Saturday 20 March 2010

News, Views and Music Issue 56 (Top Five): Most Over-Rated AAA albums

At the risk of losing all our readers, here’s a rather controversial top five for you this week – the five most highly rated, million selling AAA albums that, erm, actually aren’t that good. Or aren’t compared to their lesser known but more entertaining cousins anyway. Of course it goes without saying that all music taste is a matter of opinion – it pains me to have to put that comment given that 99.9% of you must have worked that out already so that message is for the other 0.1%, but equally don’t take the path of the easy complacent listener who only ever checks out the so-called classic albums and ignores the rest! And I’m hardly alone in this – even Brian Wilson and Paul Simon have been known to question the sheer greatness of our Beach Boys and Simon and Garfunkel choices here.  So, in reverse order, here are the most-disappointing-albums-in-ratio-to-their-supposed-greatness: 

5)  Neil Young “Harvest” (1972). Three of its songs are classics – the anti-drug ‘Needle And The Damage Done’, the glorious blend of hope and melancholy and young wonder that is ‘Old Man’ and – unlike the vast amount of critics who really don’t get the song and label it sexist - ‘A Man Needs A Maid’ are all among the best in Neil’s varied and lengthy canon, even after all these years. But considering its all-encompassing, record beating, superstar making status as an album, is 3/10 classic tracks enough? No unsurprisingly, not when your supposedly best record contains such clunkers as the unlistenable one-riff ‘Words’, the melodramatic ‘There’s A World’ and the teeth-cringing ‘Are You Ready For The Country?’ which is so heart-stoppingly slow and ragged the answer is a resounding ‘No!’ Add in Neil’s biggest but least worthy hit single ‘Heart Of Gold’ and you have a record just made to put wannabe fans off, the ones who can’t afford the double CD price of ‘Decade’ or are put off by the weird packaging on ‘Greatest Hits’. For the first, last and only time in his career, this is Neil playing it safe and more people than ever before lapped it up (although, to be fair, critics at the time hated it with a passion – if you think I’m being harsh that’s nothing on the Rolling Stone review of 1972!)

4) The Byrds “Sweetheart Of The Rodeo” (1968): It invented country-rock and gave us – God help us! – The Eagles and The Flying Burrito Brothers (a quick yeah for the under-rated Poco though!)  As if that wasn’t enough to hate this album for, it also introduced the world to the off key whining of Gram Parsons and – even worse – had Roger McGuinn mimicking the same off key whining throughout the album. Only Chris Hillman sounds at home, but even he seems to have given up adding to his fine storage of songs and can only offer us half-baked retreads of just dubious traditional songs as ‘I Am A Pilgrim’. The only track worth owning this sorry album for is Gram’s ‘100 Years From Now’ and even that sounds better in the outtake! The Byrds really struggled when they tried to branch out and be just one thing – had they kept to their usual eclectic grab-bag of styles this album’s tracks might well have sounded better. But as a half hour set of boring and samey songs go, this one takes some beating. How on earth did the promising follow up ‘Dr Byrds and Mr Hyde’ get so overlooked after this mess?!  

3) Simon and Garfunkel “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (1970): Alright, so the title track isn’t my favourite song but its not that bad and the well known ‘The Boxer’ and the lesser known ‘The Only Living Boy In New York’ are out and out classics. But where did Simon and Garfunkel’s legendary quality control go to on the rest of the album? ‘Why Don’t You Write Me’ must be the worst white cod reggae song ever made by anybody (though Paul made up for it on his solo records), ‘Keep The Customer Satisfied’ is an out of tune self indulgent brassy mess, ‘Cecilia’ and ‘El Condor Pasa’ are so needlessly banal and simple they macke a mockery of Paul Simon’s early multi-layered masterpieces and Frank Lloyd Wright is one of the most boring AAA songs of all. If this album was a neglected one or even a bunch of outtakes I’d try and defend it, for the above three great songs at least, but when you consider this album is still in the top 10 best selling albums of all time and its easily the worst of Simon and Garfunkel’s five then my head wants to explode. 

2) The Beach Boys “Pet Sounds” (1966): Let’s put this album back into context. It’s the worst selling Beach Boys album since the first one worldwide and – barring a flurry of interest from Britain – not many people thought it was up to much when it came out. Most fans and critics argue that that’s because it was so ‘different’ and ahead of its time, but my problem with Pet Sounds is that it all sounds the same. There’s just no dynamic range between the sad and the happy, the angry and the puzzled, the loud and the quiet. And the story – for it feels as if there is one about falling into, and then out of love – is told in such a mixed up order your head can’t work it out. Sure, schizophrenic and messed up albums do work – just check out Smile which manages to be 10000 things at once – but Pet Sounds does everything it can to make us believe its your typical, orchestra-accompanied rock album and as such fails at every turn. For me the only cornerstone on the album is ‘I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times’, a glorious hymn to leaving everything and everyone around you behind and wondering if the loneliness is worth the price; everything else Brian had written better earlier, mainly on the ‘Beach Boys Today’ album. And what the heck are the two instrumentals doing on there: even when heard in the context of the album sessions, with every song reduced to an instrumental backing track, they’re easily the two most boring melody lines of the lot. Thank God for Smile for restoring my faith in Brian Wilson after getting hold of this disappointing album.

1) The Beatles “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (1967): For an album that’s meant to have revolutionised the way we looked at music, this album seems terribly ordinary. Compare it to other Beatles albums – Revolver, Magical Mystery Tour, even Please Please Me and there doesn’t seem to be much ambition here at all, just an attempt to fill up an album of ordinary songs with an ‘in concert’ atmosphere that gets dropped by track three and a load of sound effects that don’t always fit. Again ‘A Day In The Life’ is the album’s saving grace, closely followed by George’s most spiritual and deep song ‘Within You, Without You’, but everything else sounds tired – Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds is amateurish in a way that most similar English psychedelia isn’t (check out the Hollies’ two 1967 albukms for instance), Lovely Rita and When I’m 64 are inane and pointless ditties about nothing very much at all and Lennon is even reduced to writing about his inertia and lack of enthusiasm in ‘Good Morning, Good Morning’. There are plenty of worse albums around than this one, but not many Beatles ones – that magical group spark, one that broke new ground without putting everybody’s backs up all the time, is missing for this album which seemed to do both. As we’ve said elsewhere many times on this website, the reputation of ‘Sgt Peppers’ seems to rest on whether you were there or not at the time of release. Loved in 1967 but largely hated now, this album really hasn’t dated well and perhaps that’s the main problem – all the other Beatles’ albums are timeless but this one just sounds wrong now in 2010.   

Well, that’s it for another week. Just time to leave you with our election campaign message (the Conservatives aren’t the only ones out to brainwash you!) See you next time!

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