SPIN has always highlighted the under-heralded, but an uncountable number of amazing songs have fallen through the cracks since the publication’s 1985 launch. It’s hard to scratch the surface in a list of this size, but consider this chronological mixtape a fun attempt.
Many of these selections are personal — cherished, semi-obscure tracks that deserve a bigger audience. But in order to cast a wide net, we solicited suggestions from friends, fellow music journalists and musicians (including Sparks and Modest Mouse), who helped make this round-up deeper and more eclectic than it would have been otherwise.
From lo-fi pop to hi-fi prog, here are 35 gems you probably missed over the last 35 years. – Ryan Reed
Mazarati – “Strawberry Lover” (1986)
This Minneapolis funk band is still best known for a connection to Prince: They originally recorded a demo for “Kiss” before the Purple One wisely reworked it into a No. 1 single. (He did leave in their backing vocals — a decent-ish consolation prize.) Mazarati — featuring past and future Revolution bassist Brown Mark — released one studio album through Prince’s Paisley Park label, and this spacious deep cut is a clear standout. With its laser beam synths, furious slap-bass, smooth falsetto and a spoken word section about a possible ménage à trois, “Strawberry Lover’ sounds like Prince with arena-rock ambitions.
Vernal Equinox – “Sunrise” (1988)
New Found World, the lone album from synth voyagers Steve Brenner and Timothy Rempel, opens with a filmic fog, two chords looming with some combination of menace and placidity. Then come a pair of sequenced keyboard patterns, interlocking over one of the slickest drum machines this side of No Jacket Required.
Harry Case – “Ride ‘Em Off” (1989)
A deliciously cheesy hybrid of synth-funk, smooth jazz and New Age soul, “Ride ‘Em Off” launches Harry Case’s second and final LP. Unlike similar albums from the era, this one isn’t a dollar bin staple — the median Discogs selling price is $157.50. Collectors know the real shit when they hear it.
Gigi Masin – “Clouds” (1989)
Italian ambient artist Gigi Masin teamed with This Heat drummer Charles Hayward for the 1989 split LP Les Nouvelles Musiques De Chambre Volume 2. The two sides form an odd balance, Masin’s pillowy melodies flowing into Hayward’s atonal soundscapes — and the heartbeat of the whole project is “Clouds,” where piano scales trickle down amid softly prodding synth pads.
Dream Warriors – “Follow Me Not” (1989)
Critics adored And Now the Legacy Begins, the debut LP from these Canadian jazz-rap innovators. (SPIN‘s Darren Ressler called the material “stunning.”) But the record was overshadowed by other classics from the alternative hip-hop golden age, including A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low-End Theory. A definitive Dream Warriors cut is “Follow Me Not,” which showcases the duo’s philosophical musings (“Who is more a fool: the fool or the fool who follows the fool?”) and colorful, sample-based production that absorbs guttural funk grunts, jazzy Hammond organ chords and symphonic fanfare.
Änglagård – “Jordrök” (1992)
A simple way to gauge an album’s progginess is to scope out the detail in the liner notes. And Änglagård drummer Mattis Olsson’s Discogs credits approach Neil Peart density: gongs, castanets, wood blocks, glockenspiels, tubular bells, bongos, finger cymbals, wind chimes, claves, cowbells — the full monty. The Swedes bring that sort of vintage prog dedication to their intricate instrumental debut, channeling the grandeur of ’70s Genesis and King Crimson. Eleven-minute opener “Jordrök” is a rush of distorted, chromatic guitar licks; dramatic Mellotron swells and pastoral flute — catnip for prog nerds.
Grifters – “Felt Tipped Over” (1994)
These noisy Memphis indie-rockers were a hipster favorite during their prime ’90s run, even landing a record deal with Sub Pop. But they never entered the stratosphere of cool occupied by Pavement and Guided By Voices — a damn shame, as this seismic, ever-shifting pseudo-ballad can attest.
