As much as people like to deny it, there is something about a negative album review that can sway the public consciousness. A bad review in the right publication can seal an album’s fate as a bargain bin throwaway before it even has a chance. Often times, the harsh criticism is more than warranted. Not everything can be a gem. But every once in awhile, the critics get it wrong. Horribly, horribly wrong. For example…
5. Gene Clark – No Other
No Other was former Byrds songwriter Gene Clark’s masterpiece. Released in 1974, the album was a departure from the stark acoustic sounds of his previous, relatively unsuccessful, solo records. Everything was lined up for No Other to be a commercial breakthrough. Clark had spent over a year working on the songs before recording them. He was signed to Asylum Records, at the time an absolute breeding ground for successful singer-songwriter types. The album should have been huge.
The response to No Other from critics was less like Clark delivered a bad album and more like he delivered the anti-christ. The album made extensive use of overdubs and studio techniques to produce a sound that was foreign to most listeners. Because of this, the album was decried as bloated, pretentious and overproduced. But when Fleetwood Mac employed the same studio and performance techniques a year later on their self-titled album (and on the follow up, Rumours) it was hailed as a masterpiece. Gene Clark was unfortunately a bit ahead of his time. In 1976, No Other was deleted and would not be released again for almost 25 years. The fallout all but destroyed Clark’s career.
These days, No Other is almost universally hailed as a lost treasure. There is some debate about Clark’s state of mind during the writing and recording of the album. Depending on who you ask, he was either tripping on mescaline the whole time or he was stone sober. Whatever the case, Clark’s newfound experimentalism made for the most compelling work of his career. The songs themselves, when taken as individual parts, aren’t in and of themselves Clark’s best ever. He was the strongest songwriter in The Byrds and there is some absolute gold out there. But as a cohesive piece of work, No Other is undeniably epic and absolutely essential listening.
4. The Rolling Stones – Exile On Main St.
The Rolling Stones Exile On Main St. is an epic roots-rock goldmine. It features some of their most beloved hits ever (“Tumblin’ Dice,” “Sweet Virginia,” “Happy”) and a ton of lesser known gems (“Rocks Off,” “Torn and Frayed”). Listening to it now, it’s hard to imagine there was a time when it wasn’t absolutely adored by everybody. But you’d be surprised.
Commercially, Exile… was a smash right out of the gates. But the critical response was far less enthusiastic. It was viewed as a bloated, ragged record that found the Stones resting on their laurels and not challenging the listener with anything new. Some even accused the band of just replaying the same song 18 different ways. Basically, Exile… was seen as a placeholder. In the words of Rolling Stone reviewer Lenny Kaye, “the great Stones album of their mature period is yet to come.”
In the years since its initial chilly critical reception, Exile On Main St. has grown considerably in status. The fans always loved it, but the critics eventually came around also. Pick a greatest-albums-of-all-time list and there is a good chance you’ll find Exile… on it. In 1998, Q Magazine ranked it number 42 on their list of the greatest albums of all time. Even Rolling Stone, as they are often apt to do, went back on their initial dismissal of the record. On their list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, Exile On Main St. was number seven.
3. The Ramones – The Ramones
It’s almost impossible to accurately state what kind of influence The Ramones have had on, not just punk, but popular music in general. They were punk before anyone knew what it was. Their songs, almost always less than three minutes long, emphasized raw rock power and feeling and fun over technical proficiency. And people ate it up. Eventually.
The initial reaction to The Ramones music was, basically, non existent. Their debut album didn’t even crack the Billboard top 100. As for the critics, reviews tended to be neutral at best, if the album was even reviewed at all. With most everything else on this list, you can dig up some vintage reviews to get a feel for what people thought back then. A vintage Ramones review, on the other hand, is hard to come by. Lester Bangs dug them though. Take that for whatever you will.
It’s common knowledge these days that The Ramones debut stands as one of the most pivotal moments in music history. It’s pointless to try and run down all of the ways that record has influenced modern music. When the topic turns to greatest punk records ever, it’s rarely mentioned outside the top five. On Rolling Stone Magazine’s now infamous list of the top 500 records ever, The Ramones clocked in at number 33. That’s some rarefied air.
