Pretty much every good band has written its fair share of bad songs — for every “Eleanor Rigby” there’s an “Octopus’s Garden”; for every “Famous Blue Raincoat” there’s a “Jazz Police.” But what about bad bands writing good songs? There’s a theory that even the worst acts have at least one good song in them, so in the spirit of investigation, we thought we’d see if we could put together a survey of great songs by largely terrible bands. Here are the results. Do, of course, let us know if you have any to add.
Kings of Leon — “On Call”
Before “Sex on Fire” and its attendant album Only By the Night, Kings of Leon were a sort of middle-ranking, hirsute band of chest-beating rock ‘n’ roll types. But just before they went global, their third record Because of the Times hinted at the fact that there was perhaps a more interesting band lurking somewhere in the Followill genes. This song in particular was actually really good, the story of devotion to a woman (or perhaps a god) who’s silent to your appeals.
Ted Nugent — “Cat Scratch Fever”
Oh, the Nuge. He might be a right-wing, gun-toting headcase who’s also responsible for musical abominations like Damn Yankees’ dreadful “High Enough,” but damn it if he couldn’t write a belting rock song now and then. Good taste demands that we exclude “Wang Dang Sweet Poontang,” so let’s go with his best-known song, the immortal “Cat Scratch Fever.” It’s a shame he’s such a nutjob.
Billy Idol — “White Wedding”
People forget he was a UK punk original, mainly because he moved to LA and become the sort of plastic punk caricature that a) sells records and b) elicits contemptuous giggles from anyone who actually cares about the real thing. But occasionally he hit gold, and this song was ace. Also check out Rowland S. Howard’s awesome cover.
Don Henley — “The Boys of Summer”
The Eagles. Dear god. The embodiment of everything that was awful about smug Californian AOR, and the sort of people who ruin cocaine for everyone. But like the old cliché that even a stopped clock is right twice a day, Don Henley nailed it with this song, a perfect evocation of the bittersweet end of a summer romance. When he sings, “I can see you, your brown skin shinin’ in the sun/ You got your hair combed back and your sunglasses on,” you really can see her, every girl you ever loved or crushed on when the sun was hot and the air tasted of salt and sea.
The Eagles — “Hotel California”
And yes, speaking of the Eagles, this was good, even if wine is not and has never been a “spirit.”
Crazy Town — “Butterfly”
Of course, you could just go and listen to Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Pretty Little Ditty,” which is basically the only reason that this song is at all listenable. You know John Frusciante is some sort of otherworldly guitar genius when an instrumental he tossed off as an audition tape a) ends up on the album of the band he was auditioning for and b) gets sampled by a bunch of knuckleheads a decade later for their only remotely tolerable moment.
Coldplay — “The Scientist”
Their inclusion here is probably slightly unfair, because Coldplay don’t suck — it’s more that they’re just unceasingly beige, to the point that people hate them for being so inoffensive. But this song is a beautifully melancholy portrayal of the end of a relationship, with a chorus that pretty much everyone who’s said goodbye to a lover can relate to: “Nobody said it was easy/ Nobody said it would be so hard.”
Europe — “The Final Countdown”
Look, I know it’s absurd, but there’s nothing wrong with absurdism sometimes. See also: Warrant’s “Cherry Pie.”
The Bravery — “An Honest Mistake”
Back in the mid-’00s, when “electro-rock” looked like it really was gonna be a thing and bands featuring three black-clad dudes and a drum machine were thick on the ground, this song was everywhere. It was The Bravery’s debut single, and it looked like it would signal them as major new players on the music scene. Then it turned out every other song they had was pretty much exactly like this, but not as good, and to add insult to injury, Brandon Flowers dissed them for once being in a ska band. When the guy from The Killers is ridiculing you, things have gone terribly, terribly wrong.
Azealia Banks — “212”
As far as the killer-debut-followed-by-absolutely-nothing phenomenon goes, see also: Azealia Banks. “212” was all kinds of awesome, and had pretty much everyone hailing Banks as a spectacular new talent. Since then, however, she’s released an ever more underwhelming series of songs, continually promised a debut album that’s looking like vaporware, and spent the rest of her time making an arse of herself on Twitter.
Hanson — “Mmmbop”
Pure sugar-coated pop thrills. Honestly, this is the best song that the Jackson 5 never recorded.
Stone Temple Pilots — “Plush”
They were basically grunge also-rans who are now largely remembered for Scott Weiland’s herculean drug intake, but they did have their moments — namely this song, which was everywhere in the early ’90s. “Interstate Love Song” was pretty good, too.
Blue Oyster Cult — “Don’t Fear the Reaper”
Although, of course, it would have been even better with more cowbell.
