Has there ever been a pop culture category more ruthlessly defined and more fundamentally inexact than “one-hit wonder”? Pull up Wikipedia’s one-hit wonder list and you’ll find everything from Taco to Devo — two acts that, to say the least, have very different reputations. Devo’s only big Billboard chart hit was “Whip It,” but they’re still widely regarded as one of the most innovative bands from the American wings of synthpop and New Wave — and worthy of a wee bit more respect than the guy who once recorded a kitschy cover of “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”
The goal of the list below then is to steer clear of both the Tacos and the Devos. Very few music buffs need to be convinced that there’s more to Fountains of Wayne than “Stacy’s Mom,” and most are already aware that Frank Zappa isn’t just the “Valley Girl” guy. On the other end of the scale, sometimes one-hit wonders don’t have much of a legacy for a reason. Once you’ve heard “The Curly Shuffle,” you’re pretty much done with Jump ’n the Saddle Band.
The sweet spot here is defined by Dexys Midnight Runners: a band with one song that’s still played a lot on the radio, but with a larger discography that true connoisseurs appreciate, and that should be more widely loved.
We can bicker about the meaning of “hit” (or “one,” for that matter). Maybe some of the artists below had follow-up singles that scraped the bottom of American Top 40; or maybe they had more success overseas. Loosely speaking, though, we’ll be looking at bands or solo acts responsible for much more great music than the one song of theirs that’s well-known in the U.S. The idea is to tout some fantastic, under-heard records, not to assess or demean anyone’s current level of fame.
With that in mind, let’s go crate-digging!
Prior to the punk revolution of 1976–77, the U.K. music scene experienced a “back to basics” movement dubbed “pub rock,” dominated by bands eschewing the pretensions of prog and the gloom of heavy metal, preferring instead rootsy, danceable tunes. The sound never caught on in the U.S., though a handful of pub-rockers (like Graham Parker, Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, and Joe Strummer) did cross over later, once they embraced punk and New Wave. One of the pub acts did have a bona fide American hit: Ace, whose airy ballad “How Long” is still being played on the softer oldies radio stations. Sung by Paul Carrack (who later provided lead vocals for the Squeeze smash “Tempted” and Mike + The Mechanics’ “Silent Running”), “How Long” is a lovely track, but hardly indicative of the Ace sound, which is better described as a sort of a genial boogie: like an English Leon Russell. Ace’s debut album Five-A-Side, which contains “How Long,” is a winner from start to finish, but the band’s other two albums are highly enjoyable as well, including the third LP, No Strings, recorded after they moved to California and shifted toward West Coast AM pop.
Once U2 started breaking wide in the early 1980s, American record labels scrambled to find more booming U.K. rock acts who were making what the Waterboys dubbed “The Big Music” — bands like The Alarm, Cactus World News and Simple Minds. The first to have a legitimate American hit (even before U2) was Big Country, whose single “In a Big Country” had some novelty appeal, thanks to the self-referential name, a ruggedly outdoorsy video and guitars that sounded like bagpipes. Big Country remained popular for years overseas, but perhaps because they were thought of in the States as gimmicky, they never had the same level of chart success again.
Shortly before frontman Stuart Adamson committed suicide in 2001, he’d been living in relative obscurity in Nashville. Adamson was one of the most original and talented singer/songwriter/guitarists of his generation, starting with his post-punk band the Skids (a clear influence on U2’s early singles), and continuing on through Big Country’s first three LPs, The Crossing, Steeltown and The Seer (and a stunning EP, Wonderland). With their triumphant sound — all martial drums and clarion guitars — and their mythopoetic imagery, Big Country made music that echoed the feeling of hiking through the windswept Highlands.
The Boomtown Rats
Bob Geldof has remained fairly well-known in popular culture for his charity work — in particular the Live Aid benefit concert. But ask the casual rock fan to name a song by Geldof’s band the Boomtown Rats, and maybe you’ll hear “I Don’t Like Mondays.” Ironically, that offbeat, bratty, quasi-protest song (about a school shooting in San Diego) only loosely reflects the kind of music the Rats were making when it was released in 1979. Geldof and his mates had more in common back then with Thin Lizzy and even Bruce Springsteen, as heard in songs like “Rat Trap” and “Joey’s on the Street Again,” which shrugged off the punk-era vogue for austerity and brevity. Between 1977 and 1982, the Boomtown Rats recorded five LPs filled with complex, catchy music, steeped in the romanticism of urban life.
Grunge and alternative rock were already on the wane by 1996, when the experimental Swedish pop-rock band The Cardigans released their ebullient third album First Band on the Moon, and its disco-inflected come-on song “Lovefool.” The single became a hit in the U.S. thanks to its inclusion on the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack, but because of that perhaps not-so-lucky lucky break, not everyone who loved “Lovefool” bought First Band, or explored any further into the Cardigans catalogue.
