The top 10 songs the Web brought back

Thanks to iTunes, YouTube, Guitar Hero, and the like, it's possible for long-forgotten music to be revived in a big way--even if it had disappeared from the airwaves for a reason.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
8 min read

There's a lot to love about silly Internet memes and fads, and one reason is that they can dig up something old and make it cool again. Music is no exception: anything from a '70s rock anthem to a '90s one-hit wonder can be given new life if the YouTube or 4chan hordes get their hands on it.

The complication is that, thanks to the rise of user-generated content, a song can suddenly become in-demand again without any kind of official marketing push (like placement on a movie soundtrack, for example). And that's an interesting issue for the music industry: When a song from decades ago starts to hit the ears of a generation that might not have been exposed to it before thanks to a grainy video of a tone-deaf guy eviscerating it at an open mic night, does the record label with the rights to the song embrace it as free publicity or flag it as unauthorized content?

One thing's for sure. The sheer amount of content on the Web makes it tough for anything to break through from obscurity into the mainstream. But when something hits it big, it gets really big. You can go ask the guy we put at the top of this list.

10. "Say It Ain't So," Weezer

Weezer, which was doing the nerd-rock thing way before it was cool, is no stranger to revivals: considered by much of the mainstream to be a '90s novelty act after its hit single "Buddy Holly," the alternative-rock band bounced back in the early '00s with songs like "Island in the Sun" and "Beverly Hills." More recently, the band enlisted YouTube stars to star in its video for last year's single "Pork and Beans."

But Weezer got an additional push of digital buzz when its songs proved to be some of the most popular on video games "Guitar Hero" and "Rock Band." The 1994 song "Say It Ain't So," in particular, has seen a resurgence in party playlists all over. On one hand, it really is one of Weezer's best tracks. On the other, a dark and painful song about addiction and domestic abuse has officially made the leap to drunk frat-boy karaoke staple. So it goes.

9. "Take On Me," A-Ha

Speaking of karaoke, "Take On Me" will always have a place in pop culture as the song that's impossible to sing at a karaoke bar without botching it beyond belief--even a decent singing voice will make those high notes of the chorus sound like fingernails on a chalkboard.

But it hit the viral video circuit when some enterprising online comedian rewrote the lyrics so that they say exactly what's going on in A-Ha's odd music video for the song. The "Take On Me: Literal Version" video has been a moderate hit, and thankfully, the singer manages to hit the high notes without too much trouble.

8. "(Don't Fear) The Reaper," Blue Oyster Cult

To be fair, this 1976 song never really disappeared from the classic-rock airwaves, and the reason that it's on this list technically has to do with television, not the Web. A 2000 "Saturday Night Live" sketch starred Will Ferrell as a fictional member of Blue Oyster Cult (the cowbell player) and guest Christopher Walken as a record producer who seemed to think Ferrell's instrumentals weren't forceful enough.

But thanks to the proliferation of the aforementioned "SNL" clip online several years later, it's now almost impossible to extricate "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" from Walken's insistence on "I gotta have more cowbell!" and the phenomenon has gone from forgotten TV catchphrase to full-out Internet meme.

"SNL" network NBC has been notoriously protective when it comes to unauthorized clips of the Walken sketch (and anything else it's aired) circulating around the Web, and an ambitious project to make the entire comedy show's archives available online hasn't yet gotten off the ground. Until then, scattered pirated versions are available--as well as hilarious high school talent show re-enactments, coming from a generation that probably never knew of Blue Oyster Cult before it was associated with "more cowbell."

7. "Heartbeats," The Knife

This one's sort of cheating, since "Heartbeats" wasn't a huge hit to begin with. But it's a fascinating story about the way media can make its way all over the Web: Late in 2006, The Knife was a little-known Swedish indie band that had been around since the late '90s when another artist's recording of their 2004 song "Heartbeats" became a viral hit. Acoustic singer Jose Gonzales had covered the track for his album "Veneer," and it rose to popularity as the soundtrack of a commercial for Sony Bravia televisions. The Bravia ad, which depicted hundreds of colorful bouncy balls descending on San Francisco, was never televised in the U.S., and therefore received most of its buzz from clips on YouTube and elsewhere across the Web.

Fans of the Gonzalez song soon learned that it was actually a cover; the Knife started getting extra momentum, and now the band is a favorite of edgy music bloggers and DJs all over.

6. "Flagpole Sitta," Harvey Danger

This Seattle-based band put out several well-received albums but only hit the mainstream with "Flagpole Sitta." Almost a decade later, digital comedy powerhouse CollegeHumor taped a video in which the entire office (mostly a bunch of twentysomething hipsters) lip-synced to the song in a single take.

The wildly popular video also spurred a fad of other "lip dub" videos among the Web's young and camera-happy. As for CollegeHumor, the beer-pong-friendly office became the subject of a fictionalized miniseries on MTV earlier this year.

