In Defense of These Six Poorly Received Albums

lulu3
Warner Bros./Polydor Records

There are critics who give bad reviews, then there are critics who go as far as writing reviews like this. However, as bad as an album might be, you should never let other people’s opinions get in away of yours. There’s the clichés — “music is subjective” or “without creative criticism, an artist cannot develop.” And those are accurate; what you like is what you like and nobody can change that. But unfortunately people’s opinions can literally be swayed by outside criticisms, especially from larger publications. And because you’ve already looked at that Pitchfork score or went on YouTube and saw Anthony Fantano wearing a specific flannel, your approach to form your own opinion can be really difficult. These outside criticisms can literally overshadow the music itself, where a listener won’t even bother sometimes if the album wasn’t well-received. Here are six “bad” albums critics and listeners should reconsider or actually listen to themselves.

6. Lou Reed and Metallica ‘Lulu’ (2011) 

Lou Reed and Metallica - Lulu.jpg
Warner Bros.

Some Lou Reed and many Metallica fans, cite 2011’s ‘Lulu’ as one of the most unlistenable albums of all time. Apparently, listeners would rather listen to the noisy guitar feedback on “Metal Machine Music” than listen to ‘Lulu.’ I am sure Reed has influenced Metallica in some ways, but you’d never think, especially this late in their careers, they’d release a collaborative album. Just thinking about this you would assume it would be awful; like everybody did. However, both Reed and Metallica have never gave a shit about the albums they release and how fans react to them — they have no boundaries. And mostly the people who criticized the album are hardcore Metallica fans. According to Reed, some of these fans apparently even threatened to shoot him due to the collaboration. ‘Lulu’ isn’t for everybody. It is far more experimental than anything Metallica fans have heard. And Reed didn’t care if he released an awful album or not, he’s definitely taken more risks than Metallica has, even when they recorded ‘St. Anger’ in 2003. 

“Lulu” mostly consists of spoken word rambles from Reed while surrounding himself around the band’s chunky instrumentals and an additional string section. That acoustic guitar at the beginning probably made some Metallica fans stop listening right away. Even though James Hetfield’s background vocals are unfitting when paired with Reed’s, they’re definitely challenging artistically. The chemistry doesn’t begin until the single, “The View” and is at its prime on “Iced Honey.” The ending of “Pumping Blood” is clever, as it reflects a bit of text painting with the instrumentals adding some intense noir imagery to Reed’s painful songwriting. The messy momentous “Mistress Dread” features a stereotypical thrash riff, as Reed sings like he knows his death is near, dying just a couple years later. According to Reed’s widow, Laurie Anderson, the late David Bowie has referred to ‘Lulu’ as Reed’s “greatest work” (which might be taking it too far).

For ‘Lulu,’ just imagine Reed posing as John Cale and Metallica as The Velvet Underground and influencing metal rather than punk and it makes sense. It’s 77 minutes of an aggressive and harsh sounding Reed and Metallica at their most intricate. ‘Lulu’ is as confusing as it is fearless.

5. Jet ‘Shine On’ (2006) 

Jet shine on.jpg
Atlantic Records

An album must be pretty bad when a popular music outlet gives it a score of a monkey urinating in its own mouth. Jet’s ‘Shine On’ is nothing like their superb 2003 debut ‘Get Born’ (which also didn’t do well with Pitchfork), but it still includes some of the band’s best work. Songs like “Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is” and “That’s All Lies” both hit you right in the mouth, making them unforgettable. They’re the type of songs that belong in an EA Sports video game. Some of the softer pop pieces such as “Bring it on Back” and “King Horses” both try to be Jet’s next “Look What You’ve Done.” The title track has the band trying to sound like Oasis, trying to sound like the Beatles. The song was a dedication to the late father of members Nic and Chris Cester, which explains the featured gospel choir.  Speaking of Oasis again, “Hey Kids” sounds like if Bon Scott (AC/DC) covered “Live Forever.” Even though “Stand Up” is repetitive and sounds typical, there’s some grungy distortion in the bridge which doesn’t fit, but it’s appealing. And the anthem “Rip it Up” features a twisted choppy guitar riff that’s supported by Nic Cester’s howling vocals — the perfect theme for a WWE pay-per-view. The ending of the album (“Shiny Magazine,” “Elanor,” “All You Have to Do”) sounds like the band found unreleased Beatles recordings from a studio and released it as if nobody would realize. Not saying that Jet can’t borrow from their influences, I mean, “Look What You’ve Done” is very Abbey Road-esque, but they can be a bit more original on these tracks.

