Success in the music industry is hard enough to come by once; capturing lightning in a bottle twice
These aren’t bands that just continued to steamroll the competition until they slowly petered out, nor are they bands with a couple big chart toppers years apart. These are bands that had an established, definite era- then went away for a little while – then came back for another unprecedented round in the spotlight. They’re true comeback kids.
10. Red Hot Chili Peppers
Initial Success: 1991- 1995
Comeback Album: Californication
Let’s start off with a band that straddles the line between “comeback” and “continued success”. 1995’s One Hot Minute wasn’t a massive bomb, but it did slow the momentum the funk-rockers had built up over the first half of the 90s. They’d established themselves as the alternative scene’s party boys, and left a series of unimpeachable singles and albums in their wake.
That 1995 record did have few well-received singles but the addition of Dave Navarro didn’t sit well with most fans. It took a 4 year break and the re-addition of John Frusciante to the fold to revive the band’s luck and set off a second streak of hugely popular records. Californication didn’t reinvent the wheel- if anything it was the Chili Peppers standing firmly in the niche they’d dug, to great results in four massive hit singles (“Californication”, “Otherside”, “Scar Tissue”, “Around the World”). Not only did that record sell extremely well, but it gave them another 7-8 years of soundtracking comedy movie trailers and extreme sports montages.
Initial Success: 1993- 1999
Comeback Album: In Rainbows
Contrary to what you might think, this entry won’t be about the oft-beatified OK Computer and the band’s descent into weirdness. Although that album did mark a total change in sound and start a new leg of their career, it came on the heels of the wildly successful The Bends. There really wasn’t any lull to come back from.
This entry won’t even be about sales per se, but rather on cultural significance. The bizarre one-two punch of Kid A and Insomniac really did Radiohead in commercially, although it did turn them into hipster gods. 2003 follow-up Hail to the Thief was a return to form (and structure) but it went largely unnoticed in every respect.
It was in 2007 that In Rainbows brought Radiohead back to mainstream discussion. The album itself didn’t really set any charts on fire, but it turned them into “accessible gods” for the average music listener. The “free” online release of that album had them labeled as Innovative™ and now they’re inextricably linked with the experimental tag. The layperson may not know the band’s aesthetic or any songs other than the weepy ballads, but they know that referencing the band is shorthand for high art. When you want to talk about “weird” music to simple people to make yourself seem “educated/out there/quirky”, drop Radiohead’s name. Hey, Katy Perry did it.
8. Maroon 5
Initial Success: 2004
Comeback Song: “Moves Like Jagger”
The sole pop act on this list, only because pop acts tend to have a massive industry working behind them to ensure they DON’T fade away. And true, it’s not like Maroon 5 ever completely burnt out. They continued to make radio filler long after “This Love” impacted 2004’s airwaves. But they were always one notch above being a punch line, a band that only people in dentist waiting rooms listened to. As the decade changed they were on the cusp of becoming a relic of the 2000s, not unlike the Black Eyed Peas. A weak 2010 album didn’t do much to fix the problem.
Then lead singer Adam Levine used the entire season of a television show (The Voice) as a launching platform for a comeback single (“Moves Like Jagger”) and now they’re an A-list dance pop band that’s not going away any time soon. It’s downright strange to think that they were ever in danger of becoming irrelevant.
7. Fall Out Boy
Initial Success: 2005-2007
Comeback Song: “Centuries”
After an initial run as emo poster boys in the late 2000s, Fall Out Boy are now rubbing elbows with starlets and top-tier rappers. They were on the brink of being “Remember Them?” material and turned it all around. Of course it cost them the few shreds of credibility they’d earned from their massive From Under the Cork Tree, but the band managed to hit it big again after a hiatus at the turn of the decade.
The funny thing is that it wasn’t even instantaneous. When they reformed in 2013 and completely threw out the emo sound they’d made their name on, the results were fairly lackluster. 2013’s big-drum anthem-core “My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark” certainly succeeded in discarding the band’s old trappings, but it (as well as its ironically titled corresponding record Save Rock and Roll) wasn’t really much more than a semi-listenable reunion project.
