*** The following feature article was written in June 2004 for http://www.popmatters.com. Since I got tired of waiting for them to publish it, I decided to post this feature article (which may or may not appear on popmatters in the future) here instead ***
Excellent Albums That Are Overshadowed By Bigger Successes
Sometimes an artist releases an album that overshadows all their other efforts. In some cases, this album is in fact the artist’s best album, while in other cases commercial success is the overwhelming reason for an album’s prominence. In either case, many excellent albums get overlooked as the bulk of the attention is paid to the one album at the expense of the others. In this article, PopMatters seeks to highlight high-quality albums that have been unfairly relegated to footnote status due to the dominance of that other album (or albums in some cases).
Note: This is not an attempt to make a definitive list of this type. Rather, these are ten artists and albums that came to mind. Perhaps more such lists will follow in the future. Stay tuned...
Wilco: The winner of many year end critic polls in 2002, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot made Wilco critics’ darlings, in part due to the circumstances surrounding it. A cautionary tale about the insidiousness of the music business, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was rejected by the band’s label for being “too uncommercial.” Proud of their new album, the group stuck to their guns, ultimately finding a new label and surprising success, both commercially and artistically (the true goal of any level-headed artist). Little did they know that the album would subsequently overshadow all their other work, including five albums (two in collaboration with Billy Bragg and folk legend Woody Guthrie, whose unused lyrics Wilco and Bragg set to new music), all of which are of a consistently high quality. In fact, I’d argue that Being There, Summerteeth, and Mermaid Avenue are every bit the equal of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which merely built on the foundation already laid out by these albums, adding more experimental touches but above all else relying on Jeff Tweedy’s terrific songwriting, which is all over their other albums as well.
Thin Lizzy: Remembered almost exclusively today for “The Boys Are Back In Town” (a classic rock radio fixture) and a handful of other songs that occasionally appear on the radio (“Whiskey In The Jar,” “Jailbreak,” “Cowboy Song”), Thin Lizzy were in fact one of the best hard rock bands of the ‘70s. Jailbreak, the album that houses “The Boys Are Back In Town,” “Jailbreak,” and “Cowboy Song,” is almost reflexively touted as their best album, and it may very well be. However, the band has no shortage of albums that could also vie for that title. Beginning as a 3-piece, the best of the band’s first three albums was the excellent Vagabonds Of The Western World. With the departure of Eric Bell and the addition of the two guitarists (Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson) who would perfect the harmonized guitars that would become a staple of bands like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden (and therefore, most major hard rock bands since the mid-‘70s), the classic Thin Lizzy lineup was in place (rounding out the lineup was deft drummer Brian Downey and lead singer/songwriter/bassist Phil Lynott, an Irish black man who was the heart and soul of the band). Anyway, albums such as Fighting, Johnny The Fox, and Bad Reputation surround Jailbreak and are just as impressive, and best of all is Live And Dangerous, which captures a great live band at the peak of their powers and is the Thin Lizzy album for me. Heck, even their later albums with a rotating cast of second guitarists (Gary Moore, Snowy White, John Sykes) along with Gorham are all well-above average, so dig a little deeper than Jailbreak why don’t you? You won’t be sorry.
Fleetwood Mac: I'm not going to deny that Rumours is the band's definitive album. As one of those rare albums where almost every song is not only really good but very well known, it stands to reason that Rumours would dominate any discussion about Fleetwood Mac. However, the band didn't make the Rock n' Roll Hall Of Fame on the basis of one album, and in fact they've had a long and illustrious, if inconsistent, career. In fact, the early incarnation of Fleetwood Mac had almost nothing to do with the classic "Buckingham-Nicks" lineup that cut Rumours (and other top notch albums like Fleetwood Mac and the much maligned-at-first but better appreciated today Tusk). You really should get to know the Peter Green-led version of the band, as they were one of the best British blues rock bands of the late '60s-early '70s, primarily due to Green's excellent playing. Of the studio albums, Then Play On is a good starting point, but even better are archive releases such as the 2-cd Live at the BBC and the 3-cd Live At The Boston Tea Party, the latter of which features a scalding 25-minute version of "Rattlesnake Shake."
Santana: Forget about Supernatural, the mediocre '99 album that won a zillion Grammys and made Santana a superstar all over again. Abraxas, the album that helped make Carlos a superstar the first time around (along with "Evil Ways" and Woodstock), is certainly a very good album, but it's considered his classic recording more due to it's exotic album cover and memorable singles ("Black Magic Woman," "Oye Como Va") that because it's his best album. For my money, Santana III ups the intensity of Abraxas and is an even more explosive merger of propulsive Latin rhythms and fiery rock energy, in part due to the presence of young second guitarist Neal Schon (later of Journey). Actually, the next album, the jazzier Caravanserai, is also something of an overlooked classic, and I'd argue that Carlos' very best guitar playing appears on his '74 live album, Lotus, an excellent 2-cd set recorded in Japan.
