Sunday, February 24, 2008

Seriously underrated

A few months ago, I threw out a challenge to a number of friends. That challenge? Come up with your list of the "10 Most Underrated Albums in Your Collection." And with the weather, preschooler tantrums, flu bug battles and other events of recent days leaving me seriously uninspired, in lieu of fighting writer's block this morning I've decided to share that challenge here.

Here’s what I mean by “underrated”: Those albums that you believe never really got their due, the ones you rarely see in anyone else’s album collection, that rarely get radio airtime, or that were viewed as “somehow, a failure.” And yet, they keep finding their ways into your CD player or iPod, and you still utterly enjoy them 10, 15, 20 years later.

This should not be an easy task, mind you. If you're like me, you'll have to give it some serious consideration by digging into the old CD collection, or by getting your iPod off "shuffle play" and actually choosing a few more obscure albums to play. True music fans only need apply.

With all of that said, here’s my list:

10. Concrete Blonde, “Mexican Moon”: I know seemingly hundreds of people who own a copy of the band’s preceding album, “Bloodletting.” But it seems few made the leap to “Mexican Moon,” which was a “band ender” despite being a better album than its predecessor in virtually every way. Johnette Napolitano absolutely smoked the mike throughout this disc; the band called it quits immediately thereafter, and their years-later reunion went nowhere.

9. Warren Zevon, “Transverse City” or “Sentimental Hygiene”: Talk about never getting his due. He was once quoted as saying something like, “If you’re lucky, people will like something you do at the beginning of your career, and something you do right before you die.” For him, that’s exactly what happened. And the music world is lesser for it; those who tuned in only for the beginning or the end missed an amazing body of songwriting and performance, including these two works.

8. The The, “Infected”: Years ago, thanks to its pounding bass line and relentless percussion snap, this was simply the best album with which to piss off the neighbors. But two decades later, all most folks know of one-man-band Matt Johnson’s music career is limited to a cutesy M&M’s commercial. The sound and absolutely irresistible beat should have become an 80s-rock staple, but it just didn’t happen, possibly thanks to his then-controversial use of the word “scrotum” in a pop single.

7. Jesus Jones, “Perverse”: The band came off their career-making single of “Right Here, Right Now” and decided to record something a bit edgier, distorting and buzz-bombing virtually every note of the new album by running it through some primitive sound-editing software on a Mac. In the end, “Perverse” made their preceding release “Doubt” sound like pabulum, but its buzz-heavy sound shoved the band right out of the public consciousness. And as for the album's second track "Zeroes and Ones," who else could write a song about binary language?

6. Joe Jackson, “Big World”: Although similar in concept, Genesis’ “Three Sides Live” had nothing on this work by perfectionist Jackson, who despite wanting to record an album of original material live in front of audiences, was known to demand perfect silence from a theater-sized New York audience (and even kick people out for making noise!) while recording. “I’m doing a live album, so shut the hell up” seems a terrible way to proceed; yet this stuff is seriously sweet.

5. Billy Joel, “Streetlife Serenade”: Ah, the album even hardcore Joel fans fear most. Dismissed by many as “weird countrified sh*t,” “Serenade” actually features some of his best songwriting, as evidenced by the misleadingly titled “Weekend Song.” Someday, when your children dismiss Joel as the “Gen-X Perry Como” (Yes, upon hearing us play any Joel disc, our kids will roll their eyes in *exactly* the same way we did when our hopelessly out-of-touch parents parked Perry Como on the photograph), playing this one will serve as a fine, if disciplinary, addition to their musical education.

4. The Grays, “Ro Sham Bo”: These guys are so obscure, they’ve garnered only a two-line article in Wikipedia. In an attempt to form a “leaderless band,” they released only one album in the early 90s and subsequently fractured into nothingness. Oh, but *what* an album…

3. Mae Moore: “Bohemia”: This Steve Kilbey-produced alternapop disc should have cemented her in American consciousness, featuring amazing songwriting, incredible musical integrity, dreamy floataway sound and just enough edge to keep her interesting. But this one was released in the days of bullet bras, choreographed dance-line music videos and Janet Jackson getting felt up on an album cover, so as good as it was, it simply couldn’t compete. Being a sweet-voiced Canuck, she had more popularity north of the border, apparently.

2. Johnny Clegg and Savuka, “Heat, Dust and Dreams”: Forget the anti-Apartheid backstory, the honorary doctorate, the lyrics in Zulu, the worldwide peace lectures. This one is simply a great album. The sound is as if he took Paul Simon’s idea for “Graceland” and turned the amps up to 11. But that would giving credit in the wrong direction; Clegg’s sound came from being on the front lines of the Johannesburg “culture war,” not from some library research conducted in the Hamptons.

1. Big Country, “Steeltown”: The follow-up to “In a Big Country” and “Wonderland,” this one simply bit the dust on the charts in the mid-80s. And yet, there’s such anger in the sound, even when they’re trying to be sweet on tracks like “Just a Shadow.” This really was the last hurrah for the band; despite releasing something like six more albums, they never did match the popularity of their first two releases. Massively underrated, indeed.

That's my list; feel free to come up with one of your own. And if you do, please share.

No comments: