College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, An Introduction

cmj 10

Though I occasionally postured otherwise, I arrived at my college radio station in the fall of 1988 with a keen awareness that I had a lot to learn. Much as I wish I could report that I filled my high school years with gloomy nights in my basement bedroom playing Meat is Murder or Psychocandy over and over again, taking solace in the solidarity of bands that expertly tapped into levels of despair that had a tangy tinge of teenaged agony to them, I was a relative latecomer to college rock. There were surely flirtations before, but I didn’t fall fully under the thrall of bands that had their kindest home on the left end of the radio dial until I bought a vinyl copy of R.E.M.’s Document, shortly after its release, in 1987. Even then, I had precious little access to the musical offerings of college rock bands. Local radio station didn’t play those tracks, and MTV, while more adventurous, largely limited their embrace of college rock bands to a couple precious hours per week (besides, Music Television was already starting to cave in to the dreadful, youth culture disaster it would become). I had gaps in my knowledge, and I knew it.

Even as I took every opportunity to expand my sonic horizons during my first year on the air, I remained hungry for more. I craved expertise. I wanted to be the sort of person who knew the music I loved inside out. I dug deep into the station’s music library, eagerly listened as my student broadcasting colleagues expounded on their more obscure favorites, and tore through every issue of CMJ I could. The trade journal that served college radio was a thrilling bounty of information every week, largely for new releases, but the history of the wide-ranging genre of college rock was laced through every issue. For me, reading the publication felt like participating in the long journey of this sidebar genre heavily guided by the fluctuating tastes of young people awash in the freedom of their own little place on the public airwaves.

It is possible that history pressed a little deeper into the pages of the weekly magazine during those months. The ten year anniversary of the magazine was looming. Tested out in the full of 1988, the journal was properly launched in 1979, just as college radio was transforming from a slightly more adventurous version of the album orientation rock stations that took up real estate on the commercial portions of the dial to a cultural entity that had its own unique flavor. Therefore, any reasonably skilled survey of the first ten years of CMJ‘s history is a compelling history of arguably the most fertile era of college radio. Luckily for me, an extremely skilled survey of that span showed up toward the end of my freshman year.

As I recall it, the package from CMJ arrived in the summer. Within it, there was a handsome trade paperback called CMJ The First Decade 1979 – 1989. The pages held a spectacular overview of the evolution of college rock, with year-by-year narratives, broader considerations of the other genres tracked in the publication (such as jazz and heavy metal), and guest columns from the likes of Billy Bragg and Lemmy Kilmister. Best of all, from my standpoint, there were a few charts in there. There was a writers poll that was wonderfully freewheeling (Duran Duran’s Rio edges out Black Flag’s Damaged somewhere in the one-thirties), but the chief appeal was the pair of massive charts the culled from ten years worth of college radio reporting. Student programmers provided their alternate vision for what made great radio, and I reveled in the notion that this was effectively my new canon of popular excellence.

One of the charts was the top 250 songs from 1979 to 1989, presented under the irresistible headline “Singles Going Steady.” Beginning next Sunday, that’s the list that will be featured weekly in the College Countdown space. For most of the chart, we’ll progress three tracks at a time, which means it will take over a year and a half. And yet, that’s only part one of what will be pulled from the CMJ tenth anniversary tome. This, my friends, is going to take a while. Anyway, we’ll officially get underway next Sunday, beginning, of course, at #250. It’ll be a long way to the top, but it’ll be quite the climb.

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