Last year, we all chimed in with our favorite one-hit wonders. This year, reader Justin Stepanow has challenged us to go one better, with the following question:
What’s your favorite “other” song from a so-called one-hit wonder?
The Standells will forever be immortal for their 1966 hit “Dirty Water,” which has become a fixture of Boston sports culture as the song that’s played after every Red Sox and Bruins win. But as someone who’s not especially fond of either Boston (sorry, I had kind of a bad time there on my 21st birthday) or sports, I’m much more fond of “Medication,” the opening song off of the Dirty Water album. Where “Dirty Water” comes off as a sing-song novelty number in the “Wooly Bully” tradition at points, “Medication” lays down a much heavier vibe from its opening moments, as heavily distorted psychedelic guitars, droning organ, and the echo on vocalist/drummer Dick Dodd’s voice set a druggy, sinister tone that persists through the bouncy, shout-along chorus. The Standells’ fellow SoCal garage rockers The Chocolate Watchband also released a recording of the song in 1968, but their version lacks the testosterone-drenched swagger that has earned The Standells their place among the proto-punk gods. Plus, they were on The Munsters, and that’s awesome.
I’m not sure how I feel about Wikipedia’s designation of Devo as a “one-hit wonder,” but I’ll take the technicality if it means I get to talk up “Gut Feeling,” off the de-evolution band’s 1978 debut, Are We Not Men? We Are Devo! As with most of the oddities in my musical library, I first heard the song thanks to Wes Anderson, who included this throwback to his frequent collaborator Mark Mothersbaugh’s earlier efforts on the soundtrack to The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. Fitting the nautical theme, it’s a great, lively little piece of slowly escalating surf rock that doesn’t really open up until the two-minute mark, when the wailing, wavering vocals finally kick in, before the whole thing collapses into a chaotic burst of guitars, screaming, and noise.
Well, if we’re going to drag poor Devo into this, then I may as well invoke another egregiously misidentified “one-hit wonder” who’s had an equally enduring, influential career: Gary Numan, perhaps forever consigned by Middle America to be that android model of David Bowie who sang about “Cars,” but whose body of work—particularly his four-album run from 1978’s Tubeway Army through 1980’s Telekon—yielded many, many songs that were so much better. Hell, with “Films,” “Metal,” and “M.E.,” there are three alone on The Pleasure Principle (a.k.a. that album with “Cars”). It’s difficult to choose an absolute favorite among them, but I’ll go with “Down In The Park” from 1979’s Replicas, a moody, Philip K. Dick-inspired ballad about androids raping and killing humans for sport that somehow manages to be one of the most melancholically beautiful songs ever produced on the synthesizer. It’s a far cry from the quasi-novelty of “Cars,” and it’s no surprise that it failed to attract the sort of success that Numan’s quirky anthem of consumer detachment did in the yuppie ’80s. But it’s just one of many testaments to the brilliant sounds Numan conjured, both before and after his brief brush with pop fame. Now, let us never call him a one-hit wonder again.
I went to a state school for college in the late ’90s, so you can bet I’m familiar with “Closing Time,” the first strains of which usually rang out 10-15 minutes before the big drunken rush to the exit (although I was obviously just there for the dancing, Dad). And, having been a college-aged girl in the late ’90s, I’m more than familiar with Gil Junger’s 10 Things I Hate About You. However you feel about the perspicacity of that Taming Of The Shrew update, it has a solid soundtrack, including the other Semisonic song I can name off the top of my head: “F.N.T.” Though the internet was still kind of early goings, this wasn’t some fancy leetspeak phrase. “FNT” stands for “Fascinating New Thing,” a song whose title and lyrics are as on-the-nose as “Closing Time,” but which I can’t decide if they’re part of one big neg. “I’m surprised that you’ve never been told before / That you’re lovely, and you’re perfect, and that somebody wants you.” Also, who the hell wants to be called a “thing”? Regardless, while in the throes of my Surge addiction, I did enjoy this song.
The world has ignorantly reduced Digable Planets to their breakthrough hit “Rebirth Of Slick (Cool Like Dat),” and you need look no further than Spotify for proof: At 14.7 million streams, “Rebirth Of Slick” is the trio’s most popular song, while in the two spot, poor “Where I’m From” only has 4.2 million. Ditch that list, though, and find 1994’s Blowout Comb—unjustly a victim of Difficult Second Album Syndrome—for the transcendent “Jettin’.” While 1993’s Reachin’ (A New Refutation Of Time And Space) remains a classic of the early-’90s jazz wave of hip-hop, Blowout Comb found the trio creating a far more cohesive sound that felt less like a bunch of jazz samples shaped into songs. “Jettin’” floats on a noodly bass line, laid-back percussion, and a sample from Bob James’ “Blue Lick” as Butterfly, Ladybug Mecca, and Doodlebug’s vocals bounce around the channels. “Rebirth Of Slick” is great and everything, but it’s only a taste of what Digable Planets could do.
