by Jeff Fiedler
Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.
You see it happen all the time: pop star finally breaks through on the radio in a big way; pop star releases follow-up album that gets ignored entirely by the very stations that used to play them but is too tailor-made for mainstream radio to be embraced at indie stations; pop star quietly soldiers on to ever-shrinking album sales while simultaneously putting out some of their finest work. This week, we look at just three artists who emerged out of the late ‘90s who would ultimately explode in a big way yet strangely fade from Top 40 radio in spite of following their commercial breakthroughs with albums that were arguably even superior.
The Austin-bred band Fastball is a perfect example. Led by dual lead vocalists Tony Scalzo and Miles Zuniga, the band broke open in a big way in 1998 with the album All the Pain Money Can Buy, which yielded two ubiquitous radio hits (both sung by Scalzo) in the haunting rockabilly-tinged story-song “The Way” and the piano pop of “Out of My Head.” The album wasn’t entirely devoid of other strong cuts – Zuniga’s “Fire Escape” was awfully catchy in its own right – but the singles by and large towered in quality over the surrounding material. The hooks substantially increased in number on the follow-up disc, The Harsh Light of Day, but radio didn’t take much notice. Part of this may simply be owing to the fact that the album’s lead-off single, “You’re an Ocean,” didn’t exactly cater to the trends of the time; it’s a true throwback to the melodic AM pop of the early ‘70s, even memorably sporting some lively, old-fashioned barrelhouse-styled piano playing from ‘70s pop/R&B star (and unofficial fifth Beatle) Billy Preston (“Will It Go Round in Circles,” “Nothing from Nothing”). Just like “The Way” before it, the song was essentially nothing but hooks from beginning to end and took all of one listen to get lodged inside your brain, but the song’s retro vibe scared off radio programmers who expected something more modern-rock-oriented, and the single sadly died a quick death.
Harsh Light is actually much stronger from start to finish than its predecessor, though, and Zuniga gets in just as many good tunes as Scalzo this time as well. The disc gets off to a lively and clever start with Zuniga’s continually-momentum-building “This Is Not My Life.” Scalzo has a hard time topping the brilliance of “You’re an Ocean,” but his up-tempo rocker “Morning Star” is quite fun, as are the incredibly melodic scale exercises of “Wind Me Up” and the Brian Setzer-featuring “Love Is Expensive and Free.”
Zuniga offers up the album’s best ballad, the lovely jangle-pop of “Dark Street.” The album’s deluxe edition also sports a fun, acoustic live version of “The Way” and a deliriously catchy studio outtake in the unusual but brilliant “Love Doesn’t Kill You.” (Its lyrics are a little bit rough, but the melody is incredible and you can even dance to the song.)
Switchfoot had already released three albums to great response within the Christian music market before finally scoring a major crossover success with 2003’s double-platinum The Beautiful Letdown and its Top 20 hits, the arena anthems “Dare You to Move” and “Meant to Live.” While they’d continue to churn out modern-rock hits for many years to come, the 2005 follow-up album Nothing Is Sound – along with every album that followed it – would strangely go largely ignored by regular Top 40 stations. Granted, the lead-off single from Nothing Is Sound, the power-pop of “Stars,” was slightly jarring at first, its intro a staggered blast of metallic guitar riffing, but if you could just get past the opening seconds, you’d find a very catchy and irresistible song awaiting you. Alas, the single only got enough radio support to make it to #68, the band’s final Hot 100 hit to date, sadly enough.
Even if radio programmers didn’t quite take to “Stars,” it’s really strange in hindsight – particularly given the popularity of the band’s previous album – that stations didn’t bother to simply find something else on Nothing Is Sound to play instead, because the disc is arguably even more loaded with memorable melodies than its predecessor. For rock enthusiasts, there’s the hard-hitting anthem “Lonely Nation” and the sociopolitical commentary of “Easier Than Love,” which tackles the commercialization of sex and its consequent impact on the culture. “Golden” and “The Setting Sun” are both well-crafted breezy pop, while the surprisingly catchy “The Blues” is a fine piano ballad with the killer lyrical hook “It’ll be a day like this one when the world caves in.”
Perhaps the best and catchiest song of all on the package is the emotionally-charged power ballad “Happy Is a Yuppie Word,” the bridge of which culminates with frontman Jon Foreman repeatedly screaming the album title to incredibly powerful effect. In spite of the fact that the band had already shot a music video for it, it was strangely passed over for release as a single, the label ultimately – and unwisely – picking “We Are One Tonight” to be the only other official single from the album besides “Stars.”
Duncan Sheik, in contrast, seemed to recoil somewhat at first upon making a splash at Top 40 radio. While his self-titled 1996 debut yielded a monster hit the following year in the acoustic rocker “Barely Breathing,” the follow-up album, 1999’s Humming, largely consisted of lushly-symphonic art-pop that was well-crafted but not exactly very commercial stuff, either. It had a hard-rocking single in “Bite Your Tongue,” but that song both lacked the strong hooks of “Barely Breathing” and felt a little out of place on what was otherwise a fairly subdued album. After the poor sales of the album, Sheik seized the moment to release his most experimental outing yet, the acoustic, Nick Drake-like Phantom Moon, which deservedly drew high praise from music critics everywhere but just as understandably sold poorly, missing the Top 200 entirely.
Sheik finally returned to more traditional, commercial pop-rock territory on his fourth outing, 2003’s Daylight, but radio had long stopped paying attention at this point and critics were too disappointed by the commercial production and songcraft of the album to give it much praise. It’s arguably a better mainstream pop album than his debut, though, boasting the catchiest pop single Sheik ever wrote in the effervescent blast of “On a High” – easily one of the greatest pop songs of the last decade released by a major label to not reach the Hot 100 – and a terrific set of surrounding album cuts, highlighted by the alternately wistful and hard-rocking “Genius,” the lovely ballad “Half-Life,” the unsettling “Magazines,” and the breezy acoustic pop of “On Her Mind.”
Never before had Sheik put so many catchy melodies – or so much electric guitar, for that matter – onto a single disc, and consequently, while the album might not quite eclipse Phantom Moon for the title of Sheik’s best album, it’s still the most fun of all his albums, a very jubilant and occasionally surprisingly energetic album from a musician who’d previously always taken himself just a tad too seriously. It’s a safe bet that had Sheik only written and recorded this album four years earlier, radio would have been much more open to embracing “On a High” and we might not still be referring to Sheik as a one-hit wonder.