Greatness doesn’t always equate to popularity, and as any hipster will rush to tell you, this is especially true in the music industry. As it turns out, some of the most legendary musical artists of all-time never reached the top of the US charts, despite creating some of the most memorable songs in the history of the medium. You’d be forgiven for expecting to see nothing but second rate groups dotting the list, but in fact these are musicians who defined genres and radically changed the course of music. For all of that success, these artists still never got a taste of the number one spot on the Billboard Top 100.
10. The Kinks
The Kinks were a major part of the British musical invasion of America. They are often credited for their influence within the music industry, particularly in the beginnings of heavy metal and punk. When asked if The Kinks were becoming more of a heavy metal band, Dave Davies replied by saying, “It wasn’t called heavy metal when I invented it.”
They were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, and into the UK Music Hall of Fame in 2005. While songs like You Really Got Me, Sunny Afternoon and All Day and All of the Night have all gone down as rock classics, none made it to the top of the US charts. They twice hit number six, with those successes coming almost 20 years apart. That’s the closest they ever got to a number one single, but on the bright side, their famous song Lola was parodied by Weird Al Yankovic, which is probably a greater testament to their popularity anyway.
Perhaps no band is as synonymous with the punk rock movement of the 1970s as the Ramones, but it wasn’t until years later that Joey and the gang began gaining true mainstream success. The closest that they ever came to a US number one was with Rockaway Beach, which only reached number 66 in the charts. Of course, considering they played the underground scene at clubs like CBGB they probably wore their lack of record sales as a badge of honor.
The band never received the massive commercial success they probably deserved, but as time goes on their contribution to punk and music in general has gained major recognition, as indicated by their Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011. And that’s not even counting all of those teenagers walking around wearing Ramones t-shirts because they think it makes them look edgy, despite the fact they’ve probably never even listened to I Wanna Be Sedated.
Emerging from the Seattle grunge scene at the end of the 1980s, Nirvana had an immediate impact on the music industry. Some would say they actually defined the grunge movement, though you should probably avoid the topic when talking to Pearl Jam or Stone Temple Pilots fans. Nirvana’s impact was particularly evident with the release of their album Nevermind, which became an immediate phenomenon in 1991. Unfortunately, Kurt Cobain took his own life in 1994 and Nirvana only released three albums in their seven years as a band.
Nevermind would actually rise to the number one spot in album sales, knocking out none other than Michael Jackson, but the band never achieved a number one single. Unsurprisingly, Smells Like Teen Spirit was the band’s closest call, hitting sixth place in December of 1991. Today the band has sold over 75 million records worldwide.
7. The Clash
The impact The Clash had on a lot of people, particularly in the late 1970s, went beyond music. The Clash addressed far-reaching issues including racial conflict, social displacement, poverty, drug use and some of the major political problems occurring at the time. Their music captured the imaginations of young people, particularly in Britain. London Calling was released in 1979 and changed the landscape of British music, merging the styles of reggae, rockabilly, and ska with punk, and received widespread critical acclaim.
Thanks to their raw, powerful, garage band style, they’ve served as an inspiration to the likes of Nirvana, Green Day, and U2, who have all acknowledged The Clash’s importance in getting them into music. They eventually gained popularity in the US with their 1982 album Combat Rock, but never managed a number one. Rock the Casbah came closest, hitting number eight.
6. Bruce Springsteen
Now we’re getting to the part of the list that’s filled with genuine shocks. Bruce Springsteen is a rock legend, selling over 120 million records. That success has made him one of the best-selling artists of all-time, as well as having won 20 Grammy Awards, two Golden Globes, and an Academy Award. Born in the USA and Born To Run are two of the best-selling albums in American music history, yet Springsteen has never had a number one hit.
He came oh-so-close in 1984 when Dancing in the Dark hit number two, but has never been able to clinch top spot. Springsteen is renowned for his epic, energetic stage performances and continues to tour regularly today. His 2014 album High Hopes was voted the second best album of the year by Rolling Stone, so there’s certainly still time for the Boss to hit number one.
5. Bob Marley
No artist is more commonly associated with a genre or nation as Bob Marley is with reggae and Jamaica. But while Eric Clapton had a number one with a cover of Marley’s I Shot the Sheriff, Marley himself never achieved such a feat in the US Billboard Charts. Still, his music is often described as a spiritual experience, as Marley rose from poverty and sang with a genuine quality in his voice.
His many awards include his 1997 album Exodus being named Album of the Century by Time Magazine, One Love being hailed by the BBC as the Song of the Millennium, and in 2001 he was posthumously honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Major hits such as No Woman, No Cry, Redemption Song and Get Up, Stand Up never dented the Billboard 40, and the closest he ever came was when Roots, Rock, Reggae reached number 51 in 1979.
4. The Who
The Who were a major part of the British musical invasion. The quartet featured arguably the greatest drummer and bass player of all-time in Keith Moon and John Entwistle, along with Pete Townshend’s lyrical prowess and the power and range of Roger Daltrey’s voice. With that kind of talent, it should be of little surprise that The Who have sold well in excess of 100 million records and have become firmly ingrained among the music elite.
The Who introduced the concept of the ‘rock opera’ to a mass audience, with both Tommy and Quadrophenia going down as legendary albums. The song My Generation helped define the 1960s, with John Entwistle’s bass carrying the song in a way that had never really been heard before. Hits such as I Can’t Explain, I Can See For Miles (which, at number nine, was the highest any of the group’s songs reached on the US charts), and Won’t Get Fooled Again have lived on in music history. Of course now the band is more closely associated with the CSI television franchise, which is almost as sad as the fact that they never had a song reach number one.
3. Jimi Hendrix
Arguably the greatest guitarist to ever live, Jimi Hendrix came onto the music scene like a shooting star, only to tragically flame out before he even reached his 28th birthday. His sound was raw and fierce, and vastly different than anything anyone had heard before. Hendrix had an incredible versatility with his guitar, equally adept with blues, rock, and heartfelt classics, or he could bring them all together to create a unique genre no one could duplicate.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience only released three albums, but all have become legendary. Are You Experienced is widely considered one of the greatest debut albums in the history of music. Despite being a fine songwriter, the closest Hendrix ever came to reaching the top of the US charts was not with one of his own songs, but a cover of Bob Dylan’s All Along The Watchtower, which hit number 20 on the single’s charts in 1968. Jimi’s version was so powerful that, as the legend goes, after Dylan heard it he would only play it the way Hendrix had.
2. Led Zeppelin
With more than 138 million certified sales, Led Zeppelin are the sixth best-selling artists of all-time, behind only The Beatles, Elvis, Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Elton John. They’re often credited with the birth of heavy metal, and their unique combination of blues with a heavy psychedelic element certainly gave them a distinctive sound.
The band’s fourth album, generally considered their greatest and one of the best in the history of rock music, contained the legendary single Stairway To Heaven. That song stands today as the most requested song in the history of American radio, and the eight minute classic nearly always appears in lists of the greatest songs of all-time. Yet it wasn’t even the closest the band came to a number one hit. That honor goes to the equally great Whole Lotta Love, which reached number four in December of 1969.
1. Bob Dylan
Considered by many to be the greatest songwriter of all-time as well as the most influential artist in modern music history, Bob Dylan began as a folk singer and was heavily influenced by the likes of Woody Guthrie. His songs became anthems of the American anti-war and civil rights movements, and Dylan was labelled as the “voice of a generation”. After his first album bombed commercially, the two that followed, The Freewheelin’ and The Times They Are A-Changin’, propelled Dylan firmly into American consciousness.
For more than 50 years, Dylan has continued his legendary career, and his influence is immeasurable. John Lennon revealed that The Freewhelin’ convinced The Beatles to write narrative-driven songs rather than just teen pop songs. Despite all this, Dylan has never had a number one single, reaching second place on two occasions with Like A Rolling Stone and Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.