by Justin Crockett
There is something about sustained success from an artist that makes them feel that they should jeopardize it all in one fell swoop. Think about it, cranking out good songs consistently, enjoying worldwide adoration, that shit gets real old. The point of being an artist is to make your fans question what, exactly, is in your skull….
#9. Neil Young, “Trans”
Neil Young has had a long, storied career, beginning with 60’s legends Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, & Nash. He then took his rootsy, storytelling style into the 70’s with his epic live band Crazy Horse. Neil wasn’t the most attractive fella in any room, ever, but his iconic vocal style and personal lyrics connected with several decades worth of audiences.
Then the goddamn synthesizer decade swallowed him whole as well. In 1982, he put out the album “Trans”. It was a marked departure from his normally organic sound. In addition to drum machines and songs about computers and robots, more than half of the songs utilized a vocoder for the vocals, making him some kind of Canadian T-Pain of the Reagan era. It was a commercial flop, but Young probably doesn’t mind. It was a sort of tribute to his disabled son, born with cerebral palsy, and unable to speak. The bizarre vocal stylings were his attempt to communicate with the boy. It did not, however, communicate with his audience.
#8. Lou Reed, “Metal Machine Music”
Lou Reed is best known for heading the Velvet Underground, the late 60’s avant/pants-shit rock group. After their not so amicable break-up, he went solo, continuing to receive acclaim. His hit “Walk on the Wild Side”, in 1972, paid tribute to his past and the seedy people that he kept in his circle.
In 1975, Lou took a drastic departure, crapping out a double album’s worth of feedback, recorded at different speeds. The album was called “Metal Machine Music”. Lacking even one coherent song, it was treated with the same enthusiasm as a dislocated coccyx, followed by full-blown AIDs. Which is to say, people didn’t like it. They returned it to stores by the thousands, some even convinced the record itself was defective. It is not known whether it was a joke, or just a way out of Reed’s recording contract, but Lou staunchly defends it to this day, even claiming that it was the first heavy metal record. Black Sabbath is weeping softly into its pillow…
#7. Stevie Wonder, “Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants”
Stevie Wonder was pretty much the shit right from the start, coming out swinging in the early 60’s. However, from 1970 until 1976, he achieved some sort of wizard ability. He actually started pooping out masterpieces. Each album in that period was better than the last, culminating with 1976’s “Songs in the Key of Life”. After this, even God rang him up and said “Dude, you’re making me look bad”. Strangely enough, no apologies about the whole blindness thing.
Understandably, Stevie had to take a break from his awesomeness. He reemerged in 1979, the world clamoring for his latest effort. And he revealed it. A double album soundtrack. For a nature film. About plants.
Now there hasn’t been a huge market for foliage-funk. But just on the merits of his previous body of work, the album reached #4 on the charts. This was a little different. His music before was funky and danceable, socially conscious while still not being too heavy. This was more atmospheric music, focusing on setting an ambient mood.
Shortly after the release, it was generally considered to be exactly what it was: music made by a beautiful blind man who had never even seen a whiff of a ficus. He clearly is amused during the proceedings, playfully emulating the prey of a Venus flytrap, screaming “please don’t eat me!”.If it hadn’t been the tail end of the uber-creative 70’s, we could have been treated to a number of companion pieces, such as “Songs in the Key of Arugula”, or “The Mystical Ways of the Crabgrass”.
#6. Garth Brooks, “In the Life of Chris Gaines”
Ol’ Garth finally figured out what his fans wanted, after 10 years of dominating the country charts. Yes, they wanted him to morph into a soul-patched quasi-goth with pouty eyes. Chris Gaines, he was dubbed, and Garth tried his best to stay with the character, even though every single result of the experiment went tits-up.
Even a movie was planned for this debacle, which thankfully was never made, possibly because even Chris Gaines, the imaginary character, thought it was a bad idea. Going from the white bread “aw shucks” feel of his previous work, to a newer, straight ahead rock feel, was off-putting to his fans, and they in turn showed that sentiment by not buying the album. He almost immediately abandoned the alter ego, returning to his pop-country roots.
