Top Ten Freak Hits By Indie Darlings
ome of the most memorable one-hit wonders of the last twenty years have been bands that some of the more well-informed members of the rock community have known for years prior. The phenomenon of the Indie one-hit wonder is just as intriguing as that of more obvious candidates like Gerardo or Right Said Fred. So, what happens when a band that has languished in undeserved obscurity for too long that stumbles upon something—a new sound, a particularly catchy chorus, an unexpected source of exposure—is thrust into the limelight, and yanked back to the underground just as quickly? On rare occasions, these freak hits lead to continued commercial success (Radiohead, Goo Goo Dolls, Soul Asylum) but here, I’ve chosen just to talk about those whose moment in the sun was unfortunately brief. Let’s take a look at 10 of the most interesting examples.
10. “A Girl Like You”-Edwyn Collins
Before Edwyn Collins hit the top 40 with “A Girl Like You,” you might have known him as the ex-lead singer of Orange Juice, a definitively fey (well, before Morrissey anyway) leader of the Scottish indie scene in the early 80’s (see essential singles “Blueboy” and “Falling and Laughing” for more info). Then in 1995, he found himself on the soundtrack to that mid-90s classic Empire Records, next to the Gin Blossoms and rare solo work from Pixies guitarist Joey Santiago, and the rest is alternative one-hit wonder history. This is definitely one for the Rhino Records Whatever, Dude: The 90s Pop Culture Box.
9. “Under the Milky Way”-The Church
Recently immortalized for a new generation due to its key usage in the modern day teen classic Donnie Darko, “Under the Milky Way” was the best single of The Church’s career. It was also their round-trip ticket to mainstream success, hitting #26 in 1988, while follow-up single “Reptile” failed to crack the top 100. Too bad, since they were one of the best Australian Indie bands of the mid-80s.
8. “Bittersweet Symphony”-The Verve
Semi-huge in the U.K. for years, nobody gave a damn about The Verve in the U.S. until this reunion single in 1997. Matched with a blue-filtered Massive Attack-cribbed video of Richard Ashcroft walking down the street with absolutely no regard for those he bumps into (I am proud to say I attempted this once in middle school, with mixed results) and placed as the lead track on the soundtrack to Cruel Intentions, the track sailed to #12 in ’98. Ashcroft even made the cover of Rolling Stone, as the heir apparent to Radiohead’s thinking man rock. They broke up shortly afterwards, and now there is Coldplay. Goddamn it.
7. “Cannonball”-The Breeders
By no means is this song only the 7th best on the list—in fact it’s probably the best—but the Breeders are just too damn cool to really be regarded as any sort of one-hit wonder, so I had to dock them for that. Anyway, carrying the genealogy for about ten other equally critically acclaimed and equally commercially unsuccessful bands in their constantly rotating lineup, The Breeders finally scored one for the home team with “Cannonball” in 1993. The track was a moderate crossover hit, a huge alternative radio hit, NME’s #1 single of the year and will probably be remembered as one of the definitive singles of the era. Then Kim lost her cuteness and Kelly got hooked on heroin. Now we have Title TK, and that’s pretty good too. Kim Deal will never be uncool—remember that.
6. “Pepper”-Butthole Surfers
One of the most defiantly underground bands of the 80s scored one of the most unlikely hits ever in 1996 with the #1 modern rock single “Pepper”. The song, sounding something like Beck’s “Loser,” was a trippy, swirling piece with a nonsensical vocal rant punctured by a fairly memorable chorus. Needless to say, it was a great single, and along with an unlikely reference to the group on the Simpsons around this time (“look Daddy, I’m a surfer!”), it brought them an all too fleeting commercial viability.
5. “Pump up the Volume”-M/A/R/R/S
What the fuck are A.R. Kane doing making top 20 club hits? The shoegazers/indie rockers/”Black Jesus and Mary Chain” did a one-off collaboration with a bunch of DJs and shit, came up with one of the most important dance singles of all-time, dubbed the supergroup M/A/R/R/S, and that was it. Back to A.R. Kane, back to shoegazer/club suites and commercial obscurity. One of the most curious dance one-hit wonders in a decade that just couldn’t get enough of the bastards.
4. “She Don’t Use Jelly”-The Flaming Lips
This one, you could’ve seen coming. A singalong this stupid from a band as fun as The Flaming Lips—not even the mainstream could hold this back. Imagine my surprise when I found out that the band was also apparently the most critically acclaimed American group of the last five years. Who knew? Still, this is the one for the mix tapes.
3. “So Alive”-Love and Rockets
Having more or less popularized Goth with Bauhaus and branched out with the Tones on Tail project (and their untouchable club anthem, “Go!”), Daniel Ash decided it was time for a shot at real stardom with Love and Rockets’ 1989 top five hit “So Alive.” And it couldn’t have happened with a better track. “So Alive” is one of the most sensual songs ever written, oozing with sex and mystery. The makers of The Rules of Attraction understood this, as they used it in the film to highlight the fantasy scene with Ian Somerhadler and James Van Der Beek making out. Hott.
2. “Natural One”-The Folk Implosion
Five—no, make that ten—points to anyone who predicted this one. Lou Barlow—hell, the man practically defined indie rock in the late 80s/early 90s with his involvement in the legendary groups Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh. Now with Mk.3, The Folk Implosion, Barlow found himself on the soundtrack to the infamous Kids movie, and all of a sudden had a genuine hit on his hands. I mean, it’s a great song—an old list of mine confirms that this was once my favorite song when I was only 10 years old—but goddamn. Lou Barlow?
1. “Song 2”-Blur
Oh yeah. Damon Albarn decides he’s sick of ruling the UK, stops writing witty, biting third-person character studies and goes straight for the hockey rinks of America. “There’s No Other Way” was a minor U.S. hit in ’92, “Girls & Boys” fared a little better in ’94, but “Song 2” is still the only way most Americans will remember Blur (or rather, as the band who wrote that “Woohoo!” song). And as far as dumb grunge anthems go, you still can’t really beat this song. Well, it’s better than “Crazy Beat,” certainly.