Hitting the Top 40 is like getting nominated for an Academy Award; no matter if you win, people will always know you as someone who had a Top 40 hit.
Getting into the Hot 100 but not making the Top 40 is like being in the rumor mill for being nominated for an Oscar, but being passed over. The Top 40 (Not the Top 50, for some reason) is that magic point you must cross. After all, people call it Top 40 radio.
Not hitting the Hot 100? You are slung among the trash heap of failed singles.
Finding songs that didn’t hit the Hot 100 is difficult; Joel Whitburn has compiled a list of every song to hit the Hot 100; the trick is finding songs that aren’t on that list. I sought the help of the Facebook group Lost Pop Hits (M.I.A.) to find those lost gems, and along with my catalog of hard-luck artists, I managed to find 70 songs that despite their popularity today, despite the superior quality at the time, didn’t get enough support from their label and therefore didn’t make the Hot 100. This is a sad list, a list of artists who had talent but for some reason weren’t recognized for that talent. Here are the first 10 songs that didn’t make the Hot 100:
1. “Why Does It Always Rain on Me?” – Travis (1999). This must have been what Travis felt like when they couldn’t get in the Hot 100. Despite releasing The Man Who to critical acclaim in the middle of the BritPop explosion, this single could only manage No. 35 on the U.S. Alternative Chart. But as one commenter to my Facebook post said, “Half of the 90s will be in your blog.” In other words, they got lots of radio airplay, but not many sales.
2. “I Know Him So Well” – Elaine Paige & Barbara Dixon (1985). From the musical Chess, “I Know Him So Well” hit No. 1 in the UK and stayed there for four weeks. Riding on the heels of “One Night in Bangkok,” the single flopped in the U.S. Superstar Whitney Houston released her own version with her mother, Cissy Houston, in 1987. She couldn’t even bring it into the Hot 100.
3. “That Is Why” – Jellyfish (1990). I’ve harped on the lack of love Jellyfish has received before. In their brief but glorious career, the group had only one Hot 100 hit. This is one of their best tunes, and it failed to chart. I can’t explain it. Listen, and wonder why.
4. “Have a Little Faith in Me” – John Hiatt (1987). A tender, poignant song by a tough guy, “Have a Little Faith in Me” has been covered by numerous artists including Joe Cocker, Jon Bon Jovi and Mandy Moore. It has been on no less than seven soundtracks. It’s on my autumn playlist. But none of the versions, including Hiatt’s, cracked the Hot 100, although Moore’s version reached No. 39 on the Mainstream Top 40.
5. “I Need Love” – Sam Phillips (1994). I slipped a personal favorite in here. Another hard-luck pop artist, Sam Phillips used to be Leslie Phillips, contemporary Christian artist, before she changed her name to her nickname and went the pop route. It wasn’t successful at first – this song, despite airplay on alternative radio stations, failed to crack the Hot 100. But she won a Grammy that same year, and later became known as the “La la” singer on the TV show “Gilmore Girls.” She still releases light, innocent acoustic songs that you can hum along to.
6. “Crazy Train” – Ozzy Osbourne (1980). I had never heard “Crazy Train” until Chipper Jones chose it for his favorite song when he came to bat at Atlanta Braves games. I can’t stand Ozzy Osbourne, but this song is not without its merits; according to Wikipedia, it was rated the 9th greatest guitar solo ever by readers of Guitar World magazine. VH1 ranked it 9th among the 40 Greatest Metal Songs. The single reached No. 49 on the UK singles chart, and hit No. 9 on the Billboard Top Tracks chart. But no Hot 100. (Mom, don’t listen to this. You’ll hate it.)
7. “Favourite Shirts (Boy Meets Girl)” – Haircut 100 (1981). The flavor of the month in the UK in 1981, Haircut 100 was a bit ahead of the British Invasion, and so their popularity did not cross over to the U.S. “Favourite Shirts” hit No. 4 in the UK but just missed the Hot 100 at No. 101.
8. “Least Complicated” – Indigo Girls (1994). The Indigo Girls never had much chart success, which is a surprise given their overall popularity among the Generation X crowd. “Closer to Fine” only reached No. 52, and “Galileo” hit only No. 89. Their third best song, “Least Complicated,” didn’t make it into the Hot 100 at all and reached only No. 28 on the U.S. Modern Rock chart.
9. “Girls on Film” – Duran Duran (1981). This song even had a racy video to go along with it to generate controversy, but it still couldn’t crack the Hot 100, and neither could their follow-up, “Planet Earth.” For all practical purposes, Duran Duran flopped on their first venture overseas. Then came 1983 and Duran Duran reloaded with “Hungry Like the Wolf.” And all hell broke loose among teeny-boppers.
