The Number Ones by Tom Breihan – Book Review

As a music fan and longtime obsessor over music charts, I consider Tom Breihan’s years-long exploration of the Billboard Hot 100 to be essential reading. Though my schedule can be jam-packed, I either wake up early to read his latest installments, or save them all for a weekend where I can consume every detail after my kids go to sleep. When Breihan announced he was publishing a book on a particular set of chart-toppers, I braced myself in excitement—and he did not disappoint. Here is my review.

In a succinct yet informative introduction, Breihan guides us through the chain of events that led to the first official Billboard Hot 100 Number One. As with each song already discussed in his column, that first hit has its own history; a mix of chance, happenstance, popularity, and the song being released at the right place at the right time. Breihan then dives headfirst into one of the biggest hits–so big that it returned to the summit two years later–in Chubby Checker’s “The Twist.” We’ve all heard the song, and its progeny, but Breihan puts the song in context and examines it as a document that perhaps ironically paved the way for the popularity of the TikTok dance challenges (and their associated chart successes). To those who frown at the power of the dance craze as something that is perhaps ruining the charts, this chapter may temper those feelings.

And so Breihan weaves his way through chart history, carefully curating the list of songs along the way. This discussion of the Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” and the attendant collision of sounds, songwriting competition, and culture is sure to please fans of the Brill Building era. Breihan also takes care to trace the roots of sounds and dances, and to wisely call the music industry like he sees it: sometimes predatory, often one-sided, and always in favor of record labels, of course. (Taylor Swift’s battles over her masters absolutely pale in comparison to the royalties disputes discussed in the book.)

What strikes me most interesting is the history occurring alongside each song’s ascent to the summit. That the Beatles were only together for such a relatively brief period for some reason still surprises me, perhaps because I grew up in the era where their rereleases dominated album sales. Briehan discusses more than Beatlemania, but how the band’s popularity and creative decision-making impacted American popular music for years to come. The chapter on “Where Did Our Love Go?” is both a case study into Motown’s place in pop music industry and a commentary on what was left behind in its wake. The discussion of The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” is a document capturing The Beach Boys’ experimental sounds, the sonic relationship between them and The Beatles, and of course, the odd fringes of Hollywood that are later associated with the group.

Depending on your age and tastes, some sections may be less informative than others. That doesn’t make them any less entertaining or enjoyable. The chapter on Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” captures the aura of a star and album that may never be eclipsed. The chapter on Prince’s “When Doves Cry” is a character study on a enigmatic star whose chart presence perhaps betrays his musical influence in an era jam-packed with superstars.

Breihan also takes care to paint a fuller picture of industry trends, sometimes to explain a song’s success, and other times to put the song in context along other lower performing songs. His concise explanation of record label tactics to induce record sales instead of sales of a particular single serve as a reminder of both the power and the innacuracy of the Hot 100. In so doing, he explains the complicated legacy of Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” within rap and popular music, and the litigious nature of sample-based music.

If given the chance to select the number ones—or perhaps write a supplemental chapter—I think I would add “Just Dance” by Lady Gaga. Perhaps not since Britney Spears (whose “…Baby One More Time” deservedly gets its own dedicated chapter) did a pop phenom arrive like a meteor into our stratosphere. I may be biased because I was the perfect age for such music—college aged, that is—but Just Dance was more than a dance track; it was the bat signal of sorts, announcing that electro-pop was here and it would rule for several years. Lady Gaga took her persona and her music to new heights while competing with current and still-reigning contemporaries from years past that were still able to make a dent on the charts at the time. This was before fandoms gamed the streaming services, before TikTok, and before Taylor Swift ascended, of course–perhaps another example of right place, right time. (Breihan eventually covered Just Dance in his column.)

Breihan’s book is available via Hachette Books and he is (thankfully) still churning out the column about each Number One over on Stereogum.

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