Sep 082023

‘The Best Covers Ever’ series counts down our favorite covers of great artists.

1990s One Hit Wonders

This month, our ongoing series of One Hit Wonders covers comes to its end. We’ve done the 1950s (think “Earth Angel,” “Tequila”), the 1960s (“96 Tears,” “In A Gadda Da Vida”), the 1970s (“My Sharona,” “Black Betty”), and the 1980s (“You Spin Me Right Round,” “Turning Japanese”). Now we hit the 1990s today and the 2000s next week.

For millennial readers, these will be the songs you remember hearing on the radio and watching on MTV growing up. So many ubiquitous classics of the era like New Radicals’ “You Get What You Give” and 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up,” by artists who only had a brief moment in the sun (you might say someone stole their sunshine…). Also some fun flukes, where the artist’s cultural impact goes way beyond “one hit wonder” — but, according to the fickle US pop charts at the time, they qualify on a technicality: Robyn, Fiona Apple, etc. Plus Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back,” which has to be in the conversation for the most One Hit Wonder to have ever One Hit Wonder-ed.

A quick disclaimer: It’s fun to argue about what constitutes a one-hit wonder. We do it too! But for these purposes, we just followed Wikipedia, whose page on U.S. one-hit wonders compiles a bunch of newspaper and blog lists in one place. If you have gripes with what songs get included — and there are some legitimate gripes to be had, for sure — take it up with Wikipedia. Our goal is to focus more on sharing some killer covers rather than relitigate whether Men Without Hats’ “Pop Goes the World” was a big enough chart success to disqualify them.

20. Ethan Farmer — You Get What You Give (New Radicals cover)

There’s a lot going on in “You Get What You Give,” the New Radicals’ only hit off of their only album, but not a lot that could be described as funky or soulful. Solo artist Ethan Farmer’s jazzy cover pulls out the little bit that’s there and infuses the song with a lot more. Farmer’s voice is soothing, especially when double-tracked, but the real star is his guitar playing. The warm tone could be right at home under the genre of smooth jazz, but the little licks and unexpected chord changes throughout elevate this to something much more interesting. – Mike Misch

19. Client Liaison — Groove Is in the Heart (Deee-Lite cover)

It’s sort of hard to imagine Dee-Lite’s “Groove is in the Heart” without all its component samples: the bass, the slide whistle, the horns, and so forth. But Australian pop duo Client Liaison have a lot of fun interposing new sounds. For example, the Herbie Hancock bass sample is played on the flute! (And only repeats a few times during the song.) And the looped “I” that’s part of the “I couldn’t dance with another” refrain is played on a drum pad. Don’t worry, though, the slide whistle is still there. The breaks are a little more 21st century and there are a couple brief solos, including the briefest of whistle fills. But Monte Morgan’s lead vocal is mostly quite faithful to the original, which (along with slide whistle) keeps the version in pretty familiar territory despite all the additions and subtractions in the mix. – Riley Haas

18. Natty Bong — No Rain (Blind Melon cover)

One killer hook can lift a song into a hit. “No Rain” has several of them. It’s no “Bohemian Rhapsody” or anything, but it’s curiously multifaceted for its time (1993, peak grunge) and that’s just one way the song is a callback to the ’70s. Natty Bong takes a lounge-reggae run at “No Rain.” Well, more a stroll than a run. They stir it up, they shake it up, and they deliver a smooth, unhurried rendition. A YouTube commenter suggests playing it at 1.5 speed. A better suggestion: If you prefer more pulse and punch, try Ronan’s remix of Natty Bong’s take, released as a single earlier this year and getting well-deserved attention. – Tom McDonald

17. Quietdrive — Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Deep Blue Something cover)

Deep Blue Something’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is a song that people either love to hate or hate to love. VH1 split the difference, putting it high on their list of 50 Most Awesomely Bad Songs Ever. The Quietdrive version is going to have both sides of the divide reevaluating their stance. It takes away the blandly jaunty rhythm and adds the urgency that reminds us that this is, after all, a breakup song from a man desperate to find something he and his about-to-be-ex can both still relate to. Just try not to think of Mickey Rooney’s performance in the film, okay? – Patrick Robbins

