1997 Top Ten Pop Countdown Podcast

The Lilith Fair festival galvanizes women in music while the late ’90s Pop boom begins on the charts and two shocking deaths inspire huge tribute singles.

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Welcome to the Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show. I’m your host, Christopher Verdesi. Every week on Chartcrush, we dive deep into a year in Pop music and count down the top ten songs according to our recap of the weekly Pop charts published at the time in the music industry’s leading trade publication, Billboard magazine. This week on Chartcrush, we’re setting our sights on 1997, a year when women consolidated their gains after Alanis Morrissette reset the bar for what females could do in music and still score big hits.

’97 was the first Lilith Fair tour: Singer-Songwriter Sarah McLachlan’s answer to music’s “glass ceiling” rule that you couldn’t do two females back-to-back on a concert bill or on the radio. “Lilith” was from Jewish folklore: Adam’s supposed first wife banished from the Garden of Eden, not Frasier’s girlfriend on the NBC sitcom Cheers, as some assumed. Alanis did her own tour in ’97 and wasn’t on Lilith Fair, but 16 other top female acts were, plus dozens more on two smaller stages: all-day shows in 36 cities: the year’s top festival tour according to Rolling Stone.

But as much as Lilith Fair did to put women in the spotlight, it was only a sliver of Female Pop in ’97: as the U.K. Observer put it at the time: the “sensitive side”. No R&B, Hip-Hop or Country on the roster, but on the charts, female R&B acts Monica, Mary J. Blige, TLC and En Vogue, scoring hits like crazy; ’90s Divadom at its peak (Mariah, Celine, Whitney and Toni); LeAnn Rimes and Shania Twain taking Country crossover to new heights. Female Rappers even made their own watershed moment in ’97 with a top ten remix of Lil’ Kim’s “Not Tonight” featuring Da Brat, TLC’s Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, Missy Elliott and Angie Martinez.

Straight-up Pop, not at Lilith Fair either, but The Spice Girls hit in January, and that had everyone talking up a comeback for Pop, borne out later in the year when Hanson, Savage Garden and Backstreet Boys made it gender-inclusive. Now it’s not just a Pop surge; it’s Millennials taking over while the youngest of ’em are still in diapers, and right in the middle of what’s supposed to be Gen-X’s pop culture prime! In ’98 MTV made the takeover official, launching its Total Request Live after-school show.

Rapper The Notorious B.I.G. was murdered in a drive-by shooting in March of ’97, and in August, Princess Diana died in a car wreck in Paris. Both of those sudden deaths shocked the public, and the tribute songs that came out as the world mourned were the two best-selling singles of the year. But neither of those songs got much airplay, so ’97 was the third year in a row that Billboard’s #1 Hot100 song of the year wasn’t among the year’s top Radio hits. But worse, some of the year’s biggest Airplay hits never charted on the Hot100 at all: excluded because the labels had opted not to release them as singles. That was Billboard’s rule all the way to the end of 1998: no single, no chart.

In a 1997 commentary piece in Billboard, writer Terry McManus lamented the death of the vinyl single with nothing replacing it, and for “song-is-the-song” genres like Rock and Country, he was 100% right. But CD singles were actually thriving in Dance, R&B and Hip-Hop, where multiple versions, edits and remixes of hit songs had been mandatory since the ’80s. So with that threshold eligibility rule and sales counting for 40% of the ranking, the Hot100 by the late ’90s had become pretty useless. Who needed a chart to see what songs out as retail singles were selling if half the most popular songs weren’t out as singles? The next best thing? Billboard’s weekly 50-position Radio Songs chart, which ranked songs based on how often they got played on a cross-section of hundreds of U.S. radio stations.

#10 The CardigansLovefool

Our song at #10 as we kick things off: the first of four glaring examples in our countdown of why we use that Airplay chart to rank the songs for the “broken Hot100 years,” ’95 to ’98. No single, so it never charted on the Hot100, but it was a top ten radio hit for 21 weeks. Movie director Baz Luhrman gave it a big boost when he picked it up for his modern-day Romeo + Juliet reboot with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. The lead single plugged to radio from that soundtrack, The Cardigans’ “Lovefool.”

“Lovefool” peaked in March, and by Summer The Cardigans were one of the 16 acts on the Lilith Fair tour’s main stage. They continued charting hits in the U.K. and their native Sweden, but were a one-hit wonder in the States. “No-hit wonder” if you go by the Hot100. No commercial U.S. single, so “Lovefool” was ineligible. But it’s the year’s #10 song here on our 1997 edition of the Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show, thanks to the Airplay chart.

