Overlooked Perfection: 10 obscure masterpieces by huge artists

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Every artist usually has that one album people still talk about today. Unless they are from the pre-LP era, when singles were king, most artists aim to create a project that works as a cohesive whole and tells a story through sound. While the masterpieces often stand out in their catalogue, some of the obscure entries by artists like David Bowie never received the recognition they deserved.

That’s not to say that every one of these albums were lambasted back in the day. Some of them may have worked and sold decent numbers for their time, but none really saw the love they deserved. Regardless of the number of classic songs, it might have been a case of the bands releasing the best album that they could at the worst time for them to be releasing it.

If you look deeper into what they were trying to say, these should take their place among the classics of their catalogue half the time. They might not have the most consistent runtime or have the most single potential, but there are more than a few points between the grooves where the music either goes in a wildly different direction or shows them operating in a completely different mindset.

In a world that’s all about artists trying to put out the same fantastic collection of tracks over and over again in the hopes of being accepted by the masses, albums like this are the reason why you should be taking chances. It’s not always an easy gamble to take, but when it pays off, you often end up with some of the more interesting records anyone has ever made.

10 obscure masterpieces by classic artists:

10. Buckingham Nicks – Buckingham Nicks

Talking about Fleetwood Mac tends to feel like talking about multiple different bands at the exact same time. There were definitely pieces of connective tissue across every lineup, but going from blues rock to rootsy rock over the span of a decade deserves some form of explanation for the fans. Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham may have turned them into who they were in their prime, but they were already making incredible music on their own.

Prior to getting discovered by Mick Fleetwood, Buckingham and Nicks had a duo outfit that they had put together to get their foot in the door. Despite being a glorified test run for many of their early songs, they already had their chops down, with Buckingham turning in fantastic finger-picking lines across songs like ‘Django’ and Nicks’s first real masterpiece turning up on ‘Crying in the Night’.

In fact, Buckingham could credit this with getting him the gig in Fleetwood Mac, with Fleetwood admitting that he took an interest in both of them after hearing the final track, ‘Frozen Love’. Since this was right before everything started moving really fast, this is the baby version of two songwriting giants.

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9. New Morning – Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan tends to be one of the hardest artists to pin down. Beyond just his music, Dylan seems to be talking out of both sides of his mouth at all times, sometimes claiming to have all the answers to modern life and then saying something completely different when he asks general questions about society. Dylan was a world of contradictions at the best of times during his glory years, but New Morning is one of the most perplexing albums of his classic period.

Made right after the disastrous sessions of Self Portrait, this feels like Dylan finally falling back to earth with a collection of laid-back acoustic tunes. Though most people had gotten their fill of Dylan’s laid-back side on something like Nashville Skyline, hearing him deliver songs like the title track and ‘If Not For You’ feel like you’re right beside him at a ranch as he plays away in the living room.

Granted, some of the glory may have gotten overshadowed when Harrison indirectly got credited for ‘If Not For You’ when he covered it on All Things Must Pass. For anyone even slightly interested in Harrison’s country-leaning side, this is the album that will tell you everything about where he got that from.

8. Caress of Steel – Rush

The short version of Rush’s trajectory was that everything started going right when Neil Peart joined. They weren’t necessarily bad with John Rutsey, but the minute you hit play on the turntable on Fly By Night, something different was emerging that was bound to take over the prog scene in just a few years. And yet, right out of the gate, the band’s second album with Peart got thrown on its face and nearly cost them everything.

While it’s expected for prog groups to take a lot of chances on over two stretches of vinyl, having multiple songs with overlapping parts and complex storylines was too much for everyone to take in. Everyone they played the album for hated it, and the lack of sales ultimately led to them having to create something much bigger for the follow-up, 2112.

Then again, ‘Bastille Day’ is probably one of the best songs the Canadian icons have ever made, and anyone looking to construct a narrative could take a few cues from listening to the episodic journey on ‘The Fountain of Lamneth’. Everything was in place for Rush to make a great prog masterpiece, but maybe they were in over their heads just a little too much right out of the gate.

7. The Last DJ – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Anyone who’s been in the business long enough knows that the music industry can be more than a bit cutthroat. Most people just want to serve the bottom line, and as long as there is music that goes along with the trends, they could care less about the quality of everything else. Tom Petty seemed to be one of the few who still cared by the 2000s, and The Last DJ was his look at the sad state of where rock and roll had gone.

As opposed to artists who wanted to get a straight line all the way to the top, Petty created an album that reflected the musical world that he remembered from childhood. Across every song, the heartland rocker is both vicious and romantic in his tales, spinning songs about hearing rock and roll for the first time on ‘Dreamville’ while also being unafraid to put label heads in their places on songs like ‘Joe’.

His label might not have liked it all that much, but in an era when shows like American Idol were about to dominate the cultural conversation, The Last DJ reminded everyone of one simple rule about rock and roll. No matter what you end up giving to the world with that guitar in your hands, make sure you’re actually saying something of value.

6. Heart Like a Wheel – Linda Ronstadt

Country music has never been known to be the best genre for album statements. Sure, people like Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton have had records that have stood out as fine works of art, but it’s more often about trying to get the best single and filling out the rest of the vinyl accordingly afterwards. Linda Ronstadt approached country on rock’s terms, and Heart Like a Wheel is still one of the most underappreciated gems of that generation of California rockers.

Although half of the songs on here are covers, Ronstadt delivers some of the greatest vocal performances of the 1970s, working ‘You’re No Good’ into a scorching barnburner and turning The Everly Brothers’ ‘When Will I Be Loved’ inside out into the greatest country music singalong ever put to tape. Then again, it’s not like Ronstadt didn’t have some help getting there along the way.

