If asked what the most influential albums of all time were, you would probably respond with the obvious; records that everyone with a pair of ears knows and loves. The Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Band and Elvis Presley’s eponymous debut for rock n roll, Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti for metal, NWA’s Straight Outta Compton and Nas’ Illmatic for hip-hop, and so on and so forth. We equate influence with popularity.
But sometimes, that formula hasn’t proven to be so true. Artists and albums that were seemingly fads- one hit wonders or trends- have gone on to change the face of music. Records that were seemingly lost in the vast sea of time have resurfaced years later like breaching killer whales , spewing foamy musical goodness onto the world. Albums that were butchered by critics have risen from the dead with a new legion of followers. This list is to celebrate those wonderful underdogs. When these records came out, no one dreamed they would ever be really influential. They were commercial flops, were panned by critics, or went completely unnoticed. But each and every one of them went on to change music.
The Kinks – Kinks (Castle Records): 1964
On the surface, the Kinks look like any other corney British Invasion rock band with a bowlcut and questionable taste in suits. You certainly don’t hear them talked about nearly as other invasion bands like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. But Kinks might actually be one of the most influential albums of all time.
One day, lead guitarist David Davies was getting frustrated with the sound coming out of his amp- he thought it sounded too clean, too pitchy. So he decided it was time for an experiment.
“I started to get really frustrated, and I said, “I know! I’ll fix you!” I got a single-sided Gillette razorblade and cut round the cone like this (slitting from the centre to the edge of the cone), so it was all shredded but still on there, still intact. I played and I thought it was amazing, really freaky. I felt like an inventor!”
What exactly did this do? Well, first of all, it pretty much guaranteed Davies a nomination for a Darwin Award. It’s probably not the brightest idea to take a razorblade to any wire.
But the miracle of the experiment, aside from Davies surviving, was the sound that the slitted wire produced. It was guttural, twisted, and most importantly, distorted. Through a simple mistake, David Davies created the first mainstream case of distortion in rock music- distortion already existed in mild forms, but what Davies created is the brash, heavy, grinding tone that we associate distortion with now.
Within only 2 years, Marshall Amps had already found a way to (safely) include distortion features on their amplifiers. Without Davies’ little experiment, genres like punk, metal, alternative rock, and classic rock and roll could have been set back a few good years, or been different altogether.
The Winstons, without a doubt, might be the most unlucky band in musical history. Their EP Color Him Father was successful, but not so successful that the band was able to make any significant profit off of it. And as it would turn out, it would contain one of the most sampled pieces of music of all time.
On the EP’s B-Side, a song called “Amen, Brother” was recorded with a 6 second drum break by Winston’s drummer Gregory C. Coleman. For whatever reason, whether its luck or simply because it’s a really darn good drum solo, thousands of electronica musicians, rappers, and producers would use the “Amen Break” in their tracks. And when we say thousands, we really mean it- everyone from Dr. Dre to Skrillex has used this break. And the Winstons, who didn’t keep the royalties to the song, weren’t paid a cent.
Brian Eno – Discreet Music (EG): 1975
Brian Eno conceptualized Discreet Music when reaching to turn up a radio that was too quiet while he was laying in a cold hospital bed. Try as he might, Eno couldn’t reach the radio. He was forced to listen to the faint buzzing it created for hours. Your average joe would probably just call a nurse over to turn the radio off. But Brian Eno used it as a basis to completely change his view on music.
According to the man himself, the buzzing forced Eno to consider ambience to be music, creating what could be called the very first case of ambient music. On the surface, Discreet Music sounds like a series of soft, generic noises. But its textures, production, and depth would form the foundation of a whole new genre, influencing countless producers and musicians. Discreet Music became a landmark experimental album. Without it, we may never have had Berlin-era David Bowie, nor U2’s electronica work, or much of the discography of the Talking Heads. Most people have heard of Brian Eno, but Discreet Music remains his hidden gem, one of his most important and underappreciated records to date. Sometimes the quietest noises echo the loudest.
