Singles Only: 22 Great Songs By Artists Who Never Made An Album
Popular music always had eyes towards the full-length LP ever since the format was established. Initially the provenance of classical recordings, the idea of the album as the ideal musical format carried through to the postwar jazz era, the popularity of Broadway cast recordings, and any number of cocktail-party soundtracks where the hosts didn’t want to keep switching out 45s. The popularity of singles was largely parallel — ’50s and ’60s youths gravitated towards singles for reasons of portability and affordability, and even during the peak-album years from the ’70s through the ’90s, club culture and tastemaking DJs still kept the 12″ not only alive but vital. Still, the album’s continued to hold sway as The Important Format even well into the Spotify years.
But there are always complications when it comes to pitting the album vs. the single as a (false) binary decision. For some artists, cutting a couple singles can do a lot more to get their foot in the door than taking the time to concoct a full album’s worth of ideas. Others are constrained by budgets, reluctant labels, or any other industry pitfalls that torpedo up-and-comers. Others still are just accustomed to working in a singles genre that values DJ placement over commercial album sales. But there’s a remarkable tendency for artists who never released albums — even if their singles were hits — to find themselves put on the music history back-burner. Say what you will about the one-hit wonder status of A Flock of Seagulls, White Town, or Mims, at least they were able to take advantage of that one hit for a full-length.
So here’s a list of 22 of the best songs by artists who never took that leap to a full-length album. They might’ve released EPs. They could have enough great singles to fill a two-disc compilation. Or they had a one-and-done flash of promise that never led to bigger or better things. In setting a few guidelines — no supergroups, no bands best-known for members forming exponentially more famous bands, no micro-indie/private-press Numero Group-ready labels — I had to get a bit creative in what actually made the cut. My decision to represent as broad a spectrum of genres as possible — Philly soul, minimal wave, drum’n’bass — was also at least somewhat thwarted by some genres’ tendencies to go full-length no matter how C-tier a label’s act was. (Even underground metal prioritized albums over singles, and there are surprisingly few notable indie rock groups that only released singles.)
I also more or less opted for artists that didn’t have the same cultural impact as, say, Minor Threat or Derrick May (who’d’ve fit this list pretty well otherwise), because sometimes the thoroughly arbitrary nature of whether a single catches on or not has led to a lot of severely underrated and underheard gems. Granted, this selection of also-rans, never-weres, coulda-beens, and actually-doing-all-rights might seem a bit arbitrary at first glance — but then, so’s the record industry.
Johnny Williams - "Slow Motion" (Philadelphia International, 1972)
Being an R&B singer in the '60s meant that it really only took a couple singles to get the ball rolling on a recording career. By the time Chicago-based singer Johnny Williams signed with Philadelphia International Records in the new decade, he'd served as a short-term high tenor singer for the Drifters on the cusp of the '60s, then cut sides for blues-bolstering labels like Kent ("You've Got It" / "Don't Cha' Ever Forget It," 1964) and Chess ("My Baby's Good" / "Philly Dog") before having a couple late '60s singles on the underrated Chicago label Twinight. But while PIR had joined a host of other soul-centric labels like Motown and Stax in transitioning to albums as self-contained works instead of just singles-and-filler collections, not everyone who had hits for them got a shot at cutting their own epic-filled War Of The Gods or Ship Ahoy.
Given the success of 1972's Gamble-Huff composition "Slow Motion, Pt. 1" on the R&B charts, where it just missed the R&B Top Ten by two spots and got him an appearance on Soul Train, it's borderline mysterious as to why Williams was never given the studio time to cut a full-length. His raw, Southern-via-Chicago-style sense of soul fused spectacularly with PIR's hi-fi-friendly orchestration, and it's easy to imagine his refined intensity given some extra nuance and eclecticism across an LP's worth of songs. That his discography tapers off by the mid '70s is a damn shame, but as bright sides go, at least getting an extended version from disco mix legend Tom Moulton is a special one.
Jackal - "The Year of the Tiger" (BASF, 1974)
The post-T. Rex/Bowie glam wave brought a lot of entertaining weirdos out of the woodwork, and few were weirder than the one-and-done Jackal. The Yorkshire band's sole single dropped in 1974 and likely bewildered the relatively few people who might have heard it -- and not just because the b-side was titled "Big Star" (no, not that one), or the fact that there was a Canadian band of psych-prog contemporaries with the same name. "Year of the Tiger" is a bizarre fusion of quasi-Chinese zodiac imagery, kids-are-gonna-start-the-revolution declarations, and one of the most sinister-sounding interplays between distorted keyboards and monomaniacal caveman rhythm the mid '70s ever brought on.
Howling singer Paul Sutton and codeine-disco drummer Gary Burroughs more or less dropped off the radar after that. But bassist Geoff Appleby -- previously semi-known for being in a mod-blues band called the Rats with a pre-pre-pre-famous Mick Ronson in the mid '60s -- contributed vocals to the first solo album by Mott The Hoople's Ian Hunter in '75 and put out a couple Mutt Lange-produced notch-below-Sweet post-glam singles on Virgin the following year. Throw in his stint with one-LP-wonder Screen Idols in '79 and he's got a decent CV, though none of it is as arrestingly weird as Jackal's sole single.
Linton Cooper - "You'll Get Your Pay" (Money Disc / Studio One, ca. 1975)
Legendary Jamaican label Studio One was so prolific -- and was at the center of so many developments in the ska-to-dancehall continuum -- that naming any random reggae artist you can think of will unearth an entry in Coxsone Dodd's vaults. The Skatalites, Toots & the Maytals, Bob Marley & the Wailers, Lee "Scratch" Perry, Dennis Brown, Dillinger -- Studio One was basically Motown if Motown also had everyone from Stax, Hi, and Westbound on their roster. With a discography that numbers in the thousands, including the studio's exhaustive litany of sublabels, you could mine for shooting-star one-offs all day and come up with a good dozen or two just by scratching the surface. So maybe there's something a bit whatever's-closest-by about picking out this particular track by Linton Cooper -- though it helps that it's one of those hopeless obscurities helpfully bolstered by a compilation on reissue-frenzied tastemaker label Soul Jazz. It helps even more when the obscurity in question is the most breathtaking track on said comp: an organ riff that you can actually feel in your chest, a rattly tremolo that takes the idea of percussive piano to a new plane, and a singer who makes roots-reggae judgement and retribution sound forebodingly graceful.
Banbarra - "Shack Up (Pt. I & II)" (United Artists, 1975)
The Honeydrippers, Manzel, Melvin Bliss -- the hip-hop break canon is riddled with artists who never released an LP, but found a way to be immortalized in ways that simply dropping an album couldn't. The story of Banbarra's even more curious than most, however: despite 1975 single "Shack Up" being the only thing ever released under the band's name, its legacy far outstripped its initial impact in more genres than most one-offs could ever hope for. You've heard that drum break and other elements of the song in hip-hop, of course -- The Bomb Squad, DJ Premier, and Dan The Automator all made sure of that. But its ubiquity there was preceded by both a strong Billboard dance chart success (peaking at #4) and a handful of cover versions, the most notable of which came from A Certain Ratio, which took post-punk's affection for skewed dance rhythms to the utmost in '81. That Factory legacy echoed when Madchester came calling with their own dawn-of-a-decade use as a sample in Happy Mondays' "God's Cop," and… well, it's a long story that I've written before, so let's just loop back to the original and bask in its perfect disco/funk line-straddle, if you can figure out how to bask and dance at the same time.
electric eels - "Agitated" (Rough Trade, 1978)
There's stupid, there's stoopid, and then there's S-T-O-O-O-O-P-I-D. The most famous and widely-distributed 7" by Cleveland art-terrorists the electric eels is the kind of dumb that only smart people (or at least smart-asses) are capable of. Released when it sounded of the moment rather than years ahead of it, this maniacal slab of rubber-legged omnidirectional aggression was recorded in April '75, back when anything you'd deign to call "punk" nowadays requires a "proto-" prefix. And in a scene that also included Rocket From The Tombs (and, subsequently, The Dead Boys and Pere Ubu), the fact that the ironic-swastika-waving, onstage gas-mower-revving, fistfight-starting electric eels actually raised the ceiling for what constituted "confrontational" seems pretty hard to fathom.
