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.