The music industry is a tough business. Some artists struggle for years to achieve success, while others experience it overnight. Ideally, a performer can turn all that hard work into a sustained career, but there’s an infamous category of musical curiosities: the one-hit wonder.
One-hit wonders resonate with music fans just once. They can’t make lightning strike a second time, but their only hit is unforgettable. Here are the ten most interesting one-hit wonders in pop music history. They may not be the biggest smashes from one-hit wonders, but they made an impact on pop culture in their own way. Enjoy!
For the purposes of this list, I’m defining a one-hit wonder as an artist who only hit the top 40 once. These folks may have had other singles make the Hot 100, but they didn’t crack the top 40 again.
10. Taco, “Puttin’ on the Ritz” (1983)
One of the oddest musical moments of the ‘80s came when a Dutch singer who went only by his first name of Taco had a top five hit on the Hot 100 with his version of Irving Berlin’s 1929 classic “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”
Taco crooned the standard in a style reminiscent of the twee, tinny male vocalists of the day, but he backed those vocals with modern instrumentation. The result was a song that sounded like nothing else on the radio at that time. He burned up the charts in 1983 with his take on the classic, but he never managed to dent the charts again in America.
What was the appeal of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” that it would become such a big hit more than five decades after Berlin wrote it? Was it the unique melding of old-fashioned vocal style with trendy sounds? Was it a testimony to the universal appeal of Berlin’s songs? Or was it because the guy’s name is Taco, and everybody loves tacos? No matter the reason, “Puttin’ on the Ritz” was a blast from the past that became a smash in an unusual decade.
9. Biz Markie, “Just a Friend” (1989)
Some hits are so catchy that they stick in your head no matter how hard you try to resist. Biz Markie’s one smash single is one of them. Admit it – you sing along too when you hear “Just a Friend.”
The song is pretty straightforward: Markie is warning guys to avoid dating girls who “have a friend.” He relates his own experience with a college co-ed whose “friend” was more than the rapper bargained for. The melody – a sample of Freddie Scott’s glorious 1968 single “You Got What I Need” – is the perfect earworm. Even though Biz Markie’s singing skills leave plenty to be desired, it’s hard to resist joining in.
“Just a Friend” made the top ten on the Hot 100, but Markie was never able to follow up with another hit, despite being a popular featured artist on other hip-hop records and a frequent television guest.
Biz Markie generated controversy that changed the course of music a couple of years after “Just a Friend” when British artist Gilbert O’Sullivan sued the rapper for sampling one of his songs. The suit ended in a judgment that declared that artists must get the permission of the original artist before using a sample. Needless to say, Biz Markie’s legacy looms larger than his one big hit.
8. Timbuk3 “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades” (1986)
Some songs become hits because the public misunderstands them. Take the case of oddball husband-and-wife duo Timbuk3. When the band’s career began to take off, Barbara MacDonald told her husband Pat, “The future is looking so bright, we’ll have to wear sunglasses!” Pat filed the comment away for a future song lyric.
A few years later, the MacDonalds released the single “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades.” The upbeat number with its tight harmonies and bouncy lyrics sounds like a novelty tune about a smart kid who is parlaying his interest in science into a lucrative career. That’s what the record-buying public must have thought too, because the song made its way to the top 20. The band even performed the song on the sitcom Head of the Class.
But Timbuk3 didn’t really intend for their lone hit to be a fun song. Rather, the MacDonald’s wrote the song as pointed social commentary. The protagonist’s bright future, in the minds of the writers, is due to the threat of nuclear holocaust. Some of the original lyrics that didn’t make it into the final recording even referred to President Ronald Reagan as a fascist.
“The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades” is such a weird song that it almost doomed Timbuk3 to one-hit wonder status from the start. Add the heavy-handed politics to it, and it’s easy to see why they didn’t have a sustained career on the charts.
7. Thomas Dolby, “She Blinded Me With Science” (1983)
The movement of new wave music in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s ushered in the first generation of what we now call alternative rock. Bold musicians experimented with new technology and the structures of rock music to create something new and fresh.
One of those innovators was British synth-rocker Thomas Dolby, whose only hit on this side of the pond was “She Blinded Me With Science.” The song is a surprisingly funky romp that’s as catchy and fun as it is quirky. (All these years later, I’m still inclined to shout, “Science!” when technology fails or frustrates me.) “She Blinded Me With Science” hit the top five on the Hot 100 and dominated the airwaves for months.
Dolby’s only American smash wound up a relative failure in the UK, where it landed in the middle of the charts. He continued making music into the ‘90s, but his influence stretches beyond the pop charts. Dolby has composed film scores and served as the original music director for the TED Conference. He innovated digital music technology and was a leader in the development of polyphonic ringtones. Talk about somebody who has made a career from science.
6. Toni Basil, “Mickey” (1982)
If the chant “Oh Mickey, you’re so fine, you’re so fine, you blow my mind” gets stuck in your head, you can thank actress/director/choreographer Toni Basil, who transformed a somewhat obscure British pop song into a new wave bubblegum classic.
Mike Chapman, one of the hottest producers of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, co-wrote a song called “Kitty” and produced it for a band in the UK in 1979. She changed the lyrics to “Mickey” in order to sing to a man and added the cheerleader chants. But the song really took off when she choreographed and directed a cheerleader-themed video that featured some astonishing stunts, including the opening stunt, which has been banned from competition cheer. In the early days of MTV, one of the earliest choreographed videos turned “Mickey” into a smash.
