During the 13 years in which Josh Homme has helmed Queens of the Stone Age full-time, its roster has maintained an unpredictable fluidity. Though many of the same players have emerged time and again, from Troy Van Leeuwen to Mark Lanegan, it’s less an actual rock band than a Homme-curated all-star team. Yet for a rock ‘n’ roll act with few logistical constants, Queens of the Stone Age has also been one of the most consistently great players in mainstream rock since their self-titled 1998 debut. The band’s peak, however, occurred shortly after the turn of the millennium, a period that launched the almost instant classics Rated R and Songs for the Deaf, each one boasting some of the group’s strongest melodies and burliest riffs.
Songs for the Deaf ultimately ended up the band’s critical favorite and commercial smash, though, it was essentially a more sprawling extension of its predecessor, with Dave Grohl’s kickass beats to match. And truthfully, one could make an easy argument for either of the two records as the band’s best. Yet Rated R‘s arrival marked the first significant blip that the Queens made on the public’s radar, delivering the impeccable radio hit “The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret” and infamous drug chant “Feelgood Hit of the Summer.” As an album, though, Rated R remains somewhat underrated, often overlooked in favor of its successor. But ten years after its initial issue, it sounds incredibly focused, viscerally brutal and consistently thrilling throughout.
The subject of a tenth anniversary deluxe reissue, Rated R is the moment where the Queens really hit their stride, albeit one that was hampered by interpersonal turmoil and a rotating cast of supporting actors. The album’s songs are far more concise than much of what Homme has delivered since, the vast majority of them detonating and disappearing within 2 to 4 minutes each. But far and away the most notable component separating Rated R (as well as Deaf) from the group’s subsequent albums is the presence of Nick Oliveri, whose vicious rasp and pounding bass grooves are all over this like underage sexting on a suburban weeknight.
Blistering rockers like “Quick and to the Pointless” and “Tension Head” provide a more unhinged, barely-contained foil to Homme’s cool croon. The former in particular is the rare moment in which the Queens’ desert-rock groove descends into almost complete collapse, while the latter is a more dynamic juxtaposition between melodic hooks and Oliveri’s escalating screeches. But most of the album’s best songs are those sung by Homme himself, suggesting that the collaboration, itself, rather than the individual performances is what ultimately sets this album on a higher plateau.
The aforementioned “Lost Art of Keeping A Secret” is far and away one of the best songs to hit mainstream radio in the past decade, marrying spy-theme cool to Sabbath heaviness and cheekily spooky background vocals. And “Feelgood Hit of the Summer,” despite its seemingly sub-mental recreational drug shopping list, is a fine example of the group’s irreverent sense of humor and wink at the cliché excesses of rock ‘n’ roll. But when the band committed to a melody, it often made the difference between head-nodding bubblegum and the sublimely artful. “Auto Pilot” is just such a song, its distortion stripped away for a bluesy, melodically stunning highlight. Likewise, “Better Living Through Chemistry” sends the group’s down-and-dirty doom pop into outer space, with psychedelic flourishes drawing out its dramatic progression. And “In the Fade,” the album’s sole Mark Lanegan vocal performance, vaults between spacey funk and crunchy chorus, to quite satisfying effect.
The reissue comes packaged with a bonus disc of b-sides, outtakes and live tracks recorded from Reading Festival. And while not every track is necessarily essential, there’s plenty of gold to be mined from the extras. “Born to Hula” is a grungy highlight, reminiscent of Soundgarden’s heavier moments, while “Ode to Clarissa” is the group’s psychotic take on Texas boogie. But the real treat is the slightly slowed-down cover of Romeo Void’s “Never Say Never,” with the original’s saxophone hooks replaced with fiery guitar riffs.
While a major label debut can be botched just as easily as turned into an opportunity to reach a new level commercially, Rated R reveals that it can also be a prime opportunity to display one’s artistic growth as well. While Queens of the Stone Age was no more a solidified “band” more so than it has been in recent years, the album sure sounds a lot more like a unified work. And as a leaner alternative to what came after, Rated R stands as the moment where Queens of the Stone Age got everything right, kicking off the album with a joke about excess and delivering album that almost entirely abstains that very sin.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.