There’s a certain romance to the idea of having the Number One song in America.
A song more popular than any other – for a fleeting moment in the pop continuum.
As we’ve seen, some of those songs really stick around and shape the way popular music is written, performed, produced, marketed, and obtained.
So many others, of course, have disappeared without a cultural trace – or, worse, with an unpleasant artistic aftertaste.
Number Nines, of course, don’t have the same kind of cultural expectations set by the public, by Billboard, or by beloved music critic Tom Breihan.
Thanks to his “Number Twos” and “10s” features at the end of select articles, we’ve gotten a glimpse of great music that never quite got the buzz it deserved. Plenty of those songs have stuck around.
But early one morning last week, I started thinking of a song whose #9 peak seemed absurdly low. I challenged myself to think of others like it.
And within five minutes, I’d come up with eight or so.
This couldn’t stand.
So, in an homage to Tom’s book and its “Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music, I’m collecting Twenty Number Nines that were unique, transformative, enduring and (in my view) truly great music.
I’ll spread them out chronologically over five articles. I think these represent a variety of important pop moments that never quite crashed the top of the charts.
And three final notes:
I will not be using this list to commemorate beloved acts that got there with the wrong song. Apologies to Deadheads.
With incredible regret, I must announce that it isn’t “White & Nerdy”, which was the last song I cut when choosing my top twenty.
There will also be one honourable mention, which I will award at its place in the timeline.
I defy you to find me a Number One with a backstory as compelling as this one. A desolate young songwriter struggling to provide for his family writes a song about the end of a relationship. Country artists turn it down, disliking its several chords. Patsy Cline’s producer is interested, but the singer herself doesn’t want heartbreak songs.
She changes her mind, but suffers a car accident. Her ribs are injured and she can’t hit the high notes. Weeks later, she returns to the studio to try again – and records her part in one take, nailing the combination of grief and wistful longing so completely that the world of pop radio stopped to notice the genre at last.
Cline crossed over into country legend status.
And the songwriter became the Willie Nelson we know today,
And “Crazy” became a genre-reshaping, all-time country standard. It has more jukebox plays than any other song in history. Also, it’s the central leitmotif of Jean-Marc Vallee’s C.R.A.Z.Y., the greatest French-Canadian film of the 21st century.
I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Loved You)
“Respect” gets all the… well, respect – and deservedly so. But the title track from Aretha’s first soul album is just as much of an all-timer. Can you imagine being in the studio, hearing her sing for the first time, and marveling at the incredible things she could make her voice do?
The Muscle Shoals geniuses met her where she was, conjuring a lurching, dramatic soul-blues track that turned Aretha into a star overnight and brought visibility to a harder, more urgent form of soul than American audiences had been used to.
“Respect” might be her signature song – and that of soul as a genre – but this song kickstarted a run so important to the cultural fabric that I simply cannot do it justice with words.
Desmond Dekker & The Aces
Crossing over and enduring is a fine art. You have to create something catchy enough for the general public without sacrificing your artistic integrity, and any number of things can go wrong on either end of the deal. Desmond Dekker achieved it with this song and an entire genre.
As far as I can tell, “Israelites” was the only straight-up reggae song to make the top 10 for over a decade.
But Americans chose extremely well.
Using Jamaican patois, his own lithe and emotive tenor, and an enormously satisfying groove to tell his story of impoverished, marginalized Rastafarians struggling to get by in his country, Dekker brought reggae to both sides of the Atlantic and inadvertently influenced several future genres as a result.
Ray Davies was amused by his manager’s dalliance with a beautiful blonde with stubble on her chin. And he wrote a song about it.
From a historical perspective, this looks incredibly dangerous:
- Either you’ve got a novelty that will age so terribly you wonder if Ray’s last name was actually Stevens…
- Or you’ve got something too transgressive to be released to the listening public.
But Davies grounded his love story between a clueless virgin and a confident cross-dresser (or trans woman) in cleverly written subtext, with empathy for Lola’s desire to be herself.
And most importantly:
A huge singalong chorus that everyone in a room will know by the second time they hear it.
The song took off with its message fully intact, but continued to stick around, inspiring a very funny and prescient Weird Al parody, Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side”, and probably glam rock as a whole.
The man who might have benefited the most, however, was their new keyboardist John Gosling, whose audition literally was the studio recording.
He remained with them for several years. He died last week, and is warmly remembered by his old bandmates.
That’s it for Part One!
Guess away at the other 16!
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