August 20, 2010

Albums that critics love, go unappreciated, but are actually good

Most lists of "the most underrated and under-appreciated" things are a see-through way of trying to boost the list-maker's status by implying how cultured they are compared to the philistines in the audience. But sometimes they do have a legitimate point. In most high school and intro college lit classes, you'll rarely read any Marlowe, but you can be sure to slog through Arthur Miller and Ibsen, even though he's superior to both combined. Someone who complained about the lack of Marlowe in the typical lit curriculum would have a good point, while someone who whined about not teaching Alfred Jarry would just be trying to score obscurity-based status points.

Applying this idea to music albums, let's take Rolling Stone's the 500 greatest albums as the list of what critics hype up. Next, we eliminate the ones that may be good but aren't out-of-this-world great -- that are there just because critics have to revere them or else lose their snob cred. (This eliminates over-hyped ones like The Velvet Underground & Nico's self-titled album). Finally, we eliminate those that the average youngish listener (say under the age of 25 or 30) has not heard much of -- let's say, no more than one song on the album. (This eliminates great but well known ones like Rocket to Russia by the Ramones.) If they've heard two, three, four hit singles but not the rest from it, I'd say they're still fairly aware of that album.

What's left is a pretty good list of "hidden gem" albums. I haven't listened to every one of the 500, so if it doesn't appear, it may be because I don't know it. Here's what I get:

Ramones (Ramones)
Purple Rain (Prince & The Revolution)
Back In Black (AC/DC)
Raw Power (The Stooges)
Pretenders (The Pretenders)
Electric Warrior (T. Rex)
1999 (Prince)
The Queen Is Dead (The Smiths)
Trans-Europe Express (Kraftwerk)
Psychocandy (The Jesus & Mary Chain)
Strange Days (The Doors)

Honorable mentions (quality isn't quite as high as the others, but still not well known by most young people):

Transformer (Lou Reed)
Siamese Dream (The Smashing Pumpkins)

Of the ones above, the T. Rex album is the best example of a hidden gem, since I'm pretty sure no one under 45 has heard even one song from it and the band is not well known regardless of which albums or songs we're talking about. The other albums would at least be recognized for one song, or for some of the band's other work.


  1. I admit it's a function of hearing it for the first time and being blown away by how different it was, given the time period, but I've long thought Gish deserves higher marks than Siamese Dream.

  2. I'm surprised that first two Violent Femmes albums haven't edged their way into the canon. Their eponymous release holds up particularly well. To me, it's still the most authentic 80s garage sound, and I don't know of another record that so perfectly captures the heartbreak and sexual frustration of youth.

  3. You've mentioned Marlowe a few times. The case that he wrote the works of Shakespeare is pretty convincing.

  4. " we eliminate the ones that may be good but aren't out-of-this-world great -- that are there just because critics have to revere them or else lose their snob cred"

    Citizen Kane was a cinematic equivalent of this in my opinion. I loved "Touch of Evil" and "The Third Man", so I liked Welles, but I was really dissapointed with Citizen Kane. I just didn't get into it, despite heightened expectation and preparing to be impressed.

    I remember one little cassette I bought back in the 90's from a group called "Fleming and John" based on the strength of a very catchy single,
    and being pleasantly suprised that there was some really accessible stuff on that little cassette.

    Radiohead's "The Bends" had some melodic music on it.

    Ive been told the country album, "The Pilgrim" from Marty Stewart is revered as some sort of masterpiece on Music Row, but it didn't sell much. There was a singer named Shelby Lynne that the execs and critics liked, but the public didn't (her being a suspected lesbian might have hurt her in country circles---dont know if she really is or not myself).

    There was an alternative rock CD put out in 1995 called "Life is Sweet" by Maria Mckee. I thought it was the best alterna-like album I'd heard, but it didn't sell. Some critics loved it, and it even had a minor hit, "Absolutely Barking Stars", but a few hated it, and it just dissapeared.

    Maybe its just me, but some acts that are "critical darlings" in music do play intelligently written-instrumentally-innovative stuff, but for some reason these higher-brow acts often are plagued by a lead singer whose voice isn't as good as the rest of the act.

  5. Back in Black unknown...only by ball-less hipsters.

    @ Anonymous: Citizen Kane suffers because of the hype and because it has become cliched thanks to its own success creating those cliches.

    - Breeze

  6. U2's "Zooropa" is quite good, though at the time of its release in 1993 still overshadowed by the great "Achtung Baby" album from two years earlier.

    I don't think any songs from it were hits, either.


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