A couple of Twitter friends recently told me about how, as a fun exercise, they identified the number one song on the Billboard charts on their birthday for every year they were alive. It sounded like a fun idea.
And it was a fun idea until I remembered that I’m older than them it takes me a lot more time to do this sort of thing. Which is fine. I got a lot of time. It’s what I have most of, actually. So let’s do this thing.
Per the Billboard Hot 100 chart archive, here is the number one song on July 14 of every year since I was born, along with a thought or two about each song or, short of that, a tangential thought or two each song inspired in my too-much-time-on-its-hands brain:
1973: “Will It Go Round In Circles” — Billy Preston: Preston is one of many who has been called “The Fifth Beatle.” In related news, just before this one took the top spot, a George Harrison song and then a Paul McCartney Song hit number 1, so he was the third “Beatle” to have a hit that summer. Note: I do not think he was the fifth Beatle. That was Clarence Walker.
1974: “Rock Your Baby” — George McCrae: The second of three “rock” songs to hit number 1 in 1974, along with “Rock the Boat” by The Hues Corporation and “Rock me Gently” by Andy Kim. This one was the best of the three. In other news, I was baptized on my first birthday, so this is a fairly appropriate song.
1975: “Love Will Keep Us Together” — Captain & Tennille: They actually divorced eventually, so this song was a lie.
1976: “Afternoon Delight” — Starland Vocal Band: Disco began to dominate the chart in 1976, but this bit of saccharine — along with “Silly Love Songs” by Paul McCartney and Wings — broke the fever in mid-July.
1977: “Undercover Angel” — Alan O’Day: This is a super messed up song, dudes. It’s about a guy who has an angel or a ghost or whatever come to his bed one night to “make sweet love” to him — his words — and then leave him in the morning to tell him that, hey, you’ll find a real girl out there someday. At the end of the song, you realize he’s telling this story to some chick in a bar as a pickup line, basically saying “hey, I think you may be the reincarnation of that angel I banged the other night.” My god the 1970s were terrible.
While we’re on the subject, here’s a website that will tell you what songs your parents were likely listening to you when you were conceived. Where is your God, now?
Also: the answer for me is either “My Ding-a-Ling” by Chuck Berry or “Ben” by Michael Jackson, and I’m not sure what’s worse. Moving on.
1978: “Shadow Dancing” — Andy Gibb: This song topped the chart for a month and a half, getting knocked out of the top spot by the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You.” Which, yeah, is a way better song.
1979: “Bad Girls” — Donna Summer: There were a ton of great number ones in 1979.
1980: “Coming Up” — Paul McCartney: It was actually the live version — released as a b-side — not the studio version, which hit number one in America. Which is kinda weird. It’s not nearly as good as the studio version, which is way cooler, synthed-out and features vocal effects that made it sound way more new wave-y and contemporary. I suppose Macca fans preferred less adventurous things, then as now.
1981: “Bette Davis Eyes” — Kim Carnes: This is a jam. It and “Rock Your Baby” from 1974 are the only two truly good songs on this list so far.
1982: “Don’t You Want Me” — The Human League: Now we’re getting into music that was my music as opposed to crap my mom listened to and filtered down to me.
I saw the video for “Don’t You Want Me” on MTV and asked my folks to get me the single at the store. I listened to it a ton and then asked them to get me the “Dare” album. I wore it out. There was not much else that sounded like Human League at the time — at least not much that a nine-year-old kid in Michigan had access too — and I was obsessed. Going forward I’d gravitate very strongly to synth-pop and British pop in general, and I still revisit it often. The genre has its high points and low points — I’m not blind to how bad some of it would get — but listening to “Dare,” which I found via this song, is what turned me into a fan of pop music in my own right.
