Skip to main content

A History of Alt-Rockers Getting Writing Credits on Hot 100 No. 1s by Other Artists

Over his 30-year career, Trent Reznor has put together a resumé to rival just about any of his alt-rock peers. But it wasn't until this week that he finally could claim a piece of a No. 1 hit on the…

Over his 30-year career in the rock mainstream, as the driving force behind Nine Inch Nails and as a solo artist, Trent Reznor has put together a resumé to rival just about any of his peers: hit singles and videos, mutli-Platinum albums, festival headliner slots, Grammys and even a Golden Globe win. But it wasn’t until this week that he finally could claim a piece of a No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. 

On the Hot 100 dated April 13, Lil Nas X‘s runaway smash hit “Old Town Road” replaces Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings” at the summit. It’s the first No. 1 for Lil Nas X, of course, but it’s also the first No. 1 for Reznor (and frequent collaborator Atticus Ross) in any capacity, as Nine Inch Nails’ 2008 instrumental “34 Ghosts IV” was sampled by producer YoungKio for the song’s dusty trap beat. (Reznor and Ross also boast co-producing billing on “Road”; they share writing credit with Lil Nas X.)


Reznor is hardly the first renowned figure from the alt-rock world to back door his way into a Hot 100 No. 1 hit, though: Many other alternative veterans scored a writing credit on a No. 1 via later co-writes and samples from other artists — often after going most of their own careers without landing a chart-topper on their own.

With a quick hat-tip first to artists like Greg Kurstin (Geggy Tah, The Bird and the Bee), Andrew Wyatt (Miike Snow) and Justin Tranter (Semi-Precious Weapons), who have eclipsed their alt success to become some of contemporary top 40’s most in-demand songwriters, here’s a chronology of alt-rockers who’ve slid into the credits of others’ No. 1 hits over the years. 

1984: Trevor Horn (The Buggles) on Yes’ “Owner of a Lonely Heart”

A sort of precursor to the Kurstins and Tranters of today, Trevor Horn achieved brief success as a new wave frontman before becoming one of the most prolific behind-the-scenes figures in ’80s pop. But Horn did achieve one pop culture perennial with The Buggles before retreating into the shadows: “Video Killed the Radio Star,” a 1981 Hot 100 top 40 hit, whose video became the first clip ever to be played on MTV. Though Yes’ prog-goes-’80s smash “Owner of a Lonely Heart” was his only No. 1 as a writer, he scored a second as a producer on Seal’s “Kiss From a Rose” in 1995, and also contributed to seminal synth-pop works for ABC, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Pet Shop Boys and plenty more. 

1985: Chris Hughes (Adam and the Ants) on Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”

Hughes rose to prominence in the early ’80s as the drummer for U.K. new wave stars and early MTV fixtures Adam and the Ants, also producing their acclaimed Kings of the Wild Frontier and Prince Charming LPs. The group never found much Hot 100 success — though frontman Adam Ant would score a trio of top 40 hits after going solo in ’82 — but Hughes began an extremely successful partnership with synth-pop breakouts Tears for Fears, producing their mid-’80s classics The Hurting and Songs From the Big Chair. He also scored a co-write credit on the single that would go on to be the group’s biggest: “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” a No. 1 in June 1985. 

1988: Sean Oliver (Rip Rig & Panic) on Terrence Trent D’Arby’s “Wishing Well” 

Sean Oliver didn’t get anywhere near the Hot 100 with his original outfit, early-’80s Bristol sextet Rip Rig & Panic, who drew strong reviews but minimal sales for their free jazz-influenced post-punk. Following the group’s 1985 dissolution, Oliver worked as a session musician for New York singer-songwriter Terrence Trent D’Arby, with whom he wrote the buoyant, synth-whistling “Wishing Well.” The song reached No. 1 in May 1988, but Oliver tragically died of sickle cell anemia shortly after, in 1990. He wasn’t the only Rip Rig & Panic alum to achieve major chart success: Frontwoman Neneh Cherry scored a pair of Hot 100 top 10s, including the No. 3-peaking “Buffalo Stance” in 1989.

