Ten For the Ages

Presto listo

Everyone save for the most tolerant readers has probably had his or her fill of millennium lists. There isn't anyone who hasn't been assaulted by them: most influential figures in history, best books, best American movies, most important historical events. No area has been dogged by Listomania more than pop music.

Nearly every magazine, radio station, and Website has used the end of the century as a convenient excuse to create a definitive roster of rock albums. Most are crammed with the most usual of suspects: the Beatles, Dylan, the Stones, Velvet Underground, Led Zeppelin, the Clash, Nirvana, Prince. Even those lists that use the latest technology sink back into a morass of predictability: the Top 100 selected by more than 25,000 on-line music fans at Wall of Sound (www.wallofsound.go.com/features/stories/top_100_albums) tilts more toward popular faves like the Doors and U2 and Pink Floyd but still manages to be a total snoozer.

The problem, of course, is that these lists have more to do with market consensus than artistic achievement. Rather than collecting excellent music, new or old, they exist merely to calm boomers and Gen Xers worried that they might be out of step with their culture -- and to get them into stores. It's no accident that the albums listed are also the ones most commonly pushed by chain retailers and record clubs; the distributor/reviewer/ consumer troika depends on a circuit of mutual recommendation. It is in the spirit of destroying that spiritless practice that we offer our list of the Ten Best American Rock Albums You've Never Heard Of.

Manic Panic
Manic Panic

Most of these records were released on independent labels. Few spawned even regional hits. Only one or two are still in print. Still, each record contains anywhere from 35 to 55 minutes of sonic gold. Find these albums if you can. Play them if you wish. And brace yourself for love.

The Bad Cashiers
Seven Dimes For Seven Dollars
(IRT -- 1981)

If you think punk-pop begins and ends with the Replacements, think again. This is the band they were replacing: a Detroit foursome that has vanished into rock oblivion. In their brief history, the Bad Cashiers made only two albums, their eponymous 1980 debut and this follow-up triumph. In songs such as "We Don't Want a Thing" and "Why Is the Day So Long?" frontman A. Morrell (bad name, great singer) shredded his throat and most of the notes in guitarist Luke Howard's surprisingly complex compositions. And there's an eerily prophetic aura hovering around a few of the songs, especially "Oklahoma Boom," which seems to predict the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

Manic Panic
Buzz Killers
(Highest Heels -- 1993)

Did the band get its name from the hair dye, or did the hair dye get its name from the band? In the immortal words of Paula V., the lead singer of this teen-punk foursome, "Who the fuck gives a fuck?" With 17 songs, none of which exceeded two minutes, Manic Panic took an old trick and made it new again, largely because their riffs were as tight as their pants, drawing on punk and pop forebears like the Go-Go's and Buzzcocks. Fifteen years after the Runaways and five years before the Donnas, Manic Panic made the world safe for angry little girls, assuming you don't mind seeing those angry little girls (Paula V., guitarist Janie K., and drummer Diane T.) accompanied by a dirty old man (bassist Ed Krakowski, a slovenly character who leered at his bandmates on stage and was reputed to be Janie K.'s less-than-statutory lover off stage). The songs defy time: "Pissed Off and P*ssy Whipped" (hilariously ineffectual asterisk theirs), "Mop Handle," "Ripping Out Your Lawn." Like the Ramones with breasts, like L7 with a sense of humor, like Hole with four obnoxious spotlight-grabbers instead of one.

Johnnie Jackson
Twice Times Soul
(Imperial -- 1988)

There's a rule of thumb about great soul men: They don't last. Even the best of the best (Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Sly Stone) proved the rule, succumbing to death, drugs, or diminished power. But D.C.-area singer and bandleader Johnnie Jackson has been thumbing his nose at rules of thumb for more than 30 years, first as the force behind one of the only African-American bands consciously to imitate the sound of the British Invasion (the criminally underrated Black Knights), then as a deep-voiced, preternaturally funky love god who split the difference between Barry White and James Brown. Heart problems laid Jackson low for most of the '80s. But he came back with this masterful set. Highlights include covers of Son Seals' "Midnight Son" and J.B. Hutto's "The 16 Years Old Boy," as well as a titanic original ballad, "Danielle."

The Buddhas
Leap and Lean
(Juggernaut Records -- 1982)

You can keep your Van Halen. I'll trade mine in, pennies on the dollar, and buy up all the existing copies of this masterpiece. Built around guitar virtuoso Kelly Hixon, whose rotund physique provided the Cincinnati foursome with its name, the Buddhas came out blazing with their 1979 debut, Guns and Buddha. But Hixon's near-fatal heroin overdose in 1980, along with the defection of lead vocalist Jon Gerstman, put the band's future in jeopardy. Enter second lead vocalist John Crews, who combined the theatrics of Diamond Dave with the acrobatic vocal abilities of Faith No More's Mike Patton. Leap and Learn, which produced two minor hits ("Come All Ye Monkeys" and "Slingshot"), should have had at least that many major hits. Sadly Hixon slipped back into addiction, and the Buddhas disbanded the following year.

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