pop and made the Top 40 with this sassy celebration of woman power; Twain won a Grammy in the category “Best Female Country Vocal Performance.” A music critic said the song incorporates “a hook that sells like ice cream in the summer.” Twain co-wrote the song with her husband at the time, famed record producer “Mutt” Lange. She says, “I love to write stories; songwriting is my favorite part of what I do. I like to give every song its own personality and attitude.”
James Last Band
I generally don’t care for instrumentals, but this Giorgio Moroder composition is a good one, featuring mellow sax on the melody. “The Seduction” was the love theme in the movie American Gigilo. James Last was a German big band leader. He sold more than 100 million albums (Some sources suggest 200 million) and played 90 times at Royal Albert Hall in London. Only Eric Clapton has graced the stage there more often. Last was an entertainer for almost 50 years, and he died at the age of 86 only six weeks after ending his final tour. So he lived until he died.
“Fly Little White Dove Fly”
Canadian band’s plea for peace had a catchy tune, which was a necessity because it was one of the most repetitive songs ever. The chorus – “Fly, little white dove, fly, way up high, spread your wings, sing out your cry across the universal sky” is repeated more than a dozen times after the three verses have been delivered. Almost three and a half minutes with nothing but the chorus!
We’ll hear later from Jude Cole (See #8), who produced but first co-wrote this song with Lifehouse lead singer Jason Wade. Wade felt some urgency to write the beginning-of-romance power pop song and gave it much thought. The loving couples in the video of this upbeat, perfect-for-radio track are real, not actors. Definitely a tune that should have done way better on the charts.
“Let Your Love Go”
Bread was on their way toward notoriety as an acclaimed “soft rock” group, which was both complimentary and damning. It made “Let Your Love Go” a considerable departure for David Gates and his comrades, as most Bread songs were paragons of sentimentality. This Gates-penned number was closer to being a rocker. I took my girlfriend at the time (not the one mentioned in #182) to see Bread in concert at Blossom Music Center in Cuyahoga Falls on her 18th birthday in 1977. I must admit I don’t remember for sure that they played this song, but the smart money says they did!
“What I Like About You”
That’s right: What has become one of the most recognized anthems in all of rock music didn’t even make the Top 40! Toward the end of the decade, the song served as commercial fodder for the popular beer Budweiser; this provided the song its boost to classic status.
This show tune from the 1981 musical Cats was later recorded by Barry Manilow, who knew how to sing a song – his own and others. Manilow had 25 Top 40 hits but only two of them were more recent than this one.
The opening line, “I know that He gave His life for me,” has Christianity at its heart and sets the tone for the rest of the song. A number of listeners 37 years ago missed the gospelly message he intended. Catchy and uplifting chorus even if the words didn’t put their stamp on your consciousness.
There are only three instrumentals in this survey; the others are #210 and #176. So this is the last one, but it’s a good one. Comments from You Tube: ” Some of the best music you will ever hear”…”Stirring instrumental”…”This guy must have had a beautiful heart to make such music”…”This is one of the few instrumentals to stand the test of time”…”This song somehow reaches my soul.” Three years before it became a single the tune provided the music for a Salada tea commercial on television in 1972. Hardy was a composer, arranger, vibraphonist and pianist, but “The Homecoming” is what he’ll be remembered for.
There’s a country music tinge to this rocker, and it plays well. Topic: Chilling with friends, smoking marijuana, drinking beer till you fall over, partying in the afternoon and continuing through the night. An infectious number from Chad Kroeger and his band. In the video a geek fraternity throws a party to prove they can rock. Nickelback has been kidnapped and forced to perform. Women in bikinis all over the place.
“Kiss Of Life”
Sade (pronounced “Shar-day”) was born in Nigeria, raised in England from the time she was four years old. She possesses a sultry, beautiful voice. Arguably the greatest British female soloist ever, although Dusty Springfield springs to mind. Sade has had eight singles – two of which were Top 10 – chart higher than “Kiss of Life,” but this number’s smooth elegance makes it worthy of a Top 40, if not Top 10, place. Like most of her songs, the pure allure here reaches your innermost being when you sit peacefully and listen. Perhaps a less-than-great song, but everything Sade touches oozes sophistication and class out the pores!
2006 – 2007
It has come to be a Christmas song even though it’s not really about Christmas; Christmas is just the setting for this Joni Mitchell-penned song about mistreating and losing a lover. Mitchell has recorded over 400 songs and this has been the second-most covered number of them all, trailing only the iconic “Both Sides Now.” McLaughlin’s version of “River” is achingly beautiful, although I personally prefer Barry Manilow’s, which never charted. The song briefly samples “Jingle Bells.”
“Counting Blue Cars”
Alternative rockers Dishwalla may have been a one-hit wonder, but this is a great song. Mull over the controversial line, “Tell me all your thoughts on God, ’cause I’d really like to meet her.” Some say the qualities we attribute to God are more befitting of a woman than a man. Others believe God has no gender. Anyway, despite peaking short of the Top 10, “Counting Blue Cars” was on the Hot 100 for four weeks shy of a whole year! It was one of the longest runs for a one-hit wonder ever.
“You Look Good”
This is the first single released by the predominantly country group since 2014. Though a country song at heart, “You Look Good” has an eclectic feel to it with hints of soul and even jazz. For the first time a Lady Antebellum song includes horns, as the band wants to be more innovative than they’ve been. I would think they’re at least a little disappointed that this song didn’t cross over into pop with greater impact.
John Lennon once said, “Before Elvis there was nothing.” Best voice ever. This was one of his last Top 40 hits before his death in August of 1977, though he had a few after his passing. “My Boy” targets the heartstrings, as the narrator makes the painful decision to stay in a hopelessly rocky marriage because of his great love for his son.
“I.G.Y. (What a Beautiful World)”
It stands for International Geophysical Year, which was a collaboration of world scientists in the late 1950s. Steely Dan vet Fagen put himself back there to write this song from that perspective, foreseeing travel by undersea rail in an hour and a half and ubiquitous spandex jackets, among other things. “I.G.Y.” was Fagen’s only Top 40 hit as a solo artist and earned a Grammy nomination for Song of the Year. And there’s no shame in losing to Willie Nelson’s “Always on My Mind.”
“Pride and Joy”
Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble
Peak: Did not chart!
As is the case with several other tunes in this compilation, perhaps the failure to chart is partially due to the marketing, which did not directly target the Top 40 listener. Vaughan wrote the song himself about a new girlfriend. With the passing of time it has become one of his best known numbers.
Here’s a relentless rocker in which Idol sings about a girl who can’t get enough sex. How could such an undertaking be anything but a gargantuan hit? And I’m not the only one who thought so: Late in 2008 ,VH1 named it the 29th-best hard rock song ever!
About her career in the music industry not progressing as she’d like. At the time “Standing Still” came out it had been more than three years since Jewel had had a Top 40 hit. Unfortunately she’s only had one since. “Standing Still” was also about said career bringing her love life to a standstill. This was the first Jewel single that was the same as the album recording; previously the arrangements always differed.
Mike + The Mechanics
Mike is Mike Rutherford, the guitarist for Genesis. He formed this group on the side. Great lyrics here: “Taken in again. Someone saw me coming – a fool without a friend. There’s one born every minute, and you’re looking at him.” The group had three Top 10 singles, but this one could’ve and should’ve been right there with them.
“The Real Thing”
Bo Bice was the runner-up to Carrie Underwood on American Idol in 2005. That final decision appears to be the correct one, at least based on chart performance since then. Bice has had one Top 40 and two singles in the Hot 100; Underwood has placed 18 songs in the Top 40 and 28 in the Hot 100. Chart success isn’t the be all and end all, but it’s not even close. In “The Real Thing” he repeatedly wonders if the love he feels is genuine. Many of us have been there, done that.
Peak: Did not chart!
As teenagers used to say on American Bandstand when interviewed by host Dick Clark, “It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.” The song ends with a sax solo – or a guitar solo on radio edits, perhaps because they found the sax too jazzy in a Collective Soul record. And in concert it’s a guitar. I’d, of course, prefer the saxophone. Kellogg’s has used the song in a commercial for Special K; a woman is “feeling better now” that she’s on a diet featuring the popular breakfast cereal.
“Everyday With You Girl
The Classics IV featuring Dennis Yost
Lead singer Yost and his band were from Jacksonville, Florida, and brought the softer side of southern rock into the limelight with three mega-hits in the late ’60s: “Spooky,” “Stormy” and “Traces.” If they had fourth song for which they were known, this was it. Yost had a perfect voice for pop success. “Everyday With You Girl” is closely based on the 1936 song “Everyday With Jesus.”
1973 – 1974
This was his first single and his only hit. Since then, as a solo artist and a member of two different groups, he has released more than 35 singles and nary a one of them has made the Billboard Hot 100. “Painted Ladies” are actually colorfully-painted Victorian houses in San Francisco. The city is not mentioned in the song, but the phrase “streetcars rolling by” affirms what the song is about: The singer walks the streets of The City by the Bay and is ignored, spends his money, hangs out in his room, dreams of home, and drinks wine till he’s wasted.
” Just a Girl”
This was No Doubt’s first of seven Top 40 hits, and it came more than four years before any of the others. Gwen Stefani composed the tune and recalls, “I just literally started songwriting; I didn’t even know that I knew how to song write,” and “I just wanted to write a song to express how I was feeling in that moment and I never in my wildest dreams thought that anyone would hear it.”
“Hearts on Fire”
Briefly a member of Poco in the early days and later a founding member of the Eagles, Meisner managed three Top 40 hits as a soloist. This was his best one. In March of 2016 his wife called 9-1-1 to report her husband was drunk and waving a BB gun around. Police investigated, saw no weapons, and concluded it was a typical domestic altercation. An hour and a half later Meisner’s wife was killed accidentally when a rifle discharged in its case. Why was she after a rifle? We’ll never know. Meisner was not suspected of wrongdoing, as surveillance video confirmed he was elsewhere in the house.
“What a Wonderful World”
When released in 1967 the song was not popular in the United States because the head honcho at ABC Records didn’t like it and didn’t promote it. However, in 1988 it appeared in the movie Good Morning, Vietnam and was released again, achieving the ranking shown here. Should’ve been as big in our country as it was elsewhere. “What a Wonderful World” was the best-selling 45 in Britain in 1968 and was a #1 song in Australia in 1988 – 20 years later. Since the turn of the century the song has been in at least a dozen movies. Talk about standing the test of time!
