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Gems from the Dollar Bin ft. Michael Franks, Martha & the Muffins, MFSB, and more!

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DM
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Photo via Hit City USA

Part 3 of our series highlighting hidden gems from your local record store’s bargain bin.

In the record collecting community, there’s an idea that to build a great collection, you must dig deep for expensive, rare, first press, private press, exclusively international, etc. records. But there’s a ton of crucial cheap (we mean $5-or-less cheap) records sitting in the so-called dollar bins.

The dollar bin: It stands neglected in a corner of most record stores, and will often hold many LPs near and dear to us. We’ve got an affinity for these beloved titles, which have been relegated to the cheap section due to a mix of abundance and ambivalence. Whether due to their availability or invisibility, their cheapness doesn’t necessarily reflect their value. Many so-called throwaways can contain one or two huge tunes that you can’t believe have been  overlooked or snobbishly dismissed, and such discoveries lead to different kinds of epiphanies.

Whether it be a one-tracker, multi-tracker or a solid full listen, below are more records easily found, with a little patience, for under $5.

China Crisis – Flaunt the Imperfection (1985)

Co-produced by Steely Dan’s Walter Becker (who is cheekily credited as a member of China Crisis in the album’s liner notes), Flaunt remains one of the best 80’s synth-pop gems hiding in the clearance section. The third release by the Liverpool group is a through-and-through pop masterpiece, featuring lush Steely-like production and elegant melodic sophistication. Best, it’s versatile enough to cater a lively dance floor or spin as an uptempo home-listen alike.  

Martha and the Muffins – Mystery Walk (1984)

Pick them all up really: Almost every M+M release can be found in the dollar bin and within each is at least one or two incredible tracks. Led, coincidentally, by two vocalists named Martha, the Canadian new wave group only saw international recognition for their 1979 “Echo Beach” but recorded a slew of dreamy guitar records throughout the ’80s. Most of them were produced by Canadian super-producer Daniel Lanois, who has worked with artists ranging from Neil Young to Brian Eno. We selected Mystery Walk for a particular reason, however: the album holds one of ISC’s most celebrated dollar bin tracks. The Balearic, meditative, and fourth-world-conjuring “Garden in the Sky,” a song we have in an infinite queue and return to regularly. It’s a piece so heartbreakingly beautiful that it still amazes us to see it floating around stores for just a handful of quarters. 

Michael Franks – Art of Tea (1976)

The quintessential dinner soundtrack, The Art of Tea encapsulates the best of Michael Franks. With an elite group of jazz side-men, the guitarist explores a range of styles, jumping from slow-funk (“Monkey See, Monkey Do”), swing (“Jive” and the minor hit “Popsicle Toes”) ridiculous humor (“Eggplant”), and touching jazz-pop ballads like “I Don’t Know Why I’m So Happy I’m Sad.” Taking the Steely Dan approach, Franks anchors the music with insanely lush ‘70’s production that eventually earned Walter Becker’s seal of approval. 

Romantic, intelligent, and full of winking symbolism, the record is steeped in sophistication and an infectious, relaxing vibe that suggests a kettle of finely brewed tea. In liner notes, Franks recalled the album, writing: “My first project at Warner Bros., The Art of Tea, in which I found myself surrounded by Joe Sample, Wilton Felder, Larry Carlton, and my late friend, John Guerin, was a most auspicious beginning. Though I had released a self-titled album two years earlier, which also included an impressive list of sidemen, The Art of Tea sessions really helped to crystallize my sound.” Franks’ whole discography can be found in the cheap bins, and we highly recommend you buy them all. And in case you missed it, here’s a retrospective we did a few months back on our favorite jazz dad: https://insheepsclothinghifi.com/michael-franks-1975-1985/

Santana – Marathon (1979)

Dubbed Balearic Santana, Marathon is the first album for the illustrious guitarist to soften up and slide into the commercial pop sound of the era. It’s also the first to feature vocals from Alex Ligertwood, who would took on lead vocal duties throughout the ’80s. The key track on Marathon is the ultra-smooth, mystical, velvety jazz instrumental “Aqua Marine.” Bassist Jaco Pastorius’ duets with synth player Alan Pasqua really shine on here.

Mark-Almond – S.T. (1971)

Composed of the short-lived English duo of Jon Mark (vocals, guitar, percussion) and Johnny Almond (sax, flute, and bass flute), who only released a handful of recordings together before disbanding, Mark-Almond issued this self-titled debut in 1971. Though not necessarily a secret,  the duo certainly got lost in the generic soft-rock shuffle of the era but crafted a pretty unique sound within the genre. Playing in a vague zone connecting jazz and R&B, the pair added hints of cosmic psychedelic folk that circled to creatd a mysteriously cohesive blend. That mix is best showcased in the towering 8-minute jam “The City.”

101 North – 101 North (1988)

101 North is George Duke in disguise, a secret short-lived side project he built for experimentation and to live out some musical fantasies. Duke once called the band an  “instrumental group that could do some vocals…” but he was obviously adamant in assembling a malleable cast of talented studio musicians who could, if the need arose, to play anything from New Age to Quiet Storm R&B. What might have been a glorified studio jam or some sort artist-label spat with Epic Records, though, turned out to be an excellent front-to-back listen rich with deep smooth-jazz grooves and riddled with heady CD-era Balearic new age. Key tracks include “Night Moves,” and the opening cut  “Lady of the Night.”    

UB40 – Little Baggariddim (1985)

Yep, it’s UB40, and we’re pretty sure you can find any backstory you need with a quick search. Not to be confused with the 1985 album Baggariddim (which was only available via import in the U.S., “Little Baggariddim” was the preceding EP and is easily found. Also released as a 12” with a great extended mix (which could also be found in the bin but is a little more rare these days), it includes a little gem of a track that we all love here at ISC: the amazing heartbreak tune “Don’t Break My Heart.” Truly a dollar bin classic, it’s highly, highly recommended. 🙂  

MFSB – Mysteries of the World (1980)

MFSB’s Mysteries of the World is one of the great jazz-funk instrumentals, a track driven by a remarkable bassline and a twinkling synth melody. A Larry Levan and Paradise Garage staple that likely has been played in every disco throughout the ’80s, Philadelphia band MFSB’s dance floor jam will likely be played in dj sets until our dying days. On YouTube, composer/producer Dexter Wansel sweetly commented of “Mysteries of the World”: “You know, of all the songs I wrote/produced/arranged for MFSB, this is for me the most different. I think it’s an experiment in rhythmic, soft sonic synth and live string and harp combinations.” An essential record for your collection, you can track it down easily in your neighborhood dollar bin.


Gems from the Dollar Bin pt.1: https://insheepsclothinghifi.com/gems-from-the-dollar-bin/

Dollar Bin New Age: https://insheepsclothinghifi.com/new-age-bargain-bin/

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