#9 Backstreet BoysQuit Playing Games (With My Heart)

At #9 is one of the Boy Band hits that got people thinking that maybe the The Spice Girls’ “Wannabe” wasn’t a fluke and that a Pop surge was really happening. Hanson’s “Mmmbop” hit #1 on the Airplay chart for four weeks in June and July, but meanwhile, this one was scaling up the charts. Hanson was a one-hit wonder, but these guys kept on scoring hits, and #1 albums. They were from Orlando, Florida but got big in Europe first and were calling America “no fan land” ’til this song. It’s the Backstreet Boys “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart).”

Since lip-syncing accusations derailed New Kids on the Block in the early ’90s, there’d been a stigma against White Boy Bands. And ever since, notwithstanding Motown’s squeaky clean Boyz II Men, it’d been a competition among Male R&B vocal groups like Jodeci, Silk and Blackstreet and their producers to out-raunch each other on the charts. Given that, Jive Records wanted to launch the Backstreet Boys in the U.S. with “If You Want to Be Good Girl, Get Yourself a Bad Boy.” But the group pushed back and “Quit Playing Games” was the lead single. It’d already topped the charts in Europe so it was the safer bet, and it was their first U.S. hit, #9 on our 1997 Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown.

It was also the first big chart triumph for Swedish producer Max Martin. In ’98, he unleashed Britney Spears’ “..Baby One More Time” on an unsuspecting world, then in the ’00s and beyond, career-defining Pop hits by Kelly Clarkson, P!nk, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and many others.

#8 Shawn ColvinSunny Came Home

At #8, another Lilith Fair act, and hey, for anyone thinking this Girl Power thing in ’97 was just music, the two big TV premieres that year? Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Ally McBeal. But I digress. She’d been at it since the ’70s, first fronting a Hard Rock band, then a Western Swing outfit, but after damaging her vocal chords in ’83 she moved to New York and gradually built up a following there in the emerging “New Folk” scene. Columbia signed her in the late ’80s as Tracy Chapman, Suzanne Vega and The Indigo Girls were scoring hits, and her 1989 debut Steady On won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. But success on the Pop charts eluded her until this song, which first appeared on the Adult Alternative Airplay chart in February, and was #1 on all of radio for four weeks in July: the entire first half of the Lilith Fair tour. It’s Shawn Colvin’s “Sunny Came Home.”

#8 on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown of 1997’s biggest radio hits, “Sunny Came Home,” the opening song on Shawn Colvin’s 1996 divorce-themed concept album, A Few Small Repairs. Since there was a commercial single, it also made the Hot100, peaking at #7. And it won her another two Grammys, the big ones: Song of the Year and Record of the Year. At the awards, one of her acceptances was pre-empted by Rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard (ODB), who grabbed a mic to complain about his group Wu-Tang Clan not winning Best Rap Album, 11 years before Kanye West borrowed Taylor Swift’s mic at the ’09 VMAs on behalf of Beyonce. Shawn Colvin continued making music and all six of her albums up to 2016 made the album chart, but “Sunny Came Home” was her only Pop hit.

#7 Chumbawamba – Tubthumping

At #7, yet another one-hit wonder: as Variety put it, a “drinking-and-dancing anthem,” by a self-described “anarcho-communist Punk collective” that’d gone hitless, even in their native U.K., since forming in 1982. This one, however (their first on a major label) connected immediately, debuting at #2 on the U.K. charts and staying in the top ten 11 weeks. In the U.S. it took 10 weeks to top the Airplay chart, but once it did at the end of November, it was #1 for nine weeks. And there was a single so it got to #6 on the Hot100 too: an important milestone for Punk as a genre after two decades of little to no singles chart action. It may’ve been voted the 12th most annoying song of all-time in a 2007 Rolling Stone poll, but it sure was an earworm in the Fall of ’97. At #7 it’s Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping.”

So what would you do if you came up on restrooms labeled “chumba” and “wamba?” Well if you were in a band with males and females, you might think, as these guys did, to mash the words together for your band name. “Tubthumping,” #7 on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown of 1997’s biggest radio hits.

