The great thing about music is that because there is so much of it, unless you are an absolute maniac who works in Championship Vinyl you will never be able to know all of it.
Films are different. There’s only a finite amount of films that can get released in cinemas so even if it comes out and bombs, there’s a good chance you will have heard of it – and generally if they bomb (and I mean really bomb) it’s not because it couldn’t find an audience, it’s because it was no good. But music? even before iTunes there was a seemingly infinite number of albums released in such a range of genres that an overwhelming majority never see the warmth of the Top 1oo, but which has absolute zero reflection on their quality.
As such it means any good music listener can have an obscure favourite. A song that they like, but which most people have forgotten, never heard of, or just didn’t think much of it when it came out.
When I was younger my obscure favourite was Prefab Sprout’s “Cars and Girls”. It was a song that in 1988 got a bit of airplay, but didn’t chart. So by the early 90s I could mention it and my friends would give me a vague look of understanding, but also a query as to why I liked it. And that’s music: sure there are those who like films that are not all that good – heck I wrote a whole post on dumb-fun films but if I say – hey Sahara is on, let’s watch it. You might question my taste and/or sanity, but you won’t be asking “Sahara? Never heard of it”.
The key to a good “obscure favourite” is it can’t have charted – and if it did only very briefly, and only very minimally. One hit wonders cannot be obscure favourites. You get no points for saying, “Oh wow “Drops of Jupiter”, I love this song!”. But you could possibly pick say Jerry Harrison’s “Man With a Gun” – it only got to 17 on the charts, but pretty quickly disappeared. You can’t even download it on iTunes Australia (but you can from the US iTunes – geez I hate that about iTunes). But even still you’re on shaky ground, after all it was quite popular – a bit too popular to be obscure.
You also can’t pick an album track of a popular band – it doesn't matter whether or not Dylan, The Beatles, The Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, U2, R.E.M or The Clash released a song as a single or not – they’re out. There may be exception if the song is better known by its cover – such as Bruce Springsteen’s version of “Blinded by the Light”. You possibly could also pick an obscure cover – such as Magnet and Jemma Hayes version of “Lay, Lady Lay” but it was on the soundtrack for Mr and Mrs Smith, so that pretty much kills it’s obscure status. Ditto the version of Buddy Holly’s Everyday by Rogue Wave, because that has been in a couple films now, and don;’ even try with the version of “Radiohead’s “Creep” by Scala and Kolacny Brothers that was on the trailer for The Social Network (soundtracks are murder for obscure favourites)
You also can’t pick a song which was popular to a sub-set of the population – especially uni students. So that pretty well rules out anything by Tism. And try not to be too “ooh look at me, I know music” about it – so saying you love “Yeh Jo Halka Halka Suroor Hai” by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is great, but it is a tiny bit wanky (there’s always that danger though with obscure favourites)
But you have to be careful not to go too obscure. You can’t for example pick “No New York” by 1980’s Japanese band Boowy, because unless you were an exchange student in Japan in the 1980s you’re unlikely to have come across it, so that’s kind of cheating. And besides it’;s 1980s Jpop so you’re unlikely to get anyone thinking, wow that is cool (and that is kind of the whole point of obscure favourites)
Similarly you can’t pick a band which put out a CD that was available in about three shops in Adelaide in 1995. Because while Aunty Raelene may have been a great uni band, unless you’re able to go back in time to Adelaide Uni Battle of the Bands circa 1991, you’re not going to be able to hear them belt out “World Bank” so it;s not much use having that as your pick.
I first heard my obscure favourite on Triple J (the home of obscure favourites) in a car one day in 1994. I didn’t catch the name of it, but it just clicked in the way that only songs can click. I didn’t hear it again for about three years but I could remember some of the lines, and the opening few bars. And then one day (I remember very clearly) I was driving back to my place in a mate’s car and we were flicking through the channel on the radio when once again Triple J were playing it. I stopped the flicking of channels told my mate “I love this song"!” and he listened all the while I know thinking, “umm yeah… it’s…great”.
And of course the DJ did not say the name of the song.
Fortunately by now the internet was around and so I was able to search for the lyrics (before Google so it was a bit trickier) and thus I discovered that my obscure favourite was “Screenwriter’s Blues” by Soul Coughing.
Soul Coughing’s music style is described on Wikipedia as “a willfully idiosyncratic mix of improvisational jazz grooves, oddball samples, hip-hop, electronics, and noisy experimentalism (described by Doughty as 'deep slacker jazz').”
So yeah, they have Top 50 written all over them.
“Screenwriter’s Blues “doesn’t have a video (a good tip that it is obscure enough) and tells a bizarre story about life in Hollywood/LA. I’ve only been to LA once – back in 2001 for a week. We stayed in a very dingy student hostel just off of Hollywood Bldv. I have to say walking around the fairly unglamorous part of Hollywood Blvd late at night felt like Screenwriter’s Blues was playing in my head. It perfectly captures the mood of late, late night seedy LA. It also has a great jazz rhythm.
It’s my obscure favourite.