The 100 greatest UK No 1s: 100-19 | Music


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.

The rules

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


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

New Zealand singer Lorde, AKA Ella Yelich-O’Connor, in 2013.

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


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

Duo Geoff Downes and Trevor Horn of the Buggles.

Postmodern gold … Duo Geoff Downes and Trevor Horn of the Buggles. Photograph: Pictorial Press/Alamy


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 with Lee Hazlewood.

Nancy Sinatra with
Lee Hazlewood. Photograph: GAB Archives/Redferns


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


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

Justin Bieber performing in 2015.

He’s had his moments, but sometimes he release a triumph … Justin Bieber performing in 2015. Photograph: Chelsea Lauren/WireImage


There will be howls of protestation at Bieber being on this list, a man routinely cited as everything that is facile about pop and celebrity. Well, he’s had his moments, but this is one of his equally frequent triumphs. Taking the Insta-filtered aesthetic of the then-popular tropical house sound and marrying it to a melody that flits like a bird of paradise always coming back to its perch, it has the melancholically fleeting beauty of a package holiday sunset. BBT


Producer Richard X gets a lot of credit for the shuddering magnitude of invention behind the Sugababes’ debut UK No 1 – the first legit single of the 2000s bootleg wave, bringing together Adina Howard and Tubeway Army – but not all of it. The newly minted trio of Mutya, Keisha and Heidi pull off a more convincing “I’m grown now” transition than any of their American pop peers, thanks to the terrifying nonchalance innate to British teenage girls. It’s got a classic belting “may-ee!” (that’s “me” in millennial pop terms) and without it, you wouldn’t have Sound of the Underground – or, even, possibly, whisper it, Toxic. LS


Craig David – 7 Days (2000)

Like the Old Testament God, Craig chills on a Sunday, but unlike the Old Testament God, he spends Monday and Tuesday engineering sex and spends the rest of the days until the sabbath having it. We looked upon his creation and saw that it was good: his vocals, drilled in the dexterity of the garage rave, twine around delicate acoustic guitar lines like two lovers in Eden. BBT

Adamski, left, with Seal in 1990.

Adamski, left, with Seal in 1990. Photograph: Clare Muller/Redferns


Every part of Adamski’s production is perfectly designed: the sad chords, the funkily interrupted alien transmission of the synths, the prodding bassline with its edges almost imperceptibly corroded by acid. Most beautiful of all is Seal: half activist, half oracle. BBT


The Tornados – Telstar (1962)

The product of producer Joe Meek’s twin obsessions – space travel and the recording studio as an instrument in itself – Telstar is otherworldly and breathlessly exciting, piling on layer after layer of sounds so dense with effects it is impossible to work out what instrument is making them. It’s like nothing else, before or since. AP


This will get you thinking, “I miss the old Kanye” – the rapper’s touristic whirl through Ribena, wags and the epithet “rubbish” is full of wit with just a touch of his incoming megalomania. Estelle is even better, perfectly capturing the mood of uncertain excitement at a potential American lover: “Like the way he speaking, his confidence is peaking / Don’t like his baggy jeans but I might like what’s underneath them.” The bump of’s cosmic funk production launches it into the transatlantic skies. BBT

Gloria Gaynor in the mid-70s.

Universal touchstone … Gloria Gaynor in the mid-70s. Photograph: Rex Features


Decades of ubiquity have dulled the impact of I Will Survive, but the song only became ubiquitous in the first place because it connected with so many people so directly. The strings soar, the lyrics project defiance in the face of a controlling ex-partner, who’s tried chancing his arm again: “I’m not that chained up little person still in love with you.” AP


Cher – Believe (1998)

I Will Survive recast in hi-tech 90s dance-pop, complete with that notorious Auto-Tune wiggle to Cher’s voice. The effect is actually used sparingly, and the song’s wild success – 11m copies sold worldwide – is not down to anything gimmicky. Rather, it’s all very old-fashioned stuff that ensures Believe will be hollered in cheese nights for evermore: a powerhouse melody Cher uses to dispense a kind of den-mother wisdom. BBT

Robyn in 2010.

