50 albums that never really received the recognition – whether critically or commercially – they deserved. The records in this list fall mostly into one of three categories: unfairly maligned, overshadowed by the rest of the artist’s output or just obscure and therefore criminally underappreciated.
It’s no surprise Sue Tompkins is an artist. Her words spray out like abstract brushstrokes on this one-of-a-kind album; the only one recorded by this short-lived Scottish band. Her scattershot, stream of consciousness delivery was hard for some to digest – one NME reviewer likened it to “animals dying in agony” – but Tompkins was a true original in the same way Jim White dances to the beat of his own drum. And speaking of the Dirty Three, her backing band of three fellow art graduates wasn’t half-bad either, providing the spiky post-punk backdrop for her to spit such endearingly fractured rhymes. Appreciated in Greece and Australia, but (criminally) nowhere else. – Darren Levin
My Chemical Romance have a legitimate claim to being the most hated emo band ever (my money, however, is on Panic! At The Disco). And yet Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge is the best thing to have ever come out of that aesthetic ghetto. Just prior to descending into caricature with The Black Parade MCR delivered an improbable mix of punk, metal, glam, pop and – yes – emo that felt both innovative and intuitive, and pretty fucking exciting.
Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge announced Gerard Way as one of the best rock singers going around, delivering his gymnastic melodies with a startling, albeit hammy, sense of conviction (exhibit A: ‘The Ghost of You’). Meanwhile, guitarists Frank Iero and Ray Toro married Kirk Hammett-esque shredding with some of the most inventive arrangements this side of Television’s Marquee Moon. Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge could’ve been huge: Coming from a bunch of mascara-smeared sad-sacks, though, it never stood a chance. – Edward Sharp-Paul
English songwriter Robyn Hitchcock has certainly had an illustrious career, but at risk of being overlooked is the cult-classic album his band The Soft Boys put out in 1980 before splitting up (the first time). It leads with one of the all-time-best power-pop anthems in ‘I Wanna Destroy You’, laced with acid well beyond its title: “And when I have destroyed you, I’ll come picking at your bone/You won’t have a single atom left to call your own.” (No wonder it was covered by Circle Jerks.) The whole record flows with babble-like alacrity, mingling dank glam and psych seediness. ‘I Got the Hots’ starts as a bluesy prowl only to unravel in the second half, and ‘Old Pervert’ is happily subversive. Today Underwater Moonlight plays like the missing link between Syd Barrett and Bowie and R.E.M. and Teenage Fanclub. – Doug Wallen
Seems kinda weird to have an album on here from 2011, right? But for something that already feels like a classic, the debut for former St Helens frontman Jarrod Quarrell failed to make an impression beyond the tight-knit Melbourne community that adored it. There was no Australian Music Prize nomination. No Jagermeister Independent Music Award nod. No adulation from the overseas indie press, who seemed preoccupied with Pond and Twerps. No 9.2 from Pitchfork. Their loss. Ex Tropical is a true original, juxtaposing sunny calypso vibes with tortured lyrics in a similar fashion to the similarly underrated Amore del Tropico by The Black Heart Procession. Shag Chamberlain’s melodic bass, a drum machine, piano and synth provide the minimalist foundation for one of the coolest vocal performances this side of David Essex’s ‘Rock On’, while the shifting moods of ‘Lose The Baby’ and ‘Say No To Thugs’ prove there’s trouble brewing in paradise. – Darren Levin
Make Up hints at the passion and precision for which Bloc Party were universally adored three years later, and is suffused with the exuberant pop flailing of classic weirdos like Talking Heads. For every hooky freakout (“BANDA JEZZ BANDA JEZZ!”) there’s a transcendent moment like the discordantly glowing swirl that punctuates opener ‘Naked In The City Again’.
Steve Bays’ creaking, yelping, hyperactive child of a voice still manages to express the unease and paranoia of being in your 20s, getting fucked up and failing at relationships and mucking with your self-perception. Lines like “I got my head shaved for her because she told me it would do all the right things for my identity” (‘Aveda’) can get lost in his ADD yowls and eccentric meter but show that even though they’ve fallen down the major-label black hole of accessibility in the ensuing decade (yes, decade), the Vancouver band made something emotionally raw and fun. In the same “revival” wave as the Strokes, but fundamentally different in mindset, stressing about their social failures instead of shrugging them off. – Caitlin Welsh
In the footsteps of Radio Birdman, Sunnyboys and The Scientists stood Lime Spiders, a band from south-west Sydney who came out of tumultuous beginnings to release their 1987 debut, The Cave Comes Alive. Continually struggling to hold down a steady line-up, their debut was a collection of forgotten gems from one of the richest veins of Australia’s garage history including the Stooges-indebted ‘Ignormy’, the fuzz ballad ‘Jessica’ and the career-defining ‘Just One Solution’. And yet despite praise from Iggy Pop and Joey Ramone, it somehow failed to make a lasting local dent. As one of the strongest rock relics of 1980’s Sydney, The Cave Comes Alive is a chronically underrated and forgotten record lost in time. – Max Easton
Supergrass are often described as a “great singles band”. It’s a nice way of saying that their albums were patchy, and that they wrote hook-laden but facile pop. Firstly, there’s nothing wrong with hook-laden but facile pop, and secondly, it’s bullshit as Life On Other Planets attests. Sure, the singles are genius (‘Grace’ may be the best song called ‘Grace’ ever), but then so is the whole album. Few of Britpop’s leading lights survived the turn of the millennium with dignity intact (hello, Gallaghers). And yet here’s Gaz Coombes turning out masterful, breezy pop (from the glammy opening trio of ‘Za’, ‘Rush Hour Soul’ and ‘Seen The Light’ to the Beatles-y harmonies that close our ‘Run’), while bravely ignoring nu-metal, The Strokes and his band’s transition from Monkees-esque teen stardom to middle-ranking man-band status. And all anyone cares about is ‘Alright’. For shame. – Edward Sharp-Paul
This should have been the disc that propelled Throwing Muses into the same league as their proteges the Pixies. After three critically acclaimed albums and a near-hit with ‘Dizzy’, they made what was both their most polished and catchy effort and one of the weirdest guitar-pop albums ever. However, it ended up marking the end of the band as it was. Despite Kristin Hersh’s brilliant opener/lead single ‘Counting Backwards’ and stepsister Tanya Donnelly’s buzz-saw pop masterpiece ‘Not Too Soon’, a combination of a huge tax bill, management issues, Hersh’s schizophrenia and custody battle over her first son and internal issues saw Donnelly grab bassist Fred Abong and quit to form Belly, leaving Hersh and drummer Dave Narcizo to pick up the pieces. It should have been the next Doolittle, but instead The Real Ramona was a footnote to Donnelly’s brief but bright pop stardom. – Andrew P Street
Before he became Gnarls Barkley, before he swore his way to the top of the charts and before he became a parrot-toting judge on The Voice, Cee-Lo Green was a star. Or at least he should have been. He rose as a member of hip-hop cult heros Goodie Mob and joined OutKast (and others) in the southern/intergalactic supergroup Dungeon Family, but Cee-Lo could never contained by those groups and a solo career was inevitable.
