College Countdown: First Billboard Top 20 Modern Rock Tracks, Fall 1988, An Introduction

By the fall of 1988, the influence of college radio was at an early peak, which meant that the music that had stirred its rebellious, off-the-beaten-track spirit was in the process of being finally and fully co-opted. MTV’s Sunday night excursion into left of the dial fare, 120 Minutes, was popular enough to produce a nightly spin-off called PostModern MTV and major labels were scouring playlists of humble, student-run broadcasters in the hopes of discovering the next U2 or R.E.M., a band that had breakout potential. In September, the ultimate marker of the accepted institutionalization of the sound was printed in the pages of the music industry’s chief trade publication. With the September 10, 1988 issue, Billboard magazine added a Modern Rock Tracks chart.

Even though it grew out of college radio, there were few if any student broadcasters helping to shape the weekly tally. Billboard built the chart exclusively from commercial broadcasters and any college stations that happened to be subscribers in good standing that made overtures to submit playlists–and I know of at least one station that did–were kindly but firmly rebuffed. Instead, the chart was built from the then modest but growing array of commercial alternative stations across the nation. Unsurprisingly, the resulting Top 20 was notably less adventurous that corresponding charts in CMJ, the trade publication that served college stations. There was less indication of digging deeper into favorite records and a more apparent adherence to pushing the handful of songs that the labels, big and small, were prioritizing at the time.

Still, it’s interesting enough as a piece of history, both in the ways that it reflects what music was prominent in the modern rock scene at the time and the places where it seems weirdly out of step. So that will be our next chart for the weekly College Countdown, moving two tracks at a time up to the top of the list. We’ll start next week with a pair of artists that are probably all but forgotten now. In fact, I’m not sure how well most programmers remembered them back then.

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