Ten Most Underrated Artists of All Time

Ten Most Underrated Artists of All Time
Photo by steve via Flickr cc

The recent catastrophe that was Robin Thicke's Paula album restores a degree of faith in humanity.

For a while, it was almost impossible to avoid this purveyor of misogynistic drivel clogging up the radio and television. The follow-up to last year's massive Blurred Lines sold a mere 24,000 copies in the United States, 530 in Britain, and only 54 in Australia.

So, as it seems the world has tuned out to Thicke, here are ten artists that were criminally underrated in their day, that deserved more airplay, sales, or critical attention than they were given.

Certainly more than Thicke deserved anyway. Sorry, Limp Bizkit is and will remain, shite.

See also: Aimee Mann of the '80s, You're My Dream Girl

10. Gwen McCrae

Of the soul divas of the late '60s and '70s, the names Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight, Tina Turner, and of course, Aretha Franklin likely come to mind. Florida's own Gwen McCrae is often overlooked and certainly deserves to be up there with the above. With her sultry vocals, the singer had a string of minor hits in the R&B charts and one Top Ten hit.

However, sustained chart success eluded her. A shame, as her self-titled debut and follow-up, Rockin' Chair, straddle deep, emotive soul, and the swagger and grind of mid-'70s funk. The titular single from Rockin' Chair is a breathy, raunchy, proto-disco classic that makes Beyoncé et al. seem like dusty librarians.


9. Wham!

Wham! appeared like the most disposable of the Second British Invasion of the early- to mid-'80s. However, the duo of George Michael and Andrew Ridgley were much more than sun-bed-tanned white boys with shuttlecocks down their short shorts. Essentially, they created great pop music.

"Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" may be a goofy bit of gobbledygook that hardly as literary as Lord Byron, but it relishes in all the great elements of pop silliness with great aplomb. "Club Tropicana" is the best summer tune since the Beach Boys at their early '60s prime, while "Freedom" is a Spector-girl-group slice of pop perfection.

Their single debut, "Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do?)," rather naively encouraged the unemployed just to live life to the full, but it did have George rapping on it, an early instance of the still-new hip-hop sound influencing mainstream pop. Predictably, George's rapping skills are quite amusing.

8. T-Rex

In the late 1960s, Marc Bolan fronted trippy folk outfit Tyrannosaurus Rex. With album as catchy as My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair... But Now They're Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows, Bolan was understandably dismissed as a purveyor of psychedelic gibberish, too far out for mainstream success, a poor man's Donovan.

However, at the beginning of the '70s, Bolan abbreviated the band's name to T-Rex, donned sequins and feather boas, and dropped the acoustic for an electric guitar cranked up to 11. A series of chart smashes saw T-Rex mania hit Bolan's native Britain, a hysteria not seen since the early days of the Beatles ten years earlier.

However, within a couple of years, the hits ran out. Bolan's attempts at taking his sound further as his pal David Bowie had was dismissed by the record-buying public. In America, he was unable to score any more hits after 1971's "Bang a Gong (Get It On)." Near the end of the decade, a renaissance of sorts was under way; Bolan found a new career as a presenter of a teen music show and became an early champion of the emerging punk scene.

A terrible car crash in 1977 cut all this too short. However, those early T-Rex records, Electric Warrior and The Slider, are cranking tribal-rock freakouts. His last album, Dandy in the Underworld, suggests that he was rediscovering his mojo, making his death, two weeks before his 30th birthday, all the more tragic.


7. The Spin Doctors

The Spin Doctors have been discarded like other '90s fads such as L.A. Gear sneakers or Tamagotchi digital pets. Still, there is a pleasure in playing their album Pocket Full of Kryptonite again, preferably while wearing a pair of L.A. Gears and drinking a can of Surge. Moreover, follow-up record Turn It Upside Down and the totally ignored You've Got to Believe in Something aren't half bad either.

The Spin Doctors created a kind of jam-band pop rock that avoided the perennial dawdling of Phish et al. while eschewing the bleak overtones of grunge and gangster rap. Yes, "Two Princes" was a silly tune that was played to death everywhere, and lead singer Chris Barron had the kind of facial hair that drives haters of the goo ball crowd crazy, but Spin Doctors weren't about taking themselves seriously, as almost everybody else seemed to be at the time. The smell of their clothes wasn't the only thing funky about this band.

6. Camp-Lo

Overhyped hip-hop acts are as plentiful as mixed metaphors in a Sarah Palin speech. However, why Bronx duo Camp-Lo, Sonny Cheeba and Geechi Suede, weren't absolutely huge remains one of hip-hop's great mysteries.