1991: Lenny Kravitz on Madonna’s “Justify My Love”

Retro-rocker Lenny Kravitz broke through in the late ’80s, with his psychedelic-tilting Let Love Rule album and its title track (a top five Alternative Songs hit), and grew into one of rock’s most consistent superstars over the course of the ’90s. But while he got as high as No. 2 on the Hot 100 as a solo artist, with the 1991 soul-pop ballad “It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over,” he only reached No. 1 with a mostly spoken-word song he co-wrote with Prince protégé Ingrid Chavez, which he ultimately co-produced as “Justify My Love” for global superstar Madonna, a chart-topper in January 1991. (Chavez later sued Kravitz after she went uncredited as a writer on the recording; the two settled out of court.) 

1991: Gary Kemp (Spandau Ballet) on P.M. Dawn’s “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss”

While Spandau Ballet is best-remembered today for its mid-’80s run of sophisti-pop hits, the group started out as an edgier new wave act, rising to prominence with the nervy U.K. hits “To Cut a Long Story Short” and “Chant No. 1 (I Don’t Need This Pressure On)” at the decade’s beginning. Of course, it was the blue-eyed soul ballad “True,” sung and written by frontman Gary Kemp, that ended up the act’s highest-charting work — hitting No. 4 on the Hot 100 in 1983 — and also its most-sampled, starting with art-rap duo P.M. Dawn’s lift of the track‘s chorus sighs and crystalline guitar riff for their own lush pop smash “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss,” a Hot 100-conqueror in November 1991. Those sighs would show up on another hit 16 years later, when R&B singer Lloyd borrowed them for the hook to his No. 9-peaking “You” in 2007. 

1995: Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz (Tom Tom Club / Talking Heads) on Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy”

Weymouth and Frantz achieved alt-rock godliness early in their careers, as the bassist and drummer for New York punk-era greats Talking Heads, who made it as high as No. 9 on the Hot 100 (“Burning Down the House,” 1983). The married rhythm section later spun off into the dancier, poppier Tom Tom Club, which scored a number of underground club hits and one top 40 crossover success, with 1981’s delirious “Genius of Love.” That song only peaked at No. 31, but Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” — which sampled the song’s irresistible chirping synth-funk groove — did it 30 better, topping the Hot 100 in September 1995. In addition to Weymouth and Frantz, TTC bassist Steven Stanley also received a writing credit on “Fantasy,” as did famed session guitarist Adrian Belew, who parted with the group after its first album. 

1997: Malcolm McLaren on Mariah Carey’s “Honey”

McLaren’s alt-rock cred as a recording artist may be minimal, as his best-known works have mostly been rap-flavored club fare like “Buffalo Gals” and “Hey DJ” (featuring hip-hop radio crew The World’s Famous Supreme Team). However, he’s likely best remembered in history for his non-musical contributions to the rises of punk paragons New York Dolls and The Sex Pistols, and new wave hitmakers Bow Wow Wow, serving as manager for all three acts. In any event, he earned a credit on Mariah Carey’s Butterfly lead single (and September ’97 Hot 100-topper) “Honey,” whose more hip-hop-influenced sound marked a minor reinvention for the pop diva, and which sampled “Hey DJ” for its infectious bounce. 

2001: Flea and John Frusciante (Red Hot Chili Peppers) on Crazy Town’s “Butterfly”

Hard as it may be to believe, L.A. rap-rock outfit Crazy Town topped the Hot 100 with its first (and last) hit on the chart — something that alt-rock titans Red Hot Chili Peppers couldn’t do in any of their 14 visits. (Like Lenny Kravitz, they came one spot away, with 1992’s “Under the Bridge” being held at No. 2 by the reign of Kris Kross’ teen-rap phenom “Jump”). Indeed, Crazy Town’s “Butterfly” sailed all the way to the top in March 2001, riding on the zephyr of the gorgeous breakdown to Chili Peppers’ 1989 instrumental “Pretty Little Ditty,” performed by bassist Flea and guitarist Frusciante. RHCP have suffered a similar fate overseas, where both 2002’s “By the Way” and 2006’s “Dani California” stalled at No. 2 on the Official U.K. Singles chart, but girl group All Saints’ cover of “Under the Bridge” hit No. 1 in 1998. 

