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» What’s a One-Hit Wonder?

What’s a One-Hit Wonder?

What is a one-hit wonder? That’s a question I’m asked often at Top One-Hit Wonders.com.

One-hit wonders are wonderful things. Or obnoxious things. Sometimes they’re both.

When it comes to music, my definition of a one-hit wonder is a song by an artist that only hits the Billboard Top 40 one time in their career. Need a few examples?

Classic One-Hit Wonders

  • “Turning Japanese” by The Vapors is a classic one-hit wonder. A huge new wave/pop hit in 1980, the song remains popular today (at least in some circles)
  • “Afternoon Delight” by The Starland Vocal Band is another classic. A #1 hit for this little feel-good band. Then nothing. No more hits. But the song is so well known it was sung by Ron Burgundy and the cast of Anchorman. As a songwriter, you know you’ve arrived when your little ditty becomes comic fodder 30 years later.

Special Event One-Hit Wonders

  • “Do They Know It’s Christmas” by Band-Aid is a typical one-time band, one-hit wonder. A bunch of British artists get together to sing a song for charity. They release a single that climbs up the charts and gets major airplay for a short time (or, in this case, for 25+ years) and the band never plays together again.
  • “Hallelujah” by Justin Timberlake and Matt Morris is another example from the iTune era. It was the most downloaded song following the Hope for Haiti fundraiser in early 2010. While Timberlake is far from a one-hit artist, who knows if he and Morris will ever hit the tops of the charts again.

Two Hit Wonders (bands you think are one-hit wonders but actually have multiple hits)

  • “My Sharona” by The Knack is another late ’70s classic. Virtually everyone you know loves or hates the song. And virtually everyone you know completely forgets the Knack’s other hit titled “Good Girls Don’t” that reached #11 on the Billboard charts (it’s actually the better song of the two, but let’s not argue. We’re friends after all).

False One-Hit Wonders

There are many great bands that never reach the Billboard top 40. But they are still great bands and have a signature song that everyone knows and people may still call a one-hit wonder. Here are a few examples:

  • “A Million Miles Away” by The Plimsouls is the most famous song by this Los Angeles-based power pop band. If you know new wave music or have seen the movie Valley Girl, you know this song. It’s a bona fide one-hit wonder that never charted.
  • “She Sheila” by The Producers is another one of these songs. This power pop classic was an early MTV hit, but all that airplay never translated to a chart placement higher than #48 on the charts. So technically, it’s not a one-hit wonder. But we still love it.

Is this all making sense?

Remember this: some one-hit wonders are obvious (“Afternoon Delight”). Some are deceptive (“My Sharona”). But virtually all one-hit wonders are memorable.

Big Respect for One-Hit Wonder Artists

This is important: I have great respect for any artist who hit the Billboard Top 40 even one time. Most bands and artists are no-hit wonders. So the term “one-hit wonder” is a term of great respect, never scorn. For a little more perspective, here is some typically snarky footage from VH1 with artists and comedians weighing in on the term, “One-Hit Wonder.”

Watch VH1’s View on the Term One-Hit Wonder

The rock era began in 1956 and we’re counting all the one-hit wonders down, one decade and one day at a time. So expect to find the following:

  • One-hit wonders of the 60s
  • One-hit wonders of the 70s
  • One-hit wonders of the 80s
  • One-hit wonders of the 90s
  • One-hit wonders of the 2000s
  • We’ll even rank the greatest one-hit wonders of all time

It’s our little mission to ensure that the one-hit wonder lives on. You can even watch one-hit wonder videos on the Top One-Hit Wonders YouTube channel. Stop there when you’ve read about all the songs here.

Michael Waterman

22 Responses to "What’s a One-Hit Wonder?"

  1. Katrina R. says:

    Three potentials …

    #1: “At Seventeen” — Janis Ian. Particularly cruel and depressing.
    #2: “Next To You” — Rose Royce (soundtrack to Car Wash). Anything better than Richard Pryor as Daddy Rich?
    #3: “Positively Lost Me” — Rave-Ups. Not on Pretty in Pink soundtrack but band played song live during a great scene between Andi and Duckie (with a little Dice Clay).Became fascinated with band when name showed up on the back of Sam’s binder in Sixteen Candles.

