An underrated album can be a popular album that everyone hates but shouldn't; it can be a mostly forgotten album more people should know about; it can be an album lauded by a select few that should be loved by all. It can even be one of the canonical albums like Skip Spence's "Oar," which continue to be referred to as "underrated" no matter how many times they end up on list of underrated albums. Our picks for the 20 most underrated albums of all time:
Pérez Prado, "Voodoo Suite" 1955
Unlike jazz or country or blues, exotica has largely vanished, giving way to various World and Latin genres. As a result, in the U.S. mainstream, at least, Cuban-born Pérez Prado, the King of the Mambo, is thought of (when he's thought of) as an oddity rather than reverenced as a pioneer like Ellingon or Basie or Hank Williams. But oddity or not, Prado made some fantastic music, as this album with orchestration by Shorty Rogers makes clear. The centerpiece is the 23-minute "Voodoo Suite" (embedded above), but the mambofied jazz chestnuts that make up the rest of the run time may be even better. Squeezing Latin rhythms into "In the Mood" or "Jumping at the Woodside" turns those standards into goofy, knowing, soulful early fusion funk — suggesting that Prado's influence on the U.S. pop mainstream is perhaps more long-lasting than is generally acknowledged.
Kitty Wells, "Dust on the Bible" 1959
Decades before Emmylou Harris or Alison Krauss mixed bluegrass and country for a female vocalist, Kitty Wells had already arrived at the same formula. Harris and Krauss, though, never sounded quite like this; Wells' affectless old-timey vocals quaver through one of the sternest chronicles of Bible-fearing sin and salvation on record. Even the Louvin Brothers would be hard-pressed to match the condemnatory cheer of "Dust on the Bible" (which will doom your poor soul) or "I Dreamed I Searched Heaven for You" (because you sinned and now you're in Hell.) And then there's "He Will Set Your Fields on Fire," a bluegrass staple with syncopated background singers reveling in the divine destruction of all one's neighbors goods. Harsh, beautiful, and almost entirely forgotten, this is perhaps the greatest country album that no one has ever heard of.
5th Dimension, "The Magic Garden" 1967
The Zombies and the Carpenters are both critical darlings now, but somehow this masterpiece of psychedelic soul schmaltz has never been recuperated. A concept album/song cycle almost entirely written by Jimmy Webb, this was a commercial failure when it was first released, and you can see why folks might have found it odd. The strings, California harmonies and occasional sitars billow richly around tales of disconnected melancholy and despair; it's like Brian Wilson got lost in Motown (and perhaps got mugged by Burt Bacharach on "The Girls' Song"). The hooks, when they come out of the lush shimmer, are titanic but still end up in tales of claustrophobia ("Carpet Man") or dementia ("Paper Cup"). Easy-listening is rarely this bleakly sunny, or sunnily bleak.
Doris Duke, "I'm a Loser" 1969
"I'm a Loser" is legendary among classic soul aficionados, but its mainstream profile is virtually nonexistent. For those more familiar with Aretha and Otis, Duke does take some getting used to; her vocals are theatrical rather than direct, and the measured bombast of the arrangements (produced by the legendary Jerry "Swamp Dogg" Williams, Jr.) has little in common with the fire of gospel. Once you get over the initial surprise, though, it's hard to remember why you wanted to listen to any other soul. "Feet Start Walking," in which she finds her man with another woman, perfectly captures the sense of oversized banal humiliation, while "I Don't Care Anymore" is stone country despair, from the strumming acoustic intro to Duke's throbbing, bitter pause in the line "I married a man who treated me . . . like he'd bought me by the pound." As much George Jones as Etta James, Duke deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with both of them.
Uriah Heep, "Very 'Eavy…Very 'Umble" 1969
Uriah Heep was reputedly the inspiration for the mockumentary "This Is Spinal Tap," and they're largely viewed as a prog rock dinosaur joke. Admittedly, it's hard to listen to "Very 'Eavy…Very 'Umble" without giggling — but that hardly lessens the enjoyment. "Gypsy" is bad-ass, strutting proto-metal, with a towering, jagged, head-banging riff and some fantastically preposterous self-mythologizing ("Her father was the leading man/He said you're not welcome on our land/And then as a foe/he told me to go"). "Bird of Prey" does Queen better on vocal arrangements ("Ooh! Aah! Ooh Aah!) before Queen even existed. There's nothing remotely subtle about Uriah Heep; the album is bloated overweening ambition, gushy sentiment and bad-assery. Spinal Tap's self-referential humor can end up looking small and smug in comparison.
Donovan, "HMS Donovan" 1971
If this two-record set of children's poetry set to song had been recorded by some unknown forgotten troubadour like Gary Higgins or Vashti Bunyan, it would long since have been canonized by retro-folksters as an essential forgotten classic. But instead it's by Donovan, whose genius remains overlooked, unheralded. Most of the album is devoted to Donovan's gently mesmerizing acoustic guitar, but there's also the rocking "Homesickness"; the Childe Ballad "Henry Martin," on which Donovan's warbling seems designed to give the kids nightmares; and the off-kilter, "Jabberwocky," where the multi-tracked vocals gyre and gimble over the violin. The 8-minute song suite "The Walrus and the Carpenter" is fey enough to curdle milk, and the "Pee Song" speaks for itself. "Do you wiggle and watch/does it tiggle and splotch?" Skip Spence only dreamt of being this bizarre.
ZZ Top, "Rio Grande Mud" 1972
Foreign interlopers like the Stones and Clapton are considered gods, but native Texas bluesmen ZZ Top can't get any respect. Jimi Hendrix knew better; he was a fan of Billy Gibbons' guitar playing, and you can hear why all over this dirty, swaggering album. Drummer Frank Beard is a wonder as well, propulsively driving monsters like "Francine" and "Just Got Paid." ZZ Top's critical standing is so low that nobody has even bothered to put out decent CD reissues; the only versions available are marred with overdubs and excessive reverb. Luckily some kind souls have uploaded most tracks to YouTube — and there's always vinyl, of course.
Sly and the Family Stone, "Small Talk" 1974
Conventional wisdom is that "Small Talk" is Sly Stone's Waterloo; the moment when he plummeted from innovative genius to washed-up has-been and drug casualty. It sure doesn't seem that way when you actually listen to the record, though. Instead, "Small Talk" is of a piece with its predecessor, the canonical "Fresh" — fractured, soulful, stoned and funky as hell. Sid Page's lonesome, out-of-place violin adds another level of perfect wrongness to "Time for Livin," while "Loose Booty" slinks and struts like one of those classic early Sly tracks experiencing inner-ear disturbance. Sly's repeated, unmotivated chant "Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego" is substantially funnier and more left-field than any of George Clinton's more formalized wigginess. "Small Talk" is one of the highlights of Sly's career, which is to say it's one of the best albums recorded by anybody ever.
Journey, "Infinity" 1978
Not to take anything away from Freddie Mercury, but Steve Perry has to be just about the most amazing vocalist to shake the lighters out there in the nosebleed seats. The multi-tracked, decadent harmonies of "Anytime" are inimitable, but the towering range of "Lights" is maybe even more impressive — not to mention the gasp-inducing breath control on "La Do Da." The music is perhaps the band's best as well; this is the first album with Perry, and the not-quite-tamed-prog-fire competes with that giant voice in a death duel of dexterous lumbering. And, man, does "Can Do" rock! Journey is everything punk rock stood against, which is reason enough to love it.
Danielle Dax, "Pop-Eyes" 1983
Recorded on a 4-track with Dax playing all the instruments from guitar to trumpet to tape manipulation and drum programming, "Pop-Eyes" is a work of bizarre, layered, insular genius; a fey burping fairy world full of lurching harvest buns and looming meat faces. "Everyone Squeaks Gently" sounds like animatronic vampires performing in a coffee shop; "The Shamemen" is built around staggering beats and blips that would make Timbaland nod jerkily in between the girl group "shoo-be-doops." One of Dax's compilations is called "The Thwarted Pop Career of Danielle Dax," but listening to this it's hard to believe anyone ever thought she was going to be on the radio. That she hasn't been retroactively canonized by either indie or electronica aficionados is more distressing — and when is hip hop going to start sampling the hell out of this, anyway?
