As someone who has always rooted for the underdog, I feel an affinity for worthy music that slips through the cracks. We all know the still ubiquitous hits of the ‘60s, but there were also plenty of interesting albums that never got the airplay or sales they deserved. Here are five that are worth a second — or perhaps a first — spin on your turntable.
Genesis by Wendy & Bonnie (1969)
The only album by sisters Wendy and Bonnie Flower, Genesis is all gentle ethereal psychedelic folk/pop. The sisters’ pure-as-spring-water harmonizing, accompanied by little more than a guitar and piano, is reminiscent of The Everly Brothers. But unlike the Everlys’ radio-friendly releases, most of Genesis’ poetic lyrics float atop minor-key melodies that create a mood more conducive to quiet reflection.
Indeed, the up-tempo It’s What’s Really Happening and Let Yourself Go only make the more thoughtful cuts stand out in comparison. If their lyrics occasionally sound less than worldly and their vocals unusually virginal, it’s probably because Wendy and Bonnie were only 17 and 13, respectively, at the time they made this record, making their introspective compositions that much more impressive.
Wendy and Bonnie would go on to provide background vocals on jazz albums before going their separate ways. Today, Wendy Flower makes occasional guest appearances with alt-bands who’ve discovered the undeservedly forgotten album Genesis.
Start with This Track: The Paisley Window Pane:
Genuine Imitation Life Gazette by The Four Seasons (1969)
After Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, every band suddenly felt the need to grow facial hair and release albums with wacky titles and thought-provoking songs anathematic to Top 40 radio. Not even The Four Seasons were immune to the trend.
Genuine Imitation Life Gazette defiantly disrupted what their fans had come to expect. The opening track, American Crucifixion Resurrection, is a 6:48 warning from a father to his son about the perils of life. (The vocals start a minute and a half in.) The closing cut, Soul of a Woman, clocking in at 7:12, tells the story of a woman from birth until death. In between are songs of divorce, hypocritical suburbanites, Greenwich Village hippies and cocktail-swilling straights.
And it was a shock to anyone expecting another round of hits like Rag Doll or Dawn. The album’s first single, the jazzy Something’s on Her Mind, stalled at No. 98 on the charts before disappearing, and the second, the sardonic Idaho, made it to No. 95 for all of two weeks.
An unmitigated critical and financial flop in its day, Genuine Imitation Life Gazette nevertheless found a fan in John Lennon, which should count for something. While its grandiose lyrics and arrangements positively scream 1969, Genuine Imitation Life Gazette is probably the bravest album ever recorded by a Top 40 band, and still provides an interesting listen for people willing to give it a chance. Consider it Jersey Boys after an evening of some particularly potent Maui Wowee.
Start with this track: Wall Street Village Day:
Paris 1919 by John Cale (1970)
While his former Velvet Underground cohort Lou Reed went on to become one of the most influential rock musicians of his time, it’s the Welsh-born, classically trained John Cale who’s responsible for the more fascinating music. It’s by and large a quiet album — one cut, Antarctica Starts Here, is actually whispered. Still, Paris 1919 is probably the closest Cale has ever come to releasing a commercial album.
Paris 1919’s lyrics take listeners on a more intellectual journey than typical pop songs. And if you don’t believe me, titles include A Child’s Christmas in Wales, Graham Greene and Macbeth. War is touched on in both the title cut and Half Past France, the latter told from the point of view of a World War I soldier writing a letter to his child back home. At least, I think that’s what it’s about.
It’s inviting, occasionally melancholy, often puzzling, yet never less than brilliant.
Start with this track: Paris 1919:
Scott 4 by Scott Walker (1969)
Remember that soulful baritone lead in the Walker Brothers’ The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore? That’s Scott Walker, who found the life of a pop heartthrob to be as phony as the name of the band he was in — the members weren’t brothers and they didn’t share a surname.
He gave it up and was soon a major solo act in the UK. Although basically unknown in his native America, British girls were crazy over Walker, even though he wasn’t exactly rock ‘n’ roll. Lushly produced and arranged, Walker’s own compositions were heavily influenced by cabaret star Jacques Brel, with numbers touching upon sex, love affairs gone wrong, and sympathetic portraits of hookers, unhappy husbands and brokenhearted women.
Walker’s fourth solo album, Scott 4, was his first made up entirely of original compositions. I would hazard to guess that no other album features a condemnation of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia or a retelling of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Other standouts include the bitterly ironic Hero of the War, while On Your Own Again is the best number Frank Sinatra should have recorded. Then there’s the haunting, mysterious Angels of Ashes and Boy Child.
Scott 4 never charted, went out of print within a year, and led to a crisis of confidence for Walker that would last almost 20 years. Today, as a revitalized Walker releases the most challenging and uncompromising music of his career, younger fans consider the album his masterpiece. While extraordinary music can be heard on his previous three solo releases (a compilation with the understated title The Godlike Genius of Scott Walker was recently released), but Scott 4 is without a doubt the most personal of his 1960s output.
Start With This Track: On Your Own Again:
Odessey and Oracle by The Zombies (1968)
Like the walking dead they’re named after, The Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle was doomed from the start. Given a miniscule budget by the record company, the band not only had to cut the record quickly but also pay for the stereo mix themselves. The word “Odyssey” was misspelled by the cover artist, necessitating a title change that probably irritated English teachers everywhere.
Odessey and Oracle didn’t even see an American release for another year, when Time of the Season, was finally released as a single. By then, The Zombies had been disbanded for more than six months, and lead singer Colin Blunstone was working for an insurance company. And, oh yeah, nobody on either side of the Atlantic cared for the album.
Decades later, more discerning fans and critics would come to consider Odessey and Oracle one of the greatest pop albums of its time. Filled with the catchiest melodies this side of Lennon & McCartney and smart lyrics, it sounds like a long-lost Beatles album (Care of Cell 44 is a jaunty love song to a woman in prison).
Colin Blunstone’s vocals are simply sublime. Whether the song is poignant (A Rose for Emily), heartbreaking (Maybe After He’s Gone) or wonderfully optimistic (This Will Be Our Year), Blunstone’s talent for expressing the proper emotion is uncanny. Credit, too, must go to Rod Argent and Chris White, for their first-rate compositions. (White himself sings his anti-war number, Butcher’s Tale.) If you like the Penny Lane-era Beatles, you’ll like Odessey and Oracle.
Start with this track: This Will Be Our Year: