The allure and mystique of a #1 album is something that most artists dream of when they get in the game. Many achieve that goal, but 100x as many don’t. Even some of the best bands never get to that point, including all the bands on this list. The research for this article was much harder than I anticipated because I wanted to make sure there were zero #1 albums on any chart in any country in any way. This eliminated a lot of acts that weren’t #1 in the US or UK, but were in, say, Norway or their home country (Tom Waits, Bjork, Sigur Rós, respectively). Eventually, I scrounged up 10 fantastic bands that never hit the top. Some make a little sense. Others blew my mind.
In looking at bands for this list, the same trend kept popping up: the influential lose out to the influenced. It’s hard to find an act or artist more influential on rock music in the ’90s and beyond than Pavement. The California outfit only released five full-length albums in their 10 years of making music, but their sound can be heard all over rock music — even today. Without Pavement, there may not have been Death Cab for Cutie, Ben Kweller, or anything out of the Northwest indie scene in the last 15 years. There’s a reason Village Voice mastermind Robert Christgau called Pavement “the finest band of the 1990s” and never gave them a grade lower than a B+.
The band first hit moderate mainstream success in 1994 with their sophomore album, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, which broke the US charts at #121 and #15 in the UK, going on to be their highest-selling album. However, their highest-charting album in the US was 1997′s Brighten the Corners, which topped out at #70. When the band reissued their debut, Slanted and Enchanted, it managed to break the top five on the US Indie charts, but never reached #1. Odds are that won’t change anytime soon, as lead singer Stephen Malkmus has quashed any rumors of new music or new tours. Pavement remains the band who gave all the tools, but got no recognition for the machine.
Wilco is a hard band to introduce to people. Each album has a different style, a different feel, hell, sometimes within the same record (remember “Less Than You Think”?). Whether you love a Wilco album right off the bat, or have to sit with it a while, you know the payoff is going to be great. Since they released their first album, A.M., in 1994, they’ve been extending the Alt. Country conventions beyond its borders, and gaining more and more fame. Their influence can be heard in rock heavy hitters like The National and Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, and their songs have been covered by Norah Jones, The Wallflowers, and Fleet Foxes.
Their 2002 masterpiece, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, is widely considered to be one of the best albums of the last 20 years and is also their highest-selling album, but not their highest charting, topping out at #13 on the US charts. The four albums that followed, all reached the top 10, with their highest — 2007′s Sky Blue Sky and 2009′s Wilco (The Album) – both peaking at #4 in the US. Here’s hoping their follow-up to 2011′s The Whole Love will change their fate.
The Flaming Lips
The pride of Oklahoma City and festival juggernauts The Flaming Lips have been releasing critical- and fan-favorite albums for years, but only one has even cracked the top 10 on the US charts. They’ve won three Grammy awards, been nominated for six total, and have three international gold albums. Their biggest radio hit, “She Don’t Use Jelly”, reached number one on the US Heatseeker charts, but that wasn’t enough to propel Transmissions from the Satellite Heart even into the top 100.
Since their resurgence with 1999′s The Soft Bulletin, every album they’ve released has charted, but only Embryonic in 2009 reached the top 10 in the US (At War with the Mystics hit #6 in the UK, but #11 in the US). After all the ass kicking onstage, and two of their albums being named on Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and NME’s Top Albums of the Decade lists, they still have yet to achieve the elusive #1 spot. Perhaps their announced collaboration with Ke$ha will fix their #1 drought for them?
With only four full-length albums, Fiona Apple has firmly established herself as one of the great voices and songwriters of the last two decades. Her debut album, Tidal, went triple platinum, won her a Grammy, and landed on Rolling Stone‘s Top Albums of the 1990s. The next two follow-ups, 1999′s When the Pawn… and 2005′s underrated Extraordinary Machine, reached #13 and #7, respectively, on the US charts. Various personal problems delayed Apple’s return to the mainstream spotlight following Extraordinary Machine, but after seven years she released last year’s exceptional The Idler Wheel…, and it immediately shot up the charts, but only to #3 in the US.
She seems to always fall into an odd pocket of music. Her jazzy, whiskey-soaked piano tone could fit into the Norah Jones realm, but her personal lyrics tend to freak out the average suburbanites who view Jones as “quirky.” On the other end, she doesn’t dabble in drum machines and heavy orchestral anthems, so the Florence Welch crowd doesn’t latch on. Instead, Apple is similar to Daniel Day-Lewis: rare, divine, and not quite the populist.
Guided By Voices
Of all the bands on this list, Guided by Voices (GBV) is probably the one who gives the least amount of fucks for not having a #1 record. Not to say that they don’t want one and wouldn’t welcome the success that would entail, but for a band that has released approximately 19 albums in their roughly 26-year career—20 if you take out the six years they broke up—and drank most of the West out of beer and whiskey, the pressure to release a #1 record isn’t really a thing for them. That doesn’t mean they don’t deserve it. Many of their albums have been released within months of the previous, and in between lead singer/songwriter Robert Pollard has released 19 albums of his own solo material!
Roughly 38 studio albums in 26 years? Let’s see these young kids do that.
