By Sean Ross of @RossOnRadio
By early October 1997, it was clear that Top 40 as a format, and the pop music that supported it, was on its way back. Stations were starting to repopulate the format. Those stations that were already Top 40 sounded more balanced and less like Hot AC. Spice Girls and Hanson—such a breakthrough at the beginning of the year—were being followed by other acts in the same category, including Backstreet Boys, which had been there all along, but was finally having American hits, after European success.
It’s equally clear now that the ‘90s, despite their reputation as an unplayable decade, will be back on the radio before too much longer. Earlier this year, I looked at some of the iconic acts of the decade and which songs were receiving airplay. This time, I went to this week’s chart from 20 years ago to see what’s back on the radio, what never left, and what songs remains forgotten.
The chart here is Billboard’s Pop Songs chart, the one that more closely paralleled Top 40 radio than the Hot 100. The rank is this week in 1997; the parenthetical number is how many spins it had in the last seven days, according to Nielsen BDS.
1 – Jewel/Foolish Games (14) –The perkier “You Were Meant For Me” is the one that still gets a handful of airplay spins (239).
2 – Third Eye Blind/Semi-Charmed Life (1140) – The most enduring record, and one that never disappeared from the radio at any point in the past 20 years. Has the advantage of airplay everywhere from Adult Hits to Alternative to a few Classic Hits stations (like KBAY San Jose) that extend into the late ‘90s.
3 – Backstreet Boys/Quit Playing Games (With My Heart) (226) – “I Want It That Way” is a significant airplay record these days with 918 spins last week, followed by “As Long As You Love Me” (631) and “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” (252), which has become a wedding reception hit. This is fourth.
4 – Matchbox 20/Push (305) – It’s fourth among their hits, following “Unwell” (1100), “3 AM,” and “If You’re Gone.” Like several bands here that began their career at Alternative, the bulk of the biggest supporters are Mainstream ACs now.
5 – Sugar Ray/Fly (610) – But many of the spins for this hotter-rocking Alternative act are also from Mainsteram AC stations now.
6 – Spice Girls/Two Become One (6) – As we’ve noted before, “Wannabe” is on the verge of being back on the radio. In a year, I’m guessing this will be a larger handful of spins, but still a handful. Most of the spins are at AC KRTR Honolulu.
7 – Will Smith/Men In Black (51) – I was surprised that this plot-specific movie theme had even a handful. “Gettin’ Jiggy With It” is the one that’s re-emerging as the anthem with 124 spins.
8 – OMC/How Bizarre (224) – The kind of ‘90s quasi-novelty song that Adult Hits stations like to play. We’ll see more of this in the top 20.
9 – Sister Hazel/All For You (181) – Matchbox Twenty’s sonic (but less morose) brothers have their biggest supporters at Mainstream AC now.
10 – LeAnn Rimes/How Do I Live (115) – Another one that never entirely went away, thanks to AC.
11 – Robyn/Do You Know What It Takes (16) – I’m waiting for this uptempo fave to ride the wave back on to AC and Classic Hits stations. One of the reasons I’ve always liked suburban D.C.’s WINC Winchester, Va., is because they lead on airplay (at 3x a week).
12 – Mariah Carey/Honey (71) – The formula that made “Dreamlover” and “Fantasy” so irresistible was wearing down at this point, but it was still a No. 1 Hot 100 single. I’m surprised how much airplay it still gets, but a lot of that is from Throwback Hip-Hop/R&B stations.
13 – 98 Degrees/Invisible Man (2) – But not the least-played song from this week’s top 20.
14 – Puff Daddy/I’ll Be Missing You(502) – The second most-played song of the week. There’s always been speculation that people who like this song in a music test are really voting on “Every Breath You Take” by the Police, but I think if anything it’s the other way around now. This gets its biggest support from Throwback Hip-Hop stations, but it also plays 6x a week at Mainstream AC WVEZ Louisville.
15 – Paula Cole, I Don’t Want To Wait (67) – It’s one of those Lilith Fair-era songs that fall between Hot and Mainstream AC now. But super-soft ACs like it because it’s a more-contemporary ‘90s song that fits, leading supporters include WDUV Tampa and WFEZ Miami.
16 – Meredith Brooks, Bitch (141) – Like “How Bizarre,” heavily supported by Adult Hits stations.
17 – Tonic/If You Could Only See (384) – The third most-enduring song from this week 20 years ago, thanks to airplay everywhere from Alternative (including many iHeart Radio stations) to ACs like KSMG (Magic 105) San Antonio. Then again, it was a research monster at the time, as was the similar “You Wanted More.”
18 – Boyz II Men/Four Seasons of Loneliness (0 spins) – In the mid-‘90s, the late researcher Steve Apel found that Boyz II Men was the No. 1 image artist at top 40 and one of the most universal. Top 40 tried valiantly to make this a hit at the time.
19 – Peach Union/On My Own (0 spins) – A pop nugget from the tail end of an era when any pop song with tempo had a shot at a product-starved CHR. Had it been bigger, you’d hear it on Adult Hits now, but it never got to recurrent and gold.
20 – Sarah McLachlan/Building A Mystery (81 spins) – “I Will Remember You” is the more reliable tester now, but it only gets 87 spins, because even AC PDs are reluctant to play that or the equally sober “Angel” (which actually gets fewer spins than either). And finally, as a bonus song…
21 – Aqua/Barbie Girl (30 spins) – Mostly 1x a week on lunchtime and weekend specials.