1983: “Every Breath You Take” — The Police: Biggest song of the year. Has an argument to be the biggest song of the decade. I’ve sort of soured on The Police as I’ve gotten older. Partly because Sting’s post-Police career has gotten so bad that it has, somehow, colored my impression of what he did when he was younger. Partially because a lot of those earlier songs are just grating and thin and, frankly, I’d rather listen to real punk/new wave or real reggae and not some weird in-between version of them. Gotta tip my cap to this song, though. It’s a jam with amazing hooks and chord progressions and a fantastic lyric that (a) is obviously misunderstood by a lot of people who think it’s a love song; but (b) was a pretty bold choice for a band that knew damn well it was putting out the biggest album of their lives and didn’t care if people thought they were weird. Still loathe you Sting, but you’ve had your moments.
1984: “When Doves Cry” — Prince: Weird Al never did a Prince parody that I know of, but he did a show on MTV around this time called “AL TV” in which he took over as a guest DJ and just Weird Al’d it all over the place. One of the things he did was play this video and talk over it like an early version of Beavis and Butthead, commenting on the stuff going on. It was pretty hilarious to 11 year-old me. At the end of the video, when Prince is the bathtub, they did a subtle edit and by the time you got to the bathtub it was Al in it, not Prince. He stood up, naked, and like Prince, reached out his hand . . . at which point a guy handed him a robe, Al said “thanks!” put it on and just resumed hosting as if he wasn’t in the video anymore. Prince was brilliant, but so is Weird Al.
1985: “A View to a Kill” — Duran Duran: One of the best James Bond movie theme songs for one of the worst James Bond movies. The 80s was a bad, bad decade for legends from the 60s.
1986: “Holding Back the Years” — Simply Red: I said I like British synth-pop, well, guess what? I also, for some reason, like British blue-eyed soul, and I have no idea why. Paul Carrack. Paul Young. I’ll never make a big point to listen to that stuff, but if it’s on, yeah, I’ll listen to it. Simply Red is the same deal.
1987: “Alone” — Heart: There were a lot of bands who were big in the 70s who went all synthy-and big hair in the 80s in order to maintain popularity in the MTV era and, for the most part, it didn’t work out well. It worked WONDERFULLY for Heart, mostly because the Wilsons wrote great songs in both Zeppelin and power ballad mode and because Ann Wilson’s voice is a work of God Almighty. And yeah, it didn’t hurt that they showcased a lot of sex appeal in their videos.
I suspect that part irked the Wilsons a bit. As if they didn’t have to deal with enough sexism in the 70s, the industry doubled down on it in the 80s. It would be understandable for them to be way over that era by now. It’s also understandable, then, that when I went and saw Heart live back in 2014 or 2015, they leaned heavily on their classic rock catalog and buzzed through the 80s pop songs in medley form, seemingly not being super into them. For my part — and, based on what I heard from the crowd, its part — that was a mistake, because people just love those songs. Love ’em for their own sake, not just because they were in some videos in which some director objectified the Wilsons’ bodies. I love ’em. They’re fantastic. “Alone” is probably the best one. No one goes minor-key/major-key/minor-key/BOOMING-ASS CHORUS like Ann Wilson. Chills, dudes.
1988: “The Flame” — Cheap Trick: From power pop to power ballad. A good song in its own right, but as my first exposure to them was “Surrender” and “I Want You to Want Me” on early-80s K-Tel albums, I had a hard time understanding where this fit. Like I said, the 80s were a tough time for a lot of bands. It certainly beat their cover of “Don’t be Cruel” which made no sense to me at all.
1989: “Good Thing” — Fine Young Cannibals: I didn’t need to consult the Billboard site for this one. I remember going out on my birthday in 1989 to take my driver’s test and listening to this on 103CIR in Beckley, West Virginia on the way there. It was in heavy rotation, of course, as it just hit number one. A month or two later I’d get a job at 103CIR, at first as office help, then as the weekend overnight DJ. Not a bad gig for a 16 year-old. I’d hold that job for the rest of high school and for my first summer back from college. It totally changed my relationship with pop music. As in, I got sick of pop music really, really fast thanks to having to play the same songs all the damn time. When I wasn’t at work, I was mostly listening to things that would never sniff the Billboard chart.
1990: “Step-by-Step” — New Kids on the Block: Really, I cannot impress upon you how much I was not listening to pop music around this time.
