Debut and Done: Best One-Album Wonders

Rough Trade Records

August 26th, 2023


share the music

Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.

Lauryn Hill, Wu Lyf, Sex Pistols, Jeff Buckley and many more. Some of the greatest, most revered artists in music history are defined by their surprisingly short-lived careers.

Bands that couldn’t settle their artistic differences, solo stars who didn’t want for the limelight, or partnerships that were meant to be one-time only, there are a variety of interesting stories in the world of popular music which involve some of its greatest performers calling it quits without a follow-up.

With the impact of some of these one-album wonders still being felt decades on, it is safe to say that many of these artists, whether intentionally or not, demonstrate quality over quantity. We continue to unpack their stories, exploring the innovation behind their fame and success (and celebrate a number as part of our Rough Trade Essential album range).

Short but sweet. Here are our favourite standalone works from artists who only ever released one defining album…

The Sex Pistols, December 1976. Photo by Hulton Archive

A true punk movement driven apart by a bitter feud.

With a career spanning a mere two and half years, Sex Pistols are one of the most talked about English bands in the history of rock. Hailed as progenitors of the punk genre, the Pistols really erupted in 1977, with their seminal debut Never Mind The Bollocks. Johnny Rotten‘s furious ranting articulated the frustration, rage, and dissatisfaction of the British working class with the establishment and the album’s furious energy catalyzed the punk movement and style of bands emerging on the London scene (The Clash, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Adverts to name a few).

From the beginning, this was a band with fractures, with original bassist Glen Matlock quitting in February 1977 to pursue a solo career after friction with his bandmates (John Lydon (Johnny Rotten), Paul Cook, and Steve Jones) and their manager Malcolm McLaren. Matlock was replaced with the unpredictable Sid Vicious and shortly after the band signed to Virgin, with whom they would release their debut. After considerable backlash from the BBC, the government, brawling fights, arrests and Sid Vicious’ heroin addiction, a disastrous US tour was the nail in the coffin. It was perhaps rightly so that John Lydon decided to call it a day on the band (and go on to form Public Image Ltd).

McLaren tried to keep the Pistols alive in some shape or form, producing a ‘mockumentary’ satire-style film of the band’s story in 1979. Alongside the film, the band’s remaining members, and a few stand-ins for Rotten, recorded its soundtrack album The Great Rock and Roll Swindle. Rotten condemned the album as betraying the band’s original philosophy, and as they had officially broken up, this was never really considered as an album proper.

Despite this acrimonious ending between all involved and the sad death of Sid Vicious, Sex Pistols’ debut will never be forgotten, a truly distinctive sound and legacy most bands can only dream of.

Timeless indie pop from a band that plunged into obscurity.

Like many bands of the Britpop movement of the early 1990s, Liverpool band The La’s created a monumental but short-lived splash before belly-flopping into the abyss. The La’s music had a feeling as if they were just passing through, fleeting and transcendent (their renowned dreamy hit There She Goes). Here for a good time, but not for a long time. The band’s members were never really set in stone with a frequently changing line-up revolving around the core duo of Lee Mavers (vocals, guitar) and John Power (bass, backing vocals).

The La’s did not sound out of place on a Britpop compilation, yet also fit right in with the then fading Madchester scene, as Lee Mavers laid out a model for perfect melodies with timeless songwriting. After forming in 1986 it took three years to release their now acclaimed self-titled debut. After growing frustrated with being stuck with the same songs since 86, Power decided to leave the band, triggering the full disbandment. Cited as influences by The Courteeners, The Stone Roses, The Charlatans, The Libertines and The 1975 The La’s managed to influence a generation of indie in their short time.

As Noel Gallagher once declared: “Oasis want to finish what The La’s started.”

A gem from the height of Britpop, a band that wasn’t built to last.

Formed by Stone Roses’ guitarist John Squire, The Seahorses followed the Madchester template, receiving almost instant acclaim from those who willed the Britpop days to last forever. Do It Yourself was a dance-tinged take on rock and roll, blended with dreamy, folksy melodies. Recorded with Bowie producer Tony Visconti and featuring a co-write from Liam Gallagher, this album had the full recipe for success. However, this was far from the case…

As the story goes, Squire walked out of the studio and never came back. The band split as Squire concluded: “This sounds shit; we don’t deserve to be in this place”. Despite the band’s lack of enthusiasm and future vision this album still intrigues today and deserves recognition for its standalone success.

The complete Buena Vista Social Club in front of the Carnegie Hall, New York City, July 1998. Photo by Ebet Roberts.

