Our 36 favorite novelty songs of the past 60 years
What makes a hit song memorable is often how it evokes certain emotions, typically big ones like joy, heartache and sexual desire.
On much rarer occasions, a tune gets released to the universe to evoke a chuckle, a raised eyebrow, a “what is that doing on the radio, and why do I like it?”
Those in the latter category are often called novelties or oddballs, or in more modern parlance, viral sensations. They pop up in every decade under different circumstances, sometimes capturing a pop culture zeitgeist or the public’s momentary lunacy. None are featured in Rolling Stone’s greatest 500 songs of all time.
So we sifted through six decades of the strangest popular songs and selected our favorites from each 10-year period.
In most cases, they are from one-hit wonders, acts never to be heard from again. In some cases, they are deliberate jokes by established acts or comics.
We decided to omit “Weird Al” Yankovic’s songs because his lengthy discography merits an entirely separate story.
Rodney’s picks: “Monster Mash” – Bobby (Boris) Puckett (1962); “Surfin’ Bird” – The Trashmen (1963); “Alice’s Restaurant” – Arlo Guthrie (1967)
Pickett, shamelessly channeling Boris Karloff, turned “Monster Mash” into a delightful “graveyard smash” that remains a Halloween staple decades later. “Surfin’ Bird” is propulsive, repetitive and the definition of “earworm” before that was a thing, flying to No. 4 on the pop charts in 1964. Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant,” at 18 minutes and 15 seconds, is a colorful anti-war story about illegal dumping and the military draft with a pleasant guitar riff and cheerful chorus, becoming a huge fan favorite at concerts.
Melissa’s picks: “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini” – Brian Hyland (1960); “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh (A Letter From Camp)” – Allan Sherman (1963); “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” – Tiny Tim (1968)
A No. 1 hit in 1960, the strummy “Bikini” singalong was the first of many hits for the New York-born Hyland but likely the only one to propel bathing suit sales. Sherman’s 1963 time capsule, based on a letter written by his son from camp, was recently installed in the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress. While “Tulips” was the signature song of unique singer/ukulele singer Tiny Tim — who died shortly after playing it onstage in Minneapolis — it was actually penned in 1929 by Al Dubin and Joe Burke.
Rodney’s picks: “Convoy” – C.W. McCall (1975); “King Tut” – Steve Martin (1978); “Mr. Jaws” – Dickie Goodman (1975)
Long before smartphones, there was CB radio, used heavily by truckers, a tech advance encapsulated in a wholly unlikely No. 1 hit and anti-regulation protest song “Convoy” by fictional character C.W. McCall in 1975. Goodman got extensive airplay the same year inserting snippets of famous songs to create a story based on the hit film “Jaws.” Three years later, comic Martin latched onto the hubbub generated by a traveling exhibit of the Egyptian pharaoh King Tut by goofily singing about the “boy king” “buried in his jammies” who “got a condo made of stone-a.”
Melissa’s picks: “Time Warp” – Transylvanians (1975); “Short People” – Randy Newman (1977); “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band” – Meco (1977)
Does it get much better than a formally dressed freak show giving dance instructions during a song? One of the million reasons “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” remains a generational-defying cult classic. Maybe you were offended by Newman’s 1977 snark-a-thon against the vertically challenged — until you realized that he’s a master of sly and sardonic wit. And not that anyone needed a synthesized disco version of John Williams’ brilliant “Star Wars” theme, but this No. 1 recast became a worldwide smash, especially on the dance floor.
Rodneys picks: “Hooked on Classics” – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (1981); “Pac Man Fever” Buckner & Garcia – (1982); “The Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun” – Julie Brown (1983)
Somehow in 1981, the world really wanted to hear a medley of classical hits set to a disco beat dubbed “Hooked on Classics,” which hit the top 10 and was released by schlockmaster label K-Tel following the success of the Stars on 45 Beatles medley. Soon after, Atlanta’s Buckner & Garcia, who already knew their way around a catchy melody as jingle writers, took advantage of Gen X’s obsession with arcade games and wrote the catchy “Pac Man Fever,” gobbling sound effects and all. And using a storyline that lost much of its humor since the 1999 Columbine school shootings, Julie Brown (the comic, not the MTV VJ) released a 1984 parody song and video, “The Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun,” that mocks teen tragedy songs from the early years of rock.
Melissa’s picks: “Shaddap You Face” – Joe Dolce (1981); “Rappin’ Rodney,” Rodney Dangerfield (1980); “Valley Girl” – Frank and Moon Zappa (1982)
Though it hit No. 1 in 15 countries, Dolce’s mandolin-and-accordion inflected ditty was a particular favorite among Italian Americans who know the lingo well. Dangerfield, a comedic titan, achieved a minor chart hit that further popularized his beleaguered catchphrase “no respect, no respect” thanks to the song’s insinuating chorus. Zappa always fused musical improv, rock virtuosity and satire adeptly, and this silly guitar stomper was primarily an excuse to work with his then-14-year-old daughter, Moon.
