I bet you have albums in your collection — physical or digital — that you absolutely love but would find in a bargain bin of a record store or in neglected corner of a thrift shop.
I call these albums 99-Cent Masterpieces.
I’m always disappointed when I see Blue Sky Mining by Midnight Oil in a cutout bin, even though it’s an album every bit as consequential as Diesel and Dust. In Tua Nua is a band I thought deserved a bigger break in the US, as evidenced by the number of times I purchased The Long Acre for cheap.
And I bought Break Out by the Pointer Sitsters for $2 at Goodwill, thinking it would be fun to have the album with “I’m So Excited” on it. I wasn’t prepared for how underrated this album is.
Yes, the singles off the album are karaoke staples and can probably be encountered as background music for your shopping experience. But the deep cuts on the album aren’t just filler. “Easy Persuasion”, “Dance Electric” and the minor single “Baby Come and Get It” are every bit as solid as “Automatic” and “Neutron Dance”.
I’d almost forgotten about “Automatic”, a showcase for June Pointer’s deep alto and perhaps the most fascinating single off the album. Maybe it’s all the 80s synths, but it feels like it emerged from a dance club in Birmingham, England than Oakland, California. I like it more than “Jump (For My Love).”
It’s baffling this album isn’t consistently ranked on critics lists. Sure, it moved a lot of units in its day, but sometimes, a hit album actually deserves to be a hit. And Break Out certainly qualifies.
The only label to have shown this album much love is Cherry Red in the UK, which repressed a 2011 deluxe edition back in October 2020. Yes, this album is good enough that I recommend seeking out the expanded edition.
Yeah, I confess — I bought this album because of the cover.
Sonic Boom Records holds an annual clearance sale where new, unopened vinyl records are steeply discounted. I stopped when I spotted Bobby Long’s A Winter Tale as I flipped through the stacks. “Hmm, he’s … photogenic,” I mumbled to myself.
Having never heard of him, I made a note to check out his music later.
Bobby Long is a Brit, but his music is Americana. He signed with ATO Records in 2010 and released two albums and two EPs on the label. I found it remarkable that he managed to snag the attention of a large indie label such as ATO, rather than graduating up to that level.
Then I found out he’s buds with actor Robert Pattinson of the Twilight movies. One of his songs, “Let Me Sign”, wound up on the Twilight soundtrack. That would help.
A few streams and two days later, I went back to Sonic Boom and picked up A Winter Tale and its follow-up, Wishbone, for $5 each.
These kinds of … “impulse” purchases are prone to a Halo Effect, so it’s tough to gauge the effect of the cover art on my opinion.
I can say this much — he’s not bad.
Long’s rough-hewn voices comes from the Tom Waits school of delivery, and his writing is as rustic as anything you’d find on a Whiskeytown album. But he wouldn’t knock Jason Isbell or Sturgill Simpson off of any critics’ lists.
If any criticism can be lobbied at Long, it would be his music is probably too safely Americana. Subscribers of No Depression journal would probably eat it up. I’m not sure how much of a blip he would register outside that demographic.
Wishbone is the better album, but its cover photo is not as … compelling.
All that aside, Bobby Long turns out to be a satisfying discovery.
One of the first songs I learned to play on the piano was “Human” by the Human League, and I learned it out of a sense of survival.
“Human” was all over the radio in 1986, the year I graduated from eighth grade. I have no fond memories of junior high. I missed being placed in the honors class by a few test points, and the classmates with which I was placed didn’t appreciate my presence.
I was never physically harmed, but my social status was pretty obvious — I had none.
I didn’t have an aptitude for sports, and my school had no arts program. If I was going to turn things around in high school, I had to distinguish myself in some way.
So I learned how to play piano, and I learned popular music as a means to ingratiate myself.
I knew I wouldn’t have impressed anyone with classical repertoire — not that I had developed sufficient skills to tackle it — but with songs you heard on the radio? I could at least not look too square.
I wasn’t looking to become popular — I was realistic enough to know that would be dead end — but I wanted to make myself a less-appealing target. My band teacher seized on my ability and kept me busy. Before long, people didn’t mess with me because I had a talent.
I never repaid the Human League this change in status by buying their album. I loved “Human”, but other singles from Crash failed to make a dent in the US. So I moved onto other music.
I picked up a vinyl copy of Crash more than 30 years later at the Lifelong Thrift Shop.
At that point in the band’s career, the Human League had difficulty following up some big hits from earlier in the 1980s. At the urging of their label, the band teamed up with Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam, the producers who helped Janet Jackson break through with Control.
The resulting album is more Jam and Lewis than Human League, but it’s a rare instance where American funk rubbed against an English art school aesthetic. It’s actually an appealing convergence that deserves multiple spins on the playback device.
If I had listened to the album at the time of its release, I might have found it likable, but I’m not sure I would have appreciated the meeting of Sheffield and Minneapolis.
Crash is not a well-regarded album, not even by the band. “Great experience,” Phil Oakley said about working with Jam and Lewis,”but it’s not our album.”
I’m not familiar enough with the band’s earlier work to know what qualifies as a “Human League” album, so that probably allows me to have a more forgiving perception of Crash.
It’s an anomaly, for sure, but one that ought to be re-evaluated and maybe appreciated anew.
My introduction to McCoy Tyner’s Song for My Lady was brief but indelible.
My brother and I visited Jelly’s Comics and Music back in the late 1980s, and Song for My Lady was playing on the in-store PA. It was a particularly noisy part of the album, where Tyner sounded as if he was just pounding his fists on the piano.
My brother hated it. I absolutely dug it.
I was still in my infancy when it came to exploring atonal and dissonant music, and I had no clue about jazz history beyond the swing era repertoire offered in school.
I heard a crash of notes akin to what Kronos Quartet had introduced me, and I made sure to note the title and artist of the album playing that day. I vowed to pick it up eventually.
It took 30 years.
Jive Time Records held its anniversary sale, and the store had a used vinyl copy of Song for My Lady in stock. I hadn’t thought about the album in all that time, but I had to sate my curiosity.
Is it as noisy as I remember it to be? Just about.
I’ve had 30 years to be exposed to all manner of noisy music, and Song for My Lady falls a bit more on the tuneful side of John Coltrane’s Interstellar Space. It’s a rambunctious album and a far cry from the only other Tyner album in my collection, The Real McCoy.
I wonder if the engineer who programmed the ring of my apartment intercom listened to this album. There’s a sax trill on the title track which is a timbral and tonal match to that ring. The first time I heard it, I nearly got up to answer the intercom.
I’m still a novice when it comes to thinking critically about jazz, and according to reviews, Song for My Lady is one of Tyner’s best albums. The clerk at Jive Time who rung me up commented that it was one of his most underrated.
I believe it.
Song for My Lady doesn’t seem to come up in very many recommendation lists, which is a shame. This album is wild and energetic, but if my brother’s reaction is any indication, may a bit much so.
I traveled to Nashville in August for a conference, and the city’s reputation as a music center made me think I would sink a lot of cash shopping for records.
That was not the case.
I did, however, come away with a battered copy of Don’t Come a Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind) by Loretta Lynn.
Every cable channel music documentary that features Lynn always mention two songs — “The Pill” and the title track of Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’. Both songs got Lynn in hot water with the tender sensibilities of country radio.
It’s actually not the most confrontational track on the album.
That would go to “I Got Caught” — a bouncy, scathing tune about infidelity that also comments on gender inequality. That is, men can get away with cheating, but women cannot.
Most of my country music collection consists of Emmylou Harris albums, and she was the first artist to sink a lot of cash into making quality-sounding records.
Lynn, by contrast, cut her teeth in an era when artists recorded an entire album of material in three days. The speed at which she tosses out one broken-hearted ditty after another is breathtaking.
Throughout the album, she’s a wronged woman, but she explores the spectrum of the broken heart experience — pity, rage, acceptance, even liberation. On “The Shoe Goes on the Other Foot Tonight”, Lynn wonders if “two wrongs can make a right.”
