The Number Ones So Far

The Number Ones So Far

In January of 2018, I was killing time at the gym while my kids were finishing up a swimming class, and I was idly clicking around Tom Ewing’s Popular, a writing project that’s been going on for well over a decade. Ewing has been writing funny, incisive, personal reviews of every song ever to hit #1 on the UK charts, and it’s been one of the best things on the internet for a long time. I found myself wondering about #1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100, our own American pop chart. Was there a list of all those songs anywhere on the internet?

There was. Obviously. Billboard has been great about keeping scrupulous records over the decades, and the history of American #1 singles made for a fascinating Wikipedia deep-dive. Some of these songs, I know them as well as I know my own birthday. Some of them, I’d never heard of. Some of them were absolute classics. Some basically disappeared from the national consciousness the minute they fell out of the #1 spot. I was intrigued. I couple of days later, I brought the idea to Scott Lapatine, my boss here at Stereogum. I wanted to review every single one of these songs, and I wanted to start right away. Scott was OK with it, so off I went.

Since that day in 2018, The Number Ones has kind of taken over my life. I started writing brief little columns, just a couple of paragraphs per song. But I got sucked in by the strange show-business stories of these people whose songs, however briefly, were the most popular in the nation. The narratives started connecting to each other, and they started interacting with American culture in fascinating ways. The stories got deeper. The pieces got longer. At a certain point, it felt like I was writing a history of American pop music, one week at a time. It feels like a big responsibility!

As I’ve written these columns, a funny thing has happened. A whole community has emerged in the comments section. People are now writing their own regular columns in there, talking about all the other things that were happening in the world when these songs were at #1. They’ve shared their own ideas, their memories, their histories. They’ve let me know when they disagree. In ways that really have very little to do with me, The Number Ones comment section (“TNOCS”) has grown and evolved. (It seems almost separate from the rest of the Stereogum comments section, which is also its own community.) I feel like a bystander to this whole thing, but it’s been an amazing thing to witness. It reminds me of the best things about the early days of the internet — the way these devices in our houses once brought people together, before they became vectors for brain-frothing insanity.

I’d like to thank everyone who has read The Number Ones over the past three years — whether or not you’ve commented and whether or not you’ve contributed to Stereogum’s fundraising campaign. (If you have contributed to that, though, shout out to you.)

As I’m writing this, Billboard has been running the Hot 100 for a little more than 62 years. 1,113 songs have hit #1. I have written about 585 of them. At first, I was writing five columns a week. That wasn’t sustainable, so we’re down to three times a week, which is still a whole lot. Given how often we get new #1 singles — how that list keeps growing — I figure we’re somewhere around the halfway mark. It’s a good time to take stock. So here are some stats and figures on the column thus far. (These numbers don’t cover singles or artists that the column hasn’t covered yet.)

Songs that scored 10/10:

The Drifters – “Save The Last Dance For Me
Ray Charles – “Georgia On My Mind
Roy Orbison – “Running Scared
The Tokens – “The Lion Sleeps Tonight
Little Stevie Wonder – “Fingertips (Pt. II)
The Beatles – “A Hard Days’ Night
The Animals – “The House Of The Rising Sun
The Shangri-Las – “Leader Of The Pack
The Temptations – “My Girl
The Beatles – “Ticket To Ride
The Rolling Stones – “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction
The Rolling Stones – “Get Off Of My Cloud
Nancy Sinatra – “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’
The Rolling Stones – “Paint It Black
The Beatles – “Paperback Writer
The Four Tops – “Reach Out I’ll Be There
The Supremes – “You Keep Me Hangin’ On
The Beach Boys – “Good Vibrations
Aretha Franklin – “Respect
Bobbie Gentry – “Ode To Billie Joe
Otis Redding – “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay
Jeannie C. Riley – “Harper Valley P.T.A.
Diana Ross & The Supremes – “Love Child
Marvin Gaye – “I Heard It Through The Grapevine
Tommy James & The Shondells – “Crimson And Clover
The Jackson 5 – “I Want You Back
Simon & Garfunkel – “Bridge Over Troubled Water
The Jackson 5 – “ABC
The Jackson 5 – “I’ll Be There
Janis Joplin – “Me And Bobby McGee
The Temptations – “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)
Isaac Hayes – “Theme From Shaft
Al Green – “Let’s Stay Together
Bill Withers – “Lean On Me
The Temptations – “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone
Stevie Wonder – “Superstition
Marvin Gaye – “Let’s Get It On
Gladys Knight & The Pips – “Midnight Train To Georgia
Stevie Wonder – “You Haven’t Done Nothin’
Freddy Fender – “Before The Next Teardrop Falls
David Bowie – “Fame
Diana Ross – “Love Hangover
ABBA – “Dancing Queen
Thelma Houston – “Don’t Leave Me This Way
Fleetwood Mac – “Dreams
Marvin Gaye – “Got To Give It Up (Part 1)
The Bee Gees – “Stayin’ Alive
The Rolling Stones – “Miss You
Chic – “Le Freak
Gloria Gaynor – “I Will Survive
Blondie – “Heart Of Glass
Chic – “Good Times
Michael Jackson – “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough
Blondie – “Call Me
Lipps, Inc. – “Funkytown
Diana Ross – “Upside Down
The Human League – “Don’t You Want Me
Michael Jackson – “Billie Jean
David Bowie – “Let’s Dance
Eurythmics – “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)
Bonnie Tyler – “Total Eclipse Of The Heart
Prince – “When Doves Cry
Prince & The Revolution – “Let’s Go Crazy
Simple Minds – “Don’t You (Forget About Me)

