40 Songs That Should Have Been Hits
Billboard‘s Top 40 can be a real crock. Granted, since my self-imposed exile from the Hot 100 in the 2000s, I can’t really comment on the accuracy of the charts now — although seeing that songs like Fastball’s “Lou-ee, Lou-ee,” Paul McCartney’s “New” and Teenage Fanclub’s “I’m in Love” didn’t even chart makes me believe that things have only gotten worse.
During the 70s, 80s and 90s, there were a number of great and memorable songs that not only failed to hit the top 10, but also couldn’t even crack Casey Kasem’s hallowed Top 40. I’ve assembled 40 songs that should have been hits but didn’t make the Top 40, and you’ll be surprised by the ones that weren’t embraced by the general public. Of course, most of the music I like isn’t embraced by the general public.
- “In Between Days” – The Cure – #99 (1985). Blasphemy! The Cure were known as the second coming of the Beatles in the U.K., and this was their first pop-sounding hit. Where was the support, Fiction Records? Where was Curemania? Prime-time performances? Anyone?
“Fall On Me” – R.E.M. – #94 (1986). One of R.E.M.’s greatest anthems from one of their greatest albums, “Fall On Me” just couldn’t find that niche. In the middle of R&B, heavy metal and the dying vestiges of New Wave, Top 40 just wasn’t ready for college rock. Yet.
- “Nick of Time” – Bonnie Raitt – #92 (1990). Surprise! The song that earned Raitt the 1990 Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, from the Grammy Award-winning album of the same name, could only manage #92 in Billboard’s survey. This is about the time that Grammy started thinking outside the box.
“Border Song” – Elton John – #92 (1970). Yes, there was a time, early in Sir Elton John’s career, when he didn’t find chart success. “Border Song” is a beautiful ballad that deserves a higher chart position than #92. But don’t worry: His next single? “Your Song,” which went to #8.
- “Don’t Stop Me Now,” Queen – #86 (1979). This song reached the top 10 in the U.K. but could only muster #86 in the U.S. Freddie had his revenge, though. It has gone viral thanks to several TV and movie placements; the official video has 292 million views on YouTube.
- “All I Want Is You,” U2 – #83 (1989). One of my favorite U2 songs probably suffered from U2 fatigue; after all, they had saturated both the movie and radio markets with “Rattle and Hum” and its three previous singles, all of which were awful. This is a quiet ballad which, like most U2 ballads, grows in intensity until Bono screams, “You, all I want is you.” A nice orchestral arrangement by Van Dyke Parks completes the song.
- “Holiday Road,” Lindsey Buckingham – #82 (1983). This single from “National Lampoon’s Vacation” has found more success the older it has gotten. Featuring an unforgettable chorus, the song is simple bubblegum, which is part of its appeal. Most people have heard it but have absolutely no idea a member of Fleetwood Mac performed it.
“Graceland,” Paul Simon – #81 (1987). Whaaaat? The Grammy-winning, iconic song by Paul Simon from the album of the same name reached only #81? Yep. Again, Grammy to the rescue, taking an obscure song and making it Record of the Year.
- “Jeremy,” Pearl Jam – #79 (1992). The second-best known anthem of the grunge movement, sung by the second-most important grunge band, relegated to #79? You still hear this song on alternative stations, and in 1995, it saturated the airwaves. Maybe everybody just bought Ten and didn’t bother buying the single.
- “I Melt With You” – Modern English – #78 (1983), #76 (1990). This is unexplainable. The song was a mainstay on college radio, MTV and dance clubs, and was featured in the movie Valley Girl. The group even received a lifetime achievement award at the BMI Awards in 2017 due to 3 million plays of the song. Modern English re-recorded the song in 1990, hoping that people would remember what made it one of the most popular songs of the 1980s, and it managed only two spots higher.
- “I Don’t Like Mondays” – The Boomtown Rats – #73 (1979). Not bad for quasi-classical piano song by a post-punk band from Ireland. This was before Bob Geldof became known for Band Aid, Live Aid and became a knight; at the time, he and his band were unknown in the U.S. It managed to hit #1 in the UK, though.
- “Mama” – Genesis – #73 (1983). I’ve already described this song in a post a few weeks ago. “Mama” managed to hit #4 in the UK but didn’t catch on overseas. Suffice to say, the group stuck with bubblegum after failing with this song – as referenced in my “Jumping the Musical Shark” entry.
- “Pictures of You” – The Cure – #73 (1989). It’s a bit overplayed on alt-rock stations, but “Pictures of You” may be the Cure’s finest effort. With just the right amount of angst, depression and beauty, it’s the perfect Goth love song. Then again, Goth never really was a success in the Top 40.
- “Basketball” – Kurtis Blow – #71 (1985). I consider myself an old-school rap lover, when the words were spoken on the beat, there was no “flow,” and no misogyny or vulgarity. You can’t get much cleaner than a song about basketball. But rap had not reached the general public yet, and it only managed a #71 ranking. It’s only when it started to suck that it became a popular genre.
