It’s a guilty secret that’s not especially secret: everybody likes reading a really nasty review every now and then. And equally, as a critic, there’s a perverse pleasure in writing such a review, in being able to sink the boot into an album that you truly despise. The thing is, though, sometimes we get it wrong. All critics have penned pastings that they’ve subsequently regretted (although some critics, it has to be said, are more prone than others to inserting both feet in their mouth simultaneously). And sometimes, when critics get it wrong, they get it spectacularly wrong — so in the spirit of our feature last month on scathing early reviews of classic novels, here’s a similar look at some gloriously misguided reviews of albums that’d go on to be acclaimed as classics.
Led Zeppelin — Led Zeppelin
The critic: Rolling Stone’s John Mendelsohn
This review pissed off Jimmy Page so royally that he refused to speak to Rolling Stone for years, a fact that would cause the magazine much consternation throughout the ’70s as Led Zep bestrode the world like tight-trousered, mudshark-wielding commercial colossi. Still, you can’t blame Page for taking offense to this — amongst other things, Mendelsohn calls Robert Plant “as foppish as Rod Stewart, but he’s nowhere near so exciting” and lambasts the guitarist as “a very limited producer and a writer of weak, unimaginative songs.”
The nastiest bit: “In their willingness to waste their considerable talent on unworthy material the Zeppelin has produced an album which is sadly reminiscent of [the Jeff Beck Group’s] Truth. Like the Beck group they are also perfectly willing to make themselves a two- (or, more accurately, one-a-half) man show. It would seem that, if they’re to help fill the void created by the demise of Cream, they will have to find a producer (and editor) and some material worthy of their collective attention.”
Black Sabbath — Black Sabbath
The critic: Rolling Stone’s Lester Bangs
There seemed to be some sort of fashion at 1970s Rolling Stone for making mystifyingly unfavorable comparisons between British bands and Eric Clapton’s supergroup Cream, because Bangs was at it in this piece, too. He spends a good half of his review comparing and contrasting Black Sabbath with Clapton et al, and eventually concludes that Sabbath are “just like Cream… but worse.” Um, no they’re not, Lester.
The nastiest bit: “The whole album is a shuck — despite the murky songtitles and some inane lyrics that sound like Vanilla Fudge paying doggerel tribute to Aleister Crowley, the album has nothing to do with spiritualism, the occult, or anything much except stiff recitations of Cream clichés that sound like the musicians learned them out of a book, grinding on and on with dogged persistence.”
Daft Punk — Discovery
The critic: Robert Christgau
Quite why anyone cares what the self-styled Dean of Rock Critics™ thinks is one of the enduring mysteries of the world of music — especially when he writes things like this startlingly jingoistic flag-waving dismissal of Daft Punk’s magnum opus, doing everything but accusing Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo of being cheese-eating surrender monkeys. Exactly why he hated it so much remains unclear, but then, Christgau’s rarely let any sort of actual criticism get in the way of his prose.
The nastiest bit: “These guys are so French I want to force-feed them and cut out their livers. Young moderns who’ve made the Detroit-Berlin adjustment may find their squelchy synth sounds humanistic; young moderns whose asses sport parallel ports may dance till they crash. But Yank fun is much less spirituel [sic], so that God bless America, ‘One More Time’ is merely an annoying novelty stateside. The way our butts plug in, there are better beats on the damn Jadakiss CD.”
Radiohead — OK Computer
The critic: Robert Christgau, again
Look, we could do a whole feature on Christgauian cluelessness, but in the interests of diversity, we’ll restrain ourselves to one more example of his talent for not only missing the point but covering his eyes willfully as he sails past it, all the while rambling on about how much he loves Pink Floyd. He declared Radiohead’s masterpiece of millennial angst his “Dud of the Month” on its release in 1997, apparently because it’s not as good as Wish You Were Here. Whatever, Grandpa.
The nastiest bit: “Radiohead wouldn’t know a tragic hero if they were cramming for their A levels, and their idea of soul is Bono, who they imitate further at the risk of looking even more ridiculous than they already do.”
