Katy Perry's "California Gurls" (featuring Snoop Dogg) enters the Hot 100 at #2, just one week after Eminem's "Not Afraid" debuted at #1. Next week, Miley Cyrus' "Can't Be Tamed" is expected to open in the top five. This flurry of high debuts puts a spotlight on the phenomenon of songs that get off to fast starts. In some years, it's common for songs to debut in the top 10. In other years, no songs started out in the top 40. So, the best way to look at top debuts is year-by-year. It's a fair comparison, whether the debuts in a particular year were high or low.
In addition, two ex-Beatles had the top-debuting song of the year. John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band had the highest-debuting song of 1971 ("Imagine"). Paul McCartney scored twice, both times with superstar collaborations. He had the top-debuting song of 1982 ("Ebony And Ivory, with Stevie Wonder) and 1983 ("Say Say Say," with Michael Jackson).
You would think that the top-debuting song of the year would be a sure-fire #1, and most of the time that has been true. But twice the highest-debuting song of the year didn't even make the top 10. Ohio Players' 1974 hit "Skin Tight" peaked at #13. David Geddes' 1975 tear-jerker "The Last Game Of The Season (A Blind Man In The Bleachers)" stalled at #18. (These two acts had sharply divergent fortunes following these hits. Ohio Players' next single, "Fire," went to #1. Geddes never returned to the Hot 100.)
Five of the highest-debuting songs of the year were by American Idol finalists, an indication of their instant fame. Fantasia, Carrie Underwood and Taylor Hicks were the winners in Seasons 3 through 5. Clay Aiken and David Archuleta were the runners-up in Seasons 2 and 7, respectively.
Here's a list of the song(s) that entered the Hot 100 in the highest position in each year since 1955. The song title is followed by the song's debut and peak positions on the Hot 100. The list is in reverse chronological order.
2010 (so far). Eminem's "Not Afraid," Debut and Peak: #1.
2009. Britney Spears' "3," Debut and Peak: #1.David Archuleta's "Crush," Debut and Peak: #2. American Idol's Season 7 runner-up debuted at #2 three months after winner David Cook bowed at #3 with "The Time Of My Life."
2007. Fall Out Boy's "This Ain't A Scene, It's An Arms Race," Debut and Peak: #2.
2006. Taylor Hicks' "Do I Make You Proud," Debut and Peak: #1.
2005. Carrie Underwood's "Inside Your Heaven," Debut and Peak: #1.
2004. Fantasia's "I Believe," Debut and Peak: #1.Clay Aiken's "This Is The Night," Debut and Peak: #1. American Idol's Season 2 runner-up debuted at #1 the same week that winner Ruben Studdard opened at #2 with "Flying Without Wings." Eden's Crush's "Get Over Yourself," Debut and Peak: #8. This was the only Hot 100 single for the female group, which was assembled for the TV series PopStars. Group member Nicole Scherzinger has gone on to more consistent success with the Pussycat Dolls. Santana's "Maria Maria" (featuring The Product G&B), Debut: #15, Peak: #1. This was the follow-up to "Smooth" (featuring Rob Thomas), which was the biggest hit of Santana's career. Garth Brooks' "Lost In You," Debut and Peak: #5. Brooks' song was from his widely-ridiculed album, Garth Brooks In...The Life Of Chris Gaines, in which he adopted an alter ego as a pop/rock singer. Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On (Love Theme From Titanic)," Debut and Peak: #1. Aerosmith's "I Don't Want To Miss A Thing," Debut and Peak: #1. Lauryn Hill's "Doo Wop (That Thing)," Debut and Peak: #1. "My Heart Will Go On" charted on Feb. 28, when Titanic was in its 11th weekend atop the box-office chart. The ballad went on to win an Oscar for Best Original Song and Grammys for Record and Song of the Year. Puff Daddy & Faith Evans' "I'll Be Missing You" (featuring 112), Debut and Peak: #1. Mariah Carey's "Honey," Debut and Peak: #1. Elton John's "Something About The Way You Look Tonight"/"Candle In The Wind 1997," Debut and Peak: #1. "Candle In The Wind 1997" entered the chart on Oct. 11, just six weeks after its subject, Princess Diana, died in a Paris car crash. Michael Jackson's "You Are Not Alone," Debut and Peak: #1. Mariah Carey's "Fantasy," Debut and Peak: #1. Whitney Houston's "Exhale (Shoop Shoop Song)," Debut and Peak: #1. Mariah Carey & Boyz II Men's "One Sweet Day," Debut and Peak: #1. "One Sweet Day" logged 16 weeks at #1, longer than any other single since 1955.
1994. Boyz II Men's "On Bended Knee," Debut: #14, Peak: #1.Janet Jackson's "That's The Way Love Goes," Debut: #14, Peak: #1. This debuted higher than any of Michael Jackson's singles to that point. It logged eight weeks at #1, which set a record for the Jackson family that still stands. Mariah Carey's "I'll Be There," Debut: #13, Peak: #1. Madonna's "Erotica," Debut: #13, Peak: #3. The Jackson 5's original version of "I'll Be There" also got off to a fast start. It debuted at #40, higher than any other non-Beatles song in 1970.
