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Musical artists all want to have a hit. The Billboard Hot 100 chart is published weekly by Billboard magazine – it ranks the most popular songs of the previous week, measured by sales, radio play and on-line streaming. And, it is generally accepted as the way to determine if an artist indeed has a hit.
Back when music could only become a hit if it was played on the radio, an artist needed to release a single on a 45 rpm disk. When the 45 became the preferred way to sell music – in 1949 – the technology at the time would only allow for around 3 minutes of music to fit on the disk. Hence – almost all songs to reach the Hot 100 were under 3 minutes in length.
Artists often had “album” versions of songs that were longer than the “radio edit” version. And, with the evolution of technology, first with CDs and then with streaming, song length really no longer mattered. And yet – hit songs still tended to be under 4 minutes in length.
Here are some interesting facts regarding L-O-N-G songs that have become hits over the years, based on the Hot 100 charts from 1960 to today.
Only 8 songs have made the Hot 100 that are 8:00 minutes or longer. The longest song is 10:21 – in 2019, Fear Inoculum by the rock band Tool made it to #93. It was nominated for a Grammy award for Best Rock Song. In 2016, David Bowie’s Blackstar (9:57) from the album of the same name, reached #78. The album was released 2 days before Bowie’s death. The song Blackstar won 2 Grammy awards – Best Rock Song and Best Rock Performance. Harry Chapin’s A Better Place To Be (9:30) reached #86 in 1976. Hillside United, the Australian worship group, reached #83 with Oceans (Where Feet May Fail) (8:55) – the song was the #1 Christian song of the entire 10s decade. November Rain (8:55) by Guns N’ Roses peaked at #3 in 1992 – it’s the first music video from the 1990s to have over 1 billion views on YouTube. In 2016, rapper J. Cole’s 4 Your Eyez Only (8:50) debuted at #29 – every song on the album charted the week that the album was released, due to streaming. The only song over 8 minutes long to reach #1 on the Hot 100 chart is American Pie from 1972, by Don McLean. The 8:37 song topped the chart for 4 weeks, and in 2017 it was selected for the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress. Kendrick Lemar’s Untitled 07 L Levitate (8:16) reached #90 in 2016.
Looking at #1 songs on the chart (and using the radio edit versions), during the 60s only 6 songs that reached #1 were 4 minutes or longer. Most notably, Hey Jude by The Beatles was 7:11, released in 1968. By the 70s, 4+ minute songs became more common – 49 #1 songs were over 4 minutes long. Along with American Pie, the other 2 longest were Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone (6:54) by The Temptations in 1972 and Hotel California (6:30) by The Eagles in 1977. In the 80s, 122 #1 songs were over 4 minutes long, with USA for Africa’s We Are the World and Blondie’s Rapture both well over 6 minutes long. During the 90s, 88 #1 songs were over 4 minutes long, but songs in general started to trend shorter – none of these songs were over 6 minutes in length. The number of 4+ minute #1 songs during the 00s was down to 53, with only 3 songs greater than 5 minutes in length, and during the 10s, only 22 songs that topped the Hot 100 chart were more than 4 minutes long, with only 1 song more than 5 minutes in length.
By the way – the shortest #1 song of all time was in 1960 – Stay by Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs was only 1:38 in length, and in 2019, Old Town Road by Lil Nas X (which set the record for the most consecutive weeks at #1, staying on top for 19 weeks) was only 1:53 in length, the shortest #1 since 1965. The shortest song ever to reach the Hot 100 chart was in 2016, when PPAP by Piko-Taro reached #77 – the song is only 45 seconds long.
Watch Don McLean perform the legendary American Pie in 1972. “The Day the Music Died.”