Welcome to Part 1 of a trawl through the biggest… not necessarily the best…
… singles and albums of all time.
My first thought was a continuation of my explanation of British culture through a look at the UKs biggest selling singles; hitting the sweetspot of music, nostalgia and statistics.
Why stop there though? Given the make up of the TNOCS family, it’s only right to do the same for the US, and to give albums their due as well.
I’ll kick off on home turf: With the UKs 100 Biggest Selling Singles.
That runs to 179 entries. But to keep things simple I’ll stick to the top 100.
It’s unlikely that anything will have changed within the 100 in the intervening months. As the OCC points out, the most recent single to the million mark is Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” reaching the milestone in November 2022, two years since the last to do so.
Before we really get into the stats, Let’s start – in best chart format – with a countdown of the Top 10. For the full list, please refer to the link. No prizes for guessing what’s at #1!
Last Christmas / Everything She Wants
She Loves You
Rivers Of Babylon /Brown Girl In The Ring
Frankie Goes To Hollywood
Mull of Kintyre / Girls’ School
Do They Know Its Christmas
Something About The Way You Look Tonight / Candle In The Wind ’97
The top three prove that it isn’t just about the music. Death proves a powerful motivating factor in different ways.
- It may officially be a double A-side, but we all know which side was driving Elton’s sales, and what was behind it.
- Band Aid was Bob Geldof’s response to distressing scenes of the famine in Ethiopia on the news.
- “Bohemian Rhapsody” was already placed around the all time top 20 but Freddie Mercury’s death drove another wave of sales to top the charts for a 2nd time, become the 2nd biggest selling single of 1991 and move up to 2nd on the all time list until Elton knocked it back down a spot.
So what are the other factors to making the list?
Being The Beatles helps. Leading the way with five entries, and with John and Paul (as part of Wings,) both making a 6th post Beatles appearance.
The next best may surprise you; Pharrell and Rihanna appearing three times each. Both of which lead onto other important factors:
There’s the modern phenomenon of the ‘featuring’ credit. They both score with a solo outing; “Happy” (#8) and “Only Girl (In The World)” (#100). But Pharrell’s other entries come as featured artist on “Blurred Lines” (#24) and “Get Lucky” (#45).
While Rihanna takes the lead on “We Found Love” featuring Calvin Harris (#51), and provides support to Eminem on “Love The Way You Lie” (#75).
There are 16 of these collaborations crediting a featured artist. The first of these is The Pogues Featuring Kirsty McColl in 1987 for “Fairytale of New York” (#76).
But the vast majority are from 2005 onwards:
An example of the top 100 reflecting the changing nature of pop music as groups fall away, and an ever evolving series of collaborations become prominent.
Back to Pharrell: “Happy” is one of 14 to be culled from a soundtrack;
- John Travolta & Olivia Newton John You’re The One That I Want (#5)
- Pharrell Williams
Despicable Me 2
- Wet Wet Wet
Love Is All Around (#11)
Four Weddings And A Funeral
- Stevie Wonder
I Just Called To Say I Love You (#13)
The Woman In Red
- Bryan Adams
(Everything I Do) I Do It For You (#14)
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
Eye Of The Tiger (#21)
- Whitney Houston
I Will Always Love You (#27)
- John Travolta & Olivia Newton John
Summer Nights (#29)
- Coolio ft LV
Gangsta’s Paradise (#31
- Celine Dion
My Heart Will Go On (#32)
- Bill Haley & His Comets
Rock Around The Clock (#50)
- Art Garfunkel
Bright Eyes (#86)
I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing (#89) Armageddon
- Ray Parker Jr
The majority of these definitely owe some of their success to the movie.
It warrants a double take to see that John Travolta leads the way on movie tie-ins. I can only imagine the confusion of anyone not familiar with his early career to find the presence of John Travolta here.
Aside from JT & ONJ there are six more acts to double up:
Frankie Goes To Hollywood is evidence of the impact of the marketing machine and the power of notoriety:
Relax (#5) and Two Tribes (#30).
Boney M are evidence that the 70s really were a different time:
Rivers of Babylon (#7) and Mary’s Boy Child (#12).
While Celine Dion speaks to the power of a lung busting weepie; Think Twice (#57) accompanying My Heart Will Go On.
Which provides the perfect denouement to having just watched Leonardo DiCaprio follow the boat by sinking beneath the waves.
There we are again with the death theme.
Christmas songs are another big winner: the gift that keeps giving for these eight;
- – Band Aid – Do They Know Its Christmas (#2)
- – Wham! – Last Christmas (#10)
- – Boney M – Mary’s Boy Child / Oh My Lord (#12)
- – Slade – Merry Xmas Everybody (#70)
- – Pogues ft Kirsty McCall – Fairytale of New York (#76)
- – Mariah Carey – All I Want For Christmas Is You (#82)
- – Harry Belafonte – Mary’s Boy Child (#97)
- – Band Aid 20 – Do They Know Its Christmas (#99)
While their annual chart runs are now largely on the back of streaming, they are still adding sales each year – making them the most likely to keep ascending the list.
