With Vance Joy having recently smashed the ARIA record for number of weeks his infectious single ‘Riptide’ has stayed in the charts, (thankfully) knocking Lady Gaga’s ‘Pokerface’ to #2, we got to thinking about all those massive songs out there that never quite made it to the coveted #1 position – and let us tell you – there’s a surprisingly large amount of ’em.
It may surprise you to learn that some of music’s most famous songs and biggest hits are in fact only #2 singles when it comes to the mother of all music charts, the Billboard Hot 100 and 200.
These aren’t small fry we’re talking either – even well-established acts it seems can be kept from pole position by a catchy ditty from an act without longevity. Well, you know how the old primary school rhyme goes: “first the worst, second the best.”
Bob Dylan - 'Like A Rolling Stone' (1964)
Arguably the great songwriter’s most famous piece, and certainly one of his most influential. A crime then that it never managed to be Dylan’s sole #1 hit. Pipped to the post by fellow music icons The Beatles, who overtook the man born Zimmerman with “Help!”
The Beatles - 'Twist & Shout' (1964)
Speaking of the Fab Four, ‘Twist & Shout’ was beaten to the pole position by another notorious song of the generation, titled Can't Buy Me Love. Given the band’s incredible success and commercial explosion the fact they overtook themselves doesn't come as much of a surprise. The Beach Boys- Barbara Ann (1966) Bah bah bah, bah Barbara Ann didn't take our hand to first place with its innovative vocal harmonies, yet over the years, it’s managed to become one of the group’s more recognisable numbers.
Johnny Cash - 'A Boy Named Sue' (1969)
Originally written by Shel Siversteen, and made famous by Johnny Cash, the black comedy narrative of ‘A Boy Named Sue’ was released in 1969 after Johnny Cash's famous performance at San Quentin State Prison; but failed to grace the very top of the Billboard Hot Charts.
10cc- 'I'm Not In Love' (1975)
The British group’s paean to not being head over heels in love (hint: they are) is often hailed as a masterpiece in pop production. Though it was a success in the UK and there were hopes it would be replicated in the US, it only ever made it to #2 in 1975. The Eagles, Bee Gees and Van McCoy all kept it from the top spot for its three week run to the top.
The Sex Pistols – 'God Save The Queen' (1977)
The punk anthem is possibly the most famous song on the list. The vicious attack on the monarchy as a “fascist regime” turned out to be prophetic, after allegations that the charts had been fixed to prevent the controversial song from reaching #1 in the BBC’s official singles chart, despite being banned by the radio station during the Queen’s Silver Jubilee.
Village People – 'Y.M.C.A.' (1979)
Everyone knows the dance, the chorus and the costumes, but it’s less common knowledge that the song that became synonymous with Village People and the disco era was never a US #1 hit!
Air Supply - 'All Out Of Love' (1980)
Though it may be some forlorn lover’s #1 song to cry them to sleep to, the Australian soft rock duo never cracked the top of the charts. Meanwhile it only managed to chart in the Top 5 of its native country, as well as in Europe.
John Lennon - 'Woman' (1981)
Lennon’s ode to Yoko Ono appeared ready to rise to #1 after a week at #2; however, Blondie’s “Rapture” unexpectedly leaped from number #6 to the top spot in the same week. Even more unexpectedly was the country where the single received the most commercial success, New Zealand, where “Woman” sat atop the charts for five consecutive weeks.
Rolling Stones - 'Start Me Up' (1981)
While Australia put the song at the top of their charts, the US left the single stalled at #2 behind Christopher Cross’ 'Arthur’s Theme' (Who? What? Yeah, we know). Interestingly the Stones hit also peaked at #7 in the UK, where it remains the last Top 10 single for rock’s elder statemen had in their native country.
Cyndi Lauper – 'Girls Just Wanna Have Fun' (1983)
The new wave pop star’s ode to female frolicking may grace karaoke machines and the nostalgic memories of people all over the globe, but never established itself as a firmament of the American charts. Lauper’s breakout song spent only two weeks at #2, though it went on to become one of the most widely acclaimed songs of the decade.
