Music fans rarely judge the health of their local scene based on chart success. We like to think that at the heart of Minnesota music are the punk bands, indie rappers, and club DJs who never make it onto commercial radio stations.
Then again, Prince.
And he’s just the best-known of our homegrown pop stars. You just might be surprised at which local songs cracked the Billboard Top 40 (and which didn’t) over the past seven decades. In the spirit of 101.3 KDWB’s Jingle Ball blowout (Monday, Xcel), here’s a brief, mostly comprehensive history of our state’s pop-music exports.
The Andrews Sisters — “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön (Means That You’re Grand)”
Peak: No. 1
Only in America: Three Greek-Norwegian gals from Minneapolis came to epitomize middle American caucasity by singing a Yiddish pop tune that songwriter Sammy Cahn swiped from its composer and rewrote in English after hearing it performed by a black vaudeville duo. With this dollop of melting-pot pop, the Sisters earned the first-ever gold record for a female singing group.
The Trashmen — “Surfin’ Bird”
Peak: No. 4
Decades before sampling or mash-ups existed, these local surf-garage faves illicitly distilled two nonsense songs by the Rivingtons — “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow” and “The Bird’s the Word” — into two and a half minutes of rock ’n’ roll at its most sublimely obnoxious, capped by drummer Steve Wahrer’s masterfully nonsensical breakdown.
Bob Dylan — “Like a Rolling Stone”
Peak: No. 2
We don’t think of Bobby as a Top 40 pop star, and for sure he didn’t regularly storm the charts even in his prime — he had only four Top 10 hits, and only with “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” would he again climb this high. But one of the astounding things about this six-minute apocalyptic rant is that radio played it day after day, though not as much as the Beatles’ “Help!,” which blocked Dylan from reaching No 1.
The Castaways — “Liar, Liar”
Peak: No. 12
For every Dylan or Prince on this list, there are a few one-hit wonders — musicians whose sole moment of brilliance earned them a place in history. One of the all-time great garage-rock nuggets was recorded right here in town and released on local label Soma Records, featuring a killer, off-kilter organ lick and a demented falsetto vocal from guitarist Robert Folschow.
Lipps Inc. — “Funkytown”
Peak: No. 1
Producer Steven Greenberg’s intricate new-wave/disco confection is, ironically enough, about ditching the Minneapple for the Big one — and just as Prince was reimagining his hometown as the center of all that is funky, no less. “Funkytown” was a truly international hit, topping the charts in 28 countries, which was a record for the next quarter century.
Prince and the Revolution — “When Doves Cry”
Peak: No. 1
Yeah, you knew we’d get around to this guy eventually, right? The biggest of his five No. 1 songs dominated popular music in 1984, topping the charts for five weeks, and it’s as otherworldly a pop hit as “Like a Rolling Stone.” Only Van Halen’s “Jump” was No. 1 for as many weeks that year, and Prince got in another two chart-topping weeks with “Let’s Go Crazy.”
Editor's note: Sorry! Lawyers from the Prince estate are yet again clamping down on YouTube versions of his songs, ending an extended period where his music could actually be heard by fans.
The Jets — “Crush on You”
Peak: No. 3
As squeaky-clean as Prince was filthy ’n’ funky, the oddest Minneapolis-based pop phenomenon of the ’80s was the Wolfgramms, a Mormon family from the Polynesian island of Tonga, named for an Elton John song, who had five lightweight, usually danceable Top 10 hits in just two years. Once their pop moment was over, they reconfigured themselves as a gospel group.
Alexander O’Neal — “Fake”
Peak: No. 25
Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis are best known for their work with Janet Jackson, but maybe the purest expression of the Flyte Tyme aesthetic came via the hits of this manly growler, who was the original lead singer of the Time (before he ran afoul of Prince). In its way, the duo’s architecture of hard-hitting electronic rhythms proved more influential than Prince’s more mercurial, sui generis creations.
Information Society — “What’s On Your Mind (Pure Energy)”
Peak: No. 3
These Macalester College Anglophiles derived their name from Orwell and their sound from New Order, and they built this smash dance hit from a Leonard Nimoy sample and a Latin freestyle drum pattern. Information Society had moved to New York City by the time this jam arrived on the charts, but their previous single was released right here in Minneapolis by indie label Twin/Tone Records (Replacements, Suburbs).
The Time — “Jerk Out”
Peak: No. 9
Admit it: Of course you thought their biggest hit was “Jungle Love.” So did I. But the stats don’t lie. Morris Day and the gang broke into the Top 10 once and only once, with a revamped version of a nearly decade-old song that Prince originally wrote and recorded for their debut, What Time Is It? Of course you think “Jungle Love” is better. So do I. But admit it: Jesse’s guitar solo smokes.
Mint Condition — “Breakin’ My Heart (Pretty Brown Eyes)”
Peak: No. 6
This St. Paul R&B band never charted higher than on their first hit, a ballad grounded in a slick, virtuosic groove and powered by an impassioned Stokley Williams vocal. With support from a loyal fanbase, they’ve soldiered on for a decade and a half since then, standard bearers for a kind of career-mindedness and musicianship that’s rare in commercially successful R&B.
Soul Asylum — “Runaway Train”
Peak: No. 5
Soul Asylum hit their stride in the wake of Nirvana and Pearl Jam and the rise of the alternative-rock radio format. That timing allowed them to achieve commercial success the classic Minnesota indie bands of the ’80s could only dream of — despite a big push from their label, the Replacements’ biggest hit, “I’ll Be You,” stalled at No. 51.
Next — “Too Close”
Peak: No. 1
R.L., T-Low, and Tweet sang in voices so sweet and guileless you might not have realized at first how dirty their signature hit was. “I feel a little bump comin’ through on you,” sings (remarkably unperturbed) guest vocalist Vee of Koffee Brown. “You’re making it hard on me,” the fellas chime back. “Hard” is a play on words — it means “difficult,” of course, but it also refers to a penis that has become erect because it has been rubbing against a sexually desirable woman.
Semisonic — “Closing Time”
Peak: No. 11
Dan Wilson had been a local mainstay since he and brother Matt helmed college-rockers Trip Shakespeare back in the ’80s. But with Semisonic, he flaunted the sort of professional craftsmanship that he would later parlay into a career co-writing with some of pop’s biggest stars, including the Dixie Chicks’ “Not Ready to Make Nice” and Adele’s “Someone Like You” — two hits so passive-aggressive they do Wilson’s Minnesotan heritage proud.
Owl City — “Fireflies”
Peak: No. 1
It’s tempting to say this one really came out of nowhere, but that’s not a very nice thing to say about Owatonna. That’s where Adam Young, barely into his 20s, whipped up this ode to embracing lightning bugs, down in his parents’ basement, perfecting a form of childlike electronica you could call tweeDM.
Zach Sobiech — “Clouds”
Peak: No. 26
Zach Sobiech was at the center of the biggest heart-tugger in recent local music. The Lakeland, Minnesota, teen released this song shortly after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. “Clouds” didn’t get much radio play, but it was a big YouTube hit (13 million views at press time), and got an unexpected chart boost thanks to Billboard’s 2013 decision to begin counting views on that video site in evaluating a song’s popularity.