Culture > Music
Krieg Barrie

Hottest 100?

Music | Billboard's historic hits make a soundtrack for America's 55-year dance with adolescence

Issue: "Back to School," Sept. 7, 2013

Billboard launched its Hot 100 singles chart on Aug. 4, 1958. In recognition of the iconic countdown’s 55th anniversary, the magazine has published a list of the hottest 100 singles of all time.

What gives it credibility is that, unlike most pop-culture canons, which are generated by agenda-driven critics and therefore all but guaranteed to start fights, Billboard’s adheres to statistics and therefore achieves as much objectivity as can be expected from a collection of data compiled in many (and in some cases radically) different ways over five-and-a-half decades.

Or as Billboard itself puts it: “Due to changes in chart methodology over the Hot 100’s 55 years (i.e., the inclusion of Nielsen Entertainment airplay monitoring and point-of-sales tracking and the recent inclusion of streaming data, among earlier modifications), certain eras are weighted differently to account for chart turnover rates over various periods.”

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Such a disclaimer might forestall fisticuffs, but it won’t prevent the cynical from suspecting that it’s really a cover for gerrymandering or affirmative action intended to make the list all things to all generations.

For instance, although the 21st century is represented by 21 songs, none of the Rolling Stones’ eight No. 1 recordings appear, their decades of airplay, sales, and streams notwithstanding. Mick Jagger appears three times, but only by singing on Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” (No. 82) and being alluded to in Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok” (56) and Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger” (68). Similarly, a song Prince wrote, Sinéad O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” comes in at 87, but none of his five No. 1 hits come in at all.

Still, some old-timers get their due.  The Bee Gees appear three times, five if you count their younger sibling Andy’s “Shadow Dancing” (45) and “I Just Want to Be Your Everything” (26), songs that one or all three of the Brothers Gibb wrote or co-wrote, sang on, and co-produced.

Ditto for Paul McCartney, who sings with Stevie Wonder (“Ebony and Ivory” [69]) and Michael Jackson (“Say Say Say” [40]) and on the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (44) and “Hey Jude” (10) and Wings’ “Silly Love Songs” (36).

Most impressively, the Police’s “Every Breath You Take” appears twice, both in its original 1983 form (28) and sampled 14 years later by Puff Daddy (“I’ll Be Missing You” [94]),  suggesting that its composers, Sting and Andy Summers, might just be history’s hottest hook crafters.

Alas, unless Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life” (9) and Donna Summer’s pre-conversion “Hot Stuff” (78) count, Christian presence is nil, although had “We Are the World” made the cut (how did it not?), its co-producer (and CCM veteran) Michael Omartian would have too.

Of course, such glaring omissions could be cited as proof of the list’s objectivity. How else to explain Elvis Presley’s sole entry, “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” landing at 91 while Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” (1) bestrides the list like a colossus?

Played bottom to top, the songs sound like nothing so much as the soundtrack to perpetual adolescence.  Fast-dance numbers alternate with slow-dance numbers ad infinitum, with the occasional novelty hit and air-band classic for trips to the punchbowl.

It’s tempting to say that Billboard’s All-Time Top 100 provides a snapshot of an era. But it really provides a daguerreotype, capturing not a moment but the process by which all the world (or at least the United States) went from being a stage to being the prom of a high school from which no one ever graduates.

Billboard's All-time Top 10

1. The Twist - Chubby Checker (1960, 1962)

2. Smooth - Santana feat. Rob Thomas (1999)

3. Mack the Knife - Bobby Darin (1959)

4. How Do I Live - LeAnn Rimes (1997)

5. Party Rock Anthem - LMFAO feat. Lauren Bennett & GoonRock (2011)

6. I Gotta Feeling - The Black Eyed Peas (2009)

7. Macarena - Los Del Rio (1996)

8. Physical - Olivia Newton-John (1981)

9. You Light Up My Life - Debby Boone (1977)

10. Hey Jude - The Beatles (1968)


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