Let’s face it, the music industry and the way we, as consumers, buy and listen to music has changed in the last forty years. The era of the album of the 1960s and 70s gave way to the MTV/singles-era of the 1980s and the compact disc era of the 1990s (when consumers complained about the price of CDs vs. the small number of songs actually worth listening to) led to first Napster and then iTunes. Albums may still be a viable force, but more and more music fans find the songs they like and burn mix discs on their own. The era of listening to an album and treating as an indivisible whole is long since over and, while albums like Thiller, Nevermind, Tommy and The White Album might be safe, more and more great but obscure songs are being forgotten because their parent albums are no longer a blip on the radar of most music fans. So in no particular order, here is a celebration of ten great albums that no one really listens to anymore.
#1 – Mind Games (John Lennon, 1973) – Even at the time of its release, Mind Games was unfairly maligned by music critics simply because it didn’t have the edge of Plastic Ono Band or the depth of Imagine (True, they also maligned Lennon’s previous album, Sometime In New York City, but that album was asking for it). Even its single “Mind Games,” which has graced many a compilation, has never been considered one of Lennon’s best. (“Love is the answer,” Lennon sings, echoing the same sentiment that he pioneered in 1967 with “All You Need Is Love.”) But while Mind Games may not be as magnificent as Lennon’s first two albums, it’s still a great collection of songs (something that can be said also about The Beatles’ first album, Please Please Me). The albums sees Lennon dishing out fine rockers (“Tight A$” and “Meat City”) and tuneful love ballads (“Out The Blue” and “I Know”). He gives his fans the protest song that they’re expecting (“Bring On The Lucie”) and even has some humor on it: original copies proclaimed the existence of the conceptual country of Nutopia (of which Lennon claimed to have diplomatic immunity under) and even included it’s national anthem – three seconds of silence. Maybe people were scared off by the odd cover design. Who knows?
#2 – The Who By Numbers (The Who, 1975) – Even three quarters of the band dismissed this one, claiming that they thought Pete Townshend’s songs were too personal and depressing (particularly Roger Daltrey, who refused to sing “However Much I Booze” because he couldn’t relate to it). The Who By Numbers only real problem is that it is sandwiched between an interesting rare tracks compilation, Odds and Sods, and the group’s swansong for their original lineup, Who Are You. As for the songs themselves, maybe the lyrics are personal and deal with Townshend’s problems at the time (addiction, musical insignificance) but are they any darker than some of the one’s that graced Tommy? (“Fiddle About” is about child molestation, for God’s sake.) And the songs are all given good quick tempos that sugars the bitter pill of Townshend’s woes. The aforementioned “Booze” moves at an enjoyable pace, as does “Dreaming From The Waist.” And not all the songs are dark: “Squeeze Box” is a fun song (possibly about sex) and “Blue, Red and Grey” is a gentle ditty that has Pete concluding “I like every minute of the day.” There’s even a funny song from John, “Success Story,” about the tiresome life of a Rock n’ Roll star. So it doesn’t have the dynamics of Who’s Next or Quadrophenia. Put it on and try it again.
#3 – Straight Up (Badfinger, 1971) – Straight Up boasts one timeless single (“Day After Day”) and another one that should’ve been timeless (“Baby Blue”) and if you think that’s all this album has to offer, think again. There isn’t a single bad or boring song on the entire album. Pete Ham was at the top of his powers, even when writing songs that he knew would never be singles, like “Take It All,” the album’s opener and a message to bandmate Joey Molland who was jealous when Pete got a moment in the spotlight at The Concert For Bangla Desh. And speaking of Joey, his composition skills hit a high mark on this album with songs like the rockin “Suitcase” and the finger-picking gem “Sweet Tuesday Morning”. He and bassist Tom Evans put together a magical two-song suite with “Money/Flying.” And then there’s Ham’s “Name Of The Game,” the best song on the album that wasn’t one of the singles. When released on CD, the bonus tracks featured some of the album tracks as produced by George Harrison (the finished album was produced by Todd Rundgren). Although the two sets of songs sound different, there are no better versions; that’s how good these guys were.
#4 – Child Is Father To The Man (Blood, Sweat & Tears, 1968) – Before they started singing about spinning wheels and how very happy we made them, Blood, Sweat & Tears had a different vision, courtesy of band leader Al Kooper. Kooper formed the band to make his rock/jazz/blues fusion dreams come true and, for one album, his vision was law. And oh, what an album. True, some listeners might be scared off by the goofy-laughter accompanying the string overture, but once that’s over, the band gets down to some serious blues with “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know,” which features horns, strings and female backing vocals. Kooper’s vision leads us straight through the album, whether he’s recording original songs (“My Days Are Numbered” or “I Can’t Quit Her”), covers (“Just One Love” or “So Much Lovin”) or even when he lets guitarist Steve Katz take the wheel for a while (“Morning Glory” and “Meagan’s Gypsy Eyes”). The arrangements throughout are exciting and imaginative (especially on “Meagan”). Sure, there’s a bit of 1960’s weirdness, such as the aforementioned overture and the overblown comedy number “House In The Country,” but there’s more than enough great music on here to classify the album as a winner. Kooper was kicked out of the band soon after and this album was overshadowed by the big hits that came the following year, but this is the album that has the most to offer.
#5 – Then Play On (Fleetwood Mac, 1969) – Years before Buckingham and Nicks joined the band and made rock history, Fleetwood Mac was the brain-child of guitarist/loon Peter Green, who was considered to be an even better guitarist than Eric Clapton. After two blues albums (one really good, one meh), Green, who was becoming disinterested in life as a guitar god, decided to stretch out on what would be his last album with the band, Then Play On. Second guitarist Jeremy Spenser wasn’t interested in experimenting, so new-comer Danny Kirwin stepped into the mix. The album has had four different track-listings (1 British, 2 American and the CD release) which makes it difficult to define it, but the CD release is the most available. That release contains Green’s magnum opus, “Oh Well,” which runs for nine minutes and features a rockin first part and an extended piece for guitar, flute and cello to finish. There’s some blistering instrumentals (the “Madge” tracks), stark blues numbers (“Show Biz Blues” and “Like Crying”) and Green’s new-found introspectiveness, which he utilizes on the harrowing “Closing My Eyes” and the slightly-more-friendly “Before The Beginning,” which closes the album. Danny Kirwan opens the album well with “Coming Your Way” and gets really mysterious with “Although The Sun Is Shining.” And what about “The Rattlesnake Shake,” an ode to Onanism. Through it all, McVie and Fleetwood do what they do best and would continue to do for years to come. This is the best album the band ever made that doesn’t feature Stevie Nicks.
#6 – Son Of Schmilsson (Harry Nilsson, 1972) – Yes, I know; Schmilsson contains the big hits, all those wonderful songs that you’ve heard on the radio a million times. But while Schmilsson was Nilsson’s grab for mainstream success (it worked), Son of Schmilsson was Nilsson realizing that what he wanted most was for his audience to accept him for who he was, including his goofy sense of humor. On this album, we get lyrics like “I sang my balls off,” “I’d rather be dead than wet my bed,” and the ever-popular “You’re breaking my heart, you’re tearing it apart, so fuck you.” And we even get a country song about a girl called Joy that contains every bad pun about the name Joy you can think of (“We went for a ride… kind of a joyride…”). But there’s also sweetness: “Remember” is one of Nilsson’s prettiest songs and anticipates the sound of A Little Touch Of Schmilsson In The Night. “Turn On Your Radio” has a sweet, plaintive guitar feel and the best song on the album, “Spaceman,” is simply a mind-blower. The raunchy lyrics and the old people singing how they’d rather be dead may have scared off the buyers who were hoping for another Schmilsson, but we’ve all grown up since then, haven’t we? I prefer Harry as he wanted me to hear him, not how the music industry wanted me to hear him.
#7 – Bookends (Simon & Garfunkel, 1968) – Bookends is Simon & Garfunkel’s strangest album; it mixes great songwriting (it includes two classic singles, “Mrs. Robinson” and “America”) with intense production (scary, in one case) and even a short suite about growing old. The scary track, “Save The Life Of My Child,” features chaotic background wailing, fuzz tones and even a short, echo-filled snippet of “The Sounds Of Silence.” All of this chaos comes to an abrupt and sweet end with the flight of the boy on the ledge. “Voices of Old People” is exactly that; secretly recorded senior citizens who expound on the reality of getting old. This leads into the “Old Friends/Bookends” track that anticipates the duo’s friendship even into their senior years, with an atonal string section (symbolizing the trials of life) linking the two songs together. Apparently, neither Paul nor Art thought much of the second side of the album, since it was a collection of singles and B-sides that had been released recently and, maybe at the time, that was a valid objection. Today, the second side is just a collection of great songs, including “Mrs. Robinson” and “A Hazy Shade Of Winter.” “At The Zoo” ends the topsy-turvy album on a good note and makes us want to push play again and here it one more time.
