Lost classics or household rubbish? The Greatest Albums You’ll Never Hear

Review: This list of shelved or abandoned albums by the likes of Pink Floyd, Prince and U2 offers little to write home about

The Greatest Albums You’ll Never Hear
Author: Bruno MacDonald
ISBN-13: 978-1781312193
Publisher: Aurum Press
Guideline Price: £20

It’s human nature to change your mind, but when that mind belongs to a musician, such changes can be viewed as whimsical, petulant, capricious or pharmaceutically induced. Or, indeed, as a mixture of the four. Factor in self-destructive ambition, record-company bureaucracy, intraband turmoil, bad luck and death, and you have various reasons why some best-intended albums have never been heard outside the recording studio (or, at best, experienced many years’ delay from recording to release).

The list is lengthy, and some you may already know about: classic 1960s pop music from The Beach Boys (Smile), a calibrated Prince (Black Album), various recently recorded works by U2 (notably Songs of Ascent); a raiders-of-the-lost-archives mission undertaken by Bob Dylan fans (a sparse acoustic version of his 1975 album, Blood on the Tracks), David Bowie's unreleased 2001 album (Toy) and perhaps the best-known (but, ironically, rarely heard) mash-up record (2004's The Grey Album, whereon the future U2 producer Danger Mouse, aka Brian Burton, fused The Beatles' White Album with Jay-Z's Black Album).

Many more have never been released and quite likely never will be. These include a Pink Floyd album with no instruments (Household Objects), a space opera by the American band Weezer (Songs from the Black Hole) and a jettisoned album by Foo Fighters (The Million Dollar Demos).

Holy grail, holy mess

Viewed through jaundiced eyes as a magazine article expanded beyond breaking point to more than 250 pages,


The Greatest Albums You’ll Never Hear

is equal parts holy grail and holy mess. Its editor, Bruno MacDonald (who also helped to edit the block-size list books

1001 Albums

You Must Hear Before You Die


1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die

) corrals a team of contributors to tackle lost, forgotten and shelved albums by music acts from AC/DC to

Frank Zappa

, assembled using a chronological rather than an alphabetical system, from the 1960s to 2013.

It's clear from the outset that the use of the word "greatest" in the book's title is mostly redundant. Although there is much quality in Smile, The Black Album, Blood on the Tracks, The Grey Album and several more (including a revered relic of the pre-internet era, a full E Street Band version of Bruce Springsteen's elegantly austere 1982 album, Nebraska, and a pre-Lana Del Rey 2006 album, Sirens), there's very little to write home about on many, many others.

The worst culprits are the albums that simply have no place here, a perfect case in point being the Pink Floyd album project Household Objects. Never a band to avoid experimenting with found sounds (think of Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict, from 1968's Ummagumma album; clocks on Time, from 1972's Dark Side of the Moon), Household Objects proved to be obsessive, irrational behaviour at its extreme. "I've always felt that the differentiation between a sound effect and music is a load of shit," Roger Waters told Zigzag magazine. "Whether you make a sound on a guitar or a water tap is irrelevant."

After four weeks in the studio for less than two minutes of "music", the band's guitarist Dave Gilmour summarised such doggedness by saying, "After you spend weeks trying to make cardboard boxes sound like bass drums and snare drums, you think, well, why don't I use a bass drum or a snare drum?"

Despite the coverage afforded it, Household Objects was never meant to be an album: it was just a silly idea given traction by having the words "Pink" and "Floyd" attached to it; there are other instances here where so-called albums have remained unreleased or unfinished for good reason.

If that’s the downside to this fitfully useful coffee-table book, the upsides are two. Firstly, the writing and details provided by the raft of contributors are coherent, informative and very well researched. Secondly – and for lovers of pop-culture design this could be the deciding factor in buying the book – the publisher has spent decent money on securing the services of a batch of designers to create covers for albums that never developed enough to warrant one in the first place.

Creative folks such as Vaughan Oliver, John Pasche and Bill Smith (who between them have created award-winning covers for the likes of Cocteau Twins, Sinéad O'Connor, The Rolling Stones, Kate Bush and Pixies), as well as several more, have put their imaginations to brilliant use. In particular, Akiko Stehrenberger's cover for David Bowie's 1975 album that almost was, The Gouster, and Herita McDonald's cover for Brian Eno's withdrawn 1991 pop-oriented record, My Squelchy Life, are clever, high-quality designs.

A must-read for music lovers? Not all of the time. Approach with caution. And a noise filter.

Tony Clayton-Lea

Tony Clayton-Lea

Tony Clayton-Lea is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in popular culture