July 10, 2011

Even easy listening music was better in turbulent times

After listening a lot to a mostly '80s internet radio station for several weeks now, I'm reminded of how good even the filler music used to be. Well, that's what we used to call it anyway. I think the technical name is adult contemporary -- lighter, play-in-the-background tunes that are soothing but still upbeat, a popular music version of Mozart.

Just as nobody listens to Beethoven all day long, or reads Shakespeare all day long, or watches David Lynch all day long, nobody who isn't pretentious would listen to the more powerful, body-moving popular music all day long either. Maybe if you just listen to music for a short time, you could concentrate only or mostly on those more body-possessing songs. Otherwise, though, you'll need some good filler songs that will heighten your appreciation of the more gripping songs, while still being catchy enough to keep your mind switched on to music-absorbing mode in the meantime.

If easy listening were an alternative to great rock or R&B or dance-pop music -- mere "dentist's office music," to dig up another phrase from memory -- then the quality of easy listening and of those other styles should show opposite trends over time. As rock, R&B, and dance-pop fall from greatness, that leaves a niche to be filled by less ambitious styles like adult contemporary.

But looking through the list of AC #1s from 1961 through 2011, the best easy listening songs were made when the best songs in other genres were made, roughly the '60s through the '80s, but mostly the later '70s and the '80s, with the '60s and earlier '70s serving more to pave the way for better creators. This makes sense in light of the view above that the lighter and the more powerful songs are complementary pieces that interlock within a richer flow of music, like male and female, and are not competitors against one another. So, easy listening songs will be best when they are meant to complement great pop music in more toe-tapping genres.

I won't bore anyone with a reminder of how bad it's gotten in the past 20 years -- Celene Dion, Backstreet Boys, John Mayer, Jason Mraz, etc etc etc. Like rock and R&B, the level of passion just isn't there -- pretty pathetic given how low-key easy listening music is supposed to be. This more sedated mood fails to turn the brain on at all, so it can't even function as a place-holder in between more energetic songs.

It looks like the peak years of adult contemporary were 1983 to 1989. Like rock, R&B, and dance-pop, there wasn't a whole lot going on in the very early 1980s. Unlike the other styles, though, it seems to have died for good a couple years earlier. At any rate, here are 15 classics worth padding out the length of your music-listening hours, taken just from the AC #1s:

"All Night Long (All Night)" by Lionel Richie

"Time After Time" by Cyndi Lauper

"Drive" by The Cars

"Careless Whisper" by Wham!

"Rhythm of the Night" by DeBarge

"Everytime You Go Away" by Paul Young

"These Dreams" by Heart

"Live to Tell" by Madonna

"In Too Deep" by Genesis

"I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)" by Whitney Houston

"Got My Mind Set on You" by George Harrison

"Shattered Dreams" by Johnny Hates Jazz

"1-2-3" by Miami Sound Machine

"Waiting for a Star to Fall" by Boy Meets Girl

"Eternal Flame" by The Bangles


  1. Interesting how in the 60's the "Adult Contemporary" was truly "adult" - i.e., it still featured almost exclusively the traditional, big-band/jazz, nightclub type entertainers, and only a few transitional type songs like Bacharach-David compositions.

    Then in 1970 we see the Beatles and Simon and Garfunkle and by 1972 the transition is complete - all the songs are now soft-rock - the era of popular jazz was through.

  2. haha. Complementing 80's music. The 90's had much better albums overall than the 80's, even if the filler was worse

    - Samseau

  3. "the era of popular jazz was through."

    That's when the earliest Boomers hit their late 20s. Husbands and wives were still making out well into their family-raising years by that time. Popular jazz wasn't up to the job of providing the background music.

    "The 90's had much better albums overall than the 80's, even if the filler was worse"

    The album as a format fell of a cliff during the '90s, so there are hardly any good ones to point to. Violator by Depeche Mode and She Hangs Brightly by Mazzy Star... but 1990 is still culturally part of the '80s. Once you get to the fall of 1991 and after, when the distinct Nineties vibe sets in, there's not much left.

    By the 2000s the album was done. The peak of the album was the later '70s through the late '80s, no matter which genre you look at. It was still in a growth stage during the '60s and earlier '70s, not quite there yet.


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