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40 Greatest One-Album Wonders

The best one-and-dones: Lauryn Hill, Jeff Buckley, Young Marble Giants and more

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Some of rock’s greatest stories are short ones. After making one, solitary studio full-length, these acts were promptly derailed by death, internal band politics or the simple desire to put something down and never pick it back up. Here are the best one-and-dones.

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30. The Pulsars, ‘Pulsars’ (1997)

One of the gems of the mid-Nineties alt-rock gold rush, the lone album by the brotherly duo the Pulsars is a shimmering collection of blissed-out synth-pop peppered with references to long drives to Wisconsin, pet robots and S&M. Dave and Harry Trumfio had collaborated on music since they were young; and Dave had worked with indie luminaries like the Mekons and the Handsome Family at his Chicago studio Kingsize Soundlabs. Pulsars – which came out on Herb Alpert's short-lived Almo Sounds label – was a gorgeous love letter to the early New Wave era's dark side, with tracks like "Suffocation" transcending misery with irresistible choruses and pillowy synths.   

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29. Margo Guryan, ‘Take a Picture’ (1968)

Jazz-trained Margo Guryan released Take a Picture in 1968 after about a decade of songwriting – with credits including Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry and Harry Belafonte, among others. The Pet Sounds acolyte's lone full-length is an early prototype for countless lounge and dream-pop excursions, and bridges the gap between Burt Bacharach and Belle & Sebastian. The hazy production is loaded with horns, strings and sumptuous harmonies; standout "Sunday Morning" became a Bobbie Gentry and Glen Campbell duet. The album received critical praise, but Guryan had no aspirations to tour. "I didn't want to be a performer," she said in a 2011 interview. "I wanted to be a songwriter… You needed a manager, an agent, a lawyer, an accountant … people telling you what to wear, what to say, who to be. The whole thing just didn't appeal to me." 

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28. The United States of America, ‘The United States of America’ (1968)

In the Sixties, a few brave punks were not afraid to make some noise with the squawking, blipping textures of embryonic electronics. Back then, American electronic music was mainly reserved for composers and academics tinkering on wall-sized synthesizers in the Columbia Music Center. But Los Angeles sextet United States of America were a trippy, psychedelic, Communist-leaning rock band — a counterpoint to Silver Apples' proto-industrial paranoia. In turn, they made California's acid-rock present drip into the acid house future. The band jumbled all sorts of early electronics — oscillators, contact mics, synths, tape decks, — into their revolution rock, creating a future model for fans like Portishead and Animal Collective. A Molotov cocktail of intra-band fistfights, drugs, musical differences and record label politics destroyed this one-of-a-kind band before the dawn of the Seventies.

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27. CRU, ‘Da Dirty 30’ (1997)

South Bronx trio Rhythm Blunt Cru's only album – released during Def Jam's struggling years between Warren G and DMX – is a snapshot of East Coast hip-hop in the Nineties. The South Bronx trio has shades of rugged-and-raw grittiness (check hypeman and ODB soundalike the Mighty Ha on "Lisa Lipps"), trade mics with Y2K conspiracy theorist Ras Kass, indulge in oddball skits and underline it all with Jeremy "Yogi" Graham's buttery loops. Neophytes who couldn't accept Yogi and Chaddio's Tribe Called Quest-inspired mic-trading routine on the minor Rap City hit "Just Another Case" missed one of the more quirkily entertaining rap albums of the era. At least Puff Daddy recognized its charms: He recruited Yogi to Bad Boy's production squad, resulting in G. Dep's Harlem Shake classic "Let's Get It."

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26. Cassie, ‘Cassie’ (2006)

When Cassie Ventura preened and undulated in front a dance studio mirror on her "Me&U" video clip, she set magazine covers aflame and gossips wagging about her romance with mentor Sean Combs. However, a decade after underwhelming sales (and thinly veiled sexist claims that she was a prefab one-hit wonder), this collaboration with then-rising producer Ryan Leslie turned out to be the most brilliantly minimalist R&B album of its era. Her understated, nearly spoken vocal delivery proved an influence on future stars like Kelela, the xx and Jhene Aiko, while Leslie's haunting electronic arrangements perfectly complement nighttime pop gems like "Kiss Me" and "Call U Out."

