These posts are about the songs that just barely failed to cross the key line of chart success, entering the Billboard Top 40. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 41.
By 1991, discerning music fans with perspective that ranged back a few decades already felt embarrassed about what Rod Stewart had become. As lead singer for the Jeff Beck Group and then Faces, Stewart was a world class rock ‘n’ roll belter, filling songs with careening vocal performances that could evoked a whole journey of emotions in a single line. His first few solo albums were equally impressive, but then the curdling pop culture of the nineteen-seventies took hold of Stewart. Hits came in bunches for Stewart. Some were perfectly fine songs, but he eventually learned he could make a lot of money with absolute garbage, a lesson reinforced during the following decade. Why struggle and scrape for good material when any old song would do.
And the nineteen-nineties was when Stewart really locked into the idea that old songs, the more familiar the better, were the key to keeping his bank account stuffed full. He was always an interpreter of songs and never shied away from giving well-known numbers a spin, but he eventually become little more than an overqualified karaoke singer, churning out an endless series of painfully generic compendiums of drably crooned standards.
Before that factory line fully fired up, Stewart’s instinct for tepid covers converged with the nineties trend of haphazardly conceived tribute albums, bringing together an array of artists to record their own versions of another act’s songs. Often, these comps drew in up-and-coming bands, taking advantage of the helplessness both college radio and the emerging new alternative rock radio felt when confronted with a ragged, raucous take on a bygone favorite hit. Two Rooms, a tribute to the songwriting duo Elton John and Bernie Taupin, was a whole different mess. I’d have to do some digging to confirm, but I don’t think there are that many other releases that include tracks from Kate Bush, the Beach Boys, Sinéad O’Connor, and Jon Bon Jovi. (In an act of kindness and self-preservation, I have only included a link to one of those songs.)
Stewart was right in the middle of the scrum, with his version of the treacly mainstay “Your Song.” It’s precisely as bad as expected, scrapping the spareness of John’s original — a quality that lends it at least some sincerity — in favor of twinkling studio glop. Released as a single, it just missed the Billboard Top 40.
It feels like the sort of track that represents the end of an artist’s relevance, but Stewart managed to cross the threshold to the hit side of the chart five more times in the following few years, including a three-week run in the top spot as one part of a trio. Consistent with Stewart’s uncanny gift — or perhaps ruthless strategizing — for staying fully aligned with the most dismaying pop culture trends, his final chart-topper was connected with one of the most terrifying and unavoidable of nineties musical artifacts: soundtrack contributions by Bryan Adams.
Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Top 40 Smash Near Misses” tag.