Updating last year’s list of songs which were #1 on my birthday. Anyway, here we go – and obviously this is an authoritative list that should be accepted as fact.
40. “Have You Ever” by Brandy (1999) – ooh, the mid to late 90s was a fallow period here. There were a lot of simpering slow jams, and this was probably the worst of them, but the competition is fierce. Brandy in particular sang these songs like she was half asleep
39. “Un-Break My Heart” by Toni Braxton (1997) – really the comments for #39 apply here, although instead of low talking there is the sort of balladeering earnestness which can inspire snorts from heartless people like me.
38. “All For Love” by Rod Stewart, Brian Adams and Sting (1994) – I actually like early editions of all of these musicians and don’t despise Sting’s solo material as much as a well read person ought to. But this is that special cocktail of simpering earnestness and low quality that can make really bad pop music.
37. “One Sweet Day” by Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men (1996) – I am detecting a pattern in the years here among our really shaky songs. No wonder I did not enjoy college more.
36. “On Bended Knee” by Boyz II Men (1995) – It is funny – if I described the song (unironic love song, Motown label, great singers) in 1967, I’d be all in. But a 90s version of this sort of song just doesn’t age well. Really, only “End of the Road” is tolerable now. This is too hard to listen to to even be snort-worthy.
35. “The First Time” by Surface (1991) – The only song for this study I looked up and did not remember. That sums it up well. Another 1990s disposable slow jam.
34. “Bad and Boujee” by Migos f/ L’il Uzi (2017) – I listened to this just for this purpose. This is pretty clearly the worst hip-hop song on this list. Slow, but without force. The rapping sounds half asleep but without cool. It is tempting to put this even lower but then I remember how much I hated so many of those 90s ballads.
33. “Sorry” by Justin Bieber (2016) – It’s the first Bieber song I listened to on purpose. I will always rank up-tempo-ish songs above the simpering dreck we’ve seem earlier, but that is not saying much. It’s actually not that bad though – does that sound like a compliment?
32. “Grillz” by Nelly (2006) – Clearly the worst hip-hop song to qualify for this list. It is a shame because a large portion of Nelly’s canon is quite good. This feels like a lapse in reason. Or maybe it’s because I am jealous that I don’t have a grill of my own.
31. “Truly, Madly, Deeply” by Savage Garden (1998) – Another simpering 1990s ballad, but significantly better than normal. It’s not the best example on the list, but the more understated vocals keep this from being a total mess.
30. “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You” by Michael Bolton (1990) – The no talent ass-clown covered a forgettable Laura Brannigan song and did it quite well. Really, this is a pretty good edition of a pretty awful genre, and holds up fairly well. Or maybe it’s because it worked so well for John Oliver.
29. “All 4 Love” by Color Me Badd (1992) – This is a pretty indefensible boy band song. In case you have forgotten Color Me Badd, this is the vocal group who brought boy band harmonizing to “I Wanna Sex You Up”, one of the cheesier pop songs of the last few decades – and somehow the biggest hit from the soundtrack to New Jack City. But sometimes, pop music is as much about cheese which can make a sing-along in stuck traffic worthwhile.
28. “U Got It Bad” by Usher (2002) – Nearing the end of the 1990s-2000s slow jamz blessedly – Usher infuses a little bit of soul and style into a pretty disposable song – it’s not enough to qualify as “good”, but better than the other ones.
27. “Physical” by Olivia Newton-John (1982) – I remember this song because it played during my mother’s aerobics classes when I was a kid. It is amazing that this song was a year’s #1 overall song. It certainly has not aged well – really the kitsch is all there is. That said, the song is fun – which is more than can be said about the others below this.
26. “Tik Tok” by Ke$ha (2010) – Deciding between this and “Physical” was tough. You could go either way – both are sublimely silly songs which are hard to justify as year end #1s. I guess recency is enough – as this song does not seem quite as dated.
25. “Let Me Love You” by Mario (2005) – If only there was a B-side by Luigi. That said, it’s a breezy R&B song with some slow jam aspects but a much more pleasant listen.
24. “We Found Love” by Rihanna (2012) – The quality of the songs starts to increase here. In fact, I’d say the next 24 are all at least partial thumbs-ups. Rihanna’s prodigious success eluded my real interest in pop music – so others know her canon better than I do. That said, this is a solid entry.
23. “Grenade” by Bruno Mars (2011) – Style is everything sometimes. Bruno Mars here is no less earnest and simpering than some of the stuff which I scoffed at earlier in this list. However, the piano and the tempo of the song provides a bit more of a dramatic touch – like it could have been in a musical or operetta perhaps. It feels a bit more weighty.
