Every Wednesday, music nerd and serial list-maker Drew brings you a small, highly specific, pop culture-related list to either enjoy or inspire debate. He remains the only Popblerd staffer pretentious enough to name a column after himself.
First things first: these aren’t necessarily the most underrated albums of all time. That’s a different column for a different day, and for my money, would probably be populated with a fairly tiresome amount of Boston bands (still the liveliest music city I’ve ever had the pleasure of living in) that never got their just due outside of the Bay State. (It would also feature several albums by one-hit wonders; did you guys know that Blind Melon were actually completely awesome? Took me a few years after “No Rain” to figure that one out.)
No, several of these albums have received their due over the years. A couple of them are legitimately critically acclaimed, or big sellers; their underappreciated status is completely relative to their artists’ massive reputations. What qualifies as a heralded artist here is generally either commercial or critical acceptance, with a mixture of the two being, of course, the most ideally quantifiable measure of “success”.
And so, what follows is not a list of albums that society has entirely forgotten about, or woefully underrated: they are albums that simply don’t fit the artist’s legacy in the public eye.
7. Monster, R.E.M.
R.E.M. are no strangers to critical or commercial success: their early IRS output was the genesis of college-rock, a jangly stew of richly abstract lyrics and sterling ’60s harmonies, and their latter-day status as a minor-hit factory is well-served by one of the most eminently singable hits anthologies, like, ever. And yet, the band is not bulletproof: I present to you Exhibit A, Monster. Monster was the closest R.E.M. ever got to a big-rock album. The guitars were distorted now; Michael Stipe sang with a too-cool-for-school disaffect; the record was tinged with post-punk and glam-rock, genres that the nu-Byrds pop of R.E.M.’s yesteryear never even hinted it.
And yet, listening now, there’s an ineffable cool about Monster. Thurston Moore dropping by for background vocals on the atmospheric, swaggering “Crush With Eyeliner”? Cool. The spacey psychedelics of “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream”? Cooler. That mind-melting backwards guitar solo on “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”? Coolest. And yet, with all this cool, R.E.M. don’t forget to aim for the heart every once in a while: “Strange Currencies” may do little more than staple the arpeggiated balladry of “Everybody Hurts” to a break-up lament, but Stipe breaks through the cool front to sing something earnest and heartfelt, and it works beautifully.
6. Sketches For My Sweetheart the Drunk, Jeff Buckley
This one might be a bit of a cheat: Jeff Buckley never saw the release of a second album in his lifetime, and the goodwill of his legacy was largely based on the strength of his stunning debut, Grace. Which means that Sketches For My Sweetheart the Drunk wasn’t a proper album as much as it was a rough outline of what his second record could be; but, judging on what exists of the album, it was gonna be pretty killer.
The general consensus, of course, is that it feels… half-finished. Incomplete. Which is appropriate since, you know, it is. But there’s beauty to be found between the lines: “Everybody Here Wants You” is a supple, full-on baby-making jam, “New Years’ Prayer” adds a pinch of sinister mayhem to his trademark mysticism, and the superb “Yard of Blonde Girls” (a cover of an Inger Lorre song nobody knew but Buckley and Lorre, apparently) hinted at a promising career in ominous, sneering garage-rock. It’s not that Sketches was ever anywhere near Grace‘s level, no; it’s that Buckley’s sound was a choose-your-own-adventure at that point, and there was something thrilling about this document that suggested he might end up an r&b crooner or the world’s most musically adventurous grunge-rocker, and you were never quite sure which.
5. Graduation, Kanye West
Once again, hear me out. Kanye West’s third album isn’t so much forgotten – after all, it spawned massive hits like “Stronger” and “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” – as it is buried in his formidable discography. Consider: The College Dropout essentially changed the face of hip-hop, Late Registration was regarded almost universally as an expansive, sweeping masterpiece, and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is generally presumed to be the best thing that’s ever happened to entertainment. (Rumor has it Kanye heard about these accolades, then made a track dissing sliced bread, claiming that he was the new litmus test for things that are great and calling bread a bitch.) Even 808s and Heartbreaks made quite a splash; it’s either an indulgent slog or a brilliantly dense game-changer, depending on who you talk to, but everyone remembers that time Kanye West made an album with robots.
