Everything’s a popularity contest, especially on Spotify, which offers listeners a bevy of “top tracks” lists and includes on every artist’s page a guide to their most-played tunes. That obsessive number crunching has now extended to individual albums: On Monday, music critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine spotted the change, which allows you to see, in raw numbers, how many plays each song gets on a record.
For stat freaks like me, being able to consume all that info in one place is heaven, with the eye immediately drawn to the tracks that get the most spins. But, conversely, you may also start becoming obsessed with finding out which tracks are the least popular on your favorite albums. Once you start going down that rabbit hole, though, you’ll quickly notice a pattern: If an album has interludes or skits, those tracks will almost certainly generate fewer spins. But, sometimes, an album’s least-listened-to song is downright baffling. Sure, maybe these overlooked tunes were never hits, but they don’t deserve to disappear down an algorithm black hole — especially if they happen to be one of that album’s very best tracks.
With this in mind, I decided to spotlight 10 songs that have received the fewest spins on their albums but are actually great. In the pre-streaming age, these might have been known as deep cuts. Now they’re just some forgotten classics worth showing some love — or at least a spin or two.
Joni Mitchell, “The Last Time I Saw Richard” (from Blue)
The least-played song off Joni Mitchell’s most acclaimed album is the closing track, a melancholy reminiscence about an old lover whose final encounter with the narrator has forever haunted her since. Blue is considered one of the singer-songwriter landmarks of the 1970s — not to mention a highlight of the folk-rock era — that’s best known for tracks like “A Case of You” and “California.” But I’d stack “The Last Time I Saw Richard” against any of them — or, frankly, anything Mitchell has ever done — because it’s a perfect little short story told on piano in just over four minutes. It’s about growing up, drifting apart, losing connection, and deciding whether cynicism or optimism is going to guide your path. It’s not as catchy as most of Blue, but it’s utterly gorgeous.
Bruce Springsteen, “Meeting Across the River” (from Born to Run)
After two albums that failed to make a dent commercially, Born to Run was Bruce Springsteen’s breakthrough — a widescreen epic about disillusioned young lovers trying to escape dead-end lives. The record is known for its doomed, romantic anthems, particularly the deathless title track, but the moodiest moment comes on “Meeting Across the River,” which chronicles an unnamed narrator who’s teaming up with his pal Eddie to do … something dangerous. Punctuated by Roy Bittan’s piano and Randy Brecker’s trumpet, this slice of noir-ish drama only gives us small hints about what’s about to take place, but it’s clear tonight’s meetup with some shady individuals may end in gunplay. (“Here, stuff this in your pocket,” the guy tells Eddie. “It’ll look like you’re carrying a friend.”) “Meeting Across the River” is endlessly engrossing because you’re not sure quite what’s going on — or what’s going to happen to our heroes.
Fleetwood Mac, “Oh Daddy” (from Rumours)
Just about the only song off Rumours you don’t hear on classic-rock radio constantly, “Oh Daddy” embodies everything that makes that 1977 album eternally beloved: a delicate but timeless melody, an intricate arrangement that feels effortless, an emotional core that just about kills you. Written and sung by Christine McVie, the track has been interpreted as being directed at Fleetwood Mac drummer Mick Fleetwood or perhaps her boyfriend at the time. But whoever inspired the song, “Oh Daddy” superbly expresses a universal dilemma, which is the pain of needing someone so badly but also knowing that you probably should walk away. It’s a very Rumours-y theme: After all, there are few albums that more powerfully articulate the love/hate dynamic of complex adult relationships.
Michael Jackson, “Baby Be Mine” (from Thriller)
Thriller had so many hits — six of its 10 tracks went Top 10 — that it’s not surprising that one of the non-singles would be the least-played on Spotify. But it’s a testament to “Baby Be Mine” that even this deep cut sounds like it could have been a smash. Sure, the mid-tempo love song lacks the groundbreaking sonic textures of a “Billie Jean” or “Beat It,” but even so, Michael Jackson, producer Quincy Jones and songwriter Rod Temperton (who also penned the title track) built an infectious late-disco-era tune that’s enormously appealing. “Baby Be Mine” is the breezy, youthful Jackson that we’d like to remember — the one who was so excited to dazzle us with his bright smile and incredible pop instincts. Of course, we know more of the story now, which might make it hard to stomach Jackson’s work these days. As such, there’s a poignancy to hearing this forgotten gem’s sweetness and charm — it comes from a bygone age of innocence we can never get back.
