Nearly everybody loves music. In fact, music can often bridge the gaps between people when nothing else can. And there are few things more fun than seeing people react to hit songs.
There’s definitely no formula to what constitutes a hit song, although some songs were natural hits from the first time they made their way on the radio – think about songs like “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” and “Irreplaceable.” Other tunes become smashes inexplicably.
But there’s a whole different category of hits: overrated songs. Some singles have no business being popular or well-loved, and – you guessed it – I’m here to give you a list of the ten most overrated songs. So without further ado, here we go…
10. “Feel It Still” (Portugal. The Man, 2017)
The most annoying rock song of this decade is a terrific way to start the countdown. Whoever signed the band Portugal. The Man to a recording contract should have his or her recording contract signing license taken away for this tripe.
On first listen, it sounds like Portugal. The Man (yes, there’s a period in there, just like you’d expect from a bunch of hipsters) tried to ape Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” with a soulful, falsetto croon in a bid for mainstream success. And, good Lord, we’ve seen it in a bunch of commercials for sure. It’s the worst kind of earworm that gets in your head, and you can’t shake it no matter how hard you try.
What’s most pernicious about the song is that, even though it sounds like a harmless, happy tune, it’s, in reality, a highly political piece of music. The song makes digs at immigration reform and other conservative ideas, and the band claims that Bernie Sanders inspired the song (I suppose the title “You Kids Get Off My Lawn” wasn’t catchy enough). They even released an interactive video presenting opportunities to get involved in 30 different causes – all of them most certainly left-leaning.
It’s almost enough to make you want to shout it down next time you hear it at a sporting event or on a TV ad, isn’t it?
9. “For What It’s Worth” (Buffalo Springfield, 1966)
Some hit singles become overrated long after they’ve become successful. That’s the case with a couple of the songs on this countdown. The first example of this phenomenon is the only Buffalo Springfield song that most people know.
“For What It’s Worth” is actually a terrific song. It occupies a sweet spot between folk, rock, and country, and the lyrics present a memorable picture of a certain moment in the ‘60s. It’s easy to mistake it for an anti-war anthem, but “For What It’s Worth” deals with the mood in Los Angeles following clashes between police and young countercultural types over curfews in certain areas of the city.
What puts “For What It’s Worth” on this list is the fact that some people treat the song as some sort of uber-protest song that applies to all situations. Throughout the five decades since the single’s release, different cultural arbiters have deemed songwriter Stephen Stills’ words as some sort of prophecy about one political problem or another.
The truth is that “For What It’s Worth” was a snapshot of a specific time and place in a fractious era in American life. If we think of it that way and don’t trot it out every time something gets in the craw of someone on the left, we can learn to appreciate it again and not roll our eyes when we hear those haunting guitar notes at the beginning – because it’s a song that demands our respect on its own merits and not as an overused political tool.
8. “Clocks” (Coldplay, 2003)
I’m a fan of the first decade or so of Coldplay’s music, but I haven’t really followed them since then. During that timeframe, they released some incredible singles, but for some reason people hold up “Clocks” as the band’s standard-bearer.
I’ll give the song credit for winning the band the Grammy for Record of the Year, but “Clocks” doesn’t hold a candle to some of Coldplay’s better songs. For one thing, the words are irritatingly repetitive, especially for a band known for their intelligent lyrics. In the chorus, Chris Martin croons the phrase “you are” over and over, while the bridge consists of the phrase “and nothing else compares” repeated several times.
Speaking of repetition, the piano riff that runs through the song reruns constantly until it feels like it’s stabbing the listener’s brain. Near the end of the song, Martin switches to a higher pitched but similar riff that gets old even more quickly.
“Clocks” was either an intentional study in repetition or a lazy band’s way to ride out some studio time. Either way, Coldplay has benefited greatly from it for some reason. Give me “Speed of Sound” or “Trouble” any day over this track.
7. “Don’t Stop Believin’” (Journey, 1981)
Here’s another song that was a serviceable single for Journey back in the day. “Don’t Stop Believin’” hit the top ten in 1981, but it became some sort of cultural phenomenon after television series like The Sopranos and Glee featured it in episodes.
On the surface, “Don’t Stop Believin’” is a decent song, with terrific guitars and synths and a powerful vocal from Steve Perry. But when you examine it, the song doesn’t really have much to it. The tune is supposed to be an all-American story. Or is it? The “city boy” is actually Canadian, as “south Detroit” takes you over the border.
Not much really happens in the song. The boy and girl meet each other on a train, then Steve Perry sings a verse about what it’s like to be a singer on a stage. Then, all we hear is the encouragement to “don’t stop believing” and to “hold on to that feeling” of streetlights and people. Thanks, guys. You’re so helpful.
For some reason, when folks hear “Don’t Stop Believin’” at a ballgame or if someone breaks it out at karaoke, the crowd belts along with it as though the song bears powerful universal truth. Why don’t we give the same kind of treatment to better Journey songs like “Faithfully”? I just don’t understand the appeal.
6. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Nirvana, 1991)
At the dawn of the ‘90s, a bracing movement known as grunge swept through the music world. In an era of hair bands and synth-driven dance pop, grunge powered through the industry like steel wool, affecting everything in its path and giving us singular talents like Dave Grohl and Chris Cornell. One of the bands at the forefront of this new genre of rock was Nirvana.
I’ll admit that I wasn’t that big a fan of Nirvana – I preferred other bands like Soundgarden – but I have more respect for them today. I can also say that I understand the appeal of most of their output, particularly the haunting MTV Unplugged session, with one exception: their breakthrough hit, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
As raw as Nirvana’s stuff was, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” comes across as calculated and primed for mainstream success. From start to finish, the song just feels like a grab at commercial acclaim. And the lyrics? I remember when Kurt Cobain took his own life and a local DJ here in Atlanta referred to him as “the poet of our generation.” Sorry, but lyrics like “A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido” shouldn’t count as poetry.
I’ve heard that Kurt Cobain resented the song’s success and refused to play it after a while. Maybe he heard what I heard and stopped caring too.
(I reserve an exception for one version of this song: the wonderful Liz Vice’s soulful slow burn when she covers it live.)
5. “Meant to Be” (Bebe Rexha with Florida Georgia Line, 2017)
Earlier I referred to “Feel It Still” as the most annoying rock song of this decade, which means that “Meant to Be” is the most annoying pretend-country song from the same time period. Brooklyn-born singer-songwriter Bebe Rexha teamed up with the kings of douchebag bro-country music (I use the words “country” and “music” loosely here), Florida Georgia Line, to create this weird hybrid of mindless faux-country and vapid modern pop.
You certainly won’t mistake “Meant to Be” for poetry. Let’s check out the chorus:
If it’s meant to be, it’ll be, it’ll be
Baby, just let it be
If it’s meant to be, it’ll be, it’ll be
Baby, just let it be
So won’t you ride with me, ride with me?
See where this thing goes
If it’s meant to be, it’ll be, it’ll be
Baby, if it’s meant to be
With lyrics like that, you’ll never expect Dylan Thomas or Emily Dickinson to roll over in their graves. But, the song is an earworm for sure. It’s catchy as hell (possibly a literal eternity of torment and damnation), and it’ll get stuck in your head.
What’s crazy about the song is that there’s not really anything country about it, other than the so-ramped-up-they’re-fake Southern accents of the bros from Florida Georgia Line. Yet “Meant to Be” has spent 45 weeks at the top of Billboard’s country charts as of the time I’m writing this. Let that sink in: no other song has topped the country charts since December of last year.
Maybe there’s something subliminal buried somewhere in the song. That’s the only explanation I can come up with for why “Meant to Be” is so popular (although the folks at the incredible website Saving Country Music make a compelling case for chart manipulation). What I do know is that years from now, fans of country music will have to account for the fact that the longest-running chart topper in the history of the genre came from a pop chanteuse who has written for artists like Eminem and a duo with no discernible talent other than being pretty boys.
4. “Thriller” (Michael Jackson, 1983)
I hold the unpopular opinion that Michael Jackson is overrated. Sure, he was a talented artist who created some terrific songs, but I don’t agree with the notion that he was a singular genius (and don’t get me started on that idiotic “King of Pop” moniker).
Because of this unpopular opinion of mine, I look at most of Jackson’s music – and the accompanying videos – with a measure of cynicism. For me, most of his songs are highly overrated, but the worst of all is “Thriller.”
