Monday, August 06, 2007


Via Bob Mould, I found a list, apparently compiled not long ago from suggestions by Rolling Stone readers, of the 25 most 'underappreciated' artists and bands.

It's a curious list in some ways, not least it's not clear what 'underappreciated' means.

How do you measure a musician's 'importance'? Inherent quality? Innovation? Influence on other musicians? Critical reception? Sales?

The related question is then: which combination of these factors leads to 'underappreciation'? Lots of influence and poor sales? Good sales figures but a lack of recognition by music writers? Great influence but poor name recognition?

By any measure, for instance, Bob Seger (#10 on the list) has been enormously 'appreciated': not only has he long been inescapable on 'classic-rock' radio in the US, but he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and his 'Old Time Rock and Roll' was named one of the Songs of the Century in some kind of recording industry music heritage poll. So, he seems plenty 'appreciated' to me.

I suppose one could claim his unappreciatedness by the fact that I don't think most rock critics would see Bob Seger's music as innovative or, necessarily, influential. I mean, he does what he does quite well, but was it ever really innovative?

We have the opposite situation with the number 1 'underappreciated' artist Tom Waits. Now, I love Waits's music, but I'm not sure he belongs on the list either: his fan base and airplay might be relatively small (compared to, say, Bob Seger), but, considering the kind of music he makes, I think it's safe to say he's not really aiming for mass appeal. Furthermore, his fans make up for their relative rarity thorough their devotion, and he's gotten an enormous amount of critical appreciation amongst people who really think about music. (The latter could also be said of many artists on the list, such as Wilco, Talking Heads and Sonic Youth.)

So, can we really say that Waits is 'underappreciated'?

I don't know. The Replacements (#2) might have more of a justification for being there, as might Hüsker Dü (#21), considering that they were 'influential' (at least on the development of a particular style of American 'college rock' which then became 'alternative' or 'indie' which came to dominate US Airwaves (alongside country and rap)) to a degree which did not match their sales or general name recognition. (Unlike, perhaps, the Pixies, who are not on the list.)

Anyway, it's all very complicated (and perhaps not all that important...though a perusal of the comments following the list at the Rolling Stone site shows that some people will argue musical taste with the vehemence that others reserve for issues like war and religion).

But if I had to spontaneously come up with a list of ten underappreciated artists, i.e., those who I think are creatively excellent but who remain relatively obscure in that their popularity does no justice to their quality (a relative and somewhat shifting measurement) they would be (without thinking about it too much and thus reserving the right to alter my opinion):

Robyn Hitchcock
The Mountain Goats
The Notwist
The Wedding Present
Yo La Tengo
The Books
The Flaming Lips
The High Llamas

I've undoubtedly missed something...but what?

(I'm aware that this list is limited to the genre of slightly nerdy indie-electronic-psychedelia. Even within those categories, there are thousands of probably very good bands and musicians out there I've never heard of. Not to mention that I'm overlooking all the underappreciated ambient dub artists and Scandinavian death metal bands that I'm...well, not all that up-to-date on, actually. But hey, I like what I like.)


Graeme said...

I wanted to see Tom Waits a number of years ago and the tickets for the show were sold out within about ten or fifteen minutes. The venue wasn't massive--I think it was about a 3000 capacity--but that seems to be hardly underappreciated.

I saw The Books a couple of years back and I was really impressed by them. I haven't heard their recordings, but they came across as being clever (but not in a smug way) and yet really playful. It was a really nice change from the seriousness that you'd typically find with that sort of music.

J. Carter Wood said...

I would love to see Waits live, though preferably in a much smaller place.

I'm curious as to what The Books are like live. I only know them through their albums (I have two, "The Lemon of Pink" and "Lost and Safe", which are both really great) and their music is so carefully and precisely crafted out of so many elements that it's somewhat difficult to imagine it being reproduced live.

If you like them, you may also enjoyTunng or The Notwist (if you don't already).

Graeme said...

Visuals were a big component of The Books live show, and they worked really well with the music. As I remember, both of the guys seemed to be using live instrumentation, but there was obviously a lot of digital things going on as well. They struck me as being drastically different than a lot of the (for lack of a better word) post-rock groups in that while the music was very intelligent and what not, they weren't po-faced about it.

I'm not crazy about The Notwist. I really liked Neon Golden (the earlier albums were nothing special) but they were really weak live. All the glitchy electronic stuff seemed like it was just being played back and wasn't interacting with the live band at all. There was a lot of dumb indie rock posturing there as well with the big Mogwai-style wall of guitar thing, which I thought didn't go well with what they were doing and seemed to be a dumbed down pandering to the audience.