16. Snoop Dogg — Jump Around (House of Pain cover)

This might be the shortest description of a track on this list. It’s Snoop Dogg. It’s House of Pain’s smash party hit. Snoop hits all the lyrics. The original backing track is present. The crowd, indeed, jumps around. It’s just great. Nuff said. – Brendan Shanahan

15. Stories ft. Wendlo — I Love You Always Forever (Donna Lewis cover)

“I Love You Always Forever” is one of those perfect little pop tunes that comes along a few times a decade, happy to lodge itself in your brainpan until the twelfth of never finally rolls around. Donna Lewis’s vocal is a breathy, lilting work of art; by itself, it can’t be bettered. But what if a duo took to it? Introducing Jacob and Chelsea Hamilton, who make up Wendlo. Backed by Stories (a stripped-down Scary Pockets), they entwine themselves in the lyrics, and the song truly benefits from the boy/girl pairing. – Patrick Robbins

14. Fight Like Apes — Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in My Hand (Primitive Radio Gods cover)

“Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in My Hand” seems like a novelty record. The song’s video, which was in heavy, heavy rotation on MTV back in 1996, looks like an SNL pastiche of a ’90s alternative song. There’s singer Chris O’Connor leather-coated, arms a-folded, laconically lip-synching whilst slouchin’ against an actual phone box. The mention of a plane in the lyric sets the table for the appearance of a plane in the sky. The song’s lyrics are equal parts pretension and nonsense (“Ma Teresa”, “zebra flesh”). But the main thing that gives let’s-just-call-it-“SOABPBWMIMH” that questionable novelty vibe is the fact that it is brazenly built around a sample from an old blues song: B.B. King’s 1964 chestnut “How Blue Can You Get.” Yes, that is a huge pile of novelty, but “SOABPBWMIMH” is actually kinda beautiful. Perhaps the best way to appreciate its downhearted, stream-of-consciousness beauty is to put the original to the side for a minute and listen to the Irish band Fight Like Apes’ fabulous cover from 2015. The backdrop is low-key synthy and unassuming, leaving plenty of room for singer MayKay to get raw and fiery all over it. And hey, MayKay will sing the B.B. King sample her damn self, if you don’t mind. Forget the “kinda”; this cover is full-stop beautiful. – Hope Silverman

13. Vandoliers — I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) (The Proclaimers cover)

Although the Proclaimers have had a bunch of hits in other countries, in the US the band fronted by Scottish twins Craig and Charlie Reid are known only for this great song. It flopped initially on its release in 1988 (but not in Australia and elsewhere), only to gain new life in 1993 when it was featured on the soundtrack to a pretty good movie, Benny & Joon. Its propulsive sound (featuring a full band, including a couple of Fairport Conventioneers), romantic message and the charming Scottish accents ultimately led the song to popularity in the States, and its royalties have supported the band for years. The Vandoliers, a band from Texas, released their cover in 2020 as a single, and it is faithful to the spirit of the original, speeding it up a little and adding North American touches–fiddle, slide guitar, and mariachi-style horns–to make it distinctive. – Jordan Becker

12. The O’s — Roll to Me (Del Amitri cover)

A case study in the song preferences of different nations, or just random data? Sometimes you can be a One Hit Wonder (or near enough) in different countries with different songs. In the UK, Del Amitri’s biggest hit was a tale of ennui, “Nothing Ever Happens,” a sad reflection of the state of the UK in 1990. In the United States, they achieved their actual American One Hit Wonder status with “Roll With Me.” This is a much more aspirational number, with a universal theme (more like the nation that appreciated it?) Another aspect of a long, admirable career in music is that you can accrue tributes and tribute albums, and Del Amitri have achieved that, with a good cause the beneficiary. From that album, The O’s, a Texas bluegrass duo, provide their “Roll to Me.” Del Amitri pride themselves on their country roots, and a minor key change and guitar and banjo suit the delivery of song very well. – Mike Tobyn

