Like The Ravyns once sang, I was raised on the radio. But I wasn't conscious of it until I was 12. Before then radio was something that was just there, filling up the air while I sat in the backseat of my Mom's car on the way to wherever. All of a sudden I realized that music was actually created, and the people responsible apparently took it pretty seriously. I thought, hey, maybe I should take it seriously, too. I decided to not only care who sang "She Drives Me Crazy", but I needed to be driven out to the mall so I could to buy the cassette tape from whence it came. (The Raw And The Cooked, the first piece of recorded music I ever bought with my own money.) Now that I was a card-carrying music consumer, I started buying up (or dubbing from friends) my favorites from the Top 40: Paula Abdul, Janet Jackson, Milli Vanilli, C+C Music Factory, MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice, Jesus Jones, Depeche Mode, and others. After about a year later I switched over to the local classic rock station, and started buying up or dubbing Beatles, Stones, Zeppelin, and Who albums, along with the latest grunge and alt-rock bands getting played on MTV.
For me radio ended up being victim of its own success–I eventually bought enough tapes and CDs to not have to listen to somebody else's playlist anymore. And, like a lot of people, I never really looked back. Obviously, as a music delivery device, commercial radio sucked in a lot of ways. They played the same songs over and over, and many of them weren't very good. There were too many commercials. The DJs were annoying, obnoxious, and unfunny, and they were always talking over the intros and outros of songs. (Which is really infuriating if you're taping songs off the radio on your boombox–I never did get a decent version of Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street" from the local good times-great oldies station) When I became a music writer, things got a little more complicated—I wondered whether (mostly) ignoring the country's most-played music was a dereliction of duty. Lately, however, the question has turned: In an age when you can sell far south of 100,000 copies and still have the best-selling album in the country, what does the Top 40 even mean any more?
Well—to answer my own question—it means something, whatever it is. Even if sales charts aren't as good at telling us which songs people really like these days, there's still no better time capsule than a weekly Billboard chart. By missing the radio for so long I feel like I've been missing an important piece of the present. So, I'm looking to do some re-discoverin.' But since I still don't like listening to the actual radio, I downloaded the top 10 from (the already out-of-date) May 12, 2007 Hot 100 chart and graded them, A.V. Club style
1. Maroon5, "Makes Me Wonder"
Maroon5 reminds me of the really good-looking guy in high school who was super popular, filthy rich, straight-A smart, and just a genuinely nice guy. Like that guy, that unbeatable hit machine Maroon5 is pretty hateable from a distance, but the throwback funk of "Makes Me Wonder" is pretty damn likeable if you get to know it. This song deserved to go to No. 1 in about two minutes. Grade: A-.
2. Avril Lavigne, "Girlfriend"
What a big, dumb song–the chorus is big, Avril's lyrics are dumb, and the drums are big and dumb. So, obviously, it's pretty good pop song. Avril–excuse me, "the motherfucking princess" –probably still can't pronounce Bowie, but at least her knowledge of pop history goes back to Toni Basil. At times like these I wish real punk were more like fake punk. Grade: B.
3. Timbaland featuring Nelly Furtado and Justin Timberlake, "Give It To Me" I heard Timbaland's latest album Timbaland Presents Shock Value isn't that great, but why is this guy making albums anyway? Singles are his domain. And if Quentin Tarantino shouldn't star in his own movies, neither should Timbaland. At least the greatest producer ever named after a shoe was smart enough to make "Give It To Me" essentially another hot Nelly Furtado jam with some guest trash-talking from Justin Timberlake. Grade: A.
4. T-Pain featuring Yung Joc, "Buy U A Drank (Shawty Snappin')"
Now that a tired old grouch has been thrown off the radio in New York City, there's all this talk in the media about foul-mouth rappers and R&B; singers leading the world down the path to Thunderdome. But the No. 1 song on the R&B;/hip-hop chart (No. 4 pop) is actually pretty sweet: All T-Pain and Yung Joc want is to buy u a darn drank. Improper tense usage aside, parents can't too upset about that. Grade: B.
5. Ne-Yo, "Because Of You"
Here's another sensitive R&B; guy who's more gee-whiz that G-Funk. Now that Chris Martin has appeared on a Jay-Z record, Ne-Yo's is free to borrow Coldplay's piano riffs and soft, romantic cooing. And it works–buy this kid a nice soda drank! Grade: B.
6. Carrie Underwood, "I'll Stand By You"
The American Idol star's cover of The Pretenders' classic ballad is actually far more restrained than the original. Recorded for charity, the bare bones guitar and fiddle arrangement sounds like a demo. Still, whenever I hear it, all I can think of is Underwood making her sad face at starving African babies on the "Idol Gives Back" special. You know, because starving Africans aren't sad unless pop stars tell you they are. Grade. B-.
7. Fergie featuring Ludacris, "Glamorous"
You got to hand it to Fergie: she can spell the hell out of the word glamorous. "Glamorous" is probably the least irritating Fergie-involved single yet, and I'm not sure that's a good thing: At least "My Humps" and "London Bridge" got stuck in your head. I can't remember how this song goes no matter how often I hear it. Grade: C-.
8. Kelly Clarkson, "Never Again"
I can't think of another singer whose cred is due solely to one song like Kelly Clarkson and "Since U Been Gone." After that one, admittedly great single, Clarkson suddenly had enough rocker juice to talk Jeff Beck into backing her on the aforementioned "Idol Gives Back." Sadly, Clarkson's new "Never Again" is a rather pale "Since U Been Gone" rip-off. "I hope when you're in bed with her, you think of me." Kelly, why are you trying to be Alanis when Alanis wants to be you? Grade: C+.
9. Akon, "Don't Matter"
Akon has been swept up in the post-Imus game of "you got one of ours, now we'll get one of yours" being played by social conservatives. It reminds me of how Ludacris was singled out by Bill O'Reilly as the world's most dangerous rapper–seriously, is it so hard for right-wingers to have a passing knowledge of pop culture? Anyway, the hubbub has overshadowed the true Akon scandal–his current single "Don't Matter" is a shameless rip-off of "Ignition (Remix)." Dude, you're lucky R. Kelly isn't crazy about courtrooms at the moment. Grade: C-.
10. Gwen Stefani featuring Akon, "The Sweet Escape"
Akon is back with his homegirl Gwen Stefani, currently feeling the pinch after her tour sponsor Verizon dropped out because the A-man was caught on tape dry-humping a 15-year-old girl on stage. This guy just can't stop stealing from R. Kelly, can he? Good song, though. Grade: B.