Many people find it hard to tell the great from the godawful when it comes to 21st-century mainstream rock. To help figure out which is which, here’s “Corporate Rock Still Sells,” where Al “GovernmentNames” Shipley examines what’s good, bad, and ugly in the world of rock and roll. This time around, he celebrates the 20th anniversary of Billboard‘s Modern Rock chart by cherry-picking some of its most oddly notable chart-toppers:
Last month, the Hot 100–the big cheese of Billboard‘s singles charts–turned 50, and the publication’s been rolling out the red carpet in honor of that golden anniversary. But today, another Billboard milestone is passing by with a little less fanfare: the 20th birthday of the Modern Rock chart. The late-’80s college rock explosion resulted in more and more commercial radio stations playing a variety of young bands and singer-songwriters that didn’t quite fit into the Pink Floyd/Van Hagar-heavy format covered by the Album Rock Tracks chart (now known as Mainstream Rock) Billboard responded to that trend on Sept. 10, 1998, when it published the first Hot Modern Rock Tracks chart.
In the two decades since, the alternative rock format has exploded–in terms of both stations and listeners–and then shrunk some, all the while going through an aesthetic identity crisis seemingly every five years. I’ve occasionally implied that the chart may have outlived its usefulness, given the dwindling listenership and its increasing crossover with the Mainstream Rock chart. But those arguments are largely facetious, and I hope Billboard never takes my suggestion to heart. (I’d have a lot less to follow or write about.) Two months ago, the trade mag actually added a third rock singles chart, Triple-A (as in Adult Album Alternative); the music on that chart more resembles Modern Rock’s jangly early days. So with Triple-A at one pole and Mainstream Rock at the other, the Modern Rock chart is now, more than ever, effectively the center of Billboard’s rock charts and its most important one, which assures that it should be alive and well for as long as there’s terrestrial radio data to track.
A couple years ago, former Idolator regular Anthony Miccio counted down all of the Modern Rock No. 1s on a highly entertaining blog called modernrock4eva, which I’ve looked at from time to time as inspiration for this column, and to remind myself of just how silly and mercurial this chart has always been. For every No. 1 that could be praised as the harbinger of a new era along the lines of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” you have a handful of novelty hits, flukes, and bizarre mid-career diversions. I have no interest in honoring the canon, so I thought I’d go through the chart’s first 21 calendar years and pick one No. 1 from each: not the best song, but the one that was most likely forgotten, never heard, or be classified as a “surprising” hit:
1988: Siouxsie and the Banshees – “Peek-a-Boo”
This isn’t the most obscure of the five songs that topped the chart in its first four months of existence. But it was the chart’s very first No. 1, and I can think of no more auspicious a beginning for this institution than a bonkers dance-pop crossover full of backmasked accordion.
1989: Public Image Ltd. – “Disappointed”
There are some perfectly valid reasons that this band is revered by some much more than John Lydon’s other, more famous band. But this backup singer-aided ball of cheese, one of PiL’s last gasps before Lydon entered an endless cycle of Sex Pistols reunions, is most likely not one of them.
1990: David J – “I’ll Be Your Chauffeur”
Before embarking on this column, I had no idea that being a Bauhaus alum was apparently all it took to top this chart in its early days. Love And Rockets reached No. 1 in ’89, and the next year both Peter Murphy and David J reached the summit as solo artists.
1991: U2 – “The Fly”
There were more obscure No. 1′s from this year, but this wins by virtue of being one of the least-known lead singles from an established band’s blockbuster album ever released. It’s kind of amazing, in retrospect, that U2 managed to release this song first with future Achtung Baby smashes like “One” and “Mysterious Ways” waiting in the chamber. In light of how well they got away with this gamble, it’s easier to understand where they got the balls to release “Numb” and “Discotheque” as lead singles later on.
1992: Lou Reed – “What’s Good”
1992 was, for many people and especially for my 10-year-old self, ground zero for the alt-rock explosion. It was also the year I became aware of the Modern Rock chart–MTV’s 120 Minutes would run through the top 10 before a commercial break each week. But even as some of the decade’s biggest bands were scoring their first hits, the chart was still being dominated by oldsters enjoying their final glimpses of serious rock airplay, including Peter Gabriel, The B-52′s, XTC, and ol’ Lou.
1993: Tears For Fears – “Break It Down Again”
It’s hard to compare this song to any of the Songs From The Big Chair megahits, but this one still sounds tremendous to me.
1994: Counting Crows – “Einstein on the Beach (For an Eggman)”
Their 1993 debut August And Everything After yielded three Modern Rock top 10 hits, but the only Counting Crows song to ever top the chart was this bouncy outtake, which was tossed on the DGC Rarities compilation.
1995: Red Hot Chili Peppers – “My Friends”
I may not particularly like the many, many power ballads RHCP has recorded since reuniting with John Frusciante. But they all beat the hell out of the one they did when Dave Navarro was in the band.
1996: The Cranberries – “Salvation”
The Cranberries’ metamorphosis from the winsome Irish balladeers of “Dreams” to the creepy doomsayers of “Zombie” and this peppy anti-heroin screed is one of the more fascinating transformations of the mid-’90s alt-rock era. Some of Rihanna’s fashion and artistic choices of late make me wonder if Dolores O’Riordan is her spirit animal.
1997: Live – “Lakini’s Juice”
Along the same lines as “Salvation,” this is a fascinating instance of an overexposed band becoming somewhat interesting at the exact moment that its career took a nosedive. It’s a shame Live’s ensuing commercial decline was full of more pap like “The Dolphin’s Cry” than riffs as fucking nasty as the one here.
1998: The Goo Goo Dolls – “Slide”
1998 was a truly dire year for Modern Rock: It began with the 15-week reign of Marcy Playground, who were succeeded by the seven-week reign of Fastball (you can probably guess the songs). Things didn’t get much better from there, and I can honestly say every single one of the 11 songs that topped the chart that year holds at least one unpleasant memory for me. And while this one isn’t as good as “Iris,” it’s still the least overplayed of these songs that I could choose.
1999: Limp Bizkit – “Re-Arranged”
Most of Limp Bizkit’s fun songs shoehorned in incongrously slow, serious bridges, so it was pretty shocking that they managed to make a whole song out of one of those brooding grooves that turned out to be one of their best hits.
2000: Green Day – “Minority”
Reminding myself that Green Day had such a popular “political” song shortly before American Idiot makes me marvel at how well they succeeded at selling that album as both a comeback and a change of pace.
2001: Sum 41 – “Fat Lip”
2001 was the year that Staind, Nickelback, Linkin Park and Incubus all became power ballad superstars, but at least one band was having some goofy, sloppy fun at No. 1 (well, two, if you count those guys that covered “Smooth Criminal”).
2002: Unwritten Law – “Seein’ Red”
Every time I read this song’s title and tried to remember what it sounded like before looking it up on YouTube, all I could think of was Chevelle’s “The Red,” which reached No. 4 at almost the exact same time that this song topped the chart, features a refrain of the phrase “seeing red,” and has remained a much stronger radio staple in the years since.
2003: Jane’s Addiction – “Just Because”
A perfunctory one-week chart-topper from a hollow, pointless reunion. And thanks to Entourage‘s really, really annoying theme song, it isn’t even the best-known track from its parent album.
2004: The Offspring – “Hit That”
This seems to be about the point where The Offspring decided to back off from the antics of novelty hits like “Pretty Fly (For A White Guy).” But before getting fully serious with their recent hit “Hammerhead,” they had to wean themselves off the silly shit by making a song with farting ska horns, awkwardly deployed hip-hop slang, and a video starring an animated dog.
2005: Audioslave – “Be Yourself”
Audioslave was an ugly marriage of convenience always headed for an inevitable divorce, but this song marked one time they seemed almost convincingly compatible.
2006: The Foo Fighters – “DOA”
Even though it’s just three years old, it’s not even the 10th-most-played Foo Fighters song on radio now. A shame, since it’s just about their only recent single that follows through on the unfulfilled promise of muscular new wave glimpsed on early singles like “This Is A Call” or “Monkey Wrench.”
2007: Incubus – “Anna Molly”
“Megalomaniac” could’ve been their “Lakini’s Juice,” but instead these guys kept at it and made leaner, better hard-rock hits.
2008: Staind – “Believe”
I leave you with the current No. 1, partly to give symmetry to our journey, and partly because I hope someday soon we’ll all have long forgotten that gooey Diane Warren bullshit like “believe in me, ’cause I was meant for chasing dreams” ever topped a chart that’s championed much weirder, better stuff.