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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