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One-hit wonder

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One-hit wonder

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In the music industry, a one-hit wonder is an artist who is generally known for only one hit single.

Because one-hit wonders are only popular for a brief time, their hits often have significant nostalgia value and are often featured on era-centric compilations and soundtracks to period films.

The hits of many one-hit wonders are novelty songs that are, to an extent, deliberately short-lived, recorded for humor or to cash in on a pop culture fad. Examples include Rick Dees’s "Disco Duck," related to the disco craze of the late 1970s, and Buckner & Garcia’s "Pac Man Fever," related to the arcade game Pac Man. More commonly however, one-hit wonders are serious-minded musicians who struggled to continue their success after their popularity waned. Some artists have only had one chart success due to untimely death, such as Minnie Riperton and Blind Melon.

One-hit wonders are common in any era of pop music but are most common during reigns of entire genres that do not last for more than a few years, such as disco and new wave.

Though the term is sometimes used in a derogatory sense, fans often have a great passion for these memorable songs and the artists that created them. Some one-hit wonder artists have embraced this following openly, while others distance themselves from their hit in an attempt to craft successful songs with different sounds.


Questions of Definition

Performers who are successful in one country or continent but who are known for only one song in another are usually considered one-hit wonders in the latter. Germany’s Nena, Europe’s Boney M, Scotland's Simple Minds, England’s Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Canada’s Crash Test Dummies have each had considerable success in their homelands but are considered one-hit wonders in the United States.

Similarly, some performers are considered one-hit wonders in general but have had considerable success within their respective genres. Celtic music singer Loreena McKennitt, heavy metal band Uriah Heep, and Christian rock group Jars of Clay are each stars within their respective genres but are known for only a single crossover hit each by the general public.

The term one-hit wonder does not, however, usually refer to performers who have had only limited success on the singles chart, but who are considered significant for other reasons, such as album sales, live concerts and influence on other musicians. Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, Roxy Music, Lou Reed, Janis Joplin, Rush, The Grateful Dead, Iggy Pop, Beck and Radiohead have each had only one song in Billboard Magazine’s Top 40, yet none are considered one-hit wonders.

The term is also not usually applied to performers with a single hit as a solo artist but who built a reputation in a group, such as Steely Dan's Donald Fagen, The Lovin' Spoonful's John Sebastian or The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson. Alternatively, Derek & the Dominoes are not considered one-hit wonders because their sole hit, "Layla," is generally considered within the context of group leader Eric Clapton's career.

By analogy, artists and bands (such as Golden Earring) who produce two major hits before fading into obscurity are sometimes called "two-hit wonders", but this term is not as commonly used.

Also, some artists may be considered one-hit wonders despite not strictly meeting the definition. For example, a-ha made the top 10 of VH1's 100 Greatest One-hit Wonders in 2002, despite having had two singles make the Billboard Top 40. Their first hit, "Take on Me", was far more successful (in the U.S.) and is more widely remembered than their other U.S. chart hit, "The Sun Always Shines on TV" (which, incidentally, was #1 in the United Kingdom). Great White is also called a one-hit wonder, for the #5 1989 hit "Once Bitten Twice Shy," but they had another Top 40 single, "Angel Song", the same year, as well as several lower-charting hits throughout their career. Many so-called one-hit wonders had a single top 40 hit, but several others in the lower regions of the Billboard Hot 100 (#41-#100), and these lower-charting songs are still "hits" in the strictest sense. The defining factor seems to be how well the band is remembered for other factors than the "one big hit".

"One hit wonders" in classical music

While the term "one hit wonder" generally refers to sales in popular music, the term has sometimes been used to describe various composers of classical music. In this context, it is often used to describe composers who are well known mostly because of only a single piece of music.

Extending the term to classical composers is more subjective since there are no comparable sales rankings for classical music. The primary problem is determining what constitutes a "hit" in classical music. Without ready access to recording sales records and classical concert programs this must be determined by a subjective guess. This guess can only be based on a collective idea of what is frequently performed in concerts, played by classical radio stations and recorded by a variety of orchestras.

What is popular is also highly subject to change over the years, particularly considering the sheer amount of time in which classical music has existed (taking the more liberal use of "classical" to cover music of the Renaissance through contemporary classical). What was popular during a composer's lifetime may not be popular today, an issue compounded by many works achieving popularity through appearances in film and other mass media.

The sheer volume of music composed by any serious classical composer is not overall comparable to what is produced by many popular music artists. Some pop one hit wonders produce only a single album (generally slightly more than half an hour of music) while any classical composer will have produced hours upon hours. While only a single short piece might be a "hit", in most cases other works will have been recorded by multiple performers, and occasionally find their way into the repertoire of others, skewing the comparison with popular musicians.

Furthermore, what is considered a "hit" will vary greatly when one considers the disparity between the general public and devoted fans of classical music. Edward Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, for example, is known widely in the United States as the music associated with graduation, and many U.S. lay people would not recognize a single other work by him (or, indeed, much of that piece itself, except for the commonly quoted part); and in the UK the same music is widely known as "Land of Hope and Glory", a song of Empire. However, any person reasonably well versed in classical music knows of Elgar as a respected composer of a variety of works. Likewise the final section of the overture to Rossini's William Tell is known to millions of people through its association with The Lone Ranger, but most opera-lovers are probably more familiar with some of his other overtures. Conversely, there are various composers by whom even classical music buffs would be hard pressed to identify more than one work, and with whom laymen and casual listeners would be utterly unfamiliar, making their claim of even a single "hit" problematic.

Other uses

The term one-hit wonder is occasionally used to refer to an artist or a professional athelete other than a musical performer who is best known for a single work. For example, author Joseph Heller wrote several novels but is still best known for Catch-22 and actress Natasha Henstridge has yet to match the success of the film Species.

In video games, the term one-hit wonder is used to describe a video game character that dies after one hit. A good example is Billy Bob from Capcom's Gun.Smoke.


  • The phenomenon of one-hit wonders was celebrated in Tom Hanks's film That Thing You Do!, which featured a fictional 1960s band from Erie, Pennsylvania called The Wonders that broke up shortly after their one and only hit single. In fact, the name "Wonders" was originally spelled "Oneders", a deliberate play on the term. Ironically, while the movie was in theaters, the soundtrack hit #26 on the charts, recorded under the name "The Wonders", but actually recorded by Fountains Of Wayne. "The Wonders" never made it to the charts again, so they were, essentially, both a real and fictitious one-hit wonder band.
  • In a stand-up routine on the Dr. Demento basement tapes, comedian Rob Paravonian humorously noted that Johann Pachelbel was the original one-hit wonder. See Pachelbel's canon.
  • Norman Greenbaum is a double one-hit wonder. In 1968, under the name Dr. West's Medicine Show and Junk Band, he had a semi-hit with the novelty song "The Eggplant That Ate Chicago" and, two years later, score a hit under his own name "Spirit In The Sky". Ironically, another group, Doctor and the Medics, became a one-hit wonder with their version of "Spirit In The Sky" in 1986. British television stars The Kumars also became one-hit wonders when they reached no.1 with Gareth Gates with the same song in 2003.
  • Limahl is also a double one-hit wonder in the United States, though not in the United Kingdom. In 1983, the band he fronted, Kajagoogoo, had its only U.S. hit with "Too Shy" (although the band had several other hits in the UK). The following year, after he had left the band, he had a solo hit with the eponymous theme to the children's film The NeverEnding Story.
  • Benny Mardones has had only one hit, "Into the Night," making him a "one-hit wonder"; however, his hit song hit the Top 10 twice -- in 1980 and again in 1990.
  • A small number of artists have the distinction of being regarded as one hit wonders in both the USA and UK, but with different songs:
Artist US hit UK hit
Carole Bayer Sager Stronger Than Before You're Moving Out Today
Mouth and Macneal How Do You Do I See A Star
Art and Dotty Todd Chanson D'Amour Broken Wings
  • In his book One Hit Wonderland (Ebury Press, 2003), British writer and comedian Tony Hawks describes his attempts to shake off his one hit wonder status by having another hit somewhere in the world. The book describes several aborted attempts before he achieves a top twenty hit in Albania with veteran comic actor Norman Wisdom.

Lists of greatest one-hit wonders

VH1's list of "100 greatest one-hit wonders"

In 2002, the American cable network VH1 aired a countdown of the 100 Greatest One-hit Wonders. The top ten consisted of:

Los Del Rio - "Macarena" (1996)
Soft Cell - "Tainted Love" (1982)
Dexys Midnight Runners - "Come On Eileen" (1982)
Right Said Fred - "I'm Too Sexy" (1991)
Toni Basil - "Mickey" (1982)
Baha Men - "Who Let the Dogs Out?" (2000)
Vanilla Ice - "Ice Ice Baby" (1990)
a-ha - "Take On Me" (1985)
Gerardo - "Rico Suave" (1991)
Nena - "99 Luftballons" (1984)

Brent Mann’s 100 "all-time great one-hit wonders"

In 2003, music journalist Brent Mann released the book 99 Red Balloons and 100 Other All-Time Great One-Hit Wonders. The list was based on Mann’s professional opinion, and did not include many of hits from the VH1 one list. Instead, Mann reaches back as early as the 1950s, and thus includes some songs perhaps unfamiliar to modern audiences. He also included a number of artists who had many hits in the United Kingdom (or other markets, such as Germany), but not in the United States. His number one choice was "Walking in Memphis" by Marc Cohn.

Channel 4's "50 Greatest One Hit Wonders"

A 2006 poll conducted by Channel 4 television in the UK asked viewers to select their favourite one hit wonder from a shortlist of 60 [1]. Respondents could also vote by email to select a song that was not on the original list, if they so wished. The top five were:

Kung Fu Fighting - Carl Douglas
99 Red Balloons - Nena
Because I Got High - Afroman
Sugar, Sugar - The Archies
Can You Dig It? - The Mock Turtles

See also


  • Mordden, Ethan (1980) A Guide to Orchestral Music. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195040414
  • One Hit Wonders, 2003, Dg Deutsche Grammophon, catalog number 472700. The composers DG includes in this compilation are: Richard Addinsell, Tomaso Albinoni, Hugo Alfvén, Samuel Barber, Luigi Boccherini, Joseph Canteloube, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Jeremiah Clarke, Léo Delibes, Paul Dukas, Reinhold Gliere, Ferde Grofé, Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov, Dmitri Kabalevsky, Aram Khachaturian, Edward MacDowell, Pietro Mascagni, Jules Massenet, Jean-Joseph Mouret, Carl Orff, Johann Pachelbel, Amilcare Ponchielli, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Emil Waldteufel, Peter Warlock, and Charles-Marie Widor.

External links

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Music Sound, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.

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