In pop music, getting into the game is only part of the challenge. Knowing how long to stick around is a whole other thing.
Given the perks that come with being a musician — sex, drugs, money, adoration — most artists err on the side of wearing out their welcomes. In some cases, though, performers check out too early, before they’ve fully realized their potential or produced catalogs that feel 100 percent complete.
Below is a list of 10 such artists. Some were tripped up by circumstances; others went out on their own terms. All left us wanting more.
Everything was going so well for the Americana duo of Joy Williams and John Paul White. They met at a songwriting workshop in 2009, and within a couple of years, they were topping the Digital Albums chart with their debut, Barton Hollow. Sadly, the group’s name proved prophetic, and Williams and White succumbed to longstanding tensions before the release of their self-titled sophomore effort, which reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200. The two reportedly haven’t spoke since the split, and both have resumed their solo careers. A truce seems unlikely, but hey, that’s what they said in 1861.
In the mid-’90s, the silky-smooth Philly soul duo of Renee Neufville and Jean Norris-Baylor brought a sophisticated bounce to the pop charts. Best remembered for “Hey Mr. DJ,” from their helpfully titled 1994 debut Pronounced Jah-Nay, the group dissolved in 1999, following 1997’s woefully overlooked Saturday Night. With a sound encompassing dance, neo-soul, hip-hop and pop, Zhane made timeless music that classes up any party to this day.
The Sex Pistols didn’t vanish for good in 1978, when a disastrous U.S. tour culminated with an onstage implosion at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom. There were reunions in 1996, 2002 and 2007, but those are footnotes to the real story. While it’s hard to imagine this volatile mix of personalities (the four band members, plus manager Malcolm McLaren) could’ve made a second album, it’s fun to think about how these pioneering U.K. punks might have followed 1977’s era-defining Nevermind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. Singer Johnny Rotten was destined for the brainier, more experimental music of PiL, and bassist Sid Vicious was programmed to self-destruct. In its final days, the band was a farce — an experiment gone horribly wrong or fabulously right, depending on your take. Maybe all that lunacy and tension would’ve produced something great.
It made sense when Oasis hit in America — they were borrowing heavily from The Beatles, a band everyone knew and loved. Elastica drew on relatively obscure post-punk acts like The Fall and Wire, who actually sued them for lifting some riffs. And yet Elastica still managed to break into the Billboard 200 with their spiky, hyperactive self-titled 1994 debut. The London rockers called it quits after The Menace in 2000, right before a post-punk revival found a new generation of bands making waves with angular guitars and anxious beats. If nothing else, a third Elastica LP circa 2003 or 2004 would’ve been timely.
Mos Def and Talib Kweli have worked together on singles and other projects since Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star, the disc of thoughtful boom-bap they released in 1998. They’ve also made excellent albums on their own. Still, these knowledge-dropping Brooklyn MCs had a special chemistry that makes their “best alliance in hip-hop” boast, from the track “Definition,” feel pretty spot-on. Unfortunately, Mos Def, who now goes by Yasiin Bey, announced he was “retiring from the musical recording industry” earlier this year following some misadventures with a fake passport. It seems that long-rumored sophomore effort won’t be arriving anytime soon.
Death Cab for Cutie leader Ben Gibbard and producer Jimmy Tamborello made a lot of 30-somethings very happy in 2013, when they resurrected their electro-pop side project Postal Service and toured the country to celebrate the 10th anniversary of 2003’s excellent Give Up. The duo’s lone album is very much rooted in the experiences of early adulthood, so it wouldn’t really make sense for the group to make another LP now. But a follow-up or two during those uneasy aughts would’ve helped a lot of freaked-out indie fans sleep a little easier.
There’s reportedly a new Mandy Moore joint on the way, so the former teen pop star may not belong on this list. Then again, it’s been seven years since the tastefully executed grown-up folk-pop album Amanda Leigh, so fans are justified in feeling antsy. Moore was great in her Britney-lite “Candy” days, even if she cringes at them now, and she was pretty darn good proving her XTC, Joe Jackson and Blondie fandom on 2003’s Coverage. Fresh off her split with Ryan Adams, Moore probably has a lot to write and sing about. Here’s hoping her film and TV gigs don’t keep her out of the studio much longer.
Had The La’s stayed together beyond 1992 — when they began an indefinite hiatus that’s been broken up by a few random reformations — they might have been giants. With its easy-breezy blend of ’60s guitar pop and ’80s indie jingle-jangle, the Liverpool band’s self-titled 1990 debut foretold the Britpop explosion just around the bend. The single “There She Goes,” which reached No. 49 on the Billboard Hot 100, is such an amazing song that not even Sixpence None the Richer could muck it up with their 1999 cover. Alas, none of the reunions have produced new music — just more talk about what could’ve been.
Following 1996’s instantly classic The Score, Fugees were poised to rule the world. They’d proven they could hold it down with ballads (“Killing Me Softly”) and bangers (“Fu-Gee-La”) alike, and for a while there, the trio’s politically minded, internationally flavored hip-hop boomed from every car stereo on the planet. Unfortunately, interpersonal drama led to the group’s dissolution in 1997, and despite some reunion shows in the mid-’00s, Fugees never returned with a third album. On a similar tip, singer/rapper Lauryn Hill never dropped a follow-up to her brilliant solo debut, 1998’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. So much squandered promise where this band is concerned.
There was more to this British band than a silly name and a singer with a funny voice. The hits “She Drives Me Crazy” and “Good Thing” showcase the Cannibals’ tasty mix of rock, soul, jazz and pop — and there are many more great songs where those came from. Both 1985’s self-titled debut and 1988’s The Raw and the Cooked are terrific front-to-back listens. On the former, the group covers Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds,” and on the latter, they do a dance version of the Buzzcocks punk classic “Ever Fallen in Love.” Who knows what a third helping of Cannibals might’ve brought to the musical buffet?