  2. Michael Waterman says:

    Excellent suggestions, as always. Two of these three songs qualify as one-hit wonders in most listener’s minds.

    “At Seventeen” by Janis Ian is a fantastic recommendation. Absolutely cruel and depressing…and set against such a nice mellow little melody too. But Janis hit the Billboard Top 40 twice. Once in 1967 for “Society’s Child” and again in 1975 for “At Seventeen.” So she technically doesn’t belong. But I bet if you ask 1,000 music snobs to name Janis Ian’s hits, 999 of them will only come up with “At Seventeen.”

    Rose Royce hit the Top 40 four times. And like Ian, the only song anyone remembers (besides you, of course) is “Car Wash.” I only vaguely remember “Next To You.” In fact, “Next To You” belongs to The Police in my head.

    “Positively Lost Me” doesn’t qualify but it should. I have it on the Rhino Records’ “New Wave Hits of the 80s: Volume 12.” A positively awesome song that should have been a major hit. I was bummed when I bought the Pretty in Pink soundtrack and the song wasn’t there. Here is a video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AfdcbZxzKWc

  3. hm insulators says:

    A couple more “non-traditional one-hit wonders,” or a less-clumsy term might be “False One-Hit Wonders”:

    “American Pie” by Don McLean. The follow-up “Vincent” (“Starry, starry night…”) almost reached the Top 10 and in 1982, his remake of the Roy Orbison oldie “Crying” hit the Top 5. Of course, “American Pie” still gets heavy airplay to this day, over and over and over again…

    The epitome of the false one-hit wonder is probably Chubby Checker. “The Twist” was such an enormous hit (it topped the “Billboard Hot 100” TWICE in TWO separate chart runs in 1960 and 1962, plus a rap group called the Fat Boys hit Number 16 with “The Twist [Yo Twist]” featuring sampling of Checker’s version) and such a huge dance craze that one could be forgiven for thinking that was Chubby Checker’s only hit. “The Twist” really overshadows the fact that Chubby Checker had almost 20 Top 40 hits. Several hit the Top 10 (“Let’s Twist Again”, “The Fly”, “Slow Twistin'” [with Dee Dee Sharp of “Mashed Potato” fame]). “Pony Time” was Chubby Checker’s other Number 1 hit, and “Limbo Rock” just missed becoming his third Number 1!

    This is my first visit to this web page, and it’s quite fascinating! What would be a good addition would be “One-Hit-Album Wonders.” Quick! Name the follow-ups to “Get the Knack”, “Frampton Comes Alive!”, “Whitesnake” (that band’s 1987 album) and “In-a-Gadda-da-Vida”.

  4. Michael Waterman says:

    HM Insulators,

    Thanks for the comment and the great ideas. You clearly know your music history and one-hit wonders. False one-hit wonders is a great concept for a list. In other words, biggest false one-hit wonders of all time.

    Vanilla Ice
    Don McLean
    Chubby Checker

    The list could go on and on.

    I hope you’ll keep reading and commenting and contributing. I’m always happy to hear from people who love music and know their history and chart hits. By the way, I’m going to appropriate your “False One-Hit Wonders” term to replace “non-traditional one-hit wonders.”