Dire Straits: One of the first full digital recordings, Brothers In Arms sounds flat out fantastic, and the album played a major role in ushering in the cd age. It also spawned three massive hit singles ("So Far Away," "Money For Nothing," "Walk Of Life"), all of which are anomalies on an album that consists mostly soft songs that are heavy on atmosphere but light on what could legitimately be called rock n’ roll. As such, it really makes little sense that this album so towers over the rest of their catalogue from a consumer standpoint, especially since albums such as Dire Straits and Making Movies (the best guitar hero album Springsteen forgot to make) crush it from a quality standpoint. Also recommended is Alchemy, an inconsistent live album whose peaks are astounding.
AC/DC: Back In Black is a hard rock classic, that nobody can deny. Before he lost his voice Brian Johnson had one of the flat-out coolest hard rock voices around, but true AC/DC fans know that most of the band's best work was done with first singer Bon Scott. In particular, Let There Be Rock and Powerage are overlooked classics. In the case of the former, helped by a powerful production that sounds incredibly alive, the band overcomes their stylistic limitations by lengthening songs and riding relentlessly similar but unstoppable grooves into the ground. The latter album is another fun record that's filled with gloriously unhinged guitar licks from riffmeister Angus Young matched to a terrific batch of tunes. Perhaps Powerage is less heavy than its pummeling predecessor as a whole, possibly due to a less lively production that yields a tinnier sound. But the songs are catchier and yes, better overall, especially since the band still supplies plenty of wattage. In short, no fan of this electrifying band should be without either one of these killer albums, which can power up any party.
U2: The Joshua Tree is a terrific album, as are War and Achtung Baby for that matter. Yet how come nobody ever mentions The Unforgettable Fire anymore? Remembered today primarily for a couple of hits ("Pride (In The Name Of Love)" and "Bad"), this was the album on which U2 moved in a new direction by exploring a more lushly layered and evocative sound that was far removed from their punk rock influenced earlier records. A much more mature, adult-oriented album that provided the fully-realized blueprint for its more famous successor, The Unforgettable Fire is stocked with overlooked album tracks such as "A Sort Of Homecoming," "The Unforgettable Fire," and "Promenade" (though the latter is often dismissed as a forgettable album track, I find Bono's vocal to be beyond compare). That said, this entrancing album should be listened to in its entirety, for it is the album's surreal, spiritual overall quality that most attracts me to it. And though it's rarely mentioned as being among the band's best albums, this is an overlooked classic that's ripe for rediscovery.
Curtis Mayfield: Justifiably famous for his soulful work with The Impressions in the ‘60s and the Superfly soundtrack, it’s time that the rest of Curtis Mayfield’s solo output started getting its just due, in particular his spectacular debut album, Curtis. Fact is, all of Superfly's best attributes were already on ample display on Curtis, which was released on his own Curtdom label, in itself a groundbreaking move at the time for an African American artist. Extended funk workouts (“(Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below We’re All Going To Go," “Move On Up”), beautiful ballads (“The Makings of You”), ambitious calls for black pride (“We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue”); it's all here. Yet no matter how dire the lyrics get on Curtis, the songs are always melodic and catchy, and Mayfield offers a nice balance of searing social critiques with his own highly personal experiences (“Give It Up”) and more upbeat meditations (“Miss Black America,” “Wild and Free”). The result is an unjustly neglected classic that grippingly tells of troubled times. However, while Mayfield was a sharp mouthpiece for disaffected black Americans in the early '70s, he was first and foremost a brilliant musician, and rarely were his many talents more apparent than on Curtis.
Van Morrison:Chances are if you’re reading a “Best Albums of All Time” list, Astral Weeks and Moondance will appear somewhere (very high up in the list in the case of the former). However, all of Van’s ‘70s albums are at least good, and most are very good and a some great. I’d recommend getting them all, but Saint Dominic’s Preview (highlighted by the joyous “Jackie Wilson Said” and two 10+ minute epics in “Listen To The Lion” and “Almost Independence Day”), It’s Too Late To Stop Now (a hot live album with great backing support from the Caledonia Soul Orchestra and several cool covers), Veedon Fleece (the closest to the spiritual intensity of Astral Weeks he would ever come again, though this one has a more pastoral summer setting), and Into The Music (a big tribute to love, both spiritually and emotionally, this is another adult-oriented album of an exceedingly high quality) are especially worthy of your attention.
Jethro Tull:Although Aqualung made the band stars in the U.S. and spawned several classic songs, and Thick As A Brick is considered a high water mark in the progressive rock genre, Jethro Tull never made a better album than 1969's Stand Up, which went to #1 in the U.K. and started building the band a significant fan base. Somewhat overlooked in favor of the more popular albums that followed, Stand Up was a highly diverse album that drew on elements of group leader Ian Anderson’s interest in jazz, blues, classical, folk, hard rock, and ethnic music forms, making for a fascinatingly eclectic mix of many styles.
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