Critics and audiences are fickle, and even the most beloved performer sometimes releases a disc that is met with raised eyebrows and a raspberry. Here’s a list of albums that were too forward-looking, too weird, too out of character, or simply too unlucky to get their due.
1. Anton Webern: Concerto for Nine Instruments (1951)— Rene Leibowitz, Jacque Louis Monod, Bethany Beardslee
Classical music listeners prize audio quality, so these pioneering American Webern recordings aren’t much discussed or listened to. Which is too bad because the scratchiness and scrappiness give the album a great deal of charm and soul—not words generally associated with Webern. The performers pursue their odd sounds and honks with a lyrical, clunking joy. So if you aren’t an enthusiast of impenetrable art music already, this is a great place to start.
2. Pain in My Heart (1964)—Otis Redding
Redding’s first album is generally considered a solid prelude to greatness rather than greatness itself. But remarkable as his later recordings are, there’s no joy like listening to one of the best performers of all time find his rough, exuberant soul.
The song selection leans towards proven classics like “Stand By Me” and “You Send Me.” Redding takes Booker T. and the MGs for a stroll through the familiar changes, laughing at his vocal limitations (he doesn’t have the range of Ben E. King) and at his own mastery despite those limits. Also, any album with Redding’s own “These Arms of Mine” is spectacular, no matter what else is on it.
3. A Whole New Thing (1967)—Sly and the Family Stone
The rare album that lives up to its title. Sly and the Family Stone’s first effort doesn’t have any of their signature hits and is generally slept on these days. But put it on, and you’ll hear transmissions from another planet of funk.
The songs are assembled from bits of rock, soul, and psychedelia, and you can hear every perfect jagged fissure. The first track, “Underdog,” opens with a quote from “Frère Jacques” before grabbing a riff that sounds like Motown squashed together with Stax and fed a bucket of amphetamines. The rest of the album is just as good.
4. The Soft Parade (1969)—The Doors
Is The Soft Parade a bloated ill-considered mess? Or is it incontrovertible evidence that The Doors should have been an orchestral pop band all along? The answer is, of course, “both.” Guitarist Robby Krieger provided most of the complicated, jazz-inflected tunes over which Jim Morrison bellows incongruously.
The final Sgt. Pepper-inspired lounge lizard tortured song suite title track, clocking in at over 9:30, is awesomely ridiculous and ridiculously awesome. This is impassioned, utterly bizarre music that belongs beside The Shaggs’ Philosophy of the World as one of the great avant outsider anti-pop albums of all time.
5. Soundtrack from the Film More (1969)—Pink Floyd
Recorded shortly after Syd Barrett left the band, this is a transition between early up-to-their-eyeballs-in-acid-and-folk Floyd and the classic rock juggernaut they were to become.
The band tries a little of everything; the lovely cloudy drift of “Cirrus Minor,” the proto-metal thunder of “The Nile Song,” the frankly bizarre flamenco noodling of “A Spanish Piece,” on which Roger Waters mutters and burbles lasciviously inaudible. More’s neither-here-nor-there status has consigned it to also-ran status in the discography. But its lack of focus is also why it’s wonderful.
6. Metal Machine Music (1975)—Lou Reed
One hour, four tracks of unrelenting, unendurable eardrum piercing guitar feedback shriek. This was dismissed as a bad joke when it was released. It’s since been embraced as a pioneering slab of experimental noise music—though even many Reed fans remain skeptical. They shouldn’t be, though; the album is perfect. On close listening, snippets of melody, harmony, and choral voicings slip in and out of the churning abstract sea—a beautiful, unique exercise in ecstatic annihilation.
7. Midnight Love (1982) —Marvin Gaye
Midnight Love was hugely popular when it was released. Since then, though, it’s been little discussed. That’s a shame because it’s brilliant. Gaye played all the instruments himself, and the 80s synth electro-funk was seductive, insular, and sublime. The slippery “Sexual Healing” was the rightful megahit. Still, the album is filled with small masterpieces, from the slow-motion, desperately dragging “Til Tomorrow” to the jerking New Wave robotic world music of “Third World Girl.”
