Six Types of Songs That Aren’t on the Pop Charts Anymore

If you’re over the age of 40 and continue to be exposed to contemporary pop radio I don’t have to tell you the landscape has changed a bit since say, the 70’s.

Some of the more profound and obvious developments would include the greater prominence of the “bottom end” in the sound mix (70’s AM radio catered to the portable transistor radio) and of course the emergence of rap and hip-hop.

But there are several whole types of pop songs that were much more commonly found on the radio in past decades whose absence you may not have even noticed. Allow me to call attention to a few:

Six Types of Songs That Aren’t on the Pop Charts Anymore



1. Songs About God

The pop charts are a more secular place these days, while religion formerly found a regular spot on the radio, particularly in the five-year period from 1969-74. For example:

  • “Oh Happy Day”-Edwin Hawkins Singers (#4 in 1969)
  • “My Sweet Lord”-George Harrison (#1 in 1970)
  • “Spirit in the Sky”-Norman Greenbaum (#3 in 1970)
  • “Put Your Hand in the Hand”-Ocean (#2 in 1971)
  • “The Wedding Song (There is Love)”-Paul Stookey (#24 in 1971)
  • “Morning Has Broken”-Cat Stevens (#6 in 1972)
  • “Amazing Grace”-Royal Scots Dragoon Guards (#11 in 1972)
  • “Day By Day”-Godspell (#13 in 1972)
  • “Speak to the Sky”-Rick Springfield (#14 in 1972)
  • “Why Me”-Kris Kristofferson (#16 in 1973)
  • “The Lord’s Prayer”-Sister Janet Mead (#4 in 1974)

take five

2. Jazz Crossover Hits

It’s strange to even realize there was a time–called the Big Band Era–when jazz was the top 40. I’m not going too far out on a limb to predict it’ll never happen again. But jazz had at least a presence on pop radio right up until about 1980–a little later if you consider what Kenny G did to be jazz, or allow for a bit of a one-off with US3’s “Cantaloop” in 1993. What happened to the jazz hit song?

  • “Take Five”-Dave Brubeck Quartet (#25 in 1961)
  • “The Girl From Ipanema”-Stan Getz with Astrud Gilberto Byrd (#5 in 1964)
  • “The ‘In’ Crowd”-Ramsey Lewis (#5 in 1965)
  • “The Look of Love”-Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66 (#4 in 1968)
  • “Grazing in the Grass”-Hugh Masekela (#1 in 1968)
  • “Breezin'”-George Benson (#63 in 1976)
  • “Feels So Good”-Chuck Mangione (#4 in 1978)
  • “Morning Dance”-Spyro Gyra (#24 in 1979)


3. Instrumental Hits

Of course, there’s a certain degree of overlap between instrumental and jazz hits of past decades, but there have been countless surf, R&B, disco and movie soundtrack instrumental hits too. When was the last time a pure instrumental became a top 40 hit?

  • “Sleep Walk”-Santo & Johnny (#1 in 1959)
  • “Last Date”-Floyd Cramer (#2 in 1960)
  • “Stranger on the Shore”-Acker Bilk (#1 in 1962)
  • “Classical Gas”-Mason Williams (#2 in 1968)
  • “Love is Blue”-Paul Mauriat (#1 in 1968)
  • “Popcorn”-Hot Butter (#9 in 1972)
  • “The Entertainer”-Marvin Hamlisch (#3 in 1974)
  • “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)”-MFSB (#1 in 1974)
  • “Pick Up the Pieces”-Average White Band (#1 in 1974)
  • “Gonna Fly Now (Theme from Rocky)”-Bill Conti (#1 in 1977)
  • “Music Box Dancer”-Frank Mills (#3 in 1979)
  • “Chariots of Fire”-Vangelis (#1 in 1982)
  • “Axel F Theme” (from Beverly Hills Cop)”-Harold Faltermeyer (#3 in 1985)

eddie fitz

4. Story Songs

Maybe it’s testament to our shorter attention spans nowadays, but nobody’s telling a linear story in a hit song anymore. Honestly I find it very difficult to think of the last time a true story song was a hit. Once again it seems that the period loosely encompassing the first half of the ’70’s was the last time pop radio was fertile ground for this type of thing. Leaving out such novelty songs as “The Unicorn” (and anything written by Shel Silverstein) here are some examples:

