The long-running #2s: do they try harder?

With Billie Eilish’s hit spending its 8th week stuck at #2 behind “Old Town Road,” Billboard saw fit to survey the 10 songs which were forever Hot 100 bridesmaids and never brides for eight weeks or longer. (The all-time record is held by Whitney Houston’s “Exhale,” which after debuting and spending a solitary week at #1, spent the following 11 weeks at #2.) Just as the majority of the pop chart’s longest-running #1s are from the ’90s forward (hi, Soundscan!), so, too, for the #2s — with one notable exception.

[Weeks Peaking at No. 2, Title, Artist, Peak Date]
10, “Work It,” Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott, Nov. 16, 2002 — This sadly spent the entirety of its #2 run behind Eminem’s Oscar-winning single “LOOK I AM A SERIOUS ARTIST NOW, FUCK YOU FAGGOTS” (wasn’t that its title?), even though everyone on the planet (at least those who aren’t white cis hetero men) recognizes that “Work It” is clearly the superior song. Hell, “Work It” is superior to most songs, yet another in a string of brilliant Elliott singles. Her onomatopoeic lyrics alone wax and shine the competition, let alone her overall verbal dexterity, let alone the way Missy and Timbaland sample the likes of “Peter Piper” and “Take Me to the Mardi Gras,” let alone the way in which the track pays homage to old school hip hop while still sounding fresh. Hell, it still sounds fresh — and like nothing else — today, almost two decades later.

10, “Waiting for a Girl Like You,” Foreigner, Nov. 28, 1981 — In the event that you don’t know the story, it goes like this: the week of 11/26/81, Foreigner rose to #2 with “Waiting,” just one notch behind Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical,” then spending its second week at #1 (see first graphic below). And for the next eight weeks, neither song budged, with “Physical” eventually tying Debbie Boone’s then-record for #1 longevity, spending an astounding 10 weeks atop the chart. The whole time, “Waiting,” well, waited. And then, the week of 1/30/82, “Physical” fell from #1 to #4 — and Foreigner were leapfrogged by Daryl Hall & John Oates’ “I Can’t Go For That,” which rose from #4 to #1 (see second graphic below). “Waiting” spent a tenth and final week in the runner-up slot; the following week, the J. Geils Band’s “Centerfold” went #3-#1, pushing both “I Can’t Go” and “Waiting” each down a notch. Foreigner had to wait another 3+ years before they’d finally hit #1 with the not-nearly-as-good “I Want to Know What Love Is.” And until Missy Elliott hit #2 with “Work It” almost exactly 21 years later, they held the all-time record for Hot 100 frustration themselves. As for the song itself, I think it’s absolute soft-rock genius, largely due to a pair of non-Foreigner factors: its perfect-touch production from “Mutt” Lange (who we’ll talk more about in just a moment), and those simultaneously warm and incredibly eerie synths, played by Thomas Dolby. Yes, that Thomas Dolby — as if there’s another.

Billboard Hot 100, week ending 11/26/81
Billboard Hot 100, week ending 1/30/82

9, “You’re Still the One,” Shania Twain, May 2, 1998 — Oh look, another record produced by “Mutt” Lange, 16 1/2 years after “Waiting.” He was, of course, by this point married to Canada’s biggest country export, Shania Twain, and helped craft her sound/image (because her image was heavily reliant on said sound). This ballad, her first single (after five country #1s) promoted to pop and A/C radio, became a monster, topping the country chart (of course), spending eight weeks atop the A/C chart, and nine weeks at #2 on the Hot 100, stopped from #1 by the year’s two biggest R&B crossovers, Next’s slinky-slash-smutty “Too Close” and Brandy & Monica’s genius musical catfight, “The Boy Is Mine.” “One” is a sweet, well-sung, well-produced ballad, but not much more; Twain’s slow songs tend to be her least interesting, and this is no exception.

9, “I Love You Always Forever,” Donna Lewis, Aug. 4, 1996 — I find it fascinating that so many of the longest-running #1 singles of all time have had accompanying-ly (I just made that word up) long-running #2s alongside them: Eminem & Elliott, ONJ & Foreigner, and the #1 to poor one-hit wonder Donna Lewis (her follow-up single peaked at #41!)’s #2 was Spain’s proudest exports, Los del Rio. In the midst of the 14-week #1 run by “Macarena (Bayside Boys Remix),” Lewis’s sterling, perfectly polished pop gem spent late summer and early fall stuck as the runner-up. Not only has “I Love You” become a grocery store classic, but now thanks to the explosion in soft AC, it’s back on the radio everywhere. Which it deserves.

8, “Bad Guy,” Billie Eilish, June 8, 2019 — I call her “Billie Eyelash,” because I’m a snarky, closing-in-on-50-years-old SOB who doesn’t have much use for Hot Topic’s idea of a pop singer. And because I find her to fairly be all image and no substance. I really hope something new swoops in to #1, because I’d hate for her to knock Lil Nas X off by default. (Also HA HA your stupid Justin Bieber-assisted remix didn’t do the trick.)

8, “Thinking Out Loud,” Ed Sheeran, Jan. 31, 2015 — This spent its run stuck behind “Uptown Funk!,” and I can’t think of a worse artist to be shut out of the top. Not to mention that “Uptown Funk!” is a glorious early ’80s R&B pastiche, whereas the red menace is just a shitty, British James Taylor for a new generation.

8, “I Don’t Wanna Know,” Mario Winans feat. Enya & P. Diddy, April 24, 2004 — It’s an Enya sample put to a mid-’00s shuffle-beat with Winans whining over it. And Diddy shows up, because Diddy. I just love that Enya made them give her a label credit! (Stuck behind a pair of Usher #1s.)

8, “Back at One,” Brian McKnight, Nov. 20, 1999 — Fucking Santana and Rob Thomas. I mean, this smoothie of a poor-man’s-Babyface acoustic-ish ballad isn’t exactly great, but it’s certainly better than “Smooth,” which it couldn’t ever get past to ascend to the top.

8, “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here,” Deborah Cox, Dec. 5, 1998 — She was supposed to be Clive Davis’s “new Whitney,” and this stately ballad was certainly Whitney-esque. But she never quite clicked with audiences in the way she needed to become that level of a star (let alone superstar). I’ve always been partial to the Hex Hector Remix, which alongside (ha ha) Whitney’s own “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay,” utterly dominated gay clubs through 1999.

8, “If I Ever Fall in Love,” Shai, Nov. 21, 1992 — I still recall how shocking this sounded on the radio when I first heard it: an a cappella soul ballad, in late 1992? On the other hand, it was well-timed, as it joined Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” with its a cappella opening, at the top of the chart (and which it spent the entirety of its run at #2 behind). There’s a version with production behind it, but that should be avoided; the voices-only take (video above) is the one, and it still sounds gorgeous.

About thomasinskeep

I write about music.
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