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.
Tricky – Pre-Millennium Tension (1996)
By 1995 Tricky and Portishead’s debut albums made the trip-hop genre a household name in the US. Musically they were a breath of fresh air, though only a year later groups like Sneaker Pimps and other Johnny-come-lately’s were riding the trend, making the whole thing feel a little disingenuous and pedestrian. However, Tricky’s follow up LP, Pre-Millennium Tension makes no attempt at cashing in on the style he helped define. While its singles “Christiansands” and “Makes Me Wanna Die,” (both sung by Martina Topley-Bird) were actually the biggest hits of his career, even those song titles indicate that this couldn’t have been less of a chill trip-hop album.
Most of Pre-Millennium Tension is an exercise in drug fueled paranoia with half the tunes barely resembling traditional songs. Much of the album has Tricky growling sinister lyrics under swaths of sampled noise and heavy drums. The influence of the Jamaican landscape where most of the album was recorded is strong, particularly in the spoken Patois of, "Ghetto Youth."
It’s a nail in the coffin for the late '90s, bleak and often downright terrifying. It was recorded during a time too often mistaken for a pre-George W. Bush-era utopia. If Radiohead’s OK Computer was a subtle warning sign about the future, Tricky's Pre-Millennium Tension was an air raid siren. In this year's political climate it suddenly feels wholly relevant again and though it certainly had fans at the time of its release, it's a singular effort that should be even more revered now.
Guided By Voices – Isolation Drills (2001)
Coming on the heels of the Ric Ocasek-produced, big budget disappointment, Do The Collapse, even now it's easy to be skeptical of Isolation Drills. It also boasts some of the worst album artwork in GBV’s career. But Isolation Drills gets props for getting the major label/major dollar formula right. Pollard brings some of his finest, most introspective pop oriented material to the table. Songs like “Run Wild” and "Glad Girls” are glorious fist-pumping anthems, while “Chasing Heather Crazy” and “How’s My Drinking?” show a personal side of Pollard that typically gets masked in allegory and word play.
Not only is the material on Isolation Drills stronger than its predecessor, producer Rob Schnapf takes Pollard's obsession with The Who (circa Who’s Next) and dials it in perfectly. He makes the band sound as huge as they did when they played live around this time, abandoning Ocasek's vision of bubblegum and glossy string arrangements.
If you hold steadfast to their lo-fi approach, then you’d probably checked out on GBV several albums prior to this one. But those who want to hear Pollard and company in brief alternate universe where they were given red carpet treatment in the studio, Isolation Drills scratches the itch in the best ways possible.
Major Organ And The Adding Machine - Major Organ And The Adding Machine (2001)
With all the legend and worship that surrounds Neutral Milk Hotel, it’s surprising how little attention is paid to the other things Jeff Mangum is responsible for - Orange Twin Field Works, an incredible (though brief) radio program on WFMU, and Major Organ And The Adding Machine. Though the official line-up remains a mystery we know for certain that the key players here are Mangum, Jeremy Barnes (Of Montreal), and Julian Koster (The Music Tapes, Neutral Milk Hotel), along with a handful of other Elephant 6 Collective stalwarts. Musically, its "everything but the kitchen sink" style of production is right in line with the E6 Collective’s aesthetic of the time, creating a fun and glorious assault on the senses. Off the cuff tunes mix freely with otherworldly lo-fi sound collages, never sitting comfortably in one place.
It’s restless listen, the sum being greater than its parts. Also, it's a side project and definitely supplemental when compared to the masterpieces created by Neutral Milk Hotel, Of Montreal, and Olivia Tremor Control. But it also receives a lot of unfair criticism. Fifteen years have passed since Major Organ's release and the legacy of every artist involved with it continues to grow like the popularity of Dark Side Of The Moon. Though it's certainly not an album most people will choose to listen to repeatedly, it's a missing link that helps define the E6 universe, and why it still feels uncouth to many fans is a mystery.
Beach House – Beach House (2006)
It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years since Beach House’s debut. If you compare their 2007 performance at Modified Arts to their show earlier this year at the Marquee Theatre, the differences were both obvious and subtle. The dry-sounding drum machine and organ has been given a bigger budget, lush treatment in more recent years, but the intimacy hasn’t changed. Though their songwriting has evolved, as one would hope after being at it for this long, their inspiration feels like its coming from the same place. It's still easy to get completely lost in Victoria Legrand’s vacant yet earnest vocal delivery, and in some ways it’s as though they’ve spent a decade following the exact same trajectory.
Musically, their debut finds a bridge between Young Marble Giants and Cocteau Twins; a sound that does get less derivative on more recent releases. Although Bloom, Teen Dream, and Depression Cherry sound like natural progressions from where they started, it would be unfair to say their debut sounds any less sophisticated. In fact, it's difficult to improve on what they started 10 years ago, which might be why they haven't consciously tried to. Beach House have never sacrificed their vision for something commercial and their debut, while somewhat primitive, emphasizes that they’ve always known exactly where they’re going.
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Lou Reed & Metallica – Lulu (2011)
We probably seem deliberately contrarian, putting Master Of Puppets on our Overrated list while defending Lulu here, but stick with us. We're celebrating its five-year anniversary and maybe it's time we come back to Lulu with fresh ears. Wait, did anyone listen to Lulu in its entirety in the first place? Seriously, did anyone listen to ALL of Lulu? It was easy to laugh at when it was released but even easier to ignore it altogether without giving it a fair shake. For those with little patience, skip directly to the back to back “Pumping Blood” / “Mistress Dread” song combo to see why Lulu is a unique album that shouldn’t be so easily dismissed.
Let’s be honest, it doesn’t sound like anything anyone has ever recorded. It’s difficult to find comparisons even in Lou Reed and Metallica’s back catalog. Also, when was the last time Metallica delivered something that was widely considered a masterpiece? One would be hard pressed to say this album tarnished their legacy, or Lou Reed’s for that matter. Look no further than albums like Metal Machine Music and Take No Prisoners to see Lou Reed's history of alienating his audience. He’s also no stranger to heavy metal. Let’s not forget that he wrote the lyrics to several KISS songs on their album The Elder.
So what we have here is a Lou Reed concept album. He certainly could have chosen an underground metal band better suited for the job, but most likely didn't know of any. That said, Metallica sound like they’re having a blast and are honored to be taking direction from Lou Reed. Which brings up another question; when was the last time Metallica sounded like they were having fun? Maybe the Garage Days Revisited EP? Admittedly, Lulu is way too long and at times it falls on its face and fails. But it's an admirable effort and the parts that work are incredibly powerful. In the end it's completely uncompromising, showing that Lou Reed was full of ambition and experimentation all the way up to his last days.