“Number one then…and number one now!” may have been a classic top 40 stager, originally voiced by legendary radio announcer and programmer Bill Drake, but it’s also a perfect way to open our latest round of “Revisionist History,” as once again we examine how tastes have changed when it comes to each year’s biggest hit.
From the Billboard Hot 100’s beginnings in 1958 until 2004 — when digital music sales were first used in compiling the weekly measure of America’s biggest hits — we’ve re-calculated the No. 1 song for every year based on a formula giving near-equal weighting to Nielsen SoundScan-measured digital song downloads since 2004 and Nielsen BDS-monitored airplay across all radio formats since 2010. According to those re-calculations, not one number one then is number one now.
Why the changes? Let’s take a closer look at several more years spanning the 1970s through the ’90s.
With digital sales close to two million, over 300 radio spins weekly and inclusion on Rolling Stone, Time and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s ‘all time greatest’ lists, is “Baba O’Riley,” the revised champ for 1971, also The Who’s best song ever? At least one current British group might give it a vote: One Direction based the opening of their 2013 hit titled “Best Song Ever” on “Baba’s” unforgettable “teenage wasteland” hook.
Even before the boys paid homage to the song that opened the album Who’s Next — a mainstay of ‘best albums ever’ lists and a 2007 inductee into the Grammy Hall of Fame — “Baba” was opening UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) events and Los Angeles Laker games, heard in trailers for movies such as American Beauty and A Bug’s Life, in commercials for Mazda and HP, and for nearly a decade the opening theme to CSI: NY.
Not bad for a song only released as a single in a handful of European countries, for a group whose biggest chart success in the U.S. was 1967’s No. 9-peaking “I Can See For Miles.” “True rock anthems like ‘Baba’ have a resilient staying power while pop music is, in general, capturing a moment in time,” says Brad Holtz, program director at Indianapolis Triple A station WTTS. “At their core, these are songs with a different soul and structure than many of the pop tunes that graced the top five chart positions in their day.”
Holtz feels “Baba’s” sound isn’t wasted on today’s teenagers. “While The Who’s body of work is essentially 40 years old, this music is [now] just being discovered by an impressionable 16-year-old. As fragmented as music and society is today, it’s songs like these with long-lasting appeal that subsequent generations will embrace.”
The artist with the most year-end No. 1s among the original tally? Paul McCartney, who scored two with The Beatles (“I Want to Hold Your Hand” in 1964, and “Hey Jude” in 1968) and one with Wings, the bicentennial year’s topper “Silly Love Songs.” Among the revised No. 1s, it’s another British act, Queen, that scores the hat trick. For the first year of their three year-end winners, the band clips McCartney’s Wings with a song that’s anything but silly.
“It’s a rollercoaster of emotion,” says Rico Garcia, director of programming at KCCL in Sacremento, Ca., of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the six-minute opus with digital sales north of 3.7 million. “With those opening harmonies, on-point opera, a guitar solo everyone from 9 to 90 can air-guitar to, and the passion of Freddie Mercury‘s voice, [it’s] a song anyone can appreciate from the first listen.”
Some got to appreciate it during both its chart runs: In 1992 “Rhapsody” passed its original No. 9 peak and thunderbolt-ed its way to No. 2, powered by its use in Wayne’s World, the first of the two movies based on the popular Saturday Night Live sketch. The song’s also been used in advertising for Mountain Dew and, more recently, The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas hotel and casino.
“‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ provided the perfect narrative for the interesting and quirky experiences guests love at The Cosmopolitan,” Chief Marketing Officer Lisa Marchese says. “[We] rely entirely on music and imagery vs. voiceover to tell a story, [in this case] the classic tale of an attractive, younger man courting a tough guy’s woman at the hotel pool, with all the dialogue taken straight from the lyrics.”
Based on the recent data, Queen takes the year-end crown twice more, and in San Francisco Giants style, two and four years after “Rhapsody.” In 1978 the band stood in Andy Gibb’s “Shadow,” but now for that year as well, they are the champions. “The longevity [of ‘We Will Rock You/We Are The Champions’] can be credited to its continual use at sporting events,” Garcia says. ”It’s still the go-to ‘we’re awesome’ song.”
For 1980, Blondie gets a wake-up call from Queen’s other stadium smash, “Another One Bites the Dust,” which for KCCL’s Garcia is all about that something referenced in a recent No. 1 song. “In most popular music, the bass is not present to the average listener. [In ‘Dust’], when its sound hits on beat one and immediately has an easy-to-follow melody, it’s still intriguing to listen to.”
Talk about a song of its time: Four weeks after the FDA’s approval of Viagra for public use, the only hit about an erection coming between dance partners went straight up to No. 1. Although Next’s “Too Close” was hard to top in 1998, Green Day’s “Time” — while not a commercial single, so ineligible to chart on the Hot 100 — became the soundtrack of proms, graduations and funerals, reaching a respectable No. 11 on Radio Songs.
Over the years, “Time” has continued to mark the end of an era, not only in people’s lives but for radio stations changing format, sports franchises or entertainers such as outgoing (the first time) Tonight Show host Jay Leno, for whom Dwight Yoakam performed part of the song in 2009. No wonder it’s become Green Day’s digital best-seller, at 2.6 million and counting.
“‘Time’ is [one of] a handful of 90s songs we [still] play [because] it hits an emotional chord with the demo,” Santa Rosa, Ca. adult top 40 KMHX (MiX 104.9) program director Danny Wright says. “’Close’ was a great song but a bit of a novelty, and I think [for us] sonically it would stick out.”
Yes, he said that.