    Thanks again.
    Michael

  5. The first US one-hit wonder from 1979 that’s missing is:

    “We Don’t Talk Anymore”, done by Cliff Richard, written by Alan Tarney

    The second US one-hit wonder w/ Olivia Newton-John, written by John Farrar from1980 that’s missing is:

    “Suddenly”, done by the same male adult soft rock artist from England as a US 4-hit wonder from 1979-1980

    The third US one-hit wonder, written by Alan Tarney and Leo Sayer nobody mentioned before is:

    “Dreaming”, done by the same man

    And the last one-hit wonder from late 1980/early 1981, written by Alan Tarney no one talked about is:

    “A Little In Love” done by the same man all played by American pop radio stations

    There are some one-hit wonders no one discussed about such as:

    “You’re My World” – Cilla Black
    “To Sir With Love” – Lulu Kennedy (Marie McDonald)
    “United We Stand” – Brotherhood Of Man
    “Yes, I’m Ready” – Barbara Mason all played by American pop radio stations

    How about an inspirational pop singer, named, Jackie DeShannon from the ’60s as a 2- hit wonder when she sang:

    “What The World Needs Now Is Love” and “Put A Little Love In Your Heart”?

    Now what about The Stone Poneys that did “Different Drum” as a one-hit wonder of the ’60s?

    How about some crossover pop singers such as:

    Crystal Gayle that sang “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue”, “Talking In Your Sleep” and “Don’t Take Me Half The Way” as a 3-hit wonder of the ’70s,

    Sylvia Kirby that sang “Nobody”, made from 1982 as a one-hit wonder,

    Emmylou Harris that sang “Mr. Sandman”, made from 1981 as a one-hit wonder,

    Dottie West that sang the pop ballad, entitled, “What Are We Doing In Love” with Kenny Rogers, made from 1981,

    Dolly Parton that sang pop songs, entitled, “Here You Come Again”, “Working Nine To Five” and “Islands In The Stream” with Kenny Rogers as a 3-hit wonder of both the ’70s and ’80s

    and Barbara Mandrell that sang the crossover pop hit “If Loving You Is Wrong, I Don’t Want To Be Right” as a one-hit wonder from 1978?

    When the Welsh pop singer, named, Bonnie Tyler sang “It’s A Heartache”, “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” and “Holding Out For A Hero”, I will have to call her a 3-hit wonder of the ’80s.

    Now how about the ’80s dance/pop singer-songwriter from California, named, Tina Marie Brockert, better known as Teena Marie even though she was the Ivory Queen of Soul? When she made a couple of her own dance/pop hits, entitled, “I Need Your Loving” from her album, “Irons In The Fire”, made from 1980 and “Lover Girl” from her album, “Starchild”, made from 1984, I will also have to call her a 2-hit wonder of the ’80s.

  6. There was a soft rock band from 1978-1980 w/ David Pack no one mentioned before, called, Ambrosia.

    Their first one-hit wonder is:

    “How Much I Feel” (1978)

    Their second one-hit wonder is:

    “Biggest Part Of Me” (1980)

    Their third and last one-hit wonder is:

    “You’re The Only Woman” (1980)

    Now what about the R&B/pop singer and session vocalist Patti Austin that sang a couple of her pop tunes w/ James Ingram such as:

    “Come To Me” (1982), written by Rod Temperton (her 1st one-hit wonder) and
    “How Do You Keep The Music Playing” (1983), written by Michel Legrand, Alan & Marilyn Bergman (her 2nd and last one-hit wonder)?

  7. Robert van Peer says:

    I don’t know for sure how some people here define a one-hit wonder but if you go by the definition of only one song peaking in Billboard’s Top 40 singles, there are three songs from the 2000’s that I thought were first rate
    From 2001: P.O.D. “Youth of the Nation” a really impressive work. The best one-hit wonder quality-wise in the 2000’s
    From 2007: Aly and AJ “Potential Breakup Song” a really cool song. These two had three other songs on the Billboard hot 100 that peaked from # 50 to # 68, but this was their only top 40 hit (it peaked at # 17)
    From 2005: Los Lonely Boys “Heaven” A great song to listen to.

  8. Michael Waterman says:

    Robert,

    Great suggestions. I’ll add them to my to-do list from the 2000s. Look for them in the next week. Haven’t listened to “Potential Breakup Song” is a few years. That brings back memories. P.O.D. was huge and then suddenly disappeared. Los Lonely Boys was everywhere and then, like P.O.D., they disappeared from the airwaves as well. Great examples of one-hit wonders!

    Thanks for visiting and I hope you’ll continue to suggest songs.
    Michael

  9. Mike says:

    Here are some one hit wonders I’d like to see you write about.

    Garth Brooks – Lost in You
    The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – Hooked on Classics
    Primitive Radio Gods – Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in My Hand (that’s the full title)

  10. Michael Waterman says:

    Great suggestions, Mike. “Hooked on Classics” is already written. I’ll add it tomorrow.

    The Garth Brooks/Chris Gaines experiment is fascinating. I’ll add that one very soon.

    Bonus points for suggesting Primitive Radio Gods. I should do a poll to see if more than 5 people can correctly nail the artist and full title of the song.

    Thanks for visiting Top One-Hit Wonders and contributing. I look forward to your comments on those postings. You can also get updates from Top One-Hit Wonders on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/toponehitwonders

    Cheers!
    Michael

  11. hminsulators says:

    “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in My Hand”–now that’s an old-fashioned country/western song title if I’ve ever seen one. Goes hand-in-hand with “She Got the Gold Mine, I Got the Shaft.”

  12. hm insulators says:

    I guess everybody sort of has their own idea of what defines a one-hit wonder. I just bought the fourth edition of “Billboard’s Hottest Hot 100 Hits” by Fred Bronson, and his definition of a “one-hit wonder” is a recording by an artist who only had one hit on the “Billboard ‘Hot 100′” and no more, which disqualifies Debby Boone, T. Rex and Focus, among others. Strangely enough, he has “We Are the World” by USA for Africa in his list, which I wouldn’t consider as a “one-hit wonder.” After all, people like Lionel Ritchie, Bob Dylan, Kenny Rogers and a whole slew of others are hardly one-hit wonders!

    My definition of a “one-hit wonder” comes pretty close to Wayne Jancik, author of “The Billboard Book of One-Hit Wonders.” His definition is somebody who has one Top Twenty hit on the “Hot 100” chart and then no other Top 40 hits. (My preference is the one hit reach the Top 15.) Both of us agree that one-off projects such as Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer teaming up for “No More Tears (Enough is Enough)” and the aforementioned USA for Africa project should not be considered one-hit wonders.

    I even have a definition for two-hit wonders: A recording artist who has two Top 40 hits on the “Hot 100”, at least one of which must make the Top 10. My list of “two-hit wonders” would include Golden Earring (“Radar Love” Number 13, 1974 and “Twilight Zone” Number 10 in 1983–which could make Golden Earring a one-hit wonder twice) and ? and the Mysterians (“96 Tears” Number 1 in 1966, and the follow-up “I Need Somebody” reached Number 22–another False One-Hit Wonder).

    Michael, I’ve been a fan of rock music history and the pop charts for decades. Just a short while ago, I ordered Joel Whitburn’s newest edition of “The Billboard Book of Top Pop Singles 1955-2010” as my old copy (which only goes up to 1993 anyway) is so beat-up and battered from having been thumbed through so many times, the book is literally torn in two halves!

  13. Michael Waterman says:

    Hey Heavy Metal Insulators,

    Your comments are really insightful and you definitely know your music and charts.

    I wondered where I should draw the line and chose to feature artists who had only a single hit chart within the Billboard Top 40 because those songs were all played on Casey Kasem’s/Shadoe Stevens/Ryan Seacrist’s American Top 40 shows since 1970 to present (with a small gap between 1995 and 1998) and have a greater chance of people actually hearing and knowing them. Many artists who only charted at #85 or #93 are so obscure, huge chunks of readers will never have heard of them.

    While I generally agree with Fred Bronson’s definition of a one-hit wonder being an artist who had a single song hit the Billboard Hot 100, that scope/range is simply too broad for Top One-Hit Wonders if I plan to write about nearly all of these songs over the coming years (and it may take years to achieve that goal!). By the way, Bronson’s trivia questions on Billboard.com are brutally tough and exceptional. I’m sure we’ve all been stumped by a bunch of them.

