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
17. Van Halen – “Me Wise Magic”
Before the big, recent Van Halen reunion tour with David Lee Roth, there was the big reunion with Roth on the Van Halen Best Of in 1996. Roth was finally joining the boys again to record new material, and while it was only a couple songs, it was big time. Then one of the songs ended up being “Me Wise Magic”, a lyrically rambling mess of Eddie Van Halen making any kind of high-pitched squeal he could muster from his guitar. Roth’s vocals alternate between a low, sinister speaking to his trademark yelps, but with no real rhyme or reason. Musically, it’s not totally awful, and Eddie has great moments, but overall it’s one “skippidity BOP!” away from a Roth stereotype. -Nick Freed
16. Aerosmith – “Pink”
Aerosmith, for me, has always been a band that I flip-flop on. Their earliest stuff is without a doubt their best, and everything from the mid-90s on is their most abysmal. Easily topping the latter is “Pink”, the Glen Ballard co-written, so-1997-it-hurts rock track about every rockstar’s favorite thing: pussy. The song might as well be a Sugar Ray track, but, hey, it won Aerosmith a Grammy. The video is a horrifying Steven Tyler fever dream where he morphs into a child, a skeleton, a drag queen, before it all ends with Joe Perry as a centaur. A fucking centaur. -Nick Freed
15. Velvet Revolver – “Fall to Pieces”
Chest-puffing machismo seems to be a running theme on this list. Velvet Revolver can’t even keep it out of a drug relapse. In the music video for their power ballad “Fall to Pieces”, longtime addict and then-frontman Scott Weiland overdoses backstage. Luckily, Duff McKagan comes to the rescue, reviving Weiland not with a shot of adrenaline or bag of activated charcoal, but with the bro-iest of bro hugs. Some groupie at the concert ODs, too, although she gets rolled away on a gurney, most likely dead.
We can forgive the misguided histrionics, but what really makes the ordeal so awesomely bad is the rest of the band’s backstage antics. Dave Kushner throws back shots with friends, and Matt Sorum engages in a lengthy three-way kiss with some models or porn stars in between footage of Weiland writhing on the floor, as if they had to prove their masculinity amidst all the emotionalism. Okay, maybe it’s the video that’s terrible more so than the song, but it’s become almost impossible to separate the two, much like two bandmates locked in a sweaty, heroin-combating embrace. -Dan Caffrey
14. Godsmack – “Cryin’ Like a Bitch!!”
Nobody can say Godsmack doesn’t know its audience. The music video for “Cryin’ Like a Bitch!!” intercuts footage of beefy UFC fighters with jerky cuts of the band—shirtless, tattooed, sweaty—pummeling drums and guitars like they would nerds on the playground. Simply put, this is a song for bullies. And Lord knows there’s no shortage of those, especially since this song topped the Billboard Rock Charts as recently as 2010. Never have I been more thankful for Spotify’s Private Session function. -Randall Colburn
13. ZZ Top – “Sleeping Bag”
Why is it that nearly every ’80s snare drum sound, or any drum fill at the time really, seemed to be made by an exploding valve of steam? Why the hell would a rocking band like ZZ Top need that for their ONLY number one rock hit, “Sleeping Bag”?! Who the hell knows, man. The record industry is a weird, goddamned place. Regardless, ZZ Top hit the top with the camping novelty, a song that has more of that godforsaken keyboard/computer critical error sound than guitars. The saving grace is that the video’s opening gave Michel Gondry inspiration for his video for Foo Fighters’ “Everlong”. So, there’s that. -Nick Freed
12. Everlast – “What It’s Like”
If there’s one thing that so many songs on this list have in common, it’s that they’re boring. Everlast’s “What It’s Like” was played ad nauseum on the metro Detroit radio station of my youth, and I remember every time it came on I’d waffle by the knobs, deciding whether or not to bear out the next five minutes or cruise the dial. It’s not that “What It’s Like” is a bad song. In truth, its focus on the impoverished was a refreshing alternative to the era’s celebration of fast cars, fat stacks, and Fred Dursts. But when coupled with Everlast’s negligible charisma, the song’s repetitive, bluesy nature drags interminably. Maybe that’s why Eminem hated him so much. -Randall Colburn
