Ever Hot 100 Number-One Single: “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There is a Season)” (1965) by The Byrds

And here we are again, covering another one of the big ones. Okay, it’s true that even though The Byrds found themselves caught up in the splendorous wave of creative, innovative rock ‘n’ roll that made up the American 1960s pop music era, they never quite made it to long-standing superstardom the way that their contemporaries The Beatles and Rolling Stones did. Nonetheless, I think that even though “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There is a Season)” doesn’t exactly see eye-to-eye with “Can’t Buy Me Love” on the level of commercial appeal and influence, it does – to me at least – represent a crucial kind of sound that defines the direction that 60s pop music had been heading for a while.

The background to this particular record is probably one of the most interesting I’ve come across in this challenge so far. The origins of this song go back the furthest of pretty much every other record I’ve ever encountered – specifically from the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, from a passage that dates somewhere between the 3rd and 10th centuries BC. While nearly every line of the song is lifted directly from this passage, the arrangement we know and love today was composed by legendary songwriter and activist Pete Seeger sometime in the late 50s. The first recorded version of this song, simply titled “To Everything There is a Season”, came from the folk group The Limeliters in 1962. Roger McGuinn, previously a backing musician for The Limeliters, would go on to help form The Byrds the following year… you can probably see where this is going.

The folk rock version of this time was soon adapted by The Byrds in 1965, as a sort of follow-up to their previous number-one single, a psychedelic cover of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man”. While “Mr. Tambourine Man” reached number one for one week earlier that summer, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” would prove to become an even greater success for The Byrds, topping the charts for three straight weeks in the winter of ’65. It’s undoubtedly of no great coincidence that it would achieve this feat during a time when the escalation of the Vietnam war became increasingly relevant, complete with mounting tensions over the US involvement in the war. There are a number of elements to this record that really make it stick, but one of the most crucial is that titular hook. Indeed, it was Seeger’s arrangement of this composition that introduced the “turn, turn, turn”  that is so crucial to this song’s longevity. While the simple phrase could have been the chorus of a dance craze song just five years earlier, here it calls for something a bit more meaningful, namely a turning of the world’s negative forces.

In following very closely with the original text as content for its lyrics, “Turn! Turn! Turn!”, as a result, feels very traditional and folksy in general appearance. With its subversion of the typical verse-chorus-verse narrative, each line of the song seem to flow in and out of each other seamlessly. While anchored to its overarching moral (‘To everything… there is a season… and a time to every purpose under heaven”), the lyrics also rely on a series of dichotomies to further amplify this general sentiment and how it relates to the world around us. Where there is a “time to be born”, there is also “a time to die”; where there is a “time to cast away stones”, it is also vital to “gather stones together”. Besides the repetition of its chorus, there is only one other line that repeats itself through the course of the song: “a time for peace”. Furthermore, it is notable that when it is repeated, it is at the end of the final verse, followed by “I swear it’s not too late”, the only other original line from Seeger. This really nails in the immediacy with which communities and individuals must organize to create some real, concrete changes in the world around us.

The jangly, psychedelic guitars revered in The Byrds’ cover of “Mr. Tambourine Man” make their return here, and frankly I find them to be much sharper and resilient in this particular recording. Also just like “Tambourine”, the group employs excellent use of their signature vocal harmonies, which are just so sumptuous and beautiful here. Overall, though, it’s remarkably telling just how relevant a song with lyrics such as these remains to be in today’s social and political climate – especially considering that its lyrics span over two millenniums! It is one of the numerous pleas for peace and tolerance that popped up in popular music during these tumultuous times, and it’s probably one of the best. I may not be the biggest fan of The Byrds overall, but there’s no denying the emotional elasticity within the confines of this record that permeate through each and every listen.

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Every Hot 100 Number-One Single: “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (1983) by Bonnie Tyler

Looks like we’re covering a big one tonight, folks! Every now and then there comes a song that, while relatively new, profoundly creates such a splash, it is instantly memorable and continues to be referenced and remembered years, even decades later. These types are a tad hard to come by these days when so much music tends to sound the same – some may say the most recent example of such is “Uptown Funk”, but we might even have to go back further to, say, “Tik Tok” or even further to “Gold Digger” or “Hey Ya!”. Although it may be an issue of time proximity versus nostalgia more than anything else, the 60s, 70s, and 80s seem to be chock-full of these tracks. While it’s debatable just how good of songs “Can’t Buy Me Love” or “Get Down Tonight” actually are, the ripple effects they’ve caused are certainly undeniable.

