10. Ben Folds Five
Folds has certainly enjoyed more success than most artists dubbed “one-hit wonders,” continuing to release minor singles, both with his trio Ben Folds Five and as a solo artist, but nothing ever charted near on the level of his ’97 breakout “Brick.” The melancholy piano ballad, ostensibly about a man conflicted between staying with or leaving his pregnant girlfriend, established Folds as one of the most talented, versatile pianists in rock music, even though “Brick” itself features largely simple, subdued piano work. The grim honesty of the song is palpable, and its emotional gravitas helped ingrain it in the hearts of the public, despite most of Folds’ fans treating it with disdain at the time, viewing it as a misrepresentation of the Five’s characteristically goofier, more uptempo piano rock.
9. The Breeders
The mostly-female alternative rock group The Breeders was formed as a supergroup of sorts in the late ’80s, an outlet for The Pixies bassist Kim Deal and Throwing Muses singer/guitarist Tanya Donelly, both of whom had grown frustrated playing second fiddle in their respective groups. By the time Last Splash and its hit single “Cannonball” arrived in the early ’90s, Donelly had left the fold and Deal’s twin sister Kelly had joined as second guitar. With its slippery guitar-bass interplay and signature quiet-verse-into-explosive-chorus structure, “Cannonball” was The Breeders’ only considerable hit, though Kurt Cobain consistently championed the group’s artistic merits up until his death in 1994, even helping increase the group’s exposure by selecting them as Nirvana’s opening band on a 1992 tour.
8. Stereo MCs
The British electonica/rap group actually charted even higher in the U.K. with their follow-up single “Step It Up,” but “Connected” remains by far their biggest hit this side of the Atlantic, making them a one-hit wonder at least in the U.S. Most people wouldn’t recognize the song by the title or band name, but the first seconds of the irresistible “ahh-ahh-ahhhh” vocal melody is an instant throwback to the emergent early ’90s dance sound, while vocalist Bob Birch’s hazy, druggy rap delivery takes a backseat to the super-funky, vibrant club beat.
7. Primitive Radio Gods
“Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in My Hand” (1996)
Yes, this song, known mainly for its repetitive B.B. King sample and for being famously featured in The Cable Guy, not only has a title that lengthy but is by an obscure band called Primitive Radio Gods. Hypnotic and detached, the gloomy song features a steady, unobtrusive beat akin to the falling of rain as well as some wordless vocals somewhat reminiscent of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.” Primitive Radio Gods would quickly fade into obscurity after the monster success of “Phone Booth” in the wake of logistical difficulties trying to release their next album and a failed attempt at a follow-up single. (It probably didn’t help that said single was titled “Motherfucker.”)
“What Is Love” (1993)
Haddaway, a singer of mixed Trinidadian and German descent, released this massive house single which gained a following at clubs the world over. The catchy dance song was a hit when it initially dropped—Haddaway probably didn’t anticipate the additional huge success “What Is Love” would go on to achieve on top of that a few years later as the theme music to the Roxbury sketches on Saturday Night Live (and subsequently the movie Night at the Roxbury), which have, in effect, immortalized the song as Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan’s absurd disco-fied anthem. Haddaway scored a minor second hit with “Life,” which charted well in Europe, but due to the ubiquity of “What Is Love” in the years since its release he is remembered almost exclusively for the song.
“Closing Time” (1996)
The subject matter of this song alone guaranteed “Closing Time” easy airplay, an ode to all the drunks out until last call at bars—and indeed the song is often played at bars right around “closing time” to this day. Add a relentlessly catchy chord progression and strong chorus to the mix, and it’s little surprise the song was the massive success it was. With the repeated mantra of the title, “Closing time,” the song became a singalong favorite that sounds better the more one’s had to drink. Semisonic would try to recapture the success of “Closing Time” but failed to gather much steam. However, the band continued to make grungy-poppy music together for another decade, announcing an indefinite hiatus in 2006.