“My Best Friend’s Girl
Peak: #35 Like virtually all the hits from this band, composed by lead singer Ric Ocasek. It was one of the first songs Kurt Cobain learned to play when his dad got him a guitar for his 14th birthday. It was later performed by Cobain’s band Nirvana at their final concert on March 1, 1994. Ocasek has been married to model Paulina Porizkova since 1989, at which time it was no longer necessary to be jealous of his best friend!
“Leave a Tender Moment Alone”
His album An Innocent Man produced six singles; this is the only one of them that didn’t make the Top 20. But it’s a good song. Jazz musician Toots Thielemans plays the harmonica on the recording. Joel wrote of the song, ” ‘Leave a Tender Moment Alone’ sounds like an old Motown track, like Eddie Kendricks of the Temptations and Smokey Robinson made them. I tried to sing like those Motown guys and Toots was like an extra voice dancing happily around mine. He really exudes some incredible energy and joie de vivre.”
“Wait for Me”
Hall & Oates
1979 – 1980
“Love is what it does and ours is doing nothing, but all the time we spent – It must be good for something. Please forgive all the disturbance I’m creating, but you’ve got a lot to learn if you think that I’m not waiting for you.” Written by Darryl Hall. The rock era’s most successful duo had six #1 hits and “Wait for Me” was nearly as good, despite its relatively low chart peak.
“For the First Time”
“Even after all these years we just now got the feeling that we’re meeting for the first time.” Band member and songwriter Danny O’Donaghue explains, “It’s all about going back to basics: drinking cheap wine, eating your dinner off the floor. That’s when you meet each other for the first time – when you have nothing.”
Heavy metal’s most popular song and perhaps the greatest ever. How could a genre’s
best-foot-forward fail to even reach the Top 10? “Enter Sandman” garnered critical acclaim, as in “propulsive riff,” “never lets up,” and “psycho dramatic.” The track is included in almost all listings of the greatest songs of all time. Number 16 peak on Billboard? Simply, pop prejudice against this kind of music.
“Sharp Dressed Man”
In determining my opinion of a song the music is almost always more important than the words. Strange thing for a poet to admit, but it’s true. For ZZ Top the lyrics were nothing more than an excuse to play wicked guitar. “That Little Ol’ Band From Texas” has arguably the fullest, most rhythmic, most distinctive sound in the business. Who is not able to instantly recognize their music? “Sharp Dressed Man” was one of their best.
“Six Man Band”
“Well, I’m a California man, my instrument in hand, I’m electrified! On a fast-flying trip, dirty laundry in my grip, mostly drip-dry.” Those who dismissed The Association as a sunshine pop, harmonizing band that couldn’t really rock should lend an ear to this number with its cutting guitar riffs. Question: What performer(s) took the stage first at the legendary Monterey Pop Festival? Answer: The Association.
“Can We Still Be Friends”
It sounds like he had somebody in mind when he wrote the words, but he says not. Rundgren: “It’s really a song about the best possible way to end a relationship.” In theory, maybe. But the older sister of my best friend said one of the wisest things I ever heard: “The one who controls the relationship is the one who cares the least.” And that’s why friendship usually doesn’t work after a breakup: It hurts too much for the one who cares more. Despite his denial of the song being about a specific person, it is believed to be about the end of his liaison with long-time girlfriend Bebe Buell, who was Playboy‘s Playmate of the Month in November of 1974. Throughout much of the 1970s she had an open relationship with Rundgren and took full advantage by indulging her thing for rock musicians. Her list included David Bowie, Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin and Steven Tyler of Aerosmith.
“(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone”
1966 – 1967
The television Monkees were Davy Jones, Mickey Dolenz, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork, but only Dolenz was actually on the recording of this song! He sang lead. The backing vocal was sung by Tommy Boyce, who co-wrote the song with Bobby Hart, as was the case with most Monkees songs. Hart played organ, but there were six other little-known musicians. The song was originally recorded by Paul Revere & The Raiders and has been covered extensively, including versions by the Sex Pistols and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
“Long Long Time”
Ronstadt was nominated for a Grammy in the category Best Contemporary Female Vocal Performance for this number, which was her first solo hit. She didn’t write the song but embraced it sang it with heartfelt emotion as though she had. Ronstandt’s band at the time included two guys who would go on to be key members of a pretty popular group. Who were they? Glenn Frey and Don Henley of the Eagles. She was also close with Jackson Browne. Sadly, Ronstadt has Parkinson’s and can no longer sing.
“We Gotta Go Home”
Peak: Did not chart!
The bubblegum garage band from Mansfield, Ohio, had only one Top 10 hit – and this wasn’t it, of course. (“Little Bit O’ Soul” was.) Only about two minutes long, “We Gotta Go Home” just missed the Billboard Hot 100. I’m sure not too many people own the single, but I do. You could procure a copy on eBay, but how would you play it?
“I Melt With You”
The topic? Intercourse with nuclear bombs falling. So, the melting is literal! But this tune is new wave at its best and made the group a modest one-hit wonder. The song had charted at #78 in 1983, then it was re-recorded and re-released in 1990, when it did only marginally better. Funny thing, though: A lot of songs that peaked in the bottom ¼ of the Hot 100 you’ve never heard of. But I’ll bet you know this one.
“You Can Call Me Al”
In the fall of 1986 this song stalled short of the Top 40, then fell off the Hot 100. In February of 1987 the album from which the song came, Graceland, won a Grammy for Album of the Year. This rejuvenated “You Can Call Me Al,” which re-entered the charts. It also got a big lift from its spontaneity-driven, humorous video with Simon playing straight man to comedian Chevy Chase, who lip-synched, periodically gestured and “danced” in his chair like a dork, and pretended to play a trombone.
1979 – 1980
Benatar’s first hit. She would have nine singles go higher, but only three were on the chart longer. Two singles from her debut album were released before this one but went nowhere; “Heartbreaker” put her on the map. VH1 declared the song to be the 72nd-greatest rock song of all time, and it’s one of Benatar’s favorites.
“Keep the Fire”
I’m not the only one who thought this song was better than its chart peak would suggest. Here are comments I found courtesy of You Tube: “Should’ve charted much higher! Very underrated song.” “Awesome song. Remember this from the spring of 1980. Too bad it didn’t chart higher.” “Truly an underrated song. The last minute is awesome.” “This is an underrated song, indeed.” “What a classic!”
“Shut Up and Kiss Me”
Mary Chapin Carpenter
A country song that earned its way onto the pop charts via its lack of the typical country twang. Trisha Yearwood on background vocal. Carpenter won a Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance. Carpenter these days has turned to softer, make-you-think stuff, which is okay in a way but also too bad because this song was a genuine mid-tempo rocker. Her whispering of the song’s title in the chorus is an added touch.
“No Night So Long”
Warwick topped the adult contemporary chart for three straight weeks with this song.
She has had more than 50 singles in the Billboard Hot 100, starting in 1962. During her career she won five Grammy Awards and was nominated nine other times. For four years in the 1970s she added an “e” to the end of her last name on the advice of an astrologer. She now regards doing so a mistake. Well, like the song says, “I still can show you who you are.”
The Coors were from Ireland and “Breathless” was their only Top 40 American hit. It was bigger elsewhere in the world and would be nominated for a Grammy Award. Reviews were mixed. It’s pop, it’s rock, it’s a bit too sweet, it’s a woman who wants to lose herself in her boundless, uncontrollable passion. So she keeps egging him on.
“So You Are a Star”
The Hudson Brothers
These were three actual brothers, and they wrote this, but it was hurt by the fact they had a Saturday morning kids’ TV show, as people perceived them to be like the Monkees and assumed they didn’t write their own songs or play their own instruments. Mark Hudson was later the bandleader for Joan Rivers’ talk show. Bill Hudson married Goldie Hawn in 1976, fathered Oliver and Kate Hudson with her, and bitterly divorced her in 1981. He also dated Ali MacGraw and Candice Bergen, and was married to Cindy Williams of Laverne and Shirley. Looks like he had a thing for actresses. Like the song says, “So you are a star. Okay. Nobody knows you like I do.”
“Son of My Father”
Anybody up for a synthesizer war? In the United Kingdom, Giorgio Moroder, the principal songwriter, failed to chart, while Chicory Tip’s version went to #1. In the United States Chicory’s version barely made the Hot 100, while Giorgio’s went much higher. Go figure. I’m usually glad when the person who wrote the song does better on the charts than those who cover it. I must admit, though, that my 45 is by Chicory (as they were known in this country), which means Northeast Ohio music stores were selling that version. Truth be told, there’s little difference. Here’s one, though: Chicory’s version starts, “Mama said to me…” while Giorgio’s begins with, “Father said to me…”
“All Along the Watchtower”
The Jimi Hendrix Experience
To say that Jimi Hendrix was way ahead of his time is to understate the obvious. Few cared less about hit 45s than he did. His highest-charting single was this outstanding interpretation of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” Talk about making a song your own! “Two riders were approaching, and the wind began to howl” and the guitar riff that follows is to die for. What did Dylan think of the Hendrix version? “It overwhelmed me, really. He had such talent; he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn’t think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it…” The Hendrix rendition was named one of the 50 greatest songs of all time by Rolling Stone magazine.
“Paradise by the Dashboard Light”
Shall we vote on the best-known song that didn’t make a lot of noise on the singles chart? This was really not so much a song as an anthem for young lust and the ultimate ramifications thereof. Eight minutes of what at the time was dubbed a “novelty” record. The guy who played bass on it admitted, “Through the whole process I remember distinctly saying to myself, ‘This is just the biggest joke that I’ve ever been involved in. I cannot believe that these people got a record deal! This is just crazy. I’ll never hear this record. It’s just a joke. It’s a comedy record.’ ” The album the song came from, Bat Out of Hell,” sold 40 million copies worldwide and is one of the 10 best-selling albums ever. And that’s no joke.
Celine sounds so much like Janet Jackson here that it must be intentional. Not a bad strategy, really, because Jackson was topping the charts repeatedly at the time. Reviewers recognized that this single was a departure for the five-time Grammy winner and therefore a career highlight. Dion sings in eight different languages but mostly English and French.
“In the Shape of a Heart”
Jackson Browne songs are generally poems put to music, and this number is no exception. He has said it’s about his first wife, who 10 years earlier had committed suicide by intentionally overdosing on barbiturates. One of the best songs about tragic love ever. The lyrics are fantastic. Every time I listen to them or read them, I’m like, “Wow!” “In the shape of a heart” can be taken literally, as in, “the form of the pendant,” or figuratively, as in, “the condition of the heart.” (Consider “It was a time I won’t forget for the sorrow and regret, and the shape of a heart.”) Nowhere near the Top 40? A lot of people never sat down and really listened to the words.