And thus leads to one of the biggest staples of my karaoke bar-going experience: Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart”. I already wrote a few sentences about it in my overview of 1983’s year-end list (where it charted at number six), but it really deserves some more analysis. But first, background. Most of the record’s prominent elements can be credited to the song’s writer and the track’s producer, American composer Jim Steinman. Steinman, in case you’re unfamiliar, mainly got his start in composing for musical theater, an artistic sphere known for its over-the-top, fiercely dramatic characteristics. It’s not surprising, then, that Steinman would incorporate a healthy portion of these elements in his crossover to pop music. He was also responsible for writing Air Supply’s “Making Love Out of Nothing at All”, as well as Meat Loaf’s 1977 Bat Out of Hell and, later, his hit single “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)”. Eventually he found himself responsible for producing Welsh singer Bonnie Tyler’s fifth album Faster Than the Speed of Night – and here we are now.

Even if you weren’t at all familiar with any of these musical works I have listed thus far, judging by the title alone might give you at least some indication of what direction we’re going here. Steinman’s compositions tend to possess about an equal amount of heartache and bombast in both their lyrics and their arrangements. And yes, they are cheesy as hell. This has often been the cause of a lot of divide amongst more, shall we say, serious listeners. There really is no such thing as subtlety in the world of Steinman. To those who are a fan of over-the-top theatrics, his sound is heaven; to those who are not, his sound is somewhere between annoyance and deep, deep hell.

In case I didn’t make it abundantly clear in my previous brief review of “Total Eclipse”, I fucking love this song. And so did the rest of the country at some point, it seems, considering it spent four weeks in the top spot. During those one of weeks, it should be noted, “Making Love Out of Nothing At All” actually held the number-two spot, which has got to be one of the campiest music weeks in pop music history. Putting those two songs side-by-side actually highlight some of the considerable similarities between the two and, by extension, the aspects that Bonnie Tyler perfected compared to Air Supply’s plain kitsch. Both songs begin with a lone piano piano backing and soft melody that progressively build and build to a gargantuan chorus of relentless passion and emotion, with the title phrase being performed in a relatively softer post-chorus, with added emphasis on one vital line. The final few measures of both are replete with a flurry of bells and whistles, polishing itself off with a clean, cathartic finish similar to how a musical number would tie itself off. Even the “And I know…” motif of “Making Love” builds upon itself in a similar manner as the “Turn around…” pattern in “Total Eclipse”. Steinman seems to be a huge fan of swelling repetition.

I should note at this point that in order to enjoy (or at least experience) “Total Eclipse of the Heart” at its fullest potential, one should give a listen to the album version rather than the chopped up single edit. Four-and-a-half minutes might make the song a bit more palatable to those not used to such extreme pop, but the seven-minute version is really where all the raw emotions are laid bare. There are two separate lengthy verses in the album version, as opposed to only the first verse in the single version. This edit, in my opinion, omits so much of what makes the buildup of the track so delicious. After the first verse, there is a great organ solo that lasts for about half as long as the first verse. In the single version, it transitions to the “Turn around, bright eyes” bridge, and then immediately in the final chorus. With the album version, however, one gets the impression that this is the direction it will lead – only for the “Turn around…” vocals to start back up again and Tyler to continue singing on about her intense emotions. While the first verse focused on her anxieties and fears (“Every now and then, I get a little bit lonely and you’re never coming ’round”), the second verse offers a glimmer of hope in a seemingly dark world (“Every now and then, I know there’s no one in the universe as magical and wondrous as you”). This seems like a bit of a nitpick, but I think it really is important for the duality of the song to be represented and taken into consideration with any true criticism of its material.

As if I haven’t already hammered it in enough, there is so much to love here. Besides Steinman’s contributions (which are definitely a lot), Bonnie Tyler’s performance here is phenomenal. The lush instrumentation ever-present here only builds in intensity with every passing second, and Tyler’s vocals possess the perfect amount of energy to match with every corresponding lift and swell of the arrangements. I initially remarked on her unusually raspy vocals when I discovered her first US hit, 1977’s “It’s a Heartache”, which greatly emphasizes her contributions to the track (one that I find a pretty great listen, albeit way different than this one). Although “Total Eclipse” is a Jim Steinman creation to its core, I can’t imagine anyone else equalling the efforts pushed out by Tyler’s raw and gritty pathos that almost seem entirely an instrument of their own. Although I probably would have enjoyed the track if recorded by anyone who can sing it competently, it’s Tyler who kicks it up to fifth gear and truly makes it a masterpiece. I also have to give it up for vocalists Rory Dodd and Eric Troyer, the two angelic voices who provide the necessary backup to Tyler at the most crucial moments and do so magnificently.

