Ten For the Ages

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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.

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.

Sandra Earl
Mr. Cruel
(Uptown -- 1972)

The press releases for Sandra Earl trumpeted her as "the next Aretha." She wasn't. In fact the Nashville-reared Earl wasn't even the next Gladys Knight. But in 1972, as Aretha's atomic Atlantic period drew to a close, the soul world was looking for another female savior, and Earl was certainly in the running. As the leader of the Sparrowettes, she notched a few regional girl-group hits ("Stop and Say You Love Me," "The Night Is Just Beginning") that showcased her piercing vocals. When it came time to go solo, Earl made it clear that she wasn't interested in saccharine teen-love material. In fact she wanted to write all her own songs. At the time this was nothing short of revolutionary, and Earl put her anthem where her mouth was, delivering a highly political first single ("The Clock Is Running") that ranks with the best of Curtis Mayfield. Record buyers and critics alike were ready to crown Earl the empress of political soul. But Mr. Cruel, the album that followed that single, remains one of the most mystifying examples of self-immolation in the history of popular music. Gone are the political aspirations; in their place are eleven slinky, slippery, and downright sleazy love-to-love-you-baby ballads. "Put It In" and "Push For More" were two of the more tasteful cuts; "Inch by Inch" was significantly less so. In the midst of this libidinal sea, "The Clock Is Running" bobs like a helpless shipwreck victim. Unlistenable at first, Mr. Cruel develops a crude but undeniable power with repeated plays. More than a quarter-century after its release, Earl's album stands as a kind of distaff equivalent to Marvin Gaye's Let's Get It On, a sublimely sexual manifesto.

Tom Pettite
Bombshell Game
(Pacific -- 1976)

Coincidence can be a good thing, like when you happen to be sitting in the same bar as the girl you're destined to marry. But it can also be a bad thing. Consider the case of Tom Pettite, a talented Birmingham-based singer and songwriter who kicked around the Southeast before landing a record deal in 1975. Mining the seam between power-pop and rootsy rock 'n' roll, Pettite had a crackerjack band in the tight, taut Skin Divers and crackerjack songs, including the ready-for-radio "Emotional Girl." Too bad, then, that a certain singer-songwriter named Tom Petty hit the charts with his "American Girl," a song that went on to become one of the classic American rock songs of the late '70s. Bombshell Game, which limped into record stores in the closing months of 1976, had its share of gems, including the Segeresque ballad "Landing Gear" and the punky title track. But no one was interested; in fact, when radio stations did play Pettite's songs, they sometimes miscredited them to Petty. Entirely eclipsed by his near namesake and then stung by poor treatment at the hands of his label, Pettite dropped out of sight. Four years later he returned to the scene as the leader of a band called the Pretenders, at which point lightning promptly struck him a second time.

The Social Climbers
The Social Climbers Present the Story of Peter Whippleby, Esquire
(Smile Records -- 1968)

The Who's Tommy gets all the ink, but the fact of the matter is that there were plenty of rock bands experimenting with the rock-opera form before Townshend and company parlayed autism and pinball into rock immortality. The Pretty Things, for example, metamorphosed from one of the hardest-hitting R&B shout-outfits into an expansive, psychedelic band. Their 1968 album SF Sorrow, sprawling and pretentious, was a close cousin of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Piper at the Gates of Dawn, not to mention a major influence on Townshend. And then there were the Social Climbers, Boston-based Anglophiles who aspired to concept-album greatness. Over the course of ten relatively concise songs, including the driving "Parlor Spectre" and the psychedelic relic "Little Seeds," songwriter and lead guitarist Andrew Tanner managed to tell the story of one Peter Whippleby, a dandy and aspiring rock star whose dalliances with controlled substances and uncontrollable urges made him a dead ringer for original Rolling Stone Brian Jones. Whether because of the flagrant Anglophilia, the similarities between Whippleby and Jones, or Tanner's own problems with the law -- he was a known drug addict who also was arrested on forgery charges -- the Social Climbers made more noise than money and failed to climb into even the lowest reaches of the pop charts.