Or be this impacting. Since their inception, they’ve influenced Eddie Vedder, The Strokes, even director Steven Soderbergh. They even have a #1 fan in the Obama White House; Press Secretary Jay Carney has dropped GBV references in many press briefings, just upping his cred even more. Charting-wise, only 2001′s Isolation Drills has come close to turning heads, hitting #6 on the US Indie charts (#168 on the Billboard 200). Regardless of the charts, GBV is going to keep chugging on, but damn it would be great to see them get the widespread credit they deserve.
Not only are The Roots the Best Band in Late Night, but they also may be one of the most influential and hardest-working groups in hip-hop. Since Black Thought and ?uestlove started the band and then released their first album in 1993, The Roots have recorded 10 studio albums, received 12 Grammy nominations, and nabbed four Grammy wins. On top of that, members of the band have collaborated with everyone you can think of across all genres (Mos Def, Incubus, Dave Matthews Band), toured as the backing band for the likes of Jay Z, and recorded full albums with Betty Wright (Betty Wright: The Movie), John Legend (Wake Up!), and Elvis Costello (Wise Up Ghost).
One thing they don’t have is a #1 album. They’ve come close with multiple albums breaking the top 10, specifically Things Fall Apart and The Tipping Point both hitting #4. Despite all of this success and talent, however, they’ve never hit that milestone. They’ve got a shot with their upcoming & Then You Shoot Your Cousin, rumored for a late 2013 release, and the Elvis Costello record, so keep your eyes out.
Along with Pavement, The Replacements shaped a lot of what would become ’90s “alternative rock” and college radio rock. Turning heads for their notoriously drunken performances, Paul Westerberg, Bob and Tommy Stinson, and Chris Mars spent roughly 14 years destroying stages and releasing some of the best, straight-forward rock music to date. The band’s second and third albums, Hootenanny and Let It Be, took them out of Minnesota and into the limelight of NYC’s CBGBs/Maxwell’s rock scene. However, the turbulent relationships within their band and with their fans caused them to fizzle out faster than they should have, and they ended things after seven albums. Not one even cracked the top 50 on the charts. (Though, Don’t Tell a Soul single “I’ll Be You” did manage to top the Billboard Modern Rock and Album Rock Tracks.) Still, their honest lyrics and loose garage sound gave them a lasting impression on rock music, and their forthcoming reunion at the upcoming Riot Fests give fans new hope for new music.
Here are some credentials for PJ Harvey: four-time Mercury Prize nominee, two-time Mercury Prize winner (only artist to ever do that, and first solo female artist to ever win), Rolling Stone‘s Best New Artist, Best Singer-Songwriter, and Artist of the Year, six-time Grammy nominee, and even an MBE for contribution to British music. All of her albums have reached the top-25 in the UK–half of which hit the top-11—but one never hit #1 anywhere (Rid of Me hit #3 in the UK, and only one, Uh-huh Her, made top-30 in the US). How can someone with so many accolades and so much support never reach that pedestal? She has two albums, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea and Let England Shake, that have been named essential albums and topped year-end lists, but neither reached higher than #25 and #8, respectively. These albums have completely different feelings, one a beautiful pop relationship album and the other a dark treatise on the horrors of war, but like Fiona Apple, Harvey has an endless font of talent from which to draw, and no matter what she’ll shake you.
If Pavement left their mark on the ’90s, then the ’80s and everything since has belonged to The Ramones. New York City’s finest showed every rebellious kid in the US that even if you didn’t have the musical knowledge or the rock star good looks, you could still rock. Yet, the only album of theirs to be certified any sort of precious metal distinction was a compilation collection called Ramones Mania. Let’s go over that once more: Even though they’ve been named by Spin as the second greatest band of all time (behind The Beatles), and if it weren’t for them, Billie Joe Armstrong and Greg Ginn would’ve never picked up guitars, they never reached the top-10 in any country on any chart. They’ll live on as an influence, as the closest thing you can get to The Ramones is former drummer Marky Ramone and Andrew WK touring as Blitzkrieg, or Tommy Ramone playing bluegrass with his wife. Pick your poison.
For the most part, the bands on this list didn’t strike me as a huge surprise. They’re all praiseworthy, and they’ve all released some of the best albums to date, but some are a little under the radar, so it’s understandable that they never attained that coveted #1. When it comes to The Clash, however, I was absolutely dumbstruck.
The most pivotal punk band of all time, one of the most pivotal bands period. They released one of the most important albums of the last four decades (London Calling) and changed the musical landscape forever. They’re in the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame, and if it weren’t for them, there would be no U2, no Billy Bragg, no Rancid, Bad Religion, Massive Attack, or even LCD Soundsystem. Hell, toss in M.I.A. or Diplo, too. Their political punk rock, their use/experimentation with dubstep (the real dubstep), and their various fusions with reggae were paramount to future groups.
On two different occasions, they almost had a #1 album: 1978′s Give Em Enough Rope and 1982′s twice-platinum Combat Rock, which both reached #2 on the UK charts. Stateside, the highest in the US was Combat Rock, and not even London Calling made it past #9. Unfortunately with Joe Strummer’s death, there won’t be any chances for that #1. However, The Clash is the perfect example of how flawed these charts are and how much they don’t necessarily dictate anything resembling taste. Bottom line: A world where Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus have more #1 albums than The Clash, well, that’s a world seriously fucked.