27 Apr The 100 greatest UK No 1s: 100-91
For six weeks, we’ll count down the top No 1 singles since the UK chart began in 1952. We kick it off with postmodern pop, fierce camp and timeless rock’n’roll. Check back weekdays for more picks – and see if you agree.
As the coronavirus lockdown continues, the Guardian’s music desk thought you might be in need of a distraction – something to send you down memory lane, or to divert the annoyance at your housemates or children on to us. We present to you a ranking of the 100 greatest UK No 1 singles since the charts began in 1952.
We’ll be counting this down over six weeks – for the first two weeks, we’ll spend Monday to Thursday counting down 10 at a time. That takes us up to the Top 20, and from Monday to Friday for four weeks we’ll have standalone celebrations of each remaining song by our team of critics.
This list, and the songs’ order, was compiled via a politely raging video call between me, chief rock and pop critic Alexis Petridis and deputy music editor Laura Snapes. The ranking isn’t based on sales or longevity, it’s the fruit of that discussion: what we as critics, fans and lifetime listeners think are the most brilliant songs to top the UK charts, and, of those, which are more brilliant than others. The only rule was that an artist could only feature once.
As such, it is very much open to discussion, which we heartily encourage in the comments section. We’d love to hear what you think of our choices – whether in agreement or outrage – and hear your fond or not-so-fond memories of these singles. After we’ve reached No 1, we’ll ask what you think we unforgivably missed out from the overall list, and then publish highlights from your selections. Also, note that dates listed are the dates the songs reached No 1.
Ben Beaumont-Thomas, music editor
Bill Haley and His Comets – Rock Around the Clock (1955)
You could spend years arguing about what constitutes the first rock’n’roll record. Rock Around the Clock patently isn’t it, but it was, incontrovertibly, the record that brought rock’n’roll to mainstream attention in the UK: two minutes of music that sounded infinitely more feral than its avuncular artist looked and that changed pop music for ever. AP
Generational bellwether … New Zealand singer Lorde, AKA Ella Yelich-O’Connor, in 2013. Photograph: Victoria Will/Invision/AP
Lorde – Royals (2013)
By disavowing the hollow opulence and bloated scale of pop’s reigning class, Lorde accidentally ushered in a brand new one: there would be no Billie Eilish if not for her conspiratorial incantations. While she weathered accusations of appropriation for disavowing hip-hop cliches in her obviously rap-influenced delivery, she ultimately echoed the genre’s own move towards unvarnished portrayals of teenage disaffection instigated by a parallel wave of SoundCloud upstarts. As much a generational bellwether as a pop classic. LS
Lieutenant Pigeon – Mouldy Old Dough (1972)
Recorded in a Coventry front room, Mouldy Old Dough sounds like pop music made by people who have never actually heard pop music, but have had it described to them by someone who didn’t really know what they were talking about: pub piano, growled vocals, a beat that recalls a drunk doggedly staggering home. The weirdness of 70s Britain in musical form. AP
Dave and Ansell Collins – Double Barrel (1971)
If you wanted evidence of how far out, how unbound by the usual rules reggae was, you could find it at the top of the charts in early 1971: a piano line taken – sampled if you like – from Ramsey Lewis; a vocalist who largely grunted and bellowed incomprehensibly in the style of a Jamaican deejay: “I am the magnificent W-O-O-O!” It still sounds fantastic. AP
Roy Orbison – It’s Over (1964)
The pinnacle of Roy Orbison’s career as rock’s great tragedian: three astonishing, inconsolable minutes during which stars cry, rainbows weep, golden days are sorrowfully recalled and drums beat a leaden funeral march, before it all reaches a terrible climax, Orbison desperately repeating the title as if misery is a kind of catharsis. AP
Postmodern gold … Duo Geoff Downes and Trevor Horn of the Buggles. Photograph: Pictorial Press/Alamy
The Buggles – Video Killed the Radio Star (1979)
It won’t be too much of a spoiler to reveal that this is the only No 1 single in this list that concerns how the brutally uncaring nature of new technology can paradoxically deepen nostalgia while rendering the past irrelevant. Trevor Horn and co turned this material into postmodern gold, building jingles, prog, orchestral pop and more into a screwball fantasy. That cold steady kick drum, meanwhile, is like techno kicking the door down to take over pop culture. BBT
Dua Lipa – New Rules (2017)
After a fitfully successful start, this was the song to turn the Kosovan-British pop singer into a global star. You can almost feel her clamp a hand on your shoulder as she adopts a stern, schoolmarmish tone to dispense those rules for breakup survival: don’t answer your ex’s calls, let them pop round or even be their friend. She’s not telling us or her mates, though, but rather herself, making for a powerful pop psychodrama. BBT
Del Shannon – Runaway (1961)
Behind the simple, perky rock’n’roll facade – “the ultimate fairground anthem”, as writer Bob Stanley put it – there’s something disturbing about Del Shannon’s biggest hit: an eeriness about the rumble of the opening guitar chords and the echoing keyboard solo, a sense the vocal is slightly too impassioned and pained. The result is as compelling a single as 1961 produced. AP
Nancy Sinatra – These Boots Are Made for Walkin’ (1966)
Had These Boots Are Made for Walkin’ been sung by a man, as its author, Lee Hazlewood, had intended, it would just have been nasty. Sung with insouciant cool by the recently divorced Nancy Sinatra, however, it became something else entirely: camp but tough, funny but fierce, completely irresistible. AP
Whigfield – Saturday Night (1994)
Saturday Night just pipped Gina G’s Ooh Aah … Just a Little Bit to our 90s Eurobanger slot. First off, it’s an actual Eurobanger (not an Aussie impersonator), and like the Village People’s YMCA, it has a dance routine invented by fans that came to define the song. It’s got an immediately iconic tag (“dee dee da da da!”), plus it was the victor in one of pop’s funniest plagiarism cases: I want some of whatever the person who thinks this sounds like Lindisfarne’s Fog on the Tyne was having. LS
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