#8 – Sunflower (The Beach Boys, 1970) – Boy, the record-buying public got it wrong on this one. In the late 1960s, The Beach Boys released four piecemeal albums (Smiley Smile, Wild Honey, Friends and 20/20) that sold between middling and respectfully. Then came Sunflower, their best album since Pet Sounds, and it tanked in the charts. The Beach Boys asked for the public’s trust one too many times, which is too bad because the general public missed a classic. On Sunflower, every member (including Brian) is firing on all cylinders. Most surprising is Dennis Wilson, who fires everything off with “Slip On Through” and later provides the album’s one genuine classic, “Forever.” But Dark-Horse Dennis is only one of six players in this musical card game. Bruce Johnston’s “Tears In The Morning” may be schmaltzy to some, but to these ears it’s a major step forward for the band as is his charming shuffle “Deirdre,” composed with Brian Wilson. In fact, unlike some of the previous albums, Brian’s name is on a whole slew of these songs, and the quality shines through, especially on his one solo number, “This Whole World,” which is too short at just under two minutes. The rest of the band all have writing credits – it’s a truly democratic album – and there are no duds, just one good song after another until the end (which is “Cool, Cool Water,” a reworked Smile outtake) and it’s impossible to believe that the music-buying public left it alone on the shelves. Well, their loss.
#9 – Muswell Hillbillies (The Kinks, 1971) – The Kinks had an erratic career; up one minute and down the next. This came down to the volatile personalities in the band and leader Ray Davies’ inability to write a hit song that didn’t display his own personal quirkiness. When he didn’t get it right, it could be a disaster, but when he did, we wound up with Something Else, The Village Green Preservation Society, Lola vs. Powerman & The Moneygoround Part 1, and this marvelous album. Here, the Kinks add John Gosling to their lineup on keyboards (whose prowess is heard immediately on “20th Century Man”) and keep the theatrics to a minimum. But Ray’s quirks are on display in the most tasteful and humorous ways: on “Holiday” he sings about a less-than-pleasant trip to the beach, on “Alcohol” he harkens back to “Buddy, Can You Spare a Time” to tell his tale of woe, and on “Skin And Bone” he bemoans dieting. As the title suggests, there’s a country/rock feel to the album (especially on the latter half with songs like “Uncle Son” and “Oklahoma USA”) but it never smothers the rock roots that the band thrived on. The final song, “Muswell Hillbillies,” is a feel-good ditty that sends the listener off wanting more, which is what every album should do. I don’t agree that Muswell Hillbillies is the last classic Kinks album (I’d extend that title one album further to Everybody’s In Show-Biz and would even entertain arguments for Preservation, Act 1), but it is definitely an album to introduce to those who think that the Kinks’ worthiness ended the day “Lola” fell off the charts.
#10 – Obscured By Clouds (Pink Floyd, 1972) – The cover art didn’t help sell it at all. Squeezed between the interesting and quite popular Meddle and the out-of-this-world smash Dark Side Of The Moon, not to mention their second soundtrack for Barbet Schroder after the somewhat stillborn More, Obscured By Clouds has been obscured by success from all sides. In the history of Pink Floyd, this album tends to get lost in the shuffle, especially after the majesty that was the sidelong track “Echoes” and the thunderous opener “One Of These Days” from Meddle; Obscured By Clouds seemed to be a step backwards. But taking in the whole Floyd genre from the 21st century, one can look at the album as a last stab at good, straight-forward rock that was nearly abandoned by the group after they found worldwide acclaim after the release of Dark Side Of The Moon. After that smash hit, Floyd fans would hear no more good simple rock songs like “Free Four,” “Childhood’s End,” or “The Gold It’s In The…” And all of Floyd’s instrumentals would have to serve the purpose of the album, rather than just stand proudly on their own like the title track or “When You’re In.” And Rick Wright, the writer and singer of “Burning Bridges” would be taking a backseat to Roger Water’s grandiose plans from here on out. Of course, I wouldn’t trade Water’s grandiose plans (which included Wish You Were Here, Animals, The Wall, and The Final Cut) for all the tea in Piccadilly, but there is something wonderful about an album that can end with a track that is basically a musical climax followed by two minutes of African chanting; it clears the mind, it calms the soul, and it makes the ends of the mouth (of this reviewer, anyway) rise upward. Obscured By Clouds may not reach into your mind like Dark Side of The Moon does, but it can cleanse you on a late Saturday night. And isn’t that exactly when you need a cleansing?