The biggest music artists of all time typically have dozens of hits in their portfolio, often so many that they can’t play all of them in concert.
But sometimes artists are so popular that radio plays their singles and fans buy them because of unyielding devotion, not artistic genius. While diehards will love even the ugliest child, it’s fair to say that not every hit song is equal. So we’ve picked our least favorite song from a sampling of major artists — what we consider some of the worst from some of the most familiar hit-makers.
Yes, in a way, we’re trolling those dedicated fans, many of whom will likely howl in protest over some of our picks. Unlike them, our devotion isn’t unyielding.
Melissa’s pick: “Die Another Day”
There have been numerous worthy James Bond theme songs this century, such as Adele and, um, well, OK, Adele. But Madonna may have kickstarted the string of recent forgettable offerings with her 2002 dance smash. If you’re into rote electro-stuttering and nonsensical lyrics, congratulations for perpetuating mediocrity.
Rodney's pick: “Don’t Tell Me”
Most of Madonna’s hit songs have a catchy melodic twist and/or lyrical intrigue along the lines of “Material Girl,” “Vogue” or “Music.” Then there is this decidedly unmemorable ditty, which inexplicably peaked at No. 4 on the American pop chart. Even the song title is boring. A mildly countrified guitar riff is accompanied by Madonna sounding mildly defiant in a way that comes and goes with no emotional impact whatsoever.
Melissa’s pick: “Purple Rain”
I know, I’m ducking already. And I’ll concede that when Prince performed the title track of his 1984 soundtrack in concert, even the cacophonous guitar solo at song’s end exploded with vitality. But on record? A thumping slog.
Rodney's pick: “Batdance”
The 1980s were a prolific period for Prince, including some of his most iconic hits that R&B and pop radio stations continue to play today. This song hit No. 1 in the summer of 1989 but is rarely heard for a reason: it’s basically a weird promo for the “Batman” movie. There are elements of cool songs embedded in here, but it feels cobbled together more for commercial purposes than artistic merit.
Melissa’s pick: “A Matter of Trust”
By 1986, Joel certainly earned the right to indulge in a vanity project, and this is his only hit to spotlight him on electric guitar instead of piano. Unfortunately for longtime fans, Joel’s pet project was manifested in simple, monotonous chords, a sluggish pace and a cringing attempt at Springsteen-esque grit.
Rodney's pick: “You’re Only Human”
Billy’s best songs are romantic or parables of sorts. This is Billy at his preachiest. An original song he wrote for his “Greatest Hits Vol. 1 and Vol. 2” release, this top 10 hit from 1985 was a way to help young people with depression and thoughts of suicide so the intentions were good. But as a song, it’s both annoyingly chipper and lyrically flaccid.
Melissa’s pick: “Crocodile Rock”
Perhaps it’s due to decades of witnessing thousands of uncoordinated suburbanites attempting to dance while singing the grating “la la la la la” chorus of John’s first No. 1 hit (in 1972) in concert that has spoiled any enjoyment of this ditty. But the inanity and novelty song quality also contribute.
Rodney's pick: “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”
John went through a 1990s phase of bland balladeering which sticks in my craw including “Circle of Life” and “Believe.” This is probably the most famous of that era, his “Lion King” cash grab that won an Academy Award and a Grammy. I’d take the worst of his 1970s hits (including “Crocodile Rock”) over this drivel any day.
Melissa’s pick: “Blood on the Dance Floor”
With production by new jack swing maestro Teddy Riley, the lead single from Jackson’s 1997 “Blood on the Dance Floor: HIStory in the Mix” album was originally slated for his 1991 “Dangerous” release. That explains the victim-heavy lyrics about backstabbers (prime early ’90s Jackson fodder), but not the middling funk backbeat. While the song only climbed to No. 42 in the U.S., it was a worldwide smash, proving that sometimes, Americans do have better taste.
Rodney's pick: “Dirty Diana”
This song, his fifth No. 1 song off his “Bad” album in 1988, is about aggressive groupies and feels dark and dreary, with overdramatic guitar rock licks. Tell me where the actual hook is in the chorus. And the odd lack of percussive rhythm keeps it from ever finding its core essence.
