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100 & Single: A Dozen Contenders For Billboard’s Year-End Top 10, And Their Fight Against The “Last Christmas Effect”

Later this week, Billboard is expected to announce its tallies for the biggest hits of 2011. And what a year for music it’s been. Remember all those big hits: “Like a G6,” “We R Who We R,” “Raise Your Glass,” “Fuck You!” and “What’s My Name?”

What’s that—you say the songs I just rattled off are kinda old? Like, 2010-old? You’re absolutely right. But don’t be surprised if these vintage hits feature prominently among the biggest Hot 100 hits of 2011.

Billboard‘s “chart year” runs from December 1 through November 30. Blame old-fashioned dead-tree production schedules—they do this so they can announce the year-end victors before the holidays arrive and run the lists in a big, collectible magazine the size of small phone book. (Makes a great stocking stuffer. Seriously!)

The upshot of this skewed calendar: Take a good look at what’s topping the Hot 100 right now. Hits like Rihanna’s “We Found Love” (No. 1), LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It” (No. 2), or Bruno Mars’s fast-rising “It Will Rain” are going to feature conspicuously among the top Billboard hits… of 2012, next December. On the 2011 list, they won’t be very prominent at all.

Even with its abundance of aging tracks, the 2011 list will still be worth poring over when Billboard drops it in a few days. Unlike the year-end album chart—which is based on straight Soundscan sales totals, and whose victor is already a foregone conclusion—the formula of digital sales, radio airplay and online streaming that determines the weekly Hot 100 means year-end predictions require a lot more guesstimating. Which is more fun, anyway.

Let’s run down, in alphabetical order, a baker’s dozen of hits that are likely to figure prominently on Billboard‘s Top Hot 100 Songs of 2011. These are tracks likely to make the final Top 10 or at least the Top 20.

“Born This Way,” Lady Gaga: Last February, the leadoff single to the year’s most hyped album exploded so quickly, it looked like a shoo-in for the year’s biggest. “Born” didn’t just top the Hot 100, it actually debuted at No. 1, with a record-setting sales total of 448,000 downloads in just three days and immediate radio dominance. But like so many things Gaga in 2011, sales and cultural influence were heavily front-loaded—that big three-day total was about one-seventh of what “Born” sold all year long (3.3 million downloads as of November), and radio cooled on the song long before summer. It will possibly just squeak into the Top 10 for the year.

“Fuck You! (Forget You),” Cee Lo Green: The ultimate viral hit, Green’s foul-mouthed yet oddly family-friendly retro-soul smash looked to have peaked just before Christmas 2010. Then a celebrated 2011 Grammy performance brought the song another blast of sales and radio airplay, lifting it to an eventual, totally unlikely No. 2 peak on the Hot 100. As of mid-November, the song still ranked among the five biggest-sellers of 2011 with 3.6 million downloads sold—and that doesn’t even include its sales last December. A Top 10 berth is all but assured.

“Give Me Everything,” Pitbull (featuring Ne-Yo, Afrojack and Nayer): Pitbull’s first chart-topper was an early-summer smash that took about three months to rise to No. 1—the opposite chart pattern of Lady Gaga’s insta-burst. That type of slow-and-steady climb is often rewarded on Billboard‘s year-end charts, because it means a cumulative buildup of points. With more than 3.6 million downloads sold, “Give Me Everything” ranks among the biggest-sellers of the year, and it was a strong radio performer. If it doesn’t make the year-end Top Five, it’ll come pretty close.

“Grenade,” Bruno Mars: One of two likely beneficiaries of the Billboard chart-year skew, Mars’s chart-topper broke into the Top 10 last December and reached No. 1 right after Christmas, nearly ideal for year-end chart placement. It sold 2.6 million copies after January 1, plus hundreds of thousands in the final weeks of 2010. Like Pitbull’s hit, it will vie for Top Five placement and possibly just miss.

Katy Perry feat. Kanye West, “E.T.”

“E.T.,” Katy Perry (featuring Kanye West): Perry’s own record label didn’t think this creepy alien-sex curio would be a hit, but boy, were they wrong: the fourth single from Teenage Dream was a Hot 100 smash and remains 2011’s second-biggest seller, with more than 4.8 million downloads sold. Throw in months of Top 40 radio dominance, and “E.T.” will likely wind up in the year-end Top Three. That is, if it isn’t pushed aside by another Perry smash…

“Firework,” Katy Perry: Like “Grenade,” the rise of the third single off Perry’s album couldn’t have been better timed, Billboard-wise: it rose to No. 1 the week before Christmas 2010 and moved in and out of the No. 1 slot through January. Perry’s wannabe-“It Gets Better” anthem is now her best-selling single of all time, shifting 5.1 million downloads. But only 4.5 million, roughly, of those sales happened after last December 1. So it’s anyone’s guess where this will wind up in the final tally. Depending on how Billboard cuts the data—and months of both Top 40 and adult-contemporary airplay could be a factor here, too—”Firework” could make the Top Five. It could shove “E.T.” out of the Top Three. Or it could even threaten for No. 1; I’ll get to the two biggest contenders for that title shortly. (Lest we talk too much about Perry, one last note: She will likely have a third high-placing smash on the year-end tally, with the album’s fifth single, “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)”; I’d expect that to wind up somewhere in the mid-teens of the Top 20.)

