No-Hit Wonders: 20 Iconic Acts, Zero Top 40 Singles

Let us now show some respect for music’s most-surprising superstar shut-outs.

Image for post
Image for post
Photo: Caligvla at English Wikipedia

Drake, Taylor Swift, and Bruno Mars make it look so easy, but racking up number ones is hard work. The Boss himself, Bruce Springsteen, has never topped Billboard’s Hot 100 with one of his singles, a dishonor he shares with James Brown, Creedence Clearwater Revival, ELO, and The Pointer Sisters.

At least he has a nice collection of Top 10s — 12 of them — to show for his recorded efforts. Meanwhile, the groundbreaking likes of Joni Mitchell, Led Zeppelin, and Bonnie Raitt have but one Top 10 apiece (“Help Me,” “Whole Lotta Love,” and “Something to Talk About,” respectively). The late, great Etta James didn’t have that many. Her chart failures included the pop standard “At Last,” which didn’t get past number 47.

It’s even tougher for alternative rockers to grab a sweet spot in the U.S. Top 40. Iggy Pop, Roxy Music, Siouxsie & the Banshees, and White Stripes have each taken but a single trip there (via “Candy,” “Love Is the Drug,” “Kiss Them for Me,” and “Icky Thump,” respectively). That’s one more than the following superstars, all of whom have struck out repeatedly on the American singles scene.

1. Björk

For several years, from the mid-’90s to the turn of the century, Björk was the Beyoncé of modern rock. Fellow off-center talents like k.d. lang, Joan Armatrading (see below), and Thom Yorke adored her. She even nabbed a starring role in director Lars von Trier’s 2000 film Dancer in the Dark, earning a Golden Globe nod, a Best Original Song Oscar nomination, and the Cannes Film Festival’s Best Actress prize.

Her albums won her critical acclaim and a slavish cult following. Several even went gold and platinum. But neither as frontwoman of The Sugarcubes nor as a solo act has Björk ever managed to creep into the Hot 100’s Top 40. In fact, she’s only charted twice, with 1993’s “Big Time Sensuality (number 88) and 2007’s “Earth Intruders” (number 84), which still stands as her biggest U.S. hit.

2. Blur

In the U.S. arena, the knockout went to… Oasis. Their albums sold better, and they went all the way to number eight on the Hot 100 with “Wonderwall” in 1995.

Meanwhile, Blur logged a string of big UK hits, but only two crept into the bottom half of the Hot 100. Blur frontman Damon Albarn would have to create the cartoon band Gorillaz to land his only U.S. Top 40 single to date, 2005’s “Feel Good Inc,” which felt fantastic at number 14.

3. Bob Marley

After his 1981 death, he finally scored the U.S. smash that had eluded him in life. His 1984 Legend compilation, which has launched many a frat party in the decades since its release, is one of the best-selling albums ever, having well surpassed diamond status (10 million copies sold) in America. But only one of his singles, 1976’s “Roots, Rock, Reggae,” managed to chart, peaking at number 51.

His legacy here remains bigger than any of his singles. Later reggae acts that managed to score U.S. number ones, like UB40 and Maxi Priest, wouldn’t exist without Marley’s influence. Neither, of course, would his son Ziggy, who sneaked into the U.S. Top 40 at number 39 with “Tomorrow People” in 1988, and his grandson Skip, who became the first Marley to go Top 10 when his 2017 Katy Perry collaboration “Chained to the Rhythm” locked onto number four.

Marley did live to enjoy two huge Top 40 triumphs, if only by association. Eric Clapton took his rock version of Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff” to number one in 1974, and Stevie Wonder’s 1980 number-five single “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” was a musical tribute to Jamaica’s greatest native son.

4. Grace Jones

Shocking, right? Would there even be a Rihanna without the antecedent of Grace Jones?

She also can take credit for several hip hop hits. Her 1983 single “My Jamaican Guy,” which Jones wrote solo, has been sampled by a number of rappers and R&B artists, including LL Cool J, who used it for the musical backdrop of his 1996 single “Doin’ It” and watched it soar all the way to number 9 on the Hot 100.

Despite never making the Top 40 on her own, Jones’s voice did enter the Top 10 once. That’s her speaking during the bridge of “Election Day” by the Duran Duran spin-off Arcadia. The 1985 single made it to number six, but alas, her cameo went uncredited on the single’s cover.

5. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were contemporaries of The Sugarhill Gang, who took rap into the American Top 40 for the first time with 1979’s “Rapper’s Delight.” Unfortunately, the sextet never managed to go quite that far.

