What are the most important singles over the past few years of American music?

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It’s not an easy question to answer. Fans and critics have a lot of thoughts on the topic.

When you talk about the “most important” singles, you don’t necessarily mean the “best” singles or the ones that were the biggest hits. Some of the most important singles of the past few decades aren’t necessarily that memorable as music.

But each of the singles on the list that follows had an impact on the music scene in an important way. They might have signaled a stylistic seachange. They might have ushered in a new style (even if later followers did it better). Or they were an early entry that crystalized a particular movement.

For better or worse, the most important singles in modern American music. Let the arguments begin.

Rock and roll didn’t exist as we know it today in the early ‘50s. A handful of pioneers married country melodies with R&B grooves to invent “rockabilly,” but that was still mostly regarded as country music. Elvis Presley had achieved a few big hits on the country charts in the mid-1950s, but “Heartbreak Hotel” took his sound and popularity to new heights. “Hotel” was like nothing else in the world of pop in 1956 and caused a sensation that propelled the song to #1. It was the start of years of big hits that helped define the concept of rock and roll and made Elvis a legend.

The young Motown label had scored some success on the R&B charts, but this 1961 single took the label to the top of the pop charts. “Please Mr. Postman” was an early exemplar of the Motown sound, with layered harmonies and a deep groove laid down by the Funk Brothers. Young pop audiences embraced the sound and would make Motown a youth culture staple throughout the decade that followed.

Rock and roll was still a fairly young genre when the Beatles changed the game. The vanguard of the “British Invasion,” the Fab Four were still in their clean-cut phase when they scored their first American #1 single. But the freshness the Beatles brought to rock and pop sounds is evident in this chirpy, pleasant single. The band was just getting started and their innovations would lead to all kinds of new frontiers in rock and pop music. “Love Me Do” announced that the British were coming and that they had no plans to leave.

Rock music took many different twists and turns as it developed. By the late ‘60s, hard rock and heavy metal began to emerge as a distinct sub-genre. In the U.S., that new direction was personified by Led Zeppelin, still revered by American rock fans almost five decades later. “Whole Lotta Love” was the cut that really caught attention. Its blistering guitar attack, pounding rhythm and Robert Plant’s mesmerizing howl remain as potent now as ever. Led Zeppelin threw open the doors and all the variations on hard rock and metal that followed trace their roots back here.

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Disco had already made some significant inroads in the American music scene and produced some hits. It was the soundtrack of ‘70s hedonism. Donna Summer’s first significant single was the embodiment of the best of that much-maligned genre. The song was long, with an insistent beat and Summer working an icy, feathery coo that rolled above the music. It was disco that was actually good and launched Summer as its Queen, helping to move the genre into the mainstream.

Welcome to the unlikely start of a musical revolution. Rap music had begun bubbling up on the street corners and gritty clubs of certain New York neighborhoods. Sugar Hill Gang was the first to get national attention for the developing style. Rap and hip-hop have traveled a long way since, but “Rapper’s Delight” was the song that made audiences pay attention. Suburban middle-schoolers would never be the same.

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The UK was ground zero for another musical revolution. “Alternative” music wasn’t really a concept yet, let alone a genre. But many experimental acts were developing in Britain and starting to get noticed. American audiences would be slow to embrace the new sounds, though college students and dance clubs would get onboard first. The tragic “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is a perfect emblem of the dramatic, propulsive new sound. After singer Ian Curtis committed suicide on the eve of JD’s first U.S. tour, “Love” became enshrined as the pivot for a new movement.

Disco died out, not that anyone seemed especially sad about it. But clubs still needed new grooves. European imports gave that scene some fodder, but a new breed of American dance music was developing on the indie scene. Shannon is remembered basically for this one hit, the first ‘80s dance music crossover success. Synthesizers and drum loops would become musical clichés soon enough, but when “Music” hit the top ten on the pop charts, the insistent beat was irresistible. Dance music never did that kind of post-disco retreat again. “Let the Music Play” demonstrated that modern dance sounds would always find a home in the mainstream.

Image provided by Wikimedia/Island

Alternative music had been making inroads at mainstream pop and rock formats for a few years by 1987. U2 themselves had been slowly working their way up the Hot 100. “With or Without You” was a game changer. It stormed to #1 as the calling card of the multi-platinum The Joshua Tree and made U2 the biggest rock stars in the world. If alternative music had previously been dismissed as the province of the oddballs who dressed in black and wore heavy eyeliner, after “With or Without You” it became a potent musical and pop culture force.

