Confession: Even a professional music snob must admit that not every popular song is garbage. Nostalgia aside, the post-1955 pop era is loaded with catchy and well-written chart hits, some bordering on excellent. Many times over the decades, this critic would hear the latest chart-topper and wonder, “How could it NOT be a hit?”
A sharp industry observer also keeps his ear out for music that shouldn’t be popular yet somehow breaks through. Rather than write a common-denominator ‘hit’ for the masses, an artist delivers depth and complexity that, by all rights, should never have glimpsed the Billboard Top 40. Put another way: How could the same dreary public that sent 1991’s “I’m Too Sexy” to Number One possibly open their wallets for this as well?
Here, we list ten pop songs officially deemed “Too Good to Be a Hit” (utterly subjective, of course). Our sole laboratory requirement is cracking the official US Billboard Top 40 chart for at least one week. So, just because your favorite AOR station played all 43 minutes of Jethro Tull‘s Thick As a Brick back in the day, that doesn’t count. Some obvious radio classics are also missing – hard to believe, but neither the Who‘s “Baba O’Riley” nor Led Zeppelin‘s “Stairway to Heaven” were released as US singles. Album vs. chart release dates may vary, and butchered ‘radio edits’ should be avoided like the plague. But if Casey Kasem or his successors ever mentioned any version of a tune on American Top 40, it’s fair game.
10. Ozark Mountain Daredevils – “Jackie Blue” (Chart #3 – 1975)
Begin with a piercing classic that genuinely came out of nowhere from a Missouri country band best known for twangy hoedowns. Initially inspired by a male drug dealer of his acquaintance, songwriter Larry Lee switched genders and brought a serpentine Fleetwood Mac pop sensibility to what became a beloved all-time smash and one of the decade’s most haunting, trippy life journeys. For years many of us assumed Lee’s reedy, high-pitched voice to be female. Whatever: between the weepy guitar, resentful vocals, and plaintive fortune-teller lyrics, “Jackie Blue” leaves its sugary post-Vietnam folk brethren in the dust.
9. The Alan Parsons Project – “Games People Play” (Chart #16 – 1980)
Back in 1973, Alan Parsons helped engineer Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. So his fanboy legacy was already assured when Arista released “Games People Play” from 1980’s Turn of a Friendly Card. Did those rippling, wavy water effects come from a keyboard, a synthesizer, or a tape-looped violin? I don’t know and don’t really care. Few pop hits ever sounded this cool – a rollicking taste of futuristic New Wave, before anybody besides Gary Numan even knew what it sounded like. And from Eye in the Sky-era Alan Parsons, of all people! With a fiery guitar solo, an impassioned guest vocal from Lenny Zakatek, and a bridge as lonesome and desolate as any winter forest – “How do we spend our time / Knowing nobody gives us a damn?” – introverted pre-Moving Pictures misfits suddenly had our anthem. Friendly Card was recently re-mastered in 5.1 surround sound, too, a perfect excuse to rediscover this mysterious and strangely compelling album.
8. Supertramp – “Goodbye Stranger” (Chart #15 – 1979)
Another list, another obligatory Supertramp eulogy. “Logical Song” was catchy, gimmicky, and the ‘logical’ Top Ten hit from 1979’s Breakfast in America. But partisanship aside, the electric-piano smorgasbord of “Goodbye Stranger” still deserves acclaim from any standpoint. Is it a road song, a love song, or the ultimate sarcastic kissoff? Probably all three, as it effortlessly coasts from street-minstrel wisdom to that famed call-and-response falsetto chorus, eventually closing out with what some consider one of rock’s finest solos. We moping and irrational Super-Fans long ago gave up hope for a rapprochement. But if, by the Lord’s grace, a Supertramp reunion ever did happen, Roger Hodgson could start by admitting that Rick Davies’ “Goodbye Stranger” might be the best song they ever did.
7. The Police – “Synchronicity II” (Chart #16 – 1983)
Yes, Virginia: music videos were once a true art form. The Police basically owned 1983 with their monster album Synchronicity, which Rolling Stone accurately labeled “as good as thinking-man’s New Wave ever got”. “Every Breath You Take” may have spent eight weeks at Number One, but this spooky, apocalyptic, Jungian rock masterpiece had no business getting within shouting distance of a pedestrian Billboard chart. “Synchronicity II” is moody, incendiary, and even downright belligerent, representing the sole entry on this list to claim heavy MTV rotation during the channel’s early 1980s heyday. And those lyrics! “Mother chants her litany of boredom and frustration / But we know all her suicides are fake”? Even 40 years later, one marvels at the thought of gum-chewing adolescent kids trading such sophisticated Brit verses in their high-school halls.
