1996 Top Ten Pop Countdown Podcast
It’s Divas, domestic terrorism, Netscape vs. Microsoft, and Alanismania the year Tupac is killed, the Internet takes off and everyone is doing “The Macarena.”
Welcome! This is the Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show and I’m your host, Christopher Verdesi. Every week on Chartcrush, we take a look back at a year in music and culture and count down the top ten songs according to our recap of the weekly Pop charts published at the time in Billboard magazine. This week on Chartcrush we are setting our sights on 1996, a transitional year across American media including music as the digital revolution continued and the internet exploded. The number of websites grew ten-fold over 1995 as Netscape Navigator battled Microsoft’s Internet Explorer in the “browser wars.”
There were nearly twice as many people on the Internet in ’96 compared to ’95, but most, still on pre-Web so-called Direct Access platforms: CompuServe, Prodigy, and the one that took a clear lead in ’96, America Online. AOL increased from five to eight million subscribers, ’95 to ’96, each paying $2.95 an hour to swap ones and zeroes on dial-up modems, plus long-distance fees if you didn’t live in a city! Good luck getting anyone on the phone in those years, unless they’d added a second landline. A flurry of new area codes had to be created to meet that demand! Of course, this was all anyone was talking about on Wall Street: the dot.com boom.
The internet, of course, a key aspect of one of the overarching themes of American life in the ’90s: the fragmentation of media into ever-smaller niche audiences and interests, at the cost of the shared experiences that hold a diverse society together across ethnicities, genders, generations and interests. Cable TV, another aspect of that: viewership and ad revenues growing, so they could do more original programming and launch new special interest channels for food, golf, science fiction, Court TV, et cetera. MSNBC and FoxNews both launched in 1996, just in time for the Whitewater scandal: President Bill and First Lady Hillary Clinton’s failed Arkansas land deal.
And of course music was splintering into increasingly siloed genres and subgenres, and with it radio. Billboard had to launch all kinds of new genre charts to keep track of it all, armed since ’91 with super-accurate point-of-sale barcode scan and airplay data. But by ’96, labels had figured out how to “game” even that system to get their songs to debut high on the chart. In the last few months of ’95 there were three #1 debuts on the Hot100 thanks to these shenanigans.
But even worse for the Hot100’s integrity: increasingly, labels weren’t releasing singles at all, which meant they couldn’t chart on the Hot100 no matter how popular they were. That was Billboard’s rule until the end of 1998 when they finally changed it to allow album cuts. Don’t look for The Rembrandts’ massive 1995 hit, “I’ll Be There for You” (the theme of NBC’s hit show Friends) on the Hot100: no single release. But radio didn’t care! The song was #1 for eight weeks on the Airplay chart, and The Rembrandts’ album nearly cracked the top 20 on the album chart, proving that fans will buy a whole album for $17 just for one song they like.
So for a few years in the late ’90s until that rule change, Billboard’s Airplay chart, not the Hot100, became the go-to Pop chart. So that’s what you’re gonna hear this hour on our 1996 edition of the Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show: the top ten hits of the year derived, not from the Hot100 (which we normally use), but from Billboard’s weekly 50-position Radio Songs chart.
#10 Alanis Morissette – Ironic
And that works out well for our singer at #10 because even though her songs were out as singles and on the Hot100, practically everyone who bought her music in 1996 (and millions did) got her album, making it the #1 album of the year and making her Billboard’s top Pop Artist of the year despite none of her hits making the top ten on the year-end Hot100 chart. She absolutely killed it on the Airplay chart though. At #10, here is Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic.”
So there’s a scene in the 1994 Gen-X-defining movie Reality Bites where Winona Ryder is telling Ethan Hawke about how she botched an interview for a writing job because she couldn’t define the word “irony,” and Hawke glibly says “it’s when the actual meaning is the complete opposite of the literal meaning.”
Well the debate over what exactly is “irony” was still raging when Alanis Morrissette’s “Ironic” appeared two years later and sparked a hail of criticism. The situations in the song are unfortunate, yes, but are they ironic? U.K. Independent Arts Editor Thomas Sutcliffe said no, the song should’ve been titled “It’s a Total Bummer” or “Oh Hell, That’s All I Need Right Now.” And the Washington Post’s Richard Leiby lamented that, thanks to Alanis, “ironic” was now a mere synonym for “interesting” or “coincidental.” After months of this, a fan approached Alanis in a record store and pointed out that the situations not being ironic is what makes the song ironic. Aha!
