Saturday, November 2, 2013

Overlooked Albums By Famous Artists

Over the years I've developed a listening habit whereby I really get obsessed with a particular artists, and in a short period of time acquire much of their back catalog.  If I really like them, over the years I will happen to complete my stock with albums that aren't as highly regarded.  I've discovered that many albums which have been written off by critics or not as popular among fans can be really damn good.  After all, less than perfect products of genius are better than the best that hacks can offer.  Here's a list of albums by famous artists that have been criminally overlooked.

David Bowie, Diamond Dogs
Allmusic only gives this one two stars, by far the lowest rating of any record from Bowie's 70s heyday.    I picked it up in the midst of my Bowie period, which lasted from about 1998 to 2000, and liked it just fine.  Its reputation may have suffered from the fact that it was originally intended as an adaptation of Orwell's 1984, and the resulting post-apocalyptic scenario is half-baked.  So be it, but even if the lyrics get daft, the songs are great.  It's also a bit of a cast-off record, since it's Bowie's last glam rock album, but it doesn't feature his backing band The Spiders From Mars.  Sure, some of these songs could use some Mick Ronson guitar, but with monster riffs on "Diamond Dogs" and "Rebel Rebel," Bowie more than holds his own.

Billy Joel, Turnstiles
Joel was on a major roll in the 1970s, but most folks remember Piano Man, 52nd Street, or The Stranger as his notable albums.  Turnstiles tends to fall through the cracks, but it's got great tunes like "Say Goodbye to Hollywood" and "New York State of Mind," which are among Joel's best.  It's also a short all killer no filler album where Joel's touring band finally backs him up, giving the songs a warmer touch than studio musicians.

U2, October
I wrote a post in my classic albums series on October, which features some of Edge's best guitar playing and "Gloria," one of U2's all time best songs.

REM, Monster
This album might be a little harder to defend, but I love it.  Released in 1994 in the midst of the grunge explosion, REM stepped away from their mandolin-heavy folk vibe of the early 1990s to some feedback-laden rawk music.  For years I used to reliably see it in the bargain bins at used records stores, proof that it hadn't had much staying power.  While the sound may be off-putting for REM fans, songs like "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?", "Crush With Eyeliner," and "Bang and Blame" are just great.  Michael Stipe also has some of his best singing on "Tongue" and "Strange Currencies."

The Beatles, Magical Mystery Tour
I know it's hard to think of any Beatles album as overlooked, but I think Magical Mystery Tour qualifies.  It's not quite an album per se, but a collection of songs from the eponymous TV movie with some of their non-album singles thrown in for good measure.  It never gets discussed much, but song for song I would actually rate it better than Sgt. Pepper.  (Blasphemy, I know.)  How can you beat "I Am The Walrus," "Strawberry Fields," "Penny Lane," "Fool On The Hill," "All You Need Is Love" and "Hello, Goodbye" all on the same record?  Lesser known songs like "Your Mother Should Know" and "Baby You're A Rich Man" still sound great, and the moody "Blue Jay Way" is an unorthodox distillation of anomie.

Bruce Springsteen, Ghost of Tom Joad
In 1995 after years in the musical wilderness, Bruce Springsteen came out with a kind of sequel to his stark and acclaimed Nebraska for the 1990s.  With its spare tales of Rust Belt decay, drug smugglers on the border, and ex-cons sick of the straight and narrow, it is a subversive and challenging album that did not make the impact it should have.  "Youngstown" is one of the most powerful songs about the human devastation of de-industrialization yet written.  The title track is the modern equivalent of a Pete Seeger or Woody Guthrie song, a distillation of this nation's abandonment of its most vulnerable people.  The last song, "My Best Was Never Good Enough" mocks Forrest Gump and the stupid platitudes that people tell themselves to cheer themselves up about being crushed by an unfair society.  The cynical bitterness in his voice probably wasn't the uplifting tone that fans of the Boss wanted to hear.

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