22. “(Just Like) Starting Over” by John Lennon (1981) – John Lennon is among the more overrated artists in rock history. He was tremendously important of course – and really he defined the Beatles early sound, where you can see the band’s Rock and Roll influences. Lennon’s voice was that of someone who played music in bars and clubs – and he created the hard driving sound that the Beatles became known for in the early days. After the breakup, though? “Imagine” is a very dated slog that tries too hard for its message – overtly preachy songs are always issues. His songs lacked the craft of Paul McCartney’s Wings stuff, and his deeper material lacked the complexity of George Harrison’s, and he took himself much more seriously than say Ringo Starr. The posthumous Double Fantasy contained some of his best work, including “Woman” which is undoubtedly his best non-Beatles song. This song is okay, but it is hard to hear it and not think that his death drove this song’s success.
21. “That’s What Friends Are For” by Dionne Warwick and Friends (1986) – A song everybody knows, and it is hard to put anything Stevie Wonder touches so low. It has some of the snort-worthy earnestness that came with those 1980s compilations – and the video is hilarious, at least the idea that the friends all hang out together. It probably should be ranked lower, but it’s ubiquity keeps it here.
20. “Irreplaceable” by Beyonce (2007) – We’re at the Beyonce portion of the program. Overall I am not a huge fan – and actually like the Destiny’s Child stuff a little better. So a middle ranking for a middle of the road song.
19. “Independent Women (Part I) by Destiny’s Child (2001) – See, I like it a little better?
18. “I Will Always Love You” by Whtiney Houston (1993) – The soppiest song on the list? Maybe. But Whitney Houston was always a defining voice of pop music in my life. Stuff from earlier albums hit me more – but a song like this does show where she could have been a Streisand for people my age. This is a fairly indefensible genre, but she works it better than anybody.
17. “Low” by Flo-Rida (2008) – One of things that becomes clear as I ran through this list was recent years pop music has actually gotten better. Now it’s not better than the 1970s or mid 1980s, but catchy hooks and bouncy beats have rescued the era from some of the horrid material which permeated the late 1990s. This song is infectious – and it is nice to have a hip hop song about butts in here – somehow an era-spanning survey would feel incomplete without it.
16. “What A Girl Wants” by Christina Aguilera (2000) – Christina and Britney Spears came up at about the same time, and they parallel nicely Madonna and Cyndi Lauper coming up around 1984. In both cases you have female artists who were popular in their time, and in each case you had one artist who actually could really sing. In both cases Britney and Madonna had more success, but Aguilera and Cyndi Lauper were much better singers. In Christina Aguilera’s case, especially that first album, it gave the disposable pop songs a dimension that Britney certainly could not reach. This is a genuinely good pop song which has aged well.
15. “At This Moment” by Billy Vera and the Beaters (1987) – A forgotten song from 1981 which was revived because of Family Ties, one part of the ultimate TV Sitcom powerhouse night growing up. Hearing it now, the song is actually more pleasant and low key than I remember it. The sound clearly is meant to evoke jazzy standards – much like George Michael’s “Kissing A Fool” would later in the year. Uncharitably, I could say it is derivative of old world crooning, but hey, it does work on that level.
14. “Just Dance” by Lady Gaga (2009) – Lady Gaga’s first big hit. I remember dismissing this in sort of a grumpy old man way – because it was pop of this kind, and thus had to stink. But I remember friends playing it during a camping trip and somehow it sounded different. It’s still a dance-pop song, but Lady Gaga does them well. No reason to run from it.
13. “Timber” by Pitbull (2014) – I like Pitbull. The Pitbull Channel on SiriusXM is continuously listenable. His songs all sound the same, but are infectious anyway. I like how he insists on that sort of “non dancing” sorts of moves which would make him a dead ringer for a plaid-shirted douchebag if he were a white guy and not a sharply dressed Miami Cuban-American. Making silly dance songs is not the same noble goal that say John Lennon had – but I have to tip my hat to someone who does it well consistently.
12. “Like A Virgin” by Madonna (1985) – Really, this is the song that announced Madonna as a really big f’ing deal – even if you had heard “Lucky Star”. It’s a song and tune everybody knows, and it certainly deserves its pop reknown. Indeed that it did not crack the Top 10 tells you the quality of the songs that have been at the top near January 20th.
