If I asked the question,” Can you name some one-hit-wonders?” most people could rattle off at least a few. After all, some incredibly famous songs come from artists with only one hit.
I’m fascinated by one-hit-wonders, personally. What made that song, in particular, go big? Who was the person (or people!) behind the music? So I thought I’d shine a bit of light on the subject. Let’s travel back in time and catalogue some of the most noteworthy one-hit wonders throughout the history of the charts.
How Can We Define One-Hit-Wonders?
In the most straightforward sense of the word, a one-hit-wonder is someone who only ever had one hit. One song of theirs gets popular and charts, but the artist was a non-presence after that. Simple enough, right? Well, there is a catch. Artists who fit into this purist definition are scarce. Typically, eyes are on future one-hit-wonders long enough for them to achieve an -often minor- second hit.
Even if an artist technically had more than one hit on the charts, however, if the average person could only name one song of theirs, it’s safe to assume the artist counts as a one-hit wonder.
Okay, you might be asking yourself, then what counts as a hit? Typically, any song that reaches the top 100 of a prominent music chart (like Billboard or Rolling Stone) can be considered a hit. It’s a pretty significant achievement if you think about just how many songs are released each day. Granted, there is a difference between songs that barely scrape onto the bottom of the charts and ones that spend weeks at number one.
For this article, we’ll be defining hits as songs that enter the Top 40 of the Billboard U.S. Hot 100. Why the U.S. charts? Well, the English-speaking music industry runs out of Los Angeles and New York. So if you’re comparing charts across the globe for relevancy, the U.S. charts are one of the ones that count the most, for better or for worse.
Essentially, our one-hit wonders mentioned here will be artists who only had one major hit on the Billboard U.S. Hot 100. And with that out of the way, let’s get to the article proper. We’ll be starting back in the 1st decade Billboard covered – the 1950s.
To Know Him Is To Love Him – The Teddy Bears (1958)
Perhaps not an overly recognizable song nowadays, this little love song has seen some impressive artists cover the tune.
The song’s title comes from a tombstone. Phil Spector, the songwriter, first got the idea from his dad’s headstone, which included the phrase “To Know Him Is To Love Him.” He later recorded a song based on the phrase with his group, The Teddy Bears. To Know Him Is to Love Him went on to become a massive hit in the United States, reaching number one on the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks in December of 1958.
Almost thirty years later, the song would reach number one again – but this time on the country charts. Country megastar Dolly Parton recorded a cover along with acclaimed singer-songwriters Emmylou Harris and Linda Rondstadt as the supergroup known as Trio.
Another famous singer who covered the song is the late Amy Winehouse. She included a live version of the song on the deluxe edition of her debut album, Back to Black. At the time of writing, the cover has over 30 million streams on Spotify.
Despite the original barely clocking past the two-minute mark, To Know Him Is To Love Him by the Teddy Bears has inspired some of the greatest artists of modern music to give the song a new breath of life.
Monster Mash – Bobby “Boris” Pickett (1962)
This Halloween cult classic, no pun intended, made quite the splash on the Billboard charts despite being a silly novelty song.
Bobby Pickett got the inspiration for the song after imitating famous horror actor Boris Karloff’s voice to sing a doo-wop song. The audience he was performing in front of absolutely adored it. Pickett was encouraged to continue using the impression, and he would eventually release Monster Mash in August of 1962. As you might expect, the song didn’t start climbing the charts until the fall. Nevertheless, Monster Mash took hold of the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100 the week before Halloween.
A chart that Monster Mash didn’t initially appear on is the U.K. charts. The BBC claimed the song was too morbid for audiences and banned it from play! Yes, a song about monsters dancing at a party was too dark to be considered playing on the radio. The sixties sure was an interesting time.
The ban, however, wasn’t for forever. Monster Mash got unbanned and given a U.K. release in 1973. It climbed the U.K. charts and re-entered the Hot 100 in Canada, the United States, and Australia.
Bobby Pickett wrote a musical based around Monster Mash in 1965. This musical would go on to be adapted as the 1995 film Monster Mash: the Movie. And while the Toy Story writers wrote the movie, a quick scroll through Monster Mash: The Movie’s IMDB page shows it is nowhere near the same level as the Pixar classic.
