My Top 5 “Sleeper Hit” Albums.
I’m not writing this to show you how deep I can dive into obscurity, actually I am surprised that these albums are filed away as “Unknown.” These are albums that I think a lot of people will like; they just need to get the chance to hear them. There are more out there, but I chose these few as a good example of music that you won’t normally receive recommendations for on Amazon or iTunes and you won’t find on Pandora. A few have even been on the wrong side of illy constructed, narrow bad reviews. There are just some albums that need more than one listen. My argument is that if you love music as much as most people who would be inclined to read this do, you might want to go back and listen to some of the albums that you were at one time lukewarm about. The audio treasure you find may surprise you.
The opposite has also been known to happen. Some albums that I love the first time around, I tend to get really bored with in a short span of time. Almost all of the albums that have ended up becoming my favorites have been slow burners. Exceptions being the albums that hit me at the perfect emotional time, like when 69 Love Songs (The Magnetic Fields) came out during a time of heartbreak. It made the album instantly one of my favorites. That is all beside the point and I am getting off topic. I’ll dive into the discussion of emotional ties to music at a later date . . . lucky you! Here are a few albums that I think you should either give a listen to for the first time, or give another chance. Really, what do you have to to lose? You weren’t doing anything all that great with these ten minutes anyway.
My Top 5 Sleeper Albums
The Raymond Brake – Piles of Dirty Winters (Simple Machines, 1995)
Man, what an amazing album. This came out at the height of the success of the Chapel Hill, NC music scene. Unfortunately, The Raymond Brake was just a stop-over in Greensboro. It was like an amazing mix of Polvo, Superchunk, The Swirlies and any other noisy indie rock of the mid-nineties, and they did a damn good job of it. To my knowledge they only released this one full album, a few 7-inches, and an EP that most people call their second album. I know that one of the guys went on to be in Vetiver, but that project never came close to the powerfulness that this album explodes with. Polvo is one of my very favorite bands, so for me to put them on that pedestal, is a pretty telling thing. One of the things that would have put them even ahead of them was that Polvo lyrics at times, left you wanting more, whereas The Raymond Brake never failed to deliver. The guitar work is flawless. I love it when an album is mixed and produced so well that it becomes one organic mass. I think the goal of any band making music should be to hide the work they put into it, try to make it hard to pick the different instruments apart from one another. To have even the music criticism elites listening to your work as music, instead of constantly breaking it open and analyzing it piece by piece. This album achieves that perfectly.
Jenny Toomey – Tempting (Misra, 2003)
There is a tie between this album and The Raymond Brake. Jenny Toomey was a founder and the owner of the Simple Machines label that Piles of Dirty Winters was released on. She also helped found and was the Future of Music Coalition, so it is surprising that any of her music would slide so slyly under the radar, especially an album as bright as this one. It could be that this is an album of Franklin Bruno (Nothing Painted Blue, The Extra Glenns, and Mountain Goats) covers, but seeing that Franklin Bruno is an underground music hero, it seems like that could do nothing but help. I would normally be very hesitant to include a “covers” album on this list if it weren’t for the fact that Bruno was actually on all of the songs and some of them were written (if my research is correct), specifically for Toomey and the album. Plus, this album is really, really good. It’s along the lines of Feist or Regina Spektor….only about 100x better. Along with Bruno and Toomey, the band consists mainly of members of Calexico. There is this kind of timeless jazz feel to most of the songs. Not jazz of the overdone, way too polished and smooth category, but the beautiful-one-minute-then-stab-you-in-the-stomach-the-next free form variety. All of that is tied back to the incredible depth of Toomey’s voice. A voice like hers is rare, especially in pre-autotune times. I can’t help but wrap my arms around this album and bury my face into the neap of its neck. Ok, please leave us alone now. GOD, it’s so GOOD!
The Rentals – Seven More Minutes (Maverick/Warner Bros. 1999)
This is a weird one. This album received fairly good reviews and the fans who bought it seemed to love it. The failure of this one has been chalked up to “lack of promotion.” The lack of promotion argument was rumored to have been because Matt Sharp (also from the first two Weezer albums) was in a bit of a spat with the label. Who knows? It’s a shame, because this album was The Rentals’ Pinkerton moment. Don’t get me wrong, I love Return of The Rentals from beginning to end, it’s just that Seven More Minutes has more going for it. The instrumentation is more layered, the song writing is more mature, the production is darker and the tone is more complex. In every way this is a better album. However, Return of The Rentals was on the Billboard charts with “Friends of P” peaking at No. 7 while Seven More Minutes barely made a blip. Most people that I know who loved the first album, didn’t even know that a second album existed. It would seem that this album solidifies the speculations about how much Matt Sharp had to do with the brilliance of Weezer’s first two albums and the nosedive the band has taken since Sharp’s departure. The Rentals are still together and releasing material. They actually just released an album this past April. Also future article fodder? Stay tuned!
Verbena – Souls For Sale (Merge Records, 1997)
It seemed like this album had everything going for it. There was critical acclaim, it was released on indie powerhouse Merge Records and it was produced by legendary Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridmann. It was also released during a time when the whole indie-blues thing was hitting. These guys were doing what the White Stripes did, but without becoming a type of caricature. I think the problem here was that the people who typically like that sound, thought of this as too indie (probably because it was on Merge) and those who went more for the typical Merge Records sound found it to be a little too bluesy. Sometimes you just can’t please anybody. Anyhow, every song on this album is solid, the vocal harmonies are awesome, the production is a perfect balance between lo-fi and over-polished (the problem that plagued their other two albums), and the songs are just catchy enough to keep them in your head for days after hearing them. There is a rare EP called Pilot Park released on Merge, comprised of a few of the same songs on Souls for Sale, but recorded in a much with a lo-fi sensibility . . . definitely worth trying to find.
Air Miami – Me, Me, Me (4AD/Teenbeat, 1995)
This is one of my favorite albums of all time. Air Miami did what a whole lot of indie dance bands are doing now, and they did it a whole lot better…in 1995! Many of my pals are surprised by me saying that this is a personal fave because there are a lot of electronic elements to this album. Relevant only because I somehow received an electronic hater tag somewhere along the way. Not true. I think it’s difficult thing to organically mix electronic and traditional instrumentation. And when done well, it makes for something truly memorable. This is one of those cases. I guess you could call this an Unrest album if you really felt like arguing about it, I mean the only difference is the drummer, but it sounds different enough to stand on its own as a separate band. It was, however, the transition between Unrest and lead male singer Mark Robinson’s next band, Flin Flon. Robinson is also the owner and founder of Teenbeat Records, one of the strangest and most innovative labels of the 90s.