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What is Adult Contemporary Music?


What It’s Called

Adult Contemporary music is easier to identify than Adult Pop music because the name has become standardized over the years. Billboard started referring to the format as Adult Contemporary (or AC for short) back in 1979, although some still refer to it as Easy Listening or Middle of the Road (MOR). However, those references are few and far between.

What It Sounds Like

When talking about the sound of Adult Contemporary, it doesn’t hurt to start with what it DOESN’T sound like. You won’t hear a rapper anywhere except on a crazy car dealer commercial, and even R&B singers don’t pop up too often. Hard rock groups don’t hit the chart unless they’ve released a ballad so soft that AC radio stations can’t resist playing it, and there isn’t a dance song to be found unless it’s something fun and retro like a mellow disco song by the Bee Gees.

While you will hear a diversity of sounds when listening to a Top 40 radio station, you may be struck by how homogeneous the music on an Adult Contemporary station is. The vast majority of music played on an AC station is mellow, more acoustic, and primarily solo vocalists. When an upbeat song is played, it’s usually pretty tame fare like Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” or Maroon 5’s “Misery.” That’s not to say that every song sounds the same, but you won’t hear a huge change from one song to another, and that is part of the appeal of the format.

A large portion of music played on an Adult Contemporary station is either considered oldies or recurrent. Songs that are classified as recurrents are recent songs that have already peaked on the charts, but still fit the sound that their listeners want to hear. Because of this, you won’t hear many songs on an AC station that you’ve never heard before.

If you listen to an Adult Contemporary station during the months of November and December, it is very possible that you may not hear much of the music I’ve just described, because many stations switch to all holiday music 24 hours a day. No matter what your feeling is about when holiday music should be played, somebody is listening because this practice becomes more and more prominent each year.

Who Are the Stars of Adult Contemporary?

It can be a bit tricky to identify a star of Adult Contemporary music because artists that get played on AC radio stations don’t put out music as rapidly as their Pop counterparts. Train are currently hot on the chart, but they aren’t as guaranteed a hit at Adult Contemporary as they are on an Adult Pop station. Over the past 10 years, artists who have had success on the AC charts include Celine Dion, Michael Buble, Colbie Callat, Taylor Swift, Jim Brickman, Bon Jovi, The Fray, Rob Thomas and his band Matchbox Twenty, Five For Fighting, Josh Groban, and Maroon 5.

When it comes to holiday music, there is one true champ, and that singer is American Idol finalist Kimberly Locke. Between 2006 and 2008, she had a number one song on the AC chart with a different Christmas song each year. The rest of the roster will range from traditional vocalists like Bing Crosby and the Carpenters, to more contemporary artists including Josh Groban and Susan Boyle.

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