Besides all of these truly kickass elements of the record – many of which you probably already know about – it’s hard to deny how cool and melodramatic some of these lines are. Some of my favorites: “Every now and then, I get a little bit tired of listening to the sound of my tears”; “And we’ll only be making it right, ’cause we’ll never be wrong together”; “We’re living in a powder keg and giving off sparks”. And I can’t forget the pre-chorus, which has some of my favorite writing on heartache from any piece of art: “Once upon a time I was falling in love, but now I’m only falling apart… / Once upon a time there was light in my life, but now there’s only love in the dark; Nothing I can say; a total eclipse of the heart”. Simply beautiful. Additionally, although I already mentioned this in my earlier write-up of the tune, I think it’s worth a mention here: while the verses consist of a series of upward key changes that build and build in passion until the passion is almost too much to take… Bam! A downward key change occurs right before the chorus. The move itself seems almost too risky to even consider, as downward key changes tend to fall flat on their face – yet it works here, and the chorus manages to be just as explosive. Unbelievable.

It’s really not hard to see how a song such as this can be so divisive. There are freakin’ explosions during the organ solo. Along with about a hundred other instruments that are present at least some point during the track’s run. Yeah, it’s bloated for sure. But, once again, it’s a pop song that accomplishes what only the best of pop songs can achieve: it keeps people talking. There’s so much about it that is so darn compelling, and its replay value is unbelievable. I listened to the entirety of 1983’s top 100 songs, and I can confidently say that there wasn’t anything else on the radio that sounded remotely like this one… well, except for “Making Love Out of Nothing At All”. But that’s just the Steinman effect working in full gear. This is truly one of the great pop songs, and I hope it outlives us all for at least another century or so.

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Every Hot 100 Number-One Single: “Lately” (1998) – Divine

It’s always so amazing to me whenever I embark upon a song that, despite performing well commercially, seems to have been erased from collective memory by most everyone. I’m not even talking about “Disco Duck” or “Ice Ice Baby” or any of those other awful hit songs whose badness everyone tends to agrees upon after only a few years of desaturation. I’m talking about songs that are perfectly decent and successful upon release, yet would not be recognizable by most people through name alone. I guess “Angie Baby” sort of fits this definition, but only in relation to Helen Reddy’s other more synonymous hits.

It’s also really unusual when this occurs with a song that is relatively newish, as is the case with today’s song, “Lately” by the R&B girl group Divine. Just from one listen alone, it’s clear that Divine was hugely influenced by the urban adult contemporary genre that had been rising since the early 90s and found its commercial peak around the middle of the decade. Solo female artists like Toni Braxton, Mariah Carey, and Brandy made their entire careers of the decade recording this genre, as did other girl groups like En Vogue, TLC, and SWV. Divine definitely fall more in the category of the latter, especially with the sleek sophisticated production and melodies of SWV.

Background information on this group is, unsurprisingly, ridiculously tough to find. They were made up of three teen girls named Kia Thornton, Nikki Bratcher and Tonia Tash who were signed to Red Ant Entertainment. The trio quickly shot to overnight success after recording “Lately”, which sprang up to the number-one spot just a few weeks after they had graduated from high school. After only a week at #1, though, this single lost its steam quickly – partially due to the new wave of young poppier talent around the corner, such as Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Ricky Martin. The group attempted to retaliate by recording a cover of George Michael’s “One More Try” the following year; nonetheless, even though it was a top 40 hit, it failed to make much of an impact. By 2000, the group had broken up.

Divine is one of those groups who I had never even heard of before tracking down every Hot 100 number-one single, but now that I’ve listened to “Lately” a few times, I truly believe that they deserved much better. The song’s greatest attribute is definitely its chorus: “Lately, been thinkin’ ’bout you, baby / Just sittin’ away, watching the days go by”. It’s so simple, yet universal in its approach to heartache and the way that time seems to serve no purpose in times of sadness and loneliness. And yes, this is a heartbreak song sung by a group of teenagers, but its certainly performed very convincingly. Each of the girls gets their own shining moment and even though the verses aren’t quite as exceptional (the line, “If lovin’ you is right, then I don’t wanna go wrong” rings particularly clumsy to me), there’s always something present in the recording that makes it an overall pleasant listening experience. And, of course, each verse always leads back in to that splendid chorus, which is more than enough reason to spin this track over and over again.

