Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Pop Rewind: Summer Radio, 1991

Every year at this time, a number of entertainment publications ask for people’s memorable “summer songs”. Each year, the countdown of popular favourites changes and a number of them remain immortal. These include Will Smith’s (when he was still the Fresh Prince) “Summertime”, Alicia Keys’s “Fallin’” and Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love”.

But there are is also a subsection of summer songs that, if you hear them, can take you back to a very specific year, and often a time and place. These are the songs that were inescapable at the time, or were simply part of the mix you heard that year. This blog post is dedicated to jogging your memory of summer hits from twenty years ago: the year 1991.

The summer was part of the great early 90s recession in the wake of the S&L scandal, George Bush Sr. was in power, and female role models at the cinema included a kick-ass Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2, and Thelma & Louise. Cell phones weighed five pounds on average and Apple was still pushing the Macintosh machine. The Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings were just about to kick off and the term “sexual harassment” became initially the catchphrase of the year, but quickly entered public lexicon and became an offence under employment law legislation. Times have indeed changed when your VCR was set to record Cheers, Roseanne and The Simpsons (although you likely are still doing that to the latter today).

For those of you old enough to remember, a number of these tracks listed were interchanged with Bryan Adams’s ubiquitous blockbuster “Everything I Do” from the Robin Hood soundtrack, Amy Grant’s successful gospel-to-pop crossover, Guns ‘n Roses’ double Use Your Illusion set and Metallica’s “Enter Sandman”. While all of these artists have had long-term successful careers or at the very least remain instantly recognizable names (even Grant was referenced in a recent episode of 30 Rock), there are a number of other hits on the radio that summer that were there but you may not have remembered. They remain one-hit wonders and each has earned some recognition and fond memories. These sonic slices of joy deserve to be recognized, and some of them have sadly gone out of print. 

What’s memorable about this summer was that pop radio was carefree and joyful, and the grunge / alt-rock sound of Nirvana and Pearl Jam that came to define the 90s was still localized to Seattle, Washington. After 1991 and throughout most of the decade, summer singles were decidedly more downbeat and irony was required to turn street cred into a pop hit.

Here are five of the Blogger’s favourite singles and YouTube clips to jog your memory, or to give you a glimpse into what that summer sounded like, after the jump:

Keedy, “Save Some Love” 

This Minneapolis singer had a unique pop sound that would likely have given her a more successful career, had her record label not changed management so many times that she was released by her contract within another year. Keedy has since been recording music with her husband and their band, Royce & Keedy. It would be strange that such a wistful little number like this would ever become a hit today. This is the one single that I can’t find anywhere, not even on the iTunes store. Keedy's sole hit reached a peak of #15 in America.

EMF, “Unbelievable” 

This British dance band was one of the last major UK acts to chart big in the US (including more successful acts like The KLF and Cathy Dennis) before the grunge bands took over. It was also the last #1 hit before Bryan Adams’s Robin Hood single strangled the penthouse of the Billboard Hot 100 for a then-epic seven weeks. The sound was de rigueur for British house music and sadly, a burgeoning trend for the American music market was not meant to be. Still, this single has continued life by its occasional appearance in commercials.

Corina, “Temptation”

Part of the Latin Freestyle dance-pop that inflicted the charts in the late 80s and early 90s, this single has certain nostalgia for its appearances on the controversial In Living Color sketch-com series as part of the Fly Girls’ dance routine. Y’all may remember the Fly Girls for their Oscar-nominated choreographer Rosie Perez and it was the first major gig for an aspiring New York Latina dancer named Jennifer Lopez. This grinding single is the sound of the block party. This single hit #6 on the pop charts and was certified gold.

LaTour, “People Are Still Having Sex” 

In an era when gay rights were non-existent and Gay Pride was synonymous with the ravages of AIDS, this stark single remains perhaps the darkest of the songs on this list. Not surprisingly, this became a smash on the dance charts and reflected the sexual and gender discourse of the time. Very surprisingly, the hit crossed over to the pop charts and peaked at #35 on the Billboard charts, a rather respectable feat for what is essentially a spoken-word recording with an interloped classical music sample. LaTour continued to have success with other singles (most notably "Blue") on the dance chart. He is a longtime staple of the LA radio scene and his career continues to thrive there.

Lisa Fischer, “How Can I Ease the Pain?”

The only entry on this list that has won a Grammy Award, this sultry ballad reached #11 on the Billboard Charts and topped the R&B listings. Fischer’s debut album So Intense received raves as intense as its title, but she has remained out of the spotlight ever since. Fischer admits to preferring performing as a backup singer and has since become one of the longest-running Rolling Stones backup singers.