5 One-Hit Wonders Who Deserve Your Respect: Part 2
A few weeks ago, my fellow columnist Adam Tod Brown did something I've always wanted to do: he sat down and had dinner with me. But shortly after that, he also wrote an article called 5 One-Hit Wonders Who Deserve Your Respect. I was jealous. He got to hang with me and write cool columns? I got my laptop, a Pop-Tart, and a full-length mirror. Then I sprang into action.
Now let's remember the rules so no one's head explodes. Regardless of their talents, the following artists have had only ONE major pop hit (in the U.S., at least). So PLEASE don't write angry messages and comments about how these one-hit wonders are actually like super talented, because that's kind of the point.
One more side note. One of my favorite bands, New Zealand's Crowded House, is not on this list. Why? Because they had two big hits in America: "Don't Dream It's Over," which everyone still remembers, and "Something So Strong." But just for the record, even though only their first album was a big commercial success here, they had a huge career in Europe, they're kings of Australia and, arguably, every single album they've made is better than the one before. Lastly, frontman Neil Finn is adorably batshit insane on Twitter.
I've never met Bobby McFerrin, but I have a hard time believing he isn't one of the coolest men alive. Although he'd already won Grammys for his jazz vocal performances, most of the world didn't know who Bobby McFerrin was until he exploded onto the pop charts in 1988 with "Don't Worry, Be Happy." If you weren't there for it, I'm not sure I can fully explain how much the world lost its mind for this song and the video featuring Mr. McFerrin, Robin Williams and Bill Irwin. (Oh, if it helps the kids reading, Bill Irwin is Mr. Noodle from Sesame Street!) There were "Don't Worry, Be Happy" bumper stickers, and buttons and posters and books.
He made every sound in that song with his mouth, and affected a silly accent for the lead vocals (McFerrin was born and raised in Manhattan), but most of his new fans assumed he was just some Jamaican guy who got lucky. But Bobby McFerrin is not on this list because of his many talents. Bobby McFerrin deserves your admiration because he chose to be a one-hit wonder. He never tried to replicate his massive success. He never tried to do a sequel. He always said that the song was a one-off thing he did strictly for fun and not something he had any interest in repeating.
Let me make this even more impressive. McFerrin made this statement in the '80s -- the greediest sell out decade in modern history. The '80s saw brave rock pioneers like David Bowie turn to pure pop shit for his '85 and '87 albums. It was the decade where Bruce Springsteen, the most earnest rocker of all time, danced with Courteney Cox on stage, married a supermodel and released the genuinely cheesy album "Tunnel of Love."
Bobby McFerrin stopped at one in the '80s. It would be like if Wendy's made one "Where's the Beef?" commercial, if Stallone made one Rocky, if I thought about having sex with The Facts of Life girls just one time.
Well, not all of them.
Can you imagine the kind of pressure he faced to release another novelty song? It didn't even have to be good. He could have whipped out a turd just different enough and hit gold. Something like, I don't know, "Thank God, it's Friday":
Today my car won't start, then my lady, she break my heart/Thank God, it's Friday
My cone just lost its scoop, in my bed, my dog just poop/Thank God, it's Friday.
Thank God, it's Friday! Everybody!
La, la, la, la-di-da, la-di-da, la-di-da, la-di-da ...
Having just composed that song in under fifteen seconds, I can't believe it doesn't exist for real. There's no doubt he could have written it, but McFerrin turned his back on uber money and stop-in-the-street fame and went back to releasing Grammy-winning jazz vocals recordings only listened to by the people who vote on jazz vocal Grammys. In 1994, he was also appointed as creative chair of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and he makes regular tours as a guest conductor for symphony orchestras in the U.S. and Canada. So yeah, the biggest badass of the '80s wasn't Stallone, Schwarzenegger or Chuck Norris. It was Bobby McFerrin.
"Under the Milky Way" was a staple of '80s alternative rock radio. What was '80s alternative rock radio, you ask? Oh, I don't know, REM, U2, the Smiths ... whatever white suburban kids said it was, I guess. In any event, this song was everywhere in the late '80s and a welcome relief from hair metal.
Although already well-known in Australia, "Under the Milky Way" was the Church's breakthrough in America, and it was a commercial success they never replicated. But regarding the Church as some no-talent fluke who could only muster one quality song would be like ... being a Mr. Wrong Guy? Sorry, I really thought I had something there.
Anyway, let's start with the fact that the Church's 1988 album Starfish is one of the strongest albums of the decade. And don't just take my word for it, take all my words for it. Every song is a strong, moody rock gem, featuring evocative lyrics, simple but stirring arrangements and searing guitar work. The Church sound nothing like Pink Floyd, but, somehow, create all the same sensations as Floyd's best work. (To see what I mean, check out "Destination.")
