Music · Trivia

The UK’s best-selling singles by year

A few reflections on the UK’s best-selling singles by year.

Recently I have been reading up on the best-selling records of each year in the UK, beginning with these two links: a list on Wikipedia and a gallery or slideshow (one year at a time) from the Official Chart Company. The latter goes up to 2016 (“One Dance”, Drake) and you have to click on 65 slides to see every entry. The Wikipedia page lists all 70 records, right back to 1952 (“Here in My Heart”, Al Martino).

There is the odd discrepancy here. For 1970 the Official Chart Company lists “The Wonder of You” (Elvis Presley) as the year-end #1, but Wikipedia gives us “In the Summertime” (Mungo Jerry). I’ll go with the former, which gives Elvis four of the best-selling singles year by year. The other years were 1958 (“Jailhouse Rock”), 1960 (“It’s Now or Never”) and 1961 (“Wooden Heart”).

As a fan of chart trivia, I feel that this is the kind of information I should have known already, but I did not know that “Jailhouse Rock” was the best-selling record of its  year. There are other surprises for me in these lists. I knew that “She Loves You” was the best-seller of 1963 (and the biggest selling Beatles single overall) but didn’t know that it was “Can’t Buy Me Love” in 1964. Sandwiched in between the two Elvis singles at the start of the decade (1960-61) and the Beatles in 1963-64 we have Frank Ifield’s “I Remember You” as the best-selling single of 1962. That was news to me.

The rest of the 1960s was dominated by ballads, with the following ending up as the best-sellers of their respective years: “Tears” (Ken Dodd, 1965), “Green Green Grass of Home” (Tom Jones, 1966) and “Release Me” (Englebert Humperdinck, 1967). The Beatles have one more song in the list (“Hey Jude”, 1968) and the decade finished with “Sugar Sugar” (The Archies) as the top selling single of 1969.

Having named every year-end #1 between 1960 and 1970 so far, I am not going to list all of the remaining songs. You can follow the links in the opening paragraph for the full lists. Instead, here are a few observations, decade by decade.

The 1950s

There’s a song here that I had never heard before, “I’ll Be Home” (Pat Boone), the best-selling record of 1956. I have played it a few times on Spotify and currently find it unmemorable.

“Secret Love” (Doris Day, 1954) is the first song on this list recorded by a solo female artist. There would not be another until 1985 (“The Power of Love”, Jennifer Rush).

Three of the songs here would return to #1 in later decades, though they would not be the best-selling records in any of those years: “I Believe” (Frankie Laine, 1953, also a 1995 #1 for Robson & Jerome); “Jailhouse Rock” (1958, Elvis Presley, a #1 when re-released in 2005); “Living Doll” (1959, Cliff Richard, a #1 in 1986 when re-recorded for Comic Relief, with The Young Ones and Hank Marvin).

The 1960s

Already listed above.

The 1970s

Along with the 1980s, this is a decade with very few surprises for me. The only year I wasn’t sure of was 1972 (“Amazing Grace”, The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards).

Many years ago I wrongly thought that “When Will I See You Again?” (Three Degrees) was the best-selling record of 1974. I was put right on this at least 10 years ago: it was “Tiger Feet” by Mud. It was #1, appropriately enough, in the Chinese Year of the Tiger.

“Mull of Kintyre” / “Girls’ School” (Wings) was not just the best-selling record of 1977. It also became the UK’s best-selling single up to that point.

The 1980s

No surprises here for me, but I hadn’t noticed before that three of the year-end #1s begin with the word “Don’t”: 1980 (“Don’t Stand So Close to Me”, Police), 1981 (“Don’t You Want Me”, Human League) and 1986 (“Don’t Leave Me This Way”, Communards).

In 1984 “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” (Band Aid) overtook “Mull of Kintyre” as the best-selling UK single to date.

As noted above, in 1985 Jennifer Rush became the first solo female artist to have a year-end #1 since Doris Day 31 years earlier.

The 1990s

For the first time, two different versions of the same song were year-end #1s: the re-release of “Unchained Melody” by the Righteous Brothers took the title in 1990, and Robson & Jerome’s version did it in 1995.

In 1997 Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind 1997” (a double A side with “Something About the Way You Look Tonight”) overtook “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” as the UK’s top-selling single of all time, a record it still holds.

From 1990 to 1997, 6 of the 8 year-end #1s were re-releases or re-recordings. The only original songs in these years featured brackets and repeated uses of the word “Do”: “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You” (Bryan Adams, 1991) and “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)” (Meat Loaf, 1993).

The decade ended with solo female artists scoring the biggest selling single two years running, the first time that this had happened: Cher (“Believe”, 1998) and Britney Spears (“… Baby One More Time”, 1999).

The 2000s

The 2004 version of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” (Band Aid 20) was the best-selling record of its year, so it joins “Unchained Melody” as the only song to appear twice in the list.

I thought that “Umbrella” (Rihanna) was the best-selling record of 2007, but it was “Bleeding Love” by Leona Lewis. Another “X Factor” winner was the best-seller of 2008 (Alexandra Burke with “Hallelujah”) and in 2009 “Poker Face” by Lady Gaga made it three years running for solo female artists.

The 2010s

In 2010, “Love the Way You Lie” (Eminem featuring Rihanna) was the year’s top seller, but it was never #1 in the weekly chart, the only time that this has happened.

The best-sellers of 2011 and 2019 both begin with the word “Someone”: “Someone Like You” (Adele) and “Someone You Loved” (Lewis Capaldi). For good measure, the top seller of 2012 begins with the word “Somebody” (“Somebody That I Used to Know”, Gotye featuring Kimbra).

The best-sellers of 2016 and 2018 both begin with the word “One”: “One Dance” (Drake), and “One Kiss” (Calvin Harris & Dua Lipa)

The 2020s

Just the two entries so far: “Blinding Lights” (The Weeknd, 2020) and “Bad Habits” (Ed Sheeran, 2021).


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