Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Great Underrated Albums by Famous Artists

[Ed. Note: This is something I wrote a long time ago for use on this blog, but never really finished or ever published. I found it on my computer while organizing some files and decided to put it up here today.]

Temple of the Dog - Temple of the Dog

When this album came out, nobody noticed or cared. Then Soundgarden and Pearl Jam both exploded and suddenly a collaboration between Soundgarden's Chris Cornell and all of Pearl Jam was a profitable prospect. It quickly spawned some radio hits that still get airplay today and it's a pretty well regarded album. So saying it's underrated doesn't really apply at any time since 1992 or thereabouts, but I say it is underrated for this reason: I believe that it is the best thing anybody involved has ever done. I find Soundgarden's work pretty inconsistent. They were good, but I can't really listen to any of their albums the whole way through. For Cornell, the only thing he's ever done that comes close is his first solo album, Euphoria Morning. An argument could be made for that album being better than Temple of the Dog, but I still give the edge to Temple of the Dog because Cornell was in better vocal shape (being eight years younger) and the album just being made up of stronger songs. On the Pearl Jam side, their debut, Ten, is pretty much equal to it as well, but Eddie Vedder isn't quite the singer that Chris Cornell is, meaning Ten doesn't have the same amazing vocal moments, and at no point does the band stretch out like on the epic length track "Reach Down." For those reasons, I'd still give it to Temple of the Dog. Really, I'm just trying to make a point as it's hard to find flaws with Euphoria Morning or Ten. Those albums are basically equals to this one. But the point is, I think Temple of the Dog often falls by the wayside as just something really great that those guys did, few really recognize just how good it was and realize that it is pretty much one of the best things anybody involved ever did.

Black Sabbath - Born Again

Collaboration time again. In the grunge era, Temple of the Dog was a fan's wet dream. In the metal era, this one was too, it just didn't have quite the same commercial viability by 1983 that it would have had in the mid-1970's. On Born Again, Black Sabbath found themselves once again without a singer so they picked up former Deep Purple frontman Ian Gillan and put out a sort of bizarre combination of both bands' sounds but really something completely different in a way as well. The production was shit, but given the time period that's almost a comfort, considering the slick 80's hair metal veneer every album following would experience. The dirty rawness of it all is charming in its way, sort of like punk around that time. As for the music itself, it's classic. Gillan is in amazing vocal shape, belting out screams like he never even did in Deep Purple, "Child in Time" notwithstanding. Iommi cuts some of his greatest solos. Butler and Ward are just as great a rhythm section as ever. These days everything with Sabbath's name that doesn't have Ozzy or Dio singing on it is pretty much forgotten, but honestly Born Again stands, to me, as one of the great Sabbath albums, along with the first six Ozzy albums and the first three Dio albums.

David Bowie - Buddha of Suburbia

I know I talk of this album a lot, but it really is one of the greats in Bowie's discography. When it was released it was completely ignored because it was the soundtrack for a shitty TV movie. It took forever for the soundtrack to even make it to the US and it was just quietly forgotten. But among hardcore Bowie fans, we realize that he was really onto some brilliant stuff around this time. It combines the instrumental experimentation of the following album, Outside, that itself harkens back to his experimentation with Brian Eno back in the 70's Berlin trilogy, with the upbeat 90's dance pop of the preceding Black Tie White Noise and ends up being a vastly superior album to either of those. To this day, no one but real Bowie fans really know this exists, which is a true shame. Bowie himself has described it as one of his favorites that he's ever made and there's good reason for that.

GZA/Genius - Legend of the Liquid Sword

When this one hit the scene in 2002, it wasn't really "cool" anymore (at the time) to like Wu-Tang. This was after the disappointment a lot of people felt over The W and Iron Flag and it just wasn't really a good time for the group. But in reality, this was nowhere near as bad as everybody thought. Actually, it's a really good album. GZA is in fine form lyrically and it has some of the better beats of his solo career. Wu members Ghostface, RZA, Inspectah Deck, and frequent Wu collaborator Streetlife show up for strong guest verses and it even features a very early appearance from someone then known as "Santi White" now universally known and famous as Santogold. If the lyrics are to be believed, part of the reason this album was a failure was just the record label dropping the ball (as usual). Sure, it's nowhere near as good as Liquid Swords, but what is? It's still a worthwhile entry in the Wu-Tang legacy and probably the best thing not called Liquid Swords in GZA's own discography.

The Mars Volta - Amputechture

This album was pretty successful, all things considered, but when it came out it was pretty much universally loathed by fans of the band. As At the Drive-In fans felt betrayed when that band broke up and the Mars Volta first appeared, fans of the first two albums the Mars Volta released felt betrayed by the new turn of Amputechture. It's gone so far that Cedric and Omar have even called this their "autistic child." Nowadays, it seems more and more fans are catching up and warming to the album, but it still stands out like a sore thumb in their discography as that one album that left everyone pretty much scratching their head when it came out. Not to mention, the band itself was a mess around that time. They barely toured, the few shows they played were made up of 40 minute free form jams, Cedric had surgery, they went through several drummers, and their follow-up, the Bedlam in Goliath, had some severe birth pains that led to it being labeled a cursed album. With all the negativity surrounding it, Amputechture is a black sheep but actually listen to it and you'll realize that it's easily just as good as the first two Mars Volta albums.

Prince - Come

Come was a casualty of the woes Prince had around the time of its release with Warner Bros. You know, the shit that eventually led to him giving up his name and calling himself an unpronouncable symbol. With all that going on, people were far less interested in Prince's music and more in his personal drama. That meant that despite the success he had in the early 90's with his hip hop experiments, Come was largely ignored when it was released. Prince climbed back on the charts shortly after with the Gold Experience, but what of Come? It's an odd little album, representing a brief transitional period of smooth R&B that was featured in few and far between instances of the preceding and following albums, but it's personally one of my favorites of his. It has a wide range of styles in the context of that R&B, catchy should've-been-hits, and some experimentation that proved Prince wasn't slipping into any sort of rut.

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