Every year around this time we hear it endlessly, as if it’s the only song in music history that matches up with Halloween, and we’re often stuck having to watch that stupid dance from the video. (And while I’m ranting about the video, it’s a bad sign when the acting in the B-movie-within-the-video is better than the acting in the video itself.)
The song itself basically lists every horror movie cliché – it’s surprising that the otherwise stellar Rod Temperton penned these lyrics – and even employs horror movie king Vincent Price for a spoken word bit at the end, which turns out to be the best part of the record.
I can’t help but think that if any other artist tried to release this song, he or she would have been laughed off the radio, but because Michael Jackson recorded it as the title track to his oh-so-beloved album, people consider it a classic. But I’ll never understand the appeal.
3. “Up Around the Bend” (Creedence Clearwater Revival, 1970)
Confession: I included this song on this list because I figured it would be a cop-out to include an entry for “any song by Creedence Clearwater Revival.” If I ever write a list of the most overrated bands in music history, CCR will top the countdown.
So, out of all the terrible songs in the CCR repertoire – and there are many – why did I choose this song in particular? Because it features the only thing in CCR’s arsenal of awfulness worse than John Fogerty’s squawking vocals – that guitar riff with a tone that’s the instrumental equivalent of nails on a chalkboard.
In the song, Fogerty sings of a happening taking place “up around the bend,” and invites you, the listener, to go along. I have a hard time imagining who would follow such hideous shrieking, but plenty of Baby Boomers bought CCR records for some reason – maybe the drugs damaged their hearing and they thought they were listening to good music.
There’s a joke in my family that my mom’s grandmother got excited when my mom’s cousin bought a Creedence Clearwater Revival album because my great-grandmother though it was “religious music.” There’s nothing religious about this trash – in fact, I don’t think even Satan would want to claim it.
2. “Africa” (Toto, 1982)
The band Toto garnered an unfairly poor reputation from snarky critics for their smooth soft-rock sound, but the truth is that they were some of the most seasoned musicians and songwriters in the business from years of touring and side work.
Their fourth album, the somewhat eponymous Toto IV, showed the band at the height of their powers, as evidenced by the first single “Rosanna,” which wound up winning Record of the Year at the Grammy Awards. But then again, that same album included “Africa.” For some reason, that song became Toto’s biggest hit.
It’s hard to pinpoint what’s so bad about “Africa.” There’s the band’s attempt to foster a world music sound with synthesizers, and then there are the questions about the meaning of the song. Is it about a missionary to Africa? Is it about a man’s dream of visiting the continent he knows little about (as evidenced by the broad brushstrokes in the description of Africa)? Or is it simply about a romantic relationship?
But the lyrics – particularly in the second verse – may be the not-it factor that consigns “Africa” to the terrible songs bin. Note particularly how the clunky line “As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti” shoehorns its way into the rhythm, despite the fact that Kilimanjaro is a hundred miles away from the Serengeti.
Somehow, someway, despite awful lyrics and poor geography, enough people liked “Africa” enough to give Toto their only number one hit on the Hot 100. And enough people thought Weezer should cover it in 2018 to give us this:
It makes no sense that “Africa” became a hit once, but twice? That’s even more insane.
1. “Imagine” (John Lennon, 1971)
For some reason, every time something goes wrong in the world, some ridiculous idealist decides to perform John Lennon’s “Imagine.” It’s supposed to be a healing song, one that posits a world at perfect unity and peace. But do we really want to live in the world that Lennon proposes in this bland, awful tune?
In “Imagine” Lennon encourages listeners to picture an existence with no heaven, no hell, no religion. As a Christian, this idea is already sounding terrible to me. He also asks us to envision no countries, no possessions (a particularly funny idea coming from a man who had made a fortune off his music), and “all the people sharing all the world.”
At its core, the song proposes a godless, socialist utopia. If you really think about it, the idea isn’t exactly an enticing prospect, particularly when its author promotes it with such limp, bland music. It’s almost as if Lennon set out to compose telephone hold music when he wrote it.
Yet for some reason, so many people turn to “Imagine” – a song that offers no comfort or answers to the tough questions in life – when times go bad. Maybe they’re really soothed by the boring lullaby of the music rather than the inane hippy-go-free lyrics. Who knows? I personally just imagine no “Imagine.” You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m certain I’m not the only one.
There’s the list! Is there a song that you think belongs on the list? Let us know in the comments section below.