#9 Mariah Carey – Always Be My Baby
At #9 we have another female, who churned out hit after hit starting in 1990, and by ’96 was America’s top chart Diva, big enough to assert creative control over her music and move in a more R&B and Hip-Hop-influenced direction collaborating with Rapper-Producer Jermaine Dupree and arranger-pianist Manuel Seal. And the resulting album Daydream was her biggest yet. It’s Mariah Carey’s third straight #1 off Daydream and 11th overall, tying Madonna and Whitney Houston, “Always Be My Baby.”
Mariah Carey, “Always Be My Baby,” #9 on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown for 1996, a laid-back feel compared to her past hits, with Hip-Hop 808-style drums courtesy of co-producer Jermaine Dupree. And she doubled down on her trademark multi-layered vocals.
#8 Eric Clapton – Change the World
At #8 we have the last British rocker from the ’60s to score a top ten hit on the Hot100. Earlier in the year, none other than The Beatles had charted their first new song since 1970 with their work-up of John Lennon’s demo, “Free as a Bird.” That got to #6 in January. Then this song from the soundtrack of the fantasy drama Phenomenon starring John Travolta resonated after the deadly April bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The song was first recorded and simultaneously out on Country star Wynonna Judd’s album, but this version went to #1 on the Radio Songs chart and stayed on that chart all the way to May of 1997 , the longest run of any 1996 song, 47 weeks. It’s Eric Clapton’s “Change the World.”
“Change the World,” Best Record and Best Song winner at the Grammys and Eric Clapton’s final hit on the Hot100, produced by ’90s R&B mogul Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, #8 here on our Chartcrush Countdown of the top ten hits of 1996.
Since its chart run spanned ’96 into ’97, it was in both years’ Billboard year-end Hot100 rankings. numbers 19 and 67, respectively. But doing things the Chartcrush way and factoring its full chart run reveals it to have been a much bigger hit than either of those would indicate.
#7 Tony Rich Project – Nobody Knows
Speaking of Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, the label he co-founded with Antonio “L.A.” Reid, LaFace Records (a mashup of their two names): the biggest thing going in ’90s R&B, launching TLC, Toni Braxton, Outkast, P!nk, Usher, many other top acts.
Our artist at #7 got his big break in the early ’90s when LaFace hired him as a staff songwriter. When he eventually got the chance to do his own album, he crafted a sophisticated Soul sound that stood out against the slick, synthesized R&B that was the default on urban radio in the mid-’90s. Maybe too much since the song only got to #11 on the R&B chart. But it crossed over and was on the Hot100 for almost all of 1996. At #7, it’s the Tony Rich Project, “Nobody Knows.”
Tony Rich Project, “Nobody Knows,” #7 on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown of 1996’s top Pop hits, as ranked from Billboard’s weekly published Radio Songs charts. Tony Rich’s follow-ups to “Nobody Knows” failed to crack the top 40 and he joined the ranks of ’90s one-hit wonders, a long list!
#6 Alanis Morissette – You Learn
There are two acts with two songs in our countdown and we’ve already heard a song each from both. Just as “Ironic” began descending the charts in late Spring, our #6 song rose into the top ten and was #1 for five weeks in the Summer. Here again, Alanis Morissette. Listen for the title of her blockbuster album Jagged Little Pill in the lyrics: “You Learn.”
Alanis Morissette’s “You Learn,” #6 on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown for 1996: her biggest Airplay hit, paired on the single it was on with a live version of her breakthrough, the blistering Rocker “You Oughtta Know,” the studio version of which has Dave Navarro and Flea from L.A.’s Red Hot Chilli Peppers on guitar and bass, respectively and topped Billboard’s Modern Rock chart for five weeks in the Summer of 1995. L.A.’s influential Alternative station KROQ set things in motion.
Hard to believe, but Alanis started out doing Dance Pop earlier in the decade, cutting two albums that critics compared to Teen icons Debbie Gibson and Tiffany. But her earlier records only came out in her native Canada, so she was mostly unknown in the States , until Jagged Little Pill repackaged the aggressive feminist Grunge Rock-adjacent Riot Grrrl sound and attitude for mainstream listeners who’d probably never heard of Seattle trailblazers like Bikini Kill or Bratmobile or Hole.
Alanis took things in a more experimental, electronic (and it turned out less successful) direction on her follow-up album in ’98, but in 2019, the Alanis “jukebox musical” Jagged Little Pill on Broadway was an instant hit and the year’s most-nominated show at the Tonys: a testament to her widespread and enduring impact.
