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12 Weird, Funny and Underrated Bands and Musical Acts
When a rock band or any pop music act for that matter is funny this almost always leads to being downgraded by critics and dismissed as a novelty act by most listeners even if they have more to offer than merely humor. If this same act also has a weird sound, blending genres or experimenting within one of the excepted musical genres then this act is pretty much doomed to be a cult favorite at best, having to settle for a small dedicated number of fans while ultimately going down into pop obscurity. Some of these bands are more famous than others. Some of them have had radio hits along the way. But they all have one thing in common, being criminally underrated by mainstream music listeners and not getting their full due from rock critics for their witty, odd and innovative music.
THE ASS PONYS
Originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, The Ass Ponys combined rock and country to their own unique and jangly sound. Starting out in the 80s, they pre-dated the "alt-country" boom that would occur in the late 90s and early 00s but also may be one of the finest examples of that sound. Putting out their first album Mr. Superlove in 1990, they started to gain a real following with their second and third albums Grim and Electric Rock Music. The latter featured the hits Little Bastard and Peanut '93. As "alternative rock" radio became more rigid and predictable in the late 90s, preferring a long list of grunge knockoffs and bland pop punk, the band began to fade into obscurity. It was during this period that their music reached its peak, refining their sound while keeping its unpredictability and writing lyrics that would seem scathingly funny and painfully sad at the same time. Some Stupid With a Flare Gun and Lohio are both alt-country masterpieces that are bittersweet, beautiful and manage to be both sad and funny in equal measures. The band broke up in 2005, but the assorted members continue to play with other alt-country and roots rock bands like Wussy and The Hiders.
Some will say that Ben Folds does not qualify for underrated status. After all, his band Ben Folds Five had multiple singles on the radio with their album Whatever and Ever, Amen and he even did the soundtrack for a hit animated film. But even though the song Brick was constantly on the radio (most listeners not realizing it was about abortion) it doesn't represent the things that Folds is actually best at, which is creating kitschy pop satire that makes him his generation's Randy Newman. His first solo album Rockin the Suburbs remains his best but he has been involved with two other masterpieces. One is the side project Fear of Pop, where he recruited an odd ball team of singers and musicians to experiment with him, including William Shatner. He then produced Shatner's follow up to the famous disaster The Transformed Man with Has Been, where Shatner does another collection of spoken word covers, this time with intentional humor.
Anybody who has seen the movie 24 Hour Party People knows about Shaun Ryder's previous band The Happy Mondays and how they were destroyed by his drug addiction. The band never found an audience in the United States, like far too many British bands, but in my opinion this band is superior to The Happy Mondays in just about every way and as "Brit Pop" acts go are second only to Blur in their 90s output. Unfortunately the band only put out two brilliant albums before breaking up, once again because of drugs and in-fighting. If only they had stuck around a little longer.
Almost completely famous as a one hit wonder for the song Whip It the fact that the album it comes from Freedom of Choice is one of the best rock albums of the 80s is lost. The two previous Devo albums Q: Are We Not Men? A: We are Devo! and Duty Now for the Future achieve a similar level of brilliance but were mostly unappreciated at the time. As the 80s wore on, their output began to decline for these Akron, Ohio natives but those three albums still have more to offer than many bands whole outputs.
THE ELECTRIC SIX
This Detroit, Michigan band is big in Europe and their first two albums have such a European sound that I initially thought that was where they were from. But this is just another of those American bands that remains only appreciated overseas. Mixing the influence of Queen, Abba, Devo and Kiss, these guys have a unique sound of Disco Rock that has become irresistible to European listeners and baffles most Americans. The club hit Danger, High Voltage and the equally silly Gay Bar made them easily dismissible as a novelty act. After lead singer Dick Valentine got rid of the original band and replaced them with an entirely new group, the band began to emphasize more on rock than dance music, while Valentine began to share sound writing credits. Few bands rock so hard while at the same time being so danceable.
This Mexican band that mixes rock and electronic music wit anything else that may cross their minds, is one of the most innovative bands around. The fact that most of their songs are in Spanish has probably hurt them in the United States, though many of their songs have English lyrics as well, but their relentless quirkiness and embracing of experimentation couldn't have helped. With four albums released so far, they have shown a dedication to high quality and weirdness in equal measures. Don't let a language barrier keep you away from one of today's best bands.