And right in the middle of all this is Graduation, the greatest Kanye record that no one really cared about. In retrospect, it makes a certain level of sense: it’s remarkably streamlined when compared to the vast, cinematic Late Registration, and Kanye’s fascination with a lot of musical styles that hip-hop doesn’t really fool with was kind of jarring at the time. Sure, we get a Michael Jackson sample on “Good Life”, but this beast is slathered in synths, French disco, europop, Elton John, stadium-rock… I mean, the man waxes rhapsodic about inebriated hoes to the general beat and cadence of an obscure Can song. It’s a weird record at times, yeah.
And it’s brilliant, too. The seeds were sewn for Kanye’s ultimate genre explosion, Twisted Fantasy, right here. A rapper signing Charlie Wilson, Kid Cudi, Elton John, and Bon Iver up for the same record? Far-fetched, I agree. The guy who sang over the Can song and flipped a prominent Steely Dan sample? Not so much. (And good god, “Flashing Lights”. No amount of Lil’ Wayne can derail an album that features “Flashing Lights”.)
4. Zooropa and Pop, U2
U2 may have come back to stadium-rock thrice over at this point, but there was little hope for the world’s biggest rock band in the mid-’90s: they were gone forever, buried under an avalanche of icy synths and Paul Oakenfeld remixes. Their heart-on-sleeve mojo would return in spades around the turn of the century, but this U2 was something different entirely. They embraced irony and sly satire; they detached themselves in an increasingly digital world; there was a sinister, apocalyptic undercurrent to their brand now, and it was kinda weird for a nation used to the U2 of “Pride” and “Where the Streets Have No Name”.
But it was an exciting U2. For all their high energy, U2 were predictable in the ’80s; Bono was going to wail about social injustice, The Edge was gonna use whatever patch on his pedalboard made his guitar echo the most, and it was going to feel large and epic, the end. The U2 of the ’90s could circumvent expectations; could make art for art’s sake. It was weirder, sometimes, than it needed to be; but some of the sweet spots were so sweet it’s a shame fans have largely forgotten this era. On Zooropa we had the stellar “Lemon”, a frigid, lusty dance classic; Pop was even better, arena-sized choruses like “Last Night on Earth” scraping elbows with sweaty dance-rock numbers like “Discotheque”. It’s not a fondly-remembered period in the band’s career, but that’s a shame: it’s some of the most diverse, interesting art they ever produced.
3. No Code, Pearl Jam
Full disclosure, again: Pearl Jam apologist right here. Like, full-on, too. I’m one of those dudes that disowns “Last Kiss” and most of the singles from Ten, preferring to point you to a laundry list of songs you should listen to, but you probably never will because hey you’ve heard one Vedder song you’ve heard ‘em all amirite? “No, seriously, check out the b-sides compilation,” I’ll say. “There’s just so many great songs on there. Coulda been album tracks, for real.”
But if you heed one word of my Pearl Jam-related advice, make it this one: No Code is Pearl Jam’s best album. It has competition, sure – Yield is their classic-rock record, Vitalogy their dark punk-rock opus (their own personal Zen Arcade, if you will), Vs. their way-better attempt at doing Ten again – but No Code is the band’s most creative, satisfying effort. And you probably don’t know any songs from it.
Which, come to think of it, is for the best. There’s no baggage this way; no massive single to live up to. Which makes sense, because it’s not really a singles record; No Code is an album of insanely well-written, textured songs that have held up better because they’re not relics of a specific time and place. There’s no haunting specter of grunge-rock, few fuzzed-out guitars (and when we do get fuzzy guitars, we get bits of genius like “Red Mosquito”, wherein guitar distortion is used in service of a Hendrix-esque, reach-for-the-rafters high), little unearned angst. Vedder is often unironic, genuine: “Hail, Hail” is remarkably earnest about love despite sounding rather aggressive, and the brilliant “In My Tree” retreats from overexposure in interesting, honest ways. It’s full of acoustic instruments and Eastern rhythms; Vedder doesn’t even sing on one track; there’s spoken-word, and gentle lullabies, and quick blasts of nut-stomping punk. But it flows — somehow, someway — and it’s too well-written to write off.
