This is not a complete list of my favorite albums of all time. To make that list, I would have to include popular, mainstream albums. Saying that I enjoy popular, mainstream albums might get me kicked out of some clubs, but I do like some of them. I just find it less interesting, and redundant, to write about them. This is a piece about some relatively obscure albums that I love so much that those who care about me ask me not to play in front of friends they hope to impress. I write the term relatively obscure because some on the list are certified platinum, and some might consider it odd to list any platinum selling album obscure. Others might see some of the albums listed here and say they are not obscure by any stretch of the imagination. My excuse for listing them is that age has led some of these albums to the dustbin of history, and experience has informed me that a wide variety of people have never heard of albums that I consider the greatest of all time.
I’ve read seasoned musicians I respect list their favorite albums, and most of those albums are truly obscure. I’ve tried to listen to some of those albums, but I’m nothing more than a fan of music. I don’t appreciate music on the granular level that most seasoned musicians do. That having been said, I am a music aficionado, whose music appreciation is not that of a player or a critic, but greater than the casual fan who only appreciates the surface level of music that spent time on the Billboard’s top 100 or repeated on classic rock radio ad nausea. By the end of this, the reader might consider the albums selected purposely obscure. If I am purposely obscure, or I seek some level of contrived weirdness in my music, I have been doing so for thirty years, and I can now tell the difference between those artists who attempt to achieve something different in a less organic manner and those who just plain weird, strange, and special. Many have used those adjectives to describe me, at various times in my life, and if I do hit any of those marks (others consider me so normal I’m boring), all I can tell you is I’ve learned to embrace them in my life, and in the music I enjoy.
8) Captain Beefheart—Trout Mask Replica—This is the strangest album on this list, and one magazine rated it the second strangest albums ever made. We don’t know what went on in the mind of Van Vliet, when he created this Joycean mess, that some call “anti-music in the most interesting and insane way.” The most listenable track, and that’s compared to the others on this album, might be Ella Guru. Cartoonist and writer Matt Groening tells of listening to Trout Mask Replica at the age of fifteen: “I thought it was the worst thing I’d ever heard. I said to myself, they’re not even trying! It was just a sloppy cacophony. About the third time, I realized they were doing it on purpose; they meant it to sound exactly this way. About the sixth or seventh time, it clicked in, and I thought it was the greatest album I’d ever heard”.
If Trout Mask Replica is one of the strangest albums ever created, Pena might be the strangest, most inaccessible song ever made. It’s so discordant, we might want to consider if it’s actually music. If you convince a friend to listen to this album, prepare for some backlash, as they might consider it a mean practical joke. If you listen to this song, do not do so at high volume, for you will run across the room to shut it off. It might be one of the least melodic songs ever made from the least melodic album ever made. Friends don’t understand why I love this album, and to tell you the truth I can’t explain it, but it’s not weird for the sake of being weird. It has its own inexplicable mathematical appeal that very, very few will appreciate.
If you brave all of these disclaimers and decide to listen to this album, and you find yourself getting “fast and bulbous” after repeated spins, you might want to reconsider recommending it to friends. Some people might hate this music with such feverish intensity that they hold it against you personally for recommending it to them.
7) PJ Harvey—To Bring you My Love—This is PJ’s strongest album to date. The two albums she made prior to this one were incredible, but To Bring you My Love made those two albums look like building blocks to this one. Her albums following To Bring you My Love run the gamut from relatively boring to fantastic, but To Bring you My Love was without question her peak. One album of note following TBYML is White Chalk. It’s the most powerful quiet album you might hear. The standout tracks on To Bring you My Love are: Meet Ze Monster, Down by the Water.
6) Mr. Bungle – Disco Volante— If Trout Mask Replica is the second weirdest album ever made, music critics and writers should consider Disco Volante third on this list. This is an album of songs, as opposed to an effort with a cohesive theme. Each song is so different that they probably don’t belong on the same album. The only song that is less than brilliant is Everyone I Went to High School is Dead. I am not a track skipper, but I skip this song every time. The most brilliant song on this album occurs at the 4:42 mark on Carry Stress in the Jaw. Some listings, list it as [The Secret Song]. My advice, if you choose to accept it, is listen to this album from start to finish. Then separate individual tracks out in playlists, or what have you, to appreciate each song in its own right, until you obsess over them and you know every beat so well that you might be able to play them yourself (I say as an individual who hasn’t picked up an instrument in decades, and even then I couldn’t play them). There’s something strange about this album that appears to only appeal to strange people who are confident in their ability to maintain normalcy.
[Writer’s Note:] For anyone who wants to investigate how odd, weird, or just plain special their friends are, Disco Volante proved an interesting barometer for me once. When I loaned the album to my more normal friends, they said, “It’s different, definitely different, but it doesn’t appeal to me on any level.”
One relatively odd person, who precariously hanged onto whatever vestiges of normalcy remain available to him, actually got mad at me for “forcing” him to listen to Disco Volante. He even went so far as to tell our mutual friends to avoid listening to anything I recommend in the future. Prior to lending the album to my friend, I knew he was a little off, but when he returned the disk to me something changed. He was mad at me.
“I didn’t create this album,” I said. His intensity shocked me.
“Yeah but …” He didn’t know how to ‘yeah but’ my reply. I could see how much it pained him that he couldn’t ‘yeah but’ me down to some sort of acknowledgement that this was in any way my fault. His mouth hung open, his finger was pointed, but he couldn’t come up with a proper ‘yeah but’, so he just walked away.
My initial suspicion was that his attempt to turn people against me had nothing to do with Disco Volante. I forgot I even loaned him the disk when he started whispering things to our friends, until they told me that was saying, “He’s just so strange, and he listens to such strange music.” I thought he had a personal vendetta against me, but other people told me he said, “that album, I can’t remember the name was just so weird”. He even went so far to as to publicly state that he didn’t like me anymore, “because he’s just so strange.” I couldn’t understand his personal jihad against me, until I flirted with the notion that Disco Volante must’ve triggered something in him that he disliked so much that it made him angry at me. It seemed implausible, and it still does, but were no other reasons I could think of to justify his reaction.
Disco Volante might not be their first indicator that we’re strange, but for some reason it sets off a trigger warning for those who fear being around weird people. The reason we reflect on this is that we can’t believe that a complex human being can dislike us so much because we loaned them an album made by other people. We think it has to go much deeper than that. Maybe they didn’t like us to begin with, and this album just set them off. Perhaps it proved to be a cherry atop the pie for them, a last straw, or any one of those clichés. We search for the precursor, and it troubles us so much we ask them about it. “I’m not mad at you,” he said, and he said this in the most condescending manner possible, but he couldn’t come up with any answers for what he did either.
For some reason, this album unearths something in odd, strange or just plain special people that they don’t care to explore. For some reason, the song The Bends has a peculiar effect on them and their desire to constantly prove to the world that they’re not abnormal. I might be reading too much into their reaction, but it appears as though this album, and this song in particular, taps into a vulnerability that they’ve tried to defeat their whole lives. They tell everyone they know how much they hate that album, and we joke with them that their emotional reaction to it must suggest that it’s great art. “No!” he said all but slamming his fists on the table. “It’s the worst album I’ve ever heard.”
“I gotta hear this album,” a third party said.
“No, no you don’t,” he responded. “Trust me. The hour I spent listening to that music is an hour of my life that I’ll never get back.” That attempt to add levity to the situation was almost as revealing as his weeklong rant against “my music”, as it revealed that he feared any revelations we might find in his rants.
Is the music on this album so strange that it flipped the trigger on one of my friends, or was he so close to a thin fault line he knew intimately that separated him from complete lunacy? Did he fear that anything slightly outside the norm might push him so close to that fault line that he chose to do battle with all of the internal and external forces he had at his disposal with the hope that it might define his character as it does for all men who seek battle? Or, was he so close to the fault line that he feared we all knew how close he was, and his vehement denouncements of Disco Volante were his way of announcing to the world that, contrary to popular belief (the internal, externalized popular belief), he was nowhere near that fault line and of a completely sound mind.
[Writer’s Note II:] When I went in search of this album, as a completist who needed to own everything attached to the names Mike Patton, Trevor Dunn, and Trey Spruance, I walked into a Music Land at a mall one day (yes, I’m that old), and I asked him if they had an album called Disco Volante. The employee smiled, “Very funny,” he said. “Who put you up to this?” We stared at each other for an uncomfortable moment after I said no. “Seriously, who sent you in here? Was it Sandy?” After a brief back and forth that consisted of me convincing him that no one sent me in his store, he said, “No, this place would never carry an album like that.”
“Okay thanks,” I said. As I turned to leave, I said, “Why would you think it’s a joke to ask for an album?”
“That’s my favorite album of all time,” he said, “and a couple months ago I joked with my girlfriend that no one would ever come into a Music Land in Bum[fudge], Nebraska to ask for it. So, when you asked for Disco Volante, I thought she sent you.”
5) David Bowie–Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars—Perhaps no musical artist in the history of music made weird, mainstream better than David Bowie. He was an organically different man who made weird music. If he were alive today, he would confess that he wasn’t as original as critics often said he was. His music was an amalgamation of the weird.
Ziggy Stardust might be the most popular and least obscure album on this list, but it’s so old that I wonder how many people have never heard of it. A few mainstream artists in that era tinkered with the weird, but very few of them explored it as thoroughly as Bowie did while achieving some level of fame for doing it. I could’ve picked any of a number of Bowie albums to include on this list (Hunky Dory, Alladin Sane, Diamond Dogs, Low, Lodger, Scary Monsters, and even Blackstar), but Ziggy seems to be the most accessible starting point for Bowie novices.
The best songs are the first four songs on the album, and the last six. The only song to skip on the album is It Ain’t Easy. I have to think Bowie had other songs to put on this album that he dismissed in favor of It Ain’t Easy. [Special Mention:] The best non-Ziggy Bowie songs that every Bowie fan needs to hear again and again, Alternate Candidate (This is a tough song to find, but I found it on YouTube) and Lady Grinning Soul.
4) Mother Love Bone—Apple—The story of Mother Love Bone is a sad “could’ve been, should’ve been” tale that could’ve and should’ve rewritten the narrative of the whole Seattle, movement in the early 90’s. Andrew Wood, the lead singer, died of a heroin overdose at 24, a month before the record company released this album. If this album received the promotion record companies normally put into an album in which they outbid five other record companies, coupled with radio airplay, touring, and all that, this album would’ve been the first multi-platinum disc coming out of Seattle in the 90’s. This album, this group, probably would’ve been bigger than the later incarnation Pearl Jam. (A number of the members of Mother Love Bone gathered together and found a new lead singer after Wood died to form Pearl Jam.) I think Apple would’ve been so big that it would’ve divided Seattle into two camps, those who loved the silly, rock star side versus the serious, sad, and angst-ridden Nirvana side. It would’ve been Mother Love Bone versus Nirvana, and Nirvana probably would’ve hated Mother Love Bone the way they came to hate Pearl Jam. (They may have hated them more, due to the contrasting styles of the two, as Pearl Jam wasn’t such an exaggeration of differences.)
The tracks on this album might all have a certain familiarity to them, as glam rock, arena rock fans will recognize some Queen, with a dash of Zeppelin, a little Elton John mixed in, and a big morsel of Aerosmith mixed in the stew, but Mother Love Bone combined these influences with a heavy dose of individual interpretation mixed in. I’ve read commenters on Allmusic.com say that the Apple has not aged well. If that’s the case, these people say so from a different perspective. I do not have such perspective on this album, for I am an adoring fan boy who cannot view Stargazer, Captain Hi-Top, Gentle Groove, Crown of Thorns, or Lady Godiva Blues from an objective perspective. When people talk about how they still love the music from their late teens/early twenties, this album is one of the primary ones that form that inner core of my favorite music.
[Writer’s Note:] Some suggest that the Seattle music from the early to mid-90’s killed rock and roll. If we look at the timeline of rock and roll, we could easily make that leap with them, but I would suggest that the Seattle music, that some call grunge, might have been the last gasp from a dying beast. Seattle music was retro. It was Black Sabbath, KISS, T. Rex, and various other artists from the 70’s. It was a return to the music before the glam, heavy metal 80’s redefined everything. If we could go back through the timeline and remove grunge, rock and roll would’ve died earlier after the damage the music of the 80’s did to it. Grunge was chemotherapy that kept a stage 4 cancer victim alive for a little longer beyond its life expectancy.
3) Pavement—Wowee Zowee— This album might form the basis of my album oriented preferences, for I find it difficult to pick just one track to note. This album should be listened to top to bottom. Rattled by the Rush might be one of the few songs on the album that follow a traditionally accepted song structure, but I find it hard to hold one song out for individual praise. This album is a collage album, a collection of songs that didn’t quite fit on their previous albums. Some call them pastiche albums. Whatever the case is, I loved this album so much that I honestly don’t care that some might consider it inferior to their two prior albums, and I loved (and I mean LOVED) their two previous albums. This album achieved so something different that it achieved the hallowed status all artists strive for with their fans of being “my music”. The previous two albums might have been better on the scale critics use to rate such albums, but I love Wowee Zowee more for the intangible qualities that leads us all to prefer some albums more than others. I won’t write that every track is perfect on this album, but that’s it’s appeal. This is a raw, flawed album in serious need of more production, but seeking perfection with more production would also ruin whatever raw intensity the fellas in Pavement captured here.
2) King’s X—Gretchen Goes to Nebraska—Some grunge artists say this was the first grunge album. Some suggest that Alice in Chains took the sonic formula of this album and applied it to their album Dirt. Listen to the two albums back to back, and you’ll hear a surprising number of similarities. One of the members of Alice in Chains joked about it with a member of King’s X, saying, “We need you to come out with another album. We need a new sound.” (The author loves Alice in Chains, and the album Dirt, and he does not intend to diminish the band or their best album.)
The Burning Down and The Difference are the only two songs on GGN that I skip. Other than those two songs, I’ve gone through phases with just about every other track on this album. The uninitiated should start with the hit, Over My Head, move onto Summerland, Everybody Knows a Little Bit of Something, and then work their way through the rest of the album song by song. By the time the intrigued listener is done, I don’t know how anyone could say these guys didn’t write beautiful, transcendent, and timeless music.
Normally, I couldn’t care less if an artist makes it or not. Mainstream music is just that, and as this list indicates, I am not a huge fan of mainstream music. The idea that very few regard King’s X as one of the top bands of its era, however, seems like an historic injustice to me that it needs to be rectified.
Other artists, and some critics, adored King’s X. A compendium of quotes from them suggest that on talent alone, coupled with the producer Sam Taylor, and the combined and consistent efforts found in the first five albums that King’s X created should’ve led them to the hallowed Beatles status. Upon discovering King’s X, reports state that Sam Taylor said he thought he found the next Beatles. King’s X were a combination of progressive metal, funk and soul, combined with vocals that remind one of gospel, blues, and the various groups in the British Invasion.
It confounded critics, and other artists, why this band never broke through to the mainstream. In my experience, King’s X had two strikes against them, their looks and the “God thing”. Anytime I introduced my friends to Gretchen Goes to Nebraska, it blew them away. “Who are these guys?” they would ask. When they investigated them on their own, and they saw them on MTV, they soured on them to the point that they didn’t buy their album. The lead singer (Doug Pinnick) had a funky look. He had a high mohawk, and he was black, and there was something different about him. (He was/is gay.) Coupled with that, King’s X lyrics were uplifting and spiritual, and some critics labeled them “God music”. Sam Taylor and King’s X had gorgeous musical arrangements, Beatle-like harmonies, top-notch production, and the record company supported them, but Doug Pinnick looked funky, and their lyrics suggested they had a “God thing”.
King’s X might have been one of the few bands that were hurt by the video age of MTV, for when people saw them they thought they were weird, and not in a good way. To further this thesis, Alice in Chains took the King’s X formula, and they fit the mold better than King’s X did. As much as we hate to admit it, Alice in Chains had a look considered more acceptable for rock stars. They combined those looks with rock star lyrics about drug use, death, and various other dark, negative elements to counter King’s X uplifting, spiritual lyrics. Alice in Chains was also cool in all the tangible and intangible definitions of the term, and King’s X were the antithesis of cool. What’s interesting, on this note, is that most of those who bought AiC’s albums, considered themselves the opposite of superficial. They considered themselves deep, thoughtful people who wouldn’t buy an album based on the band’s look. They loved the music on Dirt, but they didn’t buy music equal to, if not superior, to that on Dirt, and it all boiled down to looks and a packaged commodity they considered more consumable, and the idea that the latter was “God music”.
1) Mr. Bungle—California—This album, particularly the songs None of Them Knew They were Robots, Retrovertigo, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, Goodbye Sober Day, and Ars Morendi, are timeless classics. As opposed to most of the albums I’ve listened to on this list that I’ve played so often that I have to remember how much they affected my life when I first heard them, California sounds as fresh and vibrant to me as the first day I listened to it. Pink Cigarette and Sweet Charity were, of course, my first loves on the album, but to my mind there’s something wrong with people who fail to recognize the greatness of those five songs.