10 Obscure Albums That Became Classics

Brian Eno may or may not've actually once said: "The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band." The quote became hugely famous, capturing the quirkiness of the Velvet Underground proving as influential as The Beatles, even though they'd never been anywhere near as big as Judas, let alone Jesus. Yet, what seemed once so peculiar to the VU has soon became a wide-ranging phenomenon, with obscure albums growing into increasingly influential works long after their makers broke up, retired, disappeared, or died. Now, that VU threshold —10,000 copies— seems way too popular: these are records that barely a soul bought on their initial release.
01
of 10

Alexander "Skip" Spence 'Oar' (1969)

Alexander
Alexander "Skip" Spence 'Oar' (1969). Columbia

Upon its 1969 release, the one-and-only album from psychedelic burnout Skip Spence found immediate infamy, becoming the lowest-selling album that Columbia Records had ever released. Spence was no stranger to infamousness, having been kicked out of Moby Grape for trying to attack bandmate Jerry Miller with an ax (believing he was possessed by Satan), and spending a six month stint in Bellevue's psychiatric ward. In charge of his own album, he played all the instruments himself, cobbling together a collection of half-finished sketches; glorified demos in which classic song structure goes to die. Yet Oar, unexpectedly, grew in stature over time, eventually counting Beck, Wilco, Tom Waits, Giant Sand, and Robert Plant among those who worship its singular strangeness.

02
of 10

Arthur Russell 'World of Echo' (1986)

Arthur Russell 'World of Echo' (1986)
Arthur Russell 'World of Echo' (1986). Rough Trade

Cello prodigy turned avant-garde composer turned disco producer, Arthur Russell was a restless perfectionist, working endlessly on countless mixes of every song. Most of them, he never deigned to release. One would think that his most famous album, then, would be a shrine to this perfectionism, a grand-scale labor-of-love marshaling grand orchestral arrangements and pristine production. Instead, World of Echo is an unfinished symphony, a collection of loose song-sketches in which Russell scrapes his cello, adds mournful vocals and crackling electronics, and douses the whole thing in echo, delay, and tape-hiss. The LP was barely a blip on its release, but Russell would, in the decades after his death, come to be understood as a canonical indie figure;

03
of 10

Bill Fay 'Time of the Last Persecution' (1971)

Bill Fay 'Time of the Last Persecution' (1971)
Bill Fay 'Time of the Last Persecution' (1971). Deram

On his self-titled 1970 debut, Bill Fay played like a pleasingly-tuneful Bob Dylan acolyte: all intellectual lyrics and thinking-man's folk-rock. Whatever happened in the space of a year, the Fay of 1971's Time of the Last Persecution cut an entirely different figure. Fay suddenly sounded wild-eyed and unhinged, lost in the midst of post-'60s paranoia as he presided over a set of apocalyptic folksongs steeped in Biblical terror. Here, he sings of the imminence of End Days, climaxing in a title-track whose free-jazz freakout verily summons the rapture. The album disappeared into oblivion, and so did Fay. Yet, after his albums were touted by Wilco, Destroyer, Okkervil River, and Nick Cave, Fay was eventually coaxed back into the studio 40 years later.

04
of 10

Dolly Mixture 'Demonstration Tapes' (1983)

Dolly Mixture 'Demonstration Tapes' (1983)
Dolly Mixture 'Demonstration Tapes' (1983). Dead Good Dolly Platters

Dolly Mixture were formed in 1978 with punk credentials —they had no musical skill at all— but not punk influences. The London trio's ambition was to evoke the girl-groups of the 1960s and write classic-sounding pop-songs. Due to their refusal to rock (and their gender), Dolly Mixture were greeted with far more hostility than fondness in their five years together. In 1983, sensing the end was nigh, they flew in the face of the 'proper' album: pressing their demos onto double LP, self-releasing it with white label artwork, then breaking up after its release. They would've been consigned to anonymity if not for the fact that their Demonstration Tapes served as proto-twee: all whispy three-part harmonies, jangle guitars, and trebly, tinny sound.

05
of 10

The Langley Schools Music Project 'Innocence and Despair' (2001)

The Langley Schools Music Project 'Innocence and Despair'
The Langley Schools Music Project 'Innocence and Despair'. Bar/None

In 1976, a music teacher in British Columbia named Hans Fenger started making recordings of a group of school children singing the Beach Boys, Beatles, Bowie et al in a school gymnasium. Pressed up for friends and family, the recordings —one from 1976, another from 1977— lay in obscurity until being discovered at a Victoria garage-sale in 2000. Released a year later, the recordings —in which joyful exuberance gives way to a genuine eeriness that's amplified by the passage of time— became a critical sensation, and a new outsider-art landmark for indie listeners. And they soon proved influential: Karen O's Where the Wild Things Are soundtrack and Ryan Gosling's Dead Man's Bones project both verily worshipping at the Innocence and Despair altar.

