They say people’s taste and actions fall closer to the mainstream than their actual personalities usually dictate. About a quarter of people have little to no self-determination at all, and another quarter don’t give a fuck what you think — they just listen to music. I fall somewhere into the middle of that spectrum, since I take a lot of recommendations and stay relatively quiet when other people play terrible shit on the stereo. (Of course, my taste is always a lot more offensive to them than theirs is to me; I suppose everyone else is just stupid, and I ought to forgive them for it. Oh well. That’s Übermensch life, I guess.)
That being said… there are several albums you would probably not suspect me of disliking. I do not put records on this list lightly — I have listened to each one several times, and most or all of the time they disappoint my expectations. Often I read a lot about these albums, and the enthusiastic reviews hyped up my expectations, but the real thing was not up to the snuff of fawning critics. Many of them have some good or even excellent songs, but the sum of it all is really lame.
These are ranked in order of least to greatest shock value.
13. Bitches Brew by Miles Davis
When you fill two discs with six tracks, you’d better be goddamn sure they’re good jams. Not everyone can make a Jack Johnson, but you would think Miles Davis — the great, all-encompassing bandleader-composer-innovator-asshole — capable of repeating his masterstrokes. Bitches Brew is simply one of those “transitional” albums that critics mention in reviews of much better albums later on in an artist’s discography. It’s unfocused, spotty and, above all, too fucking long. I do like the first twenty-odd minutes of the title track, and “Pharaoh’s Dance,” and bits of disc 2; but the intensity that Davis and his band brought to Jack Johnson is spread thin.
12. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles
No, I’m not original in criticizing the Beatles, and especially not in criticizing Sgt. Pepper’s. (Jim DeRogatis decimated it in another book.) However, I really don’t find a whole lot of redeeming material anywhere in their catalog. There are about a dozen songs that I enjoy — “I Saw Her Standing There,” “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” the excellent “Dear Prudence,” “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” the John Lennon half of “A Day In the Life,” “Something,” and others — but almost none of them are on Sgt. Pepper’s. It is stuffed with underwhelming orchestral pop, so that soporific garbage like “She’s Leaving Home” and “Fixing a Hole” and “Lucy In the Sky with Diamonds” bleed out and blur the edges of any interesting bits. And please, if you have somewhere to go quickly, don’t get me started on the Paul McCartney half of “A Day In the Life.”
11. Out to Lunch by Eric Dolphy
I really don’t know if I should include this, because there are parts I like and there are parts that completely slip my mind. I tremendously enjoy the first side, particularly the ballad “Something Sweet, Something Tender” and the industrial clank of “Hat and Beard,” but the second half is dreamily pathetic. I can’t get behind it. Have fun without me, spacey anti-compositional freaks — I will put on John Lee Hooker instead.
10. Frizzle Fry by Primus
I adore Sailing the Seas of Cheese because it is a diversion like no other. It is a gleefully stupid record into which Primus channels tons of fun. If it were less atonal, it would probably go down in collective memory (instead of just mine) as one of the best pop albums of the past twenty years. Similarly, Pork Soda is dark and broody, and effectively sustains darkness over seventy-odd minutes. Both are interesting and engaging, and super catchy.
On the other hand — Frizzle Fry.
P.S. The production is headache-inducing shit, the lyrics are aggressively stupid, and the overall mood is one of unmitigated rage at nothing in particular. Exceptions include “Harold of the Rocks,” “Too Many Puppies” and “Mr. Knowitall.”
9. Dirt by Alice In Chains
This is the most stupid, ill-informed, colossally misguided, and deeply concerning albums I’ve ever heard. It’s not so much the junkie narratives as the lack of a moral center, which can be compelling if the author can say anything by emphasizing the characters’ lack of values. Layne Staley, unfortunately, was writing his autobiography, and so there is no redeeming an album as intimately tied to his wasted life as this one, especially one that celebrates the muck he wallowed in. Also, the guitar tone gives me a fucking headache. Their first album Facelift, recorded before his heroin addiction (but during his crack addiction), is a lot better anyway.
8. Earth 2 by Earth
Euuugh. I enjoy Earth’s other albums — Hex, Bees, Pentastar, Primitive, Bureaucratic and others are brilliant bits of outward-bound, minimal rock. Earth 2 is simply a device by which I try my patience when other ways of challenging myself are just too exciting. Doesn’t put me to sleep, doesn’t wake me up, doesn’t even make me zone out. It’s exhausting to listen to and totally uninteresting. I do like Sunn O)))’s Monoliths and Dimensions, however, especially when turned up loud on an epically bassy stereo.
7. Astral Weeks by Van Morrison
I probably should have placed this one in the beginning, since I mentioned in the Tonight’s the Night review that it makes me feel really bad about myself. Van Morrison, it has been said, rests often on the idea that “earthly love” is as close as anyone can be to heaven while on terra firma, and as a dude who has never actually been on a second date, kissed a girl or had a girlfriend, I cannot at all commiserate with the teary-eyed blonde Irish fuck who stares out from behind the overlaid image of an autumn tree on the album cover. Lester Bangs’ piece suggests that a lot of Astral Weeks is actually about having to deal with the irredeemably sad people one comes into contact with, so there could be hope yet for Vanny’s first record; I also like some of the first side (aside from “Sweet Thing”) and “Slim Slow Slider.” Right now, though, it makes me cry for all the wrong reasons.
6. Velvet Underground & Nico
The third Velvet Underground album is terrific. The first one is cold, compressed, leery, exhibitionistic and ultimately empty. Perhaps the “classic” cover is really a metaphor for my approach to the record: there’s a bruised, bright banana peel on the cover, and the signature of an artist; this represents the praise of a bunch of easily impressed critics and people, which coated the album and got my attention. Underneath, though, there’s no delicious potassium-rich substance; instead we get a radioactive-looking banana phallus. I’m sure it sounded “revolutionary when it came out,” but mostly it just kind of bores me.
5. To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar
My introduction to hip-hop. I tried so hard to like it that I got burned out on the thing. It’s rather heavy reading, and oppressive listening for eighty minutes — Ulysses for those who are learning English. I don’t like good kid, m.A.A.d. city that much either, though I enjoy Butterfly’s “untitled unmastered” outtakes album. I really want to appreciate it too, but I suppose I haven’t yet gotten around to the psychology course where they teach you how to deal with well-meaning lower-class activists like Kendrick, who mean well, but still need to let me know often how little I understand them or how little they need my help. Many of the beats are really good, though.
4. The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd
Don’t let anyone tell you that rock and roll is a device of anarchy and freedom — the people who do, are the ones to run from the fastest. As a dedicated fan of bizarre and existentially challenging music, I’ve been told often that my taste is terrible or that my favorite albums suck; though it hurts a little still (especially from my family), I have learned to take it in relative stride, and to avoid playing any when making an impression on a new acquaintance. I’m not invested anymore in what people think of “my” music. It’s a pity that more brain-dead classic-rock fans haven’t figured out how to cope with people who say the same, because having your entire identity wrapped up in a series of tones that somebody else made must really suck. I don’t want to project that arrogant alt-righty superiority over people who are hurt by the disingenuous fuck-you-all bombs which they repeatedly chuck into serious discussions, a la “that’s your trip if you snowflakes can’t handle it,” so I’ll say it straight and stop intimating: I don’t think that The Dark Side of the Moon is very interesting. I do like “Brain Damage” and “Eclipse” and “Money,” but the rest is take-it-or-leave-it lounge music to my ears. I don’t know why anyone rates Pink Floyd above prime Steely Dan, or Seventies Pink Floyd over Sixties Pink Floyd — Aja and Piper at the Gates of Dawn both top Dark Side in very different ways.
See, kids? That’s called owning what you say. It’s an important part of being an adult.
3. Bone Machine by Tom Waits
A lot of people call this the best Tom Waits album, which is horseshit because that title belongs indisputably to Nighthawks at the Diner (soon to appear on this site, I hope!). It certainly features several of Waits’s best sonic textures, which are the things that made his Eighties work famous — that is, his ability to make junk and obsolete instruments evoke all kinds of locales and states of mind with incredible clarity. He is Dr. Barry Blesser’s argument for the efficacy of “aural architecture.” That is not the case with Bone Machine. Waits, in his old age, is no less sentimental than before, which he proves with two gorgeous piano ballads; however, he now hands meaning over to explicit symbols, rather than intimate it by speaking in only ideas. Axes with bloodstains and suicidal ramblings replace stepping on the devil’s tail and passing out wolf tickets. The hokey “Murder in the Red Barn” sounds a lot less desolate or folksy than “Gun Street Girl,” despite the fact that both are arranged for banjo, footstomp and slapped percussion, because it shows you the goods exactly instead of leading you to a conclusion. Do I confuse you? It’s like how Steven Spielberg was better off not showing off the shark in Jaws, because then the audience could build its own impression of the shark, which would be scarier than anything a filmmaker could create. Same with Rain Dogs and Nighthawks and Swordfishtrombones — these albums are composed of impressions and suggestions, which allow us listeners to construct fantastical worlds for his characters to inhabit. Waits abandoned that for Bone Machine by going the cheap-thrills route of most modern horror movies, showing us scary shit and hoping we’ll think it’s scary. Does he not trust his audience anymore, or did having to write narrative showtunes for all those Robert Wilson plays fuck him up?