- “Controversy” – Prince – #70 (1981). Given the success of 1980’s “Dirty Mind,” you’d think Prince was on the edge of a breakthrough in 1981. But the first single, the title cut from his album Controversy, flopped, and the album peaked at #21 on the US charts. It’s a fine funk song that deserved better. And we’d have to wait a year for Prince to break into the mainstream with “1999” and “Little Red Corvette.”
- “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” – R.E.M. – #69 (1987). What is now considered an R.E.M. classic, maybe third to “Losing My Religion” and “Man on the Moon” in popularity, could only manage a #69 showing on the pop chart. And this was after “The One I Love,” the group’s first single from Document, hit the top 10. I can’t explain this one.
- “Solsbury Hill” – Peter Gabriel – #68 (1977), #84 (1983). Another song that tried twice to become a hit. Gabriel first released it as a single from his debut solo album; it reached #13 in the U.K but flopped in the U.S. Gabriel released a live version of the song in 1983, and it fared even worse. Trivia: It’s one of the few pop songs written mainly in 7/4 time and is in the key of B major – another rarity in pop music.
- “Freak-A-Zoid” – Midnight Star – #66 (1983). If you were living in north Georgia in 1983-84, you would have thought Midnight Star was the biggest group in pop music. Yes, north Georgia. We blasted “Freak-A-Zoid” and another single, “No Parking on the Dance Floor,” from our jam boxes and from the sound systems at dances. Alas, the rest of the country didn’t see it our way, and the robotic, futuristic “Freak-A-Zoid” failed to hit the top 60.
- “Goodbye To You” – Scandal – #65 (1982). Wow. This song is overplayed on 80s stations, classic rock stations, and those “Steve FM” stations that play pretty much everything. And it’s a good song – much better than “The Warrior,” which managed to hit #7 in 1984. I guess America wasn’t ready for Scandal in 1982.
- “You Have Placed a Chill In My Heart” – Eurythmics – #64 (1988). A song that showed Eurythmics’ versatility, “You Have Placed a Chill In My Heart” hearkens back to their electronic pop stage. Backed by a drum machine and a synthesizer, the song has an upbeat, charming feel to it, countered by Annie Lennox’s recitation of the song’s name in the chorus. You don’t know whether to smile or be creeped out. Such is the genius of Eurythmics.
“Lithium” – Nirvana -#64 (1992). The third single from arguably the album of the 1990s, Nevermind, showed that single success was not an indication of album success anymore. After all, the anthem of the ’90s, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” reached only #6, and their follow-up, “Come As You Are,” hit #32. Meanwhile, Nevermind has sold 30 million copies worldwide.
- “I Want Candy” – Bow Wow Wow – #62 (1982). Everybody has heard this song at some point. The memorable guitar solo at the beginning, the Bo-Diddly tom-toms playing throughout the song, and Anabella’s forbidden sexiness (she was 16 when “I Want Candy” came out, but the video still showed provocative scenes of her coming out of the ocean in a long stringy T-shirt.). This is a classic, and there’s no reason why this shouldn’t have hit the Top 10. (It did in the U.K. — Damn you, you Brits!)
- “Sharp Dressed Man” – ZZ Top – #56 (1983). This mainstay of Southern rock only hit #56? It seems like when it came out, every girl wasn’t crazy about “Sharp Dressed Man,” even though its predecessor, the weaker “Gimme All Your Lovin'” (but with the same drum beat) went to #37. They finally hit gold with the fourth single from that album, Eliminator, “Legs,” which was essentially the same song. In doing so, they became the first group to have the same song hit the Hot 100 under three different names.
- “Only Happy When It Rains” – Garbage – #55 (1996). Garbage is a true mystery: A supergroup playing melodic but energetic, raucous alternative rock could only muster one Top 40 single and one Top 10 album. This song deserves better; it’s classic Garbage, with raw guitars and an infectious melody to go with the industrial drumbeat. Of course, “Push It,” “Special” and “When I Grow Up” suffered the same fate.
- “New Year’s Day” – U2 – #53 (1983). U2 was flying just under the radar in 1983; War received critical acclaim from U.S. critics and peaked at #12 on the album chart. But the U.S. was not ready for a Top 40 single from the group just yet; in fact, it would be another four years before they hit it big – really big – with “With or Without You” from The Joshua Tree, which shot to #1.
- “Closer To Fine” – Indigo Girls – #52 (1989). This song was all I heard on the hall of my dorm in 1989. It’s still a staple on adult alternative radio stations, and the duo usually ends their concerts with what is arguably their best-known song. But you don’t get very far in the Hot 100 without some drums and electric guitars, and you don’t get very far with a song featuring a tin whistle solo -especially when Madonna and Roxette rule the airwaves.
