Conventional music wisdom is a tedious business. Given that rock ‘n’ roll was supposed to be about self-expression and individualism, it’s rather sad that such an orthodoxy has arisen around music criticism over the years — there’s the albums that you’re absolutely not allowed to dislike (our distaste for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band always gets us in trouble here), and conversely, there’s the albums that it’s pretty much taken as read that everyone hates. This can be a pretty dirty business — while there are certain albums that absolutely deserve all the vitriol that has been poured upon them, there’s also those that have been unfairly maligned. Here’s a selection of ten albums that we think have got a raw deal from the critics. What are your suggestions?
Scarlett Johansson — Anywhere I Lay My Head
Yes, Scarlett Johansson is a) a movie star, b) unfeasibly attractive, and c) not a particularly great singer. For all that people claim to hate this record because of point c), we can’t help but feel that the majority of such hatred is colored by jealousy on points a) and b). Of course, if Johansson weren’t a star, she would probably never have got to record this album of Tom Waits covers in the first place (let alone with Dave Sitek and guest vocals from David Bowie), but even so, there was something distinctly mean-spirited about the reaction to Anywhere I Lay My Head. Here at Flavorpill, we figure that if you’re going to judge a record, you should judge it on its merits, not on the personality of its creator — and as far as we’re concerned, Anywhere I Lay My Head is a decent piece of work. Notwithstanding the identity of the vocalist, this is essentially a Dave Sitek record, and his arrangements are characteristically lush throughout, reinterpreting Waits’s songs in a way that’s both respectful of the originals and interesting enough to bear repeated listening. While Johansson isn’t exactly a vocal virtuoso, her voice is definitely distinctive, and it fits these songs well enough. We have a sneaking suspicion that if this was billed as a Dave Sitek album accompanied by the throaty alto of a hitherto-undiscovered Brooklyn singer, reaction might have been rather different.
of Montreal — Skeletal Lamping
Once upon a time, Kevin Barnes was a sensitive and somewhat effete indie songwriter with a sizable vocabulary and a way with mildly twee pop songs. Then he got married and divorced in fairly rapid succession, and as a result produced one of the great break-up/breakdown albums of recent years, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? And then… then he got randy. It’s at this point that critics, for so long of Montreal’s allies, started to desert the band in droves. In retrospect, they should have seen what was coming — Barnes’s cross-dressing alter ego, Georgie Fruit, was introduced on Hissing Fauna… — but still, the sight of Barnes strutting about and yelping lyrics like “I’m just a black she-male!” and the multiple uses of the word “phallus” seemed to make critics distinctly uncomfortable. We’re not entirely sure why — the unease with which Skeletal Lamping was regarded always reminded us of parents who allow their kids to watch people getting blown to pieces on the TV but change the channel at the first hint of a sex scene. Can’t we just rejoice in Kevin embracing the funk?
Nas — Nastradamus
The problem with making a debut album as good as Illmatic is that everything you make afterwards is judged by that standard. Nas did an admirable job of living up to the hype with It Was Written and I Am…, but this album was largely panned on its release. The rapper did himself no favors by recording it in a hurry (it was the second album he released in 1999), and it’s certainly not up to the standard of its predecessors, but Nas in second gear is still a darn sight better than most of his mumbling contemporaries. It’s the pop-influenced, chart-friendly sheen that seems to have really turned fans off Nastradamus, but still, it’s not nearly as bad a record as people seem to like to make out.
Radiohead — Pablo Honey
The reverse of Nastradamus — Radiohead’s output after Pablo Honey has been so spectacular that their debut has come to be treated like an embarrassing trial run before their “real” career, a first attempt that’s best not spoken of and would have been forgotten except for “Creep.” This is rather unfair on Pablo Honey — sure, it’s not nearly up to the standard of The Bends or OK Computer, and compared to the music Radiohead have been making since their Kid A left turn, it sounds like the work of a completely different band. But it’s not all bad, either. “Creep” is the song everyone knows, of course, but the real highlights are to be found elsewhere — the cyclical riff and churning guitars of album opener “You,” the plaintive “Thinking About You,” and the gorgeous “Lurgee.” There are also missteps — long-forgotten songs like “How Do You” and “Prove Yourself” are long-forgotten for a reason — but on the whole, it’s a perfectly good debut album. If you’re a latter-day Radiohead fan who’s been avoiding Pablo Honey because of its reputation, you owe it to yourself to give it a listen.
Red Hot Chili Peppers — One Hot Minute
As Blood Sugar Sex Magik-lovin’ teens in the 1990s, we were just as underwhelmed by this album as everyone else — poor, tragic John Frusciante was replaced by a dude who slept in a coffin, and the intricate funk-influenced sounds of Blood Sugar were gone, replaced by some distinctly grunge-y sounding riffery and morose lyricism. But revisiting One Hot Minute years later, we came to embrace its charms — it’s a strikingly reflective and confessional album, and curiously enough, much more interesting than anything they released in the post-1999 second Frusciante era. Its most downbeat moments are its highlights: “Deep Kick,” Flea’s ode to his and Kiedis’s LA childhood, is genuinely touching, as are chart-bothering ballads “My Friends” and “Tearjerker” (the latter an elegy for River Phoenix).