It’s a darn shame, but Rakim’s name might be more known today for the shout-out that Eminem gives him in “Rap God”. In the 80s, hip-hop was beginning to finally emerge as a popular genre, thanks to successful releases from artists like Public Enemy and Grandmaster Flash. But in terms of its intricacy, rap was still in its infancy. Beats were still fairly simple, sampling and sequencing was still fairly new, and rappers were still just beginning to push the boundaries of what subject matter they could spit about on the mic. With that metaphor in mind, it could be said that Eric B and Rakim pretty much single handedly forced rap through puberty with a single record.
Rakim’s skills on a mic, to this day, could be called unparalleled. His use of internal, free-flowing rhyme gave his lyrics an almost melodic quality of their own and earned him comparison to jazz artists, of all people. His flow was mimicked by thousands of up and coming rappers throughout the 90s, and even to this day. Everyone from The Notorious B.I.G to Jay Z to Nas to Eminem has cited him as an influence. Rakim is your favourite rapper’s favourite rapper. And he was only half of the group. Eric B’s sampling utilized traditional soul and funk records, techniques that would set the template for producers from Dr. Dre all the way to Kanye West. With Paid in Full, the New York duo essentially laid down the blueprint for what rap was to become in the next decade.
Redman’s strongest hidden weapon has always been his personality. The carefree New York emcee can be serious, funny, murderous, and everything in between on a single track. Maybe that’s what has made his acting career so successful. But Redman’s personality has certainly served him best on Whut? Thee Album, his magnum opus.
Blending the gangster persona established by N.W.A with a production and style similar to Wu-Tang Clan or Nas, Redman set a new precedent for how ambitious rap could be. Whut? is lyrically complex, beautifully produced, often humourous, and most importantly, extremely danceable. Whut? was a record that could be played equally on hip-hop stations in the Bronx and in a Manhattan nightclub. It expanded hip-hop’s popularity and reach beyond its traditional confines, influencing a new generation of rappers including a young Eminem, who would later call Redman the greatest emcee of all time. Rather than a sheer rhymefest, Whut? is a fun, groovy, and often almost humorous combination of storytelling, skill, and flow.
Out of all the albums on this list, Pinkerton may be the most popular. But it wasn’t always so. When Pinkerton first drops, critics tore it apart. Rolling Stone gave it a pitiful 2/5, and practically every other critic followed suit. Even Rivers Cuomo said he hated the record, calling it “embarrassing” and likening it to vomiting publicly at a party. Pinkerton might have been the most hated record of the year.
However, as time passed, the world began to turn a new leaf on Pinkerton. Blending the power-pop of the Blue Album with melancholy angst and rants about hot Japanese girls in his college classes, Pinkerton could have been called the first popular “emo” record. As the emo scene gradually caught on, songs like “El Scorcho” and “Pink Triangle” went from being loathed to becoming some of the most popular tracks in Weezer’s discography. The album saw a resurgence in sales, Cuomo stopped dissing it, and critics- ahem – “revised” their original reviews. Pinkerton inspired a whole generation of post-grunge rockers to let their feelings show in a record, paving the way not just for emo, but for the massive alt rock wave of the late 90s and early 2000s.
Trap music is one of the fastest growing genres in music. Once confined to urban areas of Atlanta and Chicago, this violent, bass-heavy, rhythmic, and dirty brand of hip-hop has never been more popular. Hell, even Katy Perry is beginning to experiment with it. If genres were stocks, trap is that crazy one-in-a-million stock that goes from 2 cents to 20 dollars within a week.
But in the early 2000s, no one outside of Atlanta had any clue what trap music even was- until T.I came along. Trap Muzik isn’t the first proper trap album; that distinction would go to UGK, Gucci Mane, or maybe Three Six Mafia. But it was the first “trap” album to actually break deep into mainstream rap. T.I, at least for a few years, would be one of the most popular rappers in the world, and his breakthrough would unknowingly pave the way for a new wave of trap. Artists like King L, Chief Keef, and Lil Durk are all the rage now, but it’s doubtful any of them would really be around without Trap Muzik.