Who knows why these things happen? Some albums just can’t catch a break, and for a variety of reasons, don’t get the amount of critical or popular respect that they deserve. Here are ten that I think are worth a second listen and some serious reappraisal. Once again, I’m keeping this list to artists that are generally well-known enough that your mom might recognize the names…
Beck * Mutations
Why it gets shorted: It came right after Odelay, which is pretty much Beck’s benchmark album. The introspective, dour songs prefaced the gloom and doom of 2002’s Sea Change.
What’s great about it: A very strong crop of songs that are effectively avant garde and poetic. It’s the aural equivalent of listening to a Salvador Dali painting.
Better than: Everything he’s done except Odelay, Guero, and The Information.
Paul Simon * Rhythm Of The Saints
Why it gets shorted: This album came after his landmark album (note a trend, besides me using adjectives that end in -mark?) Graceland. No real hit singles to hang your hat on here.
What’s great about it: On the whole, a much more satisfying realization of the sound of Simon’s infatuation with African music than this album’s more popular counterpart. It has held up extremely well over time, while the overplayed singles on Graceland seriously date that album. [PS – note the great ‘cut bin’ hole on the picture – which I pulled from Amazon.com!]
Better than: Everything else in his catalogue, in my opinion.
Public Enemy * Apocalypse ’91: The Enemy Strikes Black
Why it gets shorted: Yet again, it came right after their strongest work – It Takes A Nation Of Millions… and Fear Of A Black Planet. On balance, this album is angrier and more political than either of its more well-known brethren.
What’s great about it: A steady succession of hard-hitting songs about slave ships, liquor dealers and bringin’ noise make this – like Paul Simon’s Rhythym Of The Saints – the more perfect realization of the group’s vision than its more celebrated counterparts. And please note – this is the only blog on earth that dares to compare Paul Simon and Public Enemy.
Better than: Not better than their best work, but certainly as good as anything else they’ve done.
Steely Dan * Gaucho
Why it gets shorted: Perhaps I should have named this column “albums that came after artists’ best albums” – this one came after Aja, which people spend an unnecessary amount of time drooling over. Also, ‘Glamour Profession’ and the title track are pretty silly, unless you’re stoned.
What’s great about it: ‘Babylon Sisters’ is epic, for one thing. Also, this was the album when the ironic glint in the Dan’s eye dimmed a bit, and it was obvious that they were a group on the edge, and the party of the 70’s was over. Many critics damn this album for that reason, but that’s what makes it great to me. [In fact this was one of my staple albums from ’95 to ’97 and I practically wore out the grooves on my dollar vinyl copy.]
Better than: Again, not better than – but as good as – their best stuff.
Joni Mitchell * The Hissing Of Summer Lawns
Why it gets shorted: While this did come after her uber-celebrated Court & Spark, it was a huge left turn away from that sound. This was where Mitchell began losing traction with her audience, and she steadily retreated into ever more musically obtuse corners.
What’s great about it: ‘The Jungle Line’ is absolutely incredible. This lush, pounding song sampled African drums in 1975 (take that Paul Simon!) and is worth the price of admission alone. And give her credit, she could have spent 20 years cranking out Court & Spark clones, but decided to take some chances instead. And for major bonus points, this is reportedly Prince’s (the artist & symbol) favorite album of all-time.
Better than: Everything in her catalogue but Court & Spark.
Willie Nelson & Leon Russell * One For The Road
Why it gets shorted: Willie cranks out about two albums each year, so it’s pretty hard for any but his most devoted fans to even keep up with his current stuff – let alone go dipping 30 years into the past.
What’s great about it: Willie & Leon = two great voices that sound great together.
Better than: Anything he’s produced in the last two decades.
Little Feat * The Last Record Album
Why it gets shorted: The cover art on this album is a poor sister to some of Neon Park’s artwork that is so associated with the group. Also, there’s nothing here that has ever troubled any of their ‘greatest hits’ albums.
What’s great about it: This is the sound of Lowell George and company locked into a solid groove, start to finish. There’s nothing even remotely unlikable on this album.
Better than: Sailin’ Shoes, which seems strangely overrated to me.
Van Morrison * Into The Music
Why it gets shorted: Van was pretty uneven – to say the least – from the mid-seventies until the mid-eighties.
What’s great about it: A knockout set that finds Van The Man sounding loose, confident, and swinging. This is truly one of those ‘why don’t I listen to this more often?’ albums.
Better than: Anything else from his late-70’s/early-80’s period.
The Kinks * Muswell Hillbillies
Why it gets shorted: Not nearly as good as their mid-60’s work, but not nearly as bad as the 70’s work that this album generally gets lumped in with.
What’s great about it: Lots of great songs, and the ‘concept’ around this album was loose enough that it didn’t weigh the whole thing down like most of their 70’s output, such as Schoolboys In Disgrace and Soap Opera.
Better than: Anything that came after, if you get right down to it.
The Beach Boys * Surf’s Up
Why it gets shorted: This couldn’t be further from the sunshine and surfin’ good times that the 60’s Beach Boys represented.
What’s great about it: Exactly what repelled people from it back in the day. This is the sound of the sixties dying in a murky, oily mixture of pollution, police sirens, and indifference. ‘Feel Flows’ would have been the perfect song to play at midnight on December 31st, 1969.
Better than: Everything in their catalogue except Pet Sounds.