Posted On February 20, 2014 By In Music, Music Musings

10 of the Most Underrated Bands Ever

 
 

For every Nickelback and Green Day that dominates the airwaves, there are countless bands that seem to be forever stuck in the underground – a kind of beer-soaked, pool hall purgatory.  Life there is an endless cycle of supporting Paramore on their latest tour and playing covers (because no one came to hear your music anyway).

Play “Free Bird!”

But just because the Average Joe off the street hasn’t heard of a band doesn’t mean they deserve obscurity.  For some reason or another, some of history’s best musical acts have flown under the radar, rising only for the occasional one-hit wonder or hat-tip when the latest buzzband lists them as an influence.  Some even enjoy their fair bit of attention, but not the heaps of praise bestowed on other, less deserving acts.

Taylor, Imma let you finish, but the Civil Wars had one of the best albums of all time!

Don’t expect any of these groups to be rocking sold out arenas any time in the near future, but they will always have a special place on our iPods and in our hearts.  And who knows, maybe fame would ruin them anyway.

Don’t act like it isn’t true.

 

1. Fountains of Wayne

We all know that Stacy’s mom has got it going on, but that’s about all we seemed to learn from these power-pop protégés when they burst onto the scene in 2003.  That song was such a smash that these New York natives seemed poised to take over the rock scene for the rest of the ’00s.  Their record Welcome Interstate Managers was certainly a grand enough flagship to mount their attack.  But then something happened – or rather a lack of something.  Radio programmers dropped their follow-up single “Mexican Wine” from rotation because of questionable lyrics, “Hey Julie” couldn’t get off the ground, and the rest is history.

It was a travesty.  Even excluding the rest of Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger’s considerable body of work, Welcome Interstate Managers is about as close to a perfect album as it comes.  It’s a 16-track labor of love that pays homage to the Cars, Cheap Trick, and rest of the melodic pop canon, while still standing on its own two legs.  From the tongue-in-cheek thumper “Bright Future in Sales” to the ennui-ridden New England ballad “Valley Winter Song,” every outing is a little slice of retro pop heaven.  It also features the best song ever written about a football instant replay.  You gotta give these guys credit, no one else can sing about the mundane and make it seem so profound.

You may not have heard:

 

2. The Civil Wars

A couple years ago there was a bit of buzz going around about a little Nashville duo that was going to change the face of folk music forever.  Three Grammys, a Gold-certified album and a Taylor Swift collab later, though, and the Civil Wars unceremoniously called it quits.  They’ve since released a follow-up eponymous album (likely their last), but Joy Williams and John Paul White are still not on speaking terms.  They wouldn’t even share the stage to accept their fourth Grammy three weeks ago.

While we may not get another taste of their bittersweet harmonies and emotional take on grassroots Americana, they’ve left behind a little treasure trove of music that deserved all the attention it got, however short it was.  Time heals all wounds though, so we at Writtalin hope they will kiss and make up sooner or later.

You may not have heard:

 

3. Pavement

If you’re a fan of alternative rock, you owe its existence to a certain little indie come-up from the early 90s.  No, I’m not talking about Nirvana.  And no, not R.E.M. either.  Don’t get me wrong, both groups were major pioneers in shaping the landscape of modern rock, but for some reason Stephen Malkmus and his shoegaze soldiers get left by the wayside while everyone and their moms continue to pat Kurt Cobain on the back.

Alongside My Bloody Valentine, Pavement are largely responsible for injecting heavy doses of distortion into alternative rock.  Like how raw those guitars sound on your favorite record?  Be sure to thank Malkmus and the many pedals at his feet (it’s called shoegaze for a reason).

While their peers shot into the stratosphere around them, Pavement managed to remain outside the major-label machine.  Your weird uncle and his biker girlfriend may still wear Pavement shirts to the house on Thanksgiving, but their legacy hasn’t been persevered like the Cobains, Vedders and Staleys that were once their peers.  Their reunion tour in 2010 drew unprecedented ticket sales under the circumstances though, so maybe the day will come when Hot Topic will put Malkmus’ face on a lunchbox (I’m kidding – I don’t want that to happen).

You may not have heard:

 

4. Big Star

The history of rock and roll is littered with the corpses of bands who deserved fame and never reached it.  The king of all those discarded what-ifs is a little short-lived power pop outfit from Memphis called Big Star.

If you haven’t seen the recent documentary (and let’s face it, you probably haven’t),  Big Star existed for a mere four years in the early ’70s, released three commercially unsuccessful albums, and receded back into obscurity.  Despite being universally lauded by critics, the group’s first album #1 Record sold fewer than 10,000 copies.  Record company execs and radio programmers were put off by its “uncommercial sound” and so few people even knew they existed.

But like the Van Goghs, Teslas, and Poes of yesteryear, time and distance has brought their genius to light.  #1 Record and its follow-up Radio City are glimmering gems of songwriting overrun with gorgeous harmonies and wistful lyricism that overshadow many of their more successful peers.  For immediate proof, take a listen to their acoustic calling card, “Thirteen,” an ode to summer youth, rebellion, and everything rock used to embody.  “Would you be an outlaw for my love?”  Yes, Alex Chilton – any day of the week.

