Every few months there is some sort of list of Best Albums. We have become obsessed with the idea of The Best as being this thing that if we get it, we are set. Here I am going to present some albums that will never likely be on any of these lists despite being very special.
These albums are chosen because in some way each record is outside of the ordinary. The reason for this post is really to remind people that you can do amazing work, even if you aren’t getting the mostest plays on Spotifry (not that I think you should even be there). These records all prove that these acts had a good balance (even if tenuously at the time) on the 4-Pillars of Success. They also prove that “perfect” and “getting fans” may not be as shallow as you have assumed.
If you haven’t heard of these records I am not trying to prove how obtuse I am (apparently I am obtuse – I refute that but apparently my refutation of that is proof – oh my). I hope you will sit down with some or all of these records to work out why they are so good and to see how you could achieve similar (without cloning a thing).
I will loosely pop these albums into groups based on a couple of broad groups:
These records are just so 1980s in the very best way. They are not chosen for being the most ’80s as then I would have included A Flock Of Seagulls and The Buggles.
Eurogliders – Absolutely
This is the Eurgliders record that moved the band from being a good draw at a local bar to being top-shelf. Everything here is total class with great stories in the songs and some very nice simple use of melody & countermelody without seeming to take the record out of a Pop-Rock space. The mixes are also just lovely.
‘Til Tuesday – Voices Carry
A lot of what elevates this record is similar to the Eurogliders record above in that the stories are wonderful with a theme of relationships that are not working delivered in a beautiful balance of melody, counter melodies, and glossy mixing.
Alphaville – Afternoons In Utopia
This is an absurd record in any way that one might hope to describe it. The lyrics are somewhat ridiculous based on some sort of Age of Aquarius proto-New Ageism that should fall flat on its face, especially seeing it is delivered in a very synth-driven record. And yet Afternoons in Utopia is an absolutely amazing experience that manages to step straight over how naive it is to deliver exactly the hopeful-joyful-connected feel it set out to deliver. The composing, mixing, and singing is just special in this unique record.
Duran Duran – Duran Duran
The Durans first record is a bit of a dark horse. Probably overshadowed by its huge, and largely misunderstood – or maybe misdirected by that video – single, Girls On A Greasy Pole. Overall the album is actually rather sophisticated with a really interesting warm sound and feel overall. It is far from the disposable Pop album many assumed it to be. The Durans clearly have a vision, one that success probably didn’t know what to do with. Or maybe that is part of why the band was able to be so successful in that they were not just singing silly love songs with synths.
Pseudo Echo – Autumnal Park
Australia’s Pseudo Echo was in many ways making their own version of the first Duran Duran record but they managed to deliver something that is equally charming and moody/dreamy despite the Pop nature of the image of the band. This is a band having a very clear sense of what they are about. Sadly in the USA, this record is a mish-mash of the first and second albums. While the second album is a lot of fun, it is not as sophisticated song-wise as the first (even if the technology level is higher).
Berlin – Pleasure Victim
This is almost really an EP. It almost drowned under its tacky Sex (I’m A…) which I do admit is good and had a striking 12″ that really played on the naughtiness. It is a shame that Berlin felt they had to trade on the same sort of thing as Missing Persons (Dale Bozio) when in reality they had a wonderfully perfect set of moody songs that just lapped up the synthiness. Easy to dismiss on first listen but then too good to ever let go of as it is such a great mood.
Rock is a special thing, too often overlooked or even denigrated these days. Rock is a bit of a catchall tag but allows for some truly amazing approaches to making a record.
The Angels (Angel City) – The Angels
The Angels were one of OZ Rock’s most successful acts (Cold Chisel, AC/DC, The Angels, Midnight Oil, Aussie Crawl). There is something so unusual though about them in that Doc Neeson’s lyrics were so unlike any other act. The band were playing a kind of Rockabilly influenced Blues that was not quite yet their Hard Rock future but showed it. On top of it Doc sneered & drawled a sort of toilet-wall philosophy that was the equal of any Blues Rock or Punk Band yet totally unlike. The record is relatively basic yet uses its strengths to transcend that.
Cold Chisel – Cold Chisel
The first Chisel album would probably have sunk if it wasn’t for the single that caused so much should-we/should-we-not from Rock Radio. Khe Sanh is a unique song despite in many ways being somewhat coarse (and I don’t mean crude). The whole record is a joy as this Aussie Bar band show how they are equal (yet different) from any Blues-Rock act anywhere. The Aussieness is always there front & center – as is Americanness in Texas players. The record is rough and sounds rather scratchy but it doesn’t matter if you are there for the songs and performances from this band of irritable blokes with a master songwriter in their midst.
