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Revisionist History 101: The Hot 100’s Year-End No. 1 Songs, Then… And Now (Part One)

When is a No. 1 not a No. 1? How about when modern-day sales and radio airplay data replace that of any year in Billboard Hot 100 history prior to the rise of iTunes?

When is a No. 1 not a No. 1? How about when modern-day sales and radio airplay data replace that of any year in Billboard Hot 100 history prior to the rise of iTunes?

To see how America’s tastes have changed over the years, each year’s top song has been “re-computed,” based on Nielsen SoundScan-measured digital sales since 2004 (when iTunes became the standard) and Nielsen BDS-monitored airplay since 2010, using a formula where sales and airplay are weighted fairly equally.

As proof that most songs having topped the Hot 100 ranking in Billboard‘s year-end issues haven’t necessarily stood the test of time while lesser hits have picked up steam, not one of the original No. 1 songs for any year from 1961 through 2003 remains at the top of the heap now. That could be due to several factors: greater interest in songs licensed for use in movies, television series or commercials; heavier airplay for several older titles on genre-based radio formats such as classic rock and adult R&B; and, as a result, few places left on modern commercial radio for many straight-ahead pop songs which ruled the roost on top 40 in their day. 

Let’s take a look at three years in Hot 100 history where, based on these updated rankings, history has most certainly not repeated itself.


Original Hot 100 No. 1: “Macarena (Bayside Boys Mix),” Los Del Rio (Peak: No. 1, 14 weeks)

Revised Hot 100 No. 1: “What I Got,” Sublime (Did not chart)

Talk about extremes: current sales and radio trends have pushed aside that year’s biggest-selling single (and dance craze) in favor of a song that was also No. 1 in 1996, only on Billboard‘s Alternative Songs chart, not having been released as a commercial single at the time (and, thus, per Hot 100 rules at the time, was ineligible to appear on the Hot 100; “Got” did hit No. 29 on Radio Songs.)

Sublime’s song hasn’t benefited from major synch licensing deals, and play these days is relegated to mostly alternative and mainstream rock stations. Yet the self-titled album it was taken from, the release of which came in the wake of lead vocalist Brad Nowell‘s drug-related death (and which also included “Santeria,” which supplants Elton John‘s “Candle in the Wind 1997” as No. 1 for that year), has sold 5 million units and continues to sell today. 

“Sometimes an artist’s legend rises when [he or she] passes too soon,” Ken West, program director of Boston alternative station WBOS, says. “Besides, the [song’s] laid-back reggae style is pretty timeless. Bob Marley still works, so why not this?” 

Key to the longevity of “What I Got” is its connection with alternative’s younger listeners. “[They’re] song driven and will appreciate a good song from then or now,” West says.

And how might that compare to 1996’s then-champ by Los Del Rio? “[‘Macarena’] they might associate with a bad wedding.”


Original Hot 100 No. 1: “The Way We Were,” Barbra Streisand (Peak: No. 1, 3 weeks)

Revised Hot 100 No. 1: “Sweet Home Alabama,” Lynyrd Skynyrd (Peak: No. 8; 1974 year-end rank: did not chart)

Barbra Streisand‘s classic ballad may have been the theme to many a prom in 1974, but it’s Lynyrd Skynyrd‘s tribute to the Heart of Dixie (even though the band formed in Florida) that the class of ’74 prefers today. 

They certainly get plenty of chances to hear it. “Sweet Home” is not only a classic rock and classic hits mainstay: It’s shown up in commercials, video games and motion pictures, including the one starring Reese Witherspoon that took the song’s name for its own. “Alabama’s” big wheels have kept on turnin’ to the tune of 3.3 million downloads, according to SoundScan.

“There’s that southern attitude about it that appeals to everyone,” Miami classic hits WMXJ (Magic 102.7) PD Ken Payne says. “Kid Rock’s sampling of the song (on 2008’s “All Summer Long”) made it new again and introduced [it to] a new generation. Factor in parents playing and exposing their kids to it, and you have a smash that crosses all age boundaries.”  


Original Hot 100 No. 1: “Physical,” Olivia Newton-John (Peak: No. 1, 10 weeks)

Revised Hot 100 No. 1: “Don’t Stop Believin’,” Journey (Peak: No. 9; 1982 year-end rank: No. 73)

The most downloaded song originally released in the pre-iTunes era – 6.2 million and counting – seems to have made believers of all of us. The Journey classic famously closed The Sopranos, opened Glee and became the rallying cry of the band’s hometown team, the San Francisco Giants, who rocked it all the way to two world championships (with a potential third pending). And that’s not taking into account dozens of other licensing deals, or the DJ who’s playing it at somebody’s wedding or sweet 16 as you read this.

Radio certainly isn’t a problem today: more than 1,000 plays a week, compared to maybe 20 for Olivia Newton-John‘s “Physical,” which body-talked its way to dominating the chart in ’82. “It’s been so awesome and inspiring for us to continue to watch ‘Don’t Stop Believin” become bigger every year and keep bringing in new, younger fans,” founding member Neal Schon says. So why did “Believin'” – which in hindsight seems like it should have been a power anthem from the get-go – not take over the Hot 100 in 1982? “The charts were so difficult to win at, crowded with all kinds of genres and favoring the flavor-of-the-month,” says longtime Journeyman Jonathan Cain. Not to mention the song was released shortly after the debut of MTV. “Since we didn’t have a video, it was all about radio.”

With nearly 30 charted hits, including several that charted higher, how has “Don’t Stop Believin'” become not just Journey’s signature song but arguably the biggest “oldie” of the modern age? “The song acts like a healer for a lot of people that have dealt with illnesses or tragic life and death experiences,” Schon says. Cain adds, “[The idea that] we all need to dream, to hope for a better place [and] brighter future, relates to so many generations.” 

“Faith is timeless, and we unconsciously hit a nerve that has lasted the test of time, something for which we are eternally grateful.”