They enjoyed moderate success on Billboard’s R&B singles chart, but only 1982’s “The Message” made an appearance on the Hot 100, rising to number 62. Presaging the politicized rap of Run-D.M.C., Public Enemy, and NWA, all of whom would hit the Top 40 at least once, “The Message” came at a time when message music went out of style — especially on the Hot 100.

With only two studio albums to their name, they still made a lasting impression. In 2007, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five became the first hip hop group ever to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

6. Joan Armatrading

Despite her lack of chart clout, Armatrading managed to attract big-name fans. Scottish singer Sheena Easton covered her 1976 UK Top 10 “Love and Affection” on 1984’s A Private Heaven, and Mandy Moore sent “Pilot” back into flight on 2003’s Coverage.

Armatrading had another devotee in the late Hollywood director Herbert Ross (Footloose, Steel Magnolias). He included her 1977 Show Some Emotion album track “Willow” on the soundtrack for 1995’s Boys on the Side, his well-received final film.

7. KRS-One

The single ended up climbing to number 28 in the UK and number 5 in Ireland, but it missed the Hot 100, extending KRS-One’s pop-chart shut-out. He’d commence a successful solo career the following year after Boogie Down Productions split, and go all the way to number three on Billboard’s Top 200 album chart with 1997’s I Got Next.

His solo singles, though, failed to make as much of an impact. Three of them hit the Hot 100, with the biggest, “MC’s Act Like They Don’t Know,” topping out at 57. He remains a regular attraction on other people’s records, but the “radio song” he and R.E.M. damned in 1991 eludes him still.

8. Leonard Cohen

Cohen’s lone Hot 100 appearance was a posthumous one: When he died in 2016, interest in his back catalog sent “Hallelujah” to number 59.

Fortunately, he did live long enough to see his best-known song triumph on the chart. After performing it live at the Hope for Haiti Now earthquake-relief telethon in 2010, Justin Timberlake, Matt Morris, and Charlie Sexton, made “Hallelujah” a U.S. Top 40 hit for the first time. Their version went all the way to number 13.

Hallelujah, indeed.

9. Morrissey

Shockingly, that’s the only song in Morrissey’s canon of mope-rock classics, with and without The Smiths, ever to chart on the Hot 100. It boldly went where The Smiths “This Charming Man” and “How Soon Is Now” and Morrissey’s own “Suedehead” and “Every Day Is Like Sunday” could never go.

Adding insult to unfathomable, The Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr upstaged Morrissey on the Hot 100 after the band’s 1987 split. Joining New Order’s Bernard Sumner and Pet Shop Boy’s Neil Tennant for the synth-pop supergroup Electronic, Marr enjoyed a brief stay in the U.S. Top 40 when “Getting Away with It” hit number 38 in 1990.

10. Tom Waits

Waits is not completely hitless, though, thanks to Rod Stewart, who rode his “Downtown Train” all the way to number three in 1990. Former Scandal frontwoman Patty Smyth had previously taken it to number 95 in 1987. Two years earlier, British blue-eyed soul singer Paul Young included a cover of Waits’s “Soldier’s Things” on his The Secret of Association album, which went to number one in the UK and reached the U.S. Top 20.

Over on Billboard’s Top 200 album chart, Waits has fared much better in his own right. Several of his albums have gone gold, and five reached the Top 40. His 16th and most-recent studio album, 2011’s Bad As Me, became his late, late-breaking first Top 10 success, going all the way to number six 28 years after his 1973 debut. Looks like Waits’s wait was finally worth it.

11. The Velvet Underground

They never even made it into the upper half of Billboard’s Top 200 album chart with any of the four LPs they recorded and released during their three key years of activity (1967 to 1970). It took them until 1985 to get there, with the compilation VU, which climbed to number 85.

Frontman Lou Reed did considerably better after going solo in 1970, reaching number 16 in the U.S. and number 10 in the UK with 1972’s “Walk on the Wild Side.” Never underestimate the power of “colored girls” going “Doot, di-doot, di-doot…”

Dishonorable mentions

No Hot 100 appearances

13. Judas Priest

Biggest Hot 100 hit: “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’,” number 67

14. Loretta Lynn

Biggest Hot 100 hit: “After the Fire Is Gone,” with Conway Twitty, number 56 (But don’t weep for the queen of country music, who enjoyed a steady string of Top 10 country hits between 1962 and 1979.)

15. Megadeth

Biggest Hot 100 hit: “Symphony of Destruction,” number 71

16. Peter Murphy

Biggest Hot 100 hit: “Cuts You Up,” number 55

17. Pixies

No Hot 100 appearances

18. Robbie Williams

Biggest Hot 100 hit: “Angels,” number 53

19. Sonic Youth

No Hot 100 appearances

20. Traffic

Biggest Hot 100 hit: “Empty Pages,” number 74

Written by

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa”

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store