Heart-stopping chart-topper … Robyn. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian


“But I don’t look back,” Robyn insists over and over on her only UK chart-topper, though the racing arpeggiated synths, never resolving to the home key, tell a different story: one of someone doomed to the purgatory of heartbreak, or worse, revelling in it (a Greek chorus of strings charged with Kate Bush’s DNA outlines the tragedy). “And – it – hurts – with – ev – er – y – heart – beat,” Robyn pants, and you feel it, each syllable landing like a tombstone. LS


For someone who admits how hopeless he was at romance, Elton John couldn’t half-sell a love song. Are You Ready for Love? runs the gamut of emotions as he tries to win someone over: he’s casually cool about devotion yet awed by it; grandiose in his overtures, then almost manically overcome by fear that this person might not, in fact, be ready for love. The Thom Bell-assisted Philly soul production festoons John with strings, hand percussion, wah-wah guitar, key changes – in a sense perfectly echoing the maximalist, hasty approach to seduction that John has said he practised at the peak of his career. It’s extraordinary that it took 24 years and a football advert to make it a hit. LS


This wasn’t the stuff of high-speed swerving grime bars. Instead, Dave and Fredo use steady, perfectly calibrated flows to set themselves apart from the London MCs one generation above them, set to minimalist trap. The effect is of being told something extra clearly, as if you haven’t understood: a brilliantly withering technique. Rap’s status as a core part of British pop culture was consolidated. BBT

Tony Hatch and Jackie Trent.

Orchestral drama … Tony Hatch and Jackie Trent. Photograph: Associated Newspapers /Rex


The pop charts were particularly dominated by sweeping, sentimental ballads until the mid-1960s, and there are PhDs to be written on the effect on pop music of a sexually repressed culture of manners. Anyway, many such ballads are suffocatingly schmaltzy, but this one is sublime. It was written by Trent with Tony Hatch, a somewhat forgotten genius of this period who shared Burt Bacharach’s knack for orchestral drama. The pair had an affair, with Hatch leaving his wife and marrying Trent – this collaboration is full of that impetuous, untameable ardour. BBT


It’s unclear whether Thunderclap Newman thought they were making a kind of eulogy for 60s counterculture, but that’s how Something in the Air turned out. Its music is ineffably melancholy, its insistence that “the revolution’s here”, a year after the hippy dream had curdled, sounds desperate and hopeless. Intentional or not, it’s really moving. AP


Perhaps it takes not having lived through the 80s heyday of new age, then its subsequent ubiquity and mockery to appreciate Orinoco Flow as the compositional marvel it is. Yes, the lyrics are incredibly silly – but the layered pizzicato shimmer transforms Enya’s dippy travelogue into a true pop mirage, stoking its allure as her siren song constantly slips further out of reach. LS


The lyrics are essentially a QVC infomercial for the eroto-psychedelic effects of ecstasy – “Lotions of love flow through your hands / See visions, colours every day” – and the music is shamelessly designed to intensify drug experiences. The junglist breakbeats keep the energy high, while the big piano chords and yearning vocals are like a head massage from some bloke you just met but nevertheless now feel a deeper kinship with than your immediate family. BBT

Procol Harum

Drug epiphanies … Procol Harum Photograph: GAB Archive/Redferns


Channelling Bach and the Beats, the trippy imagery of this 10m seller made it a fave of those turning on and tuning in during the Summer of Love. But the Hammond organ creates a valedictory mood as the drug epiphanies betray their lies – “Although my eyes were open / They might have just as well’ve been closed” – and the entitlement and rapacity of the now widely hated Worst Generation becomes clear: “I was feeling kinda seasick / But the crowd called out for more.” A funeral hymn, then, but no less beautiful for it. BBT


You can imagine an older relative calling this “a proper song” – unfussy and instantly classic, where the quality of Eg White’s composition gives it automatic promotion to a different league. Young negotiates the middle eight’s key changes with the same sad certainty he negotiates his emotions, choosing self-preservation over a second chance at love. BBT


The softest of soft rock, If You Leave Me Now doesn’t seem to play so much as glide along, wrapped in a blanket of French horns and strings, the drummer tapping so gently it sounds as if he’s trying not to wake someone up. It’s impossibly lush and beautifully written, but its sadness is pervasive and affecting. AP


The heaviest, sweariest No 1 in UK history – with one of the best riffs, too – only reached No 25 when it was first released in 1992, but reached the top in 2009 after a grassroots campaign from people angry at a run of X Factor contestants dominating the Christmas No 1 race. Its “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me” climax, aimed at authority figures from the police to parents for years, was gleefully beamed at Simon Cowell in a great moment for British democracy. BBT

Threat … Spice Girls.