Okay. We’re halfway through. Theoretically the better music is ready to leave the on deck circle and step up to the plate. Hmm. Is there a baseball song in the offing?
For now, for “intermission,” we offer…
“In the Shape of a Heart”
It was a ruby that she wore
On a chain around her neck
In the shape of a heart,
In the shape of a heart.
It was a time I won’t forget
For the sorrow and regret
And the shape of a heart,
And the shape of a heart.
I guess I never knew
What she was talking about;
I guess I never knew
What she was living without.
People speak of love,
Don’t know what they’re thinking of.
Wait around for the one who fits just like a glove.
Speak in terms of belief and belonging,
Try to fit some name to their longing…
There was a hole left in the wall
From some ancient fight –
About the size of a fist
Or something thrown that had missed.
And there were other holes as well
In the house where our nights fell.
Far too many to repair
In the time that we were there.
People speak of love,
Don’t know what they’re thinking of.
Reach out to each other through the push and shove.
Speak in terms of a life and the learning
And try to think of a word for the burning.
You keep it up;
You try so hard
To keep a life from coming apart
And never know
What breaches and faults are concealed
In the shape of a heart,
In the shape of a heart,
In the shape of a heart…
It was the ruby that she wore
On a stand beside the bed
In the hour before dawn
When I knew she was gone.
And I held it in my hand
For a little while
And dropped it into the wall;
I let it go and heard it fall.
I guess I never knew
What she was talking about;
I guess I never knew
What she was living without.
People speak of love,
Don’t know what they’re thinking of.
Wait around for the one who fits just like a glove.
Speak in terms of a life and the living
And try to find the word for forgiving.
Oh, you keep it up;
You try so hard
To keep a life from coming apart
And never know
The shallows and the unseen reefs
That are there from the start
In the shape of a heart,
In the shape of a heart,
In the shape of a heart,
In the shape of a heart
In the shape of a heart…
A song about being courageous enough to come out of the closet, especially to one’s family. It was meant to be an anthem of empowerment for suicidal LGBT teenagers in particular. The song was co-written by Bareilles and the band fun.’s Jack Antonoff. Bareilles wasn’t shy (Rather she was brave!) about wanting radio stations to play the song, which would garner a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Solo Performance.
“Change of Heart”
Between his work with the Raspberries, for whom he was the driving force, and his subsequent solo career, Eric Carmen had 12 Top 40 hits. This was one of them. “I understand all the reasons you gave me for leavin’, but that doesn’t help when I’m sleepin’ alone each night. Aw, so if you ever have a change of heart, just remember it’s not too late to start.”
Emerson, Lake & Palmer
The first song Greg Lake ever wrote. He was 12 years old and later described it as having a “medieval tone.” One of the earliest rock songs to feature a solo on a Moog synthesizer, which took Keith Emerson only one take to record. “Lucky Man” charted again in 1973 upon re-release. Emerson: “It is a shame we really can’t perform it the way it is on the album.”
“I Drink Alone”
George Thorogood & the Destroyers
Peak: Did not chart!
In case it has not been made clear, let me say I’m partial to the saxophone in rock songs. It’s prominently featured in this tune, as is great guitar work by Thorogood. Never made the Hot 100 only because it wasn’t marketed to. Video glorifies debauchery but has an unlikely ending that is nonetheless consistent with the theme of the song.
“Hold On Loosely”
One of the songwriters here was Jim Peterik of Survivor. He’s been married over 30 years and says of his wife, “This is what broke us apart when we were teenagers: I was getting too close. I was getting too serious for her. She didn’t say, ‘Hold on loosely,’ but that’s what was in her heart.” The advice in the lyrics goes a bit beyond Peterik’s experience to a universality: “It’s so damn easy when your feelings are such, to overprotect her, to love her too much. And my mind goes back to a girl I left long years ago who told me, ‘Just hold on loosely, but don’t let go. If you cling too tightly, you’re gonna lose control.’ “
The New Christy Minstrels
To many in the early 1960s the New Christy Minstrels WERE folk music. Over 300 people have been members of the group; the typical lineup consisted of double figures in voices. One-time members include the Golden Globe award-winning actress Karen Black and individual recording artists Kim Carnes, Barry McGuire (“Eve of Destruction”) and Kenny Rogers. “Today” was their second-highest charting hit.
“Tell Me What You Dream”
Wanna grab my attention from the get-go? Open with saxophone! Timothy B. Schmitt, whose group the Eagles had broken up at the time, was one of three songwriters. “Tell Me What You Dream” inexplicably failed to reach the Top 40 on either the pop chart or the country chart, and yet it was a #1 hit on the adult contemporary chart! How yucky when your lover is talking in her sleep – and it’s not your name you hear! Officially this was “Restless Heart with Warren Hill,” the saxophonist. He and Restless Heart were on the same record label, RCA, and they were giving him exposure in hopes that he would be the next Kenny G. How’d that work out?
“Does Your Mother Know”
Usually the Swedish pop group let their female members do the vocals, but not on this one. Appropriate because it speaks of a man’s response to the flirtations of a much younger woman – probably an underage girl whose mother likely is not aware that her daughter is very much out and about. Co-songwriter Bjorn Ulvaeus did the singing on a number that melodically blended rock and dance music. And, by the way, the narrator enjoys the encounter but resists the charms of the youthful temptress.
Because Diamond had experienced a lonely and troubled childhood, this song about a youngster who conjures up an imaginary friend can be considered autobiographical.
Throughout his career the singer would have more than 25 songs that made a bigger splash upon release than this one did, but “Shilo” became one of his most recognizable songs, was performed regularly in concert, and appeared on many of his compilation albums.
“On the Road Again”
Won a Grammy for Best Country Song. Nelson was asked to write the theme song for the movie Honeysuckle Rose. He and the executive producer of the film were on a flight at the time, and Nelson wrote the song on a barf bag! It was used in a television ad in 2016 for Volkswagen Passat. A family’s driving on the highway when Willie Nelson, in a VW beetle convertible from years gone by, beeps as he passes them. The male driver expresses his astonishment to his wife.
“Come Back to Me”
David Cook won the seventh season of American Idol. A music critic on this song: “Cook gives an earnest, restrained vocal performance, reflective of the pensive lyric about letting a loved one go so that person can grow.” The song purportedly got a boost from radio airplay and digital downloads after his performance of the song on the aforementioned singing competition TV show.
1991 – 1992
Most critics gave it positive reviews, and it charted higher in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Holland, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Spain, Switzerland, and Stansfield’s native United Kingdom than it did here. In six of those countries it was Top 10. So why not in the U.S.A.? Other musical interests, I suppose. Glam metal was still hanging on and hip- hop was gaining steam. But I much prefer music like this. I love the sassy sax!
“Ever the Same”
The sound here is reminiscent of the 1980s, and that’s not a bad thing. It was written by Thomas for his wife as she fought a serious and unidentifiable illness. It’s a promise to always be there for her, no matter what. He wrote it one night after she cried herself to sleep in his arms. Key line: “Just let me hold you while you’re falling apart.” In September of 2015 Marisol Maldonado – wife of Rob Thomas – had brain surgery to remove a lesion. She has a form of Lyme disease but has been coping, as has her husband.
“Toast and Marmalade for Tea”
Oldies radio stations don’t play it much anymore, but there are critics who feel it’s one of the best singles by a one-hit wonder. “Toast and Marmalade for Tea” gradually builds momentum with its slow start supplemented by strings and brass as the song progresses. Lyrically simple and repetitive. Produced by Maurice Gibb of the Bee Gees, who also played on the record, and proudly reminiscent of Bee Gees harmony. But, to the extent the song is remembered at all, there were two defining features: 1) It was unique because it had no chorus, just verses. 2) It had distinctive piano distortion. And both features were happenstance. They had intended to write a chorus but ran out of time and had to go with what they had, and the distortion was at first an accident caused by a sound engineer leaning on a tape machine!
“Put Your Records On”
Corrine Bailey Rae
Rae is English, and the song reached #2 in her native land. She was nominated for Grammy Awards for both Song of the Year, which goes to the composer, and Record of the Year, which goes to the performer. In addition to a bravura performance, Rae was one of the songwriters.
Upbeat, breezy, fun and pure pop, to a fault. Is the “I do” what one says in marriage vows? Caillat (pronounced “Cal-LAY”) claims not, even though it’s clearly a song about wanting to make the object of your love your lifetime partner. Caillat: “If you listen to the end, I say, ‘I do love you,’ and it’s about getting ready to tell that person you’re in love with them.” But she does add, “Songs are for people to take however they want and relate them to whatever is going on in their own lives. So if someone wants to have it at their wedding, I think that’s cool if they want my song to be a part of their day.” Critics: “Uncomplicated sound,” “massive hook,” “You buy the hocus pocus without regret”, “almost delirious love expressed,” and “a winner hands down.” She’s had bigger hits, but few better songs.
Few songwriters could tell a story like Harry Chapin. In this one the narrator had wanted to “learn to fly,” which is somewhat autobiographical because Chapin was briefly enrolled at the Air Force Academy. He said the song overall is “about 60% true.” It’s set in San Francisco, though Chapin had driven a cab in New York, where he was tragically killed nine years after “Taxi” in an automobile accident. The official cause of death was a heart attack, but it was never determined if that had occurred before or after the accident. The philanthropically-inclined Chapin was on his way to perform at a free concert that night.
“One Less Set of Footsteps”
Croce (pronounced “Crow-Chee”) tells a former lover to kiss off in a lyrical treasure. This song would have been bigger had it not been overshadowed by the release of mega-smash “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” only months later. Croce was on his way to big things before he and his guitarist Maury Muehleisen were killed in a pilot-error plane crash on September 20th of the same year. I was mere weeks into my first year of college but remember well who told me about the fatal accident and where I was at the time I heard.
“Crazy on You”
The record company, it seems, had trouble believing this wasn’t a bigger hit at the time, as it released it again just a year after its peak. And it charted again, this time topping out at #62. “Crazy on You” would go on to become one of the the group’s best-known and most-beloved songs. It still gets played on classic rock stations. Heart performed the song at their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013; the original lineup hadn’t played together in more than 30 years.
Cetera co-wrote this song, which was his fifth and final one to reach the top spot on the adult contemporary chart. He had seven songs that charted in the Billboard Hot 100 after he left the group Chicago in 1995 because they were unwilling to allow him to stay while he worked on a solo career. He had made to the group a proposal to do so, but the rest of the guys wouldn’t go for it. Chicago would have 12 songs chart after Cetera departed, compared to the ridiculous total of 35 while he was a member of the band.
Peak: Did not chart!
