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Sleeper Hits: Songs That Became Popular Years Later

Updated: Nov 14, 2023

When something in the entertainment industry, be it film, music, TV, or some other form of entertainment doesn’t fit success upon its initial release but becomes a success later in life, we call it a "sleeper hit." This is not to be confused with entertainment that develops a cult following years later. They sometimes overlap, but the media can be a sleeper hit without having a cult following. Sleeper hits are usually met with respect when they reach popularity years later because they often have a low budget and little to no marketing upon initial release. Yet despite this, they become vastly popular seemingly out of nowhere once the media finds its audience and their place on the charts years later. It’s so interesting to me when this happens because my first question is always, what changed? While there are plenty of sleeper hits to dig into when looking at film, since our blog is music-based, I’ll be focusing on music, of course!

Looking at songs that gained traction years later, there isn’t one sole reason why it happens. Sometimes, as I said earlier, it finally reaches the audience it was meant for. Sometimes, it’s just one radio station, TV show, or movie using the song, turning others onto it when they may not have known the song before. Other times, it’s just luck. Or because of a meme. Because we are in a time now where if a song is used for a meme or a Tik Tok trend, it can be thrown back into the spotlight after falling into obscurity. Gary Trust, the senior director of charts at Billboard has said about songs hitting the charts years later, "In the digital era, it's much easier than ever before for music fans to be exposed to older songs that might've been overlooked the first time around” (Source).

I’ve put together a list of songs that fall into the category of sleeper hits, but you’ll see that the reasons why they got popular (for the first time or again) can vary. Let’s take a look at these sleeper hits and go over what helped boost their popularity.

“Running Up That Hill” – Kate Bush

If you’re into the Netflix show Stranger Things, you know I had to include this one. When we’re talking sleeper hits, how did this song sleep for a long time?? 37 years to be exact. Released in 1985, there are few people today who haven’t heard “Running Up That Hill” at least once. This is thanks to Stranger Things. The show not only used Bush’s song but used it for one of the most pivotal scenes in the fourth season, making “Running Up That Hill” the show’s character Max’s favorite song that helps keep her grounded. Its use in the show was very powerful and fit the show’s setting, which is the 1980s. It’s thanks to the show’s usage of it that it found popularity nearly 40 years later, reaching number one, a feat it never reached upon its release. It made it to #3 in the UK, but never the #1 spot.

It last appeared on the Billboard Hot 100 in the US, in January 1986, and originally peaked at #30. In 2022, it charted at #4, making it Bush’s first top 10 hit in the US. It has reached number one in other countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, and Switzerland, and made it to #1 on the Billboard Global 200. “Running Up That Hill” now holds the title in the UK for longest-running sleeper hit, a title formerly held in 2021 by Wham! for their Christmas song “Last Christmas” which hit number one 36 years after its release. Kate Bush (62) has also become the oldest female artist ever to score a UK number one.

When interviewed, Bush said she’s been “overwhelmed by the scale of affection and support” for the song as she thanked fans for making the track number one. She also praised the creators of the popular horror drama for “bringing the song into so many people’s lives.” (Source). Thanks to the resurgence of “Running Up That Hill”, Kate Bush has also seen her other songs make it back onto the charts. While Bush had some popularity in the 80s, it was never to the scale that the use of her song in Stranger Things has brought to her.

“Running Up That Hill” shows that a song is never too old to reach number one.

"Africa"- Toto

Okay, now before you come for me, I know this song was a big hit in its own right in the 1980s. I decided to cheat a little bit by putting it on this list because of the recent resurgence it had thanks to the 2019 Weezer cover album, which included a cover of Toto’s “Africa.” This song has always been a part of society, appearing for years in TV shows and movies, but the 2019 cover introduced a whole new generation to the song.

Between 1982 and 1983, “Africa” was huge. In the US, it topped the main Billboard chart, and it reached number 3 in the UK. It has sold over 6 million copies in the US. The Weezer cover peaked at number 51 on the Billboard Hot 100 and this helped others return or discover the original. Since the resurgence, “Africa” has been certified eight times platinum. In 2021, it was listed at No. 452 on Rolling Stone's "Top 500 Best Songs of All Time," and for good reason!

