“If you can’t say something good, don’t say anything at all.” That’s generally good advice, but I’m about to violate it. I consider it my duty as a music lover to provide fair warning about a handful of songs I think are so bad they should never have been committed to vinyl, compact disc or any other auditory medium. Some ear worms, to be blunt, just aren’t ear-worthy.
All of the songs on this list made the charts (many of them went to number one), so chances are I’ll be offending some folks with my picks. Just remember not to take any of this personally: It’s all a matter of taste. And if radio DJs can come up with their top 30s (or 40s), I can pick my bottom 30.
So here they are, the members of Stephen’s auditory Hall of Shame, starting off with a little number that earned a Grammy for Sweet Baby James.
Handy Man by James Taylor (No. 4 in 1977)
I like James Taylor. I really do. I’ve even seen him in concert. It helps a little that he didn’t actually write this song, which repeats the nonsensical comma-comma-comma line far too many times. Couldn’t he have just finished this song off with a period and spared us to the egotistical prattle about fixing broken hearts? I’ll use Liquid Plumr instead.
Wonderwall by Oasis (No. 8 in 1995)
Oasis was lauded as the heir to the Beatles in the UK., but it was their only top 40 single in the U.S. But just what the hell is a Wonderwall, anyway? The song never explains it. Maybe it has something to do with the 1968 film of that name, for which George Harrison composed his first solo album, “Wonderwall Music.” But if you’re looking for an explanation in that musical collection, you won’t find one: It’s all instrumental … at which point you’ve probably stopped caring what it means anyway.
Muskrat Love by Captain & Tenille (No. 4 in 1976)
This is the song that gave the jitterbug a bad name. (You couldn't possibly do the jitterbug to music like this, anyway.) If Love Will Keep Us Together hadn’t dominated the charts a year earlier, Muskrat Love wouldn’t have made a dent, except maybe on Sesame Street, where it belonged. It would have made the perfect B-side to Rubber Duckie.
The Freshmen by the Verve Pipe (No. 5 in 1997)
The forced angst of the only hit by this Michigan band is bad enough without it being driven into your head like an ice pick by the oft-repeated, impossible-to-dislodge line “We were merely freshmen.”
American Pie by Madonna (No. 29 in 2000)
This was a great song when Don McLean did it. Madonna synthesized, sterilized and lobotomized it by leaving out most of the verses. It should have been retitled American Stale Slice. And it’s not even the worst Madonna song on this list.
Closing Time by Semisonic (No. 11 in 1998)
The opening line, which is also the title, is even more annoying than “We were merely freshmen.” A little math will demonstrate why this song is so annoying: It has, in all, 32 lines, nine of which merely repeat the title and 12 of which are either “I know who I want to take me home” or “Take me home.” That leaves just 11 lines that say anything else at all ... and even these don't say very much. This vapid piece of drivel makes Eddie Money’s Take Me Home Tonight sound positively inspired.
Every Morning by Sugar Ray (No. 3 in 1999)
This song starts out with the singer talking about using the “halo” hanging from the corner of his girlfriend’s bed for his own one-night stand. If that’s not disgusting enough for you, the melody will push you over the edge. There's nothing angelic about this one at all. It’s pure hell … but it’s still not as bad as another song by the same band, which managed to crack the top five.
Mr. Roboto by Styx (No. 3 in 1983)
This piece of wannabe rock operatic fluff from the album Kilroy Was Here is an affront to everyone from Robbie to R2D2. No wonder guitarist-vocalist Tommy Shaw quit the band after the release of the Kilroy. The seemingly endless repetition of the Japanese phrase “domo arigato” probably pushed him past the brink, thank you very much.
Like a Virgin by Madonna (No. 1 in 1984)
There’s got to be some reason an artist named Madonna would record a song with this title, but I don’t really care. Weird Al Yankovic’s parody “Like a Surgeon” is infinitely more fun – and it’s his lyric that comes to mind whenever the music to this tune invades my ears. Madonna's original requires a hefty dose of general anesthesia.
Bad by Michael Jackson (No. 1 in 1987)
About the best thing to be said about this song is that it more than lives up to its name. Atrocious would have been more appropriate, but it just doesn’t roll off the tongue.
Playground in My Mind by Clint Holmes (No. 2 in 1973)
Maybe your name is Michael, and perhaps you have a nickel. Maybe it's even shiny and new. But whatever its condition, have pity on yourself and do not use it to buy a copy of this song. In compiling this list, I chose this over the terminally maudlin “Seasons In the Sun,” which came out around the same time. That should tell you something.