An upbeat, feel-good song that couldn’t cut it nationally, though it was big in parts of California and in New York City. Plus, I lived in Ohio and must’ve heard the song enough to be enticed into buying the single. The Strangeloves operated under the pretense of being Australian sheep farmers who came up with a new way to crossbreed sheep, making enough money to form a band. They were supposedly brothers by the names of Giles, Miles, and Niles Strange. Complete fiction! But they had three Top 40 hits in the mid-Sixties, the biggest of which was “I Want Candy.”
“My Favorite Mistake”
Is this a quintessential anthem for anyone who fell in love when they shouldn’t have? The song was co-written by Crow and is about an unfaithful man, possibly Eric Clapton or Bob Dylan’s son Jakob. Crow won’t say who it’s about and delights in the fact that “I’m the only person who will ever actually know.” She does deny it was Clapton and doesn’t look upon her relationship with him as a mistake at all. She has referred to him as “a really good friend.” Her song was nominated for a Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, losing to Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” from the blockbuster motion picture Titanic. But such hype aside, “My Favorite Mistake” was a better song.
“All Day Music”
Harmonica intro. Kick back and relax to a soothing, unique masterpiece. War was a multi-ethnic group with a multi-genre sound, incorporating funk, jazz, reggae, R and B,
and rock. More than 30 different musicians have been members of War through the years, starting in 1969.
Peak: Did not chart!
To say that the British band “sampled” the #1 hit “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” by Hall & Oates is a gross understatement. But even if this song is half original and half re-make, it still deserves a spot on this list. The success of the song, such as it was, was partly attributable to its video of a sensual pool party, shot near Rio de Janeiro at a mansion designed by a famed Brazilian architect.
“Burnin’ for You”
Blue Oyster Cult
Looking for a distinctive guitar sound? Few groups were as recognizable for that as BOC. This song was played a lot in the beginning days of MTV. In fact it would not be much of a reach to suggest that the “Burnin’ for You” video was a major contributor to today’s popularity of the music video. This one is unremarkable except that a presumed “dumpee” incinerates himself in a car.
More popular song around the world than its peak in this country would suggest. The National Hockey League’s Vancouver Canucks used to play it after a goal. I generally don’t care for punk rock but I like this song. In concert in New Jersey the band changed the lyric “Pulverize the Eiffel Tower” to “Pulverize the Donald Trump Towers.” I prefer groups that don’t politicize.
At first even Bowie didn’t think much of this song, calling it a “throwaway.” He never dreamed it would eventually become one of his best-known songs and withstand the test of time as it has. The teen-driven American audience warmed to the song slowly.
It was released twice, in 1972 and 1975, charting in the 60s the first time. But folks clamored for it in concert; youngsters related to the lyrics: “Those children that you spit on as they try to change their worlds are immune to your consultations; they’re quite aware of what they’re going through.” Bowie sings the title with a stutter – “Ch-ch-ch-changes.” The only more famous stutter I can think of at the moment is Elton John’s “B-B-B-Bennie and the Jets.”
“Little Lion Man”
Mumford & Sons
They play English folk rock. This song peaked at #61 before a Grammy performance sent it back onto the Hot 100 at #45. In Britian the “f word” is probably considered less vulgar and offensive than it is in this country, especially when used in the phrase “fuck up.” According to Merriam-Webster it means “to ruin or spoil especially through stupidity or carelessness.” Hence, Mumford & Sons chose the ideal words for the chorus in terms of getting their very personal meaning across: “It was not your fault but mine, and it was your heart on the line. I really fucked it up this time, didn’t I, my dear?” A respected linguist has written that to some people, “Metaphorical uses of the word fuck no more invoke images of sexual intercourse than a ten-year-old’s ‘My mom’ll kill me if she finds out’ evokes images of murder.” This song belonged in the Top 10 for sure.
Godley & Creme
Only Top 40 hit for this duo, although they had a few with 10cc before defecting, which they later regretted. The accompanying video was one of the first to use the technology where one image morphs into another. In this case it was human faces. After their musical careers Godley & Creme directed videos for the Police and Duran Duran, among others. They were considered innovators in this field of entertainment.
The sensational album Silk Degrees generated three Top 40 hits and a fourth that narrowly missed. It spent more than two years on the Billboard 200. The first single released was “It’s Over,” which means the decision-makers considered it the strongest song on the LP. Years later a reviewer wrote that “It’s Over” could be an outtake from a Broadway musical.
“I’d Love to Change the World”
Ten Years After
Though the song is more than 45 years old, its relevance hasn’t really diminished. War continues, the rich get richer and the poor poorer, and we’re overpopulated and polluted more now than we were then. The group started in 1966 and called themselves “Ten Years After” because they deemed rock and roll to have started in about 1956. And how about these lyrics? “Life is funny, skies are sunny, bees make honey, who needs money? Monopoly©.”
Clearly the sound of that great band in the early going, with those horns and wah-wah guitar and Hammond organ. Optimistic, almost cheerful music with discouraging, sad lyrics. Speaking of lyrics, the group recorded and performed the song in Japanese for that market.
“It Hurts To Be Sixteen”
I’ll start with an admission: This tune is a little extra special to me because I coached (basketball) girls this age. She was from Cleveland, Ohio. She took “Carroll” as her stage name to honor Gene Carroll, on whose Cleveland-area television show she often sang as a child. Appropriately, she was 16 years old when she recorded this, her only hit. The Chiffons sang backing vocals for her, and they very much sound like themselves on the record. As a teenager she toured with Elvis Presley, Stevie Wonder, and Bob Hope. When her music career fizzled, she attended Kent State and ultimately earned a Ph.D. in clinical therapy. She is also an acting coach in California. Her married name is Andrea Hill. Her book Making It In The Business: Overcoming Obstacles And Achieving Your Goals In The Entertainment Industry is for those wanting to go into entertainment. (She did some acting too.) Now 70 years old. Of this song someone wrote on You Tube, “Never since have songwriters been able to capture the miseries of being a teenager in such a heartfelt clever way. Today’s purveyors of chest-beating histrionics could take a lesson here.” (The songwriting credit went to Ronnie Grossman, who was Neil Sedaka’s sister. But he actually wrote the song and gave the royalties to her!)
“I’m Happy Just to Dance with You”
From the soundtrack of A Hard Day’s Night, this was written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney specifically for bandmate George Harrison to sing. “A simple idea,” McCartney called the catchy number. Why it never caught on in the Beatles-crazed mid-Sixties is beyond me. A slowed-down cover by Anne Murray did reach #64 in 1980.
Here’s a classic built as time passed. Music by Elton John, lyrics by Bernie Taupin – as was the case with many Elton John songs. Upon its initial release “Tiny Dancer” didn’t even make the Top 40, but it slowly gained recognition and eventually became one of the hit machine’s most popular songs. Exquisitely-arranged strings complement the signature John piano.
“Shadows in the Moonlight
This was a #1 song on the Hot Country chart and the Adult Contemporary chart. Murray’s music routinely succeeded as country and as pop. She was a true crossover artist and a trailblazer for fellow Canadian female singers k.d. lang, Celine Dion and Shania Twain. Murray has won four Grammy Awards and 24 Juno Awards, the latter of which is a record. Junos are for musical artists in Canada.
“New Year’s Day”
This was the Irish rockers’ first hit outside their own country, their first tune to crack the Billboard Hot 100. Seven years ago Rolling Stone magazine included it their list of the 500 greatest songs ever. The topic here is the Polish Solidarity movement. U2 was shocked when they performed the song in concert in Poland as fans waved red items in one section and as other sections waved white, thus creating the Polish flag.
“Close Your Eyes”
There are at least 21 Canadian recording artists on this list; here’s one of them. Edward Bear’s biggest hit was called “Last Song.” This number followed it and in fact mentioned it: “See, you’d written one last song and I realize it’s mine.” A lifelong friend of mine used to quote part of the chorus: “Change your lovers, change your name.” (He says it was me quoting it to him!) How can something so sweet, so beautiful, so flowingly melodic be so underappreciated in the annals of pop music?
“Don’t Know Why”
One of the least-likely-sounding Top 40 hits ever. A critical success that won three Grammy Awards, for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance and two major ones – Record of the Year and Song of the Year. It’s Jones’ only Top 40 single. Her father was Ravi Shankar, the sitar-playing close associate of Beatle George Harrison.
“Let’s Work Together”
If one were to compile a list of the best rock bands never to have a Top 10 single, these guys would have to make the list. They were a bluesy group who took their name from a 1928 song called “Canned Heat Blues,” which was about a man who tried to beat alcoholism by instead drinking Sterno Canned Heat; the stuff is a poisonous cooking fuel today! Canned Heat played at both the Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock in the late Sixties.
“Next to Me”
Strong both musically and lyrically, this song was far superior to the crap that surrounded it on the charts. Sandé: “I wrote this in my bedroom. I wanted a song that’s very simple in its idea – having someone next to you; that’s the bottom line. I was inspired by early Aretha Franklin and soul music.” Her hair style in the video certainly did the song no favors, but R & B lives on.
“Just Got Started Lovin’ You”
Country singer Otto was one of three writers for this one; it became his one and only hit to cross over onto the pop chart. It was huge in country music, eventually being named the #1 song on that end-of-the-year chart. A grateful Otto has said, “The feel of that melody and that hook just sounds sexy, but I had no idea it was going to do what it did. I thought it sounded like a hit, but it was a shock to me when it became what it became. It was surprise after surprise, week after week.”
“Working for the Weekend”
A great anthem for workaday stiffs everywhere! Furthermore, it rocks in a power pop sort of way that is not typical of this band. Perhaps they tuned in to the dancy stuff of the times and really, really wanted a hit. And this record, like everything else in this treatise, could’ve/should’ve done better than it did.
“It’s up to you to make your own sweet sunshine.” Well said. No intro to this catchy tune. “Rainy Jane” was by far Jones’ most successful single as a solo artist. Sometimes criticized as a lightweight because of his former role with television’s The Monkees, the fact is the man could sing.
“Why Can’t I?”
Her only Top 40 hit. Racy lyrics about wanting each other though both are in other relationships. They go further than they know is right but stop short of the ultimate act, though “It’s inevitable.” They leave their significant others, but Phair acknowledges it’s “gonna take a while” for the two to get it together. Why? Never explained; she just remains consumed by the thought of it, looking forward to the day it surely happens.
