Originally published in Alternative Press magazine
Disclaimer: A.P.’s spineless editor in chief wishes to make it known that the opinions expressed in this piece are not necessarily those of the A.P. staff, our imaginary parent companies, everyone buying coffee at Starbucks right now, or the office cat.
Ever force-fed yourself the likes of The Canterbury Tales or Citizen Kane simply because some snob in a turtleneck made you feel like dirt for quoting Crank Yankers at a cocktail party? Okay, that’s a bit personal, but we’ve all been victims of critical hype. Fact is, critics can be agonizingly off-base, even when they agree. So heed these words and give an Anna Nicole–wide berth to these unessential “essentials” you’ve no doubt been told to revere.
Pink Floyd: The Dark Side of the Moon Capitol Records
A space-rock concept piece featuring sax, gospel singers, and producer Alan Parsons (ask your parents; watch them snicker) may sound like a recipe for comic relief. But this heap was hailed by hi-fi snobs and headphone geeks the world over, and spent nearly 25 years in the Billboard Top 200. You’d think a run like that would preclude some good songwriting.
Bob Dylan: Blood on the Tracks Columbia Records
Plodding, unpleasant, and tuneless (even by mid-‘70s standards), the ingenious songwriting of Dylan’s early- and mid-‘60s material is conspicuously absent. The desire to break new ground is supplanted by a simple need to stay afloat. Dylan sounds creatively drained and spiritually empty—and not in a hip, Beck-ish kind of way.
Bruce Springsteen: Born in the U.S.A. Columbia Records
Inarticulate political ranting is a hallmark of lefty rock, but Springsteen’s message was so vague that the respectably unpatriotic title track here became synonymous with American redneck flag-waving. The only thing that saved these limp fist-pumpers from becoming timeless football chants was their lack of melody.
Patti Smith: entire catalog
Exactly how a pretentious hippie came to help personify punk is a riddle of history akin to the origins of the Easter Island monoliths. Bad poetry and feeble jamming smacks more of a Doors bootleg than the straight-ahead roar of true NYC punk. But at least Smith had ugly hair.
Kiss: entire catalog
Although Kiss were critically reviled, positive remarks from sensible folks like the Melvins and Tom Morello lead a new generation of music fans to believe the band were something more than a sub-literate version of the New York Dolls. Historical note: The bias against drummer-written songs likely has its origin with Peter Criss’ horrific piano ballad “Beth.”
Talking Heads: Speaking in Tongues Sire Records
When the Beasts of Bourbon sang “I want to get funky, but I don’t know how,” they were addressing the true white man’s burden. And there’s arguably no better example of bone-white funklessness than Speaking in Tongues, an arrestingly thin attempt at electro-funk from these Rhode Island art-school wanks/pop genii.
U2: The Unforgettable Fire Island Records
An extremely forgettable album in which a fiery post-punk combo paint with watercolors instead of blood. The result is one dull study in blurriness and one good song—“Pride (In the Name of Love)”—that propelled this morass into multi-platinum status. Ambient-period Brian Eno in the producer’s chair did little to help the band tighten up their songs.
The Police: Synchronicity A&M Records
When a guy calling himself Sting started messing with New Age jazz and un-ironically dreaming up song titles like “Tea in the Sahara,” punk had finally become as arrogant as the prog-rock it had set out to destroy. Just check out Sting on the album cover: shirtless, buff, and reading Jung—a picture is worth a thousand bad rhymes.
Elvis Costello: entire catalog
Back in the day, Elvis Costello seemed like one of those disturbing cultural anomalies—like Nazism, the wine cooler, or Patrick Nagel—whose momentary popularity could only be explained by temporary mass psychosis. But 25 years (and many more pounds) later, Costello somehow remains exulted by an establishment that buys scant few of his albums.
Velvet Underground: White Light/White Heat Verve Records
Apparently, Lou Reed and crew used up their best ideas on the debut album with Nico. The few gems here are so buried within self-absorbed mire like the eight-minute “The Gift” and the 18-minute “Sister Ray,” only professional miners should investigate.