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(Yesterday's) Top 40 Spectrum: Billboard #1s Through The Years


As you probably already know, Spotify is totally the Best Thing To Ever Be Invented, At Least Currently, On The Internet. Yeah, it's pretty great. It has allowed a lame-wad who feels as out of touch with current music trends as I ever have to at least feign to know what is new and cool in music these days. (Bon Iver is totally overrated, guys.)

So, when I came across this Spotify playlist that features every song that ever hit #1 on the Billboard Top 40, ever, I was, naturally, very intrigued. And over the course of the past week, I've listened to this playlist. Memories have come flooding back to me; the musical cues that defined my life are embedded in this playlist.

I've learned a lot listening to this playlist:

1) There are a lot of really dumb songs that hit number one;
2) Some artists are ridiculously famous because their number one songs are a lot better than the dumb ones that hit number one.

As is wont to do on a Pop Culture blog, I have cultivated my thoughts in a free-form list of the best and worsts of the songs that reached #1 on the Billboard charts. These thoughts are based on my pop music consciousness which, according to my estimation, started with Los Lobos's "La Bamba", the first song I remember being popular at the time it was popular, which hit #1 on August 29, 1987. My thoughts on that song: I loved that movie, and then cried a lot at the end when Richie Valens died. Totes heartbreaking.

Without further ado:

Best #1 Song: Lauryn Hill - "Doo Wop (That Thing)"; two weeks at #1, November 14-21, 1998
I have indeed identified the greatest song to ever hit #1 on the Billboard Top 40. "Doo Wop (That Thing)" reaches that pinnacle. It's not just that the song is more socially conscious than most popular songs that have followed it, #1 or otherwise; it's just an unbelievably hooky, infectious song you can dance to and sing along to. Current female chart-toppers don't have that combination of dense lyrical and musical content and straight-up catchiness, and they definitely don't have Ms. Hill's powerful artistic voice(*). Kanye was right when he said he wished you were still making music, Lauryn.

(*)Which is one reason why, despite generally enjoying Nicki Minaj's overall vocal stylings, I find the perception she is a female trailblazer irritating. Please - she's still beholden to the male artists that discovered her and mostly cultivated her musical artist identity, whereas Hill is a complete artist with a true, strong voice. And she hit #1 over ten years ago.

Worst #1 Song: Jennifer Lopez feat. Ja Rule, "I'm Real"; three weeks at #1, September 8-22, 2011
With all due (dis)respect to other nominees, like the multiple #1s by Debbie Gibson, Tiffany, and New Kids on the Block, "With Arms Wide Open" by Creed, and "(Can't Live Without Your) Love and Affection" by Nelson (which at least scores points by being kind of hilariously bad), J.Lo's collaboration with Ja Rule is the most offensively bad #1 for a variety of reasons. One is its extreme social non-consciousness, with J.Lo droppin' the n-word in her lyrics in a way that is, at best, extremely uncomfortable. But then, J.Lo is, as I determined, America's Most Bland Celebrity, with her milquetoast delivery of every line. When she talks about when she's "feeling sexy", nothing feels more like I'm being pandered to than this line. And of course, Ja Rule, the man who 50 Cent mocked for sounding like Cookie Monster, delivers the chorus. When 50 Cent disses you, you really do suck. Seriously, though, J.Lo has done nothing to take away from her throne of America's Most Bland Celebrity, as evidenced by the latest magazine cover talking about her romance with America's Most Bland Actor, Bradley Cooper.

Most Bizarre #1: Rick Astley, "Never Gonna Give You Up" and "Together Forever";  Hey, America! Did you know that these two songs are EXACTLY THE SAME?!?!?!?!?? EXACTLY! THE! SAME! When the now-famous-due-to-meme "Never Gonna Give You Up" popped up on my playlist, I chuckled. When "Together Forever" popped up, though, I became horrified. I pointed out the different songs to Brigitte, which, naturally, caused us to start a "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" style dueling chorus improptu sing-along of me singing the "Give You Up" chorus and Brigitte singing the "Together Forever" chorus. Then, I had a grand plan of mashing the songs together to demonstrate to you, the reader, the similarities, but thankfully, someone on YouTube already saved me the work. So, here you go:



Most Deserving Artists To Reach #1 Multiple Times:
It sounds obvious, but it's totally true: the reason Michael Jackson hit #1 thirteen times, Whitney Houston hit #1 eleven times, Janet Jackson hit #1 ten times, and Mariah Carey hit #1 eighteen(!!!) times, is because they are all ridiculously talented people. Going through the playlist, these artists always provided a welcome oasis of greatness in a sea of other random songs that hit #1. I most enjoyed Janet Jackson, a hit-maker who was definitely more versatile than merely using her name recognition -- lady's super talented. And I hear that Michael fellow is kinda famous. Oh Whitney, if only Bobby Brown didn't totally destroy your career, cuz you have/had one helluva powerful voice. And after re-listening to a lot of Mariah's hits, I'm not quite as embarrassed to admit my owning multiple Mariah Carey CDs as a pre-teen.