11. Lenny Kravitz – “Fly Away”
Who wouldn’t want to fly? I know I sure would. And yes, I’d even want to see things like “the sky” and go “above the trees.” But I’d also want to dig a little deeper—you know, maybe get a little more creative with my imagery. Maybe I’d go to the top of the CN Tower and balance on its needle. Or circle the head of a giant. Or something. Look, we get the message of the song. Hell, we agree with it. But did Lenny Kravitz have to give us a laundry list of the most obvious things associated with flying? Further demerits for rhyming “fly” with “sky,” “high,” and “dragonfly,” the latter of which is pretty much like rhyming “masses” with “masses,” although not nearly as cool. Oh, and Lenny? Mars is in the Milky Way. Lastly, you’ve got some serious guitar-playing chops. But this song’s riff tows the line between funk rock and butt rock. -Dan Caffrey
10. Puddle of Mudd – “She Hates Me”
Over a decade later, this smear of dog shit is still on the bottom of our shoes, petrifying into something hard and white that will hopefully force its way out of the rubberized cracks and fall out sometime soon. I was taking a nighttime stroll around the Lincoln Square neighborhood during May Fest, walking a dog (!) my fiance and I were fostering. “She Hates Me” suddenly started blasting from all directions. I’m pretty sure it was coming from a cover band on the May Fest stage further into the Square, although it may as well have been the mothership in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The song was inescapable, its origin indeterminable, no matter how far away we went. Wes Scantlin is bad enough, but some dude trying to imitate Wes Scantlin, who sounds like he’s trying to imitate both Kurt Cobain and Tenacious D’s inward singing sketch? That’s unbearable. -Dan Caffrey
9. Tonic – “If You Could Only See”
Once, I went to a wedding reception where the groom sang Tonic’s “If You Could Only See” to those in attendance. His new wife sat by his side, beaming up at him as he told us that if we could only see the way she loved him, then maybe we’d understand. Understand what? Why he was marrying her? That’s none of my business. As he continued to sing, I realized he had rewritten the verses, turning them into exultations of his bride. Smart move, considering the song is actually about how lead singer Emerson Hart’s ladyfriend treated him like shit.
“If You Could Only See” sounds like a love song, all strained emotions and chest-pounding histrionics, and its ambiguity allows couples to feel like it speaks to their one-of-a-kind courtship. But “If You Could Only See” is a lazy love song, the kind of thing that, like chocolate Easter bunnies and Gene Simmons, resembles something revelatory, but will eventually collapse unto its hollowed-out core. -Randall Colburn
8. Red Hot Chili Peppers – “Dani California”
In 2006, everyone said, “Man, ‘Dani California’ sounds like ‘Last Dance with Mary Jane’.” Thirteen years earlier, few (if any) said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, ‘Last Dance with Mary Jane’ sounds exactly like That Jayhawks Song’. Didn’t they even tour with him?” Rodney punchline: Eh, The Jayhawks get no respect.
History aside, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Grammy-winning single for their Grammy-winning bloatasterpiece, 2006’s Stadium Arcadium, was so goddamned successful that it became the second song in history to go straight to Number One on the Billboard Modern Rock chart, where it sat there like a blitzed Californian for 14 straight weeks. And to think, it’s not even their song.
It’s not. Comparisons to solos or melodies or what have you are one thing, but when the whole package’s reflection is a spinning image of another artifact (i.e. Petty’s Greatest Hits classic), there’s little room for discrepancy. The Chili Peppers reboot the tale of Mary Jane and ran away scot-free with satchels of cash.