His first solo album His Perfect Imperfections is a fine opening shot, but it’s crazy that 2004’s 75-minute opus Cee-Lo Green… Is the Soul Machine wasn’t his big breakthrough. Cee-Lo settled into a safer, more coherent sound once he teamed with Danger Mouse, but Soul Machine is a kaleidoscopic tour de force through soul and hip-hop, with Cee-Lo displaying a depth and versatility that proved he was capable of playing any character in the cast of modern urban music.
Cee-Lo takes his name from a dice game and appropriately enough this is a record that rolls unexpected combinations of genres and voices. (He croons neo-soul, spits battle raps and belts out club tracks with equal dexterity and skill.) The album also harnessed the talents of producers including DJ Premier, The Neptunes and Timbaland, yet for all its dazzling array of styles and voices it failed to connect. Perhaps that bizarre cover that looks like Pen and Pixel on a particularly uninspired day put people off? Or maybe the world was just waiting patiently for a breakthrough soul single about mental illness based around a sample lifted from a spaghetti Western? – Tom Mann
Having perfected the garage album about four times over, The White Stripes were free to really explore here. Cue the marimba (‘The Nurse’), an overeager chorus (‘My Doorbell’), heaps of piano (‘White Moon’ et al) and an occult bluegrass romp (‘Little Ghost’). Get Behind Me Satan foreshadowed the restless genre-hopping and sour introspection of Jack White’s solo debut Blunderbuss (2012), as if he was still trying to challenge himself now that the band had infiltrated the mainstream. Just as much as White Blood Cells, this has a real dial-turning slipperiness to it, typified by how naturally the chalky Meg White interlude ‘Passive Manipulation’ gives way to ‘Take, Take, Take’. And let’s not forget one of White’s best ballads, ‘I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet)’. – Doug Wallen
This one tends to get lost in the shuffle. Maybe it’s timing? Nearly a decade on from utopian alt-rock singles ‘Cannonball’ and ‘Divine Hammer’, Title TK came long after The Breeders had faded from prominence and long before ‘90s nostalgia had set in. And next to the noisy experimentation of 1990’s Pod and the pop giddiness of 1993’s Last Splash, it comes off as slow, quiet, unpolished and stubbornly hit-free. It’s got the same rickety-as-hell minimalism of 2008’s Mountain Battles, but not the free-wheeling range. So what does it have? That priceless slacker air, for one, and, on the heartbreaking ‘Off You’, that doll-faced voice Kim Deal can pull out when she’s not shouting herself hoarse. Oh, and sneaky, earthy songs captured by Steve Albini with a sneaky, earthy trueness. Title TK showcases a no-frills band that never wanted to be megawatt rock stars. – Doug Wallen
Recorded with the same producer and in the same Sydney studio that yielded You Am I’s much-lauded masterpiece Hourly Daily, the fortunes of Glide’s Disappear Here couldn’t be starker. “Maybe a lot of people didn’t hear it,” bassist Andy Kelly remarked before pair of one-off reunion shows in 2010, “but it seems to me that the people who liked it, really loved it.” Having a cult audience is fine if you’re into that sort of thing, but the band’s late singer William Arthur always seemed to dream bigger than a stool at the Annandale with their name on it. He certainly wrote that way. There’s a clutch of pop songs in the middle of this record – ‘What Do I Know’, ‘Wrapped In Fingers’ and the wonderful ‘Tangled’ – that demanded a wider audience. But there was a weirdness about Glide, a certain intangible mystery (perhaps Arthur’s penchant for odd chords and oblique lyrics), that kept the general public at arm’s length. Nonetheless, if you’re looking for a sound that truly encapsulates the sound of Sydney’s inner-west in the mid-1990s this is it. – Darren Levin
Jamaican model, party animal and cocaine aficionado returns home to record an album with reggae’s greatest ever rhythm section. Cue album of deep grooves and paper-voiced platitudes, right? Not quite. Far from playing the ingénue, Jones dominates these songs, flipping between lascivious come-ons (“Pull up to the bumper, baby/In your long black limousine … park it in between”) and dead-on satire of the high life. Meanwhile, Sly and Robbie pick up the thread and run with it, laying Eurotrash disco-pop textures over sleek, reggae-derived grooves.
Upon one listen of the muzak-y title track, delivered with precisely none of the weary irony of Iggy Pop’s original, it’s easy to see how Jones was criticised for favouring style over substance. What her critics never understood, though, was that her affectless delivery was part of the whole knowing package: ‘80s pop aspired to this sort of glossy blandness, and Nightclubbing was both its greatest triumph and its greatest pisstake. – Edward Sharp-Paul
Nine years before he was telling us to catch his disease, Ben Lee emerged from his teenage indie rock band Noise Addict with this scrappy solo debut. Its 18 songs are purer and more unguarded than anything Lee has done since, capturing the forever-young spirit of Daniel Johnston and Jonathan Richman both. (Rightly so: Lee was still just 16 when he started the album.) Liz Phair guested on ‘Away With the Pixies’, which was a huge deal at the time, but it’s heartbreaking enough without her. There are threadbare, falling-down, one-and-two-minute tunes all over the place, although ‘I’m With the Star’ shows his preternatural wisdom and ‘My Guitar’ and ‘Love Song’ his self-aware streak. Lee doesn’t attempt the linguistic twists of The Lucksmiths, but he’s very much a kindred spirit to them here: earnest, tender and unaffected. – Doug Wallen
Macy Gray spent over a decade squeezing her throaty rasp into pop tunes, but the hits were intermittent. With The Sellout she gave up, writing much of the music and lyrics herself. Earlier albums played to her freakiness, but in a “Look at me, I’m so bohemian” way. On The Sellout she sounds deranged. ‘Stalker’ is like having Prince lurking outside your house. A duet with Bobby Brown features the loving declaration: “Baby I will kiss you, even when you have the flu.” ‘Kissed It’ features Velvet Revolver minus Scott Weiland, which means Guns N’ Roses fronted by Macy Gray. They play a Schaffel beat like T. Rex while she sings about how she can’t leave her man because he gives great head. Lots of these songs are about absent lovers, but the finale, ‘The Comeback’ is about her absent audience. She admits that at some point she’ll have to stage a comeback, “sell out”, maybe do another duet with Erykah Badu. But not now. Now she gets to be herself, and if nobody notices it’s her best then screw ‘em. – Jody Macgregor
Recorded with Wayne Connolly (Underground Lovers, You Am I), Dallas Crane’s self-titled 2004 album has all the hallmarks of an Australian classic, transferring the vital energy of “The Crane’s” live show into 14 balls-to-the-floor rock tracks. From the grunty hooks of opener ‘Dirty Hearts’, to the seven-minute curve ball ‘Come Clean’ (recalling the boozy musings of a jealous lover), the songs stack up at such a rate it makes you wonder why Jet was our export of choice in 2004.
‘Numb All Over’ is like the Noughties counter-point to Cold Chisel’s ode-to-partying ‘Saturday Night’, while singer Dave Larkin’s idiosyncratic husk propels the country twang of ‘Ladybird’ into classic Dark Horses territory. Perhaps if rock hadn’t been on the way out, if they hadn’t been sucked into a major label void, or if the band hadn’t gone on an indefinite hiatus Dallas Crane would today – as so many critics predicted back in 2004 – be filed under “Australian classic” alongside Cold Chisel’s East and The Angels’ Face To Face. – Sarah Smith
Malcolm McLaren certainly knew how to crash a scene and make as much self-promoting noise as possible in the process. In 1983, years after The Sex Pistols had imploded and with his latest project Bow Wow Wow burning out, the great pop provocateur stole created Duck Rock. School yard ditties, country ho-down calls, the Zulu sounds of Boyoyo Boys, and The World’s Famous Supreme Team radio MCs were all thrown into a joyous mix that gave McLaren two unlikely hits – ‘Buffalo Gals’ and ‘Double Dutch’ – and two shoulda-been hits ‘Soweto’ and ‘Jive My Baby’.
Later that year Herbie Hancock scratched ‘Rockit’ into the history books. Paul Simon raided South Africa for Graceland in 1986. And in 1989 De La Soul threaded 3 Feet High and Rising together with a magpie’s sample collection, skits and jokey raps. But McLaren’s ground-breaking album is lucky to appear as a footnote in the story of pop music buried somewhere in the chapter on The Avalanches. – Tom Mann
Shirley Manson made sexless ‘90s rock start thinking with its genitals again while Butch Vig’s production added gloss to Garbage’s grunge. After two albums, they took those elements – sex and gloss – to their logical conclusion: They went pop. In 2012 that doesn’t sound mindblowing, but at the time an alt-rock band doing un-ironic love songs that didn’t sound like they were being sung by your creepy ex or the killer in your backseat (as earlier Garbage songs had) was crazy.
Fans who wanted Version 3.0 to follow Version 2.0 were unimpressed. ‘Androgyny’ could have been a Beyoncé song if you ignore the lyrics, but why ignore the lyrics? The words are important. ‘Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go!)’ is as pop a song as they ever recorded, and that’s about a transvestite hooker. ‘Shut Your Mouth’ is still raucous, but even that has scratching in it like that upstart hippity-hop music. In the decade that followed it became OK for rock fans to like pop again. BeautifulGarbage was ahead of the curve. – Jody Macgregor
“Underrated” might be the wrong word: Cornershop’s 1997 opus was hugely acclaimed at the time. But while the English band have continued to make frightfully diverse records, they’re mostly known today for this album’s surprise hit ‘Brimful of Ash’. Take a chance to revisit this in its entirety, and you’ll grasp the rare stylistic breadth of the band. It’s an album that tries everything, from a country duet with Tarnation’s Paula Frazer (talk about underrated) to a Punjabi-language cover of ‘Norwegian Wood’. ‘Sleep on the Left Side’ is as perfect an opener as ‘Brimful’ is a single, and ‘Good Shit’ and ‘Funky Days are Back Again’ are winsome larks. Oh, and a pro tip: If you’re going to have spoken-word poetry on your album, why not go for broke and enlist Allen Ginsberg? – Doug Wallen
Billy Corgan’s had more than his share of, “Oh, he’s finally lost it” moments. In fact, since the mid-’90s, he hasn’t been flirting with hubris so much as vigorously dry-humping it at every opportunity. If Adore has its proponents though, why no love for TheFutureEmbrace? Perhaps it was because Pumpkins fans saw TheFutureEmbrace as a death knell, the point of no return for an alt-rock apostle. Perhaps it was the synths. Or perhaps it was because, in his mid-30s, Corgan finally dialled down on the teen angst that had become his increasingly restrictive calling card – if he’s grown up, does that mean we have to as well? Thing is, Billy Corgan has made his share of aesthetic mis-steps, but the guy never forgot how to write a tune (OK, maybe briefly with Zwan), and TheFutureEmbrace still has plenty of them: Put a chunky guitar behind ‘Mina Loy’, and you’ve got a Pumpkins anthem.
But TheFutureEmbrace is pilloried more for what it isn’t than what it is: A restrained, insular album from a talented man who obviously loves Depeche Mode and My Bloody Valentine. And the Bee Gees cover is ace. – Edward Sharp-Paul
That an album featuring the glories of ‘Got Sold On Heaven’, ‘Tomorrow We Sing’ and the title track could be left to gather dust in a bin marked “late-’90s Aussie pop also-rans” is a travesty. Circle High and Wide was up for Best Pop Release at the 1998 ARIAs, along with The Whitlams, Kylie and The Mavis’s, but lost out to Natalie Imbruglia. Meanwhile, that year’s Hottest 100 was topped by ‘Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)’, with no space for Snout. There are many reasons to question the wisdom of ARIA voters and triple j listeners but their refusal to acknowledge Ross McLennan’s songwriting brilliance is one of their greatest crimes. As McLennan sings of third-world butterflies, secret night worlds, and “no utopia” with clear-eyed melancholy, Circle High and Wide crams in more hooks than a party mix of power-pop anthems and a Grand Royal “best of” tape. Go on, give your local second-hand CD shop $8 for a copy of the album: It’ll be the soundest investment you’ll make all year. – Tom Mann
Has there been a more tragic figure in folk-rock than Judee Sill? A troubled youth turned convicted armed robber turned LSD tripper turned heroin addict turned prostitute who cleaned up her act, got signed by David Geffen, released two albums, only to injure herself in a car accident, suffer from chronic back pain, return to drugs and die a relatively anonymous death from an OD. You just can’t fake the kind of sadness inherent in ‘The Kiss’, a song that builds to a stunning crescendo only to thud back down again. Sill’s folksy LA voice is doubled throughout, adding to the eeriness and perhaps alienating some listeners. Her lyrics are amazing – rife with religious imagery and references to the occult – while string arrangements bring a sense of majesty to songs that began simply, either on piano or acoustic guitar. Sill’s love of gospel shines through on ‘Down Where The Valleys Are Low’, and seven-minute closer ‘The Donor’ is her answer to The Beach Boys’ ‘Our Prayer’: A complex, chamber pop tapestry of interwoven voices that ends with an unexpected Irish jig. – Darren Levin
If Before Hollywood is underrated it’s principally because other GBs records get more praise – especially 1988’s 16 Lovers Lane and, to a lesser extent, 1987’s Tallulah. But if 1982’s Send Me A Lullaby was the sound of a band finding their feet, their second album showed how quickly Grant McLennan, Robert Forster and Lindy Morrison found their sound. While bassist Robert Vickers joined shortly after the album was done and appears in the related videos this was the work of the three principal GBs, with the confident opener ‘A Bad Debt Follows You’, the poppy closer ‘That Way’ and the drop-dead classic ‘Cattle & Cane’ (all mainly the work of McLennan), while Forster was on form with the oblique title track and the demented quasi-tango on ‘On My Block’. – Andrew P Street
When a band releases back-to-back albums that define an entire genre of music, everything they produce afterwards will inevitably be underrated. Many of Oasis’s post Definitely Maybe / Morning Glory records are undeniably shit: Lazy songwriting fuelled by a heady mix of cocaine and “Biggest Band In The World” syndrome. But Dig Out Your Soul is something else. It’s an “album’s album”, it’s 11 songs sewn together with hazy guitar lines and solid psychedelic grooves, it’s a band no longer trying to “be Oasis”. There is a choir – but it doesn’t sound overblown – layers of reverb and sweet organ lines undercut by gut-trembling bass and drums. Liam’s whiney vocals are still ever-present, but for the first time in two decades they take a backseat, allowing the songs to burst forth, revealing intricately woven orchestrations peppered with syrupy melodies. Dig Out Your Soul is a glimpse of everything Oasis was becoming. Had it been released by an unknown band from Manchester, it may well have been lauded as a “triumphant debut”. – Sarah Smith
Look, I get why Born Sandy Devotional is constantly name-checked. BSD is The Triffids’ Great Aussie Album: All estuaries, vast plains, daylight saving and killer seagulls. It’s place-names and signifiers, and we love all that stuff. Even so, it’s remarkable to think that follow-up Calenture was considered something of a misstep at the time, and a poor cousin even now. On Calenture, David McComb took his signature themes -isolation, dislocation, and love as an addictive, consuming force – and expanded them in every direction: Literal (‘Bury Me Deep In Love’), biblical (‘Hometown Farewell Kiss’), even archaeological (‘Jerdacuttup Man’).
The man was at the top of his (considerable) game lyrically, and his band more than did McComb justice, with guitars, lap-steel and violins augmented by all the synths and sequencers that major-label money could buy. The result was a masterful album, lush and oceanic in sound, and ambitious in scope. Perhaps too ambitious for its own good, too difficult to pin down. – Edward Sharp-Paul
“Just because you’re so clichéd, it don’t mean you won’t get paid.” Scott Weiland sang these words in 1996 in the throes of addiction and when the once grunge whipping boys were at the height of their commercial peak. It was a tongue-in-cheek reference to the critical hivemind that deemed that debut Core and (to a lesser extent) its follow-up Purple were nothing more than derivative cash-grabs riding high on Nevermind ’s coattails. How wrong they were.
