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The 100 Best One-Hit Wonder Songs

on September 21, 2016, 12:00am

10. Haddaway – “What Is Love” (1993)


Thanks to Will Ferrell, Chris Kattan, and Saturday Night Live, Haddaway will forever be linked to the infamous Butabi Brothers and the 1998 cult classic comedy A Night at the Roxbury. For years, the two comics entertained NBC’s millions of viewers with their (admittedly hilarious) one-note gag about two doofus brothers who just couldn’t cut it in the clubs. But when you separate the laughs from the emotional single, it’s incredibly difficult not to dig deep and fully enjoy “the feels.” The Trinidadian-German Eurodance artist struck a raw nerve with his minimalistic club hit, issuing something that urged listeners to embrace their inner angst through the art of dancing. Like a strange concoction of New Order, Culture Club, and Jan Hammer, the grooves and change-ups tickle all parts of the body, dipping the mind in a sweet and bitter glaze that insists upon seconds, thirds, or eighths. He came close to hitting that gooey spot again with “Life”, also off his eponymous debut, but the track just didn’t stick. Decades later, he’s still kicking it, and this writer would be willing to drop everything to see him. –Michael Roffman

Two-Hit Wonder? “Life”
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09. The Church – “Under the Milky Way” (1988)

After releasing their fifth album, Starfish, in 1988, The Church finally hit the jackpot with “Under the Milky Way”, a single that was, according to frontman Steve Kilbey, “accidentally written and accidentally became a hit.” The Australian alt-rockers created an anthem that has soundtracked a myriad of onscreen sequences; who could forget the bizarre party scene in Donnie Darko, sending the hit song back onto the charts and into the iPod’s of America’s indie youth. It’s been covered by tons of bands (The Killers, Sia) and was voted in 2008 the greatest Australian song in the past 20 years. It’s nearly three decades later and The Church is still in session, although Kilbey has said that he would be happy if he never had to play the song ever again; 30 years of listening to those bagpipes just might push anyone over the edge. –Frances Welch

Two-Hit Wonder? “The Unguarded Moment”
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08. Nena – “99 Luftballons” (1984)

The cutest anti-war protest song is one few Americans actually understand. In 1983, German band Nena released their self-titled album and, with it, introduced the world to the simple hook of “99 Luftballoons”. Guitarist Carlo Karges saw balloons released during a 1982 Rolling Stones concert in West Berlin and wondered what it would’ve been like for them to transform into UFOs and fly over the Berlin Wall. Thus, a song was born. The song became so popular in Europe that Nena recorded a new version with English vocals. That English version gets creative, though, and colors the balloons red whereas the original version just describes them as “air” to fix syllable emphasis. It makes it cuter to imagine the balloon UFOs as red, so it’s almost for the better, but the real focus falls on the song’s crystal-like synth and chugging rhythm section anyway, so most people don’t notice. — Nina Corcoran

Two-Hit Wonder? “Irgendwie Irgendwo Irgendwann”
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07. Harvey Danger – “Flagpole Sitta” (1997)

The late ’90s sucked. It wasn’t awful — “awful” would happen by summer 1999 and continue into the aughts — but it was pretty miserable. Rock ‘n’ roll was enjoying the excess and proliferation of post-grunge mediocrity, and alternative rock was being sold to network television on a nightly basis. There were exceptions, naturally, and one breath of life during the spring and summer of 1998 was Harvey Danger’s spirited single “Flagpole Sitta”. A response to the Seattle grunge scene, according to drummer Evan Sult, the track oozes with cynicism and teenage contempt, but not in a way that feels pedantic or limited to the age. Singer Sean Nelson, who would go on to form the cruelly underrated The Long Winters and work with The Decemberists, Robyn Hitchcock, and Nada Surf, sells every single word, thanks to a jaunty melody that’s almost campfire-esque. It’s also cleverly produced, as exhibited by that perfunctory guitar slide that more or less ropes everyone into singing: “Paranoia, paranoia/Everybody’s coming to get me.” Yeah, they had some great albums after this, but the cretins weren’t listening. –Michael Roffman

Two-Hit Wonder? “Little Round Mirrors”
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06. The Contours – “Do You Love Me” (1962)

Apparently, once upon a time, the way to a woman’s heart was shaking across a dance floor. Looks, prospects, and personality were negotiable if you knew your way around a mashed potato. That’s not quite how my parents describe the early ‘60s, but that’s the premise behind The Contours’ lone chart-topper, “Do You Love Me”. Wanna know the real kicker? Motown’s Berry Gordy wrote it for a then-hitless group called The Temptations. When they couldn’t be found, Gordy happened to bump into The Contours in a studio hallway – so it goes. So much stands out about this ageless barn-burner – the spoken-word intro, the false ending, both unique for the time – but especially how screaming Billy Gordon and a group of soul singers could wail as hard as their rock and roll contemporaries. Really, couldn’t you imagine Ferris Bueller singing this on a parade float? –Matt Melis

Two-Hit Wonder? “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)”

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05. A-ha – “Take On Me” (1984)

Video made this radio star. The Norwegian synthpop outfit originally recorded “Take On Me” under the title “Lesson One”, and it tanked. They learned their lesson quicker than you can count the times it’s been spewed on the walls of your nearest karaoke bar by re-releasing a new video directed by Michael Jackson collaborator Steve Barron. The video took months to create — because tracing live footage over pencil-sketch animation (rotoscoping) was as tedious in the ‘80s as those disaster perms — but it was worth the wait. The MTV Video Music Awards launched their career, embedding A-ha into the brains of every human on the planet. It’s not just the video that was responsible for any a-ha moments: Take that melodramatic rattle, steep it in glammy new wave that fuses a soothing synth backbeat, haloed keys, and pristine vocals, and you’ve got the uncanny formula for a song to sound decades old, yet utterly refreshing. –Lior Phillips

