Artists toil away writing entire discographies they intend to live forever, but they sometimes wind up producing only one song that no one will soon forget. We label them a one-hit wonder and eventually consider them an artifact of a bygone era.
We so focus on the one hit that we rarely consider that it was part of a larger, presumably less good album. It would have to be less good, right? Like, by definition of being a one-hit wonder the other songs the artist produced weren't as memorable?
That makes some sense, but I don't know the definitive answer to the question. That's why I'm going to try to answer it today. I want to know just what the hell was going on with the albums our most famous (and infamous) one-hit wonders came from.
Let's begin with ...
4Soft Cell, Famous For "Tainted Love"
If this is your first time hearing "Tainted Love," then you are a baby. Congratulations on being born, baby!
Welcome to Earth! You will die here someday, but at least you can look forward to hearing "Tainted Love" no less than 47,000 more times before that happens. It'll get old after a bit. But then it'll get good again and you won't know why. Because it's good but not good enough, you know? Yeah, you know. You're smart, for a baby.
The Album It Came From: Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret
First, the album cover:
That is a perv locking eyes with you as his friend is either giving or receiving questionable pornography. Something disgusting was or is about to start happening. This scene frightens children in Christian funhouses.
One-hit wonders are usually doomed to an afterlife of being played on listen-while-you-work Lite FM radio stations. Stations where only the most breezy, inoffensive, and unchallenging songs thrive for the next few decades. This can lead to a false perception: that the artists are themselves safe and unchallenging, since our only knowledge of their work is through this one commercial success. Probably the case for some. Not the case for Soft Cell, as evidenced by the album's first track, "Frustration." This poppy New Wave album kicks off with a song about a middle-aged, middle-class Average Joe who hates his life and every drop of dullness he represents. He's a man who wishes he could run off and become a drug addict and fuck everything in sight. It all culminates with the lead singer screaming, "I WANT TO DIE," over and over for the last 30 seconds of the song.
Seconds later, the immortal mega-hit "Tainted Love" fires up, a song about a relationship gone sour. It's universal. It's easy to see why it's a commercial hit. We've all lived "Tainted Love."
Song ends, then we're right into track 3, titled "Seedy Films." Can't possibly decipher what it could be about from the title? Well, let me tell ya!
It's about a person who watches a lot of porn, then one day meets a nice, real-life person they can be with, only to realize that person may have been in one of the many pornos they've jerked off to.
And then there's "Sex Dwarf," which is the title of the album's fifth track, and by sheer coincidence also the title of my upcoming ABC sitcom:
If you think "Sex Dwarf" is about the lead singer of Soft Cell having sex with a dwarf, you're the worst kind of pervert and we don't need your kind around these parts. However, if based solely on the title you guessed that it's about the lead singer of Soft Cell owning a leather-clad and leashed dwarf and parading him about town, occasionally forcing the dwarf to have sex with his chauffeur, well, that's amazing because your guess was 100 percent correct.
The weird sex stuff goes on through every track. Soft Cell's Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret is the musical version of this GIF:
When everyone's looking, it's nice and polite. When the coast is clear, it cums on everything.
3Chumbawamba, Famous For "Tubthumping"
I remember watching an episode of one of VH1's many I Love The [Decade]s on which Tom Morello from Rage Against The Machine was talking about Chumbawamba's gigantic hit single and sort-of-titular track, "Tubthumping." He offhandedly mentioned that Chumbawamba was made up of a bunch of anarchists -- literal anarchists. They're not people who bought a patch of an encircled "A" at Hot Topic. They believe in the social and political ideology of anarchism. I didn't know that's what he meant until I listened to the album from which their wondrous one-hit originated. Tom Morello's a political guy. I just figured he was using his big political brain to mock Chumbawamba the way a smarty pants would.
It turns out he was factually correct. So, yeah. Good job, Tom Morello!
The Album It Came From: Tubthumper
So Chumbawamba isn't the beer-pounding party band they come off as in their biggest hit. They're actually very serious, angry (sometimes incoherently so), and always looking to fight for something. That kind of thing can be off-putting, especially in pop music. Chumbawamba was a political band masquerading as a pop-rock band. But Tubthumper's carefully organized track order helped the band slip in their political ideology under the guise of some of the most '90s pop-rock ever recorded.
Track order can matter, and it can be used to tell a larger story even when you're not writing an insane concept album about pinball Jesus, whatever mad bullshit Tommy is about. Chumbawamba seems to have fully understood "Tubthumping" was going to be an easily accessible pop song about getting shitfaced, so they made it the first track and packed the rest of the album with politically and socially charged songs of steadily increasing intensity that built to a crescendo in the final track that, when it was finally over, made me realize I had just listened to a protest album that began as a drinking song.
If the album were a wild Friday night, it would begin with a downing of five tequila shots and a beer chaser for each, followed by incoherent rambling about which politicians should be fucked by a cactus, and it would all end with the hazy memory of taking a runny whiskey shit all over a senator's doorstep.
If any of us had heard of Chumbawamba before "Tubthumping," we would have seen their anarchic side. Here's the cover of Tubthumper:
Very '90s. It's bright, a little weird in its abstractness, but mostly harmless. Here's the cover of the album they released three years before that:
Hidden behind that pixelation is a real-life grumpy-looking baby's head as it's being pushed and pulled out of a real vagina, as photographed during a real child birth. It was sold uncensored. The album's title is Anarchy. Here's a link to the uncensored cover if you want to have flashbacks of your ninth-grade health class.
The signs of their anarchism were there, yet somehow we ignored the exploded vagina with an old man creeping out of it.