In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
The disco era wasn’t especially kind to Daryl Hall and John Oates. After scoring a few big hits in the mid-’70s, Hall and Oates got to #1 with “Rich Girl” in 1977. After that, though, they went through a few years where they never quite made it back into the top 10. Instead, their singles pretty consistently lingered around the middle of the Hot 100. Then, with the 1980 album Voices, Hall and Oates recalibrated, found a commercial sweet spot, and became one of the defining acts of the early-’80s yuppie-pop era. They kicked off that hot streak with a single that wasn’t even supposed to be theirs.
Before Voices, Hall and Oates had been cutting their albums in Los Angeles, with outside producers and session musicians. But for Voices, they took control. They were living in New York after forming at college in Philadelphia, and they recorded the album at Electric Lady Studios, around the corner from both of their apartments. They produced it themselves, and they recorded it with their touring band, which included future Saturday Night Live guitar-face guy G.E. Smith.
Voices is the sound of a group coming to understand the sound of their moment, making steps to meet it where it is. When Hall and Oates first found success in the mid-’70s, they did it with what amounted to a whitewashed take on Philly soul. That’s still the base sound on Voices, but there’s other stuff going on, too. There are synths and drum machines all over the place. The production is crisp and precise, with handclaps and backup harmonies landing at the exact moments where they’ll have the most impact. “United State,” “Gotta Lotta Nerve (Perfect Perfect),” and “Africa” are all pretty good attempts at new wave. As someone who instinctively resists the cutesy fussiness of Hall and Oates’ sound, I have to admit that Voices impresses me. It’s a canny piece of pop craftsmanship.
Released in the summer of 1980, Voices was a slow-burn hit. The boldly titled first single “How Does It Feel To Be Back” only made it to #30, but a jittery cover of the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” climbed to #12 — Hall and Oates’ biggest hit since “Rich Girl.” “Kiss On My List,” the third single, was the big one, and it topped the Hot 100 nearly a year after Voices had come out. This was the song that wasn’t even supposed to go to Hall and Oates.
When they were taking control of their whole operation, Hall and Oates also wrote some songs with people who were close to them. Hall’s long-term girlfriend Sara Allen co-wrote a couple of the songs on Voices, and Sara’s younger sister Janna wrote “Kiss On My List” with Hall. At the time, Janna, then just 20, was hoping to start a singing career. Hall has admitted that Janna wrote most of “Kiss On My List.” It was the first song she’d ever written.
Hall recorded a demo of the track, thinking that Janna would later record the real version herself. But someone at Hall and Oates’ label heard the demo and loved it, demanding that Hall and Oates release it themselves. The demo version is actually the one that was released; Hall has never been especially happy with its tinny drum-machine sound.
I’m with Hall on that one. The whole track feels chintzy and itchy, like the theme to an early-’80s sitcom. Hall sings the lead with a lusty sort of white-soul yarl, a slightly smoother version of what Michael McDonald was doing. (I do like the ad-libbed falsetto yaaaaah that shows up late in the track.) Oates’ backup la-la-las remind me of the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 opening theme. The whole song is somewhere in an uncomfortable zone between Hall and Oates’ slick pseudo-soul ’70s and the chirpy early-’80s style that they were in the process of adapting. It’s a sharp and catchy and well-crafted song, and I just don’t like it.
Lyrically, Hall has called “Kiss On My List” an anti-love song. Hall is reassuring some girl that she’s important to him, but he’s doing it noncommittally, simply telling her that her kiss is on the list of things that he likes. He doesn’t say where it is on the list. Just about everyone heard the word “lips” instead of “list,” so “Kiss On My List” effectively became a love song, whether or not that’s what Hall intended.
After “Kiss On My List,” the Visions track “You Make My Dreams” also hit huge, peaking at #5. (It’s a 7.) Then, thanks in part to the nascent MTV, Hall and Oates became commercial behemoths. Janna Allen, meanwhile, never did launch that solo career, but she kicked off an impressive run as a pop songwriter. Hall and Oates will appear in this column a bunch more times, including once with another song that Janna Allen co-wrote.
BONUS BEATS: “Kiss On My List” has never become a movie staple or anything, but for some reason, it ended up in two different romantic comedies in 2010. Here’s TJ Miller singing it in She’s Out Of My League:
Apparently, there’s also a “Kiss On My List” karaoke scene in the even-less-remembered You Again, but I can’t find it online. Instead, here’s some incredibly shitty footage of the real Hall and Oates showing up to perform it at the end of the movie: