High quality albums often fly under the radar and go unnoticed for years and even decades. For whatever reasons the music gods or the powers that be decide to withhold the greatness of such works, often resulting in audio explorers serendipitously stumbling upon them. Look no further! Here is a list of albums that were carefully crafted from front to back and have been waiting to be discovered.
1. Pandemonium Shadow Show – Harry Nilsson
Harry Nilsson is a man you’ve probably never heard of but know very well. His songs “One,” covered by Three Dog Night, and “Coconut” are pop culture classics, and his versions of Badfinger’s “Without You,” and Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” were chart toppers. But long before the success, Nilsson’s second album, Pandemonium Shadow Show, was a commercial failure. The album featured several covers, including two Beatles songs, and a handful of incredible originals, but it failed to chart. However, Harry’s songwriting and arranging abilities paid off; The Monkees and Blood, Sweat, And Tears covered two of Nilsson’s originals, “Cuddly Toy” and “Without Her.” The Beatles publicist Derek Taylor heard “1941” on the radio and bought several copies of the album to give to the Fab Four, who endorsed Nilsson as their favorite artist and group and later invited him to Abbey Road studios. Pandemonium shows off Nilsson’s prowess as a vocalist and his forward thinking in the realm of layered vocal overdubs and unusual arrangements. It’s an album that presents something new with every listen and a greatly overlooked piece of art.
2. Mutemath – MUTEMATH
This album is by far the most sonically interesting album on the list. Originally released on January 19th, 2006, Mutemath is the debut of New Orleans based indie alt-rock band Mutemath. The album was sold in jewel cases at concerts, but was quickly made available as a digital download and sold nearly 10,000 copies in the first month. Mutemath is a gumbo of several styles of music, including electronica, rock, pop, experimental, jazz, and even contains some spiritual and religious motifs. The album broke the top 50 two years in a row on Billboard’s Top Heatseekers Chart, and their first single “Typical” reached 39 on Billboard’s Modern Rock Chart in 2007. In 2008 the album stalled out, but it built a successful following that has allowed the band to continue touring and put out great music. Mutemath is a perfectly constructed electronic portrait that unabashedly uses every color on the palette. Each song flows into the next seamlessly, allowing the album to play through completely without weird pauses or interruptions. Mutemath does not disappoint.
3. Home Again – Michael Kiwanuka
Home Again is a fine example of how modern soul music could sound, but it was buried under the surge of Adele’s 21. Nothing against Adele, but this guy is the real deal; think Marvin Gaye meets Bill Withers meets James Taylor. It sounds like a weird combination, but Kiwanuka has hit the folk-soul nail on the head. The release of Home Again in 2012 saw the album climb to 4 on Billboard’s Folk chart, but it failed do much more than that in the states. The album features some of the most incredible displays of songwriting heard in the last decade, as well as a collaboration with Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. Kiwanuka is currently working on a new album titled Love & Hate, with Jack White as producer of the first single.
4. Learn & Burn – The Sheepdogs
Canadian rock band The Sheepdogs carry the torch on their third album Learn & Burn, citing several influences and genres including psychedelic, classic rock, and blues. From the first notes of the pulsing Fender Rhodes, to the Beatles-esque four-song medley outro, this album is on fire from beginning to end. Learn & Burn peaked at 14 on the Canadian charts and earned the band Rock Album of The Year at the 2012 Juno awards. But like the others on this list, it went over the heads of most Americans. Which is a shame because not only is this album listenable in its entirety, it is also an excellent study of American rock music, capturing many of the elements that defined the genre throughout the 60’s and 70’s. Listen, The Sheepdogs are so good they were the first unsigned band to make it onto the cover of Rolling Stone. So why not check them out? And then say “Thanks Canada!”
5. The Baby Huey Story: The Living Legend – Baby Huey
One of the most tragic stories in music history is that of James “Baby Huey” Ramey. Baby Huey began performing professionally around Chicago during the early 1960’s as a lead singer for small club bands. Born with a glandular problem, he weighed 300 pounds, giving him a larger than life stage presence and severe health problems. In 1969, at the age of 25, Huey signed a contract with Curtom Records and recorded an album under the supervision of R&B giant Curtis Mayfield. Huey died after its completion from a drug related heart attack at the age of 26. The album was released shortly after to little attention and eventually drifted into obscurity. Though Living Legend didn’t perform well initially, its contribution to music reached far beyond Huey’s life. Baby Huey’s rhymes and rhythmic patterns are considered to be the foundation that Hip Hop was built upon, and his songs have been sampled countless times, most notably “Hard Times.” All that aside, the album’s funky arrangements, powerhouse musicians, and Baby Huey’s soul-drenched voice is enough reason to give this album listen.
Beginning to end these albums are rock solid, carefully pieced together, wonderful works of art. Take a couple of hours and listen to these albums all the way through. Get to know them. Take them on dates; introduce them to your friends and family. Fall in love, and then add them to your record collection. It’ll be worth it, guaranteed.