Top Ten Momentum Killing Follow-Up Singles to Breakthrough Post-Grunge Albums
f you've ever thrown a party, you're probably familiar with the sinking feeling that accompanies your accelerated beer consumption when it's 9:25 and two people have showed up. Even though you said it was gonna start at 9 and you're almost certain no one was gonna show up until 10 anyway, you still feel ill at ease. That's how I felt about the new batch of music around this time last year. Rather than overcompensating by scouring every cred-conscious mp3 blog, I took a step back and tried to recreate a simpler time: the mid-90's. Jose Offerman did his part by getting significant at-bats for the first time in years, and I did mine by picking up a copy of 20th Century Masters by the Gin Blossoms. It was a legitimate revelation that their songs sounded fresh a decade later.
Was it just Buzz Bin nostalgia? And why was I stuck on the Gin Blossoms instead of say, Better Than Ezra or Live? Over time, I realized the answer: the Gin Blossoms never made the ill-advised follow-up single to their breakthrough album. They were, of course, doomed to fizzle out due to the suicide of Doug Hopkins, but when Congratulations, I'm Sorry came out, "Follow You Down" advanced the ball by merely inserting a harmonica. They never really sullied their reputation.
Others weren't so lucky; perhaps wanting to establish themselves as "artistes," many alt-rock bands directly contributed to the cratering of sales in the mid-90's by releasing the Momentum-Killing Follow-Up Single to Their Breakthrough Album. While that might seem like an overly wordy and exclusive category, just keep in mind that getting this list to ten was an easy task. Figuring out why Urge Overkill, Sponge, Cracker, God Lives Underwater, Belly, and Blues Traveler didn't make the cut was not.
10. Afghan Whigs, "Honky's Ladder"
Greg Dulli is a package deal: if you want to get to his strangely engrossing misanthropy, you have to tolerate his overly reverent appropriation of black music, which can most kindly be described as "hit or miss." Following up Gentlemen, Dulli and the gang came up with the idea of making the first alt-blaxploitation album; while interesting in concept, in execution, Black Love ended up being hookless grunge that happened to have bongos and a B-3.
Pity the people at Elektra; the first line on "Honky's Ladder" is "got you where I want you motherfucker," but because it's the only song on Black Love with a tune, it became the single by default. Sure, for some time Dulli’s claim that Black Love was a concept album about the O.J. murders gave it far more replay value than it ever deserved, but even that explanation still doesn't explain "if you wanna peep on something / Peep what I got stuck between your eyes."
09. The Cranberries, "Zombie"
I always imagined that if someone were to record a loud, distorted cover version of "Disarm" fifteen years down the road, it would be insanely popular. These days, I realize it probably would've sounded exactly like "Zombie," which is only the band’s second worst lead single-cum-genre experiment (see the ska workout on "Salvation"). Like its title character, "Zombie" is a lurching, brain-consuming monster that still manages to prove, in Dolores O'Riordan's world, there is no problem that can't be yodeled away. Not even the Irish Civil War. While they may have been thinking "U2," it ended up more in the territory of Silverchair's "Pure Massacre"—without making all the excellent points about pure massacres.
08. Third Eye Blind, "Anything"
To me, Third Eye Blind's "Never Let You Go" (found on Blue, their second album) is the ultimate power-pop song. Not the "best," but the "ultimate." They always seemed like a band that read its own press, and anyone familiar with modern criticism is very aware that things that would otherwise be utilized in critiquing an album goes out the window once the phrase "power pop" comes into play. You might figure that "power pop" is a term that's too vague to be of any use, but like emo, you know it when you hear it.
The strange thing is, I don't think bands make these kind of songs to get popular, mostly because these songs don't become popular anymore. They do them because you can get the critics on your side; they'll likely assume that writing a song like that has to be due to the fact that, like them, you're a student of "perfect pop." And when the song doesn't become popular, they'll riff on how radio has forgotten what "perfect pop" is all about, and they'll name-check a bunch of never-weres. Their work's already done.
But the reason that Blue was not a success either commercially or critically is because the band decided to release "Anything" first and "Never Let You Go" second. And absolutely nobody remembers what "Anything" sounds like.
07. Counting Crows, "Angels of the Silences"
Back when bands were able to release four singles and accompanying videos, it always seemed like the fourth one was where funds dried up, sales were on autopilot, and the label made sure that a live performance clip was all you got. Counting Crows cut right to chase for the jump-off from Recovering the Satellites, recording the sort of staged rocking-out that attempted to fool the listening public into thinking that they wouldn't be cutting a live album for VH-1 in a couple of years. Think the "Mr. Jones" clip with ten times more jumping.
A song without equivalent in their entire catalog, "Angels of the Silences" proved Adam Duritz' wordy self-pity didn't sound any better when his mates let 'er rip. If Duritz' voice were more a couple notches more nasal, this might qualify as Hawthorne Heights. Breathing returned to normal and "A Long December" proved that Courtney Cox's Midas touch on videos didn't end with "I'll Be There for You."
06. Collective Soul, "Gel"
Scott Stapp and his Jesus Christ Pose has been grist for an endlessly spinning mill of played-out jokes from pop culture hacks, but I'll grant "The King" this: Creed suffered for the sins of Collective Soul. Though Collective Soul were a Stockbridge, Georgia band playing alt-rock with clearly enunciated religious overtones, they somehow got a free ride that likely resulted in the pent-up backlash for evangelical grunge at the end of the 20th century. Yet when Jerky Boys: The Movie needed a band to pen the lead single for the soundtrack, somehow it made sense to get these guys to contribute their first attempt at a sex song (look at that title again). For their troubles, Collective Soul was rewarded with people associating the chorus of the monster hit "December" with blowjobs instead.
