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10 Artists You Didn’t Realize Were One-Hit Wonders

by Ethan Brehm
fact checked by Jamie Frater

Since the 1950s, the term “Top 40” has become synonymous in music with mainstream popularity, leaving artists with only one Top 40 hit song fittingly called “one-hit wonders.” Although many one-hit wonders quickly fade into obscurity, a few of them are household names. Some (like Sir Mix-A-Lot) are well known because of their sole song, but others have such broad careers that few of us remember that they had just one real hit.

10 Twisted Sister
‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ (No. 21, 1984)

Twisted Sister – We’re Not Gonna Take It (Official Music Video)

Anyone who knows anything about classic rock has at least heard of Twisted Sister and knows a few of their songs. With a couple of albums under their belt and a pretty big following, it’s surprising that these men only had one Top 40 hit—especially since they were on the tail end of the classic rock era, when hard rock songs were actually achieving Top 40 status (even Led Zeppelin had several).

Blame the fall of hard rock or perhaps Twisted Sister’s concentration on shock value over appealing to the masses. If the teenagers aren’t into it, the song won’t chart highly.

From the band’s formation in 1973 to the end of their original run in 1987, they sold over 10 million albums and earned 25 platinum and gold records worldwide. The band’s second-most well-known song “I Wanna Rock” only reached No. 68 on the Billboard Hot 100.

9 Jimi Hendrix
‘All Along The Watchtower’ (No. 20, 1968)

The Jimi Hendrix Experience – All Along The Watchtower (Official Audio)

Hendrix died only 16 days before Janis Joplin (another one-hit wonder), and the news shocked the world. He was better known as an album artist, and this track was so big because it covered an already popular Bob Dylan song.

When Hendrix came out, he was known for his experimental sounds rather than his appeal to popular culture. He also favored blues-rock, a genre not terribly popular with the kids in the late 1960s.

He and his band opened for The Monkees on their 1967 US tour but asked to be let out of their contract after only seven shows—the teenage audience who came to hear the bubblegum headliners kept chanting “We want the Monkees” while Jimi was on stage. Sadly, that demographic determines the Top 40. But among more mature audiences, Hendrix is widely considered the greatest guitarist of all time.

8 Grateful Dead
‘Touch Of Grey’ (No. 9, 1987)

Grateful Dead – Touch Of Grey (Official Music Video) [HD]

Originally called Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions and then The Warlocks, the Grateful Dead finally found their name after lead guitarist, Jerry Garcia, took it from an old folk tale. The band are well known all over the world and have arguably the most dedicated fan base of all time. They were such a huge driving force behind the hippie movement that it’s hard to remember that they were mostly remembered musically for their live concerts and jam band persona rather than their radio hits—or, rather, their radio hit.

“Touch of Grey” was released about 20 years after the band first became popular. Some say that its music video made it climb the charts as it did—the ’80s was the age of MTV.

7 Michael Buble
‘Haven’t Met You Yet’ (No. 24, 2009)

Michael Bublé – Haven’t Met You Yet [Official Music Video]

You would think an artist with four No. 1 albums who’d been popular for more than eight years would have more than one Top 40 hit. Music is funny that way, but that’s what happens when you corner the market of a certain genre that isn’t necessarily mainstream.

Buble has a huge following due to his ability in a modern world to sound like old crooners. His jazzy renditions of popular songs and old standards have garnered him a unique place in the industry. The older demographics eat it up, but they have little effect on the Top 40 chart.

6 Randy Newman
‘Short People’ (No. 2, 1977)

Randy Newman – Short People (Official Video)

Speaking of musicians who has been around for years, you’d think Randy Newman would have at least cracked the Top 40 with his best known songs “I Love L.A.” (No. 110) or “You’ve Got a Friend In Me” (uncharted), but mainstream culture finds something less than appealing about the guy.

Since dropping out of UCLA’s music program in the 1960s, Newman has become one of the most beloved names in the world of songwriting. Before he wrote songs for Pixar films, he was a storytelling songwriter who did it how he wanted to, without capturing the ears of young listeners. Yet “Short People,” a novelty song, somehow ran all the way up to No. 2 on the charts. You just can’t explain some things.

Newman did, however, write a song that was a No. 1 hit for another artist—Three Dog Night’s “Mama Told Me (Not to Come).”