With no track exceeding three minutes, there’s an almost punk rock sensibility to Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’. Lynn makes her point right quick — you’re no good, I’m sad, but I will prevail.
When I spotted a vinyl copy of Harder Than You in the bargain bin at Jive Time Records, it had been close to 30 years since I first heard of 24-7 Spyz.
Living Colour was all over the radio with “Cult of Personality”, but the music press pointed out Vernon Reid and company weren’t the only rock band with black guys around. Fishbone would release its second album, Truth and Soul, that year as well. Bad Brains had been around since the start of the decade.
24-7 Spyz tapped into the same creative vein as Living Colour — brutal guitars, funk bass lines and punctuating drums. In some ways, Harder Than You and Vivid are nearly interchangeable. Each album even includes a cover, although the Spyz driving cover of Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie” is truly transformative.
Harder Than You, lacking the commercial polish Ed Stasium gives Vivid, comes across rawer and, well, harder.
I remember Pulse! magazine plugging the hell out of this album with prominent advertising, glowing reviews and more than a few blurbs about the band. I don’t remember seeing the album itself in my local Tower stores, however. Its release on an independent label just about guaranteed it wouldn’t reach Honolulu.
24-7 Spyz would eventually sign to a major label, by which time the line-up that produced Harder Than You had changed. The work from this brief era can be found on streaming services, but the band’s early output remains offline.
If you find this album in the used bin, pick it up.
Between INXS and Midnight Oil, you couldn’t blame a major label artist and repertoire representative for trying to mine Australia for the next college rock success story.
I’m not sure where I heard about Boom Crash Opera, but I suspect it was probably in Pulse! magazine. Similar to Love and Money, I spotted a single for “Onion Skin” at Tower Records and thought, “This looks interesting enough.”
I was expecting Midnight Oil or Icehouse, but I ended up with something funkier and way more boisterous. I thought about picking up the band’s 1989 album These Here Are Crazy Times, but it lost out to many other releases that year.
Boom Crash Opera fell off my radar completely till I spotted the band’s self-titled debut at the Lifelong Thrift Shop. For $1, it seemed worth the risk, plus Alex Sadkin was listed as one of the producers. Sadkin worked with Duran Duran on Seven and the Ragged Tiger.
True to form, Sadkin’s studio wizardry coats Boom Crash Opera with an appealing sheen, but he doesn’t water down the band’s hard, funky sound. If I had been introduced to Boom Crash Opera with this album rather than “Onion Skin”, I might have become a casual fan. The writing on Boom Crash Opera is solid, and while the album’s production is an artifact of its time, it skews toward the era’s better angels.
Boom Crash Opera is still around and pretty much sticks to Australia these days. None of the band’s international releases are in print, nor available on streaming services.
Back in 1986, you probably would have heard me bad-mouthing Don Johnson’s hit single, “Heartbeat.”
Johnson was the star of Miami Vice, a show created after a television executive jotted down the phrase “MTV cops”. It was a great show, critically-acclaimed at the time, but who could take its lead actor seriously as an actual MTV star?
I was a rock snob in training, but even I could recognize the folly of it.
Johnson was ubiquitous back then. Guys dressed like his character, Sonny Crockett, because evidently girls dug guys in pastels. I wasn’t immune to the craze either, except I also dug guys dressed in pastels.
Johnson’s second single, “Heartache Away”, featured the actor in a promotional video singing plaintively with flashbacks to a hot sex scene. It really exploited his sex symbol currency, and I didn’t mind a bit.
I really wanted to buy the album, but I had already declared out loud how ridiculous I found it. Three years later, the show was canceled.
I didn’t think about it again till I spotted a vinyl copy at the Lifelong Thrift Store. I hesitated at first because of that residual skepticism, but $0.25 was a price point low enough to take a risk.
Modern country radio has a more direct lineage to hard rock and hair metal from the ’80s than actual country music from the ’60s. Heartbeat could very well be subtitled The Shape of Country to Come. Tim McGraw could totally work the chorus of “Last Sound Love Makes”, and the only thing missing from “Lost In Your Eyes” and “Star Tonight” is slide guitar.
In that sense, Heartbeat is prophetic. Johnson wouldn’t give Blake Shelton any sleepless nights where vocals are concerned, but there’s a twang in his delivery that wouldn’t sound out of place on a country hitmaker.
Back in 1986, Heartbeat could be a considered a sad conclusion to Rick Springfield’s promise of pop-friendly hard rock. Instead, it’s a fascinating artifact on how ’80s rock would pivot into modern country.
You can’t judge a book by its cover, but sometimes, the cover is incentive enough.
The Sibling Rivalry Collection Race precluded me from getting Steve Winwood’s Roll With It when it was released in 1988. My brother had already called dibs on Back in the High Life, which made Winwood his exclusive.
I feigned a lack of interest anyway because Winwood was at the peak of his solo career, and I had started my exploration of college rock by then. Winwood, by virtue of topping the charts, was immediately deemed square.
Except, he was kind of hot.
Not hot in the George Michael/Duran Duran sense of hot. More like a Robert Palmer/Huey Lewis kind of hot.
The cover of Roll With It dolled him up to look dangerous, but the back cover of the album drew my attention.
The album title is in the way, so let’s clear that up a bit.
Yup. I would have bought this album for a crotch shot. (An arse shot, too, now that we look closer.)
Would I have cared one whit about the music? Perhaps. At least, I would have pretended to.
In terms of hits singles, Roll With It didn’t have quite the same staying power as Back in the High Life, and I don’t think the cross promotion with a beer company did any favors to “Don’t You Know What the Night Can Do?” Reviews of the album weren’t enthusiastic, but sales-wise, it managed to ride the coattails of its predecessor.
I left the album on the store shelf safe in the knowledge that I just wasn’t the target audience, despite how much I wanted to stare at that crotch.
I have no such reluctance 29 years later, especially when a nice 12×12 LP cover can be had for $1 at the Lifelong AIDS Alliance Thrift Store. I could probably find a store clerk who would understand.
You heard a song on the radio. If you liked it, you bought the single. You heard more songs by the same artist. If you liked those songs as well, you bought the album.
What happens, then, when you stop listening to the radio? Easy — keep buying singles without hearing the song!
That’s how I encountered Love and Money. I was browsing the singles section of Tower Records, looking for something that might scratch my itch for non-American bands. The single to “Hallelujah Man” had a decent enough sleeve, and a name like Love and Money didn’t scream hair metal or radio pop.
So I bought it. I liked what I heard, but I wasn’t entirely convinced to sink a week and a half’s allowance on a full album. No other singles were released from the album in the US.
It would be another 28 years before I encountered Love and Money again. The album from which “Hallelujah Man” was taken, titled Strange Kind of Love, was sitting in a bin at the Lifelong Thrift Shop for $1. I spent that much on the single.
After an initial listen, I was intrigued by the band’s mix of British white soul and post-punk, as if the missing link between Johnny Hates Jazz and the Smiths were somehow unearthed. Another few spins made me seek out a CD.
“Hallelujah Man” was a decent enough single, but the title track and “Jocelyn Square” performed better on the UK charts for good reason. “Up Escalator” imagines what ABC would sound like with harder guitars and no horns, while the last vestiges of post-punk drive the adult contemporary cool of “Avalanche”. James Grant’s smooth voice could make him the captain of your heart.
Love and Money arrived a bit too late to capitalize on the revived British invasion early in the ’80s, and the light jazz radio format that emerged in the latter part of the decade flared out before it could do any good for the band.
So Love and Money remained a somewhat successful act on the other side of the ocean. I’m surprised someone had actually owned a copy of Strange Kind of Love to end up donating to the thrift store.
In 1988, the Sugarcubes, Kronos Quartet, Living Colour and In Tua Nua vied for my attention. Still, I’m a little disappointed in my youthful self for not following up on that blind single purchase. I think I would have liked the album, and it could have very well endured a number of collection purges to persist to this day.