10. “Sunday Girl” – Blondie (1978). Pick any song from Blondie in the late 1970s, besides “Heart of Glass.” Most of them missed the Hot 100 – “X Offender” and “Denis”, “(I’m Always Touched by Your) Presence, Dear,” and “Hangin’ on the Telephone” (all three of which hit the Top 10 in the UK). Then came “Heart of Glass” – a No. 1 smash in all countries, followed by “Sunday Girl,” which continued Blondie’s domination on the chart worldwide – except in the U.S., where for some reason, it was never released.
11. “Don’t Speak” – No Doubt (1995). You couldn’t throw up without spewing on a radio station playing ska band No Doubt’s non-ska ballad “Don’t Speak” in 1996. It hit No. 1 on the Hot 100 Airplay Chart, but since they didn’t officially release it as a single, it didn’t hit the Hot 100. That didn’t stop it from being released in other countries, where it shot to No. 1.
12. “Girlfriend” – Matthew Sweet (1991). You’ll be pressed to find someone who works as hard as Matthew Sweet. With 15 albums, one EP, and a few compilations to his credit, he deserves better than one Hot 100 hit (“Sick of Myself,” which hit No. 58 in 1995). “Girlfriend,” one of the anthems of indie rock in the 1990s, hit No. 10 in the Mainstream Rock Chart but failed to hit the Hot 100.
13. “Bright as Yellow” – The Innocence Mission (1995). I was a rabid Innocence Mission fan. Their first two albums enthralled me, and their third release, Glow, promised even more. I faithfully called my Top 40 station requesting the first single, “Bright as Yellow” (which admittedly wasn’t the strongest song on the album), and it did absolutely no good. The song barely registered a blip on Billboard, with the single reaching No. 117.
14. “If I Could Talk I’d Tell You” – The Lemonheads (1996). Another example of “Half of the 90s will be in your blog.” The Lemonheads were alterna-darlings during the grunge movement, with lead singer Evan Dando making girls swoon, and their melodic grunge-light music pleasing everyone but selling nothing. Their biggest single, “Into Your Arms,” peaked at No. 67. This one, which featured a clever key change in the chorus, didn’t turn a plaid-shirt-wearing soul’s head.
15. “Stairway to Heaven” – Led Zeppelin (1971). People are shocked to learn that the most overplayed, most popular rock song ever was not released as a single and therefore did not make the Hot 100. But it’s true, and for some reason, that brings a level of satisfaction to me. It makes many lists of greatest songs ever – but not greatest singles ever. It’s one of those songs that I automatically turn the station when I hear it (That, “Margaritaville,” and anything by the Eagles.
16. “If I Fall” – Alice Martineau (2002). The tale of Alice Martineau is a sad one; born with cystic fibrosis, she pursued a career in modeling before turning to music. She performed live in 2000-2001 and was offered several record contracts until record companies learned of her failing health. Sony finally signed her, and “If I Fall” was released five months before she died. She was only 30.
17. “September Gurls” – Big Star (1974). Pick a song. Any song by the founders of power pop: “Thirteen,” “Feel,” “In the Street” – You’ll find that only a few were singles, and none of them came close to hitting the big time. “September Gurls,” which was released and failed miserably, was at least covered by the Bangles 10 years later, who paid homage to their mentors. They didn’t release it, though.
18. “The Killing Moon” – Echo & the Bunnymen (1984). Echo & the Bunnymen found success all over Europe, but that success didn’t translate to the United States. In fact, they hardly bothered with the U.S., with 1984’s Ocean Rain reaching No. 87 without any marketing at all. “The Killing Moon,” their signature hit in the U.K. (it reached No. 9), did nothing in the United States, probably because it was only released as a 12″ single, which doesn’t get a lot of airplay on radio stations.
19. “Once in a Lifetime” – Talking Heads (1980). To most people, Talking Heads are a one-hit wonder, with “Burning Down the House” their only Top 10 hit. But they did far more than that, and “Once in a Lifetime” was one of their best. “And you may ask yourself / Where is that large automobile?…” Love it.
20. “Sunday Bloody Sunday” – U2 (1983). Like most of America, I discovered “Sunday Bloody Sunday” in 1984, after “Pride (In the Name of Love)” hit the Top 40 (No. 33). A lot of good that did U2, who eventually stormed the castle with The Joshua Tree in 1987 and all was well with the world. It wasn’t even released in the UK, but a 7″ found its way into the U.S. in 1985. It still didn’t do anything. It’s now one of U2’s most recognized anthems.
