17 Canadian one-hit wonders from the '90s
by Mark Teo
June 4, 2013
In musical conversations, one-hit wonders are usually considered punchlines (although there’s really nothing funny about “Sex and Candy”). But would-be snarksters are missing the point—even if they’re embarrassingly nostalgic, one-hit wonders are typically genuine songwriting feats, as evidenced by the number of 15-minuters who go onto successful, if lower-profile, careers in music. And Canadian one-hit wonders are no exception. So, we’ve ranked our favourite one-hit wonders from the ’90s, which, almost to a T, are frustratingly infectious. So infectious, in fact, that Weird Al covered two entries on this list.
CRASH TEST DUMMIES—”Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm”
This song, released in 1993 by Winnipeg’s Crash Test Dummies, has aged exceptionally—its non-lingual chorus sound like it’s sung by Eddie Vedder on a Nyquil bender. But it was infectious, and internationally, it was perhaps the biggest Canadian one-hit wonders ever. (The band would, however, was cherished beyond this song within Canadian borders.) We still prefer Weird Al’s interpretation of the song, “Headline News,” which chronicled, among other things, the woes of figure skater Tonya Harding.
Newmarket, ON’s Serial Joe—an adolescent outfit that reputedly had lyrics written by one of its members’ moms—beats out a serious number of competitors to round out our list. And it was lucky, because “Mistake,” was mostly notable for hitting the toilet-worthy sweet spot between washed-up grunge and neutered nü metal. (Incidentally, it predated Nickelback, who would eventually own the territory.) Thankfully, the band’s moved onto other things: Spike-topped singer Ryan Dennis now create deep progressive house under the moniker Platypus.
LOVE INC.—”You’re a Superstar”
Thanks to its inclusion of megamix CDs like Clubland Classix: The Album of Your Life, Love Inc.’s “You’re A Superstar” became an international Eurodance smash. (You jealous, Chris Sheppard?) For good reason: If your upside-down-visor toting, labret-pierced, begoggled eyes don’t get misty when this track’s playing, you’re effectively soulless.
BASS IS BASE—”I Cry”
Beneath a rock-hard helmet of Dep-slicked hair, Bass is Base singer Chin Injeti hid fistfuls of smooth, smoother and smoothest hooks. “I Cry” was his most recognizable international smash, but behind the scenes, he’s also won two Grammys for his production work on Eminem’s Recovery and Lecrae’s Gravity.
LEN—”Steal my Sunshine”
There’s no denying that “Steal My Sunshine”‘s blend of glossy pop and kid-friendly hip hop was infectious. But we didn’t realize how terrible it was until we heard Len’s newest song, “Where I’m From,” an abominable city anthem that used “Sunshine”‘s tried-and-true formula—it’s like Crazy Town for toddlers. Which isn’t to say this video is worthless: Check the creepy, bordering-on-incestual interplay between singers Marc and Sharon Costanzo, or, for more posi vibes, look out for Moka Only downing mouthful after mouthful of cotton candy. It’s magical.
SEE SPOT RUN—”Weightless”
Guys. Guys! Can we talk about “Weightless” for a second? I mean, sure, the song’s terrible, but it’s the closest thing we have to a mashup of literally every single dominant ’90s alt-rock song: The verse’s melody bears a less-than-accidental resemblance to Semisonic’s “Closing Time.” The occasional falsetto directly references The Flys’ sprawling mid-tempo hit, “Got You Where I Want You.” The stop-start bridge—and the chord blocking—was lifted directly from Everclear’s “Santa Monica.” And then, there’s the fashion on parade: All Dippity Doo-spiked hair, pink leopard print, soul patches, and guyliner, See Spot Run looked like a Scott Weiland-Chester the Cheetah hybrid. And punchable as they might seem, we must cherish “Weightless” as an anthropological treasure from an era long past. Kudos, See Spot Run. Kudos.
In the 1990s, Halifax (ed: uhh, Sandbox’s hometown is New Glasgow, represent.) was incubating a deep power pop scene that still informs the city’s musical sensibilities to this day. (Joel Plaskett, who cut his teeth in Thrush Hermit, is still a beloved East Coast figure.) Sandbox, however, didn’t subscribe to the Sloan playbook: They were a mid-tempo alt-rock act who, several decades on, are best known for “Curious”‘s slinky lead guitar passage and the fact that it was played by Mike Smith, better known as Bubbles from Trailer Park Boys. More on that here.
