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Defining One-Hit Wonders

July 26th, 2007 · 16 Comments

So, Megan blogged a conversation we had earlier today about “one-hit wonder” bands, and the trickier category of the “two-hit wonder,” asking her readers to come up with more instances of the latter. (Don McClean was the one that had sprung to my mind.) Many came up with good examples, but I think others are adopting an excessively formalistic definition of one-hit and two-hit wonders.

The Grateful Dead, if I recall correctly, actually only broke into the pop charts once, with “Touch of Gray.” But I hope it goes without saying that the Dead were not a “one-hit wonder,” and that, indeed, it would be sort of ridiculous to class them that way. As we normally use the term, a “one-hit wonder” is a band that sort of came out of nowhere, produced one song that almost everyone recognizes, and then dropped off the face of the earth again. A decent rule-of-thumb test is that almost everyone will know the song, but most people will be hard-pressed to name the artist: Sing “Eight-Six-Seven” in a pub, and just about everyone there will holler back “Five-Three-Oh-Ni-ee-iiine,” whereas “Tommy Tutone” will probably just get you blank stares. If the name of the artist is as familiar, or more familiar, than any of their “hits,” you’re probably not dealing with a “wonder.” Bands with long careers and loyal followings who earn consistent critical acclaim don’t count, even if they only have one or two songs that cross over into mainstream radio. As this list makes clear, just going by charts would (preposterously) entail that Pink Floyd, Janis Joplin, the Beastie Boys, and the Allman Brothers were all “two-hit wonders.”

This, of course, is what actually makes the category difficult. Anyone can get lucky once—it’s bound to happen all the time. But multiple hits usually indicates either actual talent or at least some knack for producing music that resonates with a significant chunk of the public. A true two-hit wonder has to be a case of lightning essentially striking twice, a double-fluke. Genuine instances of that are going to be vanishingly rare.

Tags: Art & Culture



16 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Dog's New Clothes // Jul 27, 2007 at 12:36 am

    The other wrinkle is that it depends on what charts you’re looking at. A number of artists are one- or two-hit wonders in the US but have totally differeent reputations elsewhere. No Norwegian would agree that a-ha is a two-hit wonder.

    You also make a good point about dubious one-hit wonders. Certainly Randy Newman wouldn’t say that “Short People” overshadows the rest of his remarkable output.

  • 2 Dog's New Clothes // Jul 27, 2007 at 12:58 am

    I also have to add Dexys Midnight Runners. They are universally known in the US for “Come On Eileen” but they had already had a #1 hit in Britain with “Geno” and a couple other UK hits.

  • 3 Greg Newburn // Jul 27, 2007 at 3:00 am

    First to come (immediately) to mind (for whatever fucking reason): Ugly Kid Joe.

    “Everything About You”

    “Cats in the Cradle”

    Second: Alien Ant Farm:


    “Smooth Criminal”

  • 4 stuart // Jul 27, 2007 at 5:39 am

    I second dog’s comment, though Dexys were always a well respected band with loyal following, I bet few people have heard of them.

    Geno’s an awesome song.

  • 5 digamma // Jul 27, 2007 at 9:02 am

    Bell Biv Devoe had two top-10 hits. As did Johnny Gill. And Vanilla Ice, but maybe he’s too much of a star for other reasons to count.

  • 6 Alex Knapp // Jul 27, 2007 at 10:07 am

    I think that probably the ultimate example of a “two-hit wonder” is the Spin Doctors, with “Two Princes” and “Little Miss”. These songs were ubiquitous in the mid-90s, but then they dropped off the face of the Earth, never to be seen again.

  • 7 Anonymo // Jul 27, 2007 at 11:50 am

    Paula Cole: “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” and that theme song for “Dawson’s Creek”

    The Grass Roots: “Let’s Live for Today” and “Midnight Confessions”

    Faith No More: “We Care a Lot” and “Epic”

  • 8 Dave // Jul 27, 2007 at 3:36 pm

    At this moment Regina Spektor would be a two-hit wonder. She’s had “Us” and “Fidelity,” two numbers that your average twentysomething crowd would recognize at a party. And they would also recognize her name, possibly.

    Another alt-rocky 2-hitter: The Flaming Lips. They had a big MTV hit with “She Don’t Use Jelly,” released a number of fun albums that only nerds listened to, then they broke again with “Do You Realize?” I’m not sure, however, that the average punter realizes they did “She Don’t Use Jelly.”

    Oh, and Harry Nilsson. One of the real oddities of the category because the only two songs everyone knows (“Everybody’s Talkin'” and “Without You”) were covers.

  • 9 Julian Sanchez // Jul 27, 2007 at 4:03 pm

    Dude, The Flaming Lips do not count as a “two-hit wonder.” Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi both won huge critical praise and At War with the Mystics won a Grammy.

  • 10 AC (a different one) // Jul 27, 2007 at 6:56 pm

    Considering the Grass Roots had fourteen Top 40 hits, I don’t think they count as two-hit wonders. Nilsson also had too many Top 40 singles and gold albums to count as a true two-hit wonder.

  • 11 Greg N. // Jul 28, 2007 at 11:41 am

    Faith No More is not a two hit wonder.

  • 12 Rick Astley // Jul 30, 2007 at 2:12 pm

    I am a legitimate two-hit wonder. Granted, both of my hits (“Together Forever” and “Never Gonna Give You Up”) sound like the same song, but they are in fact separate entities.

    Stacey Q achieved two hits — “Two of Hearts” and “We Connect” — using the same method. I’m sure there are many others.

  • 13 Other Ezra // Jul 31, 2007 at 2:39 pm

    Jim Croce.

  • 14 FS // Aug 1, 2007 at 9:27 pm

    Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock: “It Takes Two” and “Joy and Pain.”

  • 15 FS // Aug 9, 2007 at 12:17 pm

    Another Bad Creation: “Iesha” and “Playground.”

  • 16 day // Jun 21, 2012 at 1:51 am

    a-ha has more than one hit everywhere,not only in their native norway..in the last decade their 2000´s song summer moved on was nº1 in 17 europeans countries,and forever not yours was also nº1 in many countries,lifelines was also a huge hit,and analogue reached nº9 in the uk..in the 80´s they were huge worldwide till the early 90´s that they take a break,and came back in 2000.here in argentina they have the following songs as famous:take on me,the sun always shines on tv,ive been losing you,cry wolf,manhattan skyline,stay on these roads,the living daylights,touchy,you are the one,crying in the rain and early morning..