Thinking Fellers Local Union 282 – “Socket” (1994)
“Strangers From the Universe is their best record in my opinion. That song “Socket” is really strange. It’s got a lot of unexpected timing changes — there’s an added beat and maybe a dropped beat in a couple of places that make it feel very awkward in a way I like. Thinking Fellers are an interesting band because they were on Matador and toured with Pavement. They were a successful ’90s band, and a lot of people know about them, but it’s definitely a cult following. They’re super niche. And I think a lot of that is because, like so many of my favorite bands, they were just uncompromisingly weird and did exactly what they wanted to do. They never got mainstream.” – Andy Molholt (Speedy Ortiz, Coughy, Laser Background)
Heavy Vegetable – “Cotton Swab” (1994)
“Rob Crow is obviously prolific as hell and did many other projects like Optiganally Yours and Thingy. Pinback is probably the most known one. But that Heavy Vegetable record [1994’s Amazing Undersea Adventures of Aqua Kitty] is full of crazy, awesome jams, and “Cotton Swab” just happens to be one of my favorites. I like how short it is. I like how frenetic it is. It’s definitely all over the place. And the production is really interesting.” – Andy Molholt
Cheer-Accident – “Failure” (1997)
The unclassifiable Chicago band opens with a nasal-voiced piano ballad and seamlessly morph into trumpet-filled avant-prog madness.
Mysteries of Life – “Come Clean” (1998)
This Indiana alt-pop quintet reach peak ’90s on a mid-tempo acoustic ballad, a highlight from their second LP. Jake Smith’s vocal delivery is adorably earnest, but the atmospheric arrangement (brushed drums, reverse reverb vocal effects) and mysterious words (“Between an impossible distance, the air is alive”) resonate beyond its era.
Oranger – “Eggtooth” (1998)
“The only reason I heard them is because of WPRB, my favorite radio station growing up in Princeton, New Jersey. You can get it in Philadelphia, but it would only come in sometimes in the suburbs, where I grew up. I would listen to it all the time to find new music back then in the late ’90s. That track came on one time, and I had to call the station and ask them what it was. And then I just remembered it because I like the synth line so much. It’s a pretty lo-fi song. The singing is kind of quiet and almost unsure of itself. But that synth line stuck with me. It’s a really blown-out, crazy thing with a cool melody.” – Andy Molholt
Donna Regina – “Why” (1999)
“They’re a husband and wife [singer Regina Janssen, producer/multi-instrumentalist Günther Janssen], and they’re on this German electronic label called Karaoke Kalk. I was really into that label — everything they put out is really pretty. ‘Why’ is really cool — the production is badass. Nice and dreamy and easy to listen to.” – Jeremiah Green (Modest Mouse)
Piano Magic – “I Am the Sub-Librarian” (1999)
“We used to go to this record store in Portland called Ozone. We’d just go there, and they’d let us listen to shit. A lot of Piano Magic’s stuff is kinda ambient. I just came across that mainly because of the art, to be honest. It kind of reminds me of This Mortal Coil, and then they got signed to 4AD, which makes sense.” – Jeremiah Green (Modest Mouse)
Kingsbury Manx – “Piss Diary” (2000)
“I wish I could say I remembered when I first heard it, but I really don’t. It was pre-Internet — or before I was on it. My best bet is that came out of a pile of demos. We ended up taking those guys out on tour, and I was pleasantly surprised that they turned out to be closer to soccer hooligans than precious indie-rockers or something. I enjoyed that it didn’t make sense to me. They were really nice, normal dudes. I found it pretty amusing that one of the prettiest songs I know is called ‘Piss Diary’ — I can’t contextually figure out why that is. Isn’t it [beautiful]?” – Isaac Brock (Modest Mouse)
Cody Chestnutt – “The Seed” (2002)
“A lot of people don’t know that record, The Masterpiece. I like his version better than [the Roots’]. I wish the production was a little better, but the Roots one is so over-produced. Cody Chestnutt should have been a fuckin’ star, man. I don’t know what happened.” – Jeremiah Green (Modest Mouse)
The Fire Theft – “Uncle Mountain” (2003)
The Fire Theft are considered a sequel to Sunny Day Real Estate, the pioneering art-rock/emo band led by Jeremy Enigk. But considering they feature three of the original Sunny members — as many as that band’s final two LPs — it’s really more like a continuation. “Uncle Mountain” is a fitting title for this behemoth, which opens the Fire Theft’s lone record: Pink Floyd-y slide guitars, cinematic strings and locomotive tom rolls form a majestic sonic summit.
Magma – “K.A I” (2004)
As usual, Magma drummer-bandleader Christian Vander composed most of the French prog-rock band’s 2004 LP in Kobaïan, an artificial language of his own creation — so we’ll have to take his word that the record explores spiritual themes. But the arrangement, as always, is divine: “K.A I,” a torrent of spasmodic jazz-fusion grooves and operatic chanting, is a definitive example of the Zeuhl genre Vander invented.
Colossal – “The Serious Kind” (2004)
“One song that’s super inspiring to me is “Serious Kind” by this emo band Colossal. I don’t know if everyone knows that they’re stealing from this band, but I think of them as like the bridge between Algernon Cadwallader, Bon Iver and Wilco. They do very simple, beautiful, smart, tasteful things under like a twinkly emo guise. Such an understated, lesser-known, incredible band. Everything on that album, Welcome the Problems, is freakin’ huge and brilliant. I’ve always been like, ‘Why are they not American Football?’ What happened? Why did they get picked and this one didn’t get picked?” — Bartees Strange
A Perfect Kiss – “A Memory Less Traveled” (2006)
This arty Maryland emo quartet disbanded in 2006, shortly after releasing their second LP, The Olympians. The album’s heartbeat is “A Memory Less Traveled,” which builds from a spacey electronic atmosphere into a thrashing, distorted chorus.
Tigercity – “Are You Sensation” (2008)
It remains a prosecutable crime that Tigercity fizzled out after one album and a pair of EPs, earning zero hits and only a modicum of hype. “Are You Sensation” is like Hall & Oates via Talking Heads’ Speaking in Tongues — a squeegeed funk-pop anthem with absurdly squiggly synths, razor-like guitars and more hooks than most bands muster in a whole career.
Make a Rising – “Transmutation” (2008)
“Transmutation” is the seven-minute centerpiece of [2008’s Infinite Ellipse and Head With Open Fontanel]. It begins with a medieval folk melody that also has a hint of Aaron Copland. It sounds like the drummer Jon Heron is beating on an Irish bodhran drum. It transitions into this wild polyrhythmic section where the vocals and violin are in a different time signature than the bass and drums. It’s a locked pattern that made me feel weightless. It breaks down into a hellish but hilarious world of Moog, marimba, and rapid-fire lyrics (“The moss grows round my face like a beard / So warm and soft I laugh myself to tears”). It then goes into another beastly section with detuned baritone sax juxtaposed with a Carl Orff-ian choral part. It returns to the placid folk-tune section for a while. We end on an epic 6/8 passage with distorted crashes, heavy guitars and an aleatoric violin section that I still can’t count. ‘Transmutation’ is one of the songs that I listen to and the sidewalk feels like it’s crumbling under my feet. The world disappears, and I am suddenly on an alien planet running through the holographic woods. No other music makes me feel this way. It dawns on me: Make A Rising is perfect prog-rock because it is imperfect. It never feels macho or pretentious. My best friend Dominic Angelella also became a follower of this record and we share a dorky love of all things Infinite Ellipse. It was our songwriter’s secret until now. — Eric Slick (solo, Dr. Dog)
The Most Serene Republic – “Jelly Chamber” (2010)
A deep cut from a deeper band, “Jelly Chamber” is the apex of the indie-rockers’ prog ambitions — a majestic maze of time signature changes, maximalist orchestration, contrapuntal melody and emotional crescendos.
Rubblebucket – “Came Out of a Lady” (2011)
Brooklyn’s Rubblebucket describe their own music as “indie-dance pop,” which only scratches the surface of their arty technicolor style. “Came Out of a Lady” is a barrage of funky horns, dense percussion and vocals that are hooky to the point of being wacky.
