Underrated Albums That You Want the World to Know About: What’s on Your List?

This is not an easy post to write. I am going to talk about some­thing per­son­al. Yes, it’s time to dis­cuss under­rat­ed albums, a term that can mean so many things to so many peo­ple that we might as well talk about under­rat­ed dreams. But dreams can be shared, at least in pop cul­ture and the sub­cul­tur­al cav­erns beneath it. And peo­ple can share opin­ions about an under­rat­ed album, espe­cial­ly in the dis­parate com­mu­ni­ties of the inter­net, where devo­tees can find each oth­er eas­i­ly.

When I was younger this was not so easy. One might dis­cov­er an album at a local indie record shop and buy it just for the cov­er, hav­ing no idea what lay with­in. There were no songs on YouTube, Spo­ti­fy, or iTunes. (My generation’s walk­ing to school in the snow, uphill both ways.) One made chance dis­cov­er­ies at live shows and in the pages of print mag­a­zines. In such prim­i­tive con­di­tions, it was easy to find records that you and only you loved, from start to fin­ish, some­times believ­ing you must be the only per­son who had ever heard them.

As Richard Met­zger puts it at Dan­ger­ous Minds, in writ­ing about an under­rat­ed EP from a high­ly under­rat­ed band, “In the pre-Inter­net days, record col­lec­tion was more than mere­ly a hob­by. It was almost like… a way of life.”

I take this lit­tle nos­tal­gic trip to say that for me, under­rat­ed albums tend to fold into the cat­e­go­ry of under­rat­ed artists. Dis­cov­er­ing them wasn’t a mat­ter of cred—not at first. It was a secre­tive and pri­vate act, a tiny ado­les­cent rebel­lion against the bad taste of friends and fam­i­ly. Giv­en such musi­cal solip­sism, I find it hard to gauge what makes an album under­rat­ed. You’ll find lists aplen­ty, and they are odysseys of dis­cov­ery for the adven­tur­ous. Lists filled with less­er-known records from very well-known artists. Lists made of pic­ture gal­leries. Lists quot­ing such high-cred stars as Kurt Cobain, Björk, and Arcade Fire.

As for myself, I could go on for days, but humbly offer here a few eclec­tic albums that—start to finish—have cap­ti­vat­ed me over the years for var­i­ous rea­sons. At the top, hear “Which Witch,” from TK Webb’s crim­i­nal­ly under­rat­ed 2006 Phan­tom Parade, an album of plain­tive laments that sounds like a truck stop ashtray—hypnotic road­house coun­try blues played by the Vel­vet Under­ground with vocals parked some­where between Tom Waits and Cap­tain Beef­heart.

Below it, hear a short excerpt from what is very like­ly the strangest live album ever record­ed: Wire’s 1981 Doc­u­ment & Eye­wit­ness. It’s hard to imag­ine lis­ten­ing to it with­out the lin­er notes in hand, but the over­dubbed con­ver­sa­tion on “Everything’s Going to Be Nice” will give you a taste of what the con­cert was like. The band, writes Pitch­fork, “had pushed their art-stu­dent ten­den­cies to the break­ing point, turn­ing what was expect­ed to be a pogo-fueled punk show into a Dadaist, per­for­mance-art spec­ta­cle com­plete with Mor­ris-danc­ing bells and a live goose.”

This track rep­re­sents a brief inter­lude in the midst of record­ings that cap­ture the sound of a band tak­ing itself apart onstage before a bewil­dered audi­ence clam­or­ing for the hits (or, rather, the hit, “I2XU” from their clas­sic debut Pink Flag.)

In the Spo­ti­fy playlist above, in addi­tion to these two albums, hear for­mer Scream­ing Trees singer Mark Lanegan’s Bub­ble Gum, Eng­lish rock­a­bil­ly revival­ist Hol­ly Golight­ly & Dan Melchoir’s Des­per­ate Lit­tle Town, Afro-Turk­ish singer Esmeray’s 2013 col­lec­tion of hits En lyi­leriyle Esmer­ay (hits in her native land, maybe, but sad­ly not well known in the Eng­lish-speak­ing world), post-rock pio­neers Bark Psy­chosis’s 1994 Hex; the alter­na­tive­ly hyp­not­ic and hys­ter­i­cal Cana­di­an indie rock­ers Frog Eyes’ 2002 debut The Bloody Hand; Pissed Jeans’ most­ly ter­ri­fy­ing Hope for Men; Gillian Welch’s trad folk/country Soul Jour­ney (don’t miss clos­er “Wreck­ing Ball”); and the Sta­ple Singers under­rat­ed ear­ly albums Uncloudy Day & Will the Cir­cle Be Unbro­ken.

