10 Great Comeback Singles

On his 66th birthday this month, musical legend David Bowie shocked the public by proving he wasn’t dead. He did so by releasing “Where Are We Now?”, the lead single from his forthcoming album The Next Day, his first LP in a decade. Suffice to say that the music press was beside itself with excitement upon learning of this.

Bowie hasn’t been the only musician thus far in 2013 to pop his head out again after a long hibernation. Both Justin Timberlake and the reunited Destiny’s Child have dropped new singles. Meanwhile, My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields continues to maintain that his group’s two-decade-in-the-making follow-up to Loveless is almost done for serious this time you guys.

Not every long-desired comeback is victorious. Even when a song is merely okay (sorry, Mr. Bowie), we might cling to it in the heat of the moment because it reminds us of what we have been longing for — see The Guardian‘s coverage of Bowie’s return, which at times resembles fannish hyperventilating. But on occasion, an artist does come back swinging, and swinging hard. This week, Sound Affects pays tribute to those who have taken their knocks only to return in most admirable fashion by offering up a selective listing of ten of the better return-to-form singles. Feel free to suggest your own favorites in the comments section.


1. The Rolling Stones — “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” (1968)

If you think the pop world moves fast now, imagine how anyone could’ve though that the Rolling Stones had sputtered out creatively before their first decade was finished. Unlike their friendly rivals the Beatles, the Stones’ psychedelic excursions during the Summer of Love were seen as bungled (and potentially fatal) missteps, with legal difficulties and a split with manager/producer Andrew Loog Oldham doing nothing to help matters. Aware that they had to reclaim their mojo, the Stones regrouped and retrenched into their blues roots, roaring back in May 1968 with the first great rock ‘n’ roll comeback single, and the group’s most potent 45 since their career-making “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”. The strident “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” is base, primal energy, where the group digs back down into the dirt and reemerges with an air-punch-inducing caveman guitar riff and a Mick Jagger more concerned with yowling like a degenerate than proper enunciation. It’s goddamn glorious.


2. Ozzy Osbourne — “Crazy Train” (1980)

A fortuitous partnership with guitar genius Randy Rhodes saved Ozzy Osbourne from life as a washed-out drug casualty after being booted from Black Sabbath. This career-saving match first announced itself to headbanging record buyers with “Crazy Train”, a menacing rocker which has since become a mandatory track in any metalhead’s music library. Rhodes would only record one more album with Osbourne before his tragic death in a 1982 plane accident, but the music he made with the Prince of Darkness — particularly “Crazy Train” and its parent LP, Blizzard of Ozz — ensured that the Ozz’s prominence in the metal pantheon would never be endangered again.


3. Marvin Gaye — “Sexual Healing” (1982)

By the early ‘80s, soulster Marvin Gaye was consumed by drug woes, and his longstanding relationship with his label Motown had fizzled out following the contentious release of the 1981 album In Our Lifetime. But Gaye managed to pull himself together long enough to return to the upper reaches of the singles charts again with “Sexual Healing”. Gaye’s velvety boudoir soundtrack was a super-smooth, unrushed delicacy, one that surely schooled an upstart generation of Jheri-curled lotharios on how it was done. Sadly Gaye’s hard-won comeback was brief; two years later he was dead, shot by his own father.


4. LL Cool J — “Mama Said Knock You Out” (1992)

“Don’t call it a comeback!” As the ‘80s gave way to the ‘90s, LL Cool J’s star power wasn’t necessarily slipping, but his prominence was under assault — hip-hop’s game was constantly being upped, and the genre’s first solo superstar found himself challenged by rivals who wanted to prove themselves bigger and deffer. LL silenced all doubters with the title track to his fourth album, taking all comers and KOing every last one of them over the course of nearly five hard-hitting, unrelenting minutes. LL was always one to boast, but on “Mama Said Knock You Out” he’s positively possessed as he delivers his righteous rhymes, and the result remains the crowning achievement in his three-decade career.