2. Spiderland by Slint
I can hear, plain as day, that Dylan Carlson was listening obsessively to Slint and its fellow “post-rock” bands as he made The Bees Made Honey In the Lion’s Skull. I can only imagine what he heard in it all. I heard one reviewer assert that Slint’s desired aesthetic abandoned the “Dionysian impulse” of rock and roll — that is, the will to rock. That makes me mad. All that’s left, when you stop rocking, is to roll — to roll over, to roll back, to roll with the punches. This is what Slint does in Spiderland. Their protagonists are poor sad sacks without self-determination, who drift along and push happiness and interesting music aside as so many distractions. They are defined — Don Theman, Nosferatu, whoever the hell Washer and the Captain are — by what they cannot have, what is beyond their grasp. I say fuck that. “Breadcrumb Trail” celebrates life, in its strange and somber way, and thus is the only track I can sit all the way through. Otherwise, Spiderland is a hipster against satisfaction and vicarious living, which is probably why so many “artsy” people are attracted to it: it looks to the cheap and false pleasures of society and vows to itself to construct a cheap and false sadness to oppose it. This is because it has nothing to say in particular. Unfortunately, the flawed mainstream still has some pretty good ideas (like compact songs, conviction, lyrical content or interesting guitar lines, for example), which the amorphous Slint refuses to acknowledge. In short: rock for what you are — don’t mope for what you aren’t. (Plus, most of the guitar parts are boring and abrasive and the good passages are nothing but pretenders to Red‘s already precarious throne.)
1. Fun House by the Stooges
I really have kicked the hornet’s nest, haven’t I? In this age of punk-rock nostalgia, there’s even a Beatles/Floyd/Davis/Velvets/Morrison/etc.-style consensus about the records that no one paid attention to back in “the day.” I love the Stooges’ first, self-titled album because it provides us with eight excellent little songs that showcase the group’s much-heralded power and intensity in the confines of pretty tight structures. There’s a reason people don’t like “We Will Fall” very much, and that is because it wanders. The rest of The Stooges is compact and bursting with energy, and M-80’s its way into my heart. As a punk songwriter and arranger with minimal proclivities, I should know.
Fun House unleashes the jamming Stooges instead. Uncensored by their novice producer, whose only qualification was that he played the organ on “Louie Louie,” they proceeded to lay down several lengthy songs which aren’t nearly as interesting or intense as people would lead you to believe. I’ve even put the album to the Stereo Test, which means that after I got bored listening to it on headphones I decided the problem might be the lack of dynamics and bass inherent in listening through tiny speakers that wrap around the cranium. So I played Fun House on the nice family set, and my reaction was the same: relative disinterest. I tried to rock along with the first side, but “Down on the Street” and “T.V. Eye” remained unbearable, though I was somewhat interested by “Loose” and “Dirt”; the extended bleeeaaaaughs of the second half (and really, of “Dirt” too) were still funky and a little engrossing, but didn’t go anywhere.
The problem with the Stooges lies in their faith in the jam, a concept articulated in the Sixties and Seventies by lumbering conformists on the order of ELP and the Grateful Dead and Kansas (but with admittedly more taste by the Mahavishnu Orchestra and the MC5). The jam is an article of faith — faith that the tonal dissertations performers pump out will be worth hearing, that they will say something you can identify with. They must express what you feel. On one hand it’s easier to jam in music because the articulation is much easier in music than in speech; on the other, it’s more difficult to decide what all to express. The former is easy in the jam-rock and progressive rock explored by the Stooges’ contemporaries because the players have tremendous facility with their instruments; the latter comes easier to punks because they often use music to catalyze emotional reactions. (Look to the “screaming” timbre of noise guitars for proof of that.) Personally, I’m an original prog-rock speaker who found his way to triumphant punk expression, and I find things to like about both — but also criticisms. The greatest complaint I have about Fun House is that the Stooges embrace the lamest variety of jam-rock, though they retain some vital punk energy, because they’re not nearly skilled enough to play or compose that kind of thing. They would be better served by much shorter songs and a lot less dicking around with the guitars. The huge problem with their “live”-sounding album is that it stays too true to the worst of their concert tendencies, without preserving the visual theatrics that made them epic in the first place. I’ve seen the footage — Iggy Pop teetering on the hands of a dozen spectators, belting out the best part of “1970,” smearing himself with peanut butter and tossing it everywhere. He has the crowd in his hairy hand. Meanwhile, in the background, Dave and Scott thump away ad nauseam and Ron Asheton doodles out sub-Allman Bros. guitar solos. The Stooges needed a strong producer to police their basest impulses, which they did not get in Don Gallucci. And Fun House suffers for it.
In summation: I don’t care what you think of these albums — I just don’t really like them. I confess that I did weigh their popularity when picking them, and take a little glee in deflating the most jealously guarded ones, but my sentiments are sincere. Go write your own blog if you think I’m wrong.