One of the weirdest and best rappers that you probably haven't heard of, Kool Keith has also created two of the best rap albums ever recorded. Releasing his first album under the name Dr. Octagon (also the name of the album) it was a high concept album about a gynecologist from the planet Jupiter who has arrived on earth. With beats by producer Dan the Automator, and some of the weirdest, funniest and most vulgar lyrics in the history of hip hop, the album ha become a legend in underground circles but remains unknown to most mainstream hip hop fans. Keith would produce another masterpiece under the moniker Kool Keith with Black Elvis, Lost in Space, another sci-fi concept with much less vulgarity. This Bronx native is always unpredictable and sometimes brilliant but while delving into his discography one should be careful. He has produced a few albums just as bad as these are brilliant.
A former stand up comedian, Nellie McKay looks and sings like Doris Day and her lyrics cut like Elvis Costello or Eminem. Mixing genres like jazz, rap, funk, rock and elctronica, it is safe to say that nobody sounds quite like her. Her first album Get Away From Me was a mix of jazz piano, rap, politics, comedy and pointed insults. When her label refused to release her follow up Pretty Little Head as a double album she balked and formed her own label. The result was surprisingly traditional but she returned to being a genre bending prankster with Obligatory Visitors and Homesweet Mobile Home. She has also done an album of covers of her idol Doris Day, an ironic admiration considering McKay's love of subversion and profanity.
Too old to learn how to play guitar and be any good at it, Les Claypool decided to learn bass instead and then formed a band where bass was the lead instrument. The result, Primus, was one of the oddest sounding bands of the 90s. After producing one of the best alternative rock albums of that decade with Sailing the Sea of Cheese, the band was able to get radio play with Winona's Big Brown Beaver, from Tales From the Punchbowl, insuring that they would always be thought of as a novelty one hit wonder by the majority of radio listeners. They had one more great album in them, Anti-pop, a fusing of the core sound with heavy metal and features a number of metal musicians producing different tracks. After years of hiatus after the release of Anti-pop in 1999, the band recently returned in 2011 with a new album Green Naugahyde, expanding on their previous efforts and sound while garnering excellent reviews.
THE REVEREND HORTON HEAT
Based out of Dallas, Texas, this rockabilly band is often dismissed as both a novelty and a nostalgia act because of their embracing of classic rockabilly and their funny and satirical lyrics. Neither is really true. While The Reverend Horton Heat is often lumped in with other punkabilly bands like The Stray Cats or The Cramps, they aren't trying to blend classic rockabilly with another genre, but instead represent where rockabilly music would have eventually have evolved if it hadn't died out. There funniest songs like Cowboy Love or Your Wildest Dreams are truly hilarious but they can write soulful and moving songs as well. Picking the best of the band's early output is difficult because of the high quality but Liquor in the Front or the compilation Holy Roller would be the best place to start. As a personal favorite I think the album Spend a Night in the Box is their most polished effort overall.
THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS
John Flanburgh and John Linnell, created They Might Be Giants and evolved such a relentlessly peppy pop sound that it is amazing that it took them 16 years to realize that they should do albums for kids too. Their second album Lincoln is one of their most polished and brilliant but it wasn't until their third album, Flood, that they got radio play with their singles Particle Man and a cover of the 50s hit Istanbul (not Constantinople). These songs would also appear on the kids show Tiny Toons Adventures and forever mean they wouldn't be taken seriously. Still, they produced at least two more masterpieces, the hard rocking John Henry and their most experimental Apollo 18 and the majority of their work continues to be high quality as they continue their over 20 year career,
The first three Ween albums won't win them many converts who aren't already into low fi punk and just plain experimental music. But their fourth album Chocolate and Cheese takes their genre bending sound, vulgar sense of humor and all around weirdness in a more polished direction. It has a similar vibe to Beck's classic Odelay and spawned a hit with Voodoo Lady, a stoner anthem that often pops up in movies like Road Trip and Dude Where's My Car? After doing a country album Ween produced one of the best progressive rock albums of the 90s with The Mollusk, a concept album built around a nautical theme. This was their most mature work to date, producing many memorable and moving serious sounds but still threw in tracks like Waving My Dick in the Wind. Afterward Ween began to become more accessible but they haven't ever lost their edge or enthusiasm for bratty musical pranks and pointed satire.