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25. Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers, ‘The Teenagers Featuring Frankie Lymon’ (1956)

When Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers burst onto the R&B scene in 1956 with their Number One hit "Why Do Fools Fall in Love," the music industry was still centered around selling singles. However, Lymon had so many hits in such a short time period ("I Want You to Be My Girl," "I Promise to Remember," "The ABC's of Love") that Gee Records put them onto an LP simply called The Teenagers Featuring Frankie Lymon. Most of his fans were very young without the pocket money to buy anything more expensive than a 45, so it was far from a best-seller. The Teenagers split in 1957 and Lymon attempted to go solo, but his voice deepened after he went through puberty. Like many child stars, he discovered the public had little use for him once he was older and he began a vicious descent into drug addiction. He died of a heroin overdose in 1968 when he was just 25.

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24. Dennis Wilson, ‘Pacific Ocean Blue’ (1977)

Dennis Wilson was the only Beach Boy that actually surfed. He was also the most naturally charismatic and fun-loving, though by the mid-1970s his non-stop party lifestyle was beginning to take a heavy toll. The drummer was in his early 30s, but looked ten years older, and years of drinking and drug abuse added significant gravel to his once pristine singing voice. But with his brother Brian largely out of commission, he began contributing his own material to Beach Boys albums. Not happy at taking direction from his bandmates who never saw him as a serious songwriter, he began squirreling away songs for a solo album. Recording took two years, and by 1977 he was finally ready to unveil the haunting Pacific Ocean Blue. Haunting tracks like "Farewell My Friend" and "River Song" reflect his fragile state and reveal just how far he'd grown as a composer and lyricist. Work started on a follow-up but Wilson's drug abuse was spinning out of control and it remained unfinished when he drowned in 1983.

New Radicals, 'Maybe You've Been Brainwashed Too'

23. New Radicals, ‘Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too’ (1998)

The project of songwriter Gregg Alexander, New Radicals hit the sweet spot between adult-contemporary and "alternative" that was just beginning to be discovered when Maybe You've Been Brainwashed Too came out in 1998. A bubbling stew of influences that had glossier production and more pointed lyrics about corporate America than its alt-rock-radio brethren, Brainwashed could have been the beginning of a new pop order. "You Get What You Give," with its triumphant chorus and bootstrapping spirit, is one of the Nineties' most singular singles, while tracks like "Flowers" fused together revved-up rock and passion-fueled soul in a way that tipped savvy listeners off to Alexander's wide swath of influences. But Alexander broke up the band before the reflective "Someday We'll Know" could be released as the album's second single. He went on to become a songwriter-for-hire, penning tracks like the Santana/Michelle Branch collaboration "The Game of Love" and reuniting with fellow Radical Danielle Brisebois for the soundtrack to the 2013 romance Begin Again.

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22. The Monks, ‘Black Monk Time’ (1966)

By the mid-Sixties, Germany had pretty much had enough of the American occupying force – and so had the five discharged G.I.s who hung around the country banging out raw Neanderthal rock as the Monks. Formerly known as the 5 Torquays, the band was reconceptualized by its management, a sketchy pair of German advertising executives who talked the working-class quintet into robes, tonsure haircuts and tight neckwear. Nihilism rocks: Farfisa organ and skronky electric banjo accompanied songs like "Shut Up" and "I Hate You." Germany Polydor released Black Monk Time on the strength of the group's live popularity. But when the company's American branch passed on the album, the vexed and disheartened combo went their separate ways, eventually enjoying postponed acclaim upon their rediscovery in the early Nineties.

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21. Life Without Buildings, ‘Any Other City’ (2001)

Sue Tompkins of Life Without Buildings was a painter, not a singer, and she approached words with an experimental sense of wonder, testing to hear how her conversational lilt might inflect a simple phrase like "look around" if she repeated it in the reassuring tone of someone hoping to pet a timid bunny. The other Glaswegian art students in this band were similarly curious, channeling the adventure of post-punk without its aggression: Chris Evans' bass wends its own course underneath Will Bradley's restless drum patterns while Robert Johnson's guitar alternates between jangle, strum and cleanly plucked melody. This was pop viewed through a prism.

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20. The Exploding Hearts, ‘Guitar Romantic’ (2003)

The giddiest power-pop album of the Aughts comes with one of the saddest postscripts imaginable. Formed in the Pacific Northwest, the Exploding Hearts were just solidifying a rep for their 2003 debut, Guitar Romantic, when three of the four members were killed in a car accident coming back from a gig. The band left behind infectious blasts like "Modern Kicks" and "Sleeping Aides and Razorblades," led by departed singer/guitarist Adam Cox's blithe spirit. Throughout, the band toasts to the Clash, Elvis Costello and the Buzzcocks by shoving pop hooks and soul down punk's scream-torn throat.