“Love Her Madly”
The Doors had only three singles go higher on the charts than this Robbie Krieger (guitarist) composition. It’s about all the occasions his eventual wife Lynn threatened to leave him. Says Krieger, “Every time we had an argument she used to get pissed off and go out the door, and she’d slam the door so loud the house would shake.” The song was in the 1994 blockbuster movie Forrest Gump. Its title would seem to be a tip of the hat to jazz great Duke Ellington, who used to tell concert audiences, “We love you madly.” The Doors’ normal producer did not have his hand in this one and may have been bitter about it; he’s said, “That’s the song that drove me out of the studio. That it sold a million copies means nothing to me. It’s still bad music.” Needless to say, I beg to differ.
“The Story in Your Eyes”
The Moody Blues
How is it possible that this English band isn’t in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? An injustice there, to be sure. They had 14 Top 40 hits, spanning 24 years – 1965 to 1988.
A teaching colleague of mine once attended one of their concerts and wound up sitting in the lap of either Justin Hayward or John Lodge; I can’t remember which. My guess through fuzzy memory would be Hayward, who wrote “The Story in Your Eyes” and sang lead on it. The music was energetic, the lyrics profound. Few rockers give the listener pause.
His first hit. He didn’t even have a backing band yet, so this song was recorded with studio musicians. Question: In performances in subsequent years what was the only song from Bon Jovi’s first two albums that was regularly performed live? Answer: “Runaway.” Whether the song was or was not about prostitution has been the subject of some debate, but the lines toward the end make the answer to that question clear to me: “Daddy’s girl learned fast; now she works the night away.”
“Lawdy Miss Clawdy”
Written by Lloyd Price and first recorded by him in 1952, this song stayed on the rhythm and blues chart for exactly half a year! It has since been covered by many, including Elvis, Little Richard, Johnny Rivers, the Hollies, the Beatles, Joe Cocker, Fats Domino and Conway Twitty. The Buckinghams’ rendition, with its increased tempo and fantastic brass arrangement, was one of the best. Less than two minutes, but fully packed with joy!
“Coming Around Again”
1986 – 1987
This was the last of Simon’s 10 solo Top 40 hits, and it came more than six years after her previous one. Not a career resurgence, though, as all but one of the other nine charted higher. She had three subsequent Hot 100 singles but none made the Top 40.
Simon wrote “Coming Around Again,” and it was better than its peak would suggest.
By the mid-80s she was among the many artists to put out good music after their time of greatest glory had passed, and the listening public wasn’t going to buy in no matter what because fresher voices and faces had assumed command. This was the theme song to the dramedy movie Heartburn and was featured in episodes of two soap operas of the day – General Hospital and The Bold and the Beautiful.
Here’s the Latin sound exemplified to near perfection by an unknown band formed by well-known Carlos Santana’s brother Jorge. It was Malo’s one and only shining moment. “Malo” means “bad” in Spanish but “good” in Mayan. The Spanish word “suavecito” mean means “softly” or “smoothly,” but if you lend an ear to this sweet and beautiful musical endeavor, a traditional translation will be far from necessary.
Lighthouse was named the Best Canadian Group of the Year three straight times in the early 1970s, when they would tour 300 days a year! With their prominent horns, I always thought they sounded a lot like Chicago. “Pretty Lady” was their most recent of five songs to make the Hot 100 in this country. It was an uplifting, exhilarating number that should’ve been a Top 40 hit.
Electric Light Orchestra
A funky beat joined ELO’s traditional strings in this vastly underachieving song. Jeff Lynne, of course, wrote it. He also played lead guitar with Marc Bolan (T. Rex)’s Gibson Firebird guitar. It was one of John Lennon’s favorite songs. He said,” ‘Showdown,’ I thought, was a great record and I was expecting it to be #1, but I don’t think UA (the record company United Artists) got their fingers out and pushed it. And it’s a nice group. I call them ‘Son of Beatles,’ although they’re doing things we never did, obviously. But I remember a statement they made when they first formed was to carry on from where the Beatles left off with “[I Am the] Walrus,” and they certainly did.”
From Little League to the majors baseball has embraced this song, playing it at games at all levels. Always a big fan of the sport, Fogerty performed “Centerfield” at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2010, becoming the only musician to have a song thus honored by MLB. Willie Mays, a center fielder mentioned in the song, was in attendance. Despite failing to become a Top 40 hit, “Centerfield” has since been downloaded ¾ of a million times and is unquestionably Fogerty’s finest post-Creedence Clearwater Revival accomplishment. At the start of the 2011 season Rolling Stone magazine claimed there were 15 better baseball songs. That assertion has to be one of their dumbest moments! Here’s a more legitimate criticism: “Center field” is two words, not one!
“Shattered (Turn the Car Around)”
Of a Revolution’s Mark Roberge: “What this song’s really about is these people…coming up to you, ‘Man, if my boss wasn’t such a jerk, I’d be making…whatever.’ Or ‘If my wife didn’t hold me back, I would be a football player.’ Whatever it is, everyone’s always got these complaints they’re blaming on everyone around them. And they’re constantly saying, ‘Man, I was the shit without you. I could do whatever I wanted.’ You know, all these things. And the main line at the end where it says, ‘I’ve gotta turn this thing around,’ it’s basically just saying it’s not about all these other people. It’s not about people holding you back. It’s really about you.”
“No Reply at All”
Phil Collins invited the Earth, Wind & Fire horn section to play on this one. Collins said, “People hated it.” The sound was a departure for what Genesis had been to that point, yet it still contained some of their trademark complicated yet melodic base work. Critics disliked the song, it was commercially unpopular, and fans even booed when Genesis did it live in a concert in the Netherlands. Nearly 30 years later Collins admitted the song wasn’t good live. Interesting, then, with all of this, that “No Reply at All” spent more than a third of the year in the Hot 100, which was longer than most of the group’s Top 10 entries!
Soft rock with a hint of blues is Mayer’s thing. There was speculation that this song was about actress Jennifer Aniston, with whom Mayer had had a relationship, but he denied it. He added, “I think if there’s any intrigue – it would be silly of me to ask somebody not to be intrigued – but I think when the music starts playing, you’re not thinking about my life; you’re thinking about yours.” He also believes the use of jealousy contributes mightily to love being a battlefield, as is evident in the lyrics here.
“I Got to Know”
Starbuck’s monster hit was “Moonlight Feels Right,” but the trademark light-hearted, infectious and mildly sensuous sound was evident here too. This band was big in the mid-to-late 1970s, touring at various times with Boston, the Electric Light Orchestra, and Hall & Oates. Xylophone solo, anyone?
The J. Geils Band
1982 – 1983
This live version made the charts after the studio version four years prior did not. It pays tribute to the doo-wop sound of the ’50s and the rhythm and blues of the ’60s.
The Marvelows took this song to #37 in 1965 in their only Top 40 appearance. The J. Geils Band had bigger hits but no better songs.
Peak: Did not chart!
In 1955 the all-white Crew Cuts took this song to #16 just after the all-black Nutmegs
failed to chart. This was unquestionably a case of racial discrimination, as the Nutmegs’ version jumped to #2 almost immediately upon release on the black-friendly
rhythm and blues chart. Which version was better? Not even close!
“Rainy Day People”
Sometimes the humble, modest, and uncomplicated rule the day. Few knew this better than Gordon Lightfoot. And he could write lyrics, as in the first few lines here: “Rainy Day People always seem to know when it’s time to call. Rainy Day People don’t talk; they just listen till they’ve heard it all.” Lightfoot may well’ve been the greatest songwriter from Canada ever, even if my saying so makes Leonard Cohen twitch if not roll over in his grave. Lightfoot’s compositions have been recorded by the industry’s finest. The list includes Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Johnny Mathis, Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand and Neil Young. Lightfoot on Dylan covering “Early Morning Rain” (See #55 to come later): “I was totally blown away that he would record one of my songs in the first place. It helped my career – I’d not had a hit single myself at that point. His cover was a linchpin in that whole process because it made people in the industry aware that I was producing good songs.”
“I Got a Line on You”
Jimi Hendrix had two Randy’s in his band; one was from California. To distinguish between the two, Hendrix gave the 15-year-old the moniker “Randy California.” The rest, as they say, was history. “I Got a Line on You” is a hard-driving rocker. It was covered by Blackfoot, Alice Cooper and others – often more than 10 years later. On Spirit’s style a reviewer wrote, “The band’s fusion of jazz, rock, folk, blues and psychedelia has never been matched in its intensity, originality, and consistent quality.” Bassist Mark Andes went on to play with Firefall and Heart. California met a tragic fate at the age of 45 in 1997. He successfully rescued his 12-year-old son from a Pacific Ocean undertow but died himself. So, he was just a teenager when he wrote what would become, over the years, a rock classic – “I Got a Line on You.” A biography on him ended the words, “Randy California’s musical genius will be sorely missed, but his Spirit will always live on.”
“Where Are They Now?”
Peak: Did not chart!
She recorded only one album, and it didn’t sell. So I’m confident you’ve never heard of this native Hawaiian with brown hair and a brunette pageboy haircut. But she played Las Vegas, appeared on The Merv Griffin Show, and got signed by A&M Records. However, her easy-on-the-ears style was rapidly going out of vogue. A&M signed the Carpenters around the same time, and Karen Carpenter’s voice was better. No shame in losing that comparison, but it sure didn’t help Wilson’s career to have the darlings of the soft pop sound on the same record label! She disappeared quickly and quietly.
[To get the song on You Tube, type into Google “Robin Wilson Album 1968.” The track we’re seeking starts at 12:32.]
“Come Home, Baby”
Peak: Did not chart!
Terry Knight and the Pack were legendary on a relatively small stage – the state of Michigan in the mid-Sixties. They even opened for the Rolling Stones at Cobo Hall in Detroit in 1965. The band was reasonably well-known in the states around Michigan.
“Come Hone, Baby” was one of just a few singles credited to Terry Knight only, and their failure on the national scene ended Knight’s brief recording career. But this cover of a song originally done by Wilson Pickett was good stuff. Knight was stabbed to death at the age of 61 in 2004 by his daughter’s boyfriend, who claimed to be high on meth.
The doo-wop group’s finest moment, to be sure. The glowing harmonies were so pure.
The Mystics were inducted into the Doo Wop Hall of Fame in 2015 and are still performing – 59 years later! Believe it or not, they still sound pretty good, especially on this, their signature song. “Guardian angels up above, take care of the one I love.”
And while you’re at it, take care of the members of the Mystics, who are now about 80 years old!
“What Might Have Been”
A country group puts out a fabulous record with sort of a reserved pop sound. Can’t change the past or know what would have happened had things worked out favorably.
Or maybe they did. Who doesn’t have such a relationship or two in their past? “When you cross my mind, I try not to think about what might have been, ’cause that was then, and we have taken different roads.”