05. Better Than Ezra, "King of New Orleans"
If you've kept up with BTE in the last half-decade, you might know them for releasing mixed bags of alt-rock that are almost always two years behind the times in terms of prevailing trends. But when they first got started, they were that timeless of creatures: a frat band. Though lacking traditional frat rock credentials such as marathon live shows, excessive noodling, and hemp necklaces, I saw more than my fair share of copies of Deluxe hanging around the house, and "Good" got by on its drunken sing-along vocal tic in the chorus more than it did any sort of melodic hook. Plus, there is also the issue of a rumor I heard that "Desperately Wanting" was about pledging Kappa Sig at LSU.
Anyway, the dividing line between the relative "eras" of BTE is "King of New Orleans," maybe the most overwrought piece of post-grunge to be left off a Seven Mary Three album. Whoever said that the '90s were all about irony never got a load of this song, with its needlessly overdubbed guitars, almost math-rock breakdown, repeated threats of kicking your head in, and, of course, the non-ironic vocal doubling on the key line "Cat Stevens was the greatest singer."
04. The Offspring, "All I Want"
The Offspring didn’t owe you jack. You might have hated "Come Out and Play," "Self Esteem" and that "stupid, dumbshit, godDAMN MOTHERFUCKER!" song in 1994 as much as you do now, but the success of Smash was still a heartening triumph of DIY. Before the creation of the mp3 blog and Lil' Jon blurring the lines in terms of what an independent label actually is, Smash destroyed the record for albums sold on an indie, despite nonexistent promotion and videos with A/V Club production values. Yet they somehow thought the backwards-hat crowd gave a damn about their punk credentials, and the Offspring set to keep the "sellout!" wolves at bay on Ixnay on the Hombre.
Their first move was to get Jello Biafra to vouch for their paid dues on the album's intro (a move later pulled by Matt Pinfield for Limp Bizkit). The second was to release the hardcore-influenced "All I Want" as the first single. Shorter than both "Song 2" and "Fell In Love With A Girl," "All I Want" might have the highest BPM of any rock single in history. But while its breakneck speed paradoxically slowed down their commercial momentum, the subsequently released power ballad "Gone Away" ensured that the Offspring would have the market power needed to continue playing cat and mouse with Everclear to see who could come up with a worse novelty single.
03. Soul Asylum, "Misery"
Like Jamiroquai, Soul Asylum came up with a video concept that was destined to overshadow anything else they would ever do. Though the 13-year old version of me couldn't help but well up whenever "Runaway Train" came to a close, in retrospect, it seems like more of a cynically ingenious marketing move. Wouldn't "Less Than You Think" become a smash if its eleven-minute feedback outro were to somehow function as a PSA?
Perhaps daunted by such crippling expectations, Dave Pirner stumbled upon the dual meaning of "company" and came up with the unforgettable They say misery loves company / Let's start a company and make misery.
And that shaky bit of word trickery continues to eat at its own tail for the rest of the song. If nothing else, it makes the chorus ("Frustrated Incorporated!") sound positively genius by comparison. Soon after, the trips to the White House and Wynona Ryder's birth canal were over and the whole "kids disappearing" thing only applied to their fanbase.
02. Live, "Lakini's Juice"
It's easy to forget that Live used to be a contender, almost as easy as it is to forget that Mental Jewelry leaned on slap-bass more than any rock album in the '90s other than Blood Sugar Sex Magik or Pork Soda. But those who forget the lessons of Arrested Development are doomed to repeat them: if you're gonna be criticized for your earnestness, don't give your post-breakthrough album a quasi-spiritual name that people will be embarrassed to say aloud. Secret Samadhi might not be a worse choice than Zingalamaduni, but it just might be when taken in conjunction with its lead single, which was as euphonious as its name.
While their previous hits relied on collegial strum & jangle, Chad Taylor put on his dunce cap and came up with a blockhead chord riff that never sounds right. Caught up in the "rock" moment, Ed Kowalczyk's tries to conquer atonalism with volume. And to top it off, the video likens sexual conquest to the deli line. I guess I don't appreciate the erotic qualities of cured meats.
01. Spin Doctors, "Cleopatra's Cat"
In the history of modern rock music, there might not be another single that has done more damage to a band's earning potential than "Cleopatra's Cat." To say this bombed would be like saying Dresden suffered some urban upheaval during World War II. Yeah, if you look back at any of the five (!) videos from Pocket Full Of Kryptonite, the Spin Doctors don't have a look that screams "staying power." But having developed a large fanbase, particularly in upstate New York on the strength of their live shows, at the very least, they could've eked out as good of a living as other H.O.R.D.E. alumni, playing the college circuit, jamming out, releasing albums on Sanctuary, etc.
Blues Traveler tried a little too hard for respect on "Carolina Blues," but they always had their core audience, whereas Hootie & The Blowfish faced an inevitable no-win situation. But in the span of four minutes—four awful, awful minutes—the Spin Doctors ended their career as we knew it, and started a sad turn of events that lead to Chris Barron's voice completely giving out and the band disintegrating. Based around a stupid hook ("my girlfriend's cat is smarter than me!") and the "all the girls in France do the naked lady dance" riff, radio treated it like a sex offender at the ten-year high school reunion. The Spin Doctors attempted to do some damage control with "You Let Your Heart Go Too Fast," a more Kryptonite-ish nugget of jam-pop, but it was already over, and all the Doctors could do in the future to get even a sniff of radio time was to collaborate with Biz Markie and cover KC & The Sunshine Band.