This was an article for WhatCulture.com which currently has around 200 000 views.
From Blair Witch 2 to Donald Trump Jr, sequels aren't always a good thing. As a result of this mentality, there’s a litany of films, albums and spinoffs out there that really struggled with their sophomore effort. But what happens when you stick the landing so hard with your first attempt that you just walk away because there’s obviously no need to bother trying to do it again. Measure twice, cut once mentality.
I should make it clear, this isn’t a list of bands and musicians who only made one great album and a load of tat across their musical career, this is a list for those who made one great album period. These are music’s mayflies who for reasons ranging from drugs, deaths and dependencies all the way to just plain old boredom with the music industry only have one full length album to their name. These musicians are hitting 1-for-1 in their lifetime; these are the guys and girls who are currently batting a thousand in the music world.
Here are thirteen bands who nailed it so completely with their first try that they've taken the normally disparaging "one album wonder" tag and worn it like a badge of honour. Sometimes all you need to do is sit back and let plaudits roll in, without ever bothering to do a second one.
If there was ever an album that had rabies, it would be Germs’ (GI). It foams at the mouth and wants to take a chunk out of your leg. Germs were the hardest of hardcore punk bands out of Los Angeles in the late seventies famous for their rowdy live performances. And by rowdy, I mean they were a full on riot. LA style. Band members would be stumbling all over the place out of their minds on heroin and cheap beer, vomiting on the stage and playing with a feral nature that would quickly get them banned from most of the clubs in LA.
Spearheaded by frontman Darby Crash and future Foo Fighters guitarist Pat Smear, (GI) has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Listening to this album is like having ear surgery in an alleyway. With the eternally cool Joan Jett handling the production, (GI) turned out to be Germ’s only full length studio album as Crash’s behaviour became more and more erratic as well as heroin dependent.
One year after its release, Crash took his own life through an overdose in a suicide pact at the age of just 22. Unfortunately his death went largely unnoticed by the media and fans alike due to the shooting of John Lennon the very next day, leaving one of punks pioneering kingpins largely forgotten with only one album to his name.
12: Late of the Pier- Fantasy Black Channel (2008)
You could easily see Fantasy Black Channel as being the perfect soundtrack to a modern indie platformer. One with a retro 8-bit feel and a small, nondescript protagonist with a big head. The sort of crazily difficult game that would be played for a Rage Quit.
Midland based outfit Late of the Pier made high calibre, cracked mirror indie music for the house party from your high school years; all rough jerks, sharp edges and intoxicated fumbling. It's an album that was made for strobe lighting. It’s busy, screechy and brimming with jumbled loops and strands that get stuck round your head like spider webs.
It’s the music from that Japanese cartoon in The Simpsons that makes your eyes go all funny and gives you seizures. Throw a toaster in the bath and set it to music. Fantasy Black Channel is a lucid dream of an album that makes your insides go gooey and gives you a splitting hangover when you wake up the next morning.
11: The Postal Service- Give Up (2003)
Comprised of Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello, otherwise known as the wonderful Dntel, The Postal Service are the polar opposite of Late of the Pier. Give Up is chock full of lilting, breezy melodies and synth lines you can wear like a goddamn robe. It’s bursting with little bleeps and blops like the cheery robot companion in a sci-fi comedy and the whole thing crackles like a campfire.
There are tiny splurges of static that fire off from the beats like charged neurons as Give Up wraps your brain in a cloud of wobbly opiates. Anyone who's ever listened to Death Cab for Cutie will know what Gibbard's lyrical content will be about but with Rilo Kiley's Jenny Lewis providing backing vocals, Give Up is as catchy as it is delicate.
On the back of this album, The Postal Service carried the synth pop banner pretty much on their own for a decent period of time before handing it off to Owl City, but for a while it was Sub Pop’s best-selling album since Nirvana. Not bad for a side project.
10. Black Star- Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star
Comprised of two of the most underrated emcees of all time, Mos Def and Talib Kweli, Black Star released their only album in 1998. Although you’d easily be forgiven for mistaking it for 1988. Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star is a throwback album to the days of A Tribe Called Quest, Slick Rick and De La Soul. Words are the priority here, story-telling is at premium.
That is in no way a knock on the beats though, Hi-Tek’s production is stark, simple and samples the likes of Gil Scott-Heron, Minnie Ripperton and Brian Jackson; it’s the perfect canvas for Mos and Kweli to paint on. As emcees, they’re underground purists. They reference Toni Morrison, the quote Nina Simone and bounce the beats back forth to one another like tennis players. This album strictly adheres to the four elements and it was the perfect to antithesis the Cash Money lifestyle that was emerging in the world of hip hop.
