I got a few emails during our break from distraught readers who got iTunes gift cards from Santa with no idea how to spend them. We should all have such problems! Santa put some of those gift cards in my stocking this year as well, and I always see them as an opportunity to either round out my music collection with back catalogues of my favorite artists, or guilty pleasures that are not worthy of my cash in normal circumstances. A word to the wise - never mix Scotch, a computer and iTunes at 4 a.m. You wake up the next morning with socks on your teeth and the Barry Manilow Christmas album on your hard drive. But I digress. Your emails got me thinking of some lesser-known albums that I've amassed in my collection by our favorite Irish artists. I assume if you like this kind of music and read this column with any degree of regularity you likely have all the usual suspects like Van Morrison and the Chieftains' "Irish Heartbeat," U2's "Joshua Tree" and Sinead O'Connor's "Lion and Cobra." There are plenty of albums made in recent years by some of the biggest acts in this green genre that were criminally neglected by the record buying/downloading public, and those gift cards burning a hole in your pocket might be the perfect vehicle for us to right those wrongs, one click at a time. For whatever reason, these titles never caught on and were banished to the bargain bin way before their time. Sometimes critics don't get it right. Heck, I'm not even sure if I trashed some of these albums when they first came out; if I did, I apologize to the artists. Some things take longer to sink in than others, and music, like wine, can sometimes improve with age. So, submitted for your approval is a list of albums that, to paraphrase a Rudolf the Red Nose Reindeer cartoon, ended up on the island of misfit toys. You've got nothing to lose if someone already paid for the gift card, and you can always try before you buy on iTunes (or most download services). What are you waiting for? Click away! The Cranberries, "Wake Up and Smell the Coffee" After four albums in the span of six years, Dolores O'Riordan and her Limerick chums had completely run out of gas when they made "Bury the Hatchet" in 1999. Fans buried the band prematurely at that point, which probably explains why almost no one bought this next album when it was released in 2001. The title track has the tight, guitar driven chord structure that made them explode in the first place, while "Time Is Ticking Out" is a brilliant, socially conscious ditty sitting atop a wickedly funky bass line. "Chocolate Brown" is a gauzy, gorgeous ballad that showcases the bottomless cup of emotion that O'Riordan sips from. Recently, I made a playlist on my iPod that included this album and the Cranberries' first one, "Everyone Else Is Doing It"....The experiment was to see how their last album stacked up to their first and the results shocked me. I preferred this one. See for yourself! Van Morrison, "The Philosopher's Stone" Originally planned to be included in a box set, Van felt so strongly about the strength of these unreleased songs that he decided to make them into a new release in 1998. Smart move on his part and a bargain to be had on your part. The album is a total bargain on iTunes with 30 songs going for a paltry $9.99. You get 25 unreleased songs that are actually some of his best work; what a mind-blower it is that these tracks lay on some cutting room floor while lesser artists would sell their soul to come up with something this good! "Swallow the hurt/listen to the dirt/and you'll be safe and sound" Van advises on "Not Supposed to Break Down," an acoustic gem that would sound perfectly at home on the "Moondance" album. There are also alternate tracks of songs like "Real, Real, Gone" and "Bright Side of the Road" which gives fans a rare peek at the creative process of near misses that leads to the greatness that makes him Van the Man, with a capital "M." Luka Bloom, "Innocence" This is one of the first albums Bloom released as a free agent, and I bet the record companies mourned the loss of this classic. Harmonicas, acoustic basses, fiddles and the occasional flute are injected into the coffee house cool of Christy Moore's younger brother. Moore made Bloom's "City of Chicago" a famous song, and the author takes a stab at it with marvelous results. "No matter where you go, there you are" is a tongue-in-cheek delight, while "Gypsy Music" sets a sexy Middle Eastern vibe to spice up a near perfect collection. Snow Patrol, "When This Is Over We Will Have to Clean Up" Their first album was completely forgettable and their third album would make them famous, but this brilliant bit fell almost unnoticed in the middle. Their second album begins to spin the gold that would eventually become "Final Straw," pairing alt-rock melodies with heartbreak and longing. "Never Gonna Fall in Love Again" sounds like a dated Squeeze song from the eighties, while the sinister "Last Ever Lone Gunman" is 10 times better than the hits they play on the radio by Snow Patrol nowadays. The Pogues, "Streams of Whiskey" (Live in Leysin, Switzerland 1991) The band has pleaded with fans on their official website to steer clear of this unauthorized sound board show from their late period, so in the spirit of punk rock that they pioneered, I am thumbing my nose at the authorities on this one. Shane put away an ocean of whiskey for this "Streams of Whiskey" concert, and that elegantly wasted imp slurs his way through a ferocious set that includes "Dirty Old Town" and a train wreck version of "If I Should Fall From Grace With God." Perhaps the band might get around to releasing an official live CD that captures their triumphant latter day reunion tours. Until then click your mouse through this stream of ragged glory. The Corrs, "Borrowed Heaven" Released in 2004, this album yielded the least amount of hits for the Dundalk hotties, but there was a level of maturity in the songwriting that lurked beneath the airbrushed electronica and thin melodies. "Angel" is a touching tribute to their mother, a spirited fiddle arrangement shaking off the tears as the group celebrates its matriarch. "Summer Sunshine" is pure, top-down driving fun, while tracks like "Baby Be Brave" and "Hideaway" allow the group to get in touch with their inner ABBA. The Saw Doctors, "Villains" Sure, we all have the "Sing a Powerful Song" greatest hits collection from 1997, but many fans (like this one) think they started delivering their best stuff and playing their best shows after that. "Villains" had something for everyone. Searing social commentary on the drug epidemic in Ireland (the title track), musings of country life ("Chips") and sunny slices of alternative rock ("This Is Me"). Hothouse Flowers, "Into Your Heart" This came in 2004, six years after their "Born" collection died. Each song dripped with soul. "Santa Monica" simmered like the hot sun on that famous beach, while "Magic Bracelets" wove gorgeous, abstract poetry with a gospel chorus guaranteed to put a lump in your throat. This band was supposed to be the next U2 when they burst on the scene in 1988. The songs on "Into Your Heart" and the tours that followed since then has you rooting for the day when that promise is fulfilled. In fact, I just downloaded the album while I was writing this!
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