It’s impossible for an artist to know how a song will perform on the charts, and it’s just as difficult to know which songs will really stick in the public mind years down the road. Landing just one hit is a major accomplishment, but even among one-hit wonders, the number of songs that people are still listening to and talking about is small.
The songs that hold up over time do so by tapping into an urge for nostalgia but also by being, well, pretty good songs. (There’s a reason they were hits, after all.)
1.“Tainted Love,” Soft Cell: Originally recorded by Gloria Jones in 1965, “Tainted Love” got a new lease on life when Soft Cell updated it for the synth generation in 1981. The extended single was a medley with a cover of The Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go,” but it was the shortened version that dominated the airwaves and made the U.K. band a hit in the States.
Three decades on, the song’s electronic beats are still popular, and the poppy nature of the song has proven resistant to trends and changes in music. The song even made it into a Levi’s commercial in the 1990s.
2.“Louie Louie,” The Kingsmen: Three chords, two minutes, and almost no deciperable lyrics, yet everyone knows “Louie Louie” the minute it starts playing. Written in the 1950s, the 1963 version by The Kingsmen is the most popular to date, and the one people think of when they hear that classic riff.
It’s a song that’s very much of its era, but it doesn’t feel dated, thanks to being in near-constant rotation at bars, sporting events, and cable reruns of Animal House. It’s an oldie that’s not going anywhere.
3.“Rockin’ Robin,” Bobby Day: Bobby Day wrote and recorded songs for more than 40 years, but he only managed one hit: 1958’s “Rockin’ Robin,” penned by Leon Rene. It’s a bright, poppy, fun tune that runs less than three minutes and relies on a great hook.
It’s one of the melodies that’s stuck around because it’s easy to remember and fun to sing, not to mention it’s been covered numerous times since its initial release. The most famous is easily Michael Jackson’s1972 version from his first solo album.
4.“Spirit in the Sky,” Norman Greenbaum: Norman Greenbaum’s vaguely trippy “Spirit in the Sky” was the Jewish songwriter’s attempt to knock out a gospel song, and it’s said he wrote the lyrics in just a few minutes.
It seems weird now to think of a hit pop song being so overtly religious, but then, this was the late 1960s, and Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspellwere just around the corner. Hippy Jesus was pretty much in full swing. Hence, an enduring classic rock song that’s now required to appear in every movie about Baby Boomers.
5.“Teenage Dirtbag,” Wheatus: You’ve probably forgotten all about the movie Loser, if you ever saw it in the first place. Amy Heckerling’s 2000 comedy didn’t have near the punch or impact of Clueless or Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and it faded pretty quickly upon release. Mixed into the film’s soundtrack of late-1990s power pop (Fastball! Blink-182!) was “Teenage Dirtbag,” a single from a new band called Wheatus.
The song took off on the modern rock charts in the U.S. as well as the airwaves of Australia, Germany, and the United Kingdom, giving it a much longer lifespan than a forgettable Jason Biggs comedy. It’s still a great piece of ’90s nostalgia, even showing up as an impromptu sing-along moment in HBO’s miniseries Generation Kill.
6.“Baby Got Back,” Sir Mix-a-Lot: Maybe you only need one hit, at least when it’s as popular and culturally defining as Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back.” Mix-a-Lot was nothing major until his third album, 1992’s Mack Daddy, which unleashed “Baby Got Back” and forever changed bachelor parties and karaoke nights around the world.
The song was a No. 1 hit for five weeks in the summer of ’92, earning Mix-a-Lot a Grammy for his troubles. Novelty songs have always been able to chart — “Monster Mash,” anyone? — but “Baby Got Back” holds up because of its party atmosphere and absurdly over-the-top lyrics.
7.“Video Killed the Radio Star,” The Buggles: “Video Killed the Radio Star” has survived since its 1979 release almost solely on the power of trivia: As most people know or are eagerly told by music nerds, the song from The Buggles was the first music video played on MTV when the channel launched on August 1, 1981. Yet the synth-pop song isn’t just a piece of our pop cultural past:
It’s a surprisingly catchy little number that mixes happy melodies with despondent lyrics about a singer from the radio era whose career is ended by the arrival of television. The song was covered in the 1990s by The Presidents of the United States of America and by Ben Folds, but the original’s always the best.
8.“Rainbow Connection,” Kermit the Frog (Jim Henson): It’s impossible not to feel something when you listen to this song. Appearing in the opening moments of The Muppet Movie, Kermit’s wistful song about the life of a dreamer became an instant icon for the Muppet gang and a perfect representation of their entire vibe.
The tune received solid airplay and even earned Oscar and Golden Globe nominations, and it’s pretty much burned into the cerebral cortexes of anyone born after 1975. A Muppets tribute album from fall 2011 had Weezer covering the song, sounding as sweet as ever.
9.“Werewolves of London,” Warren Zevon: Warren Zevon was a fixture in the music scene from the 1970s on, and his final album — released in 2003 just weeks before his death at 56 from mesothelioma — is packed with guest artists and friends he worked with throughout his career.
Yet in terms of actual breakout hits, he only had one: 1978’s “Werewolves of London.” Like much of Zevon’s work, the lyrics are funny and a little outlandish, and it’s the sense of humor combined with a great riff that makes the song such an earworm.
10.“I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles),” The Proclaimers: The Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be” was actually released on their 1988 album Sunshine on Leith. It performed well in their native U.K., but it didn’t chart in the U.S. until five years later, when the song received attention thanks to its inclusion on the soundtrack to Benny & Joon.
So it’s an ’80s pop song that gets roped with ’90s one-hit wonders here in the States, but the confusion over the era is all part of the song’s odd charm. It’s a love song belted out with a thick brogue, and one of the most fun soundtrack entries from the decade. It’s probably playing in your head right now.
content research provided by BusinessInsurance.org writing team.