It might seem trite to say it, but in this new, probably permanent era of streaming and cloud-based record collections, the commercial shelf life of musicians is getting shorter and shorter. Buzz bands come and go, replaced by new buzz bands and new trends faster than even the music industry would like. Each day, there’s a new artist to obsess over. What, then, happens to yesterday’s obsession?
Well, sometimes they disappear, but often they stick with it, pumping out album after album to modest praise and constant comparisons to the work they produced in their heyday, whenever that happened to be. But plenty of these once-big artists have created bold, rewarding bodies of work, developing skill and nuance that only comes with years of practice.
We’ve compiled a short list of these career artists for your easy consumption. Why not take advantage of a world where every artist’s complete discography is available at your fingertips?
Don’t call it a comeback, because Australia’s reigning disco queen never went away. Sure, she’s never recaptured the cultural (or US chart) success of 2001’s “Cant Get You Out of My Head,” but she’s been making great albums in the years since. And, for those of us who were first introduced to Kylie during her 2001 resurgence, let’s not forget that she was dominating the charts back in the late ’80s, with “The Loco-Motion” and “I Should Be So Lucky.”
That she didn’t reclaim her spot at the top with 2014’s “Into the Blue,” which at the time of its release we called “the best mainstream pop song” of the year, proves that Kylie’s been wrongfully overlooked by the American mainstream for too long now — 15 years, even! And that’s to say nothing of her bombastic work with Giorgio Moroder on his comeback album, last year’s Déjà Vu.
The Killers/Brandon Flowers
To separate the work of Vegas new wave/Springsteen/U2 revivalists The Killers from the solo work of frontman Brandon Flowers would be to split over-gelled hair — tedious, unnecessary. Since the band’s debut Hot Fuss and underrated/over-criticized follow-up, Sam’s Town, Flowers & Co. have largely fallen out of favor with music’s illuminati, absent from the headlines save for sparse profiles and interviews in which the singer, ever the showman, claims that he’s one of the greatest musicians of his era. That, plus his tendency to wear shoulder pads of feathers, makes it very easy to ignore the last five-or-so years of the band’s output, but no more.
The band’s last effort, 2012’s Battle Born, had some great Tom Petty-indebted ballads, the best of which was “Heart of a Girl,” but Flowers’ 2015 solo album, The Desired Effect, shouldn’t be missed. If you’re looking for a standout to get started, “Lonely Town” is maybe the most perfectly named Flowers song ever, and it doesn’t disappoint.
In 2006, Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco released “Kick, Push,” a drug running-as-skateboarding anthem that ushered in a new era of nerd hip hop that embraced skate culture and worshipped at the feet of Capcom. He followed it up with The Cool, a great album that maybe relied too much on the highfalutin tragedy of a kid who gets involved in drugs and then dies and is resurrected and then kills the kingpin responsible for his original death. There’s also a song about fast food.
Anyway, unsurprisingly, Lupe followed that album with Lasers, what seemed like an awful attempt at a cash-grab but would later be revealed as a shrugging attempt at appeasing his record label. That, paired with his headline-making Obama comments, seemed to erase Lupe from the mind of the public — which is a shame, because his 2015 album Tetsuo & Youth was a return to form, and one of his best collections of work, period. “Chopper,” a nine-minute track that features six other rappers, is the perfect showcase for not only Lupe’s lyrical abilities, but also his capabilities as a curator, something that his double-digit tracklists sometimes betray.
Aimee Mann and Ted Leo
Let’s be clear: lumping these two prolific, talented artists together does a disservice to both of them, but such is the fate they’re accorded because of having joined forces as The Both. (Luckily, they forewent the name #Both, which they originally announced at a Webster Hall show I attended.)
It’s tempting to just bypass all of the solo work the two have done for the past decade and suggest you hop on some digital train and download The Both’s album, but a lot has happened since Mann put out the Magnolia soundtrack. Lost in Space is probably the best of her ’00s albums, but @#%&*! Smilers really showcases the way her talents can plainly shine when not weighed down by the quirky production of a Jon Brion or Michael Penn.
As for Leo, well, everything he’s done with the Pharmacists has followed a pretty clear path through no-fuss punk, so it’s all worth checking out if you haven’t done much listening since you discovered him 15 years ago. But the song included in this post, The Both’s “Milwaukee,” finds the duo at its collaborative best, Leo’s ferocious roots infecting Mann’s biting lyrics to make something kind of ugly but also kind of awesome.
