I was riding along in a friend's car the other day when Citizen King's 1999 hit "Better Days (And The Bottom Drops Out)" came on his Sirius. There was a general outcry of "hey, I'd forgotten about this song!" and "how long has it been since you heard this?" Listening to the song, I suddenly realized "this is a strange song." During the bridge, there's a female voice that comes on and asks "Do you like my new Gucci bag?" and a raspy male voice answers "that's beautiful, beautiful." Why is there a spoken word section in the middle? Who knows? You could get away with stuff like that back then. 11 years later, pop radio is a whole different world.
It made me go back and take a look at music during that era (strange to think of the turn of the millenia as an "era," I know). But 11 years ago, I was 15 and a freshman in high school, and that was a stretch when I listened to the radio voraciously. Back then, having songs like "Better Days" on the radio seemed normal to me. But a quick glance at the Billboard charts revealed that started listening to pop music at a very strange time in Top 40 history.
Consider what the playlists looked like back then: boy and girl bands like 'NSync, Backstreet Boys, etc., were an unstoppable force in pop music, so much so that bands formed on television shows to cash in on the trend became hitmakers by default (O-Town, S Club 7), and even the fictional boy band MTV formed for their boy band satire film, 2ge+her - featuring Chris Farley's bald, chubby younger brother, Kevin Farley - accidentally landed a hit single called "U + Me = Us (Calculus)." Despite the supergroup domination, radio maintained a strong acoustic vibe (Alanis Morissette, Dave Matthews Band, Jewel, Sarah McLachlan). Pop-rock groups were also holding strong - Matchbox Twenty, Third Eye Blind, and the Goo Goo Dolls all had multi-platinum records during this stretch, while straight-ahead alternative rockers like Creed, Fuel, Lit, and Nickelback broke into pop radio. Rap-rock made its first appearance - Limp Bizkit and Korn dominated MTV, and P.O.D. and Linkin Park managed to break into the Top 40.
That's not even mentioning a burgeoning R&B market - TLC, Brian McKnight, Brandy, Monica, Jennifer Lopez - or the emergence of pop-punk bands like Blink-182, Good Charlotte, and Sum 41. The first pop country acts made their appearance - Shania Twain broke down the barrier between the two worlds, followed shortly after by Faith Hill and Lonestar. Jay-Z and Eminem hit pop radio for the first time. Tally all those up in your head, and then throw in the various crazes the swept through radio during this time: Latin Pop (Ricky Martin, Marc Antony, Enrique Inglesias), techno DJs (Moby, Fatboy Slim), swing (we'll get to that later), and emo (Dashboard Confessional, Jimmy Eat World). It seems almost impossibly diverse.
But even with all these various genres fighting for radio dominance, every few months, a band would come out of nowhere with a bizarre one-hit wonder of a tune. This was the era of Fastball, of Harvey Danger, Marcy Playground, Smashmouth, Crazytown, Len, and The New Radicals. Billie Myers encouraged us to kiss the rain, Next warned us of the dangers of slow-dancing, Eve 6 burn-burned like a wicker cabinet and had a very strange relationship with their teacher, and Cher came back and invented autotune for us (really!).
With a little hunting, I came up with the 15 strangest, most out-of-left-field one-hit wonders of my early radio listening years, from the point I started listening to pop music at the tail end of 7th grade in '97 until I graduated high school in '02. Even after this long and very specific intro, I think you'll be a surprised at how very odd a time this was for pop radio.
Fun fact: while all these songs received varying degrees of success in the U.S., every single one of them went to #1 in the U.K. Which I think says something very unfortunate about the United Kingdom, frankly.
15. "I Try" - Macy Gray
Billboard Peak: #5
Sample Lyric: "I try to say goodbye and I choke, try to walk away and I stumble."
The song stands out not for its lyrical content or musical strangeness, but the odd and appealing harshness of Gray's voice. A raspy, frog-like croak, there was nothing commercial about Gray's song, yet it was an international sensation, was nominated for several Grammys (including both Record and Song of the Year), and landed her a cameo in Spiderman. She disappeared from U.S. pop radio as soon as this song did, and this track, unlike most of the other songs on this list, hasn't had any staying power whatsoever.
14. "Mummer's Dance" - Loreena McKennitt
Billboard Peak: #3
Sample Lyric: "We bring a garland gay, we've been rambling all the night."
Once again, not all of these songs are of the 'so awful you can't believe they're a hit' variety. Instead, some of them of good, interesting songs that just came out of nowhere. "Mummer's Dance" was a single from a Celtic New Age singer of mostly background ethereal choir and keyboard that sounds completely unlike a radio single. Sure, these songs appear on radio every now and then, but "Mummer's Dance" somehow went to #3 on the charts. That could never, ever happen now.
