Wednesday, October 21, 2009

All-Time Overrated Album List

Over and over again, they appear on the kind of “Best Album” lists music magazines like to publish. I give my own star ratings out of five. Ranking is based on difference between critical status and actual quality.

10. The Beautiful Letdown – Switchfoot – No critic’s darling, this makes the list because I’ve heard scores of Christians use it to justify the artistic worth of an entire subgenre. I’ve bashed CCM enough already, but this album deserves special mention for its miserable eclecticism. Few records manage so many different kinds of unpleasant: cracker jive poetry (“The Beautiful Letdown”, “Gone”), self-help as salvation (“Dare You To Move”) a Soundgarden cast-off shrunken in the wash (“Meant to Live”), and a ballad whose inscrutable conceit at best guess comes from a Benthamite network action program (“24”), and pervasive preachy cultural commentary. 1 star
9. Nevermind – Nirvana – The most important album of the 90s as far as the industry is concerned, but hardly the best. The opening of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” never fails to cause some impressive recoil, but the tune itself outstays its welcome by two or so minutes. The next four cuts are undeniable, but then along comes “Polly” and only like three people in history have even made it all the way through side 2. Note: The follow-up, In Utero, is a truly great album. 4 stars
8. Rumours – Fleetwood Mac – Tell you the truth, I like this album quite a bit. It’s warm and it’s melodic and a couple of its cuts shed some light on my own past romantic dysfunctions. I can say exactly the same thing about hundreds of other albums, including one or two in the band’s own catalog, and none of them ever were ever called the 25th best album of all time. 3.5 stars
7. At Fillmore East – The Allman Brothers Band – It boogies like hell. Trouble is that I often find the rhythm section, which cheats by having two drummers, more compelling than the guitarists, and often as not, the solos piledrive a single lick to death. An enjoyable but hardly revelatory affair. 3.5 stars
6. Tommy – The Who – The music is fitfully gripping, but the plotline of the world’s first rock opera is moronic (woot), especially on film. I like people on drugs just fine, so long as they realize that they’re on drugs and don’t try to go all philosophical on you. Commentary on empiricism ignored, even the best cuts here are gimmicks, and the ferocious physicality of the band’s best work is missing. 2.5 stars
5. Untrue – Burial – I still recall my first time listening to this record, being fully drawn into the pleading soundscapes of “Archangel”. Then cut after cut tried to draw me in again, employing the same timbres and rhythmic hiccups, with exponentially diminishing returns. 2.5 stars
4. (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? – Oasis – Admittedly, their first album has some dumb fun to it, but the pretentions arrived an album earlier than critics generally acknowledge. “Wonderwall” is melodically stunted, “Champagne Supernova” contains some of the stupidest lines ever penned this side of Neil Diamond, and the rockers tread water in a sea of atrocious production. To their credit, I don’t think they took a single thing from the Beatles. 1.5 stars
3. Paranoid – Black Sabbath – It birthed heavy metal, which explains most things detestable about the genre. The rhythm section is slovenly, the production has the girth of an anorexic and Ozzy has a grand doubles the guitar parts at a quarter tone flat. The titular anthem is an admittedly good time. 3 stars
2. Hotel California – The Eagles – 3rd wave hippies think the title cut “means something”, people who don’t play guitar are impressed by the solo and white people from the suburbs dig da reggae riddim mon. There’s an album attached to it that nobody gives a rat’s rear about. 2.5 stars
1. Never Mind the Bullocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols – A little secret: I’ve not once listened to this album from beginning to end. It’s poorly played, which is fine if the songs are short and light and peppy, but not when they’re long and sluggish and nihilistic. It broke punk about 8 years after punk was invented, so it might as well have invented it, right? For my money, The Buzzcocks’ “Singles Going Steady” is twice as offensive (see: “Orgasm Addict”) and ten times as fun (see: “Orgasm Addict”). 2 stars


  1. Nevermind's B-side is better than you say because of the energy and pace of several of those songs. I can't think of many albums that end faster than they start. And for just 3 guys with little (or no) cheating in the studio, such as having the 1 guitarist lay down multiple guitar tracks (eg Metallica), they produce a compelling sound that as a bonus one could expect to be reproduced in concert... assuming the minor details of them staying sober and alive. This album was a necessary rebuke to the bands that lost their way, and to all the fans who encouraged them: bands such as Motley Crue, Def Leppard, Van Halen, and Ozzy -- as well as the host of newer bands who wore reeboks, white jeans, and black muscle shirts.

    Pearl Jam's Ten is a better candidate for this list because its rhythm section was sloppy, its blues guitar sound was always tired, and Eddie was too cocky. And they wore embarrassing outfits.


  2. Rebuttal:

    "Breed," "Territorial Pissings" and "Stay Away" are basically the same song, albeit a good one. "Lounge Act," "Drain You" and "On A Plain" are basically the same song - again a good one, but I get a little bored by the end. Last I checked, "Something in the Way" closes the album, and it's one of the slowest cuts on there. As far as studio "cheating" goes, I think that authenticity in music is highly overrated and generally only care about what sounds good, but there are definitely massive guitar overdubs on the album. It's also worth noting that the band couldn't get the intro to "Teen Spirit" right as an ensemble and had to record the instrumental parts separately.

    I don't buy the "necessary rebuke" thing - to make that claim, you've got to (a) imagine that Nevermind was intended as a response to the state of the industry and (b) ignore about 25 years of alternative rock history that eventually begot Nevermind. My biggest complaint about critical assessment of the album is that people focus on influence, rather than musical quality. There are dozens of albums that could have broken alt-rock - it just happened to be Nevermind. And let's face it - much of the alt-rock that became mainstream is the 90s was awful.

    I don't want to give the band too hard a time - it's a fine album, just not a top 10 or even top 100. I agree with everything you say about Ten and certainly think that Nevermind is a much better album, and it was a strong candidate for the list, but I don't think it enjoys Nevermind's profile.

  3. Grunge broke at the end of a very regrettable period in music... whether or not it wanted to rebuke that period is debatable, but for me at least, the result was the same. Certain minor details when taken together seem to suggest that Nirvana not only didn't prefer the state of rock, but loathed it, and their music filled a distinct void. Cardigan sweaters, dirty hair, garage-sale drumkits, a naked baby swimming towards a dollar bill, frustration with their own popularity, smaller concert's not anything you'd expect from Bon Jovi and Poison. It's the antithesis, and in a way a sort of protest. I recognize Weezer isn't exactly in the same genre as Nirvana, but their self-titled album was on the same label as Nevermind, and their ridiculous Van Halen style logo was at least a mockery if not a well thought out rebuke. Of course Nirvana wasn't the first to think this way but I think they did think this way and they were the first band to really catch my attention who thought this way. That's all influence, which is not quality (a distinction I reserve for the Beatles (!) but now I've no doubt entirely discredited myself entirely on this blog), but influence probably is the primary factor on "best" lists of this type anyway.

    Assessment of quality is harder to justify or explain... but it's certainly there for me, throughout the album. Nevermind may not rise above other bands for you, but it offered pretty much everything I found missing at the time: very interesting and prominent bass lines, a vocal style that didn't suffer from the excessive clarity/vibrato/soprano levels of many rock bands. The drumming was competent, not distracting or showy, yet very respectable for a 4 piece kit.