But they did it, and this single more than sounds like what that deranged reputation actually implies. Blues-rock on a model glue bender, it opens with Brian McMahon letting out one of the most gutturally imbecilic yells in the history of postwar popular music ("Ohhhhhhhhhhhuuuhhhh"), only to top it just before the last verse ("uuuhhhhhhhhngmhhhnnnnn!"). Between those, you get a guitar solo that sounds like Sonny Sharrock attacking a shipping container with a chainsaw, lyrics about what sounds like a worst-case scenario of taking speed ("And it's five A.M. and I'm crawlin' the walls/ Just waitin' for imaginary telephone calls"), and a drumbeat that sounds like a defective piece of stamping plant machinery.
electric eels had already broken up by the time Rough Trade made them labelmates with Cabaret Voltaire and Scritti Politti, but their rep lived on -- not enough to get them a long-term record deal, but enough to get their '75 sessions re-released on a handful of compilation records. It probably says a lot about the band's sensibilities that the first two of these comps were titled Having A Philosophical Investigation With The Electric Eels and God Says Fuck You.
Bonnie Oliver - "Come Inside My Love" (Lejoint / London Records, 1979)
The record industry gravy train for up-and-coming disco acts was about to run out by 1980, so there's no real shortage of late '70s artists who never got the opportunity to cut a follow-up single, much less an entire album. And the story behind this overlooked '79 cut is something of a two-fer. Shades Of Love were a New York-based group that would go on to work with cult icon/dance-music superpolymath Patrick Adams in the early '80s -- check for 1982's "Keep In Touch (Body to Body)," which had a second life in remixed form that made it a one-week #1 on the 1995 Billboard Dance Charts. Before that, though, they had their first breakthrough with their '79 single "Come Inside" -- a one-and-a-half-entendre song where the sultry lead encourages her lover to… enter... somewhere. But it's hard to tell how much of that breakthrough was helped, hindered, or even recognized by the piggybacking cover version Bonnie Oliver put out that same year.
Released on London Recordings' short-lived disco subsidiary Lejoint, Oliver's version sounded bigger-budget (strings!) and slower-burning (her vocal doesn't appear until a minute in, while the Shades Of Love belt out before the 15-second mark), but preserved enough of the original version's clavinet-heavy charge to sound lodged halfway between cover and remix. It peaked at a humble 89 on the Billboard Dance Charts that year, and it's also the only thing Oliver officially released on any sort of label (even if there's some later self-released material floating around on Amazon).
The Bodysnatchers - "Let's Do Rock Steady" (Two-Tone, 1980)
Name a band affiliated with the UK's second-wave ska or "2 Tone" movement -- the Specials, the Selecter, Madness -- and the Bodysnatchers not only toured alongside them, but showed signs of being every bit as good. Granted, there's a bit of a "before they were famous" element to the seven-piece all-woman ska group. Lead singer Rhoda Dakar would later join the Specials when their original singers split off into Fun Boy Three, and many of the singles she cut with them -- 1982's harrowing date-rape narrative "The Boiler," 1983's "Racist Friend," and 1984's #9 UK hit "Free Nelson Mandela" -- are rightly regarded as classics of the genre. But the Bodysnatchers stood on their own despite releasing only two singles -- including the instant-joy, skank-ready meet-the-band masterpiece "Let's Do Rock Steady" -- with a live energy that earned them a couple Peel Sessions and a few showcase moments in 1981 2 Tone concert doc Dance Craze. (Their version of Desmond Dekker & the Aces "007 (Shanty Town)" isn't just a fantastic cover version, it's a roots-minded acknowledgement of the direct line from ska to rocksteady and reggae -- and back.)
The Bodysnatchers only got a two-single deal from 2 Tone, but according to one interview with Dakar, the amount of work they put in was enough to highlight the kind of interpersonal and artistic tensions that typically cause bands to split. And you can hear it in the difference between Dakar's sociopolitical hits with the Special AKA and the more lighthearted pop-soul of the remaining members' post-Bodysnatchers group The Belle Stars. (If you've seen Rain Man, you know their version of "Iko Iko," though they'd been broken up for a couple years by then.) The "what if they cut a record" question is also at least partially answered: Dakar recorded a full-length album in 2015 that resurrected much of the band's material, and while Dakar has admitted to not being the kind of person to look back, the sense of closure makes for a pretty satisfying listen.
