As I was flipping through racks of CDs in my local independent music store (support them while they last – Best Buy didn’t succeed in putting them all out of business, but the mp3 eventually will), I started wondering about those albums I’ve barely or never heard by artists I like. Maybe you’ve thought about this before too – in fact I’d say you probably have if you are at all like me, which is to say, a voracious consumer of music and someone who likes to read a few reviews before making a purchase. I wouldn’t say that I let reviews steer all my buying, but sometimes when you already own a couple hundred reggae albums and are considering whether to re-finance your house to afford #201, you’d like a voice of experience to tell you if Bob Marley’s second to last album is considered good, bad, or just alright. Maybe at that point you think, “Well – if it’s not quite ‘good’ then maybe I don’t need to own or hear it this year.” I think this is a reasonable way to behave.
What I’m wondering about, though, is whether sometimes artists seem to review themselves before the critics even get a hold of them. And this latest trip to the record store seemed to confirm it.
What follows is a list of albums where the album title seems to deliver a message that the music itself is somehow subpar, slapdash, barely adequate, or wholly disappointing. My criteria for selection were these: 1. The artist or band has to be successful on a critical or commercial scale, within their chosen genre, prior to the release of this album. 2. The album immediately preceding it must not be generally regarded as a failure. 3. The album title has to lend itself to obvious jokes and quips ready-made for the amateur reviewer.
1. Daft Punk, “Human After All”
Daft Punk made two unimpeachable classics of electronic dance awesomeness, “Homework” in 1997 and “Discovery” in 2001. Then came “Human After All,” the album that was quickly to be held as a disappointment and a dropoff in quality. Luckily we now have Justice to be today’s Daft Punk and make up for lost time.
Reviews: On Amazon.com, Daft’s debut averages 4.5 stars; the second album a slightly less robust four; and “Human After All,” three and a half. Objectively this doesn’t seem to be a huge decline, but on the Amazon sliding scale, 3.5 might as well be 1.5. Allmusic sums it up thusly: “Human After All was made in six weeks, and sounds like it — and not always in a good way: the quick-and-dirty recording process and limited palette of grainy synths, vocoders, and guitars do lend a stripped-down, spontaneous feel, but just as often, this minimal approach feels like it’s supporting minimal ideas.”
Use of title to describe the music: One Amazon reviewer goes with “Repetitive after all.” Another: “No imagination… after all.” Yes, but where is the snide recitation of the title-as-judgement? …Ah, here it is: “HUMAN AFTER ALL – NOT WRONG!” Caps lock means Hulk MAD! Muzicality.com gives us this version, aimed at a two year old, I think: “‘Human After All’ is a perfectly fitting title for a perfectly disappointing album from one of the world’s ‘finest’ electronic acts. It proves that despite how wonderful and god-like an artist may seem at some point in their careers the bottom line will always be that they aren’t. They are ‘Human After All’.” Thanks, teach!
The verdict: A few stalwart defenders aside, Daft Punk definitely struck out with their fanbase on this release, and professional critics weren’t much warmer.
2. Malevolent Creation, “Stillborn”
The guys in Malevolent Creation (of course they are guys – this is Old School Death Metal, after all) were inviting catastrophe, or at least withering scorn, with this album title. In retrospect, it seems like they’d have better sense after contributing two genre staples with their first two albums, “The Ten Commandments”* and “Retribution.” But no. They skimped on production, not going to death metal studio of choice Morrisound; singer Brett Hoffman recorded his vocals with what sounds like a nasty head cold combined with a Reverb-O-Matic set on “Enormous Cavern”; and then they named the thing “Stillborn” and just begged their fans to hate it. Which, naturally, they did.
Reviews: The Metal Archives has five posted reviews for each of Malevolent Creation’s first three albums. “The Ten Commandments” scores a respectable 83% average. “Retribution” has a dominating 93%. And “Stillborn”? 49%. Ouch. On the other side, it has a 4.5 (out of 5) average rating on Amazon, from 10 total reviews. However, the general tone of the Amazon reviews can be described as “defensive” (sample sentence: “this album does not deserve all the slagging it gets.”)
