The term “one-hit wonder” can be a thorny subject for many people. There are numerous artists pegged with that term who actually had other successes, but the one song that defined them to the mainstream has overshadowed everything else. There are other people who legitimately just had one hit and then were never heard from again, at least on a commercial level. After years of one-hit wonders being played endlessly on video channels and classic rock radio – plus, September 25 is National One-Hit Wonder Day – it’s about time to look into one-hit wonders who had at least one other song that was good. There are quite a number of them. Many of the people selected here continued their careers long after that singular sensation.
In determining my criteria for this particular feature, I bounced ideas off of my music industry friend Alex Vitoulis, who knows his charts inside and out. There are many artists who had one big hit and another minor Top 40 single or who had popular club or radio tracks, which made picking the “one-hit wonders” for this story tricky. In the end, I decided that I would select artists with one big hit and nothing else that cracked the Top 30 in sales because honestly, even a minor Top 40 hit never makes the same impact as a chart-topper. I’m not talking about song quality here, just mainstream awareness.
The choices were made across genres and decades. There are way more songs and artists that could have been included here. I selected tunes and artists I thought were interesting, and I did not exclude overseas artists who were bigger in their homeland than they were in America; I feel that more Americans need to know about them. Further, there are artists that we peg as one-hit wonders who actually had more than one successful song, including the likes of A-Ha, Kim Carnes, and Eddy Grant, so they did not qualify for this list.
The main purpose of this feature is to legitimately show that there were artists that had more than one exceptional tune, some of who were on the verge of being bigger and deserve more attention than they received. Sometimes we need to look beyond the obvious songs for signs of true talent.
Even if you scoff at the concept of one-hit wonders, just remember: That’s one more hit than you or I will ever get.
“Key Key Karimba” by Baltimora (1987)
Baltimora will forever be known to ’80s music fans for their hit “Tarzan Boy” and its chanting chorus, but they produced other songs that are equally fun. “Key Key Karimba” is one of those tunes, working off a moody chord progression that builds to an uplifting children’s choir in the chorus with a video chronicling a transition from childhood to adulthood. Surprisingly, it didn’t chart outside of their native Italy. The extended dance mix that is on Spotify feels a bit more upbeat, and this shorter album version is the superior one.
“Over My Head” by Toni Basil (1983)
It’s easy to call Toni Basil a one-hit-wonder based on the phenomenal success of “Mickey.” She had other good songs, including this synth-driven follow-up which was a Top 10 club track. Many people don’t realize that her dancing and choreography career beginning in the 1960s as she worked with the likes of Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and The Monkees. She also acted opposite Jack Nicholson in the film Five Easy Pieces (1970). Her career beyond music is really impressive, and today in her seventies, she can still dance circles around you. Really, just watch any of her videos to catch more of her moves.
“Angel to You (Devil to Me)” by The Click Five (2005)
This Boston quintet married both early ’60s and early Millennial pop sensibilities as epitomized by this track. While the romantic single “Just The Girl” was the one that they became known for with their 2005 debut Greetings From Imrie House (the only album to feature original frontman Eric Dill), it’s nowhere near as interesting as this rocker, which delivers big guitars and vocal harmonies in the vein of great ’80s power pop. Appropriately enough, it was co-written by Paul Stanley of KISS fame. It should have gotten more notoriety for sure.
“Lunatic Fringe” by Red Rider / Tom Cochrane (1981)
Back in 1991, it was hard to get away from Tom Cochrane’s caffeinated anthem “Life Is A Highway” – the positivity appealed to many and annoyed others. Interestingly, in the previous decade, he fronted the Canadian band Red Rider who had a moody song called “Lunatic Fringe” that hit No. 11 on the rock radio tracks. Because it was used three times in the movie Vision Quest (1985) and the video was shown on MTV, that song qualifies them as a cult one-hit-wonder from that decade. It’s funny that Cochrane later became a one-hit-wonder as a solo artist 10 years later. “Lunatic Fringe” is dramatic, very relevant today, and a way better song than his solo smash.
“Prelude/Nightmare” by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown (1968)
While the catchy, electric “Fire” was his lone hit, Arthur Brown was certainly ahead of the heavy metal curve when he released his first album in 1968. The pairing of the eerie “Prelude” and hard rocking “Nightmare” works well, and the latter was performed by Brown in a 1968 movie called The Committee that featured a soundtrack by Pink Floyd. “Nightmare” is a little more aggressive and screechy than “Fire” and definitely an example of solid heavy rock of the era. Brown’s signature flaming headpiece also turned heads back in the day.
“Boys in Town” by Divinyls (1983)
By the time this Aussie band scored their near Top 10 hit “I Touch Myself” in 1991, they had already been active in their native country for a decade. That tune was sexy and poppy but less like their earlier rock oeuvre. The song and video for “Boys un Town” from Divinyls’ debut album show lead singer Chrissy Amphlett in a more aggressive mode. She had a unique stage presence that made her a great frontwoman. Sadly, she passed away from breast cancer in 2013. Another Divinyls song to check out that sonically falls between these two tracks is “Pleasure And Pain” from 1985.
“Streets Of You” by Eagle-Eye Cherry (2018)
The son of jazz trumpeter Don Cherry, this Swedish-born singer-songwriter scored a Top 5 smash with the uptempo “Save Tonight” in 1997, which also hit eight other Billboard charts and helped pushed his debut album, Desireless, past platinum. While he had some moderate singles success overseas after that, Cherry never scored another U.S. hit. He’s kept making music, and the title track to his 2018 album is a heartfelt ballad about letting go of a relationship and moving on. It deserved a lot more airplay and success than it received, and the video is poignant too.
