The 1990s were the Golden Age of One-Hit Wonders: Amidst the grunge stalwarts from the early part of the decade and the rise of teen pop toward the end, other random bands would strike gold with one song, become overnight sensations and just as quickly fade away into obscurity. Below is our ode to some of the best ’90s-era artists who never managed to find mainstream staying power in the United States.
A couple of quick notes before we begin, though. First: Some of these bands have had other hits of moderate stature or may have charted more successfully abroad, but the common thread that runs through them all is that one song has ultimately wound up wholly defining them in the United States. Second: This list is not ordered by how successful the songs were—otherwise “Macarena” and “Ice Ice Baby” might have had to come first. These are merely our personal favorites, with some consideration given to the overall impact the songs had on the decade at large.
Oh, and needless to say I was disappointed at having to exclude one-hit wonder classics like “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” and “Who Let the Dogs Out?”, which were both hits in 2000.
The beautiful Australian actress-turned-singer had more luck in her homeland and the U.K. than anywhere else in the world after the breakout success of “Torn,” an infectious pop song that even haters of pop music found themselves begrudgingly admitting to tolerating. However, her success has been marginal since that smash hit, especially in America, where she only managed to slightly dent the charts with 2002’s “Wrong Impression.” (Anybody remember it?) All this was undoubtedly even more frustrating for the original writers of the song, grungy contemporaries Ednaswap.
“Save Tonight” (1997)
The coolest thing about Eagle-Eye Cherry might be that he doesn’t use a stage name: His real name is legitimately “Eagle-Eye Cherry.” As the son of famous jazzman Don Cherry and the half-brother of trip-hop singer Neneh Cherry, musical blood runs in his family, but the Sweden native’s only real smash was the light acoustic ballad “Save Tonight,” which has become synonymous with his name at this point. Cherry has charted (very) modestly in the years since on various European charts, but “Save Tonight” remains his only chart appearance of any kind Stateside.
“Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1995)
Perhaps the best example of a band that exploded onto the scene out of thin air, then vanished without a trace. Can you name a single other song by Deep Blue Something? Or a better question: How many of you knew this catchy, highly recognizable song was by a band called “Deep Blue Something”? This alt-rock four-piece actually released another single, “Josey,” which managed to make the U.K. Top 40, but they were never heard from again in the U.S. or elsewhere. Their hometown of Denton, Texas, however, has gone on to produce some of our favorite musicians (Midlake, Seryn, Sarah Jaffe, Norah Jones).
“The Freshmen” (1996)
Not to be confused with The Verve, who we’ll get to later. The sleepy, soft song “The Freshman” had lyrics that contained enough angst to vaguely fit into the post-grunge fallout, painfully detailing the suicide of his girlfriend. This candid portrayal of tragedy obviously struck a chord with swarms of listeners, carrying the song to No. 5 in the U.S. It seemed this song was all The Verve Pipe had to offer, though, as the rest of their music consisted of safe, generic lite-rock that wanted to be radio singles but lacked the solid hooks. The band recently churned out a “family-friendly” children’s album.
“Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)” (1998)
It’s still kind of puzzling that Baz Luhrmann, predominantly a director and screenwriter known for films like Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet, briefly crossed over into the music industry, because he’s not a musician in any respect. His highly successful single “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)” is a spoken word piece where Luhrmann recites the poem “Wear Sunscreen” by journalist Mary Schmich (not Kurt Vonnegut, as it was so widely believed), which she wrote as a theoretical speech to a graduating class, over bright, hopeful and unobtrusive music that gives the inspirational, clever lyrics ample space to shine.
“How Bizarre” (1996)
A pop duo from Auckland, New Zealand, OMC scored a huge international hit in ’96 with “How Bizarre,” a jaunty, brass-driven tune from their album of the same name. A follow-up hit charted in their homeland but made no impact abroad. Though it already seemed OMC were history, the two members ensured this two years later after a falling out over a royalties dispute, after which lead vocalist Pauly Fuemana continued on as a solo artist under the OMC name and never produced another album anyway. Fuemana died in 2010 at the age of 40, sealing the group’s fate.
“I’ll Be There for You” (1994)
Power-pop band The Rembrandts actually did have another decently successful single at the beginning of their career, “Just the Way It Is, Baby,” but the stature and influence “I’ll Be There for You” had on the 1990s completely eclipses it. A catchy song with an instantly singable chorus, this little ditty wound up as the theme song for a little show called Friends which a few people watched on TV. The song is now usually defined as “the Friends theme song” and has kept The Rembrandts’ legacy alive in popular culture (though maybe not their name).
