The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music Book Review

Full disclosure: I was given a free eARC copy of this book by NetGalley and Hachette Books in exchange for an honest review.

I’ve been excited to read books over the years. One can look at my review of Always Look on the Bright Side of Life: A Sortabiography by Eric Idle to see that in action. It’s been awhile since I’ve felt that way for a particular title. That changed this year when word got out that Tom Breihan – author of the “The Number Ones” column on Stereogum – was going to publish a book covering the most important number one hits on the Billboard Hot 100. Naturally, it’s called The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music. I had to read it. Now, what do I think about it? Reader, it was great because it analyzed those ditties in a condensed, informative way.

In The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music, Breihan takes 20 songs that hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and reveals how significant they were in shaping music trends. He looks at the historical context surrounding them and how they played a pivotal role in music chart history. Breihan features the greatest pop artists of all time like The Beatles, Michael Jackson, and Prince, and he gives musicians who never hit #1 like Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and James Brown their due as well.

When I was working as an Adult Librarian in Clarkston, Michigan, I was in charge of maintaining the music CD collection. This meant adding items to and removing them from the shelves as well as keeping up to date on the latest music news. One day, while I was looking at the latest stories, I came across “The Number Ones” column. In it, Breihan analyzes every number one hit on the Billboard Hot 100 since its inception in 1958, and he’s still in the early 2000s (in fact, today’s review was about “The Way You Move” by Outkast featuring Sleepy Brown). On the day that I discovered it, he was taking a look at Paul Anka’s 1974 number 1 song “(You’re) Having My Baby” (featuring Odia Coates (that’s not one of the tunes analyzed in The Number Ones book). After reading his snark-filled, but fully analyzed review of the ditty, I knew I had to read more. I’ve been a fan of Breihan’s column since.

The main difference between the column and this book is the tone. In the former, Breihan evaluates the chart topper in question with snark, sincerity, and complete bias (he’s fully aware that no journalism is wholly objective). That’s why he has rated songs like “Hotel California” a 4 and “We Didn’t Start the Fire” a 1. In the book, the tone is more academic and as balanced as it can be. This makes sense as the overall goal of the research is to see how each of the selected songs contributed to the evolution of pop music as we know it even if they’re not great. Also, in an interview with Billboard (surprise surprise), Breihan revealed that his father was a history professor. I wouldn’t be shocked if he was channeling his dad while writing his book.

As he discusses the #1 hits, Breihan also manages to find the time to write something about the most famous artists that never topped the charts. These get woven into the chapters on the number one tunes. During his chapter on The Byrds’ cover of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Breihan mentions that Bob Dylan never had a number one hit, yet the cover ushered in the Hot 100’s acceptance of folk-inspired pop songs. Moreover, Bruce Springsteen’s biggest hit “Dancing in the Dark” reached #2 on the Hot 100 right behind another ditty selected for this book “When Doves Cry” by Prince, which reigned on top for 5 weeks and displayed how a musician could take their musical and artistic persona even further. Breihan proves that sometimes, it’s a game of chance of which artists obtain #1 hits or which one don’t.

As I mentioned earlier, the main strengths of the book are twofold. The first is that Breihan leaves no stone unturned when analyzing these tunes. For instance, when he talks about “Dynamite” by the K-pop group BTS, he goes into how American listeners embraced foreign language ditties as well as a brief history of K-pop’s attempts to break into the American music scene to set up the context of how the band managed reach #1. This is especially true when those songs are steeped in controversy. For example, the success of “The Twist” by Chubby Checkers mainly came by because its presentation had been diluted enough for a white audience in the early 1960s. And don’t get him started with how Berry Gordy Jr. screwed over so many careers at Motown as well as the legacy of Michael Jackson.

The second is that the information itself is condensed, but concise enough that readers won’t miss a thing while reading The Number Ones. Even though there’s plenty of detail about each chosen song, each chapter is no more than 20 pages. This makes reading the book digestible, especially for readers who have a rather limited time or a tight schedule.

Other reviewers have noted that it’s best to read this while listening to the songs in question. I wish I would’ve done that because it would’ve immersed me in the tunes more. Luckily, I’ve been correcting that by putting them on when I have some downtime, especially while I wrote this review.

The only complaints that I have are two factual errors Breihan makes in the book. In the “Ice Ice Baby” chapter, he discusses how that tune in question infamously sampled “Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie. In talking about who came up with the famous bass riff, he mistakes Queen bassist John Deacon as Roger Deacon (p. 209). I was disappointed by this not only because I’m a Queen fan, but also, he referred to the bass player correctly in his review of “Another One Bites The Dust” on Stereogum. Additionally, in the “Dynamite” chapter, Breihan points out how BTS had slowly climbed their way onto the charts without manipulating it. This included showing up on remixes like the Seoul Town Road one with Lil Nas X. Breihan incorrectly lists member Suga on that “Old Town Road” version when it really was leader RM on that track (p. 310). Despite these errors, I still enjoyed the book.

Overall, The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music by Tom Breihan is worth the read. The author discusses how each of the 20 chosen chart toppers played a role in the evolution of pop music in an effectively informative and concise manner. I’m still surprised that he’s able to analyze every aspect of a song without being too long winded. I would definitely recommend this to music lovers, especially the ones who watch the Billboard Hot 100 on a regular basis and love Breihan’s “The Number Ones” column on Stereogum, as well as to those who enjoy reading about pop culture. The book is out now, so go take a look if you haven’t already!

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Published by emilymalek

I work at a public library southeast Michigan, and I facilitate two book clubs there. I also hold a Bachelor's degree in History and Theatre from Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, MI; a Master's degree in Library and Information Science from Wayne State University in Detroit, MI; and a Graduate Certificate in Archival Administration also from Wayne. In my downtime, I love hanging out with friends, play trivia and crossword puzzles, listening to music (like classic rock and K-pop), and watching shows like "Monty Python's Flying Circus"!

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