It is safe to say the later spin-offs and adaptations did not have the same impact as the original. But Monster Mash itself is a timeless classic that gets enjoyed every October – likely for years to come.
Rainbow Connection – Kermit The Frog (1979)
Yes, you read that right. Kermit the Frog, as in, the beloved Muppet character, makes the list of one-hit-wonders. (Well – technically, the song is sung by his voice actor, Jim Henson, but the loveable green frog gets all the credit on the single.)
Rainbow Connection was released in 1975. It was the opening number of The Muppet Movie, which came out that same year. Serving as the movies’ “I am” number, it often draws a lot of comparison to another soundtrack classic: Over the Rainbow from The Wizard of Oz. However, Songwriters Paul Williams and Kenneth Ascher credit When You Wish Upon A Star from Pinocchio as the inspiration for their song.
Listeners loved Rainbow Connection. The song reached number 25 on the billboard hot 100 – a feat that’s very impressive for a song from a kid’s movie! It also earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original song at the 52nd annual academy awards but ultimately lost.
Recently though, Rainbow Connection was honoured in another way. In 2021, the Library of Congress deemed the song culturally significant enough to preserve it in the National Recording Registry. That’s a pretty big achievement for a frog!
Even if you don’t personally have any childhood nostalgia for the Muppet franchise, Rainbow Connection is worth checking out. It’s just such a charming song that I guarantee it will give you the warm and fuzzies anyways. Give it a listen!
Take On Me – A-ha (1985)
I’d argue that one of the most iconic one-hit-wonders, at least over here in North America, is the band A-ha. I don’t think I’m alone in that opinion either! The Rolling Stone readers voted their song, Take On Me, as being the top one-hit-wonder of all time. But it almost wasn’t the synthpop classic we all know and love.
You see, Take On Me didn’t always sound like it does now. Its first released iteration had completely different production and a different music video. And the original Take On Me flopped hard. So, the Norwegian band went back to the drawing board. A-ha had the song reproduced, remixed, and gave it another go at release. Unfortunately, it faltered yet again, not cracking the U.K. charts. The piece just wasn’t sticking the landing.
But then they filmed a new music video.
The new music video was cutting-edge. Animators painstakingly rotoscoped the pencil sketch-like animation for weeks – but the result was incredible. MTV viewers ate the video up, and it won six awards at the 1986 Video Music Awards.
Take on Me reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100. It got there because it was a great, catchy song, but it would not have been nearly as successful without the music video. A-ha’s keyboardist, Magne Furuholmen, even thinks so himself.
Their second single, The Sun Always Shine on T.V, peaked at number 20 on the Hot 100 in the USA, but it would be their last song to chart there. A-ha would go on to have an incredibly successful career in Europe, but on this side of the pond, they’re only known for their one song.
But hey, if you’re only going to have one memorable hit, it’s hard to have a better one than Take On Me.
What Is Love – Haddaway (1993)
Almost thirty years later, and still, no one can ask the question “what is love?” without someone immediately answering with “baby don’t hurt me.” Now that is a legacy.
Haddaway, real name Nestor Alexander Haddaway, became an overnight success with What Is Love. His debut single off his first album (humorously named The Album) would hit number one in thirteen countries across Europe. In addition, it hit number 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 and cracked the top twenty in Canada and Australia as well.
What is Love has remained one of the biggest and most well-remembered songs to come out of the Eurodance genre. And the Eurodance sound dominated radios and clubs everywhere in the early to mid-90s. Haddaway debuted at the beginning of the genre’s popularity, and his follow-up singles included a few more minor hits. His second single, Life, hit the top ten in Germany and the U.K. but narrowly missed out on the top 40 of the United States when it peaked at 41. His next album also did decently but was nowhere near as big as his first. Eurodance as a genre swiftly died out after his second album, essentially ending Haddaway’s career in the mainstream.