Jet might have sounded like a heavy Australian rock outfit that could take the place of AC/DC especially on their debut. However, they tried switching things up, seeking out a more mature style on ‘Shine On.’  And for an outlet like Pitchfork to give this album such a harsh review, it is a bit hypocritical. Pitchfork gave a lot of low scores to many post-punk/garage rock revival groups from the 2000’s who gained mainstream attention. They referred to these groups to be “unoriginal” but when Jet finally tried something new, they get condemned even further. ‘Shine On’ may not be a classic rock ‘n’ roll album like its predecessor, but it is definitely not worth a score of a monkey urinating in its own mouth.

4. Genesis ‘…Calling All Stations…’ (1997) 

Genesis - Calling All Stations.jpg
Atlantic/Virgin Records

Throughout their near-thirty year career of making music, the legendary progressive rock act Genesis went through many stages in their stages. They were one of the most astonishing and leading progressive rock bands during the genre’s peak in the early-mid seventies. But once guitarist Steve Hackett opted-out a year later for a solo career, the then-trio Genesis had founded new sound blending progressive rock with pop. They became a mainstream act throughout the eighties, especially with Collins attracting further attention to the group due to his successful solo career. But once Collins departed in 1996, keyboardist, Tony Banks, and guitarist/bassist, Mike Rutherford kept the Genesis brand alive and released one last album.

Ray Wilson, best known as the frontman of the Scottish grunge band Stiltskin, auditioned soon after Collins left. Wilson’s dark and dramatic vocals fit the glowing atmospheric synths and bass Banks and Rutherford wanted to achieve on the next record. Wilson’s vocals fit immensely and even sounds a bit like Gabriel on this record (is that a hot take?). His vocals become stronger on “Not About Us” when the instrumentals are all balanced and everything fits the mood on the worldbeat highlight “Congo.” This album resembles the shadowy mood and songwriting explored on Genesis’ 1977 album ‘…And Then There Were Three…’ — the band’s first record as a trio. But like many late-period albums in a band’s career, this album wasn’t anticipated and was ignored by critics and even fans. Some probably assumed it was going to be comparably bad and tiring to ‘Van Halen III.’ But overall, I really don’t see this as a official Genesis album. Instead it sounds more like another Tony Banks record that uses Wilson’s vocals. Banks’ synths completely dominate the record and unfortunately this is a first where they’re exhausting. It’s understandable as to why most fans kept their distance from this record, but at least its more explorative than what Collins was releasing during this time.

3. Kiss ‘Music from The Elder’ (1981) 

The elder album cover.jpg
Casablanca Records

People might not want to admit it, but ‘Music from the Elder’ is not a bad record at all. Some say this is when Kiss truly hit rock bottom and lost their place in music, but the record truly just came out way too late for its time.

In 1981, the music world was changing. With post-punk and new wave on the rise, progressive rock bands were losing their appeal. Even the leading pioneers like Yes and Genesis were edging towards pop, now appealing to mainstream audiences after making music that was very anti-radio. And for hard rock bands like Kiss, there were major pressure as they began to make their transition towards the eighties. After ‘Love Gun,” the band began to experience poor record sales and more importantly, tension grew within the group. Soon the band fired Peter Criss in 1980 and Ace Frehley was next to turn the page from Paul Stanley’s and Gene Simmons’ control. But Frehley stayed on for one more album.

During this transitional period, the band needed to make a big comeback to regain their stardom and fulfill their fan base. In an effort to recover their hard rock sound, Stanley and Simmons thought it’d be a good idea to record a conceptual art rock album that features an orchestra.  The concept for ‘The Elder’ tells a story of the enlisting and training of a boy who is recruited by the Council of Elders, to fight evil (“uhhhh, what???” uttered the Kiss Army when they saw this). Once again, Kiss achieved to alienate their fan base and disappeared quickly from the albums chart.

