Albums they love to hate
This was intended to be a book when I started writing it in the 1990s. I chose a series of albums that “The Critics Love To Hate.” I never finished it, and as is inevitable with music, some of my choices got re-appraised, remastered, re-issued in de luxe editions … Lou Reed’s Berlin, Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait, The Beatles Let It Be … so I gave up. I will put those album reviews here (slowly!)
We all know what the great rock albums of all time are supposed to be. Everyone agrees about Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, The Beach Boy’s Pet Sounds, The Band’s first two albums, Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, The Beatles Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, The Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed. There is a critical consensus about rock. The consensus extends to the crap albums, the reviled stuff, the dross by major artists.
My aim here is to explore the unloved albums, to see what they might have to offer, to examine the critics’ prejudices, or good judgment. Some albums have been excluded, because they are so unforgivably dire that the critical consensus is indisputable. This category includes such gems as Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music and John and Yoko’s Life With The Lions .
I discount some bad reviews. While I thought The Rolling Stone Record Guide was excellent in its original version, the New Rolling Stone Record Guide was highly dubious. You CANNOT review an artist’s album fairly if you dislike them totally. Dave Marsh gave nearly every Grateful Dead album one star. He squeezed out a second for American Beauty then a third for Workingman’s Dead. These are albums generally considered five star. That was about it. It is dishonest. If he disliked The Grateful Dead that much, he would never have listened sufficiently to be able to judge. The same guide gives EVERY Cher album one star. OK, if Cher’s sexuality intimidates you to that degree, leave the review to someone who actually listened to her.
That’s why I will not venture into assessing stuff I simply never listened to enough. No, I can’t assess Black Sabbath or The Sex Pistols.
If you want a bad review, here are some ways of getting it:
The Third Album syndrome
Third albums generally get knocked. There are some stupefying turkeys that remain ever unplayed. I don’t know how so many people fought through Chicago III or Seatrain’s Marblehead Messenger. Bands produce their first album after years of work, and the product might be flawed, unpolished, but it shines. The second album is where they hit their stride, Success is already there. They tour furiously, and have to force out number three with inadequate time, insufficient inspiration.
Reviewers want to be needed. There’s nothing they resent more than an album that’s going to go platinum whatever they say, especially if the stars collaborating on it are not a “real” group in their terms. Blind Faith was knocked before it got out, even more reviled once it was out, and only began to get its due appreciation twenty five years after its release. Reviewers had sharpened the poison pencils on Asia by Asia before the band even got into the studio.
The earlier album
If reviewers have failed to notice a band before it made it big, they often get sniffy about the earlier efforts which they missed. The example here is Supertramp.
The reformed band
Bands recreate themselves, often becoming a backing group for one or two leaders. General resentment seems to attach itself to the sloughing off of earlier compatriots. See The Band’s High on The Hog and the final 1989 Jefferson Airplane. Then there’s the “we’re only in it for the money” reunion: The Eagles Hell Freezes Over. Or CSNY’s American Dream. The Velvet Underground reunion tour is the worst of the genre.
One member retains all rights to the name, as with Roger McGuinn and The Byrds, sloughing off original members. Byrdmaniax?
Leaving a popular band and going solo amounts to an act of hubris so mighty that the results had better be good. Paul McCartney’s first solo album? Wings’ Wild Life? Or is Mick Jagger’s She’s The Boss the bench-mark? Robbie Robertson, Paul McCartney, David Crosby, Roger McGuinn and Grace Slick all know what I’m talking about. Perhaps unfairly, John Lennon got away with it (Though not with Sometime In New York City).
Out on a limb
Making that deeply meaningful personal statement. or even just doing what you like gets the arrows flying in your direction. See Lou Reed’s Berlin or Marvin Gaye’s revenge on his wife Here, My Dear.
Contractual obligation time
Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music is mentioned above, and to comment further would require me to buy it and listen through it. Neil Young got sued by his record company for handing in an atypical albums like Everybody’s Rockin’ and Old Ways.
What have they done to my song, ma?
The producer screwed up the album without the band’s input: Let It Be Phil Spector and The Beatles. Byrdmaniax Terry Melcher and The Byrds. Or one band member finishes off the work to the dissatisfaction of the others … step forward Mike Love. A prime example is Death of A Ladies’ Man by Leonard Cohen, produced by Phil Spector.
The idiot bastard son
The album reviled by its creator has trouble before it starts. Steve Miller’s Recall The Beginning is a good example.
Sell way too many
A route to critical disgrace which is best known to Fleetwood Mac, The Eagles, and Elton John. Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk flies the flag for this group. This also leads into that difficult 25th album syndrome suffered by Genesis and so many others.
A gender gap?
I’m very aware of how 70s oriented my choices are, but also how few women there are. I’ve spent time trawling female artists to find that Reviled! album, but mostly they’re not there. Women tend to do cover versions when they run out of creative fire. Men do tend to keep recording when inspiration is lacking.
There are so many rightly derided live albums, such as every Rolling Stones attempt, that I decided to ignore the category altogether. Of the three live masterpieces, two were by The Band and faked. Rock of Ages was recorded mainly at rehearsals. The Last Waltz was heavily over-dubbed. The third, Live At the Lyceum by Bob Marley & The Wailers is perfect.
And in the end …
Lastly, the other surefire way to get knocked is to make a tedious, unmelodic album with weak lyrics, poor backing and a lousy cover.
THE REVILED ALBUMS ARE (so far) …
Wednesday Morning 3 a.m. – Simon & Garfunkel
Beatles For Sale – The Beatles
Their Satanic Majesties Request … The Rolling Stones
Speedway (and Elvis film music) – Elvis Presley
Electric Mud– Muddy Waters
3614 Jackson Highway – Cher (plus the bonus tracks)
I’m Back and I’m Proud– Gene Vincent
Let It Be – The Beatles
Self Portrait – Bob Dylan
Byrdmaniax – The Byrds
Cahoots – The Band
Carl and The Passions- So Tough! – The Beach Boys
The London Chuck Berry Sessions – Chuck Berry
Wild Life – Wings
Sometime in New York City – John and Yoko / Elephant’s Memory
Recall The Beginning: A Journey From Eden … The Steve Miller Band
Hard Nose The Highway … Van Morrison
Chicago III … Chicago
One Man Dog – James Taylor
Berlin– Lou Reed
Pinups – David Bowie
There’s One In Every Crowd – Eric Clapton
I Want You – Marvin Gaye
Love At The Greek – Neil Diamond
Death of A Ladies’ Man – Leonard Cohen
Shakedown Street – The Grateful Dead
Born Again – Randy Newman
Mingus – Joni Mitchell
One Trick Pony – Paul Simon
Everybody’s Rockin’ – Neil Young
American Dream – Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Jefferson Airplane – Jefferson Airplane (1989)
Human Touch – Bruce Springsteen
And here’s a rule-breaker. I’d decided one album each, but Van Morrison got so much vituperation from critics (unjustly) in 2021, that I had to add it:
Latest Record Project Volume1… Van Morrison
This list will grow steadily