2009: Imogen Heap on Jason Derulo’s “Whatcha Say”

English singer-songwriter Imogen Heap spent the ’00s mostly on the fringes with her experimental indie-pop, both solo and as part of electronic duo Frou Frou. But she had a couple dalliances with the mainstream — most prominently with vocodered a capella ballad “Hide & Seek,” which was memorably used in the season two finale of primetime teen soap The O.C. (and its subsequent viral SNL parody), and then sampled by pop singer Jason Derulo for the hook to his Hot 100-topping 2009 debut single “Whatcha Say.” While Heap herself has yet to grace the Hot 100, she’s continued to attract the attention of pop’s biggest stars, working with Taylor Swift on her 1989 closer “Clean,” and having her “Goodnight and Go” covered by Ariana Grande on 2018’s Sweetener

2011: Dan Wilson (Semisonic) on Adele’s “Someone Like You”

Dan Wilson was ensured pop/rock immortality in 1998 with the release of his band Semisonic’s last-call singalong “Closing Time,” an Alternative Songs chart-topper and a No. 11 hit on Billboard‘s Radio Songs airplay chart. (It was commercially unavailable as a single at the time and thus ineligible for the Hot 100 in ’98.) But after the band split early in the 2000s, Wilson pivoted to writing and producing for others — most prominently scoring co-writes on the Dixie Chicks’ Grammy-winning protest anthem “Not Ready to Make Nice” in 2006, and Adele’s heartbroken ballad “Someone Like You” a half-decade later, which earned Wilson his first No. 1 hit as a writer in September 2011. (Wilson recorded versions of both songs on his Re-Covered set in 2017.) 

2012: Josh Ramsay (Marianas Trench) on Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe”

While Marianas Trench have never managed a tremendous impact on alt-rock audiences stateside, in their home country of Canada, the band has been pop-punk stars for over a decade, with four straight top 10 LPs on the Billboard Canadian Albums chart. No matter what country you live in, though, chances are good that you know at least one song featuring the penwork of frontman Josh Ramsay: Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe,” a four-quadrant pop smash and nine-week Hot 100 No. 1 beginning in June 2012. Ramsay has yet to write any singles nearly that big since, but he did get credits on deep cuts from mid-’10s albums from major rock acts Nickelback and 5 Seconds of Summer

2017: Jack Antonoff (fun. / Bleachers) on Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do”

Unlike all the other figures on this list, Jack Antonoff has scored a Hot 100 as a performer with his own band, as New York trio fun. took its surprise crossover hit “We Are Young” all the way to the top of the chart in 2012. The group went on indefinite shortly afterwards, however, and while he’s continued to find alt-rock success with his side outfit Bleachers, Antonoff has made his most pronounced impact on the pop world via his work as a writer-producer for stars like Lorde, Lana Del Rey, Troye Sivan and Taylor Swift. It’s the latter artist who got Antonoff to No. 1 for the second time, with their co-written “Look What You Made Me Do” besting the Hot 100 in September 2017. 

2019: Anthony Rossomando (Dirty Pretty Things) on Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s “Shallow”

After filling in on guitar for U.K. indie heroes The Libertines during co-founder Pete Doherty’s brief period of incarceration, Anthony Rossomando went on to join Dirty Pretty Things, led by Doherty’s Libertines partner Carl Barât. The group had minimal U.S. success but scored a No. 3 album in its home country with debut Waterloo to Nowhere, led by the top five hit single “Bang Bang You’re Dead.” After two albums, the group disbanded, and Rossomando focused on composing for film and television. In 2018, he met Lady Gaga via mutual friend (and pop superproducer) Mark Ronson, and the three — along with Andrew Wyatt — ended up composing A Star Is Born power ballad “Shallow,” eventually winning Rossomando an Oscar for best original song this February, and landing at No. 1 on the Hot 100 just after. 

2019: Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) on Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road”

According to Rolling Stone, 20-year-old Atlanta rapper Lil Nas X had never heard Nine Inch Nails when he paid $30 for the YoungKio-produced beat to what eventually ended up becoming his viral hit “Old Town Road.” But for essentially all of the ’90s and ’00s, Reznor was the driving force between one of the most consistently successful acts in alternative, industrial rock symphonists Nine Inch Nails. Though the group had some of the era’s most recognizable hits on modern rock radio and MTV — “Head Like a Hole,” “Closer,” “Hurt” — they only hit the Hot 100’s top 40 once, with 1999’s less-remembered, No. 17-peaking “The Day the World Went Away.” But now, Reznor and frequent co-composer Atticus Ross are finally credited on the No. 1 song in the country, thanks to “Old Town Road” swiping the rusty guitar scrapes of NIN’s 2008 instrumental “34 Ghosts IV.”