What are the Biggest One-Hit Wonders?
(According to Spotify)

Baha Men. Fountains of Wayne. Haddaway. These artists (and of course many more) are generally classified as “one-hit wonders” ⁠— that is, bands or musicians who are primarily known for a single popular hit (respectively: “Who Let the Dogs Out,” “Stacy’s Mom,” and “What Is Love”). But among one-hit wonders, who is the most one-hittiest? To phrase it differently: which one-hit wonder artist has the largest ratio of popularity of their “hit” to popularity of their other songs?

To tackle this very important question, I decided that I wanted to measure the ratio of the popularity of an artist’s hit to the popularity of their next most popular work.

I also decided to use Spotify’s play counts as a proxy for the more vague metric of “popularity”, since Spotify play counts are (to me) the most readily-accessible source for a concrete numerical measure1 of a song’s (or artist’s) popularity.2

With the criteria decided upon, my next task was to figure out what exactly qualified an artist as a one-hit wonder. Realizing that I could never hope to come up with a list by myself that was even close to comprehensive, I took to Wikipedia, specifically the article List of one-hit wonders in the United States.3 Confirming my initial suspicion about the gaps in my own knowledge, the Wikipedia list contains (at the time of this writing) 241 songs. That’s a lot. (I ended up skipping about half of the songs on the list ⁠— including, of course, any artists/songs that weren’t on Spotify.)

Now that we have both a set of songs and a metric by which to judge them, we can get to work gathering data! Without further ado, here are the top ten:

Artist Hit song Hit plays4 Runner-up song Runner-up plays Ratio
1 Norman Greenbaum “Spirit In The Sky” (1970) 142,195,764 “Marcy” 165,978 856.7
2 The Weather Girls “It’s Raining Men” (1983) 79,769,124 “Wild Thang” 178,866 446.0
3 Michael Sembello “Maniac” (1983) 92,671,548 “Puerto Rico” 215,735 429.6
4 The Monotones “The Book Of Love” (1958) 9,244,212 “Zombie” 29,920 309.0
5 Carl Douglas “Kung Fu Fighting” (1974) 48,460,391 “When You Got Love” 161,344 300.4
6 Tommy Tutone “867-5309 / Jenny” (1981) 18,806,969 “Baby It’s Alright” 67,237 279.7
7 Terry Jacks “Seasons in the Sun” (1974) 19,766,882 “Concrete Sea” 77,566 254.8
8 White Town “Your Woman” (1997) 38,214,433 “White Town” 158,628 240.9
9 Tal Bachman “She’s so High” (1999) 85,378,090 “If You Sleep” 362,027 235.8
10 Wild Cherry “Play That Funky Music” (1976) 74,353,445 “I Feel Sanctified” 490,035 151.7

So, there you have it. The most one-hittiest one-hit wonder (by a huge margin) is Norman Greenbaum, with “Spirit In The Sky”. From a more subjective standpoint, that’s not too surprising to me, actually ⁠— after “Spirit In The Sky”, Greenbaum never came close to replicating its success, and according to a 2006 profile of him in the New York Times, he eventually had to begin working as a cook in a series of restaurants in order to make ends meet (although nowadays he makes a decent living from the royalties generated by his song’s appearance in movies, TV, and commercials).

I can certainly also see how “Spirit In The Sky” became a hit in the first place ⁠— it’s very catchy! That same New York Times article describes it as “an oddly compelling combination of gospel and hard rock: a clap-along church spiritual featuring a preacher who slides to one knee at the edge of the stage and plays a scorching solo on his Telecaster.”

Just for fun, here are the bottom five ⁠— the least one-hittiest artists who were nevertheless classified as one-hit wonders by the Wikipedia list:

Artist “Hit” song Hit plays4 “Runner-up” song Runner-up plays Ratio
1 James Blunt “You’re Beautiful” (2006) 295,540,523 “OK” 256,459,324 1.2
2 La Roux “Bulletproof” (2009) 85,311,615 “In For The Kill” 64,513,244 1.3
3 Johnny Hates Jazz “Shattered Dreams” (1988) 15,786,529 “Turn Back The Clock” 9,336,989 1.7
4 Twisted Sister “We’re Not Gonna Take It” (1984) 80,548,404 “I Wanna Rock” 43,479,557 1.9
5 Don Johnson “Heartbeat” (1986) 2,997,095 “Tell It Like It Is” 1,484,512 2.0

(If you’re a data nerd like me, I’ve made my whole 121-row spreadsheet available for public viewing.)

Finally, I gathered a couple interesting observations about Spotify and Wikipedia:

Obviously, there were several one-hit wonder artists whose music was not available on Spotify at all. However, more interestingly, there were also a few who did have music on Spotify, but for some reason, their “hit” was not available ⁠— either not present at all, or marked by Spotify as unplayable. This set included (among others) Thomas Dolby (“She Blinded Me With Science”) and Eddy Grant (“Electric Avenue”).

There were a couple artists for whom the song that the Wikipedia list called their “hit” was not their most-played song on Spotify. The most interesting of these artists is The Waitresses ⁠— according to Wikipedia, their hit is “I Know What Boys Like”, but “Christmas Wrapping” has almost 10 times more plays (~15 million vs. 1.6 million). My hypothesis is that this discrepancy is due to a deliberate omission of Christmas songs. (There are no Christmas songs on the Wikipedia list ⁠— not even José Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad”, which has more than double the play count of Feliciano’s next most popular song.)

  1. I also thought about using YouTube video views, but decided against it, due to the issue of fragmentation. Even in cases where an artist has an official presence on the platform and uploads videos for their own songs, there will inevitably be hundreds or thousands of fan-uploaded videos that also serve only as vehicles for the song. Many one-hit wonders do not have an official YouTube presence at all, meaning that the landscape of YouTube versions of their songs is even more fragmented. Regardless of those concerns, I may choose to do a more in-depth study of one-hit wonders’ YouTube play counts in the future. (Or, perhaps even more interestingly, I could study YouTube-native one-hit wonders ⁠— that is, YouTube channels (music-focused or otherwise) with one single video that greatly outstrips their other uploads in popularity.) [return]
  2. Of course, a key weakness of this strategy is that Spotify numbers for internet-native releases (roughly within the past decade) will look much different than for older songs that, for most of their existence, were available only on physical media like vinyl records or CDs. In particular, the vast majority of songs reach their highest level of popularity relatively soon after being released, and decline afterwards. Any songs from the streaming era will see that initial spike reflected in their play counts, whereas older ones whose sales were mostly physical media will not have their true popularity reflected by the play counts. [return]
  3. There appear to be similar articles for the United Kingdom and Ireland, but I chose the United States article because, well, that’s where I live. [return]
  4. Many songs have multiple versions on Spotify, due to appearing on “greatest hits” albums, or being remastered/remixed/etc. In those situations, I added together the play counts for all versions in Spotify’s list (for some songs, up to six versions were counted). [return]