The Worst Albums By Great Artists
There should be a society for the prevention of cruelty to musical instruments.
–Trevor Howard, Brief Encounter
You know that artist that you love? Yeah. They’ve put out a horrible album. You know they have. You listened to it and almost threw up on the stereo. You almost discharged on the speakers. You almost sold their entire discography because of the pure wretchedness of this one album.
These are those albums. Just about every great artist has one. It’s damn near unlistenable and there’s just no way around it. Whether it was a wrong-headed attempt to be “modern” or a way to show their audience where they are now, it’s just…wrong.
There are some artists that seem to be exempt. I mean, The Beatles put out an album or two that weren’t as good as the rest…but really they never released a bad album. (Although, as solo artists it’s a completely different story. Ringo is the only one who doesn’t appear here because…well, he’s Ringo.) The Rolling Stones have put out plenty of mediocre albums, but none that were just absolute stinkers…even in the 80s and 90s. Sinatra put out a LOT of weak albums towards the end, but I think they’re all at least interesting. (Although, part of one of his albums shows up on the list.) For the most part, every artist that lasts more than 10 years has at least one.
I’m leaving out live albums, soundtracks or albums that are just completely out of the ordinary for the artist. Hence, no classical works by Paul McCartney, Billy Joel or Elvis Costello (although, two out of the three didn’t do TOO badly in those genres). This, of course, is one reason why the Stones will not be appearing here. They put out some pretty awful live albums throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s, but they aren’t canon, so who cares?
Of course, the list isn’t complete, either. I love Johnny Cash, but I haven’t heard all 458 of his albums, so I don’t know which one is the absolute worst. Strangely, sheer number of bad albums also disqualified at least one artist. I love Neil Young, but he’s put out a LOT of terrible music. I defy you to find one albums of his in the 80s that is any good. Sure, I own most of them, but I can’t choose which one is the absolute worst. (They’re all kind of interesting, too. That helps the quality sometimes.)
This list ended up being more epic than I thought it was going to be. Oh well. Suffer as I have in re-listening to these albums.
We’ll start with the worst of the lot:
METAL MACHINE MUSIC (1975) – LOU REED
The mother of all bad albums by great artists, this one is impenetrable by all but the…um…ok, by everyone. Even Lou Reed can’t explain it.
The album is 64 minutes of nothing but feedback, screeching guitar and layered tape loops slowed down, sped up and basically warped into unrecognizable bits and pieces. If you can make it through all four sides of this record, then you are a masochist of unrelenting fortitude. I seriously can’t understand how anyone could do it, even in the background. I made it through about a minute and a half of each side before I had to turn it off lest I go insane in a mad bout of Lovecraftian fits.
Don’t even try it. Really.
MARDI GRAS (1972) – CREEDENCE CLEARWATER REVIVAL
This is actually the album that started it all. I listened to this album and it made me think of all of the messy, boring, awful albums that I heard up until that time.
There’s no doubt that Creedence was a great band. For three years and six albums (three of them put out in 1969!), they could really do no wrong with their deceptively simple songs of pure, bayou flavored roots rock.
Then, sometime after their second 1970 release, the under-rated Pendulum, Tom Fogerty told his brother, John, to fuck off and left the band. Apparently, John was being a bit of a tyrant and wouldn’t allow the other guys to be creative.
After the release of Mardi Gras in 1972, I think John was vindicated. His songs are truly the only reason to own this album and, since the two good ones (Someday Never Comes and Sweet Hitch-Hiker) are on Chronicle, there’s really no reason to own Mardi Gras. The other two are a too country “Lookin’ For A Reason” and a pretty lame cover of Hello Mary Lou.
But John’s lack of conviction isn’t the reason that this album sucks so badly. It’s the fact that drummer Doug “Cosmo” Clifford and bassist Stu Cook just can’t write or sing. Not a bit. Doug fairs the best because he knew his limitations. His songs are country rock that don’t take a lot of talent to sing. They’re just not very good.
Stu, on the other hand, is the real vomit-enduser here. He sounds as he had just swallowed a whole bottle of Jack on actual rocks and then tried to enunciate each word as only a true drunkard could do. He’s atonal and embarrassing in just about every way.
Mardi Gras is quite possibly the saddest way that a great American rock band could ever go out. It’s almost made worse by the fact that John Fogerty was still able to write good songs. What could this album have been if the other guys hadn’t bugged him to let them each write three songs each? Could they have put out one more great album?
The world will never know.
VICTIM OF LOVE (1979) – ELTON JOHN
The disco years weren’t good for any classic rock artist. Those beats just don’t go well with rock and roll.
Elton had done ok with an EP produced by Philly Soul maverick Thom Bell. Thom even re-taught Elton how to sing. He had been singing FAR out of his register for years. That EP is the point where Elton’s singing style completely changed and he started writing for his lower register.
Even though Mama Can’t Buy You Love was a fair hit (and a pretty good song), Elton was never really happy with the three songs that he released. So, when uber-producer Pete Bellotte, he jumped at the chance to record a “real” disco album…but he was really only allowed to add vocals to Pete’s tracks.
The result is this over-produced disco dreck from the man who brought you many of Donna Summer’s drecky hits. One song does not distinguish itself from another except to be worse than the one before. Long stretches of bad instrumentals with short bursts of terrible and trite lyrics make this even less of an Elton John album than you think it might be. Even listening to pieces of the songs (as I have to do for this review because I refuse to have this album in my iTunes) fills me with a rage that I just can’t describe. Elton had done nothing wrong throughout the 70s. Why did he deserve this?!
The six songs that follow are bad, but the whole thing starts off with an eight minute disco cover of Johnny B Goode that seems to go on forever. Shit. I can only hope that Chuck Berry sued the pants off of Bellotte.
