When B-Sides Are Best: 10 Great Classic Rock Rarities Albums

Cutouts and castoffs that beat other bands’ best-of’s.

Just as the smaller packaging of CDs decimated the art of elaborate and intricate album covers in the 1990s, today’s online music has diminished the once-prevalent practice of artists assembling their B-sides, cut-outs, and other “lost” recordings into official rarities collections.

Sure, it’s easier now to find one-off songs on the Internet, but the time has mostly passed when a band would unearth their own buried treasures, arrange them as a formal album, and then share the end result as a proper artistic statement (one recent exception, among others, has been Soundgarden’s recent Echo of Miles).

Let’s look back, then, on ten of the greatest “odds and sods” albums by classic rock artists that will, no doubt, necessarily include the Who’s Odds & Sods.

  1. Rarities – Rod Stewart (2013)

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    “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Man”

    After redefining himself in recent years as a premiere interpreter of pre-Elvis pop standards via his Great American Songbook albums, Rod Stewart reminded the world that he’s also one of the absolute supreme rock vocalists with his double-disc, 24-track release, Rarities.

    Opening with a cover of Bobby Womack’s “It’s All Over Now” (the same song the Stones turned into their own hit), Rarities is a blast of the untouchable years in between Rod the Mod of the Faces and Rod the Bod following “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” Other knockouts include live numbers (“Country Comfort”), early versions of future anthems (“Maggie May”) and extraordinary covers on the order of the gender-flipped Aretha Franklin standard, “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Man.”

  2. Best of the ‘B’ Sides – Iron Maiden (2002)

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    “Cross-Eyed Mary”

    Metal’s mightiest open an amazing window into their ideas and influences with Best of the ‘B’ Sides, a disc from their box set Eddie’s Archive. Arranged chronologically from 1980’s “Burning Ambition” to “Wasted Years ’99,” the full gamut includes live cuts, alternate takes, and interesting covers.

    Among the latter are vocalist Bruce Dickinson wailing on Jethro Tull’s “Cross-Eyed Mary” (arguably the collection’s best track), Led Zeppelin’s “Communication Breakdown,” Free’s “I’m a Mover,” and Budgie’s “I Can’t See My Feelings;” later singer Blaze Bayley takes on the Who’s “My Generation” and UFO’s “Doctor Doctor.”

    Noteworthy departures from the signature Maiden sound include “The Sheriff of Huddersfield,” “Black Bart Blues,” and “Nodding Donkey Blues.”

  3. Rarities – The Beatles (1978)

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    “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)”

    The late-’70s/early-’80s saw an onslaught of cash-in Beatles compilations, from 1977’s Love Songs on through about 1982’s Reel Music. In the midst of this, Rarities emerged. For the most part, it, too, is a money grab, boasting mostly familiar songs in slightly or even unnoticeably different versions (a mono cut of “Love Me Do,” for example, or “Penny Lane” with an extra trumpet solo at the end).

    The handful of bona fide rarities, though, made Rarities worthwhile in the decades before YouTube and file sharing wiped out tape trading. One is “Sie Liebt Dich,” a German-language recording of “She Loves You;” another is “The Inner Light” by George Harrison, which originally ran as the B-side on the “Lady Madonna” single.

    The one genuine standout, though, is “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)” an absurdist John Lennon composition that blends British Music Hall comedy with “Revolution Number 9” sound collages, lounge jazz, cartoon effects, wacky accents, and the Beatles’ signature cheeky tweaking of upright sensibilities.

    Paul McCartney even once claimed the song “might be my favorite Beatles track.” He explained of its evolution: “It’s so insane. I mean, what would you do if a guy like John Lennon turned up at the studio and said, ’I’ve got a new song’? I said, ’What’s the words?’ and he replied ’You know my name look up the number’. I asked, ’What’s the rest of it?’ ’No, no other words, those are the words. And I want to do it like a mantra!”