1991: “Rush Rush” — Paula Abdul: Less than two months after this “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was released, followed soon after by the “Nevermind” album. When people talk about this time in rock documentaries and histories of the 90s and stuff, they talk about how that changed everything. All the old acts were screwed and everything going forward was all about grunge and flannel and artistic authenticity and all of that.
When they do that, they overstate things in a MAJOR way. Yes, there was displacement in the music industry — Warrant and Winger were not gettin’ the push they had gotten a few years previously — but let’s not pretend that Nirvana or, 15 years prior, the Ramones or the Clash, suddenly ruled the airwaves and the charts or, for that matter, anything apart from a narrow but well-documented swath of the cultural zeitgeist
If you look at record sales and hits and what the vast majority of people were listening to when punk and grunge was ascendant, you’ll find that punk and grunge didn’t even rate. That dumbass “I banged a ghost so ya wanna go back to my place?” song I mentioned from 1977? It was a big hit and, statistically speaking, our moms were listening to that way more than they were listening to anything off of “Rocket to Russia.” In 1992 they were listening to “Remember the Time” by Michael Jackson way more than anything off of “Nevermind.” Heck, even the bands that were supposedly made obsolete did OK. In 1992, “Nevermind” topped the album charts for two non-consecutive weeks early in the year. Def Leopard’s “Adrenalize” topped the charts for five weeks. Millions more people were buying Garth Brooks, Billy Ray Cyrus and Whitney Houston albums than anything out of Seattle in 1992. And don’t even get me started at how many millions more albums rap and R&B acts were selling than the pop acts at the time, which is almost always erased or pushed into its own chapter when we tell our very white-centric stories of musical history.
Which isn’t to say that Nirvana and Pearl Jam and all of them — and the Ramons and the Clash and those guys who came earlier — were not important. They obviously were. They were artistically significant and, in many important ways, did shape the culture of their time and did change the direction of the music industry. But when we look back at revolutionary artists in the past, we do tend to do more than just acknowledge their artistry and their influence. We overstate their popularity too. The masses consumed far more of the stuff that, well, was not that, even as something revolutionary was happening.
1992: “Baby Got Back” — Sir Mix-a-Lot: I was saying.
1993: “Weak” — SWV: I didn’t work at the radio station after September 1992. As such, it was not my business to listen to pop music hits anymore and. That means that, going forward from here, it’s gonna be a lot more hit and miss for me, at least for songs that just randomly popped up to the top spot for a week or which came from a one-hit-wonder. For example, I have no recollection of this song at all, nor have I ever heard of the artist. May not have ever heard it in my life before just playing it on Spotify. But, obviously, folks liked it!
1994: “I swear” — All-4-One: This was number one for ELEVEN FREAKIN’ weeks in 1994. I may have been in college, listening to Green Day and Beck all year, but this song was inescapable, of course.
1995: “Waterfalls” — TLC: An absolute monster of a song that held the top spot for seven weeks. RIP Lisa Lopes. Let me add that, the week before this one hit number one was the week of my first wedding and the top song was Bryan Adams crap-fest “Have you ever really loved a woman” and, man, I wish I believed in omens, signs, and portents back in 1995.
1996: “How Do U Want It/California Love” — 2Pac: A double A-side, so both of these count as the number one. The “California Love” video was iconic and the song was ubiquitous even in — especially in? — the lily-white summer-after-my-first-year-of-law-school circles in which I traveled. “How Do U Want I” less so, but let’s not pretend everyone you knew didn’t own “All Eyez on Me.” This was the era of peak “suburban white guys get their first apartment in the city and put up Scarface and 2Pac posters on the walls and otherwise act like they’re not from, like, Delco, Pennsylvania.”
1997: “Ill be Missing You” — Puff Daddy and Faith Evans: The second appearance of “Every Breath You Take” on this list. Quality wise, it’s certainly in the top two. If only the subject of this song was alive to have a hit in July of 1997 we’d be getting someplace. Sadly, we’re left with Diddy.
