So I finally got around to watching Searching for Sugar Man. The Oscar-winning documentary tells the story of Sixto Rodriguez, a singer-songwriter who released two albums in the early ’70s that were ignored everywhere but South Africa, where bootlegged cassettes turned him into a national hero. The movie illustrates everything I love about music: how objects with sounds on them acquire unexpected significance, inspiring movement, community and rebirth. It made me smile. It made me cry. It sent me straight to Spotify.
Maybe I was too eager to establish my own connection with Rodriguez, but my love for the guy fizzled before I could even get to a record store. His music felt same-y almost immediately, lots of repeated verses filled with mediocre poetry, all sung in a nasal voice devoid of range. Without the movie’s context—mythic testimonials, animated sequences, the political backdrop of Cape Town in the ’70s and ’80s—Rodriguez sounded like a third-tier troubadour, and his lack of recognition felt more justified than criminal.
Web culture provided aspiring musicians the chance to place their work in the public eye without needing a record deal, and now it’s offering second chances to handfuls of artists whose careers were overlooked, for whatever reason, by the music industry’s old guard. In addition to similar documentaries like Anvil! The Story of Anvil and A Band Called Death, about botched big breaks and the peril of being ahead of one’s time, we have reissue labels like Numero Group and Light in the Attic, dedicated to rescuing worthy legacies from the historical scrap heap. These packages aren’t just about music. They’re about rediscovery, reinvention, redemption.
But I still buy these things for the music, and the problem is, the liner notes can be more compelling than the tunes. William Onyeabor, a Nigerian keyboardist who recorded eight albums before renouncing music for Jesus in the mid-’80s, was recently celebrated on the Luaka Bop anthology Who Is William Onyeabor? As a friend noted after seeing the cover, “An African, in a cowboy hat, playing synthesizer—how could it be bad?” It’s not bad, but aside from three excellent songs, the rest is repetitive and not half as memorable as Fantastic Man, the half-hour documentary about Onyeabor’s mysterious life. (Besides, if it’s African electronica you crave, check out Francis Bebey, also in the midst of a micro-revival.)
The most intriguing back-from-the-dead tale of 2014, however, belonged to an enigmatic, elusive, bare-chested blond named Lewis, who privately pressed a small stack of spare, seductive, ultra-moody pop records in the early ’80s before vanishing without a trace. Of the three Lewis records that surfaced this year, only L’Amour—imagine Nick Drake, as a lounge singer, with narcolepsy—is worth your interest. It conjures a rich fantasy, like it was made by a boyfriend who rented a studio to sing a love letter, one that turned out better than anyone expected. Unfortunately, the other two releases suck, hinting that Lewis was more likely just a bad crooner and wannabe jetsetter, the type of guy who wears a white suit while posing next to the white Mercedes and a white Learjet, neither of which he owns.