  4. Dead Letter Office – R.E.M. (1987)

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    “Toys in the Attic”

    The same year college radio favorites U2 rocketed to superstardom with The Joshua Tree and the Smiths begat their fan-beloved outtakes comp Louder Than Bombs, the band that first broke that sound and attitude into the mainstream, R.E.M., issued not only their own ticket to the top, Document, but also a first-rate assemblage of B-sides and trunk pieces, Dead Letter Office.

    The cleverly named collection boasts three Velvet Underground covers (“There She Goes Again,” “Pale Blue Eyes,” and “Femme Fatale”), a take on Roger Miller’s “King of the Road” and, most impressively, a run through Aerosmith’s “Toys in the Attic” that comes off as neither imitation nor mockery, but actually makes that crazy, punk-paced, rip-roarer sound convincingly like an R.E.M. song.

  5. Pisces Iscariot – Smashing Pumpkins (1994)

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    “Landslide”

    Cresting in between their two definitive LPs, 1993’s Siamese Dream and 1995’s Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, the Smashing Pumpkins scored platinum sales with their sonic scrapbook, Pisces Iscariot.

    Mined mostly from songs that just missed making it on to official Pumpkins releases, Pisces Iscariot proved to be as a strong a standalone song cycle as any of the group’s proper albums. The Fleetwood Mac cover “Landslide” was the radio hit, but numbers such as “Plume,” “Obscured,” and “Bullet Train to Osaka” are right on par with the Pumpkins’ best and most familiar classics of the decade that they rockingly helped to define.

  6. Lost Dogs – Pearl Jam (2003)

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    “Yellow Ledbetter”

    The two-disc Lost Dogs brings together thirty nuggets of Pearl Jam rarities with a light touch and even carefree attitude atypical of a band that, on the surface at least, often comes across so severely serious.

    “Yellow Ledbetter,” whose initial B-side status and subsequent radio familiarity turned “Jeremy” into a double-sided hit single, is here, along with the teen-pop car crash cover “Last Kiss,” which caught on as a smash after coming out as a 1998 fan club Christmas release.

    Elsewhere, Lost Dogs features Pearl Jam uncharacteristically cutting loose and letting the rock take them where it wants to go, more often mirroring the raucous and unpredictable nature of the group’s live performances than their meticulously constructed studio recordings.

    One breath-taker of special note is “04/20/02,” the album-ending hidden track that pays tribute to deceased Alice in Chains frontman Layne Staley. Here, Pearl Jam’s intensity and sincerity sears at its most moving and powerful.

  7. Flashback – Joan Jett (1993)

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    “Cherry Bomb” – Joan Jett with L7

    Joan Jett’s Flashback compilation goes heavy on covers but then so, too, does the list of the most familiar hits by rock’s supreme rebel queen (“I Love Rock-n-Roll,” “Crimson and Clover,” “Do You Wanna Touch Me,” “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap”).

    As such, Flashback is nearly unequaled as a tribute album, with Joan paying properly raucous homage to her rock heroes. Among those she salutes are David Bowie (“Rebel Rebel”), the Rolling Stones (“Star Star”), the Who (“Call Me Lightning”), Sam Cooke (“Bring It on Home”), and Eddie Cochran (“Summertime Blues”).

    Flashback also twists the Sex Pistols’ anti-label screed “EMI” into “MCA” and features Joan joining L7 on a volcanic detonation of the Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb.”

  8. Missing Links, Volume Two – The Monkees (1990)

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    “Some of Shelly’s Blues”

    While elitists might always sniff that the Monkees were a “fake” group assembled for a kiddie TV show, anyone with working ears has long recognized that “the Prefab Four” ruled as one of the 1960s’ most towering forces in pop music, generating hits upon hits that continue to resonate today.

    The Monkees’ three-volume Missing Links collections unearth all manner of outstanding oddities and adventurous efforts from the groups discard piles.

