by David Schultz
In sitting down to compile this list, I had to first figure out what exactly constitutes an underrated album. It doesn’t seem like it would simply be a great record that didn’t sell well. In that case, the Velvet Underground’s entire catalogue would be considered underrated but given the near unanimous critical approval those albums receive, they can’t truly be considered underrated. Conversely, it also doesn’t seem that it would be a poorly reviewed record that sold millions. I don’t think under any set of criteria the Titanic soundtrack or any Spice Girls album could or should be called underrated. After much thought, the definition became simple: an underrated album is a record that discerning musical fans should have in their collection but for some reason the majority of them don’t.
So, in no particular order, here are the 20 most underrated albums:
George Harrison: All Things Must Pass (1970)
In the aftermath of the Beatles, John Lennon had classic albums like Imagine and Plastic Ono Band, Paul McCartney had Wings and Band On The Run and Ringo had . . . well, Ringo had Barbara Bach. The silent Beatle’s solo career, like his stint in the most famously analyzed and studied of bands, was dwarfed by the attention paid to Lennon & McCartney. However, that is not to say that George does not deserve mention with his more acclaimed band mates. Harrison’s first true solo effort is unquestionably his most triumphant. The three album set showcases the musical chops that weren’t able to fully flourish with the Beatles. The record’s success comes from its combination of White Album era songs like All Things Must Pass, fresher material like What Is Life and Wah Wah, Dylan covers and collaborations like I’d Have You Anytime and If Not For You and My Sweet Lord’s inadvertently borrowed melody. It is the third album of the set though that is the icing on this cake. Foreshadowing the jamband scene by a good decade or two, the album’s finale consists of George and the band, which consisted of Eric Clapton and Dave Mason on guitar, Billy Preston and Bobby Whitlock on keyboards and Ringo on drums, working out puzzlingly named extended grooves like I Remember Jeep and Thanks For The Pepperoni. An underrated album by the most underrated Beatle.
Pete Townshend: White City – A Novel (1985)
If this was a Who album instead of a Townshend solo album, it would rest comfortably with the classic rock mainstays of anyone’s collection. Like most conscientious rockers in the late eighties, Townshend was against Apartheid and chose to combat it as only he could — with his sarcastic wit and killer guitar licks. Using the structure that worked so brilliantly on Quadrophenia and Tommy, Townshend tells yet another story of alienation and oppression, this time set in a segregated county that is a thinly veiled South Africa. Townshend’s voice is a perfect fit for the restrained fury of White City Fighting and Brilliant Blues. However, it lacks the power necessary to push other tracks like Give Blood and Secondhand Love into the pantheon of true arena rockers. Fortunately, Townshend knows that people aren’t buying his albums to hear him sing and the album is peppered with his signature guitar. True Townshend junkies will not be disappointed with the album’s last track Come To Mama. An added bonus: since the mid-eighties was a fertile period for rap, Pete unabashedly gives it a shot on Face The Face. White City pulls of the difficult task of possessing a sense of importance without becoming pretentious and it is without doubt, the most complete album of Townshend’s solo career.
SideBar: The Most Underrated Concept Albums: There is always a bit of a stigma attached to the concept album. Oftentimes, it is not undeserved. Usually, the artist has come up with some idea that he feels is so important and so monumental that one song will not do the idea justice, hence the concept must be spread throughout the entire album. In this attempt, the limitations of the artist as a songwriter and/or musician are laid bare for all to see. As Styx taught us with Kilroy Was Here, there is nothing funnier or more embarrassing than an earnestly put forth concept album that defies logic and reason. Fortunately, Green Day’s American Idiot revived interest in the concept album by conjuring up images of Quadrophenia and demonstrating that a wonderful work of art can be created when the concept is carried out successfully.
The top 5 underrated concept albums (again in no particular order: 1) The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway – Genesis (1974); 2) Joe’s Garage – Frank Zappa (1979); 3) Southern Rock Opera – Drive By Truckers (2001); 4) White City – Pete Townshend; 5) Jethro Tull – A Passion Play.
Big Head Todd & The Monsters: Midnight Radio (1990)
Big Head Todd’s true debut album should have made them superstars. With half of the tracks recorded live on stage and the other half recorded in basements and living rooms throughout their hometown of Boulder, Colorado, the band successfully channeled their laid back sound, which is reminiscent of John Hiatt at his finest, into their most intimate record. The resulting album is the perfect soundtrack for a late night summer drive on a wide open road with the convertible top down. The first 2/3 of the album presents the band in their finest element, rolling through amiable, jangling tunes like City On Fire, The Leaving Song and Dinner With Ivan. In subtle contrast, the album closes with a trio of achingly contemplative songs, Monument In Green, Ann Arbor Grandfather and Elvis, that showcase Todd Park Mohr’s ability to captivate an audience with simply a guitar and naked emotion. The standout track on the album is undoubtedly Bittersweet. Even 15 years later, the intro to this song will make a live crowd explode and the brilliantly restrained guitar solo Mohr unleashes near the close of the song is quite possibly one of the more underrated solos in rock. Where some bands follow their astounding debut album into oblivion, this album shows why Big Head Todd is still recording and touring 15 years later.
Goo Goo Dolls: Hold Me Up (1991)
Before the Goo Goo Dolls began one of the most horrific descents into mediocrity and morphed into the sappy lite-rock charade of a rock band they are today, they were one of the best garage bands on the planet. I kid you not. Though it may be hard to believe now, this trio from Buffalo, New York used to be favorably compared to the Replacements. Spin magazine paid this album the highest compliment it could think of when it called Hold Me Up the album for the pathetic loser in all of us. Quite frankly, there is no better album to get you through an ugly break-up than this one. The album consists of mostly of three minute songs with Johnny Rzeznik’s thrashing guitar dominating throughout. Knowing that the Goo Goo Dolls were capable of “fuck you” lyrics like Two Days In February’s “I know you’re living way out west/don’t get me wrong I’m not impressed/ with you/ no more,” three chord sonic assaults for the defeated like Laughing, There You Are and Just The Way You Are (absolutely no relation to the Billy Joel song) and kick-ass covers of the Plimsouls Million Miles Away and Prince’s Never Take The Place Of Your Man, makes their MTV friendly, mopey soft rock like Isis and Name that much more maddening. Given what they became, Hold Me Up may go down as the most underrated album ever.
Stone Roses: Stone Roses (1989)
This was the album that brought the Manchester sound to the forefront of musical culture. Although bands like The Soup Dragons, Jesus Jones and Inspiral Carpets tried, none got it better than the Stone Roses. Starting with a fundamental base of psychedelia, the Roses mixed it with danceable funk (Fools Gold), cascading guitar riffs (Waterfall) or flat out U2 like pomposity (I Am The Resurrection). Immediately following Waterfall, the band reverses the audio track and creates a new song, Don’t Stop, over the reversed loop. The album also possesses a wicked sense of humor, calm soothing melodies come complete with some of the most frightening and threatening of lyrics. On Shoot You Down, Ian Brown, with the emotional range of a serial killer, gleefully describes that he’d “love to do it and you know you always had it coming.” One of the album’s highlights, an adaptation of Simon & Carbuncle’s Scarborough Fair that transforms the innocent ditty into an ominous ode to assassinating Queen Elizabeth. Oh yes, they could also play it straight (I Want to Be Adored). Sadly, this album is the only worthy testament to the greatness of The Stone Roses. Shortly after its release, the band became involved in numerous lawsuits that frustrated the release of their follow-up album for close to 5 years. By the time the pompously named Second Coming was released, the magic was gone. Indicative of the group’s importance, without the Roses at the forefront, the Manchester movement withered and died. Unlike the albums of their Manchester brethren, the Roses debut album holds up years later and deserves proper recognition.