“Beauty On The Fire” by Natalie Imbruglia (2001)
When model and actress Natalie Imbruglia burst on the scene with her cover of Ednaswap’s “Torn” in 1997, it seemed like she was going to be the next big pop thing especially after she snagged three Grammy nominations for her debut Left of the Middle. For some reason, things never really panned out here, although her follow-up release White Lilies Island was a superior effort. The songs had more character and were a little bolder. “Wrong Impression” is a poppy love anthem with personality, “That Day” is raw and jangly, while “Beauty On The Fire” is a dreamy electro-pop tune which further showcases her emotional range.
“Stars” by Bobby McFerrin and Yo-Yo Ma (1992)
“Don’t Worry, Be Happy” is certainly one of those quintessential feel-good ’80s hits whose massive success was not anticipated. It was the first a capella song to hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart back in 1988, and it won three Grammy Awards including Song of the Year. In truth, McFerrin was known among jazz circles for his beautiful singing, vocal acrobatics, and vocal body percussion, which he applied to many different compositional styles. The romantic “Stars” is a tune that appeared on his collaborative album Hush with classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma, which they released in 1992, and it helps to showcase his diversity especially in light of the one novelty song that everybody knows.
“Still Got This Thing” by Alannah Myles (1989)
“Black Velvet” was a massive No. 1 and Grammy-winning hit for Canadian singer Alannah Myles in 1989. She took a well-worn blues groove and worked in a glorious vocal to maximum effect, and there are a couple of other tracks on her platinum-selling debut album that also stand out. While the poppier “Love Is” just managed to crack the Top 40, “Still Got This Thing” rocks more and is another good example of her taking a standard blues-rock progression and elevating it with a strong performance. Fun fact: She dueted with former Rainbow singer Joe Lynn Turner on Nikolo Kotzev’s Nostradamus rock opera back in 2001.
“Change Your Ways” by Rockwell (1984)
The one song that everybody remembers from Rockwell is the cheeky paranoid tune “Somebody’s Watching Me” which featured Michael Jackson singing so prominently in the choruses that it prompted some people to think that this was a song from the King of Pop. Rockwell also scored a low Top 40 follow up with the silly “Obscene Phone Caller”. But with its wailing electric guitar as an anchor, “Change Your Ways” is more interesting and also shows that the son of Motown mogul Berry Gordy was a good, serious singer. “Runaway” is also a decent slice of electro-driven pop from back in the day.
“Send Me a Postcard” by Shocking Blue (1968)
Gen X-ers know “Venus” through Bananarama’s cover which was No. 1 hit for them and for Shocking Blue back in 1970. However, that earlier group had several Top 10 hits in France, Belgium, Norway, and their native Holland and racked up substantial sales throughout Europe during the early ’70s. This earlier tune is edgier, more dissonant, and a nice addition to their canon. Ladytron covered it back in 2003. Nirvana fans have heard their cover of Shocking Blue’s “Love Buzz,” which was their first single, appearing on their debut album Bleach and in the 1995 movie Mad Love starring Drew Barrymore.
“Misery” by Barrett Strong (1961)
Those same Gen X-ers likely know “Money (It’s What I Want)” from Barrett Strong thanks to the Beatles’ version and the off-the-wall New Wave cover by the Flying Lizards in 1979 which featured Deborah Evans-Stickland’s oddly monotone vocal performance. Strong’s original song, the first Motown hit ever, definitely resonated with followers back in the day. Beyond that, his cover rendition of “Misery” is a moody Motown tune worth checking out. Teaming up with producer Norman Whitfield, Strong would go on to co-write hits for Marvin Gaye, Edwin Starr, and The Temptations, whose recording of “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone” won Strong a Grammy Award for Best R&B Song in 1973. Strong was a one-hit-wonder as a singer but a major hitmaker for others.
“Waiting for the Weekend” by The Vapors (1980)
“Turning Japanese” by The Vapors is one of the catchiest and arguably silliest of the ’80s rock anthems that regularly makes one-hit wonders lists. The group had a rambunctious undercurrent to their music, particularly due to Steve Smith’s bass playing. More romantic in flavor than its seemingly onanistic predecessor, “Waiting For The Weekend” is a fun, catchy number. The British group originally recorded just two albums and lasted from 1978 to 1981, but they reactivated in 2016 and have been playing shows since with a mix of original and new members. They released their third album, Together, this past May.
“Ring of Fire” by Wall of Voodoo (1980)
Wall of Voodoo scored an ’80s cult hit with the quirky “Mexican Radio,” a song that was almost a Top 50 track but which received extensive MTV airplay. They had other tunes that were interesting as well – most notably, this surreal and eerie sounding rendition of Johnny Cash’s “Ring Of Fire” from their first EP. Cash performed it as an upbeat, horn-laden tune. While this Discogs list features original compositions by other bands as alternates, this cover is really something special and completely fits what Wall of Voodoo were exploring sonically. This version of “Ring Of Fire” also uses electronic pulses in place of percussion, and the feedback-driven guitar solo is unsettling. Oddly enough, the late guitarist Marc Moreland quotes Jerry Goldsmith’s theme to the 1966 spy spoof Our Man Flint, creating a cover within a cover.
“The Race” by Yello (1988; Live in 2016)
While the cheeky “Oh Yeah” by Swiss electronic music duo Yello only hit number No. 51 on the Hot 100 singles chart in America in 1985, its prominent usage in ’80s movies like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Secret of my Success, and She’s Out of Control made it an unmitigated hit for the band. It was the only one that they had in America. The duo has had more success overseas and produced some of the most unusual songs and videos of the ’80s. Another Yello song that’s been licensed for many film and TV shows in America is “The Race”. The live version is included here because it shows how their electronic sounds became very organic in concert with live percussion and a five-piece horn section. Yello are underrated EDM progenitors who are more interesting than most who followed in their footsteps.