DJ Hollywood - "Shock, Shock, The House" (Epic, 1980)
For a brief moment, the single most important hip-hop artist most casual rap fans haven't heard of was on the same label as Michael Jackson and the Clash. Anthony "DJ Hollywood" Holloway's "Shock, Shock, The House" (superfluous comma and all) sounds a lot like one of your better pre-Run-D.M.C. old school joints -- a live band playing disco-funk grooves, an MC heavy on call-and-response, a let's-use-all-12-inches running time of nearly nine minutes, all that good stuff. What makes this single crucial is that it's one of the few times a DJ-slash-MC who many historians consider a founding father of the genre appeared on a major label. Hollywood set a major precedent in the mid '70s when he took the "rhythm talk" popular among NYC radio DJs like Frankie Crocker and made it more rhythmically on-time with the records he was spinning -- in other words, if he didn't out-and-out invent rapping, he at least drew up a perfect introductory how-to.
The catch was that since he was big-time enough to play the Apollo, he also tended to play the disco clubs in Manhattan that Bronx teenagers couldn't afford or were otherwise just not interested in, while the likes of Bambaataa, Flash, and Herc worked more accessible rec centers and park jams. Combine that with his emphasis on playing the hits in full rather than isolating breakbeats from older or more obscure cuts, and there were at least a few excuses to minimize his place in hip-hop history. Still, his disciples ranged from early rap superstar Kurtis Blow to DJ icon Lovebug Starski, and Hollywood is one of a small select group (along with Starski) that can be credibly honored for coining the term "hip-hop" in the first place. That his first single's so fire is a pretty solid bonus.
Karen Marks - "Cold Café" (Astor, 1981)
In Australia, Astor Radio Corporation was something of a major fixture, loosely equivalent to RCA in that they put out both recorded music and the electronic devices people bought to hear them. Astor's case is a bit touchier in the context of Karen Marks' sole single, though, largely in terms of timing. "Cold Café" came out in 1981, the same year that Astor's recorded music division had their (and, at the time, Australia's) biggest-ever smash hit with Joe Dolce's Italian-family novelty record "Shaddap You Face." The bad news is that the Dolce dollars didn't come in fast enough to keep Astor from being absorbed into PolyGram and shutting down their manufacturing plant by the end of the year, subsequently endangering the future of Australia's booming independent music scene.
Before their demise, Astor themselves were able to take a chance on an artist like Marks, whose scant but remarkable contributions to the minimal wave movement gave the Melbourne musician a renown far past her place and time. And "Cold Café" fits the odder corners of '81 synthpop well, right between the poppy motorvation of Computer World Kraftwerk and the sardonic alienation of Human League a'la Dare! The song's late-'10s resurfacing, both on major label comps and genre-focused indies alike, have given this remarkable one-off a second life right at the time where it feels like the primordial origins of electronic indie pop as it exists today.
Planet Ha Ha - "Home," (EMI, 1982)
Right now I'm picturing some slick-haired weirdo at EMI bolting out of the Odeon, rushing to a pay phone, and demanding that someone in A&R wrangle up a band to cash in on this whole E.T. thing. Shit, Michael Jackson his goddamned self cut a read-along storybook of the movie with Quincy Jones and Rod Temperton at the same time they were working on Thriller, and everyone from the pre-Newcleus Sunnyview label to The Actual Straight-Up Neil Diamond got in on the schtick, too. How's about concocting a semi-anonymous one-off novelty group to do the same for the UK charts?
And that's how brothers Lee and Tony Mansfield, the latter of modestly successful synthpoppers New Musik and the former a 13-year-old boy, cut this single with a co-write from another artist Tony was working with at the time -- Rob Fisher of Naked Eyes (of Fairlight-soaked "Always Something There to Remind Me" cover version renown). That's not the weird part. The song is the weird part, especially if you take the clunky kid-rap plot-reference lyrics out of the equation ("Don’t let 'im die say the FBI /Flower dies, then comes to life"), and just listen to the instrumental.
Without words, it sounds more simpatico with the vibes of the other sci-fi classics of '82 that suffered in the wake of E.T.'s family-friendliness -- namely the Pan-Asian aura of Blade Runner and the icy anxiety of The Thing. (OK, so they went with Morricone for the latter, but tell me that synthesized minimalist dirge beat isn't John Carpenter as fuck.) That lends some credence to the theory that the track for "Home" was originally intended for a fourth New Musik album -- or a reboot of the band, New Musik II. But not only was "Home" a chart non-entity, it was withdrawn before it could get any momentum.
According to Lee Mansfield, nobody at EMI had actually asked Universal Studios if they could directly reference E.T. in any way, and the single was withdrawn to avoid legal trouble -- taking the already-recorded potential future Planet Ha Ha/New Musik II album down with it. So if you want your own vinyl copy, expect to shell out at least three figures for it -- which, considering the instrumental's on the b-side, is just about worth it.
Liquid Liquid - "Cavern" (99 Records, 1983)
On the one hand, the fact that dance-punk greats Liquid Liquid never released a full-length album can be arguably attributed to one of hip-hop's most notorious legal entanglements. Melle Mel's' "White Lines" famously ganked the bassline and some vocal melodies from "Cavern" and ensnared both Sugar Hill and 99 Records in a legal battle that would contribute to both labels' dissolution. (Insult to injury: this was concurrent with Grandmaster Flash suing Sugar Hill for essentially hijacking his identity in a group he was increasingly sidelined in, with the initial credit for a song he had nothing to do with going to "Grandmaster Melle Mel.") On the other hand, Liquid Liquid did manage to record enough material between 1981 and 1983 to constitute a cohesive and supremely enjoyable album's worth of music, just scattered across a handful of singles and EPs.
In 1997, DJ Shadow / UNKLE stronghold Mo Wax (UK) and Beastie Boys boutique label Grand Royal (US) did just that, putting out a self-titled anthology that tacked on four songs from a March '82 live set. When the rights went up for grabs again the following decade, Domino did more or less the same in '08 with Slip In And Out Of Phenomenon, adding more bonus tracks and giving sleeve-art honors to bassist/keyboardist/visual artist Richard McGuire. (This is where I recommend copping McGuire's fantastic graphic novel Here, which did for Chris Ware what his band did for DFA.) The '08 reissue was concurrent with a bit of a reunion, where Liquid Liquid's gigs included a string of festivals and the 2011 (cough) "farewell" show by LCD Soundsystem, where they got the unthinkable-in-'83 honor of playing "Cavern" and other art-funk jams in Madison Square Garden.
Intaferon - "Getoutoflondon," (Chrysalis, 1983)
UK new wavers Intaferon had all the hallmarks of name-to-watch status. They were signed to Chrysalis when the label's roster included the likes of Billy Idol and Pat Benatar, they were featured on the original British version of The Max Headroom Show, and the music video for their Martin Rushent-produced single "Getoutoflondon" was directed by Storm Thorgerson of legendary rock music design group Hipgnosis. And then, after a couple more singles, they split, with the two-Simon duo receding from the music world to different degrees. Simon Fellowes would go solo with a couple underheard LPs as Simon F before retiring from music to focus on being a writer, an initial pre-music career he'd honed writing for the NME. (A weird detail worth noting: his 1985 debut album as Simon F was titled Gun in the States and Gun Control in the UK.) And Simon Gillham -- who had previously contributed bass and vocals to Wire founder Colin Newman's '82 solo LP Not To -- would go on to become a professor of philosophy at a succession of colleges in the UK, though there was also word of him forming a new band in the mid '10s, Used To, that I can't find any sign of online. It's a shame that Intaferon slid into obscurity, especially considering what a gem of poppy, jittery anxiety "Getoutoflondon" is. But you know who might help revive it? Zoomers who were really into Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen movies.
Hashim - "Al-Naafiysh (The Soul)," (Cutting Records, 1983)
Recorded and released when he was still 17, Hashim's debut single on electro / house / freestyle heavy hitter label Cutting Records was a massive b-boy anthem in '83, and in terms of impact and reach it's maybe the second-most pivotal NYC electro hit after Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock." But its biggest audience didn't hear it on a turntable or a boom box -- they heard it on a PlayStation 2. It was nearly two full decades after the release of "Al-Naafiysh (The Soul)" that it got its biggest audience through its savvy inclusion on the soundtrack to the 17.5-million-selling Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, sharing "Wildstyle Pirate Radio" video game airwaves with the likes of Run-DMC and Herbie Hancock under the aegis of legendary hip-hop radio DJ Mr. Magic.
But that's more its legacy than its peak; as a soundtrack to running over polygonal pedestrians, it's easily topped by what it's done and can still do to a dancefloor. As for Jerry Calliste Jr., the man who recorded as Hashim, his follow-up singles were solid and earned him some UK crossover, but tapered off by the end of the '80s as his attention turned to the financial side of the music biz. He appears to be a lifer in that respect, and if you've ever wondered what he did after he released an all-time classic like "A-Naafiysh (The Soul)," the answer appears to be "damn near everything."