STP were out to prove a point on Tiny Music…, casting off any semblance of the post-grunge scene they were unwittingly becoming part of, and making an eclectic album that jumped from glam (‘Pop’s Love Suicide’) to lounge (‘And So I Know’) and Beatles-y pop (‘Lady Picture Show’). It adds to the folklore of this record that Weiland was, well, a bit fucked-up. His vocal takes are scratchy and imperfect, but full of character and a Bowie-esque swagger, while his lyrics were often stream-of-consciousness rants about fame, death and “salad day deathbed motorcades”. If you embraced this album as an open-minded grunge-obsessed teenager, it was your gateway to T.Rex, Bowie, Burt Bacharach and Stan Getz. If you didn’t, you were destined for Puddle of Mudd and Creed. – Darren Levin
Regurgitator knew people would be let down by …art. How could they follow the glorious one-two punch of Tu-Plang and Unit? Their doubts were right there on the cover: “Actual product may not match expectations.” …art is the predictable moment fans decided their old stuff really was better than their new stuff, the point Regurgitator drew the line on their retro tour. It’s still great, though. Who else would give a song as joyful as ‘Happiness’ downer lyrics about wasting your life using combating loneliness with escapism? Only a band who got off on messing with their audience as much as Regurgitator. Between that and ‘Virtual Life’ declaring you never need to go outside, …art sounds like an album for shut-ins. ‘Virtual Life’ is such a perfect evocation of ‘80s rock at its spookiest you could have put it on the Donnie Darko soundtrack and nobody would notice. But, like the yacht rock of ‘The Lonely Guy’, it was revisiting the past too soon. The cycle of retro wouldn’t hit the ‘80s until years later, when people who were alive in the decade finally forgot what it was actually like enough to remember it fondly. – Jody Macgregor
In 1995 Luke Haines was sick to death of touring, sick of being lumped in with the braying morons of Britpop, and sick of himself. So, in a drunken mid-tour rage, he jumped off a wall and broke both his legs, forcing the Auteurs off the road and leaving him in a wheelchair for months. Out of this period came the songs that were to make up their masterpiece After Murder Park, where furious lyrics were matched with gorgeous melodies dealing with alcoholism (‘Dead Sea Navigators’), aeronautical disasters (‘Light Aircraft on Fire’), suicide (‘The Child Brides’) and not one but two songs about murdered children (‘Unsolved Child Murder’ and the title track). It was completely at odds with the upbeat musical vibe of the time – Oasis’ (What’s the Story) Morning Glory, Suede’s Coming Up and the Spice Girls’ Spice were all UK #1s that year. Perhaps that’s why a Steve Albini-recorded album about death and violence was very easy to ignore? And yet it still sounds as vital and savage now as it did 16 years ago – Andrew P Street
Seven years in the making, The Meadowlands lies somewhere between the cohesive, sad scuzz of Built to Spill and Menomena’s precise eclecticism, tempered with New Jersey plain-spokenness and vocals that drag a heavy heart along with them. It’s a breakup record (“I put your face on her all year”) and a record about trying to keep making music when you start to feel old and beaten-down (“Every win on this record’s hard won”, Charles Bissell almost groans on ‘This Boy Is Exhausted’). It feels poetically dreary at times, but sparkling country touches (dealt with the lightest hand – a flash of harmonica, unobtrusive steel guitars) provide the depth and delicacy required to deal with the Big Emotions being exorcised through krauty hazes. The critical consensus was – and still is – that it’s brilliant, but somewhere in the hype cycles of the time and the time since, it’s become obscure, an oddity, a shibboleth even. – Caitlin Welsh
At the time you couldn’t say the words “magic” and “dirt” without hearing “sellout!” bellowed back, and even now there are those who divide the band’s discography into “Warners records” and “good records”. But a dozen years on the band’s first major label album deserves reappraisal. For a start, it’s got Adalita Srsen’s voice on the radio via the Pixies-simple three chorder ‘Dirty Jeans’, providing the gateway drug for a generation who’d never heard Patti Smith, and it got the band out of inner-city dives and onto festival bills where said generation were faced with a band that rocked like fuck and were led by woman like it was no thang. But even without the cultural impact, no album with songs like ‘Supagloo’, ‘Pace It’, ‘For A Second’ and ‘City Trash’ should be ignored. Not even Pulp/Placebo producer Phil Vinall could suck the grunt out of this too-often-ignored Australian classic. – Andrew P Street
Tusk is a miracle. After all that coke, and all those affairs, Fleetwood Mac decide to follow up Rumours with a double album? For real? Well, with songs like this, why not? Christine McVie’s songs are consistent as always, but the story of Tusk is in the contributions of the feuding Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham. Nicks sounds like she’s rehearsing for her impending solo debut, with the imperious ‘Storms’ and ‘Sisters of the Moon’ forming the album’s twin emotional anchors. Meanwhile, Buckingham’s raw efforts sound like what they are: A man at the end of his tether, pouring his heart into an eight-track (except on ‘Tusk’, where he poured his heart all over Dodger Stadium, with the assistance of a brass band). One of the most anticipated follow-ups ever, Tusk was an incredibly courageous move; a challenging, eclectic marvel. – Edward Sharp-Paul
It’s mostly Hi Fi Way, sometimes Hourly Daily, but #4 Record_? It’s never 4 Record. And why the hell not? For a band that always styled itself on the sloppy swagger of The Stones, the clever wordplay of The Kinks and the brazen cheek of The Faces, #4’s about as close as they got to an amalgam of that holy trinity. Not that they had a good time making it. “It was the worst recording experience,” Tim Rogers confessed to me in a recent interview. “Rusty, Andy and I didn’t hang out.” That friction is just part of #4’s charm.
