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“Dolby’s Top 25 Musical Acts to Never Have a Hit Single”

* “The world is collapsing around our ears

I turned up the radio
I can’t hear it”
– R.E.M.

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I HATE when music conversations turn to the mainstream. But my first encounter with “indie rock,” in the ’90’s, was with Sleater-Kinney, whom I hated at the time: their music sounded like women giving childbirth.
The ’90’s were a pretty good time in artistic quality of pop chart material, or so I as a cognitive denizen of that time proffer: I was a regular listener of Sarah McClachlan and Hootie & the Blowfish, finding them both musically germane and emotionally vulnerable in their own way. With this being the case, and with “quirky” bands like Supergrass and Soul Asylum from this decade having been sunned with fame as well as accolades, this decade is represented somewhat sparsely on this list, though not absently. There was always the abrasive surveyor of the cosmos’ outer reaches to expand our concepts of what the song and the album can do.
Elsewhere, since the invention of rock and roll, and up through rap, it seems that money has always played a role to an extent in the creation, as well as the distribution, so here’s an ode to all the creative minds out there who managed to get by on an essentially culture-free diet, if culture is simply the ubiquitous “norm,” the pressure that without this music might make you more inclined to try to fit in.

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Notable cusp acts that have “sort of” had a hit single:

Common
The Shins
Sonic Youth
The Vengaboys
Frank Zappa
More Vengaboys

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Top 25:

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25 Autechre

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Maybe it’s UNIMAGINATIVE that we’ve never had an “I.D.M.” (intelligent dance music) hit single in America, I dunno. Radiohead’s turn toward electronica was generally met with backlash in my inner circle at the time, but then, I wasn’t in a city, per se, and the main lyrical theme Radiohead would wield on Amnesiac is explicated right there in the first track, “Packt Like Sardines in a Tin Box,” and on Kid A’s “The National Anthem”: “Everyone is so near / Everyone has got fear / Holdin’ on.” Living in a populated area has its splendors and its complications, and I dunno, I personally feel a certain itch scratched by all the “scratches” of an artist like Squarepusher, or Autechre whose “io” could just as aptly be titled “A.I.”

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24 Puscifer

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Nobody knows band integrity like Maynard James Keenan. After 2006‘s 10,000 Days completed Tool’s album trifecta of epic vituperation, and A Perfect Circle treaded water in the meantime with all of the melodrama but none of the power, Puscifer is like the satyr blues-rock regurgitation of the whole thing, though just as scary in a way, simply for its palpable ability to create a mood and hold the listener rapt and cognitively motionless. Oh yeah, and all the songs and albums are about genitalia. More on that, and Steve Albini, later, like when I don’t have a handful of “normal” people to describe promptly.

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23 Flipper

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When the messages in your mind are too disturbing to come to grips with, you have to conceal them. But when you’re just born a small fry, a hard rocker in the land of flowers-in-your-hair poster children, the skateboard has yet to be invented and you’re elbow-to-elbow with yuppies and pi**-stained homeless people, you might as well let it all out, because you know you’ll never be heard anyway. Anyway, it’s hard to imagine a band being more anthemic than Flipper was, with a brutal and uncompromising sound that would go on to influence the Melvins (another one of Kurt Cobain’s referent godheads), and direct relations of a reality too sordid to even document… almost.

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22 The Highest Low

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I know this group’s never had a hit without even looking on wikipedia, because nobody’s ever heard of them. They might be the best act in hip-hop in Chicago all time, though. Granted, Chicago as of right now is known better for white people skipping school and hosting public access shows than it is for producing viable ghetto slang, so this just means that what these guys do couldn’t have come soon enough. The beats on songs like “Boom Bap” are geographically true, too, just as influenced by the great open plains, and out west’s “Nothin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” with its sneering synth, as the textural dissolution of the motor city.

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21 Emeralds

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Emeralds are an ambient instrumental group from Cleveland, so it’s obvious that they have no “singles” (unless it’s possible to replicate “Frankenstein” on the computer)… listen though, their textures invite, caress and soothe, albeit as inappropriate as it would sound at “MTV Beach Party.”

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20 The Roots

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On my hip-hop blog, I keep stressing the importance of albums, and the meaninglessness of just offering one “song” as an attempted swatch of an artist’s thing. The Roots over the years have been pretty much the kings of this issue, creating their music organically with a drummer and a full band, offering an emcee who brilliantly straddles the zeitgeists of world consciousness and thug life, and most importantly actually unearthing the disturbing trend of disposable SINGLES-mindedness by way of Thing’s Fall apart’s introductory track, in which the guy talking in their sound byte makes a great point: “Hip-hop albums are not maximized as product, let alone as art.” Unfortunately, The Roots’ stock has fallen in recent years by Questlove’s obsession with getting a good rating on pitchfork, and putting out these obnoxiously well organized 40-minute masquerades that you wish would just choose between all-out pop and that feral jamming the likes of which we heard on Phrenology’s “Water.”

