It doesn't happen as often as it used to, but
there's a long-running tradition of unlikely comebacks
in pop music; in fact, some of the most successful
singles of all time have sprung from the recording
booths of artists long since left for commercially
dead. After a bit of brainstorming, we came up with
a brief survey of 15 prime examples of artists with
extreme (and extremely unexpected) comeback mojo.
Like Carly Simon said, they're coming around again!
(Come to think of it, that would have been a good
one for this list…)
"This Time I Know It's for Real," Donna Summer (Another Place and Time)
The onetime "Queen of Disco" was well on her way to becoming the "Queen of the Cut-out Bin" when this single was released in 1989 – battles with her previous label, Geffen, had poisoned the promotional well for everything she'd recorded since "She Works Hard for the Money" in 1983. Newly signed to Atlantic, and working with quintessentially ‘80s producers Stock, Aitken, and Waterman, Summer was able to briefly stave off commercial irrelevancy with this bouncy Top Ten hit. Fun fact: For the recording of this song, Summer was backed up by Rick Astley's band! (Who knew he had a band?)
to Myself," David Cassidy (David
Possibly the only thing unlikelier than a new David Cassidy record in 1990 would have been a hit from that record – but life is sometimes stranger than fiction, and the erstwhile Keith Partridge really did make a Top 40 appearance with "Lyin' to Myself" in the fall. (Even weirder? The video made it into semi-regular rotation on MTV. My, how the world has changed.) Unfortunately for Cassidy, he'd elected to release his comeback album on Enigma Records, which went out of business not long after "Lyin' to Myself" peaked on the charts. The end.
Get You Out of My Head,"
Kylie Minogue (Fever)
Niggling contrarians will object to this song's inclusion here, pointing out that Kylie Minogue's has never been anything but a huge worldwide success, and outside the United States, she's never needed a comeback. But we live in America, goddammit, and on these shores, she was a washed-up has-been when Fever was released in 2001. And not one anybody ever expected to hear from again, either: Her previous Stateside hit, 1988's "The Loco-Motion," was a disposable cover of a cover, and nothing about it suggested Kylie Minogue was destined for longevity. There was no stopping "Can't Get You Out of My Head," though – odds are you're hearing it in your head now. You're welcome.
The Bee Gees (One)
The Brothers Gibb were around before disco, and the inevitable disco backlash didn't kill their career, it only drove them underground. While taking a hiatus from recording in the early-to-mid ‘80s, the Gibbs wrote hits for other artists ("Heartbreaker" for Dionne Warwick, "Islands in the Stream" for Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton) and waited for anti-‘Gees sentiment to wane. Their moment came in the summer of 1989, when One received its American release, and the breezy Anglo-funk of the title track went all the way to the Top 10. Their star dimmed again immediately thereafter, but by the late ‘90s, the Bee Gees were riding a post-ironic wave of nostalgia, selling out shows in Vegas, scoring AC hits, and singing duets with Celine Dion.
1963 (Oh, What a Night),"
The Four Seasons (Who
Okay, so technically, this isn't the single that catapulted the Four Seasons back onto the Billboard Hot 100 after a five-year absence; that honor goes to its immediate predecessor, "Who Loves You." But of the two hits the group scored during its mini-resurgence in the mid-‘70s, "Oh, What a Night" is by far the most durable, resurfacing on soundtracks and in cover versions every few years. And it's no surprise, really – the song is catchy, the production doesn't betray its 1975 vintage, and it's vaguely filthy. Rock and roll!
In March of this year, the United World Chart ranked "Believe" the 19th most successful song in music history. It's also the biggest-selling single in Warner Bros. history, and the biggest-selling dance single of all time (a staggering 10 million copies sold). Now that we've put everything in perspective, "If I Could Turn Back Time" and "After All" don't seem so bad, do they?
My Mind Set on You," George
Something feels wrong about including a song by a Beatle, any Beatle, on this list, but the charts don't lie: "Got My Mind Set on You," Harrison's cover of an old James Ray tune, was his first noteworthy hit since 1973 – a drought of nearly 15 years. (That's depressing, but not the worst part; apparently, "Got My Mind Set on You" remains the final Hot 100 Number One by any of the Beatles. Rock and roll is dead.) Yes, the song is a trifle, parodied brilliantly by "Weird Al" Yankovic with "(This Song's Just) Six Words Long," but it's catchy as hell, and it reminds us of a time before Jeff Lynne's production started to piss us off.