Liars — They Were Wrong, So We Drowned
Admittedly, a concept album about witches that starts with the lines “I no longer want to be a man/ I want to be a horse” doesn’t sound like a particularly enticing proposition. Mainstream critics certainly didn’t think so — Rolling Stone‘s brief review of this album concluded with a typically pithy dismissal of the album (“Making a record about fear is one thing; making a record you fear listening to is quite another”), while Spin called it “utterly unlistenable” and NME wondered if Liars had “lost it.” But the distaste for They Were Wrong… seemed to center around the fact that it was so dramatically different to Liars’ debut They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top. The fact that critics found this fact so disconcerting probably says more about their own expectations than it does about this record, which is an excellent, if somewhat challenging, piece of work, full of dark, oppressive songs and harsh, distorted sounds. Considering how Liars’ career has played out since, the dramatic change of direction with this album is not as surprising as it seemed at the time — this is a band who are interested in exploring their own ideas, whatever those ideas may be, not following musical fashions or worrying about what anyone else thinks. Bravo.
Massive Attack — 100th Window
While we’re on bands whose sound has changed dramatically over the years, while Massive Attack never made a shift quite as dramatic as Kid A or They Were Wrong, So We Drowned, there’s clearly a huge difference between the sound of their classic debut Blue Lines and the music they were making ten years later. Or, strictly speaking, one of them — 100th Window was essentially a Robert Del Naja solo album, and found him continuing the shift toward darker sonic territory that had begun with Protection and gathered steam with Mezzanine. The album wasn’t so much hated as met with indifference, and the fact that Del Naja was arrested on child porn possession charges shortly after its release didn’t help, even though he was cleared of any wrongdoing shortly afterward. Even now, it remains the ugly duckling of Massive Attack’s discography, overshadowed by its successor Heligoland, which brought long-time member Grant Marshall back into the fold and was received warmly everywhere. It’s a shame, because 100th Window is a worthy piece of work that deserves a wider audience than it attracted.
Pixies — Trompe Le Monde
Conventional wisdom says that this is the point where the bubble burst for the Pixies — after a golden period in which they barely released a bad song, let alone a bad album, Trompe Le Monde was a distinctly underwhelming final effort. While it’s true that it isn’t up to the standard of its predecessors, the record still features several songs that’d feature on any self-respecting Pixies mixtape — “Alec Eiffel,” “Subbacultcha,” “Letter to Memphis,” “UMass” — and it’s a great shame for the Pixies’ career, such as it was, that they broke up just as they were starting to gain some sort of commercial traction. Anyway, Trompe Le Monde deserves its place in your record collection with the rest of the Pixies’ output, and it’s also a damn sight better than any of Frank Black’s solo records — although still not quite as good as the Breeders’ Last Splash. So it goes.
U2 — Zooropa
With U2 these days having left their flirtations with irony and experimentalism far behind them, it’s easy to forget how bizarre their career arc in the 1990s was. Critics generally climb over one another to praise artists like David Bowie and Madonna for reinventing themselves, but rarely have a band completely torn up the script like U2 did with Achtung Baby — and whatever you might think of the band these days, it was a hugely ballsy artistic move. Achtung Baby was a musical left turn in its own right, but even stranger was Zooropa, an album that bewildered fans at the time and continues to divide critics today. It features some of U2’s most unusual songs (“Numb,” “Lemon,” “The Wanderer”), and a constant commitment to trying to do something different. Admittedly, Pop was a bridge too far, but Zooropa represents the apogee of U2’s attempts to do anything other than repeat themselves. How many chart-conquering bands today can say the same?
Kevin Rowland — My Beauty
If the vision of Kevin Barnes dressed in purple boots and turquoise tights unnerved the music world, Kevin Rowland’s 1999 reinvention was met with unconstrained horror. Rowland was best known as the overalls-and-beanie-wearing frontman of Dexys Midnight Runners, the purveyors of street urchin chic best known for their 1982 song “Come On Eileen.” After years out of the public eye, he returned with a solo album called My Beauty… which found him dressing in drag, wearing lipstick, and covering “The Greatest Love of All.” The album was a disaster, critically and commercially — the blokey British press hated it, turning it into an object of ridicule, and it famously only sold 500 copies on release. These days, with Dexys Midnight Runners re-formed and Rowland absolutely not wearing drag, My Beauty is rarely spoken of in polite company. But curiously enough, it’s actually not nearly as bad as it’s made out to be. It’s weird, certainly, but it’s also really quite touching at times, particularly the cover of “The Greatest Love of All” (honestly), which Rowland reinvents as both a declaration of complete vulnerability and a de facto self-help anthem, complete with spoken word intro and what appears to be a conversation with his mother. The whole thing makes for strange and often uneasy listening, and you can’t help but feel for Rowland that it got such a kicking from the press.