2. Speakerboxxx, Big Boi
File under unfairly overshadowed. As everybody who had the internet in 2003 knows, Outkast released a massive experiment of a record one time, with the duo packaging two solo albums as one. The flashier Andre 3000 made The Love Below, which flexed his flamboyant renaissance-man muscle, spawned hit singles (the massive “Hey Ya!” and the less-massive-but-pretty-popular “Roses”), positioned him as a new Prince, so on and so forth. People tipped the hat to Big Boi, who made a comparatively traditional (only by comparison, it’s important to note — it’s still as reckless and inventive as any proper Outkast record) hip-hop album and had a hit (“The Way You Move”), but Three Stacks got all the press.
And yet, Big Boi’s half of that experiment holds up better than Dre’s; better, even, than most other hip-hop albums of its year. (Also non-hip-hop albums; yeah, it’s terrific.) The grooves, good LORD the grooves: there’s no accurate way to convey in mere words the funkiness of “Bowtie”, quite possibly the coolest song to accompany your entrance into a party. (Fun fact: I’m dancing to it right now, and it’s only on IN MY HEAD.) The hyped-up mariachi-funk of “Rooster”, the space-rock of “Bust”, the old-fashioned boom-bap of “Flip Flop Rock” (complete with nimble verses from Killer Mike and Jay-Z; seriously, all it takes is “Young Hov’ in the place to be, Big Boi in the place to be”, and I’m instantly speeding, no matter where I am), “Ghettomusick”‘s manic ascent to the mothership… I can’t do this without listing every track on the record. And through it all, there’s Big Boi, darting in and out of the beat, spitting truth and humor throughout, his fleet-footed, percussive flow dancing between the lines. The less-flashy half of Outkast has released two more solo records to widespread critical acclaim, and it’s entirely earned; but if the music press had focused more on the music than the fact that Andre 3000 basically quit rapping to make a deranged sex album, you’d all have already known how awesome Big Boi is.
1. One Hot Minute, Red Hot Chili Peppers
And here it is: a record so unfairly reviled, it easily rivals The Spaghetti Incident? in the annals of hated rock records. For my money, I’ve often been lax on the Chili Peppers, loving albums (oh, hey, By the Way) that nobody else bothered to. My love for the ex-funk-punks eventually tapered with Stadium Arcadium, and crashed into a ditch with their most recent effort, I’m With You, but I’ve absolved them of most genre switch-ups, including languid folk-rock and sunny beach-pop. And I’m far from alone in my loyalty, but for some reason, fans just couldn’t get behind 1995’s One Hot Minute, their lone album recorded with guitarist Dave Navarro; it was a murky, heady mix of highbrow funk and weird alt-rock that left a stale taste in fans’ mouths.
But it was also super awesome. John Frusciante will always be the band’s best fit as a guitarist, but arguments that Navarro was woefully out of place are simply untrue. Navarro’s time in Jane’s Addiction served him well for this outing; that band’s seamless blend of punk, classic rock, and funk is located directly in RHCP’s wheelhouse. Peppered with emotional tumult and woozy psychedelics, One Hot Minute was — remains — weird. But those songs! “Deep Kick” functions as a hazy, unsteady reminiscence; the think, loping funk groove of “Walkabout” is one of the band’s most irresistible album cuts; “Shallow Be Thy Game” and “One Big Mob” are pure, unfettered energy. More to the point: One Hot Minute certainly isn’t the band’s best record, but it’ll suck you into its tumultuous, trippy atmosphere if you let it.
Next week: Drew goes country. You’re not gonna want to miss it.