Twenty Years of Billboard's Adult Pop Songs Chart: It's 'Top 40 for People Over 25'

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The ranking that reflects the tempo-driven, family-friendly radio format marks its first two decades of hits, with Santana's 'Smooth' & Maroon 5 leading the way.

In a 2012 Saturday Night Live skit, Odysseus (aka Jason Sudeikis) steers a ship in peril.

Its pending doom? "The fabled Sirens," he warns. "Seductresses who use their enchanted singing to lure us," into lethal rocks ahead. The sailors' apparent fate: to "fall prey to their alluring songs."

Greatest of All Time: Adult Pop Songs Artists

Soon, Odysseus and crew are in audible range of their enemies (if it's possible for that episode's host, Christina Applegate, as well as Cecily Strong and Kate McKinnon, to be vilified as such). "Listen to our song and resist if you are able," lead Siren Applegate challenges.

She then fires her first musical weapon: "You say … I only hear what I want to …"

To audience chuckles, Lisa Loeb & Nine Stories' 1994 classic "Stay (I Missed You)" is the early girl group's first plan of attack.

"I know this … how do I know this?," Odysseus wonders, his resistance quickly lessening.

The Sirens follow with another tempting tune: "Open up your morning light, and say a little prayer for I …" Paula Cole's "I Don't Want to Wait" pierces a second hole in Odysseus' resolve. "I want to now right now what will it be!," he joyfully, and somewhat involuntarily, croons, completing the chorus.

When the Sirens launch into Shania Twain's "That Don't Impress Me Much" and Sheryl Crow's "All I Wanna Do," Odysseus surrenders, his mates, too, in a clap-happy sing-along. "All I wanna do (clap-clap) is have some fun … until the sun comes up over Santa Monica Boulevard …"

Greatest of All Time: Adult Pop Songs

"You win, I'm coming right to you!" he relents, leaping overboard before his ship crashes and joining as the Sirens' backup dancer.

Still, amid his giddiness, he asks again: "How do I know the words? I know only manly sea chants!"

The reason he, like so many, knows is that the ship's radio (just go with the anachronism) was surely tuned to an adult top 40, or hot AC, station. Today, nearly 100 of those stations contribute to Billboard's Adult Pop Songs airplay chart, which is marking its 20th anniversary as a Billboard tally.

From Lilith Fair-era hits to current songs by the likes of Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift and Meghan Trainor, the format remains a magnetic draw for listeners (and unlike in Odysseus' days, thankfully, a much safer one).

THE EARLY 'DAY'S

"When I was national program director for WOMX Orlando, Fla., in 1990, the station's GM, Clancy Woods, and I thought, 'Why isn't there an uptempo, current-based adult format that serves the generation that grew up with the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac?'"

Maroon 5 Top Artist, Santana's 'Smooth' Top Song of Adult Pop Songs Chart's First 20 Years

Guy Zapoleon, president of Zapoleon Media Strategies, recalled to Billboard upon the Adult Pop Songs chart's 15th anniversary in 2011 how the format began, effectively as an offshoot of adult contemporary with a catalog element of oldies, both classic rock and rhythmic (then from The Supremes through Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston).

"That July, Brian Thomas and I created by the first true adult pop station, Mix 96.5, on KHMX Houston," Zapoleon said. "Beyond the music, Mix 96.5 succeeded, and still does, due to its focus on capturing the adult female lifestyle, serving as listeners' friend with strong personalities connecting them with major promotional and charity events."

"WOMX also evolved into a pop/rock 'Mix' station and more such signals grew the format, including WRQX Washington, D.C., and WPLJ New York."

By the mid'-90s, many adult pop outlets evolved to a more pop/alternative focus, under the moniker "Modern AC," per the programming of KYSR Los Angeles and WBMX Boston. "That sound," said Zapoleon, then-popularized by the likes of Crow, Hootie & the Blowfish, Matchbox Twenty and Alanis Morissette, "long centered the format."

The first Adult Pop Songs chart, dated March 16, 1996, to appear in Billboard magazine, reflects that sonic style. While Carey and Boyz II Men's "One Sweet Day" led the initial list (as well as, the same week, Adult Contemporary), Nos. 2-4, respectively, were decidedly crunchier: Goo Goo Dolls' "Name," Hootie's "Time" and Deep Blue Something's "Breakfast at Tiffany's."

(Centuries after successfully wooing Odysseus, Cole's song would crown Adult Pop Songs for six weeks in 1997. And, with the help of another mythic waterway: Dawson's Creek.)

SHUT UP AND DANCE

Today, adult pop has "reverted to being what we originally programmed in Orlando," Zapoleon said in 2011, citing a progression that has since continued: a more pop/rhythmic version of the format. "Adult pop stations have evolved with today's 25-to-39-year-old female listeners because they've grown up with [pop and] R&B/hip-hop as their generation's music."

Plus, "with rhythmic music-preferring Hispanics having accounted for 54% of U.S. population growth, according to the 2010 U.S. Census," Zapoleon noted, "it's logical that the format has adopted more rhythmic components."