You may not have heard:

 

5. The Black Crowes

Chris and Rich Robinson must have been snoozing when the rest of America boarded the boogie rock train in the 70s, because they didn’t show up with their Skynyrd sound and Aerosmith haircuts until 1990.  At least they were fashionably late, tearing through their juicy debut like they were opening at Woodstock.  The 5x Platinum Shake Your Money Maker was a much needed rejuvenation after the 80s robbed rock and roll of much of its bite.  Even their follow-up, the chicken-fried, down-home Southern Harmony and Musical Companion kept the dance halls packed and radio finger-lickin’ good for much of ’92.

But then the world moved on.  America needed its Foo Fighters, N* Sync, and Britney and there wasn’t room for a swaggering relic of the Grateful Dead heyday.

The Crowes are still around, pumping out records and touring like nobody’s business (I even caught them at Napa’s inaugural Bottle Rock Festival last year), but the blogs have better things to cover, like the latest indielectonica chillwave group that you simply MUST listen to.

When you’ve grown tired of hearing cookie cutter electronic music, be sure to give these guys another listen.  You’ll be transported back to a time when the latest Miley and Shia LaBeouf news didn’t dominate your Feed.

You may not have heard:

 

6. AWOLNATION

Now if you’re thinking to yourself, “What do you mean these guys are underrated?  I love ‘Sail!’” you need to shut up right now and listen.  “Sail” is a great song, but its popularity has overshadowed everything else on Aaron Bruno’s sprawling electronic experiment Megalithic Symphony.  It is a wild, eclectic, and unexpected delight ranging from glitzy indie pop to art house hip-hop and full metal breakdown.

The tragedy though, is that “Sail” has painted the group into a corner.  The stage is set for them to take their place in the one-hit wonder hall of fame.

Blame it on Mr. Bruno’s ADD if you want, but their unsung disappearance would be unbefitting of such a great album.  So do your part and download it today.

You may not have heard:

 

7. Against Me!

The great irony about punk is that once it starts getting attention, it stops being punk (at least in an ideological sense).  Our number seven pick even wrote a song to that effect.  And here I am, arguing that more people need to pay attention to them.  I’m aware of the circular reasoning here, but that doesn’t change the fact that Against Me! are one of the few socially progressive punk bands left today, and no Rise Against doesn’t count (I’m starting to think Tim McIlrath will have a fundraiser for anything).

Their songs have always challenged the status quo without sacrificing anything musically and they don’t seem to care about arbitrary labels that distract from their art.  They didn’t even balk when fans screamed “sell-out” after their 2007 record New Wave enjoyed a fair bit of attention.  And with frontwoman Laura Jane Grace’s recent coming out as transgender and the channeling of her years of unhappiness into the appropriately titled new album Transgender Dysphoria Blues, she’s a beacon of the cathartic power of music and the courage to live your life on your own terms.

You may not have heard:

 

8. The Gaslight Anthem

While we’re on the topic of punk, another low-flying outfit comes to mind.  Despite three albums worth of rave reviews, New Jersey’s Gaslight Anthem have little mainstream buzz backing their heartland-flavored brand of punk rock.  Combining Springsteen-eque working class ideas with emotionally raw punk, these guys can rend a heartstring like no other.  Even the Boss himself admits he’s a huge fan of their work.

Yet, excluding the minor radio hit “45,” one of the most honest break-up songs in recent memory,  they haven’t gotten much time in the spotlight.  If arena rock were to ever revert to its “Born in the USA” roots though, these guys would be an excellent choice to take up the torch.

You may not have heard:

 

9. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club

This brooding sludge rock outfit from San Francisco has been beating the devil’s tattoo for sixteen years and not once has alt radio or the blogosphere thrown them a bone.  Seven albums later, they’re still plodding along in leather-clad darkness, writing sleazy foot-stompers that leave you feeling dirty in all the right ways.  It’s the perfect soundtrack for a basement lounge or that sex dungeon you keep behind a false panel in your closet.

Maybe it’s a good thing they haven’t leaked into the mainstream yet.  We keep our dirty secrets in the bedroom where they belong.

You may not have heard:

 

10. The Velvet Underground

There’s no way this list would be complete without Lou Reed’s lasting contribution to music.  Without the Velvet Underground, there would be no indie rock, no alternative, no experimental or art house.

They basically pioneered every trick in the book and yet they were met with critical and commercial derision upon their arrival.  In the same vein as Big Star, radio programmers shied away from their experimental sound and explicit lyrics (you still waiting for your heroin dealer, Lou?), leaving the genius of The Velvet Underground and Nico to fester in unlistened-to nowhere.  Not until much later did young bands start picking up the record and recognizing the inspired – and thoroughly weird – masterwork for what it was.  There is a reason that the Velvet Underground is cited over and over as an influence by artists across the spectrum.

It’s just a shame that they didn’t achieve any acclaim at their inception in 1967.  As a band that were far, far ahead of their time, and pioneers of the musical landscape in which we live, they should be picked up by everyone, even just for educational purposes.

You may not have heard:

Honorable Mention:

Electric Light Orchestra, Cut Copy, Mutemath, Dispatch, Dropkick Murphys, the Heavy, The Talking Heads.

 

Sad that your favorite band didn’t make the cut?  Let us know who you would have picked in the comments below.

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Anthony Kozlowski is a music and entertainment writer for Writtalin. What are his qualifications? Well, he says he runs his own production company out of LA and works as a producer and sound mixer in the industry. But we don’t know if we believe all that. You can email Anthony at: anthonyk@writtalin.com

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