All Time Lows: When good artists release bad albums

Treble staff
All Time Lows

When you hear as many albums as we at Treble do, you hear as much bad as you do good. We do our best to highlight what we consider “good,” and emphasize the positive as much as we can. But damn if the bad albums don’t get to us once in a while. We’ve heard some real clunkers, from AIDS Wolf, to that last Esthero album, to, dear Lord, Thicke. But we owe it to our readers to be honest.

There is, however, something much worse than just a bad album by a bad artist. We’re all aware at the level of awful that Kevin Federline is capable of. But when an artist you admire and enjoy releases a bad album, then one finds himself experiencing an entirely new level of disappointment. Few bands have had a perfect run, and those that have were lucky enough to call it off before they reached that point. The Smiths, The Pixies, Joy Division—they weren’t around long enough to go stale. The same cannot be said for The Clash or U2 (this is up for debate as their last four albums will find arguments on both sides). No matter what the reason, there are plenty of examples of good artists giving us their worst, and with objective sets of ears, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to revisit some of the albums that history has declared the worst of all time, to determine why they were so poorly received, and if they are actually that bad.

Cut the Crap (seriously)

There’s nothing worse than an artist that can’t let go of the past. Some artists continue to record under their band’s name, long after the departure of original members and long after the magic, the thrill, and really any of the inspiration has gone. When this happens, of course, there’s no viable recourse from fans but to start the backlash. This is a perfectly reasonable course of action, for one of two reasons. In the first case, the collaborative power of the band is gone, as well as the instrumental and songwriting talent that made them who they were, thus leaving the material to suffer. And in the second case, the band recruits someone else to take a departed member’s place, and, while the material may not be terrible, it sure ain’t the same. Any yahoo can tell you that it was a bad idea for Van Halen to try replacing their singer a second time. Well, maybe that’s not a great example. It’s not like Sammy Hagar was much of an asset to them.

When The Clash gave Mick Jones the boot after Combat Rock (a poor musical decision, no matter what the actual reasons were), and took on three unknowns for their sixth album, Cut the Crap, the results were beyond disastrous. The album was essentially Joe Strummer doing Clash karaoke over stale drum machine beats and uninspired “punk” progressions. This is essentially what discopunk would have sounded like if someone had taken the worst aspects of either genre. Aside from sounding amateurish and horribly dated, the lyrics are just plain stupid. Did Strummer really think that “punk rockers/be-boppers/hip-hoppers” was really worth keeping? Ugh. With Cut the Crap, the “only band that mattered” clearly didn’t matter anymore. Someone should have repeated the title of their album back at them.

More than a decade earlier, The Velvet Underground had ended a near-perfect four-album run with Loaded, which was the last album that they would record with Lou Reed in tow. After that album, Doug Yule took it upon himself to preserve the legacy of the band, which, while somewhat admirable, was just a bad idea. Without John Cale or Nico, the band could survive, and did for four years. But without Lou Reed, there was no Velvet Underground, and the band’s fifth album, Squeeze, solidified that point. The album, with the help of vocalist Willie “Loco” Alexander, was essentially a throwaway ’70s pop album with no memorable songs and nothing that really stood up to the quality or even the style of the Velvet Underground’s previous four albums. Aesthetically speaking, it’s not offensively bad. It’s just boring and generic, and most importantly, it’s not the Velvet Underground, in spite of what it might say on the album cover. It sucks, sure, but at least it’s not Cut the Crap.

In the late ’80s, a similar thing happened with Echo & the Bunnymen. Ian McCulloch had left the band and begun a solo career. With 1990’s Reverberation, the band pulled the old switcheroo, adding singer Noel Burke in place of Mac. Now, unlike Squeeze and Cut the Crap, Reverberation wasn’t a bad set of songs, it merely suffered from being the work of a band without the voice that characterized their work from day one. Had it been released under a different name, Reverberation might have been better received. Meanwhile, when McCulloch and Will Sergeant reconvened under the name Electrafixion, the result wasn’t tragic, but it certainly wasn’t up to the quality of Echo & the Bunnymen’s legacy.