Kathryn Calder – “Turn a Light On” (2011)
Kathryn Calder is best known as a longtime member of power-pop institution the New Pornographers, but she saves dreamier, more abstract moods for her solo work — like this rush of lullaby coo, acoustic picking and lap-steel moan from her second LP, Bright & Vivid.
Bhi Bhiman – “Guttersnipe” (2012)
The San Francisco songwriter channels a “railroad urchin searching for peace of mind” on this stirring folk tale, built on a thumping double-bass, Cajon thwack and ringing acoustic chords. But Bhiman’s voice, which slips into a wicked vibrato, tells a story on its own.
PHOX – “Slow Motion” (2014)
At first blush, it might all feel too precious. The full-group whistling, the feathery banjo pattern, the rim-click drums — if you listen to “Slow Motion” in your car with the windows down, you worry it might drift out entirely. But holy hell is this song well-crafted, its breeziness belying its sophistication: Note how the first verse rises in intensity, only to diffuse — a nifty little fake-out. And who else would stick a 30-second clarinet solo less than halfway through a five-minute indie-pop song?
Redline Graffiti – “Mayfair” (2014)
“I think Spotify told me I’d like it. I don’t know what happened to them. I think I wrote them an email at one point — or at least told our manager about them — because I wanted them to go on tour with us. When I first found them, it seemed like they were kids. They looked so young, and they were playing parties and little places. I was like, ‘This band [is great]. Why aren’t they on the fucking radio?’ That ‘Mayfair’ song fucking rules. I like their mellow shit. That saxophone part is so nice. I got really obsessed with a couple of their songs.” – Jeremiah Green (Modest Mouse)
Babymetal – “Gimme Chocolate” (2014)
“The combination of heavy metal and cute Japanese girls singing about the love of chocolate and their hope they don’t put on weight for eating it…perfection.” – Ron Mael (Sparks)
Faith No More – “Motherfucker” (2015)
“An angry tirade yet with a beautifully melodic chorus. ‘Get the motherfucker on the phone.'” – Russell Mael (Sparks)
Gaika – “Last Dance at the Baby Grand” (2015)
“I’m waiting for that guy to blow up. He does cool-ass shit. Some of his stuff is kinda arty, sound design-y. He did an art performance recently for the protests in London. He’s an interesting guy. It’s hard to find hip-hop that’s thoughtful and abstract and dark – and not about fucking people or fucking people up.” – Jeremiah Green (Modest Mouse)
Belle Game – “Spirit” (2017)
Like almost every song on the dream-pop band’s second LP, Fear/Nothing, “Spirit” revolves around a lyric so mantra-like, so threadbare, so phonetic in its phrasing, it feels like glossolalia: “And I / I know much better,” Andrea Lo sings over gusts of guitar reverb and a boomy drum groove. “To be the wiser / So we can mess around.” Meditative bliss.
Tirzah – “Holding On” (2018)
“I have a guy who works with me, Rocky [Tinder], who’s in a band called Wampire, and he helps me out with miscellaneous shit. For about three or four years, I couldn’t find much — I wasn’t looking and finding much music that I loved. He started playing mixes. I heard that song, and I don’t know — it kind of speaks to the sentimental part of me or something. It wasn’t overwrought. It sounded honest. It’s almost approaching modern recording with vocal correction and shit like that, but it’s just loose enough that the punk rocker in me still likes it.” – Isaac Brock (Modest Mouse)
Moon Tooth – “Trust” (2019)
You wouldn’t be wrong calling them “metal,” but Moon Tooth hit emotional and sonic sweet spots rare for modern heavy music. Take “Trust,” which opens the Long Island quartet’s second LP. First off, you can’t ignore the honky, climactic sax section that crashes through the Mars Volta-meets-Mastodon riffage. Then there’s the powerhouse performance of frontman John Carbone, whose bluesy melodic swoops and bends flirt with soul music.
Cassowary – “She Funked Me” (2019)
Glitchy jazz-funk loaded onto a capsule and launched onto another planet. Miles Shannon’s reverby falsetto saunters around with maximum eeriness, and the wah-wah bass lags just behind the groove — a pocket out of this world.