Fifty years later, most agree that the Beach Boys’ orchestral-pop masterpiece Pet Sounds is an unassailable classic. However, you couldn’t tell that to the buying public in 1966. Here are 14 great albums that took a while to build their legacies.
Beach Boys, ‘Pet Sounds’ (1963)
Beach Boys fans expecting to hear more carefree celebrations of cars and girls and surfing rendered in precise All-American harmonies wouldn’t have been sure what to make of the intricate, impressionistic orchestral-pop arrangements that Brian Wilson laid on them here. Though the trippy “Sloop John B” and the dreamy “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” were both Top 10 hits, Pet Sounds was the group’s lowest charting LP of original material since their 1962 debut, Surfin’ Safari. As critic Dave Marsh put it, “Pet Sounds wasn’t a commercial flop, but it did signal that the group was losing contact with its listeners.” But Wilson’s peers were listening, and so would younger artists, and Pet Sounds innovations would echo in the art-rock of the Seventies and the indie-pop of the Nineties.
The Velvet Underground and Nico, ‘The Velvet Underground and Nico’ (1967)
By the time the celebrated New York act the Velvet Underground released their long-delayed debut album in March 1967, their downtown cool and off-kilter approach to rock had made them a curiosity of sorts. (A Village Voice ad that ran around the album’s release claimed that it was “so underground, you’ll get the bends.”) But The Velvet Underground & Nico was barely received by the public at all at first, even though the album’s peelable cover gave consumers a handy way to get their hands on an Andy Warhol original. As Richie Unterberger notes in his history of the band, White Light/White Heat, the band’s label Verve gave the album a soft sell, and commercial radio had yet to have an opening for acts as mold-breaking. The Velvet Underground & Nico eked into the Billboard 200 at Number 199 in May 1967, peaking at Number 195. It re-entered the album chart that fall, slip-sliding around its lower reaches until it was recalled by Verve because of a lawsuit filed by reluctant back-cover subject Eric Emerson. The poor reception did, at least, occasion this notorious quote from a 1982 Brian Eno interview in Musician: “I was talking to Lou Reed the other day and he said that the first Velvet Underground record sold 30,000 copies in the first five years. The sales have picked up in the past few years, but I mean, that record was such an important record for so many people. I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band!”
Love, ‘Forever Changes’ (1967)
This Los Angeles band’s tense take on psychedelia didn’t have many takers when it was first released in 1967. The friction between its gloriously ornate textures and frontman/songwriter Arthur Lee’s somewhat paranoid lyrics — inspired by the seedier side of the Summer of Love as well as internal tensions within the band — made it a tough sell, despite a few relatively positive critical notices and the band’s label, Elektra, taking out a Sunset Strip billboard. Later on, Forever Changes would be heralded both for its prescience and for its intricacy, with Lee bringing the album to the stage after being released from a five-and-a-half-year incarceration.
The Byrds, ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’ (1968)
Expectations ran high for the Byrds release following the Top 10 status of The Byrds’ Greatest Hits in 1967. Yet January 1968’s ambitious The Notorious Byrd Brothers only peaked at Number 47 on Billboard’s albums chart, while its August successor, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, stalled at 77. Sweetheart, however, marks the first time an established rock band played authentic country music, and subsequently became the group’s most influential release. Sweetheart also served as battleground for the competing broader Americana vision of Roger McGuinn (who wrested the bulk of its vocal credits) and that of pure-country partisan Gram Parsons (who contributed the album’s only two original tracks). Bracketed by a pair of Bob Dylan songs (Nashville Skyline soon followed), Sweetheart sparked the formation of the Flying Burrito Brothers and provides the Nudie-suited shoulders on which virtually every subsequent alt-country effort stands.
