Jun 302023

‘The Best Covers Ever’ series counts down our favorite covers of great artists.

1980s one hit wonders

Is the 1980s the best decade ever for one-hit wonders? So many classic songs came out that decade by not-so-classic bands. It was, perhaps, a particularly fickle time to be chasing pop-chart success. Many of the oft-discussed one hit wonder bands have killer catalogs, but, for whatever reason, those catalogs contain only one tune that is widely remembered today. If you like “Take on Me” or “Safety Dance,” check out the respective A-Ha and Men Without Hats albums they came from, both just as good! The same holds true for many other ’80s bands. Dead or Alive, pictured above, has some other killer jams too, but alas, these days they’re best known as the “you spin me right round” band.

So today, we celebrate the big one-off hits in new wave, synth-rock, easy listening, and other very-’80s genres with some knockout covers. From “867-5309/Jenny” (Tommy Tutone) to “Turning Japanese” (The Vapors) to “In a Big Country” (Big Country — maybe hard to follow-up a hit that has your band name in the title). Rock down to Electric Avenue, and let these covers take you higher.

A quick disclaimer: It’s fun to argue about what constitutes a one-hit wonder. We do it too! But for these purposes, we just followed Wikipedia, whose page on U.S. one-hit wonders compiles a bunch of newspaper and blog lists in one place. If you have gripes with what songs get included — and there are some legitimate gripes to be had, for sure — take it up with Wikipedia. Our goal is to focus more on sharing some killer covers rather than relitigate whether Men Without Hats’ “Pop Goes the World” was a big enough chart success to disqualify them.

20. Rhiannon Giddens ft. Sxip Shirey — Just the Two of Us (Grover Washington, Jr. cover)

Amongst the near-uncountable losses brought upon us by 2020, a major blow to the world of music was the death of triple Hall of Famer (Grammy, Songwriters’ and Rock & Roll) Bill Withers early in the year. Not long after, Rhiannon Giddens offered a wonderful tribute to him with this cover of Withers’ 1981 hit “Just the Two of Us.” While she stays true to the original’s tempo and phrasing, she makes this version her own with the instrumentation and arrangement. With a sousaphone, valve trombone and, notably, Sxip Shirey’s haunting harmonica, this version has a distinctly New Orleans sound, grittier than the original’s smooth style. That grittiness is well-balanced by Gidden’s silky vocals, keeping this version familiar, yet unique. – Bob Potemski

19. Paul Anka — True (Spandau Ballet cover)

Throughout his long career, singer/songwriter Paul Anka has written countless hits for himself as well as many other artists across the decades, from Buddy Holly to Frank Sinatra. In 2005, he recorded an album of big-band-style covers of rock songs called Rock Swings that included songs by Bon Jovi, Oasis, Nirvana, Van Halen and a rendition of Spandau Ballet’s “True.” Anka dropped all of the synthesizer from the original and reworked it like a jazz standard. He starts the arrangement off slow and builds to a stunning climax. His slow, moody interpretation of the song brings out the poetic brilliance of the lyrics, “I know this much is true.” – Curtis Zimmermann

18. Bracket — 867-5309, Jenny (Tommy Tutone cover)

Pop-punk covers may get a lot of hate, deserved or not, but Tommy Tutone’s one hit is too perfect to pass up. The original has plenty of driving riffs and shout alongs that lend itself perfectly to a punky cover. Bracket do a great job here by not doing too much – they’ve turned the punk from an 11 down to maybe a 7. Yes there’s some guitar chugging and racing drums and half-British/half-California sneer to the vocals, but it doesn’t feel over the top. Hate it if you must, but this is a jam. – Mike Misch