So how does an anarcho-communist Punk group deal with sudden wealth and fame? Well, for one, they go on ABC’s Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher and tell people to steal their CD from big box stores like HMV and Virgin. They donate their ill-gotten gains to antifa groups; lace acceptance speeches and interviews with controversial slogans; publicly refuse offers from brands, like Nike’s to use “Tubthumping” in a ’98 World Cup ad. And given the chance, they dump ice water on then-Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott at the Brit Awards. All those things happened, and, hard to believe in an era when even the slightest perceived political threats elicit hysterical overreactions from some corners of law enforcement and the legal system, but Chumbawamba faced no reprisals at all for their agitprop and mischief, and carried on cranking out albums and singles until 2012.

#6 Toni BraxtonUn-Break My Heart

OK, #6 is a change of pace! Songwriter Diane Warren was busy in the late ’90. Celine Dion’s “Because You Loved Me, “Monica’s “For You I Will” (from the movie Space Jam) and LeAnn Rimes’ “How Do I Live:” all Diane Warren songs. And our #6 song was another shiny framed disc for her wall.

The singer was LaFace Records’ answer to Whitney, Mariah and Celine, coming off her first #1 hit in ’96 with “You’re Makin’ Me High” after missing the top spot with three top tens from her 1993 self-titled debut. So song choice was key and she wasn’t sure about this one when label honcho L.A. Reid proposed it to her, but it became her second #1 on the Hot100, and even dislodged the #1 song in our countdown from the top of the Airplay chart right in the middle of its record-breaking 16-week run. We’re gonna hear that one a little later, of course, but at #6, it’s Toni Braxton’s “Un-Break My Heart.”

Toni Braxton, “Un-Break My Heart” at #6 on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown of 1997’s biggest hits, one of just two songs in our Airplay-derived top ten that was also in the top ten on Billboard’s 1997 year-end Hot100 ranking: #4 on that. The CD maxi-single was the only way to get the non-album Hex Hector-Soul Solution remix that topped the Dance chart for four weeks and got played on Rhythmic stations. It sold a ton.

There was an opening in Divadom in ’97 and Toni Braxton whooshed in. Mariah Carey was making a movie (The Bachelor), separating from hubby Tommy Mottola and reinventing herself as a Hip-Hop-friendly R&B singer for her album Butterfly. Celine Dion, between her massive hits from her ’96 Falling into You album and Titanic’s “My Heart Will Go On” in early ’98. And Whitney Houston, focusing mainly on her acting career (Waiting to Exhale, Preacher’s Wife, Cinderella).

#5 The WallflowersOne Headlight

So when you’re Bob Dylan’s son and your band cuts an album, you have some big advantages, right? But you also have a lot to live up to. Our act at #5 got a fair hearing, though, in ’96 when their second album came out and they started getting traction, because after years of L.A. club gigs, a first album that didn’t sell, and opening for other acts on tour, they’d paid their dues, and Jakob Dylan hadn’t traded on his name, not once. The opposite, in fact. He never talked about it, which made a difference for critics and fans. And when they finally broke through with this song, it was the first to top all three of Billboard’s Rock Airplay charts: Modern Rock, Mainstream Rock and Adult Alternative. Billboard has it as the #1 Adult Alternative song of all-time! It’s The Wallflowers’ “One Headlight.”

The Wallflowers, another act that never released an actual, physical single, so don’t look for them on the Hot100. But with 22 weeks in the top ten on the Radio Songs chart, “One Headlight” was the #5 hit of 1997 by our Chartcrush ranking of the year’s top airplay hits we’re counting down this hour. Their album Bringing Down the Horse went 4X Platinum, “One Headlight” won Best Rock Song at the ’98 Grammys, and Jakob Dylan was on the cover of Rolling Stone.

By the way, Jakob’s dad Bob Dylan released his first album of new songs in over six years in ’97, Time out of Mind, which topped multiple critics polls at the end of the year, including Billboard’s. Bob played a big role in another success story we’re gonna be hearing in a few minutes.

#4 Third Eye BlindSemi-Charmed Life

But first, at #4 we have the lead single from the debut album by the first San Francisco band to make it big since Huey Lewis & The News in the early ’80s. The song had been a work-in-progress for front man-Songwriter Stephan Jenkins since his days as half of Rap duo Puck & Natty, who got one of their songs on Beverly Hills 90210 in 1992. But once Grunge came along, Jenkins figured he’d have a better shot at making it in a Rock band, and by ’97 his band had evolved a loose, Rap/Jam Band sound that was irresistible to Alternative and Pop radio: “a bridge,” as Billboard later put it “between the grim Grunge years and the soon-to-explode pure Pop explosion.” The first in their string of hits that were ubiquitous on radio late ’90s, it’s Third Eye Blind with “Semi-Charmed Life.”

Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life” at #4. 54 weeks on the Billboard Radio Songs chart, and since there was a single, it also charted on the Hot100, with four weeks at #4. While it was still on the charts “Semi-Charmed Life” was also on the big screen, in Robert Zemeckis’ sci-fi blockbuster Contact starring Jodie Foster, and it’s been used in at least eight other movies since, and counting.

#3 Sugar Ray – Fly

At #3 we have a third massive Rock debut in a row here on our 1997 edition of The Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show: another song that could be described as a bridge between Grunge and late ’90s Pop. Unlike “Semi-Charmed Life,” though, there wasn’t a single, so it only registered on the Airplay charts. But boy did it. Four weeks at #1 on Radio Songs and eight on the Alternative Airplay chart. But the Reggae-tinged hit was unlike anything else on their CD of funky Nu-Metal, so when fans bought their album Floored (the only way to get the song), a lot of them were sorely disappointed, which was a familiar experience in the late ’90s. At #3 it’s Sugar Ray’s breakout hit, “Fly.”

Sugar Ray’s “Fly,” from their album Floored, #3 on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown of 1997’s biggest airplay hits. Smash Mouth’s Fush Yu Mang, another debut album propelled to double-Platinum by a radio hit that sounded nothing like the rest of the band’s stuff. But both bands changed course for their next albums, building them around the massive radio hits from their previous ones, and both nailed it. Sugar Ray titled theirs 14:59, as in, one second left in the 15 minutes of fame critics advised them to enjoy before going back to their day jobs, and it yielded not one but two top tens in the “Fly” mold in ’99: “Every Morning” and “Someday.”

#2 JewelYou Were Meant for Me

Next up, the one song where the year-end Hot100 and Airplay top tens for 1997 agree. It’s #2 on both. The biggest of the Lilith Fair acts in our countdown, and the song is the second hit off her debut album recorded at Neil Young’s Broken Arrow ranch in California and live at the coffeehouse in San Diego where she played when she was living out of her car. The album didn’t sell when it came out in ’95, but constant touring got her opening gigs for both Young and Bob Dylan (there’s that name again), and by ’97, things were happening. Her first single, “Who Will Save Your Soul,” spent the whole Summer of 1996 in the top ten, but this is the one that sealed the deal, #1 on the airwaves for nine straight weeks, mid-April to the beginning of June. It’s Jewel’s “You Were Meant for Me.”

Jewel knew she’d arrived when she got to play Bill Clinton’s second inaugural in January of ’97. That was before “You Were Meant for Me” had even entered the top ten, and it went on to be the #2 song of the year. The other song on the single it was on was what turned out to be her next hit, “Foolish Games.” Once that started getting more airplay in September, Billboard started listing it on the Hot100 as the main song of what was now a “double-A sided” single. That’s industry jargon from vinyl 45 days for a record where both sides are hits. So technically, Billboard’s #2 Hot100 single of ’97 is “You Were Meant for Me” and “Foolish Games.” Thankfully, we don’t have to bother with those technicalities counting down the top ten Radio hits: “You Were Meant for Me” earns the #2 spot all on its own.

Once Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera hit in ’99, Jewel’s sensitive, Folky style was passe and the hits stopped, so in ’03 she tried to reinvent herself as a flashy Dance Pop Diva, but her makeover song “Intuition” only got as high as #20. Maybe if she’d tried that a couple years earlier with, say, Max Martin in the producer’s chair? But by ’03 skater grrrl Avril Lavigne was Pop’s new “it” girl and even Britney was struggling, so Jewel returned to her Country-Folk roots.

#1 No DoubtDon’t Speak

Well we’re down to #1 here on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown for 1997, and it’s the hit people most often mention talking about how messed up the Hot100 was in the late ’90s. No U.S. single release, so it was ineligible, but it’s the #1 Airplay hit of the year no matter how you slice and dice it. Like Sugar Ray’s “Fly,” it wasn’t typical of the band’s sound, but unlike Sugar Ray, they’d already notched two top tens on the Alternative chart in ’96 in the amped up New Wavey Ska-Punk style that’d been packing ’em in back in Anaheim, California, “Just a Girl” and “Spiderwebs,” so their hardcore fans could look the other way as this one made them overnight Pop superstars. By the end of the Summer, their third album, Tragic Kingdom, was certified 8X Platinum and this was its biggest hit: 1997’s #1 song, No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak.”

