The best albums you've never heard, greatest obscure albums, best unknown albums, underrated music, underrated bands

Bullz-Eye's Best of Music 2006

Music Home / Bullz-Eye Home

Okay, music fans, correct us if we’re wrong, but unless you’re one of those wannabe hipsters that only buys this week’s buzz album, we’re guessing that somewhere in your collection, you’ve got an LP, a cassette, a CD, or even an 8-track that you picked up on a whim, fell in love with, and absolutely love to tell people about… and your introduction usually begins, “Look, I know you’ve probably never heard of this person/these guys, and I don’t know why it didn’t sell a million copies, but, seriously, you’ve got to hear it.”

Maybe they’re a local or regional band who never made the big time. Maybe they did make it to a major label, but the musical climate wasn’t right…or the label didn’t bother to promote the album…or, heck, maybe the band broke up five minutes after the record was released. Whatever the case, far too many great albums have ended up selling far too few copies, which is why we've taken it upon ourselves to try and rescue some of these all-too-unheralded releases from obscurity. We’ve also managed to get in touch with almost all of the artists whose albums we’re praising in this piece – the lone exception had the very good excuse of having died, but we did, at least, get in touch with one of the producers of his album – and asked them to answer a quick Q&A for us. So not only will you (probably) be introduced to several new albums, but you’ll also feel like you know a little bit about the person or persons responsible for recording them.

Of course, with a title like “The Best Albums You’ve Never, Ever Heard,” there was always going to have to be some kind of parenthetical caveat. Some of these selections did relatively well on one Billboard chart or another at the time of their initial release, but they haven’t necessarily continued to maintain a high profile; also, we’re looking at this from a decidedly American point of view, so if you hail from elsewhere, it’s highly possible that some of these albums did far better in your neck of the woods than ours. Most crucially, however, this is a piece written by music geeks…and we know quite well that we’re not the last surviving members of our breed. So if you’re part of the club, don’t forget to keep some perspective when viewing our selections: not everyone is as knowledgeable as those of us who eat, sleep and drink music...and with any luck, this piece will successfully introduce people to a few albums they’ve never, ever heard.

Yes, even you, you big music geek.

arrow The Argument: Your New Favorite Band (Self-released, 2000)

Recommended If You Like: Ben Folds Five, Barenaked Ladies,
Toad the Wet Sprocket

The critics can go on and on about how quirky bands don’t last long unless they’re named Barenaked Ladies, and about how songs like “Inflatable Amy” are downright laughable…and, hey, the Argument’s lead singer, Scott Simons, can even say he’s “embarrassed” by his former band’s self-released debut. But when you burn an album into your iTunes and, even seven years later, you can’t stop listening to it, there’s a higher power at work – or, then again, maybe Simons and his band mates had something special that not enough industry types recognized. (Personally, I’m going with the latter.) This West Virginia quartet toured so much in a van pursuing “the dream of being rock stars” that, eventually, their van and their will both stalled with an empty tank. While the album is out of print, its endearing combination of pop, rock, jazz, soul and every other influence under the sun showcases a solid group of musicians who could string melodic hooks and harmonies together as well as anyone. – Mike Farley
Notable Tracks “Grudge,” “Disappear,” “The Ballad of Ernestine Jackson”
arrow Ballboy: Club Anthems (SL Records, 2002)

RIYL: Belle & Sebastian, Arab Strap, The Reindeer Section

Some guys have foot fetishes. Some guys are into much stranger things than that. I, for one, love bands from Scotland on a near obsessive level. If I remember correctly, I was listening to John Peel via the Internet when I first heard the track "I Hate Scotland." Even though I considered the premise almost blasphemous, I fell in love with this band instantly. The arrangements are simple, and the singing is more speaking-in-time than actually singing. Imagine if you will an awkward, shy, and Scottish Gil Scott-Heron. Hell, thematically, it's even in the same ballpark. Ballboy has a song called "Essential Wear for Future Trips to Space" and Gil has a song called "Whitey on the Moon." I am now patting myself on the back for the most obscure musical pairing in the history of music reviews. Sweet. – Josh Preston
Notable Tracks “I Hate Scotland,” “Sex Is Boring,” “A Day in Space”
arrow The Big Dish: Creeping Up on Jesus (Warner Bros. / Virgin, 1988)

RIYL: Aztec Camera, Lloyd Cole, The Lilac Time

It’s been suggested that the water in Sweden contains something to inspire catchy pop hooks, but one might reasonably suspect the presence of a similar chemical additive coursing through Scotland’s plumbing as well. The Airdrie-based band The Big Dish got its big break by scoring opening gigs for Lloyd Cole and the Commotions during the mid-‘80s, releasing three albums between 1986 and 1991 (plus a best-of collection in 1994…which, due to label wranglings, only covered the band’s first two records). All of the studio releases have plenty to recommend, but I’ve always been partial to this, the band’s sophomore effort; lead singer / songwriter Steven Lindsay was in top form, and producer Bruce Lampcov took the Big Dish and made them sound all shiny and sparkly. Bizarrely, the album proved to be a commercial disappointment, though, for the record, it’s totally not my fault, since I paid full-price for it twice (once on cassette, once on CD). Of the former members of the band, the one with the highest profile is certainly keyboardist Craig Armstrong, who has scored “World Trade Center,” “Ray,” and two Baz Luhrmann flicks (“Moulin Rouge” and “Romeo + Juliet”), but lead singer / guitarist Steven Lindsay released his solo debut in 2004 (Exit Music) and can now be readily contacted through his profile on MySpace. – Will Harris
Notable Tracks “Waiting for the Parade,” “Faith Healer,” “Can’t Stand Up”
arrow Paul Brady: Trick or Treat (Fontana, 1990)

RIYL: David Gray, John Hiatt, Bruce Cockburn

For those unfamiliar with his work, Paul Brady is sort of an Irish John Hiatt; not that they sound alike (they don’t), but they’re both more famous (and better-compensated) for songs they’ve written than for songs they’ve performed. And they both have Bonnie Raitt to thank for a nice-sized chunk of their portfolios: Raitt covered Hiatt’s “Thing Called Love” for Nick of Time, then recorded two Brady songs for Luck of the Draw (“Not the Only One” and the title track). It’s fair to say Brady is a better songwriter than a performer; his vocals, though capable, tend to be sort of colorless. Early on, he also had extremely poor luck with producers — 1986’s Back to the Centre, in particular, has not aged well at all — and so it’s somewhat ironic that the Gary Katz-produced Trick or Treat, which was maligned for being overly commercial at the time, remains perhaps his finest hour as a recording artist. It isn’t that Katz was right and the critics were wrong, necessarily; there are portions of Treat that are unforgivably glossy. But overall, the busy production helps to prop up and add personality to Brady’s vocals. It helps that these are some of his strongest songs, assembled in perfect order. Paul Brady albums tend to be larded with long, lugubrious ballads, and Treat has its share, but they’re broken up with energetic AAA fare like “Soul Child” and “Can’t Stop Wanting You.” And where Brady does slow things down to a crawl — like on “Nobody Knows” — his superb writing benefits in most cases from the extra touches, even if they do sound like the summer of ‘90. If you’ve never heard – or even heard of – Paul Brady, and you’re the type of person who enjoys a good singer/songwriter, you need to familiarize yourself. Trick or Treat is a great place to start. – Jeff Giles
Notable Tracks “Soul Child,” “Nobody Knows,” “Trick or Treat”
arrow Chris Butler: Easy Life (Future Fossil, 2001)

RIYL: The Waitresses, Randy Newman, Frank Zappa

Oh, Butler, how I continue to pimp your wares. For those of you who don’t know this man’s work…well, you actually already do. Chris Butler is the songwriter of all the Waitresses’ tunes (don’t tell me you’ve never heard “I Know What Boys Like” or the theme to the TV show “Square Pegs”). Now that we have that out of the way, let’s spotlight the man’s solo years. For starters, he made the Guinness Book of World Records for longest single ever with “The Devil Glitch.” He then put out a little number called I Feel A Bit Normal Today, with great songs like “Thief.” After pumping out an album with fake band Kilopop! Butler issued Easy Life in a limited edition. The album is filled with Butler’s great wit, storytelling, and lyrical genius. “Hey Stranger” is a song I still play for people unfamiliar with Chris’s work, and the title track and “I Did, I Did” and “Davy’s Sister’s Coming Home From College” are fantastic numbers as well. The album closes with an extended piece about the Kent State shootings, which Butler personally witnessed. Since this album, Butler has released the impeccable The Museum of Me and regrouped with old faves Tin Huey. He’s one of the busiest guys I know, and easily one of the most talented musicians and songwriters I’ve had the pleasure to befriend. – Jason Thompson
Notable Tracks “Easy Life,” “Hey Stranger,” “I Did, I Did”
arrow The Candy Skins: Space I'm In (Geffen, 1991)

RIYL: The Buzzcocks, Oasis, Ash

As has been so widely documented on this and countless other sites, the rock and roll landscape in the early 90s had little of any space for clean-cut British lads using the wah-wah pedals on their guitars and singing about optimism instead of suicide. Three years before Oasis pushed Definitely Maybe to the forefront and resurrected guitar-fused Brit Pop, the Candy Skins released a magnificent unknown called Space I’m In. From the happy-go-lucky “Black and Blue,” which recalls the Partridge Family, to the lush power chords of “Never Will Forget You,” brothers Nick and Mark Cope wrote one hell of an album. Of course, the only non-original entry is also one of the standout tracks: a monstrous Manchester beat-backed cover of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth”. This version is so addictive that 4 out of 5 dentists surveyed prefer it to the original. – Red Rocker
Notable Tracks “Submarine Song,” “Never Will Forget You,” “For What It's Worth”
arrow Cotton Mather: Kontiki (Copper, 1997)

