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n October of last year, R&B; singer Mario entered the Billboard Hot 100 with his new single “Let Me Love You.” Mario’s only prior hit was a 2002 remake of Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend” (a cover for which “mediocre” would be a fairly generous label) and until “Let Me Love You,” he had been more-or-less forgotten. His new hit was a fairly pleasant song, with a nice enough “your man don’t deserve you, but I do” lyric and a low-key, infectious hook. Though calling it a bad or even mediocre song would be unfair, it’d also be hard to argue it really being even slightly exceptional—aside from a few subpar lyrics and the subtlety of the hook, there was remarkably little to distinguish the song from any number of past R&B; ballads to crossover onto the Hot 100.
Despite this lack of exceptional songwriting, craft, or even past star history, not only did Mario’s “Let Me Love You” top the charts for the first week of 2005, it stayed there for nine weeks. That’s as long as seemingly ubiquitous, universally adored hits “In Da Club” and “Hey Ya!” stayed on top, and even longer than beloved summer jams “Crazy in Love” and “Hot in Herre” were at pole position. When it finally dropped out of the #1 spot this March, it was supplanted by 50 Cent and Olivia’s “The Candy Shop”—a weak, lazily performed re-write of one of the former artist’s prior hits, his duet with Lil’ Kim on “The Magic Stick.” It was perhaps even less notable than Mario’s #1, pedigree aside, yet it stayed at #1 just as long, remaining on top until just a few weeks ago.
Possibly even more disturbing than these two songs’ unassailable campaigns for the Billboard throne were the succession of far superior singles that stalled at #2 during their reigns of terror. Ranging from the electro-infused funk-n’-b of Ciara and Missy’s “1, 2 Step” to the truly explosive pop-rock of Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” to 50’s own far superior duet, this time with The Game on their glorious soul throwback “Hate It or Love It,” these were all more than worthy Billboard #1s, but were somehow unable to capture the top spot from these juggernauts.
This stagnation started with the introduction of the Nielsen SoundScan tracking system, which determined that people like songs for greater periods of time than was previously thought. This system, first fully implemented in 1992, resulted in certain singles staying on the top of the charts for far longer than they ever had before, with Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road” breaking the 36-year old record for the longest stay at #1 with 13 weeks, only to have it broken again several months later by Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” at 14 weeks. Consequently, this dramatically brought down the number of singles to reach pole position per year, as the first two years of the 90s saw more singles hit the top spot than in the next five years combined.
The number of singles hitting the top spot per year would perk up considerably at the end of the decade and the beginning of the next, due to a decline in the number of obligatory #1s from prestige artists like Boyz II Men and Mariah Carey and the emergence of a new crop of stars. But as these stars came of age, the situation became worse than ever. In 2002, a mere seven singles hit #1 for the first time, an all-time low for the chart. Things picked up a bit the last couple of years, but were largely dominated by a handful of artists—the most popular of which, Usher, set new records by holding the #1 spot for over half of 2004. If the pace the charts are moving at this year continues, we might even break 2002’s record low.
So why is this happening? Well, in addition to the previously mentioned surfeit of new prestige artists, like just about all matters music related, the internet and file-sharing most likely have something to do with it as well. As music downloading—which up until very recently, was not taken into chart consideration—started to increase across the board, single sales dropped considerably, to the point where today, the pace of single sales are down 60% from the previous year at this time. With sales waning considerably, the focus of chart results has shifted to airplay—reflected in Billboard’s late-90s decision to allow non-commercially released songs to chart—and though people tend to only buy a single once, they can request the song to be played on the radio as many times as they want. So if songs are played at saturation point by radio for months, they can stay on top for exactly as long as they can make a free phone call.
This isn’t always a bad thing, of course. In fact, last year you’d be forgiven for mistaking a year-end list of the most popular songs on the charts with a critic year-end list. Brilliant, innovative, and just all-around awesome singles like Twista and Kanye’s “Slow Jamz,” Usher, Lil Jon and Ludacris’s “Yeah,” Ciara and Petey Pablo’s “Goodies,” and Snoop and Pharrell’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot” all went to #1 last year, and in the case of all but “Slow Jamz,” stayed there for multiple weeks. There’s reason to hope that when it comes to #1 quality, examples like “Let Me Love You” and “The Candy Shop” are still more exceptions than the rule.
The reason for worry is more about the consistency of sound. Since July of 2003, when Clay Aiken rode his America Idol status to a debut on top of the charts (in a rare case of single sales determining the #1), the top spot has been occupied at all times by rap and R&B.; No dance-pop, no Celine Dion-style balladry, and unless having a guitar qualifies Andre 3000, no rock. In fact, there hasn’t been a rock single in pole position since—brace yourselves—Nickelback hit #1 in 2001.
