Chart-topping singles can often seem simple enough to the average listener, but the truth is that crafting a blockbuster relies on a confluence of factors. Behind the scenes, the use of certain instruments, production techniques, or arrangements can spell the difference between a smash hit and pure album filler. No less important is the dynamic between performing artists and the shifting nature of the pop landscape. Timing is everything, as the saying goes, and it’s as applicable to the music industry as it is to the music itself.
Given all these factors and more, it’s no surprise that so many artists and bands have captured lightning in a bottle once and then failed to do it again. They’re generally known as “one-hit wonders” though the term can be a bit misleading. After all, many acts who found a place in the Top 40 rankings on Billboard’s Hot 100 charts on only one or two occasions still enjoyed relatively healthy careers or legacies.
Take the new wave group Berlin, for instance, who topped the chart just once with the song “Take My Breath Away” from the “Top Gun” soundtrack. However, they were still a popular band throughout the 1980s, placing another song (“No More Words”) in the Top 40 and a total of seven in the Hot 100 – and a number of their songs receive regular radio play or streams to this day. (Of course, there are also many famous musicians who have never topped the Hot 100.)
Then we have the acts who scored it big one time on the charts only to more or less disappear from the public consciousness thereafter. One of the foremost examples is Los Del Rio, the Latin pop group that took the late 1990s by storm with their smash hit “Macarena (Bayside Boys Mix).” Part novelty song and part dance craze, the track took on a life of its own while the group that performed it quickly became something of an afterthought. So it goes in show business.
To determine the biggest one-hit wonders in music history, 24/7 Tempo reviewed performance data for the Top 40 singles on Billboard’s Hot 100 charts. Songs that reached No. 1 were ranked based on an inverse score wherein a week at No. 1 is worth 40 points, a week at No. 2 worth 39 points, and so on, up to a week at No. 40 worth one point. To be considered, artists must have had no more than two Top 40 hits, either as individual artists or as featured artists, and must have sold no more than five million albums in the United States throughout their careers. Chart data is current through Feb. 11, 2023. (Here are some examples of the most popular songs that peaked at No. 2.)
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