Some albums transcend their eras, finding their way into the cultural canon and continually being rediscovered by subsequent generations of listeners. And some don’t. For whatever reason, be it dated production, a social context that doesn’t translate, or any number of far more ineffable causes, the following albums were beloved by millions of baby boomers and yet, unlike, say, the inarguably canonical Dark Side of the Moons and London Callings of the world, seemed not to resonate particularly strongly beyond their initial audience. Check back again in a few years, and this list, hopefully, will look entirely different.
Like John Hiatt's Bring the Family, Bonnie Raitt's Nick of Time marked both her first post-sobriety album and her biggest success to date. On top of her cover of Hiatt's "Thing Called Love," the record featured her signature blend of blues, country, soft rock, pop ballads, and even a bit of reggae on "Have a Heart." Polished but with maintaining a rootsy authenticity, Nick of Time caused a late-career boom for Raitt, going to No. 1 in 1990 and earning the veteran three Grammys – for best album and best female rock and best pop vocal performances.
At a time when the likes of Rick Astley and Guns N' Roses ruled MTV, Cleveland singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman's gently moving "Fast Car," which portrayed the struggles of a homeless couple, and "Talkin' Bout a Revolution," on which she declared "poor people gonna rise up and take what's theirs," both became unlikely pop hits. With a quiet musical revolution sparked, Tracy Chapman sold six million copies and the singer continued to produce platinum records into the Nineties. Despite the success of artists who have followed in Chapman's stylistic footprints – like India.Arie and to some extent, Ani DiFranco – the ultra-polished Eighties production of Tracy Chapman has perhaps made it sound dated to contemporary ears, despite the album's still fantastic and heartrending track list.
Hiatt's eighth album may very well have been his last chance in the music industry. He'd been dropped from various record labels thanks, in part, to his struggles with alcoholism, and had to deal with the tragic suicides of his older brother when he was a child, and his second wife in 1985. Luckily, he was given a small budget by England's Demon Records and enlisted some talented friends – guitar virtuoso Ry Cooder, singer-songwriter Nick Lowe, and drummer Jim Keltner – to back him on an album. Recorded over eight days, Bring the Family melded Hiatt's gorgeous ballads like "Have a Little Faith in Me" and "Lipstick Sunset" with his love of roots music and cheeky lyricism on "Your Dad Did" and "Thing Called Love," which later became a hit for Bonnie Raitt. A modest success, Bring the Family marked Hiatt's first appearance on the charts in a year better remembered for the likes of "Livin' on a Prayer" and "I Wanna Dance With Somebody."
Music video was both blessing and curse for Dire Straits. Singer-guitarist Mark Knopfler's ethereal roots-rock outfit mostly sidestepped the burgeoning medium in their early career, outside of the requisite performance-based clip. But when Knopfler penned Brothers in Arms' eventual smash single "Money for Nothing," which expressed a blue-collar worker's snide attitude towards Music Television and Eighties excess, its accompanying CGI mini-movie (and brief, but memorable, vocal cameo from Sting) transformed the song − despite its ironic point of view − into an MTV anthem. But its ubiquity overwhelmed a mostly understated, soulful album highlighted by mournful hymnals and mellow reflection. Too bad all so many listeners remember is that era-defining hook.
Growing up on the blues, Robert Cray got his start in the Northwest, playing for a time with Albert Collins and even appearing as the bassist for the Animal House band Otis Day and the Knights. Rather than confine himself to blues purist's rigid structures, he branched out into R&B and soul with a glossy guitar tone that contrasted him with his distortion-loving peers. He didn't sacrifice his chops for the poppier sound, though, leading to the mainstream success of his fifth album, Strong Persuader. Filled with tales of heartache like "I Wonder," new-school juke-joint cuts like "Smoking Gun," and the sultry "Right Next Door (Because of Me)," which tells the story of him breaking up a couple after the woman just became "another notch" on his guitar. The keyboards and polish are pure Reagan-era, while Cray's storytelling and guitar work are timeless – even if the Eighties blues boom seems so much farther away than it actually is.