Here’s our new ongoing Spotify playlist of all the 10/10s…

Songs that scored 1/10:

Bryan Hyland – “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini
Larry Verne – “Mr. Custer
Pat Boone – “Moody River
Steve Lawrence – “Go Away Little Girl
Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler – “The Ballad Of The Green Berets
Bobby Goldsboro – “Honey
Tony Orlando & Dawn – “Knock Three Times
Donny Osmond – “Go Away Little Girl
Sammy Davis Jr. – “The Candy Man
Chuck Berry – “My Ding-A-Ling
Tony Orlando & Dawn – “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree
Ray Stevens – “The Streak
Paul Anka – “(You’re) Having My Baby” (Feat. Odia Coates)
Steve Miller Band – “Abracadabra
USA For Africa – “We Are The World

Artists with the most #1 hits:

1. The Beatles (20)
2. Elvis Presley (17)
3. The Supremes (12)
4. Bee Gees / Paul McCartney / Stevie Wonder (9 each)
5. The Rolling Stones (8)

Songwriters with the most #1 hits:

1. Paul McCartney (32)
2. John Lennon (26)
3. Barry Gibb (16)
4. Brian Holland (14)
5. Lamont Dozier / Robin Gibb / Eddie Holland (13 each)

Producers with the most #1 hits:

1. George Martin (22)
2. Barry Gibb (14)
3. Albhy Galuten / Brian Holland / Karl Richardson (13 each)
4. Lamont Dozier (12)
5. Freddie Perren (9)

Best angry responses to the column from the people who made the songs

1. B. J. Thomas

2. L. Russell Brown

3. David Soul

4. The Turtles’ Howard Kaylan

Years with the highest weighted-average scores:

1. 1964 (7.96)
2. 1983 (7.77)
3. 1970 (7.45)
4. 1965 (7.35)
5. 1980 (7.34)

Years with the lowest weighted-average scores:

1. 1975 (5.52)
2. 1974 (5.53)
3. 1981 (5.62)
4. 1963 (5.78)
5. 1959 (5.82)

(Thanks to commenter Virgindog and his hugely helpful spreadsheet.)

Oldest person to hit #1:

Louis Armstrong, 63 (“Helly, Dolly!,” 1964)

Youngest person to hit #1:

Michael Jackson, 11 (The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” 1970)

Years with the most #1 hits:

1974 and 1975 (35 each)

Years with the least #1 hits:

1959, 1968, and 1982 (15 each)

Column with the most comments:

USA For Africa – “We Are The World” (763)

Columns with the least comments:

Brenda Lee – “I’m Sorry
Bobby Lewis – “Tossin’ And Turnin’” (6 each)

Complete list of columns in which I felt compelled to describe the sound by mentioning cocaine:

The Rolling Stones – “Honky Tonk Woman
Andy Gibb – “(Love Is) Thicker Than Water
Andy Gibb – “Shadow Dancing
Chic – “Le Freak
Rod Stewart – “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?
Herb Alpert – “Rise
Queen – “Another One Bites The Dust
Daryl Hall & John Oates – “Private Eyes
Chicago – “Hard To Say I’m Sorry
Daryl Hall & John Oates – “Out Of Touch
Duran Duran – “The Reflex
Tears For Fears – “Everybody Wants To Rule The World
Duran Duran – “A View To A Kill
Huey Lewis And The News – “The Power Of Love
Jan Hammer – “Miami Vice Theme

(This list would be a whole lot longer if I included my descriptions of the videos.)

