Songs That Made a Difference In 2014

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It has been a long time since Mainstream Top 40 sounded as homogenous as it did in 2014. There was one dense, mid-tempo groove that was present at the beginning of the year (Ellie Goulding’s “Burn”) and at the end (Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space”). In between, there was “Dark Horse,” “Team,” “Talk Dirty,” “Turn Down for What,” “Fancy,” “Bang Bang,” “Chandelier,” “Boom Clap,” “Black Widow,” “Habits (Stay High),” and Maroon 5’s “Animals.”

Not all those records were exactly the same – some had noisy builds-and-drops, some just loped along for a few minutes. I liked some (“Boom Clap,” “Habits”) a lot more than others (“Black Widow,” “Chandelier”). They could be rooted in genres and sub-genres from reggaeton (“Bailando”) to ratchet (“Don’t Tell ‘Em”) to bachata (“Am I Wrong”). But the midtempo murkiness was prevalent enough that DJ Earworm’s annual summation of the “United State of Pop” in 2014 goes, by necessity, down-tempo for the second year in a row.

Top 40’s shift from 115 b.p.m. “turbo pop” to something more “mid-turbo” was already an identifiable trend two years ago. Records fitting that description have shown up in every genre. It’s where disparate artists go to show their currency now. When rapper French Montana and alternative’s the Neighbourhood collaborated, what could have been very different instead ended up like so much of what already existed.

To me, what was on radio’s radar sounded like Sonar. And yet, some of the label promotion people I spoke to at year’s end saw 2014 as the year when “anything was possible.” How could you say otherwise about a year that gave us “Stay With Me,” “All of Me,” “Say Something,” “The Man,” and “Take Me to Church”? The year when new artists suddenly controlled the upper reaches of the top 40 chart? The year when John Legend and Pharrell quickly ended the blockade of R&B crossovers that marred the hit music landscape in 2013?

It wasn’t really an “anything can happen” world, though. Why didn’t established rock acts such as Black Keys, Fitz & the Tantrums, and Spoon finally make it to top 40 with their poppiest songs ever? Why are worldwide hits like “Stolen Dance” by Milky Chance or “Budapest” by George Ezra all in a relative holding pattern while “Take Me to Church” occupies the one “pop/rock” slot? Why did “ratchet,” so revitalizing for R&B radio (“Show Me,” “Paranoid,” “2 On”), yield only one crossover hit (“Don’t Tell ‘Em”)? And that one had to sample “Rhythm Is a Dancer.”

Instead, top 40 was a format of a few core sounds that just happened to be very disparate. That speaks to the format’s two different sets of curators. Mainstream top 40 PDs remain very focused on rhythmic pop and, increasingly, EDM. Music supervisors from TV, movies and the advertising world did the rest, dispatching “songs that stopped the radio” at a regular clip.

Those songs that stopped the radio had an ally in Shazam this year. Shazam was of particular help to Hozier’s “Take Me to Church,” but it became a regular fixture in label advertising for all types of songs. Had Shazam been around in 1986, “At This Moment” by Billy & the Beaters would have been multiply ratified by listeners before the first episode of Family Ties in which it appeared even ended. Then again,

if the use of syncs had been as prevalent in the ‘80s, “At This Moment” wouldn’t have needed five years to become a hit.

You can add one more influence. Few of EDM’s big names ended the year in the top five like Calvin Harris, but acts like Tiesto and Steve Aoki could no longer be described as the acts that sold out arenas and festivals without airplay. Yet, when they got to top 40, EDM DJ/artist/producers only wanted to assimilate. David Guetta, having been here longer than others, pushed into ‘80s corporate-rock territory with “Dangerous.” Otherwise, build-and-drop EDM was giving way to gently pulsating, more melodic hits from Disclosure, Clean Bandit, Kiesza, and Mr. Probz by the second half of the year.

Every year, we look at those “Songs That Changed the Radio” – not just the biggest hits, but the ones that signified a format evolution. In a year that often felt particularly reactionary, those songs that did effect change at radio deserve special mention.

Pharrell, “Happy”; John Legend, “All of Me”; Kendrick Lamar, “I” – For years, urban AC was the format most ignored by pop programmers, so it’s interesting that R&B’s mini-crossover resurgence has a decidedly UAC feel. For that, you can thank the neo-soul boom, as well as Justin Timberlake’s forays into the genre and “Blurred Lines” last year. The urban/top 40 connection hasn’t been reestablished, but the quick acceptance (and quick fizzle) of “I,” with its own retro soul flavor, showed that mainstream wanted an uptempo hip-hop record to play.

