Cult Musical Acts That Live Up to the Hype


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Every music lover has their favorite artists, and most of the time, you’ve probably heard of them – the Beatles. Pink Floyd. Taylor Swift, you name it. At the same time, every music lover has at least one record by an artist you’ve never heard of, whom the music lover in question swears by. Such artists are known as “cult” artists, and while mainstream audiences may not have heard of them, they have their own small cadre of devoted fans.

Sadly, many of these cult artists remain unknown for a reason – they’re not that great, and you may be wary of such recommendations after getting burned in the past by a band that a friend recommended and who turned out to be overrated garbage. However, some artists who have spent their careers toiling away in obscurity are worth the price of an album or concert ticket, and while mainstream success may have eluded them, they still deliver the goods. Here’s our list of cult artists that live up to the hype.

Image Credit: Closeup of Diamanda Galás Performing at Thalia Hall, Chicago, 2016, Red Lighting by Bobby Talamine (CC BY-SA).

Hüsker Dũ

Hüsker Dũ spent most of the 1980s playing their own brand of punk rock, and they won their fan base by showcasing their unique music through endless touring. Their music was too well-written to qualify as straightforward punk, and as the years passed, they began incorporating elements of pop and psychedelia into their sound. To this day, no one has been able to copy them accurately. Every alternative rock band of the 1990s claims this band as a major influence, so if you want to know who’s responsible for much of that alt-rock sound, listen to this band.

Image Credit: SST Records.

Townes Van Zandt

Townes Van Zandt was a folkie from Texas who lived really hard, culminating in his 1997 death at age 52. It was a terrible waste of a brilliant songwriter, who penned such three-minute masterpieces as “Pancho and Lefty” and “If I Needed You,” which became hits for other artists. However, nobody performed Townes Van Zandt’s songs better than Townes Van Zandt, and every album he made up to and including 1978’s “Flying Shoes” is essential listening. Since his passing, there has simply never been a better lyricist.

Image Credit: Amazon.

The Grateful Dead

The Grateful Dead were world-famous, so calling them a “cult” band might seem odd. However, what else do you call a band whose fans drop out of society, forgo food and sleep, and live out of a van for a year while they follow their heroes from tour date to tour date? It sounds like a cult to us, albeit a benevolent one that brought music fans much joy over the years. The band rarely had significant chart success, but no one else in history was able to create a fan base as rabid and tenacious as this one. Even the 1995 death of frontman Jerry Garcia didn’t stop fans from going to see every side project, solo act, and splinter group that resulted. The remaining original band members are now 80 or older, but when they are no longer with us, don’t expect the Deadheads to go away – they’ll find another way to scratch that itch.

Image Credit: The Grateful Dead Playing Live in San Francisco, 1980 by Chris Stone (CC BY-SA).


Can was a German psychedelic band with no hits, and if one of their songs came on the radio right now (don’t worry, it won’t), you would probably not recognize it. At their late 1960s and early 1970s best, their music was a combination of jamming, sound collages, and tape loops that created a hypnotic effect in the listener, and in a live setting, a single song could get stretched out to 45 minutes. There was no solo showboating about it, though – those extended jams had more in common with Gamelan music or early 20th-century classical music than the 20-minute guitar solos of Led Zeppelin.

Image Credit: German Rock Band Can Playing Live in Hamburg, Germany, 1972, Black & White Photo by Heinrich Klaffs (CC BY-NC-SA).

Diamanda Galás

Diamanda Galás is a singer and pianist who also specializes in dissonant, unlistenable pieces of music that she uses to express mournful rage over the many people who have died of AIDS over the years, including her brother. That stuff is very, very hard to listen to, but a lot of her material also consists of her very accessible virtuoso singing and piano playing, which both owe a considerable debt to blues and jazz. You may not like everything Galás has ever recorded, but if you connect with her music, you will find her to be a singular artist and a complete original.

