Hindsight is a clichéd 20/20. Many songs, albums and artists now considered classics and/or masters of their genres failed to chart on the Billboard Hot 100 or the Billboard 200 upon their initial releases, or had brief, not-all-that-impressive runs on Billboard’s two signature charts.
Numerous beloved albums and songs never charted or took decades to attain revered status. Songs by popular artists that are now ubiquitous in the public mind may have logged modest chart performances, or initially been hits for other acts. For example, Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” was not a hit for her, but Judy Collins’ version peaked at No. 8 on the Hot 100. Many lacked notable successwhen active, but won the battle for influence and critical respect over time.
Plus, none of these performers below, the majority of whom fall into to the alt and hip-hop genres, has has truly crossed over to a major hit pop single, thus, limiting their reach and chart histories; however, many enjoyed high-peaking hit albums. And, many rock acts included here, such as Patti Smith and the Ramones, would have sported more impressive chart displays had charts dedicated specifically to rock and alternative existed in the 1970s.
Here are some well-loved artists, songs and albums that didn’t make an enormous commercial impact during their first run but have stood the test of time.
The Biggest Hot 100 Hits to Peak at Nos. 25-1
The Runaways were big in Japan. But even the seminal “Cherry Bomb” never made the Hot 100. Their debut, The Runaways, peaked at No. 194 on the Billboard 200 in 1976, spending a total of two weeks on the chart, while 1977’s The Queens of Noise peaked at No. 172 during a four week-stay. In the years since, the Runaways have been the subject of a biopic starring Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning, and members Joan Jett and Lita Ford went on to storied solo careers.
N.W.A didn’t land a Hot 100 hit until biopic Straight Outta Compton was released in 2015. The Straight Outta Compton album peaked at No. 37 on the Billboard 200 on its initial release in 1988 but stayed on that chart for an impressive 81 weeks — impressive given that the rousing “Fuck Tha Police” couldn’t be played on the radio. In September 2015, driven by the movie’s buzz, the set reached a new peak of No. 4. The act subsequently scored its first Hot 100 hit, when “Straight Outta Compton” debuted, at last, at No. 38.
The Biggest Hot 100 Hits to Peak at Nos. 50-26
It’s been said that the Velvet Underground & Nico didn’t sell, but that everyone who bought a copy went out and started a band. If so, that still wouldn’t be too many bands. Of the band’s four albums, only The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967) and White Light/White Heat (1968) entered the Billboard 200 while the band was active; the latter debuted on the chart dated March 16, 1968 at No. 200, peaked at No. 199 the following week and has never returned. No Velvet Underground single has ever landed on a Billboard songs chart.
Nick Drake was famous for being obscure for much of his mostly-posthumous career. He gradually picked up a cult following and gained a wider audience after Volkswagen used his song “Pink Moon” in a 2000 ad. None of his three albums — Five Leaves Left, Bryter Later and Pink Moon — charted during his lifetime, although recent reprints appeared on the Vinyl Albums and Independent Albums charts. A Nick Drake song has never appeared on a Billboard songs survey.
The Biggest Hot 100 Hits to Peak at Nos. 75-51
Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols peaked at No. 106 on the Billboard 200, although it was eventually certified platinum by the RIAA. Go-to punk example “Anarchy in the U.K.” didn’t make the Hot 100. Nor did “God Save the Queen,” “Pretty Vacant,” or “Holiday in the Sun.” It’s safe to say that mainstream 1970s America wasn’t quite ready for punk rock.
Pulp’s 1994 album Different Class is yet another case of a beloved English album failing to chart over here. Its follow-up, This Is Hardcore, peaked at No. 114 on the Billboard 200 in 1998. The issue wasn’t necessarily Britpop or rock’s accessibility, as Oasis scored two top five albums in the ‘90s. Pulp’s Britpop anthem “Common People” never made the Hot 100, although Pitchfork ranked it at No. 2 on its list of the top 200 tracks of the ’90s in 2010. Jarvis Cocker defined rock stardom in Great Britain, but songs about English social class tensions were a prickly fit for the American commercial pop market.
The Biggest Hot 100 Hits to Peak at Nos. 100-76
Sonic Youth, Daydream Nation
Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation is a landmark in ’80s alt rock but has never appeared on the Billboard 200. In 2007, the band played the album live the full way through on tour. Kurt Cobain cited Sonic Youth as a band whose success level he had hoped to achieve before getting too famous for his own liking. Subsequent recordings made after Sonic Youth left Enigma Records for DGC charted on the Billboard 200, beginning with 1990’s Goo, which peaked at No. 96.
