It’s better to burn out than fade away, as the old saying goes. While countless bands from the Rolling Stones down would argue with that, there’s something to be said about releasing one brilliant album and then vanishing.
Rock’n’roll has served up its share of one album wonders over the decades, from psychedelic mavericks to hard rock hotshots. Some have imploded due to intra-band bust-ups, some butted up against the brick walls of record industry apathy and public disinterest, while others met a more tragic end. But they all had something in common: namely a legacy that amounts to one perfect record.
We’ve rounded up the very best of rock’s one album wonders here. There are rules, naturally. We’re talking bands who made just one studio album during their lifetimes – posthumous records, remixes, compilations and live albums don’t count. But we are including one-off solo albums by established musicians, and albums by supergroups.
So here they are. Rock’s greatest one album wonders…
Mother Love Bone – Apple (1990)
It was the perfect album. At the perfect time. Not just for music, but also for me. Apple, which I picked up on its day of release, remains one of a handful of records of which I genuinely wore out the grooves. And what grooves.
Led by the flamboyant Andy Wood – his voice the bastard larynx of Axl Rose and Steven Tyler – alongside future Pearl Jam men Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, Seattle’s Mother Love Bone combined the wham, glam, thank you, ma’am of the hairsprayed LA set (who had been my music of choice) with the nascent, rain-sodden doom merchants of grunge (who would capture my heart from here).
From the kaleidoscopic This Is Shangri-La to the gentle Stargazer, the delicate Crown Of Thorns and the scorching Holy Roller, Apple had something for everyone.
Sadly, Andy Wood never saw his album released, a heroin overdose taking his life weeks before it hit the shelves. His death would inspire Temple Of The Dog, but that, as they say, is another story.
Lift To Experience – The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads
Come the turn of the millennium, anyone fortunate enough to have seen Lift To Experience live will have witnessed a fearsome roar of shuddering intensity, delivered by three scary-looking Texans with beards as long as their songs. That apocalyptic power was duly loaded into 2001’s The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads, a shattering concept album in which the Lone Star State was an end-of-days Promised Land crawling with Biblical visions; a place where the sustained drone of My Bloody Valentine met free-form noise-rock in an epic sheet-wave of sound.
What’s more, it was a very real piece of psycho-geography, at least for those who made it. Both frontman Josh ‘Buck’ Pearson and drummer Andy ‘The Boy’ Young were sons of southern preachers, raised in deeply religious households in which God was a dual symbol of beauty and terror, lending the album a visceral charge that served as the band’s proof of existence. You can hear this conflict all over tracks like Down With The Prophets and the 10-minute With Crippled Wings, pieces that feel like titanic struggles of faith as much as like conventional tunes.
The band blew apart – undone by drugs, booze and familial grief – shortly after the release of The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads, relegating Lift To Experience to the province of one-album wonders.
Blind Faith – Blind Faith (1969)
Even taking into account everything else the three main protagonists (bassist Ric Grech was, really, an Economy passenger flying Upper Class) have in their back catalogues, Blind Faith is an album Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Steve Winwood could be proud of. “It was pretty good and stands up well,” said Winwood. “In retrospect, people even think it has a few classics on there.”
More soulful than Cream, heavier and bluesier than Traffic, it features terrific performances. On its three standout tracks – Had To Cry Today, Sea Of Joy and Presence Of The Lord – Clapton’s playing is focused, crafted and wonderfully melodic; Winwood’s Hammond adds colourful washes, his at times on-the-limit vocal delivery recalling his R&B belter days with The Spencer Davis Group.
While the band was never going to live up to expectations for those who had it on equal billing with the Second Coming, the album did offer a tantalising glimpse of what might have been had Clapton’s plan to reshape Cream with the addition of Winwood come to fruition. But even with this line-up, none of them expected it to hold their interest for more than just the one album.
Critically acclaimed and derided in equal measure – often for the same things – in the US it had staggering advance orders of 250,000, although conversion to sales stalled when half the stores there refused to stock it because of its controversial cover. And still it was a UK and US No.1.
Sea Hags – Sea Hags (1989)
If ever there was a band that had it all and then blew it, it was the Sea Hags. After getting Metallica’s Kirk Hammett to produce their demo, the San Francisco quartet roped in the hottest producer around for their debut album: Mike Clink, fresh from working on Appetite For Destruction. “We’ll be the new Guns N’ Roses if anyone wants to point that at us,” said frontman Ron Yocom, acknowledging the expectations.
The album came out at the height of hair metal, but the band’s “musicality” and “70s vibe” (Yocom’s descriptions) translated into the kind of dirty, funky rock that Aerosmith made in the 70s. It was loaded with great songs, from the charged Half The Way Valley to the menacing finale Under The Night Stars.
But the Sea Hags screwed up, big time. When they played London’s Marquee club, Yocom was so drunk he fell head-first into a flight case. He was also addicted to heroin, as was bassist Chris Schlosshardt. And after the album stalled at No.150 on the US chart the band split up.
Yocom planned to re-form the Sea Hags, but Schlosshardt died in February 1991. This one great album became his, and the band’s, epitaph.
Hughes/Thrall – Hughes/Thrall (1982)
By the end of the decade it wasn’t easy being a 70s supergroup refugee. Exhibit A: Deep Purple’s singing bassist Glenn Hughes. His first solo album, 1977’s Play Me Out, sounded too much like Stevie Wonder for the denim brigade, and it bombed. Then, in 1981, he met Pat Thrall, guitarist for Canadian rocker Pat Travers.
Within months the pair had signed a deal and were recording in a Malibu studio with Eric Clapton’s old producer Rob Fraboni. So far, so good. Soon, though, Free/Stones engineer Andy Johns replaced Fraboni, and session drummers came and went in H/T’s irresolvable quest for perfection. “Cocaine was consumed nightly,” Hughes admitted.
The duo’s only album was released in August that year. Its futuristic sound encompassed the blue-eyed soul with which Toto were raiding the US charts (The Look In Your Eye), new wave-ish pop (Beg, Borrow Or Steal) and priapic hard rock (Muscle And Blood). Yes, those overwrought lyrics and jingling guitar-synths are pure 1982, but the spooked-sounding power ballad First Step Of Love and Thrall’s idiosyncratic guitar playing on Hold Out Your Life are still laughably brilliant, while the whole record thrums with nervous energy.
Sadly, Hughes/Thrall tanked. The Class As didn’t help, but its USP was also its biggest drawback. Most rock fans preferred the simpler charms of fellow Deep Purple offshoots Whitesnake or Rainbow, while American pop audiences opted for that first Asia album instead. Since then, H/T has been hailed as a lost AOR classic, but it’s too heavy – and peculiar – to fit neatly into any category.
Apparently, a second album was started but remains unfinished. It couldn’t possibly be better than this.
Jeff Buckley – Grace (1994)
In 1991, the son of a dead folk singer sat down to jam with an ex-Beefheart guitarist in a West Village apartment. And when Jeff Buckley sang the first line of Grace’s title track, Gary Lucas knew they had something.
“My jaw dropped,” he recalls. “I said: ‘Man, you’re a phenomenon.’”
That octave-straddling swoop of a voice may be Grace’s calling card, from the operatics of Mojo Pin to the shimmering cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, but equally impressive is its eclecticism. Buckley’s influences pinballed between Led Zeppelin, The Smiths, Bad Brains and Sufi singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Accordingly, Grace knows no boundaries, visiting smoky jazz on Lilac Wine, sprouting chest-hair on the bombastic Eternal Life and carving a buzzsaw riff through So Real. You sense a writer having creative differences with himself – and thriving on it.
Released in the wilderness between grunge and Britpop, Grace was a commercial slow-burner, despite plaudits from Jimmy Page and Thom Yorke. But Buckley’s promise was curtailed when, in June 1997, his body was dredged from the Mississippi. The vaults would be swept for 1998’s Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk, but Grace remains his spellbinding last goodbye.