21. “Hallelujah” – Jeff Buckley (1994). Wikipedia refers to this song as the “baseline of secular hymns,” whatever that means. I think it means it’s a modern classic, originally written by Leonard Cohen, but Buckley’s version is the most widely accepted. It’s sung at funerals, fundraisers for causes, even church sometimes. But apparently, you didn’t hear it on radio stations, and it wasn’t released as a single until 10 years after his death. Even then, no Hot 100.
22. “Locked Out” – Crowded House (1993). America had something against Crowded House, too. After two top 10 hits, the New Zealanders couldn’t get anything to climb the charts – including this surprising rocker from the group, usually known for its ballads and mid-tempo numbers. If you can’t get a rock song into the Hot 100, forget about mid-tempo stuff. You can’t dance to that.
23. “American Girl” – Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers (1976). Kind of shocking that the most American song by one of the most American singer-songwriters failed to hit the Hot 100. Even worse, it hit the Top 40 in the UK instead . It was re-released in 1994 as part of his Greatest Hits package but only made it to No. 109. Since then, dozens of bands have covered the song. It’s now a classic.
24. “All Apologies” – Nirvana (1993). “All Apologies” was another single released as a promo only; although it did chart in other countries, it didn’t make the Billboard Hot 100, instead peaking at No. 45 on the Hot 100 Airplay chart, No. 4 on the Mainstream Rock chart, and No. 1 on the Alternative chart.
25. “Candle in the Wind” – Elton John (1973). Everyone remembers the 1997 version of this song, which was a worldwide smash after the death of Princess Diana. Some even remember the 1987 version with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Not too many remember the original version released in 1973, which reached No. 11 in the UK but wasn’t even released in the U.S. And that’s surprising, given John’s growing popularity (he already had 6 Top 10 hits in America).
26. “Isn’t She Lovely?” – Stevie Wonder (1976). One of Stevie Wonder’s most popular hits was never released as a single. The song clocked in at just over six minutes, and Wonder refused to edit it down to a length that would fit on a 7″ single. So it didn’t hit the US or UK charts. Later, Wonder’s record company convinced him to edit it for a promotional single, and radio stations went wild for it, catapulting it to No. 23 on the Adult Contemporary chart based solely on airplay.
27. “Love Will Tear Us Apart” – Joy Division (1981). Joy Division’s now-famous anthem was released in the UK one month after lead singer Ian Curtis’ suicide. It reached No. 13 in the UK, and Joy Division’s record company released the single in the U.S. in 1981. It did nothing on the Hot 100, although it did manage to hit No. 42 on the short-lived Hot 100 Disco chart. Disco? Really? And yes, Joy Division is growing on me.
28. “Nightswimming” – R.E.M (1993). What has become one of R.E.M.’s most popular songs only got a cassette single (“cassingle!”) release in the United States, and cassette single sales, unfortunately, weren’t enough to put it in the Hot 100. It got a proper release overseas and reached No. 27 on the UK singles chart – a better reception for a song about skinny-dipping.
29. “Dirty Mind” – Prince (1980). The U.S. was not ready for Prince clad in bikini underwear. “Dirty Mind” didn’t make a dent in the Hot 100, even though the LP of the same name reached No. 45 on the album chart. Led by a keyboard riff from future Revolution band member Doctor Fink, it was the opening track to a surprisingly New Wave Prince album, full of synthesizers and, of course, racy lyrics.
30. “Life on Mars?” – David Bowie (1971). Why doesn’t America get any of the good singles? Unfortunately, like Prince, America wasn’t ready for a cross-dressing glam artist of Bowie’s caliber, even though his previous single “Space Oddity” had reached a respectable No. 15 on the Hot 100. Even though it wasn’t released as a single in the US, airplay still got it to No. 12 on Billboard‘s Hot Rock Songs chart.
31. “Be My Number Two” – Joe Jackson (1984). I still don’t know why Joe Jackson is considered punk, but there it is, listed on AllMusic.com and Wikipedia. Like Elvis Costello, he was more New Wave, with a talent for a good melody. This ballad is beautiful, with Jackson accompanied only by a piano until the end, and I list it only because it’s one of my favorites of his. It reached only No. 70 in the UK, his home base, and didn’t hit the charts in the U.S.
32. “Brick” – Ben Folds Five (1997). What was arguably one of the more memorable songs of the 90s never entered the Hot 100. Nope. It entered every other Billboard chart – No. 19 on Hot 100 Airplay, No. 11 on Adult Top 40 Tracks, No. 6 on the Modern Rock Tracks and No. 17 on Top 40 Mainstream.
33. “Girlfriend In A Coma” – The Smiths (1987). The Smiths were virtually unknown in the U.S. during their heyday in the mid-1980s, so you can reach into a hat and pull out a single that didn’t make the Hot 100. “Girlfriend in a Coma,” one of their most melodic singles, was released in the U.S. as a promo single but it didn’t generate any airplay or club play.