    Volume Two especially stands out as a showcase for the extraordinary singer-songwriter skills of Michael Nesmith, whose pioneering efforts in the field of country-rock should rightly rank alongside Gram Parsons and Townes Van Zandt, but, sadly, his rep will be forever clouded by snobs who still feel the need to bemoan his Monkee-dom.

    As Nesmith sings in one of the Monkees’ coolest hits, though, listen to the band. Nesmith’s pair of Western-twanged ballads on Missing Links Volume Two are drop-dead gorgeous and heart-achingly powerful “St. Matthew” and “Some of Shelley’s Blues.” There’s also Mike’s live proto-punk earth-scorcher “Circle Sky.” To be moved by these songs is to never again merely regard Nesmith as just that goof in the wool hat.

  9. Incesticide – Nirvana (1992)

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    “Sliver”

    Suddenly the saviors of rock-and-roll and the instant voice of their generation, Nirvana filled the space between their 1991 game-changer Nevermind and their 1993 curtain-closer In Utero with Incesticide, a formal gathering of off-the-radar items that had been heavily circulating among tape-traders and underground fans.

    The record contains two indisputable classics, the Sub Pop Singles Club releases “Sliver” and “Molly’s Lips.” “(New Wave) Polly” is a sped-up take on Nevermind’s creep-ballad “Polly” that got some radio play.

    “Dive” and “Big Long Now” feature original drummer Chad Channing, while Melvins drummer Dale Crover keeps the beat on five tracks total (of those “Beeswax” and “Mexican Seafood” rock hardest).

    All told, Incesticide is a must not just for Nirvana-philes but all hard rock fans. It’s a stunning snapshot of how the punk-metal crossover pioneered a decade earlier by Metallica and their thrash brethren had evolved to incorporate college radio, classic rock, ’70s pop, and other seemingly disparate influences into the cultural powder keg that these three Seattleites finally ignited.

    As a side note, Incesticide also includes liner notes by “Kurdt” (Cobain’s homage to Metal Church guitarist Kurdt Vanderhoof) that stirred some controversy by seeming to chastise the mass influx of new Nirvana fans and expressing mixed feelings about his role in the rock-and-roll machine. Sadly, Cobain went on to explore the latter even more explicitly two years later, by way of his suicide note.

  10. Odds & Sods – The Who (1974)

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    “Long Live Rock”

    With Odds & Sods, the Who provided the rest of rock with textbook definition of how to properly rarities collection, to the point that the term “odds and sods” is often used as shorthand to describe any such other compilations.

    While Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, and Keith Moon were preoccupied with making the Tommy movie, Who bassist John “Ox” Entwistle constructed Odds & Sods while from piles of largely unmarked tapes. There’s not a dud in the bunch he put together. Nearly as extraordinary are Townshend’s liner notes, wherein the Who mastermind goes further than most other rock stars would ever dare with his unvarnished assessment of each song.

    Among Odds & Sods’ rare gems: Entwistle’s album-opening romp-and-stomp “Postcard;” “I’m the Face,” a bluesy rave-up from the group’s pre-Who days as the High Numbers; “Little Billy” an anti-smoking tune composed for the American Cancer Society that sounds like it could be one of the strongest tracks on Tommy; the soaring “Glow Girl,” and “Faith in Something Bigger,” an epic-scaled ballad that arose from Townshend’s spiritual searching.

    Broadest, boldest, and best of all is the anthemic “Long Live Rock,” a sassy boogie slide that sashays into a booming chorus with the power to smash a thousand Gibson Les Pauls on impact from miles (and miles and miles) away.

    Odds & Sods ranks high among the Who’s greatest releases, which means it ranks high among the greaetst releases in rock history, period. And when it comes to these sods, there’s nothing odd about that.

Mike McPadden is the author of the book "HEAVY METAL MOVIES: Guitar Barbarians, Mutant Bimbos, and Cult Zombies Amok in the 666 Most Ear- and Eye-Ripping Big Scream Films Ever!" (Bazillion Points, 2014).