Toy Matinee – Toy Matinee (1990)
It begins with some radio dial roulette; an orchestral crescendo… a blast of vocal harmony… a speedy flamenco guitar riff… Back in angsty-grungy 1990, this opening salvo was music to my ears. As I dug in I marvelled at their Foxtrot-era-Genesis-meets-Beatles balancing act. Virtuoso noodling looped through tight pop structures, huge hooks wrapped in hyper-literate, humorous lyrics about the apocalypse, surrealist art and Elvis impersonators. “I wanted to write songs you could sink your teeth into,” said singer/multi-instrumentalist Kevin Gilbert.
Gilbert formed Toy Matinee with Pat Leonard after a ‘battle of the bands’ contest. Leonard was a judge. Gilbert’s band Giraffe won. The two bonded over a love of Jethro Tull and Steely Dan. Leonard, who had produced and written hits for Madonna, supplied studio time and an ace band. “No strings, no expectations,” was how he described the sessions. “We made it without pressures to create a hit.”
While the single Last Plane Out generated radio buzz, the album never transcended cult status. Leonard, unwilling to tour, soon returned to his lucrative life as a producer. Gilbert, after helping then-girlfriend Sheryl Crow create Tuesday Night Music Club, and making a fine solo album, took his own life in 1996.
Having gone in and out of print three times, Toy Matinee’s heady charm still enthralls. “As bizarre as either of us could get,” Leonard said, “the other could keep up.”
The La’s – The La’s (1990)
Lazily pegged as a proto-Britpop band, the self-titled album from The La’s has more in common with 60s British pop than with the self-important strutting of Oasis et al: ringing guitars, fierce strumming and elliptical lyrics, sugar-coated with effortless melodies.
Opener Son Of A Gun sets the scene: short, sharp and sweet, with singer/songwriter Lee Mavers asserting his vocal presence amid tight harmonies, though the peak is the incandescent There She Goes with its chiming guitars and Scouse romanticism. Only the final introspective Looking Glass breaks the three-minute barrier, opening up new vistas to explore.
The perfectionist Mavers hated the production and disowned the album. His issues ran so deep that, all these years on, he hasn’t come even close to following it up.
Burning Tree – Burning Tree (1990)
‘Coulda, shoulda, woulda’ sums up many one-album wonders, but in the case of Burning Tree, fronted by future Black Crowes guitarist Marc Ford, it holds particularly true. Their sole record might have been a hit in another era. Instead it sank, thanks to bad timing, bad judgement and bad luck.
While they took their cue from Jimi Hendrix and Cream, what separated them from many others was an exquisite pop ear, noticeable on the hook-heavy chorus of Mistreated Lover and the harmonised outro to Crush, one of the great unheralded songs about being in a band.
Sadly, someone at their label decided to unbung the schedules by releasing nine albums on the same day, under the banner ‘Epic Rock’. Eight of the nine disappeared; Burning Tree glowed briefly and beautifully for the few who got to hear it. It remains a classic awaiting rediscovery.
Pride Tiger - The Lucky Ones (2007)
It was a CD plonked on my desk by James Gill, a writer on Classic Rock’s sister magazine, Metal Hammer: a plain white disc with the words ‘Pride Tiger’ scrawled on it in red marker. “I think you’ll like it,” he said. It wasn’t promising: three of the band had been in underachieving hellions 3 Inches Of Blood before leaving to scratch a more melodic itch. (“After a while,” singing drummer Matt Wood explained, “metal just becomes the same thing over and over.”) Out went Iron Maiden dual guitars, in came, er, Thin Lizzy dual guitars.
I did like it. I didn’t stop listening to it for months. Fill Me In became the ‘Most Played’ song on my iTunes – an irresistible Boys Are Back In Town knock-off that could stand with Lynott’s best. I bought the video of the title track from iTunes – it remains the only music video I have paid money for. Full of cool dudes and hot girls (but not in the usual leery way), it was a seductive vision of a future where the soundtrack to the best party in town had big riffs and swaggering choruses.