    As you mention, the supergroups are tough. Does Band-Aid count? Many of those artists charted individually. Does USA for Africa count? Same story as you point out. What about small collaborations like “That’s What Friends Are For” that features Elton John, Dione Warwick, Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight? The group is a one-hit wonder but the members far from it. So I add them where it makes sense and will eventually write about USA for Africa and “We Are the World” (I still have a sealed copy somewhere in my boxes of vinyl that a neighbor gave me to “support Africa” way back in 1985. The song was so ubiquitous on the radio at the time, I never had a need to open the record to hear the song).

    Glad to hear you picked up a new copy of Whitburn’s latest book. Like you, I have a whole library of dog-eared music history and chart books I consumed as a kid and college student and still go back to them often for a little light reading.

    Thanks as always for your comments. I look forward to more insights and feedback from you.
    Michael

  14. Michael Waterman says:

    “She Got the Gold Mine, I Got the Shaft” has to be one of the greatest song titles ever. Jerry Reed rules. Thanks for reminding me of that one (definitely in the same vein as “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ja7mwvH5DNc

  15. Sheila McDermott forgot Ambrosia’s very #1 top 40, ‘Holdin’ on to yesterday’ which peaked at #19, in ’75, givin’ Ambrosia a total of 4 top 40 hits. Thanx!

  16. J Cleary says:

    Actually Ambrosia’s song “Holdin’ On To Yesterday” reached #17 on the Billboard Charts and they also had another Top Forty hit with a remake of The Beatles “Magical Mystery Tour” that reached #39. Ambrosia’s Prog Rock song
    “Nice Nice Very Nice” was also a Top Ten hit in different parts of the country, but didn’t break the Top Forty overall.

    Check out these Killer Live versions of Classic Ambrosia songs!!

    Holdin On To Yesterday
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0j2BI3BHhII

    Somewhere I’ve Never Travelled
    http://www.youtube.com/user/AMBROSIABAND#p/u/1/Ovjc9CG0j18

    Life Beyond LA
    http://www.youtube.com/user/AMBROSIABAND#p/u/0/zfGDMQBiR6k

    Time Waits For No One
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ry8tHxEWd1E

    Nice Nice Very Nice
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sbEf5PIehes

  17. Mike says:

    Here are some other OHWs you might want to check out:

    Jimi Hendrix – All Along the Watchtower
    Gregory Abbott – Shake You Down (only OHW from the 80s that hit #1 you haven’t posted, I think)
    ESPN – ESPN Presents the Jock Jam (yes, the sports channel)
    Pratt & McClain – Happy Days (theme song for Happy Days)
    Cyndi Grecco – Making Our Dreams Come True (theme song for Laverne and Shirley)
    Hit Masters – All Summer Long (random iTunes karaoke group that only hit the charts because Kid Rock wouldn’t allow iTunes to sell his music)
    The Rock Heroes – All Summer Long (same case as above)

    And last but not least…
    Bill Cosby – Little Ole Man (you never know who’ll get into the charts)

  18. Michael Waterman says:

    Mike,

    Thanks for the suggestions. I was planning to write about Hendrix and Gregory Abbot very soon. I heard the Happy Days theme last week and realized for the first time that the TV show lyrics were the third verse of the song. Kind of surprising they’re not the first verses. I’ll have to look into Hit Master and Rock Heroes. That sounds like a very funny backstory.
    Michael

  19. Kyr says:

    So a band that had 10 top 10 hits in the UK and just one top 40 hit in the US is a “one hit wonder”? Perhaps you should reconsider your definition…

  20. Michael Waterman says:

    Kyr,

    As you can see, one-hit wonder definitions are a contentious topic. I use the Billboard Top 40 since I’m writing from the perspective of an American-based music fan. Thanks for contributing to the dialogue.

  21. Jonathan says:

    Ambrosia had two other songs that charted. Their version of Magical Mystery Tour in 1977 and Holdin’ On To Yesterday in 1975.

  22. Jonathan says:

    Here’s one from 1982. Leslie Pearl’s “If the Love Fits, Wear It.”

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