A few months back, I wandered into a record store that's a bit too collector-friendly for my personal tastes (I prefer to stumble across cheap copies of what I want rather than be able to find them by design and pay full price). Digging through a box of unopened longboxed(!) CDs marked "$10 Each" and expecting nothing, I was astonished to find not one but three out-of-print albums that I own on cassette, treasure among my favorites and had given up hope of ever locating on CDs before my poor little tape spools snapped. I bought them as fast as I could and marvelled at my bounty. I hadn't felt this good since finding a $3 CD copy of Talk Show by the Go-Go's (which has since been reissued on Universal, so now you have no excuse) at a secondhand store last year. There was a difference this time, though: the realization that I may well be the only person in the world who could possibly get excited over my haul. Not because the albums aren't any good (far, far from it) but because "criminally underpromoted" seems to be a recurring pattern in my album collection. So, to counteract record company apathy (the rediscovery and reissue craze hasn't fully caught up with the mid-'80s yet), I would like to offer up this list of 10 Great Albums That You've Never Heard.
a-ha, Scoundrel Days (Warner Bros., 1986)
Try as I might (to save face at least), I can't even consider this a guilty pleasure, since I feel not a pang of guilt, remorse, apology or sorrow for loving this. The second album from Norway's contribution to every soundtrack of every movie set in the 1980s from here on out, Scoundrel Days includes a great single you've heard but don't remember ("I've Been Losing You"), a great single that you remember but haven't given a moment's thought to since the last time you've heard it ("Cry Wolf") and, surrounding both, eight songs that use a lot of synthesizers, a respectable amount of guitar and just enough of Morten Harket's voice. Oddly, the mindless-pop-song content stalls at just one ("Maybe, Maybe", and even that includes the Smiths-worthy line, "Maybe it was over when you pushed me out the Rover at full speed"), leaving the rest to create genuine drama (as when the chorus of the title song soars into the heavens on the sheer power of the vocals and the bed of chords and keyboards) and evoke some intriguing images (I've never been sure if the narrator of the incredibly lovely "Soft Rains of April" is in college or jail, and it probably doesn't matter). Beautiful color landscape photos on the cover, too.
Clive Gregson and Christine Collister, Home And Away (Flying Fish, 1986)
One guitar and two voices wrapped around bittersweet songs of romance sounds fairly standard, though nice. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Gregson, formerly of Any Trouble and an erstwhile Richard Thompson sideman, has developed a style of guitar playing so astonishingly intricate that I still have to remind myself that this live recording is really just him. But it is, and there's no need for anybody else, not when he's playing what sounds to be chords, melody, harmony and lead at the exact same time. Collister, meanwhile, just sings, but never before has the word "just" seemed so inadequate; her smoky alto fits Gregson's love-gone-wrong, and sometimes just love-gone, songs (and a few covers, including "Mama Tried," a fine, fine version of "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" and a shockingly complex and rocking run at "Slow Down") so perfectly that you remember that a great singer can be as much a musician as anyone. When their voices commingle so completely and perfectly on songs like "As Lovers Do" and "All The Time In The World" (stripped of the studio polish of the Any Trouble originals and laid bare), time stops and all you are aware of is the sound of a heart breaking and the realization that it might be yours.
In Tua Nua, The Long Acre (Virgin, 1988)
Epic Irish rock (without a trace of blues influence) that draws on sources both traditional (the acoustic guitar/uillean pipes/violin-driven "Meeting of the Waters") and modern ("Seven Into The Sea" utilizes musical ideas similar to "Sunday Bloody Sunday" without ever sounding like even so much as a faint echo) to create music of astounding celebration and joy. Their Irishness is their main theme, whether it's the pains of sending family to England to support those back home or the agony of reconciling a Catholic God with human desire. All of which is fine but ends up trumped anyway by "Woman On Fire," an opening track of such astonishing power and urgency that the thing explodes the second vocalist Leslie Dowdall comes in at nearly two incredibly tense minutes and touches all the wires together.
Indio, Big Harvest (A&M, 1989)
You are not Peter Gabriel or Paul Simon, but you have an abiding love for the music of non-Western cultures and a wealth of industry contacts (including a bunch of session pros and, astoundingly, Joni Mitchell). You also have the crazy idea that maybe, just maybe, it is possible to make an actual rock album incorporating nontraditional instruments that doesn't ignore, patronize or insult the sources. What do you do? If your name is Gordon Peterson, you made your single shot (before vanishing completely) a spectacular one, writing fully realized songs about love and life and layering them with instrumental textures that scare the hell out of the little kids and confuse the grownups, ensuring that your one brilliant statement became anti-pigeonholed straight into oblivion. You can still sleep nights with the satisfaction of a job well done.