“Love You Like a Love Song
Selena Gomez & the Scene
Gomez says the song is “one of those tracks that’s addictive because it’s kind of repetitive in the best way,” adding it’s a number that “you can’t get out of your head.”
She says it’s about “the honeymoon stage” in a relationship, when things are new. Reviews were mixed, with criticism of the juvenile lyrics, weak production, and monotone vocals which sucked any passion from the song. It got as high as #35 in July of 2011 before sinking from the top 50 over a period of months. Then it recovered, reaching its overall peak in March of 2012 – eight months after its initial high.
59 Benjamin Orr
“Stay the Night
Founding member, bass guitarist and backing vocalist for the Cars. Orr had one shining moment as a solo act; this was it. And it should’ve shined brighter. Orr died of pancreatic cancer in 2000 at the age of 53. Of course, his music – and especially this song – live on. And if its inclusion in this list in some very small way helps it to do so, I am honored to have obliged. Ten years after Orr passed, the surviving Cars reunited for their seventh studio album. In the liner notes: “Ben, your spirit was with us on this one.”
“Try a Little Tenderness”
Three Dog Night
Three Dog Night amassed 21 Top 40 hits; this was the first one. Otis Redding took the song to a slightly higher position on the charts a few years earlier, but Three Dog Night’s version was better. Cory Wells sang it brilliantly in a performance that never received the recognition it deserved. Listen to the studio version and focus your attention on crisp clarity of his voice in the first half of this number. Like the song says, “You know you won’t regret it, no.”
“Rosanna’s daddy had a car she loved to drive…Stole the keys one night and took me for a ride. Turned up the music just as loud as it could go, Blew out the speakers in her daddy’s radio.” The actress and model Apollonia appears in the video, in which she drag races as well as doing some shakin’. She would later star in Prince’s movie Purple Rain. For a song that never got near the Top 40 the line, “Her tits were shakin’ till the middle of the night” is pretty well-known. Few folks, though, realize that the original lyric was, “We did some shakin’ till the middle of the night.” The sexually-charged line is edgier.
Less vengeful lyrics by British singer Lily Allen would have landed her bigger hit. But at least her words were consistent with her attitude toward the opposite sex. She says, “Women are better at everything than men.” The melody here is energetic and happy, in direct contrast to the lyrics. In the accompanying video she hires thugs to beat up her ex, which makes her “smile.” She also has his apartment trashed and spikes his drink to make him violently sick to his stomach. After everything was out there, she regretted her lyrical bluntness.
“Early Morning Rain”
Peter, Paul & Mary
Simple tune, simple idea, simple lyrics…but simply a masterful creation. The composer was Gordon Lightfoot; among others who recorded it were the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan (See #65), and Elvis Presley. But Peter, Paul & Mary’s rendition was at once forlorn, beautiful, and extraordinary; it was the only version ever to reach the Hot 100. This was Lightfoot’s first work to achieve notoriety. The narrator is nearly destitute, both literally and figuratively, as he observes a Boeing 707 taking off: “I’m stuck here on the grass where the pavement never grows” and “You can’t jump a jet plane like you can a freight train, so I’d best be on my way in the early morning rain.”
“Call It Love”
Bass guitarist Randy Meisner left Poco and joined the Eagles in 1969. Remarkably, his replacement Timothy B. Scmitt followed suit in 1977! The group had a few hits in the ’70s but disbanded in 1984. Four years later they got back together with the five original band members, which included Meisner as well as Jim Messina of Loggins & Messina. The reunion produced this often overlooked number. “When it’s all you’ve got, call it love.”
“Always the Last to Know”
This is one of author Stephen King’s favorite songs. It’s a calm and thoughtful treatise on infidelity. And that knife cuts both ways. The alternative band Del Amitri was formed when teenager Justin Currie put an ad in the window of a music store in his native Scotland, asking interested musicians to contact him.
Charlie Puth feat. Meghan Trainor
“Marvin Gaye” is a verb; it’s something you do! What, exactly? Use your imagination!
Puth said the lyrics were “an effort to spark romance and get that special someone in the mood, just as many Gaye slow jams have done for millions.” Trainor once exchanged music with Puth at a party; when she heard “Marvin Gaye,” she asked if she could sing on it. Puth was taken aback, as Trainor had become a star and he was still a nobody. The song was recorded in one take. As was the case with a lot of songs in this list, it was much bigger in the rest of the world than it was in the United States, even going to #1 in four countries.
“Gentle on My Mind”
How could this not have become a bigger hit? I theorized that at the time Campbell was known as predominantly a country singer, and the listening public was not yet ready to embrace him as a “crossover” artist. So I did some research and found that Campbell had eight 45s peak at #25 or higher – and all eight of them came after “Gentle on My Mind.” Theory confirmed.
Included in the lyrics to the third verse are a handful of titles to previous Blackfoot songs. “Highway Song” was a poor man’s “Freebird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd. Southern rock legend Rickey Medlocke, who fronted Blackfoot and has had two stints with Lynyrd Skynyrd, enjoyed his finest hour as a composer when he co-wrote this start slow/finish fast rocker that was accused of being a rip-off of a classic. Both close with searing guitar work. You decide.
The Guess Who
1971 – 1972
Lead singer Burton Cummings took almost three days to pen this gloomy, seemingly autobiographical-in-the-moment song of hollow desperation, emptiness, and disillusionment. The lyric, “It’s just like four-six-two-oh-one” refers to a real-life zip code in Indianapolis. He’d just received a letter from a female fan there and used part of her return address to complete his heartfelt creation. The Guess Who had six Top 10 hits in this country and was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1987.
Simply put, “Yellow” made Coldplay popular. The song was recorded the same night it was written. Mid-tempo songs are not often so sad, as in, “For you I bleed myself dry.”
Rolling Stone called it “unrepentantly romantic.” It earned a pair of Grammy nominations. Even though “Yellow” failed to reach the Top 40, it found its way onto eight different Billboard charts! By far my favorite song by Chris Martin and company.
“You Got Lucky”
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
I know I’m in the minority when I say this, but “You Got Lucky” was Tom Petty’s best song. Rather than his usual guitar-driven sound, this song is built on synthesizers. And the song was recorded over a drum loop. All of this served to create a distinctive flair for a Tom Petty recording and, really, for a pop song in general. Petty passed away while this exposition was in production. Ironically, the cause of death was a heart attack.
“Almost Hear You Sigh”
The Rolling Stones
Breakups rarely come off smoothly. In this one… “You had a stone cold look in your eye.” Nominated for a Grammy for Best Rock Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group.
Kudos to Mick Jagger, but Keith Richards’ rhythm guitar shines as well. The result is that unmistakable Rolling Stones sound. The Stones had eight #1 songs, most of them in the Sixties. To be nominated for a Grammy for a new tune more than 20 years later… well, “The World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band,” indeed!
This was Jamestown Massacre’s only significant song. It sounds more like Chicago than Chicago does! In fact the band was from Chicago, Illinois! The song is rock and roll with horns, it’s fun to listen to, it feels like summer, and it should have garnered far more attention than it did. I saw Jamestown Massacre in concert at Chippewa Lake Park, just south of Medina, Ohio, in the early 1970s.
“The One You Love”
Even though two of his singles reached the chart’s pinnacle and two others climbed higher than this one did, “The One You Love” was the Eagles stalwart’s best solo effort.
Not one, but two saxophonists played on the record. A girl has to decide between the one she loves and the one who loves her. It’s a dilemma, a love triangle, that many can relate to, which doubtless heightened this song’s popularity. Great groove, though.
“I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You”
The Alan Parsons Project
The gym darkens. The home basketball team waits at its locker room door. As the anticipatory intro plays on the loudspeakers, a spotlight is trained on the team’s entrance to the gym. You can feel in the music that something is about to happen. As the drums kick in, followed by heavy guitar, the team takes its cue to run onto the floor. The house lights go on as the vocal begins moments later. The teams start their warm-ups to the rest of the song. Perfect music for such a scenario: The little-known “I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You.” The Alan Parsons Project was a varying collection of studio musicians and semi-permanent band members all headed by Parsons and Eric Woolfson, whose credits included extensive work on the Beatles’ albums Let It Be and Abbey Road, as well as Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Not a bad resumé.
This was one of my favorites when I was in college at Canton, Ohio. It was one of Valli’s too. Five years ago he was asked by an interviewer, “What’s the best hidden gem in your catalogue?” The front man for the Four Seasons responded, “One of my favorite songs we did that not a lot of people are familiar with is 1976’s ‘Fallen Angel.’ ” So there you go. It was about Valli’s drug-addicted and estranged daughter. After many years the two got back on the same page, but she died at the tender age of 20 of an “unintentional drug overdose.”
Frontman Billy Corgan is said to have written over 50 songs for the album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. This was the last one and it was barely finished in time. So, of course it would become the biggest hit the alternative rock band ever had. Corgan was 12 years old in 1979, and the song is about him becoming an adolescent, so it’s very personal to him. It was nominated for two Grammys. The sound is unique and the lyrics are far out there. I always liked the lines, “Justine never knew the rules, hung down with the freaks and ghouls.” Who didn’t have a friend or two who seemed to run with the wrong crowd? On one hand this song should’ve been a bigger hit. On the other it’s surprising it was as big as it was.
“What About Me?”
The Australian band had this one great hit. Though its peak was relatively low, it stayed in the Hot 100 long enough to make Billboard’s year-end Top 100 songs. “What About Me?” also made a rare return to the charts six years later. The songwriter’s inspiration was seeing an otherwise unnoticed young boy waiting at a lunch counter.
“Make It Easy on Yourself”
The Walker Brothers
Famed songwriters Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Jerry Butler took the song to #20 in 1962, Dionne Warwick to #37 in 1970. Others to record it include Bacharach himself, Johnny Mathis, Glen Campbell, Tony Bennett, the Four Seasons, Connie Francis and Sarah Vaughan. The meaning of all this? Simply a great song! David’s uncomplicated lyrics went straight to the heart: “And if the way I hold you can’t compare to his caress, no words of consolation will make me miss you less.”
Although this tune inexplicably never even sniffed the Top 40, its success on the adult contemporary chart, where it soared to the #1 spot, got a neophyte recording artist the recognition he sought. Country music’s Blake Shelton went to the top spot on the country singles chart with his cover of “Home” three years later. Interestingly, Shelton’s version also saw significantly greater success on the Billboard Hot 100 than Bublé’s original. Bublé was one of three songwriters. His voice soothes.
