This week’s question comes from A.V. Club assistant editor Gwen Ihnat:
What’s your favorite one-hit wonder?
I’m sure some folks would argue that Soft Cell is more than a one-hit wonder, and that’s probably true of most artists in this very article you’re reading. But the British duo’s “Tainted Love” certainly rose far above—commercially—anything else they recorded. I have a vivid memory of dragging my mom into my bedroom—I must have been 7 or 8, since it was a hit in 1981 and 1982—saying something like, “You have to hear this song! It’s my favorite!” I had a giant console radio/turntable combo in my room, literally the size of a small dresser, and she sat and listened to it with me, surely convinced that she had a budding goth or drama kid on her hands. But I still think it’s a great song, a huge improvement on the non-hit version released by Gloria Jones in 1964. It’s always best to seek out the extended version, which is actually two cover versions in one: It transitions from Jones’ song to a cover of The Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go.”
If you’re a fan of a band categorized as a one-hit wonder, more often than not it’s inseparable from the grumpy burden of knowledge that the single that vaulted above the rest of the band’s catalog in popularity isn’t even its best piece. Not by a long shot, and by the way, you just happen to have an exhaustive list of said band’s superior work handy. But as much as I enjoy the rest of the Stan Ridgway era of Wall Of Voodoo, “Mexican Radio” really is one of their best songs. It’s as uptempo as new wave gets, flavored with elements of Ennio Morricone and mariachi music. The first tape I ever got as a kid was an “as seen on TV” singles compilation called Hot Tracks. I came for Styx’s “Mr. Roboto” and Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of These),” but I stayed for “Mexican Radio.” It was as weird and off-kilter of a pop song as I had heard in my young, uninformed life, and I wore the cassette tape thin rewinding it over and over again.
The ’80s and ’90s were both great decades for one-hit wonders, but for my pick I’m going to go further back to a song that has a special place in my heart: Ernie K-Doe’s 1961 musical complaint about his meddling “Mother-In-Law.” The song, which made it to No. 1 on both the Billboard pop and R&B charts, was a throwaway for New Orleans composer Allen Toussaint, who was going to scrap it until a backup singer convinced him to let local R&B artist Ernie K-Doe record it. “Mother-In-Law” is a laid-back number whose shuffling rhythm and perky horn section reveal the good nature behind lines like “Satan should be her name / To me they’re about the same.” Ernie K-Doe would never have another pop hit, but he used the residuals from his first one to build the Mother-In-Law Lounge, a brightly painted hub for musicians in New Orleans’ Tremé neighborhood that features a life-size statue of Ernie in all his eccentric splendor. Opened in 1994, the bar closed for a while after Hurricane Katrina, and again after the death of Ernie’s wife, Antoinette (with whose mother Ernie reportedly got along splendidly), in 2009. Now reopened under the ownership of famed trumpet player Kermit Ruffins, the Mother-In-Law Lounge has become a historical landmark—not a bad afterlife for a one-hit wonder.
The early history of one-hit wonders is littered with covers and songs that would become more famous once they were covered by bigger stars. My pick happens to be both: “Land Of A Thousand Dances” by Cannibal & The Headhunters. More popular than Chris Kenner’s original, but nowhere near the hit it would become for Wilson Pickett, The Headhunters’ version is notable for a few reasons: It gave the song its now famous “naa na na na naa” hook, and it made them one of the first nationally known Mexican-American bands, propelling The Headhunters and the distinct East L.A. sound they helped pioneer to American Bandstand and the opening slot of The Beatles’ iconic Shea Stadium concert. It also happens to be my favorite version of the song ever recorded (followed closely by The Mummies’ grungy, sinister take), transforming Kenner’s soulful, laid-back groove into a thundering hybrid of straitlaced doo-wop and shaggy rock ’n’ roll.
It’s unusual when I’ve heard a song a bizillion times and it can still thrill me, but I am never not happy to hear “My Sharona” by The Knack. My love for it is even more surprising when I consider that it’s an almost-five-minute wanna-be-seductive pop song with truly horrible lyrics: “Never gonna stop, give it up, such a dirty mind / I always get it up, for the touch of the younger kind.” (Similar unsavory tendencies appeared in the band’s follow-up almost-hit, “Good Girls Don’t.”) But “My Sharona” remains a siren call that I am powerless against. Like all great hooks, the bewitching bouncing bass line that builds on the drums, followed by the equally hypnotic guitar line, is deceptively simple and almost impossible to ignore. At about the three-minute mark, the song takes off into a lengthy, indulgent, but fairly epic guitar solo (which makes this a really awkward karaoke song, unfortunately), only briefly bringing back our old friend the hook at the end until we all flop down exhausted. Even an appearance in Reality Bites didn’t ruin it, such is the enduring pop strength of “My Sharona.”