Image Credit: Diamanda Galás /

Nick Drake

Nick Drake was a British folk singer who released only three albums before his death at age 26. All three – “Five Leaves Left,” “Bryter Later,” and “Pink Moon” – were recorded between 1969 and 1972 and feature hushed vocals, fingerpicked acoustic guitar, and songs as melancholy and moody as anyone could want. Drake did not begin to receive much recognition until the 1990s, but better late than never. Today, you can go to Spotify and play all his music, which will likely lead you to ask, “Where have you been all my life?”

Image Credit: Amazon.


The German actor Nico gained prominence as a musician for appearing on the debut Velvet Underground album, “The Velvet Underground & Nico.” She pursued a solo career after that, and her debut album, “Chelsea Girls,” contains many stylistic elements present on the first Velvets album. However, she soon developed her own sound and style, perhaps best typified by the genuinely great 1970 album, “Desertshores.” She passed away in 1988 at the age of 49, but during her lifetime, she left behind a few records that are absolutely worth hearing.

Image Credit: Amazon.

The Residents

We don’t like to say “never,” but in the case of the Residents, it’s probably safe to say that they will never achieve mainstream pop success. They’ve been making records since the early 1970s, and all are uncommercial, bizarre, and utterly unlike anything else. Radio stations would not play their music under any circumstances, so in 1980, they made “The Commercial Album,” which consisted of 40 songs, each one minute in length, and the band bought advertising space on radio stations so the songs could be played over the airwaves. Since each song consists of one verse and one chorus, the band suggested playing each one three times in a row so that they could follow the format of standard pop songs.

Image Credit: The Residents Live During Their Wonder of Weird 40th Anniversary Tour, 2013 by Florentyna (CC BY-SA).


When people say they’re fans of New York City’s Swans, ask which Swans they mean. There was the band’s early 1980s incarnation, which created martial, dissonant songs at crawling tempos. Then, they went goth in the late 1980s and incorporated industrial elements in the 1990s. After a 14-year hiatus, they returned to the scene to make several albums’ worth of music that included songs that spent 45 minutes slowly working up to a crescendo. They don’t sound like anybody, and while some of their music can be a physical challenge to sit still for, all of it is worth hearing.

Image Credit: The Swans Live in Warsaw, Poland, 2010 by M kutera (CC BY-SA).


Low formed in Minnesota in the early 1990s and played music that took the punk ethos and turned it inside out. Instead of being snappy and abrasive, the band focused on song arrangements that were deathly quiet, minimalist, and at times so beautiful you might shed a tear or three. If you saw them live back in the day, it was not uncommon for audience members to shush those they felt were noisily interrupting the group’s music. The band sadly broke up in 2022 following the death of singer and drummer Mimi Parker, but in the time they were together, they made 13 studio albums, all of which are essential.

Image Credit: Low Playing Live at Club Manufaktur, Schorndorf, Germany, 2013 by Dirk Haun (CC BY).


Voivod is a Canadian band that formed in the 1980s and was part of the original thrash metal scene, but their music was too weird for them to remain lumped in with that movement beyond their first record. This band took the raw and unrefined sound of thrash metal and combined it with the complexity of progressive rock, the dissonance of punk, and the highest level of musicianship you’ll ever find outside of a conservatory. Despite many lineup changes, the band is still together today, and they haven’t compromised their sound one iota, so if you’re in the mood to hear something aggressive and adventurous, look these guys up.

Image Credit: Amazon.

Richard Thompson

Richard Thompson was originally a member of the 1960s British folk-rock group Fairport Convention, but he struck out on his own in the 1970s and made a long string of critically lauded albums, both as a solo artist and with his ex-wife Linda Thompson. He’s one of the greatest guitarists you’ll ever see perform, but his unique style doesn’t get into any Van Halen-esque showboating. He manipulates the guitar in a way that no one else has been able to copy successfully, and he’s also a very poignant lyricist, as typified by the song “Beeswing,” which will resonate with anyone who has “the one that got away” in their past.

This story was produced and syndicated by MediaFeed.

Image Credit: Closeup of Richard Thompson Performing Live at Prospect Park, Brooklyn, 2006 by Dxede5x (CC BY-SA).

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