5 Lou Reed
‘Walk On The Wild Side’ (No. 16, 1972)

Lou Reed – Walk On The Wild Side (Lyrics in Description) #LouReed #WalkOnTheWildSide #TakeAWalk

Lou Reed’s limited popularity isn’t too surprising, considering that Reed’s original group The Velvet Underground achieved no commercial success when they first broke out in 1967. They only attained a cult following over later years, gaining influence due to their reputation as being the first underground rock band. It’s more shocking that one of the band’s members achieved a Billboard Hot 100 song at all—let alone a Top 40 hit.

Reed, Velvet Underground’s lead singer, was known for his talk-singing and his edgy lyrics. Some cite him as the first person to write songs that talked about sex and drugs in a matter-of-fact fashion. “Walk on the Wild Side” was no exception, covering such topics such as cross-dressing and prostitution. David Bowie, who co-produced the song and the album Transformer that featured it, cites Reed as one of his biggest influences.

4 Frank Zappa
‘Valley Girl’ (No. 32, 1982)

Moon Zappa Valley Girl

While the novelty value of this song isn’t far off from what Zappa usually releases, it was probably one of the most relatable and intriguing songs that he had. It features Frank’s daughter, Moon Unit, and is credited with spreading the valley girl dialect of California’s San Fernando Valley to the rest of the country. Many of Zappa’s other songs weren’t as popular in America due to their odd and unorthodox subject matter and their complex aesthetics.

Over the course of Frank Zappa’s 27-year career, he released 62 albums, not including his posthumous releases. He was also a big opponent of parental control in music, testifying before the US Senate against the PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center) in 1985 along with Dee Snider of Twisted Sister.

Zappa’s influence crosses over many genres of music, including jazz, classical, and rock. He has garnered a huge following of fans, who still actively purchase his posthumous material years after his death in 1993.

3 Queen Latifah
‘U.N.I.T.Y.’ (No. 23, 1994)

Queen Latifah – U.N.I.T.Y.

She’s now famous for singing in multiple musicals, but unless you listened to hip-hop in the ’90s, you probably couldn’t name any of Queen Latifah’s own songs, not even this one. The artist broke into acting early on in her music career, so she didn’t have a whole lot of time to make hit records.

This song won a Grammy Award for Best Rap Solo Performance, perhaps due to its statement-making nature more than anything else. Queen Latifah came up in the late ’80s, making her one of the first female rappers. The world was just barely getting used to hip-hop music in mainstream culture, and female hip-hop was a step further. “U.N.I.T.Y.” is an anthem directed at women—and it has a catchy hook, which probably helped it crack the Top 40.

Latifah had a few more songs that made the Hot 100, but none came close to this one.

2 Sinead O’Conner
‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ (No. 1, 1990)

Sinéad O’Connor – Nothing Compares 2 U (Official Music Video) [HD]

The name may not ring a bell for those people under 25 years old, but to everyone else, Sinead O’Conner is unforgettable. In the late ’80s and early ’90s she was famous for very publicly speaking her mind about her beliefs. But throughout all of her controversial career and tendencies to rip up pictures of the Pope, “Nothing Compares 2 U” remains her only Top 40 hit. This could be because it was not written by her but by Prince five years earlier.

O’Connor doesn’t seem to mind. She values getting her message across over popularity.

She had only one other charted single. “The Emperor’s New Clothes” reached No. 60, most likely due it being her follow-up to “Nothing Compares 2 U.” The song topped the charts in 15 countries, but popular radio in the United States had had enough of her. Apparently, she also wasn’t the easiest of artists to work with in the studio. Her uncooperative demands thinned out her list of cohorts in the industry.

1 Rush
‘New World Man’ (No. 21, 1982)

Rush-New World Man

It’s surprising that the group, in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, only has one Top 40 hit. But although Rush had eight albums under their belt already, this song marked the beginning of the band’s synthesizer period, a mainstream sound in the early ’80s. Also, most of their more well-known songs prior to this were five minutes or longer and more instrument-conscious than what the mainstream cares about.

This Canadian prog-rock trio is fourth behind The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Aerosmith for the most gold and platinum albums by a band, yet critics were constantly all over their case for their pretentious, sci-fi themed lyrics and high-pitched vocals. But this scandal-free band never fell into the rock-and-roll stereotypes that plagued the longevity of countless acts before and after them. Rush’s enduring popularity shows no indication that they only had one Top 40 hit.

Ethan Brehm, also known as The Twiz, is a writer from the San Francisco Bay Area. He has a Bachelor’s Degree in Music Industry Studies and has a love for the entertainment industry as a whole. Ethan is also a songwriter and a film critic. You can follow his entertainment blog at The Twizard and can listen to some of his music on Soundcloud.

fact checked by Jamie Frater