I was listening to the Chuck Mangione hit song "Feels So Good" yesterday, and found myself amazed that it got radio airplay at all, let alone reaching #4 on Billboard's top chart. This is a jazz instrumental dominated by the flugelhorn, infused with funk, disco, and calypso influences, and almost the whole ten minutes of the song is unabashed noodling solos, one after the other after the other. It starts with a languorous, extra-noodly flugelhorn solo that's more than a minute long and completely unaccompanied. Admittedly, the top chart version was a three-and-a-half-minute edit that eliminated most of the "excesses" (as the pop audience would see it), but even so, that still leaves a jazz instrumental dominated by the flugelhorn, and nothing in that description says "pop hit song".
We don't normally think of the 70s as a time when music was more open than now; quite the contrary, it's the time when the Top 40 stations came to dominate completely. And yet, when I think of songs that hit the top 40 that, on the face of it, you would never imagine could make that big a splash, most of them are in the 70s. How did "Midnight at the Oasis" make the top charts? Or "Killing Me Softly"? Or "Bohemian Rhapsody"? Or "Chuck E's In Love"? Or the themes from various TV shows and movies, in some cases remixed and others not? Or all the novelty records that today would be played twice and then relegated to the Dr. Demento show? And there are a lot more examples I can't bring to mind right now.
It's easy to see in hindsight how these songs could succeed: they have catchy tunes, they're well-constructed, they have good musicianship, they're just good songs (even if you don't like some of them). But they're also very far from the formula of the hit song. If you were a record executive looking at a list that included those songs alongside sure bets like the latest single from Billy Joel or Donna Summer, how could you pick "Feels So Good" as the single to promote?
When I try to think of similarly unexpected hits in other decades, not nearly as many jump out. "Nights In White Satin" is a standout choice from the 1960s, but it's harder to define it in the 1960s because there was a lot of changing in music going on: songs that were defying the expectations then soon became the expectations, while "Feels So Good" certainly didn't lead to a resurgence in the flugelhorn-based jazz genre. The same applies in the 80s to some extent. And after the 90s, the examples of songs that don't fit the popular genres and still made a big splash on the pop charts become few and far between. There's a lot of music exploring the boundaries, but not much of it is becoming a surprise big hit.
Or is it? I am admittedly no student of Billboard. Am I singling out the 70s just because that's the time I was growing up and so more in tune with the top charts, since I had less control over what I got to listen to? Or were DJs really more experimental back then?