“I’m Too Sexy” – Right Said Fred (1992); “Mambo #5” – Lou Bega (1999); “The Bad Touch” – Bloodhound Gang (1999)
In 1992, British group Right Said Fred made fun of narcissistic male models with its tongue-in-cheek No. 1 hit “I’m Too Sexy,” where he’s too sexy for his car, his hat, his cat, and yes, even this song. German singer Lou Bega in 1999 sampled 30 seconds of a 1949 mambo track by Cuba’s Damaso Perez Prado and weaved a comedic laundry list of women Bega had a “past” with into a huge worldwide hit that remains karaoke catnip to this day. The Bloodhound Gang’s 1999 alt-rock hit “The Bad Touch,” which is nonstop sexual innuendo, gets Atlanta bonus points for this lyric: “Want you smothered, want you covered/ Like my Waffle House hash browns.”
Melissa’s picks: “Barbie Girl” – Aqua (1997); “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” Eiffel 65 – (1999); “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)” – Baz Luhrmann (1999)
Barbie and Ken take the spotlight in this infectious slice of 1997 Euro pop that, in the hands of the Danish-Norwegian quartet Aqua, is high camp. Though its name reflects one of the most famous structures in Paris (nay, the world), Eiffel 65 is actually an Italian duo who turned melancholy (get it, blue?) into a synthesized dance jam. Puzzled radio DJs were tasked for months in 1997 trying to explain why Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich’s hypothetical commencement speech was turned into a spoken-word/musical creation — featuring Rozalla’s “Everybody’s Free (To Feel Good)” — by film director Luhrmann.
Rodney’s picks: “Axel F" – Crazy Frog (2005); “Chocolate Rain” – Tay Zonday (2010); "My Humps” – Black Eyed Peas (2005)
The arrival of YouTube in 2005 helped garner hit songs that were seen by an insane number of people. An early entry: Crazy Frog’s “Axel F,” which revamps the original German composer Harold Faltermeyer instrumental from 1985′s "Beverly Hills Cop” and now has a jaw-dropping 2.8 billion views on YouTube. Tay Zonday’s perplexing homespun and super sincere “Chocolate Rain” was an early viral sensation (100 million-plus views) and garnered many parody versions. On a more conventional front, the Black Eyed Peas in 2005 entered seriously dopey lyrical territory in “My Humps” with lines such as “you love my lady lumps” and “mix your milk with my cocoa puff.”
Melissa’s picks: “Laffy Taffy” – 4DL (2005); “Because I Got High” – Afroman (2000); “Sweep the Leg” – No More Kings (2007)
The Atlanta quartet that included the late Shawty Lo struck No. 1 and earned triple-platinum sales for their New Edition-sampling, innuendo-stuffed shuffle. Afroman’s ode to marijuana-induced slackerdom, powered by an aptly sluggish thump, received a spotlight on “The Howard Stern Show” before becoming a worldwide anthem. Is there any doubt that the reunion of (most of) “The Karate Kid” cast for the video accompanying the delightfully frivolous “Sweep the Leg” didn’t spark the idea for what would become “Cobra Kai”?
“Red Solo Cup” – Toby Keith (2011); “Baby Shark” – Pinkfong (2016); “Old Town Road” – Lil Nas X (2019)
Drinking songs are staples in the country world, and “Red Solo Cup” is a delightfully silly 2011 entry courtesy of Toby Keith, whose video features Craig Ferguson, Sammy Hagar, Ted Nugget and Carrot Top. South Korea’s Pinkfong struck viral gold with “Baby Shark,” a 2016 kid’s song so popular even adults who avoid kids know the catchy lyrics. And Atlanta’s own marketer extraordinaire Lil Nas X merged hip-hop and country in such a big way in 2019 that “Old Town Road” spent 17 weeks at No. 1, longer than any song in Billboard chart history, egged on by social media, a debate over its place on the country chart and a remix featuring “Achy Breaky Heart” man Billy Ray Cyrus.
Melissa’s picks: “The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?)” – Ylvis (2013); “Gangnam Style” – Psy (2012); “Barbra Streisand” – Duck Sauce (2014)
Ylvis’ wacky video has garnered more than 1 billion views on YouTube since arriving in 2013 in all of its bizarro-ness, and even now, its elementary lyrics play like “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” on acid. Kudos to South Korea’s Psy for introducing K-pop to Americans with swooping synths and playful swagger — and creating a complementary dance craze. New York’s EDM duo Duck Sauce sort of paid homage to one of the greatest divas in music history with 3 minutes and 16 seconds of a rote dance beat and a repeated drop of her name. Dopey and grating? Yes. But Streisand is forever.