Can a musical artist have three box sets to his name and still be underappreciated?
In the case of Richard Thompson, the answer is yes. If you’re asking who Richard Thompson is — and I have a sneaking suspicion some of you are — I have proven my point.
For more than four decades, Thompson has distinguished himself as a guitarist (Rolling Stone included him in the top 20 of its list of the top 100 guitarists of all time), songwriter (his specialty are literate and wry numbers such as “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”) and singer (his voice has only grown more expressive over the years).
Those talents are on full display in the 71 tracks compiled on “Walking on a Wire: 1968-2009,” his newest box set. Thompson had been previously served by the three-CD 1993 set “Watching the Dark” and “RT: The Life and Music of Richard Thompson,” a 5-CD set from 2006 that focused on previously unreleased material.
The newest set is filled with great songs from throughout his career, but it’s no simple hits collection. That’s because Thompson hasn’t had any.
Despite these box sets and the critical acclaim that has greeted his albums, Thompson has never found success on the pop charts. Now, I wouldn’t expect something as exquisitely dark as “Withered and Died” (recorded with Linda Thompson, his ex-wife and a frequent collaborator) to make the Billboard Top 40, but what about “Beeswing,” which is as romantic and true as most “romantic” songs of today are saccharine and false? Or what about the achingly lovely “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight”? The latter — a much better party song than the inane “Let’s Get it Started,” in my mind — was another duo with Linda, one of the two British songbirds who played muse to Thompson (the other being Sandy Denny, who started with Thompson in the English folk-rock band Fairport Convention).
I have seen Thompson live five times, the first time seven years ago at Bumbershoot music festival in Seattle. He was accompanied solely by his own guitar, but the room was so filled with sound you would have sworn he had the backing of a full band. That was with electric guitar. On another occasion, he played an acoustic set with almost as much power. At one show, I was successful in getting him to play one of my favorites during the requests portion of the show. With a drunken shout for “Cold Kisses,” I was able to hear his tale of a jealous lover who waits for his girl to go shopping so he can rummage through her belongings (“Here I am in your room going through your stuff/Said you’d be gone five minutes, that’s time enough.”)
Despite the indifference of mainstream audiences, the crowds at those shows were passionate followers, defining what it means to be a cult artist. It also points to the dilemma of the cult music fan: On the one had, we want our favorite artists to be appreciated by the masses; on the other hand, we like having them to ourselves, our own wonderful secret — and we’re able to attend an intimate live show without paying Madonna-Stones prices. Still, it’s hard to imagine such great songs as “Dimming of the Day” and “King of Bohemia” not playing as regularly on the radio as the histrionic pop stylings of Mariah Carey and Celine Dion. What a wonderful world it would be if Thompson’s songs were regularly book-ended by other cult artists such as Tom Waits and Nick Cave.
In honor of Thompson’s new box set, here are 10 artists who never got the widespread appeal they deserve(d). Of course, success is relative — some would say being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as Leonard Cohen recently was, isn’t too shabby — but in my mind these acts are so amazing they should be mentioned in the same breath as The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, the Rolling Stones, U2 and the like (and have the record sales to prove it). I have only included artists who have been around at least 20 years to give them sufficient time to make a commercial impact — or, in this case, not.
1. Leonard Cohen: Perhaps the quintessential cult artist, Cohen has been crafting dark and brilliant songs since the 1960s. Like Bob Dylan, but with less renown, Cohen is a master lyricist whose songs are frequently covered (Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” has gotten the most attention). And like Dylan, he’s a better singer of his own songs than some would give him credit for. If in doubt, check out the live album he released this year. His deep monotone brings a greater sense of gravity and menace to “Hallelujah,” while Buckley finds its essence with an ethereal, nearly whispered intensity. It says something about the quality of his songwriting that his numbers can be interpreted so widely by everyone from Willie Nelson (“Bird on the Wire”) to Judy Collins (“Sisters of Mercy”) to Nina Simone (“Suzanne”).