Bruce Springsteen – Greetings From Asbury Park + Nebraska
I like just about all Springsteen but these two records are just incendiary. Both sound a bit bad. Greetings is tinny/scratchy and Nebraska is muddy but who cares if you are listening to the songs. These records take you to the places where these people facing life are. Most people only know anything from Greetings because of Manfred Mann covering them but while Manfred’s covers are super if you do not understand the way Bruce wrote these songs, you are missing out. These records are, to me, the epitome of the singer/songwriter more so even than my love for Jackson Browne who is a bonafide posterchild for the S+S concept.
Boston – Third Stage
This was a tricky record and almost didn’t happen as a result of several technical & legal difficulties. In many ways, this record is a lot like a modern DAW-based act where one guy does all the work and then gets people in to fill in the extra parts. Tom Scholz was a bit of a perfectionist which caused issues but if you let this record take you, it is worth it as there is little like the experience overall. The record has a great meta-story in coming to terms with life after the teen years and makes that stunning.
Roger Daltry – Under A Raging Moon
I have spoken to many fans of The Who who claim not to even know of this album’s existence. It is like people want to forget the band members had lives and records in the ’80s which is sad as this is a perfect Rock record by any metric. Roger is a superb singer and like Third Stage, this record is all about coming to terms with life on new terms now that the ’60s, ’70s, and youth, are over. Pete Townshend’s similar record White City maybe technically be better in some ways but this is just a perfect record.
Demon – Taking The World By Storm
This is a record that I feel should have been pretty big. There are songs on here that rock as hard and as big as Aerosmith & The Scorpions at that time. But Demon went by almost totally ignored. The album name now stands almost as a parody of what happened – which was effectively nothing. Because of the classy “produced” sound some simply wrote this, and other similar albums like Slade’s Rogues Gallery, off as pap. Sad.
Country can seem somewhat samey to outsiders which is a total shame.
Gary Allan – Smoke Rings In The Dark
A record that fans really like but rarely is spoken of. Smoke Rings starts the way it goes on with a look into human relationships. Sure there are references to trucks, mamma, God, and drinkin’ but overall the delivery and finesse is all class. Sadly while those who love the record love it, mostly it was bypassed for being weak when suddenly the cool kids were doing Americana and emo. Allan’s later album Tough All Over did play with the Top 40 emo Rock thing, before many other Country artists. I still think that Smoke Rings is the more special record.
Mark Knopfler & Emylou Harris – All The Roadrunning
I plain didn’t get this record the first time (or three) that I listened. I came back sometime later and it just clicked. This is a stunning record that makes the most of Mark & Emmylou as singers. There is not a whiff of Dire Straits in the guitars which may be what had me lost at first. But once I opened to what is here, it is a record of pure class and talent, the like of which people seem scared to put on record since. In some ways, this record could almost belong in the next category – even though it is in many ways very Trad seeing it is Bluegrass based.
There is this assumption that all Alt-Rock should be guitar-based and use a Fender Jaguar or a Rickenbacker. I refute that. I think that Alternative is simply Rock & Pop done a bit differently from the ruling convention.
The Psychedelic Furs – Midnight To Midnight
Pretty well everything The Furs did was great. They were in many ways the poster children for Alt Rock even though no one ever seemed to let them have that. Maybe Richard Butler’s songs were just too deep & sideways for the average 17-year-old to hold up as representing their attempt at being safely different. Critics almost all seemed to pan this record seeing it is big and glossy with synths. It also covers one of their own minor hits for the movie Pretty In Pink. Overall though the record is just a pinnacle of what can be done to bring an Artist like Butler into a Billy Idol sort of a space without losing a thing.
Clan of Xymox – A Twist Of Shadows
Another record that many fans seem to prefer didn’t exist. Xymox was always an also-ran under Sisters, Mission, etc but this record sees them deliver something just so beautiful overall. While Xymox may seem weaker overall than their rivals, the attention to detail that builds this record that is everything that Goth could/should be is unequaled by any other act, including other Xymox records.
Peter Murphy – Deep
Peter is pretty much the guy we can point to for so many ’80s singers singing as a baritone. This solo (ex Bauhaus) record is just like the Xymox record in that it is beautifully balanced. Peter uses fewer moving parts though yet delivers more overall. Peter shows his underrated mastery over & over making records that don’t make sense if you read the lyric sheet but just grab you in the performance. There are few records classier than Deep.
Pet Shop Boys – Very
Pet Shop Boys almost owned the ’80s (after Eurythmics). This was probably their first record after the NWO of NWA had taken over. It didn’t do as well on the charts but people who got it know they have something special. All PSB records are at least somewhat special but this one has everything at 11 without remotely drowning in the effort.
Sheila Chandra – Roots & Wings
This is here because there is nothing else really quite like it (not that there aren’t lots of Raga and World records). Sheila opened a door that no one really expected with a record that sounds and feels huge (in a non-Rock way) despite being made in a rather limited way. That so much was achieved with so little is a testament to the ability to tell a story and get it delivered. This record opened the way for people like Ofra Haza and then Enya more than probably any other.
There are a lot more records I would have liked to have added, like Icehouse, but lines must be drawn.