“Mambo No. 5” (1999)
German jazz-popster Lou Bega revitalized this “jive dance” song for a new generation, originally composed in 1949 by Pérez Prado, by adding his own lyrics and structure to the tune. At the close of the ’90s you couldn’t get away from the bright, brassy horns, slick shuffle groove and the unforgettable listing of the numerous women Bega’s character (or maybe Bega) was seeing at once. The song was contagious, rising to No. 3 in American and No. 1 pretty much everywhere else. Unfortunately, that would be the end of the line for Bega, as his next single flopped tremendously and he never charted significantly again. I distinctly remember seeing one of the Stuart Little movies in theaters and noticing a different Lou Bega song was playing over the end credits, and also noticing it was pretty much “Mambo No. 5” with different lyrics. That was the last I heard of him.
“Steal My Sunshine” (1999)
Canadian pop group Len’s main allure was the cute interplay between brother-sister Marc and Sharon Costanzo, and the band’s lone hit “Steal My Sunshine” focused precisely on that interplay, as the two playfully traded verses and interlocked melodies in the chorus over a sample of a disco song from 1976. The happy vibe of “Steal My Sunshine” was a surprise hit, even for the band, who only wound up officially releasing the song as a single a full four months after radio had started playing it. Though nothing was ever heard from Len again, the Constanzo siblings are actually still together and released a more hip-hop-oriented album, Diary of the Madmen, in 2005.
“Possum Kingdom” (1994)
The fact that “Possum Kingdom” even became a huge rock hit is strange, considering not only the darkness of its subject matter but the complexity and unusual structure of the song, featuring off-kilter riffs in irregular meters and the abrasive howl of “I will treat you well / My sweet angel / So help me Jesus” that serves as the song’s chorus. Inspired by Possum Kingdom Lake near Toadies’ native Dallas, the lyrics are sufficiently creepy and foreboding, depicting a crazed murder at the lake (which its music video effectively demonstrates). Though certain songs, over time, became modestly known on rock stations, nothing ever found its way into the limelight like “Possum Kingdom.”
“Sex and Candy” (1997)
The ultra-laid-back allure of “Sex and Candy” was undeniable when N.Y.C.’s Marcy Playground released it in ’97, a simple, dreamlike tale of first laying eyes on a beautiful woman. The abstract lyrical imagery certainly didn’t hurt: “disco superfly,” “disco lemonade,” “platform double-suede.” Sadly, Marcy Playground wouldn’t really do anything notable after that point, scraping the modern rock chart with a follow-up single before vanishing from the public eye.
“Your Woman” (1996)
One of the weirder, more cryptic singles to come out of the ’90s, “Your Woman” was an early electronica-based song prominently featuring a muted trumpet sample from an old version of Bing Crosby’s “My Woman.” That melody also sounds eerily like the Empire theme song from Star Wars. The song was accompanied by a memorable music video, reminiscent of a black-and-white silent movie. Though White Town received some critical acclaim for his later work, “Your Woman” remains his only well-known song.
“Jump Around” (1992)
At the dawn of the ’90s, blues-folk-y singer/songwriter Everlast was a rapper, and the group he fronted was called House of Pain, a Brooklyn-based hip-hop trio that also happened to include future Limp Bizkit member DJ Lethal. “Jump Around” was, and still is, a popular and immediately recognizable song, its incessant sample of a scream-like noise and old-school beat having become ubiquitous at sporting events and in various clubs. House of Pain would never break into the top of the charts again and disbanded four years later, with Everlast becoming something of a one-hit wonder as a solo artist thanks to his main hit “What It’s Like.”
“In the Meantime” (1995)
The most well-known fact about the English glam-rock revivalists Spacehog is that singer/bassist Royston Langdon was at one point married to Liv Tyler—few associate the band’s name with their only hit, the incredibly Bowie-esque “In the Meantime,” its falsetto vocal hook, surreal lyrics (“We love the all in you”) and liquid bassline catapulting it up the rock charts, even breaking into the Billboard Hot 100. Spacehog appeared to readily accept their lack of future mainstream success and turned out increasingly artier material in the late ’90s.
“You Get What You Give” (1998)
A soul-influenced L.A. group driven by lead singer and songwriter Gregg Alexander, New Radicals’ emotive, dance-influenced “You Get What You Give” made many speculate they were the next big thing back in 1998. Alexander promptly quashed the notion when he disbanded New Radicals shortly after “You Get What You Give” broke big on the charts. Consequently, the group, whose pop sensibility, elements of classic soul and provocative anti-celebrity messages hinted at greater potential, had their career cut short, with their second single “Someday We’ll Know” receiving next to no attention and their debut album remaining their only release.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.