13. "Jump, Jive, and Wail" - Brian Setzer Orchestra
Billboard Peak: #14
Sample Lyric: "A woman is a woman and a man ain't nothing but a male."
Certain songs are harbingers of a changing of the tides, an announcement of new things arriving. This song was one of those - it appeared on the radio out of nowhere and suddenly everyone was saying "swing is back!" Really? Why? Who decided this? But swing dancing became an unstoppable craze for the next five years, and a bevy of zoot-suited 9-piece bands with unlikely names (Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Cherry Poppin' Daddies, Squirrel Nut Zippers) were getting radio airplay. How big was it? People reference the ska craze as a major musical phenomenon, but in terms of radio prevalence and cultural impact, swing dwarfed it. Swing was everywhere - every wedding, ever dance party, every girl's night out. Big Bad Voodoo Daddy played the Super Bowl halftime show. And then, as quickly as it arrived, it disappeared again from the public eye. That's the way these things crazes go.
12. "We Like To Party" - Vengaboys
Billboard Peak: #5
Sample Lyric: "The Vengabus is coming, and everybody's jumping."
Vengaboys are a dance group - excuse me, a Eurodance group (I don't know what the difference is, either) from Amsterdam who had two #1 U.K. singles ("Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom!" and "We're Going To Ibiza") and then their big U.S. hit, "We Like to Party." Words cannot describe the banality of this song. It's one verse, a bridge, and a chorus, repeated ad nauseum, and the words to the verse are simply "we like to party" repeated over and over and over. Its most noticeable feature is the blaring bus horn worked into the beat and its almost tone-less singing throughout. In 2004, just as it was disappearing from pop culture, Six Flags chose it as its new theme song and introduced a bald old man in a tuxedo who danced wildly to its beat. Years later, the song remains inescapable.
11. "Aaron's Party (Come Get It)" - Aaron Carter
Billboard Peak: #4
Sample Lyric: "I said Mom, Dad, yo why ya sittin home? It's a Friday night, have you seen Aunt Joan?"
Aaron Carter is memorable mostly because this was the heart of the boy band craze, and the Backstreet Boys were so popular that Nick Carter was able to launch the career of his younger brother despite it being readily apparent that Aaron had significantly less talent than the already hard-up Nick. Aaron flamed out (no pun intended, honestly) immediately after this single, which is a shame, because his follow-up release was a track called "That's How I Beat Shaq," in which he takes on the then-Lakers star and defeats him by "psyching" him with tricks, until he wakes up to discover it was all only a dream. Incredibly, this song failed to chart on the Hot 100.
10. "Thong Song" - Sisqó
Billboard Peak: #3
Sample Lyric: "Baby make your booty go da na da na."
Right in the middle of R&B group Dru Hill's heyday, platinum-haired lead singer Sisqó released a solo record called "Unleash The Dragon." It failed to make any sort of impression until the strange novelty track "Thong Song" was released the next year. Somehow, radio went wild for the singer waxing poetically about "that thong th-thong thong thong." He immediately recorded an alternate version called "Thong Song Uncensored," which ironically had no explicit language in it, though both version do feature the lyric "she had dumps like a truck truck truck," which is either the strangest or grossest lyric to ever hit pop radio, depending what Sisqó meant by "dumps". The music video is credited - and criticized - for launching a new wave of "booty" videos, to which its director, Joseph Kahn responded: "You can go and try to make "Thong Song" all pretentious; about some f**king communist upheaval or something. But let's just relax and make a booty video, and let's make a really good one." (That one quote earned Kahn my undying adoration). Sisqó released a second solo record, which went nowhere, then reunited with Dru Hill, went nowhere again and the band was released from their label. "Thong Song," though, is still going strong, and was featured on "Glee" this last year.
9. "Because I Got High" - Afroman
Billboard Peak: #11
Sample lyric: "I was gonna pay my child support, but then I got high."
For all the artists who complained that Napster robbed them of royalties, there's always a flip side - for Afroman, Napster was his big break. After smoking an excessive amount of dope one day and finding himself unable to clean his room, Afroman wrote a track about the perils of marijuana. An unsigned artist, his song quickly circulated and gathered buzz, and ended up being played for a while on the Howard Stern show. Shortly after, it caught fire, and the rapper's laid-back lesson in how pot smoking ruined his life somehow became a stoner anthem. Soon, he was signed to Universal Records, and Kevin Smith (Clerks) was directing the music video. Later that year, a court ordered a Connecticut teenager to write a paper on the song after he was found smoking a marijuana pipe while driving. Inexplicably, that year "Because I Got High" was nominated for a Grammy award for best solo rap performance.
