The 16 Worst Songs To Reach Number One

The rush to put everything in easily digestible lists of 10 has finally come to a subject I know something about — abysmal songs that have captured the public fancy long enough to reach number one. Since I was a wee lad raised on Top 40 radio I have been a chart freak, and part of my fascination with number-one songs stems from the sinister staying power of some of the worst songs ever published. Even more chilling is when those songs become the biggest-selling single in the year of their release.

I thought long and hard about which all-time chart-toppers meet that special criterion of songs I would rather sprint over a bed of hot coals to switch off on the radio than just let play all the way through. Such a song would have to have a high wince factor on account of a weak lyric, a dumb premise, a terrible singer, or a musical arrangement that can make a person feel as if they'd heard the brown note. Sometimes in such a perfect shitstorm, you get all four criteria. For instance, I would risk any kind of bodily injury rushing to change a TV channel whenever the Three's Company theme came on. An awful male vocalist answered by wobbly female vocalist, an insipid wah-wah guitar and brain-drained tom fills (shamefully played by Wrecking Crew gods Tommy Tedesco and Hal Blaine), and dumb lyrics that ruin all the fun we're supposed to be having. 

That song was never commercially commercially released, and a disco version by Rambling Willie and the Euphonics thankfully didn't chart.

But these songs did. Boy, did they ever! So come with us, and explore all the times Billboard's summit of sales and popularity met the lowest common denominator. I came up with 16. Your results may vary.
16. "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" — Poison (1988)
Number one for three weeks

This song is a glam-metal power-ballad blueprint, if the objective was "how to make glam metal boring so it will sell more." Just as every rose has its thorn, every power ballad has its yawn. At least the power ballad paved the way for grunge and glam metal downsizing from stadiums to state fairs, and bandana-clad musicians complaining about Nirvana ending their hair-metal gravy train, as if male pattern baldness didn't have something to do with it, too. 

15. "With Arms Wide Open" — Creed (2000)
Number one for one week

I don't think I'm going out on a limb pointing out the excretory powers of Scott Stapp. When your own fans file a lawsuit against you that says you were "intoxicated and/or medicated" and "unable to sing the lyrics of a single Creed song" during a concert, you have set the limbo bar exceptionally low. It's hard to hear this song's title as anything but how to cushion your fall before you pass out on stage.

14. "Sugar Shack" — Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs (1963)
Number one for five weeks

Taking a fuzz bass that sounds like a pig schlepping its way through a dung pen and contrasting it with an annoying, penny-whistle Hammond Solovox setting is wince-inducing enough. But then combine it with the gosh-a-rootie vocals of Jimmy Gilmer, a repeat customer at a coffee house in the woods trying to make time with some java-slinging queen, and you're in uncharted cringe country.

In real life, Jimmy would've been quickly put in his place by any waitress worth her weight in sass and chewing gum, but by song's end he's married this little "a-girlie" in black leotards and bare feet. In verse three's epilogue, they're both reminiscing about going back to that identical sugar shack. Why? So they could pick up another waitress in leotards and start a threesome? Or could it be the Fireballs have tapped into an uglier truth — that life doesn't get much better than remote caffeine and menial labor?

Chiefly to blame for this squirmfest was producer Norman Petty, who took unwarranted co-writing credit on many Buddy Holly songs and sent the spectacled singer to an early grave by withholding royalty payments. As you'll see many times with appalling number ones, "Sugar Shack" was the top-selling single in its year of release; its radio reign only temporarily stalled when President Kennedy was assassinated and Top 40 stations suspended their formats to play funereal dirges and sacred music. 

13. "Cat's in the Cradle" — Harry Chapin (1974)
Number one for one week

Anyone who's spent a minute in a deductive-reasoning class knows where this ode about a father too busy to play with his son is going after the first "I'm gonna be like you, Dad." It takes Harry three minutes and three seconds before it occurs to him that "my boy was just like me. He'd grown up just like me." The fact that he feels the need to spell out that bad-dad schadenfreude moment (like we couldn't figure it out ourselves) makes you wonder how pedantic playing baseball with that dad would've been. Still, you could imagine rival record-label execs watching this song sail to the top of the charts and saying, "Repentant deadbeat dads — now there's a market we need to exploit further!"
12. "Freak Me Baby" — Silk (1993)
Number one for two weeks

Remember that scene in Rosemary's Baby where Mia Farrow is in the middle of having sex with the devil and she screams, "Oh my God, this is really happening?" Well, that's how I feel every time I hear this slow jam and realize it's not an In Living Color spoof.

11. "Billy Don't Be a Hero" — Bo Donaldson & The Heywoods (1974)
Number one for five weeks

In today's climate, one could almost get nostalgic for the plethora of "story songs" that littered top 40 in the '70s. Most of them, from "Run Joey Run" to "Seasons in The Sun" to "Alone Again (Naturally)," contained a body count of at least one, but none of them approached the godawfulness of this track about an American Civil War combatant who volunteers for a dangerous mission even though his true love begs him repeatedly, "Billy, keep your head low!"

Like the horror film's requisite plucky character who goes back in the haunted house despite prior warnings, Billy's sad saga is sung to a sprightly fife-and-drum marching beat and sung by Bo D with the unnerving cheerfulness of an Oscar Meyer hot dog commercial.

While the song hasn't retained a place in heavy-rotation oldies heaven, it has survived as a pop-culture punchline in movies like Reservoir Dogs and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, and TV shows ranging from The Power Puff Girls to Friends.

10. "Informer" — Snow (1993)
Number one for seven weeks

Blame Canada for Snow, and blame Snow for getting "Licky boom boom down" lodged in your head. 

9. "Can't Help Falling in Love" — UB40 (1993)
Number one for seven weeks

How many beloved songs would Ali Campbell lobotomize with UB40's brand of Sebastian the Singing Crab's sleepy reggae? Couldn't they have left this Blue Hawaii hit alone and covered the King's "Rock-a-Hula Baby" instead?

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Serene Dominic
Contact: Serene Dominic