Somewhere, likely in some alternate universe, Gary Louris has a hot tub of golden bricks from royalty checks. Here? He’s shit out of luck. -Michael Roffman
7. Sting – “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free”
One of the first musical outputs from Sting after the breakup of The Police was “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free”, and it shot to #1 and stayed there for three weeks. It’s the beginning of Sting’s fairly dreadful adult contemporary solo career and his weird attempt at Motown soul, which ends up sounding like some white British millionaire ass trying to have soul. Even saxophone virtuoso Branford Marsalis, who contributes here, sounds flat and boring. He’s a damn Marsalis! Christ, Sting. And, and, and did you watch that video? Oh, the ’80s… fuck. -Nick Freed
6. Staind + Fred Durst – “Outside”
“It’s been a while” since I’ve heard “Outside”—a Staind single best remembered for an off-the-cuff live rendition with Fred Durst—and I can’t recall a single lick of it. I don’t remember the chorus or rhythm or lyrics or how much Aaron Lewis’s voice really resembles the throaty snores of an aging black bear.
What I do remember is the instrumental break, during which Durst decided to rally the crowd. You know, it being a ballad and all.
“Biloxi!” he yells. “This is the real motherfuckin’ deal, y’all! I’m feeling those lighters.”
Despite mispronouncing the name of a relatively large American city, Durst’s interjection was enough to make the live recording a bona fide hit. Because, unbelievably, that’s how much power Durst had in 1999: all he had to do was holler some bullshit in the middle of an otherwise unremarkable ballad to send it to the top of the Billboard rock charts. -Randall Colburn
5. Eric Clapton – “It’s in the Way That You Use It”
The ’80s weren’t kind to many stars of the ’60s and ’70s (just look at the rest of this list), and Eric Clapton’s “It’s in the Way That You Use It” is another fall from rock grace. Sadly, Clapton got caught in the Phil Collins trap of synth horns and Robbie Robertson’s plain, stupid lyrics. (Not a surprise, really, since Collins produced the album it’s stripped from, 1986’s August, though not this particular song oddly enough.) I’d imagine if it weren’t for its inclusion on The Color of Money soundtrack, this track would’ve been just another blip on the ’80s rock radar. -Nick Freed
4. Starship – “We Built This City”
Do you really need an explanation for this one? I’d knock out 300 words explaining why this song’s here — hell, I’d go the extra mile and make it 600 — but words do little justice to one listen of this schlocky, pre-Kidz Bop, extrinsically vapid, waste of airtime single that’s plagued generations of ears. Throwing insults at this song, however, is about as rudimentary as eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich following a six-hour weed binge. Stupid song, stupid band, stupid legacy, and stupid mom and pop for ever making it number one. Evil be gone! -Michael Roffman
3. Trapt – “Headstrong”
Writing this from under my kitchen table. So scared. The guy from Trapt’s outside my door. He’s headstrong. He said he’ll take me on. He’ll take on anyone. Stupid me. Stupid! I am wrong. But about what, I can’t be sure. “Conclusions manifest,” he growls. Over and over. What does it even mean? His voice is extra scary now. It sounds like he’s got his hoodie pulled tight over his face. “I see you’re full of shit.” Suddenly, I sneeze—the snot, a liquid fear running through my fingers. I look down at my hands. Shit. Actual shit. A mist of brown expelled from my nose. I am full of shit. I will always be full of shit. He is headstrong. He will take me on. More frightening is that he was right. About the shit. About me being wrong. About everything. -Dan Caffrey
2. Bob Seger – “Like a Rock”
In 1986, Bob Seger told the New York Times that “Like a Rock” “was inspired partly by the end of a relationship I had that had lasted for 11 years. You wonder where all that time went. But beyond that, it expresses my feeling that the best years of your life are in your late teens when you have no special commitments and no career. It’s your last blast of fun before heading into the cruel world.”
