Indie

Ask A Music Critic: Who Is The Most Underrated Band Of All Time?

Welcome to another installment of Ask A Music Critic! And thanks to everyone who has sent me questions. Please keep them coming at steve.hyden@uproxx.com.

For some reason I decided to visit The Pretenders catalog this week and it got me thinking: Are the Pretenders the most underrated band of all time? Consider: They never charted very high and no one I’ve even spoken to waxes poetic on The Pretenders. Who in your opinion is the most underrated band of all time? – Mike from Boston

Hey Mike, good to hear from you. Before I can answer this question, we need to hit upon a workable definition of “underrated” in this context.

Let’s begin with The Pretenders. Good band! Chrissie Hynde is a fine songwriter and a fabulous singer. Based on how you’re apparently defining “underrated,” I could see that term applying to them. For instance, I can’t say I’ve ever met anyone who waxed poetic about them. (Until I met Mike from Boston, at any rate.)

But let’s pull back a bit for a slightly longer view of The Pretenders. They are in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame. They have a handful of songs — like “Brass In Pocket” and “Back On The Chain Gang” — that still get played regularly on classic rock radio. On Spotify, they have one song at more than 100 million streams (“I’ll Stand By You”), one song that’s almost at 100 million streams (“Brass In Pocket”), and a few others hovering around the 50-million mark. (Weirdly, my personal favorite Pretenders track, “Middle Of The Road,” only has about nine million streams. Get that tune on a hyperpop playlist so we can jack up those numbers!)

It’s true that The Pretenders aren’t the most hyped classic-rock band, but they are far from being the most overlooked. For starters, consider all of the acts who aren’t yet in the Rock Hall. Sonic Youth isn’t in there. Thin Lizzy isn’t in there. There are a million other examples. Add in all the worthy artists who have never even been played on the radio, therefore depriving them of the widespread cultural exposure that would make it more likely that subsequent generations would seek out their music on streaming platforms.

The fact is that outside of the relatively few number of huge names that everybody knows from music’s present and past, nearly every good to great artist is underrated, if being “underrated” means that their artistry should warrant more commercial and critical acclaim than they currently have. Some acts have become so known for being underrated that they can’t really be considered underrated. (The Kinks, Tom Petty, and Spoon come immediately to mind.) In reality, the majority of underrated artists are simply forgotten by 99.9999 percent of the public, save for the .0001 percent of fans who loudly insist that those acts are underrated.

So, for this conversation, let’s try to be more discerning with “underrated.” First, because you set the terms with your question, let’s confine it just to bands, rather than artists generally. Next, let’s add some qualifiers to the usual standard of “not enough people like or talk about this band.” I think a truly underrated band should be genuinely significant in the history of modern music, and also genuinely forgotten in terms of the critical conversation as well as their contemporary commercial profile. The band that sits at this nexus of “importance” and “unsung” is the most worthy choice for most underrated.

Therefore, I am picking Los Lobos.

Los Lobos is not in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame. (They were nominated once, in 2015.) Their only song to achieve mass exposure was a cover of Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba,” from the soundtrack to the 1987 film of the same name. Their most-streamed song, by far, is also “La Bamba,” which sits at about 80 million streams.

Otherwise, you don’t hear much about Los Lobos. This is a travesty! Personally, I didn’t become a fan until I read an interview with Dean Ween in the late ’90s in which he enthused about their live show. Before that, I only knew the “La Bamba” cover. But Los Lobos, indeed, is an excellent live band, which you can hear for yourself right here. They have also made many fantastic records. (I recommend starting with 1992’s Kiko, which did the “deconstruct roots music and reassemble it into unexpected shapes” thing a decade before Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.)

Whatever Los Lobos does, they do exceedingly well. And given our nation’s ever-changing demographics, a band that melds bedrock American music forms with traditional influences from Latin America seems even more forward-thinking now than when they first started putting out records in the early ’80s. You can listen to this band and hear how our nation has evolved over the course of the past 40 years. You might very well call their music one of the most progressive forms of “Americana” music that there is. That’s what makes them important. That most people still only know them for “La Bamba” makes them unsung. The gap between what makes them important and what they’re actually known for is wider than it is for any other band I can think of. Put it all together, and you have the most underrated band of all time.

What ’22 post-pandemic tour are you most eager for? — Doug from Silver Spring, MD

How about every tour? I can’t say that I’m all that picky at the moment. It could be 3 Doors Down performing Robin Thicke’s Paula in its entirety and I would be pretty psyched to hear Brad Arnold’s interpretation of “Tippy Toes.”

To my surprise, when I fantasize about my first post-pandemic concert, I don’t imagine shuffling into a tightly packed club or even getting cozy at a local theater. I think I’m most psyched for [Craig Finn voice] the crowds at the really big shows. I want to stand in an arena or a stadium and feel the collective joy of tens of thousands of people enjoying the same song at once. That seems pretty mind-blowing to me right now.

With that in mind, I have an idea for what I think could be the biggest tour of all time. It’s U2 doing a 30th anniversary of Achtung Baby show — one year late — where they re-create the Zoo TV tour. This could be the first tour to gross more than $1 billion. The nostalgia value, added to the overall pizzaz value, would be off the charts.

This is such an obvious idea that I’m sure it’s already actually in the works. I’m just stating it publicly so when it happens I can get credit for calling it. Let’s see what happens!

Recently read your book about Radiohead’s Kid A and it got me thinking a lot about the state of the album in 2021. Now before you roll your eyes and think this is another “is the album over?” question, rest assured I’ve also grown tired of that conversion. I was thinking of how Kid A didn’t necessarily have a stand-out single and how crucial that was at the time. When I grew up, most albums were preceded by one single and then rolled out over the course of six months to a year in order to try to maintain some momentum while also touring. Nowadays, it seems most acts release four to five singles before the album is even out which essentially means that the day the album is released, it’s usually tapped out in terms of the most immediate songs and makes it nearly impossible to stay relevant. How do you see acts continuing to promote albums beyond the typical one-two week period these days, and do you think it’s now pointless to even release new singles/make new videos once the album has been out for more than a few weeks as the discourse will have moved on? — Phil from Brooklyn

Hey Phil, I appreciate you acknowledging the first rule of this column — any email that allows me to plug my own stuff is worthy of a response. (By the way, the paperback edition of This Isn’t Happening: Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’ And The Beginning Of The 21st Century drops June 8. Pre-order now!)

Back to your question: In 20 years, when marketing scholars ponder this very question about how artists promoted new albums in the early 2020s, they are going to focus on one person: Phoebe Bridgers. Yes, she’s a really good songwriter and a winning performer. But nobody has also been a more masterful self-promoter, particularly in the indie realm, than Bridgers.

None of it would matter if Bridgers’ 2020 LP, Punisher, didn’t happen to be one of that year’s best records. But Bridgers helped to keep that album in the public’s consciousness by regularly – by which I mean at least weekly — doing something in social media that caught people’s attention. Whether it was an interesting cover or a visually compelling late-night performance or a skirmish with a rock icon, Bridgers was always creative and surprising. People paid attention to her (and her music) because no matter what, what she did she was entertaining.

So, I wonder if that is an example that more people will follow. Simply putting another song on streaming platforms or releasing a video, purely from a promotional standpoint, doesn’t seem like it’s creative or surprising enough to sustain an ongoing conversation. Of course, I would also like to believe that simply writing terrific songs ought to be enough to captivate the public, but that’s another conversation.

Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.

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