Nena - '99 Luftballons' (1984)
Covered well over 99 times around the world since 1984, it was the original German version that the American audience preferred. Well, not as much as Van Halen’s “Jump” which kept it from becoming #1, but nevertheless its still the highest Billboard charting German song in US history.
Bruce Springsteen - 'Dancing In The Dark' (1984)
The Boss’ highest charting US spent a whole month slumming it at #2 while Duran Duran's "The Reflex" and Prince's "When Doves Cry" both eclipsed the single. Interestingly here in Australia, the song peaked at #5 but remained on the charts for most of 1984 and was the nation’s highest selling single of the year.
Prince - 'Purple Rain' (1984)
Though the album of the same name was a consistent chart-topper in the same year the movie was released, as a single ‘Purple Rain’ never made it to #1. Two more singles from the same album however, “When Doves Cry” and “Let’s Go Crazy’ both flew into #1 position.
Madonna - 'Material Girl' (1985)
The world’s most famous female pop star has quite a few great singles that peaked at #2, including "Express Yourself," "Frozen," "Cherish" - but having “Material Girl” missing the top spot was a particular embarrassment. Why? Because it was rejected by REO Speedwagon's "Can't Fight This Feeling."
Crowded House – 'Don’t Dream It’s Over' (1986)
The NZ-bred, Australian-adopted trio’s widescreen anthem is one of their signature tunes and biggest international hit. In the Billoard chart, it sat aloft such musical luminaries as U2, Madonna and Prince, but the song couldn’t dethrone Aretha Franklin. Interestingly in a 2001 poll by APRA, the song came in number two of the greatest New Zealand songs of all time. Always a bridesmaid…
The Cure - 'Lovesong' (1989)
Released as the third single from their eighth studio album, 1989’s Disintegration, “Love Song” was the best US charting song the band ever released but only managed second place on the Billboard Hot 100.
Red Hot Chili Peppers - 'Under The Bridge' (1992)
It might be surprising to learn that the funky monks’ most iconic song, with its recognisable guitar intro, never managed to reach the top of the charts. The real slap in the face? For 21 of its 26 weeks it was kept from #1 by a pair of kids who wore their clothes backwards, namely Kriss Kross and their hit ‘Jump’. Who’s laughing now?
Radiohead - 'Creep' (1993) (US Billboard Alternative Charts)
Interestingly enough the 1993 single was the Oxford quintet’s most successful in the US charts to date. Their next highest chart entry was with “Lotus Flower”, which entered the Top 50 but didn’t get anywhere close to the band’s breakout single. Thom Yorke has since joked about the song’s success, saying his home is “the house that ‘Creep’ built.”
Dr Dre ft. Snoop Dog - 'Nuthin' But A G Thang' (1993)
It’s most certainly a sign of the times that “Informer” the cheesy neo-rap from novelty artist Snow managed to keep this influential and historic G-Funk cut from top position. The privilege of retrospect can be a bitter thing indeed.
Eminem - 'Without Me' (2002)
Marshall Mathers’ ‘welcome back’ track dominated charts all over the world but never managed the same status in his home country. The white rapper wedged between a spate of 90s rappers the likes of P. Diddy, Cam’ron and, in pole position, Nelly with Hot In Herre. Still, Eminem’s right, it would have felt empty without him.
Missy Elliott - 'Work It' (2002)
Until Missy’s innovative ‘come-hiter’ hit came along, the longest running #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 that never managed to make it to the top was Foreigner’s “Waiting For A Girl Like You” in 1981. More than two decades later, Elliott beat that record with ten weeks without ever reaching #1.
Gnarls Barkley - 'Crazy' (2006)
The breakout single from the duo of Danger Mouse and Cee Lo Green seemed impossible to escape as it plotted a course for global aural domination. Interesting then that it is not in fact a #1 hit. Who kept the song from only obtaining silver? Why Nelly Furtado’s Timbaland collaboration, “Promsicuous” of course – once again proving that sometimes the charts are indeed, crazy.