The Thin White Kook

When my brother approached me with the idea of revisiting critically panned albums, my thoughts veered immediately to an entire era from one of my favorite artists. David Bowie was seemingly bulletproof from his debut in the early 70’s, all the way up to his reinvented new romantic self in the early 80’s. But the mid- to late 80’s did not treat the Thin White Duke very well. Tonight was Bowie’s follow-up to the lauded and popular Let’s Dance, but it failed to live up to the glorious excess of that album. “Blue Jean” was the one hit from the album, and truth be told, he had more success with songs from movies rather than his albums. The Falcon & the Snowman, Absolute Beginners and Labyrinth all boasted decent Bowie tunes, but it didn’t transfer into album sales. Bowie’s stock fell even further with Never Let Me Down, an album that yielded a few radio singles, but nothing that would end up as fan favorites. Reeling from self-doubt, Bowie sought experimentation and disguise, and found it in Tin Machine. Collaborating with guitarist Reeves Gabrels, Bowie joined up also with the Sales brothers, the rhythm section for such artists as Todd Rundgren and Iggy Pop. Tin Machine would eventually become fodder for jokes and derision, a physical reference for Bowie’s low point. But were any of these albums really that bad?

Both Tonight and Never Let Me Down are helped out by the addition of bonus tracks in later releases. The former adds three songs from the aforementioned soundtracks that stand as some of Bowie’s best work from that period including “Absolute Beginners,” “This is Not America” and “As the World Falls Down.” But, to be fair, I suppose we should just talk about the original albums proper. The All Music Guide calls Tonight the weakest album David Bowie ever recorded, and after hearing it again, it’s hard to argue with that assessment. “Don’t Look Down” and the title track sound downright boring, and his cover of one of the best songs ever written, “God Only Knows,” is simply a travesty. “Blue Jean” still stands up, but is still among the lesser of his many hits. Thank god for the bonus tracks as without those, I would probably never listen to these albums again, and this is coming from a huge Bowie fan.

Never Let Me Down generally gets the same type of reviews as Tonight, but it somehow seems to sound much better than its predecessor after further review. “Day In Day Out” and “Time Will Crawl” are underrated tracks with as much energy as anything on Let’s Dance. The title track, apparently paying homage to John Lennon, is equally unsung and quite good. “Glass Spider,” the impetus for the following tour, is definitely weird, but is probably the best story-driven world Bowie had created since Diamond Dogs, and “Gone, gone the water’s all gone” a driving force within the song. Bowie’s made better decisions in his life than to include a Mickey Rourke rap on one of his CDs, but Never Let Me Down is not the worst album he’s ever made. Critics split over Bowie’s third Iggy Pop cover in a row, this time “Bang Bang” from his 1981 album, Party, but it isn’t as bad as most may say (except for the cheesy guitar solo).

I bought both albums from Tin Machine used, if that tells you anything. Honestly, the only reason I’ve held onto them is due to Bowie’s involvement. But I haven’t listened to these CDs since I purchased them. I probably couldn’t even sell them back anywhere considering the possible glut of these albums in used CD stores. But what I found was somewhat surprising. Most of the first CD wasn’t bad at all. In fact, particular songs were fantastic! “Heaven’s In Here,” “I Can’t Read,” and the cover of “Working Class Hero” were all worthy, and single “Under the God” should really be included in most Bowie greatest hits collections. Sure, the title track is a little silly, and “Crack City” is a poor ‘pale in comparison’ version of “Panic in Detroit,” but the album as a whole is not terrible. It might have even been released before its time. On the other hand, Tin Machine II is just as bad as most people think. When you have David Bowie in a band, which is honestly the only reason anyone ever bought the album in the first place, why have anyone else sing, as Hunt Sales does on two tracks? That would be like going to a Zeppelin show and having John Paul Jones take over for a track or two. I mean, come on, he’s a good bass player, but he’s not Robert freakin’ Plant! Gabrels goes all crazy on the guitar most of the time, getting skronky and off beat, which might work for Sonic Youth, but that’s not what we expect from Bowie.

