Two months ago, I asked a simple question: What are the 5 best unknown, unheard Rock albums ?
The question generated 100s of comments overnight; anyone looking to discover some great new music is advised to sift thru the laundry list of suggestions.
As promised, I am going to share my list this evening. Before my reveal, a quick note about those qualifiers: In order to make this exercise have some resonance, we had to limit the musical universe:
-Rock/Pop was the standard idiom. Jazz, Classical, World, Folk Hip Hop and Electronica are so diverse and have so many back waters and eddies, huge swaths of it seem unknown (I say that as a serious Jazz fan).
-Modern era (1985 to 2010) We could have gone further back in time, but that ran the risk of simply being unknown due to age, versus true obscurity. (We saw examples of that in comments).
-I kept it to 5 for simple reasons of focus (and crowd control).
There are lots great bands that have relatively unheard great albums, but have a major hit single. These are usually so well known that they didn’t qualify. Examples include the Fountains of Wayne album Welcome Interstate Managers — “Stacy’s Mom” was a huge hit, but the rest of the album was overlooked; so to with Dada‘s debut disc Puzzle — they had a giant single in “Dizz Knee Land,” the rest of the album was just as strong, but overlooked. I had a hard time omitting a few Reggae discs, like One Tree or Yell Fire!. Jazz albums that could qualify as Pop are fine — think Jamie Cullum‘s breakout album Twentysomething, but it was too popular to not qualify.
Indeed, figuring out was too popular or too unknown was the biggest challenge. Few people ever heard of my first choice, but the last disc on the list is very well known — it just sold poorly and was heard even less.
In 2005, I wrote: Roman Candle’s debut is a joyful assortment of finely crafted pop tunes. If FM Radio didn’t suck, this is the sort of music you would be hearing on it right now. Finely crafted lyrics mated to delightful melodies delivered by a tight power pop five-some in a surprisingly slick production.
Like nearly all the discs on this list, this one is really good from start to finish.
Why didn’t you ever hear of these guys? Roman Candle hails from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and signed with an independent label. No payola, no Clearchannel — and no radio play.
Note: This was released under a new label as “The Wee Hours Review” but its mostly the same disc.
How to describe the well crafted, heartfelt songs on this album? Start with infectious melodies, slide reflective lyrics over that, mix in a little effervescent joy. The tunes range from melancholy ballads to joyous rock to pop perfection.
The band has 3 outstanding albums, but After the Party is my absolute favorite. I cannot figure out why the song “Drunk Is Better Than Dead” was not a huge radio smash (but as noted earlier, radio sucks).
This is a spectacular album, released as Steve McQueen in the UK, where it is well known. In the US, this Thomas Dolby-produced album is mostly unknown, hardly heard. And that is a shame, as it is a tour de force of song writing chops, clever lyrics, and brilliant music.
I don’t even know where to begin describing this. Paddy McAloon’s songwriting has been compared to Brian Wilson, and justly so. Each heart rending song of love and loss is harrowing, gorgeous, lovely. The lyrics are sly, full of wry irony. They grab you, and refuse to let go.
On the song Appetite:
Here she is with two small problems
And the best part of the blame
Wishing she could call him heartache
But it’s not a boy’s name
On Horsin’ Around, a song about unfaithfulness:
It’s me again; Your worthless friend (or foe)
I somehow let that lovely creature down
Horsin’ around, horsin’ around
Some things we check and double check (and lose)
I guess I let that little vow get lost
Forgettin’ the cost, forgettin’ the cost
On the song He’ll Have To Go, these lyrics always stood out:
Put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone
Let’s pretend that we’re together all alone
I’ll tell the man to turn the jukebox way down low
And you can tell your friend there with you
He’ll have to go (go, go go)
Every song is a brilliant combination of musical arrangement, melody, and lyrical genius. I cannot listen to this disc without thinking about loves lost in college, grad school and beyond.