Their 1997 debut studio album, Uptown Saturday Night, is frothing with mellifluous rhymes, deftly pilfered soul and jazz funk samples, and a balls-to-the-wall energy that eschewed the clichéd posturing of their peers. It did produce one minor hit, "Luchini AKA This Is It," but that essentially was it. Perhaps it was performing a guest spot with Will Smith or the frustrating delay in releasing a follow-up (2002's better-than-average Let's Do It Again); however, Camp-Lo albums are released with decreasing interest by the masses. Their recent collaboration with Pete Rock on 80 Blocks From Tiffany's provides lessons in how it's done for the current slew of pretenders to the throne.


5. The Brian Jonestown Massacre

The fascinating 2005 rockumentary Dig! followed the divergent paths of two West Coast rock bands, the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre. While the Dandys went on to a degree of success, BJM self-destructed on the screen, from midperformance brawls to a stubborn refusal to play the corporate label game.

According to the movie, at least, the driver of this indie-rock car crash was BJM frontman Anton Newcombe, who goes through the trajectory of tortured genius rock 'n' roll excess before the band even had a hit. With quotes like "I'm here to destroy this fucked-up system," "I'm not for sale. I'm fucking love," and the classic line, "You fucking broke my sitar, motherfucker!" some saw Newcombe as a talent ruined by drugs, booze, and an autocratic sense of ego.

But BJM is a brilliant band, Newcombe is an astonishing musician, and the band's ability to consistently churn out albums of real quality (it just released its 14th) suggests this is not a talent wasted but one thriving. Its tendency to rarely deviate from the '60s psychedelic means BJM was never hip enough for the Pitchfork crowd, and Newcombe still doesn't play by any rules but his own. However, Brian Jonestown Massacre has a splendid back catalog to dive into, and it still produces music that both beguiles and delights.

4. Gene Pitney

Gene Pitney's death six years ago at 65 ushered a brief resurgence of interest for the '60s singer/songwriter. But if truth be told, the "Rockville Rocket" had become sadly somewhat forgotten over the years. Listening to some of his best stuff -- "24 Hours From Tulsa," "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," "Something's Gotten Hold of My Heart," and "Last Chance to Turn Around" -- one is reminded of how great Pitney was. His slightly nasal, staccato voice booming in these overwrought tragic ballads is still capable of sending shivers up the spine. Tunes usually focused on a protagonist tortured by unrequited love or on lamenting a lost romance but were belted out with a great gusto and blow the current slew of talent-show pap away.


3. Simple Minds

Largely remembered for their Breakfast Club soundtrack smash "Don't You Forget About Me," Scotland's Simple Minds spent the rest of the '80s and early '90s as a kind of subpar U2. Soon their stadium-sized rock wasn't filling stadium-sized venues anymore, and they were as relevant as Judd Nelson. Recently, though, there has been a well-overdue reevaluation of their earlier stuff.

Before they became anodyne overblown radio rockers, Simple Minds were angular postpunk pioneers, more akin to Gang of Four, Wire, and Joy Division than Bono. Early albums Empires and Dance and Real to Real Cacophony are German-rock-influenced masterpieces -- dark and ominous, sounding remarkably contemporary today. Their first five albums were reissued a couple of years ago and are well worth a listen.

2. Peter Tosh

Though the former Wailers bassist did have a handful of solo hits, his regard in the public imagination is minuscule compared to his former bandmate Bob Marley. Tosh cowrote the hit "Get Up, Stand Up" with Marley and always represented the angrier, edgier counterpoint to Marley's utopianism, perhaps hampering his appeal to a wider audience. However, his politicized brand of reggae -- from his calls to legalize marijuana to his ability to magnify the conditions of the oppressed -- mean his music has a definite relevance today as much as it did 30 years ago.

His first two solo records, Legalize It and Equal Rights, are two of the finest reggae albums ever, while later releases span genres such as swampy blues, Afrobeat, and dancehall. Through the haze of ganja smoke is a richly textured vocal, incredibly catchy hooks, and lucid lyrical compositions that are not those of a raging ranter but of a political poet who could outshine John Lennon at his angriest. Few have possessed the ability to craft songs as visceral politically while sonically mesmerizing.


1. The Small Faces

The best British band of the 1960s not to have huge success in the United States, the Small Faces could be as great at mod music as the Who, blues as the Stones, psychedelic as the Beatles. Lead singer Steve Marriott (who later found fame stateside in '70s plodding boogie rockers Humble Pie) had a voice that wouldn't have sounded out of place on a Stax or Atlantic record. Other members included Ronnie Lane, Kenney Jones, and Jimmy Winston, all masters at their craft, best heard on the wonderful album Ogden's Nut Gone Flake. Their name came from their small stature -- nobody was taller than five-foot-six.

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