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?

8. "You Light Up My Life" — Debbie Boone (1979)
Number one for 10 weeks

Back when Top 40 was king, a number-one song was as inescapable as oxygen. You felt each and every day that a terrible number-one song played on the hour and relished its inevitable slide down the charts. But 10 weeks? That was more than everyone who didn't make this biggest-selling single of the '70s could bear.

Written for the movie of the same name by composer Joe Brooks, people wondered if there was, I dunno, SEX firing up Pat Boone's daughter's loins, with lascivious come-ons like "It can't be wrong when it feels right." Boone assured listeners no, she was thinking about God when sang this anthem. Really? With lines like "finally, a chance to say hey, I love you"? Surely, no one says "hey" to the Almighty?

Boone, unable to repeat the mind-numbing success of this song, turned to country music and later Christian music, while composer Brooks gained more notoriety as a casting-couch Lothario. In 2009, the state Supreme Court for Manhattan indicted him on 91 counts of rape, sexual abuse, criminal sexual acts, assault, and many, many more. Rather than face trial, he killed himself. If that doesn't give you hope to carry on, nothing else will.

7. "Ebony & Ivory" — Paul McCartney & Stevie Wonder (1982)
Number one for seven weeks

On McCartney's recent archival reissue of Tug of War, the demo of this song, just Paul on a Fender Rhodes, was rather touching. This demo didn't feature the verses with their ham-fisted "people are all the same wherever you go" moral and production so schmaltzy one wonders if Sir George Martin may have lost his hearing sooner than reported. When Stevie lowers his voice with grave importance to tell us "there is good and bad" and Paul hums in agreement — well, it's just about the stupidest moment in either man's until-that-point-spotless careers. There is good and bad in everyone — and in every discography. On that we can all come together and agree.
6. "Total Eclipse of the Heart" — Bonnie Tyler (1983)
Number one for four weeks

How many people shred their larynxes at karaoke bars every night singing this Jim Steinman aria, only to realize this song just doesn't work without the ninjas from the video? And the footballers. And the altar boys with actual "bright eyes."
5. "I'd Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)" — Meatloaf (1993)
Number one for five weeks

I'd almost forgotten this one until Meat Loaf collapsed from "severe dehydration" on a concert stage in Edmonton last month, performing what is in essence an elongated meditation on the "What would you for a Klondike bar?" theme.
4. "Macarena" (Bayside Boys Mix)" — Los Del Rio (1996)
Number one for 14 weeks!!!!
We all know this is just a dance remix of "The Lone Ranger Theme."

3. "Bad Day" — Daniel Powter (2006)
Number one for five weeks

The five most annoying notes in succession are the five that Powter picked for this song. Coincidence? The fact that it makes every day I hear it bad is compounded by the fact that it makes Daniel Powter richer, even if now he counts his money in obscurity.

2. "We Built This City" — Starship (1985)
Number one for four weeks

Bernie Taupin, how could you? Okay, so Starship isn't to blame for the lousy lyrics, but a corporate rock band singing "Someone's always playing corporation games" just makes Mickey Thomas seem like an easily duped patsy and Grace Slick seem like a bitter hippie-turned-yuppie in one big moolah grab. To her credit, in later years she disavows this career move. Anyone who willingly sang "Marconi plays the mamba" should.

1. "We are the World" — USA For Africa (1985) 
Number one for four weeks

The charity record gave us many horrific pair-ups (Northern Lights' "Tears are Not Enough," anyone?). But the most successful American effort, instigated by Pepsi vendors Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson, supposedly asked all participants to check their egos at the door. But in truth, everyone spent the rest of the session trying to figure out how to make their one line stand out above everyone else's. And if egos were indeed being checked at the door, why are there veritable stars like Smokey Robinson, Lindsey Buckingham, Harry Belafonte, the Pointer Sisters, and Waylon Jennings forced to sing background like Dan Aykroyd? Did they arrive too late and miss out on the pizza, too?
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Serene Dominic
Contact: Serene Dominic