Those unfamiliar with outsider music would likely know it if they heard some. Coined out of sheer necessity by disc jockey and writer Irwin Chusid — effectively a modern day Alan Lomax for this sort of thing — what makes an album or song fit this somewhat amorphous category comes from the unconventionality of both the sounds and the person or persons making them. The term’s broad remit encompasses a deliberately vast and disparate range of artists, including American Idol hopeful William Hung, lo-fi royalty Half Japanese, synthesizer-fixated street musician the Space Lady and plain ol’ weirdos the Godz.
There is a certain unintentional vulgarity that comes with labeling something outsider, an inherent othering that speaks to decades if not centuries of bias in the arts. We praise accepted archetypes like the studio-polished pop singer, the streetwise rapper, and the aspirational garage rocker. Yet the universality of live and recorded music provides a potential to touch the lives of those who don’t easily fit the established narratives. Any perceived amateurism on the part of these individuals or groups speak more to the stigmatization of difference than to their talent or lack thereof.
Though the media continues to tell us otherwise, music does not belong solely to the cool and perfectly coiffed. Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, innovations in home recording and the relative accessibility of studios made it increasingly possible for presumed outsiders to express themselves creatively through song. The breaking down of barriers to entry in both recording and distribution meant that these artists at least had the opportunity to be heard, however slim.
More often than not, affectionate co-signs and curatorial efforts by better placed admirers helped nudge these artists in front of comparatively wider listening audiences. Chusid’s Songs in the Key of Z compilations serve as invaluable introductions to several such artists including Jandek, Eilert Pilarm and Shooby Taylor. When groundbreaking experimental act Nurse With Wound released the confounding yet seminal debut Chance Meeting on a Dissecting Table of a Sewing Machine and an Umbrella, the release came accompanied by a now-infamous list of mostly obscure and avant-garde musical influences. During his time in the spotlight, Kurt Cobain professed unabashedly genuine praise for Daniel Johnston and the Shaggs, among others, while Ariel Pink championed Donnie Emerson by covering one of his then-largely unknown tunes.
While hardly a complete list, the following 10 selections represent a modest swath of outsider artists for listeners curious enough to venture down this relatively unbeaten path of discovery. Befitting the nature of this music, some of these albums may prove potentially difficult to find in our desired format, but surely the ambitious crate diggers and record collectors reading these words relish a good challenge.
Part of what makes Dreamin' Wild such a strange record stems from the duo's sincere attempt at the normalcy of their times. Coming from a slightly off-center view, the Brothers Emerson took their golden mainstream influences and transmuted them a few steps in the leaden direction. Doling out '70s soft rock saccharine enough to make Gary Wright blush, their album feels familiar and welcoming. Following decades in a status a few layers below obscurity, collectors and musicians alike got hip to the self-released record in the 2000s, especially mesmerized by balladic highlight "Baby." Light In The Attic’s 2012 reissue found Dreamin' Wild its long-desired audience and considerable critical acclaim, prompting a subsequent release of unreleased archival material.
In the mid-'80s, Homestead Records released seminal records from Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth and Big Black. But one of the most unusual releases in the label’s discography came from siblings Jimmy and Dennis Flemion. Comprised of crude home recordings, their 1989 concept album took satirical jabs at socially conservative attitudes and stereotypes regarding homosexuality with songs like “I’ve Got Drugs” and “Richard Dick Richards.” Unlikely to receive as warm a reception in today’s contentious and considerate climate, back in the day the Frogs nonetheless counted some of alt rock’s biggest names among their fans, including Billy Corgan and Eddie Vedder. Notably, Beck’s 1996 hit “Where It's At” sampled part of “I Don’t Care If U Disrespect Me.”
The narrative romanticism rock critics casually afford to so-called tortured geniuses rarely extends to those living with mental illness. This troubled singer-songwriter lives as an exception to the rule, beloved by indie rockers and discerning listeners alike for his bewildering and beguiling sounds. For a thorough overview, the critically acclaimed 2006 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston delves into his world, musical and otherwise. But the best place to start in his lengthy discography is this originally self-released recording from 1983. Labeled an unfinished album, the manic yet compelling folk-blues record features Johnston alone, his distinctively high voice self-accompanied sometimes by chord organ, piano, or guitar. Highlights include “Poor You” and “Walking The Cow,” the latter subsequently covered repeatedly by admirers like Mike Watt and TV On The Radio.