Spice Girls — “Viva Forever”
In these heady days of poptimism, it’s easy to forget that living through the years in which the Spice Girls were inescapable was a pretty fucking miserable experience. Sure, “Wannabe” might be kinda appealing the first time you hear it, but after the gazillionth play, the mere mention of “zigger-zig-uh” was enough to make you want to punch a wall. Thank heavens, then, for “Viva Forever,” a genuinely pretty and delicate ballad that was far and away the band’s best single.
All Saints — “Pure Shores”
From broadly the same period, although even typing this does make me feel a little mean-spirited, because All Saints weren’t horrible — however, “Pure Shores” was so far and away their best single that it put the rest of their output firmly in the shade (including “Never Ever,” which was also pretty good).
The Cranberries — “No Need to Argue”
No, not “Zombie,” which was so histrionically Meaningful that it would have become tiresome even if it hadn’t been played to death circa 1994 by radio stations looking for the new U2. The title track from the album that spawned “Zombie,” however, was genuinely beautiful, a sad and restrained lament for a failed relationship. If only the band had written more songs like this and fewer Important Political Songs.
Phil Collins — “In the Air Tonight”
Gated snare! Gated snare!
Bourgeois Tagg — “I Don’t Mind at All”
Largely forgotten ’80s band Bourgeois Tagg are largely forgotten for a reason, but they produced one of the more memorable songs of the era with this curiously resigned and rather haunting portrait of the end of a love affair. It’s the self-destructive numbness that makes it compelling, the sense of embracing defeat and solitude.
Mötley Crüe — “Live Wire”
Anyone who’s read The Dirt probably has, um, something of a newfound appreciation for the Crüe, but all the zombie dust in the world can’t change the fact that their music was often pretty dire. Every so often, though, they unleashed a genuinely awesome track, and never more so than this, a paean to the joys of huffing a fuckload of cocaine and cruising the hot LA night in search of love.
Snow — “Informer”
Especially the bit where they look up his bottom.
Uffie — “Pop the Glock”
It feels like she’s been around forever, but Uffie’s only made one album, and her sort of unimpeachably cool status as Ed Banger associate and general It Girl and proto-Kitty Pryde of the mid-’00s French dance music scene rather overshadowed the fact that her own output wasn’t actually very good. This song was kinda great, though, even if Uffie has surely never seen a Glock in her life.
Savage Garden — “I Want You”
This was a hell of a good pop song, and for a brief moment it looked like Savage Garden might be a later day INXS. Then they released a couple of soppy love songs — “To the Moon and Back” and “Truly Madly Deeply” — as the follow-ups, and the rest of their career was an ongoing demonstration of the fact that it’s most definitely possible to overstay your welcome in the music industry.
Right Said Fred — “I’m Too Sexy”
If only they’d stayed as one-hit wonders — but no, Right Said Fred had to ruin everything by releasing more music, none of which was very good. Still, nothing will tarnish the glory of this song, which is that rarest of music industry beasts: a novelty song that was actually also awesome.
Stereophonics — “Dakota”
When people complain that guitar music and/or rock music is awful these days, they’re largely thinking of bands like Stereophonics, whose plodding lumpenrock is a staple of jukeboxes in the sort of pubs you never want to go into. But this was actually pretty great, its driving motorik beat recalling Pearl Jam’s similarly excellent “rearviewmirror.”
Riff Raff — “Larry Bird”
AKA, the “Wait, is this Riff Raff? This is good!” song.
Yelawolf — “Pop the Trunk”
And on a similar note, behold the good Yelawolf song. I’m not saying any more, because I don’t want him to pop the trunk on me.
Counting Crows — “Round Here”
We discussed Counting Crows a week or so ago, and it’s a shame that they’re largely known these days for their risible cover of “Big Yellow Taxi,” because their first couple of albums had their moments. In retrospect, both Adam Duritz’s lyricism and delivery are often overly melodramatic, but he did have a way with a character description, and this song’s protagonist is a pretty effective depiction of anxiety and mental illness: “She knows she’s more than just a little misunderstood/ She has trouble acting normal when she’s nervous.”
Justin Bieber — “Boyfriend”
Say what you like about Bieber, but he’s a talented enough kid, and while his music is generally unlikely to really appeal to you unless you’re a 14-year-old girl, this has enough broad appeal to make you wonder exactly what it would do to you if you were a 14-year-old girl. Oooh-er.
R. Kelly — “Ignition (Remix)”
I’ve already been suspended from Facebook because of an argument about this, so all I’ll say is a) R. Kelly is awful and b) if you disagree, you are condemned to listen to “I Believe I Can Fly.” Forever.
Nickelback — “Animals”
God help us all.