This month sees the publication of an excellent new book entitled 100 Unhip Albums That We Should Learn to Love. Seeking to reappraise formerly ignored or derided albums, it makes the case for the unfashionable with examples from Van der Graaf Generator to David Essex, 10CC, Wings, and beyond. A refreshingly new idea, we thought, so by way of tribute, here are some of our choices ripe for critical makeover!
1. Cat Stevens – Foreigner
Upon it’s release in 1973, Foreigner was greeted by the critics with a mixture of polite indifference and outright hostility. The NME’s Roy Carr called it “one of the worst pieces of maudlin tripe pop music has had to suffer”. Harsh words indeed as, listening to it now, it has blossomed and has a great deal to offer. Four albums of mainly acoustic catchy folk-pop had set the template for success both artistically and commercially. But when Stevens announced that the next album would be recorded without regular producer Paul Samuel Smith, with sessions musicians, and in Jamaica, alarm bells began to ring! Upon its release, sales peaked and began to fall away as the new intense and serious style was not what the people were used to. Cat wasn’t quite as cuddly anymore! However, the music is played superbly by crack session players including Bernard Purdie & Phil Upchurch, and it has a free, loose, funky vibe, much in keeping with its Jamaican backdrop. Standout tracks ‘Sweet Blue Love’ and the finale, ‘Heaven Must Have Programmed You’, would have graced any of his previous works. Image result for cat stevens foreigner With the next album Buddha and the Chocolate Box, Stevens went back to the tried-and-tested set-up and with it gained the expected commercial success, but Foreigner is at least a pleasant interlude, and at best a brave artistic statement. Just for a moment, he was a honky cat that was a funky cat!
2. Linda Lewis – Woman Overboard
When the Raft label folded in the early 70s, it left Linda Lewis high and dry and without a contract. Three albums of charming folk-soul-pop had given her a loyal following and critical acclaim but ‘Rock-a-doodle Doo’ apart, they achieved modest commercial success. So, when Arista got Lewis to sign on the dotted line, they were determined to market her as a pop-disco diva with her high vocal range as her gimmick. This meant Lewis’s own songs were pushed into the background, onto B sides, in favour of cover-versions of soul classics and newly written pop fayre. Woman Overboard was released in 1977 and was very much a compromise between Lewis and the label: plenty of silky-smooth soul, pleasant though not particularly inspiring. What it does have are three outstanding songs, all completely distinct, which makes it a must-have for fans! First up is ‘Bonfire’, written for her by ex-squeeze Cat Stevens, which sadly only just dented the top 30. Next, there’s a beautiful version of ‘The Moon and I’ from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. This girl could handle opera with the best of them, and even though it’s a slightly less formal rendition, it’s not going to cause Arthur Sullivan any swivels in his coffin! The standout for me is her version of Family’s ‘My Friend, the Sun’. It’s a sweet autumnal acoustic, a shimmering masterpiece that still gives you a warm and fuzzy feeling inside. So if you see this album, with its sexy 70s disco diva cover, languishing in a bargain bin, do yourself a favour – liberate it and give it a home immediately!
3. Eric Clapton – There’s One in Every Crowd
The follow-up to Eric’s bestselling comeback LP, 461 Ocean Boulevard, came as something of a disappointment to ‘Slowhand’ followers, who thought the new laidback Clapton was but a parting phase. This is about as laidback as it gets without actually falling over! After the opening two gospel-flavoured tracks, one of which, ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’, was rendered in a relaxed cod-reggae style, listeners could be forgiven for not pressing ahead with much enthusiasm. But Side 2 reveals three of Clapton’s most endearing compositions from this period: ‘Better Make it Through Today’ is a touching, heartfelt prayer to self-preservation, presumably inspired by the recent therapy and cure of his heroin addiction. Next up, ‘Pretty Blue Eyes’ and ‘High’ are vintage badge-esque melodic, bluesy pop songs that Clapton excelled at writing during the late 60s and early 70s. It’s not a masterpiece by any stretch but does contain some absolute gems and is definitely worth reinvestigation. Plus, it’s got a very cute dog on the cover…
4. Rod Stewart – Smiler
I don’t know what it is about 1974 but this seemed to be the year that established artists delivered albums that the critics dismissed as not up-to-scratch. Prime example was Rod’s Smiler. It has all the ingredients of previous smash hit sellers: ‘Every Picture Tells a Story’ and ‘Never a Dull Moment’ with the (or most of the) Faces backing him up, a ‘Maggie May’/You Where it Well’-style single & co-write with Martin Quittenton in ‘Farewell’, and some cracking cover versions in Sam Cooke’s ‘You Send Me’, Berry’s ‘Sweet Little Rock ‘N’ Roller’, the obligatory Dylan cover (which is better than the original) ‘Girl From the North Country’ and a couple of top-grade, top-mates contributions in Elton’s ‘Let Me Be Your Car’ and ‘Mine For Me’ from Sir Lord of Macca! What it also has, however, is a slightly dodgy sleeve design with Rod resplendent in his 19th-century silks and satins facing out from an antique mirror laid on top o f a tartan cloak. A bit too Scottish for most of us (especially as he was from North London…). That apart, there’s much vintage Rod to enjoy here, so ignore the sleeve art and dig in!