We recently read an interesting discussion at Marginal Revolution about accessible pop albums that could have been big hits but never quite caught on. For an album to be a hit, a myriad of different factors needs to come together -– right sound, right time, right record company, right promotional strategy, and a healthy slice of luck. We’re resigned to the fact that some of our favorite bands are never going to sell a lot of records -– the world just doesn’t seem to want to hear a lot of Boris -– but there are some that clearly had the potential to be massive, yet somehow never hit the commercial big time. So here’s Flavorpill’s choice of ten albums that might have made it big in a parallel universe, one where Stefani Germanotta is still slumming it on the Lower East Side, Fergie never joined the Black Eyed Peas and Britney never made the cut for the Mickey Mouse Club.
Big Star – #1 Record (1972)
Why Big Star weren’t big stars is one of music’s enduring mysteries. In particular, the band’s debut album #1 Record was loaded with accessible, radio-friendly, and beautifully constructed songs that should have shot Alex Chilton et al into the sales stratosphere. Instead, a series of problems with distribution undermined its sales and also the sales of its follow-up Radio City. By the time Third/Sister Lovers came out in 1974, internal problems -– and, perhaps, a sense that they’d missed the commercial boat -– pushed them in a darker direction, and the album, although a masterpiece, again sold poorly. By then, Big Star had already broken up, and even though they reunited in the 1990s, they’ll always be one of the 1970s’ great lost bands.
Pnau – Pnau (2007)
Although it was a minor hit in Australia, from where production duo Pnau hail, this album was largely ignored by the rest of the world, while contemporaries like Cut Copy and Midnight Juggernauts have enjoyed both critical acclaim and decent record sales. It’s hard to understand why, because it’s overflowing with terrifyingly catchy potential crossover hits. Instead, if Pnau main man Nick Littlemore is known for anything in the USA, it’s his side project Empire of the Sun with Sleepy Jackson vocalist Luke Steele (even though Littlemore is long gone, having parted ways with Steele shortly after the release of Walking on a Dream).
Vanessa Paradis – Vanessa Paradis (1992)
She’s best known in the USA as Mrs. Johnny Depp, which isn’t a bad thing to be, but Vanessa Paradis is a star in her own right in her native France. Had the cards fallen differently, she could well have been big news in the English-speaking world also –- at the age of 20, she moved to the US to record an album with her then boyfriend Lenny Kravitz, who wrote, produced, and played most of the instruments. The album hit #1 in France, but for whatever reason didn’t make a splash in the Anglophone world -– a shame, because it’s some of the most perfect pop music you’ll ever hear. A subsequent US tour was cancelled because of Paradis’ ill health, and soon she returned to making French-language music. In 1998 she met Johnny Depp, and the rest, as they say, is history.
April March – Paris in April (1996)
Also on the Francophone tip, Californian songwriter and proud Francophile April March has spent much of the last two decades making breezy French-influenced pop music that’s catchy enough to have sold by the bucketload but has been resolutely ignored by the record-buying public. And you’ve almost certainly heard her music, even if you’re not aware of it –- “Chick Habit,” her reworking of Serge Gainsbourg’s “Laisser Tomber Les Filles,” was on the soundtrack to Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof and also the film But I’m a Cheerleader.
My Computer – Vulnerabilia (2000)
A lesson to new bands -– make sure people can Google your name. It’s hard to know how much damage their unhelpful moniker did to Manchester duo My Computer, but there must be some reason that their 2000 masterpiece Vulnerabilia barely attracted any attention in the music press, let alone from the record-buying public. The album’s themes of drug abuse and alienation aren’t super radio-friendly, admittedly, but they were sung through Daft Punk-esque Vocoders and often set to decidedly danceable music. And anyway, if Radiohead can sell squillions of albums of morose dance music, there’s no reason why My Computer shouldn’t have at least risen above complete obscurity.
Brassy – Got It Made (2000)
In the early 2000s, Jon Spencer’s little sister Muffin’s band looked destined for big things. Spencer herself was a charismatic and idiosyncratic performer, and the band’s rap/pop hybrid looked like a lock for commercial success -– they described themselves as “the Shangri-Las produced by Schoolly D,” and that’s pretty much exactly how they sounded. But their career never took off –- making their second album Gettin’ Wise left them in so much debt that they ended up working in coffee shops to pay off its recording costs, and they went their separate ways soon after.
Pretty Boy Floyd – Leather Boyz with Electric Toyz (1989)
LA poodle-metallers Pretty Boy Floyd are perhaps music’s most brutal example of being in exactly the wrong place at the wrong time. Signed for big money to MCA, they were tipped as the next Mötley Crüe, and they certainly fit the part -– they wore lots of spandex, had big hair, swigged Jack Daniel’s and had silly self-apportioned nicknames (the best of which was singer Steve “Sex” Summers). Unfortunately, by the time their gloriously absurd Steel Panther-esque debut Leather Boyz with Electric Toyz album was released in 1989, the world was sick of spandex-clad Jack Daniel’s-swigging LA bands with big hair and silly self-apportioned nicknames -– the music industry’s attention was just turning to the hitherto-unheralded scene in Seattle. The album stalled at #130 on the Billboard chart, and soon Pretty Boy Floyd were a thing of the past, although Steve “Sex” Summers found his calling managing a strip club, so it wasn’t all bad. Inexplicably, the band have reunited and are apparently planning a new album.
Pylon – Chomp (1983)
We’re paraphrasing loosely here, but an R.E.M. biography we read a while back said something to the effect that “for every R.E.M. there are a hundred Pylons.” In other words, for every one band that makes it, there are a hundred great bands that don’t. For a while in the early 1980s, R.E.M.’s Athens, Georgia contemporaries looked destined for stardom, opening for U2, Gang of Four, and Talking Heads, and releasing a string of excellent but underrated albums. But again, for whatever reason, their career never quite took off, and if not for R.E.M.’s ceaseless advocacy -– the latter spent much of the 1980s telling the world about how much they loved Pylon, and covered “Crazy” on 1987 B-sides and rarities compilation Dead Letter Office –- it’s unlikely that anyone outside Athens would have heard of them.
Jobriath – Jobriath (1973)
Perhaps it was the hype that killed Jobriath’s career. Perhaps it was unwise that the CBS executive who signed him was also sleeping with him. Or perhaps it was just that, for all its new-found sexual liberation, 1970s America just wasn’t ready for a flamboyant, openly gay former rent boy who promised to perform on “a mini Empire State Building [that] will turn into a giant spurting penis [while] I transform into Marlene Dietrich.” But whatever the case, the man who was touted as an American answer to David Bowie was instead a commercial disaster, his album not selling nearly enough copies to justify its huge promotional budget. It’s a shame because with the benefit of hindsight, it could (and perhaps should) have been huge. Instead, Jobriath retired from music after one more failed album, and by 1975, he was suffering from schizophrenia and living in the Chelsea Hotel, augmenting his income by hustling on the street. He died in 1983, one of the first casualties of AIDS -– a sad end to a career that promised a great deal.
Ramones – Ramones (1976)
These days, when Ramones T-shirts are a fashion item for people who’ve probably never heard the band, and Joey’s posthumous birthday party has become an annual event, it’s easy to forget that the Ramones never enjoyed any commercial success while they were together. All of the band’s albums, and especially the first three, were pop music, plain and simple -– played at breakneck pace by a bunch of delinquents, admittedly, but pop music nonetheless. In a parallel universe, they’d have been massive. Instead, like many great artists, they slugged it out in relative obscurity for decades and then made a heap of money after they died. The world’s an unfair place sometimes.