10 Influential Albums That Bombed
“The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band,” Brian Eno — or was it Peter Buck? — once reportedly said. Being considered influential or critically acclaimed are nice props for a band to receive, but all the respect in the world doesn’t necessarily mean an album will sell well. The following 10 albums received heaps of praise, either when they were released or at some later stage, but despite all the fawning, they failed to meet sales expectations and are considered commercial bombs. There's no specific point when an album earns bomb designation — some of the following sold millions of copies, others sold next to nothing — but no matter how few units these might have moved, they leave behind a legacy of lasting influence.
Expectations were high for the Smashing Pumpkins after they sold more than ten million copies of ‘Mellon Collie and the Infamous Sadness,’ and its follow-up didn’t even come close to equaling that number. But what ‘Adore’ lacked in sales it made up for in critical acclaim, as the disc – which found the band largely abandoning the epic alt-rock grandeur of its predecessor in favor of goth-tinged synth-pop – generally earned rave reviews across the board for its adventurous streak.
Alexander ‘Skip’ Spence
Reportedly the worst-selling album in the long history of Columbia Records, ‘Oar’ was totally ignored when it dropped in 1969 and went out of print within a year. But whatever the Moby Grape co-founder’s lone solo album lacked in initial acclaim, it more than made up for later on, as the legend of Spence grew. In 1999, ‘More Oar: A Tribute to the Skip Spence Album’ was released, featuring covers by artists like Tom Waits, Mark Lanegan, Beck, Mudhoney and the Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli.
After a handful of noisy, skronky, brutally challenging albums with indie imprint Drag City, the influential New York-by-way-of-Washington D.C. duo managed to ink a three-record, seven-figure contract with major label Virgin. While Virgin partially used RTX to gain credibility with other, more financially promising indie bands they hoped to attract, the label also gambled that the band’s underground buzz would translate into at least consistent sales – something that didn’t happen. After just one more album with Virgin, ‘Sweet Sixteen,’ the band and label parted ways.
My Bloody Valentine
Often called one of the most influential albums of the ‘90s, My Bloody Valentine’s ‘Loveless’ took perfectionist mastermind Kevin Shields two years, 19 different recording studios and close to $500,000 to record, nearly bankrupting Creation Records in the process. The album received near-universal praise upon its 1991 release but failed to make a mark commercially, and Creation subsequently dropped MBV. More than two decades later, a follow-up disc still hasn’t been announced.
Recorded shortly after the breakout success of their quirky hit single ‘Popular,’ Nada Surf’s follow-up album, ‘The Proximity Effect,’ was expected to do big things. But before Elektra issued the disc, the label decided it was lacking a proper hit single and asked the band to record a couple of cover songs, insisting their take on Vitreous Humor’s ‘Why Are You So Mean to Me?’ be issued as the first single. Nada Surf refused and got dropped, while ‘Proximity Effect’ was shelved, only to surface a few years later via the band’s own homegrown label.
The Brian Jonestown Massacre
Tortured genius Anton Newcombe parlayed a huge underground buzz on the West Coast for his band the Brian Jonestown Massacre into a three-album deal with TVT Records and released the first of them, ‘Strung Out In Heaven,’ in 1998. The sales failed to live up to the label's expectations, and Jonestown parted ways with TVT after just one album, ending their brief tenure with major labels. But the band's neo-psych-tinged garage rock predicted the genre’s revival a few years later, when bands like the White Stripes hit the top of the charts.
Sometimes considered godmothers of the riot-grrrl movement, Columbus, Ohio-based rock outfit Scrawl released a handful of records on beloved indie labels Rough Trade and Simple Machines before signing with Elektra for what was supposed to be their major-label breakthrough, ‘Travel On, Rider.’ Despite the band’s radio-friendly pop sound and the album’s generally positive reviews, the increased attention didn’t equal increased sales for the band. After one more album, the contract-fulfilling ‘Nature Films,’ Scrawl called it a day.
A rare blemish on a stellar record of commercially successful releases, ‘Zooropa’ found U2 fully embracing the influences of electronica, dance and industrial music that the band had previously flirted with on its predecessor, ‘Achtung Baby.’ But while the quirky flourishes found on ‘Achtung’ resulted in a string of hits, the synthesis of digital sound effects, audio loops, gated guitar and synths on ‘Zooropa’ churned out lemons like, well, ‘Lemon.’
Can an album that has sold more than 3 million copies be considered a bomb? It can if it followed ‘Nevermind,’ Nirvana’s watershed major-label debut, which not only has been certified diamond for sales of more than 10 million copies in America, but has also been credited with forever changing the musical landscape. Nirvana hired Steve Albini to produce their follow-up, ‘In Utero,’ but later brought in Scott Litt to tweak two singles in an attempt to make them more commercially palatable. Regardless of the decreased sales, the album is critically acclaimed, often placing higher on best-of lists than its much more successful older sibling, ‘Nevermind.’
Considered an unmitigated sales disaster when it hit shelves in 1996, Weezer’s sophomore album, ‘Pinkerton’ debuted at No. 19 on the charts and quickly dropped, spawning three mostly ignored singles. Following in the footsteps of their triple-platinum self-titled debut, ‘Pinkerton’ fell well short of expectations and received mixed reviews, but since then, it has achieved cult classic status and widespread acclaim. Even Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo has done an about-face. “It's a hideous record,” he said in 2001, but by 2008, he had reconsidered, declaring, “’Pinkerton’ is great … It's super-deep, brave, and authentic.”