Although it’s a fate I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, or on Imagine Dragons, being a one-hit wonder isn’t all bad. They’re celebrated on retro lists and flashback countdowns and by fans who will forever love and remember songs like “Afternoon Delight,” “99 Luftballons” and “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” even if they can’t always immediately recall who sang them (Starland Vocal Band, Nena and Taco, respectively, by the way).
“Two-hit wonder” doesn’t have quite the same cachet, but they’re often mistaken for one-hit wonders, so they inadvertently get nearly as much play (and once on this blog, their very own post). And three-hit wonders? Well, compared to the Katy Perrys and Rihannas of pop, they might be regarded as simply not having been big enough to have swung more hits or lasted longer in the game. It’s a dismissal with nearly as many exceptions as there are acts to support it.
The chart trajectory of three-hit wonders often goes a little something like this: One massive hit followed by, or sandwiched between, two lesser ones that are easily forgotten by people who erroneously classify them as one-hit wonders, until some oldies celebration — or a channel like Radio Capital TV in Rome — reminds them otherwise. The pair of Top 40 addenda can sometimes make an act seem less notable in retrospect: If Starland Vocal Band had enjoyed two more minor Top 40 entries after reaching No. 1 with “Afternoon Delight” and winning the 1976 Best New Artist Grammy, would they have gone down in history in bold print? They’d probably be relatively forgotten as just another act with a short hit list.
Despite the occupational hazards of landing a trio of Top 40 singles, I’m a firm believer in the power of three. Don’t think Carly Rae Jepsen, for one, and Psy, for another, aren’t dying to graduate from two- to three-hit wonders. If that ever happens, they’d join an elite group that includes more iconic acts than you might think.
A Flock of Seagulls Everyone remembers “I Ran” (No. 9, 1982), but here’s the twist — make that twists: The British new-wave band’s two follow-up singles — “Space Age Love Song” (No. 30) and “Wishing (If I Had a Photograph of You)” (No. 26), both from the same year — are actually better songs. And in the group’s native UK, its fortunes were reversed: “Wishing” was a No. 10 hit, while “I Ran” missed the Top 40 entirely, peaking at a lowly No. 43, and “Space Age Love Song” climbed to a commensurate (to its U.S. high) No. 34.
Quarterflash Ah, the joy of sax (solos)! Despite the moments of pleasure provided by Quarterflash’s Rindy Ross on the woodwind, I still don’t understand how a female-led band that came across sonically as a poor woman’s Pat Benatar enjoyed a bigger hit than Benatar ever did with “Harden My Heart” (No. 3, 1981). But then, the Hot 100 was just as unfair in the ’80s as it is today. The group’s superior next single, “Find Another Fool,” only got as high as No. 16, two notches lower than 1983’s equally better “Take Me to Heart.”
Animotion Since two completely different versions of Animotion were responsible for its first two Top 40 hits — “Obsession” (No. 6, 1984) and “Let Him Go” (No. 39, 1985) — and its belated third one, “Room to Move” (No. 9, 1989), can we call Animotion a two-hit wonder and a one-hit one with the same name? And where’s the justice in an ’80s pop world where my second-favorite “Animotion” single (after “Obsession” — natch!), 1986’s “I Engineer,” only crept up to No. 76?
Sylvester I’m utterly confused by the career of the late Sylvester. He’s a bonafide disco legend, but he never managed to make it into the Top 10 on Billboard’s Hot 100. His biggest chart hit, 1978’s “Dance (Disco Heat)” reached No. 19, and although it’s a fantastic song, featuring the future Weather Girls on backing vocals and sampled by Byron Stingily in his 1997 No. 1 U.S. dance and No. 14 U.K. pop hit “Everybody (Get Up),” it’s not exactly a universally remembered classic of the genre. His follow-up, “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” is, however, yet it peaked way down at No. 36. On the plus side, Sylvester’s musical legacy does include the third highest-charting (in the U.S.) version of the pop standard “I (Who Have Nothing),” which Sylvester took to No. 40 in 1979.
Black Box Regardless of who was doing the lead singing (and yes, it was Martha Wash, the back-up vocalist on the left in the Sylvester video above, and not the beautiful model in the group’s videos), Black Box’s trio of Top 40 U.S. singles — “Everybody Everybody” (No. 8), “I Don’t Know Anybody Else” (No. 23) and “Strike It Up” (No. 8), all from 1990’s Dreamland — sound as good today as they did 20-odd years ago.