These days, you're probably more likely to hear people (maybe rightly) make fun of "Sussudio" than to hear someone actually play it, so it might be hard to recall that the song topped the American charts back in '85. In fact, it might be difficult to fathom that a balding-yet-mulleted English dude in his mid-30s could be one of the biggest pop stars in the world, but that's what Phil Collins was, especially after the release of his third solo album. Thanks to its ear-wormy synth-driven hits like "One More Night" and "Don't Lose My Number," the LP went to No. 1 in multiple countries, making it the most successful of Collins' long career, selling over 25 million copies. Collins followed up No Jacket Required with an Oscar-nominated duet with Marilyn Martin, "Separate Lives," from the White Nights soundtrack and famed sets at both the English and American Live Aid concerts, which were both held on July 13th, 1985.
Tina Turner was already a star as a result of her partnership with Ike Turner, whom she divorced in 1976 after years of abuse. She subsequently released two solo albums, 1978's Rough and '79's Love Explosion, to minimal success, eventually getting dropped from her label deals. After years of performing and honing her solo live act, she earned a deal with Capitol and found a minor hit with a cover of Al Green's "Let's Stay Together," leading to the label to order an album from her in 1983. With help from a number of producers and songwriters, Private Dancer includes elements of soul, pop, R&B, reggae, and new wave rock, all buoyed by her lusty singing. The driving "Better Be Good to Me" was the first single, peaking at No. 5 on the Hot 100 before she hit the top with "What's Love Got to Do with It?" both of which collectively earned her four Grammys. She nearly made it back to No. 1 with the title track, penned by Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler and featuring a Jeff Beck guitar solo. Rounded out by covers of the Beatles' "Help" and David Bowie's "1984," Private Dancer remains one of the greatest comeback albums in history, even if its smoothed out sounds aren't the best indication of Turner's legendarily raw talents.
A biting — and accurate — portrayal of a disintegrating marriage, the Thompson's 1982 effort Shoot Out the Lights was a fraught union of Linda's pure soprano, Richard's wild guitar and some very bad vibes rendered in exquisite metaphors. Just check out some of the song titles: "Did She Jump or Was She Pushed?"; "Don't Renege On Our Love"; "Walking on a Wire." Richard Thompson has always been a cult favorite (he and Linda separated in 1981), and his resolutely adult approach makes it unlikely that his best work, like SOTL, will be discovered by teens of this, or any, generation. It takes time to understand this particular kind of pain.
Just before Billy Gibbons (vocals/guitars), Dusty Hill (bass/vocals) and Frank Beard (drums) successfully integrated synthesizers into their formula, 1979's Deguello further nudged Texas' proudest boogie-blues outfit into the big time. Gibbons' bedrock riff and sneaky vocal melody on iconic single "Cheap Sunglasses" still loom large on a modern FM soundscape shaped in part by indebted groups like the Black Keys, while the warped "Manic Mechanic"underscores their importance to future genre-manipulating misfits (and avowed ZZ Top acolytes) such as Ministry's Al Jourgensen. But 1983's Eliminator's willfully gimmicky string of videos forever colored the band's image, leaving some with the misconception that Gibbons, Hill and Beard are mere goofballs, thus sadly resigning the essential Deguello and its preceding LPs to relative under-appreciation.
Barring The Dark Side of the Moon, Supertramp's 1979 opus Breakfast in America is arguably the most popular art-rock album of all-time, having sold a reported 20 million copies worldwide, buoyed by the hit singles "The Logical Song," "Goodbye Stranger" and "Take the Long Way Home." Ever since Radiohead abandoned any pretense of mass appeal, art-rock hasn't really existed on any kind of pop scale. As invigorating as they can be, the likes of Muse aren't trying to match 'Tramp co-leaders Rick Davies (the gruff vocalist) or Roger Hodgson's (the Geddy Lee-sounding high-pitched vocalist) semi-snide interest in pop melodies, though Tame Impala's Kevin Parker has name-checked the English band as an influence.