Phuture - "Acid Tracks" (Trax, 1987)
Chicago house can be traced pretty authoritatively to Frankie Knuckles -- who, despite his genre's singles-dependent success, put out a few albums of his own, including 1991's "Whistle Song"-buoyed Virgin full-length Beyond The Mix. But if its 303-warped subgenre acid house had an origin point, give the lion's share of credit to Phuture, who slipped a tape of this anthem to DJ Ron Hardy circa 1985 and started a sawtoothed, square-waved phenomenon that would echo for decades.
As was the case for much of the era's gear, the "Acid Tracks" 12" did more to sell producers on the recently-discontinued Roland TB-303 synthesizer than the company's own efforts ever did, not only capitalizing on a distinctly different kind of sound but showing off how many possibilities it had. And that sound rapidly expanded from the Chicagoland club scene's LSD-dropping niches to the UK's late '80s "second Summer of Love" rave explosion, Warp's Aphex Twin and Squarepusher-helmed IDM deconstructions, and the French touch wave that Daft Punk's tweaking helped set into motion.
With a legacy like that, who needs an LP -- especially when the origin point's intricately constructed 4/4 and that unpredictably congealing 303 sound explores more ideas in just over 12 minutes than what most of its contemporaries (and successors) could barely sustain over 40?
Wax Doctor - "The Spectrum," (Metalheadz, 1995)
When UK's acid house scene evolved into hardcore rave -- then into jungle and drum'n'bass -- its sprawling polyrhythmic ambitions took a singles genre into full-length turf. From Goldie's suite-sized expansion of his legendary single "Inner City Life" on 1995's Timeless to Roni Size and Reprazent's 1997 Mercury Music Prize-winning opus New Forms, d'n'b grew rapidly into an album-ready genre that could easily push double-CD capacities. Metalheadz, arguably the genre's premier label, also got into the habit of pushing their various-artist compilations into rangy, two-hour-plus affairs, and even then Wax Doctor's selections often stood above the median and showed remarkable promise. A centerpiece of early '90s jungle label Basement Records, Paul Saunders' work as Wax Doctor with the Metalheadz label starting in '94 gave him an even bigger audience. They'd discover him to be a virtuoso with the "Apache" break, layering minimalist but stirring atmospheric melodies over bassbin-annihilating low end and remarkably fluid rhythm manipulations. But he never got around to joining the labelmate likes of J Majik, Peshay, or Photek (much less Goldie) in taking his ideas to the kind of expansive, experimental lengths that an album could afford him -- though it's not for lack of trying, as he'd assembled one for dance music stronghold R&S in '98, only for them to shelve it.
K.P. & Envyi - "Swing My Way" (EastWest, 1997)
It's always weird when a musical act has a top ten hit and nearly everyone involved is able to capitalize on its success except for the headliners. But that appears to be the case for K.P. & Envyi, who hit #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 with this classic of Southern R&B/rap crossover as an ostensible one-off. Producer Mixzo, who'd already gotten a foot in the door by producing Goodie Mob's Soul Food deep cut "Fighting" in '95, would become a secret weapon for late '90s and early '00s Southern rap stars like YoungBloodZ, David Banner, and Bonecrusher. Backup singer Algebra Blessett would record a couple albums as a lead, and cut vocals on Esperanza Spalding's Grammy-winning Radio Music Society. The music video features an appearance by a then-unknown Polow da Don. Even the '98 remix had a beat by producer Carl Mo, later to produce OutKast's "The Way You Move," scratches by Emperor Searcy, who'd executive produce Lil Jon at his mid-'00s commercial peak, and verses ghostwritten by a young radio personality called Chris LoverLover -- who debuted as a rapper himself later that year on Timbaland's "Phat Rabbit." (By then he'd changed his alias to Ludacris.)
And "Swing My Way" is still a resonant-enough song that it's been sampled or interpolated in the last five years by J. Cole ("Deja Vu"), Bryson Tiller ("Exchange"), and Diplo ("Hold You Tight") -- which means that someone's still making money off of it. So where are Kia "K.P." Phillips and Susan "Envyi" Hedgepeth now? They presumably never made an album together because they were intended to be a short-term duo in an effort to bolster their separate careers, though they did have a collab as late as 2005, "Put Cha Hands Up," which appeared on a Jermaine Dupri mixtape. K.P. did cut an album in '98 with her group Da Kaperz, while Envyi had guest-vocal duties on records by Joe Budden and Jon B in the early '00s and rebranded herself as Sioux Lane sometime in the MySpace era. Considering how many right-in-the-feels reactions "Swing My Way" still gets from '90s nostalgists and Southern rap enthusiasts, they at least deserve to be on call for the occasional reunion appearance.
