Chart Watch

Chart Watch Extra: 20 Years Of Top Songs

Chart Watch

It's still early, but Katy Perry may be on track to become the first artist in Nielsen SoundScan history to have the year's best-selling song two years running. Perry's current hit, "E.T." (featuring Kanye West), this week pulls ahead of Cee Lo Green's "F**k You (Forget You)" to become the best-selling song so far in 2011. Perry had the best-seller of 2010 with "California Gurls" (featuring Snoop Dogg).

This year marks 20 years since Billboard began using Nielsen SoundScan data to power its charts. The change began with The Billboard 200 and expanded later in the year to include the Hot 100. For the first time, the music industry (and pop fans) could see actual sales numbers rather than just relative chart rankings. This brought an unprecedented degree of precision and transparency to the weekly charts.

To mark the anniversary, I will post a few Chart Watch Extras this month. This first one tracks the best-selling songs of each of the past 20 years.

When Nielsen SoundScan came along, CD singles and cassette singles were still popular. As late as 1997, 28 singles each sold 1 million or more physical copies during the year. The biggest was Elton John's "Candle In The Wind 1997," a tribute to Princess Diana, which sold more than 8 million copies in the U.S.

But soon after, sales of physical singles started to plummet. There were 21 million-sellers in 1998 and eight in 1999. In 2000, there were just two: Santana's "Maria Maria" (featuring The Product G&B) and Madonna's "Music."

And then there were none. For five straight years starting in 2001, no physical singles sold 1 million copies during the year. The best-sellers in those years weren't by any means the year's biggest radio hits. Three of them were the "coronation songs" by American Idol finalists.

The iTunes store opened in April 2003. Sales were slow at first, but digital would eventually take the place of physical singles. By 2005, the year's top-selling digital song (Weezer's "Beverly Hills") outsold the year's top-selling physical single (Carrie Underwood's "Inside Your Heaven"). Sales of the year's top digital song increased each year for six straight years, reaching a peak (for now at least) in 2009 when the Black Eyed Peas' "Boom Boom Pow" sold 4,762,000 copies during the year.

Here's a year-by-year look at the #1 best-selling songs of each of the past 20 years. From 1992 through 2004, the numbers are for physical singles. From 2005 on, they are for digital songs.

1992: Whitney Houston, "I Will Always Love You," 3,086,000. Houston's turbo-charged remake of Dolly Parton's gentle country ballad topped the Hot 100 for 14 weeks and won a Grammy for Record of the Year. David Foster produced the dramatic ballad, which was featured in Houston's movie debut, The Bodyguard. The smash was so big it was also the #2 best-seller of 1993, with sales in that year of 1,431,000.

1993: Tag Team, "Whoomp! (There It Is)," 2,754,000. This exuberant rap smash never quite reached #1 on the Hot 100 (it logged seven weeks at #2), but it sold more copies than any other single in 1993. This was the duo's only top 40 hit. An urban legend holds that you can glimpse a young Barack Obama in the music video (at the 1:00 mark). The video is so high-energy you can burn calories by just watching it.

1994: Boyz II Men, "I'll Make Love To You," 1,627,000. Babyface wrote and produced this courtly ballad, which logged 14 weeks at #1 and received a Grammy nomination for Record of the Year. It celebrated old-fashioned romantic values in a "Bump N' Grind" era.

1995: Coolio featuring L.V., "Gangsta's Paradise," 2,534,000. This smash was based on Stevie Wonder's "Pastime Paradise," a song from his landmark 1976 album Songs In The Key Of Life. The result was a blend of hip-hop and classic songwriting values. The smash, which was featured in the movie Dangerous Minds, spent three weeks at #1 and received a Grammy nomination for Record of the Year.

1996: Los Del Rio, "Macarena (bayside boys mix)," 3,747,000. This loopy novelty smash first charted in September 1995. It hit #1 in August 1996 and stayed there for 14 weeks. The Spanish duo wrote the good-natured but empty-headed song. This and the original version were the act's only top 40 hits. This is the only year-end #1 of the Nielsen SoundScan era that was sung largely in a foreign language.

1997: Elton John, "Candle In The Wind 1997," 8,111,000. Elton sang a hastily revised lyric for his poignant 1973 ballad at Princess Diana's funeral on Sept. 6, 1997. George Martin produced the subsequent recording, which was double-listed with "Something About The Way You Look Tonight." The single logged 14 weeks at #1. It sold more copies (in one year or overall) than any other song in the Nielsen SoundScan era. Alas, it was Elton's last top 20 hit.

1998: Brandy & Monica, "The Boy Is Mine," 2,591,000. The sassy and soulful collabo logged 13 weeks at #1 and received a Grammy nomination for Record of the Year. Brandy co-produced the slinky ballad with Rodney Jerkins and Dallas Austin. It was the first #1 hit for both singers. Monica also had the year's #5 seller, "The First Night."