The Mutton Birds, Salty (Virgin, 1994)
I chose this over fellow New Zealanders Supergroove's awesome rock-funk opus Traction because this article is about great albums you never have heard, not great albums that you'll never get a chance to hear in a million years. For while Supergroove melted down and broke up (one album too late) before anybody else in the rest of the world got a chance to experience them, the Mutton Birds are still a going concern and, seeing as they're kicking around the UK and Canada, quite possibly on the verge of us acknowledging their existence. Until then, you'll just have to go by their cover of "Don't Fear The Reaper" that closed the underrated Michael J. Fox spook flick The Frighteners and my say so. It's tempting to lump these guys in with the Crowded House school of excellent straightforward pop music, but there are weirder things afoot. Lead 'Bird Don McGlashan used to rule seminal Kiwi punks Blam Blam Blam, and guitarist David Long contributes a stellar array of guitar noise so incredibly subtle that you don't realize that noise is exactly what it is (except for a solo, he rides through all of "The Heater" playing just one chord at a constant pulse). What saves the album from left-field oddness is the songs, superb pop songs about ignorant Americans, sentient space heaters and the glories and pitfalls of love. The clincher is the fact that two songs of devastating power and clarity ("Wellington", which chronicles the perils of long-distance romance, and "There's A Limit," where McGlashan's voice is so fused solid to the surface of the music that you barely notice that the song is a bitter recrimination and kiss-off) were written by the band's secondary songwriter, bassist Alan Gregg. A perfect pop album.
Texas, Ricks Road (Mercury, 1993)
This Scottish band's 1989 debut Southside was nice little surprise, a rural garage thrum that had only a handful of worthy songs but sounded great from start to finish. 1991's Mothers Heaven inverted the formula, providing uniformly excellent tunes coated with an odd electronic sheen that made those few who cared think that they were hearing a bad album (they weren't). Ricks Road capitalized on the strengths of each and took them further than ever. People magazine likened it to watching your cute prom date go off to Hollywood and appearing years later as an absolute stunner. The band's best batch of songs by a long shot, the album benefited from sympathetic production and playing that crystallized the band's Tucson-by-way-of-Glasgow vision into a sparkling gem. Ally McErlaine's slide guitar finally fits in with the rest of the band and the gorgeous, gorgeous Sharleen Spiteri's gorgeous, gorgeous voice soars higher and deeper than it ever has before. From the chaotic blues of "I Want To Go To Heaven" to the Beggars Banquet-styled ballad "Listen To Me" to the soaring drop-D pop of "Beautiful Angel," the band has never been better. The heart of the album, however, is the astonishing "So In Love With You," four minutes and forty-six seconds of tension, crescendo and release, a declaration of absolute devotion beyond comprehension whose status as a non-starter is justifiable only as a means of preventing the type of saturation that nearly killed "Champagne Supernova." The last words of Ricks Road ("I know things'll never be the same again") are fairly resonant, considering the band's future: Texas would go on to effectively disown this record and make two albums of high-gloss pop music that owe nothing to their predecessors. One had its moments, the other bellyflopped in a big way; both were, of course, huge successes in Britain. Neither is more than the merest shadow of this record.
That Petrol Emotion, Babble (Polydor, 1987)
Piss and vinegar and Guinness wrapped tightly in angular post-punk guitar noise, Babble is the resoundingly Irish, supremely political album that U2, for all their talk and pomp, never had the guts to put out. Lead singer Steve Mack comes from Seattle, a fact as irrelevant as the Britishness of 3/5 of the Fleetwood Mac is to that band being quintessentially Californian; the subject matter (about racism, economics, terrorism and religion) and the attitude (extremely angry and profoundly articulate) are what's important. R.E.M. were huge fans (good thing, too, since "Spin Cycle" rips off part of the riff from "Feeling Gravity's Pull" pretty blatantly) and it got them nowhere. Actually makes you forget that these guys used to be the Undertones. Really.
