I’m not so sure one-word song titles have become a trend in music in recent years. That’s what some internet sites and researchers want you to believe. One-word song titles have existed throughout music history. It’s true they weren’t as prevalent say fifty or sixty years ago. Today, we are only more aware of them I believe because of a growing trend of creative playlists and music trivia questions posted on the net searching audience interaction. It’s not a bad thing, I’ve taken the bait for time to time, hence this new top ten list.
So anyway, what is it about one-word song titles that makes them popular or stand out more so than songs with long titles? I don’t think there is a science behind it, except to say occasionally one-word song titles are more convenient in grabbing the listeners attention. Maybe it’s also because song titles that are short and sweet are often easier to remember. Take for instance, ‘Help!’ by The Beatles or ‘Cocaine’ by Eric Clayton. Both song titles have a bold presence about them but importantly they are directly associated with the afore mentioned acts in a pop cultural sense.
In The Beatles Help! John Lennon is crying out to be heard as he seemingly drowns under the weight of fame: “Help me if you can, I’m feeling down / And I do appreciate you being ‘round /Help me get my feet back on the ground / Won’t you please, please help me?” Interestingly the inclusion of an exclamation point in the title adds more weight to Lennon’s appeal for help.
As for Clapton’s Cocaine it is easy to assume that a song title like that can give people the wrong impression. Is Clapton advocating the use of cocaine, an illegal, additive and dangerous drug? Not until you listen to it do you realise it’s an anti-drug song. That said, using the word ‘cocaine’ as a song title definitely has a certain element of bravado.
Anyway, I digress. Here are some of my favourite one-word song titles that didn’t make it on my list. In no particular order they are Substitute by The Who, Photograph by Nickelback, Venus by Bananarama, Not by Big Thief, Notorious by Duran Duran and Relax by Frankie Goes To Hollywood.
Fun fact: Did you know Nickleback’s Photograph, which was released back in August 2005 and went on to top the charts in the US, was recently used for a Google Photos campaign? Nickelback performed a one-minute parody of their song for Google and its quite funny. It just goes to show, if you come up with an inventive one-word song title, it can be etched into pop culture forever.
For this list here below I could have gone completely bonkers and made a list of the weirdest one-word song titles ever. Or we could have gone in the complete opposite direction and simply chosen the most acclaimed one-word songs ever recorded. Instead, I have chosen a happy medium here. Enjoy!
10. ‘Chandelier’ by Sia.
In the American Songwriter’s series “Behind The Song”, Australian pop sensation Sia explained how the inspiration for the song title Chandelier, apparent came from a book of song ideas wherein an image caught her attention. “When I saw a chandelier, I thought I could write a song about swinging from the chandelier. A party anthem of some sort,” said Sia. “But as I was writing it, it turned into a song about my battles with addiction, inadvertently.”
It’s fair to say Sia succeeds in writing one of the great pop songs of the 2010s, in which she details the ugly side of alcoholism and being a party girl. When her incredible vocals soar in the chorus, it is easy to imagine her taking flight and swinging from the most elaborate lighting fixture on earth. In short, as a one word song title, Chandelier is right up there in terms of originality. It definitely helps that it’s a kick-ass track.
9. ‘Everlong’ by Foo Fighters.
The Foo Fighters have a lot of memorable songs, many of them modern rock classics like Times Like These, Best Of You and My Hero. But above all others, Everlong written by Dave Grohl’s during one of the lowest periods in his life, stands foremost in my mind as one their best, if not their greatest song period. The use or meaning of Everlong for the most part is about hope and longing for a moment that might last forever. In truth, it’s also fair enough to say Everlong can be interpreted to be an ode to love. Maybe more importantly, Everlong transcends whatever Grohl’s first motivations were to become a spiritual communal singalong at Foo Fighter gigs.
8. ‘Royals’ by Lorde.
In 2013, Lorde became the biggest new name in pop with the release of her debut single Royals. Often referred to as a rebel-rousing anthem, Lorde in Royals is taking a swipe at celebrity culture. The initial inspiration for the title came from an image from the National Geographic of third baseman George Brett signing baseballs in his Kansas City Royals uniform. In and around the time of the songs release Lorde said, “I really love that word…I’ll pick a word and I’ll pen an idea to that. It was just that word that I was like, ‘This is really cool.’”
I think it’s a stretch to say Lorde was actually inspired by baseball per se. The Royals baseball shirt became a jumping off point for Lorde to incorporate that word into a song. Taking also her lifelong fascination with European Royalty, specifically the kings and queens of the middle ages and early modern era, Lorde looked to these monarchs for inspiration. To Lorde these people of noble birth were ‘rock stars’ of their day. In short, there is no getting around how influential Royals is as a pop song. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, it’s already a modern pop classic.
7. ‘Jump’ by Van Halen.
