Pop alternatives grow

Top 40 stations, radio’s whipping boy for the past few years, experienced a significant resurgence in 1993 attributable in part to numbers. After scores of stations changed to country and adult contemporary formats, the survivors — typically one Top 40 per market — didn’t have to share the hit music audience anymore. But adult comtemporary country stations saw their competition grow.

As important was the wealth of quality popular music available for Top 40 stations to play. Top 40 broke numerous hits from major superstars like Janet Jackson and Mariah Carey to an encouraging bumper crop of new talent.

What’s more, programmers became more adventurous. Their willingness to tap into alternative, dance, reggae and even eclectic rock/pop records added a refreshing spice to their playlists, which paid off in larger and more loyal listeners. Here are a few of the more interesting trends that made Top 40 music popular again.

Big stars shine

There was a time when the music industry bemoaned the tendency of superstars to go years between releases, leaving weeks or even months where radio would have little established hit product to serve its core audience. By comparison, 1993 was a veritable feast, led by a trio of female superstars who all came through in flying colors. Whitney Houston continued to mine hit singles from “The Bodyguard” soundtrack well beyond the massive success of ’92’s “I Will Always Love You.” Even now, “Queen of the Night” from that album is about to break onto the Top 40 chart.

Then there was “janet.” Few things are tougher to accomplish in the music business than live up to sky-high expectations, yet Janet Jackson simply blew them all away with her debut album on

Virgin Records. The first single, “That’s the Way Love Goes,” was added out-of-the-box by a record 209 Top 40 stations (ones that report to the Network Forty radio trade magazine) and spent over a month atop of the charts. “If” and her most recent chart-topper, “Again,” helped fuel sales beyond 4 million. Virgin Records president Phil Quartararo predicts at least four more singles will follow.

Not to be outdone was Columbia Records pop diva Mariah Carey. Her debut single, “Dreamlover,” spent nine weeks atop Network Forty’s charts and the follow-up, “Hero,” is firmly entrenched there now. Several more singles will follow, as Carey’s Thanksgiving TV special helped propel her album to the top spot on the sales charts.

A slew of other big names also made their presence felt in ’93, some coming after a considerable absence from the charts. Billy Joel, Rod Stewart, Bryan Adams, Aerosmith and Def Leppard enjoyed several hit singles, as did Madonna, Michael Jackson, Tina Turner, Sting, Bon Jovi and Prince.

Soulful harmonies

Top 40 was also blessed with a bountiful crop of singing groups — primarily in the R&B, soul and dance veins — who harmonized sweetly over the airwaves. The top newcomer was SWV (Sisters With Voices), who boasted three hit singles in the top 20 of Network Forty’s year-end Top 100 chart. A fourth and final single was recently released.

Other vocalists with major pop hits include En Vogue and Expose (both had several hits in the Top 40), R&B funksters Tony Toni Tone, Boyz II Men, Jodeci, Jade, Silk and Shai. Also on the R&B/Dance front, Top 40 savored the talents of Toni Braxton, Robin S., Lisa Keith, Jon Secada, Shanice and Haddaway.

Alternative spins

Despite being defined as the antithesis of mainstream music, a growing number of alternative acts broke into the Top 40, undoubtedly helped by the fastest growing new hit radio niche — alternative Top 40. Now, dozens of stations have, at least in some part, followed the trail first blazed by KROQ-FM by playing an eclectic menu of music to an audience comparable in size to the mainstream. Among the most popular alternative product came from the Stone Temple Pilots, New Order, Gin Blossoms, Stereo MCs, Radiohead, Blind Melon, 4 Non Blondes, 10, 000 Maniacs and Soul Asylum.

Ironically, the hottest alternative act never even released a single to Top 40. However, when Pearl Jam practically went platinum in record sales after just one week, Top 40 programmers took it upon themselves to delve into the record for something to play. Their first choice, “Daughter,” is currently a mid-charting hit — a notable accomplishment built solely on sales figures and audience requests.

Two alternative supergroups — U2 and R.E.M. — achieved moderate Top 40 success with several different singles, but the groups’ sheer musical integrity was such that their respective records still sold million of albums. They are two rarities that can still generate considerable success on their own terms, regardless of the whims and trends of popular music.

Duran Duran was considered yesterday’s news at the beginning of 1993, but the release of back-to-back smashes –“Ordinary World” and “Come Undone”– brought the British band back to commercial life.

Top 40 never forgets

That comeback paled in comparison to the resurgence of Meat Loaf. Largely absent from the music scene for well over a decade, Loaf’s sequel to his multiplatinum ’78 release, “Bat Out of Hell,” was the biggest surprise hit of the year, initiated by the smash single, “I’d Do Anything for Love (but I Won’t Do That).”

However, not all touted comebacks paid off so handsomely. The Bee Gees and Earth Wind &

Fire’s comeback efforts — while achieving a respectable level of radio success — weren’t able to approach their respective career peaks.

Reggae rumblings

Probably the most overlooked hit sound is Jamaican-bred reggae. Although the roots of the music are alien to mainstream America, its lilting tempo is quite danceable and can attract adult contemporary, dance, alternative and mainstream pop fans. UB40’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love” ended up as one of biggest pop hits of the entire year.

Other acts to take advantage of the infectious reggae groove were Inner Circle (one of their hits was the theme from the TV series “Cops,” titled “Bad Boys”), Jimmy Cliff, Ace of Base, Shaggy and — using the hyperspeak reggae rap known as toasting — Snow, who had a major hit with the lyrically unintelligible “Informer.”

Rap it up

As much as conservative programmers hate to admit it — or play it — rap has been an integral part of Top 40’s good tidings. Regardless of the hue and cry over gangsta rap’s lyrical imagery, several rappers came through with catchy, across-the-board mainstream anthems. Tag Team’s “Whoomp! (There it Is!)” for instance, instantly became part of the popular vernacular; sports teams now play the song to inspire their fans’ support.

Other huge rap hits came from Salt-N-Pepa, Dr. Dre, Onyx, Tupac Shakur, Cypress Hill, Ice Cube and Snoop Doggy Dogg. Even if their “negative” songs are indeed banned from some Top 40 and crossover stations, it should have little effect on the success of their records.

As the extraordinary sales of Dre, Dogg, Eazy E and Ice Cube attest, these rappers own the street — and their fans will snap up their albums with or without airplay. Top 40 radio stations — especially those in urban centers — will have to find a way to play their music if they want to attract a significant portion of their core audience.

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