  • “Silhouettes”-The Rays (#3 in 1957)
  • “Ode to Billie Joe”-Bobbie Gentry (#1 in 1967)
  • “Harper Valley P.T.A.”-Jeannie C. Riley (#1 in 1968)
  • “The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde”-Georgie Fame (#7 in 1968)
  • “Timothy”-The Buoys (#17 in 1971)
  • “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim”-Jim Croce (#8 in 1972)
  • “Taxi”-Harry Chapin (#24 in 1972)
  • “Brother Louie”-Stories (#1 in 1973)
  • “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree”-Tony Orlando & Dawn (#1 in 1973)
  • “Daisy a Day”-Jud Strunk (#14 in 1973)
  • “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia”-Vicki Lawrence (#1 in 1973)
  • “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown”-Jim Croce (#1 in 1973)
  • “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero”-Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods (#1 in 1974)
  • “The Night Chicago Died”-Paper Lace (#1 in 1974)
  • “Dark Lady”-Cher (#1 in 1974)
  • “Cat’s in the Cradle”-Harry Chapin (#1 in 1974)
  • “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”-Gordon Lightfoot (#2 in 1976)
  • “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”-Charlie Daniels Band (#3 in 1979)
  • “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)”-Rupert Holmes (#1 in 1979)
  • “Coward of the County”-Kenny Rogers (#3 in 1980)
  • “Same Old Lang Syne”-Dan Fogelberg (#9 in 1981)

welcome back

5. TV Show Theme Songs

It used to be the popularity of a hit TV series coupled with a catchy theme song might create a spin-off radio hit. No more. If you liked being able to purchase the full-length version of the theme of your favorite sitcom or drama, then as Archie and Edith sang on their 1972 hit single, “Those were the days”…

  • “Hawaii Five-O”-The Ventures (#4 in 1969)
  • “Quentin’s Theme” (from Dark Shadows)-Charles Randolph Grean Sounde (#13 in 1969)
  • “The Rockford Files”-Mike Post (#10 in 1975)
  • “Theme from S.W.A.T.”-Rhythm Heritage (#1 in 1976)
  • “Happy Days”-Pratt & McClain (#5 in 1976)
  • “Making Our Dreams Come True” (from LaVerne & Shirley)-Cyndi Grecco (#25 in 1976)
  • “Nadia’s Theme (The Young and the Restless)”-Barry DeVorzon and Perry Botkin, Jr. (#8 in 1976)
  • “Welcome Back” (from Welcome Back Kotter)-John Sebastian (#1 in 1976)
  • “Theme from ‘Greatest American Hero’ (Believe it or Not)”-Joey Scarbury (#2 in 1981)
  • “The Theme from Hill Street Blues”-Mike Post (#10 in 1981)
  • “Moonlighting”-Al Jarreau (#23 in 1987)


6. Re-worked Classical Music

Whether you tend to see the pop reimagining of masterpieces by Bach, Beethoven and Rachmaninov as musically adventurous or horrible misguided and cheesy, the arrow once again seems to point in the direction of the 70’s as the decade of this type of song’s proliferation.

  • “A Lover’s Concerto”-The Toys (#2 in 1965)
    • Adapted from Bach’s Minuet from The Anna Magdalena Notebook
  • “A Song of Joy”-Miguel Rios (#14 in 1970)
    • Based on the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony
  • “Mozart Symphony No. 40 in G Minor”-Waldo De Los Rios (#67 in 1971)
    • (Self-explanatory)
  • “Joy”-Apollo 100 (#6 in 1972)
    • Based on Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring
  • “Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001)”-Deodato (#2 in 1973)
    • Written by Richard Strauss in 1896
  • “A Fifth of Beethoven”-Walter Murphy (#1 in 1976)
    • Based on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony

Note: There are plenty of examples of more (or less) subtle borrowing of classical themes and melodies, from Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” (Bach’s Air on a G String) to Starship’s “Sara” (Fantasia by Tallis) to “I Can” by rapper Nas (Beethoven’s Fur Elise) and Beyoncé’s “Ave Maria”. A few other examples:

  • “Could it be Magic”-Barry Manilow (#6 in 1975, originally released in 1971)
    • Inspired by Chopin’s Prelude in C Minor
  • “All By Myself”-Eric Carmen (#2 in 1976)
    • Based on Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2
  • “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again”-Eric Carmen (#11 in 1976)
    • Based on Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony
  • “This Night”-Billy Joel (B-side in 1983)
    • Based on Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata

…but the era of an artist hitting the top 40 with an actual contemporized cover of a classical composer’s work is well behind us.

The overarching point being: there seems to be an overall narrowing of the definition of a hit song. It can represent any of a number of genres or styles, but it seemingly can’t be religious, or jazz, or an instrumental, or classical homage, or a story song, or a song created for a TV show. I’d venture the opinion that this isn’t a positive development–certainly not if you like diversity in pop music.

Comments on this topic or other examples of songs in the above categories are welcome.

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. john
    Jan 25, 2013 @ 02:28:01

    Wow, great point. Yes. Caused me to go listen to Hugh Masekela right away. Some of those jazz songs I love — Breezin’. Girl From Ipanema. Wow. Take Five. Right, those are great pieces, and — I guess you’re right, we don’t have that access any more. Also some of those great story songs. Good point.


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