No Doubt at #1 on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown of 1997’s biggest hits. Like Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life,” “Don’t Speak,” as No Doubt guitarist Tom Dumont put it, “had a long incubation process.” Originally a bouncy, Jazzy love song, singer Gwen Stefani rewrote the words after her seven-year romance with bassist Tony Kanal ended, and it evolved into the more mournful breakup song we just heard. Despite the drama, Kanal remained in the band, and the “Don’t Speak” video tackles the breakup fallout head-on.

Bonus

And that’s our countdown. Just two songs in common between the top ten of our Airplay-derived ranking and Billboard’s published year-end Hot100 chart: Toni Braxton and Jewel, which were numbers 4 and 2, respectively, in Billboard. But that means that eight of Billboard’s year-end top ten Hot100 singles were not among the year’s top ten Radio Songs. In the time we have left, let’s review those.

At #10 they had the all-female British Pop sensation, Spice Girls.

Scary, Sporty, Baby, Ginger and Posh Spice were everywhere in ’97; except the radio, at least as much as you’d think given all the hype. Their first hit “Wannabe” is only #38 on our Airplay ranking.

This one made Billboard’s Hot100 year-end top ten in ’97 and ’98.

LeAnn Rimes’ “How Do I Live” was on the Hot100 from June ’97 straight through to June ’98 and in the top ten nearly half of those 69 weeks, so it’s Billboard’s #9 song of ’97 and #5 on the year 1998. It’s run on the Airplay chart though? Not quite as impressive. Even factoring its full chart run into a single year, which we do for all songs in our Chartcrush rankings, it’s #15.

For its #8 song of 1997, Billboard had another British act.

Mark Morrison’s only U.S. hit, “Return of the Mack,” #21 on our Airplay ranking.

#7 in Billboard was the comeback of the original R&B Girl Group after over four years without a top ten hit.

En Vogue’s “Don’t Let Go (Love),” founding member Dawn Robinson’s last record with the group, from the soundtrack of the 1996 bank robbery flick, Set It Off. That one shakes out at #14 on our Airplay ranking.

And at #6 on the year, Billboard had another soundtrack hit, from the live-action/animated sports fantasy Space Jam starring Michael Jordan… and Bugs Bunny.

R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly,” Michael Jordan’s theme, played at the end of the ’97 NBA Finals on NBC after five-time MVP Jordan’s Chicago Bulls defeated the Utah Jazz four games to two. And then the New York Yankees adopted it for home games in their four consecutive World Series appearances, ’98 to 2001. Our Airplay ranking for 1997 has it at #24.

#5 on Billboard’s year-end Hot100 was Bad Boy Records mogul-producer Sean “P. Diddy” Combs headlining his first record as Puff Daddy and featuring one of his label’s hottest Rappers, Mase.

“Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” shakes out at #67 on our Airplay ranking. Even in ’97, not many U.S. radio stations outside major urban areas were playing Rap, despite Hip-Hop albums and singles selling in the millions, a definite drawback of using the Airplay charts, but one Hip-Hop track that did pretty well in addition to being Billboard’s #3 Hot100 single of the year, was Diddy’s tribute to slain Rapper The Notorious B.I.G., featuring Biggie’s widow Faith Evans and Bad Boy R&B group 112.

Biggie’s murder was big news, not just in Hip-Hop circles, so “I’ll Be Missing You” is our #23 Airplay song of the year. The sample from The Police’s 1983 megahit, “Every Breath You Take” sure didn’t hurt its crossover appeal to other radio formats.

And Billboard’s #1 song was the best-selling single in Billboard history. But for a hit of that magnitude it got remarkably, shockingly, little airplay, only on the Radio Songs chart for seven weeks, peaking at #21. It comes out #77 on our Chartcrush Airplay ranking.

Elton John’s reworked “Candle in the Wind ’97” for Lady Diana’s funeral. Tribute songs at numbers 3 and 1 on Billboard’s year-end Hot100 for 1997. Folks wanted to buy those singles, obviously, but listen to them endlessly on the radio? Not as much as you’d think from the sales numbers.

And we’re gonna have to leave it there for our 1997 edition of Chartcrush, because we’re out of time! I’ve been your host, Christopher Verdesi. For more, check out our website, chartcrush.com, where you’ll find transcripts and links to stream this and other Chartcrush countdown shows on Spotify, plus chart run line graphs and other suh-weet extras. Each week we count down a different year from the ’40s up to now, so tune again, same station, same time, for another edition of Chartcrush.

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