5. "YYZ," Rush

This instrumental track, originally released in 1981, is one of the most difficult songs to play in "Guitar Hero" and now "Rock Band," so it's become a sort of a geek milestone. That was only enhanced when a video of a really, really, really enthusiastic guy nailing the song in "expert" mode became a huge hit on YouTube.

Called "How Guitar Hero Was Meant To Be Played," the video has chalked up more than 6 million views and features a guy named "Freddie" getting off a motorcycle, stripping off a leather jacket, introducing himself with "What's up, Internet?" and having a friend equip him with the guitar console. If that's how "Guitar Hero" was meant to be played, I know lots of people who are doing it wrong.

4. "Don't Stop Believin'," Journey

This song is a classic, no matter what. And its use in the final episode of "The Sopranos" only solidified that. But it deserves a spot on this list because of an embarrassing incident that (at least temporarily) associated it with the dissolution of happy-go-lucky Web 2.0 mania in the aftermath of last fall's financial collapse.

Here's what happened: A bunch of young dot-com entrepreneurs all went on vacation together to an estate in Cyprus, and filmed a poolside "lip dub" video much like the one orchestrated several years earlier by the CollegeHumor team behind the "Flagpole Sitta" video. The single-take video of twentysomethings cavorting in bathing suits to "Don't Stop Believin'" was clever and well-done, if a little silly. Unfortunately, this happened to be October 2008, right when things were getting really bad on Wall Street. Gossip blogs lambasted the creators, and the video was eventually pulled.

About a month later, MySpace enlisted L.A. nightclub regular DJ AM to work the turntables at its party at the Web 2.0 Summit confab--a large-scale party that had undoubtedly been put together pre-recession. When he played a remix of "Don't Stop Believin'," there were more than a couple of sheepish looks on the dance floor.

3. "You Make My Dreams," Daryl Hall & John Oates

There aren't a whole lot of bells and whistles in the music video for this 1980 pop song by Philadelphia duo Hall & Oates: it's pretty much just the two of them bouncing around against a black background with their backup band. Which, of course, made it the perfect video in which to embed "Keyboard Cat," a ubiquitous Internet clip of an orange tabby cat jamming away on a keyboard. Bonus: the cat is wearing the same color T-shirt that John Oates sports in the "You Make My Dreams" video.

The digital revival of "You Make My Dreams" may have been stunted, however, as YouTube pulled the audio from the clip due to the fact that it doesn't have the proper licensing agreement in place with Warner Music Group, which owns the rights to the song. It's a testament to the complications that can arise when a unauthorized use of a decades-old song suddenly thrusts it back into mainstream pop culture.

"You Make My Dreams" might've just gotten an extra kick from outside the Web, though: the song has a notable role in the romantic comedy "500 Days of Summer," which was released this month.

P.S.: The Keyboard Cat video is still up on Funny or Die.

2. "The Final Countdown," Europe

This 1986 song by Swedish rock band Europe has always been notorious for its corniness, making the cut on lists as varied as "Most Awesomely Bad Songs Ever" and "Run For Your Life! The 50 Worst Songs Ever (as well as, to its credit, VH1's "Top 100 Hard Rock Songs" list). It also had a regular role in cult sitcom "Arrested Development" as the theme song used by Gob (Will Arnett) for his magic show.

But "The Final Countdown" achieved new notoriety on the Web when a video of an abysmally bad cover version by a band called Deep Sunshine started to circulate on YouTube. Geek community site Fark co-opted the song as a sort of in-joke, and it's racked up well over a million views.

Comments on the video range from "LOL can someone please tell them that they suck?" to "my ears are bleeding" to "I'd do anything to see them live."

1. "Never Gonna Give You Up," Rick Astley

Of course this was No. 1--really, what else could we have picked? The only thing sillier than the lyrics of this 1988 song is the music video for it, in which British pop singer Astley spends a good deal of time wiggling his hips in a trench coat. For some reason or another, the video became central to an online prank called "Rickrolling," in which mischievous Web users in forums, blogs, Twitter posts, and instant messages would send over a link to something they claimed was a highly anticipated video (usually a movie or video game trailer) but linked to the Astley video instead.

The prank grew so mainstream that at the annual Macy's Thanksgiving parade last year, Astley was enlisted to surprise spectators and TV viewers by coming out of a float singing (OK, lip-syncing) "Never Gonna Give You Up," effectively Rickrolling the entire country. Around that time, many people concluded that the Astley revival had more or less worn out its welcome. (It should be said that one of the co-writers of "Never Gonna Give You Up" wasn't too thrilled that he wasn't making much money off the YouTube fame.)

But the Rickroll really hasn't gone away: recently, a German DJ posted a "mashup" video that proves just how eerily the lyrics of "Never Gonna Give You Up" synchronize with Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Ladies and gentlemen, the miracles of digital media.