Both emcees would go on to make brilliant solo albums post Black Star, Black on Both Sides and The Ecstatic for Mos Def and Quality and The Beautiful Struggle for Kweli are all spectacular. But there’s just something magical about their chemistry as Black Star that manages to surpass their fantastic solo careers.
9: The Unicorns- Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone? (2003)
These guys are the original bronies. While they did have another album that was self-recorded prior, Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone? was The Unicorns only album produced by a record label. And look, I'm gonna frank, I love this band, they’re warm and fuzzy; just lo-fi in the most perfect way.
They make music that is constantly changing, sometimes even mid-way through a ninety second track. They’ll take three different hooks and crash them together like tectonic plates just to see what the end result will be. Normally it’s something utterly insane as proven by the track Jellybones which could be easily mistaken for something from Animal Collective.
The Unicorns have a sound that’s jittery and full of broken beats that sound like they were built in an old calculator. It’s a sugary sounding music, almost saccharine, but what else can you expect from a band named after a mythical horse. Friendship is magic people, and this album is damn friendly.
8. Darkside- Psychic (2013)
Psychic would be the perfect soundtrack for a crime drama set in the deep South of the United States, something on the Bayou called, like, I don’t know, Drue Totective maybe. Darkside are the electronic collaboration of Nicholas Jaar and Dave Harrington and these boys make music that reverberates round the walls of your bedroom with bass lines that tremble like a clumsy adolescent trying to unhook a bra. It’s just bursting with mood swings, one minute its soaring and flying, the next it’s crashing back down to Earth at terminal velocity. It’s the album equivalent of a manic depressive.
This is a masterful album though, it’s almost like it was made for a thesis by some students trying to get their doctorate on the musical form. Psychic is overflowing with tiny electronic glitches like the first contact signals from an alien spaceship. Fitting, as it feels like Darkside were making the music of the future. Despite all this, deep down it is electronic music that feels like it was made by a human rather than a laptop; there is beauty in its imperfections and it hits every single one of your erogenous zones.
7: Dennis Wilson- Pacific Ocean Blue (1977)
Forget his brother Brian or his weird cousin Mike, Dennis Wilson was the real Beach Boy. He was only one who surfed, he drove convertibles, got the pretty girls and smashed around on the drums at the back while everyone focused on the perfect harmonies that were front and centre. During one of the many internal struggles within The Beach Boys in the seventies, Dennis put together a collection of songs he’d been writing and became the first one of the group to put out a really wonderful solo album.
With an album cover where he looks like the most beautiful drifter/messiah- a handsome Manson- Pacific Ocean Blue is an assortment of moody, punch drunk ballads that are made of granite. With a grizzled voice that sound like it’s been soaked in scotch and left out in the California sun, Dennis’ songs are the antithesis of any of The Beach Boys hit singles.
He sounds like he’s been emotionally sandblasted. Unfortunately that’s probably because he was. Just a few years later after years of struggling with alcohol and heroin addictions, with a problematic love life and a live fast, die young attitude; Dennis Wilson drowned while drunk in the very ocean he romanticised.
6: Lauryn Hill- The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
Away from The Fugees, Lauryn Hill released one of the best soul and hip hop albums of the 1990s. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill sold over 400 000 copies in its opening week alone. It was a monster of an album, it won five Grammys and was nominated for ten. She beat Madonna and the Backstreet Boys. That’s nineties Madonna we’re talking about. And it was her only ever solo album.
Listening to her album feels almost intrusive, like you shouldn’t be listening to it. It’s like reading someone’s diary it’s so personal. With a voice as smooth as cocoa butter, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is quite frankly an astonishing piece of musical excellence, it’s revolutionary. And it’s a one off. That’s like finding out Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On? was the only album he ever made.
Like so many other musicians on this list, Lauryn Hill’s name and legend carries as much weight as her work. She’s become the stuff of myth with everything that she did with The Fugees, her activism and imprisonment and even her appearance at Dave Chappelle’s Block Party. But put everything else aside for this album though, because it’s pure witchcraft.
The La’s are a band people sleep on. They’re written off as just another one hit wonder from the north west of England. But their entire first and only album is entirely brilliant, it’s a polished gem of a recording. Yes, we do have to talk about There She Goes though. It’s just about the perfect pop song, it’s magical, a ballad from the heavens. Initially released as a single in 1988, There She Goes is probably the most beautiful song of the entire eighties.