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19 Talib Kweli

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When I think of what the benchmarks are that make Kweli, it’s FLOW. Nobody has a better one, in the history of rapping. The ’00’s decade will forever be defined for me by his bionic lung capacity, which I used to hear at work all the time in ’05 in the form of The Beautiful Struggle: “I got a 9 in my mind you can’t metal de-TECT!”; “Hate the topic but the closest people get to patriotic / Is red bull white vodka mixed with the straight hypnotic.” And if you’re not “hypnotized” by these words, I suggest something stronger than alcohol, maybe from your local psychiatrist.

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18 Big Star

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Ah, Big Star, the obvious selection for this list, progenitors of the cementing stanza “I can’t get a license / To drive in my car / But I don’t really need it / If I’m a big star,” furnishers of the precocious, critically acclaimed debut album #1 Record, home to exactly zero hit singles. They’re a lot like The Velvet Underground, in that it would basically take three decades for people to fully appreciate them, and you can find nary a prominent indie musician since not influenced by them, but really, they didn’t need VU: their influences go back to Buddy Holly and Pete Townshend, and back-against-the-wall mantras like “I’ll fall if I don’t fight / At my side is God / And there ain’t no one gonna turn me ‘round” remind you that they’re too penetrating to be posturing, anyway.

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17 Broadcast

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Pitchfork darling Broadcast were preeminent, pioneering rock of the ’00’s: wielding every bit the power of industrial on songs like “Pendulum,” but the grace and melodic moxie of “Stereolab” there and elsewhere too, all across 2003’s defining classic Haha Sound and on through the more rock-oriented, but spare and disciplined Tender Buttons from 2005. And looking at their wikipedia photo you see they’re hilariously tailored for this very list: it’s a guy at a little itty-bitty, barely visible keyboard or computer-type thing, and then one vaguely goth-looking girl standing at a mic and singing. But look more closely: they cast giant shadows, on the wall.

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16 At the Drive-in

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Things that pi** people off usually have some zen perfection to them: such is the entity of At the Drive-in, forever exalted punks who retired before their time, having toured with Jimmy Eat World, browbeaten by many as pretty-boy emo scum! But listen to them contemporary with this tour, 1998: they basically WERE At the Drive-in, a sort of hardcore rip-off hybrid of them, the ironic thing of course being that it strikes the listener as ballsier, and Jimmy Eat World actually became a better band, when they cleaned their production up for 2001’s Bleed American (now just self-titled) and embraced melody. Anyway, like a punk Radiohead, ATDI captured that “climbing up the walls” feelingly loudly better than anyone else.

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15 Mudhoney

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Mudhoney were cursed. People tend to call Nirvana the “punk” side of the grunge movement, but Mudhoney’s best song is probably “No One Has”: “Been so close to no way out / I don’t lock the door no mooooore / Yyyyyayahhhh!”… the song plugging away by Dan Peters’ anthropomorphic backbeat stalk, the sound scape entirely self-content, with barely any melody but plenty of purpose. Way more influenced by Iggy & The Stooges than The Beatles (and probably causing some mocking mimicry in Peter Bagge’s bevy of Ig-worshiping rock cro-magnons of contemporary Seattle), scoffing at glam and glamour in the process, Mudhoney were the very walking, working rubric of the continuing underground, the one grunge band never to hit it big, but always critically acclaimed, not to mention self-acclaimed, as in Steve Turner’s riveting revelation in the movie “Hype!”: “My mother has always told me that I’m not a loser, no clearly I’m not a loser.”

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14 Slint

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Some towns oft-dubbed sort of culturally maligned, like say Louisville or Pittsburgh, tend to really know themselves well, dot all their “i”’s and cross all their “t”’s, and produce one really great hard-rocking band (Slint/Don Caballero) and one really great melodic band (My Morning Jacket/Aloha). Slint come from the (relative) middle of nowhere not only geographically, but chronologically too: they emerge around the ’80’s/’90’s cusp, when hard rock was dominated by drugs, tight pants and womanizing, and to top it off, from what I remember they’re not even mentioned as an influence anywhere in the 600-page Nirvana biography. Hell, even Killdozer surfaces in that dictionary-likening scroll. And you look for the bands in the ’90’s in the indie realm that Slint influenced: they’re just not there either, with the possible exception of the latter of the Jesus Lizard one-two punch, to follow Spiderland, Liar. Brainiac, though hailing from nearby Dayton, had more the expedited punch of Nirvana than the languorous metal indulgence of the Kentucky quartet, as did The Dismemberment Plan. You know who was influenced by Slint? Tool. A mainstream but album oriented metal band, accessible to hippies, but indie-influenced.. unfortunately their songs are about pertly awaiting the apocalypse. What a tangled web we… yeah, you know the rest.