11. Kat Edmonson — Lovefool (The Cardigans cover)

Whoever did the arranging on this Cardigans cover had some fun, and probably a headache afterwards. An elaborate horn section forms the rich backdrop for the first verse, establishing an early Swing-era feel, muted trumpets and all. The verse gives way to a chorus performed in Bossa Nova style. The next verse has completely different instrumentation and feel than the first one. Edmonson on the other hand unifies all the passages with her intimate vocal stylings. Her voice is nothing like Nina Persson’s and doesn’t even nod in that direction; the difference between the vocalists is part of the fascination here. – Tom McDonald

10. The Cooltrane Quartet — I Try (Macy Gray cover)

The lurching meter of this pinnacle of the Macy Gray canon is probably what has given it most traction, the stop start declamation an impressive piece of song construction. And that very virtue can’t have failed to have been spotted by anyone with half a jazz bone in their body. Coltrane Quartet suggest they might, even their name a nod to their point of reference. Information about the band is slim, but it seems they are a bunch of classically trained cats with a mission to dial pop hits mellow. This was all the rage at one time, with record companies bundling up such into saleable packages you might pick up at the supermarket; Jazz and 80s possibly the first, with these guys recruited by singer Karen Souza to back her on said compilation. Sometimes that mellow can be so smooth as to be cloying, but here it hits a spot that avoids that, and will suit many for whom the original is too raw. – Seuras Og

9. Céu — Criminal (Fiona Apple cover)

Fiona Apple may have needed a good defense back in the day, but a relaxing getaway to Rio de Janeiro might have helped her outlook, too. Although a Latin music influence is only lightly present in Brazilian artist Céu’s cover of “Criminal,” its loose groove and coo-ing background vocals basically unlocks the gate and liberates the song. Sure the chords are suspenseful and a mood of oppression is in play, but Céu carries it lightly; the case hasn’t been dismissed, but the sentence is reduced. – Tom McDonald

8. Roxanne Potvin — I’m Too Sexy (Right Said Fred cover)

Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” is one of those seemingly gimmicky hits that got misunderstood very quickly. Meant to parody narcissistic gym-goers, the song instead got taken by a lot of people at face value. Is this serious or is it a joke? Canadian singer-songwriter Roxanne Potvin likes that ambiguity and revels in it in her cover. Much like original singer Richard Fairbrass, Potvin speaks the verses with confidence, though in a much higher register. And she sings the chorus just like Fairbrass does. But she is backed by slow, distorted, almost dream-pop-esque guitars in the verses and a goofy keyboard in the chorus. It’s only that keyboard that gives us a wink, otherwise it feels like a fairly straightforward and earnest rock cover of this infamously goofy song. Potion’s cover straddles the same divide as the original: is this a joke or is it serious? – Riley Haas

7. Anna Nalick — Kiss Them for Me (Siouxsie and the Banshees cover)

Anna Nalick’s “Kiss Them for Me” dials back the swirling intensity and momentum of the original, replacing those qualities with an acoustic, organic, Eastern complexion. It doesn’t invite you to dance. Cello and sitar feature prominently. The original had South Asian influences as well, but they were more subtextual. In Nalick’s arrangement the shimmering exotic element gets as much attention as her singing. Nalick nails the vocals, though she is not out to out-Banshee anyone–her voice is on the introverted side by nature, and it suits this version well. – Tom McDonald

6. GoldFord — Show Me Love (Robyn cover)

This cover starts with an expressive piano and continues with a slow-motion reveal of the lyrics. Despite the measured pace there are still moments that build, including a victorious crescendo in the chorus: “show me love, show me life.” The extra emphasis on “I” in “You’re the one that I ever needed” is consistent as the song goes on, standing out more and more with each chorus. GoldFord does not shy away from falsetto, especially in the interlude before the last chorus. Without loss of power or feeling, the vocals reach record heights. – Sara Stoudt