To say Ciara is “forgotten” would be untrue, so I won’t claim that here. But back in 2004, when Ciara was introduced to the world with Missy Elliott’s cosign on “1, 2 Step,” the TRL set was predicting the next Janet Jackson. So why, then, are Ciara’s headline mentions now relegated to dating rumors and engagement news?
Visiting Ciara’s cache of YouTube videos, it becomes clear based on view counts alone that the R&B singer has cultivated a strong, lasting brand — at least on the Internet. So why don’t we see her name popping up at awards shows, or among the Gagas or the Katy Perrys of the world? Probably because her vibe, which is smooth as silk, isn’t a marquee kind of thing. But it is fire, as seen on most of her albums, including 2015’s Jackie, a sorta concept album named for her own mother. “Dance Like We’re Making Love,” a song surely not about her own mother, is one of that album’s standouts, and further begs the question: why isn’t Ciara all over Top 40?
Mercury Rev have had so many distinct sounds that it’s possible each of their incarnations has its own diehard fans, whether it be the spacey psych of the first few albums or the Levon Helm-endorsed rock of the mid-career stuff like Deserter’s Songs. Either way, this is a band from an era that’s ripe for the influential picking, and yet the influence of Mercury Rev barely seems to be mentioned at all.
It’s surprising, then, for those of us who had forgotten about the Rev, that the band put out an album in 2015, The Light in You. It was the group’s first in seven years, and the echoes of psych that have haunted the band’s collective output are as strong as ever, most evident in the languid vocals that anchor the very ’80s guitar and drum work, the whole thing sounding like a soundtrack for some Noah Baumbach film.
For most music lovers not tapped in to the deeper trills of the hip-hop world, 2003’s “Milkshake” was our introduction to the powerhouse that is Kelis, even though she’d been active and effective for years by the time it was released. Unfortunately, when “Milkshake” left the charts she seemed to disappear from the public sphere as quickly as she arrived.
Her 2014 album Food should have changed that, and it kind of did, though the Dave Sitek-produced work didn’t quench any of the pop thirst left behind by “Milkshake.” Still, Food was a strong, funny effort from an underrated MC. Kelis said she sought to capture the feeling of nostalgia present on her parents’ classic record collection, and making the album superficially about food certainly helped her achieve that. “Jerk Ribs” is accessible on all kinds of levels, and Kelis’ voice is as addictive as the mouthwatering stuff that gives the track its title.
San Francisco band The Dodos never had a “big” moment, as much as they deserved one with their second album, 2008’s Visiter. That album’s expert percussion and self-flagellating lyrics should’ve made the band an indie household name, but that never happened. In fact, the closest thing to making headlines came with that album’s follow-up, which prompted a personnel change and then, later, an undoing of that change. Which, really, was for the best, because the band’s energy seems reliant on the dynamism of vocalist Meric Long and Logan Kroeber. Anything extra is just fat.
It’s fitting, then, that the band’s output since the trimming of that fat has been as strong as ever. Last year’s Individ saw new stomping grounds for the two not-extinct Dodos, with an open-air production lending the record a scope we’d once assumed was unreachable for a duo: “The Tide” might as well have been recorded on an ocean.
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
Oh, lord. Are Clap Your Hands Say Yeah perhaps the biggest example of a powerhouse buzz band falling prey to the infamous sophomore slump? So the story goes, seeing as we’re a full decade removed from the release of their spotless self-titled album and few people have even bothered to write an anniversary essay about it.
When the band released “Satan Said Dance,” the first single from sophomore album Some Loud Thunder, it didn’t give the blogs what they wanted, and so CYHSY’s downfall was swift and fierce. But their third album, Hysterical, found them embracing ’80s rock years before Kurt Vile and The War on Drugs got famous by doing the same. And 2014’s Only Run dove even further into that synthesized decade, coloring pop anthems with throwback washes of keyboard that somehow managed to propel the band’s sound into the future. The National’s Matt Berninger guests on an album standout, but “Blameless” finds singer Alec Ounsworth and his bandmates synthesizing all of their influences into a sound that, if this were a debut album, would certainly be called “signature.”
Toro y Moi
Truthfully, there’s a whole stable of chillwave (RIP) artists who probably deserve to be on this list, but while most of them have stayed true to their downtempo roots, Toro y Moi’s Chaz Bundick has spread his wings to rap and rock — though, thankfully, not in the span of a single project.
Aside from production work with Kool A.D. and Odd Future, as well as the hedonistic dance side project Les Sins, Bundick’s solo output falls squarely in the indie rock category. His last release, What For?, hearkened back to early-oughts guitar music with enough groove to move even the most jaded of Pitchfork’s OG writers. The fact that he’s mastered an aesthetic and created an artful world of his own doesn’t hurt his staying power, either.
Zola Jesus is only 26, but she’s been making music for nearly a decade. In that time, she’s released half a dozen collections of music, all strong front-to-back, and yet the music world’s reception has been little more than an enthusiastic shrug.
Perhaps it’s premature to cry foul that someone as young as Zola Jesus hasn’t really been #trending at any point in her career, but, whatever: more people need to listen to her impressive body of gothy, industrial work. Even her latest album, Taiga, which dips its toes into the Lorde-ly world of wine-stained pop, is masterful throughout. “Go (Blank Sea)” is particularly infectious, with a “downtown”-chanting chorus to rival that of her gloomy, recently defunct peers, Majical Cloudz.
Honestly, it’s a wonder that a band as weird as of Montreal even managed to have a breakout moment, especially because it came with Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? — an album that multiplied the band’s weirdness by, oh, maybe a thousand. What isn’t a wonder is that so many of the band’s new fans abandoned them when Kevin Barnes got even weirder.
The six albums that have come since Hissing Fauna have doubled down on the band’s toxic mix of psych, funk, and falsetto, but with last year’s Aureate Gloom, rock made a roaring comeback, and of Montreal suddenly became appropriate for casual listens, even if the song titles (“Monolithic Egress,” “Empyrean Abattoir,” “Chthonian Dirge for Uruk The Other”) don’t lend themselves to casual reading. “Virgilian Lots” is one of the album’s most straightforward rockers, but it still sounds like nobody but of Montreal.
Real fans of country songwriting might see Rodney Crowell on this list and say, “huh,” before going back to But What Will the Neighbors Think? But in the world of pop-country, Crowell — one of the genre’s greatest writers — has largely gone unnoticed in recent years while folks like Blake Shelton take up all the gossipy spotlight.
Ignoring last year’s The Traveling Kind, a Grammy-winning collaboration with Emmylou Harris, let’s take a look at 2014’s Tarpaper Sky, a collection of original Crowell jams that delivers honky-tonk swagger in volumes rarely found outside the glittering lights of Nashville’s Lower Broadway. “Frankie Please” is an especially intoxicating trip back to the heyday of pop-country songwriting, where down-home storytelling is served by and propels instrumentals that are as energizing as anything you’d find in a big city stadium.
With ’70s rock revivalists/mutators Girls, singer Christopher Owens found quick indie rock success. After two albums and as many EPs, the band dissolved, though, and since then Owens has been steadily churning out quality LPs, never quite matching the success of any of Girls’ releases. Which is a shame, because, as the man himself as said, his A New Testament is a classic album. Or, it should be, anyway.
Chrissybaby Forever, the ramshackle album that followed Testament, doesn’t quite live up to its predecessor’s gospel greatness, but its scrappy tenacity gives Owens life that’s been missing since the end of Girls. “Another Loser Fuck Up” sounds like Girls’ “Lust For Life,” only post-rehab and on the road. Which is exactly what it is.
…And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead
This Olympia, Washington band with a vintage ten-point Pitchfork review and a name that’s too long by at least six words has fallen far from favor since releasing its record-setting debut, Source Tags and Codes. And yet!
And yet, the band has put out eight albums since its breakthrough. The latest, IX, just happens to be the ninth of those albums, and it is, surprisingly, maybe Trail of Dead’s freshest in a decade. The lyrics and imagery are probably still too baroque for their own good, and the whole attitude of singer Conrad Keely too snide to love, but songs like “Bus Lines” draw expertly from ’90s alt-rock, only puffing it full of life with strings and the ease of a band that’s been doing this forever, and will probably keep on doing it for quite a while. And, it must be said, they’ve still got the best drum game in indie rock.