Just because it
wasn’t a hit,
doesn’t mean it
shouldn’t have been.
Thanks to a recent tribute album called “Dylan in the 80s” I have spotted a few articles dedicated to reevaluating what is largely regarded as the iconic songwriter’s least productive period. Following his conversion to fundamentalist Christianity and the release of “Slow Train Coming” and “Saved” he released a series of albums that featured some good songs (“Jokerman” from “Infidels” being the best example), but also generally lacklustre production and more than a few headscratchers (for example, “Lenny Bruce”, his tribute to the trailblazing comedian, definitely fails to reach the same heights as “Hurricane”).
Yet for many people of a certain age, these lesser albums served as their introduction to his music and because of that they are able to see hidden gems that elude the rest of us. And this isn’t just true for Dylan. Any recording artist with a significantly long career has definitely gone through fallow periods. Not everything can be genius every single time. But among these disappointments there is often gold and that’s what this post is about.
Here are the first five examples of great underrated albums that came to my mind:
P!nk “Try This”
2.7 million copies sold worldwide wouldn’t sound like a disappointment to most artists, but “Try This” was the immediate follow-up to P!nk’s breakthrough sophomore album, “Missundaztood”, which sold 13 million copies. When her next album, “I’m Not Dead” managed to nearly double “Try This”‘s reach with 5 million, it seemed to prove that the album was a mistake that risked derailing her career. Which is all fine and good, except for the fact that it’s an awesome record–full of all the quirks and flourishes that have made P!nk the most consistently interesting non-Beyonce pop performer of her graduating class. She still performs “Trouble” live, but the album is full of raucous arena rockers that would still have the crowd cheering even if it’s been awhile since they last heard them. Admittedly, it’s her least radio-friendly album (hence the lack of sales), but it still makes my ears happy.
Tori Amos “Night of Hunters”
Beloved by critics in the early 90s, Tori’s habit of releasing very long albums full of songs so lyrically impenetrable you could store an entire nation’s gold reserves within them came to alienate many who once embraced her. As a diehard fan, I will buy every album she releases until the day either one of us dies (whichever should come first), but even I have to admit to only returning to efforts like “The Beekeeper” and “Scarlet’s Walk” when one of their songs gets listed in an iTunes Genius playlist. But I will strongly defend two of her more recent efforts–her Christmas album “Midwinter Graces” and her 2011 attempt at a classical-inspired song cycle “Night of Hunters”, which contains some of the best and most haunting work in her entire career. Both of these albums feature vocal contributions from her own daughter, Natasha, whose voice suggests that some talents might just be genetic.
Paul Westerberg “Eventually”
The general consensus seems to be that the last few albums by The Replacements mostly suck because they lack the visceral authenticity of their earlier work. The bulk of the blame for this going to Paul Westerberg, whose subsequent solo albums seemed to make this an unimpeachable fact. Except, as cheesy as they can sometimes be (cough”Silver Naked Ladies”cough) his solo work has an ear and heart pleasing pop purity that in a more perfect world would be recognized by all those who came across it. His second solo effort, “Eventually”, has an album’s worth of songs most artists would kill for, yet nobody seemed to want them. The world is a weird place.
The Ramones “End of the Century”
Produced by rock’s most infamous genius producer, Phil Spector, “End of the Century” is easily their most mainstream album (albeit one that still has a song about scoring heroin–“Chinese Rock”), playing on lead singer Joey’s goopy romanticism and love of old-school rock in place of the fun-filled nihilism of their previous albums. The result is a divisive love or hate effort that I personally love without question. This is largely because Joey’s goopy romanticism is one of the major reasons why he’s my favourite lead singer of all time.
Frank Sinatra “Watertown”
I was never much of a Frank Sinatra fan. For much of my life he was a classic paragon of “old people music”–an outdated relic whose music and attitudes had no relevance in my life. And then I heard “Watertown”. It’s probably not a coincidence that it was his biggest flop–a failed attempt to reach out to the audience that by 1970 already considered him laughable. It’s a remarkably sad album sung from the point of a view of a man from the titular location whose life is in shambles after the collapse of his marriage. Each song is a heartbreaker, but the one that completely reversed everything I ever thought about Frank was the album’s 5th track, “I Would Be In Love (Anyway)”.
Defiantly proud, it’s a song that has become something of a personal anthem in my life. One that acknowledges that as painful as our regrets may be, we sometimes have to accept that the decisions that led to them were still the right ones at the time.
If you have your own list you want to share, then get on it in the comments or please feel free to check out today’s “The Question Is”.