The Kinks, ‘The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society’ (1968)
Although it was lauded by Pete Townshend as a “masterwork” comparable to Sgt. Pepper’s, Ray Davies’s nostalgic rumination on pastoral British life only sold about 100,000 copies upon its release, failing to chart. The Kinks hit-making machine had slowed to a crawl by 1967’s Something Else, and Davies followed his perfectionist bliss into what he called the “pet dream” of his thematically linked sequel — with a greater sense of anxiety and mental chaos haunting Village Green tracks like “Animal Farm” and “Big Sky.” Despite its initial obscurity (it was released the same day as the Beatles’ White Album), Village Green proceeded to become the Kinks’ best-selling non-compilation album, at least in part thanks to the inclusion of “Picture Book” in an HP Digital Photography commercial.
The Monkees, ‘Head’ (1968)
Claiming to have been the unwitting pawns of director Bob Rafelson and screenwriter Jack Nicholson, the Monkees parodied their own popular TV parody in Head, a fun, trippy art film that recouped approximately 2 percent of its cost. Head‘s artsy and edgy soundtrack also met with commercial obscurity. While The Birds, the Bees & the Monkees, released earlier in ’68, peaked at Number Three, Head topped out at 45. The album intersperses six of the band’s best performances (Carol King and Gerry Goffin’s “Porpoise Song” and Michael Nesmith’s “Circle Sky” are especially great) with snippets of dialogue and sound effects from the film. Leon Russell, Neil Young and Ry Cooder helped out in the studio, but it was all too much for Peter Tork, who quit the band before the album’s release.
The Stooges, ‘The Stooges’ (1969)
The Stooges was a commercial failure in its time — peaking at Number 106. Eventually, the rest of us would catch up with the Stooges’ visionary stoner fanbase and thrill to the way Ron Asheton enshrouds himself in stupefying waves of wah-wah and brother Scott drums like he’s marooned on a planet with twice the gravitational pull of Earth. Though the way Iggy Pop growls and shrieks his way through these stomps and dirges, at once feral and cerebral, is probably something none of us can ever truly catch up with.
Big Star, ‘#1 Record’ (1972)
Both the band name Big Star and the album title #1 Record have taken on an ironic, self-deprecating air in the LP’s long life as a cult classic. But given Alex Chilton’s teenage fame as the voice of the Box Tops’ Hot 100 chart-topper “The Letter,” there was good reason in 1972 to believe that his new band, whose label Ardent was distributed by soul powerhouse Stax Records, had a bright future. But while #1 Record‘s homespun sound and insistent hooks gained positive reviews from the press, Big Star struggled to tour or land radio airplay, and few copies were stocked on record store shelves. After founding member Chris Bell’s exit, Chilton made two more Big Star albums before giving up on the group and going solo, but the band’s legend only grew as they became a central influence of the power pop genre. By the end of the Nineties, a reconstituted Big Star was a popular touring attraction, “Thirteen” was a popular cover among indie bands, and “In the Street” was the theme song of That ’70s Show.
New York Dolls, ‘New York Dolls’ (1973)
Even if they weren’t freaked out by the scuzzy-glam streetwalker drag on the cover, no way were American kids who dug their hard-rock sludgy like Sabbath or sleek like Aerosmith ready for this reckless, feckless din. David Johansen howled and pouted and purred like the child of Mick Jagger and Shangri-La; Johnny Thunders’ guitar ran Chuck Berry riffs through a rusty meat grinder; and the whole shebang rattled forward with the jerky abandon of the Coney Island Cyclone. Creem readers placed the Dolls on both their “Best New Group” and “Worst New Group” lists at the end of 1973, and even critics who loved ’em thought producer Todd Rundgren fussed too much with their sound. New York Dolls rocketed all the way to Number 116 in Billboard, and hardly anybody realized this was a classic until punk rock proved that it had to have been.
Ramones, ‘Ramones’ (1976)
The debut from Queens’ first “family” of punk came on the heels of hype by a slew of New York writers who had seen the band at CBGB and were amazed by their taut compositions and snarling stage presence. (“Four really pissed-off guys in black leather jackets,” Legs McNeil recalled in his punk oral history Please Kill Me.) But the brutally stripped-down aesthetics of New York punk were decidedly out of step with the time’s more grandiose rock tastes. Ramones, which came out two months after the band’s week-long recording session, only sold 6,000 copies in the United States during its first year of commercial availability. In 2014, 38 years after its release, it would be certified gold.