Neutral Milk Hotel — In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
The critic: Rolling Stone’s Ben Ratliff
Similarly, we’re really not going out of our way to sink the boot into Rolling Stone here, but it’s hard to escape the fact that a lot of these reviews appear in its pages. (In fairness to RS, it’s also been around for a lot of years, so the law of averages does dictate it’ll be well-represented in a feature like this.) Anyway, Aeroplane isn’t exactly the kind of record that grabs you on first listen, but curiously enough, Ratliff’s review does seem to grasp the record’s appeal — “Rock’s been crippled by narcissistic irony, and it needs re-greening by exactly Mangum’s type: naive transcendentalists who pop out of nowheresville,” he writes. Nevertheless, there’s a whole lot of damning-with-faint-praise going on here, and a fair bit of plain old damning, too.
The nastiest bit: “For those not completely sold on its folk charm, Aeroplane is thin-blooded, woolgathering stuff.”
Spiritualized — Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space
The critic: Q magazine
Oh, if only we could dig out our old copies of Q — they’re in a box in someone’s attic in Australia, sadly — because this review has been bugging us for the best part of 15 years. Suffice it to say that Q gave Flavorpill’s all-time favorite record a tepid 3.5 stars on its release, a rating for which they’d later apologize when they subsequently anointed it as one of their 50 best albums of the year barely six months later.
The nastiest bit: A throwaway line about how — and we’re paraphrasing here — “focusing on drone and repetition makes the album sound, well, droney and repetitive. ” Well, duh.
Goldfrapp — Seventh Tree
The critic: Pitchfork’s Nate Patrin
Alison Goldfrapp’s transition from glammed-up theremin-humping pop goddess to reflective neo-pastoral folk troubadour was one of the more unexpected transformations of the late ’00s, but once the shock of hearing Seventh Tree for the first time wore off, critics were pretty much unanimous in declaring it her best album yet, a quietly forlorn breakup record that fell somewhere between Nick Drake and Kate Bush. Not so Pitchfork, however, who gave the album 4.6/10, did a fine job of missing the point of its lyrics, and, horror of horrors, even compared it to Moby.
The nastiest bit: “Even if Seventh Tree is sonic dishwater, I’ll give Goldfrapp enough credit to assume that this isn’t change for its own sake, that the motivation for this album’s tone wasn’t simply a fatigued boredom with their old sound. It’s just too bad most listeners won’t be able to say the same about their own reactions to this new one.”
Brian Eno — Here Come the Warm Jets
The critic: Rolling Stone’s Gordon Fletcher
Meanwhile, back to Rolling Stone! Actually, one of the curious trends we’ve discovered while writing this feature is the bewilderment with which ’70s-era RS apparently used to look across the Atlantic. In a similar vein to the aforementioned Led Zeppelin review, this piece on Eno’s jaw-droppingly good solo debut starts with some woolly observations about how “one of the more intriguing developments on today’s English rock scene has been the emergence of a cult of marginal musicians bent on doing ‘weird’ things to the traditional pop song format.” Gordon Fletcher was having none of it, though — he clearly liked his pop songs traditional, damn it, which is perhaps why he ended this review by voicing a hope that “others will… join with this writer in taking exception to this insane divergence of styles and wish that the next time Eno makes an album, he will attempt to structure his work rather than throw together the first ten things that come to mind.” Nope. We’re really, really glad he didn’t, actually.
The nastiest bit: “Lacking any mentionable instrumental proficiency, [Eno] claims he ‘treats’ other musicians’ instruments — though the end product of his efforts would have to be classed as indiscernible… His record is annoying because it doesn’t do anything.”
Animal Collective — Merriweather Post Pavilion
The critic: The Austin Chronicle’s Doug Freeman
Metacritic lists just the one mixed review for this 2009 critical behemoth, and it comes from the ever-contrary Austin Chronicle, a publication whose name you’ll often see lurking in yellow at the bottom of Metacritic’s listings. Clearly, Animal Collective aren’t for everyone — indeed, this writer remains largely immune to their charms — but even the most seasoned AnCo hater would find hard to agree with the assertion that this record represented “[backsliding] into a comfortable, but unfortunately unexciting, middle ground.”
The nastiest bit: “‘In the Flowers’ opens with an eerie and subdued underwater warp, but its midsong surge is predictable and uninspired… ‘My Girls’ and ‘Summertime Clothes’ are catchy highlights, the latter layering skuzzy beats under chanted verses, but the droning ‘Daily Routine’ is as tedious as its title.”