5. Jil Is Lucky — What’s Up (4 Non Blondes cover)

This cover is peak 2000’s indie rock: Jil’s warbly voice, ukulele and cello, hand claps, a chorus of “bah bah bah’s.” And it’s as frenetic and joyful as you’d expect. The 4 Non Blondes original is 3 chords and a killer voice, so it seems like Jil did the most logical thing and just kept adding acoustic instruments. Where the original feels bittersweet and intense, the cover is messy and jittery, a celebration of life regardless of the heaviness of the lyrics. In these new surroundings the words convey that, yes, life is tough, but maybe we can still dance and party in spite of it all. – Mike Misch

4. Kap Slap — Closing Time (Semisonic cover)

The verses on Kap Slap’s “Closing Time” sound fairly close to the original, the electric percussion touches fairly subtle. It’s on the chorus where this cover truly comes into its own. All the rock-adjacent backing is dropped, going full EDM even as Kap Slap continues crooning the familiar sing-along lyrics overtop. It eventually goes full Skrillex, before easing back into more familiar territory for the next verse. – Ray Padgett

3. Portugal. The Man feat. Cherry Glazerr — Steal My Sunshine (Len cover)

It doesn’t always take an oddball band to cover an oddball song, but when it works, it works. “Steal My Sunshine,” the weirdly popular hit from the band/rap group Len, was catchy and off-kilter, which works perfectly for Portugal. The Man. They double down on the repetitive nature of the piano samples and don’t really stray too far from the formula that made this so popular in the ’90s. Cherry Glazerr’s Clementine Creevy lends her vocals to faithfully cover Sharon Costanza’s originals, rounding out this updated version in a way that’s just different enough to be satisfying and similar enough to provide some great nostalgia. – Mike Misch

2. Edith Whiskers — Blue (Da Ba Dee) (Eiffel 65 cover)

Did you ever think you detected deep pathos in Eiffel 65’s Eurodance hit “Blue”? Well, if you did, you’re not the only one. YouTube star Edith Whiskers heard pain in the song and decided the way to handle that was as a slow piano ballad. Yes, the slow piano ballad is an internet cover cliché at this point, but Whiskers breathes life into it with their unique, double tracked vocal that sounds almost like a hushed, possibly British Will Oldham. With just the piano and the two voices, we are confronted by the existential despair of living in a blue world where everything is blue. The only time Whiskers lets on about the joke is the new line “I can’t stop going on about my Corvette.” – Riley Haas

1. Jonathan Coulton — Baby Got Back (Sir Mix-a-Lot cover)

“I like big butts and I cannot lie” may go down as one of the great opening lines of any rap song–unless you consider “Oh my God, Becky, look at her butt” the opening line, and even that one’s right up there. Sir Mix-A-Lot said “Baby Got Back” was not about objectifying, but empowerment. Own those kickin’ curves, he said, and Black women said that it was about time someone said that. Well, Sir Mix-A-Lot said it, but Jonathan Coulton put a tune to it, giving “Baby Got Back” a gentle, melodic flair as he sang his appreciation and encouragement. The TV show Glee unapologetically swiped Coulton’s arrangement, but the important thing was, listeners were hooked and they couldn’t stop staring…or listening. – Patrick Robbins

Check our complete One Hit Wonders covers series here!

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  3 Responses to “The Best Covers of 1990s One Hit Wonders”

Comments (3)
  1. Can’t stop laughing at the Baby Got Back cover.

    And regarding “What’s Up” by 4 Non Blondes, here’s my favorite cover of it, by an album Arrested Development’s Speech put out that I still spin a lot decades later, great little album.

    Hey Song – by Speech

  2. And regarding the New Radicals – there are more than a few days where I’d call their one album my favorite record by anyone ever. Yep, I said it! It’s true – to me, a perfect album.

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