Monday, December 21, 2009

The 10 Most Underrated Rock Albums

As we approach Christmas, I’m wrapping up the third compilation in my “Father Knows Best” series of CD box sets for my now 14-year-old daughter. This time around, I’m presenting her with my take on The 10 Most Underrated Rock Albums of All Time (previous installments in the series were The 10 Best Debut Albums of All Time and The 10 Best Live Albums of All Time). She has good taste in music – a connoisseur in the making, I’d like to think – and while she may not take every title I’ve bestowed upon her to heart, she seems to appreciate most of them and several have made it onto her playlists.

As with all of these sets, the Most Underrated one is very subjective and it required some tough choices to pare it down to only 10. In fact, the criteria for this one is a little more complicated than the previous two. For the most part, I picked works by well-known artists, so the designated titles qualify as significantly underrated within the catalog of that artist. However, there are several entries that I judged worthy of a place on the list for their shear unsung greatness within the entire rock canon, even though the artists are not household names and the designated discs may, in fact, be the most highly rated of those artists’ catalogs (case in point, The Go-Betweens entry).

So here’s my Top 10 Most Underrated Rock Albums of All Time:

• Led Zeppelin – Presence This is the band’s least musically diverse, but funkiest release. Its frenetic intensity is driven by the dense, multilayered guitars and propulsive groove of the rhythm section. It includes the almost-prog-rock epic “Achilles Last Stand,” which ranks with “Stairway to Heaven” and “Kashmir” among the group’s crowning achievements. It also includes snatches of ’50s-esque pop in “Candy Store Rock,” a great slow blues along the lines of LZ III’s “Since I’ve Been Loving You” in “Tea for One,” and another borrowed old blues tune in amped up form, “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.”

• Neil Young – Greendale This 2003 concept album lays out a fully formed, somewhat twisted, folksy tale of a Pacific Coast family’s encounters with an unfortunate murder, the mass media and environmental activism in fittingly simplistic but resonant musical terms. “Sing a song for freedom. Sing a song for love. Sing a song for depressed angels, falling from above.” (I saw Neil perform this album live, complete with stage actors, three times during the Greendale tour.)

• The Who – Who By Numbers – Many say this should have been a Townshend solo album, which may be true, but the band kicks on all gears for most of the songs, including several of the post-Quadrophenia period’s best: “Slip Kid,” “How Many Friends” and “In a Hand or Face.” Then there’s the fanciful farce of “Squeeze Box” (which, like the equally frivolous “Happy Jack” a decade earlier, was a hit single) and Pete’s ukulele strumming and warbling on “Blue, Red and Gray.” One of the first albums I bought brand new upon its release in 1975.

• Bob Dylan – Shot of Love There are still some vestiges of the Born Again period remaining, but Dylan was coming out of the heavy-handed religiosity of Saved and produced some great songs on this 1981 release. It included rockers ranging from “Property of Jesus,” “Deadman,” “Trouble” and the title track to yet another tribute to an outlaw (Lenny Bruce, in this case) and one of Bob’s most poignant lyrics ever, the transcendent, hymn-like “Every Grain of Sand.”

• Pink Floyd – Animals George Orwell’s masterful novella, Animal Farm, put to Floyd’s trademark sound and a modern sociopolitical setting. It features some of the best interplay between Gilmour’s guitar and Wright’s keyboards ever captured on record. Alas, it was also the beginning of Waters’ unyielding megalomania.

• The Thrashing Doves – Bedrock Vice *– Long forgotten and forever time-stamped to the period (the mid ’80s) by the occasionally cheesy synth sound, this album is chock full of great pop songs with catchy guitar lines and upbeat lyrical romanticism sung in a not-off-putting trebly hiccup of a style.

• The Go-Betweens – 16 Lovers Lane This 1988 release is simply one of the best pop albums of all time. The masterful songsmithing outshines even the best of superlative popsters like Squeeze, ’80s era Steve Winwood and The Cure – alternately jaunty and melancholy with less slick production. The often winsome words, minor key melodies and viola embellishments conjure moods familiar to 19th-century romantic poets.

• The Saints – All Fools Day They started out as a Stones-inspired punk band in the late ’70s and ended as a grungy, hard rock band a few years ago. But, in the interim, Chris Bailey & Co. made a few albums of superb troubadour-like songcraft. This 1987 release captures some of their best. “Just like fire would,” indeed.

• The Church – Priest = Aura This intercontinental band’s last major label release (Arista, 1992) is dense with lush instrumentation, futuristic/sci-fi lyrics and cinematic feel. The group’s further adventures in opiated ethereality result in a sonic expedition from the cosmos to dank, steam-filled underworlds and back again into the shimmering ether. It kicks off with the churning epic “Aura,” but embarks on the occasional pop exploration (“Feel” and “Kings”) before concluding with the gloriously theatrical “Disillusionist,” the serene noir of “Old Flame” and the requisite sonic freakout of “Chaos.” Great album cover, too.

• Raindogs – Lost SoulsThe late, much-lamented Musician magazine pegged this debut from one of Boston’s best bands ever as “The Waterboys eating a Beggar’s Banquet out on Highway 61.” An apt summary. With the late Scottish fiddle wizard Johnny Cunningham and an alternatively melodic and biting two-guitar attack embellishing Mark Cutler’s impressive rootsy songwriting, this album delivers soulful rockin’ like the Stones at their peak. (Bonus points for the Tom Waits-inspired band name.)

In hindsight, I’m intrigued by the fact that three of the 10 bands on this list – The Saints, The Church and The Go-Betweens – are Australian. I suppose that makes sense when you think about it, since Aussie bands don’t get the media or popular attention (even when they deserve it) that American and English bands do, so they’re more likely to be under-appreciated.

ALSO RANS ... A nod to my close runners up: Julian CopeSaint Julian / Simple MindsSparkle in the Rain / David Lindley & El Rayo X * / Gillian Welch – Time (the Revelator) / Bob Marley & The WailersKaya / The Proclaimers This Is the Story * / Joe Strummer & The MescalerosStreetcore / Big CountryBuffalo Skinners / Roy HarperValentine / Johnny CunninghamFair Warning / Modest MouseThe Moon and Antarctica / The Lucy Show - Undone / The Refo:mation – Pharmakoi - Distance Crunching Honchos with Echo Units / Bill Nelson On a Blue Wing

* Also cited in the Best Debut Albums category


  1. Thank you Bill!
    Mark Cutler

  2. Awesome list! Two of my favorites: the Raindogs and the Saints!!

  3. Intriquing list(always dug Shot of Love), very nice to see someone acknowledge the vastly underrated and too often overlooked Raindogs.