Marvin Gaye, ‘Here, My Dear’ (1978)
During acrimonious two-year divorce proceedings, Marvin Gaye agreed that his ex-wife, Anna Gordy, would receive a cut of the royalties from his next album. And so Gordy became the muse of Here, My Dear, a brooding double album that catalogued every ugly emotion Gaye experienced during the end of his decade-long marriage in songs like “When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You.” The album received middling reviews at the time, and the public didn’t know what to make of one of R&B’s biggest sex symbols turning bitter and heartbroken. Here, My Dear only reached Number 26 on the Billboard 200, after his last two studio albums went top 5. The single “A Funky Space Reincarnation” missed the Hot 100 just a year after “Got to Give It Up” topped the chart. Though some thought he’d made an uncommercial album to spite the ex who stood to profit from it, Gaye was reportedly disappointed by the poor reception of the record. But after a 1994 reissue, the album was warmly reevaluated, soon turning up on lists of the greatest albums of all time by Rolling Stone, Mojo and more. And Gaye’s L.A. studio, Marvin’s Room, where the album was recorded, has become a place for other stars to overshare, including Drake on his 2011 hit “Marvins Room.”
Fleetwood Mac, ‘Tusk’ (1979)
Costing a cool million to record, making it the most expensive rock production to date, Fleetwood Mac’s double-vinyl successor to the hugely successful Rumours was, as creative spearhead Lindsay Buckingham told Rolling Stone, “clearly an undermining of what was expected of us.” Where Rumours was packed with immediately affecting tracks polished to a high studio luster, Tusk experimented with a sleazier lo-fi sound and ad hoc production twists — and where Rumours topped the Billboard 200 for 31 weeks to sell more than 20 million copies, Tusk peaked at Number Four before eventually selling some four million albums. The intragroup emotional dysfunction and romantic anguish the Mac explored on Rumours continued, but this time Buckingham matched the emotional chaos with makeshift percussion, proto-punk guitars and a Stevie Nicks who never sounds the same twice. Mirage‘s soothing soft rock returned the Mac to the top of the charts three years later.
Beastie Boys, ‘Paul’s Boutique’ (1989)
Licensed To Ill made the Beastie Boys a fratty pop phenomenon, selling 10 million copies and bringing hip-hop to middle America like never before. But by the time the trio split from Def Jam and reappeared nearly three years later with visionary, sampledelic Dust Brothers production replacing their hard rock riffs, it appeared that the zeitgeist had moved on. “Hey Ladies” grazed the Top 40, and the album initially moved only a few hundred thousand copies, peaking at Number 14 — still the lowest charting proper album of the band’s career. But the album’s forward-thinking sound incubated a new audience by the time the more successful follow-up Check Your Head came around. And the Dust Brothers’ dense production style, too ahead of its time in 1989, was vindicated by the acclaim for Beck’s Odelay in 1996. Just before the album’s 10th birthday in 1999, Paul’s Boutique was certified double platinum.
Weezer, ‘Pinkerton’ (1996)
The peppy yet wounded Weezer became alt-rock superstars after their winkingly crushed-out “Buddy Holly” became an MTV staple, and frontman Rivers Cuomo initially decided to write a rock opera about fame in response. That plan didn’t entirely work out, and Cuomo decamped to Harvard to study classical composition — a move that largely informed the songwriting of Pinkerton, which was darker and more churning, marked by lyrics that dealt head-on with Cuomo’s personal and sexual frustrations during what he called “two very weird years.” (That comes from Cuomo’s note about the record to his fan club, which also notes that he “really wanted these songs to be an exploration of my ‘dark side’ — all the parts of myself that I was either afraid or embarrassed to think about before.”) Initially, listeners were not pleased with this trip into Cuomo’s deeper consciousness. Rolling Stone‘s readers called Pinkerton the third worst album of 1996, and even though Weezer’s debut had gone double-platinum a little more than a year after its release, Pinkerton wasn’t certified gold until 2001.