A celebration of culture which rightfully works as a special one-off recording. BVSC, organised by World Circuit executive Nick Gold, brought together a dozen of veteran Cuban musicians, some of them formerly retired to showcase the popular Cuban styles of the time, such as son, bolero, and danzón.

A landmark recording, returning or discovering this album surmises Cuba’s golden age and needs no follow-up with its timeless quality and the sheer verve of the veteran performers.

The most intricate guitar playing and the most imitable voice. Jeff Buckley was a premature loss for the music world, after his accidental death, drowning in the Wolf River, just before the recordings for his second album began.

Whilst we can only dream of what the future may have held for him, Buckley’s influence on modern music prevails, its intimate production and jazzy elements made for a sound that appealed to so many yet defies definition. A striking talent who will never be forgotten.

A defining artist statement that cannot be competed with.

Albums like this only come around so often. The charismatic Fugees singer rocked the world with her solo debut, emerging as a new and impactful voice of 90s rap. After the Fugees’ beautiful 1996 landmark album The Score went six times platinum Lauryn Hill continued her collobaration (all be it slightly dysfunctional) with fellow frontman Wyclef Jean, contributing to his hit debut solo album The Carnival in 1997. But 1998 was Lauryn’s year and The Miseducation marked the first time the talented wordsmith would be the main face of her musical creativity.

A letter to all women to stand up for their worth and a statement against Black oppression. The insightful The Miseducation became the first hip-hop Album of the Year to win the Grammy Award and will go down in history as one of the greatest hip-hop albums ever made. An accolade to which few female artists are attributed. Hill‘s rapping is as equally strong as her singing, but the most memorable aspect of this album is how every woman can resonate with its writing – whatever their preference of genre.

Sadly, Lauryn Hill‘s musical autonomy was not sustainable and the rapper has reported although she feared working with a record label would compromise her authenticity going forwards, her existing label never reached out to her for a follow-up:

“The wild thing is, no one from my label has ever called me and asked, ‘How can we help you make another album?’ Ever…ever. Did I say ever? Ever.”

Perhaps, with 8 Grammy wins and 19 nominations the singular talent of Lauryn Hill didn’t need a reinvention, she had already changed the face of rap forever.

The New Radicals and Gregg Alexander’s signature bucket hat.

The 90s alt-rockers with no love for the spotlight.

The Gregg-Alexander-fronted group burst onto the ’90s scene with a lot to say about American society (the title is a nod to Alexander’s Jehovah’s Witness upbringing) Very much the brainchild of Alexander himself, The New Radicals was barely a set band, the only constant member aside from Alexander was keyboard player and percussionist Danielle Brisebois, which put the direction largely in Alexander’s hands.  

The band was an outlet for the emotive songwriter, whose solo albums hadn’t achieved huge success. The soulful pop-rock sound very quickly clambered the charts globally, The album’s most renowned hit You Get What You Give is almost unescapable with its frequent use in films, TV shows and television commercials. (Most recently the band reunited to play YGWYG at Joe Biden’s inaugural parade).

The pressure of making hit music did not sit well with Gregg Alexander, who retreated from the frontman role to instead write songs for other artists such as Madonna, Stevie Nicks and Dua Lipa. Essentially, Alexander shared concerns they would never come out with a hit better than You Get What You Give, but he could accept this.

“I accomplished most of my goals with this record… over the last several months, I’d lost interest in fronting a ‘One Hit Wonder’”

American Football in its earliest incarnation. Photo by Janice Minn.

A coming-of-age record which leaves it all on the field.

Still sounding as good today as in 1999, American Football‘s self-titled debut was a product of its time, a coming-of-age story which can be credited as a cornerstone of midwestern emo whilst very much pushing the boundaries of the genre. A melodic, dreamy, emotional record heavily leaning on math rock influences whilst hitting all the touch points of emo, American Football-made music which both creates and fills a void.

Their story is an unlikely story, as a trio of students (singer/guitarist Mike Kinsella, guitarist Steve Holmes, and drummer Steve Lamos) who recorded the album just a week after graduation, they had already decided the band would be over when they all moved away that summer.

“We finished the whole thing in a week and handed Matt the mastered tapes and broke up. No press, no record release show, no supporting tour or anything. Like a lot of punk and indie records, it was a document of a band that no longer existed.”

In the years that followed the record had a life of its own within underground music circles, after being circulated locally via Champaign indie label Polyvinyl. The trio had all gone their separate ways and were barely in touch until 2014 when Lamos (now a university professor) was approached by a student who told him Never Meant has 2.5 million plays on Last.fm? and about the band’s popularity on Limeware. After unearthing some early tape demos in 2014, they reconnected with Polyvinyl to work on a deluxe reissue of the record and a reunion tour. The band have been playing on and off since with its members varying slightly, lately reuniting for a UK and US tour after a three-year hiatus.

