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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.

[Editor’s Note: A version of this list was originally published July 2016]

From Rolling Stone US


10. Madvillain, ‘Madvillainy’ (2004)

Madlib and MF Doom had always intended Madvillain as a lark through the vinyl crates before returning to their respective careers as two of the biggest names in underground hip-hop. The result was a masterpiece of elliptical beat flurries like the self-explanatory "Accordion" and the weed-encrusted "America's Most Blunted," and grumpy street raps like "Meat Grinder" with more twists than an Elmore Leonard novel. Expectations for a follow-up have swelled ever since. Despite occasional promises and remix records, it seems unlikely that Madlib the Loop Digga and Doom the Supervillain will try to recapture a summit that may be the closest thing hip-hop fans have had to the kind of salty jazz communiqués Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker engaged in during the bebop era. 


9. The Postal Service, ‘Give Up’ (2003)

In 2001, Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello (then known as IDM producer Dntel) began swapping song ideas through digital audio tapes, mailed back and forth between Seattle and Los Angeles. Rilo Kiley frontwoman Jenny Lewis, who lived in the same apartment complex as Tamborello, would supplement their tracks with backing vocals. The result was Give Up: a swoony, synth-pop reprieve from the guitar-centric machismo of indie rock. Borrowing from the New Romantics of the Eighties, they glazed their computerized love ballads with an icy, orchestral ambience; but not even the glossy, robotic vocal stylings of Gibbard and Lewis could cool the high melodrama of the lyrics. Hit single "Such Great Heights" would feature in several different television commercials and get the Hollywood treatment in 2004 film Garden State, via acoustic interpretation by Iron & Wine. Gold certified in 2005, it precipitated an onslaught of arty indie pop acts such as Owl City, Matt & Kim and Passion Pit. The trio would briefly reunite for a 10-year-reunion tour in 2013, but promised no other releases under the Postal Service moniker. "Not only will this be the last song of the tour," Gibbard told the audience at their closing show at Lollapalooza, "this is the last song we will ever do."


8. Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, ‘L.A.M.F.’ (1977)

A squawking, hungry, mean and broken-hearted mess of guitar slop set to the sped-up rhythms of Fifties rock and R&B, the Heartbreakers' one studio album was a document of street fighting New York men lost in London, looking for love, fame or anything not nailed down they could sell for drug money. Formed in 1975 after guitarist Johnny Thunders and drummer Jerry Nolan quit the New York Dolls, the Heartbreakers toured with the Sex Pistols in 1977 and recorded L.A.M.F (for "Like a Mother Fucker") while overseas. The album's mix was so hopelessly tinny that Nolan quit for a while. But as endless remixes (and live tapes) showed, songs like "Born To Lose" and "Can't Keep My Eyes On You" were showcases for Thunders' guitar, which came on like a razor blade stuck on top of a cupcake, full of vicious sweetness. "Chinese Rocks," written by Dee Dee Ramone and Richard Hell, told the rest of the story: everything down the drain of heroin addiction.


7. Buena Vista Social Club, ‘Buena Vista Social Club’ (1997)

Lured to Havana by plans to record some Malian musicians who never showed up, guitarist Ry Cooder concocted a Plan B that ended up selling more than 15 million copies. With the help of local bandleader Juan de Marcos, Cooder gathered together a solid core group augmented with aging local legends like 79-year-old pianist Rubén González and 89-year-old guitarist Compay Segundo, along with 60-year-old singer Omara Portuondo. With Cooder adding understated blues and Hawaiian-tinged accompaniment, the six-day project yielded boleros, sons, a guajira and other songs of ineffable charm and nostalgic power. And while this particular group of musicians never reconvened, the same sessions produced another debut, Introducing… Rubén González, highlighting the pianist Cooder considered a cross between Thelonious Monk and Felix the Cat.


6. Minor Threat, ‘Out of Step’ (1983)

Out of Step is not a typical full-length debut – its nine tracks clock in at less than 22 minutes. It's more a valedictory statement from a quartet laying out the socio-political ideals of American hardcore. Back then, the best punk bands said what they had to say and then either renewed themselves with lineup changes or broke up. Minor Threat had already conquered the D.C. punk scene with "Straight Edge," a clarion call that subsequently spawned the alcohol-and-drug-free D.I.Y. ideologue. Personality conflicts and money issues ensured that the group would splinter soon after. Decades after their premature demise, Ian MacKaye's legendary shout on the title track still resonates with the primal spirit of unchained youth hoping for something more: "I don't smoke! I don't drink! I don't fuck! At least I can fucking think!"


