One of the most frustrating things about discussing the Billboard singles charts is how a song’s peak position—the highest spot it occupied on a chart during its run—is almost universally regarded as the permanent measurement of its success or popularity. Any song that reaches No. 1 is embalmed forever as a chart-topper, the biggest of the big, and any song that didn’t is presumed to be less successful in every way. And in the iTunes era, peaks can be even more misleading, as songs by artists with big fanbases rocket up the chart the week after they go onsale, and then have to slowly pick up momentum in the slower moving world of radio to actually stay on the chart.
That’s why I love looking at Billboard‘s year-end charts: you finally get authoritative rankings of how successful songs were relative to each other, based on their entire chart lifespan during the year, not just how popular they were on the particular week they reached critical mass. You can always use anecdotal evidence, or more complicated statistics like sales figures or radio spins to measure a song’s staying power, but the 2011 year-end Hot 100 lays it all out, in simple single- and double-digit numbers as easy to understand as a chart peak. Of course, as my colleague Chris Molanphy has noted, the year-end chart runs from the beginning of December to the end of November, and heavily favors songs that broke earlier in the chart year. But even taking that into account, the 2011 list handily debunks the validity of the chart peak as the final word.
The top six songs on the year-end list are all big No. 1 hits, no surprises there. But the seventh-biggest song of 2011 was Cee Lo Green’s “Fuck You,” which not only was released in August 2010 and therefore enjoyed much of its initial success in the previous chart year; it only peaked at No. 2 in March 2011, when it was held off by Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” the 18th-biggest song of 2011. The upper reaches of the year-end list are peppered with songs that also missed No. 1 on the weekly chart: “Super Bass” by Nicki Minaj (No. 8) “Just Can’t Get Enough” by the Black Eyed Peas (No. 10), and “On The Floor” by Jennifer Lopez (No. 11) outranked a chart-topper from early in the year like Rihanna’s “S&M” (No. 12).
Of course, those songs were all still big hits, and it’s pretty common for a hugely popular song to be held off from No. 1 by a slightly bigger hit, and linger in the top five for weeks and weeks instead. But the real sleeper hit of 2011, The Band Perry’s “If I Die Young,” had a remarkably long life on the Hot 100 that began back in July 2010. A year later, it peaked at No. 14, with the slowest climb into the top 15 in the chart’s history. And the song’s year-end ranking is an impressive No. 35. Other songs that finished well on the year-end chart without ever breaking into the top 10 include Diddy-Dirty Money’s “Coming Home” (No. 38), Waka Flocka Flame’s “No Hands” (No. 45), Chris Brown’s “Yeah 3X” (No. 49) and Nicki Minaj’s “Moment 4 Life” (No. 50).
Meanwhile, many songs quickly darted in and out of the top 10 in the first half of the year, and are nowhere to be found on the year-end Hot 100: Justin Bieber’s “Never Say Never,” the cast of TV’s Glee‘s original “Loser Like Me,” Lady Gaga’s “Judas” and Wiz Khalifa’s “No Sleep.” All of those songs enjoyed a nice sales-driven chart bump the week after being released on iTunes, and none of them had sustained airplay to keep them in the top 10 for more than a week. With a record-shattering 156 songs on the Hot 100 in the past three years, the Glee cast are the unbeatable champs of sales hits with virtually no airplay, and “Loser Like Me” was their power play to have a real radio hit with a Max Martin-penned original composition. Though it became the show’s third top 10 hit, the scheme was otherwise a total bust: “Loser Like Me” grazed the Adult Pop Songs chart and then sunk off the Hot 100 just as quickly as the show’s many charting covers.
It should be said that first-week iTunes bumps aren’t inherently a bad luck charm, though. After “Judas” flamed out quickly, Lady Gaga issued “The Edge of Glory,” which sailed to a No. 3 debut, then dropped down the charts until it caught on at radio and put the song back in the top 10, winding up with a No. 29 ranking for the year. Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” was one of several album tracks that popped into the Hot 100 upon the release of Teenage Dream in the summer of 2010, spending a week at No. 67. Nearly a year later, it was released as the album’s fifth single and re-entered the charts, eventually hitting No. 1 and becoming the 14th biggest hit of 2011.
Kelly Rowland, R&B’s eternal bridesmaid, scored the biggest solo hit of her career this year (after many Destiny’s Child Smashes and a Nelly duet) with “Motivation,” which topped the R&B/Hip-Hop chart for seven weeks and reached No. 17 on the Hot 100. Meanwhile, her far more successful old groupmate, Beyoncé Knowles, was struggling to promote singles from her album 4, and for a while it looked like 2011 would be the year that Rowland had a bigger hit than Knowles. Then Beyoncé’s “Best Thing I Never Had” climbed one spot higher to No. 16, to the chagrin of all of us rooting for the underdog (or simply preferring “Motivation”). In the long run, though, Kelly won: “Motivation” is No. 53 on the year-end chart with a platinum sales certification, while B’s biggest single of the year, “Best Thing,” is down at No. 86 and only went gold.
Britney Spears is the perfect case study for how chart peaks can lie. This year Femme Fatale became the first album in her long career to spin off three top-10 singles, and one might think that the lead single “Hold It Against Me” would easily end up the highest ranking of the three. After all, it came first, way back in January, and was the only one to hit No. 1 on the Hot 100. But in the year-end rankings, her biggest song was the No. 2 follow-up “Till The World Ends” (No. 27), with the late-breaking No. 7 summer hit “I Wanna Go” (No. 46) also beating out “Hold It Against Me” (way down at No. 60). The only 2011 chart-topper that ranked lower was the current No. 1, Rihanna’s “We Found Love” (No. 69), which did about as well in under 10 weeks as “Hold It” did in over 10 months.
“Hold It Against Me” was the eighteenth song in Hot 100 history to debut at No. 1; it sold over 400 thousand digital copies in its first week, the fifth-biggest digital sales week of all time. So it’d be tempting to call “Hold It Against Me” an iTunes phenomenon, like “Loser Like Me” and other “Glee” tracks. But “Hold It Against Me” was also a radio smash, if briefly: it actually broke Mediabase’s record for the greatest spin-increase in a single week. Compared to the longer chart run of the more widely beloved and critically acclaimed “Till The World Ends,” though, “Hold It Against Me” was a quickly forgotten flash in the pan. And that’s a story you’d never get from looking at chart peaks alone.