Richard Thompson: Rumor and Sigh (1991)
Richard Thompson is one of those musicians that have been around forever and you’ve probably heard his name mentioned once or twice before but can never seem to recall why you recognize the name. Thompson was a founding member of Fairport Convention and left the band with his wife Linda in 1971. Richard & Linda Thompson recorded a pair of wonderful albums, Shoot Out The Lights and I Want To See the Bright Lights Tonight, which would be on this list but for the fact that the two albums are critical darlings. Without the angst and turmoil provided by his ex-wife, Thompson’s solo career never skyrocketed. However, the karmic forces aligned when he recorded Rumor & Sigh. His songwriting, always sharp, is at its best here. There is swagger on Feel So Good, British charm on God Loves A Drunk and wizened confusion on Grey Walls and Read About Love. The album’s masterpiece is the bizarrely romantic love story of James and Red Molly that centers on a 1952 Vincent Black Lightning. I defy anyone to listen to Thompson’s delivery of James’ final words to Molly and not feel a chill down their spine as he gives her one last kiss and dies, but gives her his Vincent to ride.
Traveling Wilburys: Volume 1 (1988)
In 1988, George Harrison started work on a new album with producer Jeff Lynne in Bob Dylan’s garage. Over the course of the recording sessions, neighbors Tom Petty and Roy Orbison drifted over and common interests being what they were, they all started recording together. Adopting pseudonyms and declaring themselves all Wilbury brothers, they recorded an album that brought out the best in all of them. The Wilbury songs expressed fragility (Handle With Care), reflection (End Of The Line) and a sense of humor (the Springsteen “homage” Tweeter & The Monkey Man). The alter-egos seemed to give the Wilburys, especially Dylan, the freedom to relax and the songs possess a freewheeling sense of fun often missing in their “real-life” recordings. The spontaneous feeling prevails throughout the album, which is also notable for being one of Roy Orbison’s last recordings before his death. Given the star power here, it is amazing that the Wilburys aren’t a staple of what’s left of classic rock radio.
SideBar: The Most Underrated Benefit Show: Farm Aid 1985. At some point during his unintelligible set closing the Live Aid show in Philadelphia, Bob Dylan told the crowd that he thought it would be nice if we gave a million dollars or two to the American farmers to help pay off the mortgages on their farms. As might have been expected, this pissed off Bob Geldof to no extent. However, it caused John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson and Neil Young to coordinate Farm Aid, the first major follow-up to Live Aid. Taking place on September 22, 1985 in Champaign, Illinois, without heavy promotion and without even a major TV deal, (the fledgling Nashville Network had no penetration back then), Farm Aid boasted a pretty serious line-up. In addition to the founding musicians, Billy Joel, Tom Petty and Lou Reed appeared as did the major country musicians of the time including Alabama, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and the Charlie Daniels Band. Of course, Bob Dylan lent a hand and more satisfyingly played a relatively coherent set. Don Henley, who was huge at the time following the release of Building The Perfect Beast, closed the show with a set that eschewed Eagle classics and featured The Boys of Summer and Sunset Grill. Most noteworthy from the show was Van Halen’s first public performance with new lead singer Sammy Hagar. Unfortunately, the conclusion of their set was only seen and heard by the live crowd as radio and TV abruptly cut away when Hagar uttered a curse word from the stage. Hagar did however, leave both breasts covered.
Allman Brothers Band: Back Where It All Begins (1994)
After a seven year hiatus, the ABB reformed in 1989 with Warren Haynes and Allan Woody joining Gregg Allman, Dicky Betts and the rest. Back Where It All Begins is the last studio album of this version of the band as Haynes and Woody left soon thereafter to devote their time to their side project, Gov’t Mule. Without doubt, this album ranks with the strongest of post-Duane, ABB studio albums. Most notably, the album contains the first appearance of the Warren Haynes classic Soulshine, which if recorded in a different era would be one of the rock classics of all time. Gregg Allman invests it with the withered soul that illustrates the magic that occurs when a song and singer are perfectly matched. There are also the instrumental heavy Southern rock jams that the Allmans are known for. The title track and Sailing Across The Devil’s Sea are not only highlights of the album but mark the high point of the Allman Brothers version 2.0. Given that the Allmans back catalog is filled with some extraordinarily groundbreaking recordings, Back Where It All Begins, coming as it did in the nineties, is unfairly overlooked
Robert Randolph & The Family Band: Live at the Wetlands (2002)
This album has the potential to come off this list at some point in time as Randolph has the potential to be one of the saviors of rock and roll. Not only does this record capture one of the final performances at the Wetlands, the jamband Mecca of New York City, it also captures one of the most exciting musicians of the 21st century in the relatively fledgling stages of his development. Robert Randolph has been accurately described as the Jimi Hendrix of the pedal steel guitar and this Live at the Wetlands is proof that the comparison is far from gratuitous. Wetlands features long extended jams that give the band, especially Randolph, the opportunity to show off their chops. Ted’s Jam breathlessly kick starts the album, building up to crescendos usually found in a band’s encore rather than their opener. The band’s gospel origins are evident in the soulful Pressing My Way and the rollicking Tears Of Joy, but they come front and center on the penultimate I Don’t Know What You Come To Do. With a chorus right out of revival meeting, Randolph with the persuasion of Baptist minister, declares that that he’s come to clap his hands and stomp his feet and the crowd is right there with him. This album, capturing Randolph in his infancy, could be his Beatles in Hamburg – so it may not be underrated for long.