So good was The Lucky Ones – and so frustrated were we by the fact that no UK label would sign bands like this – that we set up Powerage Records and signed them ourselves. The band played a triumphant set at Hard Rock Hell, winning over a hungover Saturday-morning audience, and stumbling around for the rest of the weekend, stoned and raving about being at a festival that featured Budgie and Thin Lizzy.
And then? The album sold 850 copies on Powerage. Rock’s future did not look like The Lucky Ones vid. It looked like Hard Rock Hell, like lots of hard work peppered with small victories and little financial return.
The band split in the summer of 2009. Powerage shut up shop not long after. We’re not embarrassed. For a moment there, Pride Tiger renewed our faith in new rock music, and The Lucky Ones stands as a lost classic. Someone should send a copy to Scott Gorham and Ricky Warwick asap.
Sex Pistols – Never Mind The Bollocks (1977)
The Sex Pistols’ only proper studio album was just 39 minutes long, included four of their previous singles, and pre-dated the end of the band by a mere three months. Yet it remains one of the most influential and controversial records in history.
With Johnny Rotten’s abrasive vocals and provocative lyrics splayed across a wall of thrillingly direct guitars, Bollocks is a barrage of both gratuitous angst and elemental purity. While many punk ‘classics’ survive as nostalgia or well-meaning polemic, these compelling tirades against British society, hypocrisy and intellectual torpor still send rushes down your spine. Problems, Liar, Bodies and EMI (‘and you thought that we were faking’) were miniature sonic snuff-movies, a dive into the previously unsayable. “My words are my bullets,” said Rotten/Lydon in 2008. “They meant a lot to my generation.”
As 1978 dawned, he was growling: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” and the Pistols were shot. But they’d hit the bullseye. Job done.
David + David – Boomtown (1986)
Studio musicians and sometime producers David Baerwald and David Ricketts would find real, if fleeting, fame in 1993 as part of Sheryl Crow’s Tuesday Night Music Club band. But that was a world away from the pair’s collaboration Boomtown, released six years earlier.
A bleak reading of America’s underclass in the depths of the Reagan era, this was a collection of vignettes of lives full of wrong turnings, of dead-end jobs, of drink and drugs. First single Welcome To The Boomtown began with the desperate howl of Ricketts’ guitar, before Baerwald dispatched his bitterly ironic lyric about a high-living drug addict and her lowlife dealer: ‘Pick a habit, we got plenty to go around,’ he sang over a thrumming pop-rock hook that date-stamped it to the mid-80s. Both unnerving and eminently hummable, it gave the duo a US Top 40 hit. The album followed it to No.39.
The success was short-lived. Ricketts was apparently put off the hard rock fans they were attacting, and they disbanded before the album caught its second wind. Sheryl Crow beckoned, ensuring neither David would get this bloody again.
GTOs – Permanent Damage (1969)
No one was ever sure what GTO actually stood for. Girls Together Occasionally? Girls Together Often? Girls Together Only, Outrageously, Orally, or Orgasmically? Essentially the GTO’s were a crew of enterprising Hollywood rock groupies led by Pamela Ann Miller (later Pamela Des Barres) and Linda Sue Parker, who used the stage names Miss Pamela and Miss Sparky.
With four other like-minded young women from the Sunset Strip they formed a performance group known as the Laurel Canyon Ballet Company, switching to The GTOs as they approached the orbit of Frank Zappa.
Back in ’69 Zappa was augmenting the Mothers Of Invention with pet projects on his Straight and Bizarre labels, such as Alice Cooper and Wild Man Fischer.
The GTOs became another of these endeavours. Lowell George, Russ Titelman and Ry Cooder were brought in to supply the music, and contributions also came from Jeff Beck, Davy Jones, Rod Stewart and Cynthia Plaster Caster. (Who wouldn’t want to work with an ensemble of wild and sexually adept young women?)
Sadly, somewhere along the line Zappa lost interest or ran out of budget. Permanent Damage was released as an unfinished social document, with potential songs staying as synchronised recitation, padded with anecdotes and snatches of conversation. Which is unfortunate, since the finished tracks – not least Do Me In Once And I’ll Be Sad, Do Me in Twice And I’ll Know Better (Circular Circulation) – suggests the GTOs deserved better.