Van Halen’s Jump is a great one-word song title attached with a great motto to boot. Jump spurred us on to believe we could do anything. This song became a smash hit in 1984 and in my eyes still to this day remains their most commercial and arguably famous song. Many hardcore fans were put off by the heavy synth sound. Honestly I don’t know why many of them are still bitching about it forty years later. Eddie Van Valen was a genius who wasn’t just content being a maverick guitar. I don’t know maybe he sensed a change was due for Van Halen when he brought synthesisers to a hard rock party.
6. ‘Abracadabra’ by The Steve Miller Band.
The word abracadabra is an ancient word of unknown origins used to ward off sickness. The word in modern times is used as a party trick by magicians to make rabbits mysteriously appear out of their magic hat. That said, there is nothing profound about Steve Miller’s song Abracadabra. It became a monster hit because it appealed to people’s dumb sense of fun. The title is dumb too, but at least it is unforgettable. Obscured within the lyrics are also mild sexual undertones that still feel cringeworthy forty years later. Although it’s not Steve Miller’s greatest penned moment as a songwriter, its ridiculous vibe is still quite infectious. I’m in particular drawn to its sonic conclusion (check out the album version not the radio edit) which repurposes the sonic textures found on Fly Like An Eagle. In my mind’s eye Miller is sprinkling a bit of his own magic here as prepares his exit.
5. ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon.
Ex-Beatle, John Lennon set the bar pretty high early on for his former band mates to follow in his footsteps upon the acclaimed release of Imagine in 1971. This slow and exquisite piano-led gem was made for dreamers all around the world who shared Lennons vision for a better world. In it Lennon asks even the casual observer wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world without war and hunger. With hindsight it might seem a little on the nose or rich coming from a celebrity. But Lennon was no ordinary celebrity. It’s fair to say he was a champion of the working class. Lennon’s Imagine is also in some respects spiritual and a lesson of positive thinking. He understands that even though we are different, can’t we all still come together as one? 50 years on, Imagine as an evocative one-word song title is as powerful as ever and for that reason alone I feel deserves a place here in this top ten.
4. ‘Yellow’ by Coldplay.
Who the hell names a song Yellow!!?? Those crazy Brits, Coldplay. But more specifically Chris Martin. Seriously, it’s clever as fuck. Even though Yellow is a weird song title, it is the first song that comes to mind when I think of Coldplay. Interestingly, I’m told in almost every culture yellow is symbolic of sunshine, happiness and warmth. So what was Martin thinking about when Yellow came to mind? Apparently not much. During a break while recording their debut album, Coldplay took a break under the night sky and right there and then it was born when Martin began goofing around looking at the stars. When it came time to rejig the lyrics, it became clear that no other word worked best in place of yellow. So it stuck and became one of their biggest hits.
3. ‘Kashmir’ by Led Zeppelin.
Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant once said, “I wish we were remembered for Kashmir more than Stairway To Heaven”. Interestingly, Plant wrote the lyrics after taking a road trip with Jimmy Page on a desert road in Morocco that seemingly went on and on. I suppose the song could have easily been called by its original title Driving To Kashmir but a one-word song title like Kashmir sounded far more exotic. The magic of Kashmir, taken from the album Physical Graffiti (1975), is that it feels otherworldly in its ambition as a rousing hypnotic exploratory rock track. In my head Kashmir conjures images of an eastern mythical world; it’s very much a cinematic soundtrack to an epic movie.
2. ‘Zombie’ by The Cranberries.
Recognisable by its jangly guitar riff intro, which soon opens up in spectacular fashion into a distorted grunge-inspired anthem, Zombie is anything but the pretty pop ballads The Cranberries were known for. With a title like Zombie you would expect it to lie somewhere in between a song about an apocalyptic vision and the walking dead. Instead the cleverly titled Zombie is a protest song written by the late Dolores O’Riordan about the IRA bombings in Warrington, Cheshire, England in 1993. It became an anthem for the innocent victims caught in a cycle of violence (The Troubles) that had nothing to do with them. Still today, Zombie as a one-word song title goes along way to put a human face to something so sinister as terrorism.
1. ‘One’ by U2.
U2 has an affinity for one-word song titles (even several of their albums were released with one-word titles). Just check out these famous singles released by the band – Lemon, Vertigo, October, Gloria, Desire, Numb and Elevation. It’s difficult to say which is the best. They are all unique. But maybe just one song above all others stands as their greatest one-word song title, it’s simply called One.
The concept of the song was inspired by the hard time U2 was having late in 1990 trying to record new music for what would ultimately become Achtung Baby. In short, the Edge came up with some inspiring guitar chords for One in which soon after the entire band joined in. It’s funny how many people think One is a love song. It is instead about resignation. It’s about accepting the inevitable. Bono once said, “It’s a reminder that we have no choice.”
The song’s lyrics for the most part pose questions but in between we are reminded of some important truths. In some sense lyrics like “One life but we’re not the same / We get to carry each other, carry each other” becomes a battle cry for U2, but importantly it’s a rally call for people everywhere. Although you can decode One as a break up song, it’s vague enough that it can be interpreted as a song of hope. That’s how I like to see it. I hope you do too.