“Just Can’t Get Enough,” The Black Eyed Peas: The year’s stealth hit, this midtempo pseudo-ballad rescued the Peas’ The Beginning (the followup to their megasmash 2009 The E.N.D.) from being a total chart embarrassment. “Enough” never rose above No. 3 on the Hot 100, but it took up residence in the Top Five for months, selling 2.9 million downloads in the process. It could make a surprise appearance in the bottom rungs of the year-end Top 10, or land just outside.

“Moves Like Jagger,” Maroon5 (featuring Christina Aguilera): The latest-breaking hit vying for the year-end Top 10, this whistling ear fungus didn’t even exist until the year was nearly half-over. But boy did it pile up chart points in a short time, blasting through 3.3 million downloads by November and spending a month atop the Hot 100. The year-end Billboard bias against late-breaking hits will keep this from making the Top Five, but the Top 10 is not out of the question.

“On the Floor,” Jennifer Lopez (featuring Pitbull): This comeback from the career-reinventing American Idol judge was a one-off that proved hard for J.Lo to follow up, but while it was a hit last spring it did monster business: a No. 3 peak on the Hot 100, and 3.2 million downloads sold by November, one of the year’s 10 biggest sellers. Radio airplay was strong but not as massive as for some other contenders, so expect this to make the year-end Top 20, possibly the Top 15. If by some fluke J.Lo wound up in the Top 10, her featured supporter Pitbull would join Katy Perry among acts with two hits in the year-end winner’s circle.

LMFAO feat. Lauren Bennett and GoonRock, “Party Rock Anthem”

“Party Rock Anthem,” LMFAO (featuring Lauren Bennett and GoonRock): One of two likely contenders for Billboard single of the year, the summer’s biggest hit has several things going for it. The shufflin’ club jam spent six weeks at No. 1 on the Hot 100, fueled by the most spins at mainstream Top 40 radio of any song this year. LMFAO were no slouches in the sales department, either—the song blasted through 4.6 million downloads by November, 2011’s third-highest total. But what makes the unkillable “Party Rock Anthem” a formidable challenger for the title is its longevity. It spent more weeks—26, exactly half the year—hanging around the Hot 100’s Top 10; that’s not only more winner’s-circle weeks than any other song this year, it’s among the five longest-lasting Top 10 hits of all time, after such 1990s chart-crushers as LeAnn Rimes’s “How Do I Live” and Santana’s “Smooth.” All that said, we’ve seen record-setting hits like Rimes’s and Santana’s fall shy in Billboard‘s year-end tallies thanks to timing and other factors, and if I were a betting man I’d lay odds that LMFAO winds up at No. 2 or No. 3 for the year.

“Pumped Up Kicks,” Foster the People: The year’s unlikeliest crossover hit, from that dying radio genre we used to call alt-rock, this bassline-fueled smash might just be a Top 10 contender. At 3.2 million downloads sold as of November, “Kicks” actually outsold Top 40-friendlier jams like J.Lo’s and the Black Eyed Peas’ aforementioned hits. And like “Party Rock Anthem” it was something of a longevity champ, holding at No. 3 on the Hot 100 for most of September and all of October. As noted above, songs with long, slow climbs up the Hot 100 tend to do better than hits that make a fast run for No. 1. Don’t be surprised if Foster the People’s No. 3-peaking hit winds up higher in the final year-end tally than such Hot 100 No. 1’s as Britney Spears’s “Hold It Against Me” or Rihanna’s “S&M.”

“Rolling in the Deep,” Adele: The other major contender, alongside “Party Rock Anthem,” to win all the marbles, this megasingle by the year’s biggest album-seller and forthcoming Grammy queen isn’t necessarily a total lock. But with stats like this, the game is Adele’s to lose: seven weeks at No. 1 on the Hot 100, the most of any single this year; 5.4 million downloads sold, the most of any track in 2011, and it beats the year’s second-biggest seller, Perry’s “E.T.,” by a margin of more than 700,000; and airplay that cut across roughly a dozen radio genres, from adult contemporary to R&B/hip-hop to modern rock to Latin, making “Rolling” the most-played song in America for more than a month, by a sizable margin. I can see scenarios where LMFAO or Perry pulls an upset thanks to, respectively, longevity or good timing, but otherwise “Rolling” has to be considered the favorite. With Adele’s album already locked as 2011’s biggest seller, if she also goes all the way on the year-end Hot 100, she’ll join an elite group of just seven acts in Billboardhistory to have both the top album and top song in a single year. (The other six: Simon & Garfunkel in 1970, George Michael in 1988, Whitney Houston in 1993, Ace of Base in 1994, 50 Cent in 2003 and Usher in 2004.) Before we leave Adele, it should be noted that her other smash, “Someone Like You,” will likely figure in the year-end Top 20, but it may fall short of the upper reaches thanks to its late-in-the-year rise to the top of the Hot 100.

