My first job was wiping down tables at a little Mexican restaurant in Dallas. We closed at nine and every night right at 8:59, my manager would blast “Closing Time” by Semisonic over the speakers until every straggling customer got the hint. I developed an attachment to the song, not only because it signaled that I was going home in sort of a Pavlovian way, but also because it’s a pretty catchy tune.
I told my friends about my manager doing this, and one of them got me the Semisonic album on CD as a joke.
The album is called Feeling Strangely Fine, and of course, I popped it in my car for a drive. “Closing Time” is the first song up, and while belting out the chorus I had a thought. I loved the song, but I hadn’t even given another Semisonic track a chance. They’re a one-hit wonder, sure, but does that mean the rest of their catalog is bad?
I kept the album going, and quickly discovered that Semisonic is actually pretty good! This made me think, how many other one-trick ponies secretly have a full stable?
Part of this question is inherently flawed. We tend to assume that artists with the one-hit wonder label are something of a flash in the pan, and not to be taken seriously as musicians. That’s silly. Writing a hit isn’t a fluke. Acting like it is can be sort of demeaning to the entire music industry. If it was so easy, musicians wouldn’t stop at just one, if they get one at all.
That’s not an implication I want to make. Having a solo successful single shouldn’t discredit an artist, but it does lump them into a strange camp with others who share the same career trajectory. We all know the hit, but we probably haven’t given the rest a try.
This got me thinking, what’s the difference in quality between a one-hit wonder’s masterpiece and the rest of their catalog? How could you even quantify that difference if you found it?
Being the brave music writer that I am, I did what no one else would.
Introducing Mind The Gap, the world’s first quantitative metric for one-hit wonders. Let’s assume that the hit in question is a 10/10, what is the rest of their catalog in comparison to that? This doesn’t mean that the song is a 10/10 in the context of music history, but more like the peak of that particular artist’s powers.
For this exercise, I listened to six full albums that contained a one-hit wonder. I’ll be giving each album a “gap” score in comparison to the hit. Since each hit is a 10, I rate the rest of the remaining album on that scale.. If the album’s gap score is a 10, that means the rest of it is just as good as the hit and conversely, a 1 would mean that they are truly living up to their label.
The Hit: “Closing Time”
The Artist: Semisonic
The Album: Feeling Strangely Fine
I have to start here. Feeling Strangely Fine went double platinum inside my 2014 Nissan Versa that didn’t have Bluetooth. “Never You Mind” has an incredibly catchy piano riff. “Gone To The Movies” is a really sweet-sounding acoustic ballad. “Secret Smile” is a legitimately fantastic track that could’ve been a hit for countless artists.
I love this album, not only for the music but because it’ll forever represent a very specific period in my life.
The Gap: 9
The Hit: “In The Summertime”
The Artist: Mungo Jerry
The Album: In The Summertime
First place in beach songs, last place in facial hair. Mungo Jerry’s 1970 hit and album of the same name was actually a ton of fun. It’s impossible to top “In The Summertime”, but the elements of what makes that song good pop up all over the full album. He’s weird, he scats, he always sounds like a smile. It’s a worthwhile listen, particularly “Lady Rose” and “Baby Jump”.
The Gap: 6
The Hit: “Come On Eileen”
The Artist: Dexy’s Midnight Runners
The Album: Too Rye Ay
This song was playing inside my editor’s office at the magazine I write for. When I heard it, I told her about this article and gave an unsolicited diatribe about the gap. “You’re gonna be famous Simon,” she replied. If my ticket to success is an arbitrary music rating system about one-hit wonders, so be it. I doubt that’ll happen, but I won’t object.
I actually don’t care for “Come On Eileen”. It’s a really weird song if you think about it, like a drunken sing-songy “Bohemian Rhapsody.” I think the rest of the album is better, there’s a fun brass-heavy track called “Let’s Make This Precious” that sounds like a caricatured version of Chicago. “The Celtic Soul Brothers (More, Please, Thank You)” tests just how much the listener likes the fiddle and long song titles. The standout track was “Liars A To E”, a Springsteen-y pop ballad.
I’m into it, but I’m not surprised they remained a one hit wonder. It’s not super commercial, but would make for a good time inside a seedy bar somewhere.
The Gap: 8
The Hit: “Rude”
The Artist: MAGIC!
The Album: Don’t Kill The Magic
If your name isn’t Bob Marley or Sting, stop trying to make reggae work. Most of the songs here sound similar, if you enjoy “Rude” you’ll probably enjoy all of Don’t Kill The Magic. I did not enjoy “Rude”, I did not enjoy Don’t Kill The Magic. But sticking to my system, the rest of the album is pretty close to the hit.
I give credit to “Rude” for posing a romantic dilemma that hasn’t been played out a thousand times over. We’ve heard enough about heartbreak, infidel partners crazed fantasies. I can’t say I’ve heard a diss track against the father of your lover and the defiant proclamation that you’ll marry his daughter anyway. Props for creativity.
The Gap: 9
The Hit: “Ice Ice Baby”
The Artist: Vanilla Ice
The Album: To The Extreme
Listening to this album complicated my relationship with Vanilla Ice. On one hand, I am perennially impressed with the fact that he outplayed Queen AND David Bowie with “Ice Ice Baby”. It’s a testament to the song being really fun, but also to “Under Pressure” being extremely disappointing. I do think Vanilla Ice deserves a lot of credit just for the fact that this paragraph can be written about him and have it not be satire.
That being said, this was a rough listen. It’s forgettable from beginning to end, besides the humor of song titles “Yo Vanilla”, “Ice Is Workin’ It” and “Ice Cold”. He was really trying to make the gimmick work. It didn’t.
The Gap: 1
The Hit: “Somebody That I Used To Know”
The Artist: Gotye
The Album: Making Mirrors
This is one of the most dramatic one-hit wonders in recent memory. “Somebody That I Used To Know” ruled the world, but it seems like Gotye didn’t want to. Listening to the album, it’s super competent pop presented in a soulful, moody way. “Eyes Wide Open” could’ve easily made radio play from 1990-2024, and I’m shocked that it didn’t. “Smoke And Mirrors” might be too smooth for its own good. “State Of The Art” might be too catchy for its own good too.
Maybe Gotye became too successful for his own good. These twelve songs sound like the beginnings of the next budding pop star, but he instead faded into a memory immediately after its release.
The Gap: 7
Thanks for riding along with me on this one. In a world with instant access to so much music, I am glad to give some of these so-called one-hit wonders the flowers they deserve – with apologies to Robert Van Winkle. And now it’s time to…
“gather up your jackets, move it to the exits/ I hope you have found a friend.”