5. Johnny Cash — “Delia’s Gone” (1994)

In the era of arena-sized country, Johnny Cash was an anachronism, at best considered a rusted old legend whose triumphs were all won long ago. Producer Rick Rubin thought differently, and thus began Cash’ American cycle of albums, where minimal instrumentation and cleverly chosen covers (Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden, among them) allowed the focus to be fixated squarely on the Man in Black finest qualities: his voice and his powerful presence. “Delia’s Gone”, Cash’s first single for Rubin’s American Recordings label, was a cold splash of water in the face of gussied up studio country: a bare-bones murder ballad sung by that unmistakable baritone, sounding equal parts callous killer and haunted sinner. It was just one long overdue reminder of why Cash was an American musical institution.

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6. Santana — “Smooth” (1999)

You may be sick of it now, but back in 1999 people couldn’t get enough of this monster hit. Thirty years after his hippie heyday, Carlos Santana topped charts at a time when they were typically reserved for teenage popsters and materialistic rappers. No wonder — “Smooth” was infectious, a Latin soul serenade with a rock bedrock. Santana was aided by Matchbox 20 singer Rob Thomas, who via this inspired pairing marked himself out as something more than another overwrought post-grunger. A great song — at least, until we all got sick of it.


7. U2 — “Beautiful Day” (2000)

Sure, All You Can’t Leave Behind wasn’t U2’s first return from the brink (hello, Achtung Baby). But while the Irish quartet washed away the heavy-handed disappointment that was Rattle and Hum with the self-deconstructionism of “The Fly”, come the new millennium the band sought instead to rebuild what it had spent the ‘90s tearing down. Following the ho-hum reaction to 1997’s Pop, U2 was compelled to reaffirm its status as the biggest band in the land, and “Beautiful Day” was purpose-built to ensure the plan succeeded. Though often remarked upon as the return of “classic” U2, this majestic stunner of a song could not have existed without the preceding decade of post-modernism and electronic dabbling — indeed, the electronic effects heard throughout the track are evidence that the lessons of the ‘90s were not forgotten. Yet it’s undeniable that the song’s persistent rush, its never-ending scaling for heaven, is exactly the sort of thing that won the group global devotees in the first place –and the sort of thing it had underplayed for what seemed like forever. Many have remarked that if for some reason “Beautiful Day” was to be the final U2 single, it would have been the perfect note to end on. It’s not hard to see why.


8. Iron Maiden — “The Wicker Man” (2000)

For fans of classic metal, the ‘90s were a dark period as alterna-rock and resurrected punk called time on sword-and-sorcery imagery and guitar histrionics. Meanwhile, British metal stalwart Iron Maiden drifted through the decade following the departure of singer Bruce Dickinson, recording two underwhelming LPs with his replacement Blaze Bayley But then something wondrous happened: not only did Dickinson rejoin Maiden, but so did fan-favorite guitarist Adrian Smith. Now expanded to a three-guitar six-piece, 2000’s Brave New World saw Iron Maiden reconnect with what make it mighty in the first place. The time apart seemed to have lit a fire under the band, for it tackled that record’s lead single with a gusto befitting its early ‘80s masterworks. Boasting a triumphant chorus of “Your time will come”, “The Wicker Man” heralded the start of quite possibly the most impressive second act of any band in metal history.


9. Sade — “By Your Side” (2000)

Being a Sade fan must be frustrating exercise in patience. Since the ‘90s, the British smooth jazz band has released only three albums, with the wait times between them spanning eight and ten years. But then a single like “By Your Side” returns Sade Adu’s seductive voice to the airwaves and all is forgiven as we rush out to buy it. No one can do cool, casual sensuality like Sade, and though loathe to admit it, it’s ultimately worth the wait.


10. Nine Inch Nails — “The Hand That Feeds” (2005)

After five years of waiting, the public didn’t know what to make of 1999’s double-disc The Fragile once it finally saw daylight. Brilliant yet flawed (yet brilliant), the double-disc opus flared out quickly as the music environment instead embraced less artful heaviness. Between LPs, Trent Reznor kicked his substance abuse habits and adopted a punishing fitness regime — and duly reentered the studio. “The Hand That Feeds”, the lead single from 2005’s With Teeth, was a perfect representation of the now healthy and sober Reznor: stripped down, streamlined, and seething with methodically regulated anger that’s held on a very short leash. It’s not as gnarled or as ambitiously visionary as other NIN A-sides, but that wasn’t necessarily the point. Not only did the track return Nine Inch Nails to modern rock prominence, it provided Reznor with an appropriate in-concert comeback for those occasions when an audience member acted less than respectfully.