A simple definition of art is a creative endeavour intended to move people, and out of all the possible artistic media out there, music remains the most immediate and the most enduring. The opening notes of a song can still induce the same emotional effect on a listener decades after first listening to it. That’s power: songs can change people.
But out of all the millions and millions of songs released in the last century or so, how many have been focal points that changed music itself? The list is still a long one, depending on your criteria. What do we mean by change? What scale and scope of change of change?
That being the case, this isn’t a top ten. Instead, this is a list of musical releases, in chronological order, that had such a seismic effect on music itself that the aftershocks are still being felt today.
By definition, this can’t possibly be a complete list – so if you have ideas of your own for entries eleven, twelve or more, make your case in the comments!
10. Tommy Dorsey And His Orchestra – I’ll Never Smile Again (1940)
Having just replaced singer Jack Leonard with a twenty-four-year-old Frank Sinatra, Tommy Dorsey’s fortunes began to soar. The bandleader immediately saw Sinatra’s potential, recording forty songs with him in their first year together.
One of them was this beautifully melancholy Ruth Lowe number, written following the tragic death of her beloved husband. Lowe had the sense to aim for a more universal experience by recasting her grief as the heartbreak caused by the end of an affair, and her song became the record that catapulted Sinatra to stardom.
But it’s not just the leg-up it gave to a legend’s career that earns the tune its place on this list. ‘I’ll Never Smile Again’ was the first ever number one single on Billboard’s first ever National List of Best Selling Retail Records (which was the world’s first official national music chart), hitting the top spot on July 27th 1940 and staying there the next twelve weeks.
As a result, Sinatra himself also became the world’s first genuine pop star, his live shows swamped with screaming, adoring adolescents. He wasn’t the first teen idol – Franz Liszt and Rudy Vallée had their day years before Frank – but his success coincided with the birth of what we recognise today as the record industry.
This nascent business soon twigged that the spending power and uncontrolled passion of these ‘bobbysoxers’ made them the perfect target audience… leading to the birth of pop music.
9. Bill Haley And His Comets – Rock Around The Clock (1955)
‘Rock Around The Clock’ is one of the many songs that attempts to lay claim to being the first rock n’ roll record.
In truth, that’s an accolade that should belong to half a dozen records by African American artists in the 1940s and 1950s, through the advent of swing music from rhythm and blues. Artists like Roy Brown, Wild Bill Moore and Jimmy Preston were instrumental in laying down the basis for rock n’ roll.
But it’s a sad fact of history that in the fifties white audiences were happy to dance to black music, but would only make a mainstream hit out of a white band. Ike Turner’s groundbreaking ‘Rocket ‘88’ and its peers hit big on the Billboard Rhythm & Blues chart, but ‘Rock Around The Clock was the first rock n’ roll record to reach number one on the mainstream pop singles charts, staying there for eight weeks.
It was the song’s second release – it had been a b-side before being selected as the opening number on 1955’s hit movie The Blackboard Jungle. Originally recorded in a hurry, that seminal guitar solo had been lifted from a previous Haley recording, ‘Rock This Joint’, and a more sonically impressive version of the song had to be spliced together for the re-release.
The US success of ‘Rock Around The Clock’ was replicated worldwide. The song sold millions and catapulted Haley and his band to stardom… but it also helped push rock n’ roll to the forefront of popular music.
8. The Beatles – I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1963)
It’s difficult to overestimate the impact of The Beatles on popular culture.
Although they’d formed prior to 1960, it was 1963 that saw the group’s popularity in the United Kingdom swell to epic proportions, prompting the coining of the word ‘Beatlemania’ to describe the phenomenon.
‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ was the song that broke them in America, however. Catchy as hell with perfect harmonies, the single was number one for seven weeks in early 1964, selling over twelve million copies, and was only dislodged by another Beatles single, ‘She Loves You’, which was itself only dislodged by ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’.
The Beatlemania of before was nothing compared to the adulation they were now receiving. For the next six years, the Beatles had the biggest American single one in every six weeks and the biggest American album one in every three weeks.
Worldwide stardom wasn’t their only legacy, however. The Beatles influence was vast: they created fashion trends; brought about the first British Invasion, sweeping a host of other homegrown bands to stardom in America in their wake; elevated the long-player album over the single as the dominant musical format; and single-handedly popularised the conceit that musicians should write their own material and consider themselves serious artists.
