Top 10 Radio Songs
If you’re a fan of Ultimate Classic Rock, chances are pretty good that listening to the radio has been a big part of your life. But you could probably say that just about anyone, since it’s been almost 100 years since Nikola Tesla opened his first radio factory. Radio has been broadcasting music through the ether for almost as long, but it wasn’t until the advent of FM airwaves and the rise of the album-rock era that the two forces combined to shape and define so many lives. Since then, our relationship with radio has taken an almost meta turn, as artists write and sing songs about the medium. These are the Top 10 Radio Songs.
‘Turn Up the Radio’
Like several other L.A.-based rock bands from the early ’80s, Autograph had more in common with mainstream rock than metal. Is it any wonder that the group’s biggest (OK, only) hit, ‘Turn Up the Radio,’ would pay tribute to the medium responsible for carrying it across the airwaves? With some help from MTV, of course.
Journey dominated mainstream-rock radio for almost a decade, thanks to a string of hit singles matched by few other bands of the classic-rock era. How ironic that their run would come to an end right after they celebrated the transistor memories of their youth with the title track to their 1986 album ‘Raised on Radio.’
Leave it to Frank Zappa – a man known for unconventional music and a deep-seated animosity for the music business – to compose a song about radio that never had a chance of actually getting played on the radio … at least not in the conventional sense. Thanks to specialty hosts like Dr. Demento, ‘The Radio Is Broken’ received some airtime.
Bruce Springsteen was getting up in age by the time he released his first song with “radio” in the title. But ‘Radio Nowhere’ doesn’t celebrate the technology that carried him into countless homes. Instead, it laments the universal blandness of corporate radio in the new millennium — a product of shrunken playlists and the loss of regional flavor that once distinguished stations, DJs and listeners.
Roger Waters’ second solo album after leaving Pink Floyd used the universal concept of radio to help make some sense of a world falling apart. In ‘Radio Waves,’ Waters takes in Cold War-era paranoia, anti-Thatcher politics and a disabled boy named Billy, who can pick up radio waves in his head.
Steely Dan brought all of their pristine studio alchemy to their Grammy-winning theme to a 1978 movie about an L.A. radio station hijacked by DJs after a spat with management over advertising. The movie is mostly forgotten these days, but Steely Dan’s glorious anthem sounds as timeless and immortal as anything on our list of the Top 10 Radio Songs.
Rush had built an entire career on crafting ambitious epic-length music that was decidedly unfit for radio broadcast. So it should come as no surprise that they’re preoccupied with dissecting the form’s eternal struggle between art and commerce with this conspicuously catchy and tightly edited opening track to their mainstream-radio breakthrough LP ‘Permanent Waves.’ “Selling out” never sounded so eloquent.
The title track of Tom Petty’s 11th album is a brazen criticism of the widespread corporate consolidation that swept the radio business in the late ’90s (the same subject Bruce Springsteen addresses in the No. 7 cut on our list of the Top 10 Radio Songs). DJs were essentially stripped of their individual playlists in favor of centralized programming. It seems very unlikely we’ll ever see DJs wielding the same individual influence as they did during rock radio’s heyday.
Back in the early ’80s, MTV’s mercurial rise had artists questioning radio’s future. The network had no problem spreading that message to their advantage with songs like the Buggles’ ‘Video Killed the Radio Star,’ the very first clip shown on MTV. A few years later, Queen’s similarly themed ‘Radio Ga Ga’ was rewarded with airplay and an MTV Video Music Award nomination.
Even though they became unlikely stars during the music-video era, ZZ Top knew all about the power of radio. Growing up in Texas, the trio would often tune into the “border blaster” Mexican radio stations (whose call letters began with X, instead of the U.S.’ usual W or K) and hear the original racy versions of rock ‘n’ roll classics that were often watered down (by singers like Pat Boone) for U.S. stations. Those uncensored pleasures would inform the Top’s raw and raunchy blues-rock forever.