Revisiting the Lost Critical Favorites of Musical Yesteryear

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The Village Voice recently published a retrospective of its annual Pazz & Jop critics’ poll, looking at the top ten records for every year since 1971. Most of the names featured are pretty familiar, but every so often you’ll see the name of a band or artist who’s since been largely forgotten. Many of these are reflective of critics’ idiosyncratic preoccupations around the time of their release, and revisiting them (or, in some cases, visiting them for the first time) in 2013 is a rather interesting exercise. You might even find something you like!

Joy of Cooking — Joy of Cooking (#6, 1973)

Our good friend Wikipedia, who’s going to be of great assistance throughout the course of this feature, tells me that Joy of Cooking were “an American folk-rock band formed in 1967 in Berkeley, California. It was led by two women, pianist Toni Brown and guitarist Terry Garthwaite (also known as Ruby Green).” Hmm. Well, some of that sounds promising, at least. The album is hard to track down, but there’s enough of it on YouTube to form some sort of impression, and that impression is… somewhat positive. It’s very ’60s-sounding, which means that by the time it was released it was already somewhat out of date. It’s no doubt important that they were an early female-led band, but this is a bit adult contemporary for comfort.

Give it a try if you like: Jefferson Airplane

Garland Jeffreys — Ghost Writer (#9, 1977)

I’ve heard of Jeffreys — apparently he went to college with Lou Reed, among other things — but I’m not at all familiar with his music. I feel like I should be, though, because I like this. It’s a pleasantly eclectic record, encompassing reggae, soul, and rock ‘n’ roll. As such, it’s hard to pin down reference points, but curiously, the one that strikes me straight away is, dare I say it, early Billy Joel, in the days before he became an AOR staple. It’s very New York, too, exemplified by the third track “New York Skyline” and the casual street references that pepper the songs.

Give it a try if you like: Lou Reed circa New York

Graham Parker — Squeezing Out Sparks (#1, 1979)

I’m somewhat surprised that I haven’t run across Parker before. He’s a British singer/songwriter, and this sounds very much of its time — not that it’s especially dated, but it seems evocative of that era in music across the Atlantic. In particular, it reminds me Elvis Costello, especially in Parker’s vocal delivery, which has the same air of sarcasm and a similar vocal intonation. There’s a hint of Bob Dylan here, too. This is pretty good stuff, actually.

Give it a try if you like: Elvis Costello

Marshall Crenshaw — Marshall Crenshaw (#9, 1982)

Critics were clearly into literate, somewhat sardonic singer/songwriter types at this stage of music history, because Crenshaw is also very much in this mold, and his debut album is full of smart, well-crafted pop songs. (Fun fact: if you look up both Garland Jeffreys and Crenshaw on Last.fm, the first “similar artist” recommended is… Graham Parker.) This sounds like it could come from the other side of the Atlantic, but Crenshaw is actually from Michigan. This is more melodic than either of the previous records — there’s a hint of ’50s girl-group pop about the oh-so-hummable melodies and backing vocals.

Give it a try if you like: Joe Jackson

John Hiatt — Bring the Family (#5, 1987)

Y’know, there’s a common theme here: Nick Lowe. He produced Parker, Crenshaw did one of his songs on a 2001 tribute album, and he plays bass on this record. Also present is Ry Cooder, who’s a pretty good reference point, actually — this record falls somewhere into the territory between country and blues that Cooder explores so effectively. Hiatt’s voice is soulful, and the guitar tones here suggest that one Dan Auerbach was paying very close attention.

Give it a try if you like: Robert Cray

Midnight Oil — Diesel and Dust (#4, 1988)

OK, I do actually know this one, mainly because it’s from Australia and so am I — but I figure most people these days would greet its presence on the Voice‘s 1988 poll with a resounding “Huh?” But this was big news back in ’88, the year of Australia’s bicentennial celebrations, given that its songs excoriated the country’s treatment of its aboriginal population. It was an unlikely international hit, too, perhaps explaining its unexpected presence here.

Give it a try if you like: strident political music

The Mekons — The Mekons Rock ‘n Roll (#8, 1989)

Latter-day post-punk. There’s a lot to like about it, not least the arch lyricism and Sally Timms’ delivery of said lyrics. Another band that I’ve never gotten particularly familiar with, as much as anything because they’ve made so many albums. But this is good enough to investigate further.

Give it a try if you like: The Raincoats

P.M. Dawn — Of the Heart, of the Soul and of the Cross: The Utopian Experience (#5, 1991)

Sure, you may well remember the Spandau Ballet-samplin’ hit “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss,” but what about the rest of the album? Well, listening to it today isn’t an entirely pleasing experience, to be honest. Some of the production is interesting — there’s a hint of chill-out, rave-y influence on “Paper Doll,” and DJ Minutemix seems to like building tracks up out of ethereal vocal samples — but on the whole, it sounds distinctly dated.

Give it a try if you like: De La Soul

Basehead — Play With Toys (#10, 1992)

This is an interesting piece of work, actually. It’s decidedly downbeat hip hop, more reminiscent of the sort of thing that was being made across the Atlantic around this time than anything in America. It sounds like there’s some live instrumentation here, too, giving this record an organic sound that, again, stands in contrast to much of the music that was being made at this time.

Give it a try if you like: Tricky

Digable Planets — Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space) (#10, 1993)

As the ’80s turned into the ’90s, it seems the critics moved on from Costello-esque singer/songwriters to the sort of friendly Native Tongues-esque hip hop that didn’t scare critics. This was the year of Doggystyle, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), and Black Sunday, but you’d never know it from the Voice‘s top ten (although, in fairness, The Chronic did make the cut). There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but again, it’s very much of its time, while plenty of other ’93 albums (the aforementioned hip hop records, plus Nirvana’s In Utero and Suede’s self-titled debut, among others) have become timeless classics. So it goes.

Give it a try if you like: Arrested Development