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Revisionist History, Part 2: Jimi Hendrix Beats the Beatles! Year-End Hits of Yesterday, Re-Analyzed

Since 1958, when Billboard's Hot 100 began tracking the hits every week, any song that's earned No. 1 honors for the entire year was surely built to last, right?

Since 1958, when Billboard’s Hot 100 began tracking the hits every week, any song that’s earned year-end No. 1 was surely built to last, right?

Not necessarily. To test that theory, we’ve done a “do-over” for year-end charts prior to 2004, when digital downloads became the key measure of sales, re-computing those No. 1 songs using a formula that gives relatively equal weighting to Nielsen SoundScan-measured digital song sales since 2004, and Nielsen BDS-monitored airplay since 2010.

So how many of our “new” year-end chart toppers matched those from the original rankings? Not a one. Many songs with lesser chart success their first time around received a boost in sales after our recalculation resulting from their use in movies, TV series and commercials. Others have become listener favorites on radio stations whose formats dig deeper into the past. At the same time, former year-end champs, for one reason or other, just haven’t held up as well.

As we did in part one of this series, let’s shine the light on three more years in Hot 100 history, comparing the original No. 1 with what’s on top now.


Jimi Hendrix Beats The Beatles! Year-End

The Beatles notched a Hot 100-record 20 No. 1s, two of which — “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” their U.S. debut in 1964, and “Jude” in 1968 — were Billboard’s top songs for their respective years. Yet, when recalculated with recent data, the Fabs are pushed out of the penthouse by a pair of songs by blues-based rockers: fellow Brits The Animals’ 1964 adaptation of folk classic “The House Of The Rising Sun” (also a No. 1 single in 1964), and legendary guitarist Jimi Hendrix‘s 1968 version of “Watchtower,” originally recorded by Bob Dylan (who, as it happens, also recorded “Sun” before the Animals got to it).

How did Hendrix’s only top 40 hit — which stopped at an unspectacular No. 20 — tower over all other songs from 1968, beating the Beatles’ biggest hit ever? Two reasons, right up top: The Beatles didn’t make their catalog available digitally until November 2010; nor has “Jude” benefited from licensing deals to the same extent as “Watchtower,” which has been placed in over a dozen motion pictures (including Oscar-winner Forrest Gump) and TV series (including The Simpsons). 

“[Because] it’s not awash in Jimi’s trademark distortion and feedback, it’s more accessible” than Hendrix’s other songs, suggests John “Brizz” Brizzolara, brand manager at Rockford, Ill. classic rock station WKGL (The Eagle), where both hits show up in rotation. “The long refrain that occupies ‘Hey Jude’s’ final several minutes is less palatable the further you get from 1968.”


Jimi Hendrix Beats The Beatles! Year-End

You wouldn’t think a song about a specific date — in this case, Sept. 21 — could wind up in so many places the other 364 days a year. But “September,” originally a new track on Earth, Wind & Fire’s first greatest hits collection, beat those odds and has been heard everywhere from Subway commercials to Family Guy to Al Gore‘s presidential campaign. It was even the focus of a story that aired last month (that’s right, in September) on NPR’s Morning Edition.  

“September” also serves as the rare exception to a “revisionist history” rule where rock songs are more likely to take over for R&B-based year-end No. 1s, as opposed to the other way around. While The Knack‘s “Sharona” is no shrinking violet, still heard weekly on classic hits and classic rock radio, it just hasn’t had the knack when it comes to “September’s” sales and airplay dominance.

Not to mention all those weddings it’s been played at. Verdine White, bassist for Earth, Wind & Fire, and brother of the band’s writer and producer Maurice White, says: “When my niece got married this summer, ‘September’ was the dance for the couples. Everybody went crazy.” 

Crazy for a song whose unforgettable chorus almost didn’t happen, as White recalls. “When Maurice came up with ‘ba-dee-ah,’ lyricist Allee Willis kept bugging him, ‘You gotta put some words in there.’ Maurice said, ‘Just follow me. Who cares?’”

For an act that’s scored higher-charting danceable hits during their career (“Shining Star,” “Let’s Groove,” “Boogie Wonderland”), how did “September” — which, when it ran the Hot 100, was outshined by disco’s cream of the crop, including The Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.” and Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” — rise to greater heights? 

“It’s a happy, carefree song that later generations — and movie executives and such — have picked up on,” White says. “When you write a song, you never know how it’s gonna be received, and this was a pleasant surprise. I think if ‘September’ came out now, it would probably be a number one record.”

So to answer the song’s opening question? Yes, we most certainly remember.


Jimi Hendrix Beats The Beatles! Year-End

Pop quiz: Which of these two are you more likely to hear at a sporting event?

Anyone thinking a great ballad is timeless might think again after looking at our revised No. 1s: all 14 slow-dances that originally finished first were replaced by more upbeat selections, using the new data. There’s only one instance of the reverse: 1961’s year-end leader, Bobby Lewis’ rocker “Tossin’ And Turnin’” has been one-upped by Etta James’ licensing bonanza “At Last.”   

As for 1989, it may be a case of the old guard passing the baton to the new guys. “Look,” the last of Chicago‘s three No. 1s over two decades — all of which were ballads — clears the way for stadium standard “Jungle,” just the second hit from Guns N’ Roses, from their 18-million-selling debut album Appetite For Destruction. (Their first, the Hot 100-topping “Sweet Child O’Mine,” takes over for George Michael’s “Faith” as No. 1 for 1988.)

“It shows you the great staying power of that record, and what a breath of fresh air Guns N’ Roses was at that point in time,” Ryan Patrick, brand manager of Des Moines, Ia. mainstream rock station KAZR (Lazer 103.3) says of the song VH1 named the greatest hard rocker of all time. “[‘Jungle’] is an amazing guitar-based rock song [with] a little bit of attitude and a little bit of edge. Nowadays it doesn’t sound out of place whether you’re coming out of Three Days Grace or Pink Floyd. It’s one of those songs that [still] resonates.”