Proving that the original isn’t always the best (in sales terms): there are 20 cover versions, and all but one outperformed the original. The only exception being Band Aid / Band Aid 20.
That’s one of three instances of the same song appearing more than once. Boney M and Harry Belafonte also combine Christmas and covers for Mary’s Boy Child. Whereas Unchained Melody is done a great disservice by Robson & Jerome (#15) and Gareth Gates (#64).
They both have TV to thank for their lofty showings. Robson & Jerome were stars of TV show Soldier Soldier – no prizes for guessing the roles they played.
One episode had them performing Unchained Melody at karaoke, which led to Simon Cowell, then an unknown record executive, spotting an opportunity and instigating an improbably successful though thankfully brief singing career.
The follow up is at #122 with their blokes down the pub take on I Believe / Up On The Roof.
Gareth Gates, meanwhile, is a Pop Idol alumnus. He finished as runner up to Will Young who also beats him here with his debut single nestled at #19 – also a cover of course.
Unchained Melody is the only song to be a million seller in three different versions.
But in a travesty of public taste The Righteous Brothers infinitely more appealing version is only #125.
X-Factor is also responsible for the debut singles of Alexandra Burke and James Arthur being side by side at #68 and #69.
They’re amongst a total of 11 debut singles to make it onto the list. Aside from those TV driven successes George Michael was already set up by his previous incarnation. Careless Whisper (#37) may have been credited to Wham! in the US. But over here it was released as George’s first solo single.
Only two of the debut artists followed up their big bang with another appearance, the aforementioned FGTH joined by Bruno Mars who improved on Just The Way You Are (Amazing) (#63) with Uptown Funk (#22).
The others; Spice Girls (#55), Natalie Imbruglia (#90) and Whigfield (#93) did still enjoy successful follow ups on the singles chart.
Which isn’t something that can be said for purveyors of the other kind of debut.
There’s another 9 acts who are here with their first single to chart rather than their actual debut single.
Some of these had only the briefest of UK chart careers.
After Rocky III finally gave them a hit single Survivor had to wait for Rocky IV for their only other chart appearance; Burning Heart reaching #5. While Jennifer Rush having achieved a chart topper with The Power Of Love (#47) did make the top 40 two more times but with a #14 peak.
And then there’s our one hit wonders. You’d expect that having a hit of this magnitude would at least allow a follow up to slipstream that success into the charts before they disappear – worked for Jennifer Rush and Psy.
There are two who defied this expectation to pretty much disappear.
Passenger (who is the only song and artist I have no recollection of whatsoever) had a #2 hit with Let Her Go (#79) but never made the top 40 again, his next best being #63.
Gotye takes the honours though. Somebody That I Used To Know (#40) came out of nowhere to storm charts across the world and then…..nothing.
Even at home in Australia he has never charted again.
Bonus points for Kimbra who gets a featured credit on the track also failing to ever have another UK chart entry. Though she has at least since charted in her native New Zealand.
English is obviously the preferred language of song, with only Gangnam Style (#72) encroaching on the mother tongue. For a country that loves a novelty record there’s a disappointing (or is that thankful?) lack of them besides Psy.
The others that could be construed as novelty are Aqua’s Barbie Girl (#16) and (Is This The Way To) Amarillo (#62) recorded by Tony Christie, with comedian Peter Kay as a charity single.
Bob The Builder and Teletubbies are outside the 100 but do have million selling singles.
You’ll be disappointed to learn that Mr Blobby does not.
Moving onto country of origin. No surprise that the majority were made in Britain.
But American acts aren’t far behind.
15 different nations representing every continent other than Africa, South America and Antarctica (a surprise given all the singing those penguins do in Happy Feet). Much greater diversity than we’ll be seeing from the album charts.
Those of a mathematical mindset will notice this adds up to 116. Its not that my calculator is broken, there are a number of acts that combine nationalities so, for example, Rihanna ft Calvin Harris is attributed to Barbados and UK. Germany, Montserrat and Aruba can thank the unlikely Euro/Caribbean fusion of Boney M for their two.
UK 49 USA 36
Australia 7 Canada 4
Jamaica 3 Barbados 3
Germany 2 Denmark 2
Montserrat 2 Aruba 2
New Zealand 1
South Korea 1
The global appeal of these songs is evident in the fact that 44 topped the Billboard Hot 100, with 71 being counted down by Casey Kasem in the US top 40.
It does leave some room for local flavour as 21 charted outside the Billboard Hot 100 or weren’t released at all in the US.
Leona Lewis and One Direction bucked the trend for the singing contest cohort but they’re just outside the 100, the likes of Gareth Gates were never going to get a US release – see also Robson & Jerome. Then there’s Fugees; Killing Me Softly (#46) which due to the vagaries of the Billboard charts never appeared on the Hot 100.
And there’s unlikely to have been much call for Three Lions (#26), a song to commemorate England hosting the 1996 European Football Championships, to get a US release.
89 of these songs topped the UK charts. The biggest selling song never to achieve it is Maroon Five ft Christina Aguilera; Moves Like Jagger (#34).
