One-hit wonders are fascinating.
Some are once-in-a-generation synchronizations of material and cultural climate — the music-industry equivalent of being in the right place at the right time. Others are just, you know, funny. Despite their various origins, styles and critical receptions, though, they’re all related via that one weird similarity: They are all songs attributed to performers that couldn’t ever even approach duplicating their remarkable success, before or after.
Since Sept. 25 is National One-Hit Wonder Day, we thought we’d single out a large handful of these noteworthy tunes, and bestow upon them some utterly arbitrary made-up awards. Enjoy!
BEST IMMORTAL DRINKING SONG: The Champs, “Tequila”
Originally recorded in 1958, this instrumental topped both the pop and R&B charts and was covered innumerable times (most visibly and aptly by The Ventures). Ironically, it was released as a B-side to The Champs’ “Train to Nowhere,” which saw little success. Also ironically, for a certain generation it’s become inextricably linked with Pee-Wee Herman, a man-child who would almost certainly make a hilariously disgusted face if made to taste tequila.
BEST SONG THAT TRIED TO AVOID PLAGIARISM BY A SINGLE NOTE: Vanilla Ice, “Ice Ice Baby”
“‘Ding-ding-ding-dingy-ding-ding,’ that’s the way theirs goes. Ours goes ‘DING-ding-ding-ding-dingy-ding-ding.’” Alas, Robert Van Winkle’s detailed scientific breakdown of the glaring musical difference between his 1989 hit (also released as a B-side!) and Queen and David Bowie’s 1981 masterpiece “Under Pressure” did not prevent the offended parties from eventually being awarded a songwriting credit.
BEST EPHEMERAL FASHION TRENDSETTER: Kriss Kross, “Jump”
Chris “Mac Daddy” Kelly and Chris “Daddy Mac” Smith were 12 and 13, respectively, when they stormed MTV and the pop charts while wearing their jeans backward. Kids nationwide followed suit, at least until the first bathroom break of the school day. BAFFLING FACT: No fewer than 15 people, including iconic hitmakers Jermaine Dupri and Berry Gordy, received songwriting credit for this thing.
BEST QUESTIONABLE SUBJECT MATTER: Benny Mardones, “Into The Night”
Late singer-songwriter Mardones only ever hit the charts with this melancholy pop-rock tune, but he did so twice — once in 1980 when it was first released, and again in 1989 when an Arizona radio DJ resuscitated it pretty much single-handedly. The song’s double life comes off as a bit perplexing in the #metoo era, given that its opening lyrics are “She’s just 16 years old / leave her alone, they say.” (SPOILER ALERT: They’re right.)
Runner-up: The Vapors, “Turning Japanese”
Contrary to urban legend, this power-pop track, also released in 1980, is not about, er, pleasuring oneself, according to the band members themselves.
BEST ‘80S TREND COATTAIL RIDING: Buckner & Garcia, “Pac-Man Fever”
This novelty paean to THE coin-operated video game of the early ‘80s came from a couple of Atlanta dudes who wrote commercial jingles for a living, and cracked the Billboard Hot 100’s top 10 in early 1982. BAFFLING FACT: Buckner and Garcia actually made a whole album of video game songs, paying homage to popular early-’80s titles like Frogger, Centipede, Donkey Kong, Berzerk, Defender and others.
BEST OLD WAVE DANCE TRACK: Soft Cell, “Tainted Love”
Speaking of the ‘80s, it was a great decade for one-hit synth-pop/New Wave wonders that would endure to become staples at retro Goth-y club nights nationwide. Chief among them is “Tainted Love,” an ‘81 cover whose immediately recognizable intro synthesizer hook still draws boomers and Gen Xers alike onto the dance floor. Soft Cell’s version rose to Number One on the UK Singles Chart and spent 43 weeks on Billboard’s Hot 100, and their cover has been covered innumerable times; Marilyn Manson’s version is OK, but punk act Shades Apart does a better one.
Runner-up: Dead or Alive, “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)”
Frenetic, ostentatious and cheeky, this 1984 single became a hit in 1985 and pretty much captured everything fun about the synth-pop thing.
