Every band has their oeuvre, the classics, and the difficult but rewarding albums. There are also albums with a near uniform reputation of being the worst in their makers’ catalogue. These albums don't even get the so bad it’s good pass – they are sources of ridicule even to hardcore fans.
Yet, sometimes, the very things people hate about bad albums are what make them great works: a refusal to submit to the pressures of their fanbase, to wider tastes, or even common sense. This could be in early, playful experiments, or later forays into new territory. This isn’t about what Clash considers to be the worst albums by a particular band – it’s an analysis of the album with the reputation of being the worst, and in some cases reappraising them.
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David Bowie – ‘Black Tie White Noise’ (1993)
The major sticking points on ‘Black Tie White Noise’ are Bowie (pictured, main) both thematically and musically appearing like a regular middle-aged man, expounding the virtues of marriage and throwing saxes all over every song. The first few tracks on this 18th studio album sound dangerously close to muzak material, and when they collide together one part of this listener still understands why this album has a bad reputation.
Yet, once one adjusts to Bowie’s saccharine world, the enjoyment of this album comes from the playfulness of some of Bowie's odd musical choices and earnest delivery. The overuse of horns is grating, but the creative use of electronics, particularly on ‘Pallas Athena’, and the warmth Bowie effortlessly sprinkles throughout make it a pleasant companion to spend an hour with.
A subpar Bowie album is like a poor Woody Allen film: even a bad work is okay, because of the comforting familiarity.
‘Black Tie White Noise’
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Animal Collective – ‘Danse Manatee’ (2001)
Nobody could have predicted, when first hearing this album, that its makers would later create music that could be played in the background at McDonald’s. Although hardcore fans defend the sonically challenging debut ‘Spirit They've Gone Spirit They've Vanished’ (2000) as one of Animal Collective’s greatest works, second LP ‘Danse Manatee’ gets near universal hatred due to its lo-fi production and use of ‘unlistenable’ high frequencies.
The production is admittedly distracting at times, but it’s a creative, original album brimming with ideas and emotions. The songwriting is admittedly loose, but there’s a difference between loose and sloppy. It feels like the band has its own logic to making music. They put disparate musical ideas together – be it noise and pop melodies, or irritating frequencies with emotive singing – and somehow make it sound natural and unaffected. It’s understandable why people don’t like it, but all the things to hate about it – the dissonance, the screaming, and the scatterbrained vibes – actually help convey the album’s themes: the chaos of being a young adult, the frustration (‘Ahh Good Country’) mingled with a yearning for the past (‘Essplode’, ‘Meet The Light Child’) and escapist regression (‘Penguin, Penguin’).
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The Cure – ‘Wild Mood Swings’ (1996)
The Cure exhibit a trajectory similar to a lot of artists: the early years; then the critically acclaimed middle period (‘Faith’, ‘Pornography’) and a sprawling double album (‘Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me’), before a classic, ‘Disintegration’; and then the decline. ‘Wild Mood Swings’ took place during their 1990s days filled with missteps. Yet it’s undeserving of its reputation.
There are heartbreaking moments placed jarringly next to tracks of such bouncy, sugary fun that they somehow become sad, too, because we know how temporary those moments of relief are. This is a bipolar album, but a fine representation of a human mind going through joy intermingled with consequential pain and suffering.
The concept may appear simple and manipulative, but Robert Smith and company were still able to keep it human and stop it falling off the rails – a testament to their songwriting abilities and connection to the human experience.
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R.E.M. – ‘Around The Sun’ (2004)
R.E.M. have an almost untouchable discography. From the 1980s I.R.S. days through to ’90s forays into experimental rock, theirs is one of the greatest and most consistent musical runs in rock history. Not unlike U2, they went from being kings of alternative rock, to mainstream successes, to the kind of band both your mother and father have in their record collections. There’s nothing wrong with being popular, but to many fans ‘Around The Sun’ represents the moment R.E.M. went from making tasteful mainstream art rock to bland and dull MOR fare.