Least Deserving Artist To Reach #1 Multiple Times:
On the other hand, George Michael's eight #1 hits feel like a product of their times, with the #1 songs he put out at best bland ("Faith") and at worst horribly schmaltzy. Sorry, George Michael - you're boring.

Hottest #1, At Least Compared To Its Chart-Mates: C+C Music Factory, "Gonna Make You Sweat"; two weeks at #1 starting February 9-16, 1991
In the context of being #1 the same year as Paula Abdul's "Rush Rush" (five weeks at number one!) and Bryan Adam's "Everything I Do (I Do It For You)" (seven weeks at number one!), C+C Music Factory's biggest hit is like a shot of adrenalin that smacks you upside the head and makes you wanna dance right now in the office. 

Most Surprisingly Forward-Thinking #1 Song from the Early 90s: P.M. Dawn, "Set Adrift on Memory Bliss"; one week at #1, November 30, 1991
In the context of those super-lame other #1s (others include "I Adore Mi Amor" by Color Me Badd and "More Than Words" by Extreme), PM Dawn's almost-forgotten #1 samples "True" by Spandau Ballet. In my unscientific study, this is the best of the late-80s-early-90s #1 songs that sample previous songs. Well, it's definitely better than "Ice Ice Baby", right?


Most Creepy-In-Retrospect Love Ballad: Boyz II Men, "End of the Road"; thirteen weeks at #1 starting August 15, 1992
The lyrics of this song are CREEPY AS EFF! Are these the words of bass singer Michael McCarey's spoken word mid-song jam? Or the scrawl of a creepy stalking ex-boyfriend who might also be a serial murderer? You decide (bold and italics added by me):
Girl, I’m here for you
All those times of night when you just hurt me
And just run out with that other fella?
Baby I knew about it, I just didn’t care
You just don’t understand how much I love you do you?
I’m here for you. 
I’m not out to go out and cheat on you all night
Just like you did, baby, but that’s all right
Hey, I love you anyway
And I’m still gonna be here for you ’till my dying day baby
Right now, I’m just in so much pain baby
Coz you just won’t come back to me
Will you? just come back to me
Most Hilarious Song To Succeed A Wildly Succesful #1: "How Do You Talk to an Angel" by The Heights; two weeks at #1 starting November 14, 1992
Yes, it succeeded "End of the Road". Yes, it was the theme song to the short-lived Fox drama The Heights. And yes, that is actor Jamie Walters singing, who went on to play Donna Martin's boyfriend and hotheaded fictional recording artist Ray Pruitt in seasons five and six of Beverly Hills 90210. How do you talk to an angel, Ray Pruitt? How do you?

Least Deserving Artist Collaboration: "All for One" by Bryan Adams, Rod Stewart & Sting; three weeks at #1 starting January 22, 1994
If I were Sting, and I were looking back at my career today, I would be looking back at that collaboration I did with Bryan Adams and Rod Stewart and be thinking, "Wow, how was there a time that Bryan Adams and Rod Stewart were considered my equals? I'm freakin' Sting! I was in The Police! My body of work is timeless, while Rod Stewart is a glorified lounge singer and Bryan Adams didn't become popular until he totally sold his soul with 'Everything I Do (I Do It For You)'! How did I sign up for this? What kind of self-respect did I have? Did I not meditate enough in 1994?" Regrets, Sting. This is one of them, isn't it?

Most Adorably Out-Of-Place Random #1: Lisa Loeb & Nine Stories, "Stay (I Miss You)"; three weeks at #1 starting August 6, 1994
Jumping to #1 after All-4-One's "I Swear" and before Boyz II Men's "I'll Make Love to You", Lisa Loeb's Reality Bites soundtracker is the only evidence on the Billboard #1s playlist that this thing called Grunge Music was popular. Yes, many grunge and post-grunge bands hit #1 with their albums, but none of them hit #1 on the Hot 100. But adorably dorky Loeb made it to #1, who indeed made it safe for boys to make passes at girls who wear glasses. And, did you know, this was the first #1 song by an artist who was not signed to a record label at the time? Yeah, take that in your pipe and smoke it, Owl City. Lisa Loeb says, "YOU'RE WELCOME!"

Most Hilarious Collaboration: R.Kelly & Celine Dion, "I'm Your Angel"; seven weeks at #1 starting December 5, 1998
R.Kelly collaborated with Celine Dion just because he could, right? Honestly, I didn't know this song even existed, and now I am more happy than ever to know that it does.

First Meta #1 Song, In My Unscientific Estimation: Kanye West feat. Twista & Jamie Foxx, "Slow Jamz"; one week at #1, February 21, 2004
2004 was mostly dominated by Usher, but it was Kanye who made it safe for artists of today to write #1 songs that are about other songs. Today, it is commonplace for chart-toppers to include a layer of meta-songwriting in their tunes, but Kanye made the modern "song about a song" what it was. In my estimation, this is also the first #1 song to also get the Pitchfork stamp of approval, making it safe for hipsters and popsters to like the same stuff once in a while. Thanks for making it safe for hipsters to like pop music, 'Ye!

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