#5. Miles Davis, “Bitches Brew”
The darling of the sometimes high-brow jazz faction, Miles enjoyed almost two decades of praise, changing the face of jazz music several times. His seminal album “Kind of Blue” in 1959 singlehandedly raised the importance and possibilities of live musical improvisation, is on top of every major jazz must-own list, and oh yeah, John Fucking Coltrane spit fire on it too.
That back-patting met an abrupt halt from unwavering purists upon listening to his 1970 effort, “Bitches Brew”. The funk/jazz fusion, complete with electric instruments (which is just below blood-filled hot dogs on jazz experts’ dislikes), was light years ahead of what music fans had heard before, and ahead of what the human brain could comprehend at that time. This music would, however, eventually spin off no less than four major jazz/funk/rock fusion groups, and was heralded as a major milestone in music.
#4. John Lennon, “Unfinished Music, No. 1, Two Virgins”
“A Day in the Life”. “Revolution”. “Come Together”. “Full Frontal Nudity”…… Pardon? Most of those sounded like huge hits from John Lennon. That last one would have made this project bizarre enough as it was. And yes, even John Lennon’s dick on the front cover is way more exciting than what listeners heard when they put this album on. What they hoped for was more soulful rock from a motherfucking Beatle. What they got was wacky tape loops and nonsensical conversation between John and Yoko. The cover was so nasty, retailers were forced to put a brown paper bag over the album.
Oh yeah, Yoko’s on it, and she’s also naked on the front. Enjoy!
#3. Paul McCartney, “The Fireman: Strawberries Oceans Ships Forest”
Oh no, other more normal Beatle. You have some skeletons in your closet, too. Paul has always been the darling of the critics, with his boyish charm, and sometimes awe-inspiring gift for melodicism. His songs are known for being three minute chunks of unabashedly joyous pop.
Then the nineties happened. In 1993, while doing a remix of a song with the producer Youth, Sir Paul decided that instead of one song with a slightly techno flavor, why not do a whole album? Isn’t it cute imaging the cherubic Paul spinning the decks, adjusting his headphones, thrusting epileptically to Eleanor Rigby with a house beat? But it’s Paul, somehow there will be substance to it. The album actually didn’t do that bad, and is pretty respected alongside his entire catalog.
#2. Duran Duran, “Thank You”
We admire artists that wear their influences on their sleeve. They wouldn’t make the music we love if they didn’t love the music that they do. So when Simon LeBon and company hopped off their yachts and put their energy towards making a covers album, wild boys and hungry wolves everywhere high fived. After all, they pretty much gang-banged the early 80’s, creating a continuous stream of catchy pop songs perfect for sailing, and traversing forests.
That is, until they heard the results. Hearing the Duran boys significantly change the arrangements of some of their favorite songs was jarring enough, but upon hearing a slow blues rendition of “911 is a Joke”, one feels the need to question their motives. The album has been called by one publication “The worst album of all time”. At least you’re good at something yeah?
#1. The Beach Boys, “Smile”
The most notorious “lost” album of all time. The Beach Boys had been riding a wave(har!)of success with their dreamy ballads of beachs, cars, and bitches. The holy triumvirate. Eventually Brian Wilson, the enigmatic leader of the group, decided he wanted to branch out from that style of writing. He partnered with Van Dyke Parks, a lyricist and composer, and set out to match the Beatles for worldwide kickassery. He had done it the previous year with Pet Sounds, widely considered just as good as anything the Beatles had done, plus they were American, so suck it, England.
Brian enlisted some top notch studio musicians to try and replicate the music that was forming in his already-unbalanced head. This was the time when he was actively writing music in a sandbox that was in his house. When he presented his new ideas to the other Beach Boys, he was effusively shot down. He convinced them, however, to go in the studio and add vocals to the already completed music. This music was not about catching waves or Deuce Coupes. No these songs had titles such as “Do You Like Worms”, “Vega-Tables”, and “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow”. The last song in particular, with its fire whistles and ominous music, scared Brian so much that he blamed it for an unrelated fire down the street from the studio.
All of the songs were equally quirky, almost baroque in arrangement, with recurring and sometimes disturbing themes. The already present tension within the Boys reached a head when they realized, “holy fuck, this guy needs help”. Within a couple of months the album was shelved and Brian went to bed. For a while. He did finish it up in 2003 though, so, atta boy.