This is a regular column in which I review every song that hit number one on my personal top 40 chart, starting with its inception in 2001.
PEAK DATE: January 27, 2001
TIME AT #1: 2 Weeks
Greatest hits albums were supposed to be victory laps. An artist put the work in releasing album after album, hopefully accruing a few hit songs along the way. Then when they wanted to take a break from recording, or just needed to fulfill a label obligation, they'd put all their biggest hits on one record, sometimes adding one or two new or unreleased songs on there as a bone for fans to buy the album. Those new songs rarely become hits in their own right, but in Lenny Kravitz's case, the new song he put on his 2000 greatest hits album ironically became arguably the biggest hit of his career.
The streaming era has largely made greatest hits albums irrelevant. Now if you only want to listen to your favorite songs by one artist, without enduring or skipping songs you're not into, you can create a playlist on Spotify or Apple Music and put whatever you want in there. I guess you could've done this in 2001 with services like Napster, but you were technically breaking the law. During the 90s, labels prioritized selling albums over individual songs and the commercial single saw a precipitous decline. Billboard was typically late to react to this trend, as their standard-bearer chart, the Hot 100, still required a physical single to be available for sale in order for a song to enter the chart. Some of the biggest songs of decade, such as "Don't Speak" by No Doubt and "Torn" by Natalie Imbruglia, either didn't chart at all or had abbreviated chart runs that didn't reflect their true popularity.
Labels were well aware of this fact, and they sometimes gamed the system by waiting for a song to maximize its radio play before releasing a single. Before 1995, no song ever debuted at #1 on the Hot 100. Between 1995 and 1998, it happened ten times. Eventually Billboard had enough of this and allowed airplay-only songs to enter the Hot 100, leading to a more representative chart, even if it meant the power still wasn't really in the hands of music fans, shifting from label executives to radio programmers.
All of this is to say that a song like "Again" was a product of its era. Now if an artist was in between albums, but had a song they felt confident could be a hit, it could just be released to streaming services as a stand-alone single. (A recent single by CHVRCHES, a band that will appear many times in this column, fits this description.) But in 2000? The choices were either find a movie that needed music for its soundtrack, or put out a greatest hits package in time for the holiday season. So Lenny Kravitz chose the latter. That was fine with me, since I was obsessively listening to pop and alternative radio, and the song became an obvious favorite for me.
Leonard Albert Kravitz was born in New York in 1964 to a white Jewish news producer and a Black actress. His mother, Roxie Roker, starred on The Jeffersons as one half of the first interracial couple portrayed on television. Kravitz moved to Los Angeles in the 70s where he was first exposed to rock music and attended Beverly Hills High School. Eventually he pursued becoming a musician, but didn't seem to fit neatly in any one genre and was rejected by record labels. He briefly adopted a pseudonym while recording his 1989 debut album Let Love Rule, but went back to his own name by the time he signed with Virgin Records.
Kravitz's early music combined elements of funk, psychedelic rock, and R&B, and he scored an early hit with "It Ain't Over 'til It's Over", which reached #2 on the Hot 100 in 1991. But it was the title track to his third album Are You Gonna Go My Way, that really made him a star.
"Are You Gonna Go My Way" is an absolute banger with its instantly memorable guitar hook and Kravitz's voice ripping through the speakers, a stark contrast to the mellow, Smokey Robinson-esque vocals of "It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over". The video puts Kravitz and his band in some kind of Thunderdome-like arena with people dancing and jumping off the balconies. It was an easy staple for MTV and alternative radio to put into rotation, reaching #2 on the Modern Rock Tracks chart. His fifth album, 5, featured another song, "Fly Away", that not only would become an immediate rock radio classic, and would cross over to pop radio as well. It topped the Modern Rock chart, and crossed over to pop radio as well. Without the restriction of needing a commercial single, it peaked at #12 on the Hot 100 in 1999.
By this point, Kravitz had earned the right to put out a greatest hits album, which he did in 2000, combining songs from all of his previous five albums. "Again" is the fourth track on the album. It was intended to be included on his next studio album, but Kravitz didn't believe it fit with the sound of the other songs on the record. The song itself is a pounding ballad, but unlike "It Ain't Over", Kravitz's vocals are distorted similarly to "Fly Away", giving the song a rather psychedelic vibe. Kravitz's narrator meets a woman and instantly falls in love, but he wonders if the moment will be fleeting. "All of my life/where have you been/I wonder if I'll ever see you again." It's a sentiment I'm all too familiar with in my adult life. At 14, the song felt quite hypnotic, and probably spoke to whatever romantic feelings I was dealing with at the time, as confused as they were.
Watching the video in the present, I have many questions. Kravitz is depicted in his New York apartment, rejecting the affections of his girlfriend, played by Gina Gershon. He actually comes off as kind of a dick to her, walking away from her as she tries to wrap her arms around him on their bed. Instead, Kravitz falls for a waitress at a diner, enchanted as he drinks a soda and fantasizing about being intimate with her. The next day, he tries to go back to the diner, but no one seems to know who he's talking about and so he leaves. Sure enough, a moment later the waitress enters and goes to work while Kravitz heads home. Perhaps if the waitress didn't appear at the end of the video, she could've been meant to be a figment of Kravitz's imagination. But the twist ending makes me think Kravitz just doesn't know how to describe people he meets. Also, wouldn't he try going back there a few more times and staying for a cup of coffee or a meal so he can confirm she works there? I'm so confused!
"Again" didn't quite reach the heights of his biggest hit, peaking at #4 on the Hot 100 in 2001, but Greatest Hits became Kravitz's best selling album, being certified Triple Platinum in the US. He released his next studio album, Lenny, in the fall of 2001, and the song "Dig In" would peak at #9 on my top 40. After that album's cycle, only one more song by Kravitz would enter my top 40, with 2004's "Where Are We Runnin'?" reaching #23. He's released eleven albums in total, most recently 2018's Raise Vibration, but none have really attracted my attention in the years that have passed.
Kravitz has had an iconoclastic career, not fitting neatly into anyone's definition of a musician or entertainer, but he won't be appearing in this column again. Still, I imagine some of the acts that will appear probably owe him a debt of gratitude. Rock radio has rarely been a home for non-white artists, to its detriment, and guys like Lenny Kravitz are necessary to remind people that a great guitar riff can come from anyone, regardless of who your parents are.