Country and pop music have been intertwined almost as long as both have existed. In the ‘70s, artists freely wandered back and forth between the two and there were periods, such as the Urban Cowboy craze of the early ‘80s, where country music had its moment in the spotlight. The success of Garth Brooks was a different beast. He didn’t promote singles to pop radio and yet managed multiplatinum success. Teenagers from northern suburbs without a local country music station, who couldn’t locate Nashville on a map, were buying Garth Brooks records. Brooks re-defined what a Country Superstar could be and did it all on his own terms. For better or worse, modern arena country began with Brooks. “Friends” was the song that made pop audiences take note.

The rest of the country had no clue what was brewing in Seattle until this shot across the bows. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was a full-frontal assault on the excesses of ‘80s hair metal. Dark, sludgy and lo fi, it demanded audiences pay attention to tragic genius Kurt Cobain. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” pretty well killed off corporate metal, replacing it with intense, anti-glam grit (hello, flannel!). A quarter century later and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is still as bracing and its impact on rock, pop and alternative music is undimmed.

Image provided by Wikimedia/Death Row

Rap music had been sliding into a goofy, party-centric rut. Labels were focused on selling crossover records to a pop audience and weren’t especially focused on innovation. But there was a darker current developing, once again brewing in the underground and indie scenes. Dr. Dre may or may not have invented gangsta rap, but he was its herald to the mainstream. Freed from a focus on decadence and frivolity, rap and hip hop music embraced an identity as a document of struggle, turning an unflinching gaze on urban crime and poverty. It wasn’t always pretty or easy to hear, but it was raw and real. Dr. Dre has spent more time in the producer’s seat than as a performer in recent years, but he’s still the face of this particular revolution.

The music scene of the mid-90s was dominated by dark rap and alt rock. So the timing was right for someone to bring back fizzy, lighthearted pop. Enter, the Spice Girls. They weren’t brilliant singers and the lyrics wander across the border into “inane” more often than is advisable. But “Wannabe” zigga-zig-zagged its way to the top of the Hot 100 and launched a million sleepover singalongs. It also paved the way for the late ‘90s teen pop boom. So if you want to know who to blame for Britney, N’Sync, et al, look no further.

Eminem wasn’t the first artist to attempt to bridge the worlds of rap and rock. But he was one of the few to both succeed at it AND be accepted by both camps. Eminem was already a key player in the Detroit hip hop scene when he scored his national breakthrough. “My Name Is” grazed the Top 40, but scored big at rock radio, where Eminem became a huge star, and R&B, where he quickly gained acceptance. He expanded the boundaries of hip hop in ways that still echo across genres 16 years later.

Image provided by Wikimedia/Def Jam

For a decade, rap and hip hop were the province of gangstas. If you couldn’t whip up a credible story of struggling on the streets, you needn’t have bothered. The genre loved nothing better than to expose a poser. West was a different story. He made no apologies for having had a relatively advantaged upbringing. Indeed, he made it a part of his musical persona. Anyone wanting to dismiss him found his skills and musical instincts difficult to ignore. Embraced by multiple audiences, West took hip hop in new directions and demonstrated it could be substantive without being beholden to gritty street tropes.

Retro pop and soul are all over the radio these days. But a decade ago, Amy Winehouse drew a lot of attention with her forays into the sounds of the past. She wasn’t a mere revivalist, though. Winehouse pulled influences from old hits and translated them into a thoroughly modern setting, with her singular point of view and haunting voice. Her tragic death sometimes overshadows the power of her musical accomplishments. “Rehab” is testament to why the latter should be her legacy.

MySpace isn’t exactly a cultural force these days. But back in 2007, it was the forum for Colbie Caillat to demonstrate the power of social media in music promotion. Caillat was an unsigned young singer/songwriter (she has a famous father but wasn’t trading on his connections). She posted several songs to her MySpace page and in short order, fans were calling out for “Bubbly.” The exposure landed her a label deal and a top five hit. But more importantly, “Bubbly” opened a lot of eyes to the power of social media and online promotion to connect with fans and sell music.

Originally published at thunderalleybcpcom.ipage.com on May 12, 2015.

Author (Grievous Angels) and pop culture gadabout #amwriting

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