Project X Fires Up The DeLorean

Aug 27th, 2007 // 6 Comments

As part of Idolator’s continuing effort to geekily analyze every music chart known to man, we present a new edition of Project X, in which Jackin’ Pop editor Michaelangelo Matos breaks down rankings from every genre imaginable. After the click-through, he tackles the best top 10 of 1957:

This is going to come as a surprise, I know, but I’m not a regular reader of U.S. News and World Report. Not for any special reason; I’ve just never gotten a newsweekly-magazine habit, probably to my detriment. But the other magazines I dote on (entertainment, mostly, with some general-interest and lit thrown in) have taught me to always appreciate a good cover package. And there’s a pretty good one in U.S. News‘s Aug. 13-20 edition. Billed as a “special double issue” (at 76 pages; presumably you could carve a turkey with a regular-sized issue), the magazine’s editors bring us “1957: A Year That Changed America.”

Brilliant, I thought: a riposte, intentional or not, to the foofaraw surrounding those other divisible-by-ten-year anniversaries. I’ve done enough clucking about various versions of the 40th Anniversary of the Summer of Love, and while 30 Years of Punk has been comparatively quiet, it’s still gotten some ink. But 50 Years of, I don’t know, America Having Changed gets points for originality, for real. (Or maybe every other newsweekly is doing something on it and I just haven’t noticed.)

One thing I did notice in the U.S. News package was its music coverage–or rather, its lack thereof. A lot of what’s in the 1957 package was smartly chosen: the birth of the Helvetica font, Jim Brown’s career year, the publication of both Atlas Shrugged and The Cat in the Hat (treated separately, though I’d have loved to see some crank attempt to tie them together). But musically speaking, the Event of Record in 1957 wasn’t something that anyone at the time could have possibly known would mean much of anything, including the participants. Tucked away on the bottom half of the final page of the package, Thomas K. Grose writes about July 6, 1957: the day Paul McCartney met John Lennon. Contemporary rock and roll artists (Eddie Cochran, the Del Vikings, Little Richard, Gene Vincent) are mentioned only as the sources of the material the young Liverpudlians performed.

This surprised me–you’d think U.S. News and World Report would have given a once-over to the record-burnings and clergy-led moral outrage brought on by rock and roll, the same way it did the Edsel and Sputnik and Brown vs. Board of Education. It’s not like the Billboard charts weren’t hopping. Or at least they were near Christmas:

Billboard‘s Top 10 Singles for December 23, 1957
1. Sam Cooke, “You Send Me” (RCA Victor)
2. Elvis Presley, “Jailhouse Rock” (RCA Victor)
3. Bill Justis, “Raunchy” (Sun)
4. Pat Boone, “April Love” (Dot)
5. Buddy Holly, “Peggy Sue” (Coral)
6. Danny and the Juniors, “At the Hop” (ABC Paramount)
7. The Rays, “Silhouettes” (XYZ)
8. Chuck Berry, “Rock and Roll Music” (Chess)
9. Jerry Lee Lewis, “Great Balls of Fire” (Sun)
10. The Everly Brothers, “Wake Up Little Susie” (Cadence)

I’ve mentioned Robert Myers, a.k.a. The Wisdom of the Illiterati, a whole bunch of times in this space, and as long as he keeps feeding me good stuff I’ll continue to. He sent me the above Top 10 a few months ago, when I was writing about the Billboard ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s Top 10s; I’d borrowed his book on the ’60s to start work on another one.

That column is coming, though probably not soon–not to give anything away, but the ’60s had a lot more choices for Best Top 10 of the Decade than with any of the others. I’d decided against doing the ’50s, partly because the Billboard Hot 100 Charts book for that decade begins in 1955, partly because I don’t know nearly enough pre-rock pop to hazard a guess at what might be the Worst Top 10 of the decade. But 12/23/57 is surely the best–and has significant claim as best ever–and it makes me wonder why there isn’t anything about any of these records in the magazine’s roundup.

There are some eerie similarities between 12/23/57 and the Top 10 I deemed Best of the ’70s, 10/19/73. Each has one piece of time-bound dogshit by a questionable middle-American icon (Pat Boone, ’57; Cher, ’73) surrounded by not just nine good records, but nine records that are, for better or worse, enshrined classics. That can certainly work against them as items to evaluate in the here-and-now; enshrining anything can make it seem like it belongs behind glass, which with rock and roll isn’t really the idea. But as U.S. News‘ choice of the Lennon-McCartney meeting demonstrates, anything that precedes the Beatles–or more correctly, precedes the Beatles in their “mature” phase. The early stuff tends to be dismissed, incorrectly by my ears, as kid stuff–and therefore, so does the rock before them.

Maybe it’s best left that way. I remember in 1999, Rhino attempted to position its four-CD box set Loud, Fast and Out of Control: The Wild Sounds of ’50s Rock as the root of all that was dangerous and cool about rock–to sell it to fans of Hole and Marilyn Manson. But the ploy–”This isn’t that quaint stuff you dial away from on the oldies stations; it’s scary“–didn’t really work; once it got its passel of ecstatic reviews (all well-deserved: Loud, Fast‘s track sequencing is superb) and won Pazz & Jop’s Reissues category (tying with Os Mutantes), that was sort of that. How much more about this stuff was there to say? As a fan, I’d love to think a lot more. But if the many magazine retrospectives this year can teach us something, it’s that you can indeed talk about something until there’s nothing left to say. If that’s how U.S. News saw it, I might disagree with them–but I understand.

  1. SomeSound-MostlyFury

    I’m sorry that this has little relevance to the post itself, but…..Project X? Seriously?

    I didn’t know Idolator had been bought by a local alt-rock station.

  2. Maura Johnston

    @SomeSound-MostlyFury: Have you not been paying attention all these months? Sniff, sniff.

  3. Chris Molanphy

    Nice column as always, and wow, that is some Top 10.

    I’d decided against doing the ’50s, partly because the Billboard Hot 100 Charts book for that decade begins in 1955

    The ’50s are tough for chart geeks, not only because the popularly recognized birth of rock n’ roll happened partway through the decade, but because the charts were a hodgepodge before 1958. Billboard introduced the Hot 100 in August 1958 (first #1: Ricky Nelson’s “Poor Little Fool”), creating one master singles chart that combined sales and airplay. Before that date, there were a slew of other charts, including Best Sellers in Stores, which is generally used by the Joel Whitburns and Fred Bronsons of the world to stand in for the Hot 100 post-Bill Haley – but it leaves out radio airplay and is really a mediocre substitute. (Next year, the Hot 100 turns 50, which I’m sure Billboard will celebrate somehow.)

    Anyway, I’m guessing that your killer December ’57 top 10 was from the Best Sellers chart, which takes nothing away from it. But again, I don’t blame you for approaching the charts of the ’50s warily.

  4. SomeSound-MostlyFury

    @maura: I have…sort of. But today was the first day I felt compelled to say something. I looked through all the previous ProX posts and couldn’t find anything that explained the name, either, so I’m sticking to my guns: A hearty booo! to you, Project X.
    Feel free to correct me, however. Or just tell me that I’m mean.

  5. Maura Johnston

    @SomeSound-MostlyFury: X, 10, ability to reference a Matthew Broderick movie? Don’t judge the column by its lead tag, etc.

  6. Michaelangelo Matos

    . . .

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