The Pina Colada Song by Rupert Holmes (No. 1 in 1979)
Rupert Holmes is no relation to Clint Holmes, but he put out a similarly bad piece of music that became the last No. 1 song of the ’70s. Its actual title is “Escape,” which is what you’ll want to do if they start playing this on the radio. It’s an affront to the Journey album of the same name, which includes the endlessly overplayed “Don’t Stop Believin’” – a song that, nonetheless, would be a welcome relief after hearing this one.
Fanny (Be Tender With My Love) by the Bee Gees (No. 12 in 1975)
This gets my vote as the Bee Gees’ worst song of their disco period ... and it isn't even disco. Think about that for a moment. In the opinion of this author, whose teenage motto was "death to disco," this song is actually worse than Night Fever, The Hustle and Hot Stuff. (But not as bad as Ring My Bell, which appears later on this list.) Believe it or not, the Bee Gees were far better in their first incarnation, when they were turning out sappy syrup like Words and I Started a Joke. Everything after that was just jive talkin'. Moral of the story: Be tender with your ears and avoid this one.
You Light Up My Life by Debby Boone (No. 1 in 1977)
This was written as a love song. The singer, however, considered it a devotional song to God. I suppose a pyromaniac would find yet another interpretation, and if someone had set fire to the sheet music for this saccharine serenade and used it as kindling on a cold winter night, the world might have been a brighter place.
We Are the World by USA for Africa (No. 1 in 1985)
How do you guarantee a No. 1 chart position for a tune? Assemble dozens of best-selling musical artists and dedicate the money earned from sales of said tune to a high-profile charity. You don’t even have to write a decent piece of music. Here’s proof.
Lovin’ You by Minnie Ripperton (No. 1 in 1974)
I wasn’t a morning person when this came out, so the gimmick of having songbirds chirping incessantly for 3-plus minutes did not endear me to Ms. Ripperton’s biggest hit. Neither did the la-la-la-la-la refrain that made her sound like a drunk hippie. These days, I have to wake up early, but I still don’t like this tune. Call me silly, but I prefer my songbirds in trees, not on vinyl.
Let ’Em In by Wings (No. 3 in 1976)
Paul McCartney is perhaps the pre-eminent example of a musical genius who also has an incredible knack for writing crappy music. Let ’Em In is Exhibit A. The song consists entirely of a narrator telling someone to let various people in at the front door. The effect is only slightly less grating than Mrs. Wolowitz yelling, “Howard! Get the door!” on The Big Bang Theory. Think of this half-baked musical concoction as John Lennon’s Give Peace a Chance, minus the message.
Love Shack by B-52s (No. 3 in 1989)
This was supposed to be a fun party song, which I suppose is why everybody still wants to sing it during karaoke night at the bar nearly 30 years later. Trust me, it gets old real fast: That tin roof rusted a long time ago. (And please, no questions about why I spent so much time hanging out in karaoke bars. That’s beside the point.)
Cherry Pie by Warrant (No. 10 in 1990)
This song may have single-handedly killed the hair metal era, for which many people are probably grateful. But it still deserves a place on this list, if only for the ridiculous lyric “swingin’ in the living room, swingin’ in the kitchen; most folks don’t ’cause they're too busy bitchin’.” Huh? That almost makes ob-la-di, ob-la-da sound literate.
Afternoon Delight by Starland Vocal Band (No. 1 in 1976)
The song’s music sounds like it belongs in a summer camp singalong. Its lyrics are, well, more than a little suggestive. Those two things simply shouldn’t go together.
Having My Baby by Paul Anka (No. 1 in 1974)
The only good thing about this song is that you’ll never hear a deadbeat dad singing it. The only good thing. This song will send you running from the maternity ward to the emergency room ... if it doesn’t render you comatose first. It’s so bad that you have to wonder why it only made No. 10 on this list. Until you see what finished ahead of it, that is. Read on.
Mickey by Toni Basil (No. 1 in 1982)
Toni Basil has a reputation as one of the best choreographers around, which explains why this song’s video casts her as a cheerleader. MTV played it in such heavy rotation it was impossible to avoid it – which is precisely what I want to do whenever I hear it. Maybe Basil should have listened to the Bee Gees before recording this. They would have given her some good advice: “You should be dancing.” Not singing.
Sussudio by Phil Collins (No. 1 in 1985)
It’s unclear whether Sussudio is a woman’s name or a word that she’s supposed to say. Why should she say it? Mr. Collins never bothers to explain. Of course, he's no stranger to nonsensical lyrics. We’re never told, for example, what exactly is “coming in the air tonight” or why we should “hold on.” We ask in vain what “paperlate” might mean. And if “abacab isn’t anywhere” why should we go searching for it? We’re better off just leaving it behind to keep Sussudio company while we go find something worthwhile to occupy our eardrums for a while.
