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Jim's Top 10 Unreleased Rock Albums of All Time

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The following are my favorite rock/pop albums that were completed (or nearly completed) but never released to the public. These recordings would have surely met with great public acceptance, but a number of reasons both within and beyond the artists' control caused them never to materialize. Over half of these albums have been bootlegged to some degree, but a couple of them remain unheard except by the artist and a lucky few. I, myself, have heard four of these albums in their totality, five only partially, and one ("Let's Change the World With Music") not at all.

  1. "SMiLE" (1967) - The Beach Boys:   One might argue that this album doesn't belong on the list any more. After all, Brian Wilson - with crucial help from "musical secretary" Darian Sahanaja and the Wondermints - finished, rerecorded, and officially released "SMiLE" in 2004. But although this belated "teenaged symphony to God" sounds fabulous, to my ears the 1967 version - even with a few unfinished tracks - sounds truly magical. Brian's voice today isn't near what it used to be in 1967, and as wonderfully as the Wondermints replicate the Beach Boys harmonies, their vocals lack the distinctive character of Carl, Dennis, Al, and Mike. Definitely buy the official "SMiLE" album; you'll love it. But once you've heard that, make every effort to find the 1967 version. To hear it is to hear the difference between wonderful and magical.

  2. "Get Back" (1969) - The Beatles:   Everyone has heard the songs that were to make up this "back to nature" album by the Fab Four. Most of them appeared on the Beatles' next to last album, "Let It Be." But that product was not what the Beatles had in mind when they recorded new songs while being filmed at Twickenham Studios in early 1969. The "Get Back" album was planned as an album of straight ahead rock'n'roll without overdubs, and the cover art was even designed to recall their first album, "Please Please Me." However, bickering (their breakup was beginning) and displeasure with the recording/filming process caused the Beatles to abandon the project. When the album was revived as "Let It Be" prior to the Beatles breakup in 1970, producer Phil Spector took the simple, down-home mixes and overly polished them. "Let It Be" wasn't a bad record by any means - but it wasn't "Get Back."

  3. "Sun Across the Altar" (1990) - Rosie Vela:   When Rosie completed this follow-up to her debut album "Zazu," A&M Records had just been bought out by Polydor Records. Inexplicably, Polydor didn't think the album was commercial enough to release, so they tried to get Rosie to rap one of the tunes. When she refused, they came up with another bright idea - recut the songs with a heavy metal producer. Understandably, Rosie again refused and decided to leave Polydor. It's a shame that the public hasn't heard "Sun Across the Altar" because it's an even better, more assured recording than "Zazu." It still sounds very much like Rosie with her jazzy pop melodies and sometimes quizzical lyrics about lost love; however, the arrangements are more Steely Dan influenced and showcase more guitar. Plus, a couple of the songs ("Bajan Sandal Blues" and "Mexico") feature some Carribean-flavored rhythms. (Yes, I've heard this album - Rosie played it for me - but no, I don't have it!)

  4. "The Devil Has All the Best Tunes" (1998) - Prefab Sprout:   In addition to their wonderful albums, the Sprouts have released a number of equally wonderful songs as B-sides or as part of CD singles. Unfortunately, there has been no effort on the part of their record company, Kitchenware, to compile them. So, unless you have some of the early singles (or the bootleg album "Silhouettes"), you may never get to hear such Paddy McAloon gems as "Donna Summer," "The Devil Has All the Best Tunes," and "Walk On."

  5. "Let's Change the World With Music" (1999) - Prefab Sprout:   It's not enough that Prefab Sprout lets its hard-to-find songs languish uncompiled. Over the past decade and a half, their songwriting genius front man Paddy McAloon has produced only two albums (plus a rather discursive solo album) while purporting to have written a number of interesting concept albums. Some of these projects include a Christmas album, an album about the life of Michael Jackson, and an album about the history of the Earth. Paddy has actually recorded one of these albums, "Let's Change the World With Music" - a song cycle about the Gulf War - in detailed demo form. So, when are you going to finish it, Paddy?