Ultimately, it’s not hard to see why Divine never reached superstardom after the chart-topping success of “Lately”. As lovely and ear-catching as that chorus is, most of the song takes a lot of safe routes. I feel a lot of the arrangement and production decisions didn’t leave much room for the creativity and talent these ladies undeniably possess. Still, I really do feel like the song’s immediate success could be credited to that chorus alone, which just never, ever gets old. I’m sad that there’s little else under Divine’s belt that I can discover from here, but I hope that whatever endeavors these now-full-grown women have embarked on, they’re doing more than watching the days go by. Heaven knows they deserve it.

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Every Hot 100 Number-One Single: “I Knew I Loved You” (2000) by Savage Garden

Oh me, oh my – we’ve reached the “dreamy boy bands” section of this Every Hot 100 Number-One Single challenge. A far cry from a Rhinestone Cowboy, this is nonetheless quite an important era of pop music that we must eventually address if we were to cover as many of each year’s biggest hits as possible. Let it be known, though, that unlike their contemporaries like Backstreet Boys or N*SYNC, Savage Garden didn’t really start out as a member of this international craze until a few years into their success. And then they just sort of fizzled away – but not without leaving two number-one hits in their wake.

So, Savage Garden are an Australian pop duo. They initially found crossover success in 1996 with the lead single from their debut album, the erratic electronic rock song “I Want You”, which reached the top ten in the US. After a couple more less-than-stellar releases, they found their first #1 single in 1997’s signature love ballad “Truly Madly Deeply”. The mega success of “Truly” (which was ranked as Billboard’s #4 song of 1998) found Savage Garden at a crossroads on how to achieve another hit that had strayed so far from their original sound. They were fortunate enough to be making hits during a time when slow love ballads were the accepted norm in R&B, pop, adult contemporary, and even country music on the radio. Sure, this was also the time when Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera were making peppy, danceable tracks, but even Backstreet Boys found some of their most prominent successes in singles like “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)”, “All I Have to Give”, and “I Want It That Way”.

So of course, the only logical step left for Savage Garden to do is attempt to double their winnings with a very similar single in this same style of soft love ballad with dreamy vocals and sleek production. It worked for BSB, and it could work for them! And work it did. This proved to be almost as big of a commercial smash as “Truly Madly Deeply”, spending four weeks at number-one on the Hot 100. It fared even better on the Adult Contemporary chart, where it spent seventeen weeks at the top spot, and 124 weeks on the AC list in total.

Yet, even though the song’s prosperity is due to it sounding like every other soft pop ballad out there, in truth it really is pretty different from all the others. Its obscurity can be found in the lyrics to its chorus, which are just plain strange: “I knew I loved you before I met you / I think I dreamed you into life / … I have been waiting all my life”. Songs about the inevitability of fate in relation to everlasting romance aren’t uncommon, but I’ve never heard of any other song that takes the concept quite so literally. And yes, “I knew I loved you before I met you” sounds like something awfully sugary sweet to tell a loved one… but what does it actually mean? The more I think about it the more it makes my head spin, and years upon years of listening to this song doesn’t make it any less perplexing. At least the speaker has the mind to speak of the senselessness of it all in the second verse: “There’s just no rhyme or reason / Only the sense of completion”.

As far as production goes, this style is definitely not my favorite. Both men of Savage Garden produced this single along with Walter Afanasieff, who is best known for producing ballads from the likes of Celine Dion and Mariah Carey. It has the same polished, inoffensive quality that so many other adult contemporary love songs possess, especially those in the 80s and 90s. Besides a couple cool guitar and bass effects, there really is nothing else interesting going on here and the track just chugs on and on with no variety through its entirety. In other words, it’s absolutely perfect for a couple’s first dance at their wedding, which I’m sure has been performed to this song countless times at this point. Honestly, though, I think the sickly sweet lyrics of “Truly Madly Deeply” get my goat even more than this song, but that isn’t very much of a compliment. This is nice for nostalgia’s sake, but I can’t imagine it meaning much else to any other person.