#5 Goo Goo Dolls – Name
Alanis, of course, wasn’t the only one distilling Grunge’s angsty poses for the Pop charts. As writer Sasha Geffen put it in a piece in Consequence of Sound in 2013, “Post-Grunge was a surge of vanilla Pop hits costumed in flannel and shaggy hair” that came in the wake of Nirvana’s fame as “major labels mass-produced an Alt-Rock that gestured toward Grunge.” Hootie & The Blowfish, Gin Blossoms and Collective Soul all had songs among the top 20 Pop Airplay hits of 1995. And then in ’96 came the breakthrough for a Buffalo, New York Indie-Punk outfit who’d been at it since 1986, hitless for their first four albums. But then they married that Grunge aesthetic to melody and Emo first-person songwriting (a no-no for Grunge bands) and rode the Post-Grunge gravy train to Pop glory. The third single from their 1995 album A Boy Named Goo, propelled onto the charts by the same L.A. radio station that first put Alanis in heavy rotation (KROQ), it’s the Goo Goo Dolls at #5: “Name.”
“Name” was mostly about Goo Goo Dolls songwriter/front man John Rzeznik’s childhood, orphaned in his teens and raised by his older sisters. But song’s title and lyric “and I won’t tell no one your name” came out of his flirtation with MTV VJ (and future FoxBusiness anchor Kennedy), who didn’t want her real name out there (shhh! It’s “Lisa Montgomery). Goo Goo Dolls next hit, “Iris” in ’98, set a record for weeks at #1 on the Airplay chart (18) that stood until The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” in 2020.
#4 Everything but the Girl – Missing (Todd Terry remix)
At #4 is a politically-outspoken English singer, whose obscure 1982 album with an all-girl Post-Punk group, Marine Girls, was on late Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain’s 50 favorite albums list, so she had the respect of the aforementioned Riot Grrrls. Over the next dozen years she cranked out a steady stream of Loungey-Jazzy singles and albums as a duo with her boyfriend, and they built quite a cult following. But not much commercial success until 1995, when Chicago House DJ/producer Todd Terry did a chilled-out remix of a track from their mostly-acoustic album Amplified Heart and it began a protracted five-month ascent into the top ten. Its five weeks as the nation’s #1 Radio Song opened countless mainstream ears to other chilled-out “Trip-Hop” electronica: Massive Attack, Portishead, Sneaker Pimps and others. #4 on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown for 1996, it’s Everything But the Girl, Todd Terry’s remix of “Missing.”
Probably the only act ever who got their name from a furniture store slogan: a store where a man can get everything he needs for his home: everything, that is, but the girl. “Missing,” a top ten hit for the entire first half of 1996, but not in the top ten on Billboard’s year-end Hot100 because its long climb was in Billboard’s 1995 chart year, August to December. Everything but the Girl didn’t miss a beat: out later in ’96 with a whole album of all-in Trip-Hoppy electronica that included the #1 Dance hit, “Wrong.”
#3 Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men – One Sweet Day
Well we’re counting down 1996’s biggest hits this week on the Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show, and at #3, the song that shattered the record for weeks at #1 on the Hot100 with 16. It was two of the ’90s top chart acts teaming up on the same song. How could it miss? Nevertheless, the label (Columbia) held off releasing the single for weeks ’til the song cracked the top five on the Airplay chart, then flooded stores with free singles that they could sell for 49 cents, which got the song to debut at #1. Remember those label shenanigans I mentioned at the top of the show to rig the Hot100? And they didn’t even need to! It was Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men, for heaven’s sake!
No way to rig the Airplay chart besides payola, which is illegal, so it merely tied the record for weeks at #1 there with 13, but that was enough to make it the #3 song on our 1996 Airplay-chart derived ranking. Here’s “One Sweet Day.”
Mariah and Boyz II Men had been independently working on songs about lost friends when they got together to collaborate, so they decided to merge them and “One Sweet Day” was the result: #3 on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown. ’96 was Mariah’s fourth year in a row with a song (or songs) in the top ten of Billboard’s year-end Hot100, and Boyz II Men’s third.
“One Sweet Day” scored a Record of the Year Grammy nomination and they opened the ’96 awards performing it together, but lost to Eric Clapton’s “Change the World,” and in fact, Mariah Carey didn’t take home any awards in ’96 despite six nominations, which was quite the scandal, and she didn’t perform again at the Grammys for the next ten years.
#2 Celine Dion – Because You Loved Me
If you’re thinking that was a sign that ’90s Pop Divadom was over though, think again! Our singer at #2 scored her biggest hit yet in ’96, and it too received a Grammy nomination for Best Record, the next year in ’97. It didn’t win either, but the album it was on won two. And the song broke the Airplay weeks-at-#1 record that Mariah and Boyz had just tied, with 14 weeks, April to July.
It’s a Gospel-inspired R&B ballad by Diane Warren and produced by power-ballad maestro David Foster: a soundtrack song, from the news media romance drama Up Close & Personal starring Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer. The lead single from her Diamond-certified album Falling into You, her second #1 after “The Power of Love” in 1994, it’s Celine Dion, “Because You Loved Me.”