This is also, where the group’s drama was at its height. Producer, Bob Ezrin, was on a roll after producing Pink Floyd’s masterful ‘The Wall’ a couple years prior. However, he was battling addiction during the sessions with Kiss, clearly impacting the environment. And Frehley became even more critical about the handling and control of the band’s direction, expressing anger about the album’s concept before even going into the studio. Despite all the drama and negativity that was going on, this album wasn’t exactly a huge blow. Even though the concept sounds like an eighties low-budget fantasy movie, the album is fearless and was a total left-turn to what you’d expect from a Kiss release.

“The Oath” opens the album with a booming bass and dominating guitar riff that features a falsetto from Stanley that’s very awkward ive. However, the album version doesn’t sound as bad. Stanley uses this vocal technique on several tracks of the album, trying to expand his tenor vocal range. Stanley’s best vocals come up on “Odyssey,” where the concept finally seems cinematic. And the chants and harmonies on “Under the Rose” might be one of the most stunning pieces Kiss recorded when experimenting.

Yes, this album is completely dominated by Stanley and Simmons, in which every album to follow is, but Frehley was still able upstage them on one single song. He only sings lead on the very-Ace “Dark Light” which features the best solo on the album and even help from Lou Reed, who also helped write a couple more tracks for ‘The Elder.’ However, Frehley shines the most when he shreds on the raging instrumental track, “Escape from the Island.”

It is weird to imagine a shock rock group recording an album featuring falsettos and odd arrangements supported by the American Symphony Orchestra. This definitely isn’t their best album, nor is it their worst. It is a safe album for a group, that was going through one of the ugliest periods in their career.

2. The Beach Boys ’15 Big Ones’ (1976)

15BigOnesCover.jpg
Brother/Reprise Records

‘Summer in Paradise’ is surly the worst thing the Beach Boys have ever released during their iconic career. Yet to some, the award for “worst Beach Boys album” goes to 1976’s ’15 Big Ones.’

After the Blondie Chaplin-Ricky Fataar-era, the Beach Boys were lost. They were at a period of recording progressive pop epics and soft rock ballads, while collaborating and touring with mainstream rock acts like Chicago. There really wasn’t a creative direction at this point, especially with where rock music was heading in the mid-seventies, the Beach Boys had no place in commercial rock. They needed to release something big — they needed their old bandleader Brian Wilson back. Not only would this work artistically, but bringing Wilson back would’ve meant big things commercially for the group. A media campaign, “Brian’s Back” was designed to promote his return as a touring member and active producer for the band. This was Wilson’s first time exclusively as producer since ‘Pet Sounds’ which was finally being regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time. And not to mention, after a live album and four compilations, the band owed their fans something big.

Brian wanted to record a doop wop and rock ‘n’ roll record, but brothers Dennis and Carl Wilson opposed. However, these were the results — half-rock ‘n’ roll/R&B covers, half-original tracks. Dennis and Carl meant to cover songs as a warm-up for Brian to get back into the process, but did not anticipate the album would end up including any. There are reports that after Brian recorded a song, he just wanted to call it finished and release it, which contradicts his recording values. Just ten years before this, he was using 90 hours of recording tape on just a single. And with members Mike Love and Al Jardine wanting the album out as soon as possible, the album was rushed which didn’t please both sides. Dennis and Carl soon became embarrassed and ashamed to have their names associated with it.