Bangles, "Different Light" 1986
Even the band themselves supposedly hated this record and David Kahne's gobs of lacquer production. Turning retro-Brit-pop into a slick '80s radio juggernaut works for me, though; the hits (Prince's "Manic Monday," "If She Knew What She Wants," and the round-robin vocals and whistled chorus of "Walk Like an Egyptian") still sound great, and the other tracks aren't noticeably worse. Micki Steele's take on "September Gurls" gets more of a nostalgic punch from all that echo, and who could resist the syncopated vibes on the outro of "Angels Don't Fall in Love"? The album teems with ideas and/or gimmicks, great hooks (the growling guitar on "Standing in the Hallway" especially) and those wonderful harmonies. This is another one where it'd be a beloved indie classic if it hadn't been so embarrassingly popular in the first place.
Kathy Cowan, "The Red-Haired Man's Wife" 1990
Irish female vocals can be breathy and ethereal to a fault. Chicago's Kathy Cowan can certainly hit high notes, but she backs it up with a welcome solidity. Most of this independently released set is devoted to traditional tragic ballads, which Cowan infuses with a slow, brutal purity — the a cappella, remorseless "The Holland Handkerchief" is especially fine. Her voice skips heartily on uptempo numbers like "Courtin in the Kitchen" as well. But my favorite performance is the "Song of the Seals." Her keening yodel is truly unearthly; if sea spirits sang, this is what they would sound like. Mainstream notice for Irish traditional music is probably a pipe dream, but Cowan should be better known in Irish folk music circles than she is.
fIREHOSE, "Flyin' the Flannel" 1991
The Minutemen are canonical punk gods. fIREHOSE, though, formed by George Hurley, Mike Watt, and new guitarist Ed Crawford after the death of D. Boon, is largely seen as a footnote. It's true that fIREHOSE lacks the Minutemen's political charge and crazed ambition; there are no 40-song double albums in their catalog. But if it's a more comfortable band, it's a decidedly fractured comfort; shards of funk and drum fills and classic rock licks all grafted onto lyrics about walking the cow and instructions for using epoxy to make real life connections. "Flyin' the Flannel," their major-label debut, never descends into the kind of crabbed silliness of They Might Be Giants; rather the band seems to have an endless exuberance about the possibilities of punk, and of music. Despite the fact that D. Boon's memory hovers over all their work, or because of it, fIREHOSE is a startlingly lyrical, and startlingly joyful, band.
Fejat Sejdic, "Guardian Angel and Lost Lamb" 1994
In some sense every selection on here should be World music; the earth is littered with great albums that are virtually unknown in the States. I stumbled on Fejat Sejdic's "Guardian Angel and Lost Lamb" completely at random in a second-hand store years ago, and that sense of discovery has never really waned. Information online is scanty, but I have managed to glean that Sejdic is one of the most influential and famous performers in a Yugoslavian Roma brass brand tradition. From the traditional tunes to the ringers (like "Amazing Grace"), the album sounds like a polka outfit attempting flamenco — or I shouldn't say "attempting," since the results are so seamlessly graceful, down to the last oom-pah-pah.
The Goats, "No Goats, No Glory" 1994
This Philadelphia hip hop crew is largely forgotten, but anyone who remembers them seems to consider this, their second album, a catastrophic falling off. It doesn't sound like that to me; on the contrary, "No Goats, No Glory" seems like a late but worthy entry in hip hop's golden age; audacious, funny, arch with an idea in every booty-shake. The production by Joe "The Butcher" Nicolo makes copious use of rock riffs, but there's also plenty of jazz samples; the remarkable "Times Runnin Up" in particular is a perfect union between "The Low End Theory" and "Licensed to Ill." The opener, "Wake 'N' Bake," is a hysterical tribute to/send-up of gangsta weed obsession, while "Mutiny" actually nods to Johnny Horton, of all people ("I took a lot of blunts/we took a lot of weed/We chased them Nazis to the town of New Orleans"). Skip over the misguided sound collage, "Revolution 84," and you've got a perfect record.