Ted Hawkins: The Next Hundred Years (1994)
Ted Hawkins spent the majority of his life as an obscure but talented singer and guitar player. Although he had a bit of a break in the late 60′s, his career evaporated in a haze of heroin and multiple stints in jail. By the early 90′s, Hawkins had become one of the many street musicians that populate Venice Beach, California. Remarkably, Hawkins became one of the most popular buskers with people coming from miles around and waiting hours to hear him play. Michael Penn (a/k/a Mr. Aimee Mann) was one of those people and in 1993 he persuaded executives from Geffen Records to get Hawkins off the street and into the studio. Hawkins finally relented and the resulting album, The Next Hundred Years, is astounding. Primarily accompanying himself on guitar, Hawkins invests original songs like The Good And The Bad and Big Things and covers of There Stands The Glass and Biloxi with an aged and knowing voice. With the exception of some strings added post production, this album is purely Hawkins and his guitar – and it is absolutely fantastic. Upon its release in late 1994, the album received extraordinary reviews but relatively little airplay. With his guitar in tow, Hawkins went around the country doing radio interviews and studio performances, mainly on free form radio and miraculously, the album slowly started to sell. Tragically, within weeks of the albums release, Hawkins died and he never got to enjoy the well deserved adulation he received for his wonderful album.
Dread Zeppelin: Un – Led – Ed (1990)
As the name would imply, Dread Zeppelin was a band that played nothing but reggae versions of Led Zeppelin songs. Interesting concept, eh? Oh yes, their lead singer was an Elvis impersonator named Tortelvis. Long before studio technicians were mashing up songs, Dread Zeppelin was mashing up genres in an acid fueled blender with tongue firmly in musical cheek. However, the joke carries through the entire album – and carries well. In the past decade there have been reggae homages to Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead, but none show the same reverence for their subject as Dread Zeppelin. From the introductory Black Dog, which includes a nice segue into Hound Dog, through a version of Your Time Is Gonna Come that stands comparison to the original to the closing drum beat of Moby Dick, the album stands on its own as a “reggae” classic and not as a one-off joke. Given the bizarre concept, Un-Led-Ed is an easy album to overlook and underrate.
Jimmy Cliff: The Harder They Come (1973)
Reggae 101 involves the purchase of Bob Marley’s Legend, listening too it numerous times, getting a brightly colored Marley T-shirt and then declaring that Jah Love, you are a fan of reggae. The upper level course in reggae involves the soundtrack to The Harder They Come. Although the lions share of acclaim for reggae’s widespread success rightly goes to Marley, it is Jimmy’s The Harder They Come that first brought reggae music to the forefront of the collective musical consciousness. The 1972 film, which is reggae’s Citizen Kane, was primarily responsible for introducing reggae to the U.S. and tilled the soil for the release of Marley’s debut album, Catch A Fire. In addition to The Harder They Come, the soundtrack has other classics like Many Rivers To Cross and Sitting In Limbo. The album contains Toots & The Maytals brilliant renditions of Pressure Drop and Sweet & Dandy as well as Desmond Dekker’s take on Shanty Town. Even though the Rivers Of Babylon in this collection isn’t sung by Cliff, the Melodians do it justice. Sadly, there seems to be room for only one legend leaving Jimmy Cliff to remain reggae’s unsung hero.