The best thing that I can say about this album is the fact that it cleansed Elton’s palette. Sure, the 80s weren’t all that great to him as far as artistic merit, but he had a lot of catchy hits that probably wouldn’t have been possible if this embarrassment hasn’t been recorded. Maybe he should have kept it on the shelf.
When asked what his worst albums are, he always forgets about this one. He’ll say Leather Jackets or (more recently) Made In England. But this is the one that real fans won’t forgive him for.
Actually, no. They forgave him right after its release because no one fucking bought it. They could smell the shit emanating from the cover. This is absolutely one of the worst albums on this list.
SAVED (1980) – BOB DYLAN
Bob Dylan is a musical god. He has influenced the world in ways that no other musical artist ever has before or probably ever will. Between him, The Beatles and Frank Sinatra, the world will never be the same.
But, my friend, he has put out some shit.
Towards the end of the 70s, Bob’s albums started to shake. After the one-two punch of Blood On The Tracks and Desire, he just kind of seemed emotionally drained. Street Legal relied more on glossy production than actual songwriting and his live albums (Hard Rain and At Budokan) were his least essential yet.
Then came Christianity. Bob was going through a pretty rough time in his life (his oft-written about wife, Sara, had left him) and he needed something to support him.
Was it…Gaaawwwwwd, Davey?
Yes, Goliath. It was Gaaawwwwwd.
Slow Train Coming, his first Christian album, is actually a pretty decent album. It certainly wasn’t embarrassing. With songs like Gotta Serve Somebody and Slow Train, the album is pretty listenable and even has its own groove to it that allows you to put it on in the background without thinking about the meaning of its release.
Saved, however, pretty much destroyed any good faith that Bob had won with Slow Train. His fans would stick with him through an album of Christian thought as long as the music was good and the lyrics were thought-provoking. Unfortunately, he couldn’t keep it up for more than one album.
Saved comes off as a sermon. With a church choir behind him, the opening cover of A Satisfied Mind comes off as more Christian and dogmatic than any hymnal album by Johnny Cash. The rest of the songs don’t come off much better. In fact, they’re more boring.
With lazy “spiritual” tunes, trite lyrics and constant pleading with The Lord, this album was made for people who go to concerts to hold their hands in the air, and their heads down while singing along to every song with tears in their eyes. Try listening to Solid Rock without rolling your eyes. Try listening to Pressing On without wondering what the hell happened to the Real Dylan of just a few years before.
This album was so pretentiously pious that the CBS decided to change the cover art to make it seem less God-filled.
It didn’t work.
Bob certainly put out messier albums (Self Portrait makes absolutely no sense at all) and albums that tried to fit in with a genre he just wasn’t into (just about anything he released in the early to mid 80s), but you could always tell that the songs were good under the production or that he was just in a weird state of mind. With Saved (and, to a lesser extent, his next album, Shot Of Love), I know exactly what he was thinking. Unfortunately, with Dylan that’s not really a good thing. He needs to be oblique and surreal. Here, it’s all on his sleeve…and it ain’t pretty.
SOMETIME IN NEW YORK CITY (1972) – JOHN LENNON
Speaking of “on his sleeve” and “not pretty,” John Lennon is one of those artists who absolutely needed a foil. While he was with The Beatles, Paul would kind of reign him in and keep him from going off the deep end. After they broke up, he would put out a couple of amazing albums (Plastic Ono Band and Imagine) and a few pretty cool rock albums (Mind Games, Walls And Bridges and Rock ‘N’ Roll). Somewhere in the middle, though, is his first true pop collaboration with Yoko, Sometime in New York City.
In 1972, John was trying desperately to be allowed to stay in the United States. Nixon and his cronies were trying desperately to throw him out because they felt threatened by him. Sometime In New York City is John and Yoko’s response to all of this. It’s John’s most political album with each song being ABOUT SOMETHING. It starts off ok with the semi-hit Woman Is The Nigger Of The World. Then it goes south with some of Yoko’s lesser and more trite songs and John’s least interesting songs attached to lyrics that try only to be political and meaningful, not memorable. Seriously, try to hum or sing along to Attica State. It’s nearly impossible even ten seconds after hearing the song.
There’s some good playing on the album, but it kind of get drowned out by the production (partly by Phil Spector) and the fact that John comes off as a bit of a wacko…and this comes from a pretty dyed in the wool Leftist.
The album may not be as bad as some of the others on this list, but it comes from a brilliant artist who could have done MUCH better, and that’s really what puts it here.
The second disc is a live album that is unlistenable to all but the Yoko-devoted, (although, Cold Turkey is pretty good). This is pretty much where people get their idea of what Yoko’s solo music sounds like. Lots of screeches and atonal music. Sometimes it comes alive (and it’s definitely heartfelt…one song is about her estranged/kidnapped daughter from her first marriage), but it can be difficult to get through the crazy.
The second half of the songs on the live disc are backed by The Mothers Of Invention. For the rest of the show, check out Frank Zappa’s Fillmore East: June 1971.
TRILOGY PART III (1979) – FRANK SINATRA
Frank is one of my heroes. The man worked himself up from nothing and became the Chairman Of The Board in a mere 40 years. He is still one of the most respected singers in the history of the recording industry and, in fact, changed that industry to suit his own needs.
Towards the end of his career, though, he made some…interesting…choices. Many of his later albums were filled with contemporary songs that didn’t always fit his style. He did his best with them, but there was always something missing from his versions of John Denver, Neil Diamond and Bread songs. He always managed to be interesting, though.
With 1979′s Trilogy, he tried a little of everything. He hadn’t recorded an album in 1974, so his umpteenth comeback had to be big.
What better way than with a triple disc album that celebrated his past, present and future?!
Um, well…there are many better ways to do it, honestly.