8. "Your Woman" - White Town
Billboard Peak: #5
Sample Lyric: "I could never be the right kind of girl for you."
White Town was a British one-man band created by Jyoti Mishra, who created the song after listening to 30's jazz singer Al Bowlly's "My Woman" and deciding to sample the trumpet line (the same trumpet line, incidentally, that supposedly inspired the "Imperial March" from Star Wars). Oddly, he wrote the song from a female's perspective - or did he? Interviewed about the song later, Mishra said the lyrics could mean "Being a member of an orthodox Trotskyist / Marxist movement (as I was for three years in the 80s). Being a straight guy in love with a lesbian (ditto). Being a gay guy in love with a straight man (not tried this one yet). Being a straight girl in love with a lying, two-timing, fake-ass Marxist. The hypocrisy that results when love and lust get mixed up with highbrow ideals." I have no idea what any of that means. Frankly, neither does Mishra, probably. Things don't get any clearer the more you dig. The song's music video was produced in a black-and-white silent film style, and contains an homage to Salvador Dali's 1928 surrealist film Un chien andalou. Meanwhile, Mishra proved so difficult to work with that EMI dropped him from their label in 1997 - that's right, the very same year his song topped the charts.
7. "Tubthumping" - Chumbawamba
Billboard Peak: #6
Sample lyric: "He drinks a whisky drink, he drinks a vodka drink, he drinks a lager drink, he drinks a cider drink."
Chumbawamba was a British anarcho-punk band who wrote horn-driven pop singles about working-class British political issues, and somehow managed to climb to the top of the charts in almost every country on the planet. The song quotes a UK anti-road protester, Paris 1968 graffiti, details about the McDonald's vs. Morris & Steel case, and the short story "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner." The opening of the song starts with a soundbyte from the British film Brassed Off by the entertainingly named Pete Postlethwaite. The band's previous single, two years prior, was called "Ugh! Your Ugly Houses!" This is simply not the makings of your normal Top 40 hit. Yet the hook of the song is so catchy, and the chorus so fist-pumpingly exciting ("I get knocked down! But I get up again! You're never gonna keep me down!") that it's still being used in movies to this day. The band was so excited about the prospect of releasing the music to a larger market that they signed a music deal with EMI, despite having written a song condemning the label years early (the song was called, naturally, "F**k EMI"). It wouldn't be the last time the band changed their tune: they later sold their anti-social-networking song, "Pass It Along," to be used in an irony-ignorant Windows ad.
6. "All The Things She Said" - t.a.T.u
Billboard Peak: #8
Sample Lyric: "When they stop and stare - don't worry me, 'cause I'm feeling for her what she's feeling for me."
All you need to know about this band is that they were formed by a music producer named Ivan Shapalov to fill a void in the underage Eastern-European lesbian market, and that they are now the biggest Russian band in history. The two girls who make up the group were cast at 14 and made a Russian album that was so successful that they were forced to re-record it in English and release it worldwide. The girls both signed contracts not realizing that they would be forced to pretend to be lesbians while in the group, yet whenever they played a live show anywhere - including live American television - they were contractually obligated to make out with each other during the performance. Their success led them to be selected to represent Russia in the Eurovision Song Contest, but the Russian goverment understandably felt they didn't represent the motherland well. In response, Shapalov arranged a video shoot in Red Square with 200 girls behind the band, cavorting and kissing each other. The shoot eventually got so out of control that Shapalov was arrested for disturbing the piece. And that wasn't even the official music video, which feature the two girls making out in the rain while in prison, before the camera panned out at the end of the video to reveal that the girls were free and it was us, the viewers, who were in prison - by our preconceptions. Mind-blowing.
5. "Blue (Da Ba Dee)" - Eiffel 65.
Billboard Peak: #6
Sample lyric: "Everything is blue for him and hisself and everybody around."
Here's how you know a band will be a one-hit wonder - while listening to the first single, your immediate thought is 'how the hell did this become a hit?' "Blue (Da Ba Dee)" falls emphatically into that category, as it's a song so banal and monotonous it's already stuck in your head and grating on your nerves before it hits the chorus. The song is from an Italian dance group who - this is true - came up with the piano hook, picked the color blue at random as the subject, and told their lead singer to write nonsense lyrics to fill in the rest of the song. They're the band on this list least likely to have a follow-up single, and yet their next release, "Move Your Body," was a near-hit - brushed the Top 40 for a week, went platinum in some European countries.
4. "Who Let The Dogs Out" - Baha Men
Billboard Peak: #40
Sample Lyric: "Woof, woof, woof, woof."