The song that made Celine Dion a superstar, “Because You Loved Me,” #2 on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown of 1996’s biggest hits, the song that dislodged “One Sweet Day” from its record-breaking 16 week run at #1 on the Hot100 and snagged the record for weeks at #1 on the Adult Contemporary chart, 19. It also notched the most weeks at #1 of any 1996 song on the Airplay chart, 14. Celine’s next #1, also a soundtrack hit: 1998’s “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic.
#1 Donna Lewis – I Love You Always Forever
So beating Mariah, Boyz and Celine in 1996: quite a tall order, but one song did, and it came out of nowhere to become the first to hit 1,000,000 spins on radio since Broadcast Data Systems began its automated monitoring in 1991. “Radio stations play it and almost overnight it’s their most requested song,” a label exec told a newspaper in ’96.
It was the first single off the first album by a previously unknown 30-something Welsh Singer-Songwriter, and she never had another top 40 hit: a true one-hit wonder, and based on nothing but the sound of the record; no special marketing or gimmicks or anything. That’s the way it’s supposed to work, right? The #1 song of 1996, Donna Lewis’s “I Love You Always Forever.”
Donna Lewis’s self-penned debut single and only hit, “I Love You Always Forever,” the #1 song of 1996 according to our recap of the year’s weekly Radio Songs charts here on the Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show.
Maybe you were expecting to hear a different song at #1. I dunno, like maybe an epic leftfield Dance craze that swept the nation?
Well if we’d based our ranking on the Hot100, “The Macarena” would’ve been #1. By the way, Donna Lewis was at #2 on the Hot100 for nine of the 14 weeks “The Macarena” was #1, and #8 on Billboard’s official published year-end Hot100. But no fewer than 39 other songs beat “The Macarena” on our ranking from the weekly Airplay chart, a crazy gap that further highlights the Hot100’s dysfunction in the late ’90s, and why we choose Airplay for our rankings in those years.
Recall that Alanis Morrissette didn’t notch any of her hits in the ’96 year-end top ten on the Hot100 because so many people bought her album and didn’t need the singles. Well, with the hit Bayside Boys remix of Spanish duo Los del Rio’s “Macarena,” it’s the reverse: it was #1 because it was only out on a single.
But being named Billboard’s #1 song of the year only added to its fame, and the same goes for four other songs that were in Billboard’s year-end top ten for ’96, but not among the top ten Airplay hits.
Former Harvard Square busker Tracy Chapman’s “Give Me One Reason” just misses the top ten on our Airplay ranking we counted down this hour at #11, but it was Billboard’s #6 Hot100 song of the year.
Now, Hip-Hop on the radio, even in the late ’90s, was limited to just a handful of stations in big cities, regardless of how well a track was selling or performing on the Hot100: definitely a limitation of ranking songs by Airplay. Tupac Shakur was murdered in a drive-by shooting in September ’96 after his single “How Do U Want It” paired with “California Love,” had been #1 on the Hot100 for two weeks in July. That was #17 on Billboard’s year-end Hot100, but a track by another Hip-Hop act from L.A. was #7 on that ranking.
Bone Thugs-n-Harmony’s “Tha Crossroads,” a tribute to the “Godfather of Gangsta Rap,” Eazy-E, who co-founded and led Straight Outta Compton O.G.’s N.W.A. and died suddenly of AIDS in ’95: #1 on the Hot100 for eight weeks, but just #41 on our Airplay-derived ranking.
Billboard’s #9 Hot100 song of the year was the first #1 by yet another ’90s Diva.
Toni Braxton’s “You’re Makin’ Me High,” another song that just misses our Airplay-based ranking at #12 on the year.
And at #10 on the year-end Hot100, Billboard had a Slow Jam.
Keith Sweat, who crafted New Jack Swing in the late ’80s, upped the steaminess ante in R&B when he discovered and produced Silk and their 1993 hit “Freak Me.” And then his own Slow Jam “Twisted” scored in ’96, #19 on our ranking of the year’s Airplay hits.
And that’s a wrap for our 1996 edition of the Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show. Just like the irony in Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic,” the defining feature of ’90s Pop is that there wasn’t a defining feature! I’ve been your host, Christopher Verdesi. If you like what you heard this hour, you’re gonna want to check out our website, chartcrush.com, where you’ll find written transcripts and streaming links for this and other Chartcrush countdown shows, plus chart run line graphs and other fly extras. We count down a different year every week from the beginning ofthe charts in the ’40s all the way up to the present, so tune in again, same station and time, for another edition of Chartcrush.