Ring My Bell by Anita Ward (No. 1 in 1979)
This song about talking on the telephone was reportedly written for an 11-year-old to sing. It sounds like it. But Anita Ward managed to make it sound sexually suggestive, which would be impressive if it weren't so disturbing. The singer also makes the word "bell" sound as though it's got three syllables, which should count for something. But it doesn't.
Spill the Wine by Eric Burdon and War (No. 3 in 1970)
This song is supposedly a sexual allegory, which, when you visualize it, makes you feel like you’re watching a bad porn film. (The song was actually used in the soundtrack to Boogie Nights, a movie about a fictional porn star.) I didn’t know what the lyrics meant until I looked them up ... which made me wish I hadn’t, because I like the song even less now. If there’s one thing I like less than unintelligible lyrics, it’s graphically obscene lyrics. Plus, I like wine.*
Fly by Sugar Ray (No. 1 in 1997)
The lyrics to this one are even more nonsensical than Phil Collins’ stuff. The line “Twenty-five years old, my mother God rest her soul,” seems to have been lifted from the maudlin but at least coherent 1972 hit Alone Again, Naturally. Its inclusion here makes about as much sense as inserting a line from Monster Mash into The Battle Hymn of the Republic. To make matters worse, the melody is just as irritating as the lyrics. The fact that this band's two biggest hits both made this list is all you need to know.
Who Let the Dogs Out? by Baha Men (No. 40 in 2000)
I’m a sports fan. My alma mater’s mascot is a bulldog. That alone should tell you why I hate this song so much, but it would still be near the top (bottom) of my list, regardless. The dogs should never have been let out, and this song should never have been released.
Jump Around by House of Pain (No. 3 in 1992)
For some reason, this song became insanely popular at shoot-arounds prior to high school basketball games. It would have been harmless enough had the band not decided to include a sound that can only be compared to horse whinnying in agony after falling down and breaking its leg. Over and over and over again. It’s enough to make your ears bleed. Someone please put this tune out of its misery.
Do Ya Think I’m Sexy by Rod Stewart (No. 1 in 1979)
There was a time when Rod Stewart put out some great, or at least near-great music. Every Picture Tells a Story. Stay With Me. I Know I’m Losing You. This was not that time. This was the disco era, and this particular song was Stewart’s supposed attempt to spoof the disco culture. The only problem is that it was too convincing, which made Stewart seem like a preening egomaniac. Come to think of it …
My Humps by Black Eyed Peas (No. 3 in 2005)
Many of the songs on this list became more annoying because I heard them repeatedly on the radio. I seldom heard “My Humps,” which alone is testament to why it’s so earsplittingly godawful. The lyrics are disgusting and the music is, quite possibly, just as bad. I’ve heard it maybe two or three times in my life, which is 100 times too many. Only a deaf camel could like “My Humps,” and being neither a camel nor deaf, I can’t recommend it. In fact, I’d walk a mile to get away from it.
Ice Ice Baby by Vanilla Ice and any other song that “samples” original material from a more talented previous artist. In fact, the only reason this didn’t make the list is that the song it sampled was so damned good: Robert Van Winkle (Ice’s real name) “borrowed” from Queen+David Bowie’s Under Pressure. Freddie Mercury. David Bowie. Robert Van Winkle. To revisit the Sesame Street theme raised briefly earlier, “one of these things just doesn’t belong.”
Any duet featuring Paul McCartney in the early 1980s (Say Say Say and The Girl is Mine with Michael Jackson; Ebony and Ivory with Stevie Wonder). I told you McCartney could be bad.
Songs included in movie soundtracks about ocean disasters, specifically The Heart Will Go On by Celine Dion from Titanic in 1997 and The Morning After, Maureen McGovern’s theme song to The Poseidon Adventure in 1973. (Despite the title, it has nothing to do with sex.) Both hit No. 1, and neither is quite bad enough by itself to include on this list. But together, they go to show that a singer’s loose lips really can sink ships.
I Can Help by Billy Swan could easily replace Handy Man on this list. Both are songs about some conceited jerk waxing philosophical about how he’s God’s gift to women. This list just wasn’t big enough for two songs with a sexual messiah complex.
After I compiled this list, a few readers mentioned Wildfire by Michael Martin Murphy, which I'd mercifully forgotten. This song about the ghost of a girl who died searching for her escaped horse (the Wildfire of the song) reached No. 2 in 1975 and was played so often that year that I began to dread the next time it would come on the radio. This is perhaps the best example of why "story songs" shouldn't be played in heavy rotation: Listeners get sick of hearing the same story over and over again ... especially when it's as depressing as this one. See also: The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Gordon Lightfoot.
* No, I’m not going to tell you what it means. Google it.