34. “Good Intentions” – Toad the Wet Sprocket (1995). “Good Intentions” was originally slated for their 1991 breakthrough album Fear, but the band thought it sounded “too much like a hit single” (so they included the equally catchy “All I Want”). The song was eventually included on the “Friends” soundtrack and the band’s compilation album In Light Syrup. In spite of missing the Hot 100, it hit No. 23 on the US Radio Songs chart and No. 19 on the U.S. Mainstream Rock and US Adult Contemporary charts.
35. “Pinball Wizard” – Elton John (1975). John’s wildly popular remake of the song from the Who’s rock opera “Tommy” was strangely never released in the United States. It hit No. 7 in the UK. We earlier saw that John’s “Candle in the Wind” remained unreleased in the U.S. until the death of Princess Diana. What did his record company have against us??
36. “Mr. Jones” – Counting Crows. You couldn’t turn on the radio in 1993 and 1994 without hearing this jangly pop tune, which, in my opinion, is the worst song on Counting Crows’ outstanding debut album. But Geffen released it only as a promo single, and it didn’t hit the Hot 100. It still hit No. 25 on the Hot Adult Contemporary Tracks, No. 2 on the Hot Modern Rock Tracks and Top 40 Mainstream charts, and No. 5 on the Hot 100 Airplay. So yeah, it was still a hit.
37. “Blitzkrieg Bop” – The Ramones (1976). Hitting the charts would NOT be considered punk. Just ask Green Day, who has had practically all punk status stripped from them due to two Top 10 hits and a Broadway play. The Ramones are the grandfathers of punk; they only managed a No. 66 hit during their long career; “Blitzkrieg Bop” is among their best.
38. “Helpless” – Sugar (1992). It’s astounding that this group never had a Hot 100 hit. Led by ex-Hüsker Dü frontman Bob Mould, Sugar had a raucous but melodic sound that shook the airwaves of alternative radio in the 1990s. I could interchange half a dozen songs here, but this is among their most deserving.
39. “Marlene on the Wall” – Suzanne Vega (1985). Vega had a worldwide smash with “Luka,” which reached No. 3 in the U.S., but her first album was virtually unheard of. This jewel from the soft, folk-tinged, self-titled debut reached only No. 83 in the UK – nowhere in the U.S.
40. “Gloria” – Patti Smith Group (1976). Patti Smith was another founding member of the U.S. punk rock scene, and her group’s single “Gloria” was released the same year as the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop.” The single did just as well as her contemporaries’ single did – nowhere. It may have been because of the lyrics – “Jesus died for somebody’s sins / But not mine“. No worries – she would hit No. 12 two years later with “Because the Night.”
41. “The Way” – Fastball (1998). Fastball had moderate success with “Out of My Head,” which reached No. 20, but their signature hit was “The Way,” which inexplicably missed the Hot 100, despite hitting No. 2 on the Adult Top 40 chart, No. 1 on the Alternative chart and No. 5 on the Airplay chart. Go figure.
42. “California” – Phantom Planet (2002). You may recognize “California” as the theme song for Fox TV’s “The O.C.” Phantom Planet only released a promo single in the U.S., so it didn’t make the Hot 100, but they released it all over Europe, where it hit No. 9 in the UK, No. 3 in Austria and No. 2 in Italy.
43. “MoneyGrabber” – Fitz & the Tantrums (2011). Another head-scratcher. “MoneyGrabber” hit No. 2 on the Adult Alternative Song chart and No. 33 among Hot Rock Songs. It was even certified gold for selling 500,000 units. But no Hot 100. Either I’m missing something, or Billboard’s formula went all out of whack.
44. “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” – Elvis Costello (1978). Another punk rocker (I use the term loosely here), Elvis Costello has never had any luck with the charts; his other well-known song, “Alison,” didn’t hit the Hot 100 either. This song, written by Nick Lowe and ranked as the 284th best song of all time in 2004 by Rolling Stone magazine, initially appeared on the B-side of Lowe’s 1978 single “American Squirm,” credited to “Nick Lowe and His Sound.” So no A-side, and no Hot 100.
45. “Into the Groove” – Madonna (1985). Whaaa? Madonna missing the Hot 100 at the height of her popularity with one of her best-known songs? Call it a conspiracy between the record company and Billboard. According to Wikipedia, “Into the Groove” wasn’t released as a single because record company execs feared it would compete with “Angel,” the third single from Like a Virgin. It was eventually released as the B-side to the maxi-single of “Angel,” making it ineligible to enter the Billboard Hot 100 or Hot Singles Sales charts.