1998: “The Boy is Mine” — Brandy & Monica: Another monster, multi-week number one, this one holding the top of the chart for literally the entire summer. I was studying for and taking the bar exam that summer so I blocked out almost anything that wasn’t commercial paper, torts and contracts, but this song was still everywhere I went. And everywhere everybody else went.
1999: “If You Had My Love” — Jennifer Lopez: Craig’s thought process when he saw this album in a store: “Oh, great, another actor who thinks they’re going to have a music carer but who will fall flat.” Um, yeah, Craig was wrong about this, because this, and the whole “On the 6” album is pretty great. Between this and “Out of Sight” Lopez showed herself to be a better singer than most of the actors who sing and a better actor than most of the singers who act. Neat trick.
2000: “Be with you” — Enrique Iglesias: From Wikipedia: “Iglesias has a rare medical condition – usually innocuous – called Situs inversus, whereby the orientation of several internal organs is reversed compared with the regular anatomy.” I find that more interesting than almost anything about Iglesias’ career.
2001: “U Remind Me” — Usher: The second complete blank for me on the list. And it’s even more inexcusable than the SWV song because I’ve totally heard of Usher and can’t believe I’ve simply never heard this song. Or, more likely, I’ve heard it several times and it completely escaped my notice or recollection. I dunno, I was working a lot of hours at a law firm in those days and, after work, was going out drinking with clients and partners in order to suck up to power. They all went to places that had “Takin’ Care of Business” on the jukebox all the time.
2002: “Hot in Here” — Nelly: Fun thing you do when you’ve been working too many hours as a lawyer and going out drinking with clients and partners in order to suck up to power: you get fat. And your wife notices and signs you up for spin classes and you go to them and they always seem to play “Hot in Here” by Nelly. You end up not losing much weight in the spin classes, anyway. It’ll not be until you stop being a lawyer that you finally get your shit together in that regard.
2003: “Crazy in Love” — Beyonce/feat. Jay-Z: Everything was a blur this summer. I had switched to a different law firm AND my wife was pregnant with our daughter. All I did was clean out the guest room to turn it into a nursery, paint, work my ass off and, occasionally, hear “Crazy in Love.”
2004: “I Believe” — Fantasia: I had a baby at home. I barely slept, barely functioned at work. I’m sure I heard this song over the PA while rushing in and out of Babies ‘R Us a few times, though. Note: when you have kids, your life changes in many, many ways, but few ways are more notable than just how totally you’re sucked out of current pop culture. I imagine some good movies and albums came out in the mid-2000s, but I missed so, so many of them that it’s not even worth reviewing.
2005: “We Belong Together” — Mariah Carey: Her first hit, “Vision of Love” came out when I was a teenage DJ way back in the day and at the time I was knocked the hell out because no one had a voice like hers. Whitney, maybe, but she was in a bit of a pre-“Star Spangled Banner/Bodyguard” career lull at the time and Mariah seemed like she was gonna be the biggest thing ever. And she was, of course. I lost track of her career to some extent after that, noticing the hits but not paying her much mind — while appreciative of her talent, I wasn’t buying Mariah Carey albums or anything — so when this song came out and people said it was a “comeback” I sincerely wondered what, exactly, she was coming back from. Had she left? I dunno. It takes a lot of energy to keep current with pop music and, as you get older, it’s geared less and less towards you anyway. Realizing that and being cool with it is a good way to not get too hung up on getting older. If you wanna spend the extra energy it requires to stay on top of the stuff that teenagers and people in their 20s just breathe in like oxygen, that’s cool. Most of just can’t really do that, though, and shouldn’t feel bad if we can’t keep up.
2006: “Promiscuous” — Nelly Furtado feat. Timbaland: From an album called “Loose.” I wonder what Nelly was trying to get across?