Coverdale Page – Coverdale Page (1993)
In 1993 Jimmy Page was a guitarist in desperate need of a singer. I know because his manager had asked me to help find him one. I wish I could say teaming up with David Coverdale was my suggestion, but that brainwave was Geffen executive John Kalodner’s.
The result was exactly what everybody secretly wanted: a Zeppelin album from the band’s earliest, sexed-up days. Opening with blues rock colossus Shake My Tree, it was sheer bombastic bliss, from the mystic blues of Don’t Leave Me This Way to grand finale Whisper A Prayer For The Dying – where Stairway To Heaven met Kashmir, no kidding.
They played a few shows in Japan, before Page put in a call to Robert Plant, leaving this as one of rock’s great ‘What if?’s.
Derek And The Dominos – Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs (1970)
If great music comes out of tragedy, then it’s little wonder Derek And The Dominos’ sole album is a masterpiece. It was recorded amid drink and drug abuse and undiagnosed schizophrenia. But for all the travails surrounding it, the five musicians involved – Eric Clapton, Duane Allman, Jim Gordon, Carl Radle and Bobby Whitlock – created something passionate and timeless that would stand as arguably the finest album of their respective careers.
Layla itself is the most high-profile track, but the likes of Bell Bottom Blues and Tell The Truth are just as beautifully realised, combining pin-sharp musicianship with earthy spirituality and a true sense of joy. The overall impact is diverse, devastating.
They attempted to record a second studio album, but the project was sunk by drugs and paranoia. Layla remains a stellar legacy. “It touched people where they needed to be touched,” Bobby Whitlock says. “In their soul.”
Temple Of The Dog – Temple Of The Dog (1991)
Chuckles were hardly high on the grunge agenda at the best of times, but this one-off tribute to late Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood – a collaboration between Soundgarden singer/Wood’s flatmate Chris Cornell and the surviving members of MLB – had fewer laughs than your average BBC3 sitcom.
Astonishingly, what could have been a turd in the swimming pool turned out to be the greatest album of the era. Cornell dialled down the wailing, imbuing Say Hello 2 Heaven and the Eddie Vedder-assisted Hunger Strike with a nobility that was alien to the plaid-shirted hordes, while Reach Down was a glorious exercise in rocking-out-as-catharism. Grunge had never been so moving, and it would never be again.
Lowcraft – Manticore (1999)
By the turn of the millennium, glam rock had been hijacked by the goth-spattered bumps and grinds of Manson, and Bowie-era grand gestures were in short supply. With the gilding on the Suede lily dulled by five years of familiarity, Portland, Oregon’s Lowcraft crash-landed in post-Britpop London as the very exemplar of a band out of time.
Fronted by Nathan Khyber – a statuesque fop who punctuated studied Bryan Ferry ennui with the androgynous allure of a Ziggy made flesh – Lowcraft dealt in emotive anthems, perpetually teetering on the brink of delicious desperation.
Listening to the album now it’s almost inconceivable that it should have been allowed to fall between the cracks: the hook-heavy crescendos of One Of Us, the narcotic dreamscape of Transcendental Meltdown, the pulsating prurience of Pornstar. It’s glam’s last hurrah, its lost masterpiece.
A dispiriting toilet tour followed, but without adulation and stardom Lowcraft lost their mojo and duly split.
“It’s naiveté that allows you to create grand gestures,” says Nathan, now making music both in a solo capacity and with Manticore producer Clark Stiles as The Good Listeners. “When you’re writing in the void you have an enormous voice, but once you see the wall you become diminished again. There was a lot of passion in our writing because we thought we could conquer the world.”
Sledgehammer – Blood On Their Hands (1983)
John Betjeman might have wanted it bombed out of existence, but the unremarkable Berkshire town of Slough survived the poet’s brickbats to spawn one of the NWOBHM’s most remarkable bands: power trio Sledgehammer.