But the entire self-titled album from this Liverpool foursome is something to behold. It’s so jangly, the riffs could be mistaken for Johnny Marr’s. And with tracks like Timeless Melody, Feelin’ and Way Out, The La’s are so much more than a band with only one decent track to their name.
As an album, The La’s was born out of drugs, arguments, issues with the recording company and more than just a dollop of madness, but as Fleetwood Mac will tell you; that’s how you get great pop songs made. The La’s could never possibly follow this up and frontman Lee Mavers quietly became something of an enigma. He disavowed the album totally and became something of a recluse. But if he won’t vouch for it then I will, it’s an alternative music album that’s as good as anything to have come out of Liverpool and that’s seriously saying something.
4: The Avalanches- Since I Left You (2000)
Listening to The Avalanches is like looking down the wrong end of a kaleidoscope. Containing over 3,500 samples, Since I Left You is the most extraordinary patchwork quilt of an album. The eponymous single was the song of the noughties and the entire album is a bottled thunderstorm. The Avalanches made the sort of album that wraps itself tightly around you and makes food taste better.
But it isn’t just the sheer scale of the sampling employed by The Avalanches, or the wide variety- Since I Left You features samples taken from Raekwon and Madonna to instructional golf videos- but it’s the bringing together of so many different flavours to make one beautiful music banquet. Remember that scene in Ratatouille, when Remy tries the piece of cheese, then the grape, then both together and fireworks go off in his little rat brain; that’s pretty much what The Avalanches do.
3: The Modern Lovers- The Modern Lovers (1976)
Jonathan Richman was the true indie darling of his day and The Modern Lovers managed to tap into teenage angst the likes of which are normally only reserved for The Catcher in the Rye and Neve Campbell. Richman was the gawky, androgynous front man and The Modern Lovers music reflected his style; in many ways he was a sort naïve Iggy Pop. This was the only album that was made under the moniker of The Modern Lovers and it’s honest and romantic; it’s also some damn fine seventies rock n roll lest we forget.
The count off at the start of ‘Roadrunner’, the reverb on ‘Government Center’, everything about this album is just dripping with a level of cool that neither you nor I could never possibly achieve. I’m not one to normally quote lyrics, but I’ll make an exception for ‘Some people try to pick up girls and get called an asshole, This never happened to Pablo Picasso’ because you just can’t not love it.
The Modern Lovers made an album that captured the feeling of being hit with wave after wave of teenage hormones whilst reassuring you that you’re not alone. Richman and other band members would go on to other musical endeavours, but they never captured the zeitgeist quite like they did with their eponymous seventies album.
2: The Sex Pistols- Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (1977)
Even if you’ve never listened to anything by The Sex Pistols, you’re well aware of the aura that surrounds them. Never had an album or band contained such anger and vitriol. The Sex Pistols were the sound and the fury and Never Mind the Bollocks is the sort of album that would reach out through your speakers and smash your teeth down your throat and then ask you to do the same back. It’s full of bile, blood and as many other bodily fluids as possible.
Record stores refused to stock it or chose to censor the label, the band themselves were fired from two different record labels and it’s their only studio album because they got banned from pretty much every single studio in the area. There was even an obscenity case brought against them because of this album, which they won. They attacked the young and the old, the Queen and country; they were a natural disaster in the shape of a band. The Sex Pistols pretty much initiated the punk movement in the UK and called the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and I quote, ‘a piss stain’ when they were inducted. Never Mind the Bollocks is an album that leaves you with scar tissue.
1: Minor Threat- Out of Step (1983)
The greatest hardcore punk music has to come out of Washington D.C. In fact, it can only really come from Washington D.C. Minor Threat played fast, hard and loud. Really loud. The noise they make is colossal, it’s like a cathedral falling down a coal mine. Out of Step is twenty minutes of fire and brimstone; it’s a bomb going off in blender. All shrapnel and sharp edges. Minor Threat are ear bleedingly good.
Alongside Bad Brains and Black Flag, Minor Threat made up the Mount Rushmore of the D.I.Y punk mentality that was exploding out of the United States in the eighties. Jam packed with angry shouts and simple bass lines that just get up and gut punch you, Out of Step captures a feeling that just couldn’t be recreated no matter how hard you tried. Minor Threat eventually split up and went their separate ways shortly after the release of their only full length album, with lead singer Ian MacKaye going on to start the almost as brilliant Fugazi.
Minor Threat didn’t set the benchmark for things to come, they set it on fire and left it outside the President’s door.