Akinyele is best known for his 1996 hit “Put It In Your Mouth,” a sprightly, heart-felt ode to receiving oral sex. The song’s got a great, skipping acoustic-guitar lick for a beat, and Akinyele’s enthusiasm for the subject matter is palpable, but it was pretty much doomed to “novelty song” status by its chorus alone. Still, as a rapper, Akinyele’s got cred reaching back to the heart of the golden age, with a slate of collaborations alongside Large Professor and Rob Swift. (He also debuted on Main Source’s “Live At The Barbeque” alongside another unknown rapper by the name of Nas.) Anyway, his 1993 debut, Vagina Diner, is loaded with troubling shit, not least of which is its title and cover art, but it’s also a pure product of its time, when drum loops were tight and unadorned and the notion was sacrosanct that all a rapper needed to succeed was the best flow. “Checkmate” is a tribute to this, raw and unflashy, full of double-time flows and elbow-in-your-side corny punch lines. It contains far, far fewer references to oral sex than most other Akinyele tracks, too.
There are those that will tell you that Nada Surf is actually a really good band, that they transcend the concept of “one-hit wonder” because they were always more college-rock than radio hopefuls, that you have to see them live, etc. etc. etc. But to non-members of the Nada Nation (that’s what the fans call themselves, I assume), awareness of this group begins and ends with “Popular,” their supposed one hit, that still-hilarious, witheringly sarcastic, spoken-word Weezer-second-cousin of an earworm single. And this would be the only Nada Surf song I know were it not for the, yes, college-radio semi-heavy rotation that greeted “Inside Of Love,” a winsome sing-along ballad off the group’s 2002 album Let Go that sounds almost nothing like “Popular.” I won’t make any great claims for this anthemic processed cheese, except that it provides a pretty good soundtrack for being an alienated college freshman. It’s also just good enough to make me think that I should scroll down to at least song three on the band’s Spotify most-played list. Maybe I’m a Surfer waiting to happen!
The Five Stairsteps are definitely another one of those unfortunate one-hit-wonder edge cases. The group of five soul-singing siblings from Chicago enjoyed five years of success on the Billboard R&B charts, but only one of their songs, the unassailable classic “O-o-h Child,” managed to break into the general Top 40. Before hooking up with producer Stan Vincent for that hit, the Stairsteps worked with Curtis Mayfield, who wrapped the group’s vocal harmonies in a more subdued Motown sound. My favorite track of that era is actually the Stairsteps’ first single, “You Waited Too Long.” Set against an orchestral accompaniment that shifts from fluttering sweetness to accusatory, brassy intensity, it’s a showpiece for featured singer Clarence Burke Jr., who croons his damn 16-year-old heart out and wouldn’t sound this good again until the Stairsteps finally broke away from the R&B charts.
I will go to bat for Blind Melon’s second album, Soup, as a near-masterpiece of hippie-damaged art-school Americana (I know, I’m already not selling it) from now until the end of time. Sure, everyone knows “No Rain” as the amiably easygoing chart-topper that almost surely doomed the group to “one-hit wonder” status. But on the second record, the group’s previously sun-kissed good-vibes music (let’s call it what it was: annoying jam-rock) took on a darker and harder edge, likely abetted in part by singer Shannon Hoon’s drug habit (he died shortly after the release of Soup in 1995). The music is strange and challenging and full of little moments of wondrous discovery, but the song that still gets stuck in my head on a semi-regular basis (actually, a few of them off Soup do that, but this one the most) is “Galaxie,” the opening track clearly intended to be the next hit, since it possesses a tightness and cohesion in songwriting found almost nowhere on the sprawling, exploratory album that follows. That killer riff segues into muted verses, before jagged angular chords and helter-skelter vocals drive it into the stratosphere. Great, now I’m just going to listen to the whole record again.
Thanks in no small part to a still-catchy opening bass riff, The Breeders managed to dominate the airwaves with their single, “Cannonball,” when it released in 1993. But as rad as that song remains, my true love of theirs is “Saints,” Kim Deal’s ode specifically to summer fairs, but also generally as a celebration of the grosser aspects of the season. The song is both lyrically and musically sludgy, with Deal growling about “sticky everywhere” and “crank air.” It captures the turgid quality of the season thick with people and activity that is often overlooked in romanticizing the bright, sunlit ease of summertime. Instead, Saints is all about nights when the glare from the sodium-vapor lights are scuzzed out by humidity, and gliding through air so wet frogs can reproduce in it. I love the bright playfulness of summer, but that’s only half of it. “Saints” is for the other half. For riding bikes at dusk to keep the heat from catching up to you. For lying on the floor in a cocoon of your own torpid glaze, with only a gin and tonic pressed against your forehead for comfort.