It wasn’t a mistake that her original backing group was the Eagles, and veterans of the California scene ended up giving some of their greatest performances here, like Glenn Frey and Don Henley performing on the sessions as well as Emmylou Harris sounding like an angel on ‘I Can’t Help It’. This is still Ronstadt’s album, though, and in a world still dominated by the biggest frontmen of all time, she made every joker with a guitar look like a coffeehouse singer by comparison.

5. Above – Mad Season

It’s hard not to think about the story of the Seattle scene without thinking about its tragedies. The whole movement was founded on artists who wanted to play music only for themselves, but the dark shroud of Kurt Cobain’s death was half the reason why fans had to jump off the bandwagon. It had gotten way too dark way too quickly, but Mad Season was the gleaming light of hope shining through everything.

If things had gone differently, though, Layne Staley would have just stayed in the comfort of Alice in Chains for the rest of his career. Once he got out of rehab during the mid-1990s, he knew that he needed to document his journey out of his own hell, and hooking up with Mike McCready of Pearl Jam for a supergroup was the perfect marriage no one realised they needed.

Temple of the Dog tends to get brought up as the main supergroup in the area, but Above might actually top its grunge predecessor in some respects. Instead of a heartbreaking tale of grief from Seattle’s biggest musicians, this is Staley slowly nursing himself back to health as McCready unleashes his own demons on tracks like ‘River of Deceit’. That relief wasn’t going to come for Staley, but it’s always better to appreciate the happy times when you can.

4. Fair Warning – Van Halen

By the end of the 1970s, Van Halen seriously needed a break. They had been going strong as the biggest act in California for almost half a decade, and yet they kept getting shoved back into the studio for two weeks at a time before going back out on the road again. Most can’t cope under that kind of pressure, but Eddie Van Halen managed to take over the studio on Fair Warning and proceeded to go berzerk.

Despite only getting airplay for the song ‘Unchained’, this might be Eddie’s crowning achievement as a guitarist. Throughout the entire project, he seems to be pulling at the fabric of what made him a guitar hero in the first place, either making strange takes on jazzy textures on ‘Sinner’s Swing’ or making dense chord progressions on songs like ‘Hear About It Later’.

Even though Eddie would complain later that no one contributed as much as he did to the final record, it’s not like that’s necessarily a bad thing. Because if this is what Van Halen sounded like when Eddie had total control, it’s a crime that he never bothered to actually put out a solo album during his lifetime.

3. Low – David Bowie

The California lifestyle would never be a permanent fixture for David Bowie. He may have relished the idea of living in Los Angeles and living like a gutter rat, but there came a point in recording Station to Station where Bowie started to lose the plot and get way too strung out on cocaine. He may have moved to Berlin to help himself kick his vices, but Low was the natural extension of what he had started.

Working with Brian Eno, half of this project is comprised of the strangest songs Bowie ever made. A track like ‘Be My Wife’ is already an electronic-tinged version of what ‘The Starman’ got up to during his glam period, but the real difference here comes from when he doesn’t even show up on his own record.

Rather than just make another collection of songs, the back half of the record is composed entirely of instrumentals, boasting the kind of blissful atmosphere that you would expect out of a modern-day post-rock album. Those kinds of terms didn’t even exist when Bowie was cutting these tracks, but that’s really a testament to how ahead of the curve he was. Even when he was just experimenting, he still managed to invent other genres by accident.

2. S&M – Metallica

It might seem strange to put something like a live CD on a list like this. Most people have already heard these songs before, so why the hell would hearing the lower-quality version of the band in front of a crowd work any better than just listening to the mainline album? Metallica were never ones to make a record for a quick cash grab, and S&M might be one of the finest examples of blending rock dirtiness and classical sheen under one roof.

Plenty of artists have used orchestras behind their songs before, but Metallica was one of the few thrash acts that managed to feel like they were a part of the orchestra as they were playing. No matter how many times you’ve banged your head to a song like ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’, hearing the horns and strings accentuate Cliff Burton’s original bass line remains one of the biggest Easter Eggs in the thrash legend’s catalogue.

There are also a few surprises that take the night to a new level, including a classical arrangement of their stirring instrumental ‘The Call of Ktulu’ and having everyone lock in on the groove to the original tune, ‘No Leaf Clover’. Metal music and classical tend to feel like night and day for anyone who has heard both mediums, but even in an age when symphonic metal was becoming more prevalent, Metallica took their epics and turned them into movements good enough to be on Beethoven’s level.

1. McCartney II – Paul McCartney

Some of the best albums of all time tend to come about but happy little accidents. The band might not have been looking to restructure their sound or anything, but when they start messing about in the studio, all kinds of new possibilities start to open up. And when Paul McCartney actually decided to take a break from Wings, his second proper solo record became the precursor to what an indie record should sound like.

While RAM has received praise these days for being groundbreaking, McCartney II should be commended for being just as weird. Singles like ‘Coming Up’ were just a taste of what Macca could do, but half of the record is as zany as it is beautiful, with breathtaking ballads like ‘Waterfalls’ sharing the same space with tracks like ‘Bogey Music’ and ‘On the Way’.

And given that most of the record was made with McCartney fiddling away at a machine in his house, this feels like the precursor to everything from bedroom pop to indie rock all rolled into one. This kind of record is something that McCartney would probably reserve for his side projects like The Fireman today, but that hasn’t stopped it from being ground zero for anyone who has ever dreamed of heading into their bedroom with a bunch of instruments and walking out with an album.

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