A year and a few strokes of luck later and the band was a full-fledged established pop act. They’d decided to turn the jock-rock dial beyond comfortable levels and started making songs seemingly meant solely for Superbowl highlight reels, played on Superbowl sized screens. But it worked and the band’s now safely living a second life played alongside any Top 40 act.
Initial Success: 1994
Comeback Album: The Green Album
It was a slow burn- a long and painful one at that – before Weezer the band became Weezer™ the brand, but Rivers Cuomo stuck it out and turned the one time geek rock icons into an institution worthy of a (never filmed) TV show.
Everyone now knows the story of early Weezer- the massively successful Blue Album followed by the hipster touchstone Pinkerton followed by Weezer disappearing for a few years. They came back, however, much to the dismay of the bluebloods, and after the Green Album proceeded to be relentlessly prolific over the course of the next decade. They dropped all pretense of making emo ballads and rather made music ABOUT making emo ballads (see: “Heart Songs”). They became the ultimate meta-band, selling the mythology of early Weezer as new Weezer songs and albums. It worked tremendously and the band still regularly tours playing only those first two albums with a smattering of hits they racked up throughout the 2000s. They weaponized the nostalgia industry in a surprisingly aggressive fashion for a band of meek geeks.
5. Nine Inch Nails
Initial Success: 1989-1999
Comeback Album: With Teeth
We all know NIN’s successful thanks to one song, and there wasn’t really ever any other competition in that respect. Trent Reznor’s comeback was more subtle, yet just as impressive as any other act on this list. He faded away commercially (and nearly entirely due to personal issues) at the start of the millennium, so the fact that a 2005 album even was released was a shock.
It’s not like With Teeth was some sort of barnburner. Although it did give us the most accessible NIN song ever (“The Hand That Feeds”), it was really only a hit on modern rock charts. But it did kick off Reznor’s transformation from tortured soul to astute brand developer. He went from being synonymous with “edgy 90s goth” to elder statesmen of dark electronic ambience. It was a gradual veer away from shock rock and into moody concept music, but it landed him scoring gigs, an Academy Award, and a lot of respect.
4. Depeche Mode
Initial Success: 1980s
Downtime: Late 1980s
Comeback Album: Violator
It’s not entirely accurate, but calling Depeche Mode “the 80s band that made it big in the 90s” is still a pretty valid descriptor. At the very least it draws attention to the fact that the new wave/goth crew were able to escape the decade of neon hued mullets and reinvent themselves. The band had always played with darker undercurrents, so it wasn’t entirely out of left field, but the fact that it crossed over to alternative radio was a surprise.
The dawn of the 1990s saw the carefree synthpop of the 80s discarded, and even though Nirvana were still about a year away from completely drowning modern rock in edgy darkness, the revolution was brewing. Alternative and industrial rock were starting to make waves and Depeche Mode took note, immersing their sound wholly into that aesthetic. In fact they were essentially borrowing bits of sound from bands that were influenced by their own hints of darkness! (See: Nine Inch Nails, Skinny Puppy).
Violator became a bestseller, and the band earned the strange honour of being a new wave band that felt right at home among the grunge icons in the coming years. “Just Can’t Get Enough” would never fit alongside “Come As You Are” in a playlist, but “Personal Jesus” is a natural companion track.
What’s strange is that after this deft navigation, the band never boomeranged back. Even when the environment around them got more lighthearted, they stuck to their gloom and doom. In fact they just kept going darker and darker and darker, until we got the dirge-filled 2013 album Delta Machine. Will there ever be another upbeat Depeche Mode song?
3. Arctic Monkeys
Initial Success: 2006
Comeback Album: AM
Sometimes game changers arise from the most unlikely places. A scrappy garage/mod band with one moderate radio hit that vanished for over half a decade before revolutionizing the sound of modern music? It happened!