Tried," Bone Thugs-n-Harmony (Strength & Loyalty)
If successful comebacks are difficult to pull off in pop and rock, they're damn near impossible if you're a rapper – just ask Hammer (or any of the dozens of other formerly chart-topping MCs with platinum records decorating the walls of their studio apartments). Few would have expected Eazy-E's fast-rapping protégés to succeed where so many had failed, but in 2007, the industry will take a hit anywhere it can find one, and the group's "I Tried" marks its first appearance on the Hot 100 in a mind-boggling 10 years. (Yes, you really are that old.)
It Love," Poco (Legacy)
After scoring one of their biggest hits in 1979 with "Crazy Love," Poco spent pretty much all of the ‘80s wandering the commercial wilderness. It seemed like kind of an undignified end for the band that helped pioneer the country-rock sound that made the goddamn Eagles rich and famous, so when Poco's original lineup regrouped in 1989 for Legacy, it was a chance to right past wrongs. For a minute, it seemed as if the band was headed for new glory – "Call It Love" went Top 40 – but harmony was short-lived, and by 1991, the new/old Poco was once again a thing of the past. The band still tours in various incarnations, but "Call It Love" was its last brush with widespread commercial success.
"I'll Be Good to You," Quincy Jones featuring
Ray Charles and Chaka Khan (Back
on the Block)
Three, three, three comebacks in one! It might be a little unfair to label this a "comeback" for Quincy – Back on the Block was, after all, his first album since 1981's smash hit The Dude – but he isn't here to defend himself, so we're lumping him in with Ray Charles, who hadn't had a pop hit since the ‘70s, and Chaka Khan, who was one and done on the pop Top 40 with her 1984 cover of Prince's "I Feel for You." The production is oh so ‘80s, but it's hard to mind too much; this cover of the Brothers Johnson classic might even be better than the original, even if it does sound a little like a Pepsi commercial.
to Sy I'm Sorry," Chicago (Chicago
Chicago were the Mariah Carey of their day, strong-arming their label into signing a ridiculously over-inflated contract just as their commercial viability was plummeting into the shitter. (What, you thought we were going to say they starred in a crappy movie? Well, they did – 1973's "Electra Glide in Blue" – but that isn't the point here.) Like Mariah, they were jettisoned not long after the ink on their pricey new contract had dried, ultimately ending up at a new label where they enjoyed further success. The song that started their second act was this stomach-churning ballad, originally played over the closing credits of a Daryl Hannah movie nobody remembers.
Flame," Cheap Trick (Lap
By 1988, Cheap Trick's recording career was hanging by a thread; they hadn't had a hit in over a decade, and were reduced to taking on material by outside writers in order to retain their deal with longtime label Epic Records. This being a horrific year for pop music, "The Flame" went all the way to Number One, where it followed Michael Jackson's "Dirty Diana" and was knocked out of the top spot by Richard Marx's "Hold On to the Nights." Like we said, a horrific year for pop music.
at the Top," Adam Ant (Manners & Physique)
There were probably deader things on the planet than Adam Ant's career in 1990, but you would've had to journey into the heart of the oldest petrified forest to find them; Mr. Ant hadn't had an American Top 40 hit of any shape, size, or color since "Goody Two Shoes" in 1982, and had been bounced by his label not long after being asked to cut his set at Live Aid to one song. Hooking up with Prince protégé André Cymone got him back on the charts, albeit briefly; by the late ‘90s, Adam was better-known for his deteriorating mental health than his music.
Got It," Roy Orbison (Mystery
Credit David Lynch with sparking Orbison's long-overdue resurgence by using "In Dreams" during a pivotal moment of his cult classic film "Blue Velvet" – but that wouldn't have meant jack if Roy hadn't been ready and willing to take advantage. The Big O was at the top of his game creatively, and had been around long enough that his peers were willing to line up just for the chance to work with him. As a result, the last two albums of Orbison's life – Mystery Girl and the first Traveling Wilburys record – were star-studded affairs. Sadly, the public's renewed acquaintance with Orbison roughly coincided with his death in December of 1988.
of Love," Donny Osmond (Donny
The fact that this song comes from a self-titled album is rather ironic, given that Capitol promoted it, for a time, as a white-label single from a "mystery artist." A cowardly act? Perhaps. But given that Donny Osmond hadn't had a Top 10 hit since 1974, and given that his previous high-profile attempt at reinvention – a role in the Broadway musical "Little Johnny Jones" – opened and closed on the same night, you can hardly blame the involved parties for exercising a little caution. It paid off handsomely, too; the Stock/Aitken/Waterman-produced Donny Osmond spun off a pair of Top 20 hits, and made Osmond look like a viable recording artist again. Until his next album, anyway.