Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Legends in My Living Room: Great Music Acts Who Deserve(d) to be Superstars

The subject was not roses but great first impressions, including the one Matthew Sweet made with "Dinosaur Act," Track 1 on Altered Beast, his brilliant but critically and commercially overlooked 1993 album. That post got me thinking about roses that never fully bloomed (I guess the subject is roses, after all) and stars that should have been supernovas.

I'll never understand why Ke$ha is famous and Luciana isn't. Why Mariah Carey and sometimes Janet Jackson ruled the '90s, while the likes of PJ Harvey and Bjork, critically acclaimed as they were, spent most of the decade on the fringes of commercial success. (Interestingly, both Harvey and Bjork have worked with Thom Yorke, whose band Radiohead scaled platinum peaks despite being musically "difficult.") Why Madonna's golden (and platinum) years continue while those of Cyndi Lauper, a far superior singer, couldn't outlast the '80s.

Well, I'm here to give some unheralded greats their due. It's not much, but it's the best I can do. If I ruled the world, they'd provide the soundtrack in my kingdom.

Joe Henry He's handsome, he's talented, and he's Madonna's brother-in-law, for God's sake. (Her 2000 hit "Don't Tell Me" began its life as a Henry demo called "Stop," which he recorded for his 2001 album, Scar.) So why is Joe Henry still a virtual unknown? Why whenever I want to sing his praises must I always sing them alone. It's been decades since the pop charts have been kind to solo male artists whose music isn't filed under pop, R&B or hip hop or who aren't members of a band or former members of a supergroup. (Food for thought: Would Chris Martin have become a star without Coldplay?) You'd think that once in a while the masses would make an exception. Sadly, for Henry (and Sweet), they don't.

Toni Childs She was nominated for the Best New Artist Grammy in 1989 (and lost to Tracy Chapman), then, unless you were paying close attention, she fell off the face of the earth. She actually just went deeper underground, releasing three more albums after her flawless debut, 1988's Union, and enjoyed some success in Australia and New Zealand, but in the U.S., each one sold less than the one before it. It seems that at any one time, there's only room on the pop charts for one or two visionary female singer-songwriters offering tunes where the subject is more than roses and love. In the early '70s, they were Carly Simon and Joni Mitchell. By the late '80s and early '90s, Sinead O'Connor and Tracy Chapman were crowding the spotlight. The mid to late '90s, the Lilith Fair years, expanded the space to include Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Fiona Apple, Jewel and, for two hits and one Grammy cycle, Paula Cole. Who will save our souls now?

Alyson Williams History repeats itself over and over and over when it comes to great soul singers who never get their deserved recognition. I could devote a month of posts to them. (As it stands, I rant and rave on their behalf about once a year.) Today I'm mourning Alyson Williams' lack of crossover success, despite scoring five Top 10 R&B hits in the late '80s and early '90s. At least in the UK, where, as a general rule, they know a great song when they hear one, pop fans had the good taste to send "Sleep Talk" to No. 3 in 1989.

Leona Naess You'd think that being Diana Ross's former stepdaughter might have worked in her favor. (Her dad was the late Norwegian mountaineer and businessman Arne Naess Jr., who was married to Ross in the late '80s and literally fell off a cliff to his death in 2004.) Or maybe being the girl that Ryan Adams reportedly dumped in 2003 might have given her some audience sympathy. (Listen to her self-titled third album from 2003 for all the beautifully messy details of that particular romantic entanglement.) But over the course of four excellent albums, Naess floundered commercially while Sheryl Crow, the closest thing to her musical kindred spirit in the mainstream, continued to soar.

Robyn Okay, so she did enjoy some well-deserved U.S. success as a white R&B/teenpop diva in the late '90s, but although accomplishing the rare artistic feat of getting better which each album (and over the course of more than a decade to boot), today she remains mostly a cult classic, a star among music lovers who know that Lady Gaga might be the biggest thing in electropop, but Robyn is the best.

And 8 more that the U.S. mainstream missed out on:

The Cardigans post-"Lovefool" (essential albums: Gran Turismo, Long Gone Before Daylight, Super Extra Gravity)
Ex-Bauhaus members Peter Murphy and Daniel Ash (essential albums: Murphy's Deep and Ash's Coming Down)
Tracey Thorn post Everything but the Girl's "Missing" (essential albums: EBTG's Walking Wounded and Thorn's Out of the Woods)
Shara Nelson (essential album: What Silence Knows)
Roisin Murphy, solo and with Moloko (essential single: "Overpowered")
Belly (essential album: Star)
Billie Ray Martin, solo and with Electribe 101 and the Opiates (essential albums: Electribe 101's Electribal Memories and Martin's 18 Carat Garbage)

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