1999: Cher, "Believe," 1,707,000. Thirty-four years after Sonny & Cher had Billboard's #16 single of 1965, "I Got You Babe," Cher had 1999's best-selling single with this survivor's anthem. "Believe" topped the Hot 100 for four weeks and received a Grammy nomination for Record of the Year. It also ushered in the era of Autotune. Alas, it was Cher's last top 40 hit.

2000: Santana featuring The Product G&B, "Maria, Maria," 1,337,000. Santana's follow-up to "Smooth," which was the #5 best-seller of 1999, became the top-seller of 2000. Wyclef Jean co-wrote and co-produced the Latin-tinged song, which topped the Hot 100 for 10 weeks.

2001: Mariah Carey, "Loverboy," 571,000. This song from Carey's ill-fated movie, Glitter, peaked at #2 on the Hot 100. This marked the first time in eight years that the year's top-selling song didn't reach #1 on the weekly charts. Also, this marked the fourth year in a row that the year's #1 single sold fewer copies than the previous year's top hit. "Loverboy" sampled Cameo's 1987 hit "Candy."  The B side was a remix featuring Da Brat and Ludacris.

2002: Kelly Clarkson, "A Moment Like This," 600,000. The first American Idol champ had the year's top-seller with this melodramatic ballad. It's a tribute to Clarkson's talent and likeability that she survived this schlocky song. The song topped the Hot 100 for two weeks.

2003: Clay Aiken, "This Is The Night," 948,000. This marked the only time that a non-winner on American Idol had the year's top-selling hit. (Aiken was the runner-up to Ruben Studdard.) The soaring ballad, which was co-written by rocker Aldo Nova, topped the Hot 100 for two weeks. The B side was a remake of Simon & Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water," which was Billboard's #1 hit of 1970.

2004: Fantasia, "I Believe," 401,000. The third American Idol winner had the year's top-seller with this inspirational ballad. (The song, which topped the Hot 100 for one week, was co-written by Tamyra Gray, who finished fourth in the first season of Idol.) This sold fewer copies than any other year-end #1 of the Nielsen/SoundScan era. It's Fantasia's only top 10 hit to date.

2005: Weezer, "Beverly Hills," 962,000. This marked the first time that the year's #1 digital track sold more copies than the year's #1 physical single. The song peaked at #10 on the Hot 100 (lower than the top-seller of any other year). The video, shot at the Playboy Mansion, plays on the song's dry wit. This is Weezer's only top 10 hit to date, though lead singer Rivers Cuomo made it back to the top 10 as a featured artist on B.o.B.'s "Magic."

2006: Daniel Powter, "Bad Day," 1,936,000. Powter's bittersweet ballad sold more copies than any year-end #1 since "The Boy Is Mine." I guess bad days are universal. The song topped the Hot 100 for five weeks. It was Powter's first and last (to date, at least) Hot 100 hit.

2007: Soulja Boy Tell'em, "Crank That (Soulja Boy)," 2,714,000. Soulja Boy's debut hit sold more copies than any year-end #1 since "Candle In The Wind 1997." The hip hop smash entered the Hot 100 on Soulja Boy's 17th birthday. It topped the chart for seven weeks.

2008: Leona Lewis, "Bleeding Love," 3,420,000. Lewis' elegant debut hit logged four weeks at #1 and received a Grammy nomination for Record of the Year. It's Lewis' only top 10 hit to date. Ryan Tedder produced the smash, which echoes early Mariah Carey ballads. Tedder co-wrote the song with fellow hit-maker Jesse McCartney.

2009: The Black Eyed Peas, "Boom Boom Pow," 4,762,000. This smash, which is at the midpoint of pop and hip hop, was the Peas' first #1 hit. It stayed on top for 12 weeks. will.i.am produced the smash. Remarkably, the Peas also had the year's #2 hit, "I Gotta Feeling." This marked the only time in the Nielsen SoundScan era that one act had both of the year's top two hits.

2010: Katy Perry featuring Snoop Dogg, "California Gurls," 4,398,000. This was the first two-star collabo to top the year-end chart since "The Boy Is Mine." The song topped the Hot 100 for six weeks. It borrows a line from the Beach Boys' "California Girls," which was Billboard's #49 song of 1965. The song and the candyland video are pure, escapist fun.

2011: Katy Perry featuring Kanye West, "E.T." 2,789,000 (so far). This spacey smash has topped the Hot 100 for five weeks. If 2011 were to end this week, Perry would have the #1 hit of the year two years running. But we still have a long way to go. Stay tuned.

Post Script: While the Black Eyed Peas are the only act in Nielsen/SoundScan history to have both of the year's top two hits, two other acts came close. Mariah Carey had two of the top three best-sellers of 1995 with "Fantasy" and "One Sweet Day" (a collabo with Boyz II Men). Puff Daddy had two of the top three of 1997 with "I'll Be Missing You" (a duet with Faith Evans which also featured 112) and "Can't Nobody Hold Me Down" (featuring Ma$e).

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