  6. "Homegrown" (1975) - Neil Young: While Paddy McAloon may be king of unrealized album concepts, Neil Young is definitely the king when it comes to unreleased albums. Neil probably has more music in the can than any major recording artist in history. His most famous unreleased album, "Homegrown," was recorded in 1975 after the release of "On the Beach." When he invited his friends to listen to the completed album one evening, the "Tonight's the Night" album happened to be on the same reel, so they all listened to that, too. Upon hearing the latter recording again, Neil changed his mind and decided instead to release "Tonight's the Night" (a sort of wake for two friends who died of heroin overdoses) because he felt it was more immediate and powerful. Several of "Homegrown's" songs like "Human Highway" and "Long May You Run" would appear on later albums, but over half of its tracks are still only available on bootlegs of this album.

  7. "Stampede" (1967) - Buffalo Springfield:   This unreleased album by America's greatest-ever folk rock band was cut between the release of their 1966 eponymous debut and their 1967 follow-up. An album cover was even designed for it. However, because of the band's always volatile nature, a breakup almost took place around this time and the album was scrapped. When the members regrouped, they concentrated on making a new album, "Buffalo Springfield Again," which turned out to be their masterpiece. "Stampede" is markedly different from that album. Although it lacks "BSA's" sometimes psychedelic orchestration, it's tougher and more rocking than the debut. Only a few of the songs here would make it to Buffalo Springfield's last two albums. A couple of Neil Young songs like "Down to the Wire" appeared later in different forms, but Steven Stills' excellent "Neighbor Don't Your Worry," "My Kind of Love," and "We'll See" have never been officially released.

  8. "Cold Cuts" (1978) - Paul McCartney:   In the late '70s, Paul McCartney made plans to release a compilation of B-sides and unreleased tracks under this title. Although he would resurrect this project a few times in the following years, the album has failed to materialize. Given McCartney's enormous popularity, it's surprising that his record company hasn't pressured him into releasing it. Many of the tunes planned for this collection, such as the rocking "Cage" and the spritely pop confection "Waterspout," are of the same high quality as the solo songs on Paul's legitimate releases.

  9. "Can't Fight Lightning" (1981) - Ringo Starr:  After releasing three disappointing albums in the late '70s, Ringo decided to get his act together in 1980 and make a more ambitious musical statement. So, he called on his old bandmates John, Paul, and George to lend some tunes and musical support. The resulting album turned out to be Ringo's best in years, but complicated record company hassles kept delaying its release. When the smoke finally cleared, Ringo was signed to Boardwalk Records, and a handful of the songs from "CFL" were assembled, remixed, and released as "Stop & Smell the Roses," an inferior album. Several of "CFL's" unreleased songs were included as bonus tracks on the 1994 CD rerelease of "S&STR," but in different and often edited versions. (As a sad footnote, Lennon's "Nobody Told Me" and Harrison's "All Those Years Ago" were both originally intended for "CFL" before Lennon's murder.)

  10. "The Stone of Sisyphus" (1992) - Chicago:   After a decade of producing fiery horn-based rock that melded jazz and Latin elements, Chicago unfortunately got trendy and began the '80s by releasing a string of sappy, characterless keyboard ballads. Unexpectedly, this musical mush became monstrously successful, and - sadly - the band continued on in this musical direction. But as anyone who's seen the band's rocking live performances knows, the true heart of Chicago is still beating. In 1992 the band apparently felt that they'd gone too far in the wrong direction, so they went back to their roots and recorded "The Stone of Sisyphus," an album filled with rock-oriented arrangements that were truer to the band's signature sound. But as the cynical world of record company politics would have it, Warner Brother, Chicago's label at the time, rejected the album because it strayed too far from the surefire ballad formula. Two of the album's tracks, "Bigger Than Elvis" and the title tune, were released on Chicago's 2003 boxed CD set. But let's hope that Chicago finds a label to release the whole album soon.


If you've got a comment or question about any of the artists listed here, or if there are musical artists not listed whom you think that I'd like, please send me a message.

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This page was last revised on May 17, 2005.

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