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Ask Billboard: 25 Years Ago, the Hot 100 Entered the ‘Computer-Monitored’ Age

Submit questions about Billboard charts, as well as general music musings, to Please include your first and last name, as well as your city, state and country, if outside…

Submit questions about Billboard charts, as well as general music musings, to Please include your first and last name, as well as your city, state and country, if outside the U.S. Or, tweet @gthot20


Hi Gary,

We’re almost at 25 years of Nielsen information on the Billboard Hot 100. It started on the chart dated Nov. 30, 1991. Happy anniversary!

Brian C. Cole

Hi Brian,

Chart fans will surely recall the significance of that week 25 years ago.

“THE LONG-AWAITED DAY HAS ARRIVED,” read the headline in the “Hot 100 Singles Spotlight” column in the Billboard issue dated Nov. 30, 1991.

That week, the Hot 100 transformed from a tally combining ranked airplay and sales reports submitted by radio stations and retailers, respectively, to one based on electronically-monitored airplay by Nielsen Broadcast Data Systems (BDS) and piece counts of singles sales according to Nielsen SoundScan (both of which now go by the Nielsen Music name; meanwhile, playlists submitted by small-market radio stations continued to contribute to the chart for a time).

Wrote then-Billboard director of charts Michael Ellis, “For the first time, the music industry has a singles chart based on actual radio airplay and actual number of singles sold.”


The Hot 100 continued Billboard’s evolution to a chart menu based on more precise information. Hot Country Songs had converted to BDS data for the chart dated Jan. 20, 1990, and the Billboard 200 segued to SoundScan-powered figures on May 25, 1991. The Mainstream Rock Songs chart (then-titled Album Rock Tracks) upgraded to BDS-fueled rankings in the Nov. 23, 1991, issue, a week before the Hot 100’s makeover. Among others, Adult Contemporary and Alternative Songs (then Modern Rock Tracks) would soon follow. (In 2005, Nielsen-tracked paid downloads would overtake physical singles as the main source of sales for Hot 100 hits, while, by the 2010s, streaming would join the Hot 100’s data pool.)

P.M. Dawn led the first revamped Hot 100, as “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss” (featuring a sample of Spandau Ballet’s 1983 hit “True”) rose 3-1. Rounding out the top five were Michael Bolton’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” at No. 2, Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” (No. 3), Boyz II Men’s “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” (No. 4) and Prince’s “Cream” (No. 5).

(Meanwhile, another story in the Nov. 30, 1991, issue heralded the switch to “computer-monitored” data. For readers too young to remember 1991, written communication not on paper was then still a bit of a novelty; I would’ve typed this “Ask Billboard” on my shiny new Brother word processor at the time.)

A main effect of the Hot 100’s transformation was the realization that hits remained popular longer than previously believed. Between the chart’s Aug. 4, 1958, launch and Nov. 23, 1991, a span of 33 years, Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life” (1977) and Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” (1981-82) were the only singles to spend as many as 10 weeks at No. 1. In the 25 years since, 31 songs have led for between 10 and 16 weeks each, led by Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day” (16 weeks, 1995-96).

As for the top Hot 100 hits overall since Nov. 30, 1991, per Billboard‘s Greatest of All Time ranking, updated late last year (covering charts from Aug. 4, 1958, through Oct. 10, 2015), Santana’s “Smooth,” featuring Rob Thomas, from 1999, is the No. 1 song in that 25-year span, followed by LeAnn Rimes’ “How Do I Live” (No. 2; 1997); LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem,” featuring Lauren Bennett & GoonRock (No. 3; 2011); The Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling” (No. 4; 2009); and Los Del Rio’s “Macarena (Bayside Boys Mix)” (No. 5; 1996).

Would any songs crack the list if we expand tracking through 2016? We’ll have to wait for the unveiling of this year’s year-end charts, set to post on the week of Dec. 5.



Hi Gary,

After reading the last “Ask Billboard,” some thoughts on other songs that shoulda’ been singles.

Madonna, Rebel Heart: “Rebel Heart”
Yes, “Joan of Arc” is a fantastic should’ve-been single … but so is the title track to Madonna’s latest album. It’s got “single” written all over it: 1, It’s an autobiographical song, a well that Madonna has successfully dipped into more than once; 2, It was produced, with restraint, by Avicii; and 3, When a Madonna album’s name comes from one of its tracks, said track is always released as a single, moreso when it’s also the name of a world tour. (Apparently, sadly, this rule can be broken when the song gets demoted to deluxe edition-only status.)

So, it looks like “Rebel Heart” won’t take its place as a Madonna title-cut single alongside “Like a Virgin,” “True Blue,” “Who’s That Girl,” “Like a Prayer,” “Erotica,” “Bedtime Story” (kinda-sorta, since it’s from Bedtime Stories), “Ray of Light,” “Music,” “American Life” and “Celebration.”

Kiesza, Sound of a Woman: “What Is Love”
Because previous dance smashes turned into ballads can become hits (like Callum Scott’s new cover of Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own”), Kiesza could have released her downtempo cover of Haddaway’s 1993 smash (and even could’ve remixed it for today’s dance floors).

Sam Smith, In the Lonely Hour: “Leave Your Lover”
When this album was released, I hyped it to everyone and anyone I could, predicting it – and Smith – would dominate the Grammy Awards just as Adele had. This was the song I kept hoping would be a single, because the lyric “leave your lover / leave him for me” is far more universal than most people would like to admit. (Also, the previously-mentioned dance-hit-as-ballad-cover rule could also apply to Smith’s take on Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know.”)

Little Big Town, Wanderlust: “C’mon,” “One Dance,” “Work”
This album is a perfect collaboration between the band and Pharrell Williams, but remains seemingly hidden under Pharrell’s hat (having spent a week on the Billboard 200 at No. 103 in July). Any of these tracks could’ve helped LBT reach major pop crossover heights.

Duran Duran, Paper Gods: “What Are the Chances?,” “You Kill Me With Silence”
When “Pressure Off” (featuring Janelle Monae and Nile Rodgers) didn’t become the massive single it should have, the group might’ve been smart to release either of these two tracks from its 2015 set. Both fit seamlessly into the band’s catalog along other hit ballads like “Ordinary World” and “Come Undone.”

Toni Braxton, Snowflakes: “This Time Next Year”
Is it a Christmas-season tune about modern-day relationships? Or is it one of Toni Braxton’s best lost love ballads (co-written with Babyface and David Foster), hidden on a holiday-themed album? It’s both!

Happy holidays,

Kirk Hartlage
Orlando, Florida

Thanks Kirk,

Great choices. And, per a point made in the last “Ask Billboard,” album cuts today can in many cases draw greater consumption than many singles, thanks to the digital era. “Leave Your Lover,” for instance, has logged 55 million global YouTube views and sold 197,000 downloads, according to Nielsen Music.

With Madonna set to accept Billboard‘s woman of the year honor at this year’s Women in Music celebration Dec. 9 (the festivities will air on Lifetime on Dec. 12), we’ve covered songs that could’ve been singles among her iconic catalog, along with Trailblazer recipient Kesha’s “Kiss ‘n’ Tell” (from 2010’s Animal, and co-written by Max Martin). How about one from Icon Award winner Shania Twain? “When You Kiss Me,” from 2002’s Up!, is one of her sweetest ballads, and could’ve added to her totals of 16 Hot Country Songs top 10s and seven No. 1s.