Friday, 13 July 2007

Top 10 consistently overrated albums

As you may have established if you have been a reader of this blog, I am a list-o-holic. I love reading lists. I love writing lists. I love lists.

And "best albums of all time" (and all its variations) is one of my favourite types of lists. I recently purchased the book 1001 albums you must hear before you die. This makes 3 oversized books in my possession which are all completely dedicated to discussing great albums and lots of them.

As the year comes to an end, I quiver in anticipation awaiting the top albums of the year lists from Pitchfork, Stylus Magazine, PopMatters and all the other music websites that I read regularly.

Because I quite regularly read top album lists, I am constantly exposed to entries in these lists which baffle me. Sometimes the lists include an album by an artist who has done so much better on another album which doesn't even get a mention. Sometimes the albums in question are simply not representative of the artist or band's best work. In some cases, they are simply mediocre albums.

Here is my top ten list of the most consistently overrated albums.

10. Neil Young - Harvest (1972)

This is Neil Young's most commercially popular album, spawning a few hits with the title track, Heart of gold and Old man. It's an extremely consistent country-folk album which sounds like lots of music that came out of the States and Canada in the early 70's.

Would I call this his best album? Well, it's certainly his most polished and maybe even one of his most consistent. But this album doesn't represent what Neil is about, and it can very easily give the wrong impression about the man. This is MOR all the way, and Neil Young was famously quoted as saying "traveling [down the middle of the road] was really boring so I headed for the ditch." Nobody has summed up their career as well as Neil did here. Some of his other albums from the mid-late 70's, including the raw/bluesy Tonight's the night and semi-live Rust never sleeps defined his work so much better.

Buy instead: On the beach (1974), Tonight's the night (1975), Rust never sleeps (1979)

9. The Who - Who's Next? (1971)

Old-skool rockers will flame me for this one. Let me get this straight from the start -- this album does have its fair share of classics on it. I love Baba O'Riley, Won't Get Fooled Again and Behind Blue Eyes as much as the next guy.

But I still think its overrated. Those 3 classics make up about 40% of the album's running time, and while there are some other really good songs (John Entwhistle's My wife always amuses me, and it's got a great tune), the entire album doesn't completely gel with me. There's something about it I can't quite put my finger on, but I think it feels too calculated, too custom-made for stadiums. I prefer my music with more of a personal touch, and I would recommend the underrated The who by numbers as the better Who album. It's almost a singer-songwriter album, and Pete Townshend's lyrics steal the show.

Buy instead: The Who By Numbers (1975)

8. The Jam - Sound Affects (1980)

Frontman Paul Weller names this as his favourite Jam record and I just don't get it. It's certainly their most 60's sounding album, where they really embraced their Beatles influence and strayed away from their punk roots. And while it does have its fair share of classics (That's entertainment, the Taxman-ripping Start!, the Kinks tribute Man in the corner shop) there's also a helluva lotta filler (Music for the last couple, anyone?)

All mod cons is also considered one of their best albums, and for me it will always be their definitive statement (how could any album that ends with Down in the tube station at midnight fail?). I'd also pick Setting sons as another very solid Jam album, even if it does have a small amount of filler itself.

Buy instead: All Mod Cons (1978), Setting Sons (1979)

7. Big Star - #1 Record (1972)

Hopefully these guys (well, what is left of them) will get some overdue recognition soon. They are one of the most popular "cult" bands of all time (was that an oxymoron?). While The Who, Led Zeppelin and Rolling Stones were knocking off blues riffs in the early 70's, Big Star were practically inventing power pop. They influenced bands and artists like R.E.M., The Feelies and Matthew Sweet, and in their 3 original albums they have left an outstanding legacy.

This, their debut album, contains its fair share of classics including the stunning The ballad of El Goodo (still possibly my favourite Big Star song) and gorgeous Thirteen (covered by Elliott Smith, Wilco and countless others). Excellent moments aside, there is way too much filler on this album to make it a solid listen all the way through (especially on the second half). Their 2nd album Radio city (without founding member Chris Bell, as he had left the band by this point) is a much more consistent album overall; their 3rd album Third/sister lovers is a tortured masterpiece which needs to be heard by as many people as possible. I haven't heard their reunion album In space, but from what I have read it is best avoided.

Buy instead: Radio City (1974), Third/Sister Lovers (1975)

6. The Rolling Stones - Sticky Fingers (1971)

The four albums the Stones released between 1968 and 1972 are all excellent in their own way. Sticky Fingers is usually the album which gets named as their definitive release. Like its predecessors Beggars Banquet and Let it bleed, it has its fair share of Stones classics (Brown sugar, Wild horses, Dead flowers). But it's also got Bitch, which never really did a lot for me (despite a great riff) and You gotta move is just a cover gone wrong.