For a while in 1998, it seemed the only song that played in my hometown of Seattle was Harvey Danger’s “Flagpole Sitta.” It was a made-for-late-’90s alternative radio track that, like many hits of the era, was equal parts joyous and snotty (we’d always scream out the missing “goddamn you” lyrics, because 107.7 The End aired the censored version). The song seemingly wormed into every other teen movie in the early 2000s, usually playing over a high school party scene. Despite the song being saturated in popular culture—a PG-13 musical representation of kids not giving a fuck—not once has “Flagpole Sitta” felt overplayed or sentimental, even nearly two decades after it took over the radio. The track still makes me want to publish zines and rage against machines.
Billboard’s chart archive shows Blackstreet had three songs to break the top 20 of the Hot 100, but can you name them right now? Scratch that, can you name the ones that aren’t “No Diggity”? Respect if you can, but only that song reached No. 1 (way back on November 9, 1996), where it mercifully ended the months-long reign of terror by “Macarena.” Blackstreet has existed in fits and starts, with shifting personnel, since its 1996 heyday, but nothing has ever touched “No Diggity,” and with good reason. The Bill Withers sample and easygoing beat, the verse from Dr. Dre (still a force at the time, speaking of heydays), the perfectly quotable lyrics—it’s just about bulletproof. Co-producer Teddy Riley says he had to sell Blackstreet hard on doing the song, and 21 years later, it has more than earned its place in the R&B canon. I could listen to it on a loop.
Technically speaking, ? And The Mysterians charted at least five different times—the band’s Wikipedia page defensively points out that they are “mistakenly deemed a ‘one-hit wonder’”—but it’s not for nothing that its debut album was titled 96 Tears. The group of Mexican kids from Bay City, Michigan—fronted by the shades-sporting space oddity that was Question Mark (real name Rudy Martinez), a proto-Kool Keith who claimed he came from Mars—completely upended top 40 radio with that sinister garage rock curio, built around its maddeningly catchy Farfisa line. Some have credited the success of “96 Tears” and its sneering, lo-fi swagger with inspiring punk rock, mostly because the guy who coined that term, Dave Marsh, did so in a Creem article about The Mysterians. But aside from its debatable historical importance, it’s safe to say that “96 Tears” inspired, and has continued to inspire, generations of garage rock bands, proving that all you really need is one great riff and the right attitude. (And any rock band who’s picked up the Farfisa since, from Jonathan Fire Eater to, uh, Smash Mouth has “96 Tears” somewhere in the back of its brain.) Nothing against the group’s other hits, but “96 Tears” is better than a lot of artists’ entire careers.
At the risk of offending all the Dutch rock fans in our audience, I’m almost entirely unfamiliar with the work of Golden Earring. That “almost” is a doozy, though: “Radar Love,” the band’s first big international hit, is an easy entry in my list of top 10 classic rock songs of all time. (Get me drunk at karaoke some time, and you can hear me butcher it in tribute.) It’s just so goddamn pure; the driving drums and bass, that opening guitar riff, and especially that chorus, which unleashes the building tension with an explosion of melodic excess. Looking at the band’s discography, I’m kind of shocked to see they have 26 albums’ worth of songs (including “Twilight Zone,” which is fine, I guess). But they’ll always be “Radar Love” to me, sending that comfort comin’ in from above.
Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is In The Heart” is my favorite one-hit wonder for one reason: that cheek pop noise three minutes in. Until you get there, there’s enough goofy sound effects to fill a carnival fun house, including a slide whistle, background noise of people partying, record scratches, and possibly a toy horn. But beyond the gimmickry, the oft-repeated chorus (and name of the song) is the right blend of catchy and easy to sing along to, making it the perfect song for a long car ride or a party. The Q-tip verse doesn’t hurt, either.
I wrote (and submitted) a whole endorsement of Semisonic’s “Closing Time” before my co-worker Marah Eakin reminded me what my actual favorite one-hit wonder is: “Monster Mash” by Bobby “Boris” Pickett. I genuinely, un-ironically love this annoying little seasonal tune with all my heart. It has a little to do with the way that the song has seeped into my other pop culture favorites—The Simpsons’ “I Love Lisa,” Mr. Show’s “Monster Parties,” Comedy Bang! Bang!’s gleefully perverse “Monster Fuck”—and it has something else to do with an affection for the defanged versions of the Universal monsters who haunted Saturday mornings, hobby magazines, and cereal aisles in the middle of the last century. But I also have affection for what “Monster Mash” is on its own, an unashamedly corny novelty song with silly rhymes, boogie-woogie piano played by Leon Russell, and a pretty great drum intro. You have to dig through some haunted house sound effects to get to those drums, but c’mon: How many other songs can you even say that about?
I’m not exactly sure why I developed an affection for 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up?” It was probably because of its use in some movie or television show, but it surely says something that it’s the song rather than the context that is burned into my memory. Regardless, it’s the perfect angst anthem that features an incredible vocal performance from Linda Perry. Recreating her wail is nearly impossible, but oh, my god, have I (and so many others) tried.