Melissa’s pick: “One Moment in Time”
Look, I adore a good anthem. And this one is all about anthem-y things such as inspiration and pride in accomplishments (Houston recorded it for the 1988 Summer Olympics). But sometimes Houston’s schmaltz-ometer needed to be tempered and this was prime time.
Rodney's pick: “I Have Nothing”
Houston during her peak was able to belt a ballad in her sleep. This David Foster/Linda Thompson tune from “My Bodyguard” is very prototypical Houston with her requisite dramatic flair but has always made me want to go to sleep instead. I suspect the excessive use of this song on “American Idol” has soured me even more on its charms.
Melissa’s pick: “Lover”
It’s a word that prompts all of the blechs, and coupled with Swift’s cooing delivery and the echo-y drumbeat powering the ballad, it results in continued wincing. Despite a killer bridge — which is becoming a Swift specialty — her breathy delivery of “You’re my, my, my, my love-ER” is straight-up icky.
Rodney's pick: “Look What You Made Me Do”
This song was super impactful for many reasons when it came out in 2017 due to the lyrical content about her reputation and its obvious electro-pop vibe. But there’s a reason you hardly ever hear it on the radio in 2021. It’s less a viable pop song and more a treatise about Swift’s fame and how people perceived her at the time. Unlike most of her other hits like “Blank Space” and “Delicate,” this one doesn’t hold up well over repeated listens.
Melissa’s pick: “Bed of Roses”
Even hardcore Bon Jovi fans (hand raised) will admit that the band’s ’90s-era ballads were brutal (see Rodney’s choice to further solidify). But between Jon Bon Jovi’s cliched Romeo routine and one of the most ludicrous lyrics in rock history — “I wake up and French kiss the morning” — this one is unlistenable.
Rodney's pick: “Always”
This power ballad about someone who sounds like a stalker hit the top 5 in 1994 but is largely forgotten a quarter-century later. Why? It’s so dull and shapeless, the lighter you’d raise in concert would refuse to ignite in protest.
Melissa’s pick: “Pour Some Sugar On Me”
Released in 1988, the Mutt Lange-produced track is inarguably Def Leppard’s best-known hit. It’s still horrible. Dopey lyrics and minimal use of the band’s copious musical abilities mar every bar. The song was a last-minute add to the “Hysteria” album. If only we had gotten lucky.
Rodney's pick: “Let’s Get Rocked”
This 1992 top 20 hit feels like a ragged compilation of all their previous hits amped up to 11, led by a super cliched chorus and song title. It’s like Def Leppard color-by-numbers.
Rodney and Melissa agree: “Work”
Rihanna has said her broken, often half-hearted vocal style in this dancehall song represents her culture. But that doesn’t seem to explain the basic lack of a hook, a melody or anything resembling a coherent outline of a song.
Melissa’s pick: “One”
While I appreciate Bono’s sentiment that we can be simultaneously unified and diverse and while I will never disparage the charitable causes associated with the band’s No. 1 hit from 1992, I will also never be swayed of the opinion that musically, it’s a droning snooze.
Rodney's pick: “With or Without You”
The opening single off U2′s most successful album “The Joshua Tree” from 1987 has a pretty solemnity, but after countless listens, I’ve lost patience with Bono’s overwrought delivery. In other words, I can easily live without you. Give me “In God’s Country” or “Red Hill Mining Town,” thank you very much.
Melissa’s pick: “Animals”
I have a visceral reaction to Adam Levine’s nasal whine, so truly any song from Maroon 5′s inexplicably extensive catalog is on my list. But if forced to choose one waste of four minutes of my life, it would be this 2014 hit laced with Levine’s grating falsetto and packed with high school-level sexual innuendo.
Rodney's pick: “Moves Like Jagger”
It’s mind-boggling how many top 40 songs this band has generated over the past two decades: 23! This was their biggest hit of them all and possibly their most memorable song as well, given the Mick Jagger twist and help from Christina Aguilera. But this fangless song packed with whistling has none of Jagger’s actual swagger. Even Aguilera’s contribution is unmemorable.
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