06
of 10

The Monks 'Black Monk Time' (1965)

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

Formed in 1964 by a crew of American GIs living in West Germany, The Monks were hated by most audiences who saw them. Working from a manifesto penned by their managers —a pair of Situationist-minded, German advertising gurus— the band became a reactionary outfit, an 'anti-Beatles' wielding stripped down, brutally-rhythmic rock'n'roll like a weapon. That sense of confrontation was symbolized by a crazy wardrobe: the members all dressed in black cassocks, with tonsures shaved on their heads, and nooses hung around their neck. With no following to speak of, they broke up after one album, but the repetition of Black Monk Time proved hugely influential to the next generation of German musicians —the krautrock movement— and all manner of punks thereafter.

07
of 10

Nick Drake 'Pink Moon' (1972)

Nick Drake 'Pink Moon' (1972)
Nick Drake 'Pink Moon' (1972). Island
Pink Moon —and its tortured anti-hero, Nick Drake— are the most famous case study for posthumous exhumation, critical reappraisal, and unexpected musical immortality. The final LP for the suicidal folkie sank on its 1972 release, largely due to its painfully-stripped-down arrangements and unbroken sadness, but hardly helped by its author's refusal to do interviews or tour. Slowly, the tide would turn. Pink Moon grew into a cult favorite through the '80s and '90s, eventually exploding in 1999 when it was made the star of a Volkswagen commercial. Thereafter, Drake officially became the patron saint of melancholy miserablists and depressed bedroom guitarists everywhere, even landing in the UK charts in 2004, 30 years after his death.
08
of 10

The United States of America 'The United States of America' (1968)

The United States of America 'The United States of America' (1968)
The United States of America 'The United States of America' (1968). Columbia

When The United States of America released their sole album in 1968, it didn't get much of a push from their label, Columbia. "There was," USA mastermind Joseph Byrd recounted, "scant enthusiasm from the executives for a band whose name they hated, whose music they didn't understand, and whose politics they thought treasonous." The San Francisco outfit was populated by students of modern-composition titans John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen, who thought applying their avant-garde practices —electronic oscillations, ring modulations, atonal violin scrapes— to a rockband would be a wild experiment. Though they found few followers at the time, in the '90s the USA inspired England's most adventurous pop bands: hailed for their greatness by Portishead, Broadcast, and Stereolab.

09
of 10

Vashti Bunyan 'Just Another Diamond Day' (1970)

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

When Vashti Bunyan's debut solo album, Just Another Diamond Day was released in 1970, it bombed, colossally. What few reviews it received ridiculed the record for its hippy dippy idealism, and it barely managed to sell 100 copies. Given how personal the LP was —the songs chronicling Bunyan's experiences walking, with husband, dogs, and horse-and-cart towards a hippy commune in Scotland— the singer took it personally: not only retiring from music, but never daring to even sing around the house for decades thereafter. But, over time, Just Another Diamond Day became a holy grail for LP collectors, and following its 2000 reissue, the album was embraced as a 'lost' classic: a profound document of whisper-quiet folksong from a more naïve time.

10
of 10

Young Marble Giants 'Colossal Youth' (1980)

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

Welsh post-punk minimalists Young Marble Giants left behind a minimal discography. 1980's Colossal Youth —which aptly captured their bare-bones arrangements of guitar, bass, drum-machine, and half-spoken Alison Statton vocals— their lone longplayer in two years together. That the band broke up almost immediately after its release consigned Colossal Youth to also-ran status; the record selling scant copies for Rough Trade. But, almost immediately, its influence was felt, with Tracey Thorn's Marine Girls forming as 17-year-old YMG acolytes. Over the years, Young Marble Giants stark sound would slowly grow into indie-classic status, its singularity of sound cited again and again as influence on bands and producers both.

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Carew, Anthony. "10 Obscure Albums That Became Classics." ThoughtCo, Feb. 4, 2017, thoughtco.com/obscure-albums-that-became-classics-94483. Carew, Anthony. (2017, February 4). 10 Obscure Albums That Became Classics. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/obscure-albums-that-became-classics-94483 Carew, Anthony. "10 Obscure Albums That Became Classics." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/obscure-albums-that-became-classics-94483 (accessed November 23, 2017).