It isn’t like there haven’t been any rock singles that came close, though, and three of them even managed to climb to runner-up position. Linkin Park’s “In the End” (a modern rock and mainstream #1) did it in 2002 but could not unseat Ja Rule, Hoobastank’s “The Reason” (a song so utterly ubiquitous that everyone simply assumes that it must’ve been a #1) did it last year but unfortunately peaked during Usher’s iron-fisted rule of the charts that Spring, and most recently, Green Day stayed at #2 for an agonizing month without being able to topple 50 Cent. These songs all had everything they could possibly ask for going for them—modern and mainstream rock ubiquity, non-stop video play, seemingly unlimited crossover appeal.
But it wasn’t enough—most likely for the simple fact that there might not be enough stations still left to play these songs. All across the country, modern rock stations are getting swallowed up—either being replaced by supposedly iPod-like stations (basically glorified classic rock stations with some modern stuff thrown in) or switching formats entirely. The ratio of hip-hop stations to modern rock stations is higher than it’s ever been, and what’s more, it’s becoming harder and harder to find rock singles with the across-the-board appeal of a song like “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”—one that appeals equally to TRL viewers and Adult Top 40 listeners. A song like Los Lonely Boys’ “Heaven” might’ve dominated radio for several months, but MTV wouldn’t touch the video, while Yellowcard’s “Ocean Avenue” was a video mainstay for months, but could not find the airplay support to send it to the top.
When I talk about the lack of rock singles at the top of the charts these days, I don’t mean to suggest that a half-decade ago, the airwaves were swarming with chart-topping rock singles. Ever since grunge became the dominant form of rock at the beginning of the 90s, it’s become almost notoriously difficult for the genre to score a #1—in fact, take a guess at how many chart-toppers rock monsters of the past decade and a half Nirvana, Metallica, Green Day, Limp Bizkit, and Pearl Jam have between them (hint: it’s less than one). But at the beginning of the decade, it was still possible for a radio-friendly rock song like Vertical Horizon’s “Everything You Want” or Crazytown’s “Butterfly” to come along with a catchy hook and a memorable chorus, and briefly capture the nation’s hearts enough to climb to that top spot. And it is a real shame that such potential isn’t exactly there anymore.
However, that’s not to say that there will never be a rock #1 single again. In fact, things are looking decidedly up since Billboard recently put into effect a new rule allowing for internet downloads from sites like iTunes and Rhapsody to affect the final chart tabulations. This new system has had a decidedly positive effect for rock singles, as The Killers’ “Mr. Brightside” recently climbed to #11, and bands like Weezer and The White Stripes enjoyed their first ever entries into the Top 50 as a result of these downloads. Most notably affected by this new policy, however, has been Coldplay. Despite a one-year period between 2002 and 2003 where one could not go more than an hour without hearing them on the radio, in a commercial or blaring from someone’s car stereo, Coldplay’s highest chart peak until recently had been a mere #29 placement for “Clocks.” However, due to the new internet downloads rule, they recently scored the highest chart debut for a British band since The Beatles, hitting #8 with “Speed of Sound,” on the backing of remarkably little radio airplay.
Clearly, it is only a matter of time until one of these singles goes in with enough strength to reach #1. The only disadvantage of this policy is that it tends to favor already established artists—so for better or worse, things aren’t looking good for another Crazytown—but it’s not hard to envision a band like Linkin Park, or a resuscitated Blink-182, or some other rock superpower entering the charts in the top five and quickly climbing to the top before downloads start to falter. And in fact, we might have our first candidate for a rock #1 coming up shortly, with American Idol rocker Bo Bice landing in the competition’s top three—the first rocker to ever make it this far, and with a fairly good chance of winning the whole thing. Kelly Clarkson, Clay Aiken (despite the fact that he didn’t even win) and Fantasia Barrino all had #1 singles even before iTunes and Rhapsody made a difference—with that rule in place, Bo would almost be guaranteed a chart-topper if he won the competition.
And until then, at least the charts are currently being ruled by a single bizarre enough to make it seem like just about anything could get to pole position these days. Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” is one of the most polarizing singles of the year thus far, but what no one can dispute is just how weird the song is—the total opposite of the two hopelessly boring singles that topped the charts at the beginning of the year. So even though it’s already May and we’re still only on our third #1, there is reason to hope that the top of our charts doesn’t have to always be so ridiculously dull.
In the meantime, here is a list of what I feel to be the most exemplary #1s this decade, as well as a few of the worst and some that should have gotten to the top but fell short. Understand that these are not necessarily my favorites or least favorites, but just songs I feel do a good job of bearing the sort of standard of what a #1 should or should not be.