BEST GLOBAL SMASH WE’RE PRETTY SURE WE’VE NEVER HEARD BEFORE: Las Ketchup, “The Ketchup Song (Asereje)”
It hit number one in more than 20 countries worldwide. It’s about a cool dude who smokes the dance floor when the club DJ plays “Rapper’s Delight” by Sugar Hill Gang. Its chorus lyrics are, by and large, nonsense because “I said a hip, hop a hippy to the hippy a hip, hip hop and ya don’t stop” doesn’t translate well. This debut single came out in 2002, and its fleeting global success was due in some part to its being recorded in multiple languages. Is there a specific “Macarena”-style dance that goes along with it, you ask? Of course there is.
BEST PRE-POLITICAL-CORRECTNESS CULTURAL APPROPRIATION: Carl Douglas, “Kung Fu Fighting”
Unabashedly cheesy and based on an all-too-familiar “Oriental riff” (see also The Vapors’ “Turning Japanese,” above) that’s since become recognized as hackneyed and stereotypical, 1974’s “Kung Fu Fighting” has nonetheless sold more than 11 million records. It embodies the best and worst aspects of the pop single as big dumb fun, a throwaway that won’t go away whose problematic elements were surely a result of not thinking too much rather than actual ill intent. Whether or not it’s just a goofy novelty tune or something truly offensive is up to each listener to decide.
BEST ANIMAL MAGNETISM: Baha Men, “Who Let The Dogs Out”
This is one of the songs you actually have to hear again to realize that, yes, there are lyrics to it other than the hook/chorus. The Bahamian group didn’t even want to record this 2000 megahit and, given that somebody sings it every single time the subject of dogs being out comes up in casual conversation, plenty of folks around the world wish they never had.
Runner-up: Ylvis, “The Fox (What Does the Fox Say)”
This 2013 Norwegian comedy one-off still has the power to make us all go, “um… what?!”
BEST MACHISMO: Gerardo, “Rico Suave”
“Rico Suave” has the dubious distinction of appearing among both VH-1’s “100 Greatest Songs of the ‘90s” and Blender’s “50 Worst Songs Ever.” Looking back through the lens of all the hard, boastful or just plain raunchy libido-rap that’s hit the chart since, Gerardo’s hit — which made it to number 7 on the Hot 100 and number 2 on the Hot Rap Singles charts in early 1991 — seems almost charming now. “Oh, that Ecuadorian boy thinks he’s got BDE, how cute.” Not so cute? That “wig held in place by bandana” look that seems to change length in every shot in the video.
Runner-up: Right Said Fred, “I’m Too Sexy”
The same year, a pair of bald English dudes with nicely toned arms combined camp, homoeroticism and a bouncy piano sample to temporarily successful effect.
BEST IMPRESSION OF A POP GROUP BY A DECIDEDLY NON-POP GROUP: Butthole Surfers, “Pepper” (1996)
Fifteen years into a “career” characterized by touring in a station wagon, ingesting psychedelics and fighting with punks who didn’t think the band qualified as such, Austin’s Butthole Surfers shambled into the Top 40 in 1996 with “Pepper,” a song about… people? Who did bad things or had bad things happen to them? On drugs? Maybe? It’s a lot more difficult to parse than, say, “Rico Suave,” but remains in the brain thanks to its liquid flow, Beat-inspired spoken verses and innately catchy chorus.
Runner-up: Chumbawumba, “Tubthumping”
You know they used to be Crass, right?
BEST WEDDING RECEPTION STAPLE: Los Del Rio, “Macarena”
A lot of the one-hit wonders that inspired group dances got left out of the Wondies simply because there are so many more interesting songs, that got famous under more interesting circumstances, out there. The 1996 juggernaut “Macarena,” then, represents for them all — because they’re really all pretty much the same, and at least “Macarena” is intriguing due to its multicultural nature. (Also, we would rather not have our computer judge us for searching for “The Electric Slide.”)
Runner-up: Lou Bega, “Mambo No. 5”
Your drunken uncle’s favorite dance jam continues to reach out from 1999 to embarrass you.
BEST HARD GUYS BEING SOFT: Crazy Town, “Butterfly”
In 2001, four bros with rockin’ abs provided the answer to the age-old question, “What if 311 was, like, way worse?” The crowds at Ozzfest tour stops jeered them mercilessly, but the members of Crazy Town laughed all the way to the bank as “Butterfly” catapulted sales of their album The Gift of Game (ugh) from 100,000 to more than 1.5 million virtually overnight. Primary resident of Crazy Town, Shifty Shellshock (again, ugh) was subsequently seen on the first season of Celebrity Rehab, illustrating both the potential dangers of one-hit wonderdom and America’s tendency to play fast and loose with the term “celebrity.”