Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The magic of countdowns

I’m all about countdowns. There’s something magical about them, after all – like a game of sports and a high school dance all wrapped up into one. Where have all the countdowns gone?

I heard my first countdown on June 9, 1985, when Casey Kasem told me the #1 song was “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears. I had listened thinking this might just be a great place to tape all my favorite songs off the radio in one fell swoop. But as the countdown went on, I began to hear the statistics – “up four notches” – “sliding down twelve spots” – and I realized that if I tuned in again next week, I could compare and keep track. Maybe I could even make predictions!

So tracking American Top 40 became my hobby. It brought me great joy to keep my little notebook of charts, and around school, I became known as the keeper of the musical knowledge. To be honest, I’m sure I was pretty obnoxious about it – “Oh, you like Michael Jackson? Did you know that he’s had four #1 hits off the same album, and if ‘Dirty Diana’ goes to #1, he’ll set a new record?” I even have some old tape recordings of myself at age 13, playing DJ, counting down my favorite songs.

At the end of each year, I would do my own math to try to predict the biggest hit of the year. Then I’d settle down in front of the radio on New Year’s Eve to listen and compare. Often I did pretty well, though I kept wishing I had all the same numbers Billboard did, so I would know in advance whether INXS would edge out George Michael for the top hit of 1988. (My numbers told me they would; they didn’t.)

On into college, I continued by hobby, and I even got to take it to the airwaves. On WOCR-FM in Olivet, Michigan, I hosted a weekly countdown show called “The Real Top 40” – because by this time, American Top 40 had abandoned the Hot 100 in favor of a countdown with less rap and metal. I was offended by this decision, and I was determined to bring the REAL hits to my fellow college students. I don’t think most people cared, but I was having a ball. It was during this time that my notebook of countdowns became a database full of numbers and statistics.

Throughout the ’90s, though, I noticed something was wrong: more and more of the hits weren’t appearing on the countdown. From “Mr. Jones” to “Don’t Speak” to “Men in Black,” huge hits were being ignored completely on the technicality that you couldn’t go into a store and buy a physical single of them. I thought, “Who cares? I thought the idea was to measure popularity of hits—and these songs are extremely popular!” I began to track airplay-only hits as well and count them in my year-end lists. I stopped caring what Billboard’s list said, because it didn’t seem to reflect reality anymore. Also, with BDS and Soundscan now providing true accuracy, recurrent songs were wearing out their welcome on the chart. I really didn’t need to hear LeAnn Rimes’ “How Do I Live” for 69 weeks in a row!

Things improved in 1998 when Billboard began to allow the airplay hits onto the chart, and I also appreciated the move in favor of a multi-format chart. But since then, I’ve never felt that Billboard has the balance quite right. They have been slow to react to new changes—like the advent of the digital single—and every week, I feel like I could create a chart that, while not perfectly accurate, would at least be more fun to listen to as a countdown.

So in 2009, I created “American Top 100.” Every week I pull together several Billboard charts and crunch the numbers into something that I believe shows what’s really most popular. It’s a multi-format chart, but it’s weighted toward mainstream top 40 music. Digital sales are counted but given less weight; as a result, songs from “Glee” is not allowed to flood every chart. Country songs squeak into the top 40 region only if they truly deserve it. And best of all, songs that fail to bullet begin to get penalized. For every week they fail to bullet, they get more and more points taken away from them until they gracefully fall off the chart.

I put this countdown on the air for over a year on www.live365.com as “American Top 50,” though the show is taking a hiatus while I go back to school for the next few years. I know it’s not as accurate as the Hot 100 in reality. But in my mind, there’s nothing more fun to listen to than a good old-fashioned countdown. So now, having collected all the past hits in iTunes, I can do that: call up a playlist from the past on my laptop, and start listening.

What will I listen to today? Maybe I’ll snag this week twenty years ago, when BDS and Soundscan hadn’t quite kicked in, and the #1 song was “Rush Rush” by Paula Abdul. There were eight debuts on the top 40 that week, led by DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince's "Summertime," so that’ll make it pretty exciting.

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