Interesting fact: In January 2019, a sound installation was set up in an undisclosed location in the Namib Desert to play the song on a constant loop. The installation is powered by solar batteries, allowing the song to be played indefinitely (Source). Two years later, the song reached 1 billion plays on Spotify.

Thanks to covers, memes, and TV shows using the song, it remains a timeless classic.

"Master of Puppets" – Metallica

This one may seem surprising given how respected and loved this album is today, but believe it or not, it took a bit for their 1986 song “Master of Puppets” off the album of the same name to gain the massive popularity it has now. When Master of Puppets came out in July 1986, it only debuted at No. 128 on the Billboard album chart. That may sound lackluster, but it wasn’t like they weren’t selling records. In fact, it sold 300,000 copies in its first three weeks – according to Billboard. It wasn’t until they opened for Ozzy Osbourne on his tour that the album peaked at No. 29 thanks in part to tremendous exposure from it. Master of Puppets remained on the Billboard album chart for 72 weeks and by November 4, 1986, Metallica had their first gold record (Source). While this is one of the shorter sleeper hits, it’s still fascinating to think it didn’t find popularity in the charts until months later despite Metallica being very popular at the time among metalheads.

The album was certified platinum in 1988 and it has maintained popularity over the years even as the band’s sound evolves. In 2003, the album went sextuple platinum. Most recently, it regained attention and popularity with the younger generation thanks to – once again! – Stranger Things. “Master of Puppets” was featured in the final episode of the fourth season where the character Eddie Munson plays the song as a distraction in the Upside Down. The song being featured in the finale helped it return to the charts in the US and UK for the first time since the song's original 1986 release. It reached #40 on The Billboard Hot 100 the same month the finale aired, and it even recently peaked at number four in the Netherlands. Metallica was thrilled with the show’s usage of the song and called the scene epic. The power of a popular TV show.

“Truth Hurts” – Lizzo

My mind was blown when I learned that Lizzo’s hit “Truth Hurts” was not a recent release. Despite making it big on the charts in 2019, the song actually came out in September 2017. At that time, it didn’t chart well. It wasn’t until the song was featured in the 2019 romantic comedy film Someone Great that it made waves. The song was released in 2019 and debuted at the number 50 position on the Billboard Hot 100. What also helped propel the song into the spotlight was the music video going viral. The video featured Lizzo in a "wedding-gone-wild" concept. “Truth Hurts” also became popular on Tik Tok, specifically for the lyric, “I just took a DNA test, turns out, I'm 100 percent that bitch” which was lip-synced or referenced in a number of Tik Toks. Thanks to all these things, by September 2019, the single had reached number one on the chart. The music video has been viewed over 290 million times as of August 2022.

While it’s a combination of all these things, it could also be the time. Even though it was only a matter of two years, society has evolved and continues to evolve. According to Paper magazine's Michael Love Michael, Lizzo's sleeper hit can also be explained by a more inclusive pop culture since the song's original release: "Black women are more visible than ever on magazine covers; fashion is having broader conversations about size, racial, and ethnic diversity. Lizzo's presence in these spaces signals a future of greater inclusion” (Source).

“Mr. Brightside” – The Killers

This song has had people singing at the top of their lungs for the last 20 years. It’s one of those songs from the 2000s that has remained on the charts long after its release. You might be surprised to hear that when it was first released on September 29, 2003, it didn’t really chart. It didn’t hit any sort of popularity until it was re-released in 2004. That year, “Mr. Brightside” peaked at number 10 in both the United States and the United Kingdom and sold over 3.5 million copies, their best-selling song in the US. It is the longest-charting single on the UK Singles Chart Top 100, with 307 weeks (5 years, 10 months) on the chart as of March 2022. It’s also the most streamed track released prior to 2010.

Some other fun facts/stats about the song:

  • "Mr. Brightside" entered the Billboard Hot 100 at #40 on February 12, 2005, and peaked at No. 10 on June 11.

  • In 2005, "Mr. Brightside" was the sixth most downloaded song on iTunes.

  • It is one of the top fifteen most downloaded rock tracks ever in the United Kingdom.

The Killers really blew up after “Mr. Brightside” and are now considered one of the essential bands when talking about indie rock/emo from the 2000s. Like with Lizzo, it seems that if at first, it doesn’t chart, try again with a re-release and it may hit the second go around.

