The Ten Best Albums You’ve Never Heard (Or Maybe Even Heard of)

As you’ve read in this space before, The Curmudgeon loves music – he loves music, any kind of music, he loves music, just as long as it’s groovy.

But seriously, folks.  Screw his fancy-ass education: the best education The Curmudgeon received was during the two-and-half years during college that he worked at a Peaches Records and Tapes store in Philadelphia.  When people think of huge record stores, they generally think of the now-defunct Tower Records stores.  Peaches stores opened (and closed – it was an abysmally managed business) years before Tower came along and were a lot bigger.

The Curmudgeon enjoyed almost every minute he spent at Peaches right up to the moment he was fired for expecting people to live up to their word.  He learned a lot about people, he had his first meaningful exposure to people who used (and sold) all sorts of recreational drugs, and he had his first meaningful exposure to people who copulated any time they could find a willing partner and an appropriate, isolated corner in the store’s 12,000-square-foot building.

But mostly he learned a lot about music.  The Curmudgeon grew up in a family in which the predominant sounds were movie musical soundtracks on the stereo and Andy Williams on television, so he clearly had a lot to learn.  He still remembers the day when, before the Peaches store was even open for business, the sound system was installed and the boss allowed the forty or so employees to vote on three albums to open and play.  The easy winners were the Beatles White Album, a Steely Dan album, and a Grateful Dead album.  The Curmudgeon knew the Beatles, of course, but did not know their music by album title; he knew a few Steely Dan songs but had never heard the name of the band; and he had never even heard of the Grateful Dead.

So The Curmudgeon had a lot to learn, but like most people who come to an interest later in life – okay, twenty years old is not exactly later in life – he took to it with a passion and has never looked back.  While he dabbled in popular music, he has found over the years that his musical tastes typically fall outside the mainstream.  How far outside?  Judge for yourself by reading the following list of the best ten albums (sorry, The Curmudgeon still insists on calling them albums even though he hasn’t bought any vinyl since the mid-1980s) that he suspects you’ve never actually heard.

In no particular order:

  • Match Game – Marti Jones.  In addition to this being one of the best albums you’ve never heard of, Jones is also the best singer you never heard of.  She’s made about eight albums, all of them good, but her earliest were her best.  During the first half of her career she mostly covered others’ songs; later, she started writing her own, which aren’t as good.  On her 1986 Match Game, Jones sings pure pop/rock with a voice that’s like a stronger Joni Mitchell, covering songs by Elvis Costello, David Bowie, Dwight Twilley, and others and greatly aided by terrific if somewhat gimmicky production by Jones’s husband, Don Dixon, who’s also worked with REM, the Smithereens, Marshall Crenshaw, and others.  Jones never made it and isn’t performing much anymore; mostly, she’s now a painter.  The Curmudgeon hopes that when she’s old and gray, she’ll look back and listen to Match Game and see that she truly made something worthwhile.
  • Joshua Judges Ruth – Lyle Lovett.  Lovett is more than the Gumby-coiffed ex-husband of Julia Roberts; he’s the far more talented half of that famous but short-lived celebrity marriage.  The Joshua in the album’s title isn’t judging someone named Ruth; the title stands for three books from the Old Testament (just the plain bible for you Jewish readers), and it’s a signal that this 1992 album has a very spiritual flavor.  It draws from gospel music, western music (once upon a time, what we call country music today was called country and western, but there’s a difference:  there’s country and then there’s western, like Lyle Lovett and Lucinda Williams, and this is western), and a little rock.  It’s also one of at least two or three of the ten albums on this list that might be among those The Curmudgeon would take to that proverbial deserted island where the stranded mysteriously are permitted only ten pieces of recorded music.
  • Famous Blue Raincoat – Jennifer Warnes.  If you only know Warnes from her hit song “Right Time of the Night” or her duet with Righteous Brother Bill Medley on “Up Where We Belong” from the movie Dirty Dancing, or if you’re a bit older and remember her as a semi-regular on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, when she was known as Jennifer Warner, you’re really missing something.  She’s an exquisite, expressive singer, and on Famous Blue Raincoat, she’s perfectly matched with nine songs written by Leonard Cohen, an exquisite, expressive songwriter (and perhaps the worst singer ever).  The highlights of this short 1987 album are “Song of Bernadette” and the title song, but really, almost every tune has something special to offer.
  • Night Music – Joe Jackson.  You know Joe because of a few hits he had early in his career, most notably “Is She Really Going Out With Him,” but Jackson blossomed into an absolutely first-rate singer, songwriter, and musician who’s still making great music thirty-five years after that first hit.  His talents are all on display in the 1994 album Night Music, which features conventional songs and a few instrumentals.  The highlight for The Curmudgeon is “The Man Who Wrote Danny Boy,” in which Jackson generously steps aside to allow singer Maire Brennan (of the group Clannad) to sing ­– quite angelically – the most beautiful part of the song; opera star Renee Fleming also sings on the album.  The instrumentals are especially evocative.
  • West Side Story – Leonard Bernstein.  Bernstein wrote the music for the Broadway hit but this was the first time he ever conducted the entire score.  He leads a pick-up orchestra, and the singers – are opera singers!  And not just any opera singers, either:  Jose Carreras, Kiri TeKanawa (specially chosen to sing at the wedding of Charles and Diana), and Tatiana Troyanos.  The playing is much jazzier and funkier than the Broadway and movie soundtracks and the singing is divine aside from some problems Carreras runs into trying to affect an American accent.  This is definitely among the ten albums The Curmudgeon would take to that island.
  • Hold On – Noel Pointer.  Okay, The Curmudgeon knows:  you’ve never even heard of Noel Pointer, and he passed away in 1994.  He’s primarily a jazz violinist, and his music defies classification:  it’s a little jazz, a little R&B, a little “World Music” (although Hold On was recorded in 1976, before the term came into common use), and it’s a little vocal music, because Pointer sings, too.  The highlight of Hold On is Pointer’s nine-minute version of Quincy Jones’s music from Roots.  Definitely worth a listen.
  • Want One – Rufus Wainwright.  You may know Rufus’s father, folkie (and original M*A*S*H cast member) Loudon Wainwright III, or his mother, Kate (“Heart Like a Wheel”) McGarrigle, or his step-mother, Suzzy Roche, or even his sister, Martha Wainwright, but Rufus is probably the most talented of them all.  Rufus is gay and out (he’s a huge Judy Garland fan who once recreated Garland’s famous Carnegie Hall concert), and he opens his 2003 Want One album singing “Men reading fashion magazines, oh what a world it seems we live in” (the song eventually melts into Ravel’s famous Bolero) and later “Pretty things, so what if I like pretty things.”  In all, sixteen excellent songs, terrific singing, pure pop music.
  • Phoebe Snow – Second Childhood.  You know her from “Poetry Man” and this 1976 album doesn’t have that song, but that’s okay because what it does have is just about perfect.  This is one of The Curmudgeon’s favorite before-bed reading albums – jazzy, mellow, and a bit smoky – but half the time, he puts down whatever he’s reading and just listens.   The Curmudgeon started to type a list of his favorites from the album but stopped because almost every song seemed to merit “favorite” status.
  • Marshall Crenshaw – Good Evening.  The only Marshall Crenshaw song The Curmudgeon had ever heard was “Someday, Someway,” but when he saw the 1989 release Good Evening in the one-dollar rack at a record store in the Franklin Mills Mall, he was game – and he was richly rewarded.  Rock with a rockabilly/high-energy country sensibility, this is the kind of music that makes The Curmudgeon, an absolute non-dancer, begin to move his feet just a little.  Just about every song is a winner.
  • The Paul Winter Consort – Earthdance.  This is almost cheating because it’s a “best of” album, but seldom has the “best of” description ever been more appropriate.  Winter is a saxophonist, and in the days of yore, his albums could generally be found in a record store’s jazz section.  It’s not really jazz; it’s really “World” music, but because some of it is mellow and some of it involves unconventional musical instruments (V-8 juice cans, anyone?) and sounds that occur in nature (whales and wolves, which Winter imitates on his sax), today it generally wears the unfortunate “New Age” label.  It’s all instrumental, it’s all terrific, and the song “Icarus” may very well be the most beautiful three minutes of music ever recorded.
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