Although they managed to retain some modicum of credibility with the elite crowd, and never “sold out” in a way that many of their peers did, Arctic Monkeys were sort of a one-hit wonder when that term was still relevant. “I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor” was their one big hit and other than that they had mostly a cult following. Now it’s hard to imagine them playing a venue other than a festival stage or arena.
After the initial success they found in 2006 they released a bunch of pleasant records that didn’t really go anywhere, and radio singles weren’t even considered to be on the table anymore. In 2012 however there came a one-off song called “R U Mine?”, and although it didn’t officially hit airwaves until a few years later, it was the herald of a great new era. The big, obvious riff was something previously unheard in the band’s work, and then suddenly in 2013 AM was released and there were a lot of big obvious riffs and they were really great.
The smoky, neo-noir soul aesthetic had blipped onto the mainstream a few times in the previous few years but it was Arctic Monkeys that really popularized it. The menacing minimalist strut and brash hooks came out of the blue (blues?) and turned the one time indie ragamuffins into sleek, distinguished superstars.
2. Green Day
Initial Success: 1994-2000
Comeback Album: American Idiot
As of the time of this blog post, Green Day are on their third attempt at yet another comeback, and it’s not going very well. A few moderate radio hits (“Bang Bang” and “Still Breathing”) are charting much better than anything from their triple album bomb of 2012, but nothing’s bringing them back to the levels of their incredible 2004 comeback American Idiot.
It’s still somewhat surprising that a bunch of goofball punks from the 90s would end up creating a wildly successful Broadway show, but that’s exactly how it went down. As the decade wound down and the nonstop hit parade ended in 2000, the band got pretty quiet. The material for their follow-up got stolen. They made a fake band called Network. But it seemed like the Green Day of the past were a done deal.
In a way it was true. They rebranded themselves entirely and instead of another disc of slacker anthems we got a genuine punk rock opera. American Idiot introduced to the world the “super serious” iteration of Green Day, but it sold excellently and commoditized political punk. Five hit singles! “Important” album status! The band now had two very distinct but equally successful acts of their career.
The success caused Billie Joe Armstrong to fancy himself as some sort of revolutionary, and so five years later 21st Century Breakdown tried to repeat that formula. Unfortunately without a villain like the Bush Administration to fire vitriol at, the sentiment rang hollow. There’s plenty of material now with Trump in power, but the songwriting spark’s gone and it doesn’t seem like Revolution Radio, even with the Very Activist Title, will come anywhere close to the impact American Idiot had.
Initial Success: 1980s / early 1990s
Downtime: Late 80s / Late 90s
Comeback: 1991 / 2000
Comeback Albums: Achtung Baby / All That You Can’t Leave Behind
Bono and company get the top spot not because they’re basically the biggest band ever, but because they pulled this stunt off TWICE (which in turn made them the biggest band ever). They had three distinct eras of ubiquity and indelibly influenced modern music for better and for worse.
Phase 1 was a pretty standard run of new wave hits- too many to name. There were a lot of them though, and they all had jangly guitar and reverb and were very influential. But that era wound down by the end of the 80s, and in 1991 when grunge was taking over the world it didn’t seem like there was any more space for U2. 1988’s Rattle and Hum had done well enough commercially, but it was critically panned and definitely seemed to indicate a natural decline.
Phase 2 turned that right around with the band going full alternative in 1991. Achtung Baby broke down the door with a whole bunch more massive hits and essentially allowed U2 to rule the music world for a good half decade more. That is until the late 90s when they got a little too “artsy” and it finally seemed like they’d run their course.
Then there was a jaw-dropping Phase 3 right at the turn of the millennium. Whatever your thoughts might be on the quality of this phase, the fact that they were able to turn their “easy listening” era into a boon for them rather than a resignation to soft-rock radio is incredible. Two decades under their belts and they were still able to create an album (All That You Can’t Leave Behind) that essentially influenced every adult contemporary-friendly band to this day. “Soaring melodrama” exists because of the success of this revival.
Is there a Phase 4 in the works? It’ll be tough, especially now. But if anyone can pull it off it’s U2.