Case in point, Bieber has landed his first three Adult Pop Songs top 10s from his 2015 album Purpose: the trop-house-flavored "What Do You Mean?" and "Sorry" and, as of this week, his first No. 1 on the list, "Love Yourself."

Justin Bieber Scores First Adult Pop Songs Chart No. 1 With 'Love Yourself'

Of the chart's 176 No. 1s, the majority were guitar-oriented through the end of the 2000s, with acts like Train, Nickelback and The Fray carrying the baton from acts that broke through in the '90s. By the early 2010s, Adult Pop Songs reporters  followed the lead of mainstream top 40 (which feeds Billboard's Pop Songs chart), as more rhythmic/less guitar-centered songs became the most mass-appeal for the format, from such artists as Kelly Clarkson, P!nk, Katy Perry, Adele, Swift and Maroon 5 (which itself segued more pop from its rock-band roots).

'TOP 40 FOR PEOPLE OVER 25'

Like Odysseus before them, programmers currently helming adult pop stations are guiding the format to the sounds most enticing to today's listeners.

"Pretty simple: we're top 40 for people who are over 25," says Mike Mullaney, WBMX assistant program director/music director. "Listeners love hearing what's new, but also the tracks they grew up with. Adult pop has the chance to have some era depth and be more unpredictable than the [more] repetitive mainstream top 40 format."

Echoing Zapoleon's observations, Mullaney muses that, in 1998 (when he joined the station), WBMX never would have played the Backstreet Boys or Britney Spears, then essentially pure-top 40 artists. Now, the station "utilizes that gold because the once-18-year-olds are now in their 30s and listen to us."

Similarly, "it used to be adult pop stations would never touch rap songs or anything that had a rap sound," says Jim Ryan, SiriusXM director of music programming and PD of The Pulse. "Now, more and more of those lines have been crossed with songs such as Twenty One Pilots' [recent No. 1] 'Stressed Out.'

Plus, top adult pop songs are now played in higher rotation, "so that [mainstream top 40] competitors are not beating us on the hits," says KHMX vp of programming Charese Fruge.

Beyond the music, "I stress with our on-air talent that material should be geared toward adult women, but should also be suitable for kids to hear," Ryan says. Fruge concurs: "The presentation should be sexy, have confidence and attitude and reflect the lifestyle of the demo. Still, it has to be kid-friendly."

That strategy, combined with the musical mix, is vital to the format's success. According to Nielsen Audio, major-market stations KBIG Los Angeles, WTMX Chicago and KDMX Dallas were all top-five in audience share in their respective markets' most recent ratings measurement periods.

"We're an advertiser's sweetheart," Fruge says. "We specifically target the people who make household spending decisions."

WHEREVER IT WILL GO

As adult pop has evolved, one musical constant has been its desire to break new artists, in tandem with record labels.

"The format can move the needle and create excitement and buzz," says RCA Records vp of promotion Wendy Goodman. "The 30-to-40 million in audience that a No. 1 song garners weekly is third behind only top 40 and country. And, when an adult pop station is playing a new song, we often start to see spikes in Shazam rankings and sales."

"Even as the format has shifted more into the pop world, with so many shared songs [with mainstream top 40], we are still seeing acts break, like Rachel Platten, Andy Grammer and Elle King," Goodman says.

"With social media and personal website hype, artists can almost break themselves," says WTSS Buffalo, N.Y. MD Rob Lucas. "Heck, Beyoncé drops an album and doesn't even tell her record company about it! But, I think stations can definitely 'introduce' artists."

As for the next chapter of Adult Pop Songs? Given the shift from '90s grit to '10s gloss, "I've stopped trying to predict those things and finally realized that the answer is always: wherever the listener wants to take it," Lucas says. "The evolution constantly amazes me."

Says Fruge, "As long as programmers continue to be smart about playing the hits and taking chances on songs that have hit potential, adult pop will continue to give the mainstream top 40s, conservative ACs and alternative stations in each market a run for the money."

After all, it's a programming philosophy that's been working since not just 1996, but since the ancient, melodic days of Greek mythology.

 

The top 10 artists on the Adult Pop Songs Artists Greatest of All Time chart are:
1, Maroon 5
2, Matchbox Twenty
3, Train
4, Nickelback
5, P!nk
6, Kelly Clarkson
7, Katy Perry
8, Goo Goo Dolls
9, Daughtry
10, Taylor Swift

Click here for the full chart

And, the top 10 songs on the Adult Pop Songs Greatest of All Time chart are:
1, "Smooth," Santana featuring Rob Thomas
2, "Drops of Jupiter (Tell Me)," Train
3, "Wherever You Will Go," The Calling
4, "How to Save A Life," The Fray
5, "Counting Stars," OneRepublic
6, "Unwell," Matchbox Twenty
7, "I'm Yours," Jason Mraz
8, "You And Me," Lifehouse
​9, "All For You," Sister Hazel
10, "Hanging By A Moment," Lifehouse

Click here for the full chart.

 

Billboard Greatest of All Time