College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — An Introduction


Over seven years ago, I shared the first College Countdown post, taking advantage of an online find — an old CMJ Top Cuts chart, which are devilishly difficult to track down in the otherwise information-packed superhighway — to offer a revival of sorts, staging my own humble version of the radio program that aired on my alma mater student-run radio station on Sunday nights. Back then, the radio show provided me a weekly study session on the songs dominating the left end of the dial as I lavished in a daring music scene that was largely new to me. In this online iteration, it has mostly been an opportunity for me to write on songs, albums, and artists from decades past, a handy entryway to retrospective music criticism.

Given the resources I have — and, being completely honest, the eras which stir the most interest in me — the years I examine are fading more and more into the rearview as time passes. We are upon the thirtieth anniversary of albums that were brand spankin’ new when I landed at my college radio station. Writing about New Order and the Jesus and Mary Chain now is the equivalent of tapping out words in tribute to Chuck Berry and the Everly Brothers back then. It’s undeniable that I’m devoting this weekly chunk of the digital landscape to oldies. Plain and simple, it seems about time to let this feature follow its predominant subjects into relic status.

But surely we can fit in one more countdown, a final countdown, if you will. And if there’s only one more exercise in counting backwards, it should be — to use some appropriately old-timey language — a real humdinger.

Not so long ago, I wrapped up a countdown of the Top 250 songs from the first ten years of CMJ, the now-bygone trade publication which served college radio. Compiled in mid-1989, the songs provided a nifty encapsulation of what was arguably college radio’s most magical era, when the likes of R.E.M., U2, the Cure, the Smiths, Hüsker Dü, Erasure, and the Replacement emerged and became dominant in a cool little subsection of pop culture — and occasionally crossed over to be unlikely hitmakers on the portions of the airwaves peppered with commercials.

The Top 250 songs chart was published in a handsome paperback sent out to all reporting stations on the occasion of the anniversary. And that wasn’t the only chart contained therein.

On a poster folded into the middle of the book, there was tallying of popularity across the decade even more ludicrously robust than the listing of tracks favored by college radio. Simply dubbed “CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989,” the chart stretched into quadruple digits to capture the albums that had captivated college programmers the most. It is vast and wide-ranging, thrilling and daunting. Taken together, it is unquestionably the sound of college radio in the nineteen-eighties.

And every last bit of it will make up the next — and last — College Countdown. This, my friends, will take years.

It formally gets underway next week, and will continue every Sunday from there, until we reach the very top. Brew some coffee, warm up the transmitter, and make sure there are a couple spare needles for the turntable. This is going to be quite a ride.

For those looking to review where we’ve gone thus far, these are all the other countdowns that brought us to this point:


The 90FM-WWSP charts

90FM’s Top 90 of 1989

90FM’s Top 90 of 1995

90FM’s Top 90 of 1996

The CMJ charts

The First CMJ Album Chart (from 1978)

CMJ Top 40 Cuts, March 16, 1990

CMJ Radio Top Cuts chart from Winter 1991

CMJ Top 50 Albums of 2001

CMJ Top 250 Songs of 1979-1989


The other charts

The Trouser Press Top 10 of 1981

KROQ-FM’s Top 40 Songs of 1987

First Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart from Fall 1988

Rockpool‘s Top 20 College Radio Albums from November 1988

The Gavin Report Top 20 Alternative Chart from October 1992

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