Despite their now legendary status, their ambitions remain humble and although strictly speaking, they have released music since, their debut with the original lineup was as intended, a document to be moved on from.

Album artwork for Any Other City by Life Without Buildings
Life Without Buildings (Press photo).

A one of a kind artistry that will unlikely be replicated.

Wiry post-punk and free association speech cult Glasgow band Life Without Buildings managed to be utterly unique, and therefore unforgettable, the reason why they are deemed such an essential band, with only one record.

Although they blew many people away, they were also in some ways ‘musical marmite’, revolving around Sue Tompkins’ frenetic stream-of-consciousness talking, not exactly sing-along tracks. There was no argument that the Glasgow band were totally absorbing, their articulate guitar playing and driving post-punk rhythm section just as hugely influential to later post-punk bands as their poetry.

In the same year as releasing their one brilliant album, LWB supported the Strokes at their first London headline gig in 2001, just as the indie sleaze titans were starting to blow up. With little interest in The Strokes hype, Will Bradley the band’s drummer mused that the decision was a booking accident: “Our record label were trying to reinvent themselves with an eye on the indie big-time.”

The Scottish creatives amicably broke up in 2002 to pursue careers as writers, designers and artists. Never abiding by rules or goals, Life Without Buildings had been just a side project and the band themselves felt that it was never meant to last. The decision was made to stop when things no longer felt fun, as their drummer Will Bradley recalls: on one of the last songs the band tried writing together, Tompkins sang the line, “Take me away from here” over and over again.

Sub Pop’s highest-selling record since Nirvana’s Bleach in 1989, The Postal Service was a side project turned stand-out success between Death Cab for Cutie‘s Ben Hibbard,  producer Jimmy Tamborello, and Jenny Lewis on background vocals.

Tamborello wrote and performed instrumental tracks and then sent the Digital Audio Tracks to Gibbard, who added vocals or edited the songs before sending them back via snail mail (on burned CDs through the US postal service), inspiring the project’s name. Smart lyrics and synthesized beats the album was radical at the time, a stray away from Sub Pop‘s guitar-led sound, seeing a template for future synth endeavors from acts like Chvrches or Passion Pit.  

Although there was a cry for a follow-up, which seemed like it could potentially be on the cards, the busy schedules of these artists perhaps could not align and it seems the group decided to end things on a high (we were however treated to two new songs from Jenny Lewis for the album’s tenth anniversary).

The mysterious Mancunians captivated audiences with Go Tell Fire To The Mountain, an expansive cinematic sound driven by tribal drums and krautrock rhythms.

Formed by frontman Ellery Roberts and his friend Tom McClung (now Francis Lung) in their teenage years, the band recruited guitarist Evans Kati and drummer Joe Manning to release their debut in 2011. WU LYF was an acronym for “World Unite Lucifer Youth Foundation”, exploring their fascination with religion and the metaphor of Lucifer as light in darkness. Dissatisfied with the sound they were getting from traditional studios, the band took to an old abandoned church in Manchester to develop what they called a ‘heavy pop’ sound.

The unnaturally raspy voice of frontman Ellery Roberts cuts perfectly through the atmospheric, reverberant soundscapes and they were immediately touted as an indie band with a bright future, “a future classic by their third album”.

But the project was short-lived as Ellery‘s vision for what he wanted out of music conflicted with the rest of the band and he decided to walk away. The group split to all pursue individual careers. For Ellery, the prospect of WU LYF coming back together has not been completely ruled out as he told Dazed in 2017:

“Nothing ever ends. I also quite like the idea of when we’re really old and it being called the Lucifer Youth Foundation and like, there’s no youth in the Youth Foundation. Eternal youth. Zimmer frames. Grey hair.”


Other Mentions…

Biggie‘s debut Ready To Die turned out to be the only album the legendary rapper released while he was alive.

Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson went solo one time only with Pacific Ocean Blue.

Washington D.C. punk label Dischord released the only album from post-hardcore supremos Rites of Spring.

The Erol Alkan produced debut from Castle Donington dance-pop band Late of The Pier released one of the best British albums of the 2000s with their only offering Fantasy Black Channel.

World of Echo is the only full-length non-collaborative studio album recorded, released, and compiled by the beguiling Arthur Russell during his lifetime.

Arthur Russell. Photo by Tom Lee / Audika Records

source



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Sign up for the
Unplugged Newsletter




Random Cover