This song counts on the list despite barely charting in the U.S. because despite its lack of radio airplay, seemed completely inescapable. It was played at baseball stadiums, on late-night show, on kids shows, in every new comedy released that summer. Alex Rodriguez threw a fit when he wasn't allowed to use it as his walk-up music because it was already being used by another of his Seattle teammates (the Mariners eventually caved and let A-Rod use it). It was even played live by the band on SportsCenter one night. This despite being originally recorded by the unfortunately named hip-hop group Fatt Jack and his Pack of Pets, or being a single released from the Rugrats In Paris: The Movie soundtrack, or, most oddly, having a chorus of nothing but its members barking. Even stranger, the song even has a weird Milli Vanilli-vibe: younger, more video-ready members were brought in to front the band after it was clear the song was a hit. And in what's becoming a strange theme here, the band won a Grammy for this song (Best Dance Recording).
3. "Mambo No. 5" - Lou Bega
Billboard Peak: #3
Sample Lyric: "A little bit of Sandra in the sun, a little bit of Mary all night long, a little bit of Jessica, here I am, a little bit of you makes me your man."
Bega's out-of-left-field hit, a cover of Pérez Prado's 1949 mambo single (whenever Prado couldn't come up with a title, he'd merely number the song), was a strangely successful attempt to bring mambo back to Top 40 radio. Bega - a German pop artist - struts through the song with the confidence of a New York MC, listing the names of the women lining up to be with him with cocky bravado. Stranger than the song itself is its lasting impression on pop radio - Radio Disney had Bega do a version where he changed the name of the ladies in the songs to Disney characters like Mickey Mouse and Huey, Dewey, and Louie (It also featured some entertaining lyric changes, such as his boys wanting "ice cream" instead of "gin and juice"). More incredibly, Bob the Builder (!) covered the song, and that single went #1 in the UK and #2 in Australia. It was selected as the theme for Channel 4's cricket coverage, and, briefly, the 2000 Democratic Convention, before someone recognized that having a song about a man having several women on the side might strike the wrong tone for the party at that particular point in time, especially since the first line of the chorus goes "a little bit of Monica in my life" (how did this happen? Who okayed that decision?). Just last year, it was used in a car commercial for the Corolla. This is a song that simply will not die.
2. "Lost In You" - Garth Brooks (as Chris Gaines)
Billboard Peak: #2
Sample Lyric: "Heaven knows I'm head over heels and it shows."
There's nothing unusual or even memorable about this song, musically, what's memorable here is Brooks. In perhaps the strangest move by a music star since Jerry Lee Lewis took out that full-page newspaper ad after he married his 13-year-old cousin, Brooks decided he needed an alter ego. Why? He was planning on making a movie as the character and wanted to release an album as a "pre-soundtrack" (a term that unsurprisingly failed to catch on). But his new persona, "Chris Gaines," a straight-ahead alternative rocker with a soul patch (which was photoshopped into the album photos), spiraled into bizarro world quickly. Brooks wrote a minutely detailed backstory for Gaines which was printed in the album notes of the record, ...The Life of Chris Gaines. VH1 made a "Behind The Music" on Gaines, where Brooks stayed in character as Gaines the entire time. Then, Brooks hosted SNL - as himself - while making his alter ego Gaines the musical act. Unsurprisingly, the endeavor failed. Brook's fans were baffled, and to show their displeasure, refused to buy the album (the fact it managed to move 2 million copies anyway show just what kind of pull Brooks had). Brooks - at that point only behind the Beatles as the most successful artist of all time - saw his career disappear in an instant. He never recovered, and is now playing shows in Vegas full time.
"Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen) - Baz Luhrman
Billboard Peak: #10
Sample Lyric: "Know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubblegum."
This is one of, if not the, strangest singles in the history of radio. Famed director Baz Luhrmann (Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge) decided to make an album of ambient version of the songs in his movies. While reworking a song called "Everybody's Free (To Feel Good)," one of his producers stumbled across a commencement speech by Mary Schmich (it is often misattributed to Kurt Vonnegut) called "Wear Sunscreen." Two days before their deadline to hand in the album, they emailed Schmich for permission to use the speech, got it, and an Australian actor recorded a recitation of the speech the next day. The song, which is simply the speech read aloud over a backing track, gives out bon mots like "remember, the race is long, and in the end it's only with yourself," "don't be reckless with other people's hearts, and don't put up with people who are reckless with yours," and "floss." The song, and the album it came from, languished in obscurity for a few months, then suddenly exploded nationwide, being played on The Tonight Show, The Today Show, The View, and both MTV and VH1. Chris Rock made a parody called "No Sex (In The Champagne Room)." The song was re-recorded in German, Portuguese, and Swedish, and was a international hit in all three languages. However, you'd be hard-pressed to find somone who remembers it clearly - it disappeared completely and utterly from radio shortly after it's release, and hasn't reappeared since.
Did I miss any?