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13 Deerhunter

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But I’d like to take this opportunity to comment on how cruel it is to hunt deer. This rowdy gang of Atlanta street toughs “Deerhunter” has really got their values askew. These poor, gentle antlered creatures are roaming our forests daily, subsisting on what little roughage they can, sheltering from inclement weather regularly, often unsure of where they’ll find their next meal, only to now incur the added horror of band name degradation. I mean, who’s gonna hunt all these musicians? It’s just like Frank Zappa said (“Bobby Brown,” though definitely not in the U.S.), these musicians used to be nice boys, they used to cut grass, and now they’re doing all these naughty, raunchy things to us, irreversibly altering our psyches! Irreversibly altering our psyches! Oh, whew, I’m still the same. (Just giving you sh**, people.)

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12 Earl Sweatshirt

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And for Kendrick Lamar’s omission from this list, it’s not to say that he isn’t album-oriented, but unlike Thebe Neruda Tgositsile (Earl Sweatshirt), he is not his own producer, so it takes away a little bit from his “underground” status. I mean, you pretty much have to “go outside,” and be gregarious, to work with as many different beatmakers as Lamar does, from Pharrell to Dre to Just Blaze and so on. So props to Earl for still making the whole thing sound like a “journey” through a city, yeah, I guess, a mad city.

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11 Beirut

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New Mexico bands just can’t buy a break in the hit singles department, just ask The Shins, whose “Phantom Limb” from the otherwise sophomore slump-resembling Wincing the Night away (I realize it’s their third album, but it does immediately follow their cultural breakthrough) should have pulled a “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” and soundtracked every cheesy Hollywood going-away party or awards show of the year. Zach Condon and company hail from Santa Fe, and like their Arizona neighbors Jimmy Eat World just have an infectious sense of sugary melody and climactic phase change in pop songs. 2008’s The Flying Club Cup and 2011’s The Rip Tide set the bar, and each probably COULD have spawned a hit single if America weren’t the most bizarre place in the history of mankind.

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10 Model/Actress

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This is obviously the dark horse of this list: as far as I know all this band has out is one EP, but I’m just a sucker for this sort of nervous, abrasive pop/rock, like math rock without the math, just a “mean disposition” in search of a little melodic shelter. At the Drive-in is an influence, lonely, cloudy-day walks are an influ-enced.

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9 Black Milk

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What makes hip-hop GOOD? Well, if it’s completely the sh** in every way imaginable, that certainly doesn’t hurt. Black Milk is from Detroit, from “On 7 Mile where the bullets won’t miss,” from where it’s “Liquor store liquor store / Church church liquor store / Gas station Coney Island that’s where all the ni**az go.” He makes all his own beats, has guest appearances regularly from the likes of Danny Brown, Black Thought and Pharoahe Monch, each of whom he’s capable of making look pedestrian, and he’s album-minded, with a gift for sequencing and topical variety. But STILL, on top of all this, I still say, it’s the little things. It’s the schematics in “Deion’s House,” from No Poison No Paradise, which like EVERY Black Milk album, I discarded as weak at first. Milk strays from pretty much every type of typicalness here, juxtaposing “Don’s house” with not “Deion’s house” but “Deion house,” more in the black English parlance, and also not in a conventional two/four pattern, but chiming in in the third bar with the latter… oh hell I sound like a doofus trying to explain this stuff. Just listen.

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8 Fleet Foxes

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Part of what distinguishes viable “indie pop” from disposable “radio pop” is the ability of the music to function as a consummate vacuum of sorts — drawing the listener in and propping his or her mind state upon something sturdy and resolute. The Fleet Foxes did this palpably, and with a means most unlikely, Americana, emitting a soft ray of confusion over the allegorical banjo plucks in “Sun it Rises,” so that the infernal cultural message came from the biggest underdog of all. “He Doesn’t Know Why” from this album is vast and expansive, universally enjoyable American music as mournful and it is melodic and memorable.

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7 Deltron

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Aside from singlehandedly comprising more quality music of Gorillaz than they mustered their entire span without him, Del’s voice just had that biting, preternatural quality that was perfect for this doomsday diagramming. It was definitely a thankless job: making current day turn-of-the-century California bearable by summoning a time which would be even worse: the year 3030, overpopulation only run more rampant, a “post-apocalyptic world morbid and horrid” matched with the individual mind’s voracious ambition to be a hip-hop emcee and diagram it, rhythmic art foiling the widespread calamity of people with no selves, of propagation without progress, of certainty’s serration, longing for a sanctuary.