Bonnie Tyler She’s only made it to the U.S. Top 40 three times in nearly four decades, yet many artists with more extensive hit lists would probably kill for three as big as Tyler’s. Her 1977 U.S. breakthrough, “It’s a Heartache” (No. 3), earned her one-hit-wonder status until 1983, when “Total Eclipse of the Heart” topped the Hot 100 for four weeks, keeping another Jim Steinman-penned hit, Air Supply’s “Making Love Out of Nothing At All,” which later would be covered by Tyler, out of the No. 1 spot, and becoming Tyler’s second signature tune. The following year’s Footloose single “Holding Out for a Hero” only peaked at No. 34 but went on to achieve pop immortality as a gay anthem.
Terence Trent D’Arby Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby, his 1987 debut, launched his only three Top 40 hits in the U.S. — “Wishing Well” (No. 1), “Sign Your Name” (No. 4) and “Dance Little Sister” (No. 30) — but the best (1989’s Neither Fish Nor Flesh, 1993’s Symphony Or Damn and 2001’s Wildcard) was yet to come.
Winger and Slaughter I was wrong on three counts relating to ’80s hair metal: 1) I was certain more bands from the genre would qualify for this list. 2) I was convinced that like most ’80s hair-metal bands, Winger made it to the pop Top 10 at least once, but the closest the band came was not with its two most memorable singles — 1989’s “Headed for a Heartbreak” (No. 26) or “Seventeen” (No. 19) — but with one I don’t even remember, 1990’s “Miles Away,” which went to No. 12. 3) Slaughter actually did a lot better than I thought, with its trio of Top 40 successes, the second of which I bought as a cassette single: “Up All Night” (No. 27, 1990), “Fly to the Angels” (No. 19, 1991) and “Spend My Life” (No. 39, 1991).
Stephanie Mills She may not consider herself “unsung” (which is why she’s refused to participate in TV One’s Behind the Music-style R&B documentary series Unsung), but I do. A singer with so much talent and so many well-known songs deserves more than three Top 40 hits, one of which, 1981’s “Two Hearts” (No. 40), she had to share with Teddy Pendergrass, who, astonishingly, was a one-hit wonder as a Hot 100 solo act. (Alone, Mills also scored with 1979’s No. 22 “What Cha Gonna Do with My Lovin'” and 1980’s No. 6 “Never Knew Love Like This Before.”)
Alexander O’Neal Speaking of Unsung, an episode was dedicated to another artist who is yet more living, singing proof that U.K. pop fans have better taste than their U.S. counterparts. Of O’Neal’s 14 U.K. Top 40 hits, only three repeated the feat on the side of the Atlantic that spawned him: “Fake” (No. 25, 1987) and two duets with Cherelle (another Unsung act), “Saturday Love” (No. 26, 1985) and “Never Knew Love Like This” (No. 28, 1988).
The Sylvers I just watched an Unsung documentary on The Sylvers, and I was surprised to discover that there was so much more to the ’70s family act than its No. 1 bubblegum signature, 1976’s “Boogie Fever,” and the two lesser top 40 hits that followed, “Hot Line” (No. 5, 1976) and “High School Dance” (No. 17, 1977). Here’s a taste, from 1972.
Sister Sledge In 1982, when the four Sledge siblings were climbing the Top 40 with their cover of the Mary Wells’s 1964 No. 1 “My Guy,” eventually getting to No. 23, I recall having the same unimpressed feeling that I did when their biggest hit, “We Are Family,” was going to No. 2 in 1979. So how is it possible that I can’t even remember “He’s the Greatest Dancer,” their 1979 breakthrough single, my favorite Sister Sledge song, and one of my Top 10 favorite disco hits period, except as a golden oldie?
The Knack A three-hit, one-album wonder. The hits: “My Sharona” (No, 1, 1979), “Good Girls Don’t” (No. 11, 1979) and “Baby Talks Dirty” (No. 30, 1980). The album: 1979’s multi-platinum No. 1 Get the Knack.
Bananarama A three-hit, three-album wonder! Although the female trio logged a string of memorable singles successes in its native UK, Bananarama only managed to enter the U.S. Top 40 three times (once less than Seduction, which accomplished its quadruple play with one album, 1989’s Nothing Matters Without Love), each time making it into the Top 10, with the 1983 No. 9 “Cruel Summer,” the 1985 No. 1 “Venus” and the 1986 No. 4 “I Heard a Rumour.”
Talking Heads It took Talking Heads eight years — half of its 16-year existence — to score its triple play: “Take Me to the River” (No. 26, 1978), “Burning Down the House” (No. 9, 1983) and “Wild Wild Life” (No. 26, 1986). I still can’t believe “And She Was,” which I remember seeing on MTV all the time in 1985, didn’t go higher than No. 54, despite my prayers to God and Casey Kasem at the time.
The Cure “Just Like Heaven” (No. 40, 1987), “Lovesong” (No. 2, 1989) and “Friday I’m in Love” (No. 18, 1992) don’t even begin to hint at the awesomeness that is The Cure’s oeuvre.