2. Black Sabbath – Paranoid
Not every band can claim to be responsible for starting an entire genre of music. But when it comes to the pioneers of heavy metal, it’s hard to argue against Black Sabbath. On Paranoid, their second album, the band unleashed some of their greatest songs ever. “Iron Man,” “War Pigs,” “Paranoid,” it’s all pretty deadly stuff. And in the midst of hippie movement, a band that represented something completely different was bound to appeal to a lot of people. Right?
Absolutely they did. Black Sabbath’s first two albums were commercial smashes. Unfortunately, none of those buyers worked for music magazines. The rock media was unspeakably harsh when it came to Black Sabbath, dismissing them in some cases as “bubblegum satanists.” Ouch. In Nick Tosches’ Rolling Stone review from 1971, he spends about 1,500 words dismissing the band while not once mentioning their name, the album or any of the songs on the album. No bias there, folks.
You don’t need me to tell you that Paranoid is one of the greatest metal albums ever. You already know that. Everybody knows it. But if you don’t, let today’s rock critics tell you. AllMusic’s Steve Huey sums it up best…”Paranoid defined the sound and style of heavy metal more than any other record in rock history.” Even Vibe Magazine, generally known for covering rap and R&B music, included Paranoid on their list of essential albums of the 20th century. Word.
1. Weezer – Pinkerton
Weezer’s Pinkerton was recorded in the midst of a lot of personal turmoil, and it shows. Lead singer Rivers Cuomo had just undergone painful leg surgery that not only affected the way the songs were written (everything is written in first position on the guitar, so he didn’t have to move much) but also the emotion that came through in the songs. Departing from the power pop of their debut, Pinkerton was a deeply confessional, dark, abrasive masterpiece. But far be it from anyone to think so at the time.
I understand, putting Weezer ahead of the like of The Rolling Stones and Black Sabbath on this list may seem like blasphemy. But hear me out. With every other album on this list, there was at least someone who liked it, even if it was just the artist that made it. Not so with Pinkerton. Critics hated it, fans hated it, and in subsequent interview, even Rivers Cuomo claimed he hated it. In time, everyone would change their mind, making Pinkerton the biggest critical about face in history. I hate to keep bringing up Rolling Stone, but seriously, it’s not my fault they’re wrong all the time. Their initial review of Pinkerton was unspeakably cruel, reviewer Rob O’Connor calling the songwriting “juvenile.” Readers of the magazine would eventually get in on the act, voting Pinkerton as the second worst album of 1996. Also released in 1996:
- Kenny G, The Moment
- Celine Dion, Falling Into You
- REO Speedwagon, Building the Bridge
- Bryan Adams, 18 ’til I Die
- Hootie and The Blowfish, Fairweather Johnson
I’m not sure what album the readers of Rolling Stone ranked as THE worst of 1996, but even if was one of the five listed above, it still means that they preferred the other four to Pinkerton. Swish that around in your head for a bit.
Eventually Rivers Cuomo got in on the Pinkerton bashing calling it, among other things, “a hideous record.”
The reversal of fortune that eventually came Pinkerton’s way was absolutely unprecedented. It is generally regarded as not just Weezer’s finest moment, but one of the essential albums of the 1990′s. It started with a sort of cult following amongst Weezer fans that found its legs on the internet. Initially, the fallout from the initial Pinkerton disaster sent Rivers Cuomo into relative seclusion. It was only after seeing the sustained sales and acclaim amongst diehard fans for his band’s opus that he finally re-entered the music business. He would eventually go on record as saying that “Pinkerton’s great.”
And then there is Rolling Stone and their readers. In an adorable slice of revisionist history, Rolling Stone gave Pinkerton a new review, a rating of 5 stars out of 5, and inducted it into the Rolling Stone Hall of Fame, whatever the hell that is. The readers would eventually go on to vote it as the 16th best album…ever. Kenny G.’s The Moment was voted the 15th best album ever.
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