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20 Essential Songs From the Dearly Departed Arista, Jive, and J Records


This week, RCA announced that it would shutting the doors to its Arista, Jive, and J Records imprints, ending 37 years of service on the frontlines of punk, new wave, hip-hop, dance, and teen pop. At first this seemed like a great opportunity for another trend piece about the decaying state of the music industry — hmmm, it has been a suspiciously long time since a record label treated us to a champagne brunch. But instead, we decided to pick the 20 best tracks from these three fallen totems, displaying how they often turned fringe genres into the sound of now.

Started in 1974 by Clive Davis, Arista gave a home to vanguards like Patti Smith and Lou Reed before turning into the ’80s pop staple that churned out endless number one hits by Whitney Houston and Exposé. Jive specialized in releasing no shortage of seminal hip-hop records before evolving into the millenial teen-pop juggernaut that was the last vestige of record-breaking release weeks and diamond-hoarding awards. And the American Idol-centric J Records? Well, at least they signed Yung Joc.

While these labels do have quite a lot of answer for — Air Supply, Ace Of Base, Santana’s Supernatural, that whole Milli Vanilli thing — SPIN comes to praise, not bury them. We also left out anything on the Arista-subsidized LaFace and Bad Boy because we didn’t want to be here all day. Here’s 20 groundbreaking achievements. Like KRS-One once said, “Jive/RCA is down with us. Making funky music is a must.”

Patti Smith, “Gloria” (Arista, 1975)
Featuring the greatest opening line this side of “Call me Ishmael,” it’s no shock that one of Arista’s earliest successes was also one of America’s greatest pop songs, savagely mutated by a punk legend.

Bay City Rollers, “Saturday Night” (Arista, 1975)
As bubbleglam goes, it’s remarkable. As the secret shiny, happy influence on folks like Ramones and Nirvana, it’s indispensable.

Gil-Scott Heron & Brian Jackson, “Johannesburg” (Arista, 1976)
The hip-hop progenitor drops an anti-apartheid rap a good decade before artists were rallying around “Sun City.” But it was the infectious, disco-flecked Curtis Mayfield-style groove that made “Johannesburg” a Top 30 Billboard hit.

Lou Reed, “Street Hassle” (Arista, 1978)
A notorious, 11-minute rock opera about gigolos, drug dealers, and death. “Street Hassle” was Lou’s gutter-gazing gone widescreen.

Anthony Braxton, “Composition {82}” (Arista, 1978)
Part of his Music For Four Orchestras, this is the composer’s most massive undertaking. Four orchestras — that’s 160 musicians — dueling it out in an explosive dust-up waged on the battlegrounds between Ornette’s free jazz and Schoenberg’s 12-tone composition. Simply enormous.

A Flock Of Seagulls, “I Ran” (Jive, 1982)
One of Jive’s earliest successes, this Top 10-charting bloop-pop gem is so timeless that it’s basically shorthand for “the ’80s.”

The Kinks, “Come Dancing” (Arista, 1983)
Proof you can teach old dogs new tricks. This MTV staple, a surprisingly peppy pop smash by the 20-year-veterans, was completely indiscernible from the new wave that followed in their wake. A testament to believing in your heritage acts, a strategy that labels increasingly reject.

Whodini, “The Freaks Come Out At Night” (Jive, 1985)
Certainly not the first melding of hip-hop, electro, and pop, but one of the most rewarding. Whodini’s robo-rock and pitch-perfect harmonies essentially foreshadowed all of today’s trance-hop Billboard smashes.

Whitney Houston, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” (Arista, 1987)
She was signed to Arista as an unknown nightclub singer and eventually provided the label with 11 number-one singles. The key change in “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” was the best part of every single wedding reception in the ’80s.

Too $hort, “Freaky Tales” (1987)
The raunchy moment when selling dirty raps out of your car trunk turned into selling dirty raps worldwide.

Boogie Down Productions, “My Philosophy” (Jive, 1988)”
Hip-hop’s megaphone-voiced conscience, KRS-One tackled racial stereotypes, Queensbridge posers, shady record labels, money, and vegetarianism, in “no more than four minutes and some seconds.”

DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, “Parents Just Don’t Understand” (Jive, 1988)
Tapping into the massive commercial possibilities of hip-hop, this stomping everykid whine introduced rap to the Tiger Beat generation and even made a few choosy moms change their tune.

Lisa Stansfield, “All Around the World” (Arista, 1989)
This unstoppable soul-dance hybrid from British sensation Lisa Stansfield predated Amy, Duffy, and Adele — even garnering Stansfield a SPIN cover the following year. And future Arista pal Sean Combs had some fun with it too.

Three Times Dope, “Greatest Man Alive” (Arista, 1989)
Arista wasn’t exactly known for its rap records (SeriousLeeFine, anyone?), but the relatively slept-on Original Stylin’ by Philly crew Three Times dope was instant rap-nerd canon fodder. First single “Greatest Man Alive” scratched Muddy Waters and SNL‘s Jane Curtin into oblivion alongside one of the most perfectly plainspoken boasts of all time.

The KLF, “3 a.m. Eternal” (Arista, 1991)
Arista was the American distribution arm for these British rave-rawk mischief-makers. The enormous beats and unfettered “stadium house” pop euphoria is the spiritual heir to the block-rockin’, no-safety-net fare of Fatboy Slim and Skrillex.


A Tribe Called Quest feat. Leaders of the New School, “Scenario” (Jive, 1991)

‘N Sync, “Pop” (Jive, 2001) & Britney Spears, “Toxic” (Jive, 2003)
Jive turned its attentions to producing mega-selling teen pop at the turn of the millennium. This double-shot of sputtering, whirling, skittering avant-bubblegum was a Total Request Live staple; but us geeks were more interested in how the baroque arrangements finally made a generation of chin-stroking indie geeks realize that the electronic textures of the IDM trend seemed kind of monochromatic by comparison.

Kelis, “Milkshake” (Arista, 2003)
An inscrutable metaphor, a space-dusted beat. Damn right.

R. Kelly, “Trapped in the Closet, Chapter 1-5” (Jive, 2005)
Stretching the limits of R&B as Patti Smith did for punk, “Trapped in the Closet” gave modern pop a longform narrative arc with its series of engrossing novellas. Does the death of Jive mean that part 23 will never be revealed?