It saddens me when someone only buys single songs these days, just the way it saddened me back in the days before mp3’s when people would only buy compilations, or spend money on a whole album but only listen to the one radio hit. There’s so much more good music out there than what you’re spoon-fed by the powers that be, and often that better music is the better song on the very album with that famous hit.
Here is a list I compiled of some examples of this, based out of a few simple rules:
1. The artist has to be very well-known.
2. The album has to be at least fairly well-known
3. The album needs to have at least one track that was a major, and even defining, hit for the artist.
4. The “hidden classic” in question could not have been released as a radio single; any popularity or attention it may have received could have only come from avenues other than those intended to bring the artist recognition (inclusion on a “Best Of” is acceptable, however; it wouldn’t make sense otherwise).
5. I, personally, have to have discovered the song by listening to the album on my own–not by one of those other avenues I mentioned.
by Joe Satriani, from The Extremist (1992)
Let’s start with this one because it’s possibly the weakest on my list. Joe has never really had top-of-the-world success, but he’s extremely successful anyway, and very highly celebrated by those who know what they’re talking about when it comes to rock guitar. The Extremist was a turning point in Joe’s career, where he broke away just this much from the pure 80’s hair metal style he’d relied on for his three previous albums. The song for which he is most known by anyone who’s NOT a hardcore Joe fan is on this album: “Summer Song.” I’ve recently become more open to it (because watching him play it will BLOW YOUR MIND), but I couldn’t stand it for years. There’s such better stuff on this album than that; it always baffled me that he chose that one as THE single. I’ll maintain to my dying day that this song, “Why,” is the best on The Extremist. It’s so powerful but still soothing. The dual guitar melody makes it almost mystical, while the jumpy, wah rhythm carries it in an air different than a guitar rock song usually has.
“SUMMER, HIGHLAND FALLS”
by Billy Joel, from Turnstiles (1976)
Turnstiles is the album Billy Joel released after moving back to New York from Los Angeles in the mid 1970’s. A year or two later, he’d release his most celebrated album, The Stranger. While I think that The Stranger is the better album over all, Turnstiles has Joel’s truest hidden classic. The best-known song from this album is “New York State of Mind,” which wasn’t a chart-topper in its day (which kind of breaks one rule), but it was the single, and it is one for which he is very well known. However, I think his best song EVER has to be “Summer, Highland Falls.” It has a slow feel, despite being carried by the speedy arpeggio on the piano. I’m certainly not in line with the lyrics, but the melody is perfect and Billy’s voice is the cleanest and purest I’ve heard in any of his work (and I’ve heard a lot). It’s hands-down my favorite song by him, and it’s not one you’d know if you didn’t look into his repertoire beyond “Piano Man” or “She’s Always a Woman.”
by Blink 182, from Enema of the State (1999)
As much as I try to despise everything about Blink 182 after they gave Scott Raynor the shaft and sold their souls to Seventeen magazine, I have to admit that Enema of the State is an unquestionably solid album. I absolutely LOVED “All the Small Things” prior to its release as a single because it did everything right to follow a moving ballad like “Adam’s Song.” Yet since my first listen, the closing track “Anthem” has always been my favorite on Enema (“Carousel” will always be their absolute best song, though). I’m not even really sure what it is about the song that makes it stand out to me; it’s really just a perfect pop-punk song, as pop-punk is meant to be: the drums are fast, the guitars are simple, the vocals are melodious and filled with great harmonies . . . it’s overflowing with everything that made me love the genre in the first place.
“ONLY IN DREAMS”
by Weezer, from Weezer (the blue album) (1994)
I doubt there will be a time in my life where The Blue Album is forgotten. I rank it among the greatest rock albums of all time. Of course, the songs people remember the most from this one are “Say It Ain’t So,” “The Sweater Song,” and “Buddy Holly.” However, I say that “Only In Dreams” is not only the best song on this album, but that it is still the best Weezer song, and among the best album closers ever. The first half of the song is a powerful but smooth rock ballad about missing out on a chance with a girl of interest (a great topic for a 15-year-old to identify with, let me tell you), then the instruments pull back to a soft arpeggio and wonderfully controlled feedback, then they all start to build slowly with the two guitars dueling with octaves in the higher registers until the rock can’t be held back no more! and the drums bring everything back into full force to close out the 8-minute epic. The best touch is how the instruments all leave in the reverse order in which they came in. It’s all so emotional; truly one of the best songs ever. I remember I heard a Weezer tribute album many years ago where some band covered this song and I was like, “AWESOME!” . . . but they left out the entire second half. How can you do that and think you’ve done it justice? The second half IS the song.
“THE ONLY LIVING BOY IN NEW YORK”
by Simon & Garfunkel, from Bridge Over Troubled Water (1970)
From where I sit, it seems the two songs that duke it out constantly over which one defines Simon & Garfunkel the most are “The Sound of Silence” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” the latter being on the album of the same name, which I think is as much their greatest work as it is their swan song. But I’ll leave that debate to all of you, because to me the song that defines these two masters is “The Only Living Boy in New York.” I was raised on the album Bridge Over Troubled Water, yet rejected it during the earlier part of my rebellious years because anything recorded before 1993 that wasn’t punk or ska was worthless. However, by mid-high school I came back to it because I loved good vocal harmonies, and honestly, who can do harmonies like Paul and Art? (Hint: NO ONE). As I let myself fall in love with the album as someone a little older, I discovered this song, which I’d not paid much mind as a kid. Every time I’d listen through the album, I couldn’t get over how good that one song was. It was (is) magical in its simplicity. The 12-string guitar rings beautifully over the intricate-but-not-dominating bass line, and the melody is truly unmatched, which is only enhanced by Garfunkel’s amazing backup singing. This was then and is now my favorite song, period. It’s received some more recognition in recent years, mostly because of its excellent use in the movie Garden State, which, if you don’t remember already, had a pretty celebrated soundtrack, but it’s one I can hold close because I found it on my own.
I went through all of my music for this post and these are the five songs I ended up with. If you’re reading this, tell me some of the ones you know of in the comments–but don’t forget the rules! This is a conversation I’d really like to keep going, especially since we’re in a day and age where the album is something of a dying art form and any songs you can find anymore are arguably “singles,” or are throw-aways to justify charging more for a release.