Voice of the Beehive, Let It Bee (London, 1988)
A breakup album almost without peer, with singer/comic relief Melissa Brooke Belland having approximately the same relationship to sister/singer/guitarist/songwriter/brains-behind-the-whole-thing Tracy Bryn as Flavor Flav has to Chuck D. "I Say Nothing," which takes "Our Lips Are Sealed" to almost autistic levels, was very nearly a hit, and elsewhere Bryn drinks herself sad ("Sorrow Floats") and invents flawless dreamboats ("Man In The Moon") in rapid succession. Mostly, though, she lets rip on lovers past ("Don't Call Me Baby"), present ("There's A Barbarian In The Back Of My Car") and future ("Trust Me," which weds a Bo Diddley beat to a wicked castigation summed up in the opening line, "Girls lie to boys, and boys lie to girls"). The band (dismissed two albums later) plays slick but cutting guitar pop with just the slightest hint of punk; when Bryn calls out "Come on, boys!," they hop in lockstep and charge the music with fire and energy. Like Social Distortion's Somewhere Between Heaven And Hell, the true album is actually the LP or cassette version, since the CD tacks on extra songs that do nothing to accentuate the tone of the album and actually detract from what should be a substantial final statement. There's nothing inherently wrong with the bouncy pop of "This Weak" (although it's easily the most disposable song on the CD) or the cover of Lou Reed's "Jesus" (a fine version, actually), but both mute the power of "Just A City," a musing on insignificance both personal and political that culminates in one of the great album rideouts, a slow fade on a vocal chant, a steady drumbeat and a thrumming bass that works like crazy.
You Am I, Hi-Fi Way (Warner Bros., 1996)
After a perfect first album that pitted them as little more than an antipodean Pearl Jam (and nabbed them the Australian equivalent of the Grammy for best alternative album), Sydney favorites You Am I switched drummers, started investigating their '60s fixation and then advanced in every direction at once. Instead of scattering their efforts, it succeeded in widening their dominion on this, their second album. Lee Ranaldo's production makes the inevitable Who comparisons, well, inevitable, and Tim Rogers' songs about OCD victims, dead rock stars and the cruelty of teenagers mocking each other over the color of one's shoes don't exactly set him apart from Pete Townshend's early collages of freaks. There are other factors at work here, though, from Russell Hopkinson's subtly huge drums (check out the shuddering "Minor Byrd" and "The Applecross Wing Commander," which doesn't start so much as launch) to the Beatles theme (the White Album in particular) recurring throughout, all of which turn this into nothing more or less than a modern-day mod/beat record. To hell with your Midnight Oils, your AC/DCs, your INXSes, your Mens at Work, this is the best band ever to come from Australia. I am prepared to say that as many times as necessary.
Neil Young, Trans (Geffen, 1983)
Beating up on this album is a popular sport among Neil Young fans who probably haven't heard the damn thing in years, if ever. I submit that the perplexingly well-received Re*ac*tor and the sweep-it-under-the-rug Landing On Water are far, far worse albums than poor, misunderstood Trans. Most likely, the universal dread of this record has far more to do with its positioning as the first of Young's wildly erratic '80s albums than for the music it contained. Replacing acoustic beauty and electric mayhem with synthesizers and vocoders, Young brought some ridiculous notions to the table (see "Computer Cowboy" for just about the very definition of a bad idea), created a fairly resonant concept album out of them (something about the rise of computers and the loss of human freedom) and wrapped them in some of his most indelible melodies before coating the whole thing with a Kraftwerk-meets-Crazy Horse sound. And the vocoder? Well, it seems to me that any complaint about altering Young's voice is just perverse, and the electronic treatment helpfully allows him to float like an angel over the proceedings (the beautiful Pachelbel-inspired bridge in "Computer Age") or wallow in the digital filth (the moderately prescient "We R In Control"), as needs be. For purists, there's the opening "Little Thing Called Love," a country-based look at what's about to be sacrificed for efficiency that could probably fit on any of Young's less adrenalized albums, and the closing "Like An Inca," which sounds like a slightly rearranged leftover from the acoustic bits of Rust Never Sleeps. For iconoclasts, there's the rest of the album, topped by a stunningly reworked version of "Mr. Soul" that, damn public opinion, outshines the Buffalo Springfield original by slowing it down, mechanizing the rhythm and adding a corrosive guitar solo that underscores the change in topic from getting lost in your own ego to being trapped in a society of automatons. Coming from the guy who gave us "Thrasher" (which Trans extends under the aegis of the very thing it was damning), this is heady material. END