Aquaforest
Dance Trance and Dalliance
(21st Century -- 1978)

Once a promising soul-funk guitarist in the Jimi Hendrix vein (pun intended), Houston guitar prodigy Howard Merritt cleaned up and found religion in 1975, a move that seemed to douse all remaining flames in his once-blazing recording career. The Merritt who recorded such seminal late-'60s singles as "To One Side" and "Scratched Out" vanished, only to be replaced by a soft-focus, somewhat woozy, gospel-tinged soul man who liked to sing songs with ham-fisted titles like "My Lord He Comes Walking on Very Short Notice." Then, in 1977, Merritt changed again, apparently as a result of hearing Kraftwerk's seminal electronic-music album Trans-Europe Express. Taking his cue from the space-age theatrics of Sun Ra and George Clinton, Merritt refashioned himself as a "bio-illogical deity" named Aquaforest. The one and only Aquaforest album, Dance Trance and Dalliance, consisted of only two songs, each of which took up one entire side of the album. The title track was an airy 20-minute synthesizer composition over which Merritt repeated the three nouns of the title. The second, entitled "Pants, Pants, and Pants," was a searing return to six-string showmanship over which Merritt testified, somewhat crazily, about all the different types of pants available for purchase at your average department store. (Sample lyric: "You got that corduroy/You got that gabardine/Khaki/ Looks real tacky/In a pale green."). A sign of impending mental illness, perhaps -- family members agreed in 1979 and helped Merritt quietly into an institution -- but no other album simultaneously anticipates Brian Eno and Limp Bizkit.

The Phoenixes
The Phoenixes Rise Again
(PRM -- 1955)

Singing politicians are rarer than honest politicians. There's Sonny Bono, of course, and Shirley Temple was some kind of U.N. ambassador -- not exactly a politician, but then again, she wasn't exactly a singer. Right? OK. Hold that thought, and travel back in time to the mid-'50s, where the pre-Elvis lull in popular music allowed several doo-wop and vocal groups to prosper, including the Phoenixes, a Virginia foursome that scored minor hits with white-bread versions of such black-vocal-group standards as "It's Too Soon to Know" and "Crying in the Chapel." Between 1954 and 1957, the Phoenixes released a string of records. According to the liner of the group's 1955 release The Phoenixes Rise Again, "lead Jack Francis supplies soaring melody lines that are complemented by bass Matthew Randall and baritone Kevin Henson. Echoing Francis with deceptively delicate vocals is tenor Patrick Buchanan, the youngest member of the group." That's right: It's the same Patrick Buchanan who now hawks quasi-racist cant in his hunt for the White House. Despite the odd historical footnoting, the Phoenixes' second album is one of the masterpieces of mid-period white doo-wop; their version of the Scarlets' "Dear One" outshines even the sublime original. A few years after Rise Again, Buchanan left the group to attend Georgetown. The remaining Phoenixes went on to become a folk-inflected trio, writing songs about social injustice that would no doubt render their former bandmate apoplectic.

MC B-L-T
For the Bread
(In the Ruff Records -- 1991)

In the annals of rock history, there are very few records that are good solely as a result of their tragic incompetence. It happens more in movies, where Mystery Science Theater 3000has helped reclaim worthless pieces of crap by formalizing their camp value. But if you're looking for the best bad record of all time, look no further than For the Bread, a 1991 "rap" "record" "performed" by MC B-L-T, a talking sandwich complete with olive-and-pimento eyes. Hipped to all the necessary street slang, B-L-T delivers a dozen hapless slices of hip-hop, ranging from the excruciating "You're Toast, Bro" to the merely abysmal "The Dish Busted a Cap in the Spoon." With a sadistic surrealism, the characters in the songs oscillate senselessly between actual people and personified foodstuffs: A villain dubbed Frankie Mayonnaise encounters "that bitch from uptown, Leona Helmsley." It would be impossible, not to mention pointless, to invent lyrics as bad as the ones perpetrated by this heartless (but nutritious) MC: "Your teeth are gold/ Your crust has mold/I'm coming like thunder/You're dumber than Wonder." Oh, and one more thing: The obviously white rapper delivers his lines in a cartoonish accent that is the aural equivalent of blackface. Not bad meaning good, but bad meaning bad.

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