Depend­ing on my mood, these are albums I lis­ten to straight through—and think, while doing so, every­one should hear this. But of course the list is biased. Like telling peo­ple about your dreams, telling peo­ple about your favorite, under­rat­ed albums can nev­er approach the expe­ri­ence of lis­ten­ing to them your­self. Nonethe­less, read­er, a per­son­al ques­tion: what would you put on your list? What albums do you want fel­low OC read­ers to put on their radar? Tell us in the com­ments below. And if we get enough good replies, who knows, maybe we’ll pull togeth­er a big meta playlist we all could share.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear the 50 Best Post-Punk Albums of All Time: A Nos­tal­gia-Induc­ing Playlist Curat­ed by Paste Mag­a­zine

The His­to­ry of Punk Rock in 200 Tracks: An 11-Hour Playlist Takes You From 1965 to 2016

Lis­ten to Rolling Stone’s “500 Great­est Songs of All Time” in One Stream­able Playlist

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (24)
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  • Matt says:

    We Were Promised Jet­packs’ debut album These Four Walls rocks hard and is strange­ly cap­ti­vat­ing.

  • Tristan Rousset says:

    Kash­mir — Zitilites

    Huge in Den­mark and Mex­i­co for some rea­son … My favorite album of all time

  • Michael Roach says:

    Art of Fight­ing — Wires (2002)
    Glide — Open up and croon

    .… for­got­ten and bril­liant Aus­tralian albums

  • Marc says:

    Ruth Moody — These Wilder Things.

  • Glen says:

    Steve Gib­bons Band — Down In The Bunker
    The Con­nells — Boy­lan Heights
    Chris Whit­ley — Liv­ing With The Law.

  • Timothy says:

    Ida — Will You Find Me?
    Low — The Cur­tain Hits The Cast / Things We Lost In The Fire
    Stere­o­lab — Cobra Phas­es…
    Cather­ine Wheel — Chrome
    Adorable — Fake
    Stars Of The Lid — And Their Refine­ment…
    The Rimshots — Down To Earth
    Skull­snaps — S/T
    Dif Juz — Extrac­tions
    Autolux — Future Per­fect
    Change — The Glow Of Love
    Ida­ho — Hearts Of Palm
    Pink Turns Blue — Meta
    Psy­che — Insom­nia The­atre
    Hen­ry Bad­ows­ki — Life Is A Grand
    Jets To Brazil — Orange Rhyming Dic­tio­nary
    Six­teen Horse­pow­er — Sack­cloth & Ash­es

  • Shadow Firebird says:

    The Hol­lies: Dis­tant Light.

    I grew up singing along to this album. But it’s sur­vived the test of time. I still love it now.
    Some of it is a lit­tle dat­ed, but the odd mix­ture of 60’s rock and gospel is just amaz­ing.

  • Edwin says:

    Lil’ Beethoven by Sparks
    Cir­cus Max­imus by Momus
    The Machine that Made us by Flota­tion Toy Warn­ing
    Time by Elec­tric Light Orches­tra
    Brava­do by Kirin J Cal­l­i­nan
    “Zam­ba Puta” by La Lá
    サンボマスターは君に語りかける (Sam­bo­mas­ter wa kimi ni katarikakeru) by サンボマスター [Sam­bo­mas­ter]

  • Anne Colvin says:

    O’Keefe (by Dan­ny O’Keefe) 1972

  • teddykaye says:

    Low Spark of High-heeled Boys. Traf­fic

  • Max Vaehling says:

    John Cale: Car­ribean Sun­set (1984) and Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence (1985).
    It’s hard to imagie John Cale as under­rat­ed, but even he had a cou­ple of miss­es.
    Car­ribean Sun­set was­n’t even re-released on CD, that’s how poor­ly it sold. It’s actu­al­ly pret­ty good, despite the some­what bland record­ing qual­i­ty. Very much in line with his more bru­tal 70’s rock albums.
    Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence is even bet­ter if you like his ‘mod­ern’ approach — he uses drum machines and syn­the­siz­ers to cre­ate his own thing. If you liked 2003’s ‘Hobo Sapi­ens’, you might like this, too.

    Eddy Grant: Paint­ings of the Soul (1992)
    I tried to track this one down for years, but all I could find were stu­pid Great­est Hits com­pi­la­tions with bor­ing Reg­gae-pop hits that still make me cringe. But this one’s real­ly good. Aim­ing at the World Music crowd (it was 1992) rather than the pop charts, it’s more relaxed, more song-ori­ent­ed than the hits. Includes a beau­ti­ful trib­ute to Lead­bel­ly — an all-time favorite of mine.

  • Brian says:

    Very hap­py to see Pissed Jeans on your list.

    I think the term under­rat­ed is overused. Peo­ple tend to start list­ing their favorite albums as under­rat­ed and the only cri­te­ria being that no one else talks about it as much as they do. In a con­ver­sa­tion about music, a friend once referred to The Bea­t­les “Revolver” as an under­rat­ed album, which is absurd. Noth­ing about The Bea­t­les has gone under­rat­ed, and cer­tain­ly not an album lis­tened to by mil­lions on a dai­ly basis.

    I would pro­pose adding Ocril­im “Anoint”. Mick Bar­r’s tech­ni­cal pro­fi­cien­cy and the delib­er­ate pun­ish­ing mood of the album is mas­ter­ful. The album is under­rat­ed because it does­n’t quite fit into the met­al genre and would seem unlis­ten­able to jazz lis­ten­ers who val­ue vir­tu­oso per­for­mances like this.

    I would also argue for Vic Chest­nutt “Lit­tle”. Vic Chest­nutt is large­ly con­sid­ered one of Amer­i­ca’s great­est song­writ­ers, and was deeply respect­ed by musi­cians, but nev­er broke through to com­mer­cial suc­cess for the deeply depress­ing con­tent of his songs. Real­ism became com­mer­cial­ly viable in film, but nev­er quite sold the same way in the music indus­try. Per­son­al­ly, I think “Dan­ny Carlisle” is one of the most accu­rate songs writ­ten about child­hood, it does­n’t hold onto any per­son­al­i­ty, it just tells the truth.

  • Non partisan bystander says:

    Safe House by AudiO.C.D. is the most under­rat­ed album of all time.

  • Carl says:

    Sweet Smoke: Baby night, Sil­ly-sal­ly
    Chase (Bill Chase)

  • Tomas says:

    Arthur Rus­sell- Corn
    Bren­dan Per­ry- Eye of the hunter
    The Walk­er Broth­ers- Nite Flights
    Don­ald Fagen- The Night­fly
    Van Dyke Parks- Dis­cov­er Amer­i­ca
    Cocteau Twins- Four-Cal­en­dar Cafe
    Bob Dylan- Infi­dels
    Gary Wil­son- You Think You Real­ly Know Me
    Jon & Van­ge­lis- Pri­vate Col­lec­tion
    Qua­si­mo­to- Yessir What­ev­er
    Var­i­ous Artists- Morn­ing Of The Earth
    Julee Cruise- Float­ing Into The Night
    Austin Per­al­ta- End­less Plan­ets
    Sleep- Dopesmok­er

  • Max says:

    I may have said that about Revolver just the oth­er day … of course. ‘under­rat­ed’ in con­nec­tion with a Bea­t­les album can only mean rel­a­tive to the oth­er Bea­t­les albums and with­in the gen­er­al con­text of wor­ship the Bea­t­les get. In that con­text, every­body seems to focus on Sgt. Pep­per, Abbey Road and the White album while all the oth­ers are rat­ed below, espe­cial­ly the ear­ly ones. Me, I’d choose Revolver over Sgt. Pep­per any time. Then again, I appear to not be the only one, so I guess it might be a myth that it’s under­rat­ed?