The catchy tune, which combines the energy of new wave with a bubblegum pop sheen (thanks in part to the chants, which weren’t a part of Chapman’s original lyrics), burned up the airwaves and gave Basil her only hit. She was nearly 40 when “Mickey” hit, but subsequent singles failed to make the top 40.
Despite a music career that never really took off, Basil continued directing music videos and experimental short films and choreographing for films and television. At 75, she is still going strong.
5. Jean Knight, “Mr. Big Stuff” (1971)
By the end of the ‘60s, New Orleans singer Jean Knight had nearly given up on a career in music and took a job in the cafeteria at Loyola University. But when the ‘70s dawned, she found herself near the top of the Hot 100.
“Mr. Big Stuff” is one of those irresistible soul songs, and Knight was talented – and sassy – enough to sing it authoritatively. She caught lightning in a bottle, and the single topped the R&B charts and made it to number two on the pop charts. Knight performed “Mr. Big Stuff” on the first season of Soul Train, and she received a Grammy nomination but lost to Aretha Franklin.
After “Mr. Big Stuff” and the hit album of the same name, Knight recorded only sporadically, and she never made the top 40 again. She came close in 1985 when she covered zydeco superstar Rockin’ Sidney’s international smash “My Toot Toot.” In 2007, the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame honored Knight with an induction.
4. Sugarhill Gang, “Rapper’s Delight” (1979)
It’s hard to remember a time when rap didn’t dominate music, but in 1979, the genre was still an underground phenomenon. “Big Bank Hank” Jackson, Mike Wright, and “Master Gee” O’Brien would freestyle to the instrumental track of Chic’s number one hit “Good Times.” At the same time, Sylvia Robinson, owner of Sugarhill Records, was looking to record something new and fresh, but no rappers were willing to commit their rhymes to vinyl. Jackson, Wright, and O’Brien had no such compunction, and the Sugarhill Gang was born.
“Rapper’s Delight” is unusual in that it’s just an upbeat party song. There’s no sex, no social commentary, and no rivalries or disses. The lyrics are loose and often don’t make sense. But it’s fun, and that’s what makes it so unique and fresh. The single helped break ground for hip-hop to become the cultural phenomenon that it is today, even if the Sugarhill Gang couldn’t duplicate its success.
3. Dexy’s Midnight Runners, “Come On Eileen” (1983)
One of my personal favorite songs from the ‘80s came from a band who crafted a Celtic soul sound that gave them a breakthrough American hit – and nothing else. Singer-songwriter Kevin Rowland penned a love song which he rooted in the Catholic notion that sex is dirty, and he recorded it with his band, Dexy’s Midnight Runners.
“Come On Eileen” took off on both sides of the Atlantic, not just because of the irresistible melody and lyrics about a guy falling in love with his childhood friend, but also because it sounded unlike anything else on the radio at the time. Even country songs that crossed over to the pop charts in the early ‘80s didn’t feature fiddle and banjo so prominently.
The smash spent a week on top of the Hot 100, preventing Michael Jackson from having back-to-back number one hits, and became Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ biggest hit on both sides of the pond. Unfortunately, the band couldn’t duplicate that success again in the States.
2. Norman Greenbaum, “Spirit in the Sky” (1970)
Some songs have guitar riffs that are so recognizable that you know exactly what you’re in for when you hear one or two notes. “Spirit in the Sky” is one of those tunes.
But what is a Jewish guy like Norman Greenbaum doing singing about Jesus? He took his inspiration from cowboy movies and a Porter Waggoner gospel performance. The result places lyrics that are vaguely Christian-ish against an irresistible psychedelic rock backdrop.
Greenbaum didn’t set out to make fun of Christianity, as some have wondered over the years; rather, he took the challenge of writing his own gospel tune. Don’t judge it for its theology (or lack thereof) – just sing along and enjoy the groove.
Greenbaum wasn’t able to reach the Top 40 again, which is a shame. The lack of hit follow-ups hasn’t dimmed Greenbaum’s career, however, because he still performs today in his mid-70s.
1. Gotye featuring Kimbra, “Somebody That I Used to Know” (2012)
Some artists come seemingly out of nowhere to have a big hit, and while many artists can parlay that hit into a sustained career, others don’t do so well. One pairing of two artists gave both of them their only hit so far, but what a hit it was!
Belgian-born Australian artist Gotye wrote a song based on his bad luck with relationships. He teamed up with New Zealand’s Kimbra to record “Somebody That I Used to Know.” The quirky kiss-off song sounded like the best Peter Gabriel single that he never recorded, and the tune resonated with enough listeners, streamers, and music buyers to spend eight weeks atop the Hot 100. The music industry loved it enough to honor Gotye and Kimbra with the Grammy for Record of the Year.
Unfortunately, neither Gotye nor Kimbra have come anywhere close to duplicating the success of “Somebody That I Used to Know” in the six years since it became a hit. That’s a shame, because both of them are clearly talented enough to deserve more smash singles.
And that’s my list! What other one-hit wonders do you think belong on this list? Let us know in the comments section below.