Almost everybody owns albums they love and cherish, but which they are embarrassed to display in polite company. Most people don't respond all that well to snickering, so why risk it, you know? Or they own albums that vanished from the radar before they had a chance to make an impact.
So, in the interest of full disclosure, I am bravely revealing my Top 3 Albums That Get No Love. But I like 'em anyway. Be gentle, gentle readers. I have a fragile soul. It is a tender flower that is easily bruised. And if you don't like my choices, screw you.
No, no, that's all wrong. I love you all. Really. Take it as the fervent hope and prayer of one fragile soul to another.
So before I break into a chorus of the Barney song, I'll offer a) Three Albums I Love That Everybody Else Hates, and b) Three Worthy Albums I Want Other People To Hear, But Nobody Ever Takes Me Up On It.
In the former category, I offer:
John Denver -- Poems, Prayers, and Promises -- John was an earnest little muppet, and the hug-a-tree sentiments became very annoying very quickly, but this album, one of his earliest, also shows that he was a fine songwriter. This one has "Take Me Home, Country Roads," which still brings a tear to the ol' rural eye. "Almost heaven, West Virginia" actually became a state motto. Never mind that the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah River are in Virginia, not West Virginia. Nobody ever said that those gap-toothed holler dwellers were geography majors. Or that John Denver was, either. It's still a fine song, one of the best examples of the laid-back country/folk that the hippies latched on to after Woodstock. It's totally uncool to like this album, or John Denver. Nevertheless, I like it.
Rick Wakeman -- Journey to the Center of the Earth -- Wakeman was the keyboard player for Yes. He liked to wear capes and dress in armor, and he would occasionally toss in Prokofiev quotes into the middle of rock songs. Eventually he had a solo career, and this was his second album. In typically overblown fashion, this one featured not only Rick's phalanx of pianos, organs, and synthesizers, but the London Symphony Orchestra, the English Chamber Choir, and several classically trained actors and actresses portentously intoning passages from Jules Verne's early sci-fi/fantasy novel. This is classic Spinal Tap fodder, and as such it has its comic elements, but it also features some astounding keyboard work from Wakeman. Strip away the ostentatious trappings and there's some great music here.
Steve Earle -- Shut Up and Die Like An Aviator -- By most accounts, this is the nadir of Earle's career. He was deep in the throes of heroin addiction when he recorded this live album, and he sounds like it. His voice, always an acquired taste, barely rises above a raspy whisper, and his band is loose in all the wrong senses of the term. The drummer can't keep the beat. The guitarist really likes that D chord, and plays it continually, whether it fits the music or not. Steve's long monologues in between songs are rambling and incoherent. But I like this album for the same reasons that I like to rubberneck at car accidents on the freeway. The carnage is fascinating. And these songs of desperation sound even more desperate.
There are so many albums that fit the latter category, but for starters I'll offer:
Tir Na Nog -- A Tear and a Smile and Strong in the Sun -- Good luck finding these albums. Tir Na Nog were a couple of Irish folkies who rose to what could charitably be thought of as their ascendance at the same time as Nick Drake and the early solo Richard Thompson, and they were clearly influenced by those artists on these early '70s albums. Nobody cared. They cover several Drake tunes (long before anybody knew who Nick Drake was), they write sweetly aching, melancholy originals, and they intertwine their acoustic guitars in breathtaking ways. Of course, they sank without a trace. But these are gorgeous albums, right at the top of my Best Music You've Never Heard list. Imagine Nick Drake harmonizing with himself, and you're in the ballpark, or on the soccer pitch, or whatever.
Chris Whitley -- Din of Ecstasy -- I will continue my one-man crusade for the greatest songwriter and guitarist you've never heard. Whitley caused quite a stir with his debut album, Living With the Law, an eerie mix of Edge-like atmospherics and raw Delta blues. Then he disappeared from the scene, and re-emerged four years later with this, his "grunge" album. At the time it was brutally slagged as a derivative attempt to jump on Kurt's bandwagon, and it effectively ended whatever chances Whitley had for hitting the big time. But listen to it now. It's raw, it's searing, it's gloriously explosive. And then there are the words -- an addict chronicling the desperate battle between soul-numbing escape and the desire to matter, to mean, to recapture some semblance of life. It's profane and it's angry. It's a man at the end of his rope, and it's a prayer. It's one of the most harrowing albums I've ever heard.
The Weakerthans -- Fallow, Left and Leaving, and Reconstruction Site -- Granted, these guys aren't exactly unknowns, but they are nevertheless criminally underappreciated. The transformation that lead singer/songwriter John K. Samson has wrought from Punk Brat (best shown in his former band Propagandhi) to Thoughtful Poet is nothing less than spectacular. The band mixes it up quite eclectically, tossing in influences from folk, country, and loud, abrasive rock 'n roll. But the secret ingredient is Samson's songwriting. He's one of the few songwriters whose words can stand alone as poetry. He tackles all the big subjects -- love and the loss of love, God, death, loneliness and alienation, the hole in the soul -- and he does so with compassion, warmth, humor, and something that sounds uncannily like wisdom. And he rocks like crazy.