Hot 100 Highway Robbery: Airplay Only No. 1s

In our ’90s No. 1s Revisited series, we’re writing one article for each of the 141 songs that sat at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the ’90s, in order. Achieving a chart-topping hit is something many artists fantasize about and celebrate, and for good reason — it secures a special place in music history. That said, some ’90s artists (or, more specifically, some artists’ record labels) sabotaged their chances of reaching No. 1 by employing a strategy that made them ineligible to chart, leaving us with an incomplete story of what music was popular over the decade.

Billboard’s Hot 100 is the chart of record for U.S. singles, but it’s not perfect. It’s had to adjust its methodology to changes in consumer habits and industry best practices over time. Prior to and during most of the ’90s, it was a chart that reflected a combination of singles sales and radio airplay. But starting around 1994, record companies increasingly withheld a physical single in an effort to drive album sales. As a result, there’s a long list of popular songs form 1994-1998 that didn’t chart on the Hot 100, or charted lower than they should have, because of this rule, which was changed in November 1998. Such songs include a few of our favorites, like “Lovefool” by The Cardigans, “Killing Me Softly” by Fugees, “I Could Fall In Love” by Selena, “Better Man” by Pearl Jam and “Everything Falls Apart” by Dog’s Eye View.

Below is a chronology of some of the most significant and egregious examples of songs being robbed of their rightful peak — which perhaps would’ve been No. 1 — because of Billboard’s chart policies at the time.

“I’ll Be There For You,” The Rembrandts
(8 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 Airplay chart, starting June 17, 1995) 

The Rembrandts first hit the mainstream with the 1990 hit “Just The Way It Is, Baby” (peak: 14), and 1992’s underrated “Johnny Have You Seen Her” (peak: 54). Their biggest hit, “I’ll Be There For You,” was the opening credits theme to the hit NBC series Friends, which had debuted the prior fall (in 1994), giving the track sustained widespread exposure. The tune was popular on radio in the summer of 1995 but was not released as a single. It later appeared as a B side to “This House Is Not A Home,” which reached No. 17 in October 1995. They haven’t charted since.

“Don’t Speak,” No Doubt
(16 non-consecutive weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 Airplay chart, starting Dec. 7, 1996) 

No Doubt, fronted by Gwen Stefani, was one of the biggest bands of the second half of the 1990s and first half of the 2000s, starting with their sassy, sarcastic ska-influenced 1995 debut single, “Just A Girl,” which received heavy support from MTV. Over the next 10 years, they would release a string of popular songs, none more popular than “Don’t Speak,” which may have set an all-time Hot 100 record had it been released as a single. D’oh!

“Sunny Came Home,” Shawn Colvin
(4 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 Airplay chart, starting July 12, 1997) 

Shawn Colvin’s record company, Columbia, did in fact issue a single release of ‘Sunny Came Home” after its radio airplay had passed its peak, so it reached No. 7 on the Hot 100. But had it been released earlier, Colvin could’ve reached No. 1 with what turned out to be her only Hot 100 appearance. Colvin was 41 years old when this spooky track about arson became a mainstream hit and — some consolation — won two Grammys, for Record of the Year and Song of the Year.

“Men In Black,” Will Smith
(4 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 Airplay chart, starting Aug. 9, 1997) 

“Men In Black” was Will Smith’s first solo release ever. It appeared on the soundtrack the film of the same name, which was the second-highest-grossing film of 1997, behind Titanic. Prior to “Men In Black,” Smith — as half of DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince — had hit the Hot 100 eight times, most successfully with 1991’s No. 4-peaking “Summertime.” And as a soloist, Smith would follow “Men In Black” with a string of smashes including two chart-toppers: 1997’s “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” and 1999’s “Wild Wild West.” He most recently charted in 2005 with the No. 7-peaking “Switch,” as of this writing.

“Fly,” Sugar Ray
(6 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 Airplay chart, starting Oct. 18, 1997)

“Fly” was the first hit by Sugar Ray, fronted by Mark McGrath, and although it missed the Hot 100 due to not being released as a single, four follow-up releases in 1999-2001 were able to chart and were quite successful: “Every Morning,” “Someday,” “Falls Apart” and “When It’s Over,” which peaked at Nos. 3, 7, 29 and 13 respectively. Sugar Ray hasn’t charted since 2001, but McGrath pivoted into television hosting and has remained in the spotlight.

“Torn,” Natalie Imbruglia
(11 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 Airplay chart, starting May 16, 1998)

Natalie Imbruglia, who had been a soap opera star in her native Australia prior to hitting the Pop music scene globally, burst out in a big way with 1998’s “Torn,” a remake of a 1995 song by Ednaswap.  Imbruglia spent the summer at No. 1 on the Airplay chart and did eventually land on the Hot 100 after Billboard changed its rules, peaking at No. 42 in December. She later reached No. 64 with the great track “Wrong Impression” in 2002, and hasn’t charted since.

“Iris,” The Goo Goo Dolls (1998)
(18 non-consecutive weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 Airplay chart, starting Aug. 1, 1998)

We don’t know what went on behind the scenes, but it’s conceivable to us that Billboard’s change of chart policy had at least a little something to do with the breakout success of “Iris,” a massive hit that spent 18 weeks as the most heard song on American radio, but which peaked at only No. 9 on the Hot 100 in the Dec. 5, 1998, issue, the first to allow airplay-only songs to chart. Such a shame for us chart fans that this song — which we were a bit mortified to hear the other day on a Classic Rock station — didn’t achieve its rightful place in history. Prior to “Iris,” The Goo Goo Dolls had hit No. 5 with “Name” in January 1996, and they followed “Iris” with a string of popular releases, including “Slide” (peak: 9), “Black Balloon” (peak: 16), “Here Is Gone” (peak: 18) and “Broadway” (peak: 24). They most recently charted in 2008 with “Real” (peak: 92).

6 Comments Add yours

  1. billboardguy says:

    It would have been interesting how the Billboard Hot 100 would have played out if they allowed airplay tracks to enter the Hot 100 sooner than in late 1998.


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