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19. The Good, the Bad and the Queen, ‘The Good, the Bad and the Queen’ (2007)

"Where do I see the light?/It's all gone dead in a way," Damon Albarn sings on "80's Life," one of the perkier tracks on the paean to post-millennial wartime gloom The Good, the Bad & the Queen. Made up of Albarn, Clash bassist Paul Simonon, keyboardist Simon Tong, and percussionist extraordinaire Tony Allen, the technically nameless supergroup ("We won't make another record, and we didn't properly name the band, because a name is for a marriage," Simonon told Observer Music Magazine in 2007) got together with Danger Mouse to create what Albarn called "a song cycle that's also a mystery play about London." The album put forth its bad vibes gently but firmly, with tracks like the spacy "Herculean" and the washed-out "Behind the Sun" utilizing sparse lyrics and downtempo beats to create a record that has its post-apocalyptic feeling only heightened by its overwhelming melancholy.

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18. Mother Love Bone, ‘Apple’ (1990)

It's hard not to overstate how different rock music in 2016 would be if Seattle quintet Mother Love Bone had been able to make a second album. Their combination of Northwest grunge and runny-mascara glam sounded like a prediction of where hair metal, just beginning its decline in 1990, could go. Lead singer Andrew Wood's witchy stage persona, capped off by an inimitable yowl, transformed the taut, spiky rock turned out by his bandmates into gutter-glitter anthems, whether they were lost-highway chronicles like "Mr. Danny Boy" or otherworldly power ballads like "Crown of Thorns." Wood died of a heroin overdose just as Apple was about to be released, and the band broke up. Guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament went on to form Pearl Jam, whose chaotic take on grunge transformed the rock landscape only a year later. 

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17. The Shaggs, ‘Philosophy of the World’ (1969)

It takes all of two seconds for the Shaggs' out-rock masterpiece Philosophy of the World to fall apart into a glorious, asynchronous mess. The group was a trio of sisters from Fremont, New Hampshire whose father and manager believed in their bizarre, messy music about cats, parents, Halloween and how "you can never please anybody in this world," as Dot Wiggins sings on the title cut. Although the Shaggs were too weird for mainstream success – leading to their eventual disbandment after their dad died – their sole LP became an underground hit. Frank Zappa said they were "better than the Beatles," Kurt Cobain named Philosophy his fifth favorite record ever and rock group NRBQ believed in them enough to coax two-thirds of the group out of retirement in 1999. Their story became the subject of an off-Broadway musical that opened in 2011. 

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16. Germs, ‘GI’ (1979)

No studio recording could ever quite capture the chaos of the live Germs experience, with Darby Crash singing everywhere but into the microphone and at least one onstage band member narcotically incapacitated. Instead, producer Joan Jett captured the sound of punk at its most reckless and self-destructive, as Crash's poetic sneers articulate all the nihilism of his U.K. punk heroes and none of their irony. You can hear punk transforming into hardcore here, with the caustic, trebly blare of future Foo Fighter Pat Smear pointing the way forward into the Eighties, and the rhythm section – Lorna Doom's melodic bass, Don Boiles swatting drums as though they're being hurled at his head – setting a pace that makes the Ramones sound like poky dawdlers. The Germs had already disbanded by the time Crash ended his life in December 1980, via an intentional heroin O.D.

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15. Rockpile, ‘Seconds of Pleasure’ (1980)

Rockpile made throwback rock that drew on Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry, but they played it like the Ramones: fast, loud and funny. Dave Edmunds was a rockabilly obsessive and studio whiz. Nick Lowe was a pub-rock reprobate and new-wave guru who produced five Elvis Costello albums. Rockpile backed them on tour and on solo projects (Tracks on Wax 4 and Repeat When Necessary for Edmunds; Labor of Lust for Lowe), but made just one album of their own. Seconds of Pleasure recreated the snap, snarl and unbridled lust of early rock & roll with modern power, and its reason for being was summed up by a line from Lowe's "Play That Fast Thing One More Time": "It does something to me and sure feels fine." Uncomplicated and pretty close to perfect.