RIYL: The Beatles, Guided by Voices, Wilco

In power-pop circles, Kontiki is (rightfully) treated with Revolver-type reverence, which is why it is downright tragic that it qualifies for inclusion here. Recorded by the incomparable Brad Jones, the album is a magical blend of mid-period Beatles, Summer Teeth-era Wilco, and Guided by Voices at their most scatterbrained. Lead singer and primary songwriter Robert Harrison does an uncanny Lennon impression (the triple-decker harmonies at the end of “Spin My Wheels” give “Because” a run for its money), and “Aurora Bori Alice” could pass for a lost Magical Mystery Tour track with no problem. And speaking of Revolver, check out “My Before and After,” a stunning three-minute pop song filled with ringing guitar lines and “And Your Bird Can Sing”-type harmonies. If you want to hear an album that synthesizes everything that is great about the Beatles, but in ways that Oasis could never dream of (it is not coincidence that Noel Gallagher is a huge fan of this album), then hunt down Kontiki at once. Your ears will thank you, and your hipster cred will shoot through the roof. – David Medsker
Notable Tracks “My Before and After,” “Homefront Cameo,” “Vegetable Row”
arrow Danny Wilson: Bebop Moptop (Virgin, 1990)

RIYL: The Pearlfishers, Prefab Sprout, Steely Dan

It’s gotta be damned frustrating for a band to totally and utterly avoid the sophomore slump from a creative standpoint, only to find its efforts betrayed by indifferent consumers. Such was the experience of the band Danny Wilson, who scored international success with their single, “Mary’s Prayer,” taken from their debut album, Meet Danny Wilson. The follow-up, Bebop Moptop, never got much of a fair shake in the States, although no less than three singles were released from the disc in the UK. True, those three songs – “The Second Summer of Love,” “I Can’t Wait,” and “Never Gonna Be the Same” – are all instant classics. In particular, “Never Gonna Be the Same” remains one of the most hummable summations of dealing with those awful first days after the end of a relationship, with singer Gary Clark asking his now-ex to tell her siblings that “I probably won’t be ‘round again; I’ll always give them the time of day, but it’s never gonna be the same.” There are lots of classics on this disc, however, including the chugging “Goodbye Shanty Town,” as well as “If Everything You Said Was True,” which was pitched as a single in the States, only to promptly go down as a swing and a miss. Maybe someone should’ve tried “I Was Wrong” instead, which combines Gary’s soaring vocals with harmonica, handclaps, and some brilliant guitar work. On a closing note, if you ever see the limited-edition version of the band’s best-of disc, Sweet Danny Wilson, grab it; their covers of Bowie’s “Kooks” and Abba’s “Knowing Me, Knowing You” are brilliant. – Will Harris
Notable Tracks “The Second Summer of Love,” “If Everything You Said
Was True,” “Never Gonna Be The Same.”
arrow Jason Falkner: Can You Still Feel? (Elektra, 1999)

RIYL: Matthew Sweet, Big Star, The Posies

Some people write great pop songs. Jason Falkner writes pop songs that make great pop songwriters cry in disbelief. The dude takes things in directions that should seem utterly unnatural but they feel totally right when he goes there. On Can You Still Feel, the tune "Author Unknown" is certainly the standout track. Also, as producers go, I know we've all got to give Rick Rubin his props, but, man, Nigel Godrich has his frigging finger on the pulse before it’s even alive. He co-produced this record with Jason and this release came out in 1999. It came out after OK Computer! Nigel wasn't hard up for cash. He produced this because he loved the writing…and if that doesn't speak volumes about this record I don't know what will. (Editor’s note: the Falkner / Godrich collaboration also led Falkner to contribute guitar work to Paul McCartney’s Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, which speaks pretty well of Falkner’s playing, too.) – Josh Preston
Notable Tracks “Author Unknown,” “Holiday,” “I Already Know”
arrow Fiction Plane: Everything Will Never Be OK (MCA, 2003)

