100 & Single: Three Rules To Define The Term "One-Hit Wonder" In 2012

Faith No More, "Falling To Pieces"

Take a look at this transcription of VH1's first edition of its Greatest One-Hit Wonders list. VH1 compiled this list in 2002, and unlike their later '80s and '90s lists, this one wasn't limited by decade—the oldest hit is ? and the Mysterians' proto-garage 1966 classic "96 Tears," and the newest is Baha Men's 2000 brain fungus "Who Let the Dogs Out?"

I'm going to use this VH1 list as a reference-cum-strawman, because it's fairly comprehensive (too comprehensive) and was promoted like mad; I'm pretty sure you can still catch it on the tube occasionally. It's also a good argument-starter, because the producers clearly went with a loose, Potter Stewart-on-pornography definition: They think they know a one-hit wonder when they see it.

Out of these 100 records, if we go by the strictest definition of "one-hit wonder"—an artist who had one hit on Billboard's Hot 100 and then never appeared on the chart again—we'd have to eliminate 75% of the artists VH1 tapped. Seriously, only one-fourth of the list would qualify under this rule.

Even the most fleeting of novelty acts can usually manage a low-charting followup. Carl "Kung Fu Fighting" Douglas followed his deathless 1974 No. 1 smash with a No. 48 single called "Dance the Kung Fu." Norm Greenbaum of "Spirit in the Sky" fame followed up his 1970 No. 3 hit with the No. 46 "Canned Ham." Faith No More never came close to the Top 40 again after the No. 9 "Epic" in 1990, but their excellent followup single "Falling to Pieces" crept to No. 92, and their cover of the Commodores ballad "Easy" managed No. 58. Even those infernal Baha Man followed up "Who Let the Dogs Out?" (only a No. 40 hit, oddly) with 2001's "You All Dat" at... woof! No. 94.

In case you're curious, the 25 artists from the VH1 list who qualify as Pure One-Hit Wonders—one hit, then never seeing the inside of Hot 100 again—are: Biz Markie, Blind Melon, the Cardigans, Edwyn Collins, 4 Non-Blondes, the Heights, Los Del Rio, M, Bobby McFerrin, David Naughton, Nena, New Radicals, Gary Numan, OMC, Buster Poindexter, the Proclaimers, Soft Cell, Taco, Timbuk3, Tom Tom Club, T'Pau, the Vapors, the Verve, the Waitresses and the Weather Girls.

All right... so, clearly, allowing any measly Hot 100 hit to count against OHW status is way too low a bar. How about the Top 40—what if we require all artists looking to avoid the OHW fate to score a second hit that could have been counted down by Casey Kasem?

This rule makes VH1's list look a lot less egregious: 74 of the 100 acts would qualify as one-hit wonders. All of the acts I mentioned above—the 25 "Pure" acts, plus Carl Douglas, Greenbaum, Faith No More and the Baha Men—would count as OHWs, as would another 45 artists.

That leaves 26 acts from the VH1 list, each with a second Top 40 hit, who would be well within their rights objecting to inclusion. In addition to the five artists I mentioned earlier—a-ha, Gerardo, Kris Kross, Men Without Hats and Vanilla Ice—the 21 others who managed a second Top 40 hit are: Aqua, Brownsville Station, Billy Ray Cyrus, EMF, Falco, Gary Glitter, Eddy Grant, Thelma Houston, C.W. McCall, Billy Paul, Stacey Q, ? and the Mysterians, Quiet Riot, Ratt, Rockwell, Michael Sembello, Spandau Ballet, Jermaine Stewart, Tommy Tutone, Andrea True Connection and Young MC.

Still, even the Top 40 rule is not entirely satisfying. Sure, Gary Glitter managed to follow his stomping anthem "Rock and Roll Part 2" (No. 7, 1972—and playing at a stadium somewhere on the planet as you read this) with the soundalike "I Didn't Know I Loved You (Till I Saw You Rock and Roll)" (No. 35, 1972). But does Glitter deserve to escape OHW status on that technicality? Should we let Michael Sembello off the OHW hook just because he managed to follow the Flashdance killer jam "Maniac" with a rushed Top 40-scraping followup, "Automatic Man" (No. 34, 1983)? Surely these guys fit every sensible description of one-hit wonder.

There's one last sticky wicket with the VH1 list—the acts who aren't on it.

Like Jimi Hendrix. Yes, that Hendrix—were you aware the all-time guitar god appeared within the Top 40 of the Hot 100 exactly once? That would be his 1968 cover of Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" (No. 20, 1968). It wasn't for lack of trying; Hendrix released five other singles from 1967 to 1971 that made the big chart, but none got higher than the No. 58-ranked "Crosstown Traffic."

What about the Grateful Dead? The Dead weren't about the Top 40, maaaaan! Yeah, except over the years, about a half-dozen of their songs were released as vinyl 45s that qualified for the Hot 100 (somebody thought they had hit potential). None got higher (heh) on the chart than "Truckin'" at No. 64 in 1971—until 1987, when "Touch of Grey" reached No. 9, bringing in thousands of new Dead fans and pissing off thousands of old Deadheads.

So—why aren't Hendrix and the Dead on the VH1 Greatest One-Hit Wonders list? Because that would be received by their fans as a huge insult. Here, the VH1 producers are caving into rockist gospel—and in a way, you can't blame them. The furious viewer calls they'd have gotten if Jimi and Jerry had appeared on their OHW list would make the brickbats Ann Powers endured over her Rick Springfield dis look like love taps. Even a committed anti-rockist like me doesn't think Hendrix or the Dead read as one-hitters.

With all this in mind, I'd like to propose the following three rules for one-hit wonders. These provisos aren't perfect, but they are based on hard data—yet they find a middle ground between hidebound edicts and public perception.

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