In March of 1981, Billboard introduced Top Tracks, a new chart designed to measure the airplay of songs aired on “album-oriented rock radio stations.” Since then, the list’s had several face-lifts and name changes — from Top Rock Tracks to Album Rock Tracks to Mainstream Rock Tracks. Why tracks over singles? Because not all the stuff getting airplay on the radio was a single.
Over the past three decades, the chart’s seen its golden days (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “You Got Lucky”; Pat Benatar’s “Love Is a Battlefield”), its proud moments (The Replacements’ “I’ll Be You”; R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion”), its loud times (Soundgarden’s “Blow Up the Outside World”; The Offspring’s “Gone Away”), and its confusing twists (Kiss’s “Psycho Circus”; Eddie Money’s “The Love in Your Eyes”).
The chart’s also had its share of lousy stretches — many of them downright horrific. And because we’re pessimists, we decided to collect the very, very worst of them* and carve it down to a list of 25 scumbag tracks. So, as you click on through, remember that each entry we included was once on top of the world… of rock, that is.
* We opted to ignore Nickelback, namely because we wanted to challenge ourselves.
Artwork by Sam Moore; titles by Steven Fiche.
25. Slash feat. Miles Kennedy – “You’re a Lie”
When Axl Rose finally tossed out Chinese Democracy back in 2008, there were the old-school Guns N’ Roses fans who pined for Slash ad nauseum. (Admittedly, I was one of them. No matter how good any guitarist may be, they’ll never play “November Rain” with the chutzpah of this guy.) Though, if I had to write Slash fan fiction, I’d probably start every story with a prologue similar to Dexter‘s opening title credits, complete with extreme descriptions of his everyday mundane activities, like polishing his hat, choosing which aviator glasses to wear, eating a bowl of Smacks, and texting Axl the following: “I’m so sorry for working with Miles Kennedy. I’m an idiot. Lol.” How this overproduced, antiseptic, cornballer of an “anthem” ever topped anything other than a bargain bin is beyond me. America’s backyard of morons, congratulations — this one’s on you. -Michael Roffman
24. Tantric – “Breakdown”
Nu metal or post-grunge or whatever you want to call it has many cliches, from big, stupid chords to adding a big, stupid, James Hetfield-aping “eeeyah” to the end of every phrase. However, the most common—and perhaps most subtle—calling card of all is the mini rap. Now we’re not talking Limp Bizkit levels of rhyme-spitting douchebaggery, but rather a tiny inflection of white-bread rapping weaved into a phrase here and there. Nickelback sprinkles it throughout the verses of “How You Remind Me”, specifically on the words “paperback novel” and “I’m gonna make it alright, but not right now” in “Someday”. But Tantric pulls off the sly trick of doing it throughout the entirety of their smash hit “Breakdown” without ever pushing the song into full-blown rap-metal territory. To paraphrase Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects, “The greatest trick The Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he wasn’t shittily rapping, when, in fact, he was shittily rapping.” -Dan Caffrey
23. David Lee Roth – “Just Like Paradise”
Steve Vai might not sleep well at night. I wouldn’t if I had “Just Like Paradise” on my resume. The track shares the musty locker room odor of your coach’s VHS tape of Baseball Bloopers. Recorded in 1988, David Lee Roth’s lead single off his sophomore solo album, Skyscraper, sounds like the sort of ’80s anthem that producers at ABC tried to shill on early seasons of Full House. It’s a tragedy-by-numbers bang-up job: Vai’s guitar work gets all Vertigo over Eddie Van Halen’s past riffage, while Roth screams about a paradise that never existed for him post-Van Halen. It’s baffling how music critic Charles Bottomley originally called it “a polished ode to decadence, with a chorus you would be unashamed to punch the air to.” Yikes, talk about paradise lost. -Michael Roffman
22. Linkin Park – “Burn It Down”
Linkin Park had a fresh sound when it hit the scene in 2000: raucous riffs, twitchy electronics, a bracing blend of rock and hip-hop vocals. Quickly, though, it rotted, undone by a legion of nu-metal copycats and a fan base unwilling to indulge its experiments in atmosphere over aggression. Last year’s “Burn It Down”, for example, soared to the top of the Billboard Rock Charts on the wings of lazy caterwauling, lazier rhymes, and a boilerplate chorus that wouldn’t have been out of place on 2000’s Hybrid Theory. But hey, if it gets people to hear a track like “Roads Untraveled”, a truly bewitching song on the same record, then all is not lost. -Randall Colburn
21. Three Doors Down – “Loser”
Not that I’m hip to Three Doors Down trivia, but according to their Wikipedia, this song’s about a kid addicted to cocaine. I’m hardly one to endorse a drug of any sort, but judging from the way he repeats the chorus for about 46 minutes, singer Brad Arnold really, really has it in for this guy. Me? I’ve never known anyone who snorted China White to be this epic of a failure. Problematic, sure. Whatever the case, I think Arnold’s a little too hyperbolic here. I mean, c’mon, read this line with a straight face: “Addiction needs a pacifier, the buzz of this poison is taking me higher.” What? Is there something on my nose? Whatever. -Michael Roffman
20. Collective Soul – “Shine”
Is it just me, or does “Shine” sound like porn music? There’s something almost sleazy about the opening chords, the way they bob and slink off each other in nothing but a lacy layer of distortion. Okay, it’s just me, especially since rhythm guitarist Dean Roland described the song’s chorus as “basically a prayer.” It’s safe to say, though, that the most readily recitable lyric came just before the chorus, when Ed Roland’s matter-of-fact “yeah” punctuated each crunchy riff. It’s that single syllable that defines Collective Soul for most music fans, earning the band a seat beside Creed and Nickelback in the Bands Undone By Their Use of the Word “Yeah” Club. -Randall Colburn
19. 30 Seconds to Mars – “This Is War”
This isn’t 30 Seconds to Mars’ worst song. It’s actually one of their better songs. It might even be their best song. But it’s still a 30 Seconds to Mars song: dumbly dramatic and self-absorbed in what it’s trying to say, when it’s actually not saying anything beyond “war is bad.” Or maybe it’s more like “back off.” Or maybe it means “this is war.” Yeah, probably that last one. -Dan Caffrey
18. Asia – “Heat of the Moment”
Where The Outfield got That ’80s Sound right, Asia couldn’t find a handle on it. It’s not that it’s cheesy (it is), or insipid (absolutely), but that it all reads and flashes by like a blank sheet of paper in the wind. In a little under four minutes, vocalist John Wetton desperately tries to quench his angst with Lisa Frank poetry (“You catch a pearl and ride the dragon’s wings”) while keyboardist Geoffrey Downes races for gold, only to end up with bronze. When maligned critics — like, say, Dan Caffrey — try to point out why the ’80s sucked, this is usually their first example. But hey, for every Asia, you’ve got a Phil Collins, a Huey Lewis, and a trio of Police ready to take its place. Still, garbage is what it is. -Michael Roffman