5. The Modern Lovers, ‘The Modern Lovers’ (1976)

The combustible early lineup of the Modern Lovers held together just long enough in the early Seventies to record an avant-punk classic full of tension, humor and self-examination. That is, according to most anyone other than their visionary, off-key voice Jonathan Richman, who was distancing himself from the controlled madness as it was being created. "Jonathan was headed in a new direction, and [producer John] Cale wanted the angst and the violence in the sound, which really characterized us in our early days," said bassist Ernie Brooks, who played on the sessions with keyboardist Jerry Harrison (soon to be in the Talking Heads) and drummer David Robinson (soon to be in the Cars). Hypnotic freakouts like "Roadrunner" and "Old World" signaled not exactly a new way forward, but a vicious sideways attack. This strident attitude stirred something in the Sex Pistols, and can still be heard in current punk experimenters like Parquet Courts. 


4. Jeff Buckley, ‘Grace’ (1994)

The legacy of Jeff Buckley's delicately heartbreaking album Grace has lived on well past the singer's tragic 1997 death. Bearing a trembling balance of sparseness and desperation, Grace was a masterpiece of songwriting, musicianship and vocal prowess, with Buckley's tortured-angel voice filling each song with drama. Most notable was his cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," which turned the hymnal into a more drawn out reflection on love and faith; it's nearly usurped the legacy of Cohen's version with its frequent use as the soundtrack to climactic on-screen moments and national tragedies. Buckley did not get to witness the song's power since it was never officially released as a single during his lifetime: He was 30 years old when he drowned during a spontaneous swim in a slack channel of the Mississippi River while working on what would have been his sophomore album.


3. Lauryn Hill, ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’ (1998)

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is a colossus of an album; a final, triumphant representation of the Afrocentric bohemianism once championed by Hill's former multi-platinum group the Fugees, and the nation-conscious ethos championed by earlier heroines such as Queen Latifah. Most importantly, it's a womanist statement on love, politics and morality; striking a balance between career and motherhood, from the joyful tribute to her newborn son "To Zion" to her fierce battle-rap dismissal of former Fugees partner Wyclef Jean on "Lost One." Just as essential to the myth of Miseducation is how Hill became the first hip-hop artist to win a Grammy for Album of the Year, only to embark on a heartbreakingly troubled retreat from the spotlight, leaving us to wonder about a sequel to this watermark that never was.


2. Derek & the Dominos, ‘Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs’ (1970)

It's Eric Clapton's masterpiece, of course, but neither the travails of smack addiction nor his infamous infatuation with Patti Harrison deserve full credit for driving him to the most intense playing and singing of his career. Clapton was, for once, first among equals, not competing for attention in a supergroup or seeking anonymity as a sideman. As keyboardist, singer and songwriting partner, Bobby Whitlock has Clapton's back throughout, the rhythm section of bassist Carl Radle and drummer Jim Gordon motor along with nuanced precision, and Duane Allman's soaring slide work is a pitch-perfect counterpoint to Clapton's own clipped, stinging phrases. The band couldn't hold it together, however, dissolving during a follow-up session.


1. Sex Pistols, ‘Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols’ (1977)

By the time that punk firebrands Sex Pistols put out what would be their only drop of album-length venom, they were already the most notorious band in the United Kingdom. The people behind the official U.K. pop charts wouldn't even print the name of the band, pegged as foul-mouthed hooligans, when "God Save the Queen" made it to Number Two in May 1977. The LP was destined to be a cultural turning point no matter what was on it; but because Bollocks contained 12 distinctly angry salvos that begged for chaos ("Anarchy in the U.K."), reveled in laziness ("Seventeen") and embraced the obscene ("Fuck this and fuck that"), it exploded in a way that has caused reverberations in music ever since, inspiring everyone from Axl Rose to, obliquely, Neil Young. The band's lust for chaos would ultimately get the better of them, as quarreling with manager Malcolm McLaren and feelings of antipathy toward his bandmates led Johnny Rotten to quit the band onstage, a little over two months after the album came out.