This album may not live up to the hype which preceded it, but it’s still not as bad as other reunion albums from classic rock acts. Their hard-hitting cover of Chuck Berry’s “Rock & Roll Music” is just as good as the original, which should’ve pleased listeners mostly for its classic and complex vocal harmonies. Love’s nasally voice may be present on tracks like “Had to Phone Ya,” but some of his best vocals come on the original “Everyone’s in Love with You.” The best track is the stirring and catchy “That Same Song” featuring an array of buzzing synths, alluding to the bands dive into synth-pop on their followup release ‘Love You.’ The group express their classic goofy chatter in the opening of “T M Song.” Short and simple, Jardine’s vocals are both monotonous and cool, layered around along a smooth saxophone and organ. Sadly, people tend to bash “Susie Cincinnati.” Lyrically, it may be idiotic, but the instrumentals and backing vocals are incredible. Their cover of Freddy Canon’s “Palisades Park,” features some bursting synth lines, reminiscent to the bluesy surf rock twang from their earlier days, alongside a spinning psychedelic organ reminiscent to the bridge in “Amusement Parks U.S.A.”

It might sound crazy, but I don’t see what’s so different between this and ‘Love You,’ the album celebrated by so many, including even Patti Smith. Maybe the problem is that nobody has actually really listened to this album. I mean would you with that album art?

1. The Velvet Underground ‘Squeeze’ (1973)

vu squeeze
Polydor Records

I’ve said this many times and I will say it again: people who dismiss or criticize this album have never listened to it. And why would they? Their earlier stuff is clearly better. ‘Squeeze’ doesn’t feature any original members. Lou Reed already released ‘Transformer’ a year prior, thus The Velvet Underground name became irrelevant. Indeed this is only a Velvet Underground album by name — even with the sexual undertoned cover art, it’s pretty much a Doug Yule solo record.

After Reed left in 1970, guitarist Sterling Morrison abandoned the group while on tour to study at the University of Texas. The group’s manager and presumably the Velvets’ villain Steve Sesnick received permission from Polydor Records to record one final album with the semi-disbanded group. Sesnick was also was making the environment toxic, explaining why Reed left the group. After the touring for ‘Loaded’ in 1970, the remaining members were dismissed by Sesnick and the album was recorded solely with with Yule. There were outside members who came and went during the recording sessions, including Deep Purple’s drummer Ian Paice. But since Yule is a skilled multi-instrumentalist and played a significant role on the group’s last two albums, ‘Squeeze’ is just a continuation of the polished style on ‘Loaded’ but feels more commercial. And what’s different here is that Yule can’t echo Reed’s songwriting or vocal style like he did on previous cuts like “Who Loves the Sun” or “Lonesome Cowboy Bill,” showing just how much impact Reed had on the band’s sound.

Yule’s style here is nowhere near proto-punk — he sounds like he’s channeling his influences here alongside commercial rock ‘n’ roll. Whether it’s The Grateful Dead at moments, particularly on the opening track, “Little Jack” or the electrifying surf rock grooves on “Caroline” — everything here is a desperate aim for some sort of radio play. But these grooves didn’t seem relevant to contemporary air waves in 1973. The track “Dopey Joe,” is a bit ridiculous, but it features sensational backing vocals from a few unidentified female singers, accompanied by a peppy saxophone. However at the end, there is a guitar solo underlying the sax, sounding like the one featured in “Rock & Roll.” The catchy “She’ll Make You Cry” features a Joe Walsh-esque guitar solo, which is the strongest track on the album — a track that could even pull in traditional Velvet Underground fans or make listeners re-evaluate Yule’s impact with the Velvet’s.

Even though the record lacks direction with a style completely unfocused and hopeless. There is a lot of predictable moments here. The instrumentals are repetitive, especially Yule’s guitar solos. Not that there’s anything wrong with recording a traditionally sounding-rock album aiming for some sort of commercial value. However, the problem is that it’s under a name that was the complete opposite towards this direction. Sure, ‘Loaded’ was certainly more commercial than their earlier albums, but at least it still had a punk attitude and layers of memorable hooks. Heck, there’s some fans and rock critics who thought the Velvet were selling out then. Imagine those same people hearing this.

Sadly, this record did not kick start Yule’s solo career. Instead, it deemed him as being one of the worst things to happen to the Velvets’ legacy. Maybe if it was a stand-alone solo effort from Yule, it would be treated better, but then it probably wouldn’t of gained any attention. It’s a pity this heavy notion didn’t occur years prior. However, that just wasn’t the band’s style.

 


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