Lou Reed — Berlin
The critic: Rolling Stone’s Stephen Davis
So, um, yes, Rolling Stone again. This was a particularly egregious howler, with Davis apparently taking actual personal offense at having to listen to Berlin. He calls the album “a disaster,” complaining that it “[takes] the listener into a distorted and degenerate demimonde of paranoia, schizophrenia, degradation, pill-induced violence and suicide” without ever explaining why this is actually a bad thing. Sigh.
The nastiest bit: “There are certain records that are so patently offensive that one wishes to take some kind of physical vengeance on the artists that perpetrate them.”
The National — Alligator
The critic: PopMatters’ John Langmead
Some 30 years and a lot more words separate this review from Stephen Davis’ review of Berlin, but the premise is basically the same: “Waaaaaaahhhh! It’s depressing and I didn’t like it!” We’re not sure that Alligator is quite on the level of some of the other records on this list, but we couldn’t resist including it, largely because the review in question is one of the more spectacularly self-indulgent pieces of writing you’ll ever have the misfortune to read, banging on about how the writer’s fiancée had to calm him down because he hated the record so much, and how much he liked seeing American Music Club in Texas the week before, and zzzzzzzz. Just review the album, dude.
The nastiest bit: “With a different singer they would just be bland and uninspired, here they comes off as supremely unlikable. How can they go into battle behind this dreck? In the absence of a band with personality, all that’s really left to focus on is the singing… the awful, awful singing.”
At the Drive-In — Relationship of Command
The critics: Pitchfork’s Mark “Richard-San” and Ryan Schreiber
Also on the self-indulgence front: when Pitchfork first emerged, one of its pleasures was the fact that it delighted in running album reviews in non-traditional formats. When this concept works, it’s genius — as evidenced, of course, by this. When it doesn’t, you end up with Pitchfork overlord Ryan Schreiber and underling Mark “Richard-San” Richardson spending well over 1,000 words in a faux presidential debate about At the Drive-In’s classic debut. Oh, the larks.
The nastiest bit: Honestly, the whole thing’s more silly and masturbatory than nasty. The album definitely deserves more than 6.1/10, though.
The Rolling Stones — Exile on Main Street
The critic: Rolling Stone’s Lenny Kaye
Oh, Lenny Kaye. You’re a great guitarist, and a pretty decent writer to boot, but you got this one wrong.
The nastiest bit: “Exile On Main Street spends its four sides shading the same song in as many variations as there are Rolling Stone readymades to fill them, and if on the one hand they prove the group’s eternal constancy and appeal, it’s on the other that you can leave the album and still feel vaguely unsatisfied, not quite brought to the peaks that this band of bands has always held out as a special prize in the past… I still think that the great Stones album of their mature period is yet to come. Hopefully, Exile On Main Street will give them the solid footing they need to open up, and with a little horizon-expanding (perhaps honed by two months on the road), they might even deliver it to us the next time around.”
Belle & Sebastian — The Boy with the Arab Strap
The critic: Pitchfork’s Jason Josephes
Scotland’s resident avatars of twee are an acquired taste, sure, but there’s really little point in having someone who clearly doesn’t like such things reviewing an album like this — it’s like giving Straight Outta Compton 0.8/10 because you don’t like hip hop. So it went with Josephes, who — despite claiming to have enjoyed this album’s predecessor, If You’re Feeling Sinister — spent 250 words complaining about Belle and Sebastian sounding like, well, Belle and Sebastian. This is one of the reviews that Pitchfork has since expunged from history (but not, happily, from the clutches of the Wayback Machine.)
The nastiest bit: “These are songs so sticky they should be hanging from Ben Stiller’s ear, and I don’t mean that in a good way. In fact, I mean that in the worst possible way. The band’s spacey experiment in spoken word isn’t a plus, and neither are the wilted bouquets of bedroom poetry.”
Weezer — Pinkerton
The critic: Um, Rivers Cuomo
Cuomo suffered something of a crisis of confidence after the release of what would subsequently come to be judged as his masterpiece, spilling his guts to Entertainment Weekly in 2001 about how much he hated it. Ye gods. If 2001-era Rivers had heard Raditude, he probably would have ended it all.
The nastiest bit: “It’s a hideous record… It was such a hugely painful mistake that happened in front of hundreds of thousands of people and continues to happen on a grander and grander scale and just won’t go away. It’s like getting really drunk at a party and spilling your guts in front of everyone and feeling incredibly great and cathartic about it, and then waking up the next morning and realizing what a complete fool you made of yourself.”