Don’t Call It a Comeback
An ode to underrated musicians, giving more credit where more credit is due.
I first had the idea for this after reading “The Non-Champions Hall of Fame,” about the greatest athletes who never won a ring. (Elgin Baylor played in EIGHT NBA Finals for the Lakers and never won??? So painful. And you have to feel for Donnie Baseball.)
Sports and music share certain qualities. Both forms of entertainment are all about performance, charisma, and the thrill of escapism, and showcase varying types and degrees of human ingenuity. Success in either requires untold quantities of unseen, unheralded, and uncompensated effort (think 10,000 hours…unless you’re Sid Vicious). Both entail a desire for adulation and dreams of bringing whole arenas to their feet.
But in sports, the pinnacle is clearly determined: win a championship. Getting in the Hall of Fame is nice, and if you’re really good you might even get your own shoe. But it all comes down to winning.
In music, the pinnacle is less defined, and reaching it more arbitrary. There’s no measurable statistics to rank artists. Album sales is the closest thing, and they can reveal quite a lot, but popularity is not always a signal of quality.
Besides, even when an artist achieves great success, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re given all the respect they deserve. Though I suppose that’s true of athletes too.
So the following is just a subjective take on bands and individual artists who I feel objectively deserve a little more respect. The goal is not to promote the innumerable worthy musicians playing in obscurity (some of them happily so). Instead, this focuses on known entities, most of whom are actually quite highly regarded and extraordinarily famous. Household names even. Others might be known to fewer people but are still familiar in certain circles.
Everyone’s list would be different. Some on my list might elicit eye-rolls, and that’s OK. But regardless of whether any of the artists below is your thing, it should be possible to objectively evaluate their talents and contributions to music, right? Life ain’t fair — but critics should try to be.
Lastly, this should be as fun as it is potentially endless. I stopped at a baker’s dozen (with some honorable mentions). Here they are in no particular order, except for number one…
Give it up for the most underrated band of all time. I mean that in terms of musicianship, composition, innovation, influence, breadth of style, everything.
They’re still highly acclaimed, particularly by critics and other musicians, and often credited for launching proto heavy metal and punk. But for myriad reasons the Kinks were vastly overshadowed by their peers, especially the other three bands of the British Invasion — the Beatles, the Stones, and the Who — and didn’t have anywhere near comparable success in America. Why?
Their biggest obstacles were their inexplicable ban from visiting the U.S. for much of the ’60s and their notorious infighting. (Their drummer Mick Avory once fled the scene during a concert because he thought he had killed guitarist Dave Davies in a brawl that occurred onstage.) I’d add that their album cover art didn’t do them any favors.
Still, from 1964 to 1971, the considerable material unleashed by the Kinks was extraordinary, and much of it still sounds fresh. The then-unprecedented distortion levels on their first smash hit, the rocker “You Really Got Me”, was caused by a slashed speaker cone in Dave Davies’s amp. But they would move on to write and shine in all sorts of styles, from English music hall to country to blues to introspective pop and ballads, and songwriter and frontman Ray Davies always had something interesting to say.
The founding brothers Davies briefly shared a stage in December 2015 for the first time in over 20 years, and there’s a biopic coming hopefully later this year. So perhaps a reunion is coming.
It’s tough to choose just one Kinks song to highlight. “You Really Got Me” and “All Day And All Of The Night” still retain their raw power. Paul Weller and Damon Albarn both call “Waterloo Sunset” their favorite song of all time. Another personal favorite for me is “The Village Green Preservation Society”, a deceptively poignant song released amid the turmoil of 1968, once again showing their punk-like willingness to go against the grain. Then there’s “20th Century Man” and “Days” and “Sitting On My Sofa” and “Sunny Afternoon” and “Supersonic Rocketship” and “Lola” and “Victoria” and “Big Sky”…
But here’s one that’s representative of the band’s style and good humor, and of Ray Davies’s humanistic tendencies and subtle observational power:
“Picture Book” by the Kinks (1968)
The scintillating talent behind Naughty By Nature, Treach (real name Anthony Criss) should appear more often in lists of greatest all-time rappers. His rapid-fire verbal felicity was something to behold, and “O.P.P.” and “Ghetto Bastard (Everything’s Gonna Be Alright)” are classics (thanks in part to their savvy sampling of the Jackson 5’s “ABC” and Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry”, respectively).
Perhaps if he’d gone solo and collaborated with other artists, he would have increased his name recognition and maintained those ’90s heights. Perhaps his muse suffered from his success, since much of his source material seemed inspired by his rough upbringing (though he always maintained a home in his hometown of East Orange, NJ).
Another factor, which I was surprised to learn: He began to focus less on making music and devoted more energy to a successful acting career, even appearing on an episode of The Sopranos (aka The Greatest TV Show of All Time).
I thought of choosing “Wickedest Man Alive” to feature here, since it’s awesome and it also features Queen Latifah, who played a huge role in giving Naughty By Nature their chance. Instead here’s a great summertime anthem and an underrated song in and of itself. (It might’ve gotten more play if the video hadn’t been sorta cheesy):
“Feel Me Flow” by Naughty by Nature (1995)
They’re more acclaimed in their native U.K. and highly regarded Stateside by critics and fans familiar with ’70s rock and glam. Still, they deserve much heavier rotation on U.S. radio, and should be given more attention overall for their outsize influence.
It seems like everything Marc Bolan (T. Rex’s frontman, guitarist, and songwriter) wrote exuded cool. That ineffable cool factor, achieved in part because of their distinct riffs, infectious rhythms, and what I’ll call their paradoxical rough-edged super-smoothness, can’t be faked.
Bolan died in a car accident in 1977, just two weeks before his 30th birthday, which might partly explain why he and T. Rex aren’t more talked about today (though untimely deaths have elevated other artists).
Here’s a great track that’s badass T. Rex to the bone and way ahead of its time:
“The Slider” by T. Rex (1972)
Del the Funky Homosapien
A remarkable lyricist, an artist of tremendous imagination and wit (and, amazingly, the cousin of another great rapper on this list…), Del the Funky Homosapien is a force of nature. Dive into his catalogue and he will without a doubt make you smile with twists and turns of phrase that consistently surprise. He can be hilarious, and he’s is irrepressibly fun and, well, funky.
I’m not the only one who was first introduced to him from his work on the Gorillaz’ eponymous debut album. He handles the verses in their biggest hit, “Clint Eastwood” — a song that’s worth listening to closely when you realize that his lyrics personify capital-M Music itself. But here’s one of his fine solo tracks:
“Why You Wanna Get Funky…” by Del the Funky Homosapien
OK, for all I know you heard an R.E.M. song on the radio today. But their run was so long and prolific that lots of people might only know a sliver of their material, or only the top 40 hits from their heyday that still get airplay.
R.E.M. was a consequential band for almost a decade before Automatic for the People — unquestionably a masterpiece — was issued in 1992. Their influence is immeasurable, starting on college radio and rippling across the musical spectrum as their popularity grew. Michael Stipe’s astounding vocal range and rich, evocative, poetic lyrics are perfectly matched with the understated yet complex guitar work of Peter Buck (said to be an impeccable player in the studio, a rarity in an industry that quietly relies on studio musicians).
Without R.E.M., there would be no Radiohead (Thom Yorke and Stipe would become friends) and who knows what else. They are highly respected, yet they deserve even more acclaim for their high artistry and intelligence in a field that often doesn’t require anywhere near as much for success.
I find myself in another Kinks-like situation here. I could go with “Nightswimming” or “Radio Free Europe” or “Be Mine” or “Daysleeper” or “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville” or “Fall On Me” or “Crush With Eyeliner” or… OK, OK. Enjoy this one about a drunk and depressed college professor.
“Sad Professor” by R.E.M.
The New Pornographers
How could a band referred to as an “indie supergroup” be underrated? Because the recognition they receive is still not commensurate with their stellar output.
Neko Case alone elevates them above most of their peers, and Carl Newman seems to raise his game by drawing energy from the other members (each with successful stints as solo acts or in other indie bands). They’re one of those rare groups that still make entire albums that are solid, not just one or two songs sprinkled amid filler.
Perhaps their provocative name has hindered them a bit? I had read that it was a reference to a quote from Jimmy Swaggart calling rock ’n’ roll “the new pornography”, but Wikipedia says Newman attributes the name to a Japanese film he once saw.
Anyway, they’re an amazing group of amazing musicians who every so often assemble like Voltron to make an outstanding record. They deserve more love.
Their most recent single “Brill Bruisers” is fantastic. I’m putting this one here instead because I’ll always remember the first time I heard it, racing down the Autobahn:
“Go Places” by The New Pornographers
I’m sad to say I’d never heard of Jesse Winchester until his death in 2014. Two qualities make him stand out: his soft yet crystalline vocals, always in perfect pitch, and his effortlessly intricate finger-picking.
One possible reason he isn’t as well known as he otherwise might’ve been is that he left the U.S. for Canada during the Vietnam War to escape the draft. He also dedicated much of his talents to writing songs for other musicians, including for Elvis Costello.
He was that rare artist who was best when performing live. Here he is doing a quiet showstopper, bringing tears to the eyes of some in the audience — as well as to Neko Case and Elvis Costello. Witness a true virtuoso softly slaying it:
“Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding” by Jesse Winchester
This is one of those bands who just sound different from everyone else. They’re hard to categorize really. I say “band” and “they” but it’s all really the work of one immensely talented dude named Matt Mahaffey, who was a prodigy who started on drums at age 4 and would blossom into a multi-instrumentalist. He plays virtually every instrument on all his albums.
I remember hearing Self’s first single, “So Low”, from their outstanding first ablum, Subliminal Plastic Motives. I’m still surprised they/he didn’t get bigger, though the band has a solid loyal following. Mahaffey has also made quite a name for himself as a producer, and he’s one half of the duo Wired All Wrong.
Mahaffey recorded Self’s fifth album, Gizmodgery, entirely with children’s toy instruments (it does not sound anything like that makes it sound). It’s amazing, including the cover of the Doobie Brothers’ hit “What A Fool Believes”. But here’s a great one of their/his own:
“Sophomore Jinx” by Self
I doubt anyone could cover a Joni Mitchell song and improve upon it — there is something so raw and personal in her writing and her performances. The combination of supreme guitar work, ethereal vocalization, and evocative lyrical expression is something to behold.
Her playing style has a wild quality yet is always tightly controlled. Her lyrics would raise her songs above her contemporaries’ even without that exquisite voice. She also deserves more credit for her widespread influence (beyond just the fact that she is the one who first arranged David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash to try playing together, in her own living room in Laurel Canyon no less).
There is sadness and innocence running through her catalogue, as well as considerable wisdom and love and life. If her music were more widely known — and it is already quite widely known, make no mistake — the world would be a brighter place.
It’s hard to picture Joni Mitchell without a smile on her face and an acoustic guitar strapped on her shoulder. And I’ll forever marvel at how anyone could possibly sing so well while playing such intricate guitar parts.
“Morning Morgantown” by Joni Mitchell
Yeah I’m including this superstar on here. Too often, he gets overshadowed by two of his peers — 2Pac, the bard of 1990s West Coast rap, and his one-time partner Dr. Dre.
Dre is an exceptional producer and a titan in the music industry (with an unmatched ear for spotting talent). 2Pac was larger-than-life. But I think Ice Cube was the better rapper of the three. I mean, he wrote most of the lyrics for N.W.A. That, combined with his solo efforts, should garner him even more musical respect. He’s arguably the best actor from hip-hop too (but don’t call him Dough Boy). Incidentally, he’s also Del the Funky Homosapien’s cousin.
I thought of putting “Color Blind” below since it’s such a great song. But Ice Cube appears only on its first verse, sharing the spotlight with other rappers (including pre-fame Coolio, btw). So let’s go with this one, which improbably samples Big Bird (as only Mr. Cube could pull off).
“Bird In The Hand” by Ice Cube
Nilsson might be the epitome of an underrated musician, sad to say. He was one of those special artists who wrote a wide swathe of songs familiar to many people without their being aware that they know those songs, let alone that those songs were written by him.
The sheer variety of musical styles and sounds adopted by Nilsson is staggering, swaying from the strange to the classically familiar. You could listen to three different recordings by him — all of them hits in his day — and be convinced that a different person performed each one.
Some of his music also has an otherworldly quality to it, with complex compositions that sound deceivingly simple. Where did “Coconut” come from? What is that? I understand the Caribbean influence but even so it’s like a song from another dimension.
But he comes at you from every other direction with songs like the haunting “One” (covered by Aimee Mann for Magnolia); and his folksy streetwise cover of “Everybody’s Talkin’”, made famous by the film Midnight Cowboy; the heartrending torch song “Living Without You”; and the circuslike “1941” (Nilsson’s birth year, by the way).
He was full of surprises, but here is a strong standout (also covered by Neko Case here):
“Don’t Forget Me” by Harry Nilsson
Can you think of another band that sounds anything like them? I can’t. Originality isn’t in and of itself a mark of quality, but Cake is an absolute original with the musicianship to back it up. I also love that they don’t take themselves too seriously — odds of that happening for a band with a full-time trumpeter usually fall the other way, I would think.
Cake’s original guitarist, Greg Brown, left in 1997. They’ve remained solid long after his departure but I’d say Brown’s style and technical virtuosity on Fashion Nugget were a highlight.
Two more points: the lead singer reminds me of Louis C.K., and the guitar solo toward the very end of “Open Book” is one for all time — and Nelson plays it twice. Here’s another real fun song:
“Stickshifts And Safetybelts” by Cake
I’m honestly not trolling. I know the exorbitant amount of accolades they receive. I know it’s impossible to be unfamiliar with many of their songs — they’re just floating around out there in the cultural ether and all.
I include the Beatles here for those music fans familiar only with their hits but not the full scope of what they accomplished, or why they are so universally applauded and effortlessly known.
I know, I know. Some of you might be rolling your eyes, thinking, Enough with the Beatles and “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and “Yesterday” and “Let It Be” and blah blah blah.
But consider that you might be missing something. Thirteen albums, all recorded and released in the span of seven years. Each a testament by a group of artists striving for supremacy and somehow reaching it, then always topping themselves. Each with its share of spectacular and timeless songs, many of which never get any individual airplay.
You have to dive in to begin to fathom it all. Have you? Scoff if you like. But I envy any music fan who still has that journey ahead of them.
“Flying” by the Beatles
Jurassic 5, The Jam, Matthew Sweet, Roxy Music (& Bryan Ferry), The Jesus and Mary Chain, Arrested Development, Jenny Lewis, Supertramp, The Meters, Leonard Cohen, Cheap Trick, 311, Little Feat, Los Lobos, Soul Coughing, Spin Doctors, De La Soul, Wilco, The Rentals, The Band, ELVIS.
Posted on June 17, 2016