“I Put a Spell on You”
Creedence Clearwater Revival
Several hundred covers of this 1956 Screamin’ Jay Hawkins composition have been recorded, but CCR’s may be the best and is probably better-known than Hawkins’ original. It illustrates the band’s abilities as well as any of its own John Fogerty-penned hits, of which there would be many. But this one and “Suzie Q” were the songs that put ’em on the map.
This group was Jefferson Airplane back in its beginning and would later become just Starship. The name changed with the times, as did their music. They adapted to what they thought people wanted to hear, and, for the most part, they had their thumb on the pulse of pop music for a long time. In one incarnation or another, this group would place songs in the Top 40 for more than 20 years (1967 – 1989). “Runaway” was a lustrous, smooth, and stylish number with an easy beat. Pop music to the hilt. But there’s nothing wrong with that. Glad it didn’t quite make the Top 10 – so it could make this list!
Anybody want to really FEEL a song? Here’s your ticket. Canadian Arden wrote all of her own stuff except for this one, and it was by far her most well-known achievement.
Arden heard songwriter Anne Loree perform the song in a club in Calgary. Loree was a waitress writing about a failed relationship with a chef where she worked. She says, “I sat down at my electric piano in the basement of a rented house I shared with four roommates, broke and brokenhearted, full of pain and angst, and wrote ‘Insensitive.’ It took me probably less than half an hour and I walked away feeling much better for it and much hipper to Prince Charmings who aren’t really into you.” Why did it take the song so long to catch on in this country? From the book Canadian Music and American Culture: Get Away From Me on this topic: “The ignorance of the U.S. market was profound.”
Peak: # 80
Probably the group’s signature accomplishment without keyboardist Christine McVie. I’ve always been a fan, but the first time I absentmindedly heard this on the radio, I thought, “That’s a terrific song” without even recognizing that it was Fleetwood Mac. I prefer the album version, with Stevie Nicks joining Lindsey Buckingham on vocals, to the single. Both are great, but having Nicks singing along makes it “Fleetwood Mac-ier.” Written and released 25 years sooner than it was, “Peacekeeper” would have been one of the wildly popular band’s greatest hits.
“Am I the Same Girl”
Swing Out Sister
Spot-on lead vocals by former fashion designer and model Corrine Drewery. Went to #1 on adult contemporary chart. Martha Stewart used this as the opening theme song of her television show Martha more than ten years later. Young-Holt Unlimited took an instrumental version of the song to #3 in 1968 under a different title – “Soulful Strut.”
Maybe the extra “m” in the title was the proverbial kiss of death. “Mammy Blue” failed to reach the Top 40 in the United States, but “Mamy Blue” was a wordwide hit, going to the very top of the charts in more than ten countries, including France, Germany and Italy. Our neighbors to the north were smarter than we were, where the song peaked at #4! It had French lyrics at inception and was also recorded in Spanish. The Stories followed up their #1 smash “Brother Louie” with a cover of “Mammy Blue,” which got to #50 in 1973, but it lacked the haunting, forlorn, desperate-for-redemption nature of the Pop-Tops version.
“All I Could Do Was Cry”
Bluesy delivery by one of the best female vocalists ever. Beyoncé covered this song more than 40 years later. Besides the blues, James sang gospel, jazz, rock, R & B, and soul. She won several Grammys and was nominated for many more. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Rolling Stone included her on its list of the 100 greatest artists of all time. All this in spite of physical abuse as a youngster and later heroin addiction, for which she was in and out of rehab several times. Her mother was 14 when James was born and famed pool hustler Minnesota Fats could have been her father. Among musicians whose style has been impacted by James: Janis Joplin, Diana Ross, Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart, Christina Aguilera, and Adele. Wow! If you know of a more powerful vocal than James delivers here, let me know.
“The River Is Wide”
The Grass Roots would take this song to #31 in 1969, but I much prefer this more evocative version, which was released both in 1966 and 1967 without going anywhere on the charts. The third time was the charm, as a DJ in Seattle started playing it and got the ball rolling. I have the album of the same name; the title track is the only noteworthy song. Never heard of the Forum, did you?
“To the Moon and Back”
Savage Garden was so convinced they had a hit on their hands that they released the song twice in the late 1990s. They would be disappointed. But I agree with the Australian duo: This lyrically gut-wrenching masterstroke about teenage estrangement and the resulting desperate desire for a rescuing romance should have seen greater success. “Mama never loved her much, and Daddy never keeps in touch. That’s why she shies away from human affection. But somewhere in a private place she packs her bags for outer space, and now she’s waiting for the right kind of pilot to come.”
“You Get What You Give
One of the best one-hit wonders ever. A partly spoken, partly sung chorus that promoted a natural high in the listener, who could happily sing along. And there’s a hint of spirituality in the line, “We only get what we give.” The end of the tune gets political with criticism of the health care and banking industries. There’s also a put-down of the fame accrued by musicians Hanson and Marilyn Manson, among others. Manson didn’t object to being threatened with an ass-kicking as much as being named in a sentence with Courtney Love! Still, the band had supporters in the music business. U2’s The Edge says “You Get What You Give” is a song he wishes he had written. Joni Mitchell said, “The only thing I heard in many years that I thought had greatness in it was the New Radicals. I loved that song ‘You Get What You Give.’ “
“It’s Cold Outside”
The Choir was a garage band from Cleveland, Ohio, and this tune is one of the classics of that genre. Written by drummer Dann Klawon, it equates a broken love affair to the often dreary Northeast Ohio weather, utilizing the British Invasion sound, as The Choir often played stuff by the Beatles, the Who and the Stones. All three of Cleveland’s Top 40 radio stations had the song go to #1, but the reception elsewhere was lukewarm. Hmm…wildly popular around town without making a mark nationally. Sound familiar, Michael Stanley fans? Interestingly, one of that Cleveland paragon’s best songs, “Lover,” would also peak at #68 fourteen years later! (See #26, coming next!) Also of interest: Klawon was the only member of the original group that did NOT go on to join Eric Carmen to form the Raspberries.
Michael Stanley Band
To think I might never have heard of this song if I didn’t live in the Midwest! With Clarence Clemons of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band on saxophone, this number is arguably Michael Stanley’s best composition. The song about driving alone at night in an Ohio winter while his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend plans to go out with another guy contains the regionally legendary line, “Thank God for the man who put the white lines on the highway.” In concerts nowadays Stanley lets the audience sing this line. I’ve seen him twice in recent years at the Wayne County Fairgrounds; after we sing it, he says, “God bless you, Wooster!”
“Who Do We Think We Are”
John Legend feat. Rick Ross
Peak: Did not chart!
I’m no gamer, so I didn’t even know this fantabulous musical creation was on the soundtrack of the video game NBA 2K14 by 2K Sports. LeBron James was on the cover, albeit in a Miami Heat uniform after he’d rejoined the Cleveland Cavaliers, and he picked the 20 songs on the soundtrack. Kanye West helped produce the album from which this song came, and one can hear his stamp all over this number. Lenny Kravitz emcees at the beginning and again at the end. I like it because in the era of angry rap and hip-hop, it’s rhythm and blues with a cozy, elevating feel to it. Legend believes it’s about living with gusto and taking risks and boldly chasing your dreams, adding, “It’s also about enjoying and luxuriating in your pursuits.” Almost hypnotic, terrific stuff – no matter what year the calendar shows. You could take it back and put it in the early 1970s, and it would fit right in with the Philadelphia sound or Motown – without Rick Ross, of course. I’m wondering how high “Who Do You Think You Are” would have climbed on this list without the rapper’s “contribution.”
“Somewhere Only We Know”
Piano-driven number by English alternative rockers. Is “Somewhere Only We Know” literally a geographical location, or is it a place an individual goes to in a metaphorical sense? Or is an attempted reliving of an experience? As is the case with a lot of good pop songs, the interpretation is up to the listener. The video has the band playing the song in the middle of a shallow creek while woods fairies approve with ET-like heart lights. “Oh, simple thing, where have you gone? I’m getting old and I need something to rely on.”
The Beach Boys
Peak: Did not chart!
While most Beach Boys compositions were creations of the incomparable Brian Wilson, this one was written by band member Al Jardine for his then-wife. In the final lyrical line he proposes marriage. Performed live, the song highlighted the incredible harmonizing of a band known for it more than anything else they ever did. With reworked lyrics the song was re-titled “Lady Liberty” to acknowledge and celebrate the reopening of the refurbished Statue of Liberty. Additionally the song was done as “Little Lady” in performances after Jardine and Lynda divorced. I took in the Beach Boys several times back in the day at Blossom Music Center. First time I ever heard “Lady Lynda,” and no live performance of anything ever impressed me more.
“Run to You”
This, the fourth single from the soundtrack of the motion picture The Bodyguard, didn’t fare nearly as well as the first three, all of which were Top 5. Why? Because 21,000,000 copies of the movie soundtrack had already been sold and people had this song on the album, so why buy the single? Certainly “Run to You” would’ve been a much bigger hit if released before its fellow Bodyguard numbers, or if it weren’t associated with the movie at all. It could’ve and would’ve stood on its own, as one of the supremely talented Whitney’s finest. However, it must be noted, The Bodyguard is the best-selling soundtrack ever.
Though it was written for him rather than by him, this song was Womack’s tribute to his carefree and anti-materialistic brother Harry, who would end up stabbed to death two years after it came out. Bobby offers, “We used to laugh and joke about the song when I’d sing it. When he was brutally killed in my home, it was by a jealous girlfriend who he’d lived with for five years. She fought a lot, violence. And in our home it was considered less than a man to fight a woman, so he didn’t fight back.” Bobby had hired a bass player to replace Harry in hopes that not being on the road would help Harry’s domestic relationship. Bobby again: “That turned out to be very sour. He ended up losing his life behind it. At that time ‘Harry Hippie’ wasn’t a joke anymore. I had lost a brother.”
“The Captain of Her Heart”
With this gorgeous ballad the duo became the first Swiss musical act to have a song reach the Top 40 – and deservedly so. It went Top 10 in five countries; why it didn’t fare better in this country remains inexplicable. Sadly, Double (pronounced “Doob-LAY”) was a one-hit wonder, but the greatness of this tune can’t be overstated. It’s classy, sophisticated, graceful and sweet without crossing the line to saccharine. “Too long ago, too long apart. She couldn’t wait another day for The Captain of Her Heart.”
“Oh My Lady”
Peak: Did not chart!
This trio had only two Top 40 hits in the United States but 15 in their native Canada. “Oh My Lady” went to #12 up north but only “bubbled under” in this country. One of the best songs ever to have missed the Hot 100 altogether. Originally called the Rebounds, these guys were from Calgary and, desiring to connect better with their roots, renamed themselves to match the professional football team from their hometown. “Oh My Lady” was written by their drummer, who had a great stage name – Kim Berly. Get it? KimBerly!