My vote for the best Stones album is its successor Exile on Main St. The production is murky and there's lots of filler. But wait a second, I just bagged Sticky fingers due to a few filler tracks! That's true, but the filler on Exile on Main St just works. It's good filler. It's a double album (well, on vinyl anyway). Like many double albums, the filler adds to the the charm. And it's got that unbelievable vibe to it. Just trust me on this one, this is their definitive statement.

Buy instead: Exile on Main St. (1972)

5. The White Stripes - Elephant (2003)

Yeah look, I have never really understood how the White Stripes still manage to consistently get such critical acclaim each time they release an album. This one baffled me the most, with many critics calling it the best album of 2003. I just don't get it. It's got Seven nation army, and that's a great song. Ball and biscuit is a pretty good, albeit derivative blues number. Hypnotize is a great rocker that doesn't outstay its welcome. But there's some songs that I could quite happily not hear for a long time. Why are critics (and fans) constantly raving about There's no home for you here? I find it just annoying.

Interestingly enough, I like the album that they released prior to this (White blood cells). Maybe it's because they took the time to write some really good tunes rather than just knock off boring blues riffs. And maybe it's because they were yet to hit the big time and their egos didn't get in the way of creating great music.

Buy instead: White Blood Cells (2001)

4. Beck - Odelay (1996)

Multi-layered. Textured. Seminal. Patchwork quilt. Masterpiece. These words and more have been used to describe Beck's apparent magnum opus Odelay. What these reviewers fail to mention is that Derelict is just an annoying song, Novacane is just a shout-fest, and what's this crap about rockin' the catskills? No thanks. There are some excellent moments on this album, including the folky Jack-ass, hip-hop influenced Where's it at? and almost-title track Lord only knows. But does it all work? Not quite.

The sober break-up album Sea Change is simply stunning; he couldn't really get more different from Odelay if he tried.

Buy instead: Sea Change (2002), Mutations (1998)

3. U2 - The Joshua Tree

Bloody Joshua Tree. Bloody top-loaded Joshua Tree. Just look at those first three songs - Where the streets have no name, I still haven't found what I'm looking for and With or without you. That's tracks 1-3 for you. Have you ever seen a more shameless attempt at selling records than that? Kid goes into store in 1987, picks up Joshua Tree. Hey, I know track 1. Wait, I know track 2 as well. Wait a minute...track 3! Sold!

Those 3 were top-loaded to make this album sell. The fact they they are some of the most overplayed U2 songs on the radio doesn't help this album's cause either. You turn on Gold 104.3 and there's a pretty good chance you'll hear one of them within an hour. They have lost any emotional power they may have once carried through over-familiarity. What about the rest of the album? Well, there's some good songs on it. But there's also some merely okay ones on it as well. Let's leave it at that.

Achtung baby also has a lot of U2 classics on it, but they really changed their direction on this album, going for a more industrial/dance sound. All you can't leave behind was their "return to form" album after they went all experimental in the mid-90's; some songs may eventually be killed by overplay here, but at the moment I consider it a very solid album.

Buy instead: Achtung baby (1991), All that you can't leave behind (2000)

2. The Beatles - Revolver

This is a fantastic album by the greatest band of all time. The only reasons I am including it in this list are:

a) It is considered by many to be the best Beatles album;
b) It is considered by many to be the best album of all time;
c) The word "perfect" is often thrown around when discussing this album.

I'm sorry, but any album that has Yellow submarine, Doctor Robert, I want to tell you or Love you to can't possibly be praised as the best album of all time. Not that those songs aren't good in their own ways; I can appreciate the sonic innovations they introduced to popular music, but some of them just aren't that great. Maybe if I was alive in 1966 to hear this album for the first time, my opinion would differ.

Buy instead: Rubber Soul (1965), The Beatles (1968), Abbey Road (1969)

1. R.E.M. - Document (1987)

This was their last independent release on the I.R.S. label before they jumped on board to Warner Brothers. Why did they get a major label deal? Four words - The one I love. And to a lesser degree, It's the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine).

With the exception of those songs, and the jangly guitar gem Welcome to the occupation, this album offers nothing to me. I don't like the tunes. I don't like Michael Stipe's whiney vocals. And now that I can hear the lyrics, they don't particularly impress me either.

R.E.M. released 4 excellent albums prior to this one, with their debut Murmur being a masterpiece and still their best album. After Document, they released a few hit-and-miss major label albums with Green and Out of time before they recovered with the stunning Automatic for the people and the late-career gem New adventures in hi-fi.

Document stands out in their catalogue as the only time they were able to extend a double A-side over the course of a 40 minute album by padding it with as much filler as possible.

Buy instead: Murmur (1983), Automatic For The People (1992), New Adventures In Hi-Fi (1996)