  • Wampus says:

    Good choic­es.

  • Richard says:

    Sil­ver Jews—“Starlight Walk­er” (real­ly the first three SJ albums could be here)
    Jef­frey Lewis— “‘’em are I”
    Charles Mingus—“Mingus at the Bohemia” (might be a lit­tle like the Bea­t­les Revolver com­ment above)
    Dick Div­er — “New Start Again”
    Son­ny and the Sunsets-“antenna to the after­world”
    Cate LeBon—“Mug Muse­um”
    Steely Dan—-“Can’t Buy A Thrill” (Bea­t­les again?)
    The Amps—-“Pacer”
    The Ever­ly Brothers—“Sing Great Coun­try Hits”
    Jonathan Richman—-“I, Johnathan” (real­ly just because of ‘That Sum­mer Feel­ing’)
    Smog—“Red Apple Falls”
    Jen­ny Toomey—“Antidote”

  • josh says:

    Mis­ter Heav­en­ly — “Out of Love”
    Uncle Acid and the Dead­beats — “Blood Lust” (this record is lo fi genius and I wish I owned it on vinyl)
    The Good, the Bad, & the Queen (depend­ing who you ask this is the name of the band, the record, or both).

    Look­ing for­ward to lis­ten­ing my way through the arti­cle and the com­ments!

  • John F says:

    Lone Jus­tice — “Lone Jus­tice”
    Mid 1980’s roots rock/ Amer­i­cana album that fea­tured con­tri­bu­tions from Tom Pet­ty and Lttle Ste­vie from Spring­steen’s E Street Band. Fans of John Cougar, Spring­steen, and Pet­ty would like this album. U2 had this band open for them on their Joshua Tree tour. Lead singer Maria McK­ee had a 80’s rock­er atti­tude but with a clas­sic coun­try style.

    Robert Plant — “The Fate of Nations”
    I know he’s a house­hold name, but this 1993 solo album of his is one I could lis­ten to all of the way through over and over. His albums in the 80’s sound­ed like he was try­ing to fit in with the times and it could be hit or miss. On this album how­ev­er, he sounds like he is putting some heart back into the song­writ­ing and per­for­mances. Goofy album cov­er art.

    Kel­ly Willis — “What I Deserve”
    In the late 90’s, this album did­n’t fit in with the are­na coun­try sound of Garth Brooks and Sha­nia Twain but it cuts deep with me. Her taKe on Nick Drake’s “Time Has Told Me” comes close to her own­ing it from Drake IMHO

    John McLaugh­lin — “Extrap­o­la­tion”
    He always is known for Miles Davis Bitch­es Brew and Mahav­ish­nu but his debut jazz album in 1969 is a mas­ter­piece.

    Kei­th Jar­ret — “Expec­ta­tions”
    A lost 70’s jazz clas­sic. Bebop, jazz fusion, and Latin jazz min­gle on this one.

  • Clancy says:

    Admas- sons of ethiopia

  • TVC says:

    Crack the Sky — Ani­mal Notes
    Todd Rund­gren — Runt: The Bal­lad of Todd Rund­gren
    Wish­bone Ash — New Eng­land
    City Boy — Young Men Gone West
    LeR­oux — Louisiana’s LeR­oux

  • Jerry says:

    Poco “A Good Feel­in’ to Know”
    Rick­ie Lee Jones “Fly­ing Cow­boys”
    Leon Rus­sell “Leon Live”
    Har­ry Nils­son “Pussy Cats”
    Al Koop­er “You Nev­er Know Who You’re Friends Are”
    J.D. Souther “Black Rose”
    Lin­da Ron­stadt “Win­ter Light”
    James Tay­lor “Walk­ing Man”
    Steve For­bert “Alive on Arrival”
    Joe Cock­er “Sheffield Steel”
    Daryl Hall & John Oates “Along the Red Ledge”

  • Rado says:

    I rec­om­mend Wendy Wald­man’s self-titled 1975 album. It’s a lot more stripped down than her oth­er albums and eas­i­ly her best.

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