Thanks to this hit single, The Beatles remain one of the biggest cultural and musical touchstones of the 20th century.
7. Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody (1975)
‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ doesn’t lay claim to having the first ever pop video – bands had been filming promo clips, as they were called, for years, and Queen themselves were by then more than used to the format. It’s not even spectacularly original, bearing a suspicious resemblance in many ways to the clip for The Moody Blues’ version of ‘Go Now’ from a decade earlier.
Created to promote an unedited six minute song that everyone of note had assured the band was commercial suicide, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was rushed out to be played on that week’s Top Of The Pops TV show, as the band were booked to play in Scotland that night and couldn’t appear live.
The single, a majestic cod-operatic rock epic, was a huge hit thanks to radio support: it’s difficult to say whether the iconic video contributed to that. However, thanks to the song’s worldwide longevity, that video was played countless times, becoming synonymous with the song itself. From that moment on, it became standard procedure to release a promotional video alongside singles in the UK.
The increasing popularity of the video led to the creation of MTV in 1981. Because the UK music industry had pioneered the format for years thanks to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, the newborn cable channel, hungry for content, broadcast a disproportionate number of British bands in its early years, which led in turn to the second British Invasion of the US pop charts.
6. Sex Pistols – Anarchy In The UK (1976)
They many not have invented punk, but the short but incandescent career of punk rock legends the Sex Pistols’ led to the creation of an entire subculture of fashion, music, art and philosophy that exists globally in various mutated forms to this day.
By 1976, the Pistols had trawled around the London area for a few years, picking up an almost cultish level of support. Supplied with ‘anti-fashion’ clothes by manager Malcolm McLaren and his partner Vivienne Westwood from their Chelsea boutique SEX, the style had spread to their fans, both organically and as a marketing gimmick.
It’s said that the inspiration for the UK’s punk movement of the late seventies stemmed almost completely from attendees at these early shows: members The Damned, Buzzcocks, Banshees, Clash, X-Ray Spex, Stiff Little Fingers, Crass and god knows how many more saw the Pistols and vanished to form their own bands.
‘Anarchy In The UK’ was the first song anyone else heard by the Sex Pistols, however: their incendiary performance of the song on music show So It Goes in September 1976 led to their infamous interview on the Today programme the week after the single’s release, where their swearing and antagonistic attitude made them household names overnight.
Although the other three singles from their only real album Nevermind The B*llocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols charted higher, the band will forever be associated with ‘Anarchy In The UK’ and those sneered opening lines…
5. The Sugarhill Gang – Rapper’s Delight (1979)
Like the Sex Pistols, The Sugarhill Gang were a manufactured band put together by a svengali (in this case, Sylvia Robinson) to capitalise on an existing sound, the club-based rap and hip hop movement – they’re even named after her record company.
Unlike the Pistols, they never grew past this, and they don’t have the reputation of some of their peers for good reason.
‘Rapper’s Delight’, their only hit, is something of a curate’s egg. Based around a bassline half-inched from Chic’s ‘Good Times’, a big summer hit that year, the sprawling track was fifteen minutes long with many lyrics lifted wholesale from another rapper who wasn’t involved in the project.
Nonetheless, the impact that ‘Rapper’s Delight’ had as a single in 1979 dwarfs that of their more credible contemporaries. It was the first rap song to break the top forty in the US, and it’s rarely been off the radio ever since – and despite its bizarre, inauthentic genesis, the track helped popularise rap music and hip hop and bring it to significant mainstream attention.
4. Band Aid – Do They Know It’s Christmas? (1984)
Written by Ultravox’s Midge Ure and Boomtown Rats singer Bob Geldof following a TV report on the famine in Ethiopia, the Band Aid charity single concept was cobbled together overnight: three weeks after the report’s broadcast, Geldof had the backing of his peers for a Christmas release.
The song itself is mediocre – ‘cheesy’ is the word that springs to mind. However, the circumstances surrounding it are extraordinary, and Geldof’s forthright approach to the project is legendary.
At short notice, Geldof recruited members of U2, Spandau Ballet, Heaven 17, Bananarama, Status Quo, Culture Club, Wham! and Duran Duran alongside Phil Collins, Paul Weller, Sting and Paul Young. In any given week in 1984, the Top 40 might feature almost all of those artists.
When he found out that the UK’s biggest music show Top Of The Pops couldn’t broadcast the song until it had charted, Geldof persuaded the BBC to rearrange the day’s entire viewing schedule by five minutes so that it could be played before the show came on.
The single was released on 3rd December, hitting number one instantly, outselling everything else in the chart put together and becoming both the fastest and the biggest selling single in UK history, records it held for well over a decade.
‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ made £8million for Ethiopia that year, but the charity records it inspired have made far more – 1985’s US version, ‘We Are The World’ raised over $63million for the same cause.
3. Suzanne Vega – Tom’s Diner (1987)
Folk singer Vega wrote ‘Tom’s Diner’ in 1982 as an a capella track a long time before it was ever released – it got air on an obscure compilation record two years later, and saw life on her second album in 1987.
It’s a nice song, if a little slight, a tune which received significant airplay in 1990 when it remixed as a dance track by the DNA Disciples and became a worldwide hit. It’s the original vocal-only version which makes this list, however.
Audiophiles had been using Vega’s tune as a speaker test track for years, citing it as a great example of a warm vocal recording that could, potentially, reveal problems with a HiFi set-up. German audio engineer Karl-Heinz Brandenburg, part of the team at the Fraunhofer Society engaged in developing the MP3 compression format, also used the song to tune his system and make sure that the result would actually be listenable.
Initially, it was not: it sounded distorted, apparently very much like the voice they mocked up for the possessed child in The Exorcist. Brandenburg refined his set-up over months, reasoning that if the MP3 could retain the warmth and purity of Vega’s voice on ‘Tom’s Diner’, it could provide a quality reproduction of any song at a compressed size.
Those tests led to the most widely used codec in the world. It’s the reason why some call Vega ‘the mother of the MP3’: the format whose popularity helped to bring about the digital music revolution.
2. Duran Duran – Electric Barbarella (1997)
Other songs had been available for download before – Aerosmith’s ‘Head First’, for example, an unreleased track provided to fans in the early days of the internet in 1994, back when everything was made of clockwork and powered by steam. But it was former New Romantics Duran Duran who were the first major label artists to release their new single for high quality download with 1997’s ‘Electric Barbarella’.
Interviewed at the time, keyboardist Nick Rhodes was 100% behind the move, predicting the importance of the digital revolution and the internet for artists in the future.
Initially, ‘Electric Barbarella’ was due to be available from Capitol Records’ website two weeks before the physical release hit record stores, but the outcry from the bricks-and-mortar vendors (many of whom threatened to boycott the album the song came from and even remove the band’s whole back catalogue from sale) changed their plans: the digital and CD releases were rejigged to be simultaneous.
Capitol got bad PR from their partners in the distribution chain, but excellent press from everyone else: they were lauded for being so forward thinking. The rest is history.
And the band? ‘Electric Barbarella’ didn’t do well: enough sticks had been jammed in the spokes that the single wasn’t a hit. Duran Duran, however, continued to attempt to pioneer new ways of listening to and purchasing their music.
1. Marillion – This Is The 21st Century (2001)
Back in 1997, Marillion were facing diminishing returns for their wilfully idiosyncratic take on art rock, and having to explain to their US fans that it would put them in terminal debt to embark on another loss-making tour in the States. Undeterred, said US fans got together and raised the money themselves. The tour took place. The crowd cheered.
Two years later, faced with underwhelming offers from two independent labels for their twelfth record, the band decided to go back to the fans and ask them whether they’d pay for said record up front. By 2001, nearly 13,000 people had pre-ordered the lavishly prepared Anoraknophobia release, raising £150,000 – nearly a quarter of a million quid in today’s money.
The only music released in advance was an edit of the album’s standout track, ‘This Is The 21st Century’, a magnificently brooding meditation on the unexplainable human heart, like the love child of Pink Floyd and Massive Attack.
Anoraknophobia was the first internet-driven crowdfunded album, inspiring the creation of ArtistShare, the prototype crowdfunding platform. Today there are dozens: Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, PledgeMusic and so many more. Crowdfunding has become the go-to model for artists at all stages in their careers, now able to bypass the moneymen and the middlemen to appeal to their audience direct for the funds necessary to produce the art they adore.
And Marillion? They don’t need a platform: they’ve been selling their music direct to the fans from marillion.com for nearly twenty years now. The crowd’s still cheering.