The Throwbacks Nobody Wants Back (Yet)

Chainsmokers Roses RozesOne of the clear hallmarks of the throwback boom at CHR radio is that while a greater percentage of the hour is going to older songs, they tend to be from 2005-2012, more than from recent years. In doing so, it’s been harder for a stand-alone “throwbacks” format to take hold with so many shared records. Even mainstream Classic Hits stations are starting to push into the that era, Top 40’s biggest moment of dominance.

Usually, recency would count for something, at least at Top 40. But a look at the 100 most-played CHR oldies according to Mediabase includes a bulge from 2009 (seven songs), 2010 (9), 2011 (11), and 2012 (5). From 2013-2017, there are only nine songs altogether. That number picks up in 2018 (7) and 2019, although the 10 songs from that year include some, such as “Blinding Lights” and “Watermelon Sugar,” that really became hits in 2020. 

For those who believe that Top 40 is cyclical, the late ‘10s somehow count as both the extremes (less melodic “trap pop” hits derived from Hip-Hop beats) and doldrums (not a lot of tempo or excitement, despite that). As often happens in such years, it was also a good time for soft pop outliers, like Lady Gaga & Bradley Cooper’s “Shallow,” that filled a void for real hits, but didn’t solve anything for Top 40 radio.

The late ’10s were when radio’s hegemony was first really threatened by streaming. The big enduring songs are dotted with those that never quite became pop hits (“Panda” by Desiigner; “Low Life” by Future), but also a lot of then-very-present radio hits that are lost now (“Pillowtalk” by Zayn, “Roses” by the Chainsmokers, “I Hate U, I Love U” by Gnash). 

So, are listeners waiting for “Mine” by Bazzi again? There’s still not a lot of ratings evidence that they’re so excited about hearing “Toxic” or “Party Rock Anthem” or any of the ‘00s and early ‘10s songs that have become staples, especially when those songs are older than some prospective listeners. “I cringe a bit at Top 40s that have loaded up on early-2000s songs. It’s way too far back and it makes the format sound like AC, and Top 40 never wins that battle,” says Brian Woodward, who believes “‘Roses’ was one of the best songs of the decade.”

But Mason Kelter, host of the syndicated LiveLine, says that his top-50 gold tabulations are dominated by older titles. Only five are from 2015-19: The Weeknd’s “The Hills” and “Starboy,” the Chainsmokers’ “Closer,” Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You,” and Twenty One Pilots’ “Stressed Out.” Kelter cites some “oh wow” titles that haven’t yet become throwback staples; e.g., Mike Posner’s “Cooler Than Me” or Eminem’s “Mockingbird,” but they’re older.

It is certainly possible that the late-’10s hits are just in the dead zone through which many of today’s most-played gold titles have travelled. “It always takes about 15 years for nostalgia to kick in,” predicts Matt Bailey. Chris Granozio remembers that pattern “during all the decades of my life,” he adds, specifically citing ’70s disco, which seemed thoroughly exiled but became a major part of AC radio, then Classic Hits, in the ’90s and ’00s.

That pattern may be exacerbated by how long both musical trends and sounds stay around. The trap pop of the late ’00s was by that time 3-4 years old at CHR, comparable not to the excitement of the Backstreet Boys bringing back boy bands in 1997, but O-Town, the last of the lingering genre in 2001. Jason Steiner notes that on ’60s Top 40 airchecks “they will play a song from just two years prior and make a huge deal about what a solid-gold flashback it is.” Now, songs from a few years ago “give off a recurrent vibe with no nostalgia feeling whatsoever.”

In general, however, there’s not a lot of love for the late ’10s yet, and few enduring songs. It is telling that I remember somebody suggesting this topic a few months ago. But I don’t remember exactly what songs it was that they were waiting to hear again. “Many of the huge hits of the 2010s just don’t stand the test of time,” says Don “DJ Wrekk” Williams of Foxy 106.9 St. Louis. “It’s a bad time for Top 40. [Listeners] probably don’t want to remember it,” adds Jeremy Andrews. 

Top 40 was also starting to have less of a footprint in the late ’10s, as ratings declined and second and third CHRs in a market began to drift away. WDAQ (98Q) Danbury, Conn., PD Rich Minor says that Lady Gaga has the advantage in “familiarity. That song [is] relevant on the radio today, rather than ‘Gold’ by Kiiara, which was barely a CHR hit, and not one at all at Hot AC.”

The late ’10s were also when CHR found itself first grappling with the impact of streaming and songs that didn’t sound like traditional radio records. It’s still hard to know what songs were truly ratified at that time. Was “Nevermind” by Dennis Lloyd, short-lived at radio, a hit? It remains a streaming playlist staple. In any event, Andrews notes, that time “seemed like when the music industry stopped making songs for radio and started making songs for streaming.”

Miami air personality Mike Kruz notes that “even the EDM artists like Zedd, Calvin Harris, and the Chainsmokers were trying to refine their sound from big dance anthems to more ballads and ‘radio-friendly’ stuff, and I think it took the wind out of the sails for their fans, who wanted more uptempo, fun songs.”

The paradox of the late ’10s was that when songs that might have addressed the tempo or melody issue came along, they were often met resistance. Taylor Swift’s attempts to change up from the increasingly ethereal 1989 singles that followed “Shake It Off” did at least short-term damage to her Reputation. That album’s biggest hit, “Delicate.” was the one most of a piece with the previous album. Grumbling about Swift’s The Tortured Poets Department has tapered off after six weeks at No. 1, but it’s still worth noting part of what made Midnights a success was Swift’s return to a midtempo groove. 

The biggest Top 40 hits in 2024 are better, for me, than the hits of the late ‘10s, although only the quality, not the quantity, has improved. But there is still a lot of midtempo music, as well as left-field hits from streaming, most recently “Million Dollar Baby.” That’s probably one reason that PDs haven’t gone back to the late ‘00s. That sound still exists with newer, more relevant titles.

My feelings about the hits of 2014-2019 are tempered by the knowledge that every hit is somebody’s favorite and every era is somebody’s high-school years. Also, hearing “oh wow” oldies and hearing songs return to the radio has also always been a lot about what I loved about radio. It seems likely that the top tier of late ‘10s hits will remain on or return to the radio at some point. I’m tempted to say that “Pillowtalk” or “Gold” won’t be among them, but at least one of our current lost hits from that period will inevitably be back, so it’s a dangerous prediction.

I went back to take a Fresh Listen to a lot of that music, and found that my mind hasn’t changed much. But are you eager to hear those songs on the radio again? Please leave a comment.

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