Everyone has a favorite record by Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen. These artists’ careers hinge on the fact that their music is so universally communal. But what about those records from famous musicians that slip through the cracks of their immense discographies? I’ve picked 10 records from famous artists that have unfairly languished in bargain bins for decades.
The Beach Boys, “Surf’s Up”
The good vibrations were over, and the tide was rolling back out to sea. And while many people were still looking for The Beach Boys to churn out classic pop songs like “God Only Knows” and “I Get Around,” the band themselves were looking to expand their pop aesthetic a bit further with their underrated 17th album, “Surf’s Up.” The album’s songs were darker and denser than anything they’d previously worked on. The album did garner some commercial and critical success but is generally lost among their vast studio history.
Bob Dylan, “Oh Mercy“
Much of Dylan’s ’80s output was marked by staid lyricism and music that was a shadow of its former self. But by the time 1989 rolled around, he seemed to have regained some of that lyrical fervor and musical inventiveness, and he released his 26th studio album, “Oh Mercy.” And although it’s not on the same level as later-era records like “Time Out of Mind” or “Love & Theft,” it certainly deserves a spot for marking the point when Dylan recovered his sense of rhythmic identity.
Bruce Springsteen, “Tunnel of Love“
Why do we generally look at famous artists’ ’80s records with disdain and barely hidden scorn? We do tend to associate certain sounds and tones with those years, and many artists simply could not translate their prior musical works into the synthetic aesthetics that the decade created. Granted this record was widely successful when it was released, but in the subsequent years, it has gained something of an undeserved stigma for its synthesized sounds and subarena-sized rhythms.
Pink Floyd, “The Final Cut”
Released in 1983, “The Final Cut” was a dense and often creatively jumbled record that documented singer Roger Waters’ father’s death in World War II, as well as the onset of the Falklands War. This was Waters’ last album with the band and was the only one where he alone is credited for writing and composing the songs. “The Final Cut” remains a resonant and rewarding listen for those who look for something beyond the grand psych statements of their prior albums.
Led Zeppelin, “Presence”
“Presence” was written and recorded after singer Robert Plant suffered serious injuries in a car accident while on the Greek island of Rhodes. This lent the album a solemnity that bled over into the music and lyrics. Often considered a lesser album in contrast to their early works, “Presence” has since slowly gained a resolute following because of its labyrinthine rhythm section and claustrophobic vocal work by Plant. The album was deemed the band’s “most important” record by guitarist Jimmy Page, as it showed Led Zeppelin’s resilience in the face of turmoil.
Elvis Costello, “Almost Blue”
A covers record wasn’t exactly what fans were looking for when Elvis Costello announced the release of “Almost Blue” in 1981-and a country covers record at that. Songs from Hank Williams, Merle Haggard and Gram Parsons littered the record with shivering guitar lines and soulful vocal runs. And what seemed like an odd experiment from Costello turned into one of his most fearless collections of songs. Dropping his jittery pop aesthetic in favor of something more subdued and subtle, Costello showed exactly what a covers record can and should be.
Prince and the Revolution, “Around the World in a Day”
A landmark record in the development of Prince and the Revolution’s sound, “Around the World in a Day” was marked by psychedelic grooves and outlandish lyricism. And though this record did have two tracks that broke the American top 10 chart, the album itself has been forgotten, known solely for the singles it produced. But taken as a whole, it set a high water mark for all of Prince’s later records. “Around the World in a Day” stands up alongside “Sign O’ the Times” and “Purple Rain” as one of his most influential albums.
Stevie Wonder, “Journey through the Secret Life of Plants”
Released on Tamla in 1979, “Journey through the Secret Life of Plants” was the soundtrack to the documentary “The Secret Life of Plants,” which was based on the book of the same name. Dealing with controversial experiments that reveal unusual phenomena in plants, this film (and book) sought to marry the sounds of naturally occurring flora and the soulful sounds of Wonder’s inimitable R&B. He took the ideas within the book and translated them into an aural counterpart, creating an evocative statement of how music and nature interact.
Johnny Cash, “Gone Girl”
Much like the records he released in the years prior to his death, “Gone Girl” was a collection of cover songs interspersed with a handful of original recordings. Drawing on artists like Kenny Rogers and The Rolling Stones for inspiration, Cash set about reimagining these songs to fit his own expansive country aesthetic. Released after a couple of underwhelming records, “Gone Girl” set Cash back on course, his gravelly voice finding a wealth of emotion and nuance in these songs that no other person could have drawn out.
Neil Young, “Comes a Time”
The popularity of Neil Young records seems to ebb and flow in a continual tidal cycle. A person may have one particular favorite at the beginning of the week and may have another by the weekend. But in all his history, “Comes a Time” seems to have faded the most from view among the glut of classic rock records that Young has recorded over the past 50 years. Full of the usual Young touches, a bit of acoustic introspection and some heartbreaking lyricism, “Comes a Time” is a revelation in how it brings all his unique musical touches together in a single album.