17. Thea Gilmore — You Spin Me Right Round (Dead or Alive cover)

Thea Gilmore, a somewhat acerbic singer-songwriter from Oxford with an initial style based on wordy and vitriolic songs, was possibly the last person to cover anything so archly lightweight. But her version is just a little remarkable. In 2004, she released Loft Music, making her among the first artists to take a stripped-back, pared-down, and slower-speed look at otherwise uptempo material. While this song was not on that album, it was very much in the same spirit, it being her contribution to a tribute album to Liverpool, the city, as seen through covers of songs by performers hailing from the city. Gone all the disco sheen and gloss, it starts with just a picked electric guitar and her voice. It picks up a bit after the first verse, other instruments joining, an unusual and not unattractive 1960s vibe coming down through the grooves. One way or another it becomes a completely different song. – Seuras Og

16. Katharine McPhee — I Know What Boys Like (The Waitresses cover)

To put the beginning chant of this song in context, this cover features in the movie The House Bunny where the least popular (read: hot) sorority on campus gets some life advice (and of course a makeover) from a former Playboy Bunny. Even though the sorority sisters learn what boys like, appearance-wise they come to realize that (spoiler) true beauty was inside of them all along. Katharine McPhee’s version of this song is more party than punk and takes liberties with the lyrics to be more tuned in to what presumably college fraternity boys want. Her delivery is more come-hither than the original’s mocking, purposefully nasally “na-na” energy that is playing hard-to-get. – Sara Stoudt

15. Nouvelle Vague — I Melt With You (Modern English cover)

“I Melt With You” is unique among one-hit wonders, in that Modern English’s version was never really a hit – it didn’t even reach the top 75 on Billboard’s Hot 100. But you’d be hard pressed to find a song that better captures the zeitgeist of the era. To this day it gets listeners dancing, singing – even humming; songs don’t come evergreener than this. Nouvelle Vague brought their bossa nova / new wave ways to the song, giving it a tropical cabana vibe. The urgency of the original is lost, but it’s supposed to be. And toward the end, when singer Silja says “it’s getting better all the time,” you can almost hear her eyes widen with delight. – Patrick Robbins

14. Big Daddy — Safety Dance (Men Without Hats cover)

We are fans of Big Daddy here at Cover Me, always finding their clever cover mash-ups of more modern material worth note, They transport songs back to the doo-wop and rock’n’roll era, maintaining both melody and lyric by transposing it with and into tropes of typical late-1950s fare. It can sometimes work better than others, and this is certainly my favorite. Odd and unusual in its original iteration, bizarre lyrics in a a deep sotto voce, and that’s even before the video. Big Daddy’s brainwave was to use the main thrust of the melody only for the backing vocals, weaving together a complex web that fuses the memory of the electronic original with the impressively dated vocal collage of theirs. – Seuras Og

13. Doveman — Almost Paradise (Mike Reno cover)

Doveman, real name Thomas Bartlett, may be better known for the production work he’s done, contributing to albums by Taylor Swift, Sufism Stevens, and Florence and the Machine. His solo work, usually with an expansively reverberating piano and his half-whispered vocals, is well worth digging into. This cover comes from a full Footloose tribute album, where Bartlett gives one of the 80s-est soundtrack the Doveman treatment. Like the other covers, his “Almost Paradise” is unrecognizable, sounding more like a lullaby than a dance starter. There’s a reverence for the original, though, the way Bartlett hangs on the words that are glossed over in the original. As he plinks out lilting chords and coos “I swear I can see forever in your eyes,” it seems clear that he’s showing this one-hit wonder the respect it’s due. – Mike Misch

12. moe. — In a Big Country (Big Country cover)

The origin stories of the Scottish rock band Big Country and the American jamband moe. couldn’t be more different. Big Country formed in Scotland in the early ‘80s and scored a career-defining hit in 1983 with their eponymous single “In a Big Country.” The band moe. formed in the late ‘80s at the University of Buffalo, and though they remain without a breakout hit, they continue to record and tour. Yet, the two bands are united, thanks to one great cover song. With its synth-heavy arrangement and hard-pounding electronic drums, “In a Big Country” is a track that just screams out “totally ‘80s.” For their 2001 cover, moe. played it as a guitar-powered rock song, making it not just a song of its time, but a song for the ages. – Curtis Zimmermann