Whiles my colleague Erik nearly gave himself an aneurysm trying to decide which ’90s post-grunge explosion feeding frenzy also-ran he was going to choose, I’ve been busily running through some of my favorite flash-in-the-pans of the era, as well. It’s reminding me just how much America loved a good distortion pedal in the middle of that decade. But after considering at length a number of front-runners (Dig’s “Believe,” Dandelion’s “Weird-Out,” Hum’s “Stars,” the list goes on), I realized my heart lies elsewhere when it comes to one-hit wonders. Specifically, in the drum-machine-assisted beats of more groove-oriented acts. And after briefly debating between Luscious Jackson’s “Naked Eye” and The Folk Implosion’s “Natural One,” I settled on the true winner, which is bigger in every sense of the word: Primitive Radio Gods’ “Standing Outside A Broken Phone Booth With Money In My Hand.” This was the song that my teenage self became fleetingly obsessed with during what turned out to be the most musically formative month of my life: the time I first got my own CD player. It just so happened to be the first CD single I ever purchased—possibly the last one, too, now that I think about it, given the number of times I shoplifted cassingles from Sam Goody—and it’s been seared into my soul ever since. It also contributed to popular culture the awful idea that it was okay for a white guy to mumble ”Doot-doot, ’n doot-doot, ’n doot” in a song, but you can’t really blame them for that.
I wanted to pick Camp Lo’s “Luchini” for this, an all-time great track that briefly charted from a group that only made one album, but that feels like a bit of a feint, since the rest of that album’s really good, too. So I will go, instead, with Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz’ “Deja Vu (Uptown Baby),” a loopy stretch of late-’90s New York rap that somehow balances a post-Puffy pop loop with the sort of unvarnished, rough-neck shit-talk you started hearing less and less on pop radio around the turn of the millennium. This shit dropped when I was in eighth grade, and it felt like a revelation. I would learn, with time, that the sample the track rides to delirious effect is Steely Dan’s “Black Cow,” which is, of course, a classic on its own. But it makes for a perfect little circle on its own—no shots at Lord Tariq or Peter Gunz, but pretty much anyone could’ve turned this thing into a banger. The ridiculously overinflated regal brass fanfare that starts the track has grown only more welcome in the intervening years.
Biz Markie’s “Just A Friend” is a meandering hip-hop track with some of the clunkiest lyrics I’ve ever heard in a one-hit wonder, if not any tune. There’s so much filler, seemingly only included to satisfy established rhythm and rhymes, that half the lyrics could be cut and not much would change. In “Just A Friend,” Markie meets a woman who wears “a very big bra” (an imprecise way to describe her appearance—she might not fill it out!) and a “short” miniskirt. The catch is she has “a friend,” wherein the song becomes a warning to men to avoid dating women with male acquaintances. It’s a sentiment I couldn’t disagree with more, yet the lyrical awkwardness makes me feel for the speaker when he learns his paramour is a two-timer. The piano hook is so heartfelt, Markie’s plaintive chorus so out of tune and singable, that it cuts through the silliness, making its loosely delivered lyrics part of the charm. I like a lot of one-hit wonders, but only one of them includes the line, “This guy made me fill out a visitor’s form.”
I was young enough when I first watched the video for Toni Basil’s cover of “Mickey” that I assumed the song was about Mickey Mouse (something that Disney was only too happy to capitalize on). That’s not part of this one-hit wonder’s lasting appeal for me, but it is a testament to just how long I’ve had a soft spot for it. Though first recorded in 1979 as “Kitty,” Basil flipped the gender for her cover before flipping and somersaulting her way through the video with a group of cheerleaders. I still like the song, which was always quite catchy (rhyming “you’re so fine” with “blow my mind” perfectly captures early ’80s pop for me). But I think I was sold on the video more than anything else; Basil’s heavily made-up face getting up close and personal with the camera, lip synching along to her cover, had the same quirky essence as Cyndi Lauper in the video for “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” which premiered a year later. And though Basil didn’t score a follow-up hit, her cover has been sampled by Run-D.M.C. and Madonna, among others.
I have to empathize with Erik’s plight: Never have I experienced analysis paralysis in such an acute manner as when Gwen posed this seemingly innocuous AVQ&A to the staff. The tracks immediately started flooding in. Should I pick from a bygone era—Jimmy Ruffin’s “What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted,” King Harvest’s “Dancing In The Moonlight,” Tommy Tutone’s “867-5309/Jenny”—or select one of the multitudes from the one-hit boom times of the mid-’90s: “Your Woman,” “Brimful Of Asha,” “Breakfast At Tiffany’s,” or “Banditos”? I could go on like this forever. “Bound For The Floor.” See?
But in the meantime, if I’m being honest with myself, right here, right now, I’m gonna push it and wax ecstatic about Len’s “Steal My Sunshine.” The connection I feel to this song is unbelievable, not to mention it’s just plain good. The impression that I get is that most would categorize me as a sell-out for picking such a popular song, especially one with juvenile allusions to sex and candy, giddily laughing about Scooby Snacks and butter tarts. But in all seriousness, the song is silly and harmless fun, and there’s rarely a playlist to which I won’t find myself adding it. In addition, when you see it arrive later this summer on an episode of A.V. Club’s Undercover, you can focus any and all vitriol for its inclusion squarely in my direction—as it’s all my fault.