The lowest charting song in the 100 peaked at #6; Chasing Cars by Snow Patrol (#91). That proved its a marathon not a sprint and took advantage of the download era to keep coming back rather than being limited by physical availability. Its initial chart run in 2006 lasted 17 weeks but over the next eight years it re-entered the charts another 17 times for a total 166 week run.
Another mammoth chart run and maybe even more impressive as it was a physical release only is New Order’s Blue Monday (#77). In its original form it became the biggest selling 12″ ever and took 31 weeks to ascend to #9 – it did eventually chart higher than Chasing Cars at #3 with the ’88 re-release.
The 12″ was the epitome of Factory Records chaotic art over commerce approach to business.
The record sleeve, die cut to resemble a floppy disk, cost so much to produce that they lost money on every copy sold.
The only record in the list that they really didn’t want to sell a million. Sleeve production was soon subtly altered to halt the money drain but the lack of business acumen shows why Factory would be bankrupt within a decade.
Which decade provides the biggest sellers?
1950s = 3
1960s = 12
1970s = 11
1980s = 15
1990s = 26
2000s = 11
2010s = 22
We start slowly, rock and roll was the new thing but Rock Around The Clock (#50) is the only evidence of rock and roll on the list for some years.
The Beatles picked things up representing almost half the 60s entries. It reflects their career that they started off all about singles as their five entries all date from 1963 and ’64.
The other 60s entries show just how polarised the charts were. Engelbert Humperdinck twice, Ken Dodd, Tom Jones, Mr Acker Bilk, The Seekers and even Elvis with Its Now Or Never (#78) showing that there was room for a more mature audience than teenage Beatlemania.
The 70s provide another contrast as the number reduces but when they did hit, they hit big as it provides four of the top 10.
Paul McCartney knocked himself off top spot as the bagpipe laden Mull Of Kintyre overtook She Loves You for biggest ever sales.
Officially it was a double A-side with Girls’ School but it was all about the pipes. Whereas in the US it was Girls’ School that propelled it to an underwhelming #33.
MOK would hold top spot for seven years til Band Aid – on which McCartney also featured so once again replaced himself at the top.
The first half of the 80s ramped up the sales culminating in 1984 with 6 entries. Despite all his success it took I Just Called To Say Love You to give Stevie Wonder a solo #1. Something of a travesty that amongst so many classics it was that and Ebony and Ivory that finally did it for him over here. Christmas ’84 was huge giving us Last Christmas and Band Aid. Last Christmas was the biggest selling single never to top the charts for over 30 years until it finally got to the top on New Years’ Day 2021.
There was a fallow period after 1984 with the next 9 years seeing only 4 entries to the 100 club.
The mid 90s was when the CD single really took off with a glut of additional tracks often spread across two discs.
The marketing machine perfected the long lead in with tracks released to radio weeks in advance to create demand.
Rather than songs climbing the chart it became the norm to enter at their peak position and fall down the charts.
Given that the 5 year stretch from 1994 to 1998 supplies 23 of the top 100 it appears to have worked in prompting a surge in sales. The 8 singles here make 1997 the biggest year. As mentioned earlier the presence of the song at the top of the pile is due to factors way beyond music but pure pop in the shape of Barbie Girl (#16) and All Saints’ Never Ever (#60) show a healthy singles market.
In 2004 the charts adapted to allow for sales via download. It took a few years to impact but the last hurrah for the big seller came in the first half of the 2010s. Despite there being nothing here released later than 2014 its still the second most productive decade.
The next big change in the how the charts are compiled saw the end of the story as from July 2014 streaming counted towards chart position. No coincidence that this was the final year to produce a million selling single.
- As for who makes the singles in our top 100, being a man is a big help.
- Male solo acts outnumber female solo artists by 27 to 15.
- 38 bands appear, of which only Spice Girls and All Saints are all female.
- Overall 40 of these songs feature women, whether as credited singer or as band members (Blondie / Black Eyed Peas).
It may also be a young persons game but there is proof that at 47 I’m not quite past it yet, there are two people to make it onto the list while in their 50s.
Elton was 50 when Candle In The Wind came out but taking this particular prize is Cher. 52 when Believe gave her the biggest hit of her career.
Last word is on who is missing from the countdown.
There’s some big hitters conspicuous by their absence.
Madonna had 13 #1 and 12 #2 singles but has never cracked a million sales.
They may be one of the biggest bands of all time with nine #1s: but there’s no Rolling Stones.
Then there’s Westlife who are behind only Elvis, The Beatles and Cliff Richard in UK #1s with 14 but aren’t here.
No place either for David Bowie, Take That, The Police, U2, Ariana Grande, Drake, Pet Shop Boys or Beyonce (both solo and with Destiny’s Child) and many more. The 100 is an exclusive club -but quality is no guarantee of entry.
Even those big names that are here aren’t always with a song you’d expect. Michael Jackson appears once at #88 with Earth Song. Released in 1995, well after his peak and with a song that wasn’t even worthy of a physical release in the US. As with Stevie Wonder, the public don’t always get it right.
Join me next week for more of the same – quite literally – as 15 of the songs in today’s list will be turning up again in the Billboard All Time 100.
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