They’d had a self-titled song on 1980’s Metal For Muthas compilation but they failed to capitalise on it. When their one and only album, Blood On Their Hands, came out in 1983, the NWOBHM had long-since peaked and it sank without trace.
Guitarist/singer Mike Cooke was a serious-minded individual with strong religious beliefs, and Blood has an eccentric, off-kilter undercurrent that gives it an unusual edge. Over The Top 1914 is a bitter anti-war anthem, the Who-like 1984 offers a dose of Townshend-style cynicism, and the trippy Perfumed Garden sounds like an undiscovered 60s proto-metal anthem. Sledgehammer itself isn’t about having your skull caved in at all, it’s actually about God: ‘It struck me like a sledgehammer that faith can move every mountain’.
It’s almost impossible to find out what happened to the band. Google their name and you get Peter Gabriel. However, we did discover that drummer Ken Revell still lives in Slough. In an air-raid shelter, probably.
Shadow King – Shadow King (1991)
It was fitting that the band formed by former Foreigner singer Lou Gramm and ex-Dio/Whitesnake guitarist Vivian Campbell played their only live show on Friday 13th in London, if only because their luck was lousy. Within six months of their self-titled debut album, Campbell had quit for Def Leppard and Shadow King’s initial promise had withered on the vine.
Poor timing aside, there’s no doubting the quality of the music they made during their frustratingly brief existence. The 10 songs that made up the album were consistently classy hard rock. Campbell displayed his full arsenal of tricks, showboating his way through Once Upon A Time and displaying more restraint on the fragile Russia, but the defining moment came with Don’t Even Know I’m Alive, a slice of top-drawer, lighter-waving wimp-hem – which is ironic, since Gramm had cited ballad overload as his reason for leaving Foreigner.
The singer blamed the group’s fate on a lack of label attention, although the changing musical climate didn’t help. Whatever the reason, Shadow King remains an underground classic.
Skip Spence – Oar (1969)
I chanced upon this wonderful thing while wading through the import racks at Harlequin Records in Soho circa 1971. John behind the counter smiled: “Never heard it? Lucky bastard.”
The platter that hit my Bush turntable sounded like someone enveloped in demons but laughing at his plight. Oar? Or? Awe. The stoner on the cover was 23 yet appeared to have accumulated decades of experience, not all agreeable. Come along for the ride – at your own risk.
Canadian-born, California-raised Alexander ‘Skip’ Spence ran with the West Coast San Francisco elite. He played guitar with Quicksilver Messenger Service in 1965, before Jefferson Airplane poached him to play drums on their debut album Takes Off.
More maverick than team player, his wanderlust lead him to form Moby Grape, who sacked him when he tried to axe his way into one of his bandmates’ rooms in 1968. Deranged from LSD abuse and believing he was the antichrist, he was committed to a psychiatric ward and diagnosed with schizophrenia.
On his release, he took himself to Nashville where he recorded an album of Old Testament intensity laced with moments of lucid self-realisation. The 12 songs that became Oar were made in virtual solitude, except for engineer Mike Figlio, in producer David Rubinson’s Nashville studio on a primitive tape machine. He’d only intended to demo, but Rubinson was so enthralled that he released the album naked – every stick played by the Skipper himself.
This one-man psychedelic masterpiece dealt with childhood (Little Hands), the warp of fame (Lawrence Of Euphoria) and acknowledgements of madness (Weighted Down (The Prison Song), delivered in a vocal that sounded like a man living at the bottom of a mine shaft. Even so, that’s a lovely, lovely voice, and the album’s combination of cranky time signatures, labyrinthine lyrics, acid-drenched electric and acoustic guitars, and epic percussion (not least on closing track Grey/Afro, a masterclass in drumming) are the products of true artistry.
Alt-minimalism taken to the nth degree, Oar made zero chart impression when it was released in 1969 – in fact it was Columbia’s worst-ever-selling LP at the time. It was subsequently hailed as a masterpiece by the likes of Robert Plant and Tom Waits. Sadly, Spence never benefitted from their plaudits. He died of lung cancer in 1999, aged 52. Oar is a great, if occasionally troubling, testament.