A commonly occurring phenomenon in the propagation of outsider music happens when other musicians or producers from a more conventional track seek to collaborate in some way. The results of these often one-off partnerships range from professionally recorded studio versions of the artist’s desired vision to even more radical genre experiments afforded by the opportunity. This record from the California street performer, cable-access host, and Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! puppeteer falls into the latter category, setting his idiosyncratic lyrical obsessions mostly to a pop punk beat. Beyond his usual topics of alien races and lovelorn existence, Liebe Hart lists his grievances with bureaucracy on “Santa Monica Pier” and pays tender tribute to the titular television star on “Betty White.”
Words can prove elusive when trying to describe the music of Luis Johnston. Known for bringing his one-man nightclub band Luie Luie to willing venues, the Southern Californian made his own brand of highly listenable instrumental jazz funk, encapsulated well on 1974’s Touchy. The title represents more than just the original dance craze he sought (and failed) to inspire, but a veritable manifesto of our innate desires for human contact. Songs begin with Johnston reciting his insightful, almost philosophical missives on everything from Egyptian pyramids to his mother’s homemade tortillas, before kicking into a swinging lounge groove. While at times he sounds like a well-meaning barfly rambling towards last call, his hopefulness and positivity make the album a unique joy to hear.
From “Surfin Bird” to “Mambo No. 5” to “What Does The Fox Say,” every generation has its so-called novelty hits. An aspiring amateur born too early for karaoke, Elva Miller tapped into our collective fleeting fascination with the seemingly ordinary as respite from the extraordinary perfection of celebrity. On her big 1966 single "Downtown" and her Beatles cover "A Hard Day's Night," the Californian’s penchant for showy exaggerated vibrato sometimes leaves her chasing the beat. Her unvarnished sound resembles that of many of us singing along at a concert or alone at home in the shower. Essentially, Miller's only sin is a passionate appreciation for pop, the music booming from the stereos of her time.
Endorsed by everyone from Kimya Dawson to Dr. Demento, this teenaged trio endears as much as it unintentionally repels. Recorded at the insistence of their father, the Wiggin sisters' trebly 1969 debut is characterized by off-key harmonizing and out-of-step drumming. An imperfect emulation of garage rock and pop group aesthetics, the record teems with family friendly fare like "Who Are Parents?" and whimsically nonsensical numbers like "My Pal Foot Foot." More than mere curio or artifact, Philosophy Of The World actually portends the shape of punk to come, an early exemplar of the coming wave of artists engagingly playing their instruments without the benefit of technical savvy or formal training.
Though the self-described 20th century troubadour may not have written his biggest single, Tiny Tim nonetheless made the old timey pop ditty “Tip-Toe Thru' The Tulips With Me” his own, furthermore taking it to No. 17 on the Billboard singles chart. His chosen moniker a pun on his above average height, he gleefully played this up on his 1968 debut album by making the diminutive ukulele his instrument of choice, plucking and strumming away at Irving Berlin and Sonny Bono numbers while warbling his sleeve-worn sentiments in a peculiar falsetto. Based off this, he became a television talk show favorite, assuredly in on the gag even when treated like one.
Beyond his work as a leftist rabble rouser in the Dead Kennedys and other noble endeavors, Jello Biafra repeatedly proved a champion for the unconventionally talented, his Alternative Tentacles label putting out albums by Dot Wiggin of the Shaggs and this atypical Chicagoan. With a diagnosis of schizophrenia and a habit of headbutting, Willis became a cult figure thanks in no small part to this release. The songs largely follow a certain formula of explanatory spoken verses and tunelessly sung choruses, the latter simply the song’s title repeated again and again. His “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the inventive “Rock N Roll McDonalds” uses the Windy City landmark as inspiration to share nutritional information over one of his many keyboard preset demos.
Roughly 200 miles from the thriving punk rock scene at CBGBs, Gary Wilson recorded this album in the basement of his parents’ Endicott, NY home. Probably the most bizarre record on this whole list, 1977’s You Think You Really Know Me demonstrates the artist’s experimental, extraterrestrial efforts to make girl crazy synthesizer pop. The son of a lounge musician, Wilson emerges as a sort of Suicide sans punk replaced with smooth elevator soul jazz and a knack for bubblegum incidentally shared with Martin Rev himself. His baffling, pleading refrains on "6.4 = Make Out" repeat in whispers, moans, and shouts. On "Loneliness," he delivers insectoid funk in sucked mutters of fantasized self harm on the way down the drain.
Born, raised and still living in New York City, Gary Suarez writes about music and culture for a variety of publications. Since 1999, his work has appeared in various outlets including Forbes, High Times, Rolling Stone, Vice and Vulture, among others. In 2020, he founded the independent hip-hop newsletter and podcast, Cabbages.