Graham Parker was nearing 30 years old in 1979, when he released Squeezing Out Sparks, a furious blast of new wave energy, and as such wasn't quite able to adopt the era-defining Angry Young Man stance of the likes of fellow Brits Elvis Costello and the Clash. But Sparks did match those latter two for righteous working-class charisma and songwriting chops. Parker was featured in Judd Apatow's instructively titled 2012 film This Is 40.
Led by Tom Waits, there was a curious little neo-Beat scene that thrived in Southern California in the late seventies. But it was Rickie Lee Jones, with her self-titled 1979 debut, a scruffy, charming collection of nostalgic singer-songwriter pop, who was its biggest star. The album rose to No. 3 on the Billboard Top 200, and the swinging single, "Chuck E.'s In Love," hit No. 4 on the Hot 100. Both Jones and Waits have, smartly, long since distanced themselves from the kind of cool-cat retromania displayed on this still charming album.
You'll rarely hear "Southside" Johnny Lyon's name without some mention of Bruce Springsteen, as the careers of the two Jersey acts will always be linked. Lyon's previous two albums featured songs written by Springsteen and his E Street consigliere Steven Van Zandt, as well as covers and a much less serious demeanor. On Hearts of Stone, it seems Lyon was ready to prove he had the performance chops of his pals, who again contributed to songwriting and production. A tad more explicitly indebted to classic soul than a typical Springsteen album is, Hearts of Stone, which, in 1987, snuck on to Rolling Stone's list of the best albums of the previous 20 years, is one every young and old E Street fan needs to own.
The Boston quintet mixed the guitars of classic rock with new wave and pop synths, finding hometown radio success in 1977 with a demo of "Just What I Needed" and eventually signing with Elektra. The following year, Ric Ocasek and co. released their self-titled debut album, a front-to-back hit parade. The LP spent 139 weeks on the charts, peaking at No. 18, and eventually selling millions of copies on the strength of singles "My Best Friend's Girl" and "Good Times Roll," as well as "You're All I've Got Tonight," "Bye Bye Love," "All Mixed Up," and "Moving in Stereo," which soundtracked the Fast Times at Ridgemont High pool scene. Though their debut is the band's clear standouts, the Cars are one of the most influential new wave acts in the genre, with Ocasek later producing albums for such acts as Weezer, Guided by Voices, Hole, Nada Surf, No Doubt, and Bad Brains.
As Lionel Richie and the Commodores got more popular, they moved away from their more soulful, funkier Motown roots to incorporate more easy listening-tinged tunes that highlighted Lionel Richie's voice alongside co-singer Clyde Orange. Their breakout came with their self-titled fifth album, featuring Orange leading the funk classic "Brick House" and Richie's ballad "Easy," on top of party hits like "Squeeze the Fruit" and "Won't You Come Dance With Me." Richie's smooth, soft style paved the way for his later Eighties success and even a recent resurgence thanks to a duets album, Tuskegee, with some of today's biggest country stars. With all the attention paid to disco-funk throwbacks like Daft Punk's Random Access Memories, it's a wonder that the Commodores haven't seen another wave of popularity.
For an album that produced some of Eric Clapton's biggest hits – "Cocaine," "Wonderful Tonight," and "Cocaine" constitute the opening trio – Slowhand seemingly owns a reputation as understated as its sound. Featuring neither the instrumental fire of his earlier bands or even the guest stars (Bob Dylan, Ron Wood, much of the Band) from his '76 LP, No Reason to Cry, Clapton's fifth solo release benefits from the easy familiarity of his live band and the soft production touch of Glyn Johns. The focus is on songwriting as opposed to virtuosity. It's as if Clapton just had to quit worry about making a hit to succeed in doing so, but given that his immortality is largely based on his guitar exploits, it's understandable that his more song-oriented efforts, like Slowhand, will fly under the radar.
Eight albums into his career, Bob Seger finally caught some mass success with the release of Live Bullet, a concert album recorded by the Michigan native at Detroit's Cobo Hall. The road veteran and his Silver Bullet Band were working on their next studio LP, Night Moves, at the time, a record that showed both their honed chops and Seger's mix of songwriting maturity and nods to the classic rock 'n' roll of his teen years. With some help from the famed Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, Night Moves brought Seger to national acclaim thanks to bar anthems like the title track and the retrospective "Mainstreet." Those are the hits that still get played on classic rock radio, but "Rock and Roll Never Forgets," "The Fire Down Below," and "Mary Lou" are feel-good stompers that showcase Seger's often-overlooked singing, a unique voice that sits comfortably between John Fogerty and Brian Johnson. The fact that this album, like so much of Seger's work, was long unavailable on iTunes or Spotify hasn't helped it find its way to younger listeners.
Steve Miller Band's greatest hits can be heard on every classic rock station and on a huge amount of jukeboxes. (And the SMB's Greatest Hits 1974-1978 is a consistent catalog sales juggernaut.) But to stop with a compilation is to miss out on plenty of the singer and guitarist's deep space-blues cuts. Fly Like an Eagle is a perfect compromise, featuring five songs from the aforemention best-of and some should-be classics like "Serenade," "Mercury Blues," and "The Window." Then there are the tracks that show Miller's depth, like his harmony-drenched cover of Sam Cooke's "You Send Me," the interstellar soundscapes of "Space Intro" and "Blue Odyssey," and the straight blues "Sweet Maree," which gets a great harmonica cameo from James Cotton. Of course, there's are a few good reasons this album went platinum four times in the U.S.: Namely, "Fly Like an Eagle," "Take the Money and Run," and "Rock'n Me."
Long before metal splintered into a myriad of genres, BÖC came to fame for its ability to appeal to both head-bangers and chin-strokers. Featuring the deathless hit single "(Don't Fear) The Reaper," as well as contributions from punk priestess Patti Smith, the hooky, sinister Agents of Fortune was the apex of the quintet's commercial success, hitting the top 30 on the Billboard Top 200 and solidifying the band as a major concert draw. These days, metal rarely nods to the gleaming pop accessibility, and the music's brainier strands tend toward arty obfuscation, leaving this band stranded in a no-man's land between potential new fanbases — too slick for aesthetes, too weird for everyone else.
The genre-spanning multi-cultural funk pioneers War made their name with two albums that featured former Animals singer Eric Burdon, most notably on the single "Spill the Wine." The group continued to expand its sound after he departed, even topping the charts with their fifth album, 1972's The World Is a Ghetto. Their seventh LP, Why Can't We Be Friends, is best known for the giddy title track and the hot-rod anthem "Low Rider," but there's plenty more to love amongst its nine cuts. There's the disco-funk of "Smile Happy," the mellow psych-jazz of "In Mazatlan," and the sprawling "Leroy's Latin Lament Medley." Of course, that's not to say the title track isn't deserving of most of the praise. The soulful reggae sing-along that's mostly repeats the phrase "Why Can't We Be Friends?" in between inspiring couplets, surely helped propel the LP to the top of the R&B chart, the last time War would earn that honor.
Journeyman R&B outfit the Isley Brothers are one of those weird bands with a career so long and varied that they don't seem to belong to any one era. Casual music fans have likely heard the group's 1959 hit single, "Shout," or maybe 1966's "This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)," released on the Motown label. Starting in the late nineties, lead singer Ronald Isley became a go-to hook man, lending his gritty vocals to tracks by the likes of Nas, Wu-Tang Clan and R. Kelly. That longevity means that some glorious music is bound to fall through the cultural cracks. Take, for example, 1975's No. 1 stunner The Heat is On, a simmering stunner divided into a funky A-side and slower, sensual B-side.
Janis Ian had been kicking around for almost a decade, writing psychologically perceptive folk songs, before releasing Between the Lines in 1975. Thanks largely to the hit single teenager's-lament "At Seventeen," the album was huge, going platinum and hitting number one. "At Seventeen" went on to win a Grammy for Best Pop Performance, beating out Linda Ronstadt and Olivia Newton John, among others, suggesting that the demure Ian's success was in some part due to counter-programming. Of course, Ian was 25-years-old when the aforementioned song came out, and these days, perceptive teenagers look to perceptive teenagers (e.g., Lorde) to write songs about, yes, perceptive teenagers.
Hip-hop rules the world, a fact that retroactively makes music that didn't influence the genre seem positively ancient by comparison. Earth, Wind & Fire's joyous That's The Way of the World was a giant album its day – the third best-selling pop LP of 1975 — and "Shining Star" was a No. One hit. But the airy harmonies and buoyant rhythms feel further from hip-hop than, for example, the harder, more frenetic sounds of James Brown or P-Funk, which is perhaps why EW&F don't seem to be remembered quite as fondly, or often, by younger generations as are those aforementioned R&B greats.
Bombastic, overwrought and, in the truest definition of the word, epic, sometime Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman's third solo album embodied everything prog-rock fans love: a fantastical storyline drawn from a Jules Verne novel, accents of jazz and classical flourishes and solos-upon-solos-upon-solos. It reached Number One on the U.K. chart and, in the U.S., it made it to Number Three and was certified gold. Wakeman performed Journey in full on tour – complete with narration, symphony and choir – and even dressed in mystical garb (i.e. capes!). But while all the pageantry and pretentiousness elated prog fans, Wakeman's unabashed myth-and-magic jones limited his popular shelf life. Where his somewhat harder-edged prog brethren in King Crimson have resonated with Tool and Opeth fans in recent years, today's noodlers aren't quite as keen on sporadic xylophone solos and fantasy storytelling.
Long a band's band — Phish covered the Little Feat's Waiting for Columbus in its entirety at a 2010 show, and the trucker anthem "Willin'" is an oft-covered classic — Lowell George's casually virtuosic crew were true rock tweeners. On 1974's standout effort Feats Don't Fail Me Now they boogied playfully, wrote wittily and jammed economically. The album also featured a great Neon Parks-designed cover image – one of the era's most distinctive. George died in 1979 at 34, long before the now-thriving jam band scene achieved maturation. A version of Little Feat still tours occasionally, but it exists far below the headlining status of the likes of, say, Moe. and Widespread Panic.
What a weird cultural blip fusion was. Chalk it up to copious recreational drug use or free-form radio programming, but the early-to-mid Seventies were a heyday for electric jazz-based improv, all thundering polyrhythms and twisting solos. Released in 1973, drummer Billy Cobham's trippy, aggressive Spectrum is a favorite from that era. Listen to squiggly complexities like "Taurian Matador" and "Quadrant 4" and marvel at how unlikely it was that this music was legitimately popular (Spectrum hit the Billboard Top 30).
Jackson Browne's second album somehow wasn't commercially or critically as successful as his first, despite featuring an all-star backing cast and two of his most enduring songs. Guests on For Everyman include David Crosby, Bonnie Raitt, Joni Mitchell, Eagles bandmates Don Henley and Glenn Frey, and Elton John, who played piano on "Red Neck Friend" under the pseudonym Rockaday Johnnie. Despite all that talent, the focus remains on Browne's plaintive vocals and the introspective Laurel Canyon vibe. Browne's precocious "These Days," which he wrote as a teenager, was originally recorded by Warhol and Velvet Underground cohort Nico for her 1967 debut Chelsea Girl, while For Everyman's lead track "Take It Easy," co-written with Frey, became a hit single for the Eagles in 1972.