The Most Consistently Inconsistent Musicians of Our Time

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Consistency is the watchword in the world of music criticism. We as listeners love it when a band is at its best, but we aren’t truly happy until the musicians prove their worth again and again and again. And then maybe just once more still, after the lead singer emerges from a nasty coke habit and the band hasn’t been in the same room for three years. Of course, we forgive our favorite bands for the blemishes in their legacies every single day, because the statistics majors inside all of us understand that consistency is no small feat. But what of the bands whose discographies are marked by the exact opposite — those alternating, dramatic peaks and valleys in album and even song quality? Why, we’re glad you asked! We’ve compiled eight musical wildcards that have kept us on our toes with each note they’ve produced they put out after the jump. Be sure to join us in some collective head-scratching by giving us your own suggested additions to the list in the comments.

Green Day

Does a person who enjoys the entirety of the Green Day repertoire exist? Last we checked, we could only get our hands on those who were “into their old stuff” or find said “old stuff” way overrated. And, they’ve got a point: Green Day produced two albums in the early 1990s that made them underground punk heroes, only to be labeled sellouts when they struck popular (and Grammy!) gold with Dookie in 1994. In 2000, they took a nose dive with Warning, an album which Rolling Stone summed up with the question: “Who wants to listen to songs of faith, hope and social commentary from what used to be snot-core’s biggest-selling band?” As it turned out, pretty much no one.

Green Day abandoned their punkier roots and flirtation with optimism entirely when they rose to pop-punk (and Grammy!) fame with American Idiot in 2004, an album with singles so catchy that just about everyone stopped caring just how saccharine their brand of rebellion had become. Their most recent album 21st Century Breakdown didn’t make as much of a splash culturally or critically as American Idiot (that is, no Broadway show), but their next album is in the pipeline and we know the only thing we can expect is the unexpected. And some hardcore guyliner.

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan is living proof that even artists residing in the pantheon of music gods are entitled to a measure of inconsistency in their art. Between The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and Blonde on Blonde and a list of records that would make this clause even longer than it already is, Dylan ruled the 1960s. The static comes in with 1970’s Self Portait, which was slammed by critics — most famously, by the biting “What is this shit?” that opened Greil Marcus’s review.

Dylan released New Morning the same year, which was heralded as a return to form, but we only say that’s true if the three albums of bizarre and largely upraised Christian Gospel music Dylan put out in the late 1970s when he became a born-again Christian can also be considered “a return to form.” Throughout the 1980s especially, Dylan swerved once more in a questionable direction — remember the time he rapped with Kurtis Blow? — only to warm our hearts in the new millenium, when he won an Oscar for “Things Have Changed” and heaps of accolades for 2006’s Modern Times. Now there’s the man we know and love!

Britney Spears

Tabling all the head-shaving, the Kevin Federline-marrying, and the Madonna-kissing, Brit Brit’s managed to show us that it really only takes a decade of music-making to feel wary of an artist’s ability to stay on top — or on bottom — with any given single. She catapulted into America’s hearts with back-to-back records in 1999 and 2000 — …Baby One More Time and Oops!… I Dit It Again — setting the bar for snappy bubblegum hits that blew up the 12 year-old-girl market.

Spears then attempted to make albums without gratuitous ellipses in the title, beginning with 2001’s Britney and 2003’s In The Zone, abandoning her scrunchies and girlish lyrics in favor of funkier, sexier, dirtier pop. This shift was undoubtedly a good one (we got “Toxicand I’m a Slave 4 U!“), but we witnessed some uncomfortable musical growing pains in the transition, and notably some literal ones with the pubescent anthem “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman.” Her next move — 2007’s Blackout — had Britney on even more precarious ground still. We watched a star plummet as the normally show-stopping performer delivered one of the most-panned VMA performances ever — her empty-eyed, uninterested “Gimme More” was billed as her comeback, of all things— and saw singles like “Break the Ice” cause nary a Spearsian wave. We won’t dare say that Britney isn’t back with Femme Fatale, but we doubt we’ll ever be confident in guessing how much we’ll like whatever she’s coming out with next, especially after the dubstep experiment that was “Hold It Against Me.” Yup, that was pretty weird.

Weezer

Oh, Weezer. What to do with you and your Weezerish ways? Weezer made a good, straightforward rock album that was easy to love with its debut The Blue Album in 1994, but followed up with the unexpectedly angsty Pinkerton in 1996, which, initially, was a complete commercial flop. Pinkerton was labeled one of the worst albums of the year in a Rolling Stone reader poll, but would later come to enjoy cult reverence (go figure!). Then came The Green Album in 2001 and Maladroit in 2002, two power-pop efforts just decent enough to give them a slight bump in mainstream success after the mixed signals of Pinkerton. But then came Weezer’s famous disaster, 2005’s Make Believe, which received a whopping 0.4 on Pitchfork. They’ve inched their way back up to the Pitchfork yawn-o-sphere with 2010’s Hurley and other post-Make Believe efforts, but what the band leaves behind will likely remain messy, so long as their identity remains so muddled.