Pink Floyd: Meddle & Animals (1971/1977)
Meddle and Animals get grouped together in one selection as they are the most underrated albums of a group whose ubiquitous catalog can be found in just about everyone’s CD collection. Pink Floyd are played on classic rock radio with the same frequency as The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and The Who. However, if your only exposure to Floyd came from the radio, you wouldn’t be faulted if you thought Pink Floyd’s entire career consisted of Dark Side Of The Moon, Wish You Were Here and The Wall. With Meddle, the band introduced the trippy aural psychedelic sound that would soon become the band’s trademark. The songs vary considerably: menacing guitars on One Of These Days, airy flowing riffs on Fearless and San Tropez and standard blues on Seamus, an ode to an old hound. Foreshadowing Dark Side by at least two years, the album closes with the 18 minute-plus opus Echoes that ranks with the greatest Floyd has to offer. In 1977, two years after Wish You Were Here, Floyd’s returned to the realm of long extended tracks with Animals. The band’s paeans to Dogs, Pigs and Sheep marked Floyd’s last true trip to the psychedelic realm they are renowned for. Are these albums truly underrated? Well, the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll omits discussion of Meddle and unfairly relegates Animal’s significance to the inclusion of inflatable pigs in their stage show.
Tin Machine: Tin Machine (1989)
This is the one album that would be impossible to overrate. It didn’t sell well and was reviled by practically every music critic. Critics hated his album – not just disliked it, but hated it – like it kidnapped their mother or killed their dog – or both. For those who don’t remember, in 1989 David Bowie renounced his solo career and formed a band with guitarist Reeves Gabriel and Soupy Sales’ two kids. The eponymously titled album that followed was a dark, gloomy and downbeat affair. After releasing a handful of chirpy and insubstantial records in the 80′s, (Let’s Dance, Blue Jean) the heavy guitars was a drastic change for Bowie. Bowie fans should always be prepared to expect the unexpected from the thin white Duke, but no one seemed willing to accept Bowie as part of a band, especially this band. But here’s the thing, looking back on this album, the simple fact is it wasn’t that bad – in fact, I will stand alone on the island and proclaim that it was actually pretty damn good. In the 70′s Bowie had an edge to him that vanished sometime in the 80′s. Save for a misguided cover of Lennon’s Working Class Hero, which was a grand idea but somewhat failed in its execution, this album gave Bowie the roughest non-glam edge he’d had in his career. Underappreciated in its time, it deserves a better legacy.
Sting: Dream of the Blue Turtles (1985)
This album is the actual point where Sting moves from post-punk god to adult contemporary mainstay. Disconcertingly, he did it with style. Moving 180 degrees from the Police, Sting did so in daring fashion by gathering a band of accomplished jazz musicians that included keyboardist Kenny Kirkland, drummer Omar Hakim and saxophonist Branford Marsalis, long before Jay Leno “discovered” him. The songs on Blue Turtles are a bit heavier than the breezier fluff Sting has churned out over the past 20 years but they work and are eminently listenable due to the expert musicianship involved. Plus, you can’t hate a song like Shadows In The Rain that starts with a howling “Woke up in my clothes again this morning/Don’t know exactly where I’ve been.” It is easy to diminish Sting’s solo legacy as the car commercial fodder but his first foray into jazz fusion worked extraordinarily well. Good trivia note here as well, Eddy Grant, of Electric Avenue fame, contributes conga drums to Consider Me Gone.
Van Morrison: A Night In San Francisco (1994)
A night at a Van Morrison show nowadays is a risky proposition. For usually $70-$80, Van will make you show up early, cut off beer service when he takes the stage and most nights, play for just over an hour. Even worse, he will consciously omit any of his hits and force the audience to sit through plodding versions of sub-par recent compositions or covers from the 30s. However, that wasn’t always the case. A Night In San Francisco captures everything that is great about Van Morrison. Without being a “play the hits” show (for that listen to It’s Too Late To Stop Now), Van shows why he is “the Man.” With a band that is likely more at home than a jazz club than an arena hall, Morrison rolls through a couple of his classics but also ventures into the slipstream with long extended versions of songs that move from James Brown and Sly & The Family Stone soul classics through blues staples like Stormy Monday and Good Morning Little Schoolgirl and even includes a hip rendition of My Funny Valentine. Without question, this is the best Van Morrison album in the past 25 years.
The Kinks: One For The Road (1980)
If this list was created in the mid-eighties, there is no way this album would be included as it was the biggest live album of that time. Well, with the exception of Frampton Comes Alive. Capturing the Kinks in the heyday of their live performances, it is the rare live album that provides the hits along with other lesser known favorites without ever hitting a down note. In between definitive and iconic versions of Lola and Celluloid Heroes there are raucous readings of Low Budget, Superman and National Health. Even more amazing, Ray and Dave Davies get through the entire album without once attempting to physically assault each other. The Kinks are often overlooked in any discussion of the British Invasion, which is a shame. Although the CD version is an edited version, it is still a worthy reminder of why the Kinks were the Prince of the Punks.
Elton John: 11-17-70 (1971)
It may be hard to believe nowadays, but Elton John was once the biggest rock and roll star in the world and at the time it was well deserved. This album, which shows why Elton deserved such status, comes from a November 17, 1970 concert that took place at a recording studio in New York and was broadcast live on WABC-FM. Although released after Tumbleweed Connection, it was recorded beforehand and contains rough but amazing versions of Burn Down The Mission and Amoreena. From the moment, he bangs out the intro to Bad Side Of The Moon to start the show, it is evident this is not your parents’ Elton John. As an added treat, Elton breezes through a honky-tonk rendition of the Stone’s Honky Tonk Woman and manages to slide in and out of the Beatles’ Get Back. This is an Elton John that most don’t remember existed, stripped of the flamboyant costumes and snarky anti-paparazzi behavior, Elton was truly one of the great rock pianists of all time.
Blues Brothers: Briefcase Full of Blues (1978)
If you want to know what keeps this album out of the comedy discount bin, just check out the picture of the band that comes with the album. When Dan Akyroyd and John Belushi created their labor of love to blues and soul music, they gathered musicians that would lend credibility to the effort. In Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn, Matt Murphy. Lou Marini, Bones Malone you have some of the musicians that created the Stax/Volt sound that defined the music the Blues Brothers revered. Recorded live before a surprised audience who came to see Steve Martin at the Universal Ampitheater, the album succeeds because Akyroyd and Belushi were serious about this effort, willing to walk off of Saturday Night Live when the two projects conflicted. Letting the music take the forefront, Briefcase Full of Blues revived interest in classics like Soul Man, B Movie Boxcar Blues and Hey Bartender. Even though Belushi delved deep into the Jake Blues persona, his comedic timing couldn’t be contained on I Don’t Know, a hidden classic from this album. The movie with soundtrack that came afterwards are worthy ventures in their own rights but never would have occurred if this album was not rock solid. John Belushi and Dan Akyroyd will long be remembered for their comedic roles, but this album should not be overlooked as part of their rich legacy.
Body Count: Body Count (1992)
This album never had a chance. With in weeks of its release, the controversy over its last track, Cop Killer, overshadowed any honest rational consideration of its musical merits. The album didn’t charter any new musical territory, that accolade goes to Living Colour, but it did blend rap with heavy metal long before Kid Rock discovered the recipe. Plus, Body Count did it with a harder grittier edge. Originating as a side project, Ice-T rapping in front of a heavy metal band was something new and unique. Before the controversy broke, Body Count had been touring the country as part of the original Lollapalooza to some acclaim. There Goes The Neighborhood and Body Count – it was a song, the band, the album – created funky metal right about the same time Rage Against The Machine was ready to break. References to police shootings aside, the album possesses a sense of humor with its sly take on black culture working its way into white America’s as well as Ice-T’s touching ode to his Evil Dick.
If this list causes any of you to go out and purchase, download or acquire in any manner whatsoever even one of the albums listed above and you enjoy it, then I can only inappropriately quote Bob Geldof when I say “don’t tell me this doesn’t work, don’t let anybody tell you this doesn’t work.”