Last year they celebrated their 30th anniversary with a concert at the Sydney Opera House. The Church never stopped putting out quality music, even if the discerning record-buying public went on to buy more Limp Bizkit CDs than Church recordings.
In 1989, Michael Penn had a pop rock hit (No. 13 on Billboard) with "No Myth" -- also called "Romeo in Black Jeans" by people who don't actually know the name of the song.
You can understand how some people would regard Michael Penn as a mere one-hit novelty. After all, at the time he broke, his brother Sean was already famous. Some people assumed he was a propped-up, empty suit, clinging to family success for a limited time a la Nancy Sinatra.
"Hey Gladstone, thanks for explaining your '80s reference with a '60s reference. That was super helpful!"
But anyone who's spent time with Michael Penn's music could never mistake him for anything other than an impeccable songwriter. He didn't somehow lose the gift to create pop magic; it's more of a fluke that at the height of '80s cheese, a solid song like "No Myth" (with its allusions to Shakespeare and Bronte) was a hit in the first place. I'm pretty sure Penn never sat down to a write a song that set the hearts of 14-year-olds aflutter. Instead, he's written heartfelt, earnest material, capable of rivaling even Elvis Costello with some of his venom and poetry. Check out "Long Way Down (Look What the Cat Drug In)" ... which is also called "Romeo in Black Jeans" by insane people who completely don't know the name of the song:
Lastly, in addition to releasing critically acclaimed albums like MP4, Penn has also scored the soundtracks for a bunch of movies, including Boogie Nights and The Anniversary Party.
In 1998, the New Radicals were everywhere with "You Get What You Give." The band was the creation of Gregg Alexander, who wrote and produced all the material using a rotating roster of musicians. And though the song featured both indictments of corporate America and tongue-in-cheek violence toward Courtney Love, Hanson and Marilyn Manson, it's just about the happiest, most infectious song you've ever heard.
The song was a commercial and critical success. Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Joni Mitchell described the song as "the only thing I heard in many years that I thought had greatness in it ..." But despite the successes, New Radicals seemed to disappear as quickly as they emerged.
Why? Well, kind of by choice. Before the release of the album's second single, Alexander disbanded the group -- and since there really was no group, that meant he decided he didn't want to be a pop star. He was a songwriter with apparently zero interest in being onstage. By resisting the temptation to become a pop sensation, New Radicals managed not to overstay its welcome like some of those artists Alexander criticized at the end of "You Get What You Give."
Alexander continued songwriting, crafting tunes performed by artists such as Rod Stewart, Ronan Keating, Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Enrique Iglesias. He also wrote the 2003 Grammy Award-winning song "The Game of Love" recorded by Santana and Michelle Branch.
'Til Tuesday/Aimee Mann
Some people might say it's cheating to have a hybrid entry featuring both a band and the subsequent solo career of one of its members, but I won't listen. Why? Because back in 1985 when 'Til Tuesday broke with their monster hit "Voices Carry," all eyes were on lead singer/bass player Aimee Mann. The video's climax of an oppressed woman freaking out at the opera was bombastic, ridiculous, iconic and absolutely awesome.
You did not win an Oscar, Ms. Mann, but you did win the heart of a prepubescent future Internet writer.
I'm also bending the rules because I'm just a huge Aimee Mann fan. And lastly, she's been married to Michael Penn for many years, and I think it's just lovely that I have them both in the same column. I like to pretend Aimee's curled up on the couch with her laptop right now, sitting in her quirkily adorable fashion, while Michael's in the other room, scribbling lyric fragments into a notebook and adjusting his capo.
"Hey, babe," Aimee calls out. "Come over here, we're both in a Cracked article written by this astute and surprisingly sexy Gladstone dude.'"
"Oh, I remember him," Michael says, entering the room. "He was in the third row at that New York City Town Hall concert we did together like 10 years ago. He lost his damn mind when I opened with 'Long Way Down (Look What the Cat Drug In).'"
"Michael, we've talked about this," Aimee says. "You don't have to say the parentheses part of your songs out loud. Also, you don't have to say 'parentheses' before you say the part in parentheses."
"But you're right! I remember him. We should totally invite Gladstone over to hang. We could jam and watch Portlandia episodes and call up Paul F. Tompkins for a fun game of Pictionary."
Yeah, that's basically how my fantasies work. In any event, although 'Til Tuesday only had one monster hit in the '80s, Aimee's solo career is filled with some fantastic songwriting. Go out and get I'm With Stupid or Whatever or The Forgotten Arm or my favorite -- the soundtrack to Magnolia, containing her Oscar-nominated "Save Me."