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Every Hot 100 Number-One Single: “Hips Don’t Lie” (2006) by Shakira ft. Wyclef Jean

There are a few different scopes of songs that I expect to embark upon while doing this Every Hot 100 Number-One Single challenge. There are the pre-rock ‘n’ roll era records, like “Maria Elena” and “Oh! What It Seemed to Be”. There are the early pop radio hits such as “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock” and “Mack the Knife”. There are the obvious classics in the vein of “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “Rhinestone Cowboy”. And there are the absolutely strange and perplexing chart toppers, of which “Babe” and “A Whole New World” are but mere examples. There are so many other breeds of number-one records that I have yet to mention and I’m excited for getting into the nitty gritty of every single one of them for various reasons. However, there is one category that I am arguably the most excited for revisiting: staples of my teenage years.

I started becoming aware of pop music around 1998-99, but it wasn’t until the early part of the following decade that pop radio became something I regularly consumed for entertainment. Once I approached my middle school and high school years, I opted more for contemporary mainstream and indie rock; however, the pop music of the time continued to buzz on around me. I definitely remember this particular song, Shakira and Wyclef Jean’s “Hips Don’t Lie”, being absolutely everywhere around the summer of my fifteenth year. And it’s not hard to see why: released to promote Shakira’s seventh album Oral Fixation, Vol. 2, the song became an immediate worldwide success upon its release. Besides topping the Hot 100 for two weeks, it also reached the top ten in at least fifty-five other countries, also making it to number-one in a good chunk of those. Not too bad for a song that would prove to be the Colombian performer’s first number-one song (Wyclef Jean himself reached the top spot as a featured artist on Santana and The Product G&B’s “Maria, Maria” in 2000).

Although it’s only a little over a decade old, “Hips Don’t Lie” has certainly cemented its way into the fabric of society. Makes sense considering that it’s sold over 4 million copies in the states alone, was declared by Billboard to be the #5 song of its respective year, and is among one of the most commercially successful singles of the 2000s! The first lines of its chorus (sung by Jean) should strum some strings of familiarity into practically anyone around my age: “I never really knew that she could dance like this / She makes a man want to speak Spanish / Como se llama, bonita / Mi casa, su casa”. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found out that this chorus is actually recycled from an earlier song from Jean, appropriately titled “Dance Like This”. This song was actually recorded for use in the soundtrack to Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights (a fact I just find kind of funny), and it was merged with an unfinished song from Jean’s previous group Fugees to eventually form the worldwide phenomenon, “Hips Don’t Lie”.

But what about the song struck such an immediate chord in listeners upon its release? With surprise phenomena like these, it’s often enlightening to take a look at what other songs were in the top 10-20 while this song was making it’s way up the charts. In spring of 2006, for the most part, the radio was congested by a bunch of soft rock, a little harder edged mainstream rock, the last vestiges of the crunk craze, some sultry R&B, and especially a bunch of adult contemporary pop. Hell, just a few weeks prior, Daniel Powter’s piano “Bad Day” had just spent five straight weeks at the top spot (boy, am I gonna have fun covering that one). Thus, it’s not hard to see why the blazing trumpets that kick off the song – sampled from Puerto Rican performer Jerry Rivera’s 1992 song “Amores Como el Nuestro” – along with its salsa and worldbeat rhythms and catchy upbeat chorus would seem like such a breath of fresh air. The number-one singles for the rest of 2006 ended up being generally more optimistic and danceable than the first half of the year, and I don’t think that’s any mere coincidence.

And now this begs the question – how does this song hold up after eleven years? First of all, it’s hard think about this song being eleven years old without feeling remarkably old and contemplative about the swift passing of time and decay of media… but that’s beside the point. For the most part, it has aged pretty well. I won’t lie that there’s some awkward mixing going on here – I’m always surprised at how abrupt and jarring the very first second of the track sounds, almost as if they caught the musicians mid-intro and there should actually be a smoother transition that was left out for whatever reason. Also, it feels like Shakira’s vocals (mainly when she sings the chorus) are distractingly louder than anything else going on around her; this isn’t inherently a bad quality, but it gives the impression of her voice just sitting atop all the other music which, truthfully, is a bit more interesting.

For the most part, this is a terrific party song. The horns and conga drums really add a terrific atmosphere to the mix, although the voices of Jean and Shakira are a bit of a buzzkill from time to time. Nonetheless, it’s tropical and sensual in all the most appealing ways. Additionally, to me, the song wouldn’t be complete without the accompaniment of its music video (directed by Sophie Muller), which is remarkably colorful, demonstrates Shakira’s famous hip-shaking abilities, and just generally cranks up the party atmosphere of its track to high gear. It is this method of listening to the song that practically erases its flaws and transform it into something truly, genuinely blissful.

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