Since then, Bowie hasn’t ever really reached the highs of his ’70s majesty, but how could anyone? Outside and Earthling got him back on track in a big way, and are still vastly underrated in my opinion, housing some of Bowie’s finest work in years, but maybe the stigma of these four revisited albums was just too much for the chameleon to bear. So, if you’re keeping score, we ended up with two pretty decent albums, Never Let Me Down and Tin Machine, and two pretty awful albums, Tonight and Tin Machine II. I’m not saying the first two should be reconsidered as some of Bowie’s best, but neither should they be as maligned as they are.

Sweet Fuck All

One particularly interesting subgenre of bad album is the “Fuck you” album. Whether it’s directed at the record label, fans, or anyone, really, it’s often commercially disastrous, and artistically obnoxious when it comes right down to it. Time has forgiven some of these, like Miles Davis’ On the Corner, which his fans took great offense to upon its release, yet has since become revered as one of the most adventurous jazz/funk/fusion albums of the ’70s. Listening to it today, it’s, perhaps, easy to understand the knee-jerk reaction, but a bad album it is not — not by a long shot.

There is, however, the puzzling case of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. Lou Reed’s career isn’t perfect, just look at Sally Can’t Dance. But on Metal Machine Music, Reed attempted a whole new level of annoying. A four-part, hour long noise, MMM sounds nothing like a Lou Reed album. Fans of the Boredoms, Merzbow, even some Sonic Youth may not have a problem with it, but for someone who listened to Reed for his vivid lyricism and melodic songwriting, it comes off as little more than an hour long extension of Reed’s middle finger. Reed never explained himself, though did say in an interview once that anyone who made it to side four is dumber than he is. Yet somehow, the album is still in print. God only knows who is buying it, but it is annoying. Even for those who appreciate noise now and then, Metal Machine Music is quite grating. The funny thing is, out of all the albums mentioned in this feature, this is the most popular one among people I know (I have known two people who actually listened to it pretty regularly).

Neil Young, himself, has had a curious career filled with questionable material and strange genre experiments, like the electro-leaning Trans inspired primarily by Kraftwerk, and with Young singing through a vocoder for much of the album. His label didn’t particularly care for his experimental streak, and before his next recording, Geffen supposedly asked for a “rock `n’ roll” album, or so the story goes. So, with a one time band called the Shocking Pinks, Young delivered Everybody’s Rockin’, an old-time ’50s inspired rockabilly album that clocks in at under 25 minutes and features a handful of original songs and many covers from the early days of rock `n’ roll. Though it was his most poorly charting album and fans didn’t particularly care for it, his label was incensed, eventually suing him for creating music that was “uncharacteristic” and “uncommercial.” It’s not much of a Neil Young album, but it is a fairly harmless old-time rock ‘n’ roll album, forgettable, yet pleasant nonetheless.

Even without the aid of a pesky record label or a dissolving lineup, a band is more than capable of releasing weak material on their own. Take the Cure’s Wild Mood Swings, Morrissey’s Kill Uncle, or Sonic Youth’s NYC Ghosts and Flowers, which has been described as “unlistenable,” while a certain other webzine gave it a rating of “0.0”. But hey, nobody’s perfect, right? The Cure, Morrissey and Sonic Youth have all released enough material to make up for their disappointments, the latter two just this year! And of course, there are still listeners who can find something to love in an artist’s lesser moments. By examining some of these historical flops, we, ourselves have determined that not all “bad” albums are as awful as people say they are. Yet some are actually much worse. I’m still recovering from subjecting myself to Cut the Crap and Metal Machine Music. After those two, Squeeze is almost good.

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