And now…on with the countdown…
10. Matthew Sweet, “Girlfriend”
A sensational single can change everything, lifting an artist from complete obscurity (even within the obscurity-embracing culture of college radio) to critical acclaim, healthy airplay, and even the less prestigious showcases in late night television. The whole Girlfriend album is terrific, but that title cut is the sort of grabber that artists spend their entire careers fruitlessly longing for. In Sweet’s original pass at this song, it was entitled “Good Friend,” but everyone he played it for thought he was saying “girlfriend” so he went ahead and made the minor but oh-so-significant modification. We had that original demo version on a single at the radio station, and I probably played it almost as much as I spun the finished product. It also eventually showed up on the “Legacy Edition” of the album that came out as part of the record industries concerted, ongoing effort to make people pay for the same albums over and over again.
This song was making a strong move upwards. It was at number 27 on the previous chart.
9. Nirvana, “Lithium”
The fourth of five Nirvana songs on the chart. This leads to a quick remembrance of the radio show that inspired this feature. As noted back in the first installment, my beloved broadcasting alma mater was the home to a Sunday night endeavor called the College Count-Up, which featured a DJ of exemplary skill tracking through the CMJ “Top Cuts” chart from one down to number forty in cheeky defiance of the directional norm for such shows. He could have just played the records, but instead insisted on it being a properly scripted show with detailed information about the bands and songs provided throughout his hours on the air, no small feat in a Webless era marked by a dearth of readily available information about many of the performers that graced the chart. Further complicating matters was the tendency of college radio programmers to approach a new album’s tracklist with a more egalitarian sensibility than that employed by their hit-single-focused, commercial radio counterparts. This led to artists having multiple tracks on the chart simultaneously, adding to the challenge of finding something original to say at each landing on the hopscotch across the Top 40. Sometimes our heroic DJ was left with little more to do than describe the album cover, a tactic best employed if said cover was particularly fetching. All of this nostalgia is, of course, just a wordy, elaborate way of acknowledging that I’ve damn near run out of things to say about Nirvana’s Nevermind.
This song inched up from number 10 on the previous chart.
8. Lush, “Nothing Natural”
That “Winter 1991” designation above is an informed guess, the result of some simple detective work. The chart I found somewhere in the wilds of the Interweb isn’t dated, but all of the songs on it are from releases that came out in the second half of ’91. Except for this one. Well, sort of. “Nothing Natural” is a song on Lush’s album Spooky, which was released in late January of 1992. However, the song was also issued as a single in late October of 1991, so I’m assuming that’s the culprit in this case. That may also explain why this song, while obviously a significant success, doesn’t sound all that familiar to me. Lush received plenty of airplay at my radio station, but our DJs didn’t often gravitate to singles, preferring to wait until a full-length release showed up in rotation. For that reason, the the follow-up single, which would have been the beneficiary of record company urging at the time of the album’s release, is far more evocative of that time frame for me.
This song was another big mover. It was at number 28 on the previous chart.
7. U2, “The Fly”
It’s hard to overstate how different this sounded when it arrived at the station. There was a lot riding on Achtung Baby, after all. It was the band’s true follow-up to their blockbuster The Joshua Tree, since Rattle and Hum is best viewed as a weird amalgamation of live album, band noodling, and movie souvenir. At this point, the Irish quartet was known for a sound so distinctive that it could also be characterized as somewhat redundant. Even their most devoted fans were likely to concede that. So the band defied expectations like never before, and released this song as the lead single from their new album, challenging those at the ready to dismiss them with the doses of distorted vocals and a buzzy guitar sound would have fit just fine on a Jesus and Mary Chain record. Listening to it now, it doesn’t actually sound all that odd, and there’s plenty in it that clearly fits the U2 sound. But back then it was just jarring enough to get our collective attention. I remember sitting in the station’s production studio and listening to it for the first time, wondering just what our DJs were going to make of it.
This song was moving down. It was at number 5 on the previous chart.
6. Teenage Fanclub, “Star Sign”
In an earlier post, I noted Rolling Stone magazine’s misstep when they reviewed Nirvana’s Nervermind, giving it a middling three stars. In that magazine, especially at that time, a three-star review could be earned by just about any record with decent production values and the absence of any truly embarrassing songs. Hell, Neil Young could sneeze into a microphone for 45 minutes and get a four stars review from Rolling Stone. So a two-star review was even more notable. It was the sort of thing they typically reserved for a classic rock relic they wanted to bury once and for all or, more likely, a current pop star who needed to be knocked down a peg or two, thereby reestablishing some cool cred for the magazine. So it was especially strange to see that dismissive ranking assigned to Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque. That didn’t stop it from being embraced by college radio, but it may have made a few college radio DJs and Music Directors rethink their subscriptions to the magazine.
This song was holding steady. It was also at number 6 on the previous chart.