8. Water from the Wells of Home (1988)—Johnny Cash
The myth is that Johnny Cash had hit an aesthetic and commercial dead-end before Rick Rubin signed him to the American Recordings label in the early 90s. The reality is that Cash’s work for Mercury in the late 80s was consistently great.
Water From the Wells of Home is perhaps his best single album of the period, featuring strong songs and collaborations with old friends like Emmylou Harris, June Carter Cash, and Hank Williams. The high point is a transcendent, aching, definitive reprise of his silly/sad classic “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” with the Everly Brothers and his daughter Roseanne Cash.
9. Everything (1988)—Bangles
Everything is generally viewed as over-commercial schlock, notable only for the schmaltz ballad “Eternal Flame.” But a more polished, more devastatingly radio-ready Bangles is not necessarily a bad Bangles. The hit “In Your Room” is still flirty fun, and the rest of the album is filled with gloriously catchy chimes, from the dark, ringing “Bell Jar” to Michael Steel’s masterpiece of maybe queer ambivalence and angelic harmony, “Complicated Girl.” Jangle pop heaven.
10. Trompe Le Monde (1992)—Pixies
Hardcore Pixies fans often disparage their final classic period album as too slick and stained with too much of singer Frank Black’s self-indulgence. To which I’d respond that the Pixies were always about self-indulgence and that amped-up production turns the album into an absolute juggernaut.
The first side especially roars in like a monster wave, powered by Joey Santiago’s too-crazy-to-surf guitar and bizarre mini-narratives about sea monkeys, aliens, and sad punks. The cover version of Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Head On” will put blisters on your inner ear.
11. 8 Days of Christmas (2001)—Destiny’s Child
The cheerfully avaricious “8 Days of Christmas” soured some skeptics on this album. But if you are willing to give or receive a sense of humor for the holidays, that song will induce giggles, not grinchiness. The rest of the tracks here feature easy grooves and sublime harmonizing, especially on the acapella multi-tracked tour de force version of “Carol of the Bells,” fittingly titled “Opera of the Bells.”
12. Afrodisiac (2004)—Brandy
Brandy’s commercial peak was in the 90s; by 2004, not many people were paying attention. She didn’t let that stop her, though. This collaboration with genius producer Timbaland is the best album of her career and one of his career bests as well. Her low, smooth delivery compliments Tim’s burbling, oceanic soundscapes on a set of tunes that connect the sweeping romance of slow jam with the sweeping romance of shoegaze. A dream team, in various senses.
13. Idlewild (2006) —OutKast
Though marketed as a sort of soundtrack, this is actually a breathtaking reimagining of Black music from its inception to the 2000s. On their final album, Big Boi and Andre 3000 stir blues, jazz, ragtime, soul, rock, funk, and even marching band music into a bubbling hip hop stew that fairly leaps out of the pot to squish and steam around the dance floor. I have no idea why everyone hates this.
14. Maya (2010)—MIA.
After the triumph of MIA’s first two albums, Maya was considered a major misstep—at once too amateurish, too noisy, and too pop. In retrospect, though, the grimy low-fi scrape and hyperactive autotune sound prescient. Noise rappers like Death Grips and clipping and hyper pop weirdos like 100 gecs and SOPHIE owe a huge debt to this album, making the radio sound like an alien thing and turning an abrasive roar into a tune for everyone.
“Underrated” is, of course, a moving target. Some 20 years ago, maybe I could have put an ABBA album on here, but everyone knows all their albums are great now. The Rolling Stones’ Goat’s Head Soup often shows up on lists like these, but is it underrated anymore if it shows up on enough lists? Maybe in another decade, everyone will agree that Maya and 8 Days of Christmas are masterpieces, and this list will look quaintly outdated. We can but hope.
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