Complete list of columns in which I felt compelled to use “tootle” as a noun, verb, or adjective:

Mr. Acker Bilk – “Stranger On The Shore
Jimmy Soul – “If You Wanna Be Happy
Sonny & Cher – “I Got You Babe
The Troggs – “Wild Thing
The Rolling Stones – “Ruby Tuesday
The Turtles – “Happy Together
B. J. Thomas – “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head
Smokey Robinson & The Miracles – “The Tears Of A Clown
Isaac Hayes – “Theme From Shaft
Sammy Davis Jr. – “The Candy Man
Gilbert O’Sullivan – “Alone Again (Naturally)
Carole King – “It’s Too Late
Michael Jackson – “Ben
Helen Reddy – “I Am Woman
The Edgar Winter Group – “Frankenstein
Marvin Gaye – “Let’s Get It On
Wings – “Listen To What The Man Said
Van McCoy & The Soul City Symphony – “The Hustle
Neil Sedaka – “Bad Blood
Barry Manilow – “I Write The Songs
Dolly Parton – “9 To 5
Blondie – “Rapture
Olivia Newton-John – “Physical
Daryl Hall & John Oates – “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)
Paul McCartney & Michael Jackson – “Say Say Say
Culture Club – “Karma Chameleon
Phil Collins – “One More Night
Tears For Fears – “Everybody Wants To Rule The World

Complete list of columns in which I felt compelled to use “rumble” as a noun, verb, or adjective:

Lloyd Price – “Stagger Lee
Wilbert Harrison – “Kansas City
Jan And Dean – “Surf City
The Supremes – “Come See About Me
The Supremes – “Back In My Arms Again
The Dave Clark Five – “Over And Over
Sly & The Family Stone – “Everyday People
The Beatles – “Come Together
Three Dog Night – “Mama Told Me (Not To Come)
Paul Revere & The Raiders – “Indian Reservation (The Lament Of The Cherokee Reservation Indian)
The O’Jays – “Love Train
MFSB & The Three Degrees – “TSOP (The Sound Of Philadelphia)
Barry White – “Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love, Babe
John Lennon – “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night
Carl Douglas – “Kung Fu Fighting” (different kind of rumble, but still)
Glen Campbell – “Rhinestone Cowboy
Neil Sedaka – “Bad Blood
C.W. McCall – “Convoy
The Manhattans – “Kiss And Say Goodbye
Patti Austin & James Ingram – “Baby, Come To Me

Complete list of columns in which I felt compelled to use “twinkle” as a noun, verb, or adjective:

The Young Rascals – “Groovin’
The Box Tops – “The Letter
James Taylor – “You’ve Got A Friend
Paul McCartney & Wings – “My Love
America – “Sister Golden Hair
Manfred Mann’s Earth Band – “Blinded By The Light
Bee Gees – “Tragedy

Complete list of columns in which I felt compelled to use “gurgle” as a noun, verb, or adjective:

Sly & The Family Stone – “Everyday People
The Temptations – “I Can’t Get Next To You
Stevie Wonder – “You Haven’t Done Nothin’
The Captain & Tennille – “Love Will Keep Us Together
Johnnie Taylor – “Disco Lady
The Steve Miller Band – “Rock’n Me
Wings – “With A Little Luck

Highest-rated comments (excluding Bonus Track posts’ comments):

1. storkknees
Score:89 | Jun 17th, 2019

Is “Kung Fu Fighting” a good song? Not Really
Has “Kung Fu Fighting” aged well? Not Really
Is “Kung Fu Fighting” one of the greatest songs of all time? Yes, Absolutely

Posted in: The Number Ones: Carl Douglas’ “Kung Fu Fighting”
2. ISurvivedPop
Score:88 | May 15th, 2019

Archie said last week in a comment reply to me that there’s a lot of people who hate “Bennie and the Jets”. I honestly wasn’t aware it was hated until that comment since I’ve never met anyone who disliked the song. Regardless, I’m writing up an Archie-style long comment to defend it. If you don’t want to read this post all the way through, here’s the TL;DR version: I think it’s an absolute masterpiece on every level and it’s the second best #1 of the decade.

“Bennie and the Jets” is a total triumph of lyricism, of music theory, of editing, and most especially of vocal performance. Let’s go over those in order.

There are so many memorable lyrics in the song. “The spotlight’s hitting something that’s been known to change the weather”. “Maybe they’re blinded but Bennie makes them ageless”. “While we fight our parents out in the streets to find who’s right and who’s wrong”. It’s a tremendously witty, uniquely British way of introducing a live show. As an American, I’m sad that instead of the Elton Johns of the world we’ve been saddled with pompous Michael Buffers.