6. Grand Funk Railroad – “Closer to Home (I’m Your Captain)“ (Chart #22 – 1970)
Grand Funk Railroad climbed the charts multiple times in the early 1970s, including two Number One hits. But this orchestra-tinged ten-minute opus, so unlike anything else in the band’s repertoire, probably shouldn’t have sniffed the Top 40 at all. The unedited original version is a story of two movements: a great classic rock song, succeeded at the halfway mark by one of the most gorgeous codas in rock history. “Closer to Home” plays like a glorious symphony because it is one: inspired by the Moody Blues, producer Terry Knight hired the Cleveland Orchestra to overlay the celebrated shipwreck ending. According to Billy James’ “The Story of Grand Funk Railroad”, band members hadn’t heard the full version until Knight played it for them. Writer/guitarist Mark Farner nearly cried as drummer Don Brewer recalls, “Oh my God, it was magnificent.”
5. Crosby Stills & Nash – “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” (Chart #21 – 1969)
Five decades removed, it’s difficult to believe this now-legendary Sixties ode to Judy Collins never saw the top 20. But the reason is apparent in hindsight: It was just too darn good. On this heavenly folk touchstone, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash elevate the concept of ‘harmony’ to an otherworldly, almost supernatural pinnacle that may never be surpassed. In addition to timeless romantic anguish and heartache, Stills’ lyrics also spark a contemporary flower-child reaction tantalizingly seductive in today’s uber-sanitized world. With four distinct sections lasting seven-and-a-half minutes, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” is still far too short.
4. Boston – “More Than a Feeling” (Chart #5 – 1976)
Only five or six times while growing up did this reviewer hear a new tune and instantly declare, “That is the greatest song I ever heard.” Half a lifetime later, “More Than a Feeling’s” effervescent guitars, groundbreaking synthesizers, and Brad Delp’s inhuman vocals sound as fresh as they did in Gerald Ford’s day. According to Wikipedia, writer Tom Scholz credits the surprising “Walk Away Renee” by the Left Banke as his main inspiration. Just for fun, shall we list the hits that kept “More Than a Feeling” from the top slot during Christmas Week in 1976? Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s the Night”, Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis Jr’s “You Don’t Have to Be a Star”, the Spinners’ “Rubberband Man”, and Leo Sayer’s “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing”. Anybody else cue those up lately? Me neither. Talk about ‘too good to be a hit’!
3. The Church – “Under the Milky Way” (Chart #24 – 1988)
And now, the genesis of this entire exercise. Amid a wasteland of female divas, cheesy hair metal, and ubermensch Rick Astley (no offense meant), this avant-garde import from Down Under not only became an instant college-rock classic but proved one of the most unexpected and enduring ‘cognoscenti’ pop hits in chart history. Bagpipes, ghostly harmonies, unabashed Doors psychedelia… What is this, 1971? Affectionately known as the Aussie Fab Four, the Church were already famous in their native land when “Under the Milky Way” introduced them to a broader American audience. Songwriter Steve Kilbey certainly appreciates the track’s lightning-in-a-bottle impact. As he told Cameron Adams in 2011, “It’s an accidental song I accidentally wrote that accidentally became a single and accidentally became a hit. I’ve written 2000 songs… Thank God one of them came through!”
2. The Moody Blues – “Nights in White Satin” (Chart #2 – 1972 / Chart #103 – 1967)
This gorgeous requiem was so far out of America’s league that it took five full years to strike paydirt and certainly wouldn’t stand a ghost’s chance today. The Moody Blues shattered every studio barrier on their fully-orchestrated 1967 masterwork Days of Future Passed, so a little digestion time for Stateside audiences was probably expected. Even today, thee telltale string section sounds wildly out of place on rock radiy. Then what makes “Nights in White Satin” so darn timeless? After a lifetime of listening, one should probably hark back to old Westerns for a hint. The song’s poetic meter and frontier/cowboy cadence perfectly complement songwriter Justin Hayward’s lament to unrequited love, lending it a deathless majesty beyond most chart hits of its era. Or ours: Next time some Top 40 poseur manages to sell a hoary line like “Oh, how I love you!” so unforgettably, let me know.
1. Yes – “Roundabout” (Chart #13 – 1971)
At last, the granddaddy of them all – the one progressive-rock song everybody adored and still does. Though frequently reviled for their indulgent 20-minute odes to impenetrability, Yes struck a mystic chord of memory with “Roundabout” that echoes still. Chris Squire’s watery bass, Steve Howe’s tap-dancing riffs, and newly-hired Rick Wakeman’s whirling keyboards provide the scaffolding for Jon Anderson’s most kaleidoscopic vocal performance. A nip of drug-fueled weirdness never hurts either, right? Whether sober, high, or in-between, the song is twinkling symphonic transcendence. For once, Anderson’s Druidic lyrics also make a crazy kind of sense – yours truly will forever associate “Roundabout” with a father/son trip to Colorado in the mid-1970s, where mountains really did “come out of the sky and stand there”. One more time: What the heck was this visionary Utopian jewel doing on a US pop chart?
In memory of author and music executive Jay Frank (1971-2019), taken from us much too soon.