11. Joyrider — Rush Hour (Jane Wiedlin cover)

As a founding member of The Go-Go’s and co-writer of classics like “Our Lips Are Sealed,” “This Town,” and “How Much More,” Jane Wiedlin has actually had it pretty good for a One Hit Wonder. Her hero-legend status is firmly established and her modest solo success is never gonna be what defines her. The thing is, her lone post Go-Go’s hit was actually as fabulous as anything she created within the confines of the band. “Rush Hour” is four minutes of exuberant, car-radio-ready singalong living joy. It is one of the most sublime, poptastic hits of the late eighties. It made out furiously with a plethora of pop charts in the spring of ’88, ascending to #9 in the U.S. and #12 in the UK. Its video, featuring Wiedlin frolicking in the water with a bunch of dolphins, was also perfectly, ridiculously charming.

Irish Band Joyrider hit # 22 in the UK pop chart during the summer of ’96 with their glorious, proto-pop punk cover of “Rush Hour.” This was their only hit, meaning welcome to the pop music version of The Twilight Zone/Black Mirror where a band covers a One Hit Wonder which ends up being their one hit, thus turning them into One Hit Wonder themselves. Spooky. But hey, what a “One Hit” to have. Joyrider’s “Rush Hour” is an undeniable, ass-kicking, fist-pumping floor shaker of a cover. Turn it up. – Hope Silverman

10. Save Ferris — Come On Eileen (Dexys Midnight Runners cover)

I can’t say this with 100 percent certainty, but I’m convinced I heard Save Ferris’ 1997 cover of “Come On Eileen” before I heard the original. While I’ve come to love Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ classic, I consider Save Ferris’ rendition to be one of the best ska covers of the ‘90s. The cover brilliantly blends elements of punk and ska with powerful horn arrangements, held together by Monique Powell’s voice. In my view, she was one of the best ska vocalists of the decade (male or female). Her stellar vocals make it a cover worth listening to “at this moment,” or any moment really. – Curtis Zimmermann

9. Callum J Wright — Easy Lover (Philip Bailey cover)

Don’t be fooled by this simple acoustic cover; the guitar isn’t a passive player in this one. It ducks and weaves along with the vocals, sometimes barely there, sometimes reappearing with a sassy lick. Just when you start to anticipate its rhythm, it changes up just enough to throw you off balance. The smooth vocals are almost singing to that guitar: “she’ll get a hold on you believe it.” – Sara Stoudt

8. Goose – Electric Avenue (Eddy Grant cover)

In the early ‘80s, “Electric Avenue” was one of those songs I couldn’t avoid. Whether it was on the radio, on MTV, or playing on repeat in my five-year-old brain, I was constantly humming “Gonna rock down to Electric Avenue.” I didn’t even know what a reggae jam was, but I knew that chorus. The jamband Goose has made the track a regular part of its covers repertoire (as of this writing, they’ve covered it 29 times). There are many great versions available online, all a bit different, like this one from the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, N.Y. on March 8, 2023. In this rendition, the band crammed the song between the opening jam and their own track “All I Need.” When they hit the chorus the crowd breaks out of its trance and instantly sings along. Like my own younger self, the audience simply could not resist such a catchy chorus. – Curtis Zimmermann

7. Liz Phair w/Material Issue — Turning Japanese (The Vapors cover)

Is “Turning Japanese,” The Vapors’ one hit from 1980, about masturbation? Most people seem to think so, but the band members deny it. Is it racist, what with the stereotypical “Oriental riff” that pervades the song? Maybe. Is it a power pop classic? Absolutely. And when Liz Phair, herself no stranger to songs about sex (which this one may or not be, right?) covered the song for her 1995 EP Juvenilia (with Chicago band Material Issue backing her), she sped it up, roughed it up and did the song justice. The Vapors released another album, but never had another hit, breaking up in 1982. David Fenton, lead singer and writer of “Turning Japanese,” made the questionable career choice of becoming a lawyer, and the band reunited in 2019, released an album in 2020 to little acclaim, and have been touring. – Jordan Becker