Note: Faron, The opening song, is atypical of the rest of the disc. I always start with the 2nd song, Bonnie, and play it straight through, ending with Faron.
The Philosopher Kings mix soulful tunes with rock, jazz and R&B. Gerald Eaton’s distinctive vocals fit the original lyrics/Some people have called this disc urban jazz, I prefer to think of as an amalgam of pop, rock, soul, fink, layered with jazz instrumentation. Call it smoky vocal jazz with a rock sensibility.
Its wildly original, and every song on the album packs a punch.
The album earned the group a Juno Award nomination for Best R&B/Soul Recording of the Year.
• Freedy Johnston This Perfect World: Johnston’s gravelly soprano voice is perfectly suited to his bittersweet lyrics of heartbreak and loneliness. The music belies the lyrical angst, with bouncy chords and jangling guitars serving as the backdrop for exquisite melodies.
Johnston is known for the craftsmanship of his songs, and has been described as a “songwriter’s songwriter; In 1994, Rolling Stone named him “songwriter of the year”. A reviewer “Marries perfectly realized power-pop sensibility to skilled, literary writing chops” — and I see nothing to disagree with there.
This Album never broke into the Billboard charts, and the song Bad Reputation was a minor hit. Why this wasn’t a monster is beyond me: Every song is a perfectly crafted, radio friendly, little story.
I thought the band’s debut disc, The Magic Numbers, was the best new rock and roll release of 2005. I was astonished to learn the CD sold a mere 44,000 copies in the US. That’s astonishing to me, considering what a great CD it is.
The band is an amalgam of all sorts of oddities, but
the entire assemblage works surprisingly well. Two pairs of brother/sister teams (from Trinidad/New York/London), best described as “an unfashionable blend of soft country pop with Fifties and Sixties inflections.”
What I liked about it was the strong mix of rock and roll, summery guitars, laid over skiffle and country pop structures. It is spare and at the same time complex, flavored with an inflection of a1960s guitar band. Somehow, it all sounds very modern, via classic rock instruments — simply guitar bass drums — no synth. The songs are jangly, melodic and hook laden; the writing is outstanding. Lyrics and vocals reveal a tender vulnerability. I found the album very addictive — with each listen, you want to hear more . . .
OK, so my top 5 slipped to 6 — but I couldn’t leave out the last disc.
Runners Up after the jump . . .
It was a challenge narrowing my list to 5. I ended up cutting out the following CDs — not due to their musical greatness or other qualitative factors, but simply because they were too well known artists or albums, or had too much commercial success, to qualify for our short list of “Unknown/Unheard” albums.
For those of you unfamiliar with these albums, well, musical delight awaits you. Definitely give them a listen:
• Morcheeba: Big Calm (1998), Charango (2002): A cool melange of trip hop, electronica, pop and world music, this is one of those discs that I found a year or two after it came out. The “evocative nuevo-lounge and dreamy ambience” just slayed me. Not a bad cut on the disc, and it works on different levels — background atmosphere or upfront toonage.
Tom Lanham summed them up perfectly: “This whole Bristol sound thing, with sleepy techno beats overshadowed by the chirrupy vocals of some slumberland chanteuse.”
Their first CD, Who Can You Trust, has the same airy, etheral vibe, but is less Pop, more electronica. You may heard the Charango tongue-in-cheek Women Lose Weight (featuring Slick Rick) on the radio — but that’s very atypical of the band; don’t expect anything else like that on any of these CDs.
• Tell Me Something: The Songs Of Mose Allison Van Morrison/Georgie Fame/Mose Allison/Ben Sidran. (1996)
I was already a fan of Mose Allison’s slick songwriting, devilishly clever lyrics, and gravelly vocals when I walked into a CD store, and heard this playing. Van Morrison gives these classic jazz tunes a big band/pop treatment. It breathes a life into them not usually associated with Mose.