Vertical Horizon – “Everything You Want” (2000, 1 week)
An extremely underrated song, but more importantly, a perfect example of what a pop/rock #1 should be. Vertical Horizon didn’t have a hit before this, and only had one lesser hit after it, nor did they have any sort of gimmick surrounding them or even that noteworthy a video. They just crafted a catchy, emotionally powerful song that was just good enough to top the charts, and unlike Mario’s stranglehold, let the top spot go after only one week.
‘N Sync – “It’s Gonna Be Me” (2000, 2 weeks)
Surprisingly enough, among the entire boy band crop that ruled MTV, the airwaves, and seemingly the world in the late 90s and early 00s, this was the only song that went to #1. Even Backstreet Boys’ “I Want it That Way”—surely one of the most unavoidable songs of the 90s—only went to #6. However, if this was to be the only #1 from the movement, it’s not such a bad choice—a fantastic, edgy pop song, one that still sounds fairly progressive today.
Shaggy feat. Ricardo “Rikrok” Ducent – “It Wasn’t Me” (2001, 2 weeks)
Shameful will the day be when a song as light, funny and for at least a half-dozen listens, utterly addictive as this can not reach the top spot. For Shaggy to go to #1 again just a month later with “Angel” was fairly unnecessary—especially considering that Shaggy was the least noteworthy part of both singles—but the world could use more chart-toppers as temporarily fun as this one.
Alicia Keys – “Fallin’” (2001, 6 weeks)
There should always be a place at pole position for timeless ballads such as this. Her timeless ballads have gotten progressively more and more annoying than this one since, but luckily this was the only one of hers (besides the Usher duet) to go to #1, so it’s all well and good.
Jennifer Lopez feat. Ja Rule – “I’m Real” / Jennifer Lopez feat. LL Cool J – “All I Have” (2001, 5 weeks / 2003, 4 weeks)
Prestige duets will be on the top of the charts for as long as they exist, and the ‘00s have been no exception to this—two artists of different sexes who pool their collective commercial potential, if not necessarily their artistic merits, and hit #1 with a charismatic duet. These usually come in two varieties—the cute, lovey-dovey “Something Stupid” variety, and the soul-searching, balladic, “Endless Love” variety. So far this decade, there have been awful #1s from both category (“Always on Time” & “Ain’t it Funny” from the former, “My Boo” and “Dilemna” from the latter), but shockingly enough, both of the good ones have come courtesy of J. Lo—“I’m Real” is a charming, playful duet with a fantastic hook, and “All I Have,” in addition to doing the courtesy of giving LL Cool J his first and only #1, is one of the most emotionally devastating hits of the decade thus far. That said, “Hold You Down” still fucking sucks.
Ashanti – “Foolish” (2002, 10 weeks)
With a couple of megahit guest appearances to her name, Ashanti probably could’ve sailed to #1 on her debut single with just about anything, but instead she even one-upped Alicia Keys in the timeless ballad department, not even relying on a guest appearance to help remind people why they should care about her in the first place.
Eminem – “Lose Yourself” (2002, 12 weeks)
Some of the most ridiculous #1 singles (“Gonna Fly Now,” “Candle in the Wind ‘97”) in Billboard history have been songs so tied to another popular phenomenon that they are able to top the charts on the strength of that association alone. Dedicated to the deceased Princess Diana. Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” is a less extreme example of this, but the explicitly 8 Mile-related lyrics remind us the importance of music not always just being about itself. Plus, it’s Eminem’s only #1 single, incredibly enough.
Beyonce feat. Jay-Z – “Crazy in Love” (2003, 8 weeks)
Proof of two things beyond doubt—first, that two previously established artists (even romantically involved ones) can do a worthwhile collaboration without making it feel sickeningly syrupy or seeming like a cash-in, and second, that a ubiquitous summer jam can in fact still sound awesome after the 350th time of hearing it. Let this song be a lesson to the rest of you.
Usher feat. Lil’ Jon & Ludacris – “Yeah!” (2004, 12 weeks)
Easily one of the most ass-kicking, perception-shattering singles of the 00s, and the one that deservedly spent the longest on top. I don’t really need to explain why this one deserved to be a #1, but I’ll say that a less obvious perk of it going to #1 is that, as the similarly loveable “U Remind Me” did in 2001, it allowed Usher to release a couple of unconventional, emotionally and musically complex and extremely introspective ballads and have them go to #1 largely on the reputation built off of this single.
