Sit Down. Stand Up
IN THIS IMAGE: The album cover of Radiohead's Hail to the Thief/ALL IMAGES (unless credited otherwise): Getty Images
Why Underrated Albums Warrant Fresh Ears
AT this very moment, I am listening to Sit Down. Stand Up…
PHOTO CREDIT: Unsplash
by the irrepressible Radiohead. It is the second track from the band’s sixth studio album. Released in 2003; it (the album) was seen as a minor step between their 2000-wonder-work and 2007’s 'Radiohead 2.0' masterpiece, In Rainbows. After the Kid A/Amnesiac period of 2000-2001; few expected Radiohead to have a whole lot more in the tank. I remember when the album came out: as a huge Radiohead fan, it took a while for Hail to the Thief to resonate and seduce. Its nervy and urgent one-two, 2+2 = 5 and Sit Down. Stand Up is the band at their most insistent and unexpected. All the songs on the album have alternative titles (in parentheses). 2+2 = 5’s is The Lukewarm.; Sit Down. Stand Up’s is Snakes & Ladders. The best, in fact, is Sail to the Moon’s Brush the Cobwebs Out of the Sky. (I am not sure if I have put all the upper-case letters in the right place - the band did tease the rules of grammar). The album received good reviews when it was released - although it was muted compared to their early acclaim. Those who saw promise highlighted the confidence and ambition running throughout. Others, who found it less charged, felt it was filler-heavy and lacked the consistent genius of, sat OK Computer. Thom Yorke was inspired by the ongoing War on Terror (around that time) and right-wing politics. At a time, fifteen years later, where we are seeing a return – or a continuation? – of those fears…surely Hail to the Thief deserves new investigation?!
I grant there are a few weak tracks on the album – The Gloaming, I Will and Scatterbrain could have been left out – but, if you erase them; you have a solid eleven-track album that could rival their finest work! Maybe a lack of strict editing killed the album’s chance of getting into more minds. The opening two tracks are intense and beguiling; Sail to the Moon passionate, beautiful and tender (dedicated to and written for Thom Yorke’s son, Noah) and A Punchup at a Wedding funny, moody and magnificent. There There is, in my view, the finest thing they have ever done! It is hard to put into words how good the song is – so complex, gorgeous and spine-tingling. As a whole, bar a few weak moments; the record is sublime and very underrated. That 2003-nugget is not the only record that deserves fresh ears. Coldplay’s Parachutes, despite its negative associations (it is a Coldplay album, after all!) is actually a lot stronger than many give it credit for. It is a template for superb Pop that many should hold dear. From hits like Yellow and Blues-influenced songs like Shiver – it is a solid album and, as a debut, one of the best ever. Beck’s Midnite Vultures is another one that tends to hover under the retrospective radar. It is as eccentric and scattershot as Odelay but, to many, not nearly as good! Debra and Sexx Laws are stone-cold stunners; it has the Funk brilliance of a Prince or James Brown album – with the invention of a mid-career Beatles disc.
Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy is a record that warranted/warrants more. Elliott Smith’s Figure 8 is an album I am seeing a lot of artists name-check as fountains of knowledge. It was released in 2000 and saw Smith transcend from minimalist solo artist to fully-fledged band-leader. It is flourishing and swelling; diverse, symphonic and grand in place – not what the established core were expecting. Many critics recognised its brilliance and evolution: others were scared and felt it was a drastic-move-too-far manoeuvre from Smith. Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk is seen as weak compared with the faultless Rumours. Tusk followed Rumours and, considering the tensions within the band during that album: few would blame them for producing something lesser and unfocused. As it was, even as a double-record; the album is triumphant and contains so much variation and quality – standouts include the title-track and Sara. One hears about Rumours but, when addressing Tusk; many feel it is too long, muddled and quality-dry. I feel that is nonsense: immerse yourself in the record and discover a band at the peak of their powers! Blur’s Think Tank was released in 2003 and suffered a few problems. There were few who expected the group to continue as a unit. After 1999’s underwhelming 13 - and the ‘best of’ the following year – that was seen as that, really.
Think Tank saw tensions and strains in the ranks; Graham Coxon walked out long before completion and (Think Tank) saw Damon Albarn assume new roles – taking on guitar duties for most tracks. Like Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief; Think Tank sports a marvellous opening duo: Ambulance is a beats-heavy, evocative piece of immersive brilliance; Out of Time blissed-out, sweet-leaf and disembodied. Apart from the zany, processed vocals on Crazy Beat – most of the songs on the album are stunners. Brothers and Sisters name-checks drugs and addictions (how we are hooked on various substances) whilst Caravan features ‘gloom tubes’ and is a sensual, body-transcending experience. We’ve Got a File on You is a sixty-two second Ramones blast; Good Song and Sweet Song are named appropriately – Jets is, perhaps, a little overlong. Some critics felt the disharmony fractured the creative process; Albarn going a bit crazy and indulging his various whims. He was taking from African music and influenced by new sounds – whereas previous Blur records took from U.S. guitar and British Pop.
Nirvana’s In Utero is often seen as the inferior successor to Nevermind. That record was a commercial runaway and megalith of success – In Utero a more subdued, tangled and raw effort. In Utero is (was) Nirvana returning to their roots; penning an album free from polish that did not aim for the charts and singalong crowds. It is a sharper and more abrasive beast. The three boys – Dave Grohl, Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic – were turned up to eleven and on fire! Scentless Apprentice, Very Ape (much-aped and sampled); Rape Me and Heart-Shaped Box are all insane and wonderful. There are, yeah, a couple of dodgy scrapes among the pack – Tourette’s among them – but there are out-and-out classics abound! Joni Mitchell’s Clouds is a record overlooked when compared to her best work. People do not really talk about it with the same sigh-and-adore as Blue and Ladies of the Canyon. Ladies of the Canyon was released in 1970; Clouds the year before. In any case; it was a hell of a two-year period for the songwriter. 1971’s Blue would take her to another level! Clouds has Both Sides, Now and Chelsea Morning; Tin Angel and Roses Blue. There are so many other albums I was going to include in this piece. They range from those many assume tragic (Spiceworld) to classics you do not hear about too much in 2018 (Led Zeppelin III and Songs in the Key of Life) – it is a shame so many were not recognised at the time; others have faded from the mind and deserve a dusting off!
I would be interested to hear what others think because, in my mind, there are dozens of albums that were either underrated at the time or, over time, have lost influence. I am revisiting records from Ramones and Destiny’s Child. There is no link between them but both could spearhead much-needed movements: the former could help bolster the Punk movement and great Alternative bands of today; the latter could inspire a new legion of girl groups…those concerned with writing bangers as opposed being led and moulded by others. If you favour Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet or the endless fascination of The Stone Roses’ debut – there is validity and cause to argue they need more attention and respect now. We often cling to classics and what others deem to be the ‘best’. Many albums are underrated upon release and only pick up (justified) acclaim after the fact. I guess one can argue it is subjective arguing why a certain album is underrated - that is true but that does not diminish the argument. There are certain albums that, regardless of whether you are a fan, should have a higher place in music’s legacy. Tusk and Clouds are two albums that deserve it; Think Tank and Hail to the Thief two more-modern examples – those, at the very least, are far better than many gave them credit for!
I will leave it here but, as I say: what are the albums, you feel, were overlooked and underrated when they were released? One can argue The Beatles’ debut is not seen as a true classic. It is a scrappy thing and, as such, not regarded as highly as Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Please Please Me is The Beatles at their most basic and uncomplicated. It is them recording an album of set inclusions – what they were performing live at the time. It is not as staggering as their later work but, as an example of how inspirational and exhilarating they were; you cannot deny it is a fantastic achievement. I have been thinking, too, about D’Angelo and the Vanguard’s 2004 masterpiece, Black Messiah. That is not only considered one the best Funk/R&B albums of the decade: many see it as one of the finest albums of the past twenty years. It is a masterful album that addresses faith, rebirth and politics; black-rights, love and injustice. Black Messiah is hardly talked about today! At a time where we need leaders and inspirational music – maybe a reinvestigation of that record is warranted?! I will leave things there because, I appreciate…it has been a long day. I wanted to look at some albums that have received damp praise (compared to what they deserved) and why they should be re-examined. The last one I will throw in is the super-mega-duper Debut - by the peerless and always-awesome Björk. Some do not rate it as highly as albums like Post and Vespertine. I feel Debut is the Icelandic innovator at her explosive best. From Human Behaviour's nervy and tribal-drummed bellicose; the rapture and ecstasy that runs through songs (like that and) Violently Happy; the allure and beauty of Venus as a Boy; the huge chorus and Dance bliss of Big Time Sensuality - it a sensational album from start to finish! Everyone will have their opinion on the matter – it would be good to know which albums others consider underrated. If you do have a particular ‘favourite’ that has been buried in the annals of near-obscurity; make sure you pick it back up, put it on...
IN THIS IMAGE: The cover for Björk's album, Debut
AND let people know how good it is!