In Chumbawamba’s case, it makes sense that “Tubthumping” (often misidentified as “I Get Knocked Down” thanks to its chorus) was their only international smash: Aside from this brief foray into the mainstream, the British collective have built a career advocating socialism and opposing corporate activity, racism and war. Granted, such a fiercely independent band releasing such an accessible, dance-oriented album was seen by many in Chumbawamba’s fanbase as hypocritical and wrong. That didn’t stop the rest of the world from latching onto “Tubthumping,” featuring a raucous chorus, tasteful trumpet solo and unforgettable lyrics full of British idioms that confused Americans (“pissing the night away”) and references to good ol’ alcohol (the famous succession of whiskey, vodka, lager and cider drinks that has no doubt inspired many a fraternity drinking game). Chumbawamba’s next album, WYSIWYG, would prove to be an inaccessible release that purposely alienated the public, consisting of 23 short, half-formed tracks that flowed together like one gigantic weird sound collage and produced no potential singles.
3. Blind Melon
“No Rain” (1992)
With a distinctive, psychedelic take on alternative rock that vaguely recalled the grunge bands of the era but was distinctly separate, Blind Melon had one song that swept the charts: “No Rain,” a song much lighter in structure and feel than most of the group’s work, highlighted by gorgeous guitar work and singer Shannon Hoon’s high-pitched, slightly uneasy delivery. The music video is one of the more memorable ’90s videos as well, featuring a sad, outcast little girl in a bee costume who struggles to find her own definition of happiness. Sadly, any future chance for Blind Melon to capitalize on the success of “No Rain” for the band disappeared when Hoon overdosed on cocaine in 1995. This didn’t stop the remaining members of Blind Melon from eventually carrying on without him a decade after his death, but commercial recognition never returned.
2. Harvey Danger
“Flagpole Sitta” (1997)
The irreverent, often humorous attitude of Seattle’s Harvey Danger endeared the group to the public, at least for a brief period: Their infectious anthem to modern-day hysteria “Flagpole Sitta” found a home largely due to its wry observations on contemporary culture (“I’d like to turn off time / And kill my mind”) and witty wordplay (“Now I’m an amputee, god damn you”), as well as its simple three-chord riff played with the utmost ferocity. It’s kind of a shame Harvey Danger never struck gold with any of their other songs, as they’re some of the more clever lyricists to emerge from the 1990s and remained musically adventurous, but “Flagpole Sitta” remained their one and only staple. Perhaps frustrated with being pegged as a one-hit wonder, Harvey Danger broke up in 2009.
1. The Verve
THE SONG: “Bitter Sweet Symphony” (1997)
The Verve developed a reputation as an adventurous, critically acclaimed band, but internationally the only song of theirs that made a tremendous splash was the lush, orchestral “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” whose emotional string arrangement and, yes, bittersweet atmosphere paint a vivid picture of a foggy, rainy day in London. The song’s sound created just about as much public interest as the legal debacle with The Rolling Stones that ensued: The Verve had sampled a piece of an orchestral adaptation of the veteran rock band’s song “The Last Time” for use in “Bitter Sweet Symphony.” Though the sample was small, the Stones deemed it too big anyway once they saw how well the single and corresponding album Urban Hymns was selling on a global scale. Thus, though most of “Bitter Sweet Symphony” was an original composition by The Verve, the Rolling Stones’ copywriters demanded 100 percent of the song’s royalties, which was granted, effectively robbing The Verve of all money made off “Bitter Sweet Symphony” (which, if you’ve ever heard those keening strings in the dozens of commercials it’s been in, or seen Cruel Intentions, adds up to a lot). This situation, coupled with already acrimonious internal band tension, meant The Verve were doomed: They broke up just a year after “Bitter Sweet Symphony” was released, reuniting briefly in the late 2000s for a one-off album and tour before splitting up again.