“Never Gonna Give You Up” – Rick Astley

When Rick Astley released “Never Gonna Give You Up” in 1987, I’m sure he never dreamed that his song would someday be turned into a verb. Anyone who keeps up with internet trends and memes knows that this song has become its own meme. The term “rickrolled” is a term used in the world of memes to describe when a link is posted pretending to be something else, and when the person clicks on it, it redirects you to Astley’s music video for “Never Gonna Give You Up.” It was the ultimate prank in the 2000s.

Much like “Africa”, Astley’s song “Never Gonna Give You Up” was pretty popular in the 80s. It was a worldwide number-one hit, initially in the United Kingdom in 1987, where it stayed at the top of the chart for five weeks and was the best-selling single of that year. It eventually topped the charts in 25 countries, including the United States and West Germany. The reason I wanted to include it here is because of how much the internet propelled it back into the spotlight. The music video saw a huge spike in views on YouTube thanks to the “rickroll” trend. Since being formally uploaded to YouTube (it’s assumed prior to that was fan-made creations for the initial redirects in the mid-2000s) on 24 October 2009, the video has received over 1.2 billion views and 14 million likes; it surpassed the 1 billion views milestone on 28 July 2021, 34 years and 1 day after the song was released (Source).

Astley has taken the song’s rise to memedom with stride, usually playing into it. He appeared in the 2008 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, interrupting a song performed by those on a float promoting the Cartoon Network show Foster's Home For Imaginary Friends with a lipsynched performance of "Never Gonna Give You Up.” He also more recently remade part of his music video for a CSAA Insurance Group commercial in August 2022. He’s fortunate that so many people love the song, even if it’s to laugh at it. What’s not fortunate is that Rick Astley hasn’t received much money for the billion views his video has given YouTube. Give the man his money!

For as long as the internet and meme culture breathe, they are never gonna give Astley up either.

“Straight Outta Compton” – N.W.A.

This N.W.A. song came onto the scene in 1988 with lots of love in the hip-hop scene, but little to none in the radio scene and charts. Much of their music saw little airplay since N.W.A was banned from many radio stations in the 1980s. Because of this, the song never made it to any top 40 charts. Until 2015, that is. In 2015, "Straight Outta Compton" debuted at number 38 on the Billboard Hot 100, and it was because of the recent release of the Straight Outta Compton movie created by the group. That week, it was the highest debut on the charts. 27 years later, N.W.A got their first top 40 hit song. This also happened 24 years after the group originally disbanded.

Due to the radio restrictions at the time, this song never got to chart as it should have, so it’s great that they were finally able to achieve that thanks to their film. Media can make a huge difference when it comes to the popularity of songs.

“What a Wonderful World” – Louis Armstrong

We think of Louis Armstrong as a classic and legendary artist now, but Armstrong didn’t have that level of popularity at first. This is mostly because of his record company ABC Records. “What a Wonderful World” didn’t originally get much airplay in the US because Larry Newton, the owner of ABC Records, tried to intervene in its recording and refused to promote it upon release in 1968 (Source). It was a minor hit in smaller circles, reaching only #116 on the US chart in 1968. Despite this, in other countries, it saw great success, reaching #1 in the UK and parts of Europe. It took almost 20 years before Armstrong saw traction for the song in the US. In 1988, “What a Wonderful World” was used in the Robin Williams film Good Morning Vietnam, and it was from that usage that it became a classic. In 1988, “What a Wonderful World” hit number 32, and over time it became an essential staple in radio formats.

Since its 1980s resurgence, it has been rerecorded by many artists. Sadly, Louis Armstrong didn’t live to experience the success of his song because he died in 1971. The US might have taken a while to find merit in “What a Wonderful World” but today, it’s considered a classic, and it may never have gotten there if not for its inclusion in Good Morning Vietnam.

What’s so interesting about this topic is that there are so many songs that can fit into this category. There are so many songs that found their audience and popularity beyond their initial release. If you’d like to see part 2 of this post, let me know! There are absolutely enough examples out there to create one. Keep an eye out for a post in the future on songs made popular thanks to memes because that’s definitely a listicle I want to put together. Thanks for reading, and I hope you liked this list. Until next time!

Written by Kristen Petronio


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