10 Critical Sacred Cows Sacrificed
Chuck Klosterman once wrote that the cover of the New York Dolls debut album was more influential than the music inside. One might quibble with that assessment, but the point is well taken. There are many critical sacred cows — albums every music journalist and artist professes to love — that, truth be told, might be more influential as totems than as actual content. They’re not bad, mind you, but their importance has quite possibly been overstated. What follows are 10 such albums, cut down to size.
This one’s a case of critics being seduced by myth as much as music. Kevin Shields famously labored over this record for two years, recording in 19 different studios and playing basically everything himself. Ever since Brian Wilson made ‘Pet Sounds’ and nearly went mad trying to finish ‘SMiLE,’ critics have loved the story of the obsessive perfectionist trying to realize his grand vision. The difference with ‘Loveless’ is it didn’t result in indelible songs the way ‘Pet Sounds’ did. The sound is certainly meticulous, and it makes decent fuzzy background music. But if you were to sit and pay attention to the whole thing, you wouldn’t be blamed for wondering what the fuss is about.
When ‘White Blood Cells’ was released in 2001, it rode in on a wave of hype few albums could live up to. While it certainly serves as a good introduction to Jack White’s more-with-less model, he did better — with a better batch of songs — on ‘Elephant.’ While there are standouts such as hit ‘Fell In Love With a Girl’ and ‘We’re Going to Be Friends,’ there’s also a lot of filler, as White was still working on his songwriting. It’s also has a curiously shapeless and rambling CD-era feel for a classicist like White.
As a musical proposition, goth can walk a fine line between affecting and laughable. On their debut, ‘Unknown Pleasures,’ Ian Curtis and his JD bandmates treaded that line perfectly with a tightly wound album that explored darkness without wallowing. But the much-heralded follow-up is an almost deathly slog of navel-gazing fatalism. While the music still retains some of its coiled atmospheric power, there’s a passion to connect you can feel palpably drawn out of Curtis’ performance. By the time you get to the dirge-like ‘The Eternal,’ the maudlin self-pity is almost too much to take. It goes to show there’s an aesthetic difference between romanticizing suicide and feeling suicidal.
In retrospect, it seems somewhat odd that Patti Smith’s ‘Horses’ had as much influence on the punk scene as it did. Sure there was a lot of simple, blunt guitar playing from Lenny Kaye, and Smith certainly doesn’t have the most traditional singing voice. But once your get past ‘Gloria’ and its thrillingly transgressive “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine” line, you’re left with the sort of self-indulgence and pretentiousness the punk scene was railing against. ‘Redondo Beach’ is a painful attempt at reggae that make the Clash sound Rastafarian. While ‘Birdland’ and ‘Land’ are the sort of bloated Jim Morrison-style poetry epics the exemplified the type of pomposity punk set out to destroy.
‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’
Lauryn Hill’s debut has had the benefit and curse of its creator’s inability to follow it up. As such, it stands as a monument of an artistic coming out with promise and no payoff. The singles are still great, but her ode to her son is mawkish, the requisite bid at nostalgia feels like a throwaway and her stabs at spirituality feel self-important and condescending. Not mention the annoying and regrettably unskippable classroom interstitials between tracks. All of which might be forgotten and forgiven had she ever given us something else that built on this promising start.
‘The Soft Bulletin’
It almost feels a little unfair to include this one, as ‘The Soft Bulletin’ is a pretty great album and was a major turning point in their career. Great songs with Wayne Coyne’s most direct lyrics at that point about his favorite existential themes. But in the context of the whole Lips oeuvre, it’s also their most conventional and sonically unadventurous album. Sure, given their long history of ragged psych-rock up to that point, the album’s sweeping orchestral pop felt like a revelation. It also kind of feels like XTC fronted by Neil Young. Especially when it’s smushed in between the brilliant Brian Wilson-meets-garage-rock of ‘Clouds Taste Metallic’ and the kitchen-sink electro-pop of ‘Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.’ Also, Coyne succinctly said everything he was trying to say throughout Bulletin on Yoshimi’s ‘Do You Realize??’
In 2009, after years of speculation, Pavement reunited for a tour, much to the elation of music critics and fans alike. They hit the road, and it sounded like indie 1995, perfectly preserved in amber. What was unexpected was how dated 1995 sounded. ‘Slanted & Enchanted’ is without a doubt one of the most distinctive debuts ever. But the lo-fi slacker approach comes across less now like a revolutionary musical idea than another of Stephen Malkmus’ smartass too-clever-for-his-own-good ideas. It’s still a singular style that few have been able to match. But the cleaned-up sound and more direct smartassery would make a more lasting impact on ‘Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain.’
‘Stan’ ensured Marshall Mathers’ entry to the hip-hop hall of fame, and the first half of this infamous album is fairly inspired verbal anarchy and satire. Unfortunately, on the second half, it’s no different than any turn-of-the-century rap album — i.e. it’s larded with guest spots, predictable misogyny, shock tactics and tossed-off tracks seemingly designed to fill a CD to the max. And for all Dr. Dre’s cred, the music never really rises above the one-dimensional cartoon meant to compliment the Eminem persona. Maybe the first album designed to be cherry-picked by tracks from iTunes.
Beck is a musical chameleon who has morphed from pastiche pop to sleazy R&B to psych folk to orchestral pop and back over the course of his career. In 1994, though, his greatest achievement was mixing folk rock and hip-hop while profoundly observing “time is a piece of wax falling on a termite who’s choking on the splinters.” ‘Mellow Gold’ is still a fun listen, and you can feel the way he’s going to kick at music’s parameters in the future. Overall, though, it feels like a test run of a talented musician figuring out what he’s capable of, and songs like ‘Truckdrivin’ Neighbors Downstairs’ and ‘Nitemare Hippie Girl’ feel as much like wiseass novelty goofs as songs.
We started out with fuzzy distorted shoegaze, so let’s wrap it up with fuzzy distorted power-pop. Guitarist William and Jim Reid came up with one glorious stylistic musical formula: write poppy songs, play them with guitars turned up to ear-splitting levels and thudding rhythms. And on a handful of songs it works beautifully. Things is, though, it’s really just a variation on the Ramones’ formula of “play ‘60s pop fast and loud with cartoonish subject matter.” Jesus and the Mary Chain’s gothy take and detached affect aren’t as endearing and never prevent a whole album’s worth of this sound from feeling like beating a dead horse.