Use of title to describe the music: One Metal Archives review starts with, “The Title Says It All.”
The verdict: A bit inconclusive, but it’s clear that at least by reputation, the album is inferior to prior releases. At least it has a typically awesome cover by Dan Seagrave.
3. Michael Jackson, “Bad”
This is one of those test cases. A title like “Bad” is really inviting criticism in a major way, but at the time of its release, this guy was non-ironically known as The King of Pop and was coming off of… oh, only the biggest-selling album of all time. Whatever it was called, I can’t remember. Could this type of icon derail himself with a poorly chosen title (not to mention a lead-off single that was no “Billie Jean” or “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'”)? Read on…
The reviews: …were quite kind. I’m not a “Bad” fan myself but I have to admit that outside of me, anybody that likes Mike liked this album. Allmusic gives it a 4.5 out of 5. Amazon reviewers give it the same average rating as “Thriller,” also 4.5. Rolling Stone liked the album with minor qualifications and gave it a four.
Use of title to describe the music: I didn’t bother digging for any but I’m sure a great many contrarians out there have thought of this clever little gibe.
The verdict: “Bad” ain’t that bad. (Though later Michael went the ironic route and sunk himself with “Invincible”; he may as well have named the thing “Titanic.”)
4. Metallica, “Load”
The career trajectory of Metallica is fascinatingly obvious from their album covers and titles alone. Their debut “Kill ’em All” was as subtle as a blunt object smashing open the back of your skull, but also as effective. The three albums following, “Ride the Lightning” through “…And Justice For All,” had iconic and striking cover art themed in different colors (blue, red, and light grey) and titles that told the listener exactly what they were in for. And then Metallica hit some sort of transition point – on an album with an almost plain black cover and no title save the band’s name. Where would they go from here? Distressingly, the answer was “to derivative, Metallica-ized southern butt rock,” and the name of that album was “Load,” and the cover art sucked.
The reviews: The purists and elitists of the Metal Archives hated “Load,” but only 13% more than they hated the black album, which they generally blamed for the murder of thrash metal. Allmusic gives “Load” a paltry 2.5 out of 5. Rolling Stone liked “Load” but the opener is telling: “If heavy-metal fans are supposed to be such hardcore loyalists, what is it about a few haircuts, some eyeliner and a little songcraft that throws ’em into such a dither?”
Use of title to describe the music: You betcha! One fella on Amazon titles his review “What a ‘Load’ of crap!” which definitely gets the point across, but rapes the wordplay of any subtlety there was to be had. We also get “Load of junk” and “Load of Something Alright.” I see what you guys are going for, but what’s wrong with simply, “Yes, it’s a load”?
The verdict: Whatever fine line Metallica was kinda walking with the black album (that being the fine line between a stadium pop-rock band and a tr00 heavy metal outfit), they fell off of it here.
5. Sugar, “File Under Easy Listening”
When you stake your claim in the unforgiving ground of punk rock, albeit fertilized with a bag of catchy melodies and pop sensibility, you shouldn’t tempt fate by moving away from the punk. Those mohawk-and-nose-ring guys are notoriously unforgiving.
The reviews: Name critics like Allmusic and Entertainment Weekly liked this one as much as Sugar’s debut. Fans, not so much. Amazon reviewers rate it a full star lower than “Copper Blue.” Me, I barely remember this album, though I owned it at one point.
Use of title to describe the music: A typically lukewarm Amazon reviewer says, “File Under Easy Listening is a rather fitting title, since some of these songs are very accesible.” Which I think translates into today’s English as, “Meh.”
The verdict: Not an awful album, but not as good as the one before it (or even the stop-gap EP “Beaster”).
Got any others, Diane? Please add on in the Comments.
* I’m not sure why it’s called this, but based on the cover art and general tenor of the band’s lyrics, I’m guessing it’s not a concept album about how you shalt not kill.