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6 Blind Faith

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Eric Clapton just couldn’t catch a break in the hit singles department, that is until “Layla.” Cream had just incurred an untimely culmination, and the restless Steve Winwood would similarly orphan him after just one year of existence, and one album, the self-titled offering of a scant six songs. Just look at any picture of Steve Winwood, you just wanna throw cake in his face. Anyway, the electric version of “Can’t Find My Way Home” doesn’t so much eclipse the 1969 album version as it does beat the pants off of it, so it’s ceremonious that it at least surfaces on the overall listenable Finer Things Steve Winwood box set. It’s stretched out to five and a half minutes, and doesn’t waste a bleedin’ second.

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5 The New Pornographers

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In 2001, when The New Pornographers came around, it was a strange time in American pop music, which would pretty much only get stranger as the decade progressed and patterned into the following one. Bizarrely, the garage rock revival of The Strokes, The White Stripes, The Hives and The Vines was altogether ignored by our Clear Channel outlets here in my hometown, leaving the aristocrat frequencies to sink their teeth into “bootylicious” booties, and obnoxiously virtuous military tough guys, respectively. Uh, room for The New Pornographers? Yeah, didn’t think so, not even on Chicago’s WXRT, probably, which is a head-scratcher, because their pop is a bubble-gum and accessible one every bit summoning of the Beatles and The Mamas and The Papas, maybe failing to congeal into an easily cornered, self-immolating cultural statement like “I’m in love with Stacey’s mom,” et. al.

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4 Yo La Tengo

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Listening to Ride the Tiger, Yo La Tengo’s very first full length studio album from 1986 in which they still have Mike Lewis on bass (who would presumably spawn the excellent song “Lewis” on the band’s sophomore album New Wave Hot Dogs), you get a funny trajectory of their stylistic influence: radio classic rock. Think Foreigner, think Rick Springfield, etc. Remember, this is before the rise of the Pixies and Sonic Youth, and way before grunge, but it does follow R.E.M., who had mastered being subtle — hell, just being HUMAN, being able to tranquilly marvel before things like the “Flowers of Guatemala,” or just having a nice time walking all night with some drugged up band mates, “Smarter than nobody.” Their contentedness, like R.E.M.’s, was revolutionary. Other than that, you know, it was nothing too new. Just Yo La Tengo, writers of some of the most beautiful songs of our time.

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3 Miles Davis

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For some reason, the first time I borrowed and burned Kind of Blue from someone, they told me that it was a “greatest hits,” where as now I look it up on wikipedia and see that it is a studio album proper. I’ll admit, this is one of those factoids that I think is somehow significant, and I was hoping to glean some larger, more cosmological truth from this instance, though I actually have no idea WHY it is significant, other than the album played with the sort of gravitational grandiosity worthy of such an extemporaneous beacon. Other favorite albums of mine to follow would be the classic and tense Sketches of Spain, his rendition of the musical Porgy and Bess, and yes even the Lester Bangs-dissed On the Corner, pigeonholed as completist fare for beard-scratchers, but which I’d throw on gladly while washing dishes at my job, on the corner of insanity, stoned-edness, and downright psychic dissolution. So yeah, that’s a corner of three things. Whatever.

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2 The Velvet Underground

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Lou Reed had a hit single after the Velvet Underground. But it took him a while — like, say, half the time it took for Jackson Pollock to drunkenly spill some paint in his apartment. And get this, he had a hit single BEFORE the Velvets too — he was a “Pickwick song doctor,” or some loathsome crap like that, and he’d written a song called “The Ostrich,” dubbed nominally a “commercial composition” by wikipedia. Reed’s job was actually “writing made-to-order pop song (sic) for a cheap recording company called Pickwick international.” [1] But then he put the term “underground” in the band he’d form with British mad sound scientist and eventual bassist John Cale, and I generally put them on whenever I covet an aural experience the approximate opposite enjoyment level of getting a tooth pulled.

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1 Califone

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Califone accept everything, and apologize for nothing. But in this, they’re really no different from a rock (no pun intended). It’s the stuff in between that counts, the way an entity shapes its identity: first impressions, visceral bulwarks, themes and repetitions, undeniable technical chops occluded by urgency and sacrifice — Califone always, even up through 2013’s Stitches, put music before everything, and presented every album, not only as devoid of singles and marketability’s objective, but as completely organic, seemingly born from newly fallen rain and forged patterns on that which is still fleeting.

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[1] http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/essays/1901-/the-velvet-underground-and-andy-warhol/the-velvet-underground-and-andy-warhol-story.php

 

 

 

 

 

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