90 Years of “Top 40” Music: Intro.

I have known for a long time about the seemingly seismic shift in music that happened the first time someone dropped the needle on a record of Chuck Berry’s Maybellene in 1955. In my head, people had spent hundreds of years listening to boring, bland pop songs when, suddenly, like a bolt of lightning, that blast of overdriven guitar came out of nowhere and shattered the windows. Sometimes it was Bill Haley and Rock Around the Clock, instead. Sometimes it was Elvis and That’s All Right or Mystery Train. Sometimes it was Ike Turner and Rocket 88…or a half dozen other songs. (Side note: The most perfect rock-and-roll song from that era is Big Joe Turner’s Shake, Rattle & Roll.)

It doesn’t matter which was the first. At some point, the smooth, How Much Is That Doggy In The Window snoozefest was replaced by Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, then the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Sex Pistols, Clash and Lady Gaga. I’ve seen the documentaries and read the books.

But what did it actually feel like?

I mean, after spending years listening to “old people” music, how awesome it must have been to hear something come out of the radio that wasn’t Guy Lombardo. Right? (Sadly, my TARDIS has been back-ordered for so long, I don’t think I’m going to be making any trips to the past very soon.)

Yet, growing up in a house where nothing was played but country music, I was able to have a few, small musical epiphanies. While I didn’t feel like I was drowning in the steady stream of Johnny Cash, Buck Owens and George Jones that was my usual soundtrack, I wasn’t as appreciative of its awesomeness as I am now. So, when I got to listen to my mother’s 45’s from when she was a teenager–Clyde McPhatter, Jimmie Rodgers, Buddy Knox, Sam Cooke–or hear the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night at a cousin’s house, or, eventually, be in places where the radio was tuned to a pop station, it was an ear-opening experience.

Around the time I was beginning to carve out my own tastes in music, I began reading a lot of rock histories (Charlie Gillett’s The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll sticks out in my memory) and back issues of Rolling Stone magazine. Being a huge Beatle fan, the fact that John Lennon in his garb from the film How I Won the War was on its first cover was a big factor there. I got heavy into the progression of music from blues and country to rock-n-roll to rock and the explosion of genres that followed. And I always tried to imagine what it was like to go from listening to Bing Crosby to Elvis to the Beatles to whatever and to pick out the roots of earlier music hidden inside current songs.

So, that’s what this is. Sorta.

It’s partly a trip across 100 years of radio music, starting with 1925, when radio was just hitting its stride as something to which everyone had access. I thought it would be fun to follow radio music across the years to see how it has changed.

It’s partly a way to experience the sudden shift in tone from 1940’s big bands and jazz to 1950’s rock-n-roll. By immersing myself in listening to nothing but the music of the 20’s, then 30’s, then 40’s, etc., would I experience that same rush of excitement when hearing something new?

It’s partly to deconstruct the songs of one era by really listening to what came before. If you’ve heard enough of its predecessors, then maybe you can more readily hear things like Bob Wills’ Ida Red in Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene.”

So, here’s how we do it.

I went to Spotify and created a playlist for each year from 1925 onward. In order to pick the songs, I found a place called Bullfrogs Pond that has a spreadsheet of every song that has ever hit the Billboard Hot 100 (or something else for the really old stuff). (NOTE: It is a massive spreadsheet, and I don’t recommend that you download it unless you plan on spending a ton of time just trying to open the thing. I wound up cutting it down by extracting it as a comma-separated file and uploading certain columns to a SQL database.). From the spreadsheet, I determined that I would use the Top 40 songs of each year.

While the concept of “Top 40” radio wasn’t really invented until the 1950’s, if your time-travel machine landed in a certain year, it’s likely that you’d hear those songs. Granted, Top 40 leaves out huge swaths of non-pop genres–blues, country, jazz, metal, punk–but it does represent what most mainstream Americans would have been listening to on the radio…at least until the recent demise of radio as a primary means of listening to music.

Another small problem came from using Spotify. While you can find practically any song there, certain artists have not allowed their music on it. The biggest issue was the Beatles. It’s kinda hard to have a Top 40 list from 1964 to 1969 without them. So, I opted to do two lists for those years–one without Beatles and one with “fake” Beatles. There really weren’t any big songs I had to leave off besides those until I got to the Taylor Swift era. Fortunately, she’s only had one or two Top 40 hits before 2014 (hard to believe), and when the list for this year is published in May 2015, perhaps she’ll be on Spotify, too. In any case, you still get the flavor of a year’s music without these one or two skipped songs.

Please, subscribe to the playlists on Spotify and follow along. I will be writing about the years in small bites…sometimes four or five years at a time…sometimes focusing on a single year…and highlighting notable songs, genres, and styles. I think you will at least hear a lot of music, and that’s rarely a bad thing.


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