Two-Hit Wonder? “The Sun Always Shines on TV”

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04. Five Stairsteps – “O-o-h Child” (1970)

Who are the “First Family of Soul”? If you answered The Jackson 5, you aren’t wrong. But just know that Chicago soul sibs Five Stairsteps held the title first. The group, originally made up of four teenage brothers and a sister, were discovered at a talent show by Fred Cash of The Impressions and introduced to Curtis Mayfield, who signed them to his Chicago imprint. Though they remained a popular act for a solid decade before things began to dissipate, “O-o-h Child” stands as their only bona fide hit – but what a calling card. The song, an uplifting hand on the shoulder, begins with sister Alohe Jean promising that “things are going to get easier,” before passing the mic for a series of solos, harmonies, and instrumental swells. When the five join together and promise that “things will get brighter someday,” every part of you wants to believe them. It’s a song that simply says that things won’t always be this difficult, so hang in there. I can’t imagine that message ever not finding someone in need of it. –Matt Melis

Two-Hit Wonder? “Ooh, Baby Baby”

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03. Natalie Imbruglia – “Torn” (1997)

While it might have seemed like Natalie Imbruglia climbed out of obscurity and into our hearts in 1997 with “Torn”, that was not actually the case. Imbruglia was already a successful actress, appearing as a regular on Aussie soap Neighbours in the early ’90s. Her cover of the Ednaswap song “Torn” was her first international single, and the song wound up being an absolute smash, finding success on pop, AAA, and alternative formats.

But a big part of the song’s success hinged on conquering MTV and VH1. That path might seem a little foreign considering it no longer exists, but everything from the way the video is shot from a single camera angle while Imbruglia and her dude “act” the part of a relationship to the undeniable on-camera presence the singer contributed to the success. When she looked straight in the camera to mouth the blunt, vulnerable lyrics, it connected with audiences beyond what could have been reasonable expectations at the time. Imbruglia would never find widespread musical success again, but with “Torn”, once was enough to make a huge impact. –Philip Cosores

Two-Hit Wonder?

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02. The Sugarhill Gang – “Rapper’s Delight” (1979)

One of the most illustrative rap songs to exist came early in the game. So early that it was one of the first songs to introduce hip-hop to listeners at large. The Sugarhill Gang revolutionized the music world with the release of “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979. Michael “Wonder Mike” Wright, Henry “Big Bank Hank” Jackson, and Guy “Master Gee” O’Brien took their name from the Harlem neighborhood of the same name despite growing up in Englewood, New Jersey, adding to what would become a critical hip-hop scene in the years that followed.

As culturally important as it is historically significant, the song, at its most basic, is pleasing based off sound alone. The track’s funk bassline takes its time plodding around while a disco guitar clip strums over it, creating an easy flow that invites listeners to sway along. That, paired with the song’s easy-to-learn shout-outs, makes it a household track, even for little kids.

But it’s the lyrics, like most rap songs, that make “Rapper’s Delight” a one-hit wonder that stands the test of time. It’s jam-packed with quote-able phrases (“I’d like to say hello/ To the black, to the white, the red and the brown/ The purple and yellow,” “The chicken tastes like wood,” “Just throw your hands up in the air/ And party hardy like you just don’t care”), but by far the most famous is “Hotel, motel/ Holiday Inn.” Decades in, that resurfaces regularly in music as a nod from artists who know their history, no matter what genre their song falls under. It’s a timeless form of artistry that prioritizes fun, ridiculousness, and talent equally, never once taking itself too seriously — which makes it that much better. –Nina Corcoran

Two-Hit Wonder? “Apache”

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01. Modern English – “I Melt with You” (1982)

Modern English deserved a better fate. After all, the English outfit were one of the few new wave acts of the ’80s that could pen music durable enough to outlive its sugary decade. But, how do you top a song like “I Melt With You”? It’s not just difficult; it’s near impossible. If you’ve learned anything from this list, it’s how easy it is for a bona fide radio hit to be cemented as a hallmark in the fabric of time, sort of like little Polaroids trapped in a super-glued scrapbook. What perhaps elevates Modern English from the frozen bunch is how their landmark hit has managed to tap into the lives of every generation since its 1982 debut.

Why? Mostly because there’s nothing really flashy about the song. It’s a simple construction — guitars and drums and timeless poetry — and literally every one who’s ever been head over heels (or Chucks?) about someone can relate to its central thesis: “There’s nothing you and I won’t do/ I’ll stop the world and melt with you.” Granted, pop culture has done its damndest to make sure it’s remembered as an ’80s song — from its silver-screen debut in 1983’s Valley Girl to this past summer’s Stranger Things — but that has never once stopped it from soundtracking school dances or kicking off a mixtape between two young lovers.

Over three decades later, Modern English continue to melt the world, only on their own terms. Although the last single of theirs that made any sort of dent was 1984’s “Hands Across the Sea” — that is, if you’re not counting their spot on the Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead soundtrack with their pretty great single “Life’s Rich Tapestry” — that hasn’t stopped them from releasing new albums. In fact, just this past year they released their eighth studio album, Take Me to the Trees, their first recording to feature the original band in 30 years. Again, it doesn’t have a “I Melt with You”, but it doesn’t necessarily have to, either.

Bottom line: It’s rare for musicians to ever write one good song, let alone a great one. Modern English, and the other 99 acts on this list, managed to write great songs that captivated the world. I think you have to respect that. –Michael Roffman

Two-Hit Wonder? “Hands Across the Sea”

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Playlist

Stream the entire collection, minus a few exceptions, with our Spotify playlist below.

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