Radio Hits One: Hot 100 Peaks Only Tell Half The Story For Cee Lo, Britney Spears, And Other Year-End Winners

One of the most frustrating things about discussing the Billboard singles charts is how a song's peak position—the highest spot it occupied on a chart during its run—is almost universally regarded as the permanent measurement of its success or popularity. Any song that reaches No. 1 is embalmed forever as a chart-topper, the biggest of the big, and any song that didn't is presumed to be less successful in every way. And in the iTunes era, peaks can be even more misleading, as songs by artists with big fanbases rocket up the chart the week after they go onsale, and then have to slowly pick up momentum in the slower moving world of radio to actually stay on the chart.

That's why I love looking at Billboard's year-end charts: you finally get authoritative rankings of how successful songs were relative to each other, based on their entire chart lifespan during the year, not just how popular they were on the particular week they reached critical mass. You can always use anecdotal evidence, or more complicated statistics like sales figures or radio spins to measure a song's staying power, but the 2011 year-end Hot 100 lays it all out, in simple single- and double-digit numbers as easy to understand as a chart peak. Of course, as my colleague Chris Molanphy has noted, the year-end chart runs from the beginning of December to the end of November, and heavily favors songs that broke earlier in the chart year. But even taking that into account, the 2011 list handily debunks the validity of the chart peak as the final word.

The top six songs on the year-end list are all big No. 1 hits, no surprises there. But the seventh-biggest song of 2011 was Cee Lo Green's "Fuck You," which not only was released in August 2010 and therefore enjoyed much of its initial success in the previous chart year; it only peaked at No. 2 in March 2011, when it was held off by Lady Gaga's "Born This Way," the 18th-biggest song of 2011. The upper reaches of the year-end list are peppered with songs that also missed No. 1 on the weekly chart: "Super Bass" by Nicki Minaj (No. 8) "Just Can't Get Enough" by the Black Eyed Peas (No. 10), and "On The Floor" by Jennifer Lopez (No. 11) outranked a chart-topper from early in the year like Rihanna's "S&M" (No. 12).

Of course, those songs were all still big hits, and it's pretty common for a hugely popular song to be held off from No. 1 by a slightly bigger hit, and linger in the top five for weeks and weeks instead. But the real sleeper hit of 2011, The Band Perry's "If I Die Young," had a remarkably long life on the Hot 100 that began back in July 2010. A year later, it peaked at No. 14, with the slowest climb into the top 15 in the chart's history. And the song's year-end ranking is an impressive No. 35. Other songs that finished well on the year-end chart without ever breaking into the top 10 include Diddy-Dirty Money's "Coming Home" (No. 38), Waka Flocka Flame's "No Hands" (No. 45), Chris Brown's "Yeah 3X" (No. 49) and Nicki Minaj's "Moment 4 Life" (No. 50).

Meanwhile, many songs quickly darted in and out of the top 10 in the first half of the year, and are nowhere to be found on the year-end Hot 100: Justin Bieber's "Never Say Never," the cast of TV's Glee's original "Loser Like Me," Lady Gaga's "Judas" and Wiz Khalifa's "No Sleep." All of those songs enjoyed a nice sales-driven chart bump the week after being released on iTunes, and none of them had sustained airplay to keep them in the top 10 for more than a week. With a record-shattering 156 songs on the Hot 100 in the past three years, the Glee cast are the unbeatable champs of sales hits with virtually no airplay, and "Loser Like Me" was their power play to have a real radio hit with a Max Martin-penned original composition. Though it became the show's third top 10 hit, the scheme was otherwise a total bust: "Loser Like Me" grazed the Adult Pop Songs chart and then sunk off the Hot 100 just as quickly as the show's many charting covers.

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