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Listen Without Prejudice

Pop music has always been plagued insecurity. A four-minute song—even one with the biggest of hooks—doesn’t feel like an artistic achievement on par with a great novel or an epic film. Pop acts often feel inferior and go to extreme lengths to prove their worth (I’m sure U2 did that once). attempted The portmanteau was coined “refujesus”).

Pop critics often have a deeper level of anxiety than the rest. You can scroll through any “Best Albums of the Year” list and chances are you’ll never have heard of 80 percent of the acts. However, the odds are that you’ll hear about an obscure metal/folk band from a former Soviet Bloc member. The subtext is clear enough: If it’s popular it can’t be good, and if it’s good it can’t be popular.

That’s why The Number OnesThe new volume, authored by Tom Breihan, Senior Editor of Stereogum’s music blog, is such an energizing tonic. Breihan realizes that the most important thing about pop music is in its name. He understands it too.

In 2018, Breihan began writing a weekly column reviewing every song that’s hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 since the chart’s inception in 1958. It’s a dizzying journey across genres and one that he approaches free of the typical critic’s pretension. This is one of the few music writers who can still come off hip while telling readers that they probably don’t give disco enough credit.

The Number Ones features 20 of these essays, spanning from Chubby Checker’s 1960 chart-topper “The Twist” to BTS’s 2020 hit “Dynamite.” The organizing theme of the collection is that the songs chosen for inclusion represent inflection points in the history of pop, and, with only a few exceptions, it’s a persuasive thesis. The chapter on Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” has more to do with the world-conquering success of the band’s Rumours album than the song itself. This section is on “When Doves Cry” is largely an excuse to talk about how cool Prince was, an indulgence that can be forgiven only because it gives us Breihan’s characterization of The Purple One as an “unknowable f**k-sphinx” (Give him the Pulitzer now).

The Number Ones succeeds in large measure because it takes its subject matter more seriously than pop’s detractors but less seriously than its monomaniacal fanboys. Breihan avoids, for instance, the pathology that ascribes huge cultural values.

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