Here’s what they missed: Three albums (Emmerdale, Life and First Band) teeming with hummable, toe-tapping, subtly melancholy pop, followed by the chilly and serrated 1998 masterpiece Gran Turismo, and then a return in the 2000s with the very good roots-rock LPs Long Gone Before Daylight and Super Extra Gravity. The Cardigans are one of the more fascinating and unpredictable bands of their era, with a high percentage of winners on every record.
Punk connoisseurs in the 1980s knew Chumbawamba as a rabble-rousing anarchist collective, with a populist streak when it came to making music: like Crass with catchier melodies, or like an angrier version of the Mekons. The group recorded concept records that savaged rock-star charity events, and they railed against the compromises of democracy. Then in 1997, Chumbawamba abruptly declared that since even independent record labels were corrupt profiteers, they may as well sign with a major and get their message out to a wider audience. The result? “Tubthumping,” a feel-good drinking song that became an international smash. Today, Chumbawamba’s best-known song gets shouted out lustily at sports arenas by people who have no idea the band once performed songs like “Homophobia” and “British Colonialism and the BBC.”
Dexys Midnight Runners
Here’s another band that, like Big Country, were too quickly adjudged in the U.S. to be a gimmicky novelty act. Frontman Kevin Rowland actually envisioned Dexys Midnight Runners as the 1980s answer to Van Morrison’s Caledonia Soul Orchestra; and while the overalls and fiddles in the band’s “Come On Eileen” video made them look like English art-school students who’d seriously misinterpreted Hee Haw, the look and the sound of that song (and the album it came from, Too-Rye-Ay), was deliberate and conceptual… as were the dockworker duds Dexys wore for their 1980 debut album Searching for the Young Soul Rebels, and the yuppie attire for their misunderstood 1985 LP Don’t Stand Me Down. Inspired by American R&B (or at least the U.K. interpretation of same) and the theatricality of 1970s British art-rock, Rowland recorded records and put on shows that were meant to be audiovisual experiences, examining the blurred lines between gritty reality and fictionalized fantasy.
The man born Thomas Morgan Robertson had his fingers in a lot of pies in the early 1980s, working as a session musician, a producer and a live sound engineer for various U.K. post-punk acts. He also recorded a gorgeous synthpop album, 1982’s The Golden Age of Wireless, which demonstrated how electronic instruments could produce something as warm, melodic and personal as anything guitar-slinging American singer-songwriters were making at the time. After the album’s initial release, Thomas Dolby knocked out a fun dance single, “She Blinded Me with Science,” which became a hit on both sides of the Atlantic, prompting a re-release of Wireless with the new song, and a rebranding of Dolby as a goofy computer geek, as opposed to a master melodicist and studio whiz.
His second LP, 1984’s brilliant The Flat Earth (with more sprawling, cinematic songs, nodding to the likes of Todd Rundgren, XTC, Robyn Hitchcock, Joni Mitchell and George Clinton), was well-reviewed, but didn’t chart nearly as high. In the decades since, Dolby’s released the occasional very good record, but has been even more successful making music for video games and cell phone ringtones.
At the same time that Led Zeppelin and Cream were processing early-20th-century American blues into walloping, minimalist rock ’n’ roll, singer Paul Rodgers hooked up with drummer Simon Kirke (father of actresses Jemima and Lola, and with whom Rodgers would later reunite in the supergroup Bad Company), guitarist Paul Kossoff and bassist Andy Fraser for a band whose simple grooves and heavy riffs made them a top touring act and FM radio favorite. Today, classic rock radio has reduced Free just to the fist-pumping “All Right Now,” skipping the more Faces-esque European hits like “My Brother Jake” and “Wishing Well.” Free’s six studio albums are all worth delving into further, especially for fans of loose rhythms, sharp power chords, raspy vocals and hard rock songs with thick air hanging between the notes.
Macy Gray emerged in 1999 during the heyday of neo-soul chanteuses like Jill Scott, Angie Stone, Lauryn Hill, and Erykah Badu; and she had one of the biggest hits of that movement with “I Try,” a laconic mid-tempo ballad that made great use of her laid-back, expressive vocal style, honed in L.A. jazz clubs. The popularity of that song (which won a Best Female Pop Vocal Performance Grammy, and was nominated for Record of the Year and Song of the Year) gave Gray some momentum that carried over into modest sales and touring success in subsequent years. But she also developed a reputation for erratic behavior — fueled, she’s admitted, by drug abuse and exhaustion. Despite what the press has written about her, throughout all her struggles she’s continued to record. As she makes strides toward a potential commercial rebound in her 50s, Gray carries with her a body of work that mega-stars half her age should envy, shaped by her uniquely woozy interpretation of rhythm and blues.
Rock critics had their knives out early for the Knack’s 1979 debut album Get the Knack. The record sold two million copies in the U.S. and spawned the ubiquitous single “My Sharona,” but it was still slammed for its casually sexist lyrics — and for an obnoxious promotional campaign that pitched the band as the second coming of the Beatles, too important to mingle with the press.
The instant backlash caught lead singer and guitarist Doug Fieger by surprise, given that in the year before Get the Knack, the band had been one of the most popular on the L.A. club scene, drawing big crowds and celebrity guests with high-energy sets. A year later, after the hubbub died down, power-pop aficionados recognized the Knack as one of the most accomplished practitioners of a genre that mostly failed to catch on with the record-buying and radio-listening public. Just think: If the Knack had toiled in obscurity, their debut LP and two very good follow-ups might be rightly remembered as unsung classics, not as Me Generation cheese.
Fair warning: If you’re ever having a pint in a London pub and you refer to the eclectic retro-pop/ska act Madness as a one-hit wonder, you may be asked to leave, and not so politely. Madness dominated the U.K. pop charts in the 1980s, even though in the States (where ska didn’t really become “a thing” until the 1990s), the band only hit the Billboard Top 10 once, with “Our House,” a bouncy, very British song that for some reason caught Americans’ imagination.
These days, Madness may be better known in the U.S. for “One Step Beyond,” which in recent years has become a favorite in sports arenas. But while that peppy little horn-pumped number is more on-brand, the half-dozen albums Madness released in the early 1980s play around with a variety of styles, and offer up some vivid depictions of everyday middle-class life.
Some of the more interesting one-hit wonders have been acts who unexpectedly crossed over from different genres — like George Thorogood or Chuck Mangione. They didn’t stop selling records or filling concert halls; it’s more like the mainstream spotlight just moved off of them, as it tends to do. Bobby McFerrin was already an in-demand jazz-fusion attraction before he wrote and recorded “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” and he’s remained busy since. Just as he did with his multi-Grammy-winning blockbuster single, McFerrin has made dozen of albums highlighting his uncanny ability to mimic other instruments with his voice. He hasn’t been pumping out infectious, upbeat ditties this whole time. He’s done rock and R&B covers, classical riffs, serious jazz… the kind of music that even people whose skin crawls at “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” could enjoy.
Singer-songwriter-producer Gregg Alexander made a conscious choice to dissolve his makeshift band New Radicals after their sensational single “You Get What You Give” gave Alexander a taste of what fame was going to be like: spending all day traveling from place to place, talking to strangers and playing the same tunes over and over. And yet the remainder of that first (and only) New Radicals album Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too is such a rich concoction of sweeping arena rock, radio-friendly pop and hip-hop swagger that it’s almost like a decade’s worth of Lady Gaga and Justin Timberlake records rolled into one. Since pushing the eject button on his burgeoning career as a pop provocateur, Alexander has stayed busy writing and producing for others. In 2013 he wrote or co-wrote most of the songs for John Carney’s unusual movie musical Begin Again — including the Oscar-nominated “Lost Stars.”
Electronic music was primarily a niche genre in the early 1970s, tagged as an offshoot of prog-rock or the avant-garde — and as such, reasonably well-respected. When the punk movement inspired a whole generation of musicians to use their synthesizers to make snappy, stripped-down records, American radio proved oddly receptive (perhaps because Star Wars had sparked a craze for all things futuristic), but major rock critics dismissed many of these upstarts as silly and inauthentic. Gary Numan didn’t do his rep any favors with his big U.S. hit “Cars,” an expression of modern alienation that made him sound like a nerdy British kid pretending to be a robot from outer space. But heard in the context of Numan’s long and prolific career — which has evolved over the past couple of decades into heavier, more overtly science-fiction-influenced concept albums, many of them doubling as attacks on organized religion — “Cars” is less cutesy and more ominous. It’s of a piece with what’s been a consistently impressive (and surprisingly personal) dystopian oeuvre.
The 1972 anthology Nuggets collected cult favorite singles from mid-1960s American acid-rock and garage bands; and in most cases, the acts represented didn’t contribute much to pop culture beyond that one great song. But L.A. proto-punkers the Standells did more than just introduce the world to the rebellious Boston anthem “Dirty Water.” They were also at the center of a Sunset Strip scene that included the Byrds, Love and Buffalo Springfield. They were popular enough at the time to appear occasionally in movies and on TV as a representative “hippie” band, even as their preference for a louder, rawer sound helped set the standard for L.A. rock decadence. The Standells didn’t leave behind the same kind of studio legacy as the musicians they ran with, but the handful of records they did cut have been massively influential, and still sound dark and dangerous, 50 years later.