“Oh, we’re going down/Don’t it sound sweet,” croons Rogers, probably to his own bandmates, on a song about a jaded singer called ‘Guys, Girls Guitars’. Likewise, ‘The Cream and The Crock’ drips with spite at an industry that would later turn their back on them. There’s the universal break-up ballad (‘Heavy Heart’), the undeniable powerpop of ‘What I Don’t Know About You’ and a smooth bit of soul augmented by the famous Memphis Horns (‘Come Home Wit’ Me’). Most of all, there’s the blood, sweat and tears of three guys that had probably spent too long on the road together. – Darren Levin
Fire of Love should’ve changed something. Maybe everything. Mixing punk, blues and country and hollering about sex, death and voodoo sounds great on paper, but paper doesn’t do justice to Jeffrey Lee Pierce’s haunting, singular vision. In 1981, plenty of punk kids still thought that they were brand new, that riffing on pop nihilism and sniffing their own farts was going to really shake things up. Lord knows what they made of Fire of Love: A long-haired dude with a cowboy hat and overcoat, singing songs that sounded about 100 years old, songs so deep and dark that they sounded like an exorcism. It’s a dangerous fallacy to suggest that Pierce needed to suffer to sing these songs the way he did, but listen to ‘She’s Like Heroin To Me’ and try not to shudder at the thought of him chasing his “muse”. – Edward Sharp-Paul
One of the easiest pitfalls for a critic, or a fan for that matter, is being so exhausted with a particular sound that it becomes impossible to tell when it’s been done well – perhaps this is why regular-guy pop perfection, like Nada Surf’s entire 2000s output, goes so often overlooked. 2002’s Let Go scores most underrated because the two subsequent records, The Weight Is A Gift and Lucky, benefited both in recording and reception from their new niche being better worn-in. (_Let Go_’s very-’90s predecessors were different beasts and have aged poorly.) Matthew Caws’ voice has a nimble, friendly clarity that suits both his inclination toward the saccharine and elegant melodies like ‘Blizzard of 77’ and ‘The Way You Wear Your Head’. Caws, at their terrific Annandale show in September, joked that they write Top 40 hits for an alternate universe. This is the small, sweet album where they learn to do that. – Caitlin Welsh
In At The Drive-In’s slender, explosive oeuvre, In/Casino/Out sits between the tentative Acrobatic Tenement and magnum opus Relationship of Command. Recorded live with minimal overdubs, it lacks some of the polish of Relationship of Command, but what the fuck did polish ever have to do with At The Drive-In? From the bomb-like opening of ‘Alpha Centauri’ (play it loud), it’s clear that ATD-I were both close to the finished article and way ahead of the game. Everything was in place: Cedric Bixler’s sci-fi word jumble lyrics, Omar Rodriguez’s unhinged guitar skronk, and the bombastic fury of the tightest rhythm section to ever make it out of El Paso. ‘Napoleon Solo’ ranks among their greatest moments (great username, too), and ‘Lopsided’ still stands as one of Jim Ward’s finest moments. It mightn’t quite knock Relationship of Command off its perch, but In/Casino/Out deserves to at least be in the conversation. – Edward Sharp-Paul
Who knows what would’ve happened had Portland’s Exploding Hearts not flipped their tour van on a long drive home? At the crest of a Pacific Northwest powerpop mini-revival, they were reportedly garnering interest from the now defunct Lookout! Records (Ted Leo, Operation Ivy) and could’ve easily fit in with the Strokes-led New York scene with their leather jackets, one-inch badges and bratty ‘tude. It takes a certain type of band to sing about sniffing glue without sounding like they’re desperately trying to ape The Ramones, but The Exploding Hearts had just the right amount of chutzpah to pull it off. It’s a real mark of their songwriting, too, that tracks like ‘Modern Kicks’ (their answer to The Undertones’ ‘Teenage Kicks’), The Pretenders-ish ‘Sleeping Aides and Razorblades’ and ‘Throwaway Style’ sound like well-worn classics on first listen. We’ll never know how big The Exploding Hearts could’ve been because that flip was fatal, killing all but guitarist Terry Six, but Guitar Romantic deserves its place among similarly unheralded classics by The Beat, The dB’s, Badfinger and (speak it softly) The Knack. – Darren Levin
We all know the Celebrity Skin narrative: It’s the one that Corgan wrote, the one where Patty Schemel was replaced by a session drummer, and the album on which Hole crossed that final frontier from grunge underdogs to full-blown pop stars. “Hey there’s only us left now,” Courtney Love triumphantly howls on ‘Celebrity Skin’, one of the great album openers. And she was right. With one unabashed pop-hook after another Hole nail a record which (despite co-writes and fill-ins) sounds like a band fully formed. Love still snarls at the world – albeit now happily swathed in Gucci – and is even more believable than she was singing ‘Violet’. Celebrity Skin may not have been recorded in music’s golden era, but it’s Hole’s finest moment. It’s just a pity that the critics, who so confidently gave it five stars upon release, can’t bring themselves to have it replace Live Through This on their “Greatest Albums” lists. – Sarah Smith
Bouncing back from a five-year hiatus and with old mate Ric Ocasek back in the producer’s chair, it was perhaps unavoidable that Weezer would make a sleeker album than their first two outings. But it’s still stuffed with guitars that morph from wistfully basic to gleeful pop to sodden Pac NW garage growls with more grimy layers than your teenage bedroom floor.
One problem with its rep might be with the languidly banal and (due to both its chart success, and lazy overuse in summery film scenes) ubiquitous breakout single ‘Island In The Sun’. But it’s a good-natured, simplified dose of Rivers Cuomo’s favoured themes: Escapism, and things he can’t have. It’s a part of the tradition of ‘In The Garage’, ‘Pink Triangle’, ‘Only In Dreams’ and ‘Across the Sea’ (“I gotta live on an island to find the juice…”). Green might be slightly disappointing after Blue and Pink, but these days it sits a little straighter next to them. – Caitlin Welsh
Think Tank ’s biggest failing is that it came after the two albums that have come to critically define Blur: Their brit-pop magnum opus Parklife and Pitchfork-approved “envelope-pusher” 13. It’s Blur’s final album, the one that Damon Albarn felt he “owed the band”, the one without guitarist Graham Coxon, and consequently the one fans don’t really want to consider Blur’s creative peak.
Think Tank is a break-up record. Its songs wrought with the tension and melancholy that consumed Blur’s final days together. Recorded on the rooftops of Marrakesh, Morocco, far way from drab London town, it brims with Albarn’s new found love of African music and his growing ambivalence towards British pop. Its songs set their own pace, showing no concern for the “woo-hoos” that proceeded them. A Norman Cook dance anthem (‘Crazy Beat’) is unashamedly wedged between a Moroccan orchestra (‘Out Of Time’) and a dreamy lover’s ballad (‘Good Song’). Yet it all weaves together perfectly. “And now it seems that we’re falling apart/But I hope I see the good in you come back again/I just believed in you,” Albarn sings on ‘Sweet Song’ his “love letter” to Coxon, his farewell to Blur and the track that embodies the very soul of Think Tank. Its sweet sadness, ghostly shadows and adventurous spirit make this Blur’s greatest legacy. – Sarah Smith
The Afghan Whigs’ recent return to Australia proved just how dangerous, uncompromising and just damn sleazy a rock band can be. But they’ve somehow only attained cult band status when albums like Gentlemen should’ve made them household names. Perhaps that’s got something to do with just how uncomfortable Greg Dulli’s examinations of the male psyche can make you feel. “Ladies, let me tell you about myself – I got a dick for a brain,” he sings on noir-rock thriller ‘Be Sweet’. On ‘My Curse’, he can’t even bring himself to sing about a destructive relationship, so he gets Marcy Mays from the equally underrated ‘90s band Scrawl to take the lead: “You hurt me baby,” she tells her/his lover. “I flinch so when you do.” The music is just as direct, somehow evading that “distant” production (hello roomy drums and multi-layered guitars) that soiled so many great records in the ‘90s. Cathartic, caustic, bitter and sweet, Gentlemen is surely one of rock’s darkest confessionals. – Darren Levin
Maybe it’s fitting that a record paying such homage to musical outsiders – Brian Eno, Television Personalities, Spacemen 3 – has been pushed to the fringes by people convinced that it’s a huge disappointment and that MGMT panicked and dropped the ball. Wrong: Congratulations is not only better than Oracular Spectacular, it’s weirder, truer and freer. It’s the sound of pop crumpled and curdled, of psychedelia with one foot in the graveyard and one in the funhouse. Even the songs that ought to be throwaways, like ‘Brian Eno’ and ‘Song for Dan Treacy’, are bolstered by a freaky, contagious sense of inspiration. If this is the sound of a band going off the rails, I sure as hell wish more bands would follow suit. – Doug Wallen
The cruellest aspect of the whole “riot grrrl” thing is that, while claiming to celebrate the strong women of America’s ‘90s underground (in a backhanded manner), the term served to keep these women segregated, competing only with each other, and out of the broader conversation. For all their righteous politics, the riot grrrls were still copping a variant of the “pretty good … for a chick” bullshit that plagued the Runaways and the Go-Go’s. All of which ensured that Dig Me Out was considered a really good album in a niche genre, rather than one of the best, most strident rock albums of the late nineties, full of swaggering riffs and newcomer Janet Weiss’ tough, propulsive drums. Third Eye Blind should’ve been hanging their heads in shame. – Edward Sharp-Paul
If Speakerboxxx hadn’t been half an OutKast album, maybe it would have got the acclaim it deserved. But it was the other disc to Andre 3000’s The Love Below, which featured ‘Hey Ya!’, a song hip-hop fans use to convince their partners not all rap is terrible to this day. Speakerboxxx got outshone and it wasn’t until Big Boi released Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty (2010) we realised how amazing he was. We should have noticed sooner. Speakerboxxx is more coherent than the explosion at the genre factory Andre 3000 recorded, but it’s still innovative, from the bipolar ‘GhettoMusick’ with its hyperactive verses and ludicrously chilled hook (“Feeling great, feeling good, how are you?”) to the mariachi beat of ‘The Rooster’, or the impossibly funky ‘Bowtie’. It’s all united by Big Boi’s percussive flow, and while it doesn’t have ‘Hey Ya!’ on it, it’s an album I’d rather listen to from beginning to end. – Jody Macgregor
Pixies purists have an issue with Trompe Le Monde that I can’t wrap my head around. Did they want Doolittle Mk II? Was Gil Norton’s mix a little too murky, or could a classic Pixies record simply not include a song that Black Francis didn’t write? There is no doubting the brilliance of Doolittle ( or Surfer Rosa for that matter) but Trompe Le Monde is a tour de force. It’s moody, delicate, abrasive and – at times – utterly heartbreaking. From the sparkling pop perfection of ‘Motorway to Roswell’, the ingenious key solo in ‘Alec Eiffel’, the unbridled aggression of ‘Sad Punk’ to the fierce nonsense of ‘Subbacultcha’ Trompe Le Monde is the Pixies in full flight. It’s just a pity that so many fans can’t see past Doolittle to this perfect parting shot. – Sarah Smith
Saddled with even heavier expectations than the first time around, The Strokes shrugged off this tight little gem. Unfairly overshadowed by its predecessor or lumped with the less focused albums that followed, Room on Fire mixes the band’s terse cool with neon flashes of ‘80s-radio guitar lines. Reuniting with Is This It producer Gordon Raphael didn’t help the record stand on its own, but as much as this sounds inescapably like The Strokes, it adds a newfound pop softness (see ‘The End Has No End’) amid the hollowed-out romance of ‘Automatic Stop’ and Cars panache of ‘12:51’. The guitars on ‘Between Love & Hate’ even chew up ska and rockabilly. And the band’s trademark propulsion is stripped away altogether on ‘Under Control’, a sing-along for when the bar has emptied out and the night could just go on forever. – Doug Wallen
Impossible Princess is one of the most adventurous pop albums of the ‘90s. Rearing its head amid a glut of girl bands and post-grunge nonsense it defied critics’ expectations of Kylie, who for the first (and last) time in her career left “the real Kylie” fully exposed. Gone was the singing budgie and the post-Hutchence sex-bot – in its place a 29 year-old woman in total control of her creative output. “Don’t blame me just because I am bored/I’m needy, I need to taste it all,” she delicately warns her fans on ‘Breath’, preparing them for an album that is as much about her personal self-discovery as it is about pushing the boundaries of bankable pop music.
