10 acts who are much better than their most popular songs

The White Stripes, Gary Clark Jr, Joan Jett and Led Zeppelin
(Image credit: White Stripes: Gie Knaeps | Gary Clark Jr: Frank Maddocks | Joan Jett: Duane Prokop | Led Zeppelin: Dick Barnatt | Background: Geralt/Pixabay)

According to Kathleen Hanna, “Popularity is totally overrated.” Going by Spotify streaming data, the following ten acts are most popular for a song that doesn’t necessarily represent them at their most inventive or uninhibited. 

There’s nothing wrong with plenty of these songs – but they don’t exhibit that emblematic thing that makes these artists who they really are in the eyes of their hard-core fans. 


The White Stripes - Seven Nation Army

On Spotify, Seven Nation Army has over six times more streams than its nearest contender (Fell in Love With A Girl), representing a runaway hit for the White Stripes. Hell, the "Glitch Mob Remix” of the song outranks most other releases. But if this song was all you knew of the band, you’d be forgiven for underestimating them. 

You wouldn’t know about the maybe-metaphorical, maybe-not serenade of a dead girl in Little Ghost. The always-adapted-to-live-performances living mammal that is Ball And Biscuit. Their heart-stomper cover of Dolly Parton’s Jolene. The White Stripes always vended weirdness wholesale, making Seven Nation Army an outlier with its familiar beat and straightforward vocals. 

Shinedown - Second Chance

Taking a page from Sugar Ray, Shinedown achieved mass mainstream popularity with a hit that sounded nothing like their previous work. As a pop song, Second Chance works. It’s melodic and sanguine. It offers a swollen chorus and earnest life lessons. 

Off these virtues and more, it became only the third song, ever, to top Billboard’s Modern Rock, Mainstream Rock, and Adult Top 40 charts. But fans looking for more of the same aren’t going to find it among the band’s 15 other singles to hit number one on Mainstream Rock. Songs like Cut The Cord and Devil are more representative of Shinedown’s aggressive true-rock sound.

Gary Clark Jr. - Come Together

Gary Clark Jr.’s cover of the classic Beatles hit is heavy and rallying and by far the sexiest rendition this song has ever known – but it’s also simplistic and commercial by comparison to Clark’s other work. Take the still-catchy but rich and anthemic Low Down Rolling Stone. Or the patient but ambitious Bright Lights. When he flaunts his lack of investment in a relationship in Don’t Owe You a Thang, it’s hilarious – and oddly rah-rah. 

Gary Clark Jr. is a consummate craftsman whose voice is as flawless on live recordings as their studio counterparts, and his skill is better displayed on songs like the breezily wistful Catfish Blues than on his most popular single. 

Radiohead - Creep

Creep became such a slam dunk for Radiohead that it overshadowed everything else they’d done, and the band famously hated the song. Guitarist Jonny Greenwood was trying to vandalise it with that memorable chunking sound that precedes the chorus. Frontman Thom Yorke went on to redo the song in an apparent effort to give fans night terrors. 

And it’s no wonder they refer to it as the time they “sucked Satan’s cock.” It hardly suggests the moody-robot ambience they embraced with Kid A or even their contemplative vibe on the more widely known Karma Police and High And Dry

Hole - Celebrity Skin

Celebrity Skin, from Hole’s studio album of the same name, manages to be bubbly and protest-y at once. It’s . . . fine. But there are much better examples of what Hole was capable of. 

There’s the relentless, discordant Teenage Whore from their Kim Gordon-produced debut album, Pretty On the Inside—maybe the first time the world got a taste of just how low, and raw, Courtney Love’s voice could go. Then there’s basically everything on the 1994 album Live Through This. The screams in I Think That I Would Die scrape the bottom of Love’s register to convert you to her frustration. The grungy guitars in Plump perfectly accompany her raspy narration of throwing dirty dishes in the baby’s crib.

Aerosmith – I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing

I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing, famously of the Armageddon soundtrack, is a divisive song for Aerosmith fans. Stickily sincere and romantic, it brought renewed attention to Aerosmith in 1998 after a lengthy dry spell. But many devotees view the song as a sellout that can’t compete with the up-tempo fun of Walk This Way, the not-mawkish sincerity of the band’s biggest crowd-pleaser, Dream On, or Sweet Emotion, which combines the band’s ability to craft a habit-forming groove with their poignant side.

Butthole Surfers – Pepper

For its supremely laid-back vocals and bummer subject matter, Pepper packs a wallop of emotion. But the Butthole Surfers weren’t the tame social commentators this lone song may have you believe. They were unhinged peddlers of junk noise, nightmares, and the kind of goofiness that’s forever dangling over the cliff of pure stupidity without dropping. 

For radio-friendly-ish examples of the Buttholes’ home sound, check out Dracula From Houston or (even better) The Shame Of Life. For an example of why Bob Gorman of GWAR called them “the closest thing to drugs without drugs I have ever known,” listen to Sweet Loaf from Locust Abortion Technician. Their cover of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s Summer in the City will give you a look at how their sonic strangeness crops up on even the most unvarnished of efforts.

Led Zeppelin – Stairway To Heaven

No one can deny that Stairway To Heaven is a technical masterpiece. But Jimmy Page himself acknowledged that his guitar work is more impressive on Achilles Last Stand, in which six tracks were overdubbed to create the song’s brimming sound. Led Zeppelin were at their most exploratory with Kashmir and their most mobilising with Immigrant Song

With its cocky opening riff and agitated guitar solo, Heartbreaker shows the band staying true to themselves even on an earworm. Whole Lotta Love, What Is And What Should Never Be, and Communication Breakdown are just a few of the songs on which Zeppelin’s laboratory spirit and martial sound combine to make crowd- and critic-pleasers. 

Joan Jett – I Love Rock ’N’ Roll

After her celebrated stint as guitarist with The Runaways, Joan Jett achieved her biggest success with a cover the Arrows’ I Love Rock ’N' Roll. While its hook is the stuff of legends, it’s broad and on-the-nose, favouring a growly approach that fails to demonstrate Joan Jett’s range. 

Her cover, with the Blackhearts, of AC/DC’s Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap proved that the song had been missing a mezzo-soprano like hers. The subtle shading of her voice is much more apparent on songs like her versions of Have You Ever Seen the Rain? and Crimson And Clover than on her most popular song.

Filter – Take A Picture

The fame-level of Take A Picture and Filter’s critically praised Hey Man, Nice Shot is close, with both more than six times more popular than Filter’s next-most-beloved song. Take A Picture is hazy and nostalgic, a great song to soundtrack emotional moments but not much of a showcase for Filter’s distinctive style. 

For an example of their brash, cluttered music and unshackled vocal roars, check out Welcome To The Fold and American Cliché. To hear them crash one of the culture’s happy-go-luckiest songs with horror-movie guitars and unsettling silences, try their cover of Happy Together

Joannie Penderwick

Joannie Penderwick writes the newsletter Okay Annie. Her essays have appeared in PopMatters, Slate, and Forge, among other publications.