Prince, “Strange Relationship” (from Sign o’ the Times)
Prince had bigger commercial hits — 1999, Purple Rain — but Sign o’ the Times may be his most complete album, showcasing all his different sides and styles, especially his experimental instincts. “Strange Relationship” could have been the title of several songs on this double record. (Prince’s confusion, lust, devotion and tenderness seem to be at war with one another as he works through his romantic issues across the album.) But over a skeletal, funky beat, he gets candid on the chorus: “Baby, I just can’t stand to see you happy / More than that, I hate to see you sad.” Anybody who’s been in a difficult, codependent relationship will understand exactly what Prince is singing about: The man recognized that falling in love can be amazing, but can also bring out our worst qualities. As he himself puts it in “Strange Relationship, “I didn’t like the way you were / So I had to make you mine.”
Metallica, “The Struggle Within” (from Metallica)
Closing tracks have a tendency not to have as many plays on Spotify, which makes a certain amount of sense: Once you’ve heard the hits, you move on to another album. That’s the only possible explanation for the relatively tiny play count for “The Struggle Within,” the barn-burning finale to the 1991 album that made Metallica global superstars. All feverish guitar riffs and run-like-hell drumming, the song is the perfect capper to a record that, with a few exceptions, never lets up its pummeling assault. Plus, “The Struggle Within” proves to be a deft summation of Metallica’s themes, delving into mental-health woes, self-hatred and the living hell that is being alive. When this whiplash-inducing corker is over, you’ll want to start the album all over again, just so you can keep feeling that rush.
U2, “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World” (from Achtung Baby)
When Achtung Baby came out, it was hailed as a daring new direction for U2, who were known for earnest rock music — nobody expected glam and irony from these guys. But the album also found the band embracing love songs in a way they never had before. “One” and “Mysterious Ways” you probably know, but according to Spotify, “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World” may be less familiar, which is a shame since it’s a silky stunner. While it might not, technically, be about a lover, the song does address a woman who’s unraveling. Maybe it’s because of drug addiction? Maybe depression? Whatever the cause, Bono vows to be by her side, even though she’s self-destructing. (And extra credit for this terrific line: “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.”)
Kanye West, “Guilt Trip” (from Yeezus)
The Kanye West of Yeezus is an often frightening beast fully consumed by his obsessions — sex, power, drugs, control — which might be the reason why this slightly more subdued track isn’t played as much as the rest of the album. Nonetheless, “Guilt Trip” is just as musically bold as everything else on the record, and its title isn’t false advertising: This is a super-sized pity party directed at the gal who broke his heart. With its adrenalized videogame beats and distorted vocals, “Guilt Trip” feels like Kanye being submerged in his own unhinged, paranoid musical textures. He can boast about his “Jamaican dick” all he wants: It’s clear the guy is falling apart.
Cardi B, “Money Bag” (from Invasion of Privacy)
I mean, one track off Invasion of Privacy has to be the least played — they can’t all be tied for most-popular. And yet, “Money Bag” is such a banger that it’s a bit of a shock that it’s gotten fewer spins than any of the other songs. Bragging about her wealth, her stardom and her general fabulousness, Cardi B disses her haters and comes up with many ways to let you know that her life is better than yours. Her specialty is combining boasts with threats — “My bitches with me pretty, too, they look like bridesmaids / And they all bloody gang so don’t be talkin’ sideways” — and the steely beat never stops. “Money Bag” is a marvel of cutting-edge rap in the 2010s, and the fact that the rest of the album is even more popular with Spotify listeners tells you all you need to know about what a great record it is.
Taylor Swift, “Hoax” (from Folklore)
Another example, perhaps, of how end-of-the-album fatigue affects Spotify numbers, the closing track off of 2020’s best-selling record brings Folklore to a deeply satisfying conclusion. Lauded for its intimacy and lyrical directness — almost as if she was channeling musically the feeling of being in lockdown — Taylor Swift’s third Album of the Year Grammy-winner is a stripped-down, gorgeous affair, surveying the wreckage of bad love with a maturity she hasn’t always displayed. “Hoax” sums up how unresolved those sentiments can be, though: The narrator sees clearly how damaging her relationship is, but she doesn’t know how to extricate herself from it. The fragile piano figure that frames the song — faint and stark — embodies so much of the raw beauty contained in Folklore. Once you’ve stopped listening to “Cardigan” and “Exile” (and “Betty” and “Invisible String” and “The 1” and…), “Hoax” will be waiting for you.
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