Dem 2 - "Destiny (Sleepless)," (Locked On, 1997)
Another case of a singles genre not needing a full-length album to assert its importance, the UK garage subgenre of two-step -- an important movement in itself, not to mention as a precursor to grime and dubstep -- found one of its earliest of several peaks in Dem 2's "Destiny (Sleepless)." Essex's Spencer Edwards and Dean Boylan took clubland's trendy notions of pitched-up house and speed garage instrumentals and did preposterous things with the beat, benching the kick-drum and creating skittery, slippery, complex rhythms that seemed to carry as much melodic effect as it did percussive. No less an authority than Simon Reynolds singled out "Destiny" as "the UK blueprint for two-step," tracing its lineage back to the rhythmic dexterity from the influence of jungle and its choppy, joyous vocal fragments from house producer Todd Edwards. And considering how many compilations and mixes "Destiny" has appeared on since -- from contemporary late '90s UKG scene roundups to retrospective tastemaker canon dives -- giving Dem 2 pioneer credits is a safe bet, especially since their big breakthrough hit is just nostalgic enough to stoke memories while still sounding outre enough to surprise younger listeners who weren't around for it the first time. Dem 2 is still at it and more prolific than ever more than 25 years after their first 12" -- albeit as just That 1 now that it's down to Boylan solo -- and still putting out choice anthems. Just don't hold your breath for a full-length -- though an up-to-date best-of would probably require multiple discs.
Tori Alamaze - "Don't Cha," (Universal, 2004)
The short version of the story: Cee-Lo concocted it, Tori abandoned it, and the Pussycat Dolls just barely missed hitting #1 with it. How and why this all happened is a more complicated story, though -- the kind of complicated that inevitably points to an artist's dissatisfaction with her label and her gradual disappearance from the spotlight. Alamaze was a backup singer for OutKast on the Big Boi half of Speakerboxxx / The Love Below (that's her on "Bowtie" and "The Rooster"), but venturing into a solo career with Cee-Lo's help actually took her more than 30 feet from stardom. Her version of "Don't Cha" for Universal didn't chart well, but she'd recorded an album for them that might've helped boost the single into a slow-burning hit if they'd actually made the decision to release it. (Does the album still exist? Well, it was on Universal...)
As for why the album never saw the light of day -- and why the single itself might have stalled on the charts -- the New York Times revealed that in January 2005, a disillusioned Alamaze made the decision herself to break her contract with Universal, which meant giving up the rights to "Don't Cha" to the label. (Cee-Lo later suggested that it was just as well, as the song wasn't a good fit with Alamaze's "bohemian ... neo-soul" style.) Since this was concurrent with Alamaze's single actually hitting the DJ pools, it's easy to see why Universal didn't put much promotional weight behind it, but its regional popularity -- including in Miami, where its Sir Mix-A-Lot-lifted hook might've resonated with the city's bass-music culture -- was notable enough that they hired the burlesque act Pussycat Dolls to re-record it with a rap-radio-courting Busta Rhymes appearance added on. That became a hit, and when Alamaze played a concert that summer, she was billed -- much to her chagrin -- as "Tori Alamaze of the Pussycat Dolls."