“Landslide” – Fleetwood Mac – #51 (1998). You couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting someone who was enamored with Fleetwood Mac and their comeback tour. People were paying enormous amounts of money – just like the Eagles – to see an old 70s band reunite. “Landslide,” which first appeared on the band’s self-titled 1975 album, was recorded for their 1998 live album The Dance. You heard the song everywhere – classic rock, Top 40, lite rock stations, and the live version is intimate and beautiful. But it didn’t crack the Top 40 – that is, until the Dixie Chicks released their version and it climbed all the way to #7.
- “Valentine” – Martina McBride – #50 (1997). How many times did this syrupy ballad get played on “Love Songs” and all-request weekends? The song, written by adult contemporary artist Jim Brickman and performed by Brickman and Martina McBride, failed to hit the Top 40 despite the tons of airplay it received. Perhaps people didn’t feel a need to buy the single, since they could just turn the dial to the local Lite Rock radio station and hear it any time.
“Should I Stay or Should I Go” – The Clash – #45 (1982), #50 (1983). Ranked #228 on Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, “Should I Stay or Should I Go” was released not once, not twice, but three times. It failed twice to chart in the U.S. Instead, “Rock the Casbah” became the Clash’s first Top 10 single in America, and “Should I Stay or Should I Go” languished in the Hot 100 two different times. (The Clash released it a third time in 1991 in the U.K. with Big Audio Dynamite’s “Rush” as the other A-side, and it went to number 1.)
“There She Goes” – The La’s – #49 (1991). The La’s were a Beatlesque band stuck in the middle of the grunge craze. They also were about four years too early; Britpop invaded the U.S. in the mid-90s, with groups such as Oasis, Blur and Suede achieving moderate success. As a result, the catchy “There She Goes” did not catch on with the buying public, and the La’s didn’t even get a chance to become a one-hit wonder.
“Tempted” – Squeeze – #49 (1981). This song is now a classic, played continually on radio stations of many different formats, and I never get tired of hearing Paul Carrack and Glenn Tilbrook’s voices. It’s been covered by numerous artists, used in commercials and even video games, and movie soundtracks. Squeeze even re-recorded it for Reality Bites; called “Tempted ’94,” it failed to chart. This is a crime against humanity.
“Highway to Hell” – AC/DC – #47 (1979). Granted, AC/DC did not exist to sell singles, and due to the backlash from Tipper Gore and the Christian right, the group scared the hell out of people (pun intended). And with choruses like, “I’m on the highway to hell!”, you’d kind of understand, even though the lyric was not intended to be taken literally. Nevertheless, the song was good enough to propel itself up to #47, despite the objectionable subject matter. And you just can’t beat a good guitar riff by Angus Young.
“Rebel Yell” – Billy Idol – #46 (1984). I’m just surprised that with the airplay this got, it didn’t go higher. Am I disappointed that it didn’t hit the Top 40? Nope.
“The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get” – Morrissey – #46 (1994). A simply beautiful song from the post-Smiths Morrissey. It was really his last gasp; he would not be heard on American radio that much after Vauxhall & I, although this was the highest any Smiths or Morrissey song ever reached in the U.S. Of course, it hit #8 in the UK. Damn you Brits and your good taste in music.
- “Handle with Care” – Traveling Wilburys – #45 (1990). Curious: Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 reached #3 on the Billboard album chart, but the supergroup’s debut single, a wonderfully upbeat song that recalled George Harrison at his best, could only manage #45. Their follow-up, the inferior “End of the Line,” stalled at #63. Five rock legends deserved better than this.
“Centerfield” – John Fogerty – #44 (1985). You can’t get through nine innings at a baseball game without hearing at least the clapping part of this song. It’s as ubiquitous as “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” But no one liked it when it was released in 1985. Maybe music listeners were still pissed about the 1981 baseball strike. I know I am.
“Blood on the Dance Floor” – Michael Jackson– #42 (1997). This shows how far Michael Jackson had fallen by 1997. His album of remixes of the same name reached only #24, even though it contained five new songs. He would have only one more Top 10 hit before his death in 2009.
“Better Be Home Soon” – Crowded House – #42 (1988). I’m surprised that this acoustic ballad reached as high as #42, even though it’s Neil Finn at his best. It just doesn’t sound like something the U.S. record-buying public would find appetizing, especially in the age of Hair Bands.
- “Changes” – David Bowie – #41 (1975). Bowie first released this song, now one of his best-known tunes, in 1971, when he was still relatively unknown in the United States, and it topped out at #66. He tried again in 1975, just before he reached superstardom with the #1 hit “Fame.” It just missed t.he Top 40. If only he had released it after “Fame”… D’oh!
- “That Thing You Do!” – The Wonders – #41 (1996). This incident may have been the moment when I gave up on Top 40 music. The perfect pop song from a moderately successful Tom Hanks movie, with fantastic vocals by Mike Viola, couldn’t even become one of the Top 40 songs in America. What could? “No Diggity,” which was the best-selling single in the land. “Missing You” (From “Set It Off”), after peaking at #25, kept the Wonders out of the Top 40. Grrrr…