2007: “Umbrella” — Rhianna feat. Jay-Z: Based on the fact that I remember it coming out — like, reading stuff about it before it did, as it came out and as it climbed the charts — I feel like this was when I was beginning to climb out of the fog of babies and law practice a bit and actually experience and appreciate the world around me to some extent. Like, my first reaction to this and some other songs from around this time wasn’t “wait, what the hell is that” but rather, “oh, that’s the new song by so-and-so.” Little victories, I suppose. On other news, this was also around the time I began baseball blogging in earnest, which eventually derailed my legal career and launched me into my writing career. There’s probably a connection between those things. Give me a little time and room to breathe and I’ll get into all manner of things.
2008: “I Kissed a Girl” — Katy Perry: Not that I was super on top of things. Every time someone mentioned this song — and it was mentioned a lot — I thought they were talking about the Jill Sobule song of the same name from 1995. I remember thinking “Why is this scandalous? We covered this ground 13 years ago.”
2009: “I Gotta Feeling” — Black Eyed Peas: This is gonna sound corny as hell but fine: that summer I was in negotiations to leave the law and take my job with NBC full time. It took a while to come to an agreement and make it all work, but by late summer/early fall, it was looking good. That’s when this song was dominating all of known existence. And it’s not a great song, but dammit, it’s an optimistic anthem-y thing and when you’re about to make a crazy life change that you’ve dreamed about forever, that stuff just speaks to you.
2010: “California Gurls” — Katy Perry feat. Snoop Dogg: If my daughter ever makes a list like this she might talk about this the way I talked about Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me.” It was probably the first actual pop song, as opposed to little kid song, that she knew and liked and sang. I don’t know how she heard it because her mother and I weren’t listening to a lot of pop radio, but she heard it. Which was kind of awkward because there’s some innuendo in it that is unsettling to hear coming out of your six-year-old daughter. At some point her mom subtly transitioned her to the Kidz Bopp version, which was somewhat sanitized — no metling popsicles here — but Anna’s no dummy. Wasn’t then either.
2011: “Give Me Everything” — Pitbull Featuring Ne-Yo, Afrojack & Nayer: Totally and 100% missed this one. My marriage was in the process of breaking apart that spring and through the summer and we’d ultimately split in October. I was listening to a lot of Ryan Adams and Beck’s “Sea Change” and shit. Pitbull was not exactly on my radar.
2012: “Call me Maybe” — Carly Rae Jepsen: This was an ear worm. I know a lot of people — like people my age who are super into indie rock and all manner of other non-pop genres of music — who worship Carly Rae Jepsen. I’m not sure if it’s ironic or genuine worship. I think it’s all genuine but maybe it started ironic? Or maybe it was not ironic at all. Irony, and music snobbery for that matter, by this point seems like such a relic of the 1990s. I’m not gonna say I’m ever gonna warm to Carly Rae Jepsen, but things are a lot more simpler now and no one who does should have to explain themselves if they do. We spend so much time in the 1990s trying to explain to other people why it was OK for us to like the music we liked. God that was exhausting.
2013: “Blurred Lines” — Robin Thicke featuring T.I. + Pharrell: Catchy as hell. Problematic as hell (liberate yourself, jack). Ultimately not even their song, as Marvin Gaye’s estate sued the hell out of them and won. But hey, maybe Robin Thicke is just a plagiarist. Maybe it’s in his nature.
2014: “Fancy” — Iggy Azalea Featuring Charli XCX: I think was this when “Song of the Summer” changed from something people actually talked about seriously into a joke, the punchline to which was always “Smooth” by Santana and Rob Thomas. Not that this isn’t a jam. I liked it better as “Royals” by Lorde, though.
2015: “See You Again” — Wiz Khalifa Featuring Charlie Puth: I have never heard this song in my life and, per what I said above, that’s OK.
2016: “One Dance” — Drake featuring WizKid & Kyla: I’m told by my children that everything is Drake now. He is the only person who makes hit songs and all hit songs are Drake songs. I know they are messing with me, but I don’t know that they’re wrong.
2017: “Despacito” — Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee Featuring Justin Bieber: Except for “Despacito.” It’s all Drake except for Despacito for those couple of months in 2017.
2018: “Nice for What” — Drake: See, I told you it was all Drake.
What did we learn, kids? Nothing? Good. But it was fun anyway.