6. Charlie Klarsfeld & Haley Vassar — Take On Me (A-Ha cover)

Let the steel drum get you in the island mindset for this feel-good cover. Even with the unexpected opening, the lyrics are delivered in a straightforward way, still just a simple request, repeated, and then rephrased just in case you missed the point the first or second time around. Despite the appearance of a party horn, the beat never full-on drops to make a dance-club mess of this classic. It remains a restrained island bop with just enough syncopation to keep your head from bobbing too complacently. – Sara Stoudt

5. Grant-Lee Phillips — Under the Milky Way (The Church cover)

Grant-Lee Phillips just has a slower, mellower metabolism than most other musicians. This track comes from his nineteeneighties album, which collects his covers of energetic 80s-era songs—pieces that tend to become sleepier, dreamier in Phillips’ hands. His chill approach works best with sad songs about being cut off and adrift—“Under the Milky Way,” for example (“So. Central Rain” by REM is another). Phillips makes you wonder why these lyrics were ever put to pounding, up-tempo music to begin with—they fit so perfectly with Phillips’ opium-den vibe. He delivers a more intimate take on song that may have been meaningless to its writers—the Church’s Steve Kilbey with Karin Jansson—but which has deep and even deeply personal meaning to its fans. – Tom McDonald

4. Enuff Z’ Nuff — Believe It or Not (Joey Scarbury cover)

Back in the ’70s and ’80s, it wasn’t unusual for TV show theme songs to land in the pop chart. And when it came to composing hit themes, Mike Post was the man. The tunes he wrote for 1975’s The Rockford Files and 1981’s Hill Street Blues both hit the U.S. pop top ten, and at this point in history they’re better known than the actual shows that inspired their creation. But as big as those themes were, neither comes close to “Theme from The Greatest American Hero (Believe It or Not)” in terms of overall popularity, streams, and general adoration.

In 1981, Post was asked to come up with a song for the opening of a show called The Greatest American Hero, set to premiere that year. It starred William Katt (best known as the doomed prom date in Carrie) and the premise involved Katt having a magic superhero costume bestowed upon him by aliens and then losing the manual on how to use it (no, really). This plotline led to all kinds of “madcap” trial-and-error scenarios. I was a teenager when this thing was popular and can confirm that the show itself was what we’ll call “’80s okay” and was actually hot for a minute… but it was nowhere near as awesome as its opening song. The “Theme from The Greatest American Hero (Believe It or Not)” was written by Mike Post and Stephen Geyer and sung by Joey Scarbury, a singer-songwriter employed by Post at the time. It is one sweet hunk of soft rock, simultaneously silly and romantic, with a lustrous hook and seriously swoony bridge. It got as high as #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart (go, Mike Post!) and was Scarbury’s only genuine hit.

33 years later, eternally underrated, half-hair metal, half-Beatles hybrid Enuff Z’Nuff covered the track on their goofy ‘n’ garish 2014 cover album Covered In Gold. While the album features cool takes on classics by The Beatles, Queen, and Nirvana, their glammy, glorious version of “Believe it Or Not” takes the whole damn cake. It radiates dirty anthemic joy from its every corpuscle. Vocalist Donnie Vie goes all-in delivering an impassioned, raspy, irony-free vocal, and it is clear that the Enuff gang freakin’ loves this song. Big stupid beautiful fun awaits you. – Hope Silverman

3. Stephaniesid — Life in a Northern Town (The Dream Academy cover)

The Dream Academy’s “Life in a Northern Town” was unlike anything on the radio when it was released in 1985. A dreamy, elegiac song about the effects of the death of the shipping industry in the UK, it mixed folk, pop and classical influences with African-inspired chanting. Which, when you think of it, doesn’t sound like anything that should have even come close to being a hit. And yet, the song was popular all over the (English-speaking) world. Trivia notes—co-writer and singer Nick Laird-Clowes played the song for Paul Simon, who pushed him to change the song’s name from “Morning Lasted All Day,” which Simon thought was just “no good,” and it was co-produced by David Gilmour.