There’s really nothing wrong with most of the album. The first (The Past) disc is great. It’s all standards, some of which Sinatra had recorded before. He was always great at this stuff and, even at 64, he was able to belt those songs out with a gusto that nobody else had.
The second disc (The Present) isn’t quite as good, but it’s still not bad. It focuses on current pop songs and suffers from a lot of the same problems that many of his later albums have: the songs just don’t fit. A decent version of The Beatles’ Something and the anthemic New York, New York can’t quite hold up middling versions of Billy Joel’s Just The Way You Are and Neil Diamond’s Song Sung Blue, songs that are FORCED to swing.
The real problem here, though, is the third disc: The Future. Besides his foray into “pop opera,” 1969′s Watertown, Frank had never embarked on something quite so epic in its concept. This is very nearly progressive pop. Imagine if Jon Anderson from Yes had decided to write an orchestral vehicle for Frank and you’ll just about understand what Gordon Jenkins was trying to do here. Instead of writing new music in the vein of the standards that Frank was amazing at, Jenkins wrote new music that tried its best to be where music was going…but he completely missed the mark.
The first track is the nearly 11 minute What Time Does The Next Miracle Leave? Francis Albert Sinatra goes on a trip across the solar system, singing about each planet as he passes it. With huge chorals, over-done charts and sound effects that sound like they belong on a Klaatu album, this track just kind of leaves you cold.
World War None! doesn’t help, either. Chants of “War! War! War! War!” just come off as cloying.
Basically, through the whole thing, Frank sounds lost. I get the feeling that he just laid down his vocal tracks and let Jenkins do whatever he wanted to behind him. As much control as he once had on his career and albums, I think he gave up control here and it shows.
It’s not completely unlistenable, but it’s certainly the most difficult of his albums to get into. If you ever bought the CD (which was condensed down to two discs) and didn’t get the second disc, don’t fret. Both of the first two records are on the first disc. You’re not missing anything. Instead, buy his next album, 1981′s She Shot Me Down. It’s a great set of torch songs that fares MUCH better than anything on the second or third records of this set.
GONE TROPPO (1982) – GEORGE HARRISON
As I’ve said many times, the 80s were not kind to hardly any classic rockers. With the advent of drum machines, super-glossy production and synthesizers in the late 70s, everybody seemed to want to hop on the bandwagon. Even Dylan didn’t make it through unscathed.
George Harrison, though, seemed to fare worse than anyone.
After a few middling albums that sold pretty well (especially 1981′s Somewhere In England with its Lennon tribute, All Those Years Ago), George decided to “update” his sound even more in 1982. He drenched the not so well thought out set of songs in production instead of actually writing good music and threw some bad synths on it for bad measure. It’s not entirely his fault, though. He was really busy at the time racing cars and producing movies.
The opening track was a single that never made it anywhere. There’s a pretty awful, cover of The Stereos’ doo-wop song I Really Love you. (I’m not even sure that I hear George on this one. It sounds like an outtake from a particularly bad, latter-day ELO album.) The title track pretty much consists of him singing, “I’ve gone troppo!” with a bad Caribbean accent.
The whole album sounds like it was rushed because its maker was too busy to be bothered. Depending on your viewpoint, he did us all a favor/disservice by leaving the music biz completely for five years. Luckily, when he came back, he had some time for it, releasing Cloud Nine, his best album since 1973′s Living In The Material World.
What’s really sad is that, in a demo version released on the CD version of the album, Mystical One sounds like it could have been a great song. Too bad about the album version, though.
NEVER LET ME DOWN (1987) – DAVID BOWIE
It’s no secret that David Bowie has had his ups and downs. Hell, he’s had entire decades where people didn’t know what the hell he was up to. Did he put any albums out in the 90s? I think he did, but I’d be hard pressed to tell you what they were…and I’m a fan!
But, as usual, the 80s weren’t kind to his style at all. Sure, he had a lot of hits off of Let’s Dance, but that was the only really decent album he made after 1980.
The nadir of the decade is definitely 1987′s Never Let Me Down. Bowie just doesn’t seem to know what the fuck to do with his new “alt-pop” style. Lead single Day-In Day-Out is a mess with backing vocalists popping in and out to chant the title and David puking incomprehensible lyrics. Bowie, always on the forefront of technology, seems lost in washes of synths and over-production throughout the album. His vocals are just trying to latch onto something, but they never quite do.
The title track is apparently a John Lennon homage. I know the two were friends, but this is a pretty awful song. If I were John, I would come back just to beat David’s ass. It’s fey and only about half sung.
I’m guessing that Zeroes is some sort of reference to both Ziggy Stardust and Heroes, both of which are dishonored by this silly track with a generic “screaming” guitar. Shining Star sounds like it could have been recorded by the Pet Shop Boys on a particularly boring day.
The less said about the bizarro Glass Spider, the better. It may have been the basis of his late 80s tour, but it makes absolutely no sense and doesn’t do this album any favors.
Bowie would make better albums later on, including some recorded in the 90s…I promise. He’s one of those artists who will always be remembered for his amazing back-catalog, no matter how drab his current stuff is. He’s like Robert Altman: only remember the good stuff. Completely forget the amazing amounts of shit that he’s released over the last four decades.
KEEPING THE SUMMER ALIVE (1980) – BEACH BOYS
The Beach Boys are an American institution, there’s absolutely no doubting that. They released some of the best and happiest music of the 60s outside of those bugs from Britain. Pet Sounds actually rivals The Beatles releases for ingenuity and pop sense, influencing everyone who heard it. Throughout the 70s, they released some pretty interesting, if forgettable, albums that no one bought. Dig deep, though, and you’ll find some real gems.
Unfortunately, they kept going through the late 70s and 80s. They would have tarnished their earlier stuff if anyone had bothered to buy their new albums.
In 1980, they had just closed out a fairly hit-free decade, so they wanted to do something new: they became even more cloying and dumb.
If you look at the cover, you can actually see what they were trying to do. It’s a picture of the Boys on a beach under a glass dome. All around that dome is snow, ice and their only audience, a penguin. After about 20 years of recording, they were trying desperately to hold onto their old ways, to the detriment of their art. They were an oldies act without a lot of talent left to them.
There’s really nothing here to latch onto. These are all terrible songs written by the Boys’ pinch-hitters at the end of their creative lives. Some Of Your Love is a cheesy, sax-driven, repetitive track that sounds like it was produced by throwing everything onto the mix and hoping that something sticks. A bunch of 40 year old guys singing a washed out version of Chuck Berry’s School Days doesn’t really sit well. None of their harmonies work the way they used to and the synths just don’t work on any of the songs. I think Sunshine might be the saddest of the lot.
Then, just when I think that, When Girls Get Together starts and I know that I was wrong.
The title track is almost ok, but still kinda silly and the closer, Endless Harmony, is alright…until the whole band joins in to thank America for allowing them to keep touring.
Again, I say: Sigh.
DOOR TO DOOR (1987) – THE CARS
The Cars are one of the best pop bands of the early 80s. There. I said it. They were like a strange mix of New Wave and Punk that ended up appealing to both crowds and didn’t alienate the normals out there.
From 1978 to 1984, they released a string of good to great albums with enough singles to pack an amazing single disc hits package.
Then, after the pop majesty of 1984′s Heartbeat City, they took a few years off. They came back with 1987′s Door To Door…and no one cared. For good reason, too. Door To Door is an emotionless group of forgettable songs that sound like…well, not really The Cars. The closest thing to a hit was You Are The Girl and, while it’s a fine song, it’s not nearly as good as anything else they released as a single up to that point.
The rest of the album is full of lackluster rock stuff that just doesn’t fit with the band’s oeuvre. Head Car Ric Ocasek’s murky production doesn’t help things at all. He’s become a really good producer, but this was not so good. He focuses more on the guitars than ever before and leaves their signature keyboards for the background.
The closest thing to fun on the album are Ta Ta Wayo Wayo and the opener Leave Or Stay, leftovers from their first album that they resurrected for this one.
The album did nothing for the legacy of the band and, within months, they were broken up. Skip ahead more than 20 years later and they’ve finally put out the last album that they should have put out in 1987. Skip this one and go straight for the brand new Move Like This.
GOODBYE CRUEL WORLD (1984) – ELVIS COSTELLO
When Elvis Costello was putting together the reissues of his albums in the early 00s, he opened the liner notes of this 1984 release up with, “Congratulations! You’ve just bought our worst albums!”
He’s not lying. Elvis and The Attractions were coming off down from a hot streak. Elvis’ first seven albums (all but one of which have the help of one of the best back-up bands in history) were amazing. No huge radio hits, but they were building their reputation. Then things started to fall apart just as they were getting more popular. Punch The Clock had a big hit (Everyday I Write The Book), but the album itself is pretty mediocre. (Really, only two other songs are worth noting: Shipbuilding and Pills And Soap.)
Then came this mess. Elvis’ marriage was falling apart and his lyrics were getting bleaker. Instead of making a bleak album, though, he and producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley decided to punch up the sound with shiny production and lots and lots of synths. Hence, the 80s.
The song that comes off best is a duet with Daryl Hall called The Only Flame In Town. It’s a pretty decent R&B flavored pop tune, but it’s still WAY overproduced and so full of synths that you can barely tell that there’s a kick ass band somewhere back there.
The second reissue of the album (where Elvis says that he feels bad for introducing that last reissue that way he did) includes a full disc of demo versions of the songs that made it on the album. They are FAR better than the crap that ended up being unleashed on an unsuspecting public. The songs, actually, are great. Langer and Winstanley, though, just didn’t know what to do with them.
Honestly, neither do most Costello fans.
This album was so bad that he jettisoned the Attractions for the next album (King Of America), not picking them back up until 1986 (Blood And Chocolate). Amazingly, both of those albums are pretty amazing.
(Here’s a problem with being a big Costello fan: Note the fact that I said “SECOND reissue.” His albums have been reissues more times than I can count. The definitive versions, though, are the double disc sets that are, unfortunately, out of print now.)
RED ROSE SPEEDWAY (1973) – PAUL MCCARTNEY
Paul has put out a few great albums since leaving The Beatles. Some of them even after he broke up Wings.
Unfortunately, he’s also put out a lot of mediocre albums that only a fan could really love. Wings last album in 1979, Back To The Egg, is one of those. I don’t know why, but I love that album. It’s a really weird album and barely sounds like Paul for the most part.
But I’m not here to bitch about that one. No, this is Wings second album. They had just put out the nearly incomprehensible (but still strangely listenable) Wild Life while touring college campuses in 1971. Now, in early 1973, they wanted to put out a “real” album.
Unfortunately, that “real” album included messes like Big Barn Bed and Loup (1st Indian On The Moon).
Paul’s conceit has always been a rural kind of rock. Not country rock, by any means, but the kind of rock that could be made on an English countryside farm…mostly because that’s where the brunt of his albums were made early on. They’re very DIY, but you really couldn’t tell since Paul McCartney’s version of “DIY” is not a punk in a garage’s version of DIY. Paul could afford to bring EMI studios to him.
Basically all of the songs on Red Rose Speedway (which also has one of the worst covers of Paul’s career) sound like they were made to force that issue down our throats. The production is slick, but the songs are super-simple (sometimes just the title repeated over and over again) and the backing vocals aren’t particularly well thought out.
The most heartfelt song on the album, strangely, is Little Lamb Dragonfly…which is about a lamb on Paul’s farm that was dying. Where the dragonfly comes into it, I have no idea. Paul wrote a much better song for his dog with Martha My Dear five years before and would do so again later in this year with Jet.
Then there’s the song that everyone knows that Paul won’t stop doing in concert: My Love. Yes, yes, yes. He wrote it for (and possibly with) Linda. I understand. It really is from the heart. They were in love. But couldn’t one of the greatest songwriters in history write something a little less schmaltzy and silly for the love of his life? “My love does it good”? Seriously? Linda should have written an answer song that went, “My love writes so lazily.” Quite possibly the worst hit song in Paul’s oeuvre…until Freedom in 2001. That one’s pretty awful.
The worst song on the album, though, is a torturous eleven and a half minutes long. It’s a medley of pieces of songs that Paul nearly wrote and couldn’t figure anything else out to do with them. So he decided to put them into an Abbey Road style medley. Unfortunately, he didn’t have a John Lennon around to tell him that these songs bits sucked. Hold Me Tight, Lazy Dynamite, Hands Of Love and Power Cut. These are the songs that he stuck together. By the way, you also now know all of the lyrics. There’s really nothing else. Imagine those four things being said over and over and over and over again until you want to kill Paul. But, since you can’t kill him through a record, you just have to kill yourself.
Paul, though, is ever the re-bounder. Right after this album’s release, he took Linda and Denny Laine (the only other permanent member of Wings) to Jamaica where they were all almost killed. This, of course, helped them make the best album of Paul’s solo career: Band On The Run.
THE LAST DJ (2002) – TOM PETTY AND THE HEARTBREAKERS
Tom Petty is one of those artists that you never think of making a bad album. Even though every album he’s ever made sounds fairly similar to the last, they’re all pretty great. Even 1982′s Long After Dark has its charms. (Straight Into Darkness will always be one of my favorite Petty songs.)
That streak ended with 2002′s The Last DJ.
Tom has been in a constant fight with record companies. He was at one point one of their biggest money makers, but they still treated him like a piece of meat. They wanted him to get corporate sponsors for his shows. They wanted him to raise ticket prices. They wanted to raise the price of his records. (He threatened to call an album Eight Ninety-Eight so that they couldn’t raise the price. They relented and he called it Hard Promises instead.)
So, really, it seems strange that it took him over 20 years to finally put out an album that lambasted the companies. I remember being super excited by the thought of Tom and the boys putting out a concept album against a seemingly “necessary” evil.
What we got, though, was a boring album, something that they had never given us before. The “hit” title track was pretty benign stuff, using a radio DJ as a symbol of free thought. Unfortunately, by 2002, no one really cared about radio anymore. Yes, it was for the exact reasons that Tom is on out in this song, but that doesn’t make it any more up to date, topically. The song probably should have been released in the late 80s.
The rest of the album is pretty much completely forgettable. I’m sure that there are some songs that are ok (I’m told that Dreamville is quite lovely), but I really wouldn’t know. When the album came out I listened to it quite a bit, trying to make it my new favorite album like most of Tom’s albums. It just never happened. It didn’t matter how many times I listened to it, I never got to know any of the songs. They just slid in one ear and out the other.
That, my friends, is the sign of a bad album.
It would take a while for Tom to bounce back with 2006′s Highway Companion. He wouldn’t fully get the Heartbreakers back until 2010 with the excellent Mojo.
HOT SPACE (1982) – QUEEN
Queen is a strange, strange band. They changed so much over their years together that it’s almost hard to reconcile their first album (1973′s Queen) with their last (1991′s Innuendo). With that much change, it’s inevitable that they put out some stinkers. Anyone remember The Miracle? Or A Kind Of Magic? The 80s were not good for Queen. Artistically, that is. They were more popular than ever.
Throughout the 70s, Queen was proud of the fact that they did not use synthesizers on their albums. They put the fact all over the back of the albums.
Suddenly, the early 80s hit and everything changed. Synths drenched The Game (which kinda worked) and the Flash Gordon soundtrack (which worked half the time), but things got a little out of hand with Hot Space in 1982. With songs called Dancer, Back Chat and Body Language, you pretty much know where this album is going.
Yes, Queen used this to get their fans onto the dance floor. Some of it sounds like the generic “disco” used in later episodes of Freaks And Geeks. All of the songs sound pretty much the same and I’m not really sure what any of the band members really did since all of the “instruments” are synthesized. Put Out The Fire is probably the most rocking’ song with an actual guitar.
Of course, I really want to like Life Is Real (Song For Lennon) because of the subject matter…but they make it really hard. It’s basically a rewrite of Love from Plastic Ono Band…but with a disco beat. Whatever, guys.
The less said about Cool Cat, the better.
Then, as if they knew that the album was terrible, they put their current single at the end. It was one of the best songs they ever produced: Under Pressure with David Bowie. It’s amazing from start to finish and proves the fact that these guys could do better than the rest of the album. In fact, it makes an already terrible album even worse by comparison.
If, for some reason, you’re going through the works of Queen, skip over this one. Pretty much all of their albums of the 80s are missable, but this one will make even The Works look like a fuckin’ masterpiece.
Hell, just skip straight from Flash Gordon to Innuendo and you’ll be good.
CUT THE CRAP (1985) – THE CLASH
The Clash are The Only Band That Matters. At least, that’s what they said in the early 80s when they were at the height of their popular powers. They had just released Combat Rock in 1982 and, while it’s not their best, it was their most popular. It’s a strange album in all ways, but it’s certainly listenable…especially Straight To Hell, one of their best songs.
So, what do Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon do? They jettison everyone else in the band (including secondary writer, Mick Jones) because they felt that they were going too pop and not enough punk. They then hired three random dudes to take over the rest of the instruments and made a bunch of crappy “punk” songs that sound like they went to a pub and recorded whatever came out of the drunkards hanging out there.
The only song that comes off alright is This Is England, although it still sounds like a bunch of football hooligans singing back up vocals. It’s a surprisingly great song. Surprising because it’s surrounded by a bunch of sad “punk” that probably made real punks of 1985 laugh their asses off. Black Flag was still putting out records in 1985. They released a song called Annihilate This Week. Another called Bastard In Love. They would never have released a song called Fingerpoppin’.
I love Joe Strummer and I think he was an amazing musician. Cut The Crap, though, was the low point of his entire career, with or without a band. I think it might be worse than anything in his acting career, too.
PILGRIM (1998) – ERIC CLAPTON
When this album first came out in 1998, I bought it and actually listened to it quite a bit. I made myself like it because, well, it’s Eric Freakin’ Clapton. How do you NOT like an album by him? He’s a guitar god! He was Cream and Derek And The Dominos and Blind Faith!
Well, he found the biggest hill to come down from throughout the 80s and 90s. Sure, he put out some good albums, but the really good ones didn’t rely on his own material anymore. Journeyman in 1989 had two songs that he co-wrote. The other good albums were blues standards and an Unplugged concert.
The reason for this is a tragic one. In 1991, Eric’s son, Connor, was killed when he fell from Eric’s apartment window. It took him this long to be able to write much more than the amazingly heartfelt Tears In Heaven from the Rush soundtrack.
Now, typically, emotional turmoil makes for amazing art. For proof of this, listen to the Derek And The Dominos album, Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs. Great stuff.
Unfortunately, at this point in Eric’s life, he wasn’t so into making great art. He was into telling us where he was now…which was really nowhere. The album is full of lyrics that show that he was hurting when he wrote them, but the music is so soft poppy that it’s hard to hear anything but, well…lame. Eric Clapton, Guitar God has become Eric Clapton, laid back pop snoozer. Gone are the guitar solos and, for that matter, real drums and other instruments. The album is pure synth pop with a few guitar fills that I probably could have done…and I can’t play guitar at all.
All of this makes for a pretty boring album. I’m sorry that Eric went through what he went through. It’s something that no parent should ever face. But I wanted that pain to be put into the music. With songs like My Father’s Eyes, Circus and River Of Tears, I really thought that he would have done that…and I can tell he tried. But the generic R&B backing vocalists, bad synths and drum machines completely undermine everything that he tried to convey. This ends up being quite possibly the worst album in a career with unfortunately few bright spots.
SONGS FROM ‘THE CAPEMAN’ (1997) – PAUL SIMON
Paul Simon is one of those rare artists who has truly never made a bad regular album. From his first album (1970s Paul Simon) to his latest from this year (So Beautiful, So What?) he’s put out more than his share of damn near masterpieces. Graceland is still one of the greatest albums ever released and he keeps coming damn near topping that one.
That’s why it was a bit of a surprise when he decided to go a little funny in the head in 1997 and write a musical based on a murder case from the 50s. The musical, The Capeman (co-written by Derek Walcott), went nowhere, so he decided to pull some of the cast (including Ruben Blades and Marc Anthony) into the studio to make an album out of it.
Drizzled in doo-wop, Latin and Puerto Rican styles, the album comes off as a vanity project more than a real album.
The story of The Capeman centers around Salvador Agron, a young man who killed two kids in a street fight in Hell’s Kitchen when he was 16. He was convicted and sentenced to die. Of course, he was born again, learned to read and write and his sentence was eventually changed to life in prison. He wrote a lot of poems and became an advocate against gang violence. Basically, he was a Puerto Rican gangster who made good.
He was released in 1979, traveled around the country to help young kids and ended up dying of pneumonia in 1986.
Paul Simon heard the story, felt guilty and wrote the musical. He expected all other white folks to feel guilty along with him. Unfortunately, the music and lyrics just weren’t good enough for the rest of us to feel the same guilt that Paul felt. It’s all very complex and well written, but it’s not particularly interesting. There’s nothing at all to latch onto and the profanities just sound weird coming out of Paul Simon’s mouth.
Probably the best song on the album is Quality, a pure doo-wop song about watching a girl move as she walks. Unfortunately, it goes on for a little over four minutes, nearly twice as long as most actual doo-wop songs. It wears out its welcome pretty quickly.
Where Paul had no problem assimilating other cultures’ music for albums like Graceland and The Rhythm Of The Saints (even getting Latin right with 1980′s Late In The Evening), Songs From The Capeman comes off a bit like what a white man thinks Latin music sounds like. It’s too complex and, honestly, has too many lyrics. It’s just not fun to listen to like most of his albums are. The problem is that it TRIES to be fun. It tries SO hard. And it fails so hard.
Paul bounced back, but it took him until 2000. He had, after all, been working on The Capeman since 1989. When it failed…well, he had to recover. You’re The One was hailed as a comeback and still stands up today. It may not be as good as Surprise or the new one, but it certainly is a damn sight better than anything from The Capeman.
BODY WISHES (1983) – ROD STEWART
Rod Stewart has gotten a lot of shit of late. Frankly, I’m a little tired of it. There was a time when Rod was one of the best vocalists that rock and roll had to offer. Just listen to any of his stuff with Faces or The Jeff Beck Group. Better yet, listen to any of his first four solo albums. Every Picture Tells A Story is one of the best albums ever made. It made mandolins and acoustic guitars rock their fuckin’ asses off. It even took time out from the rocking’ to be poignant with Mandolin Wind and amazing covers of Tim Hardin’s Reason To Believe and Dylan’s Tomorrow Is A Long Time.
He slipped a bit with Smiler in 1974, but he came back with the decadent one-two punch of Atlantic Crossing and A Night On The Town.
Then something happened. He started to really believe his own hype. Foot Loose And Fancy Free was overblown with a seven and a half minute, over-dramatic version of The Supremes’ You Keep Me Hangin’ On. But it still had its charms.
That’s when disco took hold of Rod and turned him into a hit making joke. Da Ya Think I’m Sexy? was bad enough (even he hates that song), but things would get worse.
In 1980, Rod barely released Foolish Behavior. Passion was a pretty big hit, but the rest of the album was nearly worthless. Rod squeezed out one more decent album (1981′s Tonight I’m Yours), a terrible live album and then released what is typically regarded as his worst album, 1983′s Body Wishes.
The cover is a desperate attempt to emulate the Elvis Presley hits package 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong. Rod is dressed in a red suit and is put against a black background about 50 times. The back is the same with the colors opposite. Fortunately, while his fan base was still intact, this album didn’t sell that many copies. It could be easily forgotten by those same fans.
Two songs come off ok: Baby Jane and What Am I Gonna Do (I’m So In Love With You). Tellingly these are the only two songs that have ever made it onto any compilation, and that one had to be four cds long to fit them on there. They’re synth-filled pop tracks that are, I guess, easily danceable and have decent lyrics.
Then there’s the rest of the album. The title track tried to be yet another sequel to Da Ya Think I’m Sexy? (Passion was the first.) Sweet Surrender tried to be a country ballad. Strangers Again is an awful ballad and Satisfied is even worse with its Spanish guitar that goes nowhere with a synth was behind it. Ghetto Blaster…wait. What? Rod Stewart did a song called Ghetto Blaster? Jesus. Complete with thumping bass.
This is an album that even a Rod apologist like me can’t apologize enough for. It’s terrible, through and through.
It would take Rod a long, long time to get over this one. The 80s were full of hits for Rod The Bod, but no great albums, really. It wasn’t until Vagabond Heart in 1991 that he started to get back on track. Unfortunately, three decent studio albums were all he could muster before he went poop again with 2001′s Human, an album so bad that I’ve never even bothered with it. (That’s the only reason that it’s not on this list. It’s his “modern R&B” album. Yech.)
After that, he found a new niche with old ladies playing the “Great American Songbook.” None of those albums have been worth a damn, but he keeps making bazillions off of them.
What Rod really needs is someone like Rick Rubin to pick him up out of the old lady panties and produce one more great album. Maybe when he hits 75.
IT’S HARD (1982) – THE WHO
The Who are one of my favorite bands. Throughout the 60s and 70s, they could really do no wrong. Sure, there were weak songs here and there, but I even think that Who By The Numbers and Who Are You have their late 70s charm.
As soon as Keith Moon died, though, they should have packed it in until the 452nd reunion tour when I saw them with Zak Starkey on drums. He almost had the spirit of Keith without all the drugs…hopefully.
When Keith died, something happened to the hearts of Pete Townshend, Roger Daltry and John Entwhistle. I think they disappeared, because they certainly weren’t in their art anymore.
Their first album without Keith, 1981′s Face Dances, came off ok. From any other band, a song like You Better, You Bet would have been a knock out. Instead, it came off as slightly lifeless with a drummer who was just doing things by the numbers. Kenney Jones, the drummer for The Faces (Small and otherwise), was a working man’s drummer, not the powerhouse that was Keith Moon.
It didn’t help that Townshend was more focused on his solo career than his bandmates. The Who were a money machine for him. His solo stuff was the fun stuff. (Check out Empty Glass. It’s a pretty damn good album.)
Face Dances was a masterpiece, though, compared to It’s Hard in 1982. Sure, the album has Eminence Front (which I thought was called “Heaven Is Fucked” for years) and Athena, but there’s not a single other song on here that anyone could remember even after hearing it 100 times. Hell, I can barely remember Athena until I hear it again. Then I say, “Oh! That song!” and promptly forget it again.
The problem is actually right on the cover: the title and band name are written in digital letters and there’s a little boy playing a video game. There are TOO GODDAM MANY SYNTHS ON THIS ALBUM!!!! It worked on Who Are You and, honestly, every album before that. The Who were one of the first bands to really use synths in an interesting way. Eminence Front, good as it is, is awash in “deet-deet-deet” synths that make it sound like the opening of a news show. (I think I heard that it actually WAS used for this in a few towns.) Cook’s County sounds like a rehearsal for New Song from Who Are You. A rehearsal that they should have scrapped. The title track is about as lifeless as you can get. (Is that even Roger singing?) The less said about the mess that is Why Did I Fall For That?, the better.
At this point in their career, they were just tired of each other. Roger was obviously sick of singing Pete’s lyrics all the time. Pete was tired of writing for Roger. John was just tired. Kenney was getting a paycheck. It’s hard to listen to any of this album without feeling Roger’s boredom. He was singing with the same tough-guy attitude, but it was ringing false now. Were they too old to be singing about the same stuff? Or were they just missing Keith so much that they couldn’t really carry on?
I vote for the latter, actually. I’ve never gotten the impression that these guys were particularly good friends. They were just in a band together, but I think Keith must have been the glue that kept them together. With him gone, they just didn’t know what to do with each other.
I have a feeling that most critics at the time were calling this album It’s Limp.
They did put out one more album after this before they officially broke up, the live Who’s Last. It’s pretty pathetic, too. Their reunion live album, Join Together from 1990, is even worse. It’s a live album, though, so it barely counts. Avoid it, though. Get their live albums from the 60s and 70s instead.
WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE (1969) – WARREN ZEVON
Warren Zevon is one of my favorite causes. He was just about completely unsung in life (being known mainly as “The Werewolves Of London Guy”), having basically two hits during his more than 25 year career. He had FAR more success with covers of his songs. (Linda Ronstadt made a mini-career out of covering his songs: Hasten Down The Wind, Carmelita, probably about 10 others. If it wasn’t for him and Randy Newman, she wouldn’t have had any material at all.) In death, he very nearly became famous outside of artist circles when his last album, The Wind, gave him is first charting album since about 1980. Unfortunately, no matter what David Letterman tried, he has pretty much faded back into obscurity nearly 10 years later.
Zevon released a lot of great albums from 1976 until his death in 2003. (Of course, he put out some weak ones, too. Mutineer? Anyone? Nope.) But rarely does anyone start out brilliant.
Warren was a member of a duo that put out a few singles that went nowhere in the 60s. He also wrote a couple of songs for The Turtles. Then, in 1969, he decided to go it alone and put out his own album. Wanted Dead Or Alive was that album.
The album is so bad that Warren would eventually completely disown it, always calling his 1976 eponymous masterpiece his debut. Hell, he nearly gave up recording after its release and failure.
The album is a real mess. It starts off decent enough with the title track…unfortunately, the only real lyrics are “I am wanted, dead or alive.” Not a way to show off your lyrical chops, Warren.
Hitchhikin’ Woman is a dirty, messy blues number with a Neil Young-like guitar…emphasis on “mess.” Luckily, it’s short. The next track, She Quit Me, doesn’t have that virtue. At nearly 5 minutes, it’s a slow, shambling, folksy nothing of a song. I normally like it when a singer’s voice cracks (Springsteen was a master at this early on and Warren would get better at it), but it just doesn’t work here.
Calcutta may actually be the worst track here. Warren’s voice is mixed way back behind the Cocaine-style guitars, but that’s probably a virtue, because he’s growling the lyrics as if he knows that no one wants to know what he’s saying.
Let’s not talk about Warren Zevon covering Iko-Iko. Shudder.
Really, the only song that is worth a listen is A Bullet For Ramona. Warren was always known for his dark sense of humor (his logo was a skull with a cigarette hanging out of its teeth, after all), but that humor barely gets to shine here. Only A Bullet For Ramona is funny in the right way. It’s about a man who shot his woman so that she wouldn’t cheat on him anymore. He sees it as “freeing her.” The music sounds like the country rock that was just getting popular at the time with The Byrds, Poco and The Flying Burrito Brothers, but its humor is darker than any of them would have thought was very funny.
Everything else is pretty much a pass. I think Warren is lucky that this album disappeared, never to be heard by anyone until it was re-released over 20 years later…even then I doubt that very many people bought it.
Do yourself a favor the next time you’re perusing a record store or Amazon or wherever it is you buy music: Sample some Warren Zevon stuff…just stay away from Wanted Dead Or Alive.
LIVE IT UP (1990) – CROSBY, STILLS AND NASH
David Crosby, Stephen Stills And Graham Nash were, at one time, one of the best super groups around. These guys took everything that you think of as “The 60s” and put it together in one ball of awesome. Their first two albums (the second adding Neil Young) are among the best of the decade and they hold up amazingly well. The first (1969′s Crosby, Stills And Nash) has the three men combining forces to show us exactly what the hippies were really up to. Crosby was all about renaissance festivals, aliens and weirdness (Guinnevere, Wooden Ships). Stills was about love and understanding and not selling out (Suite: Judy Blue Eyes, You Don’t Have To Cry, Helplessly Hoping). Nash was about the home life and Eastern spirituality (Marrakesh Express, Lady Of The Island).
The second album was the dark side of things. The 60s were over. Deja Vu told us that the dream was over. Crosby was getting more enmeshed in drugs and paranoia (Almost Cut My Hair, Deja Vu), Stills was getting more depressed (Carry On, 4 + 20), and Young just kind of thew his amazing and downtrodden 2 cents in (Helpless, Country Girl). Nash was still hoping for the home fires (Teach Your Children, Our House). Stills and Young tried to end things on a happy note with the desperate Everybody I Love You.
Nothing they did (with or without Neil) ever lived up to those two albums, but they always stayed true to their 60s roots. Every album, whether it was good or bad, seemed to be about where the children of the 60s were at that time.
Then there was Live It Up in 1990. They had coasted through the 80s with pieced together albums of solo songs (mostly because David was in and out of rehab all decade) and now they were ready for a real comeback. Unfortunately, they recruited folks to help them write the songs and came up with a bunch of lackluster to awful songs that didn’t mean anything to any of them. Even when they did write, the songs were meaningless. What the fuck does Tomboy mean, Stephen?!
The polished sheen of the production (and the ocean of synths) didn’t help. All of these songs are full of reverb and prettiness.
Haven’t We Lost Enough? comes off the best, but it would be much better without the production. It’s as “stripped down” as this album gets, though. It seems to be just Stephen, his guitar and the other two on backup vocals…but it sounds like there’s something else there. It’s just not stripped down enough.
The rest of the album sounds like it might as well be a Michael Bolton album. There’s nothing here that sounds like the leaders of The Movement that we all know and love. Instead, it’s old men trying to remain hip in the 80s…but it was the beginning of the 90s.
The worst thing about the album, though, is that fucking cover art. What the fuck are the hot dogs for?!?!?!
I just don’t understand.
CSN (and sometimes Y) have never really recovered from this debacle. They keep getting together ever five years or so to tour or make another album, but no one really cares anymore. I always want something to be good, but it rarely ever is.
If you’re ever interested in these guys, stick to their stuff from 1982′s Daylight Again and back. Even that album should be approached with caution, but it has a few amazing songs on it. Southern Cross is one of my favorites of theirs. It would be a shame to miss out on that just because there’s a few mediocre tracks.