11. “Locked Out of Heaven” by Bruno Mars (2013) – I am sure there is some recency bias here. But this is a really fun song and the radio always stops when it comes on. Usually I am a compulsive channel change – but this always gets my attention. Bruno Mars is one of the better artists that the last few years has produced – indeed my 3-year old would approve (and will, later).
10. “The Way You Make Me Feel” by Michael Jackson (1988) – It is hard to properly communicate to youngsters how big a deal Michael Jackson was. There are boy bands who make girls instinctively fling their panties and whatnot, and there are bands like U2 the world admires – regardless of whether its a good idea. Michael Jackson had numerous issues and problems which can’t help but detract from his musical legacy, but his album drops and videos were clock stopping sorts of events. He became a parody of himself later, and the criminal charges are what they are. It is also clear that he never had much of a childhood and was mistreated by a lot of people who saw him talent and dollar signs. This was the 3rd single from Bad, and while the idea of Michael Jackson macking on a woman is hard to picture without snorting, this song works. He was a great pop music craftsman.
9. “Baby Come Back” by Player (1978) – The #1 song when I was born. This list is littered with slow jams from the 1990s, most rather unpleasant in terms of quality. A song like this one (and another one a few songs from now) are such a repudiation to something like (insert Boyz II Men song here) by just being so much better. I sing a version of this song when it’s time to change my son’s diaper.
8. “Uptown Funk” by Mark Ronson (2015) – Bruno Mars appears again. You know this song. Do we need to cover it? My daughter loves this song, and she smiles and gives me a “Don’t Believe Me Just Watch!” It has everything a party song should have – and when it was the first song to play at a wedding I was at, I wondered why so early when it was unlikely any other song would be better. The video is a clear throwback to 80s Michael Jackson – which in itself makes me feel old.
7. “Owner of a Lonely Heart” by Yes (1984) – Progressive Rock as a genre has a lot of weird bloated songs. Yes was a pioneer of the genre – and “Roundabout” is particularly rough to listen to. But this song, an early entry in what was to be a really great pop music year, is a tight, elegant tune with a good hook.
6. “Two Hearts” by Phil Collins (1989) – This is probably the ranking which will inspire the most snorts of derision. Phil Collins does that. He either works for you, or he doesn’t. He has always worked for me and I am not sure why. There are no guilty pleasures – so I refuse to be embarrassed by this. This song was from his movie Buster, unseen by me, and it intentionally evokes some of the BritPop of the 1960s (time of polka-dotted dresses, go-go boots and such). It’s a terrific pop song.
5. “Down Under” by Men At Work (1983) – Vegemite sounds disgusting. This is among the very best songs on this list – with a reggae-touched beat which is hard to remain angry with.
4. “Le Freak” by Chic (1979) – Really this is arguably the best pop song of the 1970s. Disco is one of those things I have evolved with. As a teenager listening to classic rock in a talcum powder white hometown – disco seemed ridiculous. I wrongly fell into the same traps that classic rock fans fell into – talking about disco ruining the world of music, and supporting things like record burnings. However, and this is a dirty secret that you only learn when you listen to a lot of 70s pop, disco flat saved popular music. Seriously. Paul Anka, Eric Clapton, countless John Denver songs. Yeesh. Disco rode into to just provide some diversity and some life affirmation, and when you had a decade of Carpenters and Captain and Tenille, you need all the help you can get.
3. “Hey-Ya” by Outkast (2004) – How the hell is this #3? I am still surprised too. Yes, it’s my list – but I did want to look at these things new. This song still works and Andre 3000 is just so brilliant. How do you brighten your day?
2. “Lose Yourself” by Eminem (2003) – Right there with songs like “Cult of Personality” and “Welcome to the Jungle” – this is among the songs I turn to when getting fired up for a competition (or a game where my team is playing). It’s become cliche of course – but the beat and baseline is just absolutely perfect.
1. “Rock With You” by Michael Jackson (1980) – Really any of the top 4 would have worked here. However, there is real soul here – the kind which sounded weird with Jackson 5 songs – and such a smooth beat and flow. Michael Jackson produced many soul songs of consequence as a member of the Jackson Five – but his pre-pubescent voice to me, made it hard to really feel songs like “Got to be There” and “I’ll Be There”. It helps to be a grown up to give love songs the sort of gravitas it needs to be special. This qualifies. I was too young to remember Off The Wall, but as a solo album to reintroduce Michael Jackson it is perfect. I remember a magazine somewhere talking about it as the perfect brand extension – how do you not alienate your boy band customers while pushing into a new space. Jackson managed that perfectly here, with an album that evokes classic motown while remaining wholly Michael’s.