Although the album title suggests grand themes such as, well, space, the little things are what make this album greater than some might assume: the keyboards on ‘Ascent Of Man’, the dark production effects on ‘High Speed Train,’ the use of electronic drums scattered throughout, and the refusal repeat themselves from one track to the next.
It might not be their most memorable album, and singles wise it might be one of their weakest. But, front to back, ‘Around The Sun’ is a captivating listen.
‘Leaving New York’
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Sigur Rós – ‘Von’ (1997)
‘Von’ (meaning ‘hope’ in English) is an album casual fans of its makers will not have in their collections, while avid fans may pretend it doesn’t exist, often neglecting to rank it seriously amongst their later works. In that sense, it’s treated like it’s the Icelandic band’s own ‘Pablo Honey’ – the difference being that while ‘Pablo Honey’ was Radiohead’s most generic album, ‘Von’ features the most challenging and experimental material Sigur Rós have ever recorded.
It’s an album with many features they dropped in their more successful years – a tendency to rock out, hellish screams, field and nature samples. In fact, its demonic sound is the antithesis of why they’re so popular, with later music often used to illuminate the scope and natural beauty of the universe.
In contrast, ‘Von’ sounds like a dark, mysterious lair in the depths of some Game Of Thrones-like fantasy world. Though they later refined their songwriting abilities and became a structurally tighter band, Sigur Rós also left behind their experimental and almost kitchen-sink approach towards what sounds and textures they were willing to employ on their tracks.
There’s also humour on this LP, and a sense that they’re having fun with the music – be that through throwing in one too many samples, tape loops, or even David Lynch-ian backwards sounds. The playful vibe emanated here is missing from the sometimes heavily morose and deeply earnest LPs that followed.
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Queens Of The Stone Age – ‘Era Vulgaris’ (2007)
QOTSA embody all that’s good about rock ‘n’ roll – the purity of the heavier is better ethos and a sense of urgency, that it’s music or oblivion. ‘Rated R’ is legendary amongst fans, and ‘Songs For The Deaf ‘is one of the best trad-rock albums of the ’00s. But ‘Era Vulgaris’ is seen as a misstep of the rock-band-goes-electro variety.
QOTSA were also criticised for toning down their trademark intensity, with many feeling the lack of unhinged bassist Nick Oliveri made the band go from controlled chaos to just controlled – and that’s hardly rock ‘n’ roll. Yet unlike peers such as Foo Fighters, QOTSA made a choice to challenge their fanbase, and you’ve got to respect them for it.
‘Era Vulgaris’ shows QOTSA are more than just a primal band that can rock out – they can also make accomplished experimental music as well. From a production standpoint, the album is a treat with an array of effects and textural layers throughout, and the songs seem more like the soundtrack to bad acid trip than the cruising through the city feel of previous efforts. It could have done with a few more tracks with the immediacy and pure fun of ‘Sick, Sick, Sick’, though, and one or two others could have done without invoking the feelings of that song’s title so much.
‘Sick, Sick, Sick’
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Metallica – ‘St. Anger’ (2003)
Metallica are an essential rock band. It was hard to avoid them in the 1990s, and their fanbase are devoted as any. Yet this album gets a lot of hate, and its troubled recording sessions were highlighted in the brilliant documentary, Some Kind Of Monster.
The end product of those difficult times is a laughing stock to both fans and non-fans alike – but ‘St. Anger’ is unfairly disregarded. Sure, it’s not as deep or interesting musically as earlier Metallica albums, and it feels like an unfocused regression in places, but there are some great tracks on the album – and variety, too.
‘Frantic’ succeeds as an intense opener, and ‘The Unnamed Feeling’ has some of the most emotionally frustrated lyrics James Hetfield has penned. Elsewhere, there are examples of spectacular failures, with the songs ‘St. Anger’ and ‘All Within My Hands’ in particular providing entertainment through unintentional humour. There’s also a sense of confusion throughout this album – evidence of a band at war with itself – and an uncertainty in what they even want to make.
But it’s as fun and humorous in places as it is dark and overtly serious in others. It’s not a calculated collection, and certainly doesn’t play things safe. Its failures showcase that Metallica are a band of humans – pure in the emotional investment towards their art.
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Words: William Bradbury
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