Threat … Spice Girls. Photograph: Fiona Hanson/PA


Spice Girls – Wannabe (1996)

Almost 25 years down the line, Wannabe sounds so rinky-dink and innocent (save the “zig-a-zig-ah”, which continues up a lineage of sexy pop nonsense started by Little Richard’s “a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom!” almost four decades prior) that it’s almost inconceivable it was considered such a threat at the time. But it was: in two minutes, 53 seconds, these five women undid tween pop’s raison d’etre – seducing girls into a life of domesticity via parades of harmless male crushes – and rewrote it in their own chaotic, girls-first spirit. LS


Dance music No 1s almost always bang, but this one pumps: a deep-house anthem of huge subtlety and power. The way the rhythm-guitar line insinuates itself, only to be subsumed by those cut-up strings, mirrors Cassandra’s audible bafflement at being taken over by a love she doesn’t understand. The confusing rush of ecstasy, in every sense, has never been so beautifully evoked. BBT


Dance-pop in the 90s often traded in profound melancholy – Haddaway’s What Is Love and Corona’s Rhythm of the Night being other classic examples – and Rhythm Is a Dancer is one of the saddest of all. With its gospel vocals and cathedral-ready chords, it makes raving feel like a serious spiritual quest rather than something to do on a Friday. BBT

Kevin Rowland of Dexys Midnight Runners in 1982.

Bonhomie and knees-up antics … Kevin Rowland of Dexys Midnight Runners in 1982. Photograph: Brian Cooke/Redferns


Dexys Midnight Runners – Come on Eileen (1982)

Pop holds few greater pleasures than seeing a pop song about the power of pop songs take on that kind of lure itself. In Come on Eileen, Kevin Rowland reflects on the sad songs beloved by a downtrodden generation and promises his crush they’ll hum a different tune. Come on Eileen became that song: a romp through wistfulness, bonhomie and knees-up antics that distils the riotous emotional arc of a night in an Irish pub into three-and-a-half perfect minutes. LS


Matching disco diva Loleatta Holloway for lung power is near impossible but M People’s Heather Small – working incognito after Italian producers Black Box were refused a Holloway sample – blows the house down, and her “let me tell you, what you do to me” is so sexily intense. This is a Terminator of a song, unstoppably delivering a payload of pure euphoria as Chicago house is spliced with Italo disco to create perfect pop. BBT


It’s testament to time’s steady erosion that a song about an obsessive fan who murdered his pregnant girlfriend and killed himself because his favourite rapper didn’t notice him has become a casual byword for effusive devotion. Coming full circle, Stan is worthy of it. It’s the peak of Eminem’s storytelling skill and – in spite of the clear misanthropy of the titular fan – profoundly empathetic, as Eminem tempers Stan’s violence by understanding the desperation fuels it. LS

Kraftwerk in 1981.

Naively yearning … Kraftwerk in 1981. Photograph: Shinko Music/Getty Images


Kraftwerk – The Model (1982)

A depressing economy of sex and power, observed with simmering beta-male jealousy, is sketched in just 12 lines over a melody that has the perfect symmetry of a model’s face. Computer Love, the exquisite other half of this double A-side, is another portrait of loneliness but couldn’t be more different: it is tender and naively yearning. BBT


Too often discarded as a novelty hit, 99 Red Balloons is the best pop song about cold war anxiety in a field full of try-hard duds, and a chart-topping coronation for the tough, peppy new wave sound being pioneered by the Go-Go’s, the Bangles and the Waitresses. (The original German version is still the best, however.) LS


A fabulously bitchy kiss-off to the three members of Cockney Rebel who left the band after their 1974 album The Psychomodo, the genius of Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me) is to couch its screw-you message in the sunniest, most charming, irresistibly hook-laden music imaginable. AP


Jailhouse Rock was intended as a joke by writers Leiber and Stoller, complete with a nudging reference to gay sex. Elvis, however, ignored the comic undercurrent, and sang it with such blazing intensity that the performance almost collapses at 1:14. If you want a No 1 that captures his early, feral power, this is it. AP

Dancefloor dreaming … The Arctic Monkeys.

Dancefloor dreaming … The Arctic Monkeys. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer


Most mid-00s indie nostalgia is tinged with shame: the polka dots, bad fringes and herky-jerky dancing have not dated well. But Arctic Monkeys’ debut single proper is something to look back on with pride – not because, as the NME of the era would have it, it represented any kind of jingoistic “victory” for indie over pop, but because its rattling potency and Alex Turner’s lyrics distil the pleasures of that era worth remembering: “Just bangin’ tunes and DJ sets and / Dirty dancefloors and dreams of naughtiness.” LS


After all that Ariana Grande had been through – the Manchester Arena bombing, the death of a beloved ex, a broken engagement – she could have released 10 minutes of primal screaming and still left critics saying: yeah, fair enough. Instead, she changed the game: after the more stateswomanly Sweetener album released earlier that year, surprise return Thank U, Next accelerated pop’s processing speed (particularly liberating female pop stars in the process) and quashed the idea that empowerment is contingent on taking someone else down. Its nimbleness is the sound of Grande’s freedom. LS

Making it easy … the Walker Brothers.

Making it easy … the Walker Brothers. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images


“Breaking up is so very hard to do” – this Burt Bacharach-penned ballad opens with a wry bit of understatement from Scott Walker, and he deals with things very magnanimously from here on out: a stiff upper lip in song. The way the choir, timpani, strings, horns, guitars and more all stay meringue-fluffy is arranger Ivor Raymonde just showing off, really. BBT


Originally written for Britney Spears, although it’s inconceivable to imagine her doing it. Umbrella needs swagger and Rihanna had it in spades, turning a stunted beat and a lyric that’s pretty dorky on paper into one of pop’s great come-ons. It’s a skill that earned Rihanna a deserved place in the pantheon of pop icons. LS


Eric Stewart wrote I’m Not in Love after his wife, Gloria, complained that he didn’t say “I love you” often enough – not out of petulance, but to express his depth of feeling for her beyond the cliche. After a labour-intensive recording process featuring endless harmonising and dozens of feet of tape loops, 10cc came away with this work of stubborn beauty: a sublime, shimmering evocation of the ineffable bond between two lovers. It endures in every sense: Stewart and Gloria have been married for more than 50 years. LS

A masterpiece single … Aaliyah.

A masterpiece single … Aaliyah. Photograph: Jim Cooper/AP


A posthumous chart-topper after her death in a plane crash when she was 22, More Than a Woman is one of the trio of masterpiece singles she made with Timbaland, along with We Need a Resolution and Try Again. Into the producer’s serpentine frameworks stepped a woman whose calm, exacting poise let you come to her rather than she to you. It never gets less wrenching to think what else she might have done. BBT


Ah, the song of the summer. Its lustre has been dulled by it being played by every wedding band in the western hemisphere (and by Limmy’s eternally funny tweet), but Get Lucky still shines underneath it all. Take it off the alcopop-splashed CDJs and back into headphones and you can newly appreciate its mastery, with the liveness of Nile Rodgers’ guitar and Pharrell’s conversational charm. BBT

Ersatz ardour … tATu.

Ersatz ardour … tATu. Photograph: Dpa Picture Alliance/Alamy Stock Photo


On one hand, All the Things She Said is the ne plus ultra of queerbaiting: two straight Russian teenagers cajoled into lesbian cosplay by some dodgy-sounding svengalis. But as ersatz as their ardour was, the duo’s debut UK single was charged with a perfect evocation of the frantic emotional tumult that rages in every closeted, yearning teenager’s head. An industrial cri de cœur with a brilliantly desperate synth climax, it was the greatest Trevor Horn banger since his mid-80s sweet spot. LS


The boy band – well, Gary Barlow – had already shown they could do serious and affecting balladry with A Million Love Songs, and then they perfectly honed that skill for this classic breakup song. There’s real poetry in the verses, which gives way to the devastating plainness of the chorus, like 100 red roses left at a doorstep. Barlow goes for total abasement, though – “Whenever I’m wrong / Just tell me the song and I’ll sing it” – so you don’t really fancy his chances. BBT


You might think using crisp drum machines and eerie synths to cover a northern soul anthem would make it more brittle, but Soft Cell’s version of Gloria Jones’s 1964 song actually has more swing and sensuality. There’s something portentous about those insistent, fateful synth stabs, and Marc Almond adds to the sense of doom with his innate flair for drama. BBT


To watch Top of the Pops as 1987 gives way to 1988 is to watch the freaks taking over the asylum: after MARRS and Bomb the Bass’s earlier acid house hits, S-Express’s sample-heavy track affirmed the sound’s chart coronation, making the Stock Aitken Waterman stable look even more square, and stuck one in the eye of London’s throttlingly cool club scene with its euphoric, queer collage. LS


Steve “Silk” Hurley – Jack Your Body (1987)

It’s hard to imagine now how strange and alien Jack Your Body sounded in 1987. Other early house hits had at least come with a song or a hook attached, but this had neither: it may be the most minimal No 1 of all time. It isn’t by any stretch of the imagination the best Chicago had to offer in 1987: as a signal of a vast shift in the way pop music sounded, it’s unbeatable. AP

Demonically heaving harmonium riffs … Chemical Brothers.

Demonically heaving harmonium riffs … Chemical Brothers. Photograph: Peter J Walsh/Pymca/Rex/Shutterstock


A half-cover of the Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows but with that band’s LSD juiced up with some kind of experimental steroid, Setting Sun still sounds extreme. Lighting up that breakbeat and demonically heaving harmonium riffs are rockets and catherine wheels of wild sound, with Noel Gallagher sounding as if he’s being dragged out of sanity. BBT


So Solid Crew – 21 Seconds (2001)

A new high-water mark of commercial success for British rap was set by this incandescently brilliant wave of London MCs, each given 21 seconds of time on the mic. The energy stays permanently high, but is filtered through such distinct characters: Harvey’s rave MC, Romeo’s lascivious loverman, Kaish’s jabbing boxer, Face’s bug-eyed vampire and more. BBT

Glam-pop perfection … Suzi Quatro.

Glam-pop perfection … Suzi Quatro. Photograph: Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns


Suzi Quatro – Can the Can (1973)

The first attempt to make Suzi Quatro a star, with the light pop of Rolling Stone, fell flat: second time around, with writers/producers Chinn and Chapman in control, everything clicked. From its opening wall of drums to Quatro’s scream of “scratch out her eyes” to its lyrically baffling but indelible chorus, Can the Can is glam-pop perfection. AP


Everyone with even a glancing interest in pop knows Bohemian Rhapsody, which means its sheer audacity is easy to overlook. It’s a completely inexplicable, extraordinary single, a joke that got out of hand according to producer Roy Thomas Baker, a preposterous exercise in high camp with demented lyrics, that somehow still exerts a huge emotional pull. AP


The charts in 1970 were rich with hymn-like songs solemnly marking the passing of the 60s – not least the Beatles’ Let It Be – but Bridge Over Troubled Water was the blockbuster take: five minutes of booming, Phil Spector-inspired white gospel with a choirboy vocal and a simple, universal message beneath the sturm und drang. AP


More fool the person who thought up Rickrolling, believing chance exposure to Never Gonna Give You Up to be some kind of punishment: the Stock Aitken Waterman tea boy’s star-making moment couldn’t be less cool or more glorious, his good-boy Redcoat brogue the cheese to SAW’s soulful, acid pickle. And, hey, if it was good enough for Larry LevanLS


The 80s began in British pop when the stately, epic Are “Friends” Electric? arrived on Top of the Pops in June 1979: two synth players, Gary Numan looking puzzled, as if he didn’t understand how a song with no chorus had become a hit. He was six months early, but Numan was always ahead of his time: oft-mocked, his alienated-suburbanite-in-a-world-of-technology schtick now seems remarkably prescient. AP

Weapons-grade persona … Lady Gaga.

Weapons-grade persona … Lady Gaga. Photograph: Action Press/Rex Features


Gaga’s third UK No 1 outshines earlier hits Just Dance and Poker Face as the apex of her tectonic, Teutonic first-phase battering rams. While it’s heavily indebted to Depeche Mode and Madonna, Gaga’s weapons-grade persona turns a homage into a conquest, tagging everything in her wake with a lusty “Gaga, ooh la la.” LS


One of the greatest Christmas No 1s of all time is a triumph of emotional candour. It resembles a breakup song with its talk of final kisses, but was written by Tony Mortimer after his brother killed himself. The pain of those sudden calls of “stay now” is so acute, voicing the suddenness of loss. BBT


Soaring above Reach Out’s dramatic arrangement – which smashed through the boundaries of Motown’s signature style, inspired by the Rolling Stones’ Paint It Black, not that you’d know – lead vocalist Levi Stubbs sounds as if he’s close to tears, delivering the lyrics as if they’re a matter of life or death. It remains an astonishingly intense way to spend three minutes. AP


A song in which disgust at Thatcher’s Britain seems to meld with Paul Weller’s increasing unease over the mod revival he’d single-handedly started, Going Underground was also the perfect demonstration of what its author had learned studying taut, potent mid-60s pop: grab the listener from the start, don’t let your grip slacken or a second go to waste. AP

A twist of downtown irony … Blondie.

A twist of downtown irony … Blondie. Photograph: Maureen Donaldson/Getty Images


There are plenty of arguments for Heart of Glass not really qualifying as the only UK No 1 punk single. While Blondie came from the genre’s first wave in New York, their 1979 hit mainlined European electronic pioneers Kraftwerk and Heart of Glass in its brilliant, cycling riff, while Debbie Harry’s rhapsodic vocals owed more to Donna Summer (whose I Feel Love the group had been covering), with a twist of downtown irony. It pissed off the punk purists back home – which is, incidentally, pretty much the most punk thing you could do by 1979. LS


The production on Merry Xmas Everybody is fuzzy as tinsel (the result of recording in an echoey corridor), potent as plum pudding doused in brandy and appropriately poignant, straddling that late-December divide between nostalgia and optimism. Which is what, it’s easy to imagine, gave it the edge over Wizzard’s dementedly cheery I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday, the loser in what’s now considered the original festive chart battle, though it cemented glam as the official sound of Christmas. LS


That opening crescendo, giving way to the Nile Rodgers-penned guitar funk riff, is one of the most breathtakingly exciting moments in Bowie’s catalogue, and the croaky croon of “put on your red shoes and dance the blues” a few seconds later is one of the coolest. Let’s Dance remains an irresistible command. BBT

‘I’m special’ … Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders.

‘I’m special’ … Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images


“We all just thought she was a groupie,” noted the Damned’s Rat Scabies of Chrissie Hynde when the Pretenders made it big, the kind of dismissive remark you suspect fuelled Brass in Pocket’s surfeit of attitude: “I’m special.” Brilliantly, it sets its narcissistic swagger to music that’s languid and sensual rather than aggressive: perfect pop ensues. AP


Bear in mind Rod was asking this question when his hair’s volume had been turned way beyond 11, and when he was giving an audible crotch-thrust at the opening of each chorus line. And yet, even though this song is utterly ridiculous, it is also utterly brilliant – the way the synth melody steps up before pirouetting down is eternally replayable, and Rod’s charisma is, sorry, a bit sexy. BBT


On his breakthrough single, Tom Jones exhibits the kind of determined perkiness that can only accompany truly desperate heartbreak. That double negative gives his confusion away as he tries to come to terms with seeing his girl out with another guy, but it’s no use: “I wanna die.” In a Top 100 full of savagely unhappy yet upbeat songs, this is the most emotionally dissonant of all. BBT

Taking control … Britney Spears.

Taking control … Britney Spears. Photograph: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic


… Baby One More Time wasn’t the first hit from Denniz Pop and Max Martin’s Cheiron Studios – Backstreet Boys and Robyn predated Britney. But the Louisiana 16-year-old was to Cheiron what Kylie was to Stock Aitken Waterman: the first act with the personality to overwhelm the blueprint (Euro melodies, metal’s impact and club-pop’s sparkle) and make it her own. Rockists accuse Britney Spears of being an empty vessel, but it’s her vocal DNA that shapes every single word of this song into a pop landmark. LS


Althea and Donna – Uptown Top Ranking (1977)

“Nah pop nah style,” sang Althea and Donna, and they had a point. What’s striking about the greatest reggae No 1 of all is how unvarnished its repurposing of an old Alton Ellis it is, the lack of concession to white ears as Althea and Donna riff on the lyrics of Trinity’s Three Piece Suit with blank-eyed teenage insouciance. AP


Madonna – Vogue (1990)

Of Madonna’s 13 No 1s, Vogue is her most poised, agile and sexually intoxicating. It is a portal into a world of glamour – the litany of classic Hollywood in the middle eight, but also the world of peacocking ballroom culture it was borne from – where you find Madonna herself presiding over the decadence with her commands and observations. Get up on the dancefloor, indeed. BBT

Euphoric loneliness … Whitney Houston

Euphoric loneliness … Whitney Houston Photograph: Rex Features


A masterpiece of synthetic production: the gorgeously wrong approximations of horns, bass guitar and piano have their own delirious beauty. But, of course, it’s Whitney who seals it. That final chorus line, “with somebody who loves me”, is so emphatic in knowing she deserves happiness, creating a paradoxically euphoric song about being lonely. BBT


The arrival of You Really Got Me amid the still relatively mild No 1s of the time must have been startling – it even makes the Beatles sound like squares. One of the all time great riffs, made from only two notes, powers the garage-band energy as the group’s lust builds to a ferocious head. BBT

George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley of Wham!

Soulful … George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley of Wham! Photograph: Michael Putland/Getty Images


Just imagine this being the third song you’d ever written as a band, turning a litany of silly teenage crushes into one of the all-time great ballads (and home to the most arresting sax solo since Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street). It wasn’t Wham!’s third single – George Michael astutely parcelled it out later, asserting his soulful, songwriterly bona fides after a raft of more cartoonish hits, and paving the way for a different shade of solo career. LS


Sneering attitude and glowering negativity – provoked by everything from radio DJs to TV advertising to a lady declining to have sex with Mick Jagger because she’s on her period – aligned to the most famous guitar riff in history. Satisfaction is pissed off, provocative, dirty, thrilling; everything great about the mid-60s Rolling Stones condensed into 3 minutes and 45 seconds. AP


Fortysomething years on, the opprobrium occasioned by the late-70s Bee Gees seems utterly baffling: the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack sounds like a masterclass in pop songwriting, as evidenced by Night Fever’s perfect evocation of pre-club anticipation: “On the waves of the air / There is dancing out there … We can steal it.” AP

Wedding-night blues … Freda Payne.

Wedding-night blues … Freda Payne. Photograph: Ron Howard/Redferns


Written by Motown brains trust Holland-Dozier-Holland, Band of Gold sees Payne sitting in a lonely bedroom, her wedding night gone disastrously unconsummated after some kind of freak-out by the groom. Although the exact details are tactfully veiled by Payne, it’s an unforgettably specific scenario, its horror hammered into your mind with that unyielding snare rhythm and told via a wondrous vocal line. BBT


Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond had already written a book on how to have a No 1 record, The Manual, after their novelty chart-topper Doctorin’ the Tardis. As the KLF, they brought every one of their tricks to bear on this titanic piece of rave: hip-house rapping, gospel choirs, chants about an ancient race of people and a huge synthetic guitar riff. What on earth was it on about? The mystery was the final key to its success. BBT


George McCrae – Rock Your Baby (1974)

Ostensibly the first disco No 1 and the product of songwriters Harry Casey and Richard Finch observing what worked on the dancefloors of Miami’s clubs, in truth, Rock Your Baby carved out a shimmering, supple musical space entirely of its own: organ-led, Hi Records-esque Memphis soul, complete with imploring falsetto vocal, over the hissy ticking of a primitive drum machine. AP


T Rex – Get It On (1971)

Any of T Rex’s magisterial run of No 1 singles could be in this list, but Get It On just shades it, by dint of being the most imperious sounding of the lot: the earthy R&B of Chuck Berry recast into a defiantly modern shape, sexually charged in a way no teen pop had previously been. AP


Carly Rae Jepsen – Call Me Maybe (2012)

On first listen, the song seemed deceptively featherweight. The strings sound like ringtones; the guitar parts as though they were lifted from a PlayStation 2 game. But even the most synthetic production can’t detract from songwriting this ironclad. It is telling that Call Me Maybe was intended as a folk song; it would be catchy played on a kazoo, or underwater. Read our full review here. Elle Hunt


Lil Nas X – Old Town Road (remix feat Billy Ray Cyrus) (2019)

Old Town Road was unstoppable, with no apparent end to its appeal. Children rioted in their love for it. Its vast stable of remixes made it a genre-splicing Rosetta stone. But as much as the song is an urtext in how to go viral (until the rules change again), Old Town’s Road’s magic lies in its affirming faith that a sunnier future is just around the next bend, designer Stetson optional. Read our full review here. Owen Myers

The playlist

This will be updated each day until the No 1 is announced. Spotify users, use the playlist below or click here. Apple Music users can click here.

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