RIYL: The Police, Jimmy Eat World, The Get Up Kids

Okay, this is one I'm going to get on my soapbox about. As such, don't stand too close. Dudes, the lead singer of Fiction Plane is Sting's son, Joe Sumner. If you're like me, you only find the kids of celebrities creepy and maladjusted…at best. And 9 times out of 10, we're on point. In this case however, Joe is the fucking perfect embodiment of Sting circa the Police years. Fiction Plane's debut record was absolutely stunning. Writing awesome songs is clearly genetic, and Joe hit the fucking genetic lottery. And while this record is balls-out amazing, the label dropped the goddamn ball so hard it hit the floor and smashed. And listen, I get it, Joe probably didn't want to be associated exclusively with his dad…but if a record is that good, get it out to the world via any means necessary. – Josh Preston
Notable Tracks “Real Real,” “I Wish I Would Die,” “Cigarette”
arrow Fluid Ounces: In the New Old Fashioned Way (Spongebath, 1998)

RIYL: Ben Folds Five, Joe Jackson, Jack's Mannequin

Every single fan of Ben Folds – or more accurately, Ben Folds Five – should own this record. In the New Old Fashioned Way, the sophomore effort from Murfreesboro, TN’s finest, is stuffed to the gills with bouncy, piano-driven songs about anything from comic book superheroes (“Marvel Girl”) to the awkwardness of breaking the ice with the opposite sex at a bar (“Have Fun”). Indeed, Timbs actually has Folds’ number in several categories; he’s a far better singer, a more imaginative lyricist, and he’s nowhere near as snarky or sarcastic. In fact, the only thing that Folds can do that Timbs can’t, it appears, is sell records, though that has more to do with the business workings of the now-defunct Spongebath than anything. Before the album even received a proper promotional effort, it could be found in the bargain bins for a buck (which is precisely where this writer found his copy). These days, the album is out of print, but a piano pop classic. Pity Timbs can’t get paid in piano pop classic. – David Medsker
Notable Tracks “Marvel Girl,” “Vegetable Kingdom,” “Have Fun”
arrow Radney Foster: See What You Want to See (Arista, 1999)

RIYL: Dwight Yoakam, Foster & Lloyd, Rodney Crowell

As the bespectacled half of the late-’80s country duo Foster & Lloyd, Radney Foster was the logical choice for anybody who wondered where the pop genius in hits like “Crazy Over You” came from. Appearances can be deceiving, though — it was Bill Lloyd, bolo tie and all, who had pop roots; after Foster & Lloyd splintered, he returned to the jangly power-pop solo career he’d begun before. Foster made his solo debut with 1992’s solid (and surprisingly trad-country) Del Rio, TX 1959. Just when it seemed you could write Foster off as simply another hat act, though, he decided that cowpoke hits like “Just Call Me Lonesome” and “Texas in 1880″ weren’t what he wanted to record. He moved from Arista proper to its short-lived alt. country imprint, Arista Austin, and set about making See What You Want to See. It’s a stunning record for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which being that it has the kind of hard-fought emotional weight that you simply wouldn’t expect from a guy who’d thus far made his bread and butter on hooky, tongue-in-cheek, mainstream country. This is an album made from, and about, scars — the scars of childhood, of growing up, of love and loss — but it’s too hopeful to ever be maudlin, and that mood is perfectly reflected in the production and performances. From the shimmering, world-weary “I’m In” (featuring sublime vocals from another Austin favorite, Abra Moore), to the bitter resignation of “I’ve Got a Picture,” these are wonderful, deeply resonant songs about battles lost and lessons learned. The album’s centerpiece is the closer, “Godspeed.” It’s a great piece of music even if you don’t know the gut-wrenching story behind it. The Dixie Chicks had a hit with their version — providing some welcome padding for Foster’s wallet in the process, no doubt — but the original’s better. Foster has continued making music since See What You Want to See, but it’s sort of doubtful he’ll make another record as compelling as this one. We should hope he doesn’t, actually; songs like these are earned the hard way. – Jeff Giles
Notable Tracks “I’m In,” “God Knows When,” “Godspeed”
arrow The General Store: Local Honey (Not Lame, 2002)

RIYL: Eagles, Traveling Wilburys, Neil Young

At the 2002 International Pop Overthrow in Chicago, this unassuming left-handed Brit with an acoustic guitar and backing tapes of his “band” (he had no band: he made the whole record himself) took the stage to play a set of shimmering West Coast pop, capped by a startlingly effective cover of the Thompson Twins’ “Hold Me Now.” Only later did we discover that he was none other than Tam Johnstone, son of longtime Elton John guitarist Davey Johnstone. But Tam was not one to succumb to nepotism: he wanted to be his own man, which is probably why so few people actually heard Local Honey, his delightful debut. The Eagles’ influence is all over songs like “Letdown” and “Long Way,” and the ghost of the Traveling Wilburys makes an appearance on “Airport Breakfast.” Oh, and the Thompson Twins cover is here as well. For all the talk about the Thrills supposedly saving West Coast pop, the General Store was the band that actually did it. – David Medsker
Notable Tracks "Airport Breakfast,” “Coming Down,” “Long Way”

NOTE: See the second half of the list here.