What is the best '90s alt-rock one-hit wonder?
Earlier this week, the brand new reissue of Blind Melon’s self-titled debut album arrived in the EW offices. After giving it a few spins and discussing its worth, a handful of us in the music department came to the same conclusion many of us did back when this thing first landed in record stores: It’s terrible. “No Rain” is the only good song on there, and “No Rain” is just the worst.
However, a lot of people will defend “No Rain” simply because of nostalgia. If you’re in your late 20s or early 30s now, it’s entirely possible that “No Rain” was in super-heavy rotation when you first discovered MTV, and even if you didn’t like the song, it’s certainly a part of you now. There’s plenty of ’90s canonization going on right now, partially based on the fact that the people who were in high school in 1998 now have all of the disposable income, and partially because the Internet has made it way easier for artists well past their maximum saturation points to hold onto the fans who could develop into lifers.
Thus, we’ve been getting comebacks from ’90s icons of all sorts, from New Kids on the Block and the Backstreet Boys to Lisa Loeb and everybody on those Sugar Ray package tours. Of course, the great artists from that era have stuck with us (or moved on to other, better projects), but there are a handful of welcome comebacks, including Spacehog.
After some time spent on side projects and re-charging some batteries, Spacehog are back with a new album called As It Is On Earth coming out on April 16, and they played a tiny cobweb-shaking show at New York’s Mercury Lounge last month. I always loved them—as a huge fan of David Bowie, I always enjoyed their glam-centric approach to alt-rock.
They always deserved to be bigger than they were, but their one famous contribution to radio culture, “In the Meantime,” holds up exceptionally well. It manages to successfully merge sci-fi soul with post-grunge radio crunch, and the hook is absolutely killer. Before the show, I was with a few friends of mine at a bar, and somebody else queued up “In the Meantime” on the jukebox. As we listened to it there, and then a second time at the show, my friend turned to me and said, “This very well might be the best one-hit wonder of the ’90s.”
He may in fact be right (it’s certainly better than “No Rain”), but in order to come to some kind of conclusion, it’s necessary to examine some of the other contenders and to apply a little bit of science.
First, before we get to the list, the definition of “one-hit wonder” is different for everybody. I have talked to people who swear, for example, that Semisonic shouldn’t be lumped into that category because “Singing In My Sleep” got heavy rotation on alt-rock radio stations after the success of “Closing Time.” But in reality, the distance between those two songs is colossal: “Closing Time” spent five weeks as the number one Modern Rock track in the country in 1998 and was a big enough crossover hit to score it some traction on the Radio Hot 100, while “Singing In My Sleep” barely dented the Modern Rock chart. That doesn’t make it any less of an awesome pop tune (nor does it devalue any of the better tracks from the group’s underrated follow-up album All About Chemistry), but as far as the universe is concerned, Semisonic began and ended with “Closing Time.” It’s not fair, but neither is pop music.
So for the purposes of this list, a one-hit wonder shall be defined as a song that came to wholly define the entirety of a group’s output. It’s a technicality that accidentally disqualifies a handful of bands and songs I would have assumed were slam dunks in the grunge (and post-grunge) era: Candlebox did similar business with “You” and “Far Behind,” which makes them a two-hit wonder, and while I could have sworn that “Shine” was by far Collective Soul’s biggest smash of the era, it turns out both “December” and “The World I Know” were just as huge.
A few more disqualifications before we get started: Fastball doesn’t count because from some angles their third single “Out of My Head” was bigger than their breakout “The Way,” even though everybody only thinks about the latter when you bring up that band. Cake’s “The Distance” should have been a shoo-in, but they had a number one album only a few years ago, which has to be worth something. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ biggest song was undoubtedly “The Impression That I Get,” but I’d wager people feel way better about “Where’d You Go?” because of its inclusion in Clueless. Nine Days’ awesomely twee “Absolutely (Story of a Girl)” doesn’t count because, against all logic, it came out in 2000. The Verve Pipe don’t count because they were awful.
Here are my nominees for best alt-rock one-hit wonder of the ’90s (which is an awfully long name to put on a trophy). Nominate your own favorites in the comments below.
Spacehog, “In the Meantime”
See above. Also: See below.
Harvey Danger, “Flagpole Sitta”
Honestly, if an alien with no sense of context asked me what modern rock radio sounded like in the mid-’90s, this is the song I would play. It’s got a huge hook, it’s a little goofy, and it’s probably about mental illness. For people of a certain age, this is the song that makes people go ape at their weddings.
Butthole Surfers, “Pepper”
It’s weird to consider the Butthole Surfers in this context, as they had already ground out over a decade’s worth of grimy who-gives-a-punk by the time they dropped this spoken-word electro-rock oddity in 1996. It was an actual Top 40 pop hit despite the fact that frontman Gibby Haynes mumbles lines about losing limbs on train tracks and venereal diseases. It benefitted from something we call the Beck Effect: After the success of “Loser” (and also “Where It’s At”), everybody thought any rock-ish thing with a drum machine and some half-rapping was boss (see also Primitive Radio Gods, Fun Lovin’ Criminals, Soul Coughing, Citizen King, ad infinitum).
Dishwalla, “Counting Blue Cars”
We had a really hippy-dippy teacher at my high school who adored this song because it refers to God with a feminine pronoun. This also has a sound that I always call the hard jangle—it’s an extremely particular production style (best found on all those Gin Blossoms songs) that probably has something to do with tweeters and tape that I don’t really understand (nor can I really describe). But it’s there, and I don’t hear it very much any more.
Belly, “Feed the Tree”
Another entry from the hard jangle class, this was an unlikely heavy-rotation smash for former Throwing Muses and Breeders member Tanya Donelly’s breakaway band. Though Belly is considered the least of the bands on her resumé, both of their albums—1993’s Star and 1995’s King—hold up extremely well.
Marcy Playground, “Sex and Candy”
This song remains super weird, and yet it was probably the biggest hit among any of these tracks. Just listen to this again (and watch the creep-tastic video). Can you fathom a reality wherein this gets played on the radio today? Even still, I dare you not to be whistling this all weekend.
Marvelous 3, “Freak of the Week”
Even despite all those awesome Pink songs, this is still the best thing Butch Walker has ever done.
Superdrag, “Sucked Out”
This is one of those songs that I remember being way bigger than it actually was. Time erodes size and scope like that—in my mind, this was a gigantic hit that was inescapable for most of the middle part of 1996. But people my age often don’t recognize it, and that’s because “Sucked Out” only got as high as number 17 on the Modern Rock chart, which is barely a drop in the bucket of the big pop cultural tidal wave of ’96. Still, it’s an awesome song.
Eight seems like enough, but there are plenty that didn’t get mentioned. What are your favorites?
Read More on EW.com:
Attack of the '90s