Jethro Tull

When British rockers Jethro Tull came on the scene in 1968 with their first single “Sunshine Day,” the only remarkable thing to come out of it was that it was erroneously attributed to a band named “Jethro Toe.” Tull moved away from their original bluesy sound to rock greatness with 1971’s Aqualung, a primarily acoustic album known for its character sketches (like the not-at-all-weird schoolgirl prostitute “Cross-Eyed Mary“).

Following a failed attempt to produce a decent album at the Chateau d’Herouville studios, which Tull would later affectionately name “Chateau d’Isaster,” their popularity began to wane with critics, and they would not see notable critical success until their foray into folk rock with 1977’s Songs From The Wood. Unfortunately, they fell prey to the 1980s with Under Wraps, an album Tull made with a drum machine rather than a real drummer, and their poorly received electronic rock period may have been the band’s rock bottom. They came back with a bang with 1989’s Crest of a Knave, the album famous for winning a Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance despite prominently featuring the flute, of all instruments, in the arrangements. Since then, Tull’s been operating at a low critical rumble, but they’ve been around for 40 years, man. Cut them a break.

R. Kelly

In our humble opinion, hip-hop hit machine R. Kelly is best addressed single by single. Ready? We soared so high with him during his 1996 “I Believe I Can Fly.” (A related note: we may or may not have also shed a tear or two at Space Jam.) And, we won’t lie, he had us again with “Ignition (Remix)” from 2003’s Chocolate Factory. But R. (Can we call you “R.?”), what on earth was 2005’s “Trapped in the Closet?” The ten-part hip-hopera had Pulitzer-worthy lyrics like, “Now the midget jumps outta the cabinet and stomps the policemen on his toe.” Well!

R. Kelly made a trip back to the catchy hip-hop we were used to with “I’m a Flirt,” from 2007’s Double Up, but alarmed us some on the same album when he revealed that it took him and Usher five minutes to realize that they were seeing the same girl on the track — you guessed it — “Same Girl.” When he took it easy on the hip-hoperatic influences, R. Kelly caught us off guard with his ability to return to form, but that’s hardly a sign of consistent songwriting. Also, pretty much everything we know about R. Kelly has us questioning whether someone that insane could ever be consistent.

Prince

Prince’s M.O. has always been experimenting with eclectic styles, sounds, and genres to see how far he can push the envelope and still create a cohesive whole. Famously, he’s been quite successful at doing that, which makes his missteps that much more puzzling. Prince’s first two albums were respectable, if not a bit boring, late-1970s funk-pop, and after that he built slowly up with albums that blew listeners away, peaking with 1984’s Purple Rain, which showcased his most clear-cut pop sound to date.

Instead of continuing in this accessible direction, he released the strange and psychadelic Around the World in a Day in 1985, which had its share of hits but polarized audiences. By 1987, Prince’s appetite for the new and exciting was in full force, resulting in 1987’s sprawling Sign ‘O’ the Times. He followed up with Lovesexy, one of his least successful albums to date, in 1988, which was a popular and critical failure (also, it had a comically terrible cover). Continuing this trend of unending ups and downs (and legal battles) through the 1990s, Prince won his first Grammys since Purple Rain in 2005. It’s good to be royalty.

Kelly Clarkson

Unlike her successors, most of whom would take their 15 minutes and disappear, Kelly Clarkson earned her keep after American Idol. We’ll admit that we didn’t find her first single “A Moment Like This,” which she performed on the finale of the show’s first season, particularly revelatory. But her 2003 debut full-length Thankful kept her in the spotlight with “Miss Independent,” and she really started to shine with 2005’s Breakaway, an album that made her a household name with “Because of You,” “Behind These Hazel Eyes,” and “Since U Been Gone.” Clarkson took home Grammys for the effort, only to turn out a third album, My December, which was darker, more rock-oriented, and, most importantly, so disappointing and feud-laden that poor ticket sales for a My December tour resulted in the tour’s cancellation. Clarkson returned to the top of the charts in early 2009, when the sugary single “My Life Would Suck Without You” set a record for the largest leap to number one. Her next album Stronger, which has been pushed to a release next month, as opposed to its initial date in late 2010, apparently has a country-rock, Sheryl Crow vibe to it. We’re crossing our fingers for you, Kelly.