He didn’t know it then, and probably still doesn’t (cha-ching), but all of that context would someday be drilled deep into the muddy hills of Oklahoma by 300 horsepower of pure blue blood American steel, complete with four-wheel drive and a deep affirmation that man laid down every brick of this perfect country with his grizzled, bare hands.
Not only did Chevy’s commercial use of the song commit vehicular manslaughter on Seger’s words for over 10 years, but the chicken stock ballad itself goes down like 7/11-bought whiskey on a scorching Tallahassee Tuesday in August. FYI: That’s a very, very bad thing. -Michael Roffman
1. Creed – “Higher”
Dan Caffrey remembers…
I wish I could remember the exact details. I was watching Dateline or 20/20 or one of those other Sunday night news shows that you think is stuffy and important when you’re younger, when, in reality, it’s all sensationalized garbage. This particular episode was about a trio of teenagers who were struggling in school due to disability. I believe one of them was blind. At the end of the segment, the journalist described how they were all going to soldier on past their struggles, and guess what song they played three separate times as each kid was walking away?
The subjects themselves were sincere and genuinely having a hard time, so I hope each of them grew up to be a well-adjusted adult. And I hope to God they weren’t discouraged by ABC or NBC’s unwillingness to find a better song to score their journey than fucking “Higher”. Especially the blind kid. Who knows, maybe he was a Creed fan, but it seemed a little condescending of the network to play a song with the lyric “Can you take me higher? To a place where blind men see.”
Nick Freed remembers…
So My Own Prison was a decent album of its time. I mean, it sold MILLIONS of copies. Then came “Higher”, and the world exploded. Scott Stapp was singing his little Kevin Sorbo-looking heart out through his lockjaw, Mark Tremonti created one of the most annoying and memorable guitar riffs to date, and the country wanted to “go there.” The Creed Bomb was dropped, and we were never the same. For 16 weeks this song aurally raped us on all fronts. It was the nail in 1999’s awful music coffin. It’s time to finally lay it to rest. It can go no higher. I don’t want to talk about it anymore…just…I need some time…I gotta go.
Randall Colburn remembers…
I thought Creed was a Christian band. So when I went to a local church-oriented event with a friend and was promptly left alone with members of the worship band, I asked them what they thought of “Higher”, the new Creed single, them being Christians and all. They just stared at me. “I dig it,” I said, just trying to make conversation. Finally, one, the lead singer, spoke: “Creed sucks.” They stood with me for another 10 seconds or so before wandering off. I still, to this day, have no idea who buys Creed records.
Michael Roffman remembers…
I tried calling my mother. I couldn’t reach her. It was pandemonium after school. Everyone shuffling around, trying to get to their cars, and figuring out what they were going to do next. I could hear the planes above, the teachers trying desperately to corral all the students. The leftover lunch trays on the soggy picnic tables. A pair of pom poms left in one of the stairwells. Clack, clack, clack went the heels of my Professor Escuder. She taught Algebra. She wanted order.
My friend would give me a ride. The chaos all happened so fast, but I held my head in a desperate attempt to sound out the noise. It was deafening. I could hear screaming, bells ringing, and horns blaring in the garage. When we finally reached his car, I felt the need to change my shirt, which had been soaked in sweat. To my left, one of my classmates from homeroom couldn’t get her car started; she would be left behind.
We turned on the radio, and that’s when we officially heard the news: Creed had a new album. Human Clay. “Higher”. The excitement of our first day of high school subsided, and all I could hear then was silence — the proverbial stage awaiting. As we drove out, we rolled our windows down so Scott Stapp could speak to everyone in the parking lot. His voice swept us away to the heavens, where Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Savior, greeted us with open arms.
I was stuck. I couldn’t evade it. Nobody could. That’s when I realized that, no, life doesn’t end for everyone, but pain is only the beginning and that everything from here on out would never, ever, ever be the same again. Tremonti, be proud. Stapp, be vigilant. America, be damned.