This North York—ahem, NoYo—native earned plenty of criticism, mostly about authenticity and appropriation, for being a white reggae artist. But “Informer” was nothing short of subversive: Snow’s moniker may or may not have been referencing cocaine. The single was sculpted around a stop-snitching mantra. And it went all the way to no. 1 on the Billboard charts. See what we mean? Young Jeezy would be jealous.
DREAM WARRIORS—”My Definition of a Boombastic Jazz Style”
Here, more proof that special things were happening in North York, the ‘burbs to the northeast of Toronto. “My Definition of a Boombastic Jazz Style” unveiled Dream Warriors at their best, unveiling the troupe’s mastery of jazz-infused hip hop, which sounded years ahead of its time. Though it arguably had a lesser impact, the group also cut “Wash Your Face in My Sink” in the same era, whose video featured one of Canadian music’s most iconic pieces of clothing: A baseball jacket with “Sucker MC” emblazoned on the back.
ORGANIZED RHYME—”Check the O.R.”
Further proof of Dream Warriors’ early-’90s influence: They’re given a shout-out at the beginning of “Check the O.R.”‘s video, where a bus full of visitors get dropped off at the corner of Jane and Finch, who state that “they must be around here somewhere.” (In retrospect, the joke’s just as funny today.) No surprise, really, as the group featured a young Tom Green—meaning that, along with being a incredible Canadian old-school hip-hop act, Organized Rhyme was plenty hilarious, too.
STARS ON 54—”If You Could Read My Mind”
In an interview with John O’Regan, he told me that “If You Could Read My Mind”—a discofied version of the Gordon Lightfoot classic—was a cornerstone of his musical style. And why not? Recorded for the 54 soundtrack, which was a tribute to New York’s legendary Studio 54 nightclub, the track made dance music permissible for folk-music fans. (Which, in 1998, was inconceivable. Weird, we know.)
RAINBOW BUTT MONKEYS—”Circles”
While Rainbow Butt Monkeys weren’t technically a one-hit wonder—the band rebranded themselves as Finger Eleven, eventually morphing into an alt-metal juggernaut—they also had a minor hit in “Circles,” from their debut album, Letters From Chutney. It would be their only hit as Rainbow Butt Monkeys, and it demonstrated a style common of the era: They blended grungy guitars with Red Hot Chili Peppers-esque funk, making them a go-to soundtrack choice for Randy Rivers across Canada.
Fifteen years after the fact, we still don’t understand what Glueleg was going for. Were they supposed to be, like, the apolitical Canadian Rage Against the Machine—only with saxophones? Gross.
ASHLEY MACISAAC—”Sleepy Maggie”
Ashley MacIsaac’s 1995 album, Hi How Are You Today?, was intended to bring maritime fiddling to mainstream audiences. And largely, it succeeded: Its debut single, “Devil in the Kitchen,” added his manic fiddling to a fast-paced grunge number, while “Sleepy Maggie,” led by the hypnotic Celtic vocals of Mary Jane Lamond, blended traditional East Coast folk with loungey hip hop. It would be his biggest hit yet, though MacIsaac remained in the spotlight for his non-musical behaviour: He was surrounded by rumours that he allegedly peed on his underage lovers, he accidentally flashed the camera on Conan O’Brien, and clashed publicly with PETA. On the plus side, though, he also vehemently protested Alberta’s attempts to ban gay marriage, calling once-premier Ralph Klein a “homophobe.”
While Vancouver’s Pluto earned plenty of notoriety in indie-rock circles, “Paste” was their only bona fide hit, even earning a place on Big Shiny Tunes. (They also had another single, “Black Lipstick,” which you’d only know if you were a Pluto fan. And we were Pluto fans.) Still: that bassline, when paired with that wonderful pick slide, is nothing short of perfection.
Its opening line—”we notorious”—was empty bravado: Aside from Choclair, who had genuine hits in “Rubbin'” and “Let’s Ride” and Kardinal, who became a Canadian hip hop icon, none of “Northern Touch”‘s rappers genuinely grabbed the spotlight. Don’t let that detract from the efficacy of this track, though. It’s a genuine Cancon classic.
BRAN VAN 3000—”Drinkin’ in L.A.”
As one-hit wonders go, “Drinkin’ in L.A.” is a gold standard: It’s got just enough nostalgia, wistfulness, and regret to make it universally appealing. And if that wasn’t enough, that tinkling piano line drives it home. Sure, Bran Van are still around, but they’ve never reached the heights of “Drinkin’ in L.A.” A near-perfect track.