“Super Bass,” Nicki Minaj: The Energizer bunny of 2011 singles, Minaj’s late-breaking hit from her chart-topping album never rose higher than No. 3 on the Hot 100 but was a fixture in the Top Five all summer long. Sales of 3.1 million by November rank “Super Bass” among the 10 top sellers of the year, and it was a radio monster, too, winding up among the year’s 10 most-played tracks on Top 40 radio. Expect it to make the year-end Top 15 handily, possibly scraping the Top 10, but the competition is tough.

Ke$ha, “Tik Tok”

If you want to have a rooting interest in all this, don’t just pick a favorite song. Cross your fingers that the No. 1 song of the year isn’t something that topped the charts in December 2010.

Assuming the year-end Top Three is some mixture of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem” and Perry’s “E.T.,” the 2011 year-end tally will not feature a prior-year Christmas hit atop the list. Indeed, as of December 2010, none of this threesome of dominators was a hit at all. That will be fairly remarkable—unless Perry’s “Firework” or, less likely, Mars’s “Grenade” crashes the party and tops the year-end tally. But I’m not betting on that. A year ago at this time, the top of Hot 100 was a revolving door, with “Firework” and “Grenade” taking turns in the penthouse—neither was totally dominant.

Across Billboard history, songs that dominated during the holiday season of any given year have an advantage on the year-end charts of the following year. This “Last Christmas Effect,” as I call it, has had an outsize influence—if one song commands the Hot 100 for most of a holiday season, you can safely bet it’ll be named the No. 1 hit of the year 12 months later.

Want some evidence? Here’s a rundown of the last quarter-century of Billboard No. 1 songs of the year. I’ve included, in parentheses, the date the song first reached its peak position on the Hot 100:

1986: Dionne and Friends, “That’s What Friends Are For” (18 Jan 1986)
1987: Bangles, “Walk Like an Egyptian” (20 Dec 1986)
1988: George Michael, “Faith” (12 Dec 1987)
1989: Chicago, “Look Away” (10 Dec 1988)
1990: Wilson Phillips, “Hold On” (9 June 1990)
1991: Bryan Adams, “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You” (27 July 1991)
1992: Boyz II Men, “End of the Road” (15 Aug 1992)
1993: Whitney Houston, “I Will Always Love You” (28 Nov 1992)
1994: Ace of Base, “The Sign” (12 Mar 1994)
1995: Coolio feat. L.V., “Gangsta’s Paradise” (9 Sep 1995)
1996: Los Del Rio, “Macarena (Bayside Boys mix)” (3 Aug 1996)
1997: Elton John, “Candle in the Wind 1997″/”Something About the Way You Look Tonight” (11 Oct 1997)
1998: Next, “Too Close” (25 Apr 1998)
1999: Cher, “Believe” (13 Mar 1999)
2000: Faith Hill, “Breathe” (22 Apr 2000)
2001: Lifehouse, “Hanging by a Moment” (16 June 2001)
2002: Nickelback, “How You Remind Me” (22 Dec 2001)
2003: 50 Cent, “In Da Club” (8 Mar 2003)
2004: Usher feat. Lil Jon and Ludacris, “Yeah!” (28 Feb 2004)
2005: Mariah Carey, “We Belong Together” (4 June 2005)
2006: Daniel Powter, “Bad Day” (8 Apr 2006)
2007: Beyoncé, “Irreplaceable” (16 Dec 2006)
2008: Flo Rida, “Low” (5 Jan 2008)
2009: The Black Eyed Peas, “Boom Boom Pow” (18 Apr 2009)
2010: Ke$ha, “Tik Tok” (2 Jan 2010)

Roughly one-fourth of these songs (six out of 25) reached peak position before the prior year’s Christmas was even over. Throw in songs that hit No. 1 during January’s first few weeks—reflecting data that was actually collected by Billboard in the final weeks of December—and the number of Christmas-centric singles rises to more than one-third (nine of 25). Throw in three more songs (“Macarena,” “Believe” and “Breathe”) that didn’t reach peak position until midyear but were actually released as singles in the final months of the prior year, and roughly half of these year-end victors can be attributed to the Last Christmas Effect.

(The Last Christmas Effect doesn’t just distort Billboard‘s year-end charts. The Grammy Awards have an even more off-kilter calendar—the nominations announced last weekwere for recordings released between October 1, 2010, and September 30, 2011. Four of the last 10 Grammy winners for Album of the Year came out during the fourth quarter of the prior year. Of this year’s five nominees, two albums came out in the final months of 2010.)

In an industry that saves its priority releases for the weeks surrounding Black Friday, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Christmas-centric songs and albums do so well on Billboard‘s year-end lists. It’s just a little dull to see tracks that are more than a year old run roughshod over the tunes we were jamming to the other 11 months of the year. Fortunately, it’s a pretty safe bet that the No. 1 song of 2011 will be something you remember hearing out on the street, pumping from a car with its windows rolled down.

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