Hot Stylz - "Lookin Boy" (Feat. Yung Joc) (Jive, 2007)
For one brief, staggering moment, three rappers from Chicago dozened their way into the Southern rap pantheon and gave "snap music" a whole new meaning. Hot Stylz -- or Hotstylz, depending on who you ask -- dropped one of the most spectacular displays of rapidfire insults to ever rattle speakers with "Lookin' Boy" (or "Lookin' Ass N---a" in its less-heard dirty version). And while a couple of the jokes haven't held up, either due to dated references (remember when Spongebob Squarepants was a wack thing to be into?) or terms that weren't even excusable back then (hopefully we're finally rid of the epithet "homo thug"), there are so many amazing lines that most first-time listeners probably missed half of them because they were laughing too hard to hear them. There's an A++++++ reference to one of the most notorious Fresh Prince moments ever in the first verse, a quick sidestep into classic "yo mama" jokes ("so slow she can't cook Minute Rice"), and a slick wait-what subversion where all the lookin'-boy snaps in the last mic-trading verse include ... themselves. Hot Stylz put out enough singles in the wake of "Lookin' Boy" to hint at more ideas in their notebooks, and they've still been dropping weirdo comedy anthems in recent years (like 2018's ramen-loving "Oodles Of Noodles"), but they still haven't made the leap from mixtapes to albums -- and their profile's been so low it's only now that I heard they went after Eminem for supposedly sampling "Lookin' Boy" without permission. But fuck it, I'll still take "Lookin' Boy" over anything Shady released after 2002.
LD - "Shake It" (Hyperdub, 2009)
By the time the celebratory compilation 5 Years Of Hyperdub dropped, the eminent dubstep and experimental beat music label had been responsible for some of the scene's finest full-lengths (Kode9 + The Spaceape's Memories Of The Future; the first two Burial albums) to go with a string of legendary singles, and they'd go on to drop plenty more (including a string of great records from Ikonika, Cooly G, Laurel Halo, and Jessy Lanza). Nearly every artist represented on 5 Years Of Hyperdub has at least one album under their belts -- including musicians more commonly associated with other labels, like Flying Lotus, Joker, and Samiyam. But Leon Day, who cut a string of excellent singles as LD when he wasn't working behind the boards at Transition Mastering Studios, is one of the scant exceptions. He was a bit overlooked on a label that admittedly has a megaton of other artists to look over, but considering how hot everyone on Hyperdub was by the end of the '00s -- LD was even tapped to remix Animal Collective's "Summertime Clothes" -- the fact that he seems to have all but disappeared from music and social media altogether after late 2016 is both dispiriting and mysterious. There might be bigger what-ifs in dance music, but a listen to ravey two-step permutations like "Shake It" still makes his absence felt.
Anthony "Shake" Shakir - "Arise" (Syncrophone Recordings, 2009)
I'm a total mark for Steely Dan, so be aware that I'm not putting it lightly when I say that "Arise" is the best way anybody's ever messed with "Aja," including Don and Walt themselves. The way that handful of bars from its instrumental coda becomes its own entity, raising chills even before it seeps through the filters like god rays piercing the clouds… whew. Damn. Anthony "Shake" Shakir is a remarkable case in that he can lay claim to being an early adopter of the Detroit techno movement while simultaneously nurturing and transcending it, adding next-wave elements like hip-hop breakbeats to his ever-evolving style.
Considering his working relationships with Derrick May and Carl Craig, and his own early showing on the massively influential '88 UK comp Techno! The New Dance Sound Of Detroit, it's harder to figure out what's more unlikely: that he was making his best work yet more than 20 years after breaking through, or the fact that unlike Craig, Kevin Saunderson, or Juan Atkins, Shake never actually released a full-length album. (At least, not unless you count 2004's collaborative First Take Then Shake with German new wavers F.S.K., which feels more like a partial production gig for someone else than his own distinct solo work.) But considering that Shake isn't even the most famous Detroit techno icon to have zero non-compilation albums in his discography -- that'd be May, who you should know about already -- he's in good company.
QT - "Hey QT" (XL Recordings, 2014)
If poptimism got music critics and other assorted geeks to ask themselves "can you find transcendence in mainstream, 'corporate' pop music," PC Music threw in the additional knuckeball of "what if that transcendence comes from a tongue-in-cheek jingle for an energy drink we invented?" Producers SOPHIE and A.G. Cook hired vocalist/artist Hayden Dunham to cut this giddy bubblegum-bass one-off before going their separate ways, and it's still one of PC Music's most resonant artifacts -- if only because it works whether you approach it farcically or sincerely. Assuming it doesn't make you think that's a false binary in the first place, anyways. "Hey QT" felt less like a parody, repudiation, or deconstruction of 2010s EDM-pop tropes than it was just a big hit in a parallel, better and weirder world than the one it actually appeared in. Dunham has gone on to resume her first love of conceptual art -- though not before getting away with hawking the DrinkQT energy drink during a festival sponsored by Red Bull. Why have your art imitate life when you can mutate it?
Here’s a selection of songs from this list in a Spotify playlist: