by Jon Hunt
There has been, lately, a proliferation of “list articles” in various national publications (you’ve seen ‘em: The Worst Bands Of All Time, the Worst Albums of All Time, the Worst Albums By The Best Bands Of All Time, etc.) that have pissed me right the fuck off. Not because they aren’t fun to read or discuss, mind; who doesn’t love arguing about whether or not Coldplay has any merit whatsoever? (They do, by the way – a solid first record and a spotty second. But that’s beside the point.)
No, no, it’s more that they promote the spread of orthodoxy, and there’s nothing I fucking hate more than orthodoxy. Let me use Lou Reed’s much-maligned Metal Machine Music to illustrate. How do you know Metal Machine Music sucks? Well, it just does. Yeah, but how do you know that? Have you listened to it? Well, no. Then how do you know? Well, I read it somewhere. As it turns out, it doesn’t really suck in the way most critics would have you believe, though we’re not going to discuss it here. The point isn’t that. The point is that you haven’t listened to it.
And that’s true of a lot of records, I bet. Because Greil Marcus or Bob Christgau got the wrong end of the fucking stick in 1970 ’til whenever (maybe their girlfriend dumped them or they had to write an article with a hangover or whatever), the notion that certain records just flat out suck have spread across rock criticism like the plague. And as a result, you probably “heard they suck” and never even bothered listening to ‘em.
Here at l’étoile, we’re all about freeing yo mind so yo ass can follow. So instead of a shitty, negative list, we’re gonna do our part to break down rock orthodoxy and hip you to some records that mainstream crits would tell you flat out suck. They really don’t. And here’s why.
Queen, Hot Space
Why critics thought it sucked: Because critics in the late ’70s and early ’80s fucking hated disco and synth music. They wanted their rock to be guitar-driven, Springsteeny, good for you (like granola! And beets!) and heteronormative. Everything else was “fairy music” (and don’t you doubt for a minute that homophobia had something to do with that attitude – it sure as fuck did). So when Queen, a band (somewhat ironically) known for muscular hard rock, came out with this, a disco album basically entirely driven with synths and electronic drums, they dismissed it for all of eternity. Since then, it’s been the black sheep of the Queen catalog. Even Queen fans who love disco will repeat the notion that the album sucks, because it just does. You know?
Why it doesn’t suck: Because it’s fucking Queen doing disco. Remember a little song called “Another One Bites The Dust?” Uh huh. Queen understood the power of the four-on-the-floor beat, believe me. And are we really penalizing them for using synths? In 2012? Jesus Christ, people. Side one of the album’s filled with damn fun dancefloor anthems, like the super-fun “Staying Power,” the powerful “Dancer,” the funky “Back Chat,” and the muscular “Action This Day.” And side two is just a regular fucking Queen album, with guitar rock like “Put Out The Fire” and the anthemic “Las Palabras De Amor” and, you know, “Under Pressure,” which everybody in the goddamn universe loves.
The Rolling Stones, Their Satanic Majesties Request
Why critics thought it sucked: Conventional wisdom has this album as “The Stones Trying To Do Sgt. Pepper.” A bandwagon album, basically; the Stones stepping out of their comfort zone of riffy, blues-driven rock into psychedelia, which they supposedly “aren’t any good at.”
Why it doesn’t suck: Because this is one of the most fucked up, amazing albums of all time. First of all, apart from the sort of similar cover shots (they aren’t really that similar other than the band dressed in psychedelic costumes, and I can point you to about a million other records that have that), this record ain’t anything like Sgt. Pepper. Where Pepper is cheerful and a little careful, filled with music-hall happiness and bouncy toy-town pop (and honestly, not a lot of psychedelic music), Majesties is dark as fuck, filled with deeply twisted sounds, songs aimed straight for the heart of yr. brain, and the sound of people disappearing into the stratosphere on pure yellow sunshine LSD. Dig the messed up guitar tone on “Citadel,” or the creepy bell-tolling on “The Lantern,” or the deep-in-space mellotron weirdness of “2000 Light Years From Home.” If you wanna know where the Brian Jonestown Massacre came from, it is right here.
Neil Young, Trans
Why critics thought it sucked: Synth hate, plain and simple. Neil Young was the very paragon of what (aging) record critics thought rock was supposed to sound like – guitar-driven and earnest, basically, the sound of “the old days.” So when Neil fell in love with Kraftwerk and applied what he’d learned from their sound into his own music, critics frothed at the mouth. How could their hero have abandoned them? The stink of their synth loathing has stuck to this album for years, and at the moment it’s even out of print in the US, so under-appreciated is it even by the artist himself.
Why it doesn’t suck: Because Neil’s take on synth pop is actually completely fascinating. Inspired by his attempts to communicate with his son (who has cerebral palsy), Neil’s use of vocoders was less about trying to sound “futuristic” and more about applying a layer of distortion to everything to duplicate the effect of not being understood. Trans is not much different from other Neil Young albums, as far as chord-progression and songwriting goes – throw some guitars on the excellent “Computer Age” and you’re in Buffalo Springfield territory, and “Transformer Man” is a gorgeous song, even though it sounds like it is sung by robots. And trust me, if you like electronic music at all, you’re gonna love hearing Neil’s jagged, distorted guitars living amongst mechanical dance beats on songs like “Computer Cowboy,” or the cool ’80s futurism of “Sample and Hold.”
The Who, Face Dances
Why critics thought it sucked: For one thing, people were completely resentful of Pete Townshend for keeping the band together after Keith Moon died (despite replacing him with the Small Faces’/Faces’ Kenny Jones, one of the best drummers of all time). And for another, they put Pete Townshend into a tiny little bag – the only thing that would have made critics happy were endless re-dos of Who’s Next, which, before this album, is what he was doing, with increasingly diminishing returns (c’mon, you can’t deny that Who Are You was a huge step downwards from Who’s Next). Add in a little ironic synth/synth-pop hate (ironic ’cause Pete had been one of the first musicians to adopt the sequencer as a part of his sound, going back to the early ’70s) and you have a nice stew of hatred directed straight at this album.
Why it doesn’t suck: The songs, baby. They’re weird, sure – I mean, what the fuck is “Don’t Let Go the Coat” even about? And is the chorus to “Cache Cache” really “There ain’t no bears in there”? But honestly, this album is an extremely personal (and extremely fresh) look at Pete Townshend circa its release, when he was deep in the throes of depression and alcoholism, and the lyrics are full of uncertainty and sadness, married to some extremely chipper, new-wave-influenced pop songs that sound way more like the group’s mid-’60s quirky stuff than people realize. I love the bounce of “How Can You Do It Alone,” and “You Better You Bet” and the driving, potent “Another Tricky Day” are among the group’s best. And even the album’s oddballs like “Did You Steal My Money” are a hell of a lot of fun. If you listen without preconceived notions of how the Who are “supposed” to sound, you’ll dig it.
Yoko Ono, Fly
Why critics thought it sucked: I shouldn’t even have to say, right? Because it’s Yoko Ono. Because she broke up the Beatles and because she’s a woman and because she’s Asian and because she had the audacity to marry John Saint Fucking Lennon. And because she screams. And that’s all she does. Screams. All the time. Right? I mean, we all know that, right?
Why it doesn’t suck: Because it’s a great fucking record, but I bet you haven’t heard it because of the above. You probably figured all her albums were just irritating caterwauling or whatever. But let me ask you this: do you like the B-52s or no-wave music at all? Do you like krautrock or PiL’s Metal Box? Do you need your music to always be easily-digested pop nuggets? If you answered no to any of the above, you could probably handle Fly. It’s filled with astonishing rock grooves, for one thing – “Midsummer New York” would slot in comfortably next to any mid-period Lennon song, “Mind Train” would sound great on Can’s Tago Mago, and “Hirake” comes preciously close to funk music. It’s a weird record, sure – the 22-minute “Fly” is basically a concept piece with Yoko making weird noises with her voice – but there’s plenty of great songs on here, especially the gorgeous “Mrs. Lennon.” Forget what you think you know, because most of the hatred towards her is based on pure bullshit. Spend some quality time with Fly.
KISS, Music From The Elder
Why critics thought it sucked: Critics hated KISS to begin with. Throw a pretentious, half-baked concept into the mix (complete with an orchestra!) and you can just about guess how they reacted to it.
Why it doesn’t suck: Because it’s actually completely charming. I avoided this one for years because of its reputation, and when I finally heard it, I fell madly in love with it. If you come in expecting head-pummeling hard rock (as you often would if you were reaching for KISS) you’re gonna be disappointed. If you come in looking for idiosyncratic, interesting songwriting, you’re gonna love stuff like the cute (yes, cute) “Just A Boy,” or the gorgeous-if-slightly-corny “Odyssey,” or the English-folk based “Under The Rose,” or the really quite pretty “A World Without Heroes.” And there’s plenty of rock here, too, like Ace’s magnificent “Dark Light,” Gene’s menacing “Mr. Blackwell” or the potent, riffy “I.” Sure, it doesn’t hold together as a concept, and it’s probably not what anybody in the universe wanted out of KISS, but the end result is actually a completely likable record. My favorite bit: the goofy spoken-word stuff in “Finale” which is supposed to tie the story together but leaves you thinking “shit, there was a story?” Good news: a movie based on the album is coming. Can’t wait.
Duran Duran, Thank You
Why critics thought it sucked: Because how very dare a pretty-boy MTV band like Duran Duran tackle such sacred cows as the Bob Dylan, the Doors and Lou Reed? Who the fuck do they think they are?
Why it doesn’t suck: Look. I will fully admit that I’m a huge Duran Duran fan. And I don’t hate cover albums as much as the next guy, either (I count Bowie’s Pin-Ups among my very favorites), so I’m more predisposed to like it than yer average person. But this thing has topped so many worst-of lists I keep thinking I must be missing something. The group’s straight-up cover of “White Lines” strikes me as super tongue-in-cheek and a hell of a lot fun, and their bluesy slant on “911 Is A Joke” is even funnier (I mean, shit, they’re British – they knew they had zero street cred, so witty was the only way to go). Their take on Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” is damn gorgeous, and their very Duranny attempt at “Lay Lady Lay” is smooth and pretty. “Crystal Ship” sounds like Duran Duran doing “Crystal Ship,” you know? Tailor-made for ‘em to begin with. And there ain’t a damn thing wrong with their cover of Zep’s “Thank You,” either, nor Iggy Pop’s “Success,” which is right in their wheelhouse. Maybe it’s just that the album’s main failure, their stiff take on “I Wanna Take You Higher” is the second song, and comes up for a reprise at the end? I dunno. I don’t get it. This ain’t their best album ever, but it sure shouldn’t have been considered the career killer it actually was.
Metallica/Lou Reed, Lulu
Why critics thought it sucked: Oil/water, sugar/salt, Lou Reed/Metallica. Nobody wanted this pairing, but nobody. Metallica fans were baffled by Lou’s old-man poetry-isms, Lou fans were baffled by Metallica’s – well, Metallica-ness, critics didn’t even bother listening before penning their one-star “worst album of all time” reviews.
Why it doesn’t suck: Because it’s a weird, challenging, brilliant record. It’s the sound of a band with a super-narrow-minded-fanbase hoisting a gigantic middle finger to ‘em and forcing them, kicking and screaming, into some of the weirdest territory mined on any record in the history of ever. It’s the sound of Lou Reed just being Lou Fucking Reed, the same as he always has. And it’s the sound of both entities stretching way the hell out, writing some bizarre damn songs and not caring one whit about “selling records.” What’s weird to me is that if you’ve listened to a single Lou Reed record in the last forty years, this record should come as no surprise whatsoever to you. “Iced Honey” could have sat comfortably on “New York” or “Set The Twilight Reeling.” The droney twenty-minute “Junior Dad” could have slotted in at the end of “Berlin,” maybe. And “Brandenburg Gate” could have been the best song on “The Raven.” Plus, the album has some hysterical lines – “spermless like a girl” being my favorite, but you’ll surely find yours.
Why critics thought it sucked: “I really want R.E.M. to crank up the guitars,” said no-one ever, apparently.
Why it doesn’t suck: Once you cut through the layer of distorted guitars – though why you’d want to I have no idea, this is one of my favorite guitar albums of all time – the songwriting on this thing is just as fine as any of their preceding albums. There’s a certain off-the-cuff quality to a few of the songs here that folks mistook for carelessness, but if anything, it gives the album a loose, live charm that some of their more fragile studio concoctions lack. It’s also fun, which isn’t something you can say about, say, Automatic For The People, which is pretty much a top-to-bottom gloomfest (okay, no, it isn’t, but it sure doesn’t have a lot of light moments). Plus, I love the Yo La Tengo-esque reliance on vibrato for rhythm – see “I Took Your Name” and “Crush With Eyeliner.” And “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth” is as marvelous a single as the group ever concocted. I don’t hear a jot of filler on this sucker, either, which stands in opposition to critical consensus. Give it a shot, not as an R.E.M. album but as a rock album.
Echo and the Bunnymen, Reverberation
Why critics thought it sucked: the notion of an Ian McCulloch-less Bunnymen – he was the frontman and main songwriter, if you don’t know – filled people with such dread that they didn’t even give it a chance. Apart from a brief appearance on the US charts, this album has been buried by fans and the band alike – not a single song from it appeared on their box set, and it’s been long out of print.
Why it doesn’t suck: Sure, without McCulloch’s distinctive baritone rumblings, it ain’t really a Bunnymen record, and a case could be made that they should have called it something else. Reverberation is, however, a terrific record – “Enlighten Me” is as good a song as the band’s ever done, and it’s surrounded by tons of other interesting, quirky, psychedelic guitar pop. Dig if you will the very Ocean Rain-y “Cut and Dried,” or the bouncy “King of Your Castle,” or the smooth album-opener “Gone, Gone, Gone.” And the album ends with the one-two punch of “Flaming Red” – a gorgeous, mysterious ballad – and the powerful “False Goodbyes.” Singer Noel Burke has a fine voice, and his lyrics aren’t terrible at all (at times, they’re funnier/wittier/more interesting than McCulloch’s). His only crime, of course, was that he wasn’t McCulloch – and by the middle of the ’90s, he’d be back anyway, Burke being resigned to a mere Wikipedia footnote. Track this one down – it’s hard to find, but it’s worth it.