Spurred on by the guiding hand of Nick Cave, Kylie worked with producers (including Manic Street Preachers’ James Dean) to pen a record that over a decade later sounds vastly ahead of its time. She experiments with spoken word (‘Too Far’) pure pop (‘Some Kind Of Bliss’), trip-hop (‘Jump’), rock (‘Did It Again) and dips her toe into electro-pop, which would dominate commercial music (and her own records) for years to come. Why Madonna’s Ray Of Light was acclaimed for pushing these boundaries at the very same moment Impossible Princess was maligned for it, is confusing, but perhaps best explained by the music media’s ongoing narrative of these two singers: Madonna is meant to challenge, Kylie, to smile, pout and spin round. – Sarah Smith
For many ground zero is 1999’s The Soft Bulletin, and The Flaming Lips are partly to blame for perpetuating that. Their live sets rarely stretch back before that album unless they’re playing ‘She Don’t Use Jelly’ (unlike Radiohead they actually own their hit), or if you’re really lucky ‘Bad Days’ or ‘Lightning Strikes The Postman’ from Clouds Taste Metallic, their final album with arguably the band’s true genius, the wonderfully enigmatic and inventive guitarist Ronald Jones. Neglecting this album is understandable given the path they’ve taken since: One-time drummer Steven Drozd is now the band’s principal songwriter, giving Wayne Coyne time to concentrate on, well, being Wayne. But before parking lot experiments and confetti cannons, before pink robots and Christmas On Mars, before Ke$ha and vials of blood, before Guinness World Record Attempts and 24-hour jams, before four-disk concept albums and fake blood, The Flaming Lips were actually a really great no-bullshit rock band that wrote deranged riffs (‘Kim’s Watermelon Gun’) and sentimental love songs that didn’t suck (‘When You Smile’). Lest we forget. – Darren Levin
Pet Sounds captured Brian Wilson’s kaleidoscopic vision without fault, and in ‘God Only Knows’ produced one of the greatest pop songs ever written. But it’s just that: Brian’s vision. Sunflower is a Beach Boys record in the truest sense; featuring songwriting contributions from every band member, it delicately balances the band’s sugary warmth with their dark pop sensibilities. In its original (vinyl) format it’s even split as such: Side A “summer”; Side B “winter”.
The first half of Sunflower is dominated by deliciously widescreen and playful Beach Boys – from Denis Wilson’s bluesy ‘Got To Know The Woman’ to the Carl Wilson-lead, ‘70s rock epic ‘It’s About Time’, stacked full of gospel choir and Sunday morning organ. Side two draws long shadows, opening up with a heart-breaking run of ‘Tears In The Morning’, ‘All I Wanna Do’ and ‘Forever’. ‘All I Want To Do’ is especially poignant; an increasingly rare Brian/Mike co-write, in which their forever warring aesthetics blend sumptuously, rather than battle one another. Ghostly echoes and lovelorn lyrics bury the old friends’ creative differences before the record plays out on a familiar note with another co-write ‘Cool, Cool, Water’.
It’s this perfectly precarious balance of light and dark that makes Sunflower the ultimate Beach Boys record. One on which the band was finally free from the constraints of a major label and, albeit momentarily, each others’ expectations. And yet it continues to wilt in the shadow of Pet Sounds when it should be in full bloom beside it – Sarah Smith
When the music world marked the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind, they weren’t celebrating the band’s seminal piece of work, rather everything that record represented: A time, a place, a generation. And while the impact of Nevermind cannot be understated, it doesn’t even come close to capturing the essence of the band in the way that In Utero does. At its very core Nirvana were a live band, and a brutal one at that. Their shows were noisy, abrasive, chaotic affairs. Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic would often ambush songs with drawn-out jams, while Kurt Cobain wailed and growled his way around a microphone. On Nevermind, Butch Vig polished the punk out of Nirvana, so on ‘In Utero’ Steve Albini was enlisted to scratch it back in. But it’s more than just production that makes Nirvana’s final album their most memorable: It’s Cobain’s songwriting. This is a band on fire, boiling over, finding their sound and giving us a glimpse of everything that could have been.
“I do not want what I have got,” Cobain yelps on ‘Radio Friendly Unit Shifter’ – his war cry. There will be no more ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. If there was any doubt of that, ‘Milk It,’ with its meandering guitar lines and primal screams, hammers the message home. As does ‘Scentless Apprentice’, in which Grohl’s booming drum work is captured with absolute perfection. But of course it wouldn’t be a Nirvana album without hooks – and Cobain serves them up back-to back: ‘Heart Shaped Box’, “Rape Me’ “Frances Farmer..’. Nevermind may’ve defined a generation but In Utero defined Nirvana. – Sarah Smith
The sad irony of Rowland S Howard is that he’s become more popular in death, than in life. Original vinyl pressings of his 1999 masterpiece, Teenage Snuff Film, have sold for hundreds of dollars on eBay, but at the time of its release on defunct local label Radio One, it just about shifted its run of 500 copies. “Like with Shelley or Modigliani, we’re ashamed these people died poor and relatively anonymous,” said Lindsay Gravina, who produced the album at Birdland and Sing Sing studios in Melbourne.
Thanks to a vinyl reissue through Liberation and a surge of interest following acclaimed documentary Autoluminescent, Teenage Snuff Film is no longer an obscurity. But for an album that captured all the danger, sex and dark mystery of rock’n’roll, “cult classic” seems barely enough, especially for someone best known for being Nick Cave’s offsider in the Birthday Party and penning that great teen anthem ‘Shivers’ as a 16-year-old.
For one, there’s Howard’s remarkable “guitar noir” tone that sounded like he had plugged his battered Fender Jag “directly into his soul” (Gravina’s word). At times tender, at times depraved (the album’s closer ‘Sleep Alone’ ends with four minutes of violent scree), it’s unmistakably his, inspiring a new generation of artists from Jack Ladder to Kirin J Callinan and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner, who recently confessed to ripping him off. Combined with Brian Hooper’s tough bass lines (upon which tracks like ‘Exit Everything’ are built) and Mick Harvey’s drums, this was a formidable power trio, who gave the music just the right amount of space it needed to breathe.
Teenage Snuff Film is all about atmosphere; a tense nocturnal vibe that never lets up. Strings heighten the drama of the spaghetti Western ‘Dead Radio’, which opens with the eminently quotable, “You’re bad for me like cigarettes/But I haven’t sucked enough of you”, while his covers of ‘She Cried’ (popularised by The Shangri-Las) and Billy Idol’s ‘White Wedding’ are arguably more definitive than the originals. Howard’s droll delivery makes a song like ‘Breakdown (And Then…)’ sound utterly horrific (“Loading the gun again,” he coldly drawls). And then there’s the majestic ‘Autoluminescent’ and its notorious proclimation, “I’m bigger than Jesus Christ.” He bloody well should’ve been. – Darren Levin