And I haven’t even mentioned the lyric most dear to my heart: “They’re weird and they’re wonderful”. As someone who has been kicked out of many stores for looking “weird” even though I was quiet and non-disruptive, the first thing I can tell you is that “weirdness” is usually seen as something to shun people for. So Taupin juxtaposing “weird” with “wonderful” is an embrace of “weirdness” that is so desperately needed in our society. It doesn’t matter if you dress in platform boots like Elton does on the cover of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, you’re human and you shouldn’t be mocked for your appearance.

Let’s move on to the music. Elton John was never very complex with music theory, though he does include an Ab diminished chord in the verse of this song. But here he finds an ambiguous tonality that makes the song malleable. The verse unambiguously starts in G major, but by the end of the verse the chords and vocal harmony signal that the home key is actually E minor. The exact same thing happens during the chorus. The ever-shifting home key means that the song can be performed in a wide range of moods. The studio version is bright and lively, but the version Elton performed during his Vegas “Red Piano” concerts is a somber shuffling blues; the fact that he didn’t have to change the song much at all during those shows is a testament to the song’s brilliance.

Now for the editing. I think that “Bennie and the Jets” should be taught in music production lessons as a masterclass on how to edit a song. It’s just under five and a half minutes and doesn’t feel a second too long. The stray piano notes at the beginning are a perfect “teaser”. The hand claps come in so subtly during the line “We shall survive, let us take ourselves along” that they never feel like a distraction in the rest of the song. Gus Dudgeon mixes the audience up and down at exactly the right times. I love the fact that the first solo is played on a regular piano and the second is played on a Farfisa organ, both in radically different manners (the first is more like a regular instrumental solo while the second mostly repeats the vocal line), so they don’t feel like carbon copies of each other like in most songs with multiple solos.

Which brings us to Elton’s vocal performance, which, for all the wonderful things about the song, is the best thing about “Bennie and the Jets.” The performance, not the lyrics, makes the song’s true meaning known, no matter how much Taupin says it’s about robots. It’s not about a band, but about one man gradually showing his stereotypically “feminine” side to the world. The narrator reveals that he is Bennie, the man in the electric boots and mohair suit. And this self-outing is done so well. In the first chorus Elton has no falsetto. In the second chorus he barely reaches for a falsetto. Then half of the third chorus is performed in falsetto. By the end of the song, he sings entirely in falsetto, and he seems so happy with it judging by the way he increasingly repeatedly sings the word “Bennie.” It very much mirrors my own experience coming out; I only revealed my bisexuality to complete strangers before telling people I’ve known for a while and finally giddily wearing my bisexuality on my sleeve. And that’s where the song’s true power comes from, fulfilling Taupin’s association of “weird” with wonderful. In hindsight, was there literally any doubt that Elton was gay?

“Bennie and the Jets” is one of my favorite songs of all time. When I hear it once, I must repeat it constantly. (The proof? I listened to it constantly in the two hours it took to write this.) Of the 70s #1’s, I rate it as the second best behind a Bee Gees song that will come later. I am aware now that people will scoff that I think it’s better than any number of universally beloved #1’s like “Heart of Gold,” “Superstition,” “Let’s Stay Together,” “Let’s Get It On,” and, judging by yesterday’s comments, an ABBA song that will also come later. I think all of those are 10/10’s, but “Bennie and the Jets” has more emotional power and is better written to me than any of them. It’s too bad Elton plummeted in quality not too long after – I don’t like most of his stuff after Rock of the Westies – but when you’ve done a song this good it’s obvious that you’d only go down from there.

I love you Tom, but I think you’re completely wrong on this. To use your words, it goes so hard and it obviously fucking slaps.

Here’s hoping Taron Egerton sings “Bennie and the Jets” in the movie coming out in two weeks.

Posted in: The Number Ones: Elton John’s “Bennie And The Jets”
3. storkknees
Score:84 | Apr 8th, 2019

Thank god, Tom is back. I almost had to take up actual hobbies and interests.

Posted in: The Number Ones: Paul McCartney & Wings’ “My Love”
4. storkknees
Score:82 | Jan 8th, 2019

This is the most unfair treatment of a Carpenter since the Crucifixion.

Posted in: The Number Ones: The Carpenters’ “(They Long To Be) Close To You”
5. mt58
Score:82 | Oct 9th

Posted in: The Number Ones: Bryan Adams’ “Heaven”

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