All Natural, "No Additives, No Preservatives" 1998
Chicago hip hop duo All Natural is proudly underground and proudly intelligent; Cap D raps about going to grad school and his high SAT scores on the way to rhyming Alfred Lord Tennyson with Sam Kinison. DJ Tone B. Nimble's beats "have more flow than Aquaman… and get deeper than Submariner" "as well as being "positive like Malcolm or the Black Falcon," as D says in "MC Avenger." KRS-One and, well, just about everybody else is an obvious influence; in samples and lyrics, this is a band obsessed with hip hop as a history and an inspiration, rather than as a hit-making mainstream monolith. Even for those who (like me) rather enjoy how that monolith has turned out, "No Additives, No Preservatives" is an eloquent case for why the faith is worth keeping. As D says, "50 years down the line you can start this/'Cause then we'll be the old school artists."
Ashanti, "Ashanti" 2001
Ashanti's self-titled debut was viewed with almost universal indifference and/or contempt; "shallow orgasms aren't bad orgasms, but she could probably do better with her own hand," Robert Christgau sneered. It's true that the skits are even more unfortunate than you'd expect, and the remix of "Foolish" with the ghost of Biggie was not a great idea. But as a whole, the album is the last, great, decadent fulfillment of '90s R&B — slow jam after slow jam, swathed in layers of shiny plastic drone by producer 7 Aurelius. Ashanti's voice certainly isn't overpowering, but she slides seductively over the beat, running minor variations above the unwavering backing, or harmonizing with herself in smooth multi-tracked choruses. The dreamy, high-gloss pop is kin to shoegaze, in feeling if not precisely in sound; this is music by which to zone out ecstatically.
Brooke Valentine, "Chain Letter" 2005
Brooke Valentine was a quintessential one-hit wonder. "Girl Fight," featuring Lil' Jon and Big Boi, reached the Top 30… and that was it for her career. "Chain Letter" isn't the work of a passing pop footnote, though. Instead, it's got the ambition of a rock genius throw-down. "Taste of Dis" is a retro-disco funk strut with a Timbaland-worthy arsenal of jittery blips and Valentine declaring with a wink, "the junk in my trunk'll put a bump in your pants"; "Blah-Blah-Blah" finds her trading spirited he-said/she-said barbs with Ol' Dirty Bastard over heavy-bottomed burping organ; "Cover Girl" is that rarity, a contemporary R&B ballad with an honest-to-God hook, the folksy guitar strumming over the organ while Valentine muses on the tortured relationship between women and their media representations. Even the extra tracks are amazing; "Thrill of the Chase," included on some foreign CD releases, is a rock/funk monster that would make George Clinton sit back on his mothership. Valentine's had several mix tapes, all worth hearing, but I've given up on a full-length follow-up at this point, and resigned myself to just listening to this over and over again.
Legion of Two, "Riffs" 2009
A mix of electronica (by Alan O'Boyle) and live percussion (by David Lacey), "Riffs" is a grimy, feedback-laden slog. The sound is more doom- or black-metal than your typical Planet Mu release. This seems to have put off the intrepid All Music reviewer, who complains that some of the tracks are monotonous. Admittedly, if you don't enjoy having your cranium iteratively crushed by a laptop-programmed industrial process, this album probably isn't for you. For metal-heads who love elctronica and electronica fans who love metal, though, this album is the grim wasteland of your dreams.
RP Boo, "Legacy" 2013
This is what should have topped everyone's best-of-year for 2013. RP Boo is the granddaddy of the incredibly repetitive, incredibly repetitive, incredibly repetitive dance genre known as Chicago footwork, and this belated collection shows that he's the reigning master as well. Bass and vocals are segmented and looped incessantly; samples are diced till soul turns into abstract noise and vice verse. The horns on "Red Hot" sound like '70s funksters hyped up, whacked out and used for laser sound effects; "Robotbutizm" is a segmented collision between Kraftwerk, Raymond Scott, and a sci-fi soundtrack. "Sentimental" manages to be lyrical without easing up one iota on Boo's signature sound. Philip Glass and John Adams wish they could make something half this gorgeously alienating.