Björk’s highest spots on the Hot 100 were No. 84 for “Earth Intruders” in 2007 and No. 88 for “Big Time Sensuality” in 1994. And, that’s it for the past quarter-century. Her singles have tallied much better residencies on the Alternative Songs and Dance Club Songs charts, including three No. 1s on the latter list. Her albums, on the other hand, have managed respectable displays on the Billboard 200, including 2007’s Volta at No. 9 and 2004’s Medulla at No. 14. While these were only on the Billboard 200 for five and seven weeks, respectively, other albums have peaked at lower ranks but with longer stays; 1993’s Debut peaked at No. 61 but spent 31 weeks on the tally and 1995’s Post reached No. 32 but graced the chart for 20 weeks.
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Wu-Tang Clan (singles)
Like N.W.A before them, the Wu-Tang Clan were not radio-friendly. Their only singles on the Hot 100 were “C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rules Everything Around Me),” at No. 60, and “Method Man” at No. 69. But, their not-safe-for-work-or-children lyrics didn’t hurt their album sales: Wu-Tang Forever made it all the way to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in 1997, and The W made it to No. 5 in 2000.
‘90s America had room for one Brit-alt-pop band: Oasis. Blur’s Parklife is revered in Britain as one of the very greatest albums of the decade, not to mention all-time. It never reached the Billboard 200, however. Subsequent albums had better performances on the Billboard 200, including 2015’s The Magic Whip; its No. 24 debut and peak gave the band its first top 40-charting album.
Moody teens and moody-teens-at-heart bought Smiths albums steadily, but not in packs. And, they didn’t make for much of an American radio presence. Only two Smiths songs have ever appeared on a Billboard songs chart, including the classic “How Soon Is Now,” which dented the since-shuttered Dance Singles Sales survey at No. 36 in 1985. Their singles might have performed better on the Alternative Songs chart, which was not born until 1988, the year after The Smiths broke up. Their albums fared better than their songs, led by 1987’s Strangeways, Here We Come, a No. 55 Billboard 200 hit. Meanwhile, Morrissey has hit greater heights as a soloist, charting six top 40-peaking albums on the Billboard 200 and notching nine top 10s, including two No. 1s, on Alternative Songs.
Tom Waits’ highest-charting albums came later in his career: Bad as Me bowed at No. 6 on the Billboard 200 in 2011. Waits has never sent a title onto any Billboard songs chart. The critically-beloved Rain Dogs peaked at No. 181 in 1985, and Small Change hit No. 89 in 1976. Waits has won two Grammy Awards and his work has been covered extensively by other artists. Notably, Rod Stewart’s version of “Downtown Train” crowned Adult Contemporary and chugged to No. 3 on the Hot 100 in 1990.
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The fathers of punk never made it past No. 66 on the Hot 100, peaking with “Rockaway Beach” in 1978. Debut album Ramones has one of the most iconic cover shots in rock history, with the leather jacket and jeans-clad Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy posed in front of a Manhattan brick wall, but the album never made it past No. 111 on the Billboard 200. Their highest showing on the Billboard 200 came with End of the Century in 1980: No 44. People knew that The Ramones were a huge deal in rock history — witness their 1993 appearance on The Simpsons — but it didn’t translate to lofty chart moves.
Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff” was a Hot 100 No. 1 hit for Eric Clapton in 1974 and a No. 20 hit for Warren G in 1997. The Bob Marley and the Wailers version was never released as a single, and did not chart on its own until 2010, when Billboard launched the Reggae Digital Songs ranking. His highest showing on the Hot 100, 1976’s “Roots, Rock, Reggae,” peaked at No. 51. We should note that the posthumous compilation album Legend has been certified as 15 million-times Platinum by the RIAA and has spent the second-most weeks, 402, of any album ever on the Billboard 200 (from the chart’s Aug. 17, 1963 inception as a combined mono/stereo tally through the Feb. 13 chart; Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon is tops with 923 charted weeks).
Patti Smith, Horses
Horses, released in 1975, has earned a sacred place in alt music evolution. But, the album stopped at No. 47 on the Billboard 200. Despite the patronage of iconic label exec Clive Davis, Smith was never cut to be more than an art school success, beloved by tastemakers. She had one true hit with the Bruce Springsteen-penned “Because the Night,” which reached No. 13 on the Hot 100 in 1978 (while 10,000 Maniacs‘ version climbed even higher, to No. 11, in 1994). Subsequent album Wave reached No. 18 in 1979, but is less celebrated today.