10 Underrated Albums Celebrating Milestone Anniversaries This Year
Celebrating the 10th anniversary of Beach House's debut.
About a month ago, we published a piece called 10 Overrated Albums Celebrating Milestone Anniversaries This Year. After burning a few bridges, this week it’s time to dig deep and focus on the anniversaries of often-overlooked albums.
What makes an album underrated? We’re pretty much relying on popular opinion for that answer. Some of the albums listed here were received well at the time they were released, but have been lost in the grand scheme of things. Others sold horribly and were quickly dismissed, but are ripe for investigation with fresh ears. One thing all these records have in common is that they’re all celebrating major, though mostly unrecognized, anniversaries: 10 years, 20 years, 25 years, etc.
Keep in mind, this isn’t a list of obscure albums by sub-culture artists. Chances are, you’ve heard quite a few of the albums on this list, or are at least familiar with the artists. In fact, most of the artists on this list are famous to the point that they don’t rely on another day job to pay the bills, assuming they played their cards correctly. Some of these albums are brilliant; admittedly, others are significantly flawed. Any critical ear could tell you why many of them aren’t masterpieces from beginning to end. But let’s look past why these albums might be bloated with filler material, or too ambitious for their own good, and instead focus on what makes them unique. Also, there is no ranking here – these albums have been listed in chronological order by year and that’s it.
Fleetwood Mac – Future Games (1971)
Fleetwood Mac fans often fall into two groups: those who prefer Peter Green’s guitar-centric British blues-driven powerhouse, and others who champion the Lindsay Buckingham/Stevie Nicks era of big-budget FM pop hits. Both have their merits, and rarely do these two camps meet. What’s more unfortunate than fans not giving credence to Mick Fleetwood’s overriding vision is that it’s often forgotten what got them from point A to point B. The Bob Welch- and Danny Kirwan-led years from the early- to mid-'70s are usually overlooked, often considered a transitional phase, even though their fascination with UFOs and penguins are responsible for some of the most introspective and somber songs Fleetwood Mac ever produced.
Future Games is a shoegaze archetype before the genre existed. The opener, “Woman of 1000 Years,” could fit right at home on a 1980s 4AD album. Furthermore, the album’s title track sounds like a blueprint to a Galaxie 500 song. It also features Christine McVie’s “Give Me A Smile,” one of the best ballads she ever wrote. The slow burn of Future Games is mellow, to put it lightly. It sounds like a confident whisper even compared to its stark follow-up album, Bare Trees. Its vibe is something Fleetwood Mac had never tried and would never dig that deeply into again, but totally stands the test of time.
Ornette Coleman – Love Call (1971)
Coleman’s early-'60s run on Atlantic Records (the quartet with Charlie Haden, Billy Higgins, and Don Cherry) is indeed groundbreaking and well documented. What’s just as provocative, though less talked about (and tends to go in and out of print rather quickly), is pretty much everything he did after that. During the late '60s and into the '70s he was frantically switching between playing saxophone, violin and trumpet, further developing his theory of harmolodics.
Using the late John Coltrane’s rhythm section of Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison, along with the tenor sax playing of Dewey Redman, Love Call blasts through four tunes at breakneck speeds, falling into a grey area between post-bop and free jazz. Love Call finds Coleman as angular and far out as possible, while never completely abandoning rhythm and tonality. Garrison and Jones keep the music focused while still pushing rhythms to their breaking point and never feeling boxed into a groove. Though better known for his own solo albums, Dewey Redman's sax playing provides the perfect stylistic counterpoint to Coleman. His signature overblowing and vocalizing into the saxophone is a style uniquely his own and he distinguishes himself without stepping on Coleman's tows.
Admittedly, there’s not a bad Coleman album from this time period. Love Call just happens to be celebrating its 45th anniversary this year. It should also be noted that it was recorded during the same sessions as phenomenal album New York Is Now!, which was released several years earlier. Who knows why this material was shelved before its release. It never feels supplemental and probably has more to do with Blue Note being unable to keep up with Coleman's prolific outpouring.
Chubby Checker – Chequered! (1971)
By 1971 Chubby Checker’s moment in the sun had long past and the idea doing The Twist must have seemed completely foreign. Checker had no interest in bringing it back either and went for total reinvention on his 1971 comeback album. While countless bands from the previous generation tried their hand at a token hard rock or psychedelic album, most sound like the work of a producer, with the artist barely having a say in what was going on. By contrast, Checker sounds completely genuine. His passionate soul singing over blistering guitars and hard rock grooves is reminiscent of Arthur Lee. His deeply personal lyrics and tight backing band sound like anything but a cash-in project. He could have played it straight, but songs like “Goodbye Victoria” and “Love Tunnel” show him going for broke and provide a unique take on heavy psychedelic soul music of the era.
Chubby Checker remains silent when it comes to talking about this album, though probably not for a lack of pride in the material. Maybe it’s just a little embarrassing for him. He clearly gave it his all and, needless to say, his efforts fell on deaf ears. Anyone who would have been interested in this music at the time of its release had long written off Checker. Even today, do you think anyone seeing him a casino resort wants to hear a '70s rocker like “Stoned In The Bathroom?” It’s unfortunate.
Thin Lizzy – Johnny The Fox (1976)
Johnny The Fox’s only major flaw is that it was released only seven month’s after their commercial breakthrough, Jailbreak. It’s often criticized as a lofty concept album, too difficult to make sense of. But that's not a valid argument since almost all Thin Lizzy albums were based on foggy overriding themes and concepts. While the album doesn’t boast singles with the immediacy of “Jailbreak” or “The Boys Are Back In Town,” it’s same classic Thin Lizzy line-up harnessing the same energy. "Johnny" has a similar proto-metal feel as the title track on Jailbreak and its chorus ranks among one of the most badass moments in Thin Lizzy’s career. The tunes “Don’t Believe A Word” and “Fool’s Gold” are also equally as strong as anything from their previous efforts.
Phil Lynott's vocals sound more confident than ever, which is remarkable taking into account that it was recorded just after being released from the hospital. His battle with hepatitis ended up cutting their Jailbreak touring short, and while his extended hospital stay would be enough to tear many bands apart, the turmoil within Thin Lizzy only made them stronger. Much of the material on Johnny The Fox was written while Lynott was stuck in his hospital bed so this album might not even exist had they kept touring as planned. You can’t fault them for being on an amazingly prolific run and this album proves that it was as much about quality as it was quantity.
The Slits – Return Of The Giant Slits (1981)
Look at any list of influential post-punk albums and chances are you’ll find The Slits’ 1979 debut, Cut, sitting high in the ranks. Its combination of punk, reggae and feminist expression laid the groundwork for so much to come. To top it off, it was never heavy handed, delivering a message without taking itself too seriously.
Less talked about is their follow up (and final) LP. Return Of The Giant Slits has the vocals taking a back seat and tones down their nervous energy in favor of rhythm and texture. It a laid back effort by comparison, further embracing dub and world beat influences while shedding a lot of their punk overtones. It might have come off as lazy or too stoned at the time but in retrospect it’s actually far more contemporary sounding than its predecessor, going hand in hand with current artists like Warpaint and Grimes. The hazy, slow burn of Return Of The Giant Slits doesn’t have the same immediacy as Cut, but it’s replaced by something equally captivating.
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