Key tracks: “Famous Blue Raincoat”; Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye”; “The Future”
2. Nina Simone: Even though she was given the title of “High Priestess of Soul,” Simone (who died in 2003) was never appreciated on the same level as, say, Aretha Franklin. But the imagination and passion Simone brought to both covers and originals showed that she was second to none as a vocalist.
Key tracks: “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair”; “Mississippi Goddamn”; “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”
3. The Velvet Underground: Critically revered but commercially ignored, Lou Reed’s great late ’60s-early ’70s band created a short but powerful trove of underground character sketches. With their tales of transvestites, S&M fetishists and drug addicts, it’s no surprise they were destined for cult status. The addition of an icy German chanteuse on their seminal first album, “The Velvet Underground & Nico,” didn’t help matters.
Key tracks: “Waiting for the Man”; “Heroin”; “Pale Blue Eyes”
4. The Go-Betweens: This melodic pop outfit fronted by Robert Forster and Grant McLennan provided so many incandescent pop numbers in the 1980s that it’s a shame they never broke through to a wider audience. The band broke up for a decade so the frontmen could craft their own solid solo albums before returning in 2000 for a few magical albums. Unfortunately, McLennan died in 2006.
Key tracks: “Bachelor Kisses”; “Head Full of Steam”; “Finding You”
5. Emmylou Harris: Known for her mellifluous duets, Harris’ voice really shines in its own spotlight. But despite some early success with her more mainstream country numbers, Harris has found her niche in the alternative folk category. Since “Wrecking Ball,” her innovative collaboration with U2 producer Daniel Lanois, Harris has been stretching her repertoire to pop songs and rock classics, all covered with her singular, luminous grace. With “Red Dirt Girl,” she showed she could be as good a songwriter as she is singer.
Key tracks: “Easy from Now On”; “Every Grain of Sand”; “Red Dirt Girl”
6. The Magnetic Fields: Stephin Merritt writes the most literate and witty pop songs in the current popscape. The band’s masterpiece is the 1999 three-disc album “69 Love Songs,” which included dozens of gems, presented in a variety of musical genres. In “Epitaph for my Heart,” he writes, “Who will mourn the passing of my heart/Will its little droppings climb the pop chart?” The answer, unfortunately, is no.
Key tracks: “Come Back from San Francisco”; “I Don’t Believe in the Sun”; “Too Drunk to Dream”
7. Lucinda Williams: Like Harris, Williams gets put in the category of alt folk, though she has proven in her decades as a singer-songwriter she’s capable of handling blues, pop, country, rock and more. Williams’ gift is her storytelling — songs that evoke striking characters and places. And her plaintive drawl is capable of injecting pathos into any genre she tackles (she especially loves sad songs).
Key tracks: “Side of the Road”; “Sweet Old World”; “Fruits of My Labor”
8. Warren Zevon: This cult singer-songwriter (who died in 2003) did have a bit of success with his 1977 hit “Werewolves of London,” but let’s face it: That was a novelty song about a nattily attired werewolf who sips tropical drinks at a London hotspot. The core of Zevon’s power lay in darker, less-appreciated tales of life’s losers.
Key tracks: “Carmelita”; “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner”; “Desperados Under the Eaves”
9. Echo and the Bunnymen: This moody British postpunk band never earned the respect of peers The Smiths or New Order, but many of their early songs haven’t lost their haunting power. Lead singer Ian McCulloch sings beautifully, like a slightly emo Bono.
Key tracks: “The Killing Moon”; “The Cutter”; “Stormy Weather”
10. Richard Thompson: In addition to all I’ve already praised, he is capable of honorable self-deprecation. In his intriguing live show “1000 Years of Popular Music,” he covered a selection of songs from a millennia of pop hits, starting in 1068 and running through Britney Spears’ “Oops … I Did It Again.” Of course, the show didn’t include any of Thompson’s own numbers. After all, none of them was a hit.
Key tracks: “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”; “Cold Kisses”; “Dimming of the Day”
Disagree? Or have some favorite cult artists of your own? Write about them in the comments, or send an email to email@example.com
Colin Powers is a Madison, Wisconsin-based editor and graphic designer. He has more than a dozen years of newspaper experience, including a stint as Life and Arts Editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer before its demise in March.