What Is Love lived on, however. The song became a running joke in a series of SNL sketches, which eventually turned into the full-length film A Night at the Roxbury in 1998. Film may be the wrong word here though, as critics on Rotten Tomatoes repeatedly likened it to a series of short sketches jammed together and dragged on for over an hour.
Questionable movies aside, What Is Love has had a longevity few songs can lay claim to. Put on the song, and I guarantee you people will be singing along like they had just heard it yesterday. And then they’ll probably be humming along to it for the next few days, too.
Stacy’s Mom – Fountains of Wayne (2003)
Continuing the trend of insanely catchy one-hit-wonders, the 2000s entry on this list goes to pop-rock band Fountains of Wayne and their hit, Stacy’s Mom. Even though it only made its way up to the 21st spot on the Hot 100, it’s one of the most memorable hits of the decade. After all, there aren’t many songs about thinking your friend’s mom is hot!
Speaking about the song’s subject matter, bassist and songwriter Adam Schlesinger said that a real-life story inspired the song. When he was a pre-teen, a friend of his announced to him that he thought Schlesinger’s grandma was hot. Schlesinger replied with the expected absolute disgust and revulsion.
While Schlesinger did have to suffer through an incredibly awkward conversation when he was younger, he spun that moment into gold. Stacy’s Mom became the band’s most famous song by a longshot – peaking at number 21 on the Billboard Hot 100 and scoring a Grammy nomination.
Fountains of Wayne wouldn’t be able to capture that same level of success again. The band would continue to be successful in the pop-rock sphere, but they wouldn’t have any big impacts on the chart after this. The band would eventually break up in 2013.
In 2020, Schlesinger passed away from Covid-19 complications. The remaining Fountain of Wayne members performed an online memorial concert for Schlesinger.
Fountains of Wayne may no longer be performing as a group, but they have cemented themselves as an unforgettable part of the 2000s with Stacy’s Mom.
Gangnam Style – Psy (2012)
It may be too early to define an act from the 2010s as a one-hit-wonder. We are only one year into the 2020s at this point, so most of them are still active! It’s not out of the picture for someone to grab the coveted second hit!
But if I’m talking about one-hit-wonders, I have to talk about the most impactful one from the decade: Gangnam Style.
This energetic Kpop song was the first major non-English song to wind up in the Billboard Hot 100 top 10 in years. You could absolutely make the argument that it paved the way for future foreign-language songs and artists in the U.S. like Despacito or the BTS onslaught.
Similar to A-ha three decades earlier, Gangnam Style powered into the public conscious on the strength of its video. Colourful, extravagant, and not taking itself too seriously, Psy’s music video captured the attention of millions. Quite literally, as Gangnam style became the most viewed video on YouTube and the first to pass one billion views.
The song reached number two on the Billboard Hot 100, which may seem strange looking back, considering how big of a cultural phenomenon it was. That’s because Billboard didn’t consider YouTube views in their ranking system at the time and is the primary reason that Psy didn’t reach number one. Billboard changed this the following year, opening the floodgates for more “meme songs” like the Harlem Shake or What Does the Fox Say to chart.
Gangnam Style is a surprising triple threat of a song. It’s nostalgic for anyone who experienced 2012 era internet and surprisingly influential on the current state of the Billboard charts. It’s also a good, fun dance-pop song that’ll still put a smile on your face ten years later.
So What Do These Songs Have In Common?
Sure, some songs share attributes. Gangnam Style and Take On Me got big off their respective music videos. Monster Mash and What Is Love eventually got turned into lukewarm comedy movies. But there is no single thing that appears in all of these songs and seals the artist’s fates as a one-hit-wonder.
The music industry is a fickle beast, and that’s without getting into the ever swaying court of public attention. As a result, it is tough as hell to sustain a career in the music industry. Sure, an artist may be incredibly talented or charismatic or attractive or even all three to the point they are bursting at the seams with potential and never, ever have a second hit without any real reason at all.
But many one-hit-wonders got famous for some damn good songs. Even if they couldn’t manage another hit, they were able to capture lightning in a bottle at least once. I encourage you to give some of your past favourites a listen, or maybe even explore some of the history surrounding the song. You may just come away with a newfound appreciation for them.