“My Kind of Lady”
Why was it never performed live? Because writer and singer Rick Davies alternately utilizes his echo-enhanced natural voices and a falsetto, and through tracking and mixing in the recording studio, harmonizes with himself. The song is done in a ’50s doo-wop style, as is the black-and-white video. Despite appearances in the video, Davies actually sang all parts.
“Can’t Do a Thing (To Stop Me)”
Peak: Did not chart!
He intentionally dreams of a woman, finds one just like her, and wryly notes that she’s powerless to keep him from doing so. He can’t even help himself. Sensuous stuff from a not-that-well-known musician and sometimes actor. His song here narrowly missed the chart, bubbling under at #105.
2016 – 2017
George Michael wrote, produced and sang what has become a Christmas standard that really doesn’t have a lot to do with Christmas, as is the case with the song “River,” which is at #166 on this list. Both songs deal with relationships gone awry. Royalties from “Last Christmas” went to famine relief in Ethiopia. The song was originally released in 1984 but didn’t chart in this country until shortly after Michael’s death, which ironically came on Christmas Day just last year. But the song has been a favorite of mine for more than three decades. In Michael’s native UK “Last Christmas” has never gone to #1, yet it is the best-selling single of all time! It has found itself in the Top 40 of the UK singles chart around the holidays twelve times, including every year from 2011 to the present. It has made the Top 10 on this British chart four times. Don’t you think this phenomenal, oft-covered tune deserves to go to #1 at least once? There’s always this year, I guess, and you can be sure “Last Christmas” will make a run at it. Or is it destined to always be yet another “song that should’ve been bigger?”
“Island in the Sun”
Peak: Did not chart!
A feel-good song if ever there was one! Carefree summer days of frivolous fun while on vacation. The lyrics say it well: “Just a place to call your own as we drift into the zone.” There were two videos. The one with the band members communing and frolicking with semi-wild animals in a remote spot is really cute. (Google “Island in the Sun, Spike Jonze Version.”)
“So In Love”
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
It took the English band OMD five years to hit the charts in the United States, and they finally did so with this finely-crafted song. One music critic called it “a rich and sumptuous number,” while another said it and the following year’s “If You Leave” were the “pinnacle” of the group’s evolution. “If You Leave” was a bigger hit and a fine tune, but this one was better! And, of course, I love the sax in the latter half.
“Found Out About You”
Guitarist and Gin Blossoms co-founder Doug Hopkins wrote this song. Chronically depressed all his life, he was an alcoholic and got fired from the band before this was released. It was either kick him out of the group or get dropped by their record label. Hopkins was in dire financial straits as he watched the Gin Blossoms succeed by performing songs he had written. He received a gold record for “Hey Jealousy” but soon destroyed it. Hopkins was in detox when he sneaked out and bought a gun, using it the next day to commit suicide in early December of 1993. The Gin Blossoms were never the same without him. “All last summer in case you don’t recall, I was yours and you were mine. Forget it all…Did you love me only in my head? There were things you said and did to me; they seemed to come so easily. The love I thought I’d won you give for free. Whispers at the bus stop. Well, I’ve heard about nights at the school yard…Rumors follow everywhere you go…You’re famous now and there’s no doubt; in all the places you hang out, they know your name and they know what you’re about…I write your name, drive past your house. Your boyfriend’s over; I watch your lights go out.” Had he been jilted? Too kind a word. Was he despondent? Too kind a word. Wow! As a poet myself, wow!
A one-hit wonder featuring saxophone – right up my alley! But it’s become obscure, and because it’s now 38 years old, a forgotten oldie. Gomm wrote this great song and co-wrote Nick Lowe’s “Cruel to Be Kind.” “Hold On” reminds us that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side; in fact, it rarely is. A comment on You Tube: “You never hear good songs like this on the radio anymore.” I have to agree; notice how few of the tunes on this list came after the turn of the century.
“How Did I Get By Without You?”
After his 1984 megahit “Missing You” Waite felt he’d never do better. The former lead singer of the Babys and Bad English was right, but “How Did I Get By Without You?” was nonetheless a fine song and should’ve done far better than the blip on the radar screen it was. More than solid musically. The lyrics were pedestrian at best, but my like/dislike for a song as a whole is, as previously stated here, almost always more dependent on the melody and chords. Again, it’s a strange thing for a professed poet to admit, but it’s been true all my life. By the way, don’t watch the video if you’re afraid of heights.
So you’ve heard of many recording artists on this list but not Roxy Music? Join the club! The English band never caught on in the United States; they had only one Top 40 single – “Love Is the Drug” in 1976. However, they enjoyed greater success in Europe and Australia in the 1970s. Some look upon Roxy Music as influential in the development of glam rock, punk, and new wave. In fact, one music critic argued that among British musicians only the Beatles carried more sway. Rolling Stone included Roxy Music in their 2004 publication “The Immortals – The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.”
The Brothers Gibb had two distinct careers – soft rock in the late 1960s and early 1970s (“To Love Somebody,” “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?”), front and center for disco in the late 1970s (“Stayin’ Alive,” “You Should Be Dancing”). The Bee Gees had 30 Top 40 Hits, 15 of which went Top 10. They had nine #1’s, eight of which came in the disco era. Almost 20 years later, they released “Alone,” which was strong both lyrically and musically. Sadly, their time had passed, and the listening public wanted new blood, not some old-timers. The record faded badly after a stunningly high debut. But it was undeniably a flawless, finely-crafted piece of pop artistry, sung by the veterans delicately and intensely at the same time. Near-perfect in all ways. Despite what could be deduced by peak chart positions, it was one of the Bee Gees’ best songs ever. And that’s saying something!
“Start the Car”
This song opens the album of the same name and Cole wrote it himself. He had only two Top 40 hits of his own, both in 1990. But 15 or more years after these chart successes, he had a hand in writing and/or recording three of Lifehouse’s four Top 40 hits (See #174), including the Top 10 smash “You and Me.” He also partnered with friend and actor Kiefer Sutherland to create and develop Ironworks Music, which has graduated from recording studio to record label to music publishing outfit. Cole came from humble beginnings, playing four sets a night to get his start in the business. In 1993 he married and had two sons with Lori Pfeiffer, the younger sister of actress Michelle Pfeiffer. Says Cole, now 57, of his career: “I found I could write songs pretty well, and that provided a life for me. When I finish a song, it makes me feel that everything’s right. If I could just write songs for the rest of my life, I’d be a pretty happy guy.” Well, write on, Mr. Cole, but I’ll always be partial to “Start the Car.”
1977 – 1978
This number started as a jazz saxophone instrumental. The record also featured the flute. Uniquely “fantabulous” sound, composed by Morrison himself. He didn’t have a real good voice, but he was one of the finest songwriters out there. In the 1981 movie An American Werewolf in London, this song played during the sex scene. A music reviewer wrote that “Moondance” passed “into the hallowed territory of a standard, a classic.” Another called it “jazzy sophistication.” And to think that disco kept it from charting higher!
“In Your Letter”
When lead guitarist Gary Richrath passed away at the age of 65 in 2015, several obituaries cited this early ’80s song with a ’50s -’60s feel as one of REO Speedwagon’s best. Penned by Richrath, it was the fourth single from the band’s nine times platinum LP Hi Infidelity, which featured four Top 40 hits. All told, REO Speedwagon placed 13 songs in the Top 40. Richrath and fellow front man Kevin Cronin didn’t always get along, which led to Richrath quitting in 1989. However, he joined the group on stage several times subsequently, and upon Richrath’s death, Cronin announced the band was “dedicating every show we do for the foreseeable future, probably forever, to Gary.” He also says, “I learned pretty much everything I know about being in a rock-n-roll band from Gary Richrath.”
John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band
1984 – 1985
This group was often accused of ripping off the sound of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, from the lead singing to the saxophone, but that’s pretty much what Cafferty was hired to do when he provided the score for the film Eddie and the Cruisers. In it, the actor who plays Eddie lip-syncs to Cafferty’s voice. The movie flopped at the box office but found significant success on cable TV and home video. Through the years 35 of Cafferty’s songs have played in major motion pictures, including Rocky IV and There’s Something About Mary.
“When You’re Gone”
Powerful and beautiful ballad. Great number to slow dance to, probably my favorite such song of all time. Dolores O’Riordan was one of the best relatively unknown female vocalists ever. A high school friend and I used to say that the best groups could, in concert, sound like their records. Almost a quarter of a century later the Cranberries came along to put an exclamation mark on the point. Check out “The Cranberries live in Paris 1999 ‘When You’re Gone’ ” on You Tube or any other live performances of the song as compared to the studio version. O’Riordan wrote this tune after the passing of her grandfather, but it has since taken on various meanings in her mind. She has said, “Later on,on tour, when I’d be on the road, I’d think about my kids when I was singing it, or I might think about my father who passed away. So, when you’re singing a song about loss and then if you’re going through bereavement, it can take on new meaning and you think about what you’re going through at this particular time with that song.”
“Do I Love You”
Simply one of the best love songs ever written. Great job, Paul Anka et al. And I thought your recordings of this song were superior to Donna Fargo’s, even if her 1978 version went to #2 on the country chart. “Do I Love You” contains a lyric that is hopeful of a pleasant end to life on this earth: “If in death the good Lord is kind, you’ll be the last thing on my mind.”
“Still Water (Love)”
The Four Tops
The Four Tops had seven Top 10 hits – and three others that peaked at #11. Co-written by the great Smokey Robinson, this beautiful number was one of those three. Today’s rappers should listen to this song over and over to realize what they could and should be doing. Short and simple but profound lyrics. Tranquility, repose, peace, love from the depths of one’s innermost being. Can music access all that? You bet! Close your eyes and take this in. It’s nourishment for your soul.
“Unchain My Heart”
Peak: Did not chart!
Mutual admiration: Growing up, Englishman Joe Cocker’s idol was Ray Charles. For his part Charles felt the soulful Cocker was the best white blues singer ever. Charles reached #9 in 1961 with this song, but Cocker’s heartfelt cover more than 25 years later was better. In a joint interview in late 1987 Charles said of Cocker, “What has happened is that he has taken some of the things that he’s heard, as he says, over the years, from me, and put himself into it and made it fresh, and I like that.” This song is a prime example. As previously stated, I’m partial to the saxophone in rock music. Cocker ascribed the title of the song to an album, released the single in 1987 and re-released it five years later. It never charted in this country, and that’s a crime. C.R.I.M.E. !