1991. Madonna's "Rescue Me," Debut: #15, Peak: #9.
1989. Madonna's "Cherish," Debut: #37, Peak: #2.
1988. George Michael's "One More Try," Debut: #40, Peak: #1.Michael Jackson's "I Just Can't Stop Loving You," Debut: #37, Peak: #1. This was Jackson's first release following his record-breaking global success with Thriller. Siedah Garrett, who sang the backup vocal, was also featured on Jackson's 1988 hit "Man In The Mirror" (which she co-wrote). USA for Africa's "We Are The World," Debut: #21, Peak: #1. This humanitarian anthem logged four weeks at #1 (as many as any single that year) and went on to win Grammys for Record and Song of the Year. Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie co-wrote the song. Michael Jackson's "Thriller," Debut: #20, Peak: #4. The seventh single from Jackson's blockbuster, Thriller, was the highest-debuting single of the 1980s. Rod Temperton wrote the song. Paul McCartney & Michael Jackson's "Say, Say, Say," Debut: #26, Peak: #1. This song had a "passing of the torch" symbolism: a member of the top group of the '60s teaming up with the top star of the '80s. The two megastars co-wrote the song and co-starred as old-time vaudevillians in the video.
1981. Styx's "The Best Of Times," Debut: #31, Peak: #3.Bruce Springsteen's "Hungry Heart," Debut: #30, Peak: #5. This song became Springsteen's first top 10 hit. It took his rock essence and gave it broader pop appeal, setting the stage for his massive success with Born In The U.S.A.
1979. The Bee Gees' "Tragedy," Debut: #29, Peak: #1.The Bee Gees' "Too Much Heaven," Debut: #35, Peak: #1. This was the brothers' first release following their massive success with the music from Saturday Night Fever.
1977. Marvin Gaye's "Got To Give It Up (Pt. I)," Debut: #50, Peak: #1.Stevie Wonder's "I Wish," Debut: #40, Peak: #1. This was the first single from Wonder's blockbuster album Songs In The Key Of Life. The album was in its eighth week at #1 when this song made its debut. The album would log six more weeks on top and win the Grammy for Album of the Year.
1975. David Geddes' "The Last Game Of The Season (A Blind Man In The Bleachers)," Debut: #44, Peak: #18.
1974. Ohio Players, "Skin Tight," Debut: #45, Peak: #13.Roberta Flack, "Killing Me Softly With His Song," Debut: #54, Peak: #1. This superb single logged five weeks at #1 (more than any other hit that year). It went on to win Grammys for Record and Song of the Year. Fugees scored with a hip-hop update in 1996.
1972. Al Green, "Look What You Done For Me," Debut: #44, Peak: #4.John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band's "Imagine," Debut: #20, Peak: #3. Lennon's Imagine album was already #2 on The Billboard 200 by the time the title track was finally released as a single. That explains its lofty debut, the highest ever for a single by an ex-Beatle. The Beatles' "Let It Be," Debut: #6, Peak: #1. The Beatles' next-to-last single (while they were a current act) was the highest-debuting single of the 1970s. The Beatles' "Hey Jude," Debut: #10, Peak: #1. This smash logged nine weeks at #1, longer than any other Beatles hit. Only one other single from the 1960s spent as many weeks at #1: Percy Faith's shimmering 1960 instrumental "The Theme From 'A Summer Place.'" The Monkees' "A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You," Debut: #32, Peak: #2. This was the group's follow-up to their #1 smash "I'm A Believer." Neil Diamond wrote both songs. He also had a pair of top 10 hits as an artist in 1966-1967, "Cherry, Cherry" and "Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon."
1966. The Beatles' "Nowhere Man," Debut: #25, Peak: #3.
1965. Herman's Hermits' "Mrs. Brown, You've Got A Lovely Daughter," Debut: #12, Peak: #1.The Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night," Debut: #21, Peak: #1. This was the title song to the Beatles' first movie. It was the first rock song to receive a Grammy nomination as Song of the Year. (Given how resistant Grammy voters were to rock in those days, this was a real breakthrough.)
1963. The 4 Seasons' "Walk Like A Man," Debut: #40, Peak: #1.Brenda Lee's "All Alone Am I," Debut: #50, Peak: #3. Lee was the only female solo artist to have the year's top-debuting single from 1955 to 1972.
1961. Elvis Presley's "Surrender," Debut: #24, Peak: #1.Elvis Presley's "Are You Lonesome To-night?," Debut: #35, Peak: #1. A woman named Vaughn Deleath was the first artist to have a hit with this song, way back in 1927. Presley's version logged six weeks at #1, making it his biggest hit of the '60s.
1959. Elvis Presley's "I Need Your Love Tonight," Debut: #33, Peak: #4.Elvis Presley's "Jailhouse Rock," Debut: #4, Peak: #1. Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller wrote this smash, which was the title song of Presley's third movie. The B-side, "Treat Me Nice," was also listed. Elvis Presley's "Love Me Tender," Debut: #2, Peak: #1. This was the title song to Presley's first movie. It was the highest-debuting single from 1955 to 1959.
1955. "Tennessee" Ernie Ford's "Sixteen Tons," Debut: #5, Peak: #1.Celine Dion & R. Kelly's "I'm Your Angel" also opened at #1 in 1998, but Billboard doesn't count it as an official #1 debut. The reason is pretty complicated. The song bowed at #1 the week that Billboard changed its rules and allowed songs that weren't commercially available as singles to make the Hot 100. But "I'm Your Angel" had enough points to appear on a "test-run" Hot 100 chart (utilizing the revised methodology) that Billboard prepared the previous week. So the magazine's chart gurus can be certain that it wouldn't have debuted at #1 if the new methodology had been in place the week before.
Hat Tip: Joel Whitburn's Top 10 Singles Charts 1955-2000, which shows the top 10 for every week in that time frame, as well as the top debuts and biggest movers of each year, was a tremendous help in preparing this column. Here's a link to Joel's site.