All of my Jazz friends know the disc — it charted at #1 on Top Jazz Albums — but few of my Rock & Pop friends know it. But its not really a jazz album, I think of it more like a jazz-flavored Van Morrison album. Regardless, it is simply fabulous — a great collection of tunes, very accessible. If you are a Mose, Van or Jazz fan, you simply must hear this album.
Bonus: The entire album was recorded in one day; all of the performances were live first or second takes.
• Everything but the Girl: Eden (1984), Idlewild (1988) EBTG has a sound that careens from jazz to Britpop to jazzy R&B. The duo are the married couple Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt; he writes classic melodies, and she wraps her silky vocals around them. They became best known for their later albums: Language of Life (1990), Amplified Heart (1994), Walking Wounded (1996) . The remix of Missing reached No.3 in the UK and No.2 in the US in 1995), but these older discs are both terrific CDs, filled with languid, lovely arrangements.
I recall telling people about these albums in the late 1980s (in grad school), only to have their dance remixes go ballistic 10 years later.
Neither one ever charted on Billboard’s list, and both are worth checking out . . .
They might have been unknown when we first mentioned them in 2006, but the music has appeared on so many movies and tv shows, they can hardly be described as unheard ! On May 6 2006, they entered the Billboasd Dance/Electronic Albums at #18.
Penn is a critically acclaimed singer/songwriter and film composer. His 1989 debut album has 3 hit singles. He won the 1990 MTV Video Music Award for Best New Artist. (yes, he is Sean Penn’s brother, and is married to Aimmee Mann). His career has been described as “critically acclaimed, commercially snubbed.”
No Myth became a hit single, and the disc received both critical and commercial success. The disc spent 34 weeks on the Billboard 200, hitting #31 (April 7 1990) — hence, why it is not on our main list.
Some readers have asked about unknown albums that are “more Rock than Pop.” I don’t think of most of the rock I listen to as obscure or unknown, but here are some titles from our annual best of lists:
• The Black Keys Thickfreakness This power duo plays straightforward, blues based rock and roll. Crunchy guitar riffs, soulful vocals over no nonsense drumming sounds like a lot more than two guys from Ohio. The recording is raw and rough edged, but contains surprising nuances and textures. On so many levels, it just works.
Every Stevie Ray Vaughn fan I’ve played this for was delighted. (From the 2004 list)
• JJ Grey & Mofro Country Ghetto: My favorite discs of 2007 — I was driving home one night, when I hear this sound come oozing out of the car speakers: A funky, steamy, swamp rock blues number, with a long intro (Footsteps) that finally slid into a great guitar groove that is Turpentine. The strength of that song let me to check out the rest of the disc.
The music is a great cross-breeding experiment across genres: Start with swamp rock, add some smoldering blues, slip in vintage soul, and finally, some gospel-fried funk — and does so with a certain down-and-dirty swagger. (2007 list)
• Rocco DeLuca & The Burden I Trust You To Kill Me. Their sound is original — a jangly roots-rock romp laced with bluegrass and countrified leanings. I agree with the reviewer who wrote that their bluesy debut album “fairly vibrates on DeLuca’s Dobro steel guitar and throaty wail.” (2007 list)
• Elvis Costello & The Imposters Momofuku: One of the greatest rockers of all time returns to form. This disc reminds you why Elvis was so great — hard edged yet hook laden, rock-n-roll with catchy tunes, and as Elvis always does, lyrics that are both witty and acerbic. His none-too-subtle wordplay remains as clever as ever. (2008 list)
• The Hold Steady: Boys & Girls in America Rolling Stone called them “bizarrely touching and insanely original;” while Spin described the disc as “a raucous album rife with heavy guitar licks and more cultural references than Paul’s Boutique.” The Hold Steady is one of the most interesting and different bands from most of what is people mistakenly call rock and roll these days. (2007 list)
• The Who BBC Sessions The Who are hardly unknown, but this disc is an undiscovered gem
All of the prior annual best of lists can be found here