Disclosure, “Latch”; Clean Bandit, “Rather Be” – They didn’t just represent the changing face of EDM, but top 40’s relationship with R&B as well. In 1993, when Robin S’s “Show Me Love” became a hit, house music had to disguise itself as R&B to get played. This year, judging by the reverse crossover success of Disclosure’s “Latch” at urban and urban AC, R&B had to disguise itself as EDM.

Milky Chance, “Stolen Dance,” Vance Joy, “Riptide,” – Quirky singer-songwriter pop remains a hit-and-miss occurrence at top 40, but regular Ross on Radio correspondent Adam Jacobson is correct that “Stolen Dance,” “Riptide” and others like it had a profound effect on alternative radio this year. Only the year-end presence of the Foo Fighters’ “Something From Nothing” atop that chart – a song that could have been an alternative hit any time in the last 15 years – gives any indication that alternative PDs want their guitar-driven format back.

Maddie & Tae, “Girl in a Country Song”; Florida Georgia Line, “Dirt” – Throughout country radio’s amazing journey as an all-ages format driven by records that people actively care about, there has always been the sense that programmers could panic and throw it all away at any time as they did in the mid-‘90s. So when “bro country” became the most sweeping dismissal of a sub-genre since “Cookie Monster rock” in the early ‘00s, radio reacted in two different ways. They encouraged Florida Georgia Line to show their “depth” by offering up a dull as, well, you know, song that any act could have recorded. And they took the country equivalent of Lorde’s “Royals,” the song that trashes everything else on the radio, to No. 1. In doing so, they also further confounded the belief that male acts had a better handle on what the audience liked.

Paramore, “Ain’t It Fun”
– Taylor Swift got the publicity for “going pop,” but Paramore, one of the few “pop/punk” acts not to lose its rock credibility after the first crossover hit or two, did the same. “Still Into You” and “Ain’t It Fun” didn’t really rock any less than, say, “Stolen Dance” or “Riptide.” But top 40 bought into the narrative by making them smashes, while generally ignoring plenty of worthy alternative product. And alternative obliged by not just hauling off and playing those songs anyway.

One Direction, “Story of My Life”; Nick Jonas, “Jealous”; 5 Seconds of Summer, “What I Like About You” – It is symptomatic of top 40’s odd relationship with teen pop that the biggest concert acts in the world are grudgingly allowed to mid-chart at the height of their popularity, then embraced only after twerking their way into adult disapproval. So it is significant that One Direction found its way into the top 10 (although not permanent CHR acceptance) and Nick Jonas was allowed to have a hit without any Biebersque public meltdown. It remains to be seen whether 5SOS can pull off a rare straight-ahead remake, something that was once standard operating procedure for teen idols.

Hozier, “Take Me to Church”; Katy Perry, “Dark Horse”; Magic!, “Rude” – They were all interesting because of how they got to radio. Hozier got an initial push from Shazam, and then broke in the mid-South (where modern AC records typically crossed over in the ‘90s and early ‘00s). “Dark Horse” was one of the songs spotlighted by iTunes Radio, and also got help from the CBS top 40s (increasingly discussed as an influential bloc by labels). “Rude” was a Canadian act that had to go to Australia to create a story, something also becoming common for North American signings.

Ed Sheeran, “Sing”; Ed Sheeran, “Don’t” – “Sing” went from presumptive Song of Summer 2014 to the top 10 to “not even a real hit” within two months’ time. In doing so, it showed how soft the top 40 chart was, immediately south of power rotation. Also, top 40’s ability to close ranks behind any reasonably uptempo rhythmic pop record, and how badly it wanted an uptempo Justin Timberlake song. “Don’t” turned out to be a real hit, and overcame any skepticism about coming on the heels of “Sing.” And now that Sheeran is posed for another real hit with “Thinking Out Loud,” it’s not hard to imagine “Sing” becoming playable again for top 40 at some point.

James Newton Howard f/Jennifer Lawrence, “The Hanging Tree”; Ariana Grande, “Santa Tell Me” – Each year brings its supply of pop culture moments of the sort that active PDs used to capitalize on without being asked. Last year, “Let It Go” from “Frozen” needed four months and an Oscar nomination before a label went after it. This year, Republic went after both an unlikely soundtrack smash and the first new CHR Christmas hit in years and got both of them.

Those are my “Songs That Made a Difference” in 2014. What are yours?

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Sean Ross is author of the Ross on Radio newsletter and VP of music and programming of Edison Research.

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