Generally speaking, it seems as though you can place most one-hit wonders into one of two categories: flat-out rock classics and quirky novelty songs. But, then, every once in awhile, a song comes along that becomes a hit that defies categorization. That song could be something as left-field as performance artist Laurie Anderson’s 1982 hit “O Superman” or XTC’s atheistic ode “Dear God.” Let’s look a little closer at the latter.
XTC made an impact in there native UK in the waning punk days of the late-Seventies. They represented something of a bridge from the punk and new wave days to the post-punk era, along with The Cure, Depeche Mode, Bauhaus, and so many other terrific artists who only attained a cult following here in the States. XTC’s M.O. was taking a Beatlesque sound and creating a totally new vocabulary, when in 1986 the band teamed up with Todd Rundgren to produce something of an ode to Sgt. Pepper with their brilliant Skylarking album.
The initial release of that now-classic album did not include the eventual hit song “Dear God.” That song was actually released as a B-side. But, as often is the case, a DJ flipped the record and began playing the song that openly questioned the existence of God. And, believe it or not, the song became the band’s only American hit during the waning days of the Reagan administration. Of course, when the band’s label started to see “Dear God” take off on the radio, they scrambled to include this left-field hit on the band’s new album. And, the rest, as they say, is history.
Vividly, I remember hearing the original version of the LP without “Dear God.” The hospital in which I worked had a bunch of college students who worked as phlebotomists and specimen distributors, so we were constantly discussing the latest music, with XTC being a band of the moment. But, to me, the album became even more substantial once “Dear God” was added, as I feel the song grounded the song in reality. It is a stark, existential song within the context of a series of songs dealing with the idea of growing up. The pre-“Dear God” version was more a whimsical and yearning album, while the inclusion of that one song breaks up the mood nicely and makes the record a substantive statement.
“Dear God” is one of the 20 songs today, and I simply felt it warranted a little more praise even though I have it ranked relatively lower than I feel like its importance warrants. Simply put, the song brings up a topic with which most young adults grapple: the existence of God. And, while it stands as a fine stand-alone statement as a single, it works even better within the context of the album.
With that sobering introduction, let’s focus on all the fun songs that are also included on today’s list. Let’s get rockin’!
80. Thomas Dolby – “She Blinded Me with Science” (1982). The nerd anthem of the Eighties.
79. Timex Social Club – “Rumors” (1986). This long-forgotten song was one of the first songs to be overtly influenced by hip hop. Too bad its full impact has been lost to history.
78. Len – “Steal My Sunshine” (1999). I have always loved this song for its carefree lyrics. Reminds of the bubblegum pop of my youth, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
77. XTC – “Dear God” (1986). The Eighties were so very crazy that a song questioning the existence of God was even a hit. No surprise when it’s as brilliant as this is. But, seriously, with the number of fantastic songs in the XTC catalog, why was this their only American hit?
76. Marc Cohn – “Walking in Memphis” (1991). The only hit by the former Mr. Elizabeth Vargas is a crime. This guy is so very talented.
75. Robbie Nevil – “C’est la Vie” (1986). For the life of me, why was this guy a star?
74. Jermaine Stewart – “We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off” (1986). This song is a perfect time capsule of mid-Eighties music, both lyrically and instrumentally. Unfortunately, Mr. Stewart was an early casualty in the AIDS epidemic.
73. The Vapors – “Turning Japanese” (1980). This catchy power pop/new wave hit is not the ode to early-Eighties Japanese culture you might think it is. It’s a little racist view of some solo activity.
72. Semisonic – “Closing Time” (1998). This one is a metaphor song for the upcoming birth of a child. This became a rallying cry for the ninth month of one of my daughters-in-law’s pregnancies.
71. Frankie Smith – “Double Dutch Bus” (1980). It is rap or not? I don’t care! It reminds me of a fun time in my life. Plus, Snoop made a career out of its lyrics.
70. Club Nouveau – “Lean on Me” (1987). Take a Bill Withers standard and apply a reggae beat to it, add some Eighties-styled synth flourishes to it, and you have a huge hit song that made a whole generation of people forget the original, no matter if that was wrong.
69. Nu Schooz – “I Can’t Wait” (1986). I remember after hearing this song a couple of times that I knew it was some cool urban band who recorded this club classic. Imagine the world’s surprise when you discovered it was a white middle class couple who did this. Well, I needed some clean shorts.
68. Red Rider – “Lunatic Fringe” (1981). One of Canada’s greatest rock exports only had one hit south of the border. But, the story did not end there! Lead singer Tom Cochrane also had a single hit a decade later with “Life Is a Highway.” That’s a double-shot one-hit wonder.
67. Tommy Tutone – “867-5309/Jenny” (1982). I keep yelling that Tommy Tutone actually is NOT a one-hit wonder, yet I have them on the list. I’m a hypocrite.
66. Stories – “Brother Louie” (1973). You might remember this song as the theme song for Louis CK’s hit TV show. You also might be surprised that this band was really a power pop band who originally recorded this R&B song as a B-side. But the record intervened, and the rest is history…and so was the Stories’ career.
65. Jeannie C. Riley – “Harper Valley PTA” (1968). This ode to rural small town America was such a sensation that there was no way Riley could ever follow it up. Nothing like exposing the underbelly of that wholesome image.
64. The Buggles – “Video Killed the Radio Star” (1979). Even if the song weren’t great, it HAD to be the first video on MTV based on its title alone. Throw in that it’s a new wave classic, well, then it had to be on this list. Fun facts: (1) did you know that this duo was added to the line-up of prog rock gods Yes for one disastrous album? (2) Keyboardist Geoffrey Downes became a founding member of Eighties supergroup Asia. And (3), vocalist Trevor Horn became an in-demand record producer for the likes of Art of Noise, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and, ironically of course, Yes on their 90125 album. The Buggles’ impact was greater than many other one-hit wonders.
63. The Shadows of Knight – “Gloria” (1966). Yes, everyone from Van Morrison to Patti Smith has done a version of this song. But, this garage punk version is the definitive one.
62. The Champs – “Tequila” (1958). What a great instrumental! And, if it wasn’t for this tune, where would had that iconic scene of Pee Wee Herman dancing in those huge shoes in his first movie been like?
61. Ram Jam – “Black Betty” (1976). This hit is both racist AND misogynistic at the same time. And, it was still a hit! Oh, man, the Seventies were a different time. But, the guitar riff is so awesome! This song just pains me to rank. Musically, I love it. Lyrically, it appalls me. Still, I rank it high. Like I said earlier, I’m a hypocrite.
Okay, fans. There you have it, for better or for worse. See you tomorrow for the next installment of this countdown. I don’t anticipate anymore existential crises.