Snoop Dogg feat. Pharrell – “Drop It Like It’s Hot” (2004, 3 weeks)
The Neptunes must be doing one hell of a job of shifting the nation’s standards for what pop music is if singles like this and “Hollaback Girl” can go to #1. Also, good to see that artists like Snoop, whose commercial peaks appear to have come and gone, can still reach the top spot on a song of high enough quality, which this certainly is.
Mariah Carey feat. Joe & 98 Degrees – “Thank God I Found You” (2000, 1 week)
A sub-par, extremely lazy example of an artist reaching the top spot almost solely on reputation. This would be the beginning of the end for Mariah Carey, though she appears to have recently turned things around—her far superior ballad “We Belong Together” is currently at #3 on the charts, and could be #1 as early as next week.
Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mya & Pink – “Lady Marmalade” (2001, 5 weeks)
Get enough stars together, have them covered a well-known and beloved (as well as sexually provocative) song, put it on the soundtrack to a hit movie and it’s bound to go to #1. Sadly enough, the only chart-topper for either Lil’ Kim or writer Missy Elliot (as well as the far less deserving Mya and Pink).
Nickelback – “How You Remind Me” (2001, 4 weeks)
Actually, this song isn’t quite as bad as everyone makes it out to be, but it’s still not hard to see why this left a bad enough taste in the public’s mouth to not send another single of its sort to #. Blustering, mean-spirited and totally archaic sounding, it’s a shameful representation of rock this decade (though, for the first couple years, not a totally inaccurate one).
Jennifer Lopez feat. Ja Rule – “Ain’t it Funny” (2002, 6 weeks)
“IT! MUST! BE THE AAAAAASSSSSSSS!!!!!!!” The song’s all downhill from there. Enough said.
50 Cent feat. Olivia – “The Candy Shop” (2005, 9 weeks)
Sorry to keep picking on this one, but my god, everything about this song just SCREAMS half-assed—from the vaguely-eastern but totally uncommitted hook to 50’s only slightly sensible raps about “isn’t it ironic / how erotic it is to watch them thongs” to Olivia’s only marginally hott coos on the chorus. Ok for the first listen, progressively more despicable every time afterwards.
Eve feat. Gwen Stefani – “Let Me Blow Ya Mind” (#2, 2001)
Unless we’re counting “Lady Marmalade” (and believe me, we’re not), there has yet to be a female rapper to go to #1 with her own song. Runners-up like Missy’s “Work It” and Lil’ Kim’s “The Magic Stick” both were more than deserving, but the most inexplicable one to miss out on top honors was this song, a ridiculously catchy, incredibly popular song that made Eve a superstar and was the first sign that Gwen Stefani had pop idol potential outside of a rock backdrop. “Fallin’” could easily have given up one of its six weeks to this one.
Kylie Minogue – “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” (#7, 2002)
The last dance-pop song to date to crossover on a major scale in the U.S, “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” was easily one of the most universally loved pop songs of the decade. However, that didn’t change how regrettably out-of-step the song was with the rest of chart-busting pop music at the time of its breakthrough, and it stalled at a mere #7. It’s shameful that this song didn’t at least hit the top five, and at almost any other point in the last twenty years, it would’ve been a #1 with a bullet.
Cam’ron feat. Juelz Santana, Freekey Zekey & Toya – “Hey Ma” (#3, 2002)
One of the best good-timey songs of the decade, a ridiculous crowd-pleaser that, like Missy’s “Work It,” had the misfortune of commercially peaking under the twelve-week reign of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself”. Considering Killah Cam’s previous (and since) lack of commercial success, I suppose we’re lucky it was as big as it was, but other than that, there’s no reason why this song shouldn’t have been a chart-topper.
Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz feat. The Ying Yang Twins – “Get Low” (#2, 2003)
If, as Lil’ Jon has so often suggested, crunk really is the black punk rock, then this would have to be crunk’s “God Save the Queen”—the genre’s commercial and artistic breakthrough that fell just one spot short of total nationwide domination. Luckily, Lil’ Jon would go to #1 twice last year with the similarly innovative “Yeah!” and “Goodies,” but even those feel like poor consolation prizes for this block-busting single being denied top honors.
Hoobastank – “The Reason” (#2, 2004)
Though it’s not quite as good a song as “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” or the phenomenal “In the End,” it is the most shameful denial of a rock song to #1 position so far this decade. “The Reason” was easily one of the biggest hits of last year, topping charts from Top 40 to Adult Contemporary to Modern Rock. And what’s more, it positively SOUNDED like a #1 hit—with the fantastic build up on the verses, andthat universal, instantly memorable chorus. But alas, Usher was simply unimpeachable and the song had to make do with second-best status.
By: Andrew Unterberger
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