Stephanie’s Id, a shapeshifting collection of musicians out of North Carolina who performed with Stephanie Morgan (and her husband Chuck Lichtenberger) are often described with some of the same adjectives as the Dream Academy—dreamy, baroque, folk, noir—yet their cover of “Life in a Northern Town,” from the 2011 album Starfruit, is quite different from the original. It’s a little peppier and has a propulsive martial percussive beat (possibly synthesized in whole or in part) that gives it some more life, without diluting the song’s charm. – Jordan Becker

2. Annie — She’s Like the Wind (Patrick Swayze cover)

“She’s like the wind through my tree.” Ah yes, has there ever been a more evocative opening line in the history of pop music? But seriously, for a lyrical metaphor meant to suggest serious romantic longing and desire, it sounds absurdly, laughably horny. Still, it is delivered with such extreme earnestness by Patrick Swayze, as is the rest of “She’s Like The Wind,” it’s hard to chuckle too hard without feeling a little guilty. “She’s Like The Wind” was written by Swayze himself (along with Stacy Widelitz), and in 1987 it got as high as #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It has been streamed on Spotify, wait for it, nearly 180 million times (good lord). The song featured in the beloved 1987 film Dirty Dancing, which of course the Swayze also starred in, and was part of its juggernaut of a soundtrack, which has sold a staggering 32 million copies worldwide and is one of the best-selling albums of all time (good lord, again).

Understandably, there are people who find “She’s Like The Wind” to be a bit cheesy. And its first line has attracted a fair amount of ridicule over the years. But brilliant Norwegian musician and producer Annie’s moody electronic cover of “She’s Like The Wind” is no joke. It doesn’t live anywhere near the Catskills. You’ll find it on some lonely neon-lit street in freakin’ Blade Runner, looking unspeakably handsome in the late-night light. Built on a haunting, seductive synth line, it’s one gorgeous, desperate icicle of a cover. Shake that tree. – Hope Silverman

1. Goldfinger — 99 Red Balloons (Nena cover)

Every once in a while, a song in a foreign language becomes a hit in the English-speaking world, and Nena’s “99 Luftballons,” sung in German, became a hit in 1983. (“Nena” is not only the name of the band, but the nickname of the lead singer, Gabriele Susanne Kerner, and it means “girl” in Catalan.) An antiwar song that is also about UFOs, it was infectious and catchy, and somewhat mysterious, with most English speakers having no clue what the song was about. Other than being about balloons of some sort. So, in what seemed like a good idea at the time, the band released a version in English, and it failed to chart. And they hated it, to boot. Ska-punk band Goldfinger released their fine cover of the song on their 2000 release Stomping Ground. It is, as would be expected, an energetic ska-punk version (leaning more toward the punk than the ska). While they start by singing the less-popular English lyrics, about three-quarters of the way in, they switch to German. Which, somehow, immediately makes the song better. Until they switch back to English at the end. It’s been featured in a number of movies, mostly of the teen comedy variety, because it is lots of fun. – Jordan Becker

Check our complete One Hit Wonders covers series here!

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  3 Responses to “The Best Covers of 1980s One Hit Wonders”

Comments (3)
  1. Rogue Wave did “In A Big Country” better. And Big Country has 9 songs with more than 1 million streams on Spotify. Probably not a one-hit wonder.

  2. I think you’re being a little hard on the english language version of “99 Red Balloons”. The band may not like the translation but personally I never had any problem understanding what it was about and neither did my daughter, very young at the time. It’s still one of her favourites from those days (and we’ve still got the single).
    After all, it was the english language version that was number 1 in the UK and also a big hit in Canada and Ireland.

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