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Top 10 'Obscure' Starter Albums


Whilst my Top 10 Starters laid out alternative music’s basics, to just stick to the classics isn’t really keeping with the independent spirit. And the musical underground is littered with off-the-beaten track albums every bit as amazing as their more-acclaimed peers. In that spirit, here’s a Top 10 ‘Obscure’ Starter Albums countdown, a slate of unique, unusual, underground albums whose individuality and creativity has been, over time, like a lightning-rod for inspiration. So, get inspired:

1. The Monks 'Black Monk Time' (1965)


In post-war West Germany, a group of American GIs start a rockband. Taken under the charge of two conceptually-minded German advertising gurus, they brand their band the Monks, shave tonsures on their heads, then hit the road with a religious devotion. Their simple, rhythmic, confrontational take on rock-n-roll earns them few admirers at the time, but, with four decade's worth of hindsight, the still-thrilling Black Monk Time stands as possibly the first punk record, and is the obvious birthplace of krautrock.

2. Os Mutantes 'Os Mutantes' (1968)

These barmy Brazilians' riotous debut album was a freakadelic fusion of Beatles-esque studio experimentation and traditional Afro-Portuguese rhythms, with exuberant vocals and squalling guitar-leads on show. Still sounding fresh 40 years on, it's a lynchpin of any alternative-minded record collection: cool, obscure, and utterly idiosyncratic.

3. Vashti Bunyan 'Just Another Diamond Day' (1970)

Spinney Records
Evoking a romanticised notion of the English idyll, this whispery, gentle, fragile folk record was lost in oblivion for nearly three decades. Written by Bunyan as she journeyed from London to the Outer Hebrides via a horse-and-cart, the songs summon a sweetly pastoral spirit, with the delicate orchestral arrangements daubed around Bunyan's hushed voice like spiderwebs. Since being excavated from the mists of time, Bunyan's magical debut has been granted an almost holy status amongst smitten listeners.

4. Television 'Marquee Moon' (1977)

Built around its almighty 10-minute title-track, Marquee Moon is a shrine to the very idea of the guitar as expressive instrument. The six-string pyrotechnics laid out by Television frontman Tom Verlaine and his dueling foil Richard Lloyd are the defining quality of an album the refuses to be defined. At once fiercely punk and shaggily psychedelic, Television’s magnum opus transcends the time-and-place in which it was made.

5. The Raincoats 'The Raincoats' (1979)

Rough Trade
Though not the most famous, or most acclaimed, of London's late-'70s post-punk milieu, The Raincoats may be said scene's best band. Best known for diffusing the heaving machismo of English punk, the ramshackle girl-group summon up a peculiar musical magic. Slapping together seeming instrumental incongruousness —tinny drum-machines, screechy violin, shambolic drumming, shouted vocals— with nary a hint of precision, their debut album should be a mess. Instead, it's an out-of-this realm masterwork, acclaimed by Kurt Cobain as one of the greatest records ever pressed.

6. Young Marble Giants 'Colossal Youth' (1980)

Rough Trade
Recorded in three days in a studio in North Wales, the one-and-only album for Young Marble Giants achieved a perfect kind of simplicity. Reducing the pop-song to its essentials —drum machine as rhythm, single-note guitar as melody, half-spoken voice as harmony— the Welsh trio found something starkly profound amidst the musically rudimentary. Call it Zen and the Art of Drum Machine Maintenance.

7. Palace Music 'Viva Last Blues' (1995)

Drag City Records
When he was just 17, Will Oldham played a teenaged preacher in John Sayles’ Matewan, a motion-picture steeped in the lore of proto-unionist miners’ protests. When Oldham later turned to songwriting, there was still something of the preacher in the Kentuckian; his achingly beautiful, cavernously lonely country ballads unafraid of biblical imagery and God’s apparent savagery. His third ‘Palace’ album —made long before he’d become Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy— marks Oldham’s masterwork; at turns urgent and volatile, reluctant and solemn, lovestruck and heartachin’.

8. Neutral Milk Hotel 'In The Aeroplane Over The Sea' (1998)

Merge Records
Neutral Milk Hotel main-man Jeff Mangum still hasn't been able to bring himself to attempt a successor to this slice of longplaying perfection, one cited by folk like Beirut and Arcade Fire as being a massive influence. Parading a kind of fuzzed-out psychedelic-pop, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is dressed in ye olde whimsy, but its songs trawl deep into the subconsciousness. Haunted by disturbing dreams, the specter of death, and the ghost of Anne Frank, Mangum fashioned an interior monologue that reads like the great American novel.

9. Animal Collective 'Sung Tongs' (2004)

Fat Cat Records
Though it's mere years old, Animal Collective's most widely-praised record already has inspired a host of likeminded outfits. The fifth album by the shapeshifting Brooklyn-by-Baltimore quartet spearheaded a sweeping movement of 'new primitivism'. Their tribalist percussion, communal zone-outs, and vocal harmonies tapped into the freak-folk spirit bubbling up from America's underground, and harnessed it into something charmed and joyous. Perhaps unexpectedly so, Sung Tongs has become one of this decade's most influential discs.

10. Joanna Newsom 'The Milk-Eyed Mender' (2004)

Drag City Records

Arriving fully-formed and with no precedent, virtuosic harpist-songwriter Joanna Newsom unexpectedly pirouetted into the pop-cultural canon with her transcendent longplaying debut. Carolling her whooping, trilling caw, the songbird’s intricately-composed, radically-poetic song-stories not